by Dennis Vannatta
I’ll awake eventually, I trust, unless I’m not dreaming but instead am quite mad—a possibility, now that I think of it. Why else would this “dream” go on and on and on, across continents and centuries. I now find myself—sandaled and tunicked, feet filthy with dust and sweat brimming at my hairline ready to break and run down my face—where? It’s only when I hear passersby speaking Hebrew that I realize I must be in Israel and from the garb of the locals and the donkey-drawn carts I assume sometime before the modern era. But why am I here? Who to see, who to bring the good news to and save from despair? I approach a lad leading a goat on a thong and ask where I can find the home of Joseph the carpenter. Joseph the carpenter! Ah, I must be going to see Him for whom every pronoun is capitalized! The boy jerks his thumb over his shoulder without breaking stride and says contemptuously, “Follow your nose.” Why did I bother to ask? My dream has brought me this far, hasn’t it? It knows the way. The rutted dirt road carries me past an occasional hut, thatch-roofed and windowless with walls of irregular bricks, bits of straw sticking out of them, and I think of Charlton Heston stomping straw in the muds pit in The Ten Commandments. Maybe I’ll visit Ramses in Cairo before my night of dreams is finished, advise him to quit being a putz and let those Israelis go. Or was that Memphis? More to the point, where, exactly, am I now? Not Bethlehem. In the Bethlehem of this boy’s dreams, it is always a cold clear night with one bright star shining down. Not Jerusalem, either. The occasional hut has given way to more substantial structures, including a few of two stories, but this is no big city I’m entering. I approach a man with a long gray beard, gesture around quizzically. “Nazareth?” “Where else?” he says and then, as he hobbles off, I hear him mutter, “Tall, skinny, and stupid.” At five-foot-ten, I do tower over these Nazarenes. I walk on up the road, turn a corner because my legs tell me to, walk on and turn again and seem to be heading back to the outskirts. Whew! Getting hot and tired. My dream has given me the ability to speak Hebrew. Couldn’t it have thrown in a nice comfy chariot and driver? I slow my pace and then stop, sniff the air like a dog on the hunt. Wood shavings? Across the road is a small house, its thatch roof extended on out another ten feet and supported by tall poles. Beneath the roof extension is a crude table upon which a variety of tools are scattered. A man stands there talking excitedly to another whose tunic he holds on to as if to prevent his escape. A third fellow approaches them but then apparently changes his mind and angles away. I stop him. “Joseph the carpenter?” I ask, pointing to the man doing the talking. “Yes.” “Husband of Mary?” “The very one.” “Father of a boy—Jesus?” Suddenly, a wide grin. “Yes indeed, the boy. The Boy!” He breaks into a wild laugh, then abruptly stops. “My advice is to steer clear. He’s harping on Egypt again.” “Egypt? What’s wrong with that?” He shrugs. “Who am I to say there’s anything wrong with Egypt? I haven’t been there. Go on. Let him tell you.” He walks off. I head across the road. When he sees me approach, Joseph, ruddy round face and Popeye forearms, releases his grip on the other man, who makes good his escape. “Ben!” Joseph calls after him. “Wait! I haven’t finished telling you about…” but the man hurries on. Joseph slumps in disappointment. “Joseph, husband of Mary?” I ask, and he perks up. “Indeed I am. And you are, friend . . .?” “A stranger, but one who has come from afar to see you.” “To see me?” He presses his fingertips to his chest. “But why?” I hesitate. Why, indeed? To stall for time, I say, “Egypt. To hear about Egypt.” “Egypt! So even from afar they’ve heard of my travels to Egypt. Come, sir, sit with me in the shade.” He leads me to a backless bench beside the worktable. We sit, then he immediately jumps back up. “A cool drink for your thirst?” “A cool drink of water would be greatly appreciated.”
“Mary, a drink of water for our visitor from afar,” he calls into the house and then when there’s no answer sticks his head in the door, mutters, “Where is the woman?” He disappears into the house and in a moment reemerges bearing a wooden ladle, which he hands to me. I drink. The water is tepid and I strongly suspect non-flouridated, but it tastes good, anyway. Even in the shade the heat is oppressive. He sits beside me, slaps his thighs then rubs his hands together like a winner about to rake in the chips. “So, Egypt, then.” He’s off. No mention of the reason for the journey—Herod’s decree that all Jewish boys of a certain age be slaughtered, right? Nothing in it about Jesus at all. It is all about the journey itself, the sights, the sounds, the difficulties faced and overcome, as marvelous to him as Marco Polo’s would be centuries later. Initially, his enthusiasm is infectious, but after what seems like an hour and his tale hasn’t carried us beyond Jerusalem yet, I begin to understand his friends’ reluctance to get within earshot. I glance at my watch—but of course I’m not wearing one. I break into his monologue. “Jerusalem, that’s the place for me. I’ve heard Egypt doesn’t hold a candle to Jerusalem.” He nearly falls off the bench in astonishment. “But what are you saying? Egypt not hold a candle to Jerusalem? Why, man, in Egypt there are buildings as tall as five of the Great Temple in Jerusalem stacked one on top of the other. They’re built of great stones each one as big as my house. They have no windows or doors and rise to a point and—” “The Pyramids.” “What’s that?” “The Pyramids. They’re called that if I’m not mistaken.” “You’ve been there,” he says accusingly. “Not at all. I’ve only heard tales. I envy you having seen them with your own eyes.” “Yes, with my own eyes, these eyes right here!” he exclaims, in his enthusiasm jabbing his index fingers perilously close to his eyes. Joseph is just about to launch into his travelogue once more when a man walks up and slaps him on the shoulder. “Old Joe. Whose head are you heaping sheep shit on today?” he says, winking at me. “Hello, Sol. This is my new friend, er . . .” “Paul,” I say. Well, Paul is my middle name, anyway. “Paul of . . .?” Sol asks. “A village west of here. Little Rock, it’s called.” “Little Rock? I don’t believe I’ve heard of it.” “As I said, west of here. Far west of here.” “Ah, you’re a traveler, then, like our friend Joseph, here.” “Oh, but not to such distant lands, believe me.” “So he’s been telling you about Egypt.” “Yes.” He slaps his forehead. “Oy.” Joseph breaks in: “But where have you been, Sol? I haven’t seen you for many a day.” “I told you before I left I was going to Jerusalem to do some business with my brother.” “That’s right, I forgot. So tell us the news from Jerusalem.” Sol makes a dismissive gesture, but then brightens and snaps his fingers. “I did hear one interesting bit of news while I was there—although I’m sure it’s not news to you. It seems that while you were in Jerusalem not so long ago that boy of yours went to the temple and set those rabbis straight about things. Jerusalem is still talking about it.” He turns to me. “Went right into the temple—this lad of what, eleven, twelve?—and told those big shots how things stood. Ha!” Sol slaps his knee, pokes Joseph in the shoulder with his index finger. “That boy of yours, Joseph. That boy!” “Yes, well, he is very bright, my boy,” Joseph mutters, looking down at the ground. “Bright? I should think so. Lecturing those Jerusalem rabbis!” “Well . . .” Joseph continues to stare at the earth between his splayed feet. Sol pats him on the shoulder, not unkindly. “Just teasing you, old friend, you know that. He’s a good boy, your son, even if he is a little, well . . .” He turns to me again and pointing at Joseph says, “And this is a good man, a good man. He has to be to put up with everything. You know what I mean.” I shrug noncommittally. “Or maybe you don’t. Well, never mind. Enjoy your travels, Paul of Little Rock.” He walks off up the road. Joseph sits slumped on the bench. Then he straightens up and takes a deep breath. “He’s a good friend, Sol. They’re all good friends, even if they do like to have a little fun with me.” “Well, it’s affectionate teasing, though.” “I suppose so.” “It’s about your son mostly, I take it—the teasing.” “Yes. What else would it be? He’s a good boy, even if his goodness can be a heavy load for all of us.”
“Well, we all have our crosses to bear.” He looks at me quizzically. “Our crosses?” I try to change the subject: “Where is he, the boy?” Joseph makes a show of looking left, right, up in the air. “Who knows? Ask him where he’s off to, and he’ll tell you he’s about his father’s business. But I can tell you it’s a rare day when he helps me do any carpentering.” “Maybe by his ‘father’ he means something else?” I suggest, then immediately regret it when I see the look of anger and anguish on his face. “Oh, so now we come to it. This is why you’ve come from afar, come all this way: to jeer.” “Absolutely not, I swear—” “Want to feel my forehead for horns? Here. Go ahead, feel.” He grabs my hand and rubs my palm across his forehead. “Joseph, stop! That’s not what I meant at all. I’ve heard some comments, of course, but—” “Of course you’ve heard comments. Who hasn’t?” Joseph says, then sinks back on the bench again as if utterly exhausted. But almost instantly he sits back up and asks me with a strange eagerness, “Do you believe that God parted the sea for Moses and the Israelites?” “Well, so the Bible says. Er, Torah, whatever.” “Do you believe that God sent angels to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? That Daniel walked out of the lion’s den? That Jonah came forth, whole, from the belly of a whale?” “It’s in the Bible, right?’ “Very well. Then why is an angel planting his seed in my Mary something to guffaw over? Good ol’ Joe, good ol’ Joe with his horns.” “I didn’t laugh, Joseph.” “No, you didn’t,” he says but seems little comforted by that. He lowers his face into his palms, sits there. And this is the moment I realize why I have come. Not to bring the good news to the Son, who carries it around with Him, but to the father. Ol’ Joe. “Joseph,” I say, laying my hand on his shoulder. “Don’t despair. They may laugh today, but there will come a time when they’ll praise you. Millions will.” He looks up at me. “Millions? Who are these millions? Is that what they call the people of your village?” “No. Millions. That’s a number. A very large number. Many many times the number of people in Jerusalem. More than in all of Egypt.” He barks out a laugh. “And what will these millions praise me for? Because I let her lead me around by the nose instead of throwing her into the street and making her earn her bread on her back, as so many of my friends advised me to do?” “No. For being the father of Jesus.” He seems pleased to hear this. “Oh, so these millions will think I’m the father, and not Nathan the baker?” I resist an urge to ask about Nathan. “They’ll think that the seed was planted by an angel sent by God, just like Mary said.” “Ah. But I still don’t understand. What’s so special about Jesus?” I try to remember the Bible stories. Guess I should have paid more attention all those years in Sunday School. “I’m not sure exactly what Jesus has done at this point, what claims he’s made, but in time he’ll perform miracles. Half the world will proclaim him to be the son of God.” “The son of God!” He seems stunned, incredulous. He thinks a moment and then says, “You said half the world. What about the other half?” I shrug. “There are always naysayers.” He leans toward me. “What about you?” This is no time for a theological discussion. I equivocate: “Me? I’ve come to bring you the good news. One day they’ll build great churches in your name. Great schools. Huge cities will bear the name St. Joseph.” “Saint? What’s a saint?” “That’s our word for a very very good man.” He points to himself. “And that’s me? I’m to be a saint and have all these great things, cities and such, named for me?’ “Yes, indeed.” He shakes his head, trying to take all this in. Then, as if something has just occurred to him, he freezes. Eyes wide, he leans away from me, half rises from the bench. “Who are you, stranger? Are you an angel?” What can I say? I take the easy way out. “Yessir, verily I say unto you, I am an angel, sent by God to bring you the good news.” He visibly struggles with this, and then I can see it on his face: acceptance, elation. “Ha!” He claps his hands. “Ha!” He claps them again. “All these wonderful things, and no one will laugh!” “Well, I wouldn’t exactly say no one will laugh.” Now what on earth made me say that except some devil inside me? I remember even back in my Sunday school days there’d been jokes about Joseph and Mary, winks. And I was one of them joking, winking. His elation vanishes, and the despair comes and sits on his chest, and I curse myself: fool, fool. I try to repair the damage: “As I said, there will always be naysayers. But only a few. A very few. Hardly any, in fact.” “No,” he says sadly, “they’ll always laugh.” “Well, let them laugh, Joseph. What difference does it make, anyway? Think of the buildings, the cities. Think of Saint Joseph.” “But will I see any of it?” he asks but in a way I can tell he already knows the answer, and I don’t bother lying. He sits there another moment, and then remembering his duty as host, stands up and offers me his hand. “Thank you for coming, Paul. Perhaps another drink of cool water before you go?” My cue to leave. “No thank you,” I say. I step into the road. Turn and wave. He nods. I’m just about to walk off but can’t resist a final attempt at consolation: “The boy,” I say, “Think about the boy!” He nods again, obviously not much cheered by the thought. The next moment, though, he does brighten and says with a look of vindictive joy, “I’ve been to Egypt, though, I have done that! I’ve been to Egypt!” “Yes,” I agree, “Egypt!” I hurry away, lest the Boy should come and I would find that He truly is the son of God? For wouldn’t He look into my heart, and wouldn’t he say, It is good, your heart—in dreams. But what of your heart awake? What kind of man are you, awake?