Bethphage lay quiet under the crescent moon’s silent, arched passage of the heavens. Cobbled streets and dusty alleyways wove silver threads between the dark squares of houses. The entire village seemed asleep, man and beast alike at rest from their long day’s toil. One window, however, revealed a flickering glow.
On a stool pulled close to the room’s tiny charcoal brazier a young woman bent forward so that her work was lighted by the glowing coals as well as by the small clay lamp to her left. Mala’s fingers moved mechanically about their familiar task with fabric, needle, and thread, but her mind chased itself about over well-worn, mazelike thought paths.
He was all she had. Each was, in fact, all the other had. And yet, it was enough. At least it had been. But now? Mala poked the embers of the dying fire, urging from it one final burst of warmth against the room’s chill. Then she again drew close to the flickering oil lamp, blinking back tears. She had promised this garment—finished—to the Lady Terentia, her most influential Roman client. Mala sighed. Until a few moments ago she had been enjoying her work, exulting in the shimmering green silk upon the shoulder of which she was embroidering delicate flowers. But then thoughts of Abdon had shattered her peace.
Abdon. His face refused to leave her mind. How she loved him, her brother. He had been her world since their parents—innocent bystanders in a Jerusalem marketplace—had been trampled to death by mounted Roman soldiers quelling a riot. Brother and sister had been forced into instant independence. Just three months before their parents’ death Abdon had proudly enjoyed the synagogue ceremony that signaled his manhood. Surely, he had reassured his little sister, Jehovah had thus prepared him for mature responsibility.
Aided only by a teacher in the synagogue, Abdon had supervised the funeral and burial of their parents. But nightmares plagued him from that time on, jolting him awake, tearful and trembling. Only Mala knew how she would race to her brother’s sleeping mat, then talk to him gently, holding his hand, until he calmed and slept again.
So brother and sister had become a world unto themselves, refusing various neighbors’ halfhearted offers of help. Their mutual bereavement and daily struggle to survive had bonded them strongly. The intervening years that had brought Mala to seventeen summers of life and Abdon to nineteen had been marked by their physical stamina and emotional determination. Recently, however, Abdon’s behavior threatened not only their accomplishment, but also their relationship; he seemed increasingly alienated from her.
“Oh!” Mala cried out as she jabbed her needle in frustration at the fabric and instead drove its point into a finger. She stared at the tiny drop of blood oozing from her flesh. How it pictured the hurt of her heart! But she must keep the blood from marring Lady Terentia’s garment . . .
“So . . . my sister has reverted to sucking on her finger like a child.”
Mala whirled toward the door. “Abdon! How could I miss sounds of your return?”
“You were absorbed in nursing your finger, Sparrow. A merchantman’s camel could have come stomping in without your notice.” Abdon plopped cross-legged onto the floor close to the brazier’s warmth. “Ah, but what of the luxurious garment for Our Lady Nose-in-the-Air?”
“Abdon, please. I enjoy handling these lovely fabrics and threads.”
Abdon turned his face toward the dying charcoal; its glow emphasized the new hardness of his mouth. “Enjoy! Why must you only handle these things, Mala? You’re more fit to keep them in your hands than is your arrogant Roman patroness!”
Letting the shimmering garment slip from her lap, Mala reached across to place her hand on Abdon’s cheek. “Why do you speak with such anger, Abdon?”
“Show me reason for anything else: This place made bare by selling what we had that we might have what we need? Victuals scant for survival? You and I with bodies roughly clothed, hands roughly worked? Looks of disdain from the Romans, pity from our people? Aye, there’s abundant cause for anger, Sister. Since you’ll not acknowledge it, I’ve plenty for both of us.”
“This isn’t like you, Abdon. Yours has been the strength, the hope on which I’ve leaned these years since we’ve been alone.”
“The strength of patience has betrayed us; hope’s vision has proven a mirage. We’ve waited for a kindly fate, believed in a just God. No more. The waiting, the belief, are not only vain; they’re marks of a fool. These hands will wrestle fate and turn his smile toward us. This mind will work its own will, providing those things withheld from us so long—”
“You speak against Jehovah God, my brother! You—who taught me the Psalmist’s words, ‘The Lord executeth righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed.’ ”
“Words.” Abdon fairly snarled his reply. “Words. That’s all they are—empty words. There can be no more reliance upon vanity. Bid farewell to Abdon the Weak, Sister. And greet Abdon the Strong.”
Mala could not prevent tears spilling from her eyes. “But in saying that, you renounce everything Mother and Father—”
“The filthy Romans took away our mother and our father. These years of their absence I’ve tried with all my heart to walk in our parents’ precepts. The result? This.” He swept his arms wide, indicating the cold, bare room. “Only a fool continues on a path that leads nowhere. I am no such fool.” Abdon rose abruptly. “From this night on I walk a new pathway. And I walk it a new man.” He bent to kiss Mala’s tear-streaked cheek. “Your tears will soon be turned to smiles, Sparrow. You’ll see.” With that Abdon hurried out the door and back into the night.
As silence returned to the room, Mala felt the shaking of an awful doubt. Was Abdon right and she wrong? It did seem that their efforts had wrought little of worth. Each time she had been in one of the great city houses, she’d realized the chasm of difference that lay between the Roman woman’s plenty and her own poverty. But no—she mustn’t entertain such thoughts. She shook herself and blew on her fingers; she rubbed her hands together. But as the chill of her body lessened, that of her heart deepened. Who was this new Abdon? A stranger had replaced the gentle brother she adored.
Drying her tears, Mala retrieved the bright silk puddled on the floor and bent again to her sewing. She must bring her thoughts back to the present, to the work at hand. Her mind must not follow Abdon into the unknown darkness that lay beyond the doorway.