31st October 1945.
It must have rained all night. But at dawn a dry wind has blown the clouds southwards, beyond the hills of Nazareth. Thus a timid winter sun dares to peep out and light with its beam a diamond on every olive leaf. But they are gala dresses which the olive-trees soon lose, because the wind shakes them off the leaves, which seem to be weeping diamond chips, which get lost among the dewy grass or on the muddy road.
Peter is preparing the cart and donkey with the help of James and Andrew. The others have not appeared as yet. But they soon come out, one after the other, from a kitchen, probably, because they say to the three who are outside: « You can go now and have something to eat.» And they go and come out shortly afterwards with Jesus.
« I have put the cover on again because of the wind» explains Peter. « If You really want to go to Jiphthahel, we shall have it in our faces... and it will be biting. I do not understand why we do not take the direct road to Sicaminon and then the one along the coast... It is longer but not so hard. Did You hear what the shepherd said, the man I encouraged to speak? He said: “Jotopata in the winter months is isolated. There is only one road to go there, but it is not possible to go there with lambs... You cannot carry anything on your shoulders because there are passes where you proceed more with your hands than with your feet, and lambs cannot swim. There are two rivers, which are often in flood, and the very road is a torrent that flows on a rocky bed. I go there after the Tabernacles and in full spring, and I do good business, because they buy supplies for months.” That is what he said... And we... with this thing... (and he kicks the wheel of the cart)... and with this donkey... bah!...»
« The direct road from Sephoris to Sicaminon is better. But it is very busy. Remember that we must not leave traces of John...»
« The Master is right. And we may find Isaac with some disciples... At Sicaminon in any case!...» says the Zealot.
« Let us go then...»
« I am going to call those two...» says Andrew.
And while he does so, Jesus takes leave of an old woman and a boy who are coming out of a sheepfold with buckets of milk. Also some bearded shepherds arrive and Jesus thanks them for the hospitality given to Him during the rainy night.
John and Syntyche are already in the cart, which sets out along the road, driven by Peter. Jesus with the Zealot and Matthew at His sides, and followed by Andrew, James, John and the two sons of Alphaeus, quickens His step to reach it.
The wind bites their faces and swells their mantles. The cover stretched over the arches of the cart snaps like a sail notwithstanding the rain of the night has made it heavy: « Never mind, it will soon dry!» moans Peter looking at it. « Providing the lungs of that poor man do not dry up!... Wait, Simon of Jonah... This is what you do.» And he stops the donkey, takes his mantle off, gets on the cart and envelops John carefully in it.
« Why? I already have one...»
« Because pulling the donkey I am already as warm as I would be in a bread oven. And I am used to being naked on the boat, particularly when there is a storm. The cold spurs me and I am quicker. Come on, make sure you are well covered. Mary made so many recommendations to me in Nazareth, that if you were taken ill, I would not be able to face Her any longer...»
He gets off the cart, takes the bridle again and spurs the donkey. But he soon has to call his brother and also James to help the donkey get out of a muddy spot in which a wheel had sunk. And they proceed, pushing the cart in turns to help the donkey that digs its strong feet in the mire and draws the cart. The poor animal is panting and puffing with fatigue and greediness because Peter entices it to move on by offering it bits of bread and cores of apples, which, however, he lets it have only when they stop for a moment.
« You are cheating, Simon of Jonah» says Matthew jokingly after watching Peter's manoeuvring.
« No. I am getting it to do its duty, and I am doing it kindly. If I did not do that, I would have to use the whip. And I do not like that. I do not strike my boat when she is wayward, although she is of wood. Why should I flog the donkey, which is flesh? This is my boat now... it is in water... it is indeed! So I am dealing with it as I deal with my boat. I am not Doras, you know? I wanted to name it Doras, before I bought it. Then I heard its name, and I liked it. So I did not change it...»
« What is its name?» they ask curiously.
« Guess!» and Peter laughs through his beard.
The strangest names are mentioned including those of the fiercest Pharisees and Sadducees etc. etc. But Peter always shakes his head. They give it up.
« Antonius is its name! Isn't it a beautiful name? That cursed Roman! Obviously also the Greek who sold me the donkey must have had a grudge against Antonius!»
They all laugh while John of Endor explains: « He is probably one from whom money was extorted after Caesar's death. Is he old?»
« He is about seventy... and must have done all kinds of jobs... He now owns a hotel at Tiberias...»
They are at the cross-roads of Sephoris with the Nazareth-Ptolemais, Nazareth-Sicaminon, Nazareth-Jotopata roads (I would point out that they pronounce J as a very soft G). On the consular milestone there are the three indications of Ptolemais, Sicaminon, Jotopata.
« Are we going to Sephoris, Master?»
« It is quite useless. Let us go to Jiphthahel, without stopping. We shall eat something while walking. We must be there before evening.»
They proceed and cross two little torrents in flood, and begin to climb the slopes of a range of hills lying south-northwards with a large steep mass to the north stretching eastwards.
« Jiphthahel is over there» says Jesus.
« I cannot see anything» remarks Peter.
« It is to the north. The coast is very steep in our direction, as well as to the east and the west.»
« So we must go right round all that mountain?»
« No. There is a road at the foot of the highest mountain, in the valley. It is a short cut, but the road is very steep.»
« Have You been there?»
« No. But I know.»
The road is steep indeed! So much so, that when they arrive there, they are frightened. Night seems to fall all at once, so dark it is at the bottom of the valley, which is so horrifying and precipitous that it reminds me of Dantesque Malebolge; it is a road cut in the rock, so steep that it almost ascends in steps, a narrow wild road, enclosed between a furious torrent and an even more rugged mountain side that becomes steeper as one proceeds northwards.
If the light increases little by little as one ascends higher, fatigue also increases, and in fact they unload the cart of personal baggage and Syntyche also gets off to make the cart as light as possible. John of Endor, who after his few words has not opened his mouth but to cough, would like to get off as well. But they do not let him and he remains where he is, while all the others push or pull cart and donkey sweating at each gradient of the road. But no one complains. On the contrary they all pretend to be satisfied with the exercise in order not to embarrass the two disciples for whom they do it and who have more than once expressed their regret for so much work.
The road turns at a right angle, then there is another corner, a shorter one, which ends in a town perched on such a steep slope that, as John of Zebedee says, it seems on the point of sliding down to the valley with all its houses.
« It is, instead, very solid. All one with the rock.»
« Like Ramoth then...» says-Syntyche who remembers the place.
« Even more. The rock here is part of the houses, not just their foundation. It reminds one more of Gamala. Do you remember it?»
« Yes, and we remember those pigs as well...» says Andrew.
« It was from there that we departed to go to Tarichea, the Tabor and Endor...» says Simon Zealot.
« It is my fate to let you have painful recollections and hard work...» says John of Endor with a sigh.
« Never! You have given us faithful friendship and nothing else, my friend» says Judas of Alphaeus impulsively. And everybody joins him to confirm his statement.
« And yet... I have not been loved... No one tells me... But I can meditate and put together various facts, as in a picture. This departure was not foreseen and it was not a spontaneous decision...»
« Why do you say that, John?» asks Jesus kindly, although He is afflicted.
« Because it is true. I was not wanted. I was chosen to go far away, no one else, not even the great disciples.»
« And what about Syntyche, then?» asks James of Alphaeus, grieved at the lucidity of thought of the man of Endor.
« Syntyche is coming so as not to send me away alone... to conceal the truth pitifully...»
« No, John!...»
« Yes, Master. See? I could also tell You the name of my torturer. Do You know where I can read it? Just by looking at these good eight ones I read it! Only by considering the absence of the others I can read it! The one through whom I was found by You is also the one who would like me to be found by Beelzebub. And he drove me to this hour, and he drove You to it, Master, because You suffer as much as I do, perhaps more, and he drove me to this hour to make me fall back into despair and hatred. Because he is bad, cruel, envious. And much more. Judas of Kerioth is the dark soul amongst Your servants, who are all as clear as light...»
« Do not say that, John. He is not the only one missing. They were all away for the Dedication, with the exception of the Zealot, who has no family. One cannot come from Kerioth in this season in a few stages. It is about two hundred miles' walk. And it was fair that he should go and see his mother, like Thomas. I spared also Nathanael, because he is old, and Philip, to give him as a companion to Nathanael...»
« Yes. Three more are absent... But, o good Jesus! You know men's hearts, because You are the Holy One. But You are not the only one to know them! Also the wicked know the wicked, because they know one another. I was wicked, and I saw myself again, with my worst instincts, in Judas. But I forgive him. For one reason only I forgive him for sending me to die so far away: because it was just through him that I came to You. And may God forgive him for the rest... for all the rest.»
Jesus does not deny... He is silent. The apostles look at one another while pushing the cart on the slippery road.
It is almost night when they reach the town, where unknown amongst unknown people, they put up at a hotel situated on the southern end of the town. It is on the brink of a gorge, which makes one giddy looking down it, as it so steep and deep. At the bottom: a noise and nothing else in the shadow of peace already in the valley, where a torrent roars.