Saturday, December 25 - Christmas Day
A Miracle in Egypt
Nightfall in Alexandria came like a stone tumbling down a well. Amun could hear the birds along the river as they took wing in a rustle of feathers, their shrill voices arising into the late afternoon sky in a cacophonous chorus, and he knew he had to go home. His mother would be furious if he strode into the house after dark. Dinner was a family meal; she would have awakened his grandfather to join them, his brother and father would have completed work for the day and stored the wood-working tools in the shed, and they would have wanted to eat.
But Amun could not go home - not just yet. He was talking to the boy from the strange faraway land, the boy his friends said was a Jew.
Amun and the Jewish boy sat side by side on a limestone wall next to the river. An acacia tree twisted its gnarled branches into the earth at their feet.
The sun burned low and hard into the horizon, scattering shards of light as it struck the wavelets on the water.
"How much longer are you here?" Amun said.
"Only a few more days," said the boy. "My parents say it's time to go back to Galilee."
The Jewish boy was long-limbed and angular, like many children on the cusp of adulthood. An unruly mop of chestnut-colored hair framed his smooth, dark face, and set off a pair of serious-looking eyes which glittered like crystals of smoky quartz. At times, those eyes seemed to gaze right through people, as though he could see things in them that were not visible to the naked eye.
The boy picked up a smooth, flat stone and skipped it across the surface of the water. It struck once, twice, and again a third time before dropping beneath the surface, out of sight.
"Where is Galilee?" asked Amun.
"Across the sea," the boy said.
"You can go across the sea?" Amun said.
The boy nodded.
"In a boat, yes," he said.
"When you get into a boat and cross the sea, do you ever see any monsters? Are there whales out there? Or pirates?" said Amun.
"There are whales," the boy said. "And pirates. But I have never seen either. And there are no monsters - only creatures created by God."
Amun sat in silence for a long time.
"You should go home," the boy said. "Your mother will be angry. It is near time for the evening meal."
"I think I would like to go with you to Galilee," Amun said at last.
"I think that you should obey your mother's wishes," said his friend, smiling. "I'll still be here tomorrow."
The other boy grinned at him.
"Master Philo tells me that there are some large carp in the holding pond near the Temple," the boy said. "We'll do some fishing. It would please your mother if you brought home some food every once in a while instead of spending all of your time skimming stones with me."
Amun jumped down off the wall and began sprinting down the dusty road that led to his home.
"I'll see you tomorrow," he said, calling over his shoulder.
His friend waved at him. The sun was setting behind him. Amun could only see the boy's dark silhouette as night rushed in on a thousand wings.
He arrived home just in time for the Ritual of Washing.
"Amun! Help your grandfather with the cistern!" his mother said.
Amun's grandfather was the most ancient man he had ever seen. He was shriveled and brown like a seed-pod; his bleary eyes had gone hazy with age, and he was nearly blind. His beard and his hair were both scraggly wisps of gray that spiraled away from the old man's skull like smoke. Amun's older brother Shabus used to joke that their grandfather was one of the ancient pharaohs, but forgot that he was dead.
"He left his teeth in the pyramid," Shabus said.
Grandfather had to he helped during the Ritual of Washing or he could fall into the large stone cistern in the cellar, as he could not see the edge clearly. He had done this on two prior occasions. Each time, it took over an hour to get the sputtering old man out of the water.
Amun held his grandfather's hand as the two of them washed themselves.
"How was your day, Grandfather?" Amun said.
"I slept," the old man said. His voice was as rough as sand. "It was too hot to do anything else."
Amun, only eight years of age, silently hoped that he would have moved on to the afterlife before he got as old as his grandfather.
The family gathered around the large wooden table in the back of the house. Amun's mother had roasted a goat, which was something she did only on special occasions. The table was loaded down with bread, honey, and dates, and there were piles of turnips, chickpeas, and onions. Pitchers of water and beer were passed around.
"Why do we have a goat?" Amun whispered to Shabus.
"You'll see," Shabus said, grinning.
Amun took his place at the foot of the table. His father, Horus, stood at the table's head; Shabus took a place at Horus's side, and was joined by their dark-haired mother Seera, who was dressed in her best embroidered robe. Horus and Shabus had put aside their dusty work garments and had dressed in clean, white robes, and had replaced their plain, leather work belts with the more ornate belts that the family used only on special occasions.
Amun's father was beaming, his broad face illuminated by flickering candlelight that had been placed around the table. The torches on the wall were lit as well - a luxury only afforded on the rarest of occasions.
"Our family has been blessed," Horus said. "In all of our many years of living in this great city, we have not seen such prosperity. But today marks a special day, a day above all days. For today, my oldest son Shabus has ended his apprenticeship and has been accorded full status as a carpenter. And the two of us have been given the right to help in the rebuilding of the Temple of Khonsu - a privilege which will place meat on this table for years to come! So it is a time of great rejoicing!"
Horus broke apart the crusty bread which had been placed next to him at the table's head and passed the pieces down the table.
Amun felt a moist nudge under the table and looked down at Zara, the family dog, who was gazing up at him with an anxious expression.
"Shh, Zara," Amun said. "Here."
He tossed the scrawny dog a scrap of bread. The animal gobbled it hungrily.
Amun ate his meal in silence. The rest of the family crowded around Shabus, patting him on the back and hugging him. Only Grandfather and Amun were still seated at the table.
And Grandfather had fallen back asleep.
The following morning, Amun arose with the cock's crow. He laced his sandals, grabbed his tunic and belt, and hustled to the Jewish Temple to meet the strange boy from Galilee.
Amun was not surprised at all to find his friend waiting for him when he got there.
"How did you know when I was coming?" Amun asked.
"I knew you would not want to wait. So I came at dawn," the boy said.
The Jewish Temple at Alexandria was a low-slung building made of rectangular soapstone blocks. A moat lay around it, its waters cool and still, and clumps of papyrus stood bunched around its edges. Water lilies, their delicate flowers the color of pomegranate, studded the moat's placid surface.
Amun could see carp lolling about beneath the water. Occasionally, one would break the surface, its scaly back glistening gold and white in the early morning sun.
The Galilean had brought a casting net with him.
"Have you ever used one of these?" he asked Amun.
Amun shook his head.
"We use them to catch fish close to shore in the sea where I live. Let me show you how," the boy said.
The first cast brought in a dozen fish. They tumbled out of the net, flopping and gasping on the parched earth, as the Galilean sorted through them and tossed most of them back in the moat.
"We only keep the ones we need," the boy explained.
Amun was impressed.
"That looked so easy!" he said.
"It's easy because I know where to cast," the boy said. "I've done this all my life."
They caught enough fish for Amun to take a large string home to his family.
When Amun arrived at the house, his grandfather was sleeping on a bench in the front of the house. He was covered in dust from the road, head to foot, and he looked like a statue in repose.
"Grandfather! Wake up! Look what I've caught!"
His grandfather opened one opalescent eye.
"What have you there, boy? There's too much light for me to see you clearly."
"I have brought fish. I caught them with a net."
Grandfather opened his other eye and sat up. He grasped the fish with a pair of gnarled hands.
"Carp," he said. "Large ones."
He sniffed them, and shook his head slowly.
"Fresh, too," he said. "I caught many of these when I was a boy. Not so many lately. Did you thank the gods for this fine catch? Amon-Ra, perhaps? You were named for him, you know."
"I caught the carp with a Jewish boy. He gave thanks to his God for these. But...I did not pray to Amon-Ra. I thought it might be disrespectful. We caught the carp at the Jewish Temple, in the moat."
The old man glanced up. His gray eyebrows arched like twin tents.
"Hmmm," he said. "A Jewish boy, no? At their Temple?"
Amun cocked his head.
"Is that wrong, Grandfather? Should I have refused the fish?"
The old man shook his head and grinned toothlessly. He rubbed his grandson's head.
"You did just fine, boy. Never refuse a man who gives you sustenance in good faith, that's what I always say. A person's religion is his own business. But a fish is a fish! And these are good fish."
Grandfather lay back down on the bench.
"Take those to your mother so that she can prepare them," he said. "I have to go back to sleep."
Grandfather closed his eyes just as a cloud of dust billowed in from the street, obliterating him from view.
Amun's mother, Seera, was in the back of the house. She was washing out the food bowls with a bucket of water.
"Mother, I have brought some fish for dinner!"
His mother looked up, shielding her eyes from the sun.
"Where did you get those? The fish market is not yet open," she said.
"I caught them. With a net."
"Where did you get a net?"
"A boy," Amun said.
"What boy?" Seera said, drying her hands.
"The boy I told you about. The Jewish one from the land of Galilee."
"Which boy is that, Amun? Come here."
Amun walked over to his mother. He held the string of fish up for her to see.
"We can have them for dinner," Amun said.
Seera's lips were pursed. She shook her head.
"No, we cannot," she said. "Throw them to the dogs."
Amun was shocked. He had never known his mother to refuse food for the family.
"But why?" Amun said. "Grandfather said they are good fish."
"They are unclean," she said. "And I do not want you seeing that Jewish boy anymore."
Amun could not believe what he was hearing.
"But why? He's a nice boy. He taught me to fish with a net."
Seera bent down and looked directly at Amun. Her eyes pierced him like arrows.
"This boy of whom you speak, this...Jew. From Galilee. What is his name?"
"Jesus," Amun said.
"Ah!" she exclaimed, putting her fist to her forehead. "I thought as much!"
"You know of him? But how?" said Amun.
Seera bent down to Amun once again.
"What is the temple your father and brother are rebuilding?" she said.
"The Temple of Khonsu."
"Do you remember how that temple was destroyed?"
"Father said that a child - a holy infant - came here from a foreign land several years ago, before I was born. His parents brought him into Egypt to escape an evil king who was trying to kill him in his native country. The family came into the Valley of the Temples looking for water. As they approached the Temple of Khonsu, the priests in that temple rushed out, forbidding them to partake of the water in the oasis there. They were afraid his presence might bring the wrath of the Romans down upon them. The priests turned the family away, and they went without water for themselves or their animals. As they were leaving, the child waved his hand and the Temple of Khonsu split apart, collapsing into a jumble of stone. It has yet to be rebuilt."
His mother gazed at him.
"Son, that child is your friend Jesus. The Galilean. He is the child that destroyed the Temple of Khonsu."
Amun's head reeled.
"But how can that be? Why would he come back here?" Amun said.
"I have heard that he is studying here with Philo, the Jewish teacher."
"But how can people hold him responsible for something that happened when he was a baby? Perhaps the temple was going to collapse anyway."
"Some say that he is the spawn of the underworld. They say he was expelled from Galilee because the people there feared him. And he came here so that he might unleash his evil upon us."
Amun placed the fish on the table. His brow was deeply furrowed.
"Jesus is not evil," he said. "I know him."
"What sort of person destroys a holy temple?" Seera said.
"What sort of priest refuses a desperate family water in the desert?" Amun said.
Seera grabbed Amun by his shoulders and shook him.
"Do not mock the priests of Khonsu, and do not mock your mother. You'll have the curse of the gods upon you!"
Amun felt tears welling up in his eyes.
"Mother, I am sorry. Please forgive me for talking to you like that."
She looked at him sternly, her hands on her hips, and shook her head.
"You should learn from your brother. Shabus would never disappoint me thus. Now go to your room and think of what you have done. I will tell your father of this when he comes home."
Amun wiped his eyes with his tunic, removed his sandals, and walked back to his room.
Seera threw the string of carp out into the yard with the dogs.
Horus and Shabus returned from the temple reconstruction site near nightfall. Amun expected to be punished for his insolence to his mother, and his expectations were met. He was not allowed to eat that evening and was sent to bed with only water.
After dinner, Shabus came into Amun's room.
"I brought you something," he said.
Shabus pulled a small bread loaf, some dates, and some figs from beneath his robe.
"I am being punished," Amun said. "You'll get in trouble."
"You are my brother," Shabus said. "It's my job to protect you. And mother told me about the reason she has punished you. Frankly, I am glad your friend destroyed the Temple of Khonsu. Without that, I'd have no job!"
Amun looked at him and took the bread loaf and the fruit.
"You are a good brother, Shabus," he said.
"So are you, little one. Don't think otherwise," Shabus said.
He got up and headed to the door.
"Oh, and Zara ate your fish," he said.
"All of them?" Amun said.
"Each and every one. She is lying on the ground out back, stuffed to the gills with Jewish carp. She's a little pig, that one. I don't know how she stays so thin."
"A pig-dog. Now that is funny," he said.
"Good night, little brother," Shabus said, smiling.
"Good night, Shabus. And thank you."
Shabus drew the curtain closed.
Amun gazed out at the flickering stars for a long, long time before finally drifting off to sleep.
It was a sleep devoid of dreams - an empty, gray sleep, filled with fog and nothingness.
Amun awoke at dawn the following morning. He dressed quietly, petted Zara - her belly still swollen from the previous evening's feast - on the head, and headed out into the early morning air.
Jesus was leaving soon. And Amun knew he had to say goodbye.
He found Jesus by the river. The Jewish boy was skimming stones, as he often did.
"How did your family enjoy the fish?" Jesus asked.
"They wouldn't eat them. My mother said they were unclean."
"I was afraid of that," he said.
He skimmed another stone across the water.