THE IRONSMITH

 

Prologue

 

The horsemen appeared without warning.  There were eight of them and they wore the chain-mail corselets of the Tetrarch’s soldiers.  With the sun behind them, they lined the bluff above the river bank, implying that both resistance and escape were impossible.

It was just after dawn, and cold.  The only sound was the whisper of the Jordan as it passed over its rocky bed.

“They must have ridden half the night,” the Baptist said.  He knew, of course, that they had come to arrest him.  He felt no fear, which surprised and pleased him.  The end was always worse in expectation than as an actual presence.

“We can escape across the river.  It isn’t more than a few feet deep, and on the other side we’ll be in Judea.”

The Baptist shook his head and tried not to smile.  Only Joshua could imagine they would have a chance.

“A horse can move through the water faster than a man.  They would ride us down before we were half way.  Besides, even if we reached the other shore, why would they hesitate to kill us in Judea?”

He glanced around at his other disciples and saw their fear.  They were crowded together under an acacia tree and seemed to be trying to disappear into its shade.  There were ten of them altogether, and they were his only legacy.

Joshua alone stood with him.  Joshua alone seemed afraid for something beyond his own life.  Perhaps the legacy had dwindled down to only one.

“I don’t suppose they plan to arrest us all,” the Baptist went on, giving the impression that he thought of it as an abstract question of tactics.  “They didn’t bring enough men.  Still, they look as if they are waiting for us to take flight, so they can have a little sport.  I had best go to them.” 

“You can’t simply let them have you,” Joshua murmured tensely, his hand closing around the Baptist’s wrist.  “John, the Tetrarch will have you killed.”

The Baptist merely shrugged.

“You can’t let him.”

Gently, the Baptist freed himself from Joshua’s grip.

“We’ve talked about this,” he answered, smiling with apparent serenity.  “We knew it was coming.  My life isn’t important.  Only the ministry is important, and if the rest of you die with me the ministry is over.  Now, trust in God, as I do, and let me meet the destiny He has prepared for me.”

That was the last his followers saw of him, walking slowly toward the bluff where the soldiers waited.

 

 

 

1

Noah, an ironsmith and a resident of Sepphoris, the old capital of Galilee, was at the forge when Hiram, his senior apprentice, came to tell him he had a visitor.

“He says he is your cousin.  He’s waiting outside.”

The ironsmith set down his hammer and wiped his face with his right hand.  He was wearing nothing but a loincloth and sandals, since at the forge clothing had an annoying tendency to catch fire.  The muscles of his arms and powerful chest gleamed with sweat.  He did not seem pleased by the news

Except for his sister, who lived with him, Noah had no relatives in the city.  He had a distant cousin in Jerusalem and, for the rest, everyone who could claim kinship lived in a village an hour’s walk to the south.  So family visits usually meant bad news.

He looked at the bar of metal he was holding with a pair of tongs and buried it in the hot coals.  It would have to wait.  He reached down and dipped his hands into a bucket of water he kept for the purpose, scooping up enough to rinse his face and rub a little over his chest. 

“Let’s go see,” he said.

Hiram followed him to the workshop door, which stood open.  There was a man crouched outside.  He was covered with dust and appeared utterly spent.  With what seemed great effort, he looked up and smiled weakly at Noah, who recognized him at once.

“Go bank my fire,” Noah told his apprentice, never taking his eyes from the visitor.  “When you’re finished, we’ll be in the scrub room.”

He waited until Hiram was gone, and then he reached down to help his cousin to his feet.  It pained Noah to see him in such a condition.

“They arrested the Baptist,” Joshua said, as soon as he was standing.  “Soldiers came and he gave himself up.  He didn’t even try to get away.”

Noah could only shake his head.  John was a distant figure, someone he had heard spoken of, but no more.  It was the narrowness of Joshua’s escape that filled him with dread.

“Are they hunting you?”

“I don’t know.”  Joshua raised his hands in a helpless gesture.

“Come with me.”

Noah put his arm around his cousin’s waist, partly out of affection, for they had been close friends since childhood, and partly to make sure Joshua kept his feet.  The contrast between them could not have been more pointed—Joshua tall and slender and Noah a solid block of muscle not quite reaching his cousin’s shoulder.

Noah led him into a small room with benches against three of its stone walls and a tub of cold water in the center of the floor.  It was where he was his apprentices cleaned up after a day in the heat and smoke.

When Hiram came, Noah already had Joshua stripped and was washing him, since he seemed too weak to do it himself.  He sent Hiram across an alley to his house to fetch some food and wine.

“How long have you been on the road?” he asked.

“Two weeks and more.  I’ve lost count of the days.”

“How have you lived?”

It seemed a reasonable question since, as a disciple of the Baptist, Joshua wouldn’t have had any money.

“People along the way took me in and fed me, sometimes.”

“How long since you’ve eaten?”

“Three days—no, two.  The day before yesterday an old woman gave me a fig.”

Joshua smiled.  The recollection seemed to amuse him.  Then quite suddenly, the smile disappeared.

“If I can stay here the night, tomorrow I’ll be on my way again.”

“Where are you going?”

“To a place called Capernaum.  It’s a fishing village on the Sea of Kinneret.  I have a friend there.”

“What will you do?”

“Carry John’s message.  What else is there to do?”

Joshua shrugged, but there was something of defiance in the gesture.  Noah understood and reached across to pat him on the knee.

“Well, you won’t be leaving for Capernaum tomorrow,” he said.  “You’ll need at least three or four days to gather your strength.  In four days it will be the Sabbath and you can come back to Nazareth with me and see your family.”

“No.  I’ll keep the Sabbath here, if it’s all right.”  Joshua made a weak gesture with his right hand, as if warding off a blow.  “You know what my father is like.  At least here no one will tell me that I’m a fool and ought to go back to being a carpenter.”

“You’re a fool and ought to go back to being a carpenter.”

They both laughed.

. . . . .

When the food came, Joshua was too weary to eat, so Noah took him to his house and made up a bed for him.  Once Joshua was asleep, which was almost instantly, Noah went downstairs to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of wine.

It was early afternoon and his sister, Sarah, would soon return from her errands.  He needed to consider what to tell her—and, more importantly, what to do. 

With the Baptist under arrest, the question became whether his disciples would then attract the Tetrarch’s interest.  It seemed wisest to assume that Joshua’s name was on their lists.

It did not fail to occur to Noah that Joshua’s presence in Sepphoris also involved certain risks for him as well.  If Joshua really was a fugitive and he should be found in this house. . .

The thought made him feel ashamed.  Joshua needed time to rest and recover.  The risks would have to be borne.

But it was also true that the danger was greatest in the cities, where the Tetrarch concentrated his power, so Joshua’s plan of seeking refuge in some obscure fishing village had a certain merit.  If he had friends there he would probably be safe enough.  In the countryside Herod’s tax gatherers and soldiers were regarded as an invading force and hated accordingly.

They would not have arrested the Baptist unless they meant to execute him and, once he was dead, perhaps in a few months the Tetrarch would grow forgetful.

The problem thus became getting Joshua safely to his place of hiding.

He saw no point in keeping any of this from Sarah.  She would have to know that Joshua’s presence in their house had to be kept a secret, and therefore she would have to know why.  She was neither foolish nor hysterical, and she could even be of use.

As for Hiram, he did not even know the stranger’s name and he was a good sort.  A word would keep him silent.

While Noah sat alone in his kitchen, his fingers touching the rim of a cup of wine he had not yet tasted, his thoughts were the prey of recollection.  He had spent his childhood in Nazareth, but he had been born in Sepphoris, in this very house, where his mother had died giving birth to Sarah, early enough that his mind held no memory of her.  His father had remarried a year later.  Then his father had died and, as his stepmother had not wished to be encumbered with children not her own, brother and sister had been given over to the care of their grandparents.  In Nazareth.

Thus he had known Joshua all his life.  As children they had learned their letters together, had played together, had sometimes quarreled and then missed each other bitterly during their short estrangements.  Each had stood as the other’s friend when each took a wife, and when, only a few months apart, each had watched helplessly as his wife suffered and died, they had grieved together.  What had they not shared?

And now Joshua had come with a new trouble.  Well, to whom else should he have come?

Noah did not endorse the life his cousin had chosen.  For all that he thought the Baptist was a good man and a true servant of God—perhaps even a prophet—it would not have occurred to Noah to go off and be his disciple, living on nuts and berries beside the River Jordan.  His piety simply did not take that form.  Yet he did see why it had occurred to Joshua.  Even in childhood they had differed widely in temperament, but they had always understood each other.

And now Joshua wanted to go off to some fishing village in the north to preach the Baptist’s message of repentance, and Noah had no trouble grasping why, for him, that might be the inevitable choice.  Thus it was also inevitable that Noah would help him to do it.

The only question was how.

The first step was to restore Joshua’s strength.

It had been a shock to see him in such a condition.  They had not met since Passover, two months before, and he had looked wild enough then, with his torn, faded cloak and his tangled beard down to his breastbone, but now he appeared spent, as if the life he had been leading had at last used him up.

He needed rest and quiet and safety, and these things, at least Noah, could provide.

When Sarah came home, Noah told her that Joshua was asleep upstairs.  Then he told her that the Baptist had been arrested.  She seemed to guess the rest.

Sarah was tall and thin, which made her arms appear even longer than they were.  When she grew nervous or excited she seemed to lose control of her movements and was always knocking things over, which explained why she wrapped one long hand around the other and held them both against her modest bosom as she asked the inevitable question.

“Is Joshua a fugitive?”

“He doesn’t know.  They didn’t try to take him with the Baptist, but they could easily change their minds.  I think it best we assume they will.”

“What can we do?”

“Hide him until he is fit to travel and then help him escape to the north.”

“Is he ill?”

“No.  Just worn out.”

“I bought fish,” she said, smiling as if everything had worked out perfectly.  “It is strengthening and easy on the stomach.”

Noah kissed his sister on the cheek.

. . . . .

It was only the middle of the afternoon, so Noah returned to his forge.

As soon as he was gone Sarah went upstairs to the spare bedroom, where Joshua was asleep.  The door was slightly ajar and she could tell from the sound of his breathing that he would not wake up for some hours.  She returned to the kitchen, where she had to make decisions about supper.

Half a carp, split down the backbone, dried and salted, was wrapped in palm fronds and lying on the table.  Careful planning was essential when one cooked for only two people and Sarah had been hesitant about buying a fish—even half a fish—that was nearly a cubit in length, but with Joshua there it would be just enough.  She would soak it in unmixed wine and then add some water, a few herbs and a little flour and let it all simmer in an iron pot until sunset.

It would be pleasant to have Joshua in the house for a few days.  Like Noah, she had grown up with her cousins, the sons and daughters of Joseph and Miriam, who lived in a house separated from her grandfather’s by little more than a few paces of open ground.  Joshua was not her particular favorite, but he was family and Sarah had been a close friend of his wife.

She had played with Rachel when they were children.  As young women, hardly out of girlhood, they had shared many secrets, and Rachel, her womb torn open trying to give birth to Joshua’s dead son, had died in her arms.

It was another bond with Joshua, the grief he and Sarah had each endured when Rachel was lowered into her grave.  She could not look at Joshua without remembering his wife.

Still, she had always thought Joshua odd, and he had grown even odder since Rachel’s death.

For one thing, she did not understand his piety.  He had always been pious, but in recent years his feeling for God had grown into something that Sarah could hardly put a name to.  It was odd.  That was the only word for it.

The Baptist was a prophet, and that was a whole other thing, but ordinary men were not prophets.  Joshua, she felt quite sure, was not a prophet.  He was a carpenter who had lost his wife.  It was the duty of ordinary men to live in the world according to God’s law. God bid us to say prayers at the proper times, to honor the holy days and to keep His commandments.  That was enough.  That was righteousness.  Joshua should go back to his trade and marry again.

For that matter, Noah should marry again.  In Noah’s case, his sister had particular reasons for thinking so.

Just as the sun was setting, Sarah removed the iron pot from its hook in the fireplace and set it aside.  By the time Noah entered the kitchen, supper was ready.

“Is Joshua still asleep?” he asked, after he had sat down at the kitchen table.

“Yes.  I looked in on him just a few minutes ago.”

Her brother nodded, and then his face became shadowed with anxiety.

“Eat your stew,” Sarah ordered, in a voice that perfectly mimicked their grandmother’s.

This made Noah laugh and the shadows disappeared.  He picked up a piece of bread and tore it in half.  He began using it to scoop up pieces of fish.

Sarah, who had not touched her food, sat with her hands folded together.  She seemed to be trying to take up as little space as possible.

“Will Joshua go back to Nazareth?” she asked.

Without looking up, her brother shook his head.

“If they want to arrest him, that will be the first place they look.  He has it in mind to go north, to some fishing village where he has friends.”

“What will he do there?”

“Preach, I assume.  He wants to carry on John’s teaching.”

There followed a silence, which Noah understood to be his sister’s way of expressing her disapproval.  He looked up at her and smiled.

“Did you think that he would go back to being a carpenter?”

Sarah didn’t answer immediately.  Instead, she looked down at her stew, then tore the corner off a piece of bread and began eating.

This indicated, as clear as any words, that she was upset.

“What do you think they will do to the Baptist?” she asked finally.

“Given that the Tetrarch is Old Herod’s son, I think they will kill him.”

“Why would they do that?  He is a holy man.”

“Why then would they arrest him?  The Tetrarch is no David.  He will not suffer even a prophet’s rebuke.”

With a shade too much haste, Sarah reached for her wine.  A drop spilled out and ran sluggishly down the side of the cup.  She instantly put the cup down again.

“Perhaps this village in the north could use a carpenter,” she said, almost defiantly.  “Joshua needs to settle down somewhere and begin his life again.”

Even as she was speaking the words, she knew they implied more than she intended.  She had merely to look at her brother’s face to know that he understood what was in her heart.

You want him to marry again, his expression said.  As you want me to marry again, so that then you can marry Abijah.

Instantly she felt ashamed.  It was not Noah’s fault.  He had told her, many times, I will not perish because you are not here to cook my meals.  I can hire a servant.  Abijah is a good man.  You should marry him and be happy.  The very last thing I want is to deny you this.

And she did love Abijah.  He was so handsome.  And he loved her—skinny, awkward creature that she was.  Every girl in the district was half mad in love with him, yet he wanted only her.

But her brother—her good, kind, pious, learned brother, the best of men—how could she leave him?  She remembered how crushed with sorrow he had been when Ruth died, how his heart had bled with mourning.  Sarah had come to stay with him after that, to keep him company and see that he remembered to eat his meals, and she had never left.

She could never leave her brother alone.  Never.  Abijah, she could only hope, would be patient.

Secretly she blamed Ruth.  Sarah could not have brought herself to say such a thing, or perhaps even to think it, yet she felt it.  Ruth had been a good enough sort of woman, but nothing beyond the ordinary.  Why did her memory hold Noah in such bondage?

And there were certainly plenty of women who would have been prepared to take her place.  One was Sarah’s friend Huldah, who showed a lively enough interest that Sarah persuaded her brother to invite Huldah and her father to dinner.

Noah had spent most of the evening in conversation with the father about some question concerning the calendar.  He was perfectly gracious to his sister’s friend, but that was all.

For three days Sarah heard nothing from Huldah, and then they met at the house of a mutual friend.  With some hesitation, Sarah brought up the subject of the dinner party.

“Your brother looks at me with no more interest than if I were a cooking pot,” Huldah said.  She was right, of course, and that ended Sarah’s efforts as a matchmaker.

“This stew is very good,” Noah said, smiling.  He meant to distract her, she knew.  She had the feeling sometimes that he could peer straight into her mind.  “The broth is delicious.”

. . . . .

About two hours after sunset, Joshua woke up.  Noah had been sitting in the dark, waiting.

“Are you hungry?” he asked.

“Yes.  And very thirsty.”

Sarah had kept the stew warm.  There was also fresh bread, and Noah watered the wine eight parts to three.  It was a meal for an invalid.

Nevertheless, Joshua seemed to enjoy it.

“John cared nothing about food,” he said.  “Sometimes it would be days before he would remember to eat.  If Simon hadn’t brought his fishing net, the rest of us might have starved.”

“Is he your friend in Capernaum?  You said it was a fishing village.”

“Yes.  That’s him.  Simon went home to visit his wife about a week before John was arrested, but he left his net.”

“What was John like?”

“You never heard him preach?”

“No.”

Joshua shrugged, as if he had decided to forgive the oversight, and then he said, “John was the purest soul I ever knew.”

“In what way?”

“In every way.  He cared nothing about pleasure or comfort.  For John, there was only God.  He was God’s prophet.”

“So naturally the Tetrarch arrested him.”

“Of course.  John expected it.”

“Did he?”

“Yes.”  Joshua smiled tightly, giving the impression that its very obviousness was painful to him.  “I remember how he walked over to meet the Tetrarch’s soldiers.  It was as if he welcomed them as friends.”

“Did he wish to die, then?”

“I don’t think it made any difference to him.  ‘Let me meet the destiny God has prepared for me,’ he said.  What mattered was the will of God.”

“What matters to you?”

“To carry on John’s teaching.  To make myself worthy to be called his disciple.”  Joshua smiled, as if he had just said something amusing.  “Did you ever think that I, of all people, would end as a messenger of God?”

“Perhaps not, but somehow it fails to surprise me.”

. . . . .

On the evening following the Sabbath, after Noah had returned from Nazareth, Joshua was waiting for him.

“Did you see my family?” he asked.

Noah shook his head.  “Only at the prayer house.”

Joshua seemed disappointed and let the subject drop.

“I think it is time I was on my way,” he said, finally.  “I have my strength back.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Then I would like to offer a suggestion.  Take the road to Tiberias, which is well traveled and safe.  Then journey to Capernaum by boat.”

“And if they are looking for me?”

Noah crossed his arms over his chest and smiled, visibly pleased with himself.

“Who will they be looking for?” he asked.  “A follower of John.  A beggar.  An ascetic with a long, ragged beard.”  He reached out and playfully pulled on Joshua’s chin whiskers.  “While they are searching for this man, they will not see you.”

“How will you manage it?”

“Leave it to me.”

The next morning, early, Noah sent his sister off to the marketplace.  Sarah knew what was required and would make a better selection than he could himself.

She came back two hours later with an embroidered tunic of Egyptian cotton and a wool cloak dyed blue.  She had also brought back new sandals and a small vial of scented oil.

“You did very well,” her brother told her.  “Now, can you manage something about his hair and beard?”

“All I need are scissors and a comb.”

An hour later a different person stood before them.  Joshua’s hair, glistening with oil, was swept back from his forehead and ended just at the collar of his robe, and his beard was cut short and to a fashionable point.   Sarah, with a woman’s attention to detail, had even trimmed his fingernails.

Joshua, who seemed amused by his transformation, raised his arms and turned slowly in a full circle for their inspection.

“There is still something missing.”

Noah shook his head and then disappeared upstairs.  When he came back he showed them a silver ring with a small red stone.

“Put it on,” he said to Joshua.  “I think a bit of jewelry is necessary to complete the impression.”

Joshua held up his hand, turning it this way and that so the ring caught the light.

“Where did you get this?” he asked, making the question sound like an accusation.

“It was in a trunk in the cellar when I moved back into this house.  I can only assume it must have been my father’s.”

“Then someday you will want it returned.”  Joshua smiled, with just a hint of mischief.  “I promise I won’t give it away.”

. . . . .

Joshua had to be dissuaded from leaving immediately, but Noah pointed out that it was an eight-hour walk to Tiberias and thus he could not hope to reach there before sunset.  But if he left at first light, he would be in Tiberias by the early afternoon and might still catch a boat to Capernaum.

“Besides, you want to be on the road with the crowds.  It will be safer and less conspicuous.”

“I will feel conspicuous enough dressed like this,” Joshua said, with a laugh.  “I hardly know myself.”

“Neither will anyone else.”

The next morning, Noah accompanied him as far as the Eastern Gate and, at the last moment, pressed a small purse of silver coins into his hand.

“It completes the disguise, and you will need money on the journey.”

“I hardly know what to do with money anymore.”

“Believe me, there isn’t enough to allow you much practice.”

They embraced, and Joshua disappeared into the mob of travelers.

Where would this journey take him?  Noah could not conceal from himself a sense of foreboding.  “May God be merciful to His servant Joshua,” he whispered, and turned back reluctantly to his accustomed life.