One day he didn’t come back.
The wilderness had called to him since he was a boy walking small beside me. I held his hand a little too firmly in mine along the dusty paths to the city. The desert was all around us here, encroaching on our path from one safe town to the next. And while everyone in our group picked up their pace, he dawdled and hung back, even though I tutted and jerked him forward, glancing back with something like wariness in my eyes.
There was an expected path for this son of ours. But he was not like most sons, this only child. From the time he could run he was running away from me, out of the safety of the house, out of the safety of the village. I’d find him in a back alley, making friends with the stray dogs, speaking with the drunkards and the lame. And later on, he’d return home to me covered in the red dust from the hills with never a word about who he’d been with or what he’d done.
I’d sigh and tut and pull him inside again, one hand on the back of his neck. But I’d pull him close as he passed, keeping him with me for a brief moment.
With such an inability to remain in one place, no one imagined he would easily follow in his Father’s footsteps. This one would be hard to tame to a role that cared for the centuries old traditions, rituals laid down many ages ago. And yet here, in this place, a thoughtfulness, a stillness enveloped him. A tall, gangly teenager, all awkward limbs and sun-marked skin, whispered the words his Father taught him with hands uplifted, learned the repetitions, stood in the still darkness and listened to the ancient stories. He came home each day trailing incense and glory.
I didn’t dare believe he was cured of his wanderings, his wildness. I heard his hushed movements after we’d all gone to bed, heard the latch on the door click shut behind him. But I kept his secret, and shook the red dust from his cloak outside each morning as he ate breakfast. This boy so long hoped for until all hope had faded and my body had dried up like wheat in the hot summer sun. He had surprised us all by his appearance, stunned his Father into silence.
His disappearance silenced me.
He left one morning, a man, taking a loaf of bread still warm from the oven, wrapping his leather coat around him and pausing just once to kiss my forehead as I swept the house. The kiss left it’s hot imprint on my skin and I straightened up to watch him leave, walked to the door and watched him make his way down the road, until the moment he turned left where he should have turned right.
A year later and word came of my son. I heard the name in the marketplace, both familiar and oh so strange, like a roll of thunder on a man’s tongue. I nearly dropped my basket in my haste to find the person who had spoken it. John ben Zacharius, the Baptiser.
The next day I wrapped some bread and goat’s cheese into my cloak, tied my white hair up in a shawl, took up my walking stick and left the house, turning left at the end of the street. I walked slowly through the hot day, taking company with a family travelling north. We ate under the shade of the sycamore trees at noon, the sun high in the sky and the birds calling to one another overhead.
A few more hours and the sound of the river in the distance quickened my pace. We came over the brow of the hill and there it lay in the valley below us, a murky brown, swirling lazily downstream.
A crowd was gathered on the riverbank and below in the water I could see some figures, and in the midst of them the unmistakable shape of my son. Catching my breath, I squatted rocking on my heels and watched this man-child of mine moving through the slow current, arms outstretched across the waters, the wind bringing distant snatches of phrases to my ears.
I walked stiffly down the hill and stood under the shade of a nearby tree, peering through the crowd gathered, until it parted for a moment and I saw him again, standing on a rock by the river bank, water dripping fast from his body, his leather coat discarded at his feet. I longed to gather him to me and run a comb through that unkempt hair, smooth lotion into that sunburnt skin. But I was almost a little afraid of this wild man in front of me.
I moved around the back of the crowd, until I stood off to the side of him.
He spread his arms wide as if he would embrace the heavens and a smile spread across his face. “The Kingdom of Heaven is near! The time that was spoken of from the ancient days is approaching. There is one coming, one that the ancients foretold, the bringer of light to the world. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
He leapt down from his natural pulpit and headed left through the crowd, the men and women parting before him, some reaching out to touch his cloak, his arms, his back.
I stayed where I was, leaning slightly on my stick, and I saw him pause momentarily when his eyes met mine. He came towards me and his smile stirred something deep in my heart.
Leaning down, he placed a hot kiss on my forehead, whispering words too quiet for me to hear. His eyes met mine again and my own swam with hot tears as I saw it all unfolding before me in an instant – a dove descending, a jail door slamming shut. But he looked at me with the eyes of a prophet and I knew the Voice had spoken.
And so I let him go, and with another gentle smile over his shoulder he continued on his path back towards the desert, trailing clouds of dust and glory.
Sometimes I write out my own version of the stories of the bible that stir my imagination. This is one of those stories. You can read the original version here.