- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Migdala
Practice your demotic script, girl. You must practice your hand every day. Write me the story of your home life. I will come in a fortnight to look at your progress.
The first thing I remember from home? I remember flying and the tang of drying fish, the always smell of my childhood. The air is humid. I remember the smell of a storm on the way, and the thunder-rich pressure in the air.
The storms at Yam haKinneret are like nothing anywhere. They rise up suddenly, heaving clouds of black, purple and gray. Without warning, wind tears down the valley hard enough to shred sails and blow hanging laundry from Migdala to Gadara beyond the southern end of the lake.
Migdala means Tower in my milk tongue. Our village has more towers than houses. Up the lake from us, the land lies rich and fertile. But our stuccoed village sits on sandy dirt, nestled in stones, all spiked with tall towers to dry its famous fish.
From our earliest years, we fishers' children climb the lathed ladders of the drying towers—scaffolds of cedar wood tapering into each other like obelisks, to shift the fish. The fish at the top are driest, and we unhook the lines on which they ride, lowering them down to the bigger children. To keep grit and dirt from our finished products, coarse linen sheets are held taut below to gather the finished strings of fish. Then we shift every line of drying fish up a level, to prepare the towers for the day's catch coming in with the boats in the early afternoon.
When all the fish are rehung, it is our game to throw ourselves from the topmost rungs of the ladders and into the waiting sheeting, stretched tight below by the strongest of us. We know the danger. It is ten amot down from the top of a drying tower. But once you fly, tasting the rushing air with every inch of your body, how can you not?
The bravest of us do tricks on the way down. We teach ourselves to somersault, twist, and loop in the air. The littlest and nimblest of us bounce on the taut linen sheet and bound up once more into the sky before landing our calloused feet on solid earth.
Every mother of the village knows this game. Every father played it as he grew to be strong and agile enough to set out at pre-dawn with the boats and the men of Migdala.
No one tells us we can't. No one suggests we shouldn't. But we carefully never speak of our flying in front of our parents or our friends' parents. And they carefully never ask, or admit they watch as we dance and turn before bounding into and out of the linen drum-head waiting for our eager bodies.
Funny, I remember the flying but not the climbing. For me there is little fear and so much anticipation. The joy of the leap eclipses the chore of climbing.
When I am four, I begin swinging over and around the topmost laddered lathes of the towers, on one leg or both. Upside down, right side up. By my hands or arms or knees or even feet. I am so lithe, so strong and so filled with the joy of my body: the power of my imagination coupled to my courage. It is this play which brings my time of games to an end.
With Migdala perched on the shores of Yam haKinneret, we learn to swim as early as we learn to fly. Some of us swim before we can run.
And we work before we are fully weaned. In swarming crowds, we pull traps in while the boats fish so far from the beach they can't be seen. We spread and stake the nets to dry, and comb them through, freeing them of weeds and sticks and any fouling thing the lake may send.
One day a storm blows up hard, pushing sullen wet air before it and pulling a sudden cold draft over the lake. All the children on the shore race for the work sheds where nets, buoys, and traps are mended and stored. We squeal at the noise and point at the pink and pale forks of lightning dancing out the tempo of the storm's thunder.
The sheds are open-sided, but we camp under the trestle work tables and stay dry enough against the slashing rain. Like every summer storm, it leaves as quickly as it comes. Then the clouds sweep away trailing the shell-blue sky behind, bringing a fresher day in their wake.
The drying fish are too wetted by the rains to need moving. But the joy of the day and the lessening of the heavy weather call us to the towers like ants to the honey pot. How can we resist?
I race to the tower and climb like a squirrel straight for the top. While I wait for the children below to bring the sheeting, I hang one way and another from the topmost laths.
Absorbed in our play, we don't see the boats tacking in from the fishing grounds. We don't know the boats are beached early until it is too late. I will my body into a coiled spring. I plan two somersaults on the way down. I leap. And the sheet is not there.
Instead, my father with his face as red as his wind stiffened hair stands below. He reaches up with powerful arms and catches me . I will carry bruises around my rib cage for more than a week. He is as fierce as he is strong.
Zebadyah, my father, tucks me under his arm like a sack of barley. I do not cry. I do not dare. Crying makes him only fiercer. Without a word, he marches me through the silent crowd of children and fishers back to our home.
The house, two rooms below and one on the roof, sits well up from the water—as all houses in Migdala do. The waters of Yam haKinneret rise and fall twelve amot across the course of every year. If the spring floods are great, the shoreline creeps even further. We do not tempt the lake by crowding too close on his mighty shoulders.
My father yanks the door-curtain aside and dumps me on the paved stone floor of our house.
“Miryam Shelomit bat Selomo!” he bellows—my mother's full name, which he uses only when incensed, which is often in a house of three rooms and eight noisy children.
“Zebadyah bar Adam!” Mother shouts back from the rooftop. She is well younger than my father, and as full of fire. She climbs nimbly down the ladder, her skirts knotted up so as not to tangle in her feet.
“Your daughter makes a spectacle of herself on the fish towers. She hangs from the drying slats, skirts over her head, exposing her shame to the world. My daughter, Rahel bat Le'a, never behaved in this way. Have you no control over your child? Have you taught her no decency? No one will take a girl like your Hanna to wife—everyone will remember her shame hanging out. Who will want that? Well?” Zebadyah draws closer to my mother as he yells. He towers over her. She is as slightly built as I am. She stares at him, every etzba'ot of her diminutive height straining in fury at the enraged giant, her husband.
“My daughter? My daughter? When you say it like that, Zebadyah bar Adam, I knew I never should have signed the kiddushin. My sisters and mother warned me. 'The women of the Tribe of Asher do best with the men of Zebulun and Yissakhar. The men of Naphtali are animals, and their women are held in chattel.' So I was warned, and to my sorrow I did not heed them.”
Shelomit spits on the floor to give her words the fullest weight. Zebadyah moves carefully back from the little damp patch on the floor. My father carries superstitions with him as other men wear clouts—with secret shame and unfailingly.
“I, Miryam Shelomit bat Selomo, raise your children as though they were my own. I made poor Rahel a good marriage with in-laws who use her kindly. I negotiate the fish contracts for all Migdala, and every year the village reappoints me. I read, and I can write a little too. I harvest, ret, scutch and heckle the flax. I spin, weave, and sew clothes from the linen. I grow hemp for the ropes and nets of your trade. I keep chickens, doves, goats, and a garden to feed your nestlings. I cook your food, gather your fuel, watch your fire, save for your sacrifices, and reline your boat with pitch every spring. You owe me better than this, Zebadyah!
“We made an agreement. I mourn my ancestors in the way of my mother's people, once every eight years. Every other minute of every other day of every year—year in and year out, I am wife to a son of the Tribe of Naphtali. And I have done as I promised. I have given you in full measure all we agreed and more.
“If this agreement is as bitter herbs in your mouth, Zebadyah bar Adam, send for the Kohen and we will write a Get together, you and I. Hanna and I will go to Mariamne bat Cleopas. You will stay here with your suspicions and your superstitions and these my numerous step-children. May you rejoice in your choices, husband. May they bring you satisfaction all your days!”
Mother stares hard at my father with her oil-green eyes. Her full lips fold in finality like the parasols of the summer people. Her chin juts like the prows of the boats beached outside. Her breasts heave like the swells of Yam haKinneret in winter.
Zebadyah steps away from my mother. I scuttle to the corner to avoid his careless backward tread.
“I want no Kohen for a Get, Miryam Shelomit bat Selomo. You have kept the spirit and the word of our kiddushin, and the agreement we made between us besides. The agreement between us is as honey in my mouth, the sweetness of melons and pomegranates in their season. You are the wife of my heart, my hearth, and my life. I will have no other while you live Miryam Shelomit bat Selomo.” He closes the space between them and crushes her fiercely to him, her feet dangling as he clasps her in his massive arms.
At five summers, I have witnessed this scene so many times I would need every shell on the beach to count the full tally. My mother and father are filled with passion and fire. Every exchange between them is drama, challenge, and exultation.
We children know to hide when the gods brangle—and our gods, our parents, have no other means of communication we know. Even their coming together is a great wrestling and struggling, a contest to see who will subdue whom. We do not wish to oversee, to overhear, but they are loud and self-consumed and careless. Our entire home is no larger than a water cistern on the headland.
Zebadyah pulls away first.
“I want her learning women's work. Hanna is old enough to start. She will be promised before many years are gone. Will I say she hangs her shame for all to see when I go to make her kiddushin? What will I tell her in-laws when the day is on us, Shel? I want her done with idling on the beach. She will work the flax with you. She will work the gardens with you. She will forage with you, and learn the ways of our livestock from you. Teach her how to build and keep a fire, how to find fuel, how to make a meal, how to make it go far enough to feed every belly. These are the skills a woman must have. These are the skills which will bring her a good kiddushin.
“Show her how to save the best and first fruits for sacrifice. Show her how to plan ahead and learn the seasons. Show her, Shel, before she gets any older.” Zebadyah, for once, was asking, not commanding.
“Our Hanna should know all her sister Rahel did before she became a bride, is that it Zeb?” Mother asks clearly. Zebadyah shakes his head, a dazed boxer in this bout of words.
“Rahel! You throw her in my face like dung, Shel. She was too long in birthing. And that is no fault of hers. The boys came too soon afterward. Le'a had no time to guide Rahel. Le'a bore every year like a date palm. Twins even. I plowed the garden and it yielded fruit every time. What would you have me do? Le'a did not have your knowing. She was of the Tribe of Yehudah. She bore, and she bore with bearing.
“This daughter will be different. We cannot change her beginning, but we can make her a daughter of Naphtali all the same. Give Hanna the skills she will need to make and keep a house and husband. Make her a woman we can take pride in, Shel,” he commands with his hands still gripping my mother’s arms.
“Ah, Zeb. You don't know what you ask. I will do with her what I can. Hanna learns quickly and works hard. She has nimble fingers and a nimble brain under her red hair, Zebadyah bar Adam. How can you not see what all the village sees? She is us, Zeb. From the soles of her feet to the last curl on her head. Will you know only when I give you sons to go with your fiery daughter? If you don't take a better attitude, it may be a longer time than you like before I bring you any sons of my making.”
My mother smiles to take the sting out of her words, but I hear them and for the first time, I understand. My father doesn't believe I am a child of his. Wherever my mother went, whatever she did there, somehow I am set apart from all my siblings—and not only because I am the sole girl at home.
The next day, after we clear our breakfast of dried and fresh fruit with goat cheese, doves’ eggs and simmered barley, I begin my education as a woman of the tribe of Naphtali. My mother shows me how much forage she wants the nannys and their kids to have. She tells me how to tell the boys, since I'm not the one to collect it—only the one to know. I continue re-strawing the nesting boxes of the chickens and the doves, work I have done for a year or more.
Zeb pays me so little attention he does not know what I know already and what I still have to learn. Is he like this because I am a daughter? Or is he like this because he believes I am the cuckoo's child tucked into a nest already crowded with noisy starlings? I am not foolish enough to ask him and risk the wrath of our household volcano god.
In the gardens, terraced on the slopes behind our village, my mother has me weed around the melons, cucumbers and onions. She hoes the rows of chickpeas and lentils. The handle of the hoe is still many etzba'ot taller than am I. But she shows me the way of working the blade away from the tender plants to leave them whole while tearing out the sprouting weeds.
We feed the littlest boys their lunch of lentils stewed with onions on grilled barley breads. My oldest brothers are on the lake with Zebadyah. The middle two are with the goats on the sere hills above our village. Mother sets the small boys to working in the garden after lunch. She sends them to the terraces with a sweat filmed jug of water and a handful of dates and almonds for a snack.
Me, she brings down to the lake. We take a little rowing boat out to where the retting frames for the flax are anchored. Mother ties up her skirts and shows me how to shorten my own tunic. She ties a pair of stilts on to her feet, using fine hemp cord and careful sailors' knots to hold them in place. She shows me how to tie the retting stilts onto my own feet. I practice wrapping the cords and tying the special knots until she nods in satisfaction. We slip over the side of the boat.
“Pretend you are a heron, Hanna. Lift each foot carefully, and move with the grace of the wading birds,” mother tells me. The waters along our piece of Yam haKinneret slope gently in a long, shallow shelf away from the shore. Though the retting frames are many amot from the beach, the lake is only three amot deep here. Our stilts sink into the soft bottom of the lake. The water is up to my chest, and I have no trouble balancing or supporting myself once I get the feel of the stilts.
“When Yom Teru'ah comes, you will be the smallest stilt-walker in Migdala. You will make your father proud of your new skills.” With words of encouragement, she guides me from retting frame to retting frame. We test the flax fibers, stretched and floating against a cedar lattice. Each frame has two anchors holding it steady. The gentle currents of the Nehar haYarden emptying into the lake at the north end and flowing away at the south end keep the harvested flax from stagnating in scum as the green parts soften and rot to reveal the fine, fair fibers which we make into linen through the winter. This is the retting.
If the flax comes too soon from the water, the plants won't yield their fibers cleanly. Wait too long, and the fibers themselves are weakened. Instead of long, strong hairs of flax, the fibers fray and snap when scutched and heckled.
Mother shows me how to walk the frames, to check them for storm damage. We push them to see if any drifted free of their anchors, or if they no longer align. Should the frames bang together and break apart or float away, the whole of the flax harvest is lost before we have anything from it but seeds from threshing the plants.
I enjoy working in the lake on such a hot day. The water floats in layers. It's warm at the surface where the sun bounces. But at my waist there's a sudden shift, and it's almost cold. Below my knees the water is neither warm, nor cold. But at my feet it's very cold, and the chill keeps me cool as I walk the retting frames beside my mother.
She teaches me to read the codes of cords and knots on the shore-side of each frame. By the end of the afternoon, I can say which retting frames belong to which household in our village, when they set the flax to retting, and how much longer the flax will probably need to stay in the lake.
“We don't make linen to sell in Tzor, Yerushalayim, or ash-Sham. We don't have the right climate. In Misr, they have no rain, only irrigation for their crops. There the flax can ret in the fields, where the nightly dews and the heat of the sun perform the retting to perfection. If we left our flax to ret in the fields, it would take too long. Retting in streams produces the next best grade of linen. Pond retting, such as we do in Migdala makes the last grade of linen.
“Though pond retted flax is never of the first quality, the plant matter from the retting feeds the fishes and the things in the lake the fishes feed on. Our linen is good for our uses, but it will never be worn in the temples or palaces of the great ones.” Mother instructs me as she pulls for the shore. The menfolk are back from the fishing grounds of Yam haKinneret and it is time, or past time, for my mother and me to prepare the evening meal.