By Bryant Burroughs
The Day of Vengeance had come at last! The Magdala marketplace vibrated with news that a magnificent dinner-party would be held that very evening in nearby Capernaum, and the host for this party was none other than Simon, the man I hated. The market gossip praised him: Simon the Pharisee; Simon the wealthy lawyer; Simon who had the ear of the High Priest and, it was rumored, that of Herod. To me he was Simon the Murderer, the destroyer of all I had treasured.
Hurrying home to pack a rucksack, I stepped into my parents’ room. It was quiet and still, a room of memory. My mother’s carved wooden box with its ivory-encrusted top lay in its usual place on the bedside table. The box had been a wedding gift from my father to his mesmerizing bride. I slid the top open, revealing the ivory-handled hairbrush with which she had brushed our hair every morning and night. Every day, brush and talk and laugh. I caressed the handle, and memories flooded my heart. Sobbing bitter tears of loss, I clasped the wooden box to my chest and collapsed onto the bed.
I don’t know how long I wept, but after a time I turned onto my side to look again inside the cherished carved box. One by one, I removed the contents resting on a linen cloth at the bottom of the box. The gold ring that my father gave my mother on their wedding day. A necklace of celestial blue gemstones, a wedding gift from my grandmother in Magdala. Two gold bracelets with fish-shaped clasps. A tiny clutch of red hair. How many times had my mother opened this box, held these treasures, kissed these strands of hair?
Love lived in this carved box. It was this precious box that my mother had saved as she and my father frantically bundled me in blankets in the midnight blackness and fled the inn that my father’s father had built. I was not yet a year old.
Countless retellings have implanted memories that fill my senses. I feel my father’s shock when his friend Joseph roused him from sleep with frightening news: “I’ve had a dream-warning from God.” I tremble with my mother’s terror upon hearing that soldiers were coming to murder every young boys in Bethlehem. I hear my father’s cries, “There’s not a minute to lose,” as they stuffed a few bags with clothes and food.
I sense, too, my mother’s hope as they began their escape northward toward her home village. “We’ll be safe in Magdala,” she said over and over. The small fishing village was their “magic place.” It was in Magdala’s fish market she had met the young innkeeper seeking to secure a good price for a half-dozen barrels of pickled fish. He was entranced by the red-haired woman who won his heart with a glance . Within a few days, he returned to Bethlehem with pickled fish and the woman he would marry. Two years later, harried by fear for their daughter’s life, they again looked to Magdala as a magic place, this time for safety and sanctuary.
I recall the day as a young girl that I blurted a question to my mother: “Why didn’t you and Papa go back to your inn? Why did you stay here in Magdala?”
She paused a few seconds. “It was an evil time,” she responded. “Many babies were killed. We brought you to a safe place.”
Even a twelve-year-old recognized that her answer was incomplete.
“Are children still being killed there?” I quizzed.
“Oh, no, Mary, dearest daughter. We're safe here. It’s just that….” Mother grasped my hands.
“Your Papa’s uncle is not as good on the inside, where it counts, as he appears on the outside. He is a dreadful man, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Her words baffled me. What did being good on the inside have to do with their refusal to return to their inn? And why had I never heard of this evil uncle?
I tried again. “Mother, I don’t understand.”
Catching the hint of my exasperation, she took my hand. “Let’s go up to the rooftop. I promise to tell you what happened.” From our rooftop pallets, the Sea of Galilee shined to the east, its waves shimmering in the sun as fishing boats ambled across the water. To our right, women fetched water from the village well, and beyond the women, a rocky cliff jutted out into the sea.
We basked in the warmth of the day and the blue of the water. Then, in a very quiet voice, my mother resumed her story. “When we fled with you in our arms, we were only a few minutes ahead of the soldiers. There was no time to load a cart. We left everything behind. We hurried here, to my village, to my family, to the very spot where your Papa and I met.” She smiled and pointed to a corner of the village square below where we sat. “It was right there.”
“I know,” I smiled back. It was our habit to walk to that spot every day. I gave her another moment to collect her words. I sensed that whatever came next had to be said.
My mother’s gaze was far over the sea when she said, “The captain of the soldiers had a list. His soldiers went house to house and killed every male child on the list that they could find. Only a handful escaped.”
The she exhaled. “Mary, the list...this murderous list…came from Papa’s uncle Simon.”
I gasped in shock. “My name was on the list? But I am a girl. He gave them my name?”
“Yes. A the end of the list, the very end, Simon wrote ‘the Innkeeper’s child.’ His hatred toward us was such that he would add even our beloved daughter’s name to this list.”
Then perhaps it’s a good thing after all that I didn’t know this Uncle Simon. “But that was years ago,” I exclaimed. “Surely the captain of the soldiers has forgotten about the list. Wouldn’t we be safe to return now?”
“Yes, the captain of the soldiers may have forgotten,” my mother replied, “but Simon has not. Soon after we settled in Magdala, he sent a letter. Such an evil, treacherous letter. He knew we had escaped, and he knew where we were hiding. He threatened that a single word from him would bring soldiers to our door, and this time you would not escape alive.”
I shivered as my mother took my hand and finished the hard words that had to be said. “In payment for keeping our hiding place secret, he demanded our inn. Our inn! And he warned that he had spies – cowards who would alert him if we ever tried to return. We had no choice. We’re safe here. We’ve built our life here.” At last, I understood the whole story, and my heart burst with love for my mother and father.
For years Magdala was the safe and happy place my parents had sought. As I grew into a young woman, I never tired of hearing neighbors praise me with “You look just like your mother!” She was beautiful and kind and sure of herself, and I wanted to be just like her, as if she were a conduit to a greater thing.
As with all children, I assumed that I would live with my mother and father in peaceful Magdala for the rest of my life. That she and I would brush our hair side-by-side every morning and bedtime, talking as much as brushing. That my father would always call me “Little Red” even after I became a woman with daughters of my own. That the fishing boats of Magdala would go out and in, day after day, as surely as the sun rises and the sea shimmers in its rays.
But life is unspeakably fragile, even for lives buttressed by love. A fever swept through the countryside and snatched my mother into death so suddenly that it seemed the angels had needed her urgently in God’s presence. My father, the man everyone considered the strongest soul in Magdala, could not live with half his heart absent, even for the sake of his dearest daughter. Within a few months, I was an orphan. I was not yet twenty. The sun continued to rise and set, and the fishing boats continued to come and go, but there were no more shared brushings, no more “Little Red.” The two people who had loved me since the moment I first opened my eyes had vanished beyond my sight.
My mother’s fragrance lingered on the soft linen in the carved box, and her scent roused me from memories. I whispered to her: “If I were permitted to go wherever I wished, I would come to you. I would choose to be with you in the Land of the Dead rather than without you in this land of the living. For there is no living without you.”
I placed the ivory-handled hairbrush into my rucksack and kissed the necklace, bracelets, and clutch of hair as I gently returned each to the carved box. Then I opened my father’s desk and retrieved his knife, now gleaming in readiness for this day, and stowed it in the rucksack. A hairbrush for love, a knife for vengeance. I was ready.
* * *
As I walked along the seaside road that curved north and east from Magdala toward Capernaum, my hopes and fears of vengeance so absorbed me that I failed to notice right away that a stranger had joined me. We walked in silence, the man a step behind and a step to my side.
It was he who broke the silence. “You are very quiet for someone who has just reunited with an old friend.”
I continued several steps before I realized he had spoken, and another few steps as I considered his bewildering sentence. Just another man, I thought. I’ve rebuffed many like him in Magdala. Shaking my head as I walked, I answered, “You are mistaken. I don’t know you.”
“Where are you going, Mary?” he asked.
I stopped in mid-stride, and the stranger continued a few paces before turning around. I examined him for long seconds. How could this stranger know my name? His face was unfamiliar. I shook my head again. “I don’t know you. How do you know my name?”
His eyes brightened. “I told you. You and I are old friends,” he repeated. “I’m not surprised you don’t remember me. We were both quite young when my mother and father visited your inn. They’ve told me that even then you had your mother’s red hair.”
I frowned and searched my memory. Who was this puzzling stranger who knew my name and claimed to be an old friend?
He waved his hand. “Come, let’s keep walking together toward Capernaum. I’ll keep you company.”
“Stop!” I shouted. “Stop! Not another step! How do you know I’m walking to Capernaum? I’ve not told you where I’m going.”
“Well, I’m walking to Capernaum. You walk with me then,” he said with an amused smile. “I have friends who live there.” He searched my face. “I’ve been invited to attend a dinner-party there tonight.”
I froze as if I’d fallen from a Magdala fishing boat into a wintry sea. That’s it! That’s how he knows my name! “You’re one of Simon’s friends, aren’t you?” I lashed out at him. “Aren’t you? You’ve been spying on me in Magdala.”
“No, I assure you Simon does not consider me a friend. In fact, he looks at me as a threat, and in one sense he’s right.” He stopped and looked out to sea. “Simon is a violent man. He thinks that violence is the path to greatness. He doesn’t realize he is walking on false ground.”
I clutched my rucksack, feeling its contents. False ground! I thought. Is that what I’m walking on?
“Wait,” I blurted. “When did you visit my father’s inn? Did you know my mother?”
“In a sense, yes,” he said. “She was very kind to my own mother when I was born. Even today, years later, my mother remembers the innkeeper and his wife with affection and gratitude. Both your mother and father were kind and good.”
“And there’s something you should know,” he added softly. “You and I both were on your uncle’s list.”
I couldn’t breathe. I knew his next words before he voiced them.
The man stepped close. “My mother’s name is Mary,” he said. “But you know that, don’t you? Your dear mother told you all her stories.”
He put his hands on my shoulders. “Dear child, don’t you think your mother’s hairbrush is too precious to be in a rucksack with a knife? And you are too precious, too loved, too beautiful to hold such an ugly tool of hatred. Would you let me help you?”
“I can’t,” I breathed. “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can. You brim with your mother’s heart. Remember all that she put in the ivory box. Let me help you.”
I could not look into his eyes. “I… want… to… kill… him!” I rasped through clenched jaws.
He did not let go of my shoulders. “If you kill him, Mary, the knife will pierce your own heart. And you will become as evil as Simon.” I shuddered, breathing in soft gasps.
He cupped my chin so that I looked into his eyes. “You are your mother’s daughter, like a star plucked from an angel’s wing. Like her, on the outside you have her red hair, and on the inside, where it really matters, you have her beautiful spirit. Let me help you.”
He eased the rucksack from my shoulder and pulled out the knife. I couldn’t move. Stepping back, he flung the knife far into the sea. As it splashed into the waves, I gasped and collapsed to my knees in the pebbles of the road, weeping for my mother, weeping for my father, and weeping for the hate that had blackened my heart.
The man gently lifted me to my feet. “Mary, child, you are forgiven all your hatred and hopelessness. Put away your misery and madness. Now you can sing and dance as when you were a little girl. Do you remember?”
He pulled me forward. “Come,” he said. “I have friends I want you to meet. It’s a fisherman’s house,” he laughed, “but clean and welcoming.” He peered into the sky as if he had seen something beyond the seabirds that soared above the sea. He laughed. “Your mother is teaching the angels to dance.”
Bryant Burroughs is a writer and lives with his wife Ruth in Upstate South Carolina with their three cats. His work has appeared in online literary sites such as Agape Review, Clayjar Review, Pure in Heart Stories and Faith, Hope & Fiction.
Bryant's other work on Foreshadow:
The Widow Whose Son Lived (Fiction, July 2022)
The Youngest Day (Poetry, November 2022)
The Widow's Psalm (Poetry, February 2023)
The Leper and the Healer (Fiction, May 2023)
Pearls of Ignatius (Poetry, August 2023)