By Bryant Burroughs
I had always felt safe in my father’s house until this day when I didn’t anymore.
Now, he and I sat quietly in a little inn, trying to avoid the clamoring crowds outside. The morning’s events had inflamed the entire city, and Roman soldiers patrolled the streets, quashing shoving matches and fistfights.
“I’m so sorry, Susannah,” my father said repeatedly, tightly clutching my hands as if I were still a child. “It’s all my fault. How could I have been so blind?”
My father has always been ferocious in his love for me, trying hard to stand in for the mother who died in childbirth seventeen years ago. If goodness could be measured by the desire to be good and by the witness of the beneficiary, then my father was truly good.
He had been the one I ran to as a little girl asking, “Where is my mother? All my friends have mothers. Why don’t I?” Every time, he wrapped his arms around me and said, “Your mother loved you so much that she chose to give her own life so you could live.” I hadn’t understood. Why did she have to make a choice? My friends’ mothers are alive. Were they not faced with such a choice?
My father was still my sanctuary, where loneliness and grief could not find me. He was my safe place.
Sitting there, looking at his faced lined with worry, I saw the man who tutored me every day in the language of our people, so that by my sixth year I could read the Law and Prophets and histories of Israel. On my tenth birthday, he had invited me to accompany him to visit his cousin, Lazarus, as they talked endlessly about God and life and obedience to the Law. Even as a little girl I knew that these moments made my father the happiest.
Now grief shattered him.
“Do you remember the question I asked you one evening as we walked home from Lazarus’s house?” My father did not respond to my question, but I knew he remembered.
“I asked whether you thought this rabbi was a traveling teacher, a healer, or maybe a prophet as in the old days. Do you remember your answer?”
My father shook his head.
Touching my heart, I said, “I recall every word, and I’ve kept them right here. You answered, ‘He is a soulist. He talks to souls.’”
Our eyes locked, and we both knew that what happened this morning had been born from my father’s decision to welcome this rabbi who traveled from town to town. While my father felt drawn to this teacher and his message of love and gentleness, others condemned him. Josiah had been the most vocal opponent of all.
Josiah was my father’s close friend, descended from a long line of rabbis and a reader in the synagogue. His wife had nursed me through childhood sicknesses, and his two daughters were each as close to me as any sister could be. As children, we had run and played in the olive groves that circled the village, and I had been a bridesmaid in their weddings, only a few months apart.
For as long as I could remember, Josiah had visited my father every day. They sat together on a stone bench in the olive grove, my father’s place of conversation with friends. But lately, raised voices replaced the familiar sounds of friendly discussion drifting into our house. Something was wrong, I knew, but each time I asked my father about the arguments, he responded, “Josiah and I have been talking.”
I could not see it then, but now it became clear. To punish my father, Josiah planned to attack him where he was most vulnerable. Me.
Today, the day of the Great Feast, had begun with abounding happiness. The sky was brightly blue, and our friends were joyous as we began walking down the hill toward the temple. Children dodged in and out of clusters of adults. Even my dear father had abandoned his reserved demeanor and I teased him about his lightheartedness.
We had not walked far when Josiah’s wife puffed up the path to catch us. “Susannah, my daughters are coming just behind me. They want to walk with you,” she told me. “Wait for them here while I go ahead.”
My father nodded his approval and continued on. The group’s singing and laughing faded as I sat with my back against an olive tree, waiting for my friends. They never arrived.
The coldness of the voice behind me made me jump.
I saw it was Josiah, but before I could say anything to him, he grabbed my arm and jerked me to my feet as a dozen men rushed at me.
“Stop!” I shrieked as they ripped away my robe and tunic. I twisted when their hands groped my body.
I saw their leering faces, contorted with anger. One thought kept repeating in my mind. Every one of these men has sat with my father on his bench in the peace of the olive grove.
“Father!” I screamed, “Help me!”
The men laughed and jeered.
“Oh, you’ll see your father soon enough,” Josiah hissed.
His mob pulled and dragged me down the hill toward the temple. I struggled and fought, but soon my strength waned, and my screams weakened into sobs.
As we approached the city gates, two of my captors shoved through the milling crowd, shouting “Make way! We have an adulteress—caught in the act!”
Shame shot through my soul. Why were they saying this? Surely, they knew I was innocent.
The crowds cleared a path, then followed my captors as they muscled through a throng gathered at the temple wall. They flung me into the dirt of that cleared space.
Pierced by the wide-eyed stares, I wrapped my scratched and bruised arms across my exposed breasts.
Shame saturated my soul—no one had ever seen me like this. I squeezed my eyes shut.
“Silence!” Josiah shouted. “We have caught this woman in the very act of adultery!”
“You lie! She is no adulteress.” I heard my father’s shout, then felt the soft drape of his robe over my shoulders. “Who are you to falsely accuse my daughter?”
“We all saw her, just as you see her now,” Josiah shot back. “All of us swear.”
“Then where is the man?” my father bellowed. “You know the Law. You must bring both the man and the woman.”
I stole a glance at my father as he turned slowly, facing every man in the mob. “You are lying, every one of you.”
Josiah tightened his fists as if to strike my father. “I’ve not brought her to you, but to your friend, the rabbi. Where is he? Or is he afraid to show his face?”
“Here I am, Josiah,” the rabbi said, stepping out of the crowd.
““You!” Josiah spat his words. “The Law demands that when a woman sins, we are to stone her.”
Pulling my father’s robe tighter around my body, I watched as Josiah scanned the crowd. Then he turned to the rabbi. “But we have heard that you often put aside the Law. We have heard how you sit and eat with sinners.” He swept a hand toward me. “A woman such as this adulteress.”
The crowd began murmuring, and Josiah raised his hand for silence. “You decide,” he sneered. “At your word, we will stone her or set her free.“
Silence weighed on me, beating down like the sun overhead. I opened my eyes to slits and saw a shadow fall across the dirt where I huddled. The rabbi crouched down in front of me, and I felt the breath of his soft words: “Little one, look at me.”
I opened my eyes wider to find his face inches from mine, and he smiled. It stirred deep in my soul.
I watched as he began scratching in the dirt with his finger. His eyes never left mine.
“Josiah,” he called over my head as he scraped in the dirt. “If you have nothing to hide, if you yourself are sinless, then pick up that stone at your feet and hit her.”
There was only silence, as if sound had fled the very air around us.
I looked at his marks in the dirt. It was my name. He had written my name. I touched the letters one by one.
After an eternity, the rabbi lifted me to my feet. I steadied myself on his arm, clutching my father’s robe close to my body. “Where are your accusers, Susannah?” he asked. “Is there no one here who condemns you?”
I looked around. Large stones marked the places Josiah and his cohorts had stood. The crowd remained, circling my father. But my torturers had fled.
“No one accuses me now,” I said. “They know the truth.”
The rabbi beckoned my father to us. “Return to your house. You will always have a place there.”
As the day’s events retreated from my mind, I focused on my father across the table. He had aged a dozen years since that morning. It was time to put an end to our hiding.
“Let us go home,” I said, recalling the rabbi’s words. “That is where we belong.”
Bryant Burroughs writes stories and poems as reminders of those things he hopes are real and true. He and his wife, Ruth, live in Upstate South Carolina with their three cats.