Rachel clambered out of the cart, stretched, then turned to help her mother.
Thaddeus hurried to the rear, “You should have waited, miss. There is a box here to help you down.”
Rachel stepped back, stood aside and watched Thaddeus reach over and retrieve the box from under one of the benches.
“I would imagine that my daughter was merely eager to get out, and did not think. We are in a hurry,” Elizabeth said as she stood, bent over, and carefully shuffled to the back of the cart.
“Yes, mistress, I understand,” Thaddeus said, reaching up to take her arms and steady her.
Allowing the young man to assist her out of the cart, Elizabeth said to her daughter, “Go to the gate and tell the servant we have come to see Rhea. Quickly! She must have enough time to make the mixture!”
Elizabeth stood and tried to ease the many aches in her body, while Rachel explained to the servant why they had come. Thaddeus walked over and said something to the lad before turning to lead the donkey and cart down a narrow lane running down the side of the property.
“Come in,” said the boy who kept watch at the gate. Then closing it behind them, led the unexpected visitors to where Rhea stood checking the plants in her herb garden.
“I hope we are not disturbing you,” Elizabeth greeted the servant.
Turning, Rhea greeted Elizabeth, recognizing her as the sister of her former mistress. A little anxiously she asked, “What brings you here during your festival?”
Elizabeth noticed that although she was in her herb garden, Rhea was wearing clothes that suggested she was dressed to go out, not for working.
“Both my sisters both sent me,” Elizabeth said, making sure that Rhea knew that Joanna approved of what she was about to ask.
“Something is wrong with the master, or mistress?”
“No, they are well, but my daughter and I have come on an urgent errand. Aminta’s baby son has the fever.”
“My poor Aminta.”
“Baby Jacob is not yet three months old,” Elizabeth said, not knowing whether Rhea was aware that Aminta now had a son.
“Mistress Sara told me about the baby boy.”
“As you will imagine they are all extremely upset at this illness...”
“What has been done for the child?” As she listened, Rhea started plucking leaves off selected herbs.
“They are trying to cool him, but it has not worked.”
“Does he have the rash?”
“Yes. I know it is the fever,” Elizabeth said, stiffening.
Looking up at Elizabeth’s tone, Rhea guessed she had lost a child to the fever, and trusted her words. She wondered about her former charge, and longed to ask if Aminta was coping, but decided not to.
“Timothy,” she called to the lad who had gone back to the gate. “Take the visitors inside and ask your sister to look after them. I have to make a fever mixture to send to the farm.”
Elizabeth offered the supplies that Kyla had sent, “My niece sent these. She knew we would have to spend the night, and no one would be expecting visitors.”
“Give them to your sister, Timothy,” Rhea said, passing the bag to him.
“Please, follow me,” Timothy said and turned towards the house.
Rhea’s mind worked as fast as her fingers while she carefully plucked herbs. She knew that Joanna had not entirely trusted her during the time she had been at the farm. Sara had sent her with the girl, hoping she would help Aminta to settle into her role as the wife of the only remaining son and heir to the ben Nathan farm. Would they blame Aminta if the baby died? How would that sweet young girl... mother now, how would she cope?
“Rhea, are you ready?” Mary had opened the gate, and seeing her friend in the herb garden, called out. She knew how easily distracted Rhea became when she was there amongst her plants.
“Hush, Mary.” Rhea cautioned, hand flying to her lips. “Some visitors have arrived, from Mistress Sara.”
“Oh.” Mary stepped back through the gate and closed it.
She looked towards the house. Thankfully, it seemed that Mary’s call had not been heard by the visitors, and Rhea went back to her task of gathering herbs. Pity she could not attend the fellowship meeting and ask for prayers. Sighing, she forced herself to focus; Aminta needed her skills to save the baby, and she could pray while she worked.
“Bracha,” Timothy called. “Come and attend to some visitors sent by Mistress Sara.”
A young servant girl hurried to the door, “Thank you Timothy.” Surprised, she looked towards the herb garden and saw Rhea working there.
“We are here for some healing mixture for your mistress’ grandson. We will have to spend a night here.”
“All the rooms are clean and ready. Will you both want one?”
“We will share,” Elizabeth said. “We will be leaving to return to the farm at dawn.”
“Then please come with me,” Bracha said and led them to a room with two pallets on the floor.
“Is there anything you need,” Bracha asked, seeing that the pair had few possessions, just a bundle carried by the young one.
“No, my child. We have brought all we need for our short stay.”
“Then I will bring you some warm water to wash off the dust of your journey.”
“Oh, thank you,” Elizabeth sighed, “I would be grateful.”
Bracha hurried to heat the water.
Rachel put down the bundle she had brought all the way from the farm. “I brought our clean shifts, Aima. Shall we change into them when we have washed?”
“That would be a good idea, my dear. There were parts of that road that were so dusty I thought I would choke.”
“It was not like that when I walked to the farm with Aminta and Chanan.”
“You heard what Thaddeus said? That long section is not being looked after.”
Bracha put down the basin she was carrying and knocked on the door.
“I have brought some water. My brother is carrying the large jug, is it alright for him to bring it in?”
“That was quickly done,” Elizabeth said.
“DohDah Rhea told Timothy to fill the large basin and heat it.”
Elizabeth’s forehead creased in puzzlement. The girl was using the Hebrew word ‘aunt’. If Rhea is the aunt of this child and her brother, surely they would have used the Greek term.
“Mistress, the jug is large and heavy. May Timothy bring it in?” Bracha repeated,
“Yes, of course. Sorry, Bracha.” Elizabeth said.
Timothy brought in the largest jug Rachel had ever seen. After placing it on the floor, he quickly left.
Bracha went outside briefly and picked up the basin she had left there.
“We are going to wash, then change out of these dusty clothes.”
“Put them outside the door when you take them off. I will come back and collect them. If I wash them soon, they will be dry enough for you to take with you in the morning.”
“Judging by the position of the sun it is close to the eighth hour.”
“I know, but the mistress has a room that is used for drying the master’s clothing. I will only need to light a small fire to heat the room.”
Elizabeth and Rachel had exchanged a fleeting look before Elizabeth said, “No, that would be too much work. We are unexpected visitors.”
“Please, I would like to help you.”
“Then thank you, Bracha,” Elizabeth smiled, “you live up to your name, blessing.”
The twelve-year-old girl smiled shyly. In this pagan village, not many people knew the meaning of her name; if they thought about it at all, they merely thought it unusual.
After the girl had left, Rachel said to her mother, “I wonder why a girl with a Jewish name is not keeping the Feast of Tabernacles. It is commanded.”
“She and her brother might have been sold into this household as servants, perhaps not brought up in the faith.”
“But Aunt Sara and Uncle Micah are Jewish.”
“It is not our business, and you are not to embarrass that child by asking her any questions.”
“No, Aima. But, I do not understand why Aunt Sara...”
“We do not know, it is not our concern, and we will not make it our concern.”
Rachel hung her head. “I am sorry, Aima.”
Elizabeth stretched, then flexed her back. Changing the subject, she said, “That was a bumpy ride.”
“You should have sat in the front with Thaddeus.”
“And leave you to bounce around alone in the back of the cart? I think not, child.”
Using the dipper, Rachel put some of the warm water from the jug into the basin for her mother. “Do you want to lie down for a while after you have washed the dust from the journey off? It might ease your aches?”
Elizabeth looked at the pallet on the floor and shook her head. “No, I will wash this dust off, change my clothes, tidy my hair, and when you have done the same we should find Rhea and see if she wants any help. Standing or walking would be better than lying down at the moment.”
“We should take these dusty robes off now and put them outside. The sooner Bracha can wash them, the better chance they will dry.”
“That might be a good idea. At least our undershifts should be clean enough.”
As she washed and changed, Elizabeth pondered the same questions that had been voiced by her daughter. Rhea had not converted to the Jewish faith, although she had long been part of the household. Sara had kept her on, and Elizabeth understood why. But those two young people, brother and sister... why did they not keep the faith? Maybe they were only temporary servants while the regular ones were attending the Feast. As she had said to her daughter, it was not their concern, but she too was curious. And then there was that odd fact that the girl called Rhea her aunt. Rachel, thankfully, had not noticed.
After they had washed, changed, and left the room, they saw the dusty clothes were gone.
“That girl is a blessing,” Elizabeth said. “If only we knew if Jacob...”
“I know, Aima,” Rachel said as she followed her mother in search of Rhea.
Seeing another young female, Elizabeth asked, “Where is Rhea?”
“She is in the kitchen storeroom.”
“I am not familiar with this house, will you direct us please?”
“I will take you there,” the girl smiled, and took them to the rear of the house and pointed to an open door.
Pausing in the entry both Elizabeth and Rachel studied the room. It was much larger than the one at their home. While Rachel considered the well-organized stores and compared them to her grandfather’s storeroom at the shop, her mother gazed almost enviously at the long marble workbench running along one side of the room. Small bowls lined the space in front of Rhea and she reached into one, extracted a pinch, and added it to a slightly larger container in front of her. As she stirred it a spicy aroma filled the room, and Rachel noticed the vessel was balanced over a small fire.
Without turning round, Rhea said, “Not now, child, I am very busy. If I can finish this and leave it to stand, I will be able to go for some of the time.” Clearly she thought it was one of the young servants.
Forehead creased and eyes narrowed, Elizabeth struggled unsuccessfully to make sense of the comment.
Her head to one side, Rachel studied the woman. Ramrod-straight back, dark hair with streaks of silver in the hair that was severely tied in a knot at the back of her head, she looked forbidding. She wondered if the woman, who had seemingly been nurse, then servant to her cousin, was now Aunt Sara’s housekeeper.
“It is me, Elizabeth, and my daughter. Is there anything we can do to help you?”
Rhea started, then replied, “No… thank you. I know what I am doing. I have picked fresh herbs from the garden, and now I am adding the other ingredients. I have to add them together and brew them. Then they have to stand and cool before I can filter them. It will take time.” Pausing, she turned slightly to look at Elizabeth and Rachel before assuring them, “I use no spells or incantations. I use the skill and knowledge I have been given about healing herbs.”
“Rhea, if I had any doubt about that, I would not have brought the request, even though it was my sisters who asked.”
Rhea nodded and made it evident that she would rather not talk but work, and turned back to tend the fire, glowing in a metal saucer.
Fascinated, when she noticed it, Rachel made to step forward for a closer look.
Elizabeth pulled her back and assured Rhea, “Then we will not distract you.”
“That would be good, I need to pay attention to what I am doing.”
Rachel lowered her eyes. No wonder her Aunt Joanna had not liked her. Not that her aunt had told her, but from the way Aminta had spoken, and the woman’s manner, she thought it might be true.
“Then I think we will go for a walk,” Elizabeth said. “I am sure Rachel will agree. The journey was very bumpy. A walk might help ease the aches.”
“It might be good... but be careful; there are many people here for... the festival.”
Again Elizabeth’s forehead creased; she was puzzled. She was sure this mainly pagan village was too small to have a gathering for the Feast of Tabernacles. Those who observed it would either have gone to Levi ben Nathan’s farm, like Sara and Micah, or to the one in Ephesus.
Seeing the girl’s lowered eyes, and her mother’s puzzled look, Rhea softened a little. “If, when you have walked, the aches are still there, I will give you a mixture to rub on those sore spots.”
Thanking her, Elizabeth and Rachel left the house and wandered in the garden.
Rachel asked, “Where is she from originally?”
Knowing that this would only lead to more questions if she responded, Elizabeth chided,
“Rachel, not again. Rein in that curiosity of yours.” She stopped by a lush rosmarinus bush, gently stroked the spiky branches and enjoyed the pleasing scent it released and thought, ‘This must be one of the healing herbs that Rhea uses.’
“Sorry, Aima, I was wrong to ask questions about other people’s servants.” She held back the comment that she could not understand why her gentle cousin could be so fond of the woman. She seemed so cold.
Guessing the line of Rachel’s thoughts, Elizabeth volunteered, “My sister Sara, as you may remember, is Aminta’s step-mother. When her own mother died in childbirth, Rhea was the one who cared for the child. Wisely, Sara took over gently when she married your Uncle Micah, but Rhea remained the child’s nurse. It must be very difficult for her to know what is happening...” She stopped, and Rachel knew there would be no more spoken of on that subject.
“Aima, I am sorry for my curiosity. People interest me. That’s why I like working in grandfather’s shop.”
“You are supposed to be in the storeroom packing orders and recording the purchases.”
“I am... most of the time.”
“Rachel.” Elizabeth’s voice had a warning tone. “Your father is not happy with the work you do there, and if he hears about you being in the shop alone before we left for the farm...”
Defensively, Rachel replied, “Esther was in the storeroom, and grandfather was watching over me from the doorway.”
“I know, but you also know I did not approve! What your father will say, I fear to even think about.”
Before Rachel had a chance to respond, the sound of voices outside the gate had them looking at each other in alarm.
“Are they coming here?”
“It cannot be anything to be alarmed about, the men are still working in the garden,” Elizabeth said, walking toward the gate.
Calling Timothy, Elizabeth asked, “What is all the noise about? Are the people coming here?” Then peering through the small window in the gate, she saw the people thronging along the road were walking past, in seemingly high spirits. They were not coming here, and they did not seem to be a threat.
The boy looked up from his work and said, “They are having an extra meeting with the leader of the fellowship of the Way. They had a meeting this morning.” He stopped, realizing he shouldn’t have shown how much he knew. Looking at Elizabeth, he saw she hadn’t noticed. She seemed preoccupied.
“Is he an old man?”
“Yes,” he replied, surprised. “Have you seen him too?”
“He is a customer of my father-in-law.”
An older servant called, “Timothy, I need you to help Phillip and me with this well, or it will not be finished before the master comes home.”
The lad gratefully excused himself, pleased to escape more questions. He had been at the meeting this morning, and would gladly have attended this extra one, but his duties demanded he be here. It could cost him his position if his beliefs were known.
Watching the throng, chattering as they passed, Elizabeth made a decision. It was not responding to the emotion of the moment, she told herself. If it was the old man, John, it was an opportunity she had longed for. She had been pondering on trying to see him again since she had last talked with him.
“Rachel, you go back indoors and rest for a while.”
“What about you, Aima?”
Closing her eyes, taking a deep breath and raising herself to her full height, Elizabeth replied, “I am going to follow the crowd to the meeting and hear the man.”
“What do you mean ‘meeting’?”
“I think it is the man who prayed for Esther, that boy in the garden said it is the leader of the sect of the Way... he is having a meeting.”
“Do you mean what some call – the Christian sect?”
“I have heard them called that.” Elizabeth did not mention that it had usually been said scornfully. “It is what your Ab... some people, call the followers of that Man.”
“Aima, what if this meeting is like the ones our rabbis have, only for boys and men?”
“I don’t think their meetings are like that. Remember what the man’s granddaughter said? I am sure she said they all attended. Perhaps they have a section for women as they do in large synagogues.” She looked around to see if any of the menservants was listening. When she saw they were busy, she said firmly, “Well I will find out. I am going anyway!”
“Aima... you can’t. Abba would be furious! You say he will be angry with me for working in the shop that day. What will he do if he finds out you have attended a meeting of heretics?”
Opening her eyes, which were a faded version of Rachel’s arresting blue ones, Elizabeth stared at her daughter, “He won’t know if you don’t tell him. Will you tell him?”
“No... I will not tell him,” Rachel sighed. “But I don’t think it is safe for you to go alone.” Caught between her own curiosity; the allure of the old man’s beliefs; and her certainty that her father would be more than angry, she pleaded, “Please don’t risk it, Aima. We don’t even know what they believe.”
“We know some of it. We know what happened when that man prayed for your sister. Besides, he keeps the Sabbath.”
“But he believes HaMassiach has already come. Remember, he called on His name when he prayed for my sister.”
“But I want to know why his prayer worked and no one else’s did. I am sure he could heal my nephew also.”
Horrified, Rachel responded, “You wouldn’t dare ask him to come back to the farm!”
“Of course I wouldn’t,” her mother interrupted. “But I want to know why his prayer worked and Esther was healed, when all the prayers our rabbis made were not heard.”
“You went to that man’s home, to ask him.”
“It was the preparation time for Rosh Hashanah. It was not possible to talk properly.” What she really meant was that the questions she had asked ended up leaving her with more questions. “The time was not suitable, you were delivering supplies from the shop, Esther was scared, and they were preparing for the Holy Day. I should not have gone at that important time, and I needed to take you both home and finish our own preparations.” She looked her daughter with determination. “I want to hear him, find out what he teaches, which might explain why his prayer worked.”
Seeing that her mother was more earnest than she had ever seen before, Rachel decided, “I had better come, too.”
“No child. I know that I risk being cast out of our congregation. Your father would have no choice. But if he found out that you had come with me, he would cast you out, too.”
Sorrowfully, Rachel asked, “Is it so important that you would risk so much? Risk not seeing any of us, your own children, again?”
Elizabeth replied, “Yes, for some reason it is. I am sorry, Rachel. I love all of you, my children... perhaps you, my precious daughter, more than I should. The last thing I would want is for your father to find out that you knew what I intend to do.”
Nervously, Rachel said, “Then we’d better make sure Abba doesn’t find out. I am coming with you.”
“Rachel, you have just been trying to persuade me not to go!”
“I know. And I do not think you should go, but as you are set on this, then I am coming with you.”
“No, Rachel, I cannot allow you to take such a risk.”
Although privately she thought her mother was the one who should not be taking the risk, Rachel affirmed that she was going with her mother, admitting, “I am curious, too...”
Rhea came out of the house, startling them momentarily, but she was searching the herb garden, looking for one ingredient she had to pick immediately before she used it.
Pulling her shawl over her shoulders and making sure her veil was in place, Elizabeth called out, “Rhea, Rachel and I are going outside for a walk.”
Absorbed in her task, Rhea replied, “Remember my warning and be careful.”
Harvesting the rare herb, Rhea turned to go back indoors. She said, “I will see you when you return, and if you are still aching, remind me, and I will give you a lotion that will ease you.”
“I will,” Elizabeth replied, and hurried toward the gate.