Yusef looked down from the the bridge to the deck and to the lone figure leaning over the gunwales on the leeward side, facing the open ocean. They were now in the most dangerous leg of the long journey. After the run up the long western coasts of Lusitania they ventured into the fierce waters off the shores of Cantabria. They were now two Sabbaths out from Al-Gadir, and Yusef had put his young nephew to the task of scanning the horizon for signs of the sudden storms that were so common in the region.
“He’s quiet, and a good worker. His father has taught him well,” remarked the quick-witted Greek physician they had taken on in Massalia when they were forced to winter there. “The crew likes him, ” admitted Yusef, ” and there is no small virtue in that.” Of all the voyages a merchant could undertake, the tin run to Brittania, or as its inhabitants named it, Prydain the Mighty, was the longest, the most dangerous, but also the most profitable. However, the long tedious stretches of coastal navigation, together with the lack of civilized harbor for respite, made for frequent and sharp disputes among the crew.
“The crewmen take their disputes to him,” observed the Greek. “Ay that,” affirmed Yusef, ducking slightly to maintain his balance on the bridge as a sudden gust pushed them forward with unexpected speed. “He has a keen sense of justice, and an uncanny sense for uncovering the truth. With a gang of cutthroats like we have on this vessel, that’s invaluable. They take his word as if it were that of our Moshe Rabeynu.”
The Greek continued. “If he were lazy, or a drunkard, he wouldn’t command the respect he does, but he works like a young Trojan when we put ashore for repairs. He has a keen sense for wood, always picking just the right tree and fashioning just the right beam from it. He would make an excellent shipwright if he were to take up that trade.”
“I doubt Yashu will become a ships’ carpenter,” admitted the merchant. “He’s too good for this messy world. He’ll come to a bad end for it. What was it your philosopher said about the too-righteous man and his destiny? “
“Yes, the Thick One.” The Greek laughed aloud. “I’ve read that myself, although there are few that can abide his rigor in these degenerate days. Those who name him as their master now prefer to dazzle the masses with thaumaturgy, mix potions, and interpret omens. Hear the philosopher himself, then;
‘ the just man will have to endure the lash, the rack, chains, the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be impaled.’
That is a grim judgement on your young nephew, my friend.”
The merchant narrowed his eyes against the salt spray. The wind had picked up considerably. “No. The judgement is on us, ” The merchant turned and shouted to the young man below.
“Yashu! Any sign of a storm coming?”
“No, father,” the young man answered. “The wind and the seas don’t agree. The winds are playful and forceful, but the ocean doesn’t sing their tune. She is as calm as she has been since we rounded the Tower. In matters like this, I would trust the sea herself before paying heed to these inconstant winds.”
Suddenly, the doors to the middledeck flew open, and one sailor, a tall ruddy Gaul with an earring ran out, hotly pursued by another. The second sailor, a swarthy Syrian, had drawn a knife and bellowed at the first.
“Son of a promiscuous jackal! Violator of she-goats! I’ll have your egg-sack pinned to my wall! Give me back my goddess, you worshipper of cow-shit and sticks!”
The Greek took a step towards the bridge stairs, but the older man put a hand on his shoulder and restrained him. “Let Yashu handle it,” he advised.
The Gaul ran forward to the prow of the ship and turned, running along the leeward side of the deck until Yashu stepped into his path. The Gaul stopped short and the Syrian collided with him. “What is the dispute, brothers?”
The Syrian let the knife fall to his side. “This Gaulish pig stole my goddess while I was sleeping, young master, and put it around ‘s own swinish neck. A gift from my dear wife’s mother it is, to protect me on this long voyage.”
“Liar! False Accuser!” hissed the Gaul. “I swear, young master. This was given to me by Melita, princess of courtesans, young master, in Massalia these three months gone. I had thought it lost until I saw it around this ape’s neck, if you can call that wine-barrel a neck.”
“Let me see the goddess, ” Yashu requested. Sheepishly, the Gaul slipped the amulet on its leather strap off his neck and handed it to the young Jew.
“Can one man steal the favor of the Divine from another? Would this not turn into a curse?” he asked the Gaul . “The master of this ship is a Jew, and a devout one. Did you not fear that he would be offended by these superstitions? Would it not be better if I cast this into the depths of the sea, and thus end both the argument, and the offense? ” He swung the amulet around his head as if to toss it into the waves.
The Gaul exploded. “That’s just like a Jew! It’s true, then, isn’t it? You care nothing for the gods. You have no god in that famous Temple of yours, just empty air! Go ahead! Toss the goddess into the sea, then, and bring her wrath down upon us all!”
The Syrian, on the other hand, begged the young man not to toss the amulet overboard. “Please, young master! Let him have it. It’s mine, let him wear it for now. It will find its way back to me, by the love of my wife and her mother. I’ll win it from him at dice, or a sea bird will pluck it from his neck and drop it in my lap.”
Yashu handed the amulet to the Syrian. “He who enjoys the favor of the Divine, can he lose it by force, or by the craft of another?” He turned back to the Gaul, who by his demeanor had all but admitted his crime. “You still fear the winds and the waves? Here, take this.”
Picking up a nail and a pair of tongs, he heated the nail in the charcoal fire and bent it into a circle. After plunging it into the cold water, he wrapped a leather strap around it and handed it to the Gaul. “We are all of us alive by virtue of nails like this one. Do you think that the nails on this ship weren’t happy to continue their underground slumber? Do you think they enjoyed being wrenched from their beds by the smithies, scorched to the point of melting, then driven with force into the sides of this ship unbidden to support our enterprise? Yet here they are, and as long as they do what the Divine has called them to do, we can continue to do the same.”
The Gaul bent his head. “Forgive me, young master. Fear unmanned me, and made my stomach weak.”
Yashu laughed, and the laugh disarmed them all, even the merchant and the surgeon. “Fear will unman us all, if we let it. But fear not. This voyage will not end with us feeding the fishes. My uncle is a shrewd and generous man, and few of his enterprises turn out poorly either for himself or those who cast their lots in with him. You will return to Massalia with as much silver as you can carry. You will marry a dark-eyed maiden with hair like a raven’s wing and sire a cohort of strong sons and delectable daughters. As they said of Joseph the Comely in our holy books, you will see your children’s children’s children.”
At this, the Syrian gave the Gaul a sharp jab in the ribs. “Now, Gaul, that’s a better fortune than returning to that pockmarked whore Melita.”
May the Lord have mercy on my presumption