- Karen L Higgins
Another wave of nausea hit as Johanna stared at the small basket of leftovers on her table. She turned her back and tried to breathe deep, but it did no good. It wasn’t the food. No, the few barley loaves and pickled fish were nothing to feel sick over.
But the images, the sounds, the horror. She couldn’t rid herself of them. She could hear the music blaring in her head, even here in her own small home. The jingle of bells from Salome’s bracelets, the flute and lyre, the catcalls and whooping. Then the words, forced out from the head cook’s throat.
“A platter, Johanna, now.”
She turned from scrubbing dishes to look at him, her mouth already open in protest. “But the lamb is all gone, the food has been served. Surely they’re not still hungry!”
“Don’t ask questions, just do as I say.” His eyes, usually twinkling with good humor even in this, the busiest of kitchens, flashed with fear instead.
She closed her mouth and quickly scrubbed the finest platter and dried it, rubbing the hammered bronze to make it shine. No more words were exchanged as she handed it to Rufus. She didn’t want to know.
Hurrying through the rest of her duties, she hummed to block out the usual gossip and the sounds from the courtyard, unable to shake the dread, the look in Rufus’ eyes. Grabbing the basket of leftovers that was part of her pay, she left through the servant’s door and started down the path leading out of Herod’s palace grounds.
But she could still hear the festivities; the laughter, the cackling, and then a roar of voices, Herod’s strong above them all.
“I always keep my promises, and so, I present to you...The Baptist!”
No! No, no, no. Anything but that. Surely....
“Johanna?” It was Rufus, coming after her from the kitchens.
“Rufus, don’t tell me they’ve...” She couldn’t finish the sentence.
But Rufus’ face told her everything she needed to know. The wine flowing without stop, Salome’s dance. And the platter. The one that she had washed. Somehow, they were all tied to the Baptist. To John. To the one whose words she had clung to, who had lowered her into the muddy water and brought her back up again, new and clean. The one who had given her hope. Who made her dream that maybe there was a reason for being, a job only she could do, that her life was not wasted.
That she was not somebody’s leftovers.
But now, with her back to the basket of food, her eyes filling with tears, now she knew that’s all she was, all she would ever be. When Herod killed John last night, he had killed her too. Because that’s all she was, a Roman soldier’s leftovers. Left horrified, broken and pregnant by his savage use of her at only thirteen. Nobody would touch her again, nobody would ever want her or love her.
Except for her boy, her son.
Benjamin rushed through the doorway, already speaking. “Mama, it’s time to go! Abigail and Joachim are ready. And Mama, we might get to see the Teacher! He’s in Galilee!”
She blinked away tears and smiled at his earnest face, his brown eyes aglow at the adventure ahead of him, travelling with his mentor, selling his baskets in marketplaces. He had never travelled so far. They had never been apart this long.
But the Teacher? Yes, she had heard the rumors. The neighbors had told her the Baptist gave him honor. But John, surely he wouldn’t have gone to his grave last night if this teacher was who he said he was.
Sighing, she reached out to smooth his tousled hair, avoiding the pleading in his eyes. Nobody knew yet about John. Benjamin knew none of the heaviness she was carrying. Would it be wrong to let him go listen to the Teacher, to build hope in his heart when there was none? But it would be wrong to bar his way, to come up with flimsy excuses, to hold him down.
Abigail poked her head around the door frame. “Shalom, my friend.”
“Shalom to you.” She worked up a smile, but she knew Abigail would see right through it.
Abigail entered and wrapped her in a hug. “We will take good care of him; you need not fear. I know you need time to recoup from your work this week. The birthday festivities for King Herod have taken their toll, I can see.”
So much more than Abigail could fathom. Tears filled her eyes and clogged her throat. She nodded against her shoulder, too weary to fight.
Benjamin wrapped them both in a hug before rushing to fill his water canteen.
“We’ll be back in two weeks' time, Johanna. Do rest, catch up on your work here. Have a peaceful time. And don’t worry!” Abigail smiled and turned to join her husband in the dusty street, Benjamin close behind, waving to her.
Johanna stayed at the door, needing to see them off. There were many gathering to travel in the caravan, excited voices filling the square, children running and singing, carrying sacks of food on their backs.
“Wait! Benjamin, come back! I have food for you!” How could she have forgotten?
Abigail called out, “Don’t worry, Johanna. We have plenty.”
But she needed to do this, needed to provide for her boy. She rushed back inside and rolled the loaves and fishes in a piece of linen, then stuffed them in his bag. This would do him for a couple of days. And then she wouldn’t have to look at it and remember. “
"Thanks Mama.” He reached up on tiptoes, kissed her cheek and was gone. Her little whirlwind, coming into her life with such force, teaching her what it meant to love.
She sighed and gazed around her empty home. It felt vacant, lonely. Looking down at her sleeping mat, she wished she could crawl back under the covers and sleep until the grief passed. But no, she had Benjamin to care for. There was bread to make and clothes to wash and mend. She had yet to go to the well, and then she needed to go to the market. And tomorrow she would have to go back to Herod’s palace again. The pit came back into her stomach.
The weeks passed somehow. Chore after chore checked off, done with the heavy cloud of horror and grief elbowing their way in. Cooking and cleaning in the palace kitchen, trying to block out the gossip.
Finally, the evening shadows stretched on the appointed day. The dust of the street settled and she sat in her doorframe, trying to choke down a barley cake.
Where were they? She shouldn’t have let him go. He was so young, still impressionable. And the roads could be dangerous, even for a large group of travelers. And then there was that Teacher. She should have gotten more information, made a practical decision without letting her emotions cloud her judgement. She broke off a crumb and threw it to the sparrows flitting nearby.
Then she heard singing, laughing, the sound of a crowd approaching down the narrow street. They rounded the corner and she stood, raising her hand to shade her eyes from the remaining sunbeams.
There, there he was. At the front, holding one side of a large basket, Abigail’s daughter Mary holding the other. What did he have? Behind him, she saw another neighbor holding a large basket as well. The more she looked, the more she saw. Twelve baskets?
Benjamin saw her and tried to run, waving his free hand.
She shouldn’t make a scene, that would only embarrass him. But she couldn’t stop her feet from running, her arms from wrapping themselves around him, her mouth from kissing the top of his dusty head, inhaling his scent.
She looked into his eyes and saw light and hope and joy.
“He was there, Mama! The Teacher was there!”
Mary spoke up, her usually shy demeanor bright and excited. “And he fed all of us with Benjamin’s food!”
What did she mean?
“I had five loaves and two fish left over, and he made them more!”
“Made them more?” They weren’t making any sense.
She shaded her eyes again and looked down the street. Oh good, there was Abigail and Joachim. They would explain.
“Johanna!” Abigail whooped and raised her hand. “You wouldn’t believe what the Teacher did!” She held her close for a moment, her mouth already moving. “There was a big crowd of us, out in the country, far from any village. We’d been listening to him all day, and finally I realized we were hungry but were out of food. He’s that mesmerizing!”
Benjamin nodded and smiled.
“So there we were, no food, no way to get any before it got dark. His disciples were going around, asking anybody for food, and your Benjamin had a couple of fish and five loaves left. Good thing you gave him those after all!”
The leftovers from the banquet. When the Teacher’s beloved Baptist was murdered.
Benjamin spoke up. “I gave him the food, and he took them to the Teacher, and then he prayed and somehow, he passed out my little meal to all of us. And there were thousands of us, Mama! Those are the leftovers, still so much even after our journey home!” He gestured around him at the twelve baskets full.
It couldn’t be.
She looked at the basket Benjamin set down. It was almost full of barley loaves. She touched one. It still felt fresh. She picked it up and held it to her nose. It smelt of clean earth and growing things.
“Is this true?” She looked around her at all the smiling faces and hope-filled eyes. Joachim nodded, slow and sure.
The leftovers from Herod’s despicable banquet. This Teacher had turned them into something good, something necessary and right.
Tears flowed down her face.
If he could do this with tainted food, stale and reeking of evil, what could he do with her?
But he had already. He had turned the leftovers of her shattered childhood into a son, something good and beautiful.
As for the Baptist, wasn’t he with God now? Was that not better than being chained in Herod’s dungeon?
She looked up toward the dusky sky, breathed in the smell of fresh bread, and worshipped.
* Author's Note:
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this story! I hope it brought you hope and courage, that it shared a small glimpse into God's heart.
"Two feasts. Two kingdoms." This was how a sermon began that I heard years ago, based on Mark 6. Being the story-lover that I am, I ran with this and dreamt up this full-circle story. I realize the circumstances are highly unlikely, but this I know for sure...God takes the broken, the desperate, the leftovers of our lives and creates something beautiful if we trust him. Scripture assures us of this in Romans 8:28: "And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." May you trust him with your leftovers!
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