The Assassin’s Daughter
We came like doves across the desert. In a time when there was nothing but death, we were grateful for anything, and most grateful of all when we awoke to another day.
We had been wandering for so long I forgot what it was like to live within walls or sleep through the night. In that time I lost all I might have possessed if Jerusalem had not fallen: a husband, a family, a future of my own. My girlhood disappeared in the desert. The person I’d once been vanished as I wrapped myself in white when the dust rose into clouds. We were nomads, leaving behind beds and belongings, rugs and brass pots. Now our house was the house of the desert, black at night, brutally white at noon.
They say the truest beauty is in the harshest land and that God can be found there by those with open eyes. But my eyes were closed against the shifting winds that can blind a person in an instant. Breathing itself was a miracle when the storms came whirling across the earth. The voice that arises out of the silence is something no one can imagine until it is heard. It roars when it speaks, it lies to you and convinces you, it steals from you and leaves you without a single word of comfort. Comfort cannot exist in such a place. What is brutal survives. What is cunning lives until morning.
My skin was sunburned, my hands raw. I gave in to the desert, bowing to its mighty voice. Everywhere I walked my fate walked with me, sewn to my feet with red thread. All that will ever be has already been written long before it happens. There is nothing we can do to stop it. I couldn’t run in the other direction. The roads from Jerusalem led to only three places: to Rome, or to the sea, or to the desert. My people had become wanderers, as they had been at the beginning of time, cast out yet again.
I followed my father out of the city because I had no choice.
None of us did, if the truth be told.
I DON’T KNOW how it began, but I know how it ended. It occurred in the month of Av, the sign for which is Arieh, the lion. It is a month that signifies destruction for our people, a season when the stones in the desert are so hot you cannot touch them without burning your fingers, when fruit withers on the trees before it ripens and the seeds inside shake like a rattle, when the sky is white and rain will not fall. The first Temple had been destroyed in that month. Tools signified weapons and could not be used in constructing the holiest of holy places; therefore the great warrior king David had been prohibited from building the Temple because he had known the evils of war. Instead, the honor fell to his son King Solomon, who called upon the shamir, a worm who could cut through stone, thereby creating glory to God without the use of metal tools.
The Temple was built as God had decreed it should be, free from bloodshed and war. Its nine gates were covered with silver and gold. There, in the most holy of places, was the Ark that stored our people’s covenant with God, a chest made of the finest acacia wood, decorated with two golden cherubs. But despite its magnificence, the first Temple was destroyed, our people exiled to Babylonia. They had returned after seventy years to rebuild in the same place, where Abraham had been willing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to the Almighty, where the world had first been created.
The second Temple had stood for hundreds of years as the dwelling place of God’s word, the center of creation in the center of Jerusalem, though the Ark itself had disappeared, perhaps in Babylonia. But now times of bloodshed were upon us once more. The Romans wanted all that we had. They came to us as they swarmed upon so many lands with their immense legions, wanting not just to conquer but to humiliate, claiming not just our land and our gold but our humanity.
As for me, I expected disaster, nothing more. I had known its embrace before I had breath or sight. I was the second child, a year younger than my brother, Amram, but unlike him entirely, cursed by the burden of my first breath. My mother died before I was born. In that moment the map of my life arose upon my skin in a burst of red marks, speckles that, when followed, one to the other, have led me to my destiny.
I can remember the instant when I entered the world, the great calm that was suddenly broken, the heat of my own pulse beneath my skin. I was taken from my mother’s womb, cut out with a sharp knife. I am convinced I heard my father’s roar of grief, the only sound to break the terrible silence of one who is born from death. I myself did not cry or wail. People took note of that. The midwives whispered to one another, convinced I was either blessed or cursed. My silence was not my only unusual aspect, nor were the russet flecks that emerged upon my skin an hour after my birth. It was my hair, the deep bloodred color of it, a thick cap growing, as if I already knew this world and had been here before.
They said my eyes were open, the mark of one set apart. That was to be expected of a child born of a dead woman, for I was touched by Mal’ach ha-Mavet, the Angel of Death, before I was born in the month of Av, on the Tisha B’Av, the ninth day, under the sign of the lion. I always knew a lion would be waiting for me. I had dreamed of such creatures ever since I could remember. In my dreams I fed the lion from my hand. In return he took my whole hand into his mouth and ate me alive.
When I left childhood, I made certain to cover my head; even when I was in my father’s courtyard I kept to myself. On those rare occasions when I accompanied our cook to the market, I saw other young women enjoying themselves and I was jealous of even the plainest among them. Their lives were full, whereas I could think only of all I did not have. They chirped merrily about their futures as brides as they lingered at the well or gathered in the Street of the Bakers surrounded by their mothers and aunts. I wanted to snap at them but said nothing. How could I speak of my envy when there were things I wanted even more than a husband or a child or a home of my own?
I wished for a night without dreams, a world without lions, a year without Av, that bitter, red month.
WE LEFT the city when the second Temple was set in ruins, venturing forth into the Valley of Thorns. For months the Romans had defiled the Temple, crucifying our people inside its sacred walls, stripping the gold from the entranceways and the porticoes. It was here that Jews from all over creation traveled to offer sacrifices before the holiest site, with thousands arriving at the time of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, all yearning to glimpse the gold walls of the dwelling place of God’s word.
When the Romans attacked the third wall, our people were forced to flee from that part of the Temple. The legion then brought down the second wall. Still it was not enough. The great Titus, military leader of all Judea, went on to construct four siege ramps. Our people destroyed these, with fire and stones, but the Romans’ assault of the Temple walls had weakened our defenses. Not long afterward a breach was accomplished. The soldiers entered the maze of walls that surrounded our holiest site, running like rats, their shields lifted high, their white tunics burning with blood. The holy Temple was being destroyed at their hands. Once this happened, the city would fall as well, it would be forced to follow, sinking to its knees like a common captive, for without the Temple there would be no lev ha-olam, no heart of the world, and nothing left to fight for.
The desire for Jerusalem was a fire that could not be quenched. There was a spark inside that holiest of holy places that made people want to possess it, and what men yearn for they often destroy. At night the walls that had been meant to last an eternity groaned and shook. The more the Romans arrested us for crimes against their rule the more we fought among ourselves, unable to decide upon a single course of action. Perhaps because we knew we couldn’t win against their might we turned on each other, riven by petty jealousies, split apart by treachery, our lives a dark tangle of fear.
Victims often attack one another, they become chickens in a pen, bickering, frenzied. We did the same. Not only were our people besieged by the Romans but they were at war with each other. The priests were deferential, siding with Rome, and those who opposed them were said to be robbers and thugs, my father and his friends among them. Taxes were so high the poor could no longer feed their children, while those who allied themselves with Rome had prospered and grown rich. People gave testimony against their own neighbors; they stole from each other and locked their doors to those in need. The more suspicious we were of each other, the more we were defeated, split into feuding mobs when in fact we were one, the sons and daughters of the kingdom of Israel, believers in Adonai.
IN THE MONTHS before the Temple fell, there had been chaos as we labored against our enemies. We made every effort to win this war, but as God created life, so did He create destruction. Now in the furious red month of Av, swollen bodies filled the kidron, the deep ravine that separated the city from the glimmering Mount of Olives. The blood of men and beasts formed dark lakes in our most sacred places. The heat was mysterious and unrelenting, as if the wickedness of earth reflected back to us, a mirror of our sins. Inside the most secret rooms of the Temple, gold melted and pooled; it disappeared, stolen from the most holy of places, never to be seen again.
Not a single breeze stirred. The temperature had risen with the disorder, from the ground up, and the bricks that paved the Roman roads were so hot they burned people’s feet as the desperate searched for safe havens—a stable, an abandoned chamber, even the cool stone space within a baker’s oven. The soldiers of the Tenth Legion, who followed the sign of the boar, planted their banners above the ruins of the Temple with full knowledge this was an affront to us, for it threw in our faces an animal we found impure. The soldiers were like wild boars themselves, reckless, vicious. They were coursing throughout the countryside, killing white cockerels outside synagogues, meeting places which served as bet kenesset and bet tefilliah, houses of both assembly and prayer, as an insult and a curse. The blood of a rooster made our houses of worship unclean. Women scoured the steps with lye soap, wailing as they did so. We were defiled no matter how they might scrub or how much water they might pour onto the stones.
With each violation we understood the legion’s warning: What we do to the rooster, we can do to you.
ONE EVENING a star resembling a sword arose over the city. It could be spied night after night, steadfastly brilliant in the east. People trembled, certain it was an omen, waiting for what was to come. Soon afterward the eastern gate of the Temple opened of its own accord. Crowds gathered, terrified, convinced this occurrence would allow disaster to walk inside. Gates do not open if there is no reason. Swords do not rise in the sky if peace is to come. Our neighbors began to trade any small treasures they had, jostling through the streets, determined to escape with what little they possessed. They gathered their children and began to flee Jerusalem, hoping to reach Babylon or Alexandria, longing for Zion even as they departed.
In the ditches that filled with rainwater during times of sudden flooding, there was soon a river of blood running down from the Temple. The blood cried and wept and cursed, for its victims did not give up their lives easily. The soldiers killed the rebels first, then they murdered haphazardly. Whoever was unfortunate enough to pass by was caught in their net. People were torn from their families, herded off streets. There came the evening known as the Plague upon Innocence. Any illusion that our prayers would be answered vanished. How many among us lost our faith on this night? How many turned away from what our people had always believed? A boy of ten had been taken in irons, then crucified because he had refused to bow down to the soldiers. This boy had been afflicted with deafness and had not even heard the command, but no one cared about such things anymore. A world of hate had settled upon us.
The sin of this boy’s death rose like a cloud, evident to us all. Afterward, twenty thousand people panicked in the streets, trampling each other in a frenzy, forsaking their dignity as they flocked onto the roads.
By the time morning had broken, nearly all had abandoned Jerusalem.
AS FOR ME, my world was over before the Temple began to burn, before stone dust covered the alleyways. Long before the Temple fell, I had lost my faith. I was nothing to my father, abandoned by him from the moment I was born. I would have been neglected completely, but my mother’s family insisted a nursemaid be hired. A young servant girl from Alexandria came to care for me, but when she sang lullabies, my father, the fearsome Yosef bar Elhanan, told her to be quiet. When she fed me, he insisted I had eaten enough.
I was little more than a toddler when my father took me aside to tell me the truth of my birth. I wept to discover the circumstances and took on the burden of my entrance into this life. My name was Yael, and it was the first thing about myself I learned to despise. This had been my mother’s name as well. Every time it was spoken it only served to remind my father that the occasion of my arrival in this world had stolen his wife.
“What does that make you?” he asked bitterly.
I didn’t have an answer, but I saw myself reflected in his eyes. I was a murderer, worthy of his indignation and wrath.
The girl hired to care for me was soon enough sent away, taking with her all consolation and solace. I knew what awaited me upon her departure, the stunted life of a motherless child. I sobbed and held on to her skirts on the day she left us, desperate for her warm embrace. My brother, Amram, told me not to cry; we had each other. The servant girl gave me a pomegranate for luck before she gently unwound her skirts from my grasp. She was young enough to be my sister, but she had been like a mother to me and had given me the only tenderness I’d known.
I gave my gift of the pomegranate to my brother, having already decided to always place him first. But that was not the only reason. I was already full from my portion of sorrow.
AS I GREW, I was quiet and well behaved. I asked for nothing, and that was exactly what I received. If I was clever, I tried not to show it. If I was injured, I kept my wounds to myself. I turned away whenever I saw other girls with their fathers, for mine did not wish to be seen with me. He did not speak to me or take me onto his lap. He cared only for my brother, his love for Amram evident at every turn. At dinner they sat together while I was left in the hall, where I slept. There were scorpions secluded in the corners that soon grew used to me. I watched them, fearing them but also admiring how they lay in wait for their prey on the cool stones without ever revealing themselves. I kept my sense of shame deep inside, much the way the scorpion hid its craving. In that we were alike.
All the same, I was human. I longed for a lock of my mother’s hair so I might know its color. In that hallway I often wept for the comfort of her arms.
“Do you think I feel sorry for you?” my father demanded one day when he’d had enough of my wailing. “You probably killed her with your crying. You caused a flood and drowned her from the inside.”
I had never spoken back before, but I leapt up then. The thought that I might have drowned my mother with my own tears was too much to endure. My chest and throat burned hot. For that instant I didn’t care that the man before me was Yosef bar Elhanan and I was nothing.
“I wasn’t the one at fault,” I declared.
I saw a strange expression cross my father’s face. He took a step back.
“Are you saying I am the cause?” he remarked, throwing up his hands as though to protect himself from a curse.
I didn’t answer, but after he stormed out, I realized that we did indeed have something in common, more so than the scorpion and I, even if my father never spoke to me or called me by name. We had killed my mother together. And yet he wanted me to carry the blame alone. If that was what he wanted, then I would take on the mantle of guilt, for I was a dutiful daughter. But I would not weep again. Nothing could cause me to break this vow. When a wasp bit me and a red welt rose on my arm, I willed myself to be still and not feel its pain. My brother came running to make certain I hadn’t been harmed. He called me by the secret name he’d given me when we were little more than babies, Yaya. I loved to hear him call me that, for the pet name reminded me of the lullabies of my nursemaid and a time before I knew I’d brought ruin to my family.
I burned from the sting of the wasp but insisted I was fine. When I looked up, I saw the glimmer of tears in Amram’s eyes. Anyone would have thought he’d been the one who’d been wounded. He felt pain more easily than I and was far more sensitive. Sometimes I sang to him when he couldn’t fall asleep, offering the lullabies from Alexandria whose words I remembered, as if I’d once had another life.
ALL THE WHILE I was growing up I wondered what it might be like to have a father who wouldn’t turn away from the sight of me, one who told me I was beautiful, even though my hair flamed a strange red color and my skin was sprinkled with earth-toned flecks as though I’d been splattered with mud. I’d heard my father say to another man that these marks were specks of my mother’s blood. Afterward, I tried to pluck them out with my fingers, drawing blood from my own flesh, but my brother stopped me when he discovered the red-rimmed pockmarks on my arms and legs. He assured me the freckles were bits of ash that had fallen from the stars in the sky. Because of this I would always shine in the darkness. He would always be able to find me, no matter how far he might travel.
When I became a woman, I had no mother to tell me what to do with the blood that came with the moon or escort me to the mikvah, the ritual bath that would have cleansed me with a total immersion into purity. The first time I bled I thought I was dying until an old woman who was my neighbor took pity on me and told me the truth about women’s monthly cycles. I lowered my eyes as she spoke, shamed to be told such intimate details by a stranger, not quite believing her, wondering why our God would cause me to become unclean. Even now I think I might have been right to tremble in fear on the day that I first bled. Perhaps my becoming a woman was the end for me, for I had been born in blood and deserved to be taken from life in the same way.
I didn’t bother to ring my eyes with kohl or rub pomegranate oil onto my wrists. Flirtation was not something I practiced, nor did I think myself attractive. I didn’t perfume my hair but instead wound the plaits at the nape of my neck, then covered my head with a woolen shawl of the plainest fabric I could find. My father addressed me only when he summoned me to bring his meal or wash his garments. By then I had begun to realize what it was that he did when he slipped out to meet with his cohorts at night. He often wrapped a pale gray cloak around his shoulders, one that was said to have been woven from the strands of a spider’s web. I had touched the hem of the garment once. It was both sinister and beautiful, granting its wearer the ability to conceal himself. When my father went out, he disappeared, for he had the power to vanish while he was still before you.
I’d heard him called an assassin by our neighbors. I frowned and didn’t believe this, but the more I studied his comings and goings, the more I knew it to be true. He was part of a secret group, men who carried the curled dagger of the Sicarii, Zealots who hid sharp knives in their cloaks which they used to punish those who refused to fight Rome, especially the priests who accepted the legion’s sacrifices and their favor at the Temple. The assassins were ruthless, even I knew that. No one was safe from their wrath; other Zealots disowned them, objecting to their brutal methods. It was said that the Sicarii had taken the fight against Jews who bowed to Rome too far, and that Adonai, our great God, would never condone murder, especially of brother against brother. But the Jews were a divided brotherhood, already at odds in practice if not in prayer. Those who belonged to the Sicarii laughed at the notion that God desired anything other than for all men to be free. The price was of no consequence. Their goal was one ruler alone, no emperors, no kings, only the King of Creation. He alone would rule when they were done with their work on earth.
MY FATHER had been an assassin for so long that the men he had killed were like leaves on a willow tree, too many to count. Because he possessed a skill that few men had and claimed the power of invisibility, he could slip into a room as a shadow might, dispatching his enemy before his victim was even aware that a window had been opened or a door had closed.
To my sorrow, my brother followed our father’s path as soon as he was old enough to become a disciple of vengeance. Amram was dangerously susceptible to their violent ways, for in his purity he saw the world as either good or evil with no twilight space in between. I often spied them huddled together, my father speaking in my brother’s ear, teaching him the rules of murder. One day as I gathered Amram’s tunics and cloak to wash at the well I found a dagger, already rippled with a line of crimson. I would have wept had I been able, but I had forsaken tears. I would not drown another as I had drowned my own mother, from the inside out.
Still, I went in search of my brother, finding him in the market with his friends. Women alone were not often seen among the men who came to these narrow passageways; those who had no choice but to go out unaccompanied rushed to the Street of the Bakers or to the stalls that offered pottery and jugs made from Jerusalem clay, then, just as quickly, rushed home. I wore a veil and my cloak clasped tightly. There were zonnoth in the market, women who sold themselves for men’s pleasure and did not cover their arms or their hair. One mocked me as I ran past, her sullen face breaking into a grin when she spied me dashing through the alleyway. You think you’re any different than we are? she called. You’re only a woman, as we are.
I pulled my brother away from his friends so that we might stand beneath a flame tree. The red flowers gave off the scent of fire, and I thought this was an omen, that my brother would know fire. I worried over what would happen to him when night came and the Sicarii gathered under cedars where they made their plans. I begged him to renounce the violent ways he’d taken up, but my brother, young as he was, burned for justice and a new order where all men were equal.
“I can’t reconsider my faith, Yaya.”
“Then consider your life” was my answer.
To tease me, Amram clucked like a chicken, strutting, his lean, strong body hunched over as he flapped imaginary wings. “Do you want me to stay home in the henhouse, where you can lock me inside and make sure I’m safe?”
I laughed despite my fears. My brother was brave and beautiful. No wonder my father favored him. His hair was golden, his eyes dark but flecked with light. I saw now that the child I had once mothered had become a man, one who was pure in his intentions. I could do little more than object to the path that he chose. Still I was determined to act on his behalf. When my brother rejoined his friends, I went on through the market, making my way deep within the twisting streets, at last turning in to an alley that was cobbled with dusty, dun-colored bricks. I’d heard it was possible to buy good fortune nearby. There was a mysterious shop spoken about in whispers by the neighborhood women. They usually stopped their discussion when I came near, but I’d been curious and had overheard that if a person followed the scrawled image of an eye inside a circle she would be led to a place of medicines and spells. I took the path of the eye until I came to the house of keshaphim, the breed of magic practiced by women, always pursued in secret.
When I knocked on the door, an old woman came to study me. Annoyed by my presence, she asked why I’d come. As soon as I hesitated, she began to close the door against me, grumbling.
“I don’t have time for someone who doesn’t know what she wants,” she muttered.
“Protection for my brother,” I managed to say, too unnerved to reveal any more.
At the Temple there was the magic of the priests, holy men who were anointed by prayer, chosen to give sacrifices and attempt miracles and perform exorcisms, driving out the evil that can often possess men. In the streets there was the magic of the minim, who were looked down upon by the priests, called charlatans and impostors by some, yet who were still respected by many. Houses of keshaphim, however, were considered to engage in the foulest sort of magic, women’s work, evil, vengeful, practiced by those who were denounced as witches. But the min who performed curses and spells would have never spoken to a girl such as I if I had no silver to hand over and no father or brother to recommend me. And had I gone to the priests for an amulet, they would have denied me, for I was the daughter of one who opposed them. Even I knew I didn’t deserve their favor.
The room behind the old woman was unlit, but I glimpsed herbs and plants draped from the ceiling on lengths of rope. I recognized rue and myrtle and the dried yellow apples of the mandrake, what is called yavrucha, an herb that is both aphrodisiac and antidemonic in nature, poisonous and powerful. I thought I heard the sound of a goat, a pet witches are said to have, from inside the dim chamber.
“Before you waste my time, do you have shekels enough for protection?” the old woman asked.
I shook my head. I had no coins, but I’d brought a precious hand mirror with me. It had belonged to my mother and was beautifully crafted, made of bronze and silver and gold, set with a chunk of deep blue lapis. It was the one thing I had of any value. The ancient woman examined it and then, satisfied, took my offering and went inside. After she shut the door, I heard the clatter of a lock. For a moment I wondered if she had disappeared for good, if perhaps I’d never see her or my mirror again, but she came back outside and told me to open my hand.
“You’re sure you don’t want this charm for yourself?” she cautioned, insisting there was only one like it in all the world. “You might need protection in this life.”
I shook my head, and as I did my plain woolen veil fell. When the old woman saw the scarlet color of my hair, she backed away as though she’d discovered a demon at her door.
“It’s good you don’t want it,” she said. “It wouldn’t work for you. You need a token that’s far more powerful.”
I snapped up the charm, then turned and started away. I was surprised when she called for me to wait.
“You don’t ask why?” The market woman was signaling to me, urging me to return, but I refused. “You don’t want to know what I see for you, my sister? I can tell you what you will become.”
“I know what I am.” I was the child born of a dead woman, the one who couldn’t bear to look at her own face. I was immensely glad to be rid of that mirror. “I don’t need you to tell me,” I called to the witch in the alleyway.
I WENT HOME and delivered the gift to my brother; it was a thin silver amulet to wear around his neck, the medallion imprinted with the image of Solomon fighting a demon prostrate before him on the ground. On the back of the charm, The Seal of God had been written in Greek along with the symbol of a key, to signify the key Moses had possessed that had unlocked God’s protection. So, too, would this amulet protect my brother in the blood-soaked future he was set upon.
Amram was delighted with the token. He claimed I had the ability to know his mind, for he had been praying for guidance and wisdom, the smallest portion of that which God had once granted to Solomon. I kept from him that it was the woman who dabbled in magic who had known what he’d desired, not I.
The demons, my brother pledged, must never win. That was the mission of the Sicarii, and they could not fail. He opened his heart, and when he spoke, I believed in him. Amram had a way of convincing a listener to accept the world with his vision, making it possible to see through his eyes. When I gazed upon my brother, all that was before me was the kingdom of Zion and our people free at last.
In very little time, my brother surpassed my father at their dark task. He was the best not by chance but by choice. He learned the ways of the assassin from my father and also from a man named Jachim ben Simon, who had become his teacher. Ben Simon was said to know death better than most and was revered for his use of a double-edged knife made of silver. Under his tutelage, Amram was determined to go forward with his skill, to rise above all others. My brother was devoted, practicing with the intensity of a master craftsman. But as he did so, his moods and tempers changed before my eyes. I watched the boy I knew disappear and a cold, fearless assassin take his place. From our father he learned to slip through the night unseen and climb towers using a single strand of rope wound around his waist. He practiced silence, not speaking for days on end, becoming so still that even the mice in our garden failed to notice him. He went barefoot to ensure there was no sound when he approached, only the suddenness of the blade, taught by Ben Simon, taken even further by Amram’s own natural grace.
Before long, my brother was called upon for the most dangerous assignments, all of which carried the chill of death. Although he hadn’t the cloak that was said to grant invisibility, his great gift was his ability to disguise himself. He dressed as a priest or as a poor man, hiding himself in borrowed garments, gaining access to whomever was considered to be a traitor. He could make himself appear ancient, his face transformed by etched lines of charcoal, or seem a mere boy, eyes shining. People whispered that he was invincible, and it was soon rumored that the amulet of Solomon around his neck protected him from evil. His friends adored him and called him Hol, the name of the phoenix. They vowed that he resembled this mystical bird that arose from fire and ash; he escaped from every attempt the officials made to catch and murder him.
Because of my father and brother, other men were afraid to speak to me. The Sicariis’ deeds were mysterious, but there were some secrets everyone knew, especially in Jerusalem. The men of my family were pointed to in the street, whispered about, both revered and despised. No wonder no one would have me as his wife, not even the brute who drove donkeys to the market. I was a young woman, but I was treated like a beggar, scorned, my reputation tarnished. It was only when men saw the unusual color of my hair that I noticed their curiosity and, often, their desire. Their gazes were disconcertingly sexual, obvious even to one as inexperienced as I. I knew I would enter their dreams when they couldn’t control what they yearned for. But a dream is worthless in the world. What good did their desire do for me? In the light of the day, they walked right by. I wanted to shout out Take me to every man who passed by. Rescue me from what has happened, from the pillar of bitter salt I have become, from the crime I committed before I was born, from the men of my house, who lurk outside the Temple seeking only revenge. Take me to your bed, your house, your city.
I removed my veils in public places. I did not bother to braid my hair but let it shine, seeking salvation from my loneliness.
Still they all turned away, unable to see me, for I was no more than red air swirling past them, invisible to their eyes.
BEFORE LONG there were posters with my brother’s likeness set upon the walls. The Romans would pay for information, more if he was captured, even more if he was found guilty of his crimes and crucified. Amram no longer came home and instead was resigned to moving around the city in the dark; he belonged to dreams rather than to the routine of our daily lives. My father and I were the only occupants in our house. Though we didn’t speak to each other, we both looked out into the darkness as it began to fall. We knew that was where Amram was. Once again we shared something. We could not hear of a capture without wincing. We showed each other flashes of raw emotion every time the door rattled. But it was never him, only the wind.
One terrible night it was not the wind but rather a troop of soldiers at the door. My father shrugged when Amram’s name was brought up; he insisted he had no son. It was his bad fortune to have only one child, a worthless daughter.
When even Amram’s friends, those who had praised him as the unconquerable phoenix, dared not help him, my brother knew his life in Jerusalem was over. He had no choice but to escape. There were fortresses in the desert our people had commandeered. If he could reach one, he might be safe. Before he left, he took the risk to come and say good-bye. After he and my father embraced, Amram motioned me aside. He had brought a farewell gift. A blue scarf. It was far too beautiful for me, more than I deserved, yet he insisted I take it.
“There are worms that spend their lifetimes spinning such threads, and now you refuse to honor their destiny?”
“No worm made this.” I laughed to think of such heavenly fabric being spun by insects. It was the opposite of my father’s spider-made cloak, which had been woven of fabric so pale it faded into air. This blue silk announced itself with a splash of unexpected color.
Amram vowed it was true, insisting that while the worms had spun their silk in the boughs of mulberry trees, they had been devoted to me, as he was. Upon completing their task, each worm had turned into a blue butterfly, arising into the heavens once its work on earth was done.
I looped the scarf over my hair. I would think of heaven every time I wore it and of my brother, who was so steadfast in his faith. I stood at the gate of our house, remembering that he had said the freckles on my skin were like stars. Like the stars above they would lead him to find me again.
THERE WERE FEW of us left in the city. We rummaged through ruins, cautious, in fear for our lives. At night we heard the screams of those who were taken to the Temple, captured by soldiers prowling the alleyways in search of anyone of our faith. The members of the legion drank wormwood, a dangerous, nearly lethal brew which made them vicious as well as drunk. No woman was safe. No man’s life was his own. Whoever was able had fled to Alexandria or Cyprus, but my father insisted we stay. He had more work to do, and that work was the knife that he carried. In time, Jerusalem would awake, and like a lion it would free itself from the nets of slavery. Teeth and claws, I heard him say, that is what our future will bring. But I knew what he really meant was flesh and bones.
I knew from my dreams what it meant to come face-to-face with a lion.
SMOKE DRIFTED from fires set throughout the city, and the murk acted as a screen so that our people could escape from the marauding soldiers. I could smell olive wood, burning willow. Scorched remnants ignited palm-thatched roofs and haystacks. On the pallet where I slept, in our small house, I covered my head and wished I lived in another place and time. I wished I had never been born.
One afternoon while I was at the market searching the nearly empty bins of the venders for peas and beans for our meager supper, the Romans appropriated our home. I stood watching from a hidden place in my neighbors’ abandoned courtyard, for their house had been ruined months earlier. The soldiers ransacked our house before they burned it to the ground and our belongings were strewn in the chalky dirt. Sparks flew up like white moths, but when they fell down upon the earth, they smoldered bright crimson, like the petals on the flame trees.
If I had little before, I had close to nothing now. I went through the rubble and took only what could fit in my two hands, a small griddle to cook flatbread, a lamp made of white Jerusalem clay to burn oil on the Sabbath, my father’s prayer shawl, singed at the fringes on the four corners, his leather flask, a packet of salt that would taste of smoke when used in cooking. I waited for my father, hidden behind a wall. My skin was dusky, and there were ashes in my hair. If my father didn’t come back, if he had been murdered or had fled without telling me, I thought I might simply stay behind the wall, planted there like a flame tree.
Finally my father appeared, slinking through the twilight, wearing the cloak that allowed him to make his way without being detained. When he saw the prayer shawl in my hands, he knew the time to flee had come. I wondered if he would leave me there to be the beggar woman I’d always feared I might become, to scrounge through the garbage. But he motioned for me to follow as another man might signal a dog. I resolved to do as I was told and trudged after him. Perhaps our blood relation meant something to him after all, or perhaps he took me with him because he feared how my mother in the World-to-Come might respond if he abandoned me there in the street. Or he may have simply remembered it was he who had gotten her with child, and that I’d been correct to consider him a partner in my crime. If my tears had drowned her from the inside out, he was the one who had ushered my life into hers.
AT NIGHT we went from house to house, pleading to be let in. There were fewer and fewer of our people in the city every day—they had fled or were in hiding—and it became difficult for us to find those willing to help. I was a dog and nothing more, asking no questions, unable to think for myself. I hovered in the shadows as people turned us away. Even those who believed in my father’s politics were wary, unwilling to leave themselves at risk. Only a few left their doors open, and even they made sure to look the other way and not greet us with an embrace. Often we slept on straw pallets, grateful for a shelter meant for goats. We shared the animals’ chamber and slept restlessly with the sound of beasts breathing beside us. I had the same dream again and again. In my dream there was a lion sleeping in the sun, one I dared not wake. One night I dreamed that the lion was eaten whole by a snake that devoured everything in its path. I stood barefoot in my dream, on a stretch of rocky earth that was so blindingly white I couldn’t open my eyes. I felt compassion for this wild beast, the king of the desert, for in my dreams he had given in to the snake without a fight. He had looked at me, beseeching me, staring into my eyes.
That night my father shook me awake. My feet were bleeding on the rocks in my dream. Before me there was the coiling black viper of the desert that wraps itself around its prey and refuses to let go. He had devoured the lion and now had come for me. In my dream I offered the scaled beast almonds and grapes, but it had a taste for human flesh. I begged for it to release me as I mourned for the lion. I yearned for that beast in the way that a person yearns for her own destiny. What happens is already written, and the lion had been written beside my name.
“We must go and not look back,” my father said when he woke me.
If I wasn’t quick enough, my father would doubtless leave me behind. I didn’t argue, though I felt a tide of dread in that dark chamber. There was blood on the assassin’s robe, and his eyes were shining. Something had happened, but I dared not ask what it was. I rose from my pallet on the floor, ready in an instant. I gathered the belongings I had carried with me from house to house. The blue scarf my brother had given to me, the griddle and lamp I had found in the rubble of our home. We left with another family, that of the assassin Jachim ben Simon, the man who had apprenticed my brother and taught him how to kill with the curved, double-edged knife. This assassin was known to be terrifying when he struck his enemy, a whirlwind who sought only vengeance. He had been a priest once, the oldest son of a family of priests, and had spent his youth in study and prayer. But he’d seen how gold lined the pockets of only a few, how the poor were trod upon and used and enslaved. He’d seen his own father agree to make offerings and sacrifices on behalf of the Romans in our Temple on the Day of Atonement, insisting that Roman sins could be laid upon our altars and be forgiven by our God.
He’d taken up the knife of the Sicarii and excelled at his work. He was a truly dangerous man, all sinew and muscle. I saw his big, distinctive head and cast my eyes down, not wanting to glimpse a man who was so feared. His wife was named Sia, his young sons Nehimiah and Oren. I heard the wife crying as she clutched her sons. Their family had little more than we did, but they did have a donkey, which Ben Simon’s wife and sons rode upon. I walked behind them, like a woman in disgrace. In truth, I was used to being an outcast, more comfortable on my own. Jachim ben Simon looked over his shoulder once and seemed startled, as if he’d forgotten about me and now spied a wraith.
As we made our way out of Jerusalem, I was already trying to decipher who among us would die and who would live, for surely we would not all survive. Without brute strength, even our escape would be difficult. The streets were mayhem. All Jews had been expelled from the city, and any found would be instantly murdered. That was the new edict and therefore the law. Many of the priests had plunged into the sewers, hoping to escape the city undetected. But their collusion could not help them now; they were in the realm of the rats, struggling for their lives along with the rest of us.
We could hear what sounded like a roar as the Temple was torn down. It was Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month, the day on which I’d been born. In the years to come, people would swear that six angels descended from heaven to protect the walls of the Temple so that it would not be entirely destroyed; they vowed those angels sat there and wept and are weeping there still. The Romans used battering rams that weighed one hundred tons, and more than a thousand men were needed to swing them so that they might loosen, then pull down the huge stones upon which King Herod’s mark had been etched. Ropes were hoisted by hundreds of men, some of them ours, enslaved, cursing themselves for their fate and for the wretchedness of their own deeds. Stone should last forever, but on that night I came to understand that a stone was only another form of dust. Streams of holy dust loomed in the air, and every breath included remnants of the Temple, so that we inhaled that which was meant to stand throughout eternity.
Once again the fires that had been set created a smoke screen and this helped in our escape. For that we were grateful, despite the smoldering heat. The air was thick and gray. I held my scarf to my mouth and tried not to breathe in sparks. I guessed that my father had killed someone that night and that was why his robe was spattered red. I was thinking about such matters when Ben Simon’s wife, Sia, came to walk beside me. She pitied me because I followed behind in the clouds of dust that had been stirred up. She was perhaps ten years older than I, with a mass of black hair set into coils. Her eyes were dark with gold flecks. She might have been beautiful had she not been the devoted wife of an assassin, worn down by fear. Assassins should not marry, I decided then, or have daughters, or allow anyone to love them.
“Would you like to ride with my sons for a while?” Ben Simon’s wife suggested.
I could see she was tired, and I was used to walking. I thanked her and said no, I was happy to follow. I hoped she would leave me alone.
“I’m so glad to have you here,” she blurted. “Leaving would be so much worse without another woman beside me.”
I glanced at her, wondering what she wanted of me. She smiled, taking my hand, and then I understood. She wanted a friend.
I urged her to return to her sons. She should leave me to tread last, as I was invisible to most people, even without a cloak such as the one my father wore. Perhaps I had inherited that ability, or perhaps I had learned its secrets from watching my father. Either way, the Romans who searched for us would see only a swirl of dust wherever I walked.
Sia wouldn’t hear of it. “You’re wrong,” she remarked. “You would be the first one they’d see. Your hair is so beautiful it makes me think of flame trees.”
I wondered if her words were a curse, for I had been standing beside a flame tree when my brother admitted he was an assassin. It was not possible for her to know, but on those rare occasions when I dreamed of my mother, she came to me as a flame tree, and in my dreams I bowed my head before her and wept.
When I studied Sia, I could see that her intention was to be kind on a night pierced by danger and uncertainty. We walked close, drawn together by the peril around us. We were journeying through the Valley of Thorns, under a sky hung with so many stars they made me think of stones in the desert, countless, too white to look upon. They say the face of our Creator is like that, so bright that a single glance brings blindness. I kept my eyes downcast. I would have preferred to walk alone, but Sia set her pace with me, her arm linked through mine.
She confided that my father and her husband had killed an important Roman general and that was why we had made haste to flee. She herself had cleaned the blades of their knives, washing the metal in pure water, reciting a prayer as she did. She was obliged not to ask questions, and to do as her husband demanded, but she had an urge to confess that she had handled a knife streaked with human blood, a confession made to me as we trudged after the men. Her voice broke as she spoke of it.
“How will God punish me?” she murmured.
I hushed her—women were not to speak of such matters—but it was too late. Ben Simon had overheard and turned to glare at us. He was a tall, imposing man, with dark olive skin, fearsome, a deep scar etched across one side of his face. Once again I gazed at the ground in an attempt to avoid him. He called sharply for Sia to be quiet.
“Let us not speak of this,” she said then. “Sometimes it’s better not to know what men must do.”
WHEN WE could walk no farther, we stopped at a resting place, an oasis the assassins’ friends had spoken of in glowing terms. Every Zealot had a plan should disaster come, a direction in which he would run if need be. This was the first stop, a small green space where camels who had run off during the chaos had gathered. The beasts ran when we approached, kicking up dust, afraid that we would throw ropes around their necks, as unwilling to be slaves as we were. There was a citron tree growing there. The fruit of the tree is called pri etzhadar, the lemony etrog that is made into a jam. These specimens were bruised, sour without honey to sweeten the taste, but we didn’t care. We were starving and thirsty. We ate in silence, wolfing down our meager supper. In the distance, we could see Jerusalem burning. The smoke rose up in a funnel cloud, then disappeared. I counted stars, so bright above us. Sia sat beside me and whispered. She insisted it was a good omen to find the citrus on the first night of our journey, and although I did not argue with her, I knew otherwise. This bitter tree was nothing more than a key to a door and that door opened into the desert.
I had overheard my father speaking with Ben Simon. We were not headed toward Alexandria, or toward Cyprus. Instead we were taking the ancient route that led toward the Salt Sea, the route of the doomed. In the month of Av, the birds were unable to fly where we were going, even at night. It was too hot, the air unrelenting, an oven. You could bake bread on a stone. We would roam as far into the desert as we could, for it was there my father believed we would find the Zealots and their fortresses, my brother among them.
On the night we fled, as the Temple burned and the sky was ringed with fire, there was a light breeze. This would be the coolest time we would know before we entered into the wilderness. But there was to be something more that cast me into a burning world on the night we left Jerusalem. I walked down to a well that had been abandoned long ago. There was no longer any water. That wasn’t really a surprise. People often lied about water, promising pools where there were none, dreaming of water in a world composed of dust. All the same, if someone crouched on hands and knees to dig, it was possible to find mud. Drained through clenched fingers, water would well up, there for whoever was willing to sink to her knees. I wasn’t too proud to do so.
Determined to get what I wanted, I managed to fill half a jug with silty water, strained first through my fingers, then through the fabric of my blue scarf. When I was done I rose, greedy with thirst. I turned away from the well, then gazed up in alarm. I didn’t see the night sky filled with stars, or the fires of Jerusalem, only the other assassin, Ben Simon, who had been watching me. My arms were covered with mud, my tunic cast open. I felt myself flush with heat. I didn’t understand why he had appeared out of the dark or why he stayed. He didn’t even know my name. I thought he would turn away, but he stared at me for a long time, the way a man looks at a deer to gauge if it’s too far away to chase, or just near enough to catch. He nodded, and then I knew. I wasn’t invisible after all.
I COUNTED OFF the days in the desert by cutting my leg with a sharpened rock. Our people were not allowed to injure ourselves; that was the practice of pagans and nomads in their time of mourning. Do not cut your bodies to mourn for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you, the Lord commanded us in the Fourth Book of Moses. But I heard only the voice of the desert, not the words of the Almighty. I hid the cuts beneath my shawl. In the life we led, pain was something to get used to, to inure yourself against. I would rather hurt myself than be hurt by someone else, and so I took up this practice with a sense of purpose and without remorse.
It was the first time I broke our laws. After that, the rest came easily to me.
I was thrown together with Sia and her children when I would have preferred to be alone. Still, she was kind to me and I became accustomed to her. Because she was older and married, I thought she would expect me to be deferential, but instead she considered me a sister, and I grew to enjoy her company. There were days when we laughed and made our rough life into a game, even though the men threw us sullen looks. We worked well together, collecting the few greens we could find, making stews of our dwindling supply of oil and olives, dried figs and lentils. We cooked bread on the hot stones of our fire, covering the loaves with ashes so they might bake. Sometimes the men went off to hunt, bringing back an occasional partridge, which we added to our stews.
I was deeply affected by what a good mother Sia was to her sons, how uncomplaining when they clamored for her attentions. Her boys were little more than babies, and she sang them to sleep every night, determined not to relinquish all of the loving-kindness they’d known in the world we had left behind. Each time she sang I thought of the girl from Alexandria who had cared for me when I had no mother. I often fell asleep beside the children, imagining that Sia’s lullabies were meant for me. My new friend had tirelessly combed out the ashes that had fallen into my hair during the burning of Jerusalem. When we found a shallow pool, we rushed into it as soon as we spied the glittering water, able to forget, however briefly, what our circumstances were, splashing each other as if we were indeed sisters.
Secretly, I continued to record my time in the desert by etching each day into my flesh. I kept to myself, but I couldn’t help but be aware of Ben Simon, taking note of the scar on his face. Whenever I saw him watching me, I quickly covered my leg. I didn’t want him to know who I really was, a neglected, ugly girl with callused hands. And yet something connected us, perhaps because we were both scarred. Clearly he saw me as no one else ever had. I could see his face transform as he stared at me; there was something burning and reckless in his glance. It came to be that the only time I felt alive was when he looked at me. His very presence was like bee stings, riveting my attention. I began to brood over him, wondering how he had been scarred and what dark matters he had attended to in Jerusalem. I had persistent, slow-burning thoughts of him jumbled inside my head, ones that embarrassed me and made me feel that I was a traitor, though I’d done nothing wrong.
Once, when there was a pale moon, I went to the pool where Sia and I had bathed. During my time of monthly bleeding, I had sequestered myself away as was our custom. Now it had ended and I needed to cleanse myself. In Jerusalem, we had gone to the mikvah to bathe. Here there was only the pool in the nachal, the ravine where birds came to drink in the evenings, flocks of ravens, larks, and huge griffon vultures, the strong, fearless creatures we called nesher that nested in the cliffs. I found that the water was fast disappearing with the rising heat of Av. Still, I took off my tunic and splashed myself and felt some relief. I heard a rustling in the tamarisk trees, a variety that can be found growing in the harshest of places. Quickly, I drew on my cloak, fearful that one of the leopards whose territory we had entered might be stalking me, hungry enough to consider me his prey.
There was an echo of footfalls, and I froze until they vanished. I returned to our camp, cleansed but on edge. Everyone was sleeping inside our small goatskin tent, which was fastened to the ground with bolts made of horn. Only Ben Simon was awake. He seemed restless. I flushed to think perhaps he had seen me at the pool. He called me to him, and I went, my eyes lowered.
“It’s dangerous,” he warned.
He had never spoken to me before. I didn’t know if he meant there was danger in walking in the wilderness alone or in raising my eyes to meet his. I felt outraged that he might think he could tell me what to do, treating me as he would a child, or worse, his slave, and yet I felt a flicker of pleasure when I noticed the spiky green leaves in his hair. They were from the tamarisk that grew by the pool, a tree that lifted its boughs toward heaven in a place where nothing else could survive.
TWENTY-ONE CUTS and then the night when it happened. Afterward I wondered if I had been marking off the time until it did. Was that what I was waiting for? Was that where my desire had led me? Perhaps I had peered into the Book of Life, which metes out fate, and while in the depth of my slumbers I had seen his name written there. Or perhaps it was only that I was an envious girl who had nothing, and was therefore willing to take what belonged to another woman, one who was my only friend.
I was building a fire to cook our meal of lentil cakes on the griddle I’d brought with me from Jerusalem. He crouched down next to me. The sky paled with heat. The larks were flying in the dim light, and great colonies of bee-eaters were calling, their brilliant blue feathers slicing through the hazy air. Jachim ben Simon was more commanding than most men and I could feel the heat of his presence beside me. He didn’t look at me this time. Instead he reached down and ran his hand along my leg, lingering over the cuts I had made until my skin seemed on fire.
“You’re not afraid of the things other women fear,” he said.
I realized this was true. He still wasn’t looking at me, but he seemed to know me, even though I was hidden inside my veils. Most women feared for the lives of their children and husbands. Their concerns were starvation, illness, demons, enslavement. I feared the lions in my dreams, half-believing I would be devoured by one of the creatures that stalked through my sleep. I was afraid an angel would be waiting for me in the desert, sent there to tell me that my life was a ladder of mistakes, that I was born a murderer, responsible for the death of my own mother before I took my first breath, that my crime was worse than that of any assassin, for I was guilty not only in the eyes of my father but in the eyes of God.
Ben Simon took his hand away, but I could still feel the heat of his touch. I felt it for days. Did that mean he was an angel, hidden among us, there to judge me? Or was he only a man who wanted to satisfy himself?
WE WERE nearly going blind in the white light that pierced through our tent during the most brutal hours. Travel was impossible in the heat of the day, for the winds were merciless and could cut a man to pieces. We were city people who had strayed in the wilderness, wanderers with no direction, stranded in the territory of robbers, and thieves, and holy men. Emptiness was the name of the desolate land we crossed. We saw no one. When the pool of pale water disappeared into the sand, when even the mud left behind became hard-baked and dry, there was no reason for us to stay in our camp.
We packed up our few belongings—the goatskin tent, the handheld spindles we used to spin wool, our knives and the griddle, a jar in which there was still some oil, the lamp that we burned to mark the Sabbath, though there was little enough oil to do so. We moved on, searching for water. We ventured onward beneath the inky sky in the early mornings, during hours that were less brutal, before the sun emerged from the dark. Our route led us to a well, but it was dry. It led to an orchard, but it was barren. Olive trees had withered here, their silvery bark turned to empty shells. It was said that the nomads who crossed this wilderness were often forced to kill their camels and drink hot blood when their thirst could not be contained. There was no grass, and even the herds of ibex, wild goats who were unafraid to race across the rockiest cliffs, didn’t often venture into this harsh land. Only the leopards came here. Though they were mysterious and rare, we occasionally spied paw prints. These were the fastest animals in all creation, unearthly in their beauty, but they journeyed alone. Only those who lived cut off from all others of their kind would come here.
We went forward, believers with nothing to believe in. Our lips were so dry they cracked and turned white. Sia rubbed the last of the olive oil on her sons’ mouths, so their lips would not bleed. The days piled up like twigs, bent and useless. At last we found a cave to shelter us from the light and wind. There was a pool of still water, murky, with a lacy film across the surface, unclean, yet we put our faces into it like dogs. The east wind, Ruach Kadim, came up from Edom, flaming with heat. We wound ourselves in linen scarves, thin fabric made from flax, cooler than wool, perhaps because the reeds from which this fabric was made from had grown in marshes and carried water in the thread. We veiled our faces, making sure to keep our hands over our ears. Even then we couldn’t drown out the sound of the desert; the howling railed against us like a living being.
WE STAYED in the cave for days on end, too spent and parched to go on, afraid of meeting with the Roman garrison that patrolled the desert. We burned bits of the thornbushes we found to frighten away the jackals. A drift of white smoke rose from the mouth of the cave, the ash catching in our eyes and throats. The assassins hunted, but they found no game. They prayed, but there was no relief. I still cut my leg with a sharp rock. If I didn’t keep track of my life, no one else would. As time passed we began to starve. Again I wondered who among us could outlast the others. Our hunger kept us rapt and exhausted. We slept so many hours I could not tell the difference between my waking life and my dreams. I dreamed of Jerusalem and of my mother and of the flame tree in the marketplace. Those images were more real to me than the foul stink of the cave. Secretly, I had begun to eat the damp earth where moisture gathered near the rocks. My skin turned dusky, and it appeared that the desert was spilling out of me, the way they say sand pours out when you stab a demon with a knife that has been blessed and cleansed in pure water.
One night my father and Ben Simon slit the donkey’s throat. There are those who say animals have no spirits, but I heard the donkey scream. It had a voice like any man or woman, one that begged for breath and life. When I ran out to the cliffs, I could still hear its echo. The men said a prayer thanking God for what they had convinced themselves had been an easy death for the poor creature, for they’d used a ritual knife; then they made a fire out of a pile of twigs and roasted the meat. I could see pools of the donkey’s dark blood on the hillside below our cave. The stars were above us in the sky. Some could be seen quite clearly, others were hidden in the murk of the darkness. We waited for the morning star, which we named Cochav hashachar and others called Venus, looking for it to break through the sky in bands of pale, shimmering light and give us one more day.
After we ate, I felt defiled. The donkey’s bones simmered in a pot over the fire so that we might have food until the next Sabbath if we doled it out in scraps that we wolfed down. We were like people who had gone backward, barbarians in the desert. There were nomads who lived in this way; we saw evidence of them sometimes. They were wild men, pagans, their faces painted, their spears double-edged, their calls to each other the bleating of savages. Their lives depended on their camels, who gave them meat, and milk, and shelter when the tanned hides were stretched into tents. Their women gave birth in the sand, staining it slick and black; their dead were left on the rocks for the carrion; their men were exceedingly dangerous, for they had their own codes. No one who got in their way was spared. Some of these men had six wives, and the women were kept like donkeys, mistreated, used for bargaining.
Ben Simon had come upon the bodies of two of these wives. They were little more than children, likely not yet old enough to bleed with the moon. They had tried to run away from their circumstances and had fled as far as the desert would allow. Ben Simon discovered them when he was out hunting; they were buried beneath drifts of sand and stone, holding hands, their eyes staring, open to the World-to-Come. Both had coils of long black hair and wore the indigo-tinted scarves of their people. They had lain down to wait for death the way a bride waits for her bridegroom, the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet adorned with henna in intricate patterns of the thania ceremony, so that they might bring luck to the man they married. Perhaps they had been misused by their husband with no recourse or he had cast them aside. Perhaps they had run off together before the wedding ceremony and had lost their way.
I was cleaning out the cooking pot when Ben Simon signaled to me. I followed him even though we hadn’t spoken since he’d warned me of danger. He brought me to see the two wives. We did not speak, or even look at each other. I wondered why he’d chosen me to share this knowledge, why he had revealed to me that when the dust rose up and the dead were before him, this fierce assassin, who had murdered so many, who had washed the blood from his hands night after night, whose face was torn in two by a ragged scar, had tears in his eyes.
We stood under the darkening sky at the hour when the earth turns deep blue. It was the time when those who wander often see mirages, swearing the rocks they walk upon have become the sea. Perhaps the two child-wives had thought themselves rescued by the sea of the dead, preferring it to the lives that they led, in which they were kept like beasts, traded like pieces of silver. I suddenly understood that Ben Simon was telling me he would never drive me to such an end. He would protect me and care for me. My fate was revealed as he tenderly buried those two sister-wives as surely as if the Book of Life had fallen open before me.
I would never want to run away from him.
EVERY NIGHT I curled up in the cave, awake long after the others had fallen asleep. I was not the only one who kept my eyes open. Jachim ben Simon came to me late one night. He lay down beside me, his arms around me. I had been waiting for him, but now I was too stunned to move or cry out. He looked at me even more deeply than he had at the well where there’d been no water or at the grave of the two wives. I knew that he truly saw me. He saw that I was accustomed to doing whatever a man told me to do, that I had followed my father out of Jerusalem without a single question. But there was more inside me, and he saw that, too. He saw that I was burning, and that I was alone, that I was trapped by the lion in my dreams, and the angel I was waiting for, and the burden of my birth.
We would probably die before long. Our bones would be white upon the white rocks. We would be clawed at by eagles, taken by jackals. We would rise into the wind and become ashes. But not now. Not yet. We were still alive. Ben Simon slid his hand inside my tunic. There were deep blue veins in his arms that I could see through the dark. I could feel his sex against me, aroused. I was terrified that he might tear me in two. All the same, I didn’t try to stop him. I was burning the way the leaves of the pomegranates burn in the month of Av. They’re green one instant, in flames the next. Sia had been right. I was like the flame tree: the more I burned the more alive I became. If she’d leaned closer to me, she would have noticed the scent of fire and been forewarned, instead she took me to be her friend.
Ben Simon moved his hand between my legs. I heard myself gasp. He quickly covered my mouth with his free hand. The others were on the far side of the cave; they must not hear. He whispered that silence was the only thing he would ever ask me for. I nodded, and he moved his hand away from my mouth. My lips were hot from his touch. I wanted to know one thing before my vow of secrecy, before my words were swallowed and my promise kept. I could feel the spell of silence claiming me, but before it was complete I had only one question. I wanted to know how he had come to have a scar on his face. It seemed a secret to me, and if I knew his secret, I might know him, and then he might belong to me even though he was Sia’s husband.
He said it was the mark of a lion. He flinched when he spoke of the memory. The Romans had captured him outside the Temple when he was young and unmarried. He was tall and well muscled, with strong arms, exactly the sort of man they wanted. They were searching for gladiators and had therefore devised a test. They locked ten men in a room with a lion. Whoever survived would be sent to Rome. The first nine were killed, but when it came to this man who lay beside me, the lion had cut him once across his face, then fallen at his feet. The creature had died a sudden death, collapsing all at once, splayed out upon the tiled floor. Perhaps the lion had been wounded in his other encounters, but Ben Simon announced to the soldiers that he had slain his foe with one look. It was such a strange sight that the Romans, now puzzled and confused, took to discussing the possible causes of this odd circumstance. It was then Ben Simon managed to escape, though his wound still bled.
He was appalled that he had killed such a beautiful beast, when he would have much preferred to murder the soldiers, for one of the nine who might have been gladiators and had died before him was his brother.
“The truth is, I was bitter,” he confided, whispering in my ear, in order to explain why the lion had collapsed at his feet. “The lion didn’t like my taste.”
I ran my hand over his features in the dark, wondering what it might be like to come face-to-face with a lion. Perhaps the creature had sensed something in him, a lion of a man. I would have cried over Ben Simon’s humiliation and suffering at the hands of the Romans, but the desert had taken away my tears. Perhaps I was bitter, too.
He took his time with me that first night. He did things to me I didn’t know even existed. He kissed me everywhere and bade me to do the same to him. After a while my pleasure was in hearing his, in making him hold me tighter and want me more. When he entered me, my eyes were open. I saw the scar the lion had left and knew my dreams had been telling me the story of my own life all along, both what had happened and what would come to pass. He was someone’s husband, but on that night he was mine, the lion I had always known would find me. I was meant to save myself for my own husband, but I already knew there would never be a young bridegroom whose family would want to see my first blood after our marriage. Instead, there was only this man who told me I was beautiful. He told me in such a way, I believed him.
WE BECAME PEOPLE of the desert as the month of Elul passed, wrapped in cloaks to hide from the sun, searching through the day for sustenance. We forgot feast days. Even the Sabbath was a day like any other, though it was beautiful and holy and should have been remembered with joy and with praise. All hours were white, all flared alike. Soon enough my father was the only one who prayed three times a day, and before long he joined Ben Simon in simply praying daily at dawn, facing toward Jerusalem.
One fortunate afternoon Ben Simon caught a young, wild she-goat. Because the beast walked right to me when he brought her into our camp, he gave her to me as a gift. The goat seemed devoted to me from the start, begging to be petted, following at my heels. I was so flattered, I couldn’t bring myself to relinquish her to the one to whom she rightfully should have belonged. Sia was Ben Simon’s wife, the elder of the two of us, yet when she called the goat to her, waving and beckoning, the she-goat refused to come, shying and darting away.
I kept my pet tied with rope so we could drink her milk and make the yogurt we call lebben and others call homes, using my scarf to strain the curds, skimming off some of the buttery chem’ah we often ate plain before it was turned into cheese, for in our current circumstances we found this simple dish to be a feast. I dug in the shade where there was a single ancient olive, stunted from the wind. There I found mud that I strained for some dark, salty water. I could then make cheese, haris halab, wrapping the mixture in cloth until it was hard and ready to eat. The more dishes we had for our meals because of the goat’s milk, the more Sia seemed to suffer and burn with envy. One day I saw her lean down to speak to the goat, trying her best to convince this wild creature to change its allegiance, but the goat merely scampered to my side. Afterward I wondered if this was the moment when Sia knew. Although she masked her eyes, I could later hear her sobbing. Somehow in this desert where there was not enough moisture for tears, she still could cry.
BY THEN I had too many cuts to count, they crossed each other, moths floating along the surface of my skin. We now saw a few stray travelers on our journey, and we traded whenever we could. Whatever we had that might be considered precious—my father’s fine leather water flask, Sia’s marriage bracelets—was exchanged for salt and cumin. Once we procured several scrawny chickens and we feasted like kings, but when we were done we were left with only the feet and the bones. Such a meager dish would have to serve us for a long time. We went hungry, and in our hunger, we grew careless, as people who are lost often do. We had so little we seemed to have no tie to this world, had we not been tied to one another.
When my time came and I bled, I used the torn hem of my tunic as a rag between my legs. There was nothing else. We were becoming savages, much like the barbarian tribes who lived in the desert and obeyed its brutal laws. Live if you can, or be left behind with the old and infirm, an offering to the creatures that prowl at night. I wound the blue scarf my brother had given me around my head, even though blue had been the color worn by the sister-brides we had found buried in the wilderness. All that we had was carried on our backs. All that we were was illuminated by the bright light of the Almighty. We lived because He allowed us to do so. Every breath belonged to our Lord, who had given us another day on earth.
NOW whenever I went to walk beside Sia she quickened her pace. The intimacy between us had been pierced to the bone. When we cooked together she didn’t speak. Sometimes she faltered when I was beside her. Once she became flustered and she burned her hand on the griddle set atop the fire. When we found a shallow pool at our next camp, I asked her to bathe with me. She declined, insisting she would bathe alone, but she never did. Instead she watched me reproachfully from behind the rocks, my young body an affront to her. I could hear her crying. I might have wept myself if I hadn’t lost the ability to do so, but I had decided long ago, in my father’s house in Jerusalem, I would never cry again. The goat soon became my only company. I found myself talking to her, until I recalled that was what witches were said to do. Then I only whispered, so no one would overhear.
WHEN AT LAST we found a place where we might stay for a while, with clutches of mint and a few yellow onions managing to grow in a gorge nearby, I searched out a cave that was higher on the cliff in order to seclude myself when my time came with the moon. A woman who bled was unclean, what was called niddah, and must remove herself from others for seven days. Even a single drop of blood that fell forced a woman to retreat from the world of men, until she had cleansed herself in a mikvah, water that was pure, running directly from God.
I went off by myself because it was our law, but there was another reason as well. I could no longer sleep in the same space as Sia. I had begun to imagine that she lay awake in the dark when her husband came to me, insistent now, as though claiming something he was owed. I wondered if she covered her ears, or worse, if she listened to us. I set myself apart to escape her prying eyes. In truth, I preferred my aloneness. I streaked my skin with mud to keep cool. I unplaited my hair. The stars were brighter on the ridge where I camped, they flecked the darkness to fill the night. I had seen women following the nomads, second and third wives who were banished to walk only with other women. They, too, covered themselves with mud. Though they should have walked in shame, they were even more beautiful than the first wives, for their skins had been turned white and yellow and red with mud, and their hair was loose, falling down their backs like water. They seemed oddly proud, for if there was nothing to quench the men’s thirst, then there was at least this available, their bodies, their souls.
We celebrated Rosh Chodesh, the rising of the new moon that marked the start of the month of Tishri. Blessed is He who spoke and the world came into being. Every month began as a reflection of the first words of the Torah, with new life, marked by the reappearance of the moon. By then we had been wandering nearly fifty days, avoiding any sign of Roman troops. On the Day of Atonement I found myself guilt-ridden, appalled to think God knew what I did at night, aware that I had stolen something that didn’t belong to me, as though I were a common thief, as well as the murderess my father had claimed me to be. My father and I had little to do with each other, though we were often confined in a small space and took our meals together. We turned our backs to one another. He had little choice but to eat the food I managed to set before him, though I’m sure he considered it to be unclean. I had heard him recite a prayer over his bowl, as men may do to chase away demons.
“Do you think I might kill you from the inside out?” I asked recklessly one noontime as he muttered over the greens I had prepared.
He shot me a filthy look. He was hunched over, frail, suddenly an old man. For the first time I saw him for who he was despite his cloak of invisibility. I knew he was broken. I realized then it was the prayer for the dead he had been murmuring, the words one is to say when a passing occurs: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe. Since the time of my birth he had been in mourning and he was mourning my mother still. All at once I was ashamed. He was my father, no matter how cruel, and I had not honored him.
We celebrated the glory of God on the Feast of the Tabernacles. The men prayed, but we had no grapes on the vine, no red pomegranates to split open so that the juice rained down our mouths and arms and this day differed little from any other day. Soon enough, the weather began to change. At last there were birds again. I hadn’t realized how silent the world was in the months of great heat until the flocks returned as they journeyed above us. This was the route they took so they might spend the winter in the south, where the nights were not so black and chill. The entire sky swelled with flocks of larks and scarlet rosefinch. There were buntings, turtledoves, brilliant Abyssinian rollers, glossy ibis. There were whole colonies of glorious yellow and turquoise bee-eaters, who called to each other, even in the night. A huge expanse of color drifted above us, all moving south, searching for grasslands. Sometimes they were like clouds along the horizon and other times they became the entire sky. To see the vibrant waves of birds in shades of red and blue above the white desert was a miracle. I no longer counted off the days with regret but rather with joy.
Even when I was unclean, when I had removed myself from the others, even though his wife might wake in the dark and find him gone, Ben Simon didn’t stay away. Men were supposed to avoid women during their time of the month, it was written in the Fourth Book of Moses, and so it was the law. But we broke every law it was possible to break in the desert, that was where cutting my leg had brought me, for it was the first rule I had ignored. I had no mother to call out cautions, but in truth, I would have disobeyed even if my mother had been alive to warn me. One broken law led to another. Ben Simon became unclean, covered with my blood the way he’d been covered with Roman blood when he struck his enemies in the courtyard of the Temple. He was used to committing crimes. His attitude was both tender and coarsely male. When he sank down beside me, his hand on the curve of my hip, his sex hard against me, I could see no guilt at all in his eyes. He said God could distinguish a sinner from a sin, and what we did was beyond judgment.
Whenever I came down from the cave, I could tell Sia knew where her husband went each time he vanished from her side. I knew by the uncomplaining way she went about her work, by her frown. I couldn’t meet my friend’s eyes. Everything I might have been had disappeared. The girl who walked to the oasis on the night the Temple burned no longer left footprints. She, who had ashes in her long, red hair and wept for the loss of her city and her home, had been left behind where the citron tree had grown. The key that had opened the gate into the wilderness had opened Sia to my betrayal.
I tasted grit between my teeth. I was a woman of the desert now, no longer the shy outsider, a city girl frightened of scorpions. I had become fierce, willing to do anything to get what I wanted. This was the way hunters were born. I felt that savagery inside of me, a dark glimmering of will that resolved to survive. If I wanted something, it became mine. I sneaked up on migrating birds and caught them in my scarf, sometimes in my bare hands. I was cunning, a lioness. I had watched how the black desert viper could hypnotize a bird, slowly wrapping itself around its prey before the final bite rendered it motionless.
Our people believed every creature had a spark—nitzotz—that which was holy, and we were to show kindness and compassion to all beings, what we called baal chayyim. All animals praise God, as we do, with their songs and their voices. In midwinter, we dedicated a Sabbath to the birds, to offer our gratitude and acknowledge that it is their songs that have taught mankind how to chant and praise the glory of our Creator. We were even obliged to chase the hens away before we gathered their eggs so they would not see what happened to the unborn beings which might have been their offspring. When we needed meat, we were to make certain to sever the throat of an animal in a single perfect cut to allow its spirit to rise in a steady stream of light. We were not to eat blood in any manner, but to let it drip from the necks of our prey, returning to the earth from whence it came.
But I had witnessed the way death came in the desert each time the viper who waited in the speckled shadows of the rocks partook of his meal. I had learned my lesson. I broke the birds’ necks, but I did so quickly, and I always said a prayer. I lay the bodies of these flightless creatures across my knees and plucked their feathers and ignored the fact that I had taken the lives of such wondrous things. What was I not capable of? What bitter, brutal thing would I not be willing to do? In the cave I had grown teeth and claws, exactly what my father had said would come to us in the desert. Reckless, I no longer cared who might hear us at night. It didn’t matter if Sia’s eyes were swollen or if my father spat on the ground when he saw me, to protect himself, clearly convinced that I could manifest ill will and bring about curses. Let them believe they heard lions, come down from their lair in mountains to make such wild noise late at night. Sia was nothing to me. Her children were not mine. Who survived depended on sinew and muscle and a crude sort of will. I possessed all three. I stopped returning to the tent to sleep and remained in the cave.
It was now Cheshvan, what some call the bitter month, the time of Noah, when rain flooded the world as my passion flooded my head. I allowed Ben Simon to observe my nakedness when I stood on the rocks atop the cave. I allowed him take me right there for the hawks above to view, for the Lord of all things to witness, for his wife to watch if she dared to look upon the cliffs that I favored. My beloved would approach only so far, making it clear I must be the one to sin. Every man is tempted by evil urges; he would not be a man if a swollen flicker of desire did not rise within him. But a woman who allows herself to swoon before such humiliations would be judged harshly, for she would be repeating the first sin of paradise as one of Eve’s daughters, betraying God’s laws for her own fulfillment. I accepted this. I was already a criminal, the murderer of my own mother; desire was nothing compared to evil such as that.
When Ben Simon bade me to him I would run to him like a dog, but at least I was now a dog who chose my own master. I let him take me the way dogs take each other, and then the way lions do, face-to-face, entwined. When he insisted he was obliged to leave, I wouldn’t let him go. I satisfied his every urge, offering any favor to convince him to stay. I burned with him, hot and liquid in his grasp, our bodies a dark tangle, for we had become beasts for whom this was the only language. Salt tears stung my eyes, but they did not fall. Ours was a destroying sort of love. When he felt humiliated by his own needs, Ben Simon would heap insults upon me, then he would weep and take me again in his arms. I couldn’t get enough of him because I knew as soon he left me he would return to his family. He belonged to them. He never lied about that. I would watch his footprints when he went and mourn him before he was gone.
IT WAS THE TIME when we remembered the reconsecration of the Temple after the Syrians were driven off, when Adonai allowed a single day’s oil to burn for eight nights to mark our faith and our triumph. But now the Temple was lost to us, and our oil burned with plumes of black smoke. The rocks were our ovens as flames leapt from the few twisted boughs we could find. A pale rain fell and spattered our fire so that even cooking was difficult. Our feast was a dove I had trapped in my scarf. The creature sang tirr tirr, a lovely song that sound like tor, our word for turtledove. I looked upon a bush of myrtle and saw the dove’s mate waiting there. Later in the season when the turtledoves would migrate south, I wondered if the one perched on the branch would leave alone, or if she would stay and mourn. I thought of Solomon’s words to his beloved, Behold thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes. I saw grief staining the dark eyes of the one perched in the bushes, and a tenderness I had never seen in humankind. I walked toward the lone dove, wondering if I should do away with its loneliness, but it flitted off to a higher branch, its pale feathers gleaming, too lovely a creature for me to destroy.
A portion of water served as our wine that evening, for there were no grapes, and no time to try to ferment the figs we occasionally found growing wild. I had become accustomed to the way we lived and found solace in silence. I’d grown to love the scent of the desert at night, fragrant and harsh at the same time. We went from place to place, following the possibility of finding water, chasing after the tracks left by quail. I continued to live removed from the others so that Ben Simon could easily come to me while his wife and children slept. Once, when Ben Simon was off hunting, my father came up to me and asked if it was my desire to be a zonah. I felt that he had slapped me. He compared me to the prostitutes who lived at the edge of Jerusalem and were willing to pull off their cloaks for anyone who would pay them, even Roman soldiers.
“If that’s who I am, then that’s who you made me,” I informed my father, the man who had murdered so many with his curved dagger, who had ignored me and used me as he would a dog, who hadn’t flinched when he brought me into the desert, where I could have no future other than the one that had already been written.
I HAD STOPPED counting off days. I did not wish to be elsewhere, even though there was still no sign of my brother and the fortresses of the rebel Jews. The heat had lifted and the rains had begun in earnest. Soon there would be pools forming in the nechalim; the ravines between the cliffs would rush with iridescent waterfalls. I was like the leopard that roamed the desert, thinking only of survival and what I might need to get through each day. I saw prints in the sand, always a single cat, never two together. They were such solitary creatures that when they met their mates they would begin to scream, for they were drawn to each other, yet were enemies still. They were nothing like the lions, who were bound for life and rested in each other’s embrace.
Once I had come upon a leopard, though such a sighting was extremely rare. I was silent beside some rocks where birds were nesting, waiting for one to find its way closer so that I might fall upon it. I glanced up, and there stood the leopard, dun-colored with black spots, large, surely powerful enough to kill me. My heart thudded. I was seized by the sheer desire to live. I stood upon a rock and lifted up my shawl and made myself fierce, my red hair blowing out behind me, my face snarling, my scream the scream of a leopard. The creature glanced at me, startled, then darted away. It disappeared between the rocks, then burst onto the flatland, where it glided over the earth. I was shivering, stunned by my own ferocity. That was who I was now. A creature who cared nothing for another’s hunger, who thought only of her own.
I would have been happy to live this life forever. To wait for the dark and have Ben Simon when I could, but that was not the way it had been written. At the end of the month of Kislev, when clouds gathered and the nights grew cool, Sia’s sons fell ill. Bad fortune had been lurking every time we ate food that had not been blessed or when we drank from still pools. We had left a place where there were demons, and perhaps some had followed us through Zion’s gates. The children were sweet boys, always ready to tag along to search for figs in the fertile soil of the ravines, at least until their mother protested and would no longer allow them to accompany me. When I asked if I could help with their illness, Sia let me know there was nothing I could do. They weren’t my children, she told me. I saw grief stamped upon her, but I did not offer to share it for I had helped to cause her despair. Of course she wouldn’t want me near.
Day after day the boys’ skins flamed hot, though the air grew cooler. Soon the children made rasping sounds when they tried to breathe. Faint red marks were scattered over their flesh. I could hear Sia weeping when they refused the soup of blanched vetch she offered them. She cried out to Adonai for Him to take her instead of her children. In my deepest heart I had wished for the very same thing. It was terrible, but it was true. I felt my disgrace, yet I wanted her gone from us. This was who I had become and what my craving had done to me. Now when I thought about who would be the first to die, I guessed it would be her.
If you cannot be brutal in the desert, you will never survive. This is what I told myself and what I believed. I was not a donkey or an innocent girl or a worried mother or a boy with a high fever. I was a red-haired woman who had stared down a leopard. I spoke to a goat on a mountainside. I saw that Ben Simon sat watch over his children, the raw planes of his face transformed by worry. I went to him and bowed before him and begged to nurse his children. A curl of a smile formed on his mouth and he stroked my hair, but he said their lives were in God’s hands, not mine.
Sia was watching, her face ashen.
“Let me show you what I can do,” I insisted.
In a single day I caught three wild hens and cooked them over a fire. I found water in a spring that fed an Egyptian sycamore and plucked the orange-colored fruit. I made a hearty soup for the boys, then cut the sycamore fruit into thin, cool slices to hold against their fevered lips.
Sia could not reproach me. She had no choice but to nod blankly and accept my gifts. I plunged into survival. I made it my calling and my art, unlike my father, who spent his time idly gazing toward Jerusalem as the sky edged from white to blue. He, who had killed a dozen Romans, who was a rebel and a renegade, was being bested by Judea, by the wind and the hunger that had claimed him and how helpless he had become. Now that the children had fallen ill, he was terrified, chanting to the Almighty throughout the day. It wasn’t that he cared about the boys, it was his own flesh that concerned him. He insisted that demons could move from one person to another in a touch or a breath. I had contempt for him and turned away. When he asked me for water to wash his hands, I told him to find it himself, to paw through the sand as I had done.
I cared about only one man, the one who had faced a lion. But I feared he was too tenderhearted and had been reclaimed by his wife and family. He had stopped coming to me at night. In my cave I shivered, alone. I suffered and watched from behind the rocks. He sat with the children beside a fire made of the twigs I’d collected, eating the soup I’d made, drinking water I had dug from beneath the sycamore. I was healing them for each other. Once I saw him take Sia’s hand in his own large hand and press her palm to his mouth. He had the right to do so, she was his wife, but I burned with a haze of jealousy. I couldn’t eat the soup I’d cooked. I didn’t drink the water I had found beneath the roots of the sycamore tree.
I knew from the talk of women at the well in Jerusalem that it was possible to bind a man to you and keep him from straying. It was a blood act, they’d said, fearful of such things, but blood did not frighten me. I went off alone to a place where I had seen black adders, where there was a grove of yellow Sodom apples, whose long, fibrous seeds served as wicks when we had enough fat from a partridge to use for the Sabbath light. I crouched down on my haunches and drew the face of a lion in the dirt with a stick, then circled it with stones, which I streaked with my own menstrual blood. I wanted to keep my lion caged, and in this way I imagined I might do so. I had no mother to teach me the simplest cures, but my spell proved successful. Ben Simon came to me that night. He still wanted me. I tied up my hair with my blue scarf. I was careful, and silent, grateful beyond measure. Everything seemed breakable now. What was between us had grown until it was a flower, the red blossom of the flame tree, which stains your fingers when you pick it, twisted onto a vine that pricks your skin.
“I shouldn’t be here,” he said.
The same was true for me, and I should have said as much. Instead I went to him and we denied ourselves nothing. None of us was meant to be in this wilderness, but as it had been written that we should journey here, it had been written that he would come to me. All I wanted was his hands on me, his mouth on mine, his body and mine becoming one. That was when I was alive. I wondered if perhaps I’d set the spell upon myself and if it was a curse I’d have to pay for eventually. I should have allowed Ben Simon to care for his wife and children, but I didn’t let him go. A leopard knows who she is; she does not calculate her prey’s agony and fear, she runs because she is made to do so, she takes what she must.
Perhaps it had been better when I was invisible, when men walked past me and looked away, when I stayed at home like a dog. I barely knew myself now. But I knew what I wanted. When I went walking among the rocks, barefoot, I left a trail. He always followed to find me. Even so, this was not his sin to carry, for when he came to me, I never once said no.
THE NIGHTS grew cooler and the air was blue, sweeping in from the Great Sea, bringing rain in the banks of clouds. Yet the boys’ fevers still hadn’t broken. They had been sick for too long a time. Their lips were swollen and white. Their eyes rolled back, and they talked to spirits. We watched them, uneasy, fearing the worst. It had come to the point where they would not eat or drink. And then one day, when the branches of the tamarisk bloomed with pink flowers and there were clutches of sage rising between the rocks along the cliffs, Sia herself fell ill. She swore there was nothing wrong with her, but she shivered and refused to eat. In the evening she lay down beside her boys, and when the next morning came, she did not rise from the ground. When I brought her water, she accepted it, but the way she looked at me was terrible. Once she clasped my hand and I thought she was about to curse me. Instead, she gazed into my eyes with a fevered intensity. I don’t know if she found what she was searching for, but perhaps she did, for she asked then if I would take care of him should she die. I knew who she meant. I bowed my head and promised I would.
“Yes, of course you will,” she murmured. She didn’t sound angry, rather she appeared to be a woman who had surrendered and no longer needed to bother with the details of those who would remain on earth, except to make certain that the husband she loved would be loved in return.
After that I couldn’t look at her, my only friend who’d been so kind to me. I helped as best I could, crouching beside her with a dampened rag to cool her burning skin. I boiled a tea of nettles and mint, but she couldn’t drink. I made a broth from the bones and meat of a partridge, but she shook her head and turned me away. I had never nursed anyone, nor had I attended to the ill or the dying. She lay there uncomplaining, as did the children, who moaned softly. In Jerusalem the minim could be paid to come with their secret chants. They would pray for cures from the Infinite One, and as masters of pharmaka they had access to medicines that could cure blindness, headaches, fever. The root of the peony could be crushed and digested by those who had seizures; hot wax could stop bleeding. The minim wrote the Almighty’s name a thousand times, the scroll slipped inside a roll of leather, prayers with mysteries so private they could only be whispered to God alone. If I could have, I would have gone to one of the women in the alleyways such as the one I’d turned to for Amram’s amulet, for they often had access to darker spells and could bring back a life the Angel of Death seemed poised to snatch away.
But we had no one to whom we might plead for a cure. We had nothing but dust. Time passed, but the fevers did not. Even I knew a body could contain such demons for only so long.
One evening Ben Simon did not come to me. I went to the place where the tamarisk grew. The rocks I’d placed so carefully had been jumbled up, perhaps by wild camels or by jackals making a den for the night. Either way, the spell had been broken. I came back to camp and found him holding his children, weeping. Now I knew I had been wrong. A person could indeed cry in the desert, even one marked by the bite of a lion. At that moment I understood who I was to him. I did not come first, or second, or even third.
It did not diminish the way I felt or who he was to me.
But I knew.
There was only one thing I could do to please him. When I told Ben Simon I would journey to search for a cure, he embraced me. I drank in his gratitude as though it were water. I wanted to set forth alone, but he not would allow it. A woman in the desert was like a bird in a snare, there for anyone to catch. He insisted my father go with me, and although my father thought little of me, he agreed to be my companion, perhaps only to flee from those who were so ill.
Ben Simon gave me his knife, the one he had used to murder so many. There were rusty stains upon it, but the silver blade was so sharp that when I grazed my hand against it blood sprang from my thumb. I kept the knife in my tunic, wrapped inside a flat piece of wool, tied with a string made of my goat’s threaded hair. Ben Simon made certain I took my pet along, so that her milk would give us sustenance if we found nothing else. He gave me the flask in which he carried water and the last of the barley cakes. I took these things, though I was seized with the impulse to give it all back. As a gift marked a beginning, so, too, did it signify an ending. Something was happening as we said good-bye. He was giving me all he had, and yet a curtain had been drawn between us. I could feel my throat closing up, my heart hitting against my chest. I looked upon my beloved’s face, but he no longer saw inside me. I had become transparent, no more to him than air. It was as it had been on the day we left Jerusalem, before he spied me sifting through the mud for water, before he knew my name. I thought perhaps this was the way an assassin said farewell, fiercely and with dignity. I had no idea that he could already read what had been written.
WE LEFT when the morning was dark and there were hawks spiraling across the sky.
My father and I went without knowing how long it might take to find a cure or if there was indeed anything for us to find. Mistrust was everywhere, and for good reason. We were as likely to be murdered as we were to reach a settlement. Bands of robbers occupied caves all across Judea. There were escaped slaves, thieves, rebels with nothing more to lose. The wilderness was enormous. Every limestone cliff resembled ones we had already passed. We circled, lost, for several days to avoid soldiers from the Roman Legion, the goat that I led mawing to warn us of our mistake. There were those who wandered here for all eternity, who were never seen by civilized people again. I had heard stories from the women at the well in Jerusalem of a lost young girl who lived with the hyenas, who would run with them, and eat carrion, and sleep among them, and who, when she was found, had sharpened teeth, for she was no longer human.
When we passed the same cliffs for the third time, I had no other choice; I took the scarf my brother had given to me and tore off strips of silk. I tied the flares of blue to the thorn trees to help guide our return.
A few days into our journey, my father surprised me by speaking to me. I shouldn’t have wished for such a thing, for he had nothing good to say. He ranted, blaming me for entrapping Ben Simon, as though convinced that I was the lion who had devoured this man, taking him from his wife. I looked at my father, defiant, wondering what he would think if I walked away and left him to fend for himself. He went on to inform me that if Ben Simon’s two boys survived they would owe me their lives and would be my sons as much as they were Sia’s. His eyes blazed with anger. “Maybe then God will forgive you.”
I didn’t defend myself. I often ran my hand over the cuts etched into my flesh that marked off our time in the desert, stopping when I reached the day Ben Simon first came to me. In truth I had walked into the wilderness to search for a cure as a way to bring him back to me. I had not thought of the boys or Sia until this moment. God wouldn’t forgive me for that.
My father and I made camp as dusk fell. In this season the nights were cold, and I gathered twigs along the way to make a fire at night. When there was no other fuel, we burned our own excrement and that of the goat, and the smoke reeked foully. Surrounded by that dreadful blaze, I feared we had wandered out of God’s sight. At night we slept sitting up, back against back, our cloaks around us, the folds of the cloth burdened with grime. We heard creatures in the dark, wild dogs and jackals, once a bear lumbering toward its cave. This was a route not many walked, for we were without a glimpse of water. We had heard of the fate of Sodom, a place which had been burned to the ground by lightning. People said there were trees filled with beautiful fruit, but once plucked the fruit turned to smoke and ash in your hand. In the daylight hours our every breath burned. We dared not visit any oasis for fear the Romans would find us. The goat had not had water for so many days, she could no longer give milk. She huddled beside me. There were stones in her hooves which I did my best to pluck out. All the same, when I insisted we go on, I thought I heard her crying.
We had come so far that a single small section of my scarf remained. Behind us a map of blue charted our way through the wilderness, back to Ben Simon. Our journey seemed hopeless, for we could see nothing more than the white cliffs before us. My father scowled, vowing he could have predicted as much, for I brought only bad fortune. But then we came to the top of a cliff and spied a sight in the distance that made our hearts lift. It was the Salt Sea, a horizon of vivid azure. The water was changeable; one moment it was blue and then green and then a flat slate color. When clouds approached, the surface turned black, so that the Romans called it Lake Asphaltitis, for it threw up black clusters of tarlike asphalt. But for us, it resembled heaven, so blue we had to blink back tears.
The sea appeared to be so close I imagined I could reach out and touch it, but my father said it was a walk of several more days. He warned that distance was an illusion that had tricked many men, even great sages, into walking to their death. They were certain they were moments from the sea and started off beneath the brutal sun on a course that would bring them directly to Mal’ach ha-Mavet, the Angel of Death who was said to have a thousand eyes, never losing sight of a single one of his victims.
Days slipped away under the burning sun as we remained on the ancient path that led toward the sea. We passed the ruins of a settlement where it was possible to see the moon doubled when it was reflected in the Salt Sea. The settlement had been destroyed by the Romans. It was intended to be paradise built by the Yahad, a group of believers from the Essene sect, Jews who practiced strict codes with fixed hours of prayer. It was said that our people had been cut into four quarters, each with their own philosophy, and then cut up four more times for good measure. Truly righteous, the Essenes had indeed cut themselves off from all others.
The Yahad’s name for their oasis was Sechacha, our word for cover, for their houses were domed with the broad leaves of the date palm trees. They had come to the desert as true believers, forsaking their comfortable lives in Jerusalem. They had foreseen the fall of the Temple and had fled here to await the End of Days, so that they might spend their last hours in chanting, their scribes at work on rolls of parchment to assure that their truth would not be lost when this world ended. The Essenes forbade idols, as we did, but they were far stricter in their practices and would not even touch a coin with an imprint upon it. They believed no man should be king. Still they would not lift up arms or fight their oppressors. We were in the hands of Adonai, they insisted, therefore arrows and spears were meaningless. There were children of darkness and children of light and the true battle on earth was to remain in the light and praise the one who knows all, Elohim.
We saw the crumbling ruins of their aqueduct, and the dam under a waterfall, which we drank from deeply, though the pool was cluttered with the remnants from the settlement the Romans had destroyed: oil lamps and broken glass vessels, clay inkpots, piles of ostraca—broken pottery shards used for writing upon. There were still tall oaks and laurel trees to offer dappled shade, but anything made by human hands had been crushed. Fallen wooden beams hewn from palm trees and the leaves used for roofs were in brown, crinkled heaps. I wandered through the scriptorium, a library whose shelves and columns littered the ground. Bits of torn scrolls on goatskin or papyrus lay in the dirt, rotting and falling into shreds. I went along the cobblestones to see the ritual baths lined with wide plaster steps. There were snakes in these baths now, nesting beside pools of fetid water.
At last I came to piles of bones, the remains of the faithful. Though I was unworthy, I tore my ragged clothes in the act of keriah, as a sign of respect and mourning, and murmured a prayer for the dead. May His great name be honored. Blessed be He, forever and ever.
I found my way back to the fire my father had lit. We spent the night at this oasis, knowing the Romans would avoid this place and the ghosts of those they’d murdered, but starving jackals would be called to us by the fear in our scent. Surely they had been here before, for the bones of the dead were scattered so widely we could not collect them and store them in a stone container as was their due. We looked at each other, my father and I, and perhaps we saw each other in a different light as the stars hung overhead and the bones glimmered before us. My father did not berate me on this night. Instead, he told me I should be the first to sleep, having decided he would stay awake to watch for any beasts who might come to surround us. It was the first kindness he had ever offered me.
WE WENT FORWARD early the next day. Perhaps an angel led us on our journey. We found our way south, the direction of the springs. It was here the Essenes from Sechacha had come to haul water back to their settlement. We turned onto a path edged by brambles. The goat, now famished, chewed leaves that were prickly and brown. But as we ventured farther, there were green shoots among the rocks. The breeze rose up, carrying the fragrance of balsam and the soft, nearly undetectable scent of water. All at once I recognized the sound of bees. It had been so long since I had heard their honeyed song I nearly swooned. We had come to an oasis where a spring arose from the ground and huge date palms towered. The air was a cool balm, so sweet it seemed we had stepped inside a cloud filled with perfume, rich with the scents of myrrh and coriander. We had found a group of the Yahad people who had survived, settling here to wait for the End of Days.
In the clearing their grapevines and gardens were brilliant against the white-hot sky. The beauty of the world burst forth in every growing thing. There was a field of wheat and flax, yellow and gold, ablaze with sun. We heard bells that were hanging from the trees on twists of black rope, ringing as they moved with the breeze. There were dozens of mulberry and olive trees circling a stone well, alongside a grove of pistachios that turned the haze green. A pen of forty goats was set up in the shade, another forty sheep dozed in the sun.
Many among the Essenes had been priests, some lived without women in the limestone cliffs, their caves marked by mezuzoth, containers holding scrolls in which prayers to God were enclosed. These men were too pure for the entanglements of life in this world, but there were also men who had arrived with wives and daughters, their women dressed in white linen, heads covered at all times. They resided in large tents with their families, some of them having fled from Sechacha, others having arrived only recently from Jerusalem after the fall of the Temple.
People peered at us as we walked through the settlement. There were stone common houses, and ritual baths, and libraries where scholars set to completing documents, dividing themselves into groups of three, so that the men could work on scrolls written upon animal skins or papyrus throughout the day and the night. Perhaps my father and I looked like demons, made of sand rather than flesh. Our eyes peered out of our filthy faces. My hair was like blood twisted down my back, so long it reached past my waist. Some of the women blinked when they saw me, but no one jeered. The people of the Yahad sect practiced kindness in what they believed to be our last days in this world. What belonged to one man also belonged to his neighbor.
The women came to greet us. The fabric they wove on their looms was so light their garments flowed around them. I yearned for sheets of linen to wrap around myself so no one would see me. Perhaps then I would be able to withstand the intensity of God’s bright light when He could not forgive me for all I’d done.
Although these holy people had lost many of their own at the hands of the Romans, for they revealed that the settlement of Sechacha had been conquered and ruined even before the Temple fell, the Essenes weren’t willing to carry daggers, which they considered an affront to the greatness of God. Quickly my father made the decision not to tell them he was one of the Sicarii. These people considered the Sicarii to be on the side of darkness, snakes who defied Adonai. We merely announced that we were among those who had been expelled from Jerusalem, a poor father and daughter who had become wanderers. When we spoke of the mother and children traveling with us who had been stricken with fever, the Essene women had compassion and quickly resolved to help us. One among them, who identified herself as Tamar bat Aaron, escorted my father to a learned man, a priest whose followers called him Abba—father—a teacher of righteousness whose people did his bidding out of joy rather than duty.
Abba was so old he had to be brought everywhere in his chair, carried by four strong men; so pure Tamar whispered we must sit sixty arm spans away, the distance kept by all of the women, their heads covered, their eyes downcast yet shining, for although women were not included in the strict Essene ways, they were radiant when they heard the great man speak. Another priest of Abba’s magnitude would have turned us away, too enmeshed in prayer to be bothered with our pleas. Or perhaps such a powerful man might have agreed to hear us if we had brought silver in exchange for his favor. But Abba was convinced that every man was his brother. He was a follower of a teacher from Galilee who taught that peace was the only hope for mankind. Without it, we were like the jackals in the desert, nothing more.
Beside me, Tamar whispered that Abba had had ten wives and outlived them all; he now spent his days giving glory to God and teaching the ways of peace. The men here prayed three times a day; in the morning as they faced in the direction of Jerusalem, then again at sunset, and once more after nightfall. They carried what was holy within them, for every man was a temple, and every prayer spoken could be heard by our Father above us.
When told of our plight, Abba presented my father with a fever charm, a prayer slipped inside a metal tube that was to be attached to the arms of the afflicted. He offered a length of blessed rope, to tie into knots in the children’s tunics and bind them to good health, as well as a precious bulb of deep purple garlic to keep away demons. We were to recite the name Adonai a hundred times over a cup of water and garlic that had been boiled three times atop a hot fire, then instruct those who had sickened to drink while they prayed for grace from God.
WE WERE GIVEN pressed dates and barley cakes and allowed to spend the night. A light rain was falling, and the earth quickly flooded with puddles. My father was led to a common house to stay among the men. I tied my goat to a tamarisk tree and went with the unmarried girls, who looked at me with puzzled expressions. I must have appeared as a wild beast to them. When I uncovered my hair before them, they were shocked by the knots and set to work on them with wooden combs. They brought me to bathe in their ritual pool, where the water turned black all around me. Even I could see it was a bad omen, but the Essene girls laughed and said holy water took away all sin. Their people believed immersing themselves brought them closer to God, and they bathed several times a day. There was a double staircase into the bath; one flight of the limestone steps to enter, the other for the pure who had been cleansed so they might walk out of the water without touching those who were still unclean. Indeed, when I stepped out of the water, I felt truly cleansed for the first time since leaving Jerusalem. My hair was so red that the bees came to me, circling round. The Essene women laughed, suggesting that my hair must appear to be a field of roses. I had to run from the swarm and shout out that I was a woman, not a flower.
I was given a tunic by Tamar. It was a simple white garment, with a goat-hair rope to tie at the waist. I said it was too great a gift, but Tamar insisted. “Possessions are nothing, for they will be worthless in the World-to-Come,” she told me. “You cannot take any of it into the house of the Lord.”
The past seemed like a distant dream. We were far from the carnage we’d known in Jerusalem, several days’ walk from the caves where we’d found shelter. But what I’d done and what I’d come to know had been more than a dream. When I narrowed my eyes, I could see beyond the orchards to the pocked limestone cliffs and the path I’d marked with bits of blue. I could feel a pulse at the base of my throat, a flush of panic at having left Jachim ben Simon behind. I feared what had bound us together might disappear if I were no longer in his sight. Perhaps he would come to believe that I, too, was only a dream from which he had now awakened.
I wondered what our hosts would think if they knew the truth about us. My father continued to bide his time and keep our secrets. He believed these pious people to be fools, convinced that those who sat and waited for the End of Days were creating it for themselves. But of course it was inevitable that he would think so. Every man engaged in war tells himself he can alter what has been written, that it is he, not God, who is the maker of destiny, free to change what is meant to be.
ON THE MORNING we left, Tamar brought me to her house and gave me a portion of cheese, salty white haris halab, that would last several days and keep us well fed, along with some sweet pressed dates. She had four young sons, unused to strangers, their mouths agape at the sight of me until their mother shooed them away. When we were alone, she warned that we must take care on our journey. There had recently been a raid at another settlement, called Ein Gedi, an oasis where four springs met with each other to cause great waterfalls, one of which formed a pool where King David was said to have hidden from his enemies. It was here that the Moringa Peregrina grew, a bloom with magical powers that had allowed David to write his songs with such purity. There were flowering acacias growing beside the waters, and jujube trees, whose orange fruit attracted birds from Greece and Egypt, and there were groves of balsam, whose sticky gum formed the incense that was more valued than gold. Ein Gedi was a place of plenty in a time of hunger. Because of this, it had called out like a lamb to those who were starving. The attackers had come in the night. Seven hundred people had been killed or held captive by the Sicarii who had raided the settlement’s warehouses. The Essenes knew these were the culprits because the curved knife, the weapon that finds its mark, then pulls out the soul of its victim, had been used. The thieves had stolen everything, grain and wine and water, along with the lives of the innocent.
My heart dropped at the mention of the Sicarii.
“The murderers won’t find you if you’re careful,” Tamar told me. “Should anyone approach you in the wilderness, hide as best you can. Perhaps now you understand why we are certain the end is near. With such treachery on earth, the angels will surely come to us and guide us into the World-to-Come.”
I nodded, even though I knew that my father believed that daggers and not angels were the answer to betrayal. I didn’t blurt out that my brother might have been among those who had raided Ein Gedi. We made haste to leave, and as we readied ourselves one of the men came to deliver a last message from Abba. My father’s eyes were hooded, his heart closed, but he listened, for he was a guest in this settlement, and must at least pretend to have manners. I overheard what was said and quickly lowered my eyes. When the messenger had finished speaking, my father nodded a farewell, but he never offered his gratitude. That was my father’s character, silent and heartless; exactly what I expected of him. He signaled to me with the wave of a hand, and like his dog I went with him, following at a distance, my eyes cast down.
As we set off, several of the women escorted us, waving, wishing me well, calling out how pretty I looked in my new garments. They knew nothing of me, only the little I had revealed, some of which felt like a lie. My father and I were strangers to each other as well. We knew as little of each other as the Essenes knew of us. We had many days to walk, and, although my father had ceased to humiliate and berate me, we had nothing to say. I knew nothing of my father’s life before he’d taken up the dagger, though I had heard rumors that he’d had a brother who’d been sold into slavery. If a man sees his brother tied with ropes and dragged down the cobblestone road, does he ever see anything else? If ten men are kept in a room with a lion and only one survives, what does that man become? If a woman with red hair keeps silent, will she ever be able to speak the truth again?
As we journeyed, we looked back in order to see the ever-changing colors of the Salt Sea. We could spy the sails of the flat-boats that traveled across the sea to the country of Moab, ruled now by a fierce people called Nabateans. In this fertile land Moses was said to be buried, yet no one had ever discovered where that holy place might be, though many had searched. Perhaps this was best, for Moses held the key to secrets that were too immense for men to absorb, a gift and a burden too heavy for our people to bear.
One day, after we had climbed the tallest cliffs, the sea disappeared from view, sinking into the earth as though it had been swallowed. Waves of blistering heat rose above the spot where it had been, for its waters were even hotter than the air. Soon even that disappeared. We trudged on. I did not think about the fact that I was a young woman in the desert, alone and on fire. I refused to let my thoughts dwell on roaming beasts or robbers. Most of all, I did not allow myself to imagine what might have occurred at our camp in our absence, how a fever can burn like a flame until there is nothing left but ash, how it spreads the way fire does, leaping from one victim to the next.
We had Abba’s blessing and his medicine. We needed only to find our way. I hurried my father along, collecting scraps of blue as we followed the map they made, grateful to my brother for his gift. The fabric was tattered. Some of the squares had been carried off by hyenas or by the wind, so all that remained were the threads cast from silkworms that had turned into butterflies. One day there was a heavy rain. My father wanted to wait out the rain, taking refuge in a limestone cave, but I insisted we walk on, though our skins glistened with water and our garments were sodden. My father had little choice. He would be lost without me, for I alone knew the direction we must head toward. As we walked on, my father raved and complained, but the rain ended, a little at a time, so that we walked through the drops and then through the fresh, cool air.
The campsite was empty when we arrived. There was the fire pit and the basket I used to collect mint and greens. There were the bowls for our meals, and the ax which had cut the thorns from our path. A fine layer of grit covered everything, and I thought of the two girl-brides Ben Simon had showed me and how he had cried and how I had fallen under his spell. We had stolen our time together, time that had seemed endless in the dark. I felt something sharp in my throat. I didn’t know it was the beginning of my grief until my father silenced me. I had been wailing, the way the leopard does, suddenly and without regard for any other living creature.
We discovered them in the dank cave, searching for comfort and shelter in their final hours. They were together, as they deserved to be. All had the red marks of illness pocking their skin, all had wasted away so that bones showed through their flesh. Ben Simon had set his wife and children onto a stone ledge before he lay down beside them. The veins in his arms were still blue, but they were fading, and his skin had grown cold. I fell to my knees and clutched at him, desperate for any last warmth. I put my mouth upon his, but there was no breath, no life. I could taste the World-to-Come.
I would not move when my father shouted at me, or when he raised his hand to me. In the end my father had to bury them. It was a woman’s place to ready bodies for the Angel of Death and chant lamentations, then to set herself aside until the specter of death was no longer with her, but I refused. Welts rose across my back and shoulders when my father beat me, but I would not be his dog on this day. My father shouted out that I was a coward, afraid to see to the needs of the dead, but he was wrong. I wasn’t afraid to be unclean any more than I was frightened of the dead. I only feared that if I held Ben Simon for too long, I wouldn’t be able to let him go.
My father carried the bodies to the highest cliff and set rocks atop them so hawks and vultures and jackals couldn’t get near. He said prayers of lamentations, having folded Ben Simon’s prayer shawl around his own shoulders to honor him. For seven days after this ritual, my father had to sit in the sun to cleanse himself because he had been so close to death and was considered tamé, impure. He sang the lamentations that a woman was meant to sing because I would not allow those words into my mouth. I would not recognize Ben Simon’s death or see him walk into the World-to-Come. When I closed my eyes I could envision the natural grace of his strong body, the sharp planes of his face, his deep glance of appraisal which cut right through me. I did not want to let him go, yet I could hear my father’s laments and prayers even when I covered my ears with my hands. His chanting sounded like the wind, and like the wind it wrapped around me until I heard nothing but a single song.
I wondered if in his illness Ben Simon had been like the lion who had fought so hard against nine warriors, only to lay down his head and die before the tenth. I wondered if he had lasted until the day when it rained, when we were so close, only moments away, and if that rain had been made of his tears, for he had not been ashamed to weep.
I remembered the words I’d overheard before we left the Essenes when Abba had sent his messenger to my father. Even for the righteous, it is only up to Adonai to punish. Perhaps this holy man had known who we were all along. Now the assassins’ punishment had fallen upon us. If one of the Sicarii carried all the men he had murdered on his back wherever he went, did the dead not wish to eventually take their revenge? Perhaps their spirits had followed Ben Simon, and when he was weakened by grief, when he sank down, eyes shining wet before the still forms of his children, they had burned through his flesh and overtaken him.
I buried the Essenes’ cure, for it was worthless now, as they said things of this world always were. As I dug in the hard, white earth, I wondered if perhaps I was the one being punished, if I was now meant to suffer as I had made my friend suffer when I stole what belonged to her.
During the seven days my father was away to cleanse himself from his nearness to the dead, I did not eat or drink. I tied the goat to a low bush and didn’t listen when she called to me. On the dawn of every day I cut a mark of my sorrow into my leg, each more deeply than the last, for I now used Ben Simon’s sharp knife. Every wound was like a kiss to me, a dark slash of passion. The scent of blood emanated from my skin, a film that covered me. A leopard came one night and sat on the other side of the fire pit, watching me. I did not rise to chase it away. Come and devour me. See if I care. My eyes met with his, and I saw the yellow glimmer of violence in his glance. But in the end he must have deemed me worthless, for he slunk away.
When my father returned from his days of purification, he was shocked to see my condition. I could barely rise from the ground, as ashen as the dust I would someday become. I had nothing in my life but to wait my turn for the World-to-Come. What was this earth to me now? A prison cell, a lash of rope. My father had always told me I was nothing, and that was what I had become. Later he admitted that, when he saw me before him, he thought of my mother at the hour of my birth, already gone from this world. On the day he found me wasting away, he thought of what she would have done had she been there with her only daughter. She would have wished to save me. That was why he convinced me at last to take a sip of water.
On the eighth day after Jachim ben Simon was buried under stones, I broke my fast and drank from the leather goatskin that had belonged to him. I did so not for myself but for my beloved, for he was not yet gone from me. Though the Angel of Death had snatched him, a flicker of his spirit remained.
By then I knew I would not bleed again.
SOON AFTER, my father had a powerful vision. He awoke with tears running down his face and his faith renewed. He had dreamed that my brother was waiting for us in a tower. The dream was so real he could hear my brother speak to him. Look, and I will come to you, Amram had said. My father vowed that when the clouds lifted he would see his son.
Believing this to be so, the assassin took a staff so that he might climb the highest of the crags, where he believed it would be possible to witness on earth what he had viewed in his dreams. I did not argue with him, but I was skeptical. My father might have faith, but I had none. I saw us as we had become: a man too old and frail to be a worthy assassin, his ruined daughter who was unable to weep or bleed. I thought perhaps someone had put a hate curse on me, perhaps it was Sia before she died, perhaps it was all I deserved in this world.
The rains came now with great force. The air was blue and wet with heavy downpours. My father and I sat for days in the cave to escape the flash floods in the nachal, the goat our only company. This fetid cave was the last place that Ben Simon had been in this world; he had breathed in the damp, chalky scent of the limestone and had breathed out his soul inside the cobwebbed confines of this cavern. I thought I might feel closer to him here, but it was Sia’s spirit that hovered close by. I felt her pinch me as she tried to get my attention. She pursued me in my dreams. Did you think it would be any other way? Did you think you would get what you wanted? When I awoke, panting for air, I sometimes believed I could hear a burst of her laughter, as if we’d had a battle and she had been the one to win and was now pleased with the results.
The months of winter were upon us. I wanted to run away, but the rains that had fallen in sheets made for a world I couldn’t flee. All at once the desert was a sea. Where there had been only the rattle of the wind, now all we heard was the rushing water in the nachal. What we had longed for we now had in abundance. There were pools everywhere; at the bottom of every ravine the floodwaters ran so fast that any goat or deer making a misstep could easily be carried away. Flying insects rose up in swarms, borne from the water in funnel clouds. Ibex came to drink and were refreshed. My little goat tugged on her rope; she’d always followed at my heels, but now she seemed maddened by the scent of rain. She kicked and raced in a circle, and her milk was fresh and tasted like grass. I wept to think that life went on even when so much had been lost, that rain still fell and myrtle grew between the rocks.
I found a clear pool that had gathered in a gulley. I realized I hadn’t been cleansed since I’d gone to the ritual bath of the Essene women. I took off my garments and saw that I was bruised and thin. I barely recognized my own flesh. And yet my belly appeared thickened, bulging, so that I looked like a woman who had satisfied myself with too much water. I saw how deeply I had gashed my leg, scars that would never fully heal. I’d had to restrain myself from cutting myself to shreds, for the knife against me made me feel I was being taken by Ben Simon, and I longed for that blood-brimmed connection.
Darkness was falling as I bathed in the pool. Stars would soon be appearing in the sky. When I heard the sound of sobbing, I pleaded with the ghost of my beloved’s wife to leave me be, certain that she was beside me, torn apart by all of her sorrow. Sia was the tender one, always ready to cry.
I was certain these were her tears that I wept, not mine.
BY THE END of Shevat the wildflowers were blooming with vivid color; the willows had filled with strands of tender green leaves. My father and I made do. We did not complain about our circumstances, or discuss the past. But each night I climbed to the cliff where the bones were. I knelt as the light floated away and the day ended. I was praying for something that could never be granted; another life, the one I had already lived and lost.
I was there late one day, watching the light fade into bands of pink and gray, when I spied two men coming across the desert. They were young warriors. I called to my father, and he scrambled up beside me, using a branch from the tamarisk that he’d smoothed into a staff to help him make his way. Together we stood on our perch, watching as the strangers approached, the plumes of dust rising before them like clouds.
“This is my dream,” my father said, his expression joyous. “Those are the clouds that will reveal where we should go. These men will lead us to the tower where Amram is hidden.”
We had been alone in the desert for a long time, our only company the bones beneath the rocks. But the bones spoke to me. They told me that my prayers would not be answered. I would never be forgiven. I would have to pay for my sins. I wanted to escape from the voice that sounded like Sia’s. If I went elsewhere, perhaps it would be rendered mute. I wanted to believe in my father’s dream. I was more cautious than he, yet I, too, felt my brother near to us.
“We cannot yet trust,” I said, and for once my father did not disagree. Dreams came to men for many reasons, both as oracles and as warnings.
I watched the men approach, curious, my shawl wrapped around me. My father prepared in case those who came forth were enemies pretending to be our saviors, ready to fight should they turn against us and prove his dream to be a false prophecy. He took hold of his dagger, then murmured a prayer asking God to be on his side.
The men stopped in the canyon below. They called out to my father, vowing they were Zealot warriors. My father answered their call. He was still holding the dagger concealed in his cloak. Though he was weakened and no longer young, he could throw a knife from a great distance and strike a man dead. I had seen him do as much when a soldier cornered him in an alleyway near our home. He had then walked away without a look back, as though he hadn’t taken a life.
The young warriors shouted that Hol had sent them. They knew the phoenix, the warrior who managed to rise each time another would have fallen. At the mention of the pet name known only to my brother’s closest friends, my father dropped his weapon. Tears brimmed in his eyes, and his weathered face, so aged since we had left Jerusalem, broke into a grin.
“Bring me to him,” he commanded.
I noticed that my father did not say bring us to him. I was nothing, as I always had been. Only when he needed me to guide him, to feed him, to be his only sustenance in the wilderness, did he remember that I, too, was his child.
The men who’d come for us were no older than my brother, young in years yet hardened by what they’d seen and done. I recognized one, Jonathan, from Jerusalem. He’d been a serious prayer student. People thought he would be a rabbi or a scholar, then he’d joined with my brother and picked up the knife. The other was called Uri, which meant light. He was a lumbering, warmhearted young man whose good humor dominated every discussion. I shied away, reluctant to make my presence known, but my brothers’ friends rejoiced in finding me and called me to join them. Amram had told them about me, the sister called Yaya, who had cared for him as a mother would, who had made his meals, sewn his tunics and his mantle, listened to plans so secret he hadn’t dared tell anyone else. The one called Jonathan took out a blue square of silk that the wind had carried to my brother’s path. This was how they’d found me.
WE WOULD take a route that would lead us to the southernmost part of the Salt Sea. I knew that, if I went, I could not look back. I would be abandoning Ben Simon, the only man who had ever known who I was. His bones would not be gathered on the anniversary of his death, as had always been our custom, to be secured in a stone ossuary. But if I stayed, the desert would claim me. I could not falter now, or give in to my impulse to lie down beside my beloved.
We would be going through the harshest part of the wilderness, a place of salt and sorrow, a land even more difficult to traverse than the valley where we’d found the Essenes. There were said to be troops from the Roman garrison scattered throughout, and we would need to take care to avoid their camps, backtracking when necessary. I thought of my poor little goat, whose milk was the only thing I could stand to drink. It is said there is a goat demon in the desert called the Sa’ir, but if anything I had found a goat who was an angel. She had saved our lives when we had nothing; she had been wild and I had kept her captive and she had forgiven me; she had been my only friend when I was alone.
Before we left, I let her free. I tied a string of red around her throat and led her to the highest cliff. “Go on,” I said as I cut the strand that bound her. She was so accustomed to following me, she didn’t flee back into the wilderness. My pet merely stood there, looking at me. I smacked her rump to get her moving. I thought of Ben Simon’s dark eyes, his olive skin, the curl of a smile whenever he spied the goat trailing behind me so meekly. “Stay away from me,” I insisted, waving her on.
I knew that although I was shouting at the goat, I was speaking to Sia’s ghost.
AT THE START of our journey, the cliffs were so high the men had to tie ropes around my waist, and around my father’s waist as well, then help pull us up the sheer sheets of limestone. Because of the season there were herbs and wild asparagus sprouting in the nechalim between the cliffs. The air was scented with mint and tangy scallions. Every bit of green was a delight to see. There were the yellow blooms of mustard as well, like fallen stars upon the ground. The sycamore fruit had turned bright orange, and wasps were drawn to its ripening odor. We relished the sound of such abundant life, but soon enough we went on, higher, to where the air was pale, shimmering. We tramped across fields of rocks so sharp even the ibex could not run here. Our feet were bleeding by the second day.
At twilight, no matter where we were, I went to sit quietly by myself. In this way I would procure our evening meal. Each night I would watch for birds. Once I discovered the delicate lattice of twigs where they nested, I sat nearby in silence. They came to me, thinking I was cast of stone, seeing me as a part of the desert and nothing more. I covered their eyes when I broke their necks. I should have let their breath rise all at once and given them a clean death with a single knife stroke. I always carried Ben Simon’s knife in my tunic, kept close to my skin, but I didn’t use it unless I turned it on myself to mark my leg. I held the birds close and listened to their hearts beating, and then I did what the desert had taught me.
We roasted the birds over a fire the warriors had made. They applauded me as they ate the food I cooked. They said I had a talent. I was a huntress, they joked. My father glared when they sang my praises. “It was nothing,” I insisted. “The birds came to me.”
The warriors seemed like boys when they teased me about my hunting skills; all the same, I tried to make myself invisible, as I had been in Jerusalem. Boys became men at night, when their pulses beat and the forbidden seemed possible. Though I had no gray cloak, I knew how to vanish. I could make myself disappear and seem like nothing as I hunched over cleaning the cooking pot with sand, my eyes elusive. But in the firelight my scarf slipped from my head, and my brother’s friends saw that my hair was red. They could tell I wasn’t a girl anymore. They looked away, uneasy, shamed by their own thoughts. They should not even have been sitting at the fire with a woman who was not their mother or their sister or their wife, let alone taken food from my hands. I was considered a niddah, impure and unclean, for there was no mikvah, not even a silty pool of water. But we were in the desert, and they had little choice. They ate the birds I killed, they helped me up the cliffs, they led me toward my brother. As they did so, they recounted stories of the fortress they had commandeered, tales I found preposterous.
The fortress was impenetrable, they said, the surrounding land so fierce no attack upon them would prove successful. The retreat had once been a palace built by King Herod, a place of unearthly beauty concealed by clouds. I knew of that king, whose cruelty was so legendary it was said he had once slit open a hedgehog, then turned the poor beast inside out to place upon an enemy’s face so that he might blind his foe. He had betrayed those around him and been responsible for the murder of his wife, Mariamne, whom he accused of trading in philtrons and pharmaka—medicines and love potions and spells. She was so beautiful the Roman general Marcus Antonius became maddened at the sight of her and was desperate to have her. Because of this Herod sentenced her to death. Soon after, his son was accused of having a poison concocted from the venom of asps, prepared by a woman from Edom who was a practitioner of keshaphim. The son’s execution followed his mother’s.
Every betrayer knows his fate is to have the misery he once doled out to others returned to him in kind, yet Herod had dreams of outrunning the page on which his fate was written. He built his stronghold on the western slope of the mountain called Masada, completed a hundred years before our time. The Queen of Egypt wanted Judea for herself, pleading with Anthony and with Rome to grant her this desert as a gift, for she yearned for the treasures it possessed: the route to the sea, the fields of salt, the balsam forests that lay beyond in Moab, troves of myrrh and frankincense, riches beyond measure.
Those who awaited us at Masada were said to be more than nine hundred strong, three hundred of them warriors. Five winters ago they had taken Herod’s great fortress from the hands of a small group of Roman soldiers lodged there. They had done so easily, in the cover of night, winding along the back of the mountain, a feat the Romans had thought impossible. Nothing was impossible, they had discovered. They had managed to climb into the sky, closer to God.
I thought it was a dream when my brother’s friend vowed that the old king’s Northern Palace was more beautiful than the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the wonders of mankind. The black and white columns had been transported from Greece, lashed onto boats that crossed the open sea, then hauled by ropes and pulleys across Judea on the backs of slaves. The glimmering mosaics had been brought into the wilderness from Italy to be laid down one tile at a time by the finest masons. The baths, heated by ceramic columns set beneath the floor, were made of quartz of such high quality the stones shone with red light when the sun was high. Floors were patterned in shades of rose and green and black, and frescoes had been painted by hundreds of Italian artists using the finest pigments from Rome, aquamarine and sapphire and carnelian, gemlike, gleaming as jewels do. The only colors I knew now were those of the white desert, the black night, the red stain of my own blood on the soles of my feet as we climbed over stones.
As the men spoke of such wonders, we huddled in damp caves where scorpions gathered, seeking shelter from the raging windstorms. I thought of the scorpions which had nested in the hallway when I was a child. They were so still they might have been an illusion until they suddenly leapt to attack their prey and prove otherwise. Guilt was like that, I had discovered. Remote, until it struck. I heard her still, the friend I’d had, the woman I’d betrayed. When I slept I could feel the curve of her hip against mine. I’d heard that demons could attach themselves to a person. Once this was accomplished, it was impossible to leave them behind or dismiss them. At night they closed their hands over yours with a predatory ownership. They whispered a single word in your ear: Mine.
Remorse engulfed me in this wasteland, as did my silence. It had risen around me as the thorn trees grew, wild, their limbs a tangle of treacherous sticks. There were hyenas where we camped; we heard them calling. At night we saw them forming a circle in among the stark black trees. We picked up stones, ready should the beasts’ hunger cause them to attack. My hands were filthy, my scarves shredded as if by knives. I held on to the single square of blue. It was all I had left of my brother and the life I had led before I’d come to this place.
I found it impossible to imagine that if we journeyed deeper into the wilderness we would come upon frescoes that could rival any in the empire and the palace of a king. Still my brother’s friends swore on the name of Yehuda of Galilee, the man who had begun the Zealot way of life and the rebellion against the priests who bowed to Rome, that ahead of us there were a thousand oil lamps to light up the night, all burning so fiercely they equaled the stars in the sky. When I asked how long it would take to reach this miraculous place, they laughed and said it would take time, for the fortress could only be found at the end of the world, and we must be careful not to stray. One step and we might fall off the edge of all eternity.
Mild air washed over us. Fortunately it was winter, so we didn’t roast alive. From the west the cold sea wind called Ruach Hayam came to us in clouds, and we shivered in its chilly grasp. The wind flew inside my tunic and reminded me of things it would be best to forget. The touch of Ben Simon, the way we were one, how he had possessed the ability to see me when I was crouched in the darkness. Though I listened to the stories of Herod’s palace, I was not compelled by thoughts of the future and of miracles. I longed for what I’d once had, all that I’d lost in the space of a single day, the hour when he was taken from me.
My life in the wilderness had been turned to ash. I had the punishment I deserved. Just as I had not let go of her husband, Sia would not let go of me, no matter how far we might journey. I thought I could leave her behind, but if anything, the distance had helped her ghost to grow stronger. Her spirit wrapped itself around me every time I tried to eat, pecking at me. I couldn’t swallow more than a mouthful of food. If I did manage a bite, I would have to run off and bring it up again. When I closed my eyes to sleep, she was there, waiting. She gazed at me with the same doleful look she’d had when she asked if I would take care of Ben Simon, though she knew what we did together in the dark and what he was to me. It was he I longed for, but it was she who wrapped her arms around me, who slid her fingers over my skin, who whispered in my ear. I could feel her fever all over my flesh.
ONE NIGHT we were so near to the Salt Sea I rose from sleep to discover that salt had wound through my hair and turned the edges hard and white. I had been dreaming of a path of stones and a snake so huge it could devour a city. I tried to talk to the slithering creature, pleading for it to go away and leave us in peace, but the serpent wouldn’t hear of it. Come closer, it whispered. I longed for the lion in my dreams. I missed him and yearned for him, despite the danger in doing so. I reached for the snake, but it disappeared, leaving me with a handful of black dust.
The shouts of the warriors who led us roused me. Groggy, I pulled myself from the tangle of my sleep. I stood and rubbed the salt from my eyes. All at once I saw a miracle before me. If a thousand blue butterflies had risen from the ground it would have been no more of a marvel. Herod’s fortress was suspended in air, jutting out from the edge of a white cliff, exactly as the warriors had promised, a wonder of the world.
There was the path that led to Masada, winding up the sheerest cliff imaginable. One misstep, one moment of doubt, and anyone who made his way here could easily careen to his death in the valley below. The wilderness had made me a disbeliever, but as I climbed what was called the serpent’s path, which wound like a snake up the side of the mountain, I felt something open inside me. This was where the snake in my dream had led us. I recognized it as surely as though it was a path I had walked a hundred times before: the small willows and clusters of bent olive trees, the chalky white earth beneath the limestone rocks. It had been written in the Book of Life that we would come to this path, and so it was meant to be.
Above us there were birds of prey, falcons and hawks. I knew they would be upon me if I were to stumble. They would take their revenge for all the birds I had killed in the desert, all the feathers I’d plucked, some with my fingers, some, when I was starving, with my teeth. I had wished for another’s death and taken a man who didn’t belong to me. I had given myself to the desert to become what I now was, a woman possessed by a ghost, mourning an existence that would never be again, carrying a secret that would ripen and expose me for the thief I had become.
I paid attention to the path and did my best not to think about the way I might appear to others, a barbarian, my skin powdered white with rock dust, my garments filthy, my hair turned to straw and salt, white at the edges but scarlet at the roots, my eyes empty except for the reflection of the desert. I was a lioness without claws or teeth, bent over like an old woman as I maneuvered along the rocks, so far from the girl I had been I could barely recall my own name. I thought of how I had given Ben Simon my promise to be silent. Now silence was all I had. The wind was howling as we rose higher on the cliff; that was the single voice we heard.
The serpent’s path appeared endless. Stones fell and echoed when they hit the ground below. The world looked smoky and distant from this vantage point. I took the rope from around my waist and said I wanted to make my own way. I walked on without assistance, even at the steepest part of the path. I could hear the rattle of my breathing, sharp, like a dagger. The fortress before me was like a dream, and like a dreamer I went forth, marveling at the sight of what I beheld. It was everything they said, all the more brilliant for the desolation around us.
We had been found and brought to this place so near to the sky we could hear the voice of the King of Creation. The Lord had saved us and delivered us, as the Torah vowed He would. I would have been willing to do anything for the glory of God as I walked through the gate, except forgive Him for what I had lost.
BENEATH HIS CLOAK, my brother wore armor to protect him on those occasions when he went out in the night. A dagger would not suffice. He needed heavier weapons now: a bow, arrows, an ax, a lance of wood and brass. He resembled a dragon with scales or a silver snake, creatures feared by men, known to God alone. There were indeed three hundred warriors, but I instantly recognized my brother across the field beneath the pink bower of almond trees, planted high on this plateau above the rest of the world. I knew the swagger of his walk, the shining light that came from deep within him. Even armor couldn’t hide that. My father had been brought to him right away, but I met with Amram after I was cleansed. I was taken to one of the mikvahs, of which there were several, for women and for men. In the largest bath, there was a line down the stairs for the clean and the unclean. The water pooled black where I was, and the other women left the bath lest they become unclean once more. I was not surprised. What I had done could never be washed away.
I dressed in the torn tunic and scarves Tamar had given me, then ran to meet my brother in the field. If I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of almonds, I could imagine I had entered into another life. Perhaps we might one day return to Jerusalem and find the world that had been stolen from us. Perhaps all these months had been a dream, like my dream of the lion. Then I heard my brother shout to me, and it was quite clear there was no way to go back. He called me Yaya, my childhood name. I knew that girl was gone.
“It took long enough for you to come here,” Amram said, embracing me, then letting me go so he could have a look.
Only months had passed since our last meeting, yet it seemed ten summers had gone by. Before this day Amram had always seemed younger than I—now he seemed a true warrior, fierce, sure of himself. For once I felt myself to be the little sister. My brother made me think of steel, metal that has been transformed through flame. I didn’t want to know how many men he’d killed or what cruel deeds he had accomplished. I was appalled to think he might have been one of the warriors who had taken Ein Gedi and slaughtered people of our own faith.
“I’m here now,” I said.
My hair was clean and oiled, plaited atop my head. I could tell from my brother’s gaze how different I appeared to him. He studied me, searching my expression, not quite seeing what had happened but aware that something had changed. I’d been bitten by a lion, but you had to look inside me to see the scar.
“I thought I would find you long before this. You must have been hidden, Yaya,” Amram teased.
I thought of the caves where we had camped and what I had done there and of that last sorrowful place where Ben Simon had died. If he had gone with me to the Essenes, he might have lived. I had come to think that he knew what would befall him if he chose to remain behind, and still he had stayed. I should have seen it in the manner in which he glanced away from me, as if we had already been separated while I stood before him to say farewell. I should have known when he gave me his knife.
I didn’t want my brother to see my shame. I sank onto the grass, beneath a canopy of pink almond blossoms, so that I might avert my face and be unreadable beneath Amram’s curious glance. It was said that the almonds of pink trees were bitter, whereas those on trees where the blossoms were white would always be sweet. I lowered my eyes so I might seem like any other young unmarried woman.
“We did as best we could,” I said simply.
“The others were unlucky,” he replied. “I was sorry to hear of their passing. I thought Jachim ben Simon would take care of you. That was why I left you in his hands.”
“It was their fate to enter the World-to-Come,” I told him. That and nothing more.
My brother came to sit beside me joyfully, for a moment a boy once more rather than a warrior. He had scars I hadn’t seen before, including a deep gash on his neck where he’d been pierced by an arrow. When he unclasped his armor, I noticed the constant pressure of the bow he carried had etched itself into his skin; there was now a crescent on his back and chest even when he did not shoulder his weapon.
He had grown his hair long and braided it tightly as warriors did. His face was still beautiful, but burned by the sun, thin. The openness of his youth was gone. He was no longer a boy learning rebellion in the dappled red shade of the flame tree.
“We are among the last holdouts in all of Judea,” he told me. “Fortress after fortress has fallen. We haven’t run and we never will.”
There were only two routes to Masada, the way we had come, through the heartless desert which stretched on toward the mountains of Moab on the far side of the Salt Sea, or along the dusty route that connected Edom and the Arava Valley to Ein Gedi and Jerusalem. Either route was visible from this perch.
“We’re safe here,” my brother promised.
He told me that when the rebels first arrived they’d pulled down the golden eagle Herod had installed on the huge gate of the palace. There were to be no idols here, no great shows of wealth. All men were equal in this domain, no kings, only the kingdom of God. No man needed to bow to any other, not even to Eleazar ben Ya’ir, their leader, a great man and a great warrior.
My brother showed me that he continued to wear the amulet of Solomon I’d given him, strung around his throat. He took great pride in it still.
“Where’s your scarf?” he asked then.
I showed him the single section of silk that remained. I told him how the scarf had saved my life and the life of our father, how it had become a map to guide us through the desert, tied to the thorn trees. To my great surprise, my brother brought forth a matching bit of blue. It had come to him on the wind, he told me. He’d thought it was a bird at first, and had held out his hand. It had come to him as if called. That was how he knew I was still alive, and that he would find me, and that our presence in this place so close to God was meant to be.
WE WENT WALKING through the orchard, toward terraces where ancient olive trees and huge, twisted grapevines grew. In the gardens there were onions, chickpeas, cucumbers, melons, all made possible by King Herod’s amazing use of cisterns and pools which brought water to this mountain. Beyond us rose a field of emmer and barley, with sheaves tied together with rope. A plow drawn by donkeys cut what was left, the blade attached to a long piece of wood; two boys shouted at the donkeys to keep them going. As the chaff rose up, the air glowed yellow, like honey poured into a bowl.
Amram told me of the huge storerooms from the time of Herod, filled with enormous porcelain vessels of wine and oil shipped from Rome and Greece, many with the king’s stamp still upon them. Through the Water Gate and the South Water Gate, donkeys brought up wooden barrels filled from the pools in the ravines below, enough for four baths and twelve cisterns, one a well so enormous fifty people could fit inside, shoulder to shoulder. It was no trouble to fill the pools and baths, even in the dry months. A market had grown up inside the fortress walls, much like the one in Jerusalem. There were bakers and tanners and weavers in small shops that had been set into narrow stalls between Herod’s wall and the open ground of the plaza. Tents and houses made of wood had gone up against the fortification of the wall.
The warriors made their homes in what had been the Roman garrison’s living quarters, while the priests and wise men had taken up residence in the small palaces where Herod’s kin and advisers had lived long ago. There were mosaic floors of onyx black and pearl white in every room of the palaces. The public baths were decorated with brilliant mosaics as well, formed into fields of stone flowers or numerical patterns. There were red and orange frescoes on the palace walls, some still with their gold-leaf edges. Ben Ya’ir and his kinsmen lived in the smallest palace with a view of the valley. As for the Northern Palace, the most elegant and awesome structure, so fantastic it would rival any wonder of the world, weapons and supplies were kept there. Shops had been set up in small stalls, with cobblers and butchers, for no man among the rebels would ever live in a place of wealth as the king once had, setting up residence upon this mountain to prove he owned the world.
The men who had gathered at Masada were dedicated to Zion, willing to make any sacrifice, defiant in all ways, unwilling to be any man’s slave. As for Ben Ya’ir, it was said he was not afraid even of Mal’ach ha-Mavet. When the Angel of Death came for him, he intended to pluck out that fierce being’s twelve wings and lay them upon the ground, bloody and strewn with feathers, as a gift to God.
My brother and I stood gazing at Eleazar ben Ya’ir’s residence.
“It’s an honor to follow him,” my brother remarked.
“Does he live in a palace and I make my home in the field?” I teased.
My brother told me that a chamber had been readied for my father and that I was to join him there and care for him. Amram had been shocked by how fragile our father had become. “Has he been ill?” my brother asked, concerned.
“He would not rest until we found you.” I wanted to spare him from the truth. Our father’s old age had been hastened by the burden of the men he had killed, by the daughter he had turned away, by a desert so fierce it had brought him to his knees.
When Amram wanted to know more of our time wandering, I said only that we had survived. I didn’t mention the man who’d been scarred by a lion or the woman whose ghost was haunting me. Instead I told him about the wild goat who must have been an angel, whose milk had saved us from starvation. We laughed to think of a goat as an angel, and I admitted that I missed my pet, for she had become my confidante and my friend. My brother reminded me that our word for angel is also the word for messenger. That was how you knew you had been visited by such a luminous being, by the message you received. Perhaps the goat had come to teach me how to survive in a land so harsh it seemed impossible to do so.
“And what of you?” I asked. “Have you received a message?”
My brother seemed vulnerable at that moment, more a boy than a cold-eyed warrior. He had always told me his secrets, but that time had passed and now he seemed relieved when he was called away to the garrison before he could answer. His friend Uri’s mother came to bring me to my living space. “Don’t expect much,” she warned.
Because I expected nothing, I was pleased by what I received. Our room beside Herod’s wall was far better than any shelter we’d known since we had run from the city. There was a roof of fabric and three walls of wood. A small round oven was built into the stone wall, and there was a tiny chamber in which I could sleep. If I stood on my toes I could see through a spacing in the wall and gaze out at the cliffs. My father was waiting for me when I arrived. He had already blessed this place.
“I told you to trust in God,” he said. “You should not have been so weak.”
I swallowed my words. I did not say You were the one who wept in the desert, not I. You feared wild beasts and starvation while I went to catch birds and dared to face leopards.
I set up our house with what the council had decreed each family should be granted—straw pallets to sleep upon, two oil lamps, woven blankets, stone cups and bowls. Uri’s mother brought us our ration of dates and lentils and fruit, along with a ceramic pot and a jar of oil for cooking and to use to light the Sabbath lamp. She warned me that life here was hard. I nodded, pretending to listen, but I almost laughed. She was clean, her hair plaited, and I was a barbarian who had faced down a leopard. I thanked her for her many kindnesses.
AFTER MY first evening at the fortress, I often found my way back to the orchard where the almonds were in bloom. It was the month of Adar, the beginning of spring. I needed a quiet place which would offer me an escape from my father’s displeasure. He glared at me, unhappy to share his residence with me, begrudging me the corner where I was to live, cursing my existence. I never dared to speak back. I knew three new moons had passed since I had last had my monthly bleeding. In the orchards, Egyptian honeybees were swarming and the air was mild and pink. We had come from a wasteland to a garden, from valleys of death to fields of plenty. I was so accustomed to blistering white light that it pained me to see the many shades of green and gold and pink. I had to squint and hold one hand over my eyes. I had grown used to the silence of the wilderness. Here there were nearly a thousand people, a jumble of humanity, for a city had burst forth in the clouds with no need of the rest of the world. The council printed their own coins in metal shops. Grapes were gathered for wine, hives were kept for the honeybees. There were looms set up in the plaza for the women, and in the evenings their voices burst forth as they carded wool. Pens for animals were made of fences woven from thorn trees. Dusty sheep called to each other; black goats and their kids had space to run. There was the scent of bread baking, meals cooking, the fresh green fragrance of herbs, of coriander and dill and dusky gray sage.
It was too much for me to take in after our time in the desert, a torrent of noise and scent engulfing me like a tide. I yearned for what I’d once had. A bird among the rocks. The dusty prints of a leopard. I myself barely spoke, and if I raised my eyes to someone, it was for but an instant. Some women glanced at me as I walked by, curious. A few waved, but I pulled my scarf closer. Some young girls darted past on their way to the baths. I felt regret rise inside me when I spied them. I wished I could throw off my scarf and run with them, chattering, hopeful. If only I could slip off my garments and plunge into the bath, perhaps I could be cleansed and forgiven and start anew, a girl again. Yet if I’d had to take back all that had happened, I would have refused. I yearned for everything I’d lost. I wished I could reclaim the goat who was my angel. I would tie a rope of bells around her neck and another around my feet so that we could find each other whenever storms arose. I would watch the dark wash across the sky as I listened for the sound of bells. I would not have to pretend to be anything other than what I had become.
I spotted the auguratorium, the bird observatory left behind by the Romans when they’d camped here. It was one of the many towers built along the huge wall that circled the entire outpost. The observatory was in the most favorable position, overlooking the northern hills, the air tempered by cool breezes. I’d seen such towers in Jerusalem, sacred edifices where bird bones were thrown to tell the future, from whose heights magicians might observe the movement of flocks that could predict what was to come.
The sages said that magic might be studied and learned but never practiced; it was forbidden, yet it could be found in the dark or hidden in towers such as this one. I climbed the wooden ladder. The air was even cooler here, the gleaming distance shimmering in waves. I gasped at the world before me, blinking in the bright light. There were hawks gliding through the sky, but I didn’t know what their flight meant, not when they dipped closer to the cliff nor when they soared into the western horizon. I had no talent for magic of any kind.
I knelt down to see hundreds of bones on the floor, left behind by the Romans when they fled. The ground was speckled with white shards. I had no idea what they signified. Yet I was deeply affected to see the sharp little bones, so hollow the wind made a song of them. I felt I was being watched. I gazed up to see that a dove had lit on the wall. I was quiet and held out my hands. After all I’d done and all my sins, it came to me, unafraid.
IN THE MORNING a girl was sent to find me, perhaps one of those who’d run by me on the way to the baths, a girl too young and innocent to know what secrets there were between women and men, who thought what you observed in the daylight was all there was and had no knowledge of the night. She was polite and pretty, no older than thirteen, with little earrings of carnelian and gold in her ears. She said her name was Nahara, which she shyly explained meant light. She had brought me a pair of sandals. She laughed when I hesitated, distrusting a gift from a stranger. “You’ll need these where you’re about to go,” she informed me.
My own sandals had been ruined by my long journey, the leather falling off in strips. I slipped on the new ones to find they fitted me perfectly. As we went along, Nahara informed me that she was bringing me to the position to which I’d been assigned. She asked for my name, a word I’d not spoken aloud for so long I had nearly forgotten its sound.
“My name is ugly,” I assured her. “Unlike yours.”
We walked together across the Western Plaza, which had been paved with huge stones brought across the sea from Greece. Nahara kept pace beside me. “I have to call you something,” she insisted. She was a serious, quiet girl, but stubborn, set between an older sister and a younger brother, accustomed to making her own way.
There were those who believed if you knew the name of something you had access to its essence. Most parents would not reveal a male child’s name after birth, not until he was circumcised eight days later, so he could gather his strength and not be as vulnerable to demons who might call to him. Nahara shrugged when I said every name was a secret known only to Adonai. She insisted I probably had a beautiful name, for I had the most beautiful hair she had ever seen. All the women in the settlement were talking about it, she told me. They said I had been burned in a fire and that was the cause of the flecks on my skin and my flame-colored hair.
“They should be careful I don’t breathe on them,” I warned. “I could be a dragon. They might be covered by sparks.”
Nahara laughed, then confided that her mother had spied me in the auguratorium and thought I had a special talent. “That’s why you’ll work with us in the dovecotes. She chose you when she saw you in the tower.”
My heart sank. There were so many places I would have preferred to be sent, nearly anywhere would have been an improvement: the olive groves, the bakers’, even the goat barns. There were three columbaria, the Roman-style dovecotes, where I was to work. Two were built as oblongs, but the third was a circular tower with a platform on the top floor used for observation. The windows of all were covered by screens, so prying hawks couldn’t enter. All three buildings were made of stone and covered with white plaster, raised from the ground so that snakes in search of eggs couldn’t slither inside. Thousands of birds were kept, and each of the niches carved into the white walls housed a pair of doves, mated for life.
During the time when the Roman garrison occupied Masada, the shelves had been used as funerary chambers, to store the ashes of the dead, but now they once again housed nesting turtledoves. Whatever the Romans had corrupted during their time here after King Herod’s fall, our rebels took back for their own usage. What they had used for death had been transformed into life in the beating hearts of the doves. We did not believe in turning flesh to ash but rather in honoring the bones of our forefathers returning the body to the earth, from whence it came in the days of creation. What had housed the dead during the Roman occupation was once more filled with song, the cooing tirr tirr I had learned to imitate in the wilderness so that the doves might come to me and consider me one of their own.
Among the abominations the Romans had committed was to use the synagogue for their stables. People said it had taken weeks to clean out the excrement and cleanse the area. Even now there was said to be the smell of horseflesh when the rains came, so incense was lit every morning. But no incense could disguise the rich, moist odor of the doves’ leavings, which assaulted me when Nahara led me into the stone dovecote. Of the three, this was the largest, filled with the stench of the birds. Even worse was the noise. When we entered the murk through heavy wooden doors, the sound was overwhelming, for together the doves shared one voice. I stopped, shaken by the fluttering of wings, once again yearning for the silence I had known in the wilderness.
Nahara smiled when she saw my reaction, her face upturned. “They don’t bite,” she promised. “You’ll become accustomed to them.”
She picked up a bird that had fluttered to the floor, holding it gently. We were to care for them, feed them, collect their eggs. Most important, we were to gather their excrement, used to fertilize the fields. That was why such beautiful groves arose on this cliff, where the soil was little more than limestone covered with a thin dusting of earth, and why the air smelled like almonds. The doves’ leavings turned the fields fertile; their waste was the secret to creating a garden in the wilderness.
There were three other women in the dovecote, all busy until our arrival. Now they turned to me. One would imagine such nasty business would have been the last sort of work anyone would have wanted, but these women seemed proud of what they did. One, an older woman whose name was Revka, gazed at me disapprovingly, as though I had stumbled uninvited into her domain and she had already gauged me as unworthy. The others were Nahara’s elder sister and mother, each more beautiful than the other. Aziza was sixteen, composed, with dusky olive skin. As she stood beside her mother, I could hardly tell them apart. But it was Shirah, the mother, who had chosen me.
Nahara whispered for me to step forward, reminding me of her mother’s faith in me. I wondered if her choice had been made when she spied the dove who came to me without being called.
In this place of noise, Shirah was serene, a dark quiet engulfing her. I approached her, then stopped, flustered. Our glances met, and I felt something unexpected between us, a surge of heat. It seemed I was transparent in her eyes.
“I wonder how a lioness will manage in a dovecote. Can you put away your teeth and claws?”
The other women had gathered round, and they laughed at Shirah’s comment. I felt vulnerable and exposed, even though the chamber was dim, with only thin streams of sunlight entering through the roof and screened windows.
Shirah had one long black braid down her back. She was extraordinarily beautiful, with high cheekbones and dark, nearly black eyes. The other women thought she was teasing me, having sensed my displeasure over handling birds. They didn’t understand what she meant. But I did. She knew what was inside me.
“Hardly a lioness,” I said contritely. “Only a poor wanderer.”
“Aren’t we all?” the older woman, Revka, replied. “You think you’re so different from us? You’re not too good to shovel the shit of these doves, are you?” she asked scornfully. “If you are, you can leave right now.”
The women were gazing at my red hair. As Nahara had said, it was what people noticed first. Perhaps they believed that the tawny color was what Shirah referred to when she spoke of lions. They had no idea who I was or what I’d done. The birds fluttered around, unbidden, drawn to me. I kept my eyes downcast as I spoke. All I wished was to be left alone.
“I’ll do whatever work you ask of me,” I said.
Do unto me what you desire, whatever your will. I deserve nothing more than what has befallen me.
Shirah approached with a basket formed of palm leaves, beautifully constructed with a leaf-over-leaf pattern. Her eyes were huge and deep, ringed with kohl. She wore gold bracelets on her arms and amulets tied around her throat on red string, including two gold charms, which glinted in the half-light. Her daughters came and circled their arms around their mother’s slim waist. Their love for her was evident, and I envied them. I wished I’d known what it was like to have a mother, someone who would stand beside you no matter what you’d done.
The birds were cooing. I felt a pulse in my throat, remembering how I had waited for my prey in the wilderness, how they had come to me and how I had destroyed them. Shirah handed me the basket. I wondered if it had been woven with palm leaves from Ein Gedi, if some woman had set down the crossing leaves pattern on the morning of her own death.
“Even a lioness has to work,” Shirah told me.
THE WORK BEGAN right away. We were all wearing white, for vivid color was thought to disturb the doves and keep them from laying. Perhaps it had not been an accident when the Essene woman, Tamar, gave me my tunic, for it seemed as though she’d somehow known I would be chosen for the dovecote. Perhaps I wasn’t as invisible as I had imagined.
There was no time to doubt myself or to complain. Aziza quickly taught me how to feed our charges millet and wheat and vetch, and how to chase the pairs from their niches when we needed to collect eggs or clean out their droppings. Whichever eggs we let remain in the nests would soon hatch, and the parents would care for the fledglings together. Aziza was eager to help me learn the ways of the dovecote. She resembled a deer, with slim legs and arms, and a thick braid of dark hair, like her mother’s, glossy, black as night. But whereas Shirah’s eyes were pitch, Aziza’s were an unusual pale gray, like river water, filled with moving light. There was a tiny scar, much like a teardrop, barely noticeable, set beneath one eye.
Nahara came to gossip with her sister about me. Both sisters’ eyes were shining. They enjoyed having someone new to tease, an occasion to break the monotony of their workday. “She wouldn’t tell her name when I asked,” Nahara informed Aziza.
The sisters stood with their hands on their hips, considering what to do with me. I was ashamed to be considered worthy of their interest.
“We have to call you something,” Aziza insisted, wanting to befriend me.
The sisters were so close their words were like beads on the same strand of gold. Perhaps if I said my name aloud, I’d be rid of their prying. We were to work side by side, after all, and they needed to call to me.
“Yael,” I managed, for it was a word that left a bitter taste in my mouth. It had always sounded like a curse, and it remained so on this day.
The sisters seemed satisfied, assuring me that mine was a beautiful name.
“Do you have anyone here with you?” They wanted to know more about me, so that we might be friends. I shrugged coldly, with only a gleam of response.
A lion, a ghost, a goat who is an angel, a hundred birds with broken necks.
“I was brought here by my brother. Amram, son of Yosef bar Elhanan.”
To my surprise, their curiosity faded, and my words dropped like stones. I heard the echo of my brother’s name. The silence that came back to me was something I understood, the realm of secrets best left untold.
Nahara was called to her mother. She seemed grateful to have an excuse to run out to the smallest of the dovecotes, even though the dovekeepers usually recoiled from working there, for the building was so compact only one person could stand within its walls. Beside me, Aziza quickly returned to her work, chasing the doves away, collecting their eggs. I could see through the mirror of her languid, gray eyes. She didn’t have to say any more for me to understand how my brother’s name had blazed for her. Once spoken, it refused to disappear.
IN THE DAYS that followed, I kept to myself during my hours at the dovecotes, attending to whatever tasks I was given. I was pleasant enough, but I spoke only when others spoke to me. I was their servant, nothing more. I wasn’t one of them and didn’t pretend to be. I had had a friend once, and I had betrayed her. I didn’t need another.
The other women took their meal together at noon. I ate alone. I went into the orchard in the midday sun, taking along some dry cheese and flatbread. I neared the wall and peered out, gazing north, the direction we had come from, where we had left the bones. One day some of the women who worked in the fields came to sit beside me. They had tied up their hair and covered their heads with scarves to shade their complexions. Their hands, however, were brown from their work in a small pistachio grove, slick with nut oil. They had come here from Jerusalem, following their husbands, or fathers, or brothers. Now they acted like those fortunate ones who had found their way to the Garden of Paradise. I’d heard them singing as they worked. A few carried babies in woven slings tied to their backs or hips. The unmarried women asked me to meet them at the baths. I shook my head and said I was unable to do so. I wanted no one to notice my rounded form when I took off my cloak. As my excuse, I said I must remain at the dovecotes, for I had just begun there and wanted to please Shirah. When they heard this, the women grew suspicious.
“Fine,” one said, rebuffed. “It’s your choice if you prefer the Witch of Moab.”
The field women who gathered around cautioned me, murmuring that Shirah had come across the desert from the far side of the Salt Sea. The salt had lifted her up, allowing her and her children to cross without drowning. Shirah, they assured me, could call the clouds to her the way she called the doves in the dovecote. After her arrival there had been downpours for weeks. Torrents fell until the world was green and people were weeping with joy. This was why their leader, Ben Ya’ir, had sent for her. Shirah was his kinswoman and cousin, but there was more to her arrival. Even a great man may sometimes call for a witch.
I found these women to be self-absorbed fools. What sort of witch would work in a dovecote, eat lentils for her meal, shovel out excrement, collect speckled eggs in a basket? She was a woman like any other. Still, when I went back to the dovecote, I noticed there was a curious intensity about Shirah; what was silent to others rang out clearly for her. Sometimes, at the end of the day, when she was locking the door, she would turn to gaze at me. In that instant I felt she knew everything about me. Even stranger, I had no desire to hide myself from her. I wanted to speak of the night when I cut myself for the twenty-first time, and the morning when I left to set out in search of a cure, and the evening when I returned to find that Ben Simon had already entered the World-to-Come. Perhaps that in itself was witchery, to make someone yearn to reveal herself.
ONE EVENING a young woman was waiting beside the largest dovecote. She was a servant, brought here from Jerusalem by her master’s family, living alongside them as their cook and housemaid. I had seen her in the fields. Now she gestured to Shirah from the shadows, urging her to come away. Shirah spoke with her daughters, sending them home to see to their younger brother and begin the evening meal.
When Shirah left with the housemaid, I followed, curious. I removed my sandals and went barefoot, as I had when I’d stalked birds. I felt something wicked in my actions, yet continued on. Shirah and the housemaid did not stop until they reached the far end of the wall. There they slipped into a dark corner. We were not far from the place where large looms had been set up for women to work on in the evenings, after their daily chores had been completed. I paused behind a column where green-tinged shadows spread along the stones. I felt as I had when I had crouched in the wilderness, waiting for my prey. There was a beating of my pulse in my throat.
Shirah drew the image of an eye on the wall with a piece of charred wood. She took a needle from the hem of her tunic, and while she recited an incantation she pierced the eye with the needle. The low, rhythmic sound of her voice drifted to where I was hidden. Although I didn’t understand the words, I guessed what she was doing. She was binding some man to be true, as I had done in the desert on the night when I drew the face of the lion in the dirt. Other men might stray, but this one would be bound to faithfulness as thread was bound to the stitches cast by a needle.
I shouldn’t have lingered. I could have easily returned the way I’d come before anyone saw me, but I was caught up in the spell. The chanting entrapped me, the singsong of Shirah’s voice winding itself around me as though it had the ability to bind me as well as the lover of the housemaid. Shirah turned to eye me as the scorpion glances at the mouse. I hurried away, yet still felt her gaze.
The following day I wore my scarf across my face when I went to work in the dovecote, hoping it would cause me to be invisible, much the way my father’s cloak hid his true nature. Shirah ushered me inside, a smile playing at her lips. I would have sworn she saw through my veil. When the others went to take their noon meal, cooking lentils and peas in an outdoor kitchen, Shirah insisted she needed my help. There was an errand we must attend to. I had no choice but to go. Like the housemaid who had come to her, I was only a servant.
We went into the fields, carrying our baskets. The sun beat down upon us.
“What I did at the wall, I was asked to do,” Shirah informed me as we passed beneath the lacy green shade of the almond trees. “It wasn’t love the girl asked for, merely decency.”
From where they sat over their lunch in the grove, the field women stared at us, whispering, save for one, the housemaid who was still gathering pistachios for her mistress. Pale petals were falling around us, half of them bitter.
“When the time comes and you want my help, I’ll listen to you as well,” Shirah said. “I’ll do as you ask.”
I blushed, confused. “Did I ask for anything?”
Shirah dumped the basket from the doves around the tallest almond tree, one that was abloom with a thousand flowers. It occurred to me that she could divine the truth even when it went unspoken.
“True enough,” she replied. “You haven’t.”
We began the walk back to the dovecote, side by side, past the mulberry bushes with their jumbles of black berries, past the pistachio tree where the housemaid was at work, stripping the pods from the branches. I noticed the young woman did not raise her eyes to us, even though Shirah touched her shoulder in a silent greeting. “Not yet,” she said to me.
IN THE HALLWAYS of the Western Palace atop the plateau, what had in the past served royalty now served us all. Wheat and grain were stored in what had once been elegant chambers. The tanners and bakers and metalworkers labored in a hall where the marble floors were as fine as any in Athens or Rome. To those who came from small villages, the glory of this place was astounding. Here, where there had been huge royal gatherings, we now worked in the service of the Almighty, not for our own greed. The rebels were pure in their concerns, yet the men were on edge, my father among them. He went to the synagogue built in to the western wall each morning, to pray and listen to the wise men talk about what the future would bring. I woke an hour before my father, to heat barley cakes in oil for his meal. I was his servant, his dog, and his chattel. His desires were my demands, his moods ruled my life.
The men met at the synagogue, worrying over the welfare of their leader, Eleazar ben Ya’ir, who had left our fortress several days earlier to rally support in desert towns throughout Judea. His followers were anxious for his return. In his absence, our peril was felt a hundred times over with only the unforgiving brim of the mountain there to protect us. When an old man at a public meeting demanded to know who would take Ben Ya’ir’s place if he should fall in battle, all the rest fell quiet. No one wanted to think about Masada without a leader, a body without spirit. Without Eleazar ben Ya’ir we were lost, at each other’s mercy, at one another’s throats. His band of warriors included my brother, and I was especially worried, for those who have recently been reunited should not be parted.
That very day, as if to answer any doubters, Ben Ya’ir—our rescuer and our redeemer, the man who had saved our people when Jerusalem had fallen—returned. He came at dusk. People went to the walls to watch as he and his closest companions climbed the path to God’s domain. There were those who believed he could speak with angels, that Raphael himself walked beside him, a gleaming sword raised to our enemies. We gazed over the cliffs that protected us and felt blessed to have such a noble leader.
Because of the winter’s heavy rains, the world below us was green. The desert was covered in myrtle, a sign of good fortune. We women wove myrtle into our undergarments, so that we would carry the sweet scent of the desert with us when we walked. There was a sense of joy rising with the turning of the season, and the joy of my own secret that I carried within me. I caught sight of Amram and was relieved. I now wanted to see Ben Ya’ir for myself, the man who had led my brother and his friends to this remote and dangerous place. There was a crowd and people were jostling each other, all with the same goal, to see him and be comforted by his strength. I had to rise on my toes for a glimpse. People were willing to die for him; they would stand before him, denying arrows access to his flesh. Many bowed their heads in his presence, as they did before holy men and sages.
In Jerusalem he might have gone unnoticed in a crowd. He was not a man who stood out because of his appearance. He was not tall or handsome, merely broad-shouldered with a plain, straightforward expression. There were several scars marking him, and his arms were huge, capable of throwing an ax across the battlefield. He dominated all other men and had a fluid energy that made it impossible not to respond to him. He shone because others followed, because they adored him and deferred to him and trusted him. He was dark, but there was a light inside him, a brightness that was unexplainable. Even when he stood motionless our eyes went to him, and in that way he commanded us all.
The returning band of warriors had brought back donkeys loaded down with weapons—arrows and bows of many sizes, along with dozens of shields gathered from the defeated. Another band from the Roman garrison had fallen before them, and what had belonged to them was now ours. Some of the bronze armor would be melted down so that our fortress could have its coins—on one side vine leaves would be printed, on the other the words For the Freedom of Zion. Two men in chains tramped behind the donkeys, humiliated, their heads bloodied; their eyes flickered over the crowd. They were Roman soldiers conscripted by the legion from a land so far away no one had ever seen anyone as colorless as they, with milky white skin. Although they wore Roman helmets, their tunics were from the land of their birth and were woven into odd patterns of slate, blue, and red. It was sobering to see them before us; we always thought of ourselves as the victims of an unjust war, yet here were these two conscripts, in irons.
There were slaves among us, brought by those escaping Jerusalem, but they were treated as housekeepers and fieldworkers and often given their freedom after their years of service. They were not bloodied and in chains. Now people applauded the capture of our enemies, who stooped their heads, waiting, most likely, to be slaughtered. But soon enough the crowd forgot them. They were more interested in our hero, shouting out Eleazar ben Ya’ir’s name as thirsty men call for water. I overheard some women say that Ben Ya’ir’s eyes changed color; they were a cool gray, like the still water in a well, but occasionally his gaze turned to the clear green of a stream that falls into a pool. As a man, he was as complicated as the color of his eyes. He would stride away if you disagreed with him, but after some thought he would search you out and ask you to further explain your opinion. He was a man to whom arguments came naturally, but he was tender as well. When one of his men fell in battle and was too wounded to live, Ben Ya’ir did not send a warrior to execute the horrid deed of mercy. He completed the task himself, then spoke the prayers for the dead, an act of charity that can never be repaid. He was open in a way that made people respond to him on a deep, essential level; they revered him and feared his anger, yet loved him as well as they would a brother or a son.
On the day the slaves were brought to us, Ben Ya’ir had a fresh scar down his neck and chest. He wore his hair long and braided as our warriors did, but he always kept his shawl wrapped around him, ready to pray at all times. It was quite possible that what people whispered was true and he did indeed know more than other men, and was made even more fierce by the power of prophecy. He could divine the righteous from the wicked, and when he gazed upon his enemies, he could see beyond their garments and their flesh to look upon their spirits.
When the crowd moved toward him, excited, stamping their feet, I shrank away, afraid he might see me for who I was. The seething drive forward might easily crush those who didn’t move quickly enough with the pulsing throng. Above us there came a flock of wild doves, but if that was a sign, I hadn’t the ability to read the prophecy, and the doves quickly turned away, flying east and then north, toward Jerusalem. I saw Shirah watching them, and it seemed her face flushed with despair. I wondered if she had understood something I had failed to notice, and why she carried a branch of myrtle with her, as brides were said to do on their wedding nights.
Ben Ya’ir had the crowd enthralled. He told of the Romans that had been defeated in this most recent battle, soldiers dressed in helmets and mail, their shields nearly impenetrable when they huddled into a formation that resembled a turtle. Only the bravest warriors could combat them, entering into the fray with drawn daggers. Ben Ya’ir lauded his warriors for their courage, singling out my brother for praise. Amram lowered his head so that he would not appear prideful, but he was clearly honored by the recognition. I spied the silver disk of Solomon around his neck, still providing protection.
Ben Ya’ir went on to recount the treasures sacked from the Roman camp—a gold breastplate decorated with precious stones, gold signet rings, jars of wine, coins to be melted down. He proclaimed that our victory was due to our God, and that our hearts must be strong to honor Him.
“If this life seems difficult now, it will only become more so,” Ben Ya’ir announced, his expression grim, the light fading from within him. But this sobering statement hadn’t the power to stop the rising tide of triumph. I had never seen a crowd become one in this manner, one flesh, one spirit, swaying from side to side. The warriors in particular seemed under a spell; they were to a man entranced and absorbed, or so I believed until I happened to glance across the plaza. There was Amram, among his brethren, many who had been wounded in the battle they’d fought. I would have expected my brother to be intent on Ben Ya’ir’s every word, enthralled by his beloved leader, as his brothers-in-arms were. Instead he was staring at a girl on the edge of the crowd.
It was Aziza, her eyes lowered, her sleek hair pulled back beneath her veil.
THAT NIGHT I went to the mikvah. It was a place of renewal and hope, what I felt now that my brother had returned. Oil lamps burned in the niches along the stone walls illuminating the darkened chamber. I’d hoped to be alone—although my condition did not announce itself, it was evident to one who might look closely. When I arrived the women from the field were there. If I turned to leave I would offend them, therefore I undressed in the dark, removing my tunic and scarves, hoping to conceal my rounded shape. I hid Ben Simon’s dagger, which I always carried with me, beneath my folded garments, then quickly took the stairs and slipped into the water before anyone had time to study my form.
“You finally decided to be one of us,” they teased. “Why so shy?”
I let them think I was mild in my temperament. I hung my head and said the specks on my skin had always embarrassed me. There was no harm in allowing them to see me as they wished to, a girl who chose to keep herself hidden out of timidity. I knew when to join in the teasing. I remembered how to smile, whether or not I meant it. Women were freer to speak in the bath; they shared secrets as they formed a circle in the water. The field women questioned me about my brother, which came as no surprise. Wherever Amram walked, women threw themselves at him. Many of the women in the bath found him handsome, but I had few answers for them. I said I rarely saw my brother, and they accepted my reserve. They set to discussing Shirah. If she had not been a distant cousin of Ben Ya’ir’s, a young woman named Naomi whispered, surely she would have been cast into the desert. Shirah was a practitioner of keshaphim, initiated into the secrets of magic. Our people believed that any item with a sun and a moon upon it must be taken to the Salt Sea and thrown into the water, but several women claimed to have seen gold amulets with such figures worn at the witch’s throat. It was rumored that in her kitchen there was a box kept locked with a key shaped like a serpent, Deraqon, another figure from Egypt that had been outlawed. Inside there was said to be a myriad of sins that would become your burden if you dared to open the lid and set them free; they would swarm around you, like wasps, stinging and biting, never leaving your side. One young woman claimed to have already been stung when she dared to call Shirah a witch.
I took note of a quiet woman with plaits of honey-colored hair who stayed at the edge of the group. She was the servant girl from the wall where the binding spell had been cast, the one whose arms were stained with the brown tint of pistachios. I knew that she recognized me as well, for she couldn’t meet my glance. I hadn’t realized just how young she was, not much more than a child. I felt a pang of sorrow for whatever she had lost on this mountain.
The other women kept on with their gossip. A witch was only a woman, they whispered, but the daughter Aziza was something even worse. She was one of the sheydim. Half human, half angel, a combination that formed a demon. The women in the bath vowed that Aziza’s father was an angel sent to earth to teach sorcery to those evil women who yearned to know such secrets. Creatures like Aziza were born of these unions. It was difficult to measure who they were, for they could eat and drink as we could. They could have sexual relations and make men long for them; they could even die like mortals, but they were nothing like us. They could see the future in a cup of water and turn the pages of the Book of Life to view the names that were inscribed within. They flew from one end of the world to the other in the time it took for us to rise from our beds. They practiced patience, but they took what they wanted, entitled to all we had in this world; in that way they were the same as all messengers from heaven, a puzzlement to those of us who had no choice but to be bound by our human needs and desires.
I listened to such claims without comment or expression, but there was a shiver of unease along my spine. Everything I’d done since leaving Jerusalem was surely a sin in someone’s eyes. If the women from the field knew I had called to a lion and brought him to me and had never once turned him away, even during the time of the month when I was a niddah, what would they have said of me? What might they have thought had they caught sight of me in the desert, waiting on the cliff, wanting him more than I wanted purity or obedience or duty?
I turned away when they spoke badly of Aziza. I had seen her shoveling out the nests in the dovecotes until her hands were bleeding. It was hardly suitable work for an angel, any more than it was a calling for a witch.
“Watch her,” the women insisted. “She will never come to the baths. She won’t remove her tunic or scarves when anyone can see her body. There’s a reason for her modesty.”
They were jealous, envious that wherever Aziza walked men gazed at her, that her hair was the color of night, that her smile was sweet, that she would not have thought to speak about them with rancor as they now defamed her. Perhaps they, too, had seen her blush at the mention of my brother’s name. Several of the women clearly wanted my favor only because I was Amram’s sister. The one called Naomi drifted up beside me, so close I could feel the heat of her body in the cool water. Jealousy burned like that. I knew this only too well.
“Be careful around the witch’s daughter,” Naomi warned me. Clearly, she believed I was a woman who wanted a friend. “And never try to catch her. The sheydim have wings.”
Aziza’s wings were black, she went on, like those of a raven, and like a raven, it was said, she sang to announce the arrival of the Angel of Death. She perched on Herod’s wall each time our warriors went out, gazing over the landscape through silver-colored eyes.
“You’re mistaken,” I said humbly, not wishing to press the issue.
I knew that the Angel of Death was never announced. He came in silence and left in sorrow. He arrived when you imagined you were safe, as he had when we were following the path of blue flags through the desert, a cure for Ben Simon in hand.
Walking back to my chamber from the mikvah, my hair dripping wet, I felt cool and superior to those foolish women in the bath. But as I crossed the plaza, I saw a figure in the dark that seemed to resemble an angel, moving the way angels are said to do, in the corners of our sight.
For an instant I feared that Death was indeed near and the women in the bath had been right. I shivered to think his messenger had been let loose upon us. Or perhaps I had forgotten to lock the dovecote and the doves had escaped to conceal themselves in the branches of the olive trees, rustling the leaves. It was too dark to see clearly, so I stopped where I was, blinking back moonlight. I saw the glint of a girl’s shape sifting through the night.
It was then I spied my brother beside a small pool where a hundred years earlier King Herod had kept fish, small, glimmering creatures said to be made of pure gold. When a hawk plucked up one of the king’s treasured fish, he would sink to earth immediately, weighed down by greed. I saw a girl run to Amram, flying into his arms. There was no need of a spell to bind him, he was bound in the knots of his own desire without the use of the slightest bit of sorcery. He had walked into this net of love and tied the ropes himself, not because Aziza was an angel but rather because she was flesh and blood.
A SUDDEN cold wind surprised us all in this mild month. When it had gone, fruit fell from the trees and scattered across the stones. Some women vowed the remains of the figs dashed onto the ground formed the shape of the red hawks that circled above us, waiting to claim our fortress for their own. There was a hurry to take the scythes into the fields of emmer and wheat, and collect what could still be of use before the stalks turned brown. Our people said a prayer, led by the wise men and the members of the council. The highest of our priests, usually cloistered inside the synagogue, where he studied and gave advice, now came to stand upon the wall and lead the men in prayer. His name was Menachem ben Arrat, and he was known to be one of the five most learned men in Judea. People said he had heard God’s voice on the mountaintop. The situation was dire, so he now revealed himself, for without the orchards we would have no sustenance and without the doves there would be no orchards. I had learned to appreciate the cooing of the birds, a call so beautiful King Solomon’s great glory Song of Songs celebrated it as though it was the voice of one’s beloved. O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice, for sweet is thy voice; and thy countenance is comely.
The council set forth a ruling on our behalf. The dovecotes were blessed and offerings were made for the flocks’ good health. We burned balsam and myrrh in small silver holders, for the smoke would ensure that our charges would produce eggs easily. Because of the biting wind, the doves shivered on their perches and tucked their heads beneath their wings. We were given one of the Roman soldiers from the north to do the heaviest of our work, carrying baskets into the fields, laying down hay, and raking it up when it was used and dank. The other soldier had been exchanged for two white donkeys that traders from Edom brought to us and was already gone from the fortress. That was a slave’s worth in this world. Ours wore metal cuffs on his feet that were unlocked when he came to us. He kept his eyes averted and did as he was told. He had twisted his fair hair into braids rather than allowing it to hang lank as it had when he first arrived, but despite this attempt to conceal how different he was, he still didn’t look like us in any manner.
He seemed ashamed of his situation, yet when Revka motioned to him, he was quick to do what was demanded of him. He was tall, nearly a giant, well muscled, with long arms and legs. Inked on his strong forearm, there was a black tattooed image of a creature that looked like an ibex but with huge curled horns. The slave saw me staring and gazed back at me openly.
“Don’t worry,” Revka remarked when she noticed his rude demeanor. “We’ll make every effort to tame him.”
The slave threw her a dark look, then went back to work, cleaning out the nests. I quickly came to believe he knew more of our language than he let on. He shrugged and pretended he didn’t understand, but I could see the truth in the way he looked up one day when I broke an egg and murmured a prayer for the spirit of the dove who might have been.
“Do you know what I’m saying?” I asked.
He glanced away. His strange blue eyes were cold to look at.
I noticed that he often scanned the plaza through the slats that covered the dovecote windows, which allowed air in but contained the birds. I thought he might be searching for the other slave.
“Your comrade has been sent away,” I told him. “We will not see him again.”
Although I wasn’t certain, I thought he winced to hear this news. I pitied him, perhaps because he was now the only one of his kind. I thought of the leopard I had faced in the wilderness, how the beast had run from me when I leapt upon a stone and roared. How alone he had been as he darted into the thornbushes, as I’d been alone when he’d left me.
“Well, if you know what’s good for you, you won’t listen even if you’re able to understand us,” I cautioned our captive.
I kept watch and saw that he was clever; he had begun a new method of cleaning the dovecotes with a rake he had devised. The slave had found rusted nails on the floor and had used them to attach twigs to a twisted branch of the olive tree that had grown in through a space in the roof. Every time he realized I was studying him, he seemed abashed, cautious. He made me think of a Syrian bear I had seen once in Jerusalem, set in irons to perform tricks for his Roman owner. The bear had kept his eyes lowered, but once, when he could no longer restrain himself, he had bared his teeth, only to be slapped down. He had held his paws over his head, as though he were a man being beaten. Although others in the crowd laughed, I had recoiled and run away, my heart pounding.
“Do you have enough food?” I asked the slave at the end of one day.
I mimicked eating so he might understand. He shook his head, shrugged. I knew he slept in the fetid loft above the dovecote, where he was chained at night, that he was given grain and crackers as his ration and little more. I began to leave him piles of twigs, so that he might have a fire and warm himself when the nights were chill.
“Are you deaf?” I wondered aloud.
He looked up then. He was a stranger from a land covered with snow, something I had seen only once in my life, when I was a young girl and it fell in Jerusalem dusting the hills, sent by Shalgiel, the angel of snow. Some children had mistaken it for manna and eaten handfuls of it, freezing their lips.
The slave understood me. I was sure of it.
I knew what it was to yearn for a life so distant it seemed that it had never been anything more than a dream. Did he dream of snow and wild blue goats, or of his comrade, taken in chains across the Salt Sea?
I urged one of the doves out of its niche, held it until it quieted, then quickly broke its neck. I nearly laughed to see how startled the slave was. Perhaps watching me the way he did, he did not expect such an abrupt and deadly action. But I was not afraid of cruelty; I knew it was inside me, as it was inside the leopard who must catch his supper to survive. The slave was grateful enough when I handed the bird to him to cook for his dinner; he hid it away in the corner, where he might reach it when he was chained at night.
When Revka, always sour and ready to place blame, noticed a bird missing the following morning, I declared that I’d seen a hawk earlier that day. Such things happened often enough; a dove would arise through the narrow opening in the roof and be struck in midair. Then there would be feathers floating down, and if you narrowed your eyes, a thin rain of blood.
WHEN I WENT to the wall to look out at the far reaches beyond our settlement, I was often stunned by how set apart we were from the rest of the world. The wilderness appeared endless, the earth so distant it seemed impossible we might ever walk upon it again. If this was what it was to be an angel, to be Raphael or Michael or one of the sheydim who peered down upon mankind, then it was a lonely and terrible place to be. We were a city and a world unto ourselves, with more people arriving all the time. The desperate, the devout, the beaten, the lost. That was why there was so much gossip; it was difficult to keep secrets in such a crowded, unforgiving world. Families shared their lives, with only thin walls of rough fabric made of goat hair strung from ropes to separate us.
We heard what should have been private, lovemaking and arguments alike. We knew whose children wouldn’t behave and were scolded and whose wife muttered curses as soon her husband left their chamber. The baths were always teeming, with talk as well as with bodies. Shops were filled with those desiring flour and oil. So many had traveled here from Jerusalem there was not enough for all; we were forced to share everything, to wait in lines for food and provisions doled out carefully from the dwindling storehouses, to toil far into the evening hours. I understood why the men went out raiding. I was only a woman, not privy to the knowledge of men at the synagogue or in the barracks, but even I understood what awaited if God failed to favor us. Although the fields were green now, it was impossible to know what storms might come, whether there would be clouds of locusts, how we might go hungry in the month of Av, when the world was burning once more.
For the time being, we were in the mild season. We could pick wild radishes and greens that grew between the rocks on the other side of the Snake Gate, appearing in places where it seemed impossible that anything could ever grow. Still, we knew that times of plenty didn’t last. That was why Herod had stocked his storeroom with enough provisions to last a hundred years, a time we had entered and passed. The jars of oil and wine were emptying. We tapped on the sides, and when the clay echoed we knew there was nothing inside.
There were now so many of us that wood was rationed for our fires. I wondered what would happen if our crops failed and we were left with our wits and nothing more. One night when I went to fetch some kindling kept at our door, it was gone. My father said goats had eaten it, but the goats were locked in their pen. He said I was a fool who couldn’t even count sticks. But I knew that one of our neighbors had stolen from us. That was what happened in lean times. The truth about people surfaced just as surely as tiny silver fish arose from the sand in the desert when there was flooding, miraculously appearing in the ravines amid the sudden rushing streams. It was said such fish could bury themselves in the sand for seven years, their flesh so dry it would seem to be nothing but dust. At the first hint of rain they would show their true selves, exactly as people did whenever they were given time enough and cause.
MY FATHER was happy to have nothing to do with me. He let me clean and cook for him but ignored me at all other times. I heard him offer his opinion to some men who asked after me, eyeing my red hair. “She’s nothing,” he said. “Only trouble.”
My father sat outside our chamber on a bench he had built as the dark sifted down, his cloak draped around his shoulders. In the half-light he disappeared, quickly becoming the wall, the darkness, the night itself, as he had done when he lurked outside the Temple, practicing invisibility. I wondered if I alone could see him there against the stones, facing toward Jerusalem, yearning, as I did, for a life that had past. I had compassion for this man, despite all he had done. I alone was his partner in crime.
My father was not too proud to partake of the meals I prepared despite his contempt for me, slowly devouring a stew of lentils, beans, and barley. In the hours when he left our chamber I had the freedom to shut myself away. I could hear other women gathered in the plaza singing as they worked on the looms; their voices sounded sweet, much like the songs of birds. I had taught myself to spin and to weave, but I never joined in. Had I gone, someone might have questioned me and then known me for who I was, nothing but trouble, exactly as my father had declared, a ruined woman whose time was growing near. Soon, I would no longer be able to hide the truth.
No one came to call; even my brother was absent, taking what little time he had away from the garrison to slink off with Aziza. My single visitor was the ghost in my dreams. She alone came to me faithfully. In time I came to know her better than anyone. I slept with her each night, and in my dreams she wept. I did not believe in tears, my own or others’, I thought they were shameful, a sign of weakness, but I had no choice but to lie silently beside her and listen as she cried. I was chained to her the way the slave from the north country was chained to the dovecote’s stone wall.
One dark night it was Nahara rather than the ghost who came for me. It was the hour my father had roused me when we fled Jerusalem, but Nahara did not shout as he had. Instead she crept onto my pallet and placed her hand over my mouth. That was the way I was awakened, to make certain I didn’t call out and rouse my father. For a moment I imagined I was in the desert and it was Ben Simon who wanted my silence, and I didn’t resist. But the hand was too small, too polite. When I opened my eyes, Nahara was there, insisting I hurry. I reached for my tunic and followed her outside so that my father would not be disturbed by our whispering. There were always watchmen posted, but we found a dark corner.
“My mother wants you to follow me.” Nahara had a sweet, no-nonsense nature. She clearly expected me to do as I was told. “She needs your help.”
“Let your sister be the one to help,” I recommended, anxious to return to my chamber. There were so many stars in the dusky night I could see them falling as I gazed upward into the darkness. They seemed so near, like the Salt Sea in the distance, when they were so far away.
“My sister doesn’t have the nerve for what we’re about to do.” Nahara was so serious she might have been the elder sister. Unlike Aziza, she had dark eyes but hers were flecked with yellow, appearing half-shut, a subtle glance that suggested deep thoughts. “Aziza will never attend to a birth. She says she can’t bear to see the blood.”
“How is that possible? I’ve heard that your sister can do things no mortal woman can do,” I ventured to test her. “Perhaps my brother would know more about that?”
Nahara smiled. If she seemed older than her years, well, so had I when I was her age. “I doubt it. What would a warrior know about women’s ways?”
“I need my sleep,” I objected, but Nahara tugged on my sleeve, refusing to give up.
“My mother says you have to come. She says she’ll help a lioness in return for what you do tonight.”
I felt fully awake when I heard this. Was the message a veiled threat or a promise? There was nothing waiting in my chamber other than a ghost, curled up and weeping. No one in my house but an assassin who berated me when I swept his floor. When Nahara told me we were in search of a black dog, I became curious and decided to accompany her. Nahara carried a pitcher; she handed me a length of rope. There were many black dogs in the settlement if that was what Shirah wanted. I found one right away and grabbed it. Simple enough. But when I brought the stray to Nahara, she laughed, covering her mouth so no one would hear.
“Is he not good enough?” I said, annoyed. I had a strong rope around the creature’s neck, but Nahara crouched down to remove the noose. She was amused I had imagined our task would be so easy.
“That one.” She pointed to a fierce she-dog who snarled at us from a distance. “Can you manage her?”
“One black dog is not a lion,” I remarked.
I caught the she-dog as I had trapped wild birds in the desert. I sat beside her, paying no attention when she drew her lips over her teeth. I remained silent, for that was my gift and what I was best at. After a while I slipped the rope around her neck. The she-dog looked at me. As soon as she did, she belonged to me, as the birds had, as I had looked at Ben Simon and belonged to him.
Nahara came racing over, pleased with my accomplishment, her dark hair flying behind her. Yet we weren’t finished with our task.
“Now you must take the ingredient we need,” she instructed. “She may bite when you do.”
Then I understood. The she-dog’s teats were hanging; she’d recently had pups. It was her milk we were after.
“Why not you?” I countered. “You’re small and fast. I’ll keep her from biting you. Just go to her as you would approach a goat, but do so quickly.”
Nahara shook her head. “I’m not a woman yet. It has to be you.”
I kept the rope tightly hitched around the she-dog’s neck and bade her to look at me. Without speaking I told her not to move. I instructed her with my touch and with my silence, and she behaved. Her body was warm and yielded to me; surely my touch was more gentle than her pups’ sharp teeth. When I was done collecting her milk, I freed her, then followed Nahara along the oldest part of the wall. People said the stones here were made of the same limestone Herod had used for construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, his mark etched into a border around each one. I wondered if he had been certain that the stones with his mark would be everlasting, and if perhaps Adonai had made them fall simply to prove that a man was only a man, even if he was a king.
We crossed to an abandoned section of the palace, ruined by fires in the years of the Romans but still useful if you wanted a place of privacy in this teeming world of ours.
“Why didn’t you get Revka to help you tonight?” Surely she was more trusted than I. “Is she afraid of a dog’s bite?” I mocked.
“She has the two little boys to care for, and this may take all night.”
“Revka?” I was surprised. She was so bitter, barely speaking. “She’s too old for little children.”
“Her grandchildren. She takes care of them and they sleep beside her. You’re all alone. No one will miss you.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
“My mother wanted you.” Nahara looked at me with a respect that surprised me. “She told me you’d be able to catch the black dog, and you did. You should be flattered.”
We entered through an iron gate, then together used our strength to push open an ancient door of carved acacia wood that brought us into a corridor leading to the oldest of the storerooms. These chambers had once been so filled with treasure there was said to still be gold dust between the stones. We went down a hundred steps that twisted underground, and true enough, there was a faint shimmer on the stairs. The air felt damp and cool, murky, the shadows a dim slate color. The hallway grew more narrow as we went on. At last, we were forced to walk single file. Nahara carried a lamp filled with olive oil. I had the pitcher of milk. We came to an empty room made of crumbling stone.
There was an echo as we went on, though we were barefoot. Someone was calling out, but the sound was muffled. I recognized the plaintive bursts of pain. Sia had cried in this manner when she fell ill, her hand covering her mouth so that she might hush her sobs, hiding her frailty from the rest of us.
When I peered through the long furrows of shadows cast on the wall, I half-believed there was a demon flung onto the ground, much like the one imprinted upon my brother’s amulet, the female monster Solomon is said to have killed on the Temple floor. As we came near, I could make out the form of a woman rolling back and forth in agony. She was the young housemaid who had begged Shirah for a spell, the one who’d stayed on the edges of the bath the night when I was told Aziza belonged to the world of angels and demons. She had traveled to this place as a servant but had recently been cast out by the family who had rights to her when her situation became evident. Now she was no longer considered worthy to pick mulberries or pistachios, or to carry her mistress’s baskets. She had been lurking near the storerooms, stealing food from the goat barns. Her current state of misery affected me deeply. I felt fainthearted at the sight of her as she tore at her abdomen, panting, riddled with pains.
Shirah was urging her to sit up, but the young woman refused. There was a child about to enter our world, one who had no father and no family. If it became known that the father of this child was a married man, this young woman’s fate would be impossible to escape. The council might well recommend she be cast out onto the mountain. This birth must be a secret, and as I would soon understand, secrets were Shirah’s greatest gift.
Shirah signaled to me, but I stood motionless, stung by panic as I had once been stung by a wasp. I, who’d been born of a dead woman, had no right to tend to anyone bringing forth life.
“Hurry,” Shirah insisted. There was a second pitcher beside her. “Mix the milk with water.”
I did so, then watched, caught up in a dream as Shirah and Nahara held the woman up and urged her to drink the mixture of she-dog’s milk. The housemaid spat some of it on the ground and made a terrible sound, the cry of a woman who was drowning. She held on to her belly as the pain tore at her. Shirah and Nahara lifted her up and did their best to make her walk, but even this made no difference. The baby would not come.
Shirah now commanded the housemaid to crouch upon the birthing stool she had brought along, and to bear down. Still there was nothing. The housemaid was so young she seemed little more than a child at this moment. She cursed not the man who was the father but herself. I felt something rise in my chest and throat as I surveyed a birth that would not come to pass. I had Ben Simon’s knife in my tunic, cold against my skin. I thought of the knife that had been used to take me from my mother, and her great echoing cries, and the silence of her last breath.
Shirah came to me and shook me. “Stop dreaming! Go to the dovecote and get me a basket of droppings.”
It was broiling hot inside the storeroom, and Shirah was drenched. Her black hair streamed down her back. The kohl around her eyes was melting so that her eyes seemed to stare out from behind a veil. I thought I had never seen anyone as beautiful or as fierce. Her tunic had been flung open, and I was shocked to see a swirl of red tattoos on her shoulders, a practice that was forbidden to our people. Those who had been marked so were said to belong to the kedeshah, holy women who were loyal to religious groups with practices so secret and controversial they had been outlawed long before Jerusalem fell.
“Go on!” Shirah demanded. “If this woman had anyone else to turn to, do you think she’d be here? She has no one, only a man who wants nothing to do with her and a baby who refuses to leave her womb.”
The faster I did as Shirah said, the faster I would be back in my own chamber, away from this mad scene. I went recklessly through the hallways, which seemed a series of dungeons, black as pitch, for I had no lamp. At last I reached the doorway that led me into the night. There was a pale moon, and the lemon-tinged light was nearly blinding after the dim air of the storehouse. Still, no one noticed as I ran to the dovecote, my footsteps silent on the granite stones. I unlocked the door, then made my way among the birds as they fluttered about, surprised to have been disturbed at such a late hour. I began to fill the basket, frantic, my blood racing.
It was then I saw the slave. His chain reached from the loft where he slept down to the floor. He had been awakened when the door to the dovecote was thrown open, ready to defend himself if our warriors had come to mutilate him, or murder him, or trade him to nomads. I had completely forgotten about him. I could hear my own panicked, raspy breathing. Tears that did not fall were burning behind my vision. Our eyes caught. We looked at each other much as two animals who had met at a pool might have, both thirsty and mistrustful, both perfectly capable of violence. After a moment, the slave nodded for me to continue what it was I’d come for. He sank down and lowered his eyes, so they seemed like slits. He pretended to be sleeping, his back against the stones. I was grateful and told him so. Whether or not he could speak our language did not matter. He gazed up, and I could tell he understood.
I finished my gathering, then locked the dovecote and ran back the way I had come. There were almond blossoms falling from the trees, and the ground looked white. I thought of snow, and of manna, and of Jerusalem. I thought of the slave crouched down among the doves. My breath hit against my bones.
Shirah was waiting for me, pacing the floor. She had piled her long, sleek hair atop her head and had thrown off her veils. With a fine-edged pen made from a hawk’s feather, using blood rather than ink, she had written the name of our Lord on her arms, the letters reading upward, leading to heaven. She had concocted pharmaka from the precious leaves of the rue, an herb most women with child avoid, for it brings on cramping. Many refused to touch rue, for it burned the flesh. Often it was removed from the ground by tying it to a dog, which allowed the curse of pulling out the root to fall upon the animal. Some women used the herb when they wished to miscarry, but rue could also be depended upon when a full-term baby needed to be hurried along, both for his sake and for the mother-to-be.
Shirah gathered the dove droppings and set a fire using them as peat. She fanned the flame until there was a plume of smoke. The scent that emanated was bitter but also familiar. It seemed the doves had followed us to this place; we could hear their wings beating, fast as our breathing, fast as the birth must become if mother and child were to survive. After the laboring woman drank the bitter rue, retching as she did, Shirah had us take her by either arm. We forced her to stand above the fire. The air burned with heat, and we were all slick with sweat. I grabbed off my shawl, feeling I might suffocate. I could hardly see for all the ash and sparks. The world was made of salt and smoke, and there was no choice but to go forward.
We had entered into the deepest of places, the seat of the great goddess Ashtoreth, written of by the prophets, a goddess who was with us still, even though the wise men in the Temple had done all they could to destroy her. Neither could they defeat what many claimed was the female aspect of God, the Shechinah, all that was divine and radiant, the bride to Adonai’s groom. The Shechinah healed the ill, sat among the poor, embraced the wicked and the good alike.
The woman who was laboring sobbed in our grasp. As for me, I had stopped thinking and merely did as I was told. I didn’t know how I had been drawn here, woken from my dreams, dragged from my chamber into this dim night. I of all people, a harbinger of the Angel of Death, known to Mal’ach ha-Mavet before I was known to humankind, a murderer of my own mother, now stood guard for the Queen of Heaven.
The housemaid pleaded with us not to keep her positioned over the fire. She said she was burning alive, that the sparks were entering her, entwining with her blood and bones. I asked to be allowed to move her, but Shirah insisted the smoke was needed to open her womb. “Kindness can be a curse,” she said. She crouched beside the servant woman and began to chant.
Beshem eh’yeh asher eh’yeh tsey tsey tsey.
Shirah’s voice was hoarse and hot, the intonations rising. She spoke the words repeatedly, until the chant wound around us and we could hear only its tone and its desperation.
Va’yees’sa va’ya’vo va’yett. In the name of I am what I am, the name of God, get out. You have journeyed and now you have arrived. Amen Amen Selah.
The woman had been wailing, but now the sound worsened. Jackals called to each other in this way, crying in the night. The poor servant woman was so far inside herself, at the deepest core, it seemed impossible she would ever surface again. I thought of my mother in her last moments, before the silence fell, how her voice might have called out against the brutality of her fate, how my father might have wept at the door as he cursed me.
The laboring woman spoke to those who were not there, praying to our God, Adonai, and to Abraxas, a god of the Egyptians, and to Ashtoreth. She made secret bargains, promising all she would be willing to sacrifice if only her torment would end, her life, her soul, her newborn child.
“Take them!” she cried out. “Take me as well!”
I was frightened that she would call the warriors to us with her wailing, or summon demons we could not repel, but Shirah said no, it was silence we needed to fear. Silence at a birth meant that the demons had won and that Lilith, the night creature from Babalonyia with long black hair and black wings who preys on other women, seducing their men and stealing their children, had prevailed.
Shirah wrote down the name of Obizoth, the demoness that strangles newborns, then burned the papyrus upon which she’d written that vile name. The smoke was scarlet, the color of blood. We were the defenders and we were in battle. I felt I could have taken a demon by the throat, should it dare to appear before us. The desert had taught me that we must destroy so that we might live. We had piles of salt to throw upon any creatures of the night that might venture close by. I took a handful and rubbed it across my abdomen, for unborn children were especially vulnerable to demons.
We remained beside the fire, the sweat from our own bodies stinging our eyes. As the fire flamed red and then blue, Shirah recited her devotion to Adonai so that the angel Raphael would thwart any attempt to do harm to the baby when at last it emerged. The mother-to-be began to have contractions. When I looked, I could see movement inside her; a storm was passing through her body. I found I was reciting Shirah’s incantation. I had learned the words and memorized them, for I, too, had come to believe this alone could keep us from harm.
Shirah had us move the woman away from the flames as soon as her liquid came in a rush. I realized that I was terrified the child might not follow, but Nahara, though she wasn’t more than thirteen, had no fear of what was to happen.
“Finally he arrives,” she said, overjoyed. She clapped her hands, then crouched down, ready. The baby came into her hands quickly, his sulky face twisted into a scowl. Nahara grinned, fearless, though blood was everywhere. I thought, She is a woman and I am not. She is already everything and I am nothing at all.
“What will happen to her now?” I asked Nahara, nodding to the new mother.
“She will return to the woman who is her mistress and say she found a baby in the cliffs.”
“And will she be believed?” I wondered.
“My mother will escort her. They’ll take her in. They’ll believe what they must so that the man of the household can have a new son.”
Excerpted from The Dovekeepers: A Novel
by Alice Hoffman
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are
provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or
distributed without the written permission of the publisher.