Heaven and Hell

I was a relentlessly curious kid, so naturally I joined the crowd of children outside the open door of the carpenter’s workshop to listen to the man inside singing. The voice was deep and melodious like wind moving through tall trees. At first the words didn’t seem that special till we realized that the carpenter was no longer singing. He was telling a story, and by the way he looked up from his work now and then, we could tell that he was talking to us.

One by one we edged into the room, which was light and airy despite the logs and boards stacked against the walls. The floor was covered with sawdust and wood curls that made you want to dig your toes down until your feet disappeared. That was the way we seemed to disappear into his story. I don’t remember many of the details of what he said that morning, just the smell of freshly cut cedar and pine, lingering to this day.

Again and again, when we had no pressing chores, that freshness drew us back to Yeshu’s workshop—the same one that used to be his father’s.

To encourage us to come in and stay, Yeshu built a collection of small stools out of spindly sycamore logs and set them along a wall he had cleared for us to lean our backs against. Each morning we would fill those seats, sometimes locking arms at the elbows, and Yeshu would fill our heads with stories—ones he had learned from his grandmother, Mama Ana, and from the Temple rabbis in Jerusalem.

Other times, he made up his own stories. These were my favorites. Whenever I could, I asked him for one of them.

Yeshu always worked while he spoke, concentrating the attention of his hands and eyes on the plow handle, or the table, or the door that he was making. But the rest of him belonged to the story, and to us.

Between stories were stretches of silence. Yeshu kept laboring, while we struggled to sit still. If we started whispering about who was fastest or who could jump the farthest, or if we giggled from the strain of keeping a straight face, Yeshu would quietly look up in a way that made you sit back and think about the story he had just told.

There were always lots of people visiting Yeshu to talk and listen about everything from the Prophet Elijah to the terrible Roman occupation of our land. Most of the visitors were elders. If we weren’t already sitting on the stools Yeshu had made for us, the grownups would pick them up, carry them over by the workbench, and sit down in a semicircle to hold forth, their knees sticking up to their ears like a chorus of wrinkled frogs.

The first time we stepped into the workshop to find our seats taken we hung around awhile, but it was like being at the back of a crowd trying to look through big people’s legs to watch a procession. After that we would peek in the door and, if Yeshu wasn’t alone, just turn around and leave.

So one night Yeshu stayed late, lit an oil lamp, and added curving backs and armrests to each stool so that only a child could fit. And in we came again.

During the storytelling, time would seem to stop. I would watch the carpenter’s beard moving gently as words blew from his lips, like breezes through the springtime meadow that flowered below his cheekbones. My eyes would brush over the tall grasses, searching the tangles of light and shadow of his cheekbones for some small surprise—maybe a bumblebee looking for clover—wondering what it would be like to sink my fingers into the waves to give that beard a strong tug. But I didn’t dare.

When the sun reached its high point at noon, out we would file from Yeshu’s workshop and go home for something to eat. Often, I decided to return later and watch Yeshu work, and soon I was almost a second shadow, sitting for hours on end while Yeshu patiently turned wood into wonders. With his eyes he told me I was welcome any time I happened by. I’m sure it was because even then, although I could not have put it into words, I understood the power of silence. I had spent lots of time alone in the fields with my family’s small flock of sheep—until that winter day when the Roman soldiers came and took them all away.

As I silently kept Yeshu company during the long hours he toiled, it seemed natural to make myself useful. Partly I wanted to help. Ever since he took his father’s place running the carpentry shop, to support his mother and his brothers and sisters, Yeshu had to put work first, leaving him little time for his own interests. Maybe that was why he seemed so quiet, even when kids or grownups came by to visit. Sometimes, in the midst of a really exciting story, he seemed far away. It reminded me of my own loneliness after my oldest sister, Rachel, who had cared for me like a second mother, had vanished from our family and disappeared from my parents’ thoughts. The more her name wasn’t said in our house, the louder it sounded in my ears.

In helping Yeshu I was reminded of how I used to help my sister do her chores, so being there brought her closer, too. I would fetch whatever tool Yeshu needed, learning after a while to jump up and get it even before he pointed. From the well I brought him cool drinking water that the two of us would share. I did whatever I could so that his hands could do their magic—and so his thoughts could soar.

I also learned how to listen, and by doing so I soared along with him. After years of stories I got too big to sit in one of Yeshu’s chairs, so others took my place. While my friends and I got older and had to do our part for our families, our younger brothers and sisters took their turns listening to Yeshu’s singing. Of course I dropped by whenever I had a spare moment.

One day I walked in and stood just inside the door as the younger kids were calling out, "Tell us a story! Tell us a story!"

One of these kids was especially sharp. He insisted that Yeshu tell a story he had never told them before. He kind of reminded me of myself when I was small.

Yeshu looked at him hard, as if sizing him up, then smiled and winked. "All right," he said, "but first I want you to mull over a line from the Torah. Those scrolls may be ancient, but they have a lot to say about our lives right now. Today."

The boy looked a bit doubtful, as if maybe Yeshu were stalling. But he was smiling, too, waiting to see what the storytelling carpenter might come up with.

"In the Book of Deuteronomy," Yeshu began, "we are told, ‘You must love your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind.’

"Come to think of it, that’s the way I loved my father and my mother when I was your age," Yeshu said, his eyes moving from child to child. "Still do," he affirmed with a nod.

I caught myself looking away, thinking of my missing sister, and quickly returned my eyes to Yeshu. He went on: "We are also told, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’" Yeshu paused. "On these two commandments hang all the laws and words of the prophets.

"So, who can tell me who their neighbor is?"

The sharp kid piped up, "My friend Yakob who lives next door to me!"

"Pretty good answer," said Yeshu. "What about folks who live in one of the nearby villages, or a land that is next door to ours? Are they still neighbors—or are they foreigners?"

No one made a peep. Even the sharp boy seemed stumped. Finally he ventured, barely above a whisper, "Both?"

"There are no flies walking on you, my friend," Yeshu said, laughing, and the boy grinned and looked around at his companions.

"Okay, last question," said Yeshu. "Then the story, I promise."

He looked around, meeting the eyes of each child. "Do you remember what the scrolls say about how we deal with strangers?"

This one was tougher, because very few kids could read, and the rabbi and older men didn’t cover everything in service. You could feel the whole group, including the sharp young kid, waiting to see if Yeshu might rephrase the question in a way that would hint at the answer. Sniffing the air the way one does before it rains, Yeshu could tell what his audience wanted. He smiled and relented.

"In the Book of Leviticus," he said, "we are told, ‘If strangers live with you in your land, do not mistreat them. You must count them as your own people and love them as yourselves.’

"Do you think that’s easy to do, or hard?" Yeshu continued. No one spoke. But their grim faces gave them away.

"Well, just listen to my story. It’s about how a stranger in our land dealt with one of us. This was not just any stranger; it was a man from the neighboring land of Samaria.

"Now, as many Samaritans do, this man actually lived among us, which is not as easy as you might think. Just imagine what it would feel like to be a Jew living in the land of Samaria. Tensions between Jews and Samaritans are very old, and each of us could tell a story about how a family member, or someone in our village or a neighboring one, looks down on Samaritans in Galilee and Judea.

Well, the Samaritan I’m talking about knew what it felt like to be treated poorly by others, including the youngest among us." Yeshu checked their faces to see if everyone was following along. Noticing two older boys smirking, he looked at them steadily, not saying a word, until their faces were wiped clean. Then he began his story.

"It seems that a man who had been on a pilgrimage was traveling back home along a deserted road leading from the heights of Jerusalem to the lowlands around Jericho. Turning a bend in the road, he was suddenly attacked by thieves. They did a real job on him, stripping and beating him, and leaving him lying on the roadside in the burning sun, half dead.

"Not long after, a priest walked down the road. Seeing a bleeding man in rags, the priest looked down at his feet and crossed to the other side of the road, muttering to himself, ‘No use borrowing trouble.’ He was recalling the ‘purity’ laws for situations like this one. ‘Don’t go soiling yourself with unnecessary contact with the sick or injured,’ he thought. ‘This evening you must unroll the scrolls and read from the Book of Psalms.’

"Next to come along," Yeshu continued, "was a singer from the Temple choir. He actually paused for a moment, thinking things over. Finally he went over and looked at the man, but quickly hurried on. ‘Might be late getting back to Jerusalem,’ he insisted to himself. ‘I’ve lots to do before evening prayers.’"

A young girl sitting near the front couldn’t stay quiet any longer. She blurted out, "But Yeshu, was the hurt man dead yet?"

"No," answered Yeshu, "but he was badly injured and the sun was getting hotter.

"Then a Samaritan approached on a donkey, and seeing the battered man lying beside the road, he dismounted and hurried over for a closer look. Like all of us, he knew how pain and suffering felt, and his heart went out to the crumpled figure.

"’It’s a Judean,’ he thought, ‘but so what? It could easily be me lying there. I must help.’

"He went back to his donkey, returned with two small flasks, and carefully cleaned the man’s wounds with wine and oil, apologizing that it was all that he had at the moment. Then he took an extra tunic from his pack, tore it into shreds, and bandaged the Judean’s head and arms. Wrapping his own cloak around the now shivering man, the Samaritan lifted him astride his donkey, and walked him as quickly and gingerly as the road allowed to the nearest inn, where he tended to him for the rest of the day.

"The next morning, the Samaritan dug into his leather money pouch for two silver coins, which he placed in the innkeeper’s hand, saying, ‘Take good care of him until he is well enough to travel on. When I pass back by here on my way home, I’ll pay you for anything extra that you’ve had to spend on him.’ And he continued on his journey to Jericho.

"The injured man recovered fully and returned to his family and village, a new person. This act of kindness had transformed the Judean, and for the first time he understood that Samaritans were human beings too, and deserved the same helping hand when in need.

"But how was it that the good neighbor Samaritan knew to act as he did, even though no one had helped him out before, especially not a Judean? He knew how to love the injured Judean, because he loved God, and he knew as we do that we all have that of God within us. And that we are all asked to love God with all our strength, and with all our heart and soul and mind. So that’s what he did."

Yeshu looked around at the children’s faces, letting his story settle. The boys who had been smirking were staring at their hands. When they looked back up, Yeshu smiled and said:

"God is love. Know that. Practice that. And you won’t need to know any other laws, because you will be following all of them."

We were silent for a few moments. Yeshu turned to his work. Then the sharp boy in the front row looked around and spotted me. He said, "You’re Yeshu’s friend and you’re not that much older than my big brother. Can you tell stories, too?"

Before I could answer, Yeshu threw a quick glance at me and said, "Of course he can, and he’s going to tell one right now. Maybe one that none of you has ever heard before."

My face turned red—with pride, and terror. Yeshu thought I was up to it, but was I?

I considered telling a twist on the frog-in-the-well, but the story is long and I could see the kids were growing weary. And besides, it had to be something new. So I decided to pick up on a piece of the story Yeshu had just told.

"Once there was a bandit," I began, "who at times was also a warrior. Because of his past, he had become increasingly concerned about what would happen after his life was ended. He was nobody’s fool; he had seen a lot and knew it could happen any day. Those who live by the sword, after all, can never be sure when they might die by it.

"The warrior knew about heaven and hell, but he was unsure what either one was like—or exactly how you ended up in one place versus the other. So he asked around for the wisest, holiest man alive, and journeyed to see him.

"When the warrior arrived at the man’s hut, deep in the parched mountains, he knocked on the door. From inside he heard an ancient voice say in a gravelly whisper, ‘The door is unlocked and I know why you are here. If you also know, come in, and ask what you will.’

"The warrior pushed the door open and stepped inside. His eyes swept around the room, which was lit by open windows on each side. The room was sparsely furnished, and at the back of it sat a small old man wearing a simple loincloth and a braided strip of goatskin that gathered his hair.

"The warrior lowered his head ever so slightly and said, ‘Wise sir, tell me if you will, what is the difference between heaven and hell?’

"The holy man gazed back for a long time. His eyes brushed over the warrior’s weapons and then fixed on the man’s face. Finally the holy man spoke calmly, with conviction: ‘A professional killer like the one who stands before me—I strongly doubt that you could understand any words I might share with you about what it is that separates heaven and hell. I wonder whether someone with your background could even begin to comprehend such an idea!’

"The warrior felt the blood rush into his head as he swiftly drew a long, thin dagger from his belt and with fury burning in his eyes, charged across the room. Raising the gleaming blade high above him, ready to plunge it into the chest of his tormentor, he screamed at the holy man, ‘No one insults me so rudely without paying for it! Beg for your life or die, you stupid old dog!’

"The holy man just smiled. Then when it seemed that the warrior would plunge the dagger into his eye, the holy man lifted a weathered finger and pointed straight at the warrior’s raging face, saying softly but firmly, ‘That, my son, is hell.’

"The warrior froze, stunned as if smacked in the forehead with an oak club. In the next instant his face melted, his arm fell, and the dagger crashed to the floor. Slowly the warrior sank to his knees. Raising his hands to his chest, he pressed them together beseechingly as if in prayer.

"’Oh, holy one,’ he said with a tremor in his voice. ‘I have acted so stupidly and impetuously, worse than a wild boar. I feel such shame. A soldier should know how to hold himself in and listen to what’s been said before striking. I almost ended your life in a flash! Without even seeing that you were showing me the answer to what I most wanted to know.’

"’Please,’ the warrior went on, ‘if you can find it in your heart to do so—please forgive me. I beg you. I’ll lay down my sword and humbly serve the poor for a year as penance. Two years, if you say so. Or a lifetime.’

"The holy man stopped the warrior’s speaking by lightly touching the man’s trembling lips. He then laid a hand on the warrior’s forehead.

"’And that,’ said the holy man, ‘is heaven.’

"He paused, nodding ever so slightly. ‘Deep down, you knew the difference all along. And now you know that you knew.’"

Having finished my story of heaven and hell, I lowered my eyes just a bit and heard the children let out an "aaah." I stole a look at Yeshu. He was beaming at me like a proud older brother! I felt my face burning and my chest begin to swell.

Now my own journey could begin. For the first time in my life, I felt I was walking in step with a friend, through a story that was truly mine.

This story was crafted from his manuscript of an intergenerational novel, entitled Yeshu, about a Nazarene boy and his sister who grow up next door to the carpenter, Jesus. Two other stories from the yet- to-be-published novel have appeared in Friends Journal: "God is in the Mouth of the Wolf" (April 2004) and "Unclean!" (March 2006).

Charles David Kleymeyer

Charles David Kleymeyer, who attends Langley Hill Meeting in McLean, Va., is an author and storyteller who has worked for four decades as a sociologist with native peoples in Latin America, in their grassroots development efforts.