Nazareth sits waiting, a dim silhouette against the formless sky. I’m under this rocky overhang, waiting for the rain to pass. Far to the east, black clouds part from the horizon, revealing the morning star in the lightening sky. Still, it rains around me.
At last, the sun peeks over the far hills, washing everything in blood. Viewing such a dawn, Uncle Joseph would say, “Red sky in morning, boatmen take warning.”
The old fool, so ignorant! Who would ever trust a fisherman to get anything right? I will never return to the smell of the Capernaum docks and the squalor of the shack where we spent those early, bad years.
Hmmm. I have an odd twinge of guilt. Poor Uncle Joseph had put in years of hard work building that fishing business. The old bachelor had been too busy to marry. He was a lonely man of thirty when his sister came to live with him, widowed with 4-year-old Jesse and me, a baby. We filled him up and gave him a reason to work so hard. Then, Mom died from some fever. My memory of her is dim. I was still learning to walk.
Uncle Joseph now needed a wife, but his prospects were dwindling. He decided that more money would suppress all objections. He bullied and borrowed to add boats and crew. This worked until fish prices dropped. So Joseph worked harder and took bigger risks. Fatigue and poor luck soon took his boats. He lost everything else when his leg got smashed between two heaving boats, leaving him fit only to remain ashore to mend nets.
He took to drinking. Folks all over Capernaum shook their heads and whispered about “divine judgment.” It surprised no one when we grew up wild and willful. The two of us ran away with a fool, Sam.
Damn! Running away with Jesse and Sam had been such a mistake, kids’ stuff. Now, we are lifting the purses from the unsuspecting “marks.” This life passing through the towns of Galilee was falling into a tiresome rhythm. Setting up a lift used to give me excitement. But it was always the boys who get to do the real stealing. My job is catch an eye, just distracting the mark.
I need to get out.
Now, here’s another flea-bit town! Nazareth is just a watering hole along the road. Caravans heading for Jerusalem used it as a place to prepare and freshen up. For those on the return trip, it’s a spot to wash off that city’s glorious filth. I need to create a life with no need for Jesse and do it soon.
The rain slows. Peaking under the end of the clouds, the rising sun’s glow warms my face. Pulling back my veil for more of it, I’m glad Jesse is not here. He’d demand, “Judith, cover up. Don’t attract attention!” He cared not about modesty, just about the job.
You can see it from a mile away. Nazareth has energy, not like the rest of Galilee. So many villages have that soul-crushing sameness about them. The people doing just as they should, sticking to routine, each one keeping her head down. “Just work.” It’s up to me to make something happen. Nazareth makes it seem possible. It is different, near a well-traveled trade route that stretched from Persia to Egypt.
Jesse has high hopes for Nazareth. He said, “There are fat merchants strolling around the aisles with their purses bulging with gold.” We are stepping up to a higher class of clientele. Jerusalem should be next. That is where our heaven will be. But, Jesse always said, “Judith, you have just one rule: If you attract attention too soon, you are useless.” This dialog runs over and over in my head.
Damn modesty! Roman women go all about, uncovered. They can go around any way they want. Why not me? Do I need modesty? Yes, I turned some heads. What of it? Instead of hiding it, my beauty will be a passage to my new life.
Hmmm. Roman women seemed to boss their men when necessary. I see it so often in the market. Their men trailing, the Roman wife would select an item and walk on. Her man would pay and tote it all behind her. These were big, strapping guys, the kind who bully all the Jews. A Roman, maybe a centurion, Oh, if I latched onto one of those!
It will happen soon. Maybe this place, this garden on a hill. Whatever Jesse will say, I now have the answer. Or I won’t say anything, just ditch them. If they followed and tried to press me to stay, I’ll expose them. I know enough to put them in real trouble. “Ha!” Jesse had no more power over me and that Sam will just have to moon over some other girl.
I’m getting close to town. Nazareth’s market sits near the brow of the big hill. The warmth was so delicious that, even near the town, I’m leaving my veil down. It’s not that scandalous. Many women went about uncovered, well a few anyway.
Maybe this place is old-fashioned. It’s right off a great trade route and all the world’s people pass by. It should be more up-to-date from all those strangers who came through. But the more the locals saw of the outside world, the tighter those folks clung to their customs. I better play it safe. The veil goes up. Jesse makes me so mad.
Fuming, I’m entering the main gate, not ready for the job.
Jesse and Sam would be on their way by now. “Time to be getting to work.” I’m supposed to find a suitable spot to wait and watch in the shadows, looking for a set-up. Instead, I’m walking right down the sunny aisles, mouth agape.
All the stalls and dozens of open tables displayed a wealth of goods of every type: vegetables, grain, cloth, beautiful dresses, and jewelry and many unrecognizable items. Yes! Everything changes right now. And it would be just a start. Next, I could get to Jerusalem or maybe even Alexandria. I will be a grand lady, going all the way to Rome. I will put the hard days behind. Forget that inner voice of restraint. It all would be easy.
I’m looking around for an easy theft, what Sam calls “low-hanging fruit.” One stall has its front table covered with color and shine, dozens of objects catching the light. An old woman, feeble and stooped, sits alone there, selling jewelry, perfumes, and other finery. There is only one other shopper in this lane, a man looking at some fabrics. Walking up to her, I see one item, a bracelet. It calls to me, nestled among the items arrayed on the front table. I can’t look at it directly. Instead, I’m looking in the opposite direction, the back table, something, anything to focus on.
“There, that lovely hand mirror,” I say. “May I see it, please?” as I’m still approaching. I dish her up my “innocent” smile. The woman nimbly turns and snatched it up. Rather than handing it over, she kept hold and brought it up for me. This surprises me, but I get back to business. I came in for a closer look. I steady the shaking grip with my right hand while supporting myself with the left, right beside the bracelet.
Mirrors are still rare and very expensive in Galilee. But they’re becoming more common as people learn the trick to make them. It was no-bigger than the palm of my hand. But it gave a bright, clear image. It was much better than a bowl of water that most women still depended on. The mirror showed a face that was so pretty that I made a genuine smile of delight.
Now. No one is watching.
I send my eyes to the back of the stall again. “Might I look at that bigger one?” As the merchant turns I sweep the bracelet into a fold of my cloak. The man at the other stall said nothing. If he looks at all, I’d guess it was not my hands he’s watching. By the time I look around, he’s moving on. Good, I’m safe.
The old woman returned, hands full of the larger item. I straighten up and put on a pout, “No, I think I like the smaller one. Could you please put it aside? My husband is selling our grain to the broker. I will bring him back later.” That will keep her busy, away from the front table while I walk away.
The older woman says, “For you, my dear, yes, of course. Come back with your lucky man.” She is beaming with greed.
What a rush! Tingling. Yes! I’m as good as stupid Sam. I had watched his technique. So natural. I reign in my thrill, strolling until I rounded the corner. Out of sight, I scurry to the opposite side of the market, counting the money I just made. I see a man at a large jewelry stall. Again, I put on my innocent look and hold it up for his evaluation.
“Brass and glass. Junk,” he says, unimpressed. “I deal only in real jewels and pure gold.”
Betrayed! I had risked so much and got nothing.
That old witch was no fool. “Pardon me,” he says. Shutting my mouth, I’m now thinking she will remember who came to the table just before the bracelet went missing. Not as good as Sam. I ditch the guilty item.
Damn! The boys will be here soon. If Jesse found out what I did…
I need to get in position. I walk around and I see it, just next to the market, is an ancient well. Good, it’s the perfect setup.
The area is a small, sheltered square. There are a few stalls around the well that cater to household needs. It is lively and filled with women conversing and doing a little trade of their own. One crone has brought a small boy, perhaps five years old, to carry her jug. He fidgets in this company, many patting his sweet head.
With no men around, the women are easy, some are lowering veils and bear arms. There is no privy right there, so the gals have to come and go. So, someone has left her jug unattended. I walk by it and then turn, picking it up with my back towards the crowd. No one sees me. The girl who brought it should have kept watch. Her master may whip he, if she’s a slave. Many jugs are heirlooms, kept for generations.
I took the jug to my waiting spot. I need to see the central lane and look natural while I linger. The boys are looking for me as they walk in the market. Since there are several lanes, they take some time. They have to look natural too. I do not look at them directly, but I catch Jesse’s signal that he sees me and likes my position. We cannot linger too long. If we do not spot a good mark after a while, we retreat and setup again in another spot.
Jesse spots a man. I see them trail the man. He looks like a prominent local man, perhaps an official. This man is short and somewhat fat. He is wearing rich clothes that fit well. My opinion counts for nothing, but I am not liking this man. If he is a local official, he will press a search for us, the ones that took his purse. I wait until the boys are ready. Sam does the actual lifting, so I watch for his signal. There, he puts his hand on his hip.
My work begins. I hoist the empty jug to my shoulder and start down the lane. I go faster than the mark to overtake him. I slow right before I pass. I almost brush past to make sure he notices me. I exaggerate the hip action to put more eyes on me, the distraction. I cannot see Jesse, but I am listening for his loud cough, which would tell me to stop. No stop, so I take another step and then fake a stumble. I crash the jug and it bursts. No one ever notices that it was empty. I drop to to my knees, being careful to expose my left leg, a shocking site for male and female.
With all eyes on me, Sam reaches for the man’s purse. Jesse shields the action with his body. Sam passes the bag to Jesse, who tucks it away. The boys head off in different directions while I continue to wail and scramble on the ground to cover their exit. Our victim won’t know that anything is missing until we have all disappeared. We each make our way to our meeting point, back at our inn.
I get there first and wait for the boys. Sam comes first, soon followed by Jesse.
Jesse is grinning, “It feels very heavy.”
“I thought so too,” Sam adds.
I wait until Jesse shuts the door and checks out the window to be sure no one is about. He pulls out a decorated bag, bigger than the usual coin purse. It has an official-looking mark and a fancy clasp.
“My God! It’s a tax man’s collection bag!” Sam is almost shouting.
“Shut up, fool,” hisses Jesse. “I never saw one, but you are right.” He opens it and pours out many coins. Although none are gold, it is more money than we had taken in any previous month. We count out 170 denarii. Many families live for a year on less.
“Burn the bag,” Jesse orders.
Sam holds it up, “But it is so nicely made.” He hesitates and fondles it. He loves keeping souvenirs of his conquests, the dope! I snatch it from him and toss it in the fire.
Sam glares at me. I shout back, “What? Do you want to be crucified?”