by Lennox V. Farrell
The traveller paused. Uncertain of going up, further up into, and through these dangerous mountains. They were, moreover, the longest way around to where he was going, Jericho. The twisting paths of sunburnt stones faced him, uncompromising, narrow and craggy. Lining them were shrubs, bushes and hardy trees. The accompanying cliffs, like steep curtains, draped away from cloudy heights dizzying down, down into deep, misty-green stream-beds plunging and cascading far below.
But the challenging heights were not the only dangers; in fact, were not the worst dangers that gave him pause; sitting side-saddle on his aging camel; a caravan of donkeys and mules, loaded with spices, wines and leather halted, galled, jaded and fatalistic behind him. He looked at them, at their tired backs, their worn hooves.
He addressed his lethargic camel as it picked at a thorn bush, "It's the robbers eh, Ishmael
-Yahweh curse their mothers with bastards, their daughters with barren wombs and their puny, uncircumcised manhood with festering boils- the brigands and thieves." He strained wary eyes into the sunlight, repeating his curses, "brigands and cut-throats, more numerous than those deadly boulders, eh ...always threatening to crash down on the unsuspecting head of hard-working merchants, honest and..."
He paused at "honest". He had cut deals before on the simple, stranded village folk outside of Jericho. He knew how dishonest he'd been, selling them, at exorbitant prices and high rates of interest, wines heavily baptised in water, insisting, convincing them that his cheap spices were reasonable. Not the best, -who could expect better goods at these low prices, eh- but good enough for their meagre means -though the crushed nutmegs and stripped cinnamon were sometimes mixed with sun-dried, crushed camel dung. But, honest or not, a man had to make his way in the world.
He seemed to make up his mind with the thought. It was also late. In six, seven hours, darkness would arrive; and with it, neither wisdom nor safety for travelling, and alone. It would take his mangy beasts at least four hours to scale these heights and another two to descend to the cheap inns on the other side. But he was resourceful, a former, cavalry soldier and bridge-builder on too many brutally fought campaigns against the cursed Philistines.
They had slain two of his brothers on one of their many raids, and mercifully captured his first wife on another. To her family and neighbours, he had not appeared sufficiently distressed by her loss. She had, horror of horrors, turned out to be barren. No amount of water from her washing in the Jordan could get her with child. "Ungodly Philistines," he mused, "even they could be used by Yahweh to answer prayers."
Up in this hill country, he could take care of himself, given even odds.
Also, he had a point to prove to those two, Michal and Bimelech -boyhood companions, now business partners- after they had abandoned him, as he saw it!
"How do I get into these situations", he reasoned, fretful. He had left Bethlehem, his home, just south of Jerusalem with these two. They had left, as usual, before the rainy season that went from November through April, former and the latter rains, the prophets called them. His companions, though old friends, were wastrels. Lazy unbelievers, for sure; never passing up an opportunity to consort with Samaritan women -what creatures could be more foul; more unclean!?
His partners, merchants like himself, had argued with him, and in the presence of heathens. Argued with him, the one who always had to put up most of the money for the goods they traded. Argued with him, in fact, on taking what was well-known to be the easier, safer and shorter route at the base of the mountain to Jericho, but a route that passed north, of all places, through several villages of the Samaritans.
He wouldn't defile himself by allowing even his shadow or his sandals to touch, or be touched by the earth wherein dwelt these ungodly heathen -former Jews who had fornicated; slept with Babylonian women, and men after the conquest of Israel, now one of the sections of the Promised Land.
His family, poor descendants from the line of King David, had lived in the southern section, Judah. The Assyrians had conquered this area a hundred years after the Babylonian capture of Israel in the north. Every conqueror, Assyrians, Egyptians, Ethiopians ... with a fight on their hands, usually during the dry season that stretched between May and October, had usually chosen Palestine in which to do so. In the process, destroying crops, seizing women as concubines; taking cattle and grain for food; and young boys to be used as satraps, for fighting in their endless cycles of senseless wars.
Now, Rome, a power from Europe, ruled. Iron fisted. But say what you wished, it was a peace, after a sort. The Roman Peace, Pax Romana, it was called in their Latin tongue. It was imposed, however, on the cutting points of short, bronze swords, stabbed efficiently at foes from behind man-sized, rectangular shields in well-drilled, infantry columns -called tortudas because of their methodical, tortoise-like shape.
At least, under the Romans, there was more security from the endless wars between tribes and nations. Though the tax-collectors, most of them Jewish publicans, were a bane to a life already filled with too many other curses.
Yosef, the traveller's righteousness and thoughts greatly consoled him, now several hours journey up into the mountain fastnesses.
He reflected how, at the foot of the mountain, he had departed, leaving Michal and Bimelech, the two louts, unconscious, as they slept off their drunken wining and evil frolicking in a nearby Samaritan village. Thanks to Yahweh, he comforted himself, grimly, he was not like other men, publicans, Gentiles, slaves and outcasts from the Promise!
Like the bolts of lightning that had blazed Sodom and Gomorroh, even so, before he sensed them, did the robbers blast him to hell out of the saddle.
Hours later? Days even? He couldn't be sure. He regained consciousness. Everything had become a pain-engulfing, hazy darkness.
The sun, too, had fled under the onslaught. The breezes, previously cool and modest, were now windy, uplifting the indelicate branches of surrounding trees. The wind had changed direction and had chilled cruelly.
And the robbers had taken all! All, even his robes, leaving him, God forbid, cold, freezing, and worse - naked. Naked! "Father, Abraham," he groaned, "take this miserable life, let not the heathen see me..."
He felt the noise of another's presence, but only after the man was already leaning over him. Assessing him? The wounded man could see through pain-stricken eyes the scholarly wear of the Sadduccee; the clothing of lawyers among his people. He tried to speak. He struggled desperately to rise, to get up, naked and cold ... even as the other left, hurriedly. Left him, now a too, poor client. In the mountains, to perish. From cold. From beasts that lurked like demons to devour him.
He remembered the warmth of his young Hannah's body. She had been a second wife, but the first woman for whom he had yearned and felt anything. She had died while he was away, again on business. She had been fertile, too. Six births. He had tried to bury her memory after her painful death in childbirth. Another breeched birth.
He had mourned her for more, much more than the allotted time, so long that all assumed that he was now unable to love again; unable to marry yet another wife. He had remained, these ten years, a widower without interest in women. Replaced by the desire for women was that for wealth, which consumed him more and more, almost like a drug taking his mind off his grief and losses. Her relatives now cared as best they could for the children -more strangers to him than offspring- while he was gone.
Now, if he died, rotting into bulging maggots under these merciless cliffs, who would fulfill his neglected responsibilities? Especially those of negotiating for, and arranging to marry off the daughters? And with their blood-foulings soon coming? Who would instruct them, mere girls, in the ways of the faith? The synagogue would train the boys, surely. They were males, capable of being fighters, traders and scholars and would be trained, taken care off. But girls? Who wanted them?! Of what use were they, if unmarried. If unable to bear children? Male children?!
He wept. Loneliness, loss, grief and dread, accumulating in selfish waves. Bitter, salt streams of tears mixed into, and washed over the rusty bloodstains that caked his throbbing head.
The lawyer had been the third of four different groups of people who had met him in these cruel mountains. Where all his goods had been stolen. All his future lost! The first to accost him had been the thieves, robbers who had beaten him, leaving him for dead. The second arrival had been a Rabbi, hurriedly stepping across him, scurrying off on short, hard legs. Obviously fearful of robbers, possibly still nearby. Now this lawyer... He despaired, greatly.
Now, what! What, oh! what was that noise? "Heaven abide with me and help me", he stuttered in fright, expecting death. Or worse.
It could be the demon, Legion! Demons come to devour his living soul, leaving him forever to lie, head-first into the dungheaps of Sheol.
This is what these same demons had done earlier unto another man known in his village. That man -if he could still be described, thus- was last known to have been driven into lunacy in the tombs; the demented, living as an inhabitant in the unclean abodes of the Dead.
In his wounded state, fear of these demons brought back to the mind of the traveller the shames that the lunatic, the same madman had brought upon a distraught family. That family had formerly been scholars of the Book. Because of the madman's ravings, they had lost this prestige, and descended, in the eyes of society, to the levels of the despised; had been reduced to a status lower, even than that occupied by the hated tax collectors for the Roman occupation!
It was no Legion. To the traveller, though, the new arrival was, well ... almost another kind of demon! It was a Samaritan. A Samaritan woman.
She had been travelling, along with her family, sometime competitors, who also traded in villages along the same routes he usually took. She had turned aside, behind a bush, when, in her haste, she had stumbled over him. Despite being startled, she didn't retreat. "Half-dead," she had assessed, looking him over.
"Unclean, unclean," he screamed, voiceless, through eyes brimming with pain, but more with a hatred that could not go un-noticed.
Why was she bending over him; over his naked, exposed form. Had she no shame? Poking him? Was she cleaning bruises? Gently touching his head?. Putting salves of garlic, oils and ointments on his opened wounds; on the gashes filled with drying blood, gashes already busy with insects. She wiped his face, throbbing in pain; gingerly massaged his neck where a bruise, she could see, had congealed in dried blood under his black skin?
He could hear others calling out impatiently, "Maryam ... Maryam!" She responded, but continued to assist him.
When he realized, finally, what she was doing, bandaging him, fixing his bruises, assisting and saving him, a warm, solitary tear overflowed his eye, independent of his destructive prejudices. It was the first time in his two score and ten years that he had felt such tears; tears of such pure passion. For the first time that he had succumed to such a sense of shame mingled with so much... peace.
These pleasing sensations were being caused by her tender and silent actions; by the caring of this, a woman, a gender he generally disdained; and one from a breed, yea, a breed of mongrels he had been schooled to despise, so!
She was a Samaritan woman. Here she was, confident and robust with her people, way up here in these desolate, dangerous mountains; going in the same direction as he, but travelling, in many ways, travelling opposite to him.
They had also been transporting timber, logs of finely grown, delicately cut, red cedar on their solid train of obedient mules. The cedars were woods used exclusively for erecting princely housing and public buildings; useful for carving out royal furniture; and traded as articles of trade and commerce in which a woman of his tribe would not be allowed.
Despite the presence of robbers -unlike the two others: his rabbi and that lawyer- she had stopped. To help him. And they, chronic enemies.
Tears flowed freely. From them, both. She, with quiet satisfaction that he was still alive and responding to her ministrations. He, overwhelmed with sobs of relief that he had regained what he only now realized had already been lost: his soul!