A carpenter among carpenters, Joseph had finished eating his lunch, and he and his companions still had some free time before the overseer gave the signal to get back to work. Joseph could sit for a while, stretch out and take a nap or indulge in pleasant thoughts, imagine himself on the open road, wandering the countryside amid the hills of Samaria or, better still, looking down from a great height on the village of Nazareth, which he sorely missed. His soul rejoiced as he told himself that this long separation would soon be over and he would be on his way with only the morning star in the sky, singing praises to the Lord who protects our homes and guides our footsteps. Startled, he opened his eyes, afraid that he had dozed off and missed the overseer's signal, but he had only been daydreaming, his companions were still there, some chatting, others taking a nap, and the jovial mood of the overseer suggested that he might give his workers the rest of the day off. The sun is overhead sharp gusts of wind drive the smoke from the sacrificial fires in the opposite direction. In this ravine, which looks onto the site where a hippodrome is under construction, not even the gabbling of the vendors in the Temple can be heard. The machine of time appears to have come to a halt, as if it too were awaiting a signal from some mighty overseer of universal space and time. Joseph suddenly became uneasy, after feeling so happy only a moment ago. He looked around him and saw the same familiar building site, to which he had grown accustomed in recent weeks, slabs of stone and wooden planks, a thick layer of white dust everywhere, and sawdust that never seemed to dry. He tried to find some explanation for this unexpected gloom, it was probably the natural reaction of a man who had to leave his work unfinished, even if this particular job was not his responsibility and he had every reason for leaving. Rising to his feet, Joseph tried to calculate how much time was left. The overseer did not even turn to glance in his direction, so Joseph decided to take one last look at the section of the building on which he had worked, to bid farewell, as it were, to the timbers he had planed and the joists he had fitted, if they could possibly be identified, for where is the bee that can claim, This honey was made by me.
After taking a good look around, Joseph was heading back to the site when he paused for a moment to admire the city on the opposite slope, built up in stages, with stones baked to the color of bread. The overseer must have given the signal by now, but Joseph was in no hurry, he gazed at the city, waiting for who knows what. The minutes passed and nothing happened. Joseph muttered to himself, Well, I might as well get back to work, when he heard voices on the path below the spot where he was standing, and, leaning over the stone wall, he saw three soldiers. They must have been walking along the path and decided to stop for a break, two of them were resting on their lances and listening to the third man, who looked older and was probably their officer, although it was not easy to tell the difference unless you were familiar with the various uniforms and knew the significance of the many insignia, stripes, and braids denoting rank. The words, which Joseph could barely make out, sounded like a question, something like, And when will that be, and one of the younger men answered in a clear voice, At the beginning of the third hour, when everyone is indoors. Whereupon the other soldier asked, How many of us are being dispatched, only to be told, I don't know yet but enough men to surround the village. Has an order been given to kill all of them. No, not all of them, only those under the age of three. It's difficult to tell a two-year-old from a. four-year-old. And how many will that make, the second soldier wanted to know. According to the census, the officer told them, there must be around twenty-five. Joseph's eyes widened as if they could grasp this conversation better than his ears could, and he trembled from head to foot, because it was clear that these soldiers were talking about killing people. People, what people, he asked himself, bewildered and distressed, No, no, not people, or rather, people, but children. Children under the age of three, the officer in charge said, or perhaps it was one of the junior soldiers, but where, were could this be. Joseph could not very well lean over the wall and ask, Is there a war going on. He felt his legs shaking. He could hear on elf the men say gravely, though with relief, How fortunate for us and our children that we don't live in Bethlehem. Does anyone know why they've chosen to kill the children of Bethlehem, one of the soldiers asked. No, the commander didn't say and I'll wager he doesn't know himself, the order came from the king, and that's all we need to know. Tracing a line on the ground with his lance, as if dividing and parceling out destiny, the other soldier said, Wretched are we who not only practice the evil that is ours by nature but must also serve as an instrument of evil for those who abuse their power. But these words went unheard by Joseph, who had stolen away from his vantage point, cautiously at first and then in a mad rush, like a frightened goat, scattering pebbles in all directions as he ran. Unfortunately, without Joseph's testimony we have reason to doubt the authenticity of this soldier's philosophical remark, both in form and content, given the obvious contradiction between the aptness of the sentiment and the humble station of the person who expressed it.
Delirious, bumping into everything, overturning fruit stalls and bird cages, even a money changer's table, and oblivious to the cries of fury from the vendors in the Temple, Joseph is concerned only that his child's life is in danger. H cannot imagine why anyone would want to do such a thing, he is desperate, he chose to father a child and now someone wants to take it from him, one desire is as valid as another, to do and undo, to tie and untie, to create and destroy. Suddenly he stops, realizing the risk he is running if he continues in this reckless flight, the Temple guards might appear and arrest him, he is surprised they have not already been alerted by the uproar. Dissembling as best he can, like a louse taking refuge in the seams of a garment, he disappeared into the crowd and instantly becomes anonymous, the only difference being that he walks a little faster than others, but this is hardly noticed amid the labyrinth of people. He knows he must not run until he reaches the city gate, but this is hardly noticed amid the labyrinth of people. He knows he must not run until he reaches the city gate, but he is distressed at the thought that the soldiers may already be on their way, ominously armed with lance, dagger, and unprovoked hatred. If they are traveling on horseback, he will never catch up with them, and by the time he gets there, his son will be dead, poor child, sweet little Jesus. At this moment of deepest anguish a foolish thought occurs to him, he remembers his wages, the week's wages he stands to lose, and such is the power of these vile material things that, without exactly coming to a halt, he slows down just long enough to ponder whether he can rescue both his money and his child's life. Quick as it surfaced, this unworthy thought disappears, leaving no sense of shame, that feeling which often, but not often enough, proves our most reliable guardian angel.
Joseph finally puts the city behind him. There are no soldiers on the road for as far as the eye can reach, no crowds gathered as one might expect them to for a military parade, but the most reassuring sight of all is that of children playing innocent games, with none of the wild enthusiasm they display when flags, drums, and horns go arching by. If any soldiers had passed this way, there would be no boys in sight, they would have followed the detachment at least to the first bend in the road, as is the time-honored custom, and perhaps one child, his heart set on becoming a soldier someday, accompanied them on their mission and so learned the fate that awaited him, namely, to kill or be killed. Now Joseph can run as fast as he likes, he takes his tunic, which he hitches up over his knees. As in a dream, he has the agonizing sensation that his legs cannot keep with the rest of his body, with his heart, head, and eyes, and his hands, eager to offer protection, are so painfully slow in their movement. Some people stop on the road and shake their heads disapprovingly at this undignified performance, for these people are known for their composure and noble bearing. The explanation for Joseph's extraordinary behavior in their eyes is not that he's running to save his child's life but that he is Galilean, one of a lot with no real breeding, as has often been observed. He has already passed Rachel's tomb, and that good woman could never have suspected that she would have so much cause to weep for her children, to cover the nearby hills with her cries and lamentations, to claw at her face, tear out her hair, and then beat her bare skull.
Before he comes to the first houses on the outskirts of Bethlehem, Joseph leaves the main road and goes cross-country, I am taking a shortcut, he would reply if we were to question this sudden change of direction, a route that might be shorter but is certainly much less comfortable. Taking care not to encounter any laborers at work in the fields, and hiding behind boulders whenever he sees a shepherd, Joseph makes for the cave where his wife is not expecting him at this hour and his son, fast asleep, is not expecting him at all. Halfway up the slope of the last hill, from where he can already see the dark chasm of the grotto, Joseph is assailed by a terrible thought, suppose his wife has gone to the village, taking the child with her, nothing more natural, knowing what women are, than for her to take advantage of being on he own to make a farewell visit to Salome and several families with whom she has become acquainted in recent weeks, leaving Joseph to thank the owners of the cave with all due formality. He sees himself running through the streets and knocking on every door, Is my wife here. It would be foolish to inquire anxiously. Better, Is my son here, in case some woman, carrying a child in her arms, for example, should ask, on seeing him distressed, Is something wrong. No, nothing, he would reply, Nothing at all, it's just that we have to set off at first light and we still haven't packed. The village, seen from here, with its identical roof terraces, reminds Joseph of the building site, stones scattered everywhere until the workers assemble them, one on top of another, to erect a watchtower, an obelisk to commemorate some victory, or a wall for lamentations. A dog barks in the distance, others bark in response, but the warm evening silence continues to hover over the village like a blessing about to lose its effect, like a wisp of a cloud on the point of vanishing.
The pause was short-lived. In one last spurt the carpenter reached the entrance to the cave and called out, Mary, are you there. She called in reply, and Joseph realized that his legs were weak, probably from all the running, but also from the sheer relief of knowing his child was safe. Inside the cave Mary was chopping vegetables for the evening meal, the child asleep in the manger. Joseph collapsed on the ground but was soon back on his feet, We must leave, we must get out of this place. Mary looked at him in dismay, Are we leaving, she asked, Yes, this very minute, But you said, Be quiet and start packing while I harness the donkey. Aren't we going to eat first. No, we'll eat something on the way. But it will soon be dark and we might get lost, whereupon Joseph lost his temper, Be quiet, woman, I've already told you we're leaving, so do as I say. Tears sprang to Mary's eyes, this was the first time her husband had ever raised his voice to her. Without another word she began gathering their scant possessions. Be quick, be quick, he kept repeating as he saddled the donkey and tightened the straps and crammed whatever came to hand into the baskets, while Mary looked on dumbfounded at this husband she barely recognized. They were ready to leave, the only thing left to be done now was put out the fire with earth. Joseph signaled to his wife to wait until he took a look outside.
The ashen shadows of twilight merged heaven and earth. The sun had not yet set, but the heavy mist, while too high to obscure the surrounding fields, kept the sunlight from them. Joseph listened carefully, took a few steps, his hair on end. A scream came from the village, so shrill that it scarcely sounded human, its echo resounding rom hill to hill, and it was followed by more screams and wailing, which could be heard everywhere. These were not weeping angels lamenting human misfortune, these were the voices of men and women maddened by grief beneath an empty sky. Slowly, afraid of being heard, Joseph stepped back to the cave, and collided with Mary, who had disregarded his warning. She was trembling. What are those screams, she asked, but he pushed her back inside without replying and hastily began throwing earth on the fire. What are those screams, Mary asked a second time, invisible in the darkness, and Joseph eventually answered, People are being put to death. He paused and then added in a whisper, Children, by order of Herod, his voice breaking into a dry sob. That's why I said we should leave. There was a muffled sound of clothing and hay being disturbed, Mary was lifting her child from the manger and pressing him to her bosom, Sweet little Jesus, who would want to harm you, her words drowned in tears. Be quiet, said Joseph, don't make a sound, perhaps the soldiers won't find this place, they've been ordered to kill all the children of Bethlehem under the age of three. How did you find this out. I overheard it in the Temple and that's why I ran back. What do we do now. We're on the outskirts of the village, the soldiers aren't likely to look inside these caves, they've been ordered to carry out a house-to-house search, so let's hope no one reports us and we're spared. He took another cautious look outside, the screaming had stopped, nothing could be heard now except a wailing chorus, which gradually subsided. The massacre of the innocents had ended.
The sky was still overcast. The advancing darkness and the mist overhead had erased Bethlehem from the sight fo those inhabiting heaven. Joseph warned Mary, Don't move from here, I'm going out to the road to see if the soldiers have gone. BE careful, said Mary, forgetting that her husband was in no danger, only children under the age of three, unless someone else had gone out to the road with the intention of betraying him, telling the soldiers, This is Joseph, the carpenter, whose child is not yet three, a boy called Jesus, who could be the child mentioned int he prophecy, for our children cannot be destined for glory now that they are dead.
Inside the cave one could touch the darkness. Mary, who had always feared the dark, was used to having a light in the house, from either the fire or an oil lamp, or both, and the feeling, all the stronger now that she was hiding here in the earth, that fingers of darkness would reach out and touch her lips, filled her with terror. She did not want to disobey her husband or expose her child to danger by leaving the cave, but she was becoming more terrified by the minute. Soon the fear would overpower her fragile defenses of common sense, it was no good telling herself, If there was nothing in the cave before we put out the fire then why should there be anything now, although this thought gave her just enough courage to grope her way to the manger, where she settled her child, and then, carefully creeping around until she found the spot where the fire had been, she poked the ashes with a piece of firewood until a few embers appeared that she had not yet completely died. Her fear vanished at once as, remembering the luminous earth, she watched this tremulous glow with criss-crossing flashes like a torch that darts over the ridge of a mountain. The image of the beggar came to her, only to be pushed aside by the urgent need to create more light in that terrifying cave. Fumbling, Mary went to the manger to fetch a handful of straw. Guided by the faint glow on the ground, she was back in an instant and soon had the oil lamp set up in a corner, where it could cast a pale but reassuring light on the nearby walls without attracting the attention of anyone outside. Mary went to her child, who continued to sleep, indifferent to fears, cares, and violent deaths. Taking him in her arms she went and sat near the lamp and waited.
Time passed. Her child woke without fully opening his eyes, and when Mary saw he was about to cry, she opened her tunic and brought the child's avid mouth to her breast. Jesus ws still feeding at his mother's breast when she heard footsteps. Her heart almost stopped beating. Could it be soldiers. But these were the footsteps of one person, and soldiers on a search normally went in pairs at least so that one could aid the other in the event of an attack. It must be Joseph, she thought, and feared he would scold her for having lit the lamp. The steps came closer, Joseph was entering the cave, but suddenly a shiver went up Mary's spine, those were not Joseph's firm, heavy steps, perhaps it was some itinerant laborer seeking shelter for the night, as had happened twice before, although Mary had not been afraid on those occasions, because it never occurred to her that anyone, however heartless and cruel, would harm a woman with a child in her arms. She thought of the infants slaughtered in Bethlehem, some perhaps in their mothers' arms, just as Jesus lies in hers, innocent baes still sucking the milk of life as swords pierced their tender flesh, but then those assassins were soldiers, not vagrants. No, it was not Joseph, and it was not a soldier looking for an exploit he would not have to share, and it was not a laborer without work or shelter. It was the man, again in the guise of a shepherd, who had appeared to her as a beggar, claiming to be an angel, not revealing, however, whether he came from heaven or hell. At first Mary thought it could not possibly be he, but she now realized it could be no one else.
The angel said, Peace be with you, wife of Joseph, and peace be with your child, how fortunate for both of you to have found shelter in this cave, otherwise one of you would now be broken and dead and the other broken though still alive. Mary told him, I heard cries for help. The angel said, One day those cries will be raised to heaven in your name, and even before then you will hear thousands of cries beside you. Mary told him, My husband went to the road to see if the soldiers have left, he must not find you here when he comes back. The angel said, Don't worry, I'll be gone before he returns. I only came to tell you that you will not see me again for some time, that all that was decreed in heaven has come to pass, that these deaths were as inevitable as Joseph's crime. Mary asked, What crime, my husband has committed no crime, he is an honest man. The angel told her, An honest man who committed a crime, you have no idea how many honest men have committed crimes, their crimes are countless, and contrary to popular belief these are the only crimes that cannot be forgiven. Mary asked, What crime did my husband commit. The angel replied, Should I tell you, surely you don't want to share his guilt. Mary said, I swear I am innocent. The angel told her, Swear if you will, but any oath taken before me is a puff of wind that knows not where it's going. Mary pleaded, What crime have we committed. The angel replied, Herod's cruelty unseated those swords, but your selfishness and cowardice were the cords that bound the victims' hands and feet. Mary asked, What could I have done, The angel told her, You could not have done anything, for you found out too late, but the carpenter cold have done something, he could have warned the villagers that the solders were coming to kill their children when there was still time for parents to gather them up and escape, to hide in the wilderness, for example, or flee to Egypt and wait for Herod's death, which is fast approaching. Mary said, Joseph didn't think. The angel retorted, No, he didn't think, but that hardly excuses him. Mary tearfully implored, Angel that you are, forgive him. The angel replied, I am not an angel who grants pardons. Mary pleaded, Forgive him. The angel was unswayed, I've already told you, there's no forgiveness for this crime, Herod will be forgiven sooner than your husband, for it is easier to forgive a villain than a deserter. Mary asked, What are we to do. The angel told her, You will live and suffer like everyone else. Mary asked, And what about my son. The angel said, A father's guilt falls on the heads of his children, and the shadow of Joseph's guilt already darkens his son's brow. Mary sighed, Wretched are we. Indeed, said the angel, and there is nothing to be done. Mary lowered her head, pressed her child closer to her bosom, as if protecting him from the promised evils nd when she turned around, the angel had vanished. But this time there was no sound of footsteps. He must have flown away, Mary thought to herself. She got up and went to the entrance of the cave to see if there was any trace of the angel's flight through the sky or any sign of Joseph nearby.
The mist had cleared, the first stars glittered like metal, and wailing voices could still be heard from the village. Then a thought as presumptuous as spiritual pride itself blotted out the angel's dark warning and caused Mary's head to spin. Suppose her son's salvation was a sign from God, for surely the child's escape from a cruel death must mean something when so many others who perished could do nothing but wait for the opportunity to ask God himself, Why did you kill us, and be satisfied with whatever replay He might choose to give. Mary's delirium soon passed, and the thought occurred to her that she too could be holding a dead child like all those other mothers in Bethlehem, and she shed a flood of tears for the welfare and salvation of her soul. She was still weeping when Joseph returned. She heard him coming but did not stir, did not care if he rebuked her, she was crying now with the other women, all of them seated in a circle with their children on their laps awaiting resurrection. Joseph saw that she wept, understood, and said nothing.
Inside the cave, he did not appear to notice the burning oil lamp. A fine layer of ash now covered the embers, but in the center there was still a faint flicker of flame struggling to survive. As he began unloading the donkey, Joseph reassured Mary, We're no longer in danger, the soldiers have gone, we might as well spend the night here. We'll leave before dawn, avoid the main road, and take a shortcut, and where there are no roads we'll find a way somehow. Mary murmured, All those dead children, which provoked Joseph into asking brusquely, How do you know, have you counted them, and Mary continued, I even knew some of those children. You ought to be thanking God for having spared your own son. I will. And stop staring at me as if I'd committed some crime. I wasn't staring at you. Don't answer in that accusing tone of voice. Very well, I won't say another word. Good. Joseph tethered the donkey to the manger, where there was still some hay. The donkey cannot complain it has had lots of fodder and plenty of fresh air, but it is not hungry, it is preparing itself for the arduous journey back with a full load. Mary put her child down and said, I'll get the fire going. What for. To prepare some supper. I don't want a fire in here to attract the attention of some passerby, let's eat whatever there is that doesn't need to be cooked. And so they ate.
The light from the lamp made the cave's four inhabitants look like ghosts, the donkey motionless as a statue, not eating though its nose was buried in the straw, the child dozing, the man and woman satisfying their hunger with a few dry figs. Mary laid out the mats on the sandy ground, threw a cover over them, and, as usual, waited for her husband to go to bed. First Joseph went to take another look at the night sky, all was peaceful in heaven and on earth, and no more cries or lamentations could be heard in the village. Rachel only had strength enough left to sigh and whimper inside the houses where doors and souls were tightly closed. Stretched out on his mat, Joseph felt exhausted after all his worry and panic, and he could not even say that his wild chase had saved his son's life. The soldiers had strictly carried out their orders, Kill the children of Bethlehem, without taking any further initiative, such as searching all the caves in the vicinity to ferret out families in hiding or families making their homes there. Normally Joseph did not mind that Mary came to bed only after he had fallen asleep, but on this occasion he could not bear to think of her watching him, in her sorrow, as he lay sleeping. He told her, I do not want you waiting up, come to bed. Mary made no protest. After making sure, as usual, that the donkey was securely tethered, she lay down with a sigh on her mat, closed her eyes, and waited for sleep to come.
In the middle of the night, Joseph had a dream. He was riding down a road leading into a village, when the first houses came into view. He ore a military uniform and was armed with sword, lance, and dagger, a soldier among soldiers. The commanding officer asked him Where do you think you're going, carpenter, to which Joseph replied, proud of being so well prepared for the mission entrusted to him, I'm off to Bethlehem to kill my son, and as he said those words, he woke with a fearsome growl, his body twitching and writhing with fear. Mary asked him in alarm, What's wrong, what happened, as Joseph kept repeating, No, no, no. Suddenly he broke into bitter sobs. Mary got up, fetched the lamp, and held it near his face, Are you ill, she asked. Covering his face with his hands, he shouted, Take that lamp away at once, woman, and still sobbing, he went to the manger to see if his child was safe. He is fine, Master Joseph, do not worry, in fact the child gives no trouble, good-natured, quiet, all he wants is to be fed and to sleep, and here he rests as peaceful as can be, oblivious to the dreadful death he has miraculously escaped, just think, to be put to death by a father who gave him life, for though death is the fate that awaits all of us, there are many ways of dying. Afraid that the dream might come back, Joseph did not lie down again. Wrapped in his mantle, he sat at the entrance to the cave, beneath an overhanging rock that formed a natural porch, and the moon above cast a black shadow over the opening, a shadow the faint glow of the oil lamp within could not dispel. Had Herod himself been carried past by his slaves, escorted by legions of barbarians thirsting for blood, he would have told them calmly, Don't bother searching this place, continue on, there is nothing here but stone and shadow, what we want is the tender flesh of newborn babes. The very thought of his dream made Joseph shiver. He wondered what it could possibly mean, for, as the heavens could testify, he had raced like a madman down that slope, a Via Dolorosa if ever there was one, he had scaled rocks and walls in his haste to rescue his child, like a father, yet in the dream he saw himself as a fiend intent on murder. How wise the proverb that reminds us that there is no constancy in dreams. This must be the work of Satan, he decided, making a gesture to drive out evil spirits.
The piercing trill of an unseen bird filled the air, or perhaps it was a shepherd whistling, but surely not at this hour, when the flocks are asleep and only the dogs are keeping watch. Yet the night, calm and remote from all living creatures, showed that the supreme indifference which we associate with the universe, or that other absolute indifference, the indifference of emptiness, which will remain, if there is such a thing as emptiness, when all has been fulfilled. The night ignored the meaning and rational order that appear to govern the world in those moments when we can still believe the world was made to harbor us and our insanity. The terrifying dream grew unreal and absurd, was dispelled by the night the shining moon, and the presence of his child asleep in the manger. Joseph was awake and as much in command of himself and his thoughts as any man could be, his thoughts were now charitable and peaceful, yet just as capable of monstrosity, for example his gratitude to God that his beloved child has been spared by the soldiers who had butchered so many innocents. The night that descends over carpenter Joseph descends also over the mothers of the children of Bethlehem, forgetting their fathers, and even Mary for a moment, since they do not figure here for some strange reason. The hours passed quietly, and at first light Joseph got up, went to load the donkey, and, taking advantage of of the last moonlight before the sky turned clear, the whole family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, were soon on their way back to Galilee.
Stealing from her master's house, where two infants had been killed, the slave Salome rushed to the cave that morning convinced that the same sad fate had befallen the child she helped bring into the world. She found the place deserted, nothing remained except footprints and the donkey's hoof prints. Dying embers beneath the ashes, but no bloodstains. Gone, she said, little Jesus has escaped this first death.
The months passed, and news of the war continued to arrive, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but while the good news never went beyond vague allusions to victories that always turned out to be modest, the bad news spoke of much bloodshed and heavy losses for the rebel army of Judas the Galilean. One day news came that Eldad had been killed when the Romans made a surprise attack on a guerrilla ambush, there were many casualties, but Eldad was the only one from Nazareth to lose his life. Another day someone said he had heard from a friend, ho had been told by someone else, that Varus, the Roman governor of Syria, was on his way with two legions to put an end once and for all to this intolerable insurrection that had been dragging on for three years. The statement, Varus is on his way, and the lack of any precise details spread panic among the people. They expected the dreaded insignia of war, which bore the initials SPQR, the Senate and People of Rome, to appear at any moment, heralding the arrival of a punitive force. Under this symbol and that flag, men go forth to kill one another, and the same can be said of those other well known initials, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, but we must not anticipate events, for the dire consequences of Jesus' death will emerge only in the fulness of time. Everywhere there is talk of imminent battle, those with more faith in God predict that before the year is out, the Romans will be expelled from the Holy Land of Israel, but others, less confident, sadly shake their heads and foresee nothing but doom and destruction. And so it turned out.
Following the news that Varus's legions were advancing, nothing happened for several weeks, which allowed the rebels to intensify their attacks on the dispersed troops they were fighting, but the tactics behind this Roman passivity soon became clear, when the scouts of Judas the Galilean reported that one of the legions was heading south in a circular movement, skirting the bank of the river Jordan, then turning right at Jericho to repeat the maneuver northward, like a net cast into the water and retrieved by an experienced hand, or a lasso thrown to capture everything around. And the other legion, carrying out a similar maneuver, was now heading south. A strategy that could be described as a pincer movement, but it was more like two walls closing in simultaneously, knocking down those unable to escape, and finally crushing them. Throughout Judaea and Galilee, the legions advance was marked with crosses, to which Judas's men had been nailed by their wrists and feet, their bones broken with hammers to hasten their death. The soldiers looted the villages and searched every house. No evidence was needed for them to arrest suspects and execute them. These unfortunates, if you will pardon the irony, had the good fortune to be crucified near their homes, so relatives could remove their bodies once they were dead. And what a sad spectacle it was, as mothers, widows, young brides, and weeping orphans watched the bruised corpses being gently lowered from the crosses, for there is nothing more pitiful for the living than the sight of an abandoned body. The crucified man was then carried to his grave to await the day of resurrection. But there were also men wounded in combat, in the mountains or in some other lonely spot, who, though still alive, were left by the soldiers in the most absolute of all deserts, that of solitary death, and there they remained, slowly burnt by the sun, exposed to birds of prey, and after a time stripped of flesh and bone, reduced to repugnant remains without shape or form. Those questioning if not skeptical souls, who resist the facile acceptance of gospels such as these, will ask how it was possible for the Romans to crucify such a large number of Jews in vast arid regions devoid of trees, apart from the rare stunted bird on which you could barely crucify a scarecrow. But they are forgetting that the Roman army has all the professional skills and organization of a modern army. A steady supply of wooden crosses has been maintained throughout the campaign, as witnessed by all these donkeys and mules following the troops and laden with posts and crossbars, which can be assembled on the spot, and then it is simply a question of nailing the condemned man's extended arms to the crossbar, hoisting the post upright, forcing him to draw his legs sideways, and securing his two feet, one on top of the other, with a single long nail. Any executioner attached to the legion will tell you that this operation may sound complicated, but it is in fact much more difficult to describe than to carry out.
The pessimists who predicted disaster were right. From north to south and from south to north, men, women, and children flee before the advancing legions, some because they might be accused of having collaborated with the rebels, others simply in terror, for, as we know, they are in danger of being arrested and put to death without a trial. One of these fugitives interrupted his retreat for a few moments to knock on Joseph's door with a message from Joseph's neighbor, Ananias, who had been severely wounded back in Sepphoris. Ananias wanted Joseph to know, The war is lost and there is no hope of escape, send for my wife and tell her to claim my possessions. Is that all he said, asked Joseph. Nothing more, replied the messenger. Why couldn't you have brought him here with you, when you knew you had to pass this way. In his condition he would have been a hindrance, and I had to put my family's safety first. First, perhaps, but surely not to the exclusion of everyone else. What are you trying to say, you yourself are surrounded by children, and if you remain here, that can only be because you are in no danger. There's no time to lose, be on your way and may God go with you, for without Him there is always danger. You sound like a man without faith, for you should know the Lord is everywhere. Indeed, but he often ignores us, and don't speak to me about faith after abandoning my neighbor to his fate. Well, then, why not go and rescue him yourself. That's exactly what I intend to do. This conversation took place in the middle of the afternoon. It was a fine, sunny day, with a few white clouds drifting across the sky like unmanned barges. Joseph went to untie the donkey, called his wife, and told her without further explanation, I'm off to Sepphoris to look for our neighbor, Ananias, who's been badly wounded and cannot make the journey on his own. Mary simply nodded in reply, but Jesus clung to his father and pleaded, Take me with you. Joseph looked at his son, placed his right hand on the boy's head, and told him, You stay here, I'll be back soon, if I make good time, I should be back before dawn, and he could be right, for the distance between Nazareth and Sepphoris cannot be much more than five miles, about the same distance as from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, additional proof that the world is full of coincidences. Joseph did not mount the donkey, he wanted the animal to be fresh for the return journey, firm and steady on its feet and prepared to carry a sick man gently, or, to be precise, a wounded soldier, which is not quite the same thing.
At the foot of the hill where, almost a year before, Ananias told him of his decision to join the rebel army of Judas the Galilean, the carpenter looked up at the three enormous boulders on the summit, which reminded him of segments of a fruit. Perched on high, they appeared to be waiting for a reply from heaven and earth to the questions posed by all the creatures of this world, even though the creatures cannot voice them, What am I, Why am I here, What other world awaits me, this one being what it is. Were Ananias to ask such questions, we could tell him that at least the boulders remain unscathed by the wind, rain, and heat, and some twenty centuries hence they will probably still be here, and twenty centuries after that, while the world changes all around them. To the first two questions, however, there is no answer.
Throngs of fugitives were to be seen on the road, with the same look of terror on their faces as on that of the messenger by Ananias. They looked at Joseph in amazement, and one man, taking him by the arm, inquired, Where are you going, and the carpenter replied, To Sepphoris, to rescue a friend. If you know what's good for you, you'll do no such thing. Why not. The Romans are approaching, and there is no hope of defending the city. I must go, my neighbor is like a brother and there is no one else to fetch him. Heed my advice, and with that the wise counselor went on his way, leaving Joseph standing in the middle of the road, lost in thought, wondering whether his life is worth saving and whether he despised himself. After living the matter thought, he decided he felt quite indifferent, like someone confronting a void that is neither near nor far, and where there is nowhere to rest one's eyes, for who can focus on emptiness. Then it occurred to him that as a father he had a duty to protect his children, that he ought to return home rather than chasing after a neighbor, and Ananias was no longer even that, for he had deserted his home and sent his wife away. But Joseph's children were safe, the Romans, engaged as they were in pursuing rebels, would do them no harm. Finally reaching a conclusion, Joseph heard himself say aloud, as if he were wrestling with his thoughts, And I am not a rebel either. Without further ado he gave his animal a slap on its haunch, exclaimed, Go, donkey, and continued on.
It was late evening when he arrived at Sepphoris, The long shadows of houses and trees that could be made out at first gradually disappeared into the horizon like dark, cascading water. There were few people on the streets of the city, no women or children, only weary men laying down their awkward weapons as they stretched out, panting for breath, and it was difficult to tell whether they were exhausted from combat or from flight. Joseph asked one of them, Are the Romans approaching. The man closed his eyes, slowly reopened them, and said, They'll arrive by tomorrow, and then, averting his gaze, he told Joseph, Get away from here, take your donkey and leave this place. But I'm searching for a friend who's been wounded, Joseph explained. If you counted all who had been wounded as your friends, you'd be the wealthiest man in the world. Where re the wounded. Here, there, everywhere. But is there some place in the city where they're being nursed. Yes, behind those houses you'll find a garrison where many wounded have been given shelter, perhaps you'll find your friend there, but hurry, for more corpses are being carried out than men brought in alive. Joseph knew the place well, he had been here often, both for work, which was plentiful in a city as rich and prosperous as Sepphoris, and for certain minor religious feasts that did not justify the long and arduous journey to Jerusalem. Finding the storehouse was easy enough, all one had to do was to follow the terrible stench of blood and pus that hung in the air, almost like a game of hide and seek, Hot, cold, hot, cold, it hurts, it doesn't, but now the pain was becoming unbearable. Joseph tethered the donkey to a long pole he found nearby and entered the storehouse, which had been converted into a dormitory. Between the mats on the floor were tiny lamps which provided hardly any light, twinkling stars against a black sky, which helped to guide one's faltering steps. Joseph walked slowly between the rows of wounded men in search of Ananias. There were other strong odors in the air, the smell of oil and wine used to heal wounds, the smell of sweet, excrement, and urine, for some of these unfortunate men were unable to move, and could not help evacuating then and there. He isn't here, Joseph thought to himself as he reached the end of the row. He retraced his steps, walking more slowly this time and looking carefully. Alas, they were all alike, with their long beards, hollow cheeks, sunken eyes, and unwashed bodies covered with sweat. Some of the wounded followed him with anxious expressions, hoping that this able-bodied man had come for them, but the momentary glimmer in their eyes soon disappeared and their long vigil, for who knows what or whom, continued. Joseph came to a halt before an elderly man with white beard and hair. It is he, he thought. Yet Anaias's appearance had changed since Joseph walked past the first time, his beard and hair, white as snow before, now looked dirty, and his eyebrows, still black, looked unnatural. The old man's eyes were closed, and he breathed heavily. In a low voice Joseph called, Ananias, then moving closer, he repeated the name louder. Little by little, as if he were emerging from the depths of the earth, the old man's eyelitds began to move, and when the eyes were fully open, there was no longer any doubt, this was Ananias, the neighbor who had abandoned his home and wife to go and fight the Romans, and here he lies with frightful abdominal wounds and stinking of rotting flesh. At first Anaias does not recognize Joseph, the poor light in this makeshift infirmary does not help, and his eyesight is poorer anyway, but he recognizes him when the carpenter repeats his name in another tone of voice, which almost holds affection. The old man's eyes fill with tears, and he says, over and over, It's you, it's you, what are you doing here, what have you come here for, and he tries to raise himself on one elbow and stretch out his arm, but cannot find the strength, his body sags, his whole face twisted with pain. I came for you, said the carpenter, my donkey is tethered outside, and we can be back in Nazareth in no time at all. You shouldn't have come here, the Romans are expected any minute, I can't leave this place, I'm done for, and with trembling hands he opened his tunic. Beneath the rags soaked with wine and oil were two gaping wounds which gave off such a nauseating smell that Joseph held his breath and looked away. The old man convered himself, his arms falling to his sides, as if the effort had been too much for him, Now you know why I can't leave this place, if you tried to move me, my guts would spill out. You'll be all right with a bandage tight around your belly and if we go slow, insisted Joseph, unconvincingly, because it was obvious that even if he could get the old man onto the donkey's back, they would never make it to Nazareth. Ananias's eyes were shut again, and without opening them he told Joseph, You must go back, I'm warning you, the Romans will be here soon. Don't worry, they won't attack at night. Go home, go home, muttered Ananias, and in reply Joseph said, Try to get some sleep.
He watched over him all night long. Struggling to keep awake, he found himself wondering why he had come to this place, since there had never really been any deep friendship between Ananias and him. There was considerable difference in their ages, and besides, he had always had certain reservations about Ananias and his wife, who could be nosy and meddlesome even while doing one a favor, and who always gave the impression of expecting to be paid back in kind. But he is my neighbor, Joseph thought, and could think of no better answer to silence his misgivings, he's my fellow creature, a man close to death, with his eyes already shut, as if to savor every minute of his dying, I can't abandon him now. He was sitting in the narrow space between the mat on which anginas lay and tat of a young boy who couldn't have been much older than his son Jesus, the poor lad was moaning quietly and muttering to himself, his lips cracked with fever. Joseph held his hand to comfort him, and Ananias's hand began fumbling as if reaching for a hand to defend himself, and there the three of them remained, Joseph alive and well between two who were dying, one life between two deaths. Meanwhile the tranquil night sky sent stars and planets into orbit, and a shining white moon came floating through space from the other end of the world, shedding innocence over the whole of Galilee. It was only much later that Joseph emerged from the topper into which he had reluctantly fallen. He awoke with a sense of relief, because this time he had not dreamed of the road to Bethlehem. Opening his eyes, he saw Anginas, whose eyes were open, was dead. At the last moment he had been unable to endure the vision of death, and his hand gripped Joseph's so tightly that Joseph felt his bones were being crushed. To ease the painful grip he released his other hand which was clasping the boy's, and noticed that the boy's fever had subsided. Joseph looked out through the open door, there was daylight, a sky in hues of sepia. Human forms stirred in the storehouse, those who could get up unaided went outside to watch the sunrise. They might well have asked one another or even the sky itself, What will this new dawn bring. One day we shall learn not to ask useless questions, but until that day comes, lets take this opportunity to ask ourselvesWhat will this new dawn bring. Joseph thought to himself, I may as well go, I can do nothing more here, but there was a questioning note at these words that prompted him o think, I could take his body to Nazareth,a nd the idea seemed so obvious that he almost convinced himself this was why he had come, to find Ananias alive and carry him back dead. The boy asked for water. Joseph held an earthenware bowl to his lips, How do you feel, he asked him. Better. At least the fever seems to have passed. Let me see if I can stand up, said the boy. Be careful, said Joseph, trying to restrain him, then another idea occurred to him. All he could do for Ananias was to bury him in Nzaraeth, but the boy's life could still be saved if Joseph delivered him from this death house, so that one human being could be substituted, in a manner of speaking, for another. He no longer felt compassion for Ananias, whose body now was an empty shell his soul more remote each time Joseph looked at him. The boy appeared to sense that something good was about to happen to him, and his eyes shone, but before he could ask any questions, Joseph had already gone to bring the donkey. Blessed is the Lord who puts such splendid ideas into the heads of Mankind. But the donkey was gone. All that remained was a bit of rope tied to the pole. The thief had wasted no time trying to untie the knot, using a sharp knife, he had simply cut through it.
The latest misfortune drained the strength from Joseph's body. Like one of those felled calves he had watched being sacrificed in the Temple, he dropped to his face with his hands, and shed all the tears that had been welling for the last thirteen years while he waited for the day he would be able to forgive himself or face the final condemnation. God does not forgive the sins He makes us commit. Joseph Joseph did not return to the storehouse, for he realized that his actions had become forever meaningless. The sun was rising, but why, O Lord, were there thousands of tiny clouds scattered throughout the sky like stones in the desert. Anyone watching Joseph there, as he wiped his tears with the sleeve of his tunic, would have thought he was mourning the death of a relative found with the other wounded men in the storehouse, when the truth had just shed the last of his natural tears, the tears of life's sorrow.
After wandering through the city for more than an hour, hoping that he might still find the stolen animal, he was about to give up and return to Nazareth when he was arrested by Roman soldiers, who had taken Sepphoris. They asked him his name, I am Joseph, son of Eli, and then where he lived, In Nazareth, and where he was going, Back to Nazareth, and what brought him to Sepphoris, someone told me a neighbor of mine was here, and who was this neighbor, Ananias, and he had found him, Yes, and where had he found him, In a storehouse with others, and what others might they be, Wounded men, and in which part of the city, Over in that direction. They took him to a square where a group of men were assembled, twelve or fifteen sitting on the ground, some of them, wounded, and the soldiers ordered him, Join the others. Realizing that the men sitting there were rebels, he protested, I am a carpenter and a man of peace, and one of the rebels spoke up and said, We don't know this man, but the officer in charge of the prisoners refused to listen and, giving Joseph one mighty push, sent him flying to the ground, where he ended up among the others. The only place you're going is to your death, the officer told him. The double shock of this misfortune and the fate awaiting him left Joseph stunned But once he regained his composure, he felt a great tranquility, convinced that it was all a nightmare that would soon pass and that there was no point tormenting himself over these threats, for they would vanish the moment he opened his eyes. Then he remembered when he dreamed of the road to Bethlehem, he was also convinced he would wake up, and he began to tremble as the cruel certainty of his fate finally dawned on him, I'm going to die, to die even though I'm innocent. He felt a hand on his shoulder, the hand of the prisoner beside him, When the commanding officer comes, we'll explain you're not one of us, and he'll order your release. And what about the rest of you. The Romans have crucified every rebel they've captured so far, and they're not likely to treat us any better. God will save you. Surely you're forgetting that God saves souls rather than bodies. The soldiers arrived with more prisoners, in twos and threes, and then a large group of about twenty. The inhabitants of Sepphoris had gathered in the square, an there were even women and children in the crowd. A restless murmur could be heard, but no one dared move without the permission of the Roman soldiers, who were still looking for anyone who might have helped the rebels. After a while another man was dragged into the square, and the soldiers who had captured him announced, That's all for now, whereupon the officer in charge shouted, On your feet, you lot. The prisoners guessed that the commanding officer of the cohort was approaching, and the man sitting beside Joseph told him, Prepare yourself, what he meant was, Prepare yourself for release, as if one needed to prepare oneself for freedom, but if someone came, it was not the commanding officer, nor did anyone learn who it was, because the officer in charge suddenly gave an order in Latin to the soldiers. Needless to say, everything said so far by the Romans has been in Latin, because it would be unthinkable for the descenedants of the she-wolf to speak in barbarian tongues, they have interpreters for that purpose, but since the conversation here was between the soldiers themselves, no translation was required. Obeying their superior's orders, the soldiers quickly rounded up the prisoners, Forward march, and the procession of condemned men made its way out of the city, with the crowd trailing behind. Forced to march with the other prisoners, Joseph had nowhere to turn for mercy. He raised his arms to heaven and called out, Save me, I'm not one of them, help me, I'm innocent, at which point a soldier prodded him from behind with the butt of a lance, almost knocking him to the ground. In despair, Joseph felt hatred for Ananias, the one who had got him into this predicament, but the feeling soon passed, going way to emptiness. He thought to himself, There is nowhere else to go, but he was wrong, and he would soon be there. Strange as it may seem, the certainty of death calmed him. He looked around at his companions in misfortune, who seemed quite composed, some, naturally, were downcast, but others defiantly held their heads high. Most were Pharisees. Then, for the first time, Joseph remembered his children, and for one fleeting moment even his wife, but all those faces and names were too much for the tired brain In need of sleep and food, he felt weak, could not concentrate, the only image that remained was of Jesus, his firstborn and his final punishment. He recalled their conversation about his dream and remembered telling Jesus, It just isn't possible for you to ask me all the questions, or for me to give you all the answers, but now the time for answering questions was over.
On a stretch of high ground overlooking the city forty thick posts strong enough to take a man's weight had been erected in rows of eight. At the foot of each post lay a crossbar long enough to allow a man to spread his arms. At the sight of these instruments of torture, some of the prisoners tried to escape, but the soldiers, baring their swords, drove them back. One rebel attempted to impair himself on a sword, but to no avail, he was dragged off at once to be crucified. Then the laborious task began of nailing the wrists of each condemned man to a crossbar before hoisting him up on the upright posts. The screams and moans could be heard throughout the countryside, and the people of Sepphoris wept before this sad spectacle, which they were obliged to watch as a warning. One by one, these crosses went up, a man hanging from each, his legs drawn in as we saw before, who knows for what reason, perhaps an order from Rome intended to make the job easier and save on materials, because one does not need to know much about crucifixions to see that a cross made to the measurements of the average man would require more work and be heavier to carry and more awkward to handle, not to mention the serious disadvantage to the victim, since the closer his feet were to the ground, the easier it his to lower his body afterward, without having to use a ladder, thus allowing him to pass directly, as it were, from the arms of the appointed gravedigger, who will not just leave him lying there. It so happened, that Joseph was the last to be crucified, and this meant he had to look on as his thirty-nine unknown companions were tortured one by one and put to death. When his turn finally came, he was resigned to his fate and no longer protested his innocence, thus missed his last opportunity to save himself, when the soldier doing the hammering said to the officer in charge, This is the man who said he was innocent. The officer paused for a moment, giving Joseph just enough time to cry out, I'm innocent, but instead Joseph chose to remain silent. The officer looked up and probably decided that the symmetry would be destroyed if the last cross was not raised, and that forty made a nice round figure, so he gave the signal, the nails were driven in, Joseph let out a scream and went on screaming, then they hoisted him up, his weight held by the nails that pierced his wrists, and there were more cries of pain as a long nail was driven through ihis feet. Dear God, his is the man You created, blessed by Your holy name, since it is forbidden to curse Youth. Suddenly, as if someone had given another signal, panic gripped the inhabitants of Sepphhoris, not because of the crucifixions they had just witnessed but at the sight of flames spreading rapidly through the city, fire destroying the houses and public buildings and even the trees in the inner courtyards. Indifferent to the blaze set by their comrades, four soldiers from the cohort moved between the rows of dying men, methodically breaking their shinbones with iron rods. Sepphoris was burning wherever one looked, as the crucified men expired one after another. The carpenter named Joseph, son of Eli, was a young man in his prime, having just turned thirty-three.
Jose Saramago - The Gospel According to Jesus Christ