Chapter ThreeCamel foals were contentedly eating thorns from the nearby bushes, while the flock of sheep grazed on small shoots at the pool’s edge. Family groups welcomed this break at the oasis, while the smell of cooking of exotic spicy dishes assailed the nostrils of those resting in whatever shade they could find against the heat of the sun. Murree busied herself baking bread in a large flat pan over an open fire; the bread she later wrapped in damp cloths, to keep fresh, for the days ahead.
Yeshu’a, his four brothers, and Yusuf, son of A’bel, surveyed the scene from the top of the nearby mountain. It had been a strenuous climb over rocky slopes of loose stones, taking two hours to reach the summit. Far below, the caravan camp stretched out on one side of the oasis, while the opposite side, where the soldiers rested, was now deserted; the Roman soldiers having decamped at sunrise. Looking down from their lofty position, Yusuf pointed out landmarks familiar to him, while Yeshu’a’s brothers idly threw stones at passing birds, with their slings-shots. Below them the Bedouin tents were spread-eagled on the ground like black bats, beside the pool of blue water which, in turn, was surrounded by sparse greenery.
“Two years ago I climbed Mount Sinai, with Sabaat,” remarked Yusuf. “It is the tallest mountain in this entire Sinai. One could see far across into Egypt; a truly inspiring view. Looking down on the desert below was like looking down on a turbulent sea of brown.”
Yusuf fell silent, and staring intently at Yeshu’a, speaking eventually after carefully weighing his words.
“I saw what you did in the early morning with that soldier’s hand,” he said in a low confidential voice. “I have no knowledge of such wondrous acts, but I would truly wish to learn.”
Yeshu’a smiled gently and said, “We will, in time, speak of it, but not now. There is much to do in the days ahead. Now, my friend, let us see the inside of these caves before we return.”
It took several minutes before their eyes adjusted to the darkness of the interior, as they stood at the cave’s entrance. Yusuf explained that this cave, and several others nearby had been used by hermits over many, many years. The mountain was honeycombed with such caves, he explained. They remained deserted now, awaiting -perhaps - the latest contingent of those who sought solitude from the world, for prayer and fasting. The floor was carpeted with dried palm leaves, while small animal bones were piled into one corner, indicating a non-vegetarian diet. It was cool inside this hewed-out rock sanctuary, a welcome relief from the heat of the desert far below.
“One could be happy here,” said Yeshu’a, “away from the rude world.”
“I don’t know how anybody could stay for any length of time in a place like this,” said James, as he look around the darkened interior of the hermit’s den. “It’s only fit for animals.”
“I was born in a place such as this,” replied Yeshu’a, with a smile. “I shall stay awhile to meditate, but the rest of you may return below.”
Their retreat down the same stony path took less time than the climb earlier, as the young men slipped and slid in a joyful race to the foot of the mountain, eventually collapsing on the warm sands, with laughter, next to their mother's fire.
“Careful. You might put the fire out. I haven’t finished cooking,” she called out. “James, where is Yeshu’a? Why is he not with you?”
“He chose to remain for a while in one of the caves.”
“Always praying!” she sighed. “Then, go fetch more twigs for the fire.”
“I will go and help,” said Joses, as he and James scoured the oasis edge for anything that might burn, including dried camel dung, of which there was plenty. Spreading out in different directions in their search, Joses moved in the direction of where the Romans had camped. Litter was strewn about after the soldier’s night’s revelry. He thought he detected something shiny protruding from the sand, and putting down his bundle of twigs, he stooped and retrieved from the sand a dagger which, which must have been dropped by the Roman Captain. Judging from the quality of craftsmanship it was from a wealthy source; perhaps a gift from his family, Joses thought. It had a broad double-sided blade that came to a sharp point, while the handle was made of gold with a large ruby set into the hilt. Must be worth a fortune, he thought to himself. After looking about him quickly, Joses hastily concealed it inside his tunic and returned to his task.
Yeshu’a sat quietly in the cave high above the valley and sat in prayer, as a green lizard scurried across the floor and up the wall face. He saw, stretched out before his mind’s eye, the future that lay before him and listened to the inner voice directing him; a voice which was now becoming familiar, though he never knew from whence it came. It was, however, comforting to know that he would be protected and guided throughout his life, while his mission would be for God; yet, he had no idea where it would take him.
A raven flapped its wings, steadying itself as it landed at the cave’s entrance, its shiny black form silhouetted against the bright sunlight.
Yeshu’a was unaware of this winged intruder and remained in deep thought as the raven walked slowly into the darkened cave and up close to where Yeshu’a was seated on dried palm branches on the cave floor. The raven’s dark eyes stared with curiosity up at Yeshu’a, moving its head from side to side, as if quizzically examining the situation. Indeed, it was as if the raven presented itself as a messenger from ‘on high’, to convey its sacred communication of guardianship to young Yeshu’a, on another level of being. The bird stayed with Yeshu’a until he awakened and opened his eyes, just in time to see the raven spread its wings and fly out into the blinding sunlight. This black feathered friend was to be a frequent visitor to Yeshu’a, in the unfolding years to come.
It is written that cocks crow, donkeys bray, horses neigh, and camels bubble! Thus the sounds of animals in the early-morning light created a cacophony of disagreeable sounds, as everyone busied themselves with the recommencement of their journey.
Once again Murree and her family plunged into the dry heat of the Sinai desert, and positioned as they were at the rear of the lengthy caravan, it was always a great effort to keep apace with the fast moving camel group ahead. Walking in the desert sand was like wading through waist-deep lake water; -the legs move heavily.
Their departure was witnessed by a lone shepherd perched high on a craggy rock overlooking the panoramic scene below, as a camel and its rider approaching Murree and family, leaving a trail of sand clouds in his wake. Yusuf approached waving his whip in greeting, to his new friends.
“It is good to be moving once more,” Yusuf announced with a cheerful smile. “It will be no time ‘till we will be in Judah.”
Murree nodded and asked, “Have you eaten, Yusuf?”
“Indeed, yes. But there is never any fear of hunger in the desert. It is really a matter of knowing where to look,” Yusuf smiled, referring to the manna, the food that the Lord gave to the Israelites when Moses led them out of Egypt. It was in the Wilderness of Sin, it is written, when the people murmured against the Lord, blaming Moses for bringing them to such a dismal place. This same ‘manna’ is still picked by insects and birds from the tamarisk bushes to this day.
Yusuf reached down and lifted dark-eyed and pretty Fatima to sit with him. She had never been on a camel before, least of all sitting on one with a young man. Her clothing appeared simple and colourless beside Yusuf’s richly coloured flowing robes.
Murree rode astride the donkey which was led by Yeshu’a, and his brothers and sisters followed a pace or two behind.
“We will be coming to a fresh water lake in a few days,” said Yusuf. “You can replenish your food supply there with duck meat.”
“We have no means or knowledge of catching ducks,” laughed Fatima.
“I will stun them with my sling-shot,” replied Simon, to the jeers of Judah and James.
“No need for such things,” laughed Yusuf. “We Bedouins have a age- old method of catching ducks. My father taught Sabaat and I when we were quite young. All you do is place a decoy amongst the reeds near the shore, where the water is not too deep. Then you scatter rice or grain on the water’s surface and slip into the depths with a reed to breath through. You would need to secure your feet to heavy stones, to anchor yourself at the bottom, and wait.”
“Do you spear them from underneath?” a voice asked, jokingly.
“You wait, for perhaps a half an hour. As soon as the ducks land to eat the grain we pull them down quietly by the legs. If you can manage to do it quietly, you could succeed in capturing three or four ducks before the others become aware.”
“You must have the patience of Job,” said Simon.
“I have no knowledge of this Job. Is he a good fisherman?” asks Yusuf, to a burst of laughter.
“Ignore them, Yusuf. You spoke well,” said Yeshu’a. “Do you have other examples of seeking food?”
“Indeed,” replied Yusuf. “One may collect truffles which grow in the desert after rains. Bedouins have no trouble finding them.”
Murree smiled and said that they were pleased to have him with them on this journey. It gave her comfort to know that food could be found in such a desolate place.
By late afternoon they passed another caravan, one which was making a return journey to Egypt, then on to the port of Alexandria. Shouts of greetings passed to and fro, swapping news as they went.
“They have journeyed from as far as Ur and Babylon, judging from the carpets they carry,” said Yusuf, “They would have passed through Damascus. They may have spoken news of it to my father. If you will excuse me I shall rejoin him. Salaam.”