As the youngest he is given the night watch. The sheep huddle together in the cool Judah night and leave him free to study the dark clockwork of the stars. Then wolves howl in the distance, and he is forced to walk guard, wondering what he would do with this simple staff of wood against determined yellow fangs, greedy for sheep. A gentle youth who would catch a scorpion in a palm leaf and turn it loose outside rather than crush it with a stone, he wonders if he has the strength to confront an angry pack howling for blood, if he is really meant to be a shepherd. As he walks guard the stars turn relentless in the heavens, unconcerned with his doubts.
On his birthday his mother labors all day, mashing figs and honey and rolling dough to make small cakes, one for each year. His father goes out for a large measure of wine but there are no other guests, no siblings, no family. Not even his cousins come. The absence is palpable, fills the room as dusk displaces afternoon. He and his mother sit at the table and eat the cakes. His father sits on the step in front of the house, morosely downing the wine.
He sits with the girl he has known his entire life, the one everyone expects him to marry. They share a small pile of dates piled in the lap of her rough wool shift. They watch a dozen bondsmen shearing a throng of sheep as the flock’s owner oversees, sitting in the chair carried out for him by a servant who now stands holding a parasol. He pours his master wine from a skin sack.
“I’ve realized,” Jesus says softly to his hands, “I have a calling from God. ” She pulls her head away from his shoulder and turns to look at him. There is a long pause before she asks: “Is that what you really want to do with the rest of your life?” It is then he realizes that marriage would be a mistake.
He has a natural affinity for wood. His hands take over as if possessed by some remote agency as he shaves the planks level and smooth. The scent of Lebanon cedar shavings gives the workshop a temple aroma. His preternatural skill leaves him free to meditate, turning the words of the rabbis in his head as one might lathe a dowel of wood, trying to shape the jumbled tales of love and punishment, wrath and compassion into a sense that fits as cleanly as mortise and tenon, something as infinitely simple and enduring as two purposeful, well fitted pieces of wood.
Mark Folse can also be found at http://ToulouseStreet.net/.