render unto caesar

Joseph sighs.

In the west, the sky is turning red in preparation for the short, brilliant Levantine sunset. The street dust, choking at noon, is finally settling outside the small workshop at the top of the street of carpenters. At his door, the carpenter stands, gazing down the road and out over the hills, slowly, methodically wiping his hands, leaving the evening to cool his arms and shoulders.

A long day. But a good one. Saw, chisel, plane; auger, mallet, dowel. Hard work, but satisfying. Back and thighs aching, palms and fingers burning, a splinter under a thumbnail: but the job complete.

The road outside is still, the town settling into a summer’s night. His thoughts come slowly, interspersed with long silences. Hungry now, thirsty. Will they come? They should be here by now. It will be too dark to see soon. No matter, tomorrow will do. From the yard behind the house comes the rasp and rasp and rasp of bow saw on wood. From behind the other door come the sounds of preparations for the evening meal.

At the foot of the street, a sudden commotion of dust and tramping: a troop of legionaries is rounding the corner and by chance they have run into a group of villagers making their way down to the synagogue. Joseph watches as the townspeople scatter frantically to get out of the soldiers’ way.

As the squad turns up the hill – a wagon and carter, ten men and a corporal, all told – and settle back into their regular step, Joseph nods to himself and steps across to the water jar. As he does, the door to the yard opens, and his eldest enters, binding his left hand with an old cloth. Joseph looks across, quizzically.

The boy, his mouth pursed with pain, says simply, ‘The old redbud trunk.’

His father shakes his head. Ugly, twisted thing – won’t get much out of that. Briefly he wonders what his son is trying to make. No, he will not ask, and if he did, the boy would not answer. Even so, a fine craftsman one day, thinks Joseph, a good worker too – when he’s not out in the hills, doing heaven knows what. He offers his son the dipper.

‘When you’re done, refill the jar, will you. We have guests.’ While son and jar disappear back into the yard, Joseph clears a pathway from front door to yard. Just as he finishes, the soldiers come to a halt outside, the regular tread of military formation dissolving into the mere shuffling of ordinary men. The doorway is filled with the corporal’s massive form, blocking out what little is left of day’s last glimmering.

‘Carpenter!’ calls the soldier into the darkness.

‘Here, officer,’ replies Joseph promptly. He has dealt with this one before. His neighbour tells him he is from Gaul (which Joseph knows is a land on the far side of the world) and he’s been in Judaea for almost four years. Seemed decent enough for a Roman. Knows a bit of Aramaic. Joseph is grateful – he has no gift for words, and knows nothing else.

But there is little place for conversation in their business: the soldier knows what he wants and Joseph need only indicate the door to the yard for the corporal to wave his men through. At the doorway the heavily laden boy, coming the other way, has to jump to keep the water jar from being swept from his arms.

Joseph and the corporal follow the soldiers, watching them from yard’s edge. Joseph offers the corporal the dipper. A soldier kicks the old redbud trunk out of his way. Best thing for it, reflects Joseph.

Space to work cleared, the soldiers start to shift the uprights and cross-pieces. It is a struggle even for two men to raise the man-sized beams from their piles, but once they have them aloft it’s straightforward enough, and soon an endless chain is flowing briskly through yard and house and out to the wagon. Then each freshly unburdened pair marches sharply around to the back gate and in again, and the flow is unceasing.

It had seemed an enormous job to Joseph, but the beams and bags of wedges and dowels disappear with astonishing speed. Once they are in full flight, hardly a moment passes before a new beam is thrusting through the door or a pair of soldiers is in through the gate to start the game afresh. The boy is back beside the wood pile again, trying to get closer to the soldiers, but they take no notice of him and let the beams fly where they must to get the job done.

Joseph winces to see the boy skip and duck between the swinging beams. They will brain him! he thinks desperately, but is rooted to the spot by the same scything uprights and crosspieces that threaten his child. But no, he is out of the way now, his back wisely against the far wall, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Good boy.

Beside the back gate the carter is carefully assembling stacks of the little seats, carefully sliding each new pile into a sack he has hung over a peg in the wall. Years ago, when the boy Joseph witnessed his first crucifixion, he had thought the Romans were being kind to offer the condemned this small comfort in the midst of such a dreadful death. But then his uncle, a man of the world, had explained. The seat was so designed that the victim could neither sit on it squarely nor avoid it without arching his back. As he twisted and lurched between the one and then the other, he increased the pull on the nails that pierced his palms and his writhing against the nails through his ankles. The cries and whimpering could go on for hours before the end came.

His uncle’s explanation had made Joseph throw up. The Romans were new then, and he had a child’s feelings. Now they are simply there, like breath and the hills and the burning sun and the feelings had dimmed long since. He does not think about it now, and is not troubled by the bag of little seats.

‘Well, that should settle a few of those rebels,’ observes the corporal to no one in particular.

He’s nailed up a few himself. It gives him no pleasure, but to a man who has seen the fighting he has seen, the cries and begging and blood mean nothing. One day one of the bastards had cried out to him, ‘Would you murder your brother?’ But he was not his brother.

Joseph glances across to the boy again, suddenly afraid for him. Lord protect him, he thinks. Be a carpenter – just a carpenter. As a soldier swings another cross-beam past his face, the boy reaches out momentarily to touch it, as though its reality had changed since the Roman took it up and he needed to feel it anew. He misjudges its flight and cries out in pain, snatching back a bruised hand.

The corporal too has a son – just a nipper, by a local woman. In a moment of uncharacteristic fraternisation he turns to Joseph and, barely audible above the din of shouting soldiers and clumping wood on wood, nods the boy’s way and says ‘You look after him’. He does not doubt that the carpenter knows what he is talking about.

One of the rabbi’s old sayings comes to Joseph, and he repeats it in a subdued voice. ‘Render unto Caesar…’

The Roman half hears his words and, more out of habit than any real curiosity to hear, cocks his head as if asking Joseph to repeat himself.

‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’ repeats Joseph, and adds, ‘and render unto God that which is God’s.’

The corporal continues to regard Joseph out of the corner of his eye, with disdain and perhaps a little suspicion now. No, he thinks, a little fish, no rebel.

A few minutes later, the last of the wood and the final sacks are clattering into the wagon and most of the soldiers are standing around outside the house, wiping their foreheads and puffing a little. The carter mounts and looks expectantly towards the corporal, who is standing at the front door now. Behind him Joseph remains in the shadow. The boy has gone again. Helping his mother perhaps. Perhaps not.

It is almost time to depart. The last soldiers are hauling the final beam out through the doorway. The corporal takes a small purse from inside his jerkin and drops it into Joseph’s outstretched hand.

But before the carpenter can withdraw his hand, the corporal suddenly seizes him by the wrist and slams his hand onto the cross-piece. The purse leaps from his hand, showering coins across the room. In a moment the corporal’s dagger is point down in Joseph’s palm and a small pool of blood is forming. The carpenter, frozen with fear, horror and pain, stares into the soldier’s eyes. After a long, long pause, the soldier speaks.

‘What is not Caesar’s?’ he growls.

His eyes linger in Joseph’s for a few moments more, and then he turns, barks his men into order and marches them back towards the great Roman fortress.

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