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The Damascus WayActs of Faith #3
By Davis Bunn Janette Oke
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2011 Davis Bunn & Janette Oke
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTiberias Circa AD 40
The late afternoon sun bore down with such intensity that little shivers of heat rose from the brown earth. Overhead not a cloud floated against the blue of the sky, nor a whisper of breeze stirred the leaves of the olive trees. Julia strode down the well-worn path toward the compound's outer gate, her thoughts intent upon the morrow. Her father had only just returned, yet on the next dawn she would say good-bye. Again.
A sigh of frustration escaped her lips. Why was it always this way? Julia lived in anticipation of her father's homecomings. The pleasure in his eyes at the sight of her lingered long after the farewell, when once more he took to the road.
Julia struggled to accept her life for what it was. Her father, Jamal, was a merchant, and she knew his profession required travel. Yet in her heart she questioned why he could not stay longer. Why must it always be one good-bye after another? Other girls ...
Julia stopped and stared down at the pathway. She was not like other girls, she knew. Though the mystery of why remained unclear. Her life seemed to be a relentless contradiction. None of its parts seemed to fit together. She had puzzled over this many times but had never come to a clear understanding. And her mother never spoke of it, though Julia was certain she felt it too. For some strange reason Julia could not fathom, they were not a part of the Tiberias community. They lived in a spacious, well-presented home, with servants enough to care for their comforts. Yet no guests came to their home. None invited them to theirs.
Her mother spent most hours in her favorite rooms or in the central garden. She touched appreciatively the beautiful gowns Jamal brought, but while he was gone they hung unattended. Helena remained in comfortable homespuns until the moment a servant announced Jamal's caravan was drawing near the city gates. Then the entire household shifted to a state of high energy. Servants scurried about, drawing fresh water, running to the markets, bringing out the incense jars, placing fresh linens in the bath. Julia did her own dashing ... along the dusty road out from town, straight to the common area where the camels gathered, moaning and complaining over the loads burdening their backs. To the place where her father surveyed the caravan's unloading. Where he greeted her with that special smile and arms spread wide. His hair glinted copper in the sunlight, and his eyes shone hazel through the leathery skin of his face. A while ago he had stopped swinging Julia around in his strong arms. "I suppose you're getting too old for that," he had said, with something in his voice she could not quite understand as he held her close.
And when they would arrive home together, the whole house looked different. Smelled different. Was different. Her mother met them at the door, a warm smile on her lovely face and one of the silk garments gracing her figure. "Welcome, my lord," she would say with a deep bow, and he would draw her close for just a moment as they looked into each other's eyes, seeming to feast on the sight of the other's face.
The evening meal was different too. All sorts of delicacies Julia barely knew existed seemed to show up at the table. Talk and laughter circled what was usually a silent room. After the meal Jamal would open a bundle and present treasures from strange and exotic places. Silks and spices. Perfumes in beautifully carved jars and hair combs of pearl or amber. Jewelry, bracelets and rings and chains of fine gold. Her mother always exclaimed over each gift, eyes showing her pleasure and charming smile echoing her declarations of how lovely it all was.
Her mother seemed to blossom in the presence of Julia's father, like a desert flower in the spring rains. It was at these times Julia realized how beautiful Helena still was. And Jamal also told her so. Over and over. Helena flushed or smiled quietly, smoothing back the long dark curls he loved to see gathered loosely about her face. It was the same the entire time he was home with them. Their whole world changed.
But they did not go out, not as a family. Not to the markets. Not for any of the town's activities. Not to visit a neighbor. Certainly not to the synagogue, for her father was of Greek lineage from Damascus and rather irreligious. Julia knew her mother's roots were Hebrew—Samaritan, actually, though she never discussed it and put Julia off if she tried to ask questions concerning her heritage. The little family remained in the compound together every minute Jamal was at home. Enjoying one another. Laughing. Talking. Even gently teasing. Pretending that this time it would not end.
Julia loved those treasured moments. And it made the inevitable parting that much more difficult.
Often Jamal was away for many months at a time. The lovely gifts disappeared from sight. Her mother went back to a simple hair braid, her soft homespun, and her sad, haunted eyes. And Julia? She too went back to simple garments, the plain shawl tossed carelessly over her shoulders. But she could not bear to set aside some of the favorite pieces of jewelry he presented to her, now that she was older. Somehow, just touching them, hearing the jangle of them on her arms, brought him a little closer. Because otherwise her world remained dreary and ordinary, and all the enchantment her father brought with him was gone.
Julia roused herself from her reverie, sighed deeply, and impatiently brushed at a tear. He is still here in Tiberias, she told herself with a shake of her head. Was that not enough? She would make the most of their last evening together.
Her step quickened, her sandals making little puffs of dust with each step that swirled about her hem. She shifted the cloth-covered basket to a more comfortable position on her shoulder. Jamal would be looking forward to his afternoon meal, unless supervising the caravan's preparations had distracted him from noticing the passing of the sun. Sometimes she felt her father was so absorbed in his duties he would have gone the entire day without eating. But her mother insisted on sending refreshments out to him. And Julia was delighted for any excuse to see him.
The path took her out through the entrance to their compound and into the busy roadway heading out of town on the edge of Galilee Lake toward the caravanserai. When she arrived, the enclosure was filled with moaning camels, bleating sheep, scurrying caravan drivers, and barefoot herders, all hot and dusty and out of sorts. She wanted to hold her breath against the stench of animals and sweat-glistened bodies. She felt a stir as she passed, but no one spoke. She was not surprised at this, realizing even the newer herdsmen would know the wealthy merchant Jamal showed a sharp tongue and a quick temper where his daughter was concerned. No one dared raise his ire, especially with that camel scourge in his hand. She held her shawl over her nose and hurried forward.
She knew exactly where she would find him. She had been there many times over her growing-up years. His camels held the choicest spot in the entire enclosure, the one closest to the well and the watering trough. Even from a distance she could hear the strange braying of camels vying for position as servants attempted to pour fresh water from the goatskin buckets into the trough.
Again she shifted the basket, her eyes scanning the busy, noisy scene before her in search of the familiar form. And there he was, his back to her, bent over as his hand ran the length of a camel's front leg. She moved quickly up beside him and lowered the basket from her shoulder.
"Is she able to travel?" At her soft question Jamal straightened, and yes, the light in his eyes reflected his great pleasure. Her heart did a joyous skip.
"Julia, my dear." He reached out a hand toward the basket she held. "Come, daughter. Let's find some shade."
He led her through a gate and up a slight rise to a tent and swept aside the flap to let her enter. Rich dark carpets covered the ground beneath her feet as she stepped inside. Cushions tumbled haphazardly in deep piles against one wall, and she reached for some and tossed them together to make comfortable seating for them both. She loved it there. It was her favorite place in the entire world. Just the two of them ...
If only ... but she refused to let her thoughts pursue that direction. "Will she be able to travel?" she asked again.
"She is fine. She took a nasty kick at the watering trough, but the swelling has gone and she is not limping."
Julia knew she should be pleased. This camel served as the caravan's lead animal. She set the tone for other animals and held them all to a steady pace. Julia tried for the smile she was sure was expected. Yet in her heart she couldn't help but think—even hope—that if the camel was injured, perhaps this next journey would be delayed.
"Now, let's see what you have brought." Jamal had placed the basket on a cushion and was lifting the cloth. He nodded appreciatively at his favorite honey cakes. "You spoil me, my dear."
"It is really Mother who spoils you. I merely carry the basket."
He nodded. "What a fortunate man I am. Two lovely women to take care of me." He waited as she poured a mug of the cool tea. "So, what orders do you have for me? What would you like me to bring back when I return?"
There it was again. A reminder that he soon would be leaving. With first dawn he would once again take to the trade route with the caravan, the drivers, the loads of merchandise in which he traded. She would say her brave farewell, accept his warm embrace with a smile, and then spend the rest of the day lamenting quietly in her room. It was always the same. The joyous welcomes, the heartrending good-byes.
Suddenly a new idea surfaced and she leaned forward. "Father, may I ... well, why should I not travel with you?"
He stopped in the middle of drinking his tea. "Join me on the road?"
"Yes. I could—"
But already he was shaking his head. "The trade route is no place for a young maiden. Particularly one as lovely as you are, my Julia."
"No, no, no." The words came in quick succession. "No place for a young girl. It is not safe. Not proper." He shook his head emphatically.
She knew it was useless to argue further. He gulped a second cup. "I had not realized how I thirsted. Will you share a honey cake with me?"
She shook her head and stood to her feet. "No, thank you, Father. I think I will go and say good-bye to Sheeka."
He smiled around a generous bite of the cake. "They like you, those camels. They always seem to settle down when you speak to them. It is much better to have them in good humor when beginning a journey. They work harder. Less restlessness and stubbornness. You go ahead. I'll join you as soon as I have finished here."
Julia pushed aside the tent flap and walked toward the grumbling, spitting camels. She had noticed it herself. For whatever reason, the camels did indeed seem to become more docile when she talked to them and stroked the long hairy necks.
Camels were considered smelly, moody, and disgusting, she knew, but Julia liked the beasts. Why, she did not know or even try to understand. Perhaps it was the simple fact that when they arrived, so did her father. He had even allowed her to name each one. It had given her pleasure to think of him calling them by the name she had chosen when they took to the winding trails and roads toward those distant cities such as Damascus and Jericho.
She reached her hand out to Sheeka's neck. It would not do to approach one of the other camels first. Their leader would be sure to express displeasure in angry grunts and moans.
"How are you? Is your leg feeling better?" she said softly. "You have a long trip to make. Are you sure ... ?" She crouched down to assess the injury for herself, running her hand gently over the tender area. Sheeka's rumblings softened. "I think Papa is right. You are—"
"You, there." It was a loud voice from behind her. "The camels are thirsty and the trough is empty. More water."
Julia glanced over her shoulder at a dust-covered caravan guard, sword glinting at his leather belt. Obviously just arrived from the trail, he was roughly clothed and red-faced from the desert sun. He scowled at her from under a dark, shaggy mane. He was young, she could tell, too young to talk with such imagined authority. And almost too young for the short dark beard that covered his chin. Julia allowed her eyes to skim across his face, then to each side, trying to determine to whom he was speaking.
"The camels," he said again, motioning to the herd crowding up behind him. He paused and looked directly at her. There was now a question in his tone as he added, "They thirst. It's been a long trek."
She straightened slowly. So his gruff orders were directed at her. She could feel the ire rising inside her. He had mistaken her for a servant. Or worse, a slave. Could he not see she had sandals on her feet? That her arms held expensive bracelets? Her earrings were of gold?
She could feel her eyes burning with the fury she felt. Who was this young upstart that he should be ordering her about as if she were a peasant? What right had he to command the daughter of Jamal, the wealthiest and most prominent merchant along the trade route, to do anything? Much less water his animals! She took a step back, shoulders stiff, chin raised, cheeks burning in anger.
But he did not so much as flicker an eyelash. "Do you not hear? The camels need water."
She gave him a defiant stare. "Then I suggest you water them before your master has you flogged."
She had taken several quick steps before he seemed to have recovered enough to call after her, "He is not my master."
She could not resist whirling back to jab a finger in the direction of Jamal's tent. "And I am not his slave—nor his servant. I am his daughter."
She paused only long enough to see his eyes staring his shock. His lips parted, and she feared he might be trying to voice an apology, so she twisted away again, her unyielding back no doubt clearly proclaiming her intense irritation. She took some pleasure in imagining his alarm as she stalked away.
* * *
Julia brushed at her dusty cotton gown, shook out her thick brown curls streaked with gold—like my father's, she thought with satisfaction—and fastened the unruly locks in a tight roll at the base of her neck. Judging herself fit to enter the room where the evening meal would be served, she sighed and opened the door from her private quarters, nearly stepping into Zoe. The older woman stood before her, a tray balanced on one hand and the other poised to knock. She looked as startled as Julia felt.
Julia recovered and widened the opening to allow the servant woman to enter.
"Is Mother not well?"
"A pain in her temples again." The brief words carried an undercurrent of concern that their beloved servant tried unsuccessfully to hide.
This had been happening far too frequently of late, Helena's begging off joining Julia for the evening meal because of not feeling well. "Set the tray on the table by the window, please."
Zoe did as bidden and with a brief nod toward Julia turned to go.
"Wait. Please," Julia added, flushing slightly at the tone of her voice. She sounded arrogant to her own ears. "Please," she said again, "I ... I really don't like eating alone. Do you mind staying?"
With one brief nod the roles of mistress and servant seemed to evaporate between them. Zoe granted her a look of shared companionship. Almost as a grandmother acknowledging her grandchild. "You are worried too," the woman said softly.
Julia swallowed away the lump in her throat, crossed to the window, and pushed the heavy curtain aside. Perhaps the day had cooled enough to allow fresh air inside. The light was moving toward dusk as evening shadows stretched across the courtyard and the limestone floor of the room. One lone star held a solitary place in the night sky, blinking faintly as though beckoning others to join it. "Did you bring two cups?"
Zoe had eased herself onto a stool. "No—just the one."
"Never mind. I have another with my water jar. I'll fetch it."
Julia poured two servings of tea before taking her place in the chair at the small table's opposite side. She pushed the tray toward Zoe, hoping the frail-looking elderly woman would eat. What would she and her mother ever do if something happened to Zoe? Julia looked steadfastly at the woman she had known all her life and asked the question that was uppermost in her mind. "Is Mother truly ill?"
Excerpted from The Damascus Way by Davis Bunn Janette Oke Copyright © 2011 by Davis Bunn & Janette Oke. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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