By Judith Shadford
Author’s Note: Bible Backstories stories follow an almost journalistic pattern — a straight narrative line that strips away whatever extraneous, maybe emotional, reverberations. Consequentially, even heroes rarely seem conflicted about what they are told to do, or what someone else was told to do that has a direct effect on the other guy. As a result, it gets harder to think of Mary or St. Paul or Elijah as neighbors, people in the store, or getting gas. Hence, a series of re-imagined, familiar stories about people who live next door.
We set out on the Roman road west out of Nazareth. It was so hot that afternoon. No breeze. We were beyond the lake and too far from that fabled sea, which apparently I needed to get to before I was finished. We saw a cluster of olive trees ahead and picked up the pace. No words from anyone. Just had to make it to those shimmering shadows.
For a while, no one spoke. We drank a little from our skins, lay there with our eyes closed. I could hear bees somewhere. Peter scratched his head — he should shampoo more often. Judas pulled himself up against a tree — never liked lying directly on the ground. Yohannan snored. I got up and walked to the western side of the grove, still under the trees, to see what might be ahead of us, how far we might reach by nightfall.
Only more vibrating high blue sky that might as well have been a lapis shell over Israel.
I dozed against an olive tree. Judas was right. It was better to keep my head above my feet.
The voices of the others roused me. Peter passed around some salted fish and pita bread. We’d all need more water before nightfall.
Philip said, “Whack those stones and see what happens!”
“Don’t be daft,” Thomas said.
I didn’t look up.
“Ah, he’s drawing in the dirt again.” That was Andrew.
The rest sort of wandered in my direction. Didn’t want to give away their curiosity.
“It’s a map.” Philip.
“Ever seen a map, Peter?” Judas.
“Yes, it’s a map.” Me.
I poked a spot. “That’s Nazareth. We’re maybe here.” I poked another spot. “Where we want to end up is…” I put a twig a couple handspans away, “…is there.”
“The sea. Stretching to the sky. It could hold a thousand Galilees. Salty, like the lake next to the southern desert. ut always in motion. I need to go there.”
James edged forward. “Umm, rabbi, that’s not in Israel. Strange people live there. They welcomed the Romans when their ships arrived. My father thinks that’s where Goliath and the Philistines came from. We don’t want to get mixed up with them.”
“If Reb thinks we need to find this sea that’s bigger than Galilee, then that’s good enough for me.” Philip.
The others nodded. Yohannan said, “I’m in.”
“Well, you would be, wouldn’t you?” Judas.
“Don’t be such a grouch, Judas.” Thomas.
It took three more days of hot walking across the white, rocky hills. From the top of the highest one, I could see a narrow white line with a row of puffy clouds above it the horizon, where the sea lay. Maybe we might need our blankets.
We found an innkeeper who let us spread our blankets behind his stables that night, after we’d paid him a few shekels for roast meat, cheese and rough beer. Even Judas was satisfied.
I headed out before the others were awake. South of Acre, a rocky hillside jutted over the shore. I gnawed on some leftover goat meat and crouched under some rocks. It was cold, windy and brilliant. At my feet, great curls of foam splashed against the rocks and farther up the coast toward town, sand. White sand, pounded out of white rocks. And in front of me, the sea, so endless, stretching toward that white line between sea and sky. The border between this world and the stars. Belonging neither to Rome nor the Temple. Flashing its moving lights into the face of Yahweh. I prayed beyond the words of our fathers, beyond thought, even feeling, until their voices came up the hill and drowned my prayers.
Arguing. Again. Still.
“So Elijah was here?” Nathaniel needed a little history to make a place special.
“Not here. Well, around here. He walked everywhere.” Philip. He didn’t know as much as he thought he did, but he knew more than some of the others. Could read. And did.
“And that widow that fed him? Was she here?”
I stood up, startling Peter something fierce, which almost made me laugh. “She lived up the coast from here and miles inland. Come on, let’s go get something to eat for ourselves.
By the time we got to town, the merchants had put out their melons and dates and fish, their fresh bread and new wine. Crowds pushed and shoved their way through the market. Noise. People and donkeys and chickens, a few camels. And goats. After those hours of peace, the noise choked me. It was probably just the dust, but it seemed like sound was swallowing my mind.
As we walked toward a line of palm trees along the beach, one voice rode over the others, high, desperate. There probably was pushing and shoving, because Andrew bumped into me, apologizing but still walking backwards.
Yohannan seemed to be talking to a local woman who was waving her arms. Peter crunched in next to him, his beard bobbing up and down in his intensity until I heard Judas say, “Oh, for Heaven’s sake, give her what she wants!”
I stopped then and a whirlwind of blowing fabric suddenly fluffed down at my feet.
“Master! Rabbi! Healer! Son of the Great King David.”
I waited, staring at a dusty striped abaya, a ragged headscarf.
“My daughter…my little girl…the Great Destroyer has possessed her!” Still howling, still burrowing in the sand.
Oh, to be back on that hillside, crouched under the rocks, listening only to the waves and looking at the edge of the world.
“He throws her into the fire and against the rocks!”
The guys crowded around us now, looking from her to me. Expectantly.
I shook my head. “You’re not of the House of Israel, are you?”
She stood up then, pushed her headscarf back and I saw her face. Beautiful and scarred, with one brown eye flecked with gold and the other icy blue, like a crack inside a glacier. She met my gaze and spoke again, quiet.
“It is my job to feed the children of Moses.”
A smile flashed across her face. “But even the dogs get the scraps from the table.” Then she ducked her head, “Which is better than having no food at all,” a whisper.
I stretched and arched my back, then took her hands. “You have great faith, daughter. Your child is well.”
She stared, her mouth an O. She grabbed my hands and kissed them, then pulled her abaya around her and dashed away.
I sagged against the wall.