Joanna

On the day before the Passover, Joanna goes to the house of her friend Salome, the wife of Saphat.  She stands by herself in the antechamber as the servants go to announce her.  Light falls through the high slit of a window and lays flat against the grainy stone of the wall.  She can hear the clamor of the house as the servants prepare for the Passover feast, and her mind is taken back to her own house in Tiberias, which she abandoned long ago so that she could follow Jesus.  The antechamber of that house was bigger than this one.  There was a fountain in the inner courtyard, and her gardener had planted beds of flowers and trailing vines.  She closes her eyes and sees the sunlight playing off of red petals.  Her room was above the courtyard, had looked down on it.  She gave birth three times in that room.  Each time she had lain, exhausted in soaked sheets, her body still feeling the aftershocks of labor, and waited to hear the baby cry.  But no baby’s cry ever came to her.  Each time the baby had died.  She was sure that it was because she had tried to give birth in Tiberias, a city that had been built on a graveyard, a city that was unclean.  Somehow the uncleanliness had crept inside of her and murdered her babies in her womb.

Clopas, her husband, died soon after her last attempt to give birth.  This was in the time of John the Baptist, and many of the more devout people in King Herod’s court had gone south to Perea, to where John was baptizing people beside the River Jordan.  Joanna went, and Salome went with her.  Salome had always been her friend.  They prayed together and kept the holy days together.  They sat together at King Herod’s banquets, ate the same rich foods, reclined against the same lavishly embroidered pillows.  They had conveyed to each other, through looks and subtle glances, that they shared a common disdain for Herod and his Roman ways.  When they returned from visiting the Baptist beside the River Jordan, Herod questioned them.  There was something greedy in his eyes, and Joanna thought, “He feels it, too.  That this life we live, here in his palace, is meandering and pointless, and that there’s no pleasure in our feasts and banquets.  He wants a change, the same as I do.  Only he won’t admit it.”  She didn’t tell him what it had felt like, to be beside the Jordan River with John.  She didn’t tell him that she had gone there to repent, and had gone down into the water, feeling her repentance, and had come up, resolved to avoid the luxury and deadened banquets of the court.

Salome comes into the antechamber and wakes Joanna from her reverie.  Her arms are open to her friend.  “Joanna,” she says, “Joanna, I never thought to see you again.”  Joanna breathes in the scent of Salome’s perfume and the cleanness of her body.  It seems to flow over the odor of Joanna’s own unwashed skin, and the smell of nard that has been following her around for days.   The nard reminds her of why she is here, and she steps back from her friend’s embrace and holds her at arms length and says, “Salome, you know everything.  Can you tell me where they have taken Jesus of Nazareth?”

The smile fades from Salome’s eyes, and she looks away, taking a moment to restore herself.  Then she smiles again, but the quality of her expression is different, no longer jubilant or excited, but pitying.  “The last I heard was last night, before I went to sleep,” she says.  “I was told that Pilate sent him to Herod.”

“Salome, do you know what will become of him?”

The look of pity deepens in Salome’s eyes.  “The Sanhedrin has condemned him to death.”

Joanna takes a long, shuddering breath and reaches out a hand to the wall for support.  She steadies herself, breathing shallowly, then murmurs, “Thank you.  Thank you, Salome,” and turns to go.

“Joanna,” Salome says, “won’t you stay here with me?  What reason do you have to go back to those people?”

Joanna turns and looks at her.  “Those people?” she says slowly.  And she sees the faces of Peter, Mary, Philip, and the others.  “Those people are my brothers and sisters.”

She turns and goes.  Salome should know, she thinks.  Salome should know what the disciples are.  It was because of Salome that she first heard of Jesus.  She was staying in Capernaum, where Saphat was the caretaker of Herod’s estates.  Salome and Saphat’s eldest child was sick.  Salome sat in the child’s room, holding his feverish hand, and Joanna sat beside her.  Light drained from the walls as the sun set and the long night came, the servants bringing in candles and bowls of cool water.  Salome soaked the cloths and pressed them against the boy’s forehead.  The boy took small, shuddering breaths.  In the middle of the night, Saphat’s large, dense shadow loomed in the doorway, and then he went away again.  In the morning, the servants whispered that the child, wracked with fever, was certainly going to die.  Salome’s face had become strained, her skin papery with tiredness.  People brought in food and tried to give it to her, but she wouldn’t eat.  Joanna sat beside her, saying nothing, and from time to time Salome raised her anguished eyes to Joanna’s face.  And then, when the sun had passed its zenith, the fever left the boy, and he began to breath easily and fell into a deep sleep.  Saphat returned in the evening and told them that he had gone to Cana, to see a healer named Jesus, and that Jesus had told him that the boy would live.  He had told him this a little after noon, just before the fever had broken.  Salome said nothing.  She was taken to her room and put to bed.  But Joanna questioned Saphat.  She made him tell her everything he knew about this healer, this Jesus, who had healed the boy at a distance, with only a word.  And in the evening she had summoned her servants and put on her traveling clothes and gone to see for herself.

Now she steps outside into the sunlight of the busy street and finds Martha and Mary waiting for her.  Martha’s face is lined with worry.  “Well,” she asks, so Joanna tells her.  She looks at Mary as she talks.  Mary is still youthful, even childlike.  The warm sun is touching her face, and for a moment Joanna is annoyed by her innocence, and envious.  She would like a smooth face that nothing can darken.  But it is because of Mary’s innocence, because of the fact that, even now, she seems full of light and hope, that Joanna loves her.  ‘She’s like my daughter,’ she thinks, and she feels keen, possessive love.  ‘Nothing can happen to her,’ she thinks, and then directs the thought to God.  ‘Let nothing evil happen to her.  Whatever evil there may be, let it fall on me.’  She knows that it is a false prayer.  That God doesn’t send evil.  Men do evil.  Men like Herod and Pilate.  But she also wonders whether it is Jesus’s prayer, if it was because of this prayer that he went so willingly when they came to arrest him.

“We should go,” Martha says.

“Go where?”

“To Herod.  If that’s where he is, we should go there.  Where does Herod stay, when he’s in Jerusalem?”

He stayed in a palatial villa outside of the walls.  She leads Martha and Mary through the crowded streets, remembering the turns and twists of the way.  But they see Philip before they’ve gone very far.  He’s hiding in the shadows of a fish vendor’s canopy, and he calls out to them in a hissing voice.  Mary runs to him and takes his hands, and he seems startled that she should want to touch him.  “Where are you going?” he asks them, and when they tell him he shakes his head.  “It’s no use.  Herod sent him back to Pilate.  He is to go to Golgotha, to be crucified.  He is probably going there now.”

“Why aren’t you with him?” Mary asks, and Joanna loves her for it.  Her innocence makes her unafraid.  Mary has known hardships and sorrows.  She has been poor.  She has watched her brother die.  Yet she still thinks that the world makes sense and that the right action should be clear.  It’s because of this that Joanna gave her the nard.

She had already given all of her income to the disciples, to support Jesus as he wandered from place to place, to make sure that there was food and, sometimes, lodging.  When she first saw Jesus, teaching in Cana, she had been shocked by his beauty and by the fact that he was surrounded by rough people.  Their smell had been overwhelming.  Many of them were ugly, their faces marked by scars and boils, their hair lank and unscented, their clothes stiff with dirt, sometimes with the viscera of their trades, the guts of fish, the scrapings from tanners hides, always with the stain of grease from old meals.  But Joanna wasn’t with Jesus for very long before she came to see these people in the way that he saw them.  He didn’t seem to be aware of poverty, or ugliness.  He saw straight through those things, and their pocked, deformed faces were beloved to him.  They became beloved to Joanna, too.  Philip’s lank hair.  Andrew’s weedy beard.  Mary of Magdala’s juddering step and the strange tick in her cheek.  Joanna felt that a day was loss when she didn’t have these people around her, and Jesus’s voice speaking in her ear.

When they came to Bethany, she met Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and she allowed herself a small, foolish fantasy.  These were her children, she told herself, her three babies, grown up and in need of her.  She loved them.  But she could also hear what they could not.  When Jesus spoke about his coming death, she paid attention, while they seemed to disregard the things he was saying.  She knew that men like Herod could never let Jesus live, because he preached life, and they had dedicated themselves to a kind of living death.  Jesus would die.  She knew it as a certainty, that last night in Bethany.  And so she gave Mary the nard, the rich perfume that she had been carrying, secreted in her robes.  It was the last portion of the nard she had used at the burial of her husband, and of her three babies.  It was the scent that seemed to follow her always when she lived in Tiberias, that dead city.  She gave it to Mary and told her to wash Jesus’s feet with it, to prepare him for burial, because she did not know if, once Herod and his kind had seized him, she would ever see him again.

Now they are rushing through the jostling streets, towards Golgotha, the place of the skull.  There is a crowd ahead of them, lining the way.  People are jeering.  She sees Jesus.  She sees, first, the blood on his face.  There is a crown made of thorns wedged down across his temples.  The thorns have broken the skin of his brow.  Martha lets out a keening cry, and turns to Mary.  Mary takes her older sister in her arms and holds her.  But she doesn’t move her eyes away from Jesus’s face, and Joanna, watching, is amazed to still see the innocence there, the hope.

They follow him to Golgotha and stand for hours under the dense sun, as near to him as the guards will allow them to come.  Joanna finds herself surrounded by her brothers and sisters, the disciples and the women of Galilee.  They have all come, drifting out of the city, along the crowded streets, climbing the hideous hill and standing, leaning upon each other, watching, sometimes looking past Jesus to the pale, unforgiving sky.  Occasionally they mutter to themselves.  “I can’t believe it.  This cannot be.”  And when they mutter, a hand comes out of the crowd of disciples to rest on their shoulders, to encircle their waists.  Joanna thinks, ‘I could never bear this alone.  I couldn’t survive, if it was just me, standing here.’  And she remembers Jesus’s words the night before, when they were at supper together.  “Love one another.  As I have loved you, have love for one another.”

When it is finished, when he is dead, the soldiers lower him down from the cross and his followers break their cordon and go and stand beside him, looking down.  Thomas, who is fearless, kneels and takes a pliers and slowly pulls the nails from his wrists and ankles.  Mary releases Martha from her embrace and kneels and takes the crown of thorns from Jesus’s head.  She holds it for a moment, as if testing the sharpness of the thorns against the pads of her own fingers.  Then she lays it gently on the ground.  Joanna kneels beside Jesus, and finds that one of the women of Galilee has thought to bring water, and cloths.  She wipes the blood and dirt of the last days from his skin.  Around her there is weeping, but she doesn’t weep.  She doesn’t weep because Mary doesn’t weep.  Mary’s face is still quiet, her eyes still strangely hopeful.

Those eyes remain hopeful throughout the next day.  After Jesus has been carefully wrapped in burial cloths, after he has been lain, finally, in the tomb that Joseph of Arimathea has given them, Mary sits by the window of the upper room, the same room where they sat eating, only the night before.  The smell of nard is dense in the room.  The smell of burial.  They are all unclean.  Every one of the women who touched his body, every one of the disciples.  By Jewish law, they are all unclean.  But Joanna doesn’t feel as she did when she lived in Tiberias.  She doesn’t feel nauseous, as if she’s been walking on graves.  His skin was so innocent when they washed the blood away.  The harsh sunlight lay against it and it looked soft and smooth.  Not unclean at all, but strangely beautiful.  Mary even stooped to kiss it, to kiss Jesus on the wounds of his brow.

They sleep, each drifting off sometime after dusk.  Joanna sleeps.  When she awakes, it is morning, and someone is crying.  She looks around and sees that Mary is still by the window, and that her posture hasn’t changed, as if she’s been there all night.  She isn’t weeping.  It is the other Mary, Mary from Magdala, who has curled herself into a ball beside the door.  This Mary had seven demons, whom Jesus cast out.  For a moment, Joanna wonders if they’ve returned.  She half expects Mary Magdalene to start raving.  But she listens closely and understands that these aren’t tears of madness.  That they’re generous tears.  They express her own grief, and the grief of all the disciples, who are slowly waking, and looking at each other, bewildered.

Joanna goes to Mary Magdalene’s side.  She kneels beside her, and puts her hand on her rough, unwashed hair.  “Listen,” she says, “let’s go to him.  Let’s go to the garden, to the tomb.  Let’s take some spices.  We can anoint him.”

Mary Magdalene lifts her head and looks at her, and nods.  Some of the women stand to go with them.  Joanna stands and looks towards her Mary, Martha’s sister, who still sits in the window, looking out.  She wonders if she should ask her to come.  But something in her wants that hope to remain, an immovable, unimpeachable thing.  That hope seems to have aligned itself, fully and irrevocably to life.  And Joanna is going to look, one last time, upon death.

The early morning streets are nearly abandoned.  They walk quickly, because they are afraid.  The passover is finished, and now soldiers might come to round up the rest of the disciples.  The air still carries the charred sent of burnt lamb.

They pass out of the city, into the Garden of Gethsemane, the graveyard.  It is pretty for a graveyard.  Trees grow around the tombs.  There are trailing vines in the flower beds.  But even here they walk quickly.

Mary Magdalene is the first to see the tomb.  She stops and stares at it, and the other women look and see that the stone has been rolled away from it.  Joanna feels a catch in her throat.  She takes a step forward, and then another, and then she is running to the tomb.  She pauses at its entrance and stares down into its darkness.  There is a little flight of steps, and she must go down it.  Darkness seems to push in all around her.  She can feel the other women behind her, and wishes that she hadn’t gone first.  She steps onto the flat earth of the tomb floor, and is immediately aware that there is a presence there.  Someone shifts behind her and blocked light falls freely into the room.  There is a man, sitting to the right of where they laid Jesus, looking quietly at the place where they laid him.  The body is gone.

“Where is he?” Joanna says.

The young man raises his eyes to her face, and they are Mary’s eyes, calm and innocent.  “Do not be alarmed,” he says.  “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised: he is not here.”

Joanna stares.  She is breathless.  She can feel the hush in the women behind her.  She turns and looks towards the doorway, into the shaft of light.  And she thinks, at last, that she hears her infants’ cries.

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