SHIMON TOOK precautions. He asked the town’s nagar to reinforce the door of his house with strong pine. And every evening at sundown, Shimon gave his crippled brother a curt nod and made sure that his mother bolted the door behind him with heavy planks of wood; through the door, he could hear her breathing hard with the effort. Then he walked out through the storm-battered houses of the fishers and hurried down the grassy tideline to the boats, to join Yohanna and Yakob, his uncle’s sons, in readying the boat that had been his father’s for their night’s long battle with the sea.
The fish they brought back, a few dancing in wide nets, were just enough to keep them all alive—never enough for them to buy another boat or gather any wealth. The sea had been plentiful once, so much so that the fathers had told them that their fathers had been able to walk across the water from one shore to the next in calm weather without getting more than the soles of their feet wet—the fish had been so thick, they had just walked on their backs. The sea had been that full of the blessings of God.
But Shimon knew, with an ache of grief and old guilt as he pulled the oars and they went out to sea—Shimon knew the dead had poisoned the water. In the old stories, the lurching dead had blighted farm and field. Men and women who had been strong and hale sickened and perished. Perhaps it was the same with the fish. Sometimes in his dreams, while he shivered in his threadbare blanket, he thought he heard the emptiness of the sea, a kind of silent cry, like the cry the womb makes in a young woman who longs for a child and has none. The sea, once so full, longed for fish.
And some nights, out on the sea, they would haul up one of their too-empty nets and feel some weight in it. Looking down they would see rising out of the deep one of the dead tangled in the net, its face lifted toward them, eyes pale and white like those of a dead fish. Already reaching a hand toward the surface, its jaw opening.
Shimon hadn’t slept well in years.
Often, as he lay in his bedding in the morning hours while Rahel and his brother moved quietly about the house, he would wake, shaking, remembering. He recalled the eyes most. It was never the lurching walk or the low moaning from a dead throat that stirred him from his sleep; it was the eyes, for wherever Shimon hid in the dream country, those eyes were waiting there for him. He might be dreaming of having a great house of sunbaked clay, cool inside with many carpets—like the houses that men of the Law had, in Yerushalayim far away. He would dream of holding a great banquet there, and many men would come in clothes so fine that Shimon’s eyes ached seeing them. But always, when Shimon looked up from his food, he found his banquet guests staring back at him with those dead eyes. Those terrible eyes, in all their faces.
Or he might be dreaming of a woman, her body soft and scented beneath him. He would slide into her as smoothly as he might slip into the sea, and feel her clasp him, feel her arms about him, holding him to her; feel her breasts and her thighs against his body, damp with sweat. Yet as he began to move in her, she would not moan or cry out, and he would glance down at her face and see her looking up at him with those same eyes. Those eyes that held no life.
And he’d wake, his sweat cold on his face and back. He’d bite his lip and lie without tears, gazing at the open sky over the atrium where he and his family slept in the summer—or at the ceiling over his head in his cramped little side room if it were winter. In those months, the cold light from the atrium revealed the stone slabs of the roof laid over stout wooden beams, but though that wall between him and the vast unanswerable sky was familiar, it brought him no comfort. Shelter for the body, never for the heart.
* * *
Tonight Yakob rowed them quietly out into the dusk, and Shimon and Yohanna stood in the boat casting the nets again, the ropes cold and wet in Shimon’s numb hands, a damp that he could feel even through his thick fishing gloves. The nets were woven flax and weighted, and one had to hurl them out over the water; it took a lot of strength and precision to cast one, and it could take two grown men to pull up a net if it was full—but the nets had not come up full in a long time.
The boat creaked beneath them; it was old. In his father’s time, that boat would have been recognized anywhere on the Sea of Galilee. Now its sand-red paint was almost entirely gone; the boat had been skinned white by the water, like driftwood and sea wrack. Shimon and the others toiled on it like survivors scrambling for food in a ruin, as though they were three brothers who were the last remnant of their town. But the true brother of Shimon’s own blood sat broken at home in a broken house, his absence a bitter core in Shimon’s heart. Above the shore behind him, all the houses of Kfar Nahum were broken, each house a wounded body, burned and scarred and in some cases empty and boarded up, so many structures of memory and stone maimed years ago by men, living and dead, who had taken out their anguish, their rage, their grief and hopelessness on the bodies of others.
They knew their work, these three. Yohanna had the best eyes, and he watched the water. Yakob could endure at the oars the longest. And Shimon could sense the smallest shift in the wind; he knew when to let the sail fly or when to furl it up tight against the sudden rages of the shedim howling over the water.
“Maybe today,” Yohanna said, as he always did at the casting of the nets. He was a man who liked to hope. Shimon might have resented that, but Yohanna’s hands on the nets were strong, and in any case Shimon found it difficult to stir the ashes of his anger these nights. He felt emptied out, like his father’s house. He swung one of the nets, feeling the pull of its weight in the sinews of his arm. As it came around he lifted it high and cast it out into the wet dark, letting the rope pay out through his gloved hands, the cold sound of the water swallowing it. Shimon began the count.
“Maybe today.” Yohanna glanced at Shimon’s face, and his own fell. He added in a low voice, “There are blessings left in this sea. We just haven’t found them yet. We have to keep trying. Until the navi heals the land.”
Shimon ignored Yohanna’s optimism, as he always did, and Yakob changed the subject, as he always did. His hard eyes softened as he looked at his brother. “Tell us again about your navi,” he said. Yohanna had been one of the town’s self-chosen exiles, leaving two years past to seek out the wild caves in the cliffs above the Tumbling Water, where Yohanna ha Matbil, the baptist, whom some men called navi, or prophet, lived in defiance of the moaning shedim, forsaking town and city, living on locusts and camel’s milk and leading men and women down into the water to wash away their evil.
Shimon’s count reached twenty and he tightened his grasp on the rope, stopping its slide. He sat quickly on one of the boat’s two benches—the one nearest the stern—and knotted the rope around one of the iron hooks set between his feet. The original hooks had long since needed replacing, and it had cost him severely. The iron came from Threshing, and the men and women of Threshing wanted nothing to do with those surviving families who wrestled their hunger in the emptied houses of Kfar Nahum.
Yohanna cast his own net and told his story as he knotted the rope. Shimon took up another net and swung it out into the night as he listened.
“He brings everyone up from the water with his own hands; he won’t let any of his followers do that. He will look into the eyes of a man he’s lifted from the river, and say things that I still hear in my heart though my mind doesn’t understand. He would look in your eyes and say, Prepare yourself, God is very near. Or he would say, We are all kin. All tossed together by God into this world.”
“We are all kin,” Yakob repeated quietly.
“I asked him about that,” Yohanna said. “One night when the stars were out and all the baptized slept in their tents by the riverbank. I went to him and I said, Rabboni, my teacher, my master. I said, Who are my kin? And he just looked at me as though I should know the answer without asking. He is like that. He doesn’t talk much, Yohanna ha Matbil—unlike me, though we have the same name. He hardly ever says anything, really, and so he teaches us all to listen.”
“We are not all kin.” Shimon’s voice was gravelly, as he hadn’t used it yet that night, and it startled him to find himself speaking now. “The Romans are not my kin. Those Greek-loving Hebrews in Threshing and Tower, they are not my kin.” Something flickered inside him, then settled, and he sat back on the row bench, silent and heavy. The others didn’t answer or challenge his silence, and after a few moments he ceased to be a man and became a part of the boat again.
* * *
Then there was only the silence and the sea and the starlight. A few times, the men pulled up the nets for a look, and the few small, lean musht they caught soon lay glistening in the bottom of the boat. Perhaps enough to feed the three of them and their families for one meal. When the nets were back down, they slit the fish open and gutted them and then wrapped them in sheaves of lake-weed that they kept in a bin behind Shimon’s bench, a bin filled with water to keep them fresh. Shimon watched the wrapped fish for a while, numbly; then he lifted his eyes and watched the dark surface of the lake, that watery mirror of his own heart. There was no wind tonight; years before, when Shimon hadn’t yet learned despair, he would have been thankful for that. The wind was to be feared; demons rode it, the shedim that wandered in the desert places until witches called them out of the dark or until the wind picked them up and swept them into the towns and the stone houses of the People. Sometimes one heard them howling and keening in the rocks high on the hill of tombs, and if a man did not live a good life and keep the words of the Law often on his lips, if he opened his mouth too often to speak blasphemies or untruths, the wind might blow a demon into his mouth. The demon would inhabit his body as a man inhabits a house, but would damage the house it dwelled in, casting the man to the earth in fits or tormenting his mind and making him shriek and curse at people who weren’t there. Zebadyah the priest claimed that these same demons inhabited the corpses of the unburied dead and the unclean and half-eaten, that it was these shedim that drove those corpses stumbling to their feet and made them pursue and feed on their living kin.
So when there was a cold wind over the water—as there often was, chopping the surface of the sea and cutting even through his water-coat—Shimon shivered amid his numbness and his grief, and drew his coat more closely about his body, as though by keeping covered, he could keep the demons from slipping inside him. And when the night’s catch brought up a few fish, he was always careful when he gutted them to take out the heart and wrap it in a bit of lake-weed, tucking it into his coat. Before sleeping for the day in the empty house that had been his father’s, he would hand the heart to his mother, who lay it on the coals of the smaller firepit in their atrium, the one they didn’t use for cooking. The smoke from the fish’s heart would keep even the most malicious of the shedim away, for their fathers had taught that the fish were God’s gift to the People, to make them strong and virile and prosperous.
But now it was rare to smell the heart-smoke of the fish, and Shimon feared that each wind brought more shedim into the town, and that even the water itself had become a house for the demons, a dark mirror of the air that was their usual home. Somewhere down under that dark, placid surface were many pale corpses, some buried perhaps in the sediment, some drifting in the water. A soft glow on the far edge of the sea signaled the coming dawn, yet Shimon felt cold.
“Do you never think of what waits beneath our boat?” he asked suddenly.
The others turned to look at him.
After a few moments, Yohanna cleared his throat. “Fish, I hope. Somewhere.” He was pale.
“I never stop thinking of it,” Shimon said. He kept staring at that still, deceitful surface. “You think you can forget everything in this silence over the water. You think you can leave your dead beneath the waves. But there is no lasting burial.”
* * *
They took up their oars and rowed slowly, letting the nets trail behind in the water, in no hurry to return to their surviving kin with news of another night lost. Shimon sat in the middle of his despair like a hard gray stone. But then he glanced up from his oar and saw a single white seabird, the morning’s first. It skimmed low over the sea with a swiftness that was holy. His gaze followed the bird’s long glide, and for a few moments the sight of it made his numbness almost pleasant, the way that the last slide into sleep is pleasant, when a man loses all feeling but that soft weight of drowsiness.
Even as the bird lifted into the sky, the sun burst over the water behind them like the sounding of a shofar, lighting the bird’s wings and the water beneath it, and blazing against the white walls of Beth Tsaida, the fishers’ houses by the tideline below Kfar Nahum town. Those were houses of stone built to withstand the strong winds from the sea. Houses built to last; only the people inhabiting them had not.
As if in answer to the sun’s arrival, an eerie cry sounded over the water. A high, wavering cry, a wail. Shimon stiffened; for a moment he didn’t know what creature was uttering that scream, though he thought there were words in it.
“What was that?” Yohanna gasped.
“A man,” Yakob said, looking over his shoulder. “There’s a man on the shore.”
Shimon glanced where Yakob gestured, even as the cry died away, leaving his heart beating fast. They were close enough to the shore now that if Shimon had held up his arm and tried to cover the man with his hand, he would have needed to use nearly his entire palm.
He squinted against the sun’s glare on the water. One of the boat people, maybe, though the man was standing with his feet in the sea. Why one of the vagrants would walk out into the breakers and risk the touch of the waterlogged dead, Shimon couldn’t imagine. The man wore a wool robe the color of sand, though it was torn, dirtied. There were bruises on his face and arms. A vagrant, maybe one of those men with a demon that made him shriek in the night until the fishers of Kfar Nahum drove him away.
Yet that cry, that terrible cry.
Shimon could not slow the thumping of his heart. The oars slipped in and out of the water, and the boat moved smoothly toward the shore and the man.
The man on the shore lifted his hands to his mouth and called out again, and the cry carried loud and far. Yakob cursed and made the sign against the evil eye. That high wail as though he were the God of their fathers in the desert, calling the People to Har Sinai, the mountain that touched the clouds. Shimon made out one word in old Hebrew, strangely ululated: the word for fish.
“God, I wish he’d stop that,” Yakob whispered, pale.
The very air seemed to quiver as the cry went on, and on. Then the boat lurched hard to the larboard, tilting, nearly tossing Shimon into the sea. He grasped the bench and his feet scrabbled against the side of the boat as the gunwale nearly touched the surface. The boat—they were tipping! With a bellow, Shimon threw himself across and up against the highside. Yakob and Yohanna did so, too, shouting over the cry from the shore.
“Did we strike something?”
“I don’t know!”
“Right the boat!”
Shimon roared. He knew from the boat’s tilt that the keel was coming dangerously near the surface, and he heard water lapping over the low gunwale as the boat fought for balance. Glancing down, he saw dark water coming over the gunwale and the nets trailing in the sea, and gasped.
There the nets were, some way below the surface, and he could see that they were full, in fact perilously full, of teeming, squirming fish. Musht and barbels and sardines caught in the tight weave of the nets. The fish were blue-silver and they flashed in the dawn, like pieces of living iron. Their thousand mouths opened and closed helplessly, their eyes dark and glassy as if with shock at their sudden birth and capture, as if tossed in one slippery instant from God’s hand into the waiting nets.
“Fish,” Yakob whispered. “Fish.”
“Fish,” Yohanna whispered.
Then Shimon was whispering it, too. The word fell from their mouths like a sigh of awe, like an invitation to wake from an evil dream. Fish . . . fish . . . Their sigh went out over the water until that word and the slosh of the waves against the boat and the slapping of the wet scales of fish against each other’s bodies and against the straining nets became one sound, one hope.