Celebrating Release day today for The Zealots by G.K. Johson!
Shim’on couldn’t remember the last time
Shim’on couldn’t remember the last time he had awakened without the heavy weight pressing down on him. He carried it like a bag of stones, dragging the weight through the streets, onto his fishing vessel, to the market, and back home every day.
The afternoon and evening hours, free of distractions and when he most needed sleep, were the worst. He could feel the pressure on his chest, crushing the life out of him, and bruising his heart and ribs. If it were a real sack of rocks, the bag would have been torn open by now and the stones inside strewn in his wake. But it wasn’t real and tangible, it only felt so, and he couldn’t shake the burden as much as he wished he could.
Shim’on lay in bed wishing he didn’t have to get up and go to the lake. In fact, he wished he hadn’t woken up at all. Yes, that’s exactly how he felt. He glanced over at his immah, who made the evening meal quietly attuned to her sons’ much-needed sleep. Shim’on watched immah’s movements. Maybe she wanted to keep her thoughts to herself.
He could never tell her his thoughts
The vision haunted him. Watching the Romans kill his abba happened over and over.
He knew the darkness inside him would scare her, and she was already scared enough. He knew abba’s Miriam needed him now, but she seemed to be grieving alone. Grief absorbed her not only because of the loss of her husband but also because of the depression and silence of her eldest son.
Shim’on sighed, the weight heavier than ever on his chest.
Looking back on that night, he cursed his cowardice. With his dagger, he could have at least tried to save his abba. Now Yitzchak was gone, and Shim’on felt crippled by the guilt and anger he carried. He was letting his immah down. He was letting Hanoch down. Even Yitzchak must be disappointed if he could see him now.
When Shim’on returned to their home that first night without Yitzchak, Hanoch had pushed him furiously. Deep in grief, Shim’on realized his brother couldn’t understand why he’d gone to Bin-yamin and Yeshua rather than to his own brother. Shim’on tried to explain, but Hanoch refused to accept his answer. His brother remained angry and hurt since that day, an invisible wall rising between them. Shim’on couldn’t blame him.
Reluctantly now, Shim’on pushed himself up from his mat and put on his leather sandals. His day as a fisherman was just beginning.
He performed netilat yadayim, pouring the water over his hands using a clay basin and cup. He nudged Hanoch awake from where he slept on an adjacent mat and waited as his brother readied himself. The young men ate a hasty meal before leaving.
Closing the door behind them, they began their short walk to the shore. Months ago, Yitzchak, Shim’on, and Hanoch had chattered loudly and happily as they made their way to the sea. Back then, Miriam laughingly teased that they were like the Shabbat shofar, letting the neighborhood know that night was falling.
Since Yitzchak’s death, the walk between brothers was made in silence
Reaching the shore, Shim’on strode down to the water’s edge and knelt. He scooped handfuls of the cold water to wash his face and wake himself up. Meanwhile, Hanoch commenced unfurling the sails.
Shim’on climbed back up the shore and into the boat, smoothing his hand over the boat’s cedar planking. The vessel was twenty-three-feet long and seven-feet wide and required a crew of five men to operate. It contained room for twelve to thirteen passengers, though they seldom had any though, after Yitzchak’s death, Shim’on had hired another man for their crew.
With a flat bottom allowing it to be pulled ashore, the crew was able to unload a catch quickly and efficiently. He joined his brother and their hired men, Demas, Tertius, and Gaius, as they deftly prepared the nets and hoisted the sails to take them to the middle and deepest part of the lake.
“Ready?” Hanoch glanced towards Shim’on. He nodded.
Hanoch and Tertius jumped from the boat and pushed it back into the water, then pulled themselves over the railing.
The warm wind filled the sails and they moved from shore. Shim’on took a deep breath of fresh air and exhaled. This was truly the one place where the weight lay lightest on his shoulders. He still felt it of course, but the physical demands of fishing distracted him from the constant thoughts battling in his mind. Gusts caused the boat to dip while skipping over the choppy water kicked spray against his face. Light from the full moon above them glanced off the waves, surprisingly bright. His abba had loved it out here too, and Yitzchak always had a knack for knowing where the fish would be from day to day.
“Adonai told me to fish at the north end today boys,” he would say, or “Adonai is good, He sent me a dream that we will fill a net just off the shore.” His sons and the other fishermen had often teased Yitzchak about his heavenly directives but more often than not, Yitzchak was right, and they would bring in a good night’s catch.
Eight hours into the wet smell of the sea, wet ropes, and the dripping sweat of labor, Demas appeared right. They pulled in yet another net filled with musht, enough fish to finally necessitate returning to shore to sort and unload.
The anchor rope glistened as Hanoch and Shim’on pulled it hand over hand into the boat. The sky began to brighten with dawn’s soft hues. One of the men raised the sail to catch the wind at their backs.
Shim’on manned the tiller as he pointed the vessel back to shore. Twenty feet from the shoreline, Hanoch jumped over the side of the boat. The water came to his waist as he guided the boat in with a rope and secured it onshore. Other fishermen were unloading their catches as well, and Shim’on felt pleased to see that their own was one of the largest. A proud smell of his full net was the scent of dinner and a roof over their heads.
Wives, daughters, and young boys not yet old enough to be learning a trade awaited their men on the shore.
The men would sort the day’s catch onto carts, and donkeys would then pull their loads into town to be sold by the women at the market. Since they had been forced to give their donkey to the soldiers before Yitzchak’s death, a neighboring family shared the use of their donkey until Yitzchak, now Shim’on, could afford to buy one.
Miriam stepped forward from where she waited with the neighbor women and walked toward her sons as they jumped off the boat into the sandy gravel.
“Looks like a good catch last night?” She looked questioningly at Hanoch and Shim’on.
“A very good catch, Immah!” Hanoch grinned at her, “Perhaps good enough to have lamb tonight?” Shim’on could see the joy her youngest son’s teasing brought Miriam. “That could be possible,” she grinned, and sobered as she looked at her eldest.
She looked from one brother’s face to the other, “Yitzchak would be so proud of you both.” Her eyes became misty, “He always said you two were going to be better fishermen one day than he ever was.”
Shim’on felt her words briefly puncture the hard shell that surrounded his heart and he could see his abba’s smiling eyes and hear his deep voice. The memories flooded him with grief, and he felt tears spring to his eyes. Abba had no reason to be proud of him now. Ashamed, he ducked his head and gathered up a handful of nets.
“Come, Hanoch.” he said more harshly than he knew was fair, “There’s no time to talk. Your work’s not finished.”
Glancing at Immah’s face, he saw the pain that his dismissal of her kind words had caused, and he felt a wash of guilt.
Hanoch stood awkwardly on the shore between them. Shim’on knew his words cut him as well, a sharp departure from the laughter they had shared a short time before. The other fishermen onshore continued their work, though Shim’on could see that some of them noticed the scene escalate.
Despair gutted him. Angry and bitter, the hungry wolves encircled his soul. Dark thoughts returning, chest constricted, he could hardly breathe. Distracted, he paused in his work. Arching his back, he released his anguish to the dawn.
Despite the beautiful pink and purple streaked sky shouting to make way for the day, darkness hung over Shim’on. Thoughts threaded their way deeper and deeper into the fabric of his being, leading the way to a dark pit. If only I had done more, he would not have died, he thought. But I didn’t, and he is dead. What kind of son am I? I’m worthless. Surely Adonai has turned His back on me. I haven’t even avenged Abba’s death. I should have been the one to die. It would have been better that way for everyone.
No longer able to keep the gall inside, he felt words bubbling to the surface.
“We won’t get to keep the money this catch earns us, Hanoch.” Spitting, he smacked his hand on the side of their boat, “So stop thinking of your stomach. Have you already forgotten the reason Abba died? Have you forgotten the money the soldiers demanded from him and that their gift for his death was demanding even more from us?” He was shouting now, and despite the visible hurt on Immah and Hanoch’s faces, he continued.
“I’m doing the best I can, but your laziness is not helping.” His directed words at Hanoch slapped his brother’s face. He knew it wasn’t true but felt trapped by his pain to continue shouting.
“And, I’m sorry I’m not ‘myself,’ Immah,” he aimed these words at Miriam, sarcastically mimicking her comment to Yeshua a few nights before. She flinched. “How do you expect me to be myself? With Abba dead.” The anger was at its peak, “Or don’t you remember?”
With this last comment, Miriam sobbed aloud, and Hanoch stepped forward, hands balled into fists.
“That’s enough, Shim’on.” He heard a slight tremor in his younger brother’s voice. Though two years younger, Hanoch was slightly taller, yet not as muscular. This was the first time Hanoch had dared to oppose him apart from playful roughhousing. Shim’on knew he would beat his brother if it came to it, but he had no real desire to grouse a fight with him.
“It’s enough to disrespect me,” Hanoch said in a low voice, “it’s another thing to speak against our immah.”
Indifference and disdain his pretense, Shim’on scooped up an armful of nets and dragged them toward an inlet further up the shore. Hanoch and Demas were left to tend to the fish and load the cart Miriam would take to the market.
As he made his way down the sandy shoreline, he tried to avoid the curious looks of the other fishermen. But one face caught his eye.
Lydia stood a short distance away, her eyes netted his pride with empathy. Another wave of shame rolled over him. Lydia’s face fell as his eyes hardened. Looking away from her, he continued down the shore. Tears pricked Shim’on’s eyes, but he refused to let them fall. That would be foolish and weak. No, it was better to cover his anguish and guilt.
He swung the nets over to where the Jordan River made its way into the sea, sat heavily, and threw the nets off to his side.
GK Johnson’s debut novel, The Zealots, has arrived. Will Shim’on’s guilt find acquittal or will it drive him to wrong? Will Hanoch accept Shim’on’s excuses and explanations regarding the night of his father’s death, or will he seek revenge?
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