I left the house, blind with tears and the familiar flush of stress. “Just go,” my mother said, doing her best to contain the small flailing body in her arms. “We’ll be fine.” I nodded and turned my back on them, hurrying into the bright sunshine. As I headed for the market, my daughter’s shrieking was audible for some time. For the umpteenth time, I apologised silently to our neighbours.
Balancing the water jar on one hip, I pushed at a damp lock of hair with my free hand and tried to make myself focus on the details of the street: the sweet face of a tethered donkey, a window box of red geraniums. This was my daily escape, and I always tried to make the most of it. It was important to try to hold onto normal life. At the village well, there was a small throng of regulars. The more extroverted women exchanged news and funny stories. The price of tomatoes had reached a record high; a younger brother was engaged at long last. I hung back and listened, enjoying the social contact.
“I heard that the teacher is staying at Sirene and Thomas’s house,” announced one woman. There was a buzz of amazement. I blocked out their responses, my heart suddenly beating hard. When my jar was full I slipped away, taking the back route through the town. I had heard a lot about this teacher and his unorthodox ideas, and had even seen him from a distance. “Nothing that goes in can defile you,” he’d told the outraged Pharisees the other day. “It’s what comes out of you that matters.”
His words were so new they had us talking – some scandalised, some vindicated and all of us intrigued. I felt hopeful as I heard his new interpretation of the old words. The scriptures defined life for all of us, even those who’d moved here from other places.
At the door of Sirene’s house I paused to steel my nerves before knocking. She opened the door, defensive, blocking the doorway with her body. “I need to see the teacher,” I said. “I know he’s here.”
“He’s resting,” she hissed. “No one can see him. He needs a break!”
“Let her in, Sirene,” a voice called from the dim interior of the house. She stepped aside reluctantly, telling me off with her eyes. I apologised with mine, and then I was before him. I bowed at his feet, a thick kind of tremor washing over me. “My daughter has an evil spirit,” I said into the floor. “I know you could heal her.” I heard him sigh heavily. I sat up slowly, raising my eyes to meet his. He looked tired but there was a deep attentiveness in his face. His presence was intense: his face so authentic and undefended that something sparked into life within me. Our roles, normally such prescribed social norms, seemed to fall away. We were simply two people, plus that bigger presence that he carried with him.
You can share it with me, he seemed to say. Tears forming, I silently offered him the pain of these last few years. There was the social judgement, the longing for a closer connection with my little girl, the sheer frustration of dealing with such a high-needs child. You are helping people like me, people who battle alone, I said to him silently. I believe in your God.
He spoke, taking me by surprise. “Of course, it is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.” I heard the sharp intake of Sirene’s breath, betraying her presence in the next room. I was no less shocked and automatically dropped my eyes in the posture of deference to give myself a minute to make sense of what he had said.
He had thrown me one half of a riddle – my job was to complete it and throw it back to him with a twist. This pattern of speech was exclusively male and usually the domain of religious leaders. I recognised it as such straight away, having often heard the scribes and Pharisees speaking like this to one another in the market place as they pulled apart the meaning of the ancient Jewish scriptures. I’m a woman. I’m Greek. Be careful now—yes he’s unconventional—but is he really treating me as an intellectual equal? Sirene clearly doesn’t think he should be!
Yet, hope pounded within me. I could answer this.
“You are right, sir,” I agreed with him, formulating the next part of my answer carefully. I know you’ve come here to save your people. But I feel like your mission is greater than that. We need you too. Finally I spoke aloud, responding in kind; “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that drop from the children’s table.”
I bowed again, if anything just to hide my burning cheeks. Verbal jousting with religious gurus was not familiar territory. In one sense, it was exhilarating; in another, it was terrifying. Had I gauged it right? Had I pushed him too far? I could almost feel Sirene levitating with agitation in the next room.
“Go home, where you will find the demon has left your daughter,” he said gently, a smile softening his face still further.
Relief flooded me. I kissed his feet, tears falling freely now, and stammered out my thanks, before racing for the door and the most hopeful, wild run for home I could ever imagine.