Athan was a hearty, simple lad, as hearty and simple as a bowl of lentils and a round of bread, the very food he was now poking at, but not actually eating. Hava frowned at the neglected platter and then at her son.
“Why aren’t you eating? Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
“Sure it is, Ma. I’m just not very hungry.” He smiled at her, a faraway, uncharacteristic smile. Hava laid down her segment of bread with a sudden gripping of her heart. Four children borne, two dead, one married away at an irretrievable distance in Caesarea. Athan was her youngest, the last left to her—her baby, for all he was nearly a man. Concern sharpened into fear, and fear made her shrewish.
“I suppose you had too much to drink last night. That’s it, isn’t it? You’ve been chucking away your shekels on wine and women with that pair of half-Roman wastrels down the street.”
He smiled again.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” she repeated. “That’s where you were last night, and the night before that, and the night before that, in the pothouses with the Barbus twins.”
Without answering, he rose from the eating mat and crossed to the blanket-hung doorway leading into the little chamber where he slept. Hava rose too and hobbled along behind him, though she did not follow him across the threshold.
“Well?” she repeated.
“No wine and women, Ma,” he said gently. “No more of that, not ever again.”
“Not ever?” She let the curtain fall between them while she considered this, frightened by its prophetic sound; a clear tempting of fate, an invitation to the unnamed to smite and make it true. Her late husband had told her, ten years ago as he rose from his very last supper, that he was so full he never wanted to eat again. The Unnameable must have been listening at the door.
There was silence in Athan’s chamber. She twitched aside the curtain and peered through. Her son was kneeling on the bare floor, his arms upraised in an attitude of prayer. So beatified was the look on his face that she drew breath sharply in dismay.
“You’re sick, aren’t you?” She lunged through to feel his forehead, but he evaded her hand.
“No, Ma, I’m not sick.” He paused, looking at her with strange apprehensiveness, as if to weigh the wisdom of saying more. “In fact,” he added hesitantly, “for the first time in my life, I’m well.”
“Oh?” she said.
“That’s right. I’ve been healed, Ma.”
She stared at him, and laughed. His round face was as well-fed and well-scrubbed as years of maternal labourings could make it, years of pouring her strength and hard-earned nourishment into her child’s beloved body. “Healed of what?” she asked. “There’s been nothing much wrong with you since those teeth were pulled.”
Gaining confidence, he smiled again, a tolerant and pitying smile that gave her a momentary urge to smack his face. He said, “You’re wrong, Ma. I was leprous and unclean, and now I’m whole.”
“Leprous?” she repeated, appalled. “Unclean? Who’s been feeding you these lies? Some con man, I bet, pretending to heal you of diseases you don’t even have. Did you pay him anything?”
Patiently, he sighed. “I don’t mean healed in my body. Our bodies are just masses of corruption anyway.”
“Speak for yourself,” she said. “What do you mean, healed?”
“My soul has been healed,” he said, with that same irritating patience. “I was wicked and sinful, and now I am—“
“Oh, what rubbish,” she interrupted. “You’re a good-hearted boy, Athan, and you always have been. The odd night spent in the pothouses is not going to change that. Didn’t I always make sure you minded what the scriptures said? Didn’t I bring you up right?”
“Of course, Ma.” Too fast, too kind. “As well as you knew how, anyway.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well . . .” He stood up and looked down at her earnestly from his new handspan of advantage. “None of our righteousness signifies anything if we’re not following the true path. Now that I’ve been shown the true—“
“The true path, is it?” she broke in. “I’ve heard that one before. You’ve been listening to one of those travelling magicians, unless I’m seriously mistaken. I heard there was one of them passing through town. Is that where you’ve been the last week of nights?”
Athan’s face closed in, tighter and more guarded than she had ever seen it. “He’s not a magician. He’s the Master. They say—”
“I know exactly the sort of thing they say, Athan.” She shook her head, amazed that even such a young man, even her straightforward and not terribly perceptive Athan, could be so naïve. “They say he’s the son of God, right? The Messiah, even. They said that about the last one, too.”
“And the one before that,” she continued mercilessly, “and all the ones before him. It’s part of their pitch. Don’t tell me you took it seriously.”
“I saw him heal the sick, Ma. I saw the blind made to see, and the deaf to hear, and the lame to—”
“See any missing limbs grow back?” she interrupted.
“Any cleft palates fixed up?”
“No, Ma. But,” he added, with a defiant air of producing the unanswerable, “I heard there was someone there who’d seen him raise a man from the dead.”
“Oh? And when did this happen?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who was it? Where was it?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Well, there you are,” she said in triumph, “all you have is some stranger’s unsupported word. Anyone could claim to have raised the dead, my son, but that wouldn’t make it true. Am I right?”
“Well . . .” he said slowly.
It was Hava’s turn to smile. The absurdity of it, the certainty that she could make him see sense and strangle this silliness in its cradle, was restoring her good humour. “As for those healings, what do they prove? My cousin Salmia got herself healed five times. The first time she even threw away her crutches. She had to get new ones the next day. Jonash never let her go alone after that.”
Athan’s face was settling into a stony, stubborn mask. “Those could not have been true miracles. The Master says to beware of false prophets.”
“False prophets? That means anyone who does what he does, but isn’t him, right? They all say that, too, Athan. This one is no different.”
“I won’t listen to this.” His face had hardened, and he looked five years older while, paradoxically, seeming younger than ever to her, even childish. Fearful again, she moved towards him with her hands outstretched, but he stepped away from her. “He warned us that people like you would try to hold us back.”
“People like me? You mean, like friends and family? People who love you?”
Not altogether gently, Athan pushed her out of the way and squatted down by the chest that held his few spare clothes. As he threw open the lid, he said, “The Master is my only family now.” He carefully did not look at his mother, but concentrated on pulling the winter shawl from the bottom of the chest.
“What are you doing?” Hava said when she could control her voice again.
Athan did not reply. He had spread the winter shawl on the floor and was folding onto it the extra headcloth and tunic, the few bits of clothing Hava had washed for him a hundred times over, the winter shoes. Then he drew the corners of the shawl together and tied them to make a bundle.
“What are you doing?” Hava repeated.
“I’m going to lay all I have at the feet of the Master.”
“What on earth does he want with your old clothes?”
He gave her a baleful look. “I’m going to follow him.”
“What do you mean? Follow him where?”
“Wherever he leads,” Athan exploded. “Leave me alone, will you? It’s no use trying to explain anything to you. If you’re not one of his faithful, you wouldn’t understand.”
“But you can’t go!” she cried. “Your whole life is here, your friends, your job. How would you live? What would I do without you?”
“The Master says we are to take no thought for the future,” he said. Moving past her, he took his knife and pried a loose brick out of the wall to expose the cavity where he kept his tiny savings, a few copper and silver bits in a leather bag. Hava had always known about it, and had never touched it, not even in the days of her direst poverty, when she would tell him she had eaten before he got home, and then lie sleepless in bed with her belly draped empty across her backbone. Those few coins were his future: marriage, investment, partnership. He poured them out into his palm and began to sort through them.
“No, Athan!” she said. “Put it back, I don’t want your money, I just don’t want you to go. I’d rather have you here with me than all the silver in the world.”
“The money’s not for you,” he said tersely, counting.
“It’s for the Master’s work.” He poured the coins back into the bag and tucked it into his shirt. “The Master says the wealth of this world is a snare. He says we must give up all we have, and follow him.”
“Give up all you have, or give him all you have?”
He looked at her blankly. “The Master’s work must be done.”
“Oh, ho. What is the Master’s work, exactly?”
“To succour the poor, to comfort the widow and the orphan, and—“
“I’m poor,” she said, with desperate gaiety. “I’m even a widow.”
Athan refused to smile. “These are the end times, Mother. Our most important work is to spread the word and prepare for the coming of the Master’s kingdom.”
“Another would-be king?” she said. “So when will this one be taking over?”
“Soon,” he said gravely, “very soon. The nations on earth will crumble before him. There will be a war such as the world has never seen since Sennacharib carried our fathers off to Babylon.“
“Sennacharib was the Assyrian.”
“It doesn’t matter. Those who turn away from him now will spend an eternity in torment; but those of us who follow him—“
“It was Nebuchednezzar who carried our forefathers to Babylon.”
“Those of us who follow him,” he repeated, raising his voice, “will sit forever at his right hand in paradise.”
“What, all of you?”
“Stop it, Ma! Stop mocking the Master!”
He turned from her, sat violently down on the pallet, and began to lace his sandal straps with fingers made clumsy by outrage. Hava put her back against the wall and slid down to a sitting position on the floor, not to stay on his level, but because she could tell her arthritic hip was about to give out.
“I can tell you just what will happen in the end,” she said quietly to the back of his head, “because it’s what always happens. At some point these troublemakers get too big for their boots. So the Romans come and sort them out, and usually kill them, and lots of their followers as well, and they’re all forgotten in a year. And then along comes the next one. Why,” she asked again, “should this one be any different?”
“Because,” he hissed, “this one truly is the Son of God.”
“Yes, really. The one and only Son of God. When his kingdom comes, every head shall bow. The whole world shall hearken to the name of Cleaphas the Idumean.”
He had finished with his sandal straps and wound a headcloth around his cropped hair. Now he rose from the pallet and looked down at her inscrutably. It was not an expression that sat well on features formed to be guileless. She struggled to rise again, but pain jabbed through her hip and left her gasping.
“Goodbye, Ma. I’ll pray for you.”
“Don’t go,” she cried, “please don’t go.” She stretched out her hand. When he ignored it, she grabbed for the hem of his tunic, but he pulled out of reach.
“I have to go,” he said. “I have to do the Master’s work.”
He sidled towards the door with his bundle under his arm. Hava saw too late what he was planning. She launched herself at his legs, but he skimmed past her and was away, leaving the curtain trembling and the tenement shaking to the thud of his feet down the stairway. By the time she dragged herself to the window and pulled herself up by the sill, he was long gone.