Friday, June 7, 2013

A boy from Nain

The accident happened in a moment. Nathan and Samuel had been playing on the roofs of their houses. Their game was an old one, one they had played since they were six or seven, half their lifetimes ago. The houses of their village were mud-brick, single story structures, flat-roofed. Stairs went up the outside to them, so that people could sit out in the evenings, in hope of a cool breeze in the hot Galilean summers. Rickety shelters topped with woven palm leaves sat on top to provide shade. Thick wide parapet-walls ran waist-high along the edges to prevent anyone accidentally falling off, as the Torah wisely commanded.

The game was to run along the parapet of one house and then leap onto that of the next. It wasn't hard; the gap was only about four feet. And with the parapet walls being nearly two feet thick the running, jumping, and landing was easy. And with the fall to the ground below being only about 12 feet, the danger was largely illusory. More than once the boys had piled straw on the ground below and deliberately leaped down. Well, they had until they had been caught by their parents, who had not been impressed by their antics. Nathan's father had tanned his bottom to impress on him the importance of not repeating the activity. And then, as Samuel's father was dead and there was no elder brother or other male relative available, he obliged Samuel's mother by tanning his bottom also.

That of course had been years ago. They were much better at not being caught doing what they weren't supposed to be doing now that they were older!

The afternoon of the accident was hot. They had been at their studies with old Mordecai, but the heat was making them woolly-headed and nothing he said seemed to make any sense.

'Go outside,' he said with a smile. 'Walk around. Run. Get some blood into your brains so you can think. Come back in a few minutes.'
All the boys ran outside, whooping with glee at the chance of a break. As they tore threw the little village, Nathan tugged at Samuel's arm.
'Fancy some roof jumping?' he said, nodding at the stairs to the roof of his own house. Samuel rolled his eyes.
'That's a baby game,' he said. 'It's what we used to do when we were kids.'
'Not getting afraid of heights in your old age, are you?' teased Nathan. In reply, Samuel pushed Nathan and raced for the steps, with his friend close on his heels. Once on the roof they both lightly hopped onto the parapet-wall.
'The old game?' said Nathan.
'Why not?' said Samuel. 'You lead.'

The old game was quite simple. The two houses were next to each other, separated by a narrow ally. The game was to run along one wall, jump the gap, run along the opposite wall as fast as you could, make the turn without falling off, race along that wall, turn again, race toward the gap, jump, and then so on until both were too tired to continue. The boys raced round several times. Long before they grew tired, though, they began to tire of the game.
'I think you were right, Samuel,' confessed Nathan, 'this really is a baby game.'
'It really isn't much of a challenge any more,' agreed Samuel. 'Anyway, it's probably time to be getting back.'
'Once more around?' suggested Nathan.
'Anything to delay getting back to lessons,' said Samuel with a grin.

Nathan raced along first. The jump was so easy it was barely a step. He tore to the first corner, took it too fast, and almost skidded off the roof. He fell to his knees and grabbed the parapet-wall to keep himself from going over the edge.
'Whoa!' he said, laughing. 'Did you see that?' He turned to see his friend's reaction. He expected to see Samuel standing there, a few feet behind him, laughing at his foolishness. But there was no one there. He was alone on the roof. Puzzled he got to his feet. He didn't understand. Had his friend gone back to class without him? He walked back along the wall toward the gap between the houses and stepped across. As he did so he glanced down and what he saw almost caused him to stumble and fall. Samuel lay on the ground below. He wasn't moving. For a moment, Nathan did nothing. He just stood there staring. Then he called out.
'Samuel?' but there was no response. 'Samuel!' This time he shouted, but again his friend didn't answer. Then he moved almost faster than thought. He dropped to his bottom on the wall, twisted grabbing at the edge, letting himself fall and hang by his finger-tips and then dropping the remaining few feet onto the hard earth below. 
'Samuel,' he called again, taking his friend's shoulder and shaking. But still he didn't answer, didn't move. His face was the colour of ashes. A large purple bruise marked his temple, half-hidden by his curls. Nathan sprang to his feet.
'Help,' he cried, wildly. 'Somebody help us!'

***

People had come running. Gently, strong men had carried the boy to this mother's house. Old Miriam, the nearest thing the village had to a doctor, was sent for. Nathan stood fretting with the others from his class outside the door. Long minutes passed. Then from within came a heart-rending wail. Nathan knew the cry came from Samuel's mother, even though it sounded hardly human. His father, one of the men who had carried Samuel home, emerged from the gloom of the house. His face was white, his eyes cast down. And Nathan knew his friend was dead.

Tears sprang to his eyes and he ran. He heard his father calling his name but he didn't stop. He ran blindly down the street of the village heedless of where he was going. Within moment he crashed into what seemed like an immovable object. Strong arms enfolded him.
'Easy now,' said a soft voice. It was that of old Mordecai. He was built like a barrel, short and wide, and though old he was still one of the strongest men in the village. He held Nathan to his chest while the boy sobbed.
'So he's dead then?' the old man asked, once the tears had ceased to flow. Nathan nodded.
'It's my fault.'
'How so?'
'We were playing on the roof. It was my idea. He didn't even really want to do it. He thought it was a baby game.'
'No, no,' said Mordecai. 'Boys play on the roofs. I did as my father did before me, as do my children and grandchildren, and as will their children and grandchildren. It was an accident.'
'But it was my idea and he's dead,' wailed Nathan. Mordecai held him tighter.
'I know,' he said.
'And his mother,' wept the boy. 'He was her only child. She's alone now. He always used to talk about how he'd look after her when he was older so she didn't have to work so hard. Who'll look after her now?'
'Perhaps you will?' suggested Mordecai. 'Perhaps we all will. The people of Nain are good people. We will not abandon her now that she is alone.'

***

They walked back together to where the crowd had gathered by Samuel's house. His father and some of the older men of the village took his aside to question him as to what had happened. No one blamed him. As Mordecai had said, they had all played on the roofs as children themselves. No one had ever been hurt before, at least not badly, and certainly no one had ever been killed.
'He must have slipped and fallen badly,' suggested one. The others nodded. A sad accident, they all agreed.
'Come,' said his father, putting his arm around his shoulder. 'We must go.'

***

The next few hours were a blur. All the village had gathered by now, to mourn, and to give comfort to the grieving mother. All spoke of what a terrible loss it was for her. A widow and Samuel her only son, the one who would have looked after her in her old age, and provided the grandchildren who would have been such a joy to her. All that was gone now. Murmuring, they spoke of how they would look after her. But Nathan knew that none of that could replace what she had lost. And if times grew hard, as they often did, would they remember what they had promised today, as they struggled to put food on their own tables? He swore to himself that whatever happened he would not forget, that he would treat her as if she were his own mother, in memory of his friend.

Women came to prepare the body for burial, carrying white cloths and spices. Nathan shivered. Not long before his friend had been laughing and playing. Soon he would be buried beneath the dry, hot ground. Funerals had to take place quickly in their warm climate. He heard some of the men talking, discussing whether their was time to do so before the sun went down.
'No,' said one, his father. 'we can't do all that's needed before dark. We'll dig the grave now. The morning will be time enough to lay the child in it.' The others nodded and agreed. Several volunteered to do the work of digging. Nathan went along with them to the small plot, fenced in by a low stone wall, that served as the village burial place. They selected a spot, but before they could start, Nathan spoke.
'Please,' he said 'can I help?' The men stared at him. 
'This isn't work for a boy,' said one, not harshly.
'Please,' he said. 'He was my friend.' The men looked at each other. Wordlessly, one handed him a spade. He began to dig. Soon the sweat poured off him as he worked in the hot evening. He was glad. With his face covered in sweat, no one could see his tears.

***

That night was terrible. After the grave was dug, the men returned to the village. Women were wailing in Samuel's house. His father, seeing him, had lead him inside to pay his respects to his friend. After the bright sunshine, at first he couldn't see. Then, as his eyes adjusted, he saw on the table in the centre of the room what looked like a large, oblong white package. With a shudder, he realised it was his friend, dressed in his grave clothes. The women lined the room, crying out their grief. One came forward and threw her arms around him. It was Samuel's mother.

'You were his best friend,' she cried. 'He loved you like a brother.' Nathan resisted the urge to pull away from her and run. He let her hold him and cry; stiffly at first, then his muscles relaxing, he leant into her, and put his own arms around her, and he cried with her. Soon others came and she let him go as she went to greet them and thank them for coming and Nathan slipped away. He went home. The thick walls of both houses should have silenced the sound of the wailing, but it did not. The doors were open, as were the shutters to the windows, and the sounds of grief were loud in his ears. He lay down in his bed, but sleep would not come. The sound of weeping from next door continued all night.

***

Just before dawn, he must have dozed off. Suddenly his father was shaking him awake.
'It is time,' he said simply. Nathan followed him outside. Samuel's wrapped body lay on a make-shift bier, the door of a house, in the street outside. His father went and stood by the front corner of the bier. He glanced back at Nathan, then nodded to the corner by him. Nathan realised he was expected to join the men who were to carry the bier. He stepped forward. There was now someone at each corner, and another in the space between. The six stooped and carefully lifted. Slowly they began to walk toward the cemetery. The crowd fell in behind them, led by Samuel's mother. All were silent save her; she continued to weep softly, tears still streaming down her face. 

As they walked in the half-light to the place of burial, he heard voices up ahead. Nathan saw in the dim morning light what looked like another procession coming towards them. It was a group of men and women walking along the road towards them. They fell silent when they saw the funeral coming towards them. Nathan recognised the man who walked in front of the group. It was Jesus, from the nearby village of Nazareth. Everybody knew him. He had been known as one of the best carpenters in the area until recently; then things had suddenly changed. He had become a wandering preacher. People told amazing stories about him; that he could heal the sick, and cast out demons. What a pity he hadn't been here yesterday, thought Nathan sadly, when Samuel had fallen. If he had been, perhaps he could have healed him before he died.

The two groups came face to face on the road. Both stopped. There was silence except for the sound of Samuel's mother's soft weeping. Jesus looked steadily past the bier and its carriers at her. After long moments he said softly:
'Do not weep.' He gestured to the six to set the bier down. After a moment's hesitation, they did. Jesus knelt by the bier. Gently, he pulled away the wrappings from Samuel's face. In the grey dawn, his skin looked even than grayer than yesterday. Jesus leaned closer and said so quietly it was almost a whisper:
'Young man, get up.'
For a few seconds nothing happened. But Nathan, standing right next to them so something he could hardly believe. The grayness was leaving Samuel's skin. And then, he groaned:
'Where am I? What happened?' All the men by the bier moved suddenly away in astonishment and fear. But Nathan dropped to his knees by his friend and said:
'Samuel; Samuel! Are you all right? Can you hear me?'
Samuel groaned again.
'What happened? My head hurts!'
'You fell. We were on the roof playing and you fell.'
'I knew that game was a bad idea.'
Nathan laughed. He couldn't help it. All the crowd who had followed behind the bier has also drawn back, all save Samuel's mother, who stood there with wondering eyes. Jesus gestured her forward.
'Women, come take back your son,' he said quietly. She rushed forward then, and embraced her son tightly in her arms.
'Ow!' said Samuel. 'Take it easy.' She grabbed Nathan into her arms also. Together they hugged tightly for a while, with Samuel muttering
'I don't know what all the fuss is all about. It's not like I'm really hurt.'
By the time she let them go, Jesus and his followers had gone. Nathan could see them continuing on down the road. 

Later, he asked Mordecai what he thought it all meant. Mordecai said he didn't know. People thought, he said, that Jesus was the Messiah. Perhaps he was. And perhaps this meant that the Messiah had power even over death itself. Some months later, Nathan heard that the Romans had crucified Jesus, egged on by the Jewish authorities. And his followers said that he had risen from the dead. Many laughed at the idea and said they were fooling themselves. But not Nathan. He had been there that morning when Jesus had restored his dead friend back to his mother, back to him. He had no doubt that Jesus could do anything. Anything at all.

(note: if you're telling this story to younger children, before you start warn them that someone is going to get hurt and die, but that everything will be OK and that the story has a happy ending!)









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