CHAPTER 1: Before the Lord Accomplishes By My Hand What Is Written
690 BCE – City of Bethulia, Assyrian province of Samaria
“Let’s try the spindle again, Judith. Every other thirteen-year-old girl can do this. It’s a good thing your betrothed understands.” Abran picked up a hank of wool.
I fought back the reflex to chastise my handmaiden for her sharp words but I knew that I completely lacked domestic talents. Without any women left from my clan, I relied on my servant and the neighborhood women gathered in the courtyard to acquire the skills they learned at their mothers’ knees. Though circumstances forced her to act as my superior, I glared at her anyway.
“Here, I’ll go over this one more time. You must twist it longwise a bit at a time. Now you take a small bunch and roll one end down your thigh with the flat of your hand.” Her fingers had produced a long, even thread out of the filaments. Then she wound the smooth, snake-like strands to the elongated end of the spindle. After a moment she guided the stick into my hands and I began to work the soft, pliable fibers retted by the dew.
“I remember a neighbor who had ten children, all of whom died,” Abran said, returning to the ongoing discussion among the women.
“A woman without children is the same as dead!” Rivkah’s large eyes bulged even more than usual with the force of her declaration.
“Of course, of course,” came the general murmur.
My fingers pulled and twisted the strands onto the spinning distaff. The yarn came in lumps slowing the momentum of the apparatus.
“Mother Sarah died when she heard about the sacrifice of her only son. That’s proof enough for me!” Babatha shifted her substantial weight. “Ah, my bones,” the older woman whimpered with the movement.
I closed my eyes and faced the breeze, deeply sucking in air. I began to wonder what my cousin Manasseh might be working on. Surely it had to be more interesting and vital than playing with yarn. Or a conversation about the trials of motherhood.
“Hold the other end tight!” Abran exclaimed. I opened my eyes to find the rolled lump of yarn had jumped out of my hands. She threw up her hands and returned to her loom. I glanced around at the other women hoping they were too busy talking and working to notice my mistake.
“Did you wrap a string seven times around the tomb and give it to your daughter-in-law to wear?” Babatha asked her neighbor. The discussion continued uninterrupted about visiting the family tombs to request the ancestors’ aid for a girl who was having trouble getting pregnant. I returned to twisting the threads together, the mass of wool tightly clutched between my thighs.
“Of course! I went to the tomb three times to pray for her!” replied the girl’s mother-in-law.
“It should be in a good hour. Only Yahweh can give in a good hour,” said Babatha.
“She’s thirteen and a half! If she isn’t ready now, she never will be,” the neighbor said.
I grabbed another bundle of wool from the basket and focused on overlapping the new fibers with the previous ones. After a few tries I managed to twist them together and continued on. When Abran returned to monitor me, I had produced a long string, lumpy in spots and too thin in between. It broke at a weak point just as she picked up my work to examine it.
“Well, you have made progress,” Abran shook her head in a not altogether encouraging way, “even if this is useless.” She tossed my sweaty, clotty piece of string to the side and stared at me, her eyebrows scrunched in concentration. I couldn’t decide if I wanted her to give up on me or not. I sighed. Manasseh deserved a wife who could at least make string.
She reached for a carding paddle and a mass of raw wool. “Here, loosen the tangles, like this.” She placed the wool between the flat boards and pulled the little bent teeth through the fibers. “See, we want softness.” Warily she handed me the combs. This time she returned to her work without even staying long enough to watch if I started correctly.
Determined to accomplish some task, I concentrated on practicing what Abran had taught me. After a few strokes I found that I had pulled the fibers apart so that they lay fluffy in all directions just as they should be. I continued on with firm, steady movements.
“Listen, you want to hear a lesson. I’ll tell you a real lesson,” Babatha began. “This is a true story. This woman I once knew, who was a gentile who couldn’t have children, she asked me for an amulet. I took her to a scribe and he wrote a prayer on a piece of an old jar and handed it to her. She got pregnant because she believed the words even though she couldn’t read them.” All the women gazed up to the sky and kissed their fingers. “Belief is the biggest thing. Thank God who does wonders and miracles,” Babatha concluded.
“I hope—” I began.
“Stop! You can’t speak of the future. There are pregnant women here! And what are you doing Judith?” Babatha exclaimed. All eyes turned on me. Without noticing, the puff of wool between my combs had floated away leaving my combs to move uselessly against each other. My carding tools slipped from my hands and clattered to the ground. The younger girls carding wool snickered.
No more pretending. I stood up and boldly faced the women. “Why is it forbidden to talk of our hopes when a woman is with child? I’m glad that the woman was finally able to have children but perhaps she and her husband had something to do with it, working with God of course.”
“Because it is so,” came the answer I had heard all my life to such questions.
I clutched my hands tightly behind my back and chanted silently: stay calm, stay calm.
Rivkah jerked my arm, forcing my hands out. “The Law forbids it,” she whispered. “You will tie-up your womb if you do that.”
I sat down and set my hands in my lap, careful not to clasp them lest I “bind my belly closed.” For it is written, I parodied. I couldn’t imagine that God was interested in the exact position of my hands.
Abran ignored me the rest of the day. The women’s hands moved back and forth over their handiwork, endlessly repeating the same patterns. I couldn’t help but marvel how they knew exactly what the others were thinking, even sharing expressions and completing one another’s sentences. No matter the topic the women vibrated with the joy of being together.
With nothing to contribute to the exchange, I was left to twirl my hair on a finger and mourn the end of my carefree childhood days.
* * *
“The vine has wine!” Abran broadcast from the window, waving the newly discovered bloody sheets from my bed. Though pleased my time had finally arrived, nonetheless I cringed at the public nature of my handmaiden’s announcement. If they’d been alive, my parents would be delighted I had reached womanhood, so for their sake I tried not to feel embarrassed. That didn’t mean I wanted my servant to make such a commotion.
“Mistress Judith, where are you going?” Abran rushed to catch me before I climbed the stairs to the roof. I turned to face her sculpted cheekbones and full lips. I often wondered if she could have been a Babylonian princess if she had somehow avoided being sold into slavery.
“I just want to catch a breeze.”
“You shouldn’t be on your feet.”
“I am not one of those pampered women who forgets how to stand just because she has her monthly impurity,” I shot back though I allowed myself to be guided to a chair. The ache in my stomach and back had drained me of the desire to bound up to the roof as I had planned.
“Don’t be ill-humored. This is wonderful news. Manasseh will be delighted. Now you can marry and bear his children.”
I sighed. “You are right.”
Since our betrothal a year earlier, I had wanted to kiss the smooth skin of Manasseh’s neck and inhale deeply the perfume of his clothes though it seemed absurd to feel that way about my best friend. Though ashamed of this new yearning, I still longed for his hands to cup my breasts, tenderly but full of need. I assured myself that one should feel this way about a future spouse. This only made the unbidden thoughts more intense and the spikes of desire fiercer. We had kept pure, not that other young people restricted themselves in this way. Perhaps it would have been different if the Assyrians had not murdered our entire family. Then less would have hinged on our union and a kiss would not have meant everything.
Abran assisted me with the absorbent clothes and helped me lie down in a pile of cushions. “Are you worried about the discomfort? Because I can get you something.”
I shook my head and settled into the pillows. For the next week of my seclusion I tried to dream of the upcoming wedding banquet and the bliss of married life. Instead, I brooded; like an enclosed garden, I would be hemmed in on every side to protect my dignity as a woman of importance. To preserve my modesty I would have to avoid public appearances. At least, with Manasseh’s love I would be able to drink freely from the fountain behind the walls of my confinement.
* * *
At sunset on the seventh day, Abran escorted me from my chamber to the roof where we joined the womenfolk of the neighborhood for my first visit to the ritual bath. I accepted their congratulations and stepped over the balustrade onto the adjoining roof to traverse the maze of hidden paths high above the streets formed by common walls and shared rooftops known as the “City of Women.”
At the gate tower we entered the roof door and descended the stairs, our steps echoing off the rough walls. We pulled our mantles close around our faces and emerged into the bustle of the city market. Merchants and customers stepped aside to let us pass untouched, fully aware of who we were and where we were going. There is no woman as dangerous as one under a taboo. In this I could trust that I would be kept safe even from thieves.
To the beat of drums we sang ancient songs until we came upon the cave entrance nestled between two spurs of Mount Horon. Breathless, I hesitated on the threshold then stepped into the dim interior of the cavern. A sweet and musty smell floated from the walls; water gurgled nearby. Once my eyes adjusted I noted the springhead set with limestone curbs then turned into a side chamber hewn out of the bedrock. The walls glittered with a dozen lamps set on carved shelves.
“Welcome to the mikvah.” The flickering light distorted Rivkah’s prominent eyes giving her the appearance of an unearthly being.
“Rivkah! Peace be unto you.” I reached out my arms in greeting, careful to not make her unclean with my touch. The other women remained near the entrance of the cave and sang bawdy songs, passing around trays of fruits, nuts and pastries as I moved deeper into the cavern.
While Abran disrobed me and sponged me down with water from a basin, Rivkah explained the laws of purity. I nodded along with her words, familiar with the ways of my people. Pronounced physically clean, Rivkah beckoned me to follow her further back into the cave to the pool to become officially clean. I paused at the pool’s edge not sure if I wanted to wash the past away. But I could not turn time backwards. I tucked in my chin and descended the steps into the water. Rivkah recited the traditional blessings and I responded with my portion of the prayers. Then face down I dipped into the chilly bath, my hair fanning out on the surface like a water spider. I heard Rivkah’s muffled voice telling me to go deeper. With my arms I pushed my body down and sunk the last strands.
Air-starved I arose from the water and stood a moment to catch my breath. No longer defiled, I stood naked and shivering in the cool mountain spring, supposedly blessed and pure once again. Instead of feeling transformed into a holy being, I was still just Judith. It would take more than words and water to reform me.
I returned to the dressing chamber wet and shivering from the cold mountain water. The womenfolk greeted me with ululations, towels and a robe, which I accepted gladly. Once dressed, I joined in with the song and dance, caught up in the swirl of hips. At most women’s gatherings there would be much discussion of a bride’s dowry and the groom’s gifts. In my case, the room grew solemn when the subject arose. Everyone knew that the wealth Manasseh and I had amassed came at the cost of the lives of our family. Quickly Rivkah suggested we sing a little ditty about how to invite a husband to bed. Then the women told stories, instructed me on how to keep house and how to rear children. And offered endless love advice.
“Since Manasseh is your lord, bow to him—” directed an elderly woman.
“Let him be aroused by your beauty—” recommended a girl who seemed too young to know of these matters.
Until late in the night laughter spilled out of the cave into the night. Encircled by lamplight and the women of the neighborhood, I relaxed into their good wishes.
The next morning Rivkah and Abran arrived at my house with all the necessary tools to transform me from a scruffy maiden into a bride. First they distributed the golden bracelets, new slippers, perfumes and a great variety of sweets—gifts from the groom. Abran bathed, oiled and perfumed my hair with myrrh then helped me into a sumptuous, heavily embroidered red dress with a belt of gold coins.
“How does that feel?” my handmaiden asked.
“Like I would scare away all the goats if I chased them.”
“Judith! There will be no more tromping around the hills for you! If only you had a mother you would know that by now.” Abran tightened the belt.
“Stop whining. It’s time to be serious.”
I tried not to make a face at Abran but based on the way my eyelids twitched, some type of unpleasant emotion may have passed over my features.
“Of all the days of your life, don’t ruin this one. Now hold still.” Rivkah secured a golden ring through my nose.
Then from a polished cabinet my friend gently pulled a golden crown decorated with myrtle leaves, roses and fortress towers. “This was your mother’s, and her mother’s before that.”
We both knew this of course, but the moment demanded the declaration. She arranged the crown on my head and primped my abundant curls. We grew silent as our thoughts turned towards the deceased. Older than I, Rivkah remembered something of my mother who had been renowned for her beauty. Over the years I compelled her to repeat every detail she could remember about her. Now the particulars of her life, real or imagined, seemed inadequate for the needs of a motherless child on her wedding day.
“Sprinkle brimstone on the crown.” Rivkah motioned toward a dish of salt on a table. Abran pinched some crystals between her thumb and fingers.
“That won’t repel an attack from demons, even if they existed,” I said as I received a salt shower.
“For once in your life just put up with a little folktale,” Rivkah said.
Though timeless tradition could not be avoided, I wiggled my head to shake off the excess salt. They both tisked but continued to pile me with ornaments. Finally they beckoned me to stand so they could admire the woman they had created. With so much jewelry I wobbled a bit.
“Look at you!” Rivkah guided me back to my seat. “I guess this is the time a mother gives her daughter a blessing. What should I say?”
I giggled. Rivkah wasn’t that much other than me. I sat tall in my seat and with an exaggerated voice of authority I said, “The words spoken to our foremother Rebecca come to mind: ‘Be thou the mother of thousands of ten thousands, and let thy seed possess the gate of those that hate them.'”
“Oh no, you don’t need to be the mother of that many children!” Rivkah exclaimed. “I just hope I see at least one of your children before I die.”
“Since you are only sixteen, I think I might be able to fulfill that mandate!”
Loud sounds in the courtyard signaled the arrival of the bridegroom accompanied by friends and revelers. Having just completed a procession around the upper city of Bethulia to amplify the pomp, the boisterous horde left no doubt the wedding party had commenced.
“I have come to claim the right I have earned by paying the bride price,” Manasseh shouted up at the open windows. The musicians broke into a loud and merry melody and a group of young boys danced in the courtyard. The crowd sang and shouted for the bride to join her groom.
Arm in arm Rivkah and I descended the stairs to join the rest of the household in welcoming Manasseh. Self-conscious in my bridal regalia, I stood before him with my head lowered and offered a slight smile. For a brief moment he took my hands in his and squeezed lightly. Then the groomsmen whisked me up onto the portable couch and hoisted it over their heads. They carried me down the lane, the entire household and neighborhood following with songs about virgins and the bridal chamber. A dozen flute players, trumpeters and drummers surrounded the procession. Girls dressed in bright oranges, yellows and pinks danced before us. Though the final destination was the adjoining house, the pageant snaked through the narrow alleys of upper Bethulia to spread the joy of the occasion. As we passed each house, well-wishers poured out of the doorways and joined me on my journey, scattering barley kernels before the path.
Finally we returned home and the porters set down my covered seat. Manasseh took my hand once again and helped me step from the litter. Amidst the celebrants, the sun caught the golden towers of our crowns. For generations, the brides and grooms of our family had worn these same circlets and performed the same drama. More than any other time though, our marriage marked the most solemn moment. The lineage depended entirely upon us. Thus when Manasseh lowered the gauzy bridal veil over my face and proclaimed me as his own, I panicked. I was just a girl. How could I realize ten generations of my family’s aspirations?
Manasseh drew in close to me. “I know. I know,” he whispered. His breath sent a quiver across my cheek. “I’m pretending to be an adult too.”
“Thank you.” I closed my eyes to savor the moment. Comforted that we shared the same fears we walked together down a long carpet lined with celebrants and stood before a tent erected in the formal courtyard. The open flaps of the nuptial chamber revealed a wedding scene painted on the walls and a large bed plump with thick cushions. I sucked in my breath. Thirteen years ago this must have been the very place my parents conceived me, their only child. Fully aware of my duty to preserve my parent’s legacy, I settled next to Manasseh on the couch at the entrance of the tent to play our roles as “king and queen” of a tiny kingdom.
After welcoming our guests, Manasseh clapped his hands and called for the seven days of feasting to begin. Everyone erupted into shouts for health, virility and long life. The wine flowed freely and the dancing became frenzied. Manasseh winked at me occasionally. There next to me sat the boy with freckles and smooth, round cheeks who had chased me over open fields. The same boy with broad shoulders I had pushed into water troughs. We smirked. All our experience of climbing trees did not prepare us for such an official moment. Yet I could ask for no greater happiness than to caress the soft fuzz of my husband’s first beard until it became grizzled with grey hairs. For such a gift my heart would sing in praise of Yahweh for the rest of my life.
* * *
The feasting finally ended and we fell into our old rhythms. The management of the family estate demanded Manasseh’s constant attention. Without delay my new husband returned to the vineyards and orchards to manage the field workers.
To reduce Manasseh’s endless tasks, I commissioned our local priest, Chabris, to teach me to read and write so that I could attend to the bills of sale and other matters requiring the reed pen to crawl across papyrus. As I mixed soot, water and gum to make my ink I found myself thinking of Manasseh’s kisses on the back of my neck. Occasionally I laughed to myself for a remembered joke or grew misty-eyed at the recollection of his poetic words whispered in my ear. Though I had known Manasseh all my life, suddenly I had a thousand new questions to ask him each day. If he were to leave Bethulia, where would he go? Did he like kissing the mole on the back of my knee? In all truth, at the end of the day I could not repeat a single word of the documents I had prepared.
As the weeks became months, I grew restless with my secluded life. No longer could I roam the hills or play hide and seek in the orchards, as I had been allowed just a year before. One morning as the sun painted the tip of Mount Horon gold, I tossed and turned in bed, longing for my old freedoms. Under the covers I nudged Manasseh with my foot to wake him. He stirred then returned to snoring. In the courtyard men yoked the oxen and threw the plow over the back of a donkey. The young women and servants of the household chattered as they hoisted empty water jugs to their shoulders for their daily trip to the spring. A cart rattled along the alley. I jumped up and secured my mantle around my head. I could wait no longer for the day to begin. Who could fault me for leaving the isolation of my home to assist others in their chores?
The womenfolk broke off their talk when I entered the courtyard and then stared as the mistress of the house stooped to lift a jar. A black goat gazed at me sideways with wide yellow eyes.
“I would like to help,” I said.
They nodded their assent not knowing what to say to a wealthy woman who chose to perform a slave’s task.
Leaving the courtyard, I followed the other women, their clinking anklets marking the rhythm of our march. Everywhere people busied themselves with life: a man rolled a roof to compact the mud, weavers thumped their shuttles, and children played leapfrog. We made our way through the market, passed merchants with their wares spread out on the ground, stands laden with dates, figs, oranges, lemons and sacks brimming over with spices. Under a rough woolen canopy a tradesman lifted a large two-handled clay storage jar and tipped it to measure out a portion of barley on a bronze scale to show me its value. I waved him away and hurried through the city gate. “But this is best quality!” the trader called after me. I relished the thought that a man other than my husband had addressed me in the street.
As we neared the spring, the laughter of girls dancing between olive trees ceased. Their eyes grew wide as they watched me enter the cave with the other water carriers. Once I stepped inside, the dancing girls returned to their prattle, my name chief upon their lips.
The water carriers ignored the side chamber that led to the ritual bath, lowered their tall pitchers and sank to their knees at the edge of the underground stream to slake their thirst with cupped hands. They then dipped their jugs under the water and lifted the full pots to their heads in one swift, almost effortless movement. In imitation I let down my vessel into the water and filled it as they had. Even with all my might I discovered I could not lift the full jar higher than my chest. I clenched my teeth. Again and again I attempted to raise my load to my head, sloshing water until none of my clothes remained dry. The women tittered at first then progressed to outright guffaws each time the clay pot pitched and drenched me further. Yet I couldn’t help but laugh and cheer with them when I finally managed to balance the heavy weight on my head with both hands.
For my sake, I suspected, the water carriers stopped to rest at intervals along the incline leading back to the city. Gratefully I accepted the pauses to lower my jug and let the blood rush back down my arms. Alongside the women walking straight and tall with one hand gracefully steadying their jugs, I swayed through the triple gate to ascend the stairs to upper Bethulia.
Upon seeing my haggard face when I returned, Abran helped me lower the clay pot to the ground then spirited me inside to sit.
“Mistress, whatever possessed you to do such a thing?” She mopped my brow with a cold cloth.
“I want to be more useful.”
Abran stood back to scrutinize me. “When did you last bleed?”
“Last moon—you remember.” In the haze of my exhaustion I tried to gather the reason for such a question.
“It has been a long time since the moon altered your order. I think you are with child. That is why you are feeble.” She thrust her hands on her hips as if the matter were concluded.
“I don’t know,” my voice cracked. I thought my state had more to do with having carried a heavy water jar to the top of Bethulia. However, as Abran began making plans for my pregnancy, I grew excited at the prospect of becoming a mother. By evening, in the eagerness to commission the carpenter to build a cradle for my firstborn, I completely forgot the morning’s adventure.
Then in the middle of the night I woke to find my womb issuing blood. Abran quietly prepared the absorbent rags and we mentioned nothing more of the matter.
* * *
Some months later Abran broached the subject of my childlessness once again. “You must be aware there is much talk of your…condition. It’s been nine moons and still Manasseh has no heir.”
“My condition?” I feigned innocence. “I think my strength has improved considerably since I’ve been lugging those water jugs up the mountain.”
“You know what I am talking about. We all worry your womb has been closed.”
“You’ve given up on me already?” My heart thumped like a startled pheasant’s. I had suspected for some time there are only thorns in my field of lilies.
“Perhaps I can help. Now don’t get upset.” Abran produced a copper bracelet from the folds of her skirt and fiddled with it for a moment before holding it out for me to examine. “I know you have much fancier jewelry but this has protected me for many years and now it’s time for it to protect you and provide you with a child. It’s my Bes charm—he’s the god who protects mothers by waving a sword to avert evil—” Etched into the metal a bow-legged dwarf with an oversized head, goggle eyes, protruding tongue, bushy tail and large feathered crown stared back at me. “I’m sure he will take pity on you and hasten you on your way.”
“He has an enormous, uh, member!” I laughed then stared at the odd beast. “But I can’t take this. You know heathen matters are just not—” I backed away, my raised hands pushing the very thought of someone else’s god away from me.
“No one else in Bethulia has any trouble wearing charms. I mean, it’s very popular among the Children of Israel, not just my people,” Abran insisted. “Why do you have to be so different?”
My father had been extraordinarily pious, thinking of Yahweh night and day, putting away all other gods from before him, or so I had been told. I vowed long ago to honor him by avoiding even the appearance of idol worship.
“I know my empty belly is the chief concern of the household, but Yahweh will protect me. Don’t you have something better to do than pester me?” I regretted the sarcasm of my tone but I let it stand.
“Yes mistress.” Abran bowed and left me to my prayers.
I fell to my knees as soon as I could no longer hear her footsteps. ” Oh, Lord God Almighty, Creator of the universe, hear my petition,” I whispered with my arms extended, palms apart. ” The heart of your servant cries out to you. Please think of me according to your mercy…”
* * *
Just before the barley harvest, Manasseh stood behind me, his hands on my shoulders as I sat at my desk working on the household records. I set down my pen to concentrate on the work of my husband’s fingers as they soothed away the knots in my muscles.
“Mmmm. That feels good,” I said haltingly. Suddenly he broke off his kneading and took down two swords from on the wall.
“Let’s practice again on Mount Egrebel before it gets too hot. Perhaps we can catch a breeze.”
I nodded, happy to spend time alone with him.
Once outside the city, we followed the ancient path up the scarp of barren rock punctuated by tenacious brush. A flock of sheep peppered the rounded mountain, their black fleece stark against the grass withered by the unseasonably dry weather. In place of the wild flowers that usually blanketed the slopes in the spring, thistles blossomed with fluffs of wool. In the valley below us, Bethulia, the city of our birth, shimmered in waves of heat behind her fortifications. The flat-roofed houses danced with the terraces and narrow alleys in a vaporous mirage.
After our first bout, I held up my sword to inspect the blade for blood. Instead, I caught the reflection of my husband’s grin distorted by the polished metal.
“You almost nicked me that time!” he laughed.
“I’m so sorry!”
“No need to apologize. Look at how well you handle your weapon. And I’ve only been teaching you a week? We should celebrate your new skills.” The way the sun highlighted the spray of freckles across his cheeks, he seemed the sort of man who would never grow old.
“Shall I perform the Dance of the Two Camps like I did at our wedding?” I gyrated my hips to the flutes and drummers of that night.
“Turn, turn!” Manasseh clapped his hands rhythmically.
Though married for more than a year, the familiar steps easily transported me back to the day of our nuptials. Once again I could smell the perfumes of the guests’ hair, slick with spiced oil. A slight breeze played with the flames of lamps set atop tall stands around the fountain. Young girls pranced about with sticks, mimicking my steps, practicing for their futures. Sword in hand, I stood and faced my golden-crowned groom then moved between a line of women on one side and a line of men on the other, my blade whirling in an ancient pattern. With my rapid war-like movements, my gown became a blur of coiling and uncoiling fabric. The celebrants cheered and urged me on while giving me plenty of room to swing my blade.
When the sword finally came to a rest in my outstretched arm, I remembered the women scattering coins over my head and wishing me many children. The memory suddenly dampened my delight in our game.
“It’s too hot for this play!” I panted and threw down the sword.
“In case of an attack I think you are sufficiently prepared to defend yourself,” my pleased teacher concluded.
“Like a cherub protecting the garden of Eden with a flashing sword!”
“As long as I can enter your garden…”
“Come here, my little serpent,” I cooed.
Drenched in sweat, Manasseh pulled me to him and we embraced eagerly. Soon however, we grew sober under the relentless sun.
“Let’s sit and drink.” My husband guided me to a large stone to sit against. I slaked my thirst with a hefty gulp from the goatskin bag then handed him the water.
“This weather—ever since Passover…” Manasseh muttered. “The barley yields depend on a balanced temperature in the ripening period.” He stared down at his fields, his brow puckered and jaw set tightly.
I placed my hand on his thigh. “God will have mercy on us. We have counted the days—”
“If we can’t put a sickle to the first stalks, then it is as if we are already dead.” He sunk his face in his hands.
“Don’t be troubled. Even if this crop fails, our storehouses are already full and the livestock thrives. Our house brims with servants and maids. We will not be in want.”
“It is not for my sake that I hang my head but for those who are in need. Each day I pray the dry east wind will spare their crops and fruit trees.”
“Oh, Manasseh, you have the largest heart—”
He glanced at my stomach and pressed his lips together turning them white. Even in the heat, a cold spike shot down my spine. The orchards weren’t the only yield in danger of being fruitless.
“You’ve been counting the days since our wedding night, haven’t you?” I withdrew my hand. “Will you repudiate me if I am barren?”
“Heavens no! I would never even disdain you. But some think Yahweh has a reason for withholding children from you. Don’t you fear for our heritage? Aren’t children a gift from heaven?”
“I do not wish to bring shame upon you but these matters are not under our command, my love.” I stared out at a pile of stones, all that remained of a long-gone tower. “Do you think I am cursed?”
“No, of course not. But I can’t help worry you will be scorned for being childless.”
“There are other rewards besides the fruit of the womb,” I said, mainly in an attempt to console myself.
My husband shook his head. “Sometimes I sense you are more than I will ever understand. It’s as if there is a second Judith you share with no one.”
“I am all here. If anything is hidden from you then it is concealed from me as well.”
He took my hand. “The Judith I know is precious to me, with or without children.”
I kissed his shoulder and he pulled me into his arms.
After a moment he spoke again. “I have an idea: I’ll bring your weight in gold to the sanctuary and make a vow to the Lord. Then perhaps we will caress a child of our own.”
I checked to see if he jested but I saw nothing but earnestness in his brown eyes.
“I know Judith, it’s hard to wait for God to open your womb.” He picked up the sword I had dropped and weighed it in his hands. “Remember when ore is placed in the furnace, it is separated from its weaknesses and moves towards it strength. So too God hammers our hearts pure through hardship.”
Though his words were elegant, they did not touch me. I turned my gaze to the horizon. A storm front cast a line of shadows over the northern hills. The rain would never fall as far south as Bethulia yet my skin tingled as it always did just before a downpour. Intensely awake and anxious, I stood and offered my hand to Manasseh.
“For now, my love, we will have to be everything for each other. The rest is in God’s hands. Come, let’s return home before the heat overtakes us.”
* * *
When the day of cutting the first sheaves of barley finally arrived, a burning wind shrouded everything in a haze, coating the sky in an unearthly yellow glow. As I sat under the branches of a fig tree that cast a deep shade, I thought of the harvesters in the fields taking hold of the stalks in a numbing stupor, cutting them as close to the ground as possible. Just as I had witnessed every other harvest, the collectors would pick up the small bunches and gather them into large sheaves tied around with stalks, stopping often to wipe their brows. This season though, there would be no energetic races back to the fields from the threshing floor.
“Mistress Judith! Help! Help! It’s Master Manasseh!” The words clattered across the courtyard flagstones.
I stood too quickly and my head filled with a dizzy whiteness. Just as my eyesight cleared, two reapers out of breath from carrying my husband on an improvised stretcher lowered their master carefully to the ground in the shade. I knelt at Manasseh’s side and clutched his silent face in my hands.
The oldest worker spoke rapidly, “The sun beat down so hard he became faint. All he said was, ‘My head! My head!’ And then he collapsed!”
The doors and shutters of the house burst open, the entire household brought alive by the commotion. Abran sprinted down the stairs. Her lithe body moved so quickly it seemed her feet did not touch the ground.
“What happened?” my handmaiden demanded.
“The sun smote him!” I wailed.
“Lay him on his bed,” Abran directed the field hands. “Fetch some balm. And some cool water from the bottom of the deepest cistern!” Her calloused fingers pointed in several directions.
“And find Chabris,” I added.
Servants scattered to fulfill the orders. My hands slipped away from Manasseh as the reapers took up their load again and shuffled him inside.
I helped Abran rip Manasseh’s clothes from his body and plaster his skin with wet rags. It didn’t take long for the wool scraps to dry out. We rinsed them in cool water and applied them again but still his eyelids did not flicker.
In his haste to attend to Manasseh, Chabris arrived without his priestly vestments. He glanced around the room taking note of everyone. From under his thick eyebrows the priest’s eyes reprimanded us.
“As Moses taught us, if you do not obey the Lord our God and observe faithfully all the commandments then Yahweh might strike you down with fever and scorching heat.” Chabris spoke loudly as if addressing a large congregation. “We must ask for forgiveness on Manasseh’s behalf for whatever evil he might have committed.”
The memory of the many pranks Manasseh and I had played as children came to mind: the stones thrown from hidden caves to scatter the shepherd’s flock, the stolen figs, the water dumped on a donkey from the upper floor. But I could think of no sin worthy of his death.
“Only Yahweh knows what is in our hearts,” Chabris continued. From his belt he unclipped a small vial of oil sanctified in the Temple and poured several drops on the crown of Manasseh’s head. The smell of myrrh, aloes and cinnamon permeated the room. He placed his hands on the drooped head and prayed:
O Lord, You are aware of all my entreaties;
My groaning is not hidden from You.
For my sinews are full of fever;
There is no soundness in my flesh.
But I am like a deaf man, unhearing,
Like a dumb man who cannot speak up;
Do not abandon me, O Lord;
My God, be not far from me;
Hasten to my aid,
O Lord, my deliverance.
We waited for some movement or moan from Manasseh, but none came.
“Will he recover?” I pleaded.
“I am not a prophet. I’m sorry. I cannot see the future,” Chabris said. “His life is in Yahweh’s hands now.”
“Isn’t there something else you can do?” I asked the gaunt man with brooding eyes. “The prophet Elisha brought the Shunammite boy back to life after he was smitten by the sun. Should we try his cure?”
“I don’t know what good it will do.” I could tell he would rather slit his own throat than crawl on top of Manasseh and place his mouth on the corpse-like man. Chabris had been Bethulia’s priest for over ten years, and still he did not fill the robes of his father.
“He’s not unclean for he still lives, if that’s what troubles you.” Instantly I regretted my tart tone. “Please, Chabris, just try. Please?”
He stared at me for a moment. “All right.” He climbed up on the bed and spread his body over Manasseh just as the prophet had done. In the awkward position he glared at me. “How dare you witness this!” his expression seemed to say.
Chabris returned his attention to Manasseh again and breathed into his face to pour some of the life of his own body into the limbs of the inert body beneath him. Not receiving an immediate response, he climbed down from the bed.
“At harvest accidents happen.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Sometimes we can’t do anything about it. This is the fire from heaven, which no mortal can extinguish. He is too close to death—I must leave before I am made unclean.” He quickly fled. I clasped my hands tightly and brought them to my lips. The room became stiflingly quiet.
After a time, one of the servants spoke. “Perhaps the master was seized by an etimmu. How do you say it, a spirit?”
“Who said that?” Though I knew Abran had not spoken, I fixed my eyes on her for she often spoke of foreign matters. My handmaiden might be my most competent slave but I could not deny she harbored an abiding defiance against the God of Israel. She met my glare with calm defiance.
A young kitchen maid stepped forward with her head bowed, her greasy hair covering her face. “It’s just that the spirit must be drawn from his body,” she whispered without lifting her head. “Before I came here, those who understood the whispering of spells taught me how to rid a man when his heart cries out and we can not hear him. We just need an incantation—” She stopped to see if I might be lenient with the nothing-but-Yahweh rule. Too full of rage to trust my words, I clenched my jaws to keep from speaking and stared hard at the maid. Buoyed by my silence, she continued, “I’ve seen it done before—I swear it can save the master’s life!”
“That is enough,” I seethed. I took a deep breath to quiet myself. “I won’t hear any more of this superstitious nonsense. We need to show our faith in Yahweh more than we need spells. God alone can heal this disease. We must pray again on the master’s behalf.”
I picked up Manasseh’s limp hand. As I intoned the words of a prayer, I watched his chest rise and fall, slowly, almost imperceptibly. When I finished, I kissed the very center of his palm, my tears filling the creases like miniature flash floods. One by one Abran and the other servants crept from the room.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, I lifted Manasseh’s head and placed it on my lap. I fondled a lock of his hair, turning it around my finger and thought of the life we had only just begun together.
“I wonder if our children would have inherited these ringlets,” I said to the man on the thin line between life and death. I recalled the way he cocked his head to the side when he listened, the look in his eyes when he first saw me in my wedding dress, the way we rubbed our naked feet together under the covers. I thought of little jokes we told each other and the poem he recited on our wedding night. When I could think of nothing more, I immersed myself in the smell of my husband’s skin.
From a neighboring house the cry of a newborn pierced the air. Just then Manasseh gave a small shudder and breathed his last.
“Manasseh!” Not believing his passing had arrived, I shook him. “No! You can’t leave me!” I tried lifting him as if setting him upright would revive him. “Manasseh, my beloved!” I wailed as I embraced the man who was no more than dead weight in my arms.
Abran rushed into the room and tried to comfort me. When my screaming only grew louder, she tugged at me but I brushed her away and pulled my slumped husband closer. Sobs wracked my body as I began a loud lament. Abran left and soon the plaintive cries of the household joined my sharp, ear-piercing shrieks. Shoulders trembling, I made the prolonged cries of a wounded animal. I clawed at my clothes, ripping and tearing. For hours I cried out to God and only heard my heart beating violently as if to tear me apart. When I could sustain the sharp pain of grief no longer, I collapsed next to Manasseh. Where my anguish had been, for the time being, emptiness remained.
“The burial women have arrived,” Abran announced later. Zipporah, the wise woman of Bethulia and her assistant entered the room.
“Judith,” the older woman said in a mellifluous voice. “It is time dear. You must let him go.”
I lay immobile.
“You want back something you can never have again.” The wise woman patted my arm. I gazed into the Zipporah’s intense blue eyes as vast as the view from the top of Mount Egrebel. She seemed to hold the whole world in the seas of her eyes.
“Why did God punish him so severely? Even if he committed a grave sin…”
“You will find no happiness by fretting over that which you cannot control. And even you, Judith, do not have power over death and Yahweh.”
I lowered my eyes. Having known me all my life, she had witnessed many of my attempts to bend the world to my will.
“In time, Yahweh will heal your pain. But for now we must be concerned about the time. It’s getting late. You know the Law requires us to bury him before dusk.”
I glanced out the window and found the upper half of Mount Egrebel bathed in gold and the lower half shadowed in blue-green. Only a few hours remained before the sighting of the first three stars marked the beginning of Shabbat. I sniffed and released Manasseh into the arms of the wise woman.
Abran stepped in to help the two black-clad women gently dab his bare skin with sponges dipped in water. Then they rubbed the body with a myrrh and aloes mixture. They handled my husband with as much tenderness as a mother washing her baby while I hugged myself, moaning and rocking back and forth.
When the burial women began to wrap the body in linen garments, Abran guided me to my chambers to dress me in a new gown she had quickly assembled with the weave and style appropriate for a widow. I stared at nothing as she struggled with my dangling arms. She smoothed down the folds of the dark garment and guided me out to the courtyard to sit in the shade of a tamarisk tree while she attended to the funeral arrangements. Tied in festive ribbons and silver coins, the basket of the first sheaves from the barley harvest sat in rebuke by the gate. Manasseh had planned to deliver the offering to the Temple the next week. The deserted tithe set my thoughts to grinding like a millstone. If Manasseh had done nothing to offend Yahweh, then what did his death mean?
The carpenter arrived all out of breath. He nodded in my direction then immediately set to work hewing several planks of olive wood to build a bier. I listened to the ping of his awl and mallet and stared up at the green canopy above me. With a sharp pain I remembered that as children, Manasseh and I had climbed the tree in the summer mornings. We sat for hours talking and joking while splayed out on the strong limbs enjoying the pleasant coolness of the shade as the dew droplets evaporated. Briny tears tumbled out of my eyes once again.
Within the hour, the courtyard filled with friends and neighbors, city elders, and professional mourners. I nodded as each addressed me.
Now wearing the insignia of his priestly office, Chabris approached me. “Yahweh gave and Yahweh took, blessed be the name of Yahweh.”
I closed my tired eyes. How could I make sense of a God who torments, who sends fire down from on high into our bones?
“Let Yahweh heal your pain.” Mayor Uzziah folded his arms across his chest. He smiled at me as if his advice could instantly dissolve my grief. I avoided his self-congratulatory eyes and focused on the intricate weave of his tunic instead. He must have spent a small fortune on the rare cloth.
Though I knew my well-wishers only wanted to surround me with succor, I felt trapped, like a besieged city. I found myself grateful for the interruption when servants carried Manasseh’s wrapped body from the house and arranged the corpse on the bier. Joined by others, they lifted the open box high over their heads. Zipporah and Abran clapped to signal the commencement of the procession then each took one of my arms to guide me forward.
Wearing their simple black and red striped dresses, the drumming women led the cortege toward the city gate, followed by the mourning women who writhed and twisted like mothers in travail. Rivkah directed the Daughters of Song in their dirges. Again and again they called for the lost soul to listen to their calls of grief and not terrorize the living. The throbbing of my head beat with the cadence of their hand drums. The lament grew so loud and unsettling I thought I might lose my mind. Several times Zipporah and Abran caught me as my legs crumbled beneath me.
Due to the lateness of the hour, we stopped briefly at the broad places of the city. A fresh cloud of spices wafted up where the porters laid the bier down for the people to mourn the loss of the wealthiest man of the city.
“He is one who plants but does not reap; he dies while the sheaves are being bound, never tasting his harvest,” intoned Chabris.
Outside the city gate, we passed the half-harvested barley fields where gleaners held their mantels full of kernels and stared at the bereaved trudging over the rocky path. I glanced up at the sky. The sun had sunk behind the western hills leaving the valley a pool of hot shadow. If we did not hurry, to avoid desecrating Shabbat we would have to abandon the bier and leave Manasseh to the wolves. We followed Chabris as he rushed us up the path to the barren grayish hills of Mount Egrebel.
When we reached the family burial cave, four men rolled back the stone that blocked the entrance. Slowly the boulder lumbered down the channel cut into the hillside. With one last glimpse of the sky to confirm we had arrived in time, I entered the chamber. After the bearers laid Manasseh out on his stone bed and left, I fell to the ground and covered my head in dust. I lay there a while, a part of me ebbing away. In the quiet I noticed that outside the cave the howls and shrieks of the mourning women had faded. The time had come to release my friends and neighbors to the comfort of their families.
I grabbed one last fistful of dirt and stood. “My love, though the sword of your life has become blunt, I will polish your memory until it shines.” The soft powder fell through my fingers and scattered over Manasseh’s body.
“Shabbat is almost here. We must return home,” Abran beckoned. She put her arm around my shoulders to guide me. We emerged from the cave, my dark mourning clothes covered with white chalk dust. Behind me, the men rolled the large rock over the mouth of the cave once again. Then, accompanied by a slow steady drumbeat, the mourners with red, swollen eyes descended to the valley floor. I turned back to gaze at the burial caves studding the soft limestone layer of the mountain. Easy to distinguish from the other burial chambers, Manasseh’s cave formed a giant mouth open in a frozen scream.
Suddenly the drumming stopped.
“Look! It’s an evil sign,” Abran pointed to Mount Horon opposite us. Silhouetted by moonlight, mounted Assyrian scouts galloped away along the ridge toward their stronghold in the north. Even from a distance there was no mistaking their inimitable pointed helmets. Not even our most sacred and private actions could be hidden from their eyes.
A knot formed in my stomach. Though it had been ten years since the Assyrianshad left Bethulia in ruins, the soldiers’ regular patrol of the countryside often reminded me of the murder of my parents. Daily I remembered that somewhere under the surface of the family garden lay the ashes of their bones. As long as Bethulia remained a tiny island of Israelites within the boundaries of the Assyrian empire, we would never know peace.
Though a refreshing cool mist had gathered around us, I felt no respite. For the remainder of the walk home, I kept my eyes to the ground for fear I would catch a glimpse of an Assyrian lurking in the shadows. And so I found myself in the darkest place under the stars, wondering what further punishments awaited our city nestled between two mountains.