- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Migdala
The summer people arrive the next week. Like migratory birds, they come to Yam haKinneret for a season, striking in their bright plumage and unfamiliar forms. I see them from the retting frames where mother and I are testing the anchors and their lines, and the flax for readiness. We wear plaited rush hats to keep the glare from our eyes as we work. Light playing on the water dazzles and sparkles and even brings on a trance if you stare for too long. The hat is so wide and I am so small, I must look a sight as I move from frame to frame, the peak of my hat barely an amot above the lake surface.
Through the loose weave of the rush hat, a flash of hot color catches my eye. In order to see out, I tilt my head back 'til the hat brim dips into the lake at my back. They are children, from their size. But they are bright in reds, blues and oranges, sparkling with bangles and embroidery as they run back and forth along the beach. They stoop and shout and jump and tease the wavelets stroking the shore.
Standing quietly away from the water's edge are a few women. They watch the children, sometimes calling a warning or a name. The women wear undyed hempen robes, but they carry parasols—a sure sign of city dwellers, whatever their station.
South of Migdala are a few summer villas. Those palaces are downwind of our fish towers. We make a joke of the site choice in our village. But the villas, built in the modern, Roma Imperia style, are situated on the ruins of an old fortress. Once upon a time, someone piled up rocks and stones and mortared them into a promontory with a view south beyond our fishing cove and clear sight lines north all the way to Bet-Tsaida where Nehar haYarden spills into the Yam haKinneret. For scenery, the villas have a perfect location.
Every year, the servants of the summer people come early from Yerushalayim to the villas. They come to sweep and scrub the crust of debris and filth from the winter storms and spring neap tides. They bring wagons of furniture, bedding and hangings. They even bring their own foods. Then their masters arrive in Migdala, fleeing the heat and stench of the city. My mother tells me of their ways, not gossiping really, as we finish our work at the retting frames.
Mother lets me walk back towards the shore on my stilts. She pulls alongside me in the row boat. Every few amot forward, I rise a little more from the waterline.
If I will be a stilt-walker at the harvest festival, I need to practice each chance I have to improve my balance and poise on the retting stilts. It is the worst fortune to stumble or fall in the procession of the stilt-walkers. My village believes clumsiness brings a bad flax harvest in the year to come. I am confident I will be a model of grace by the beginning of Tishrei, when we celebrate Yom Teru'ah—the harvest and the new year. So I push farther and farther out of the water on my stilts each time we return from the retting frames.
I concentrate on my stilt-walking, focusing on my legs moving through the water—which is now just above my knees. Suddenly, something hits me, heavy and hard, on the leg. I tumble backward into the water with a splash.
I don't panic. I am in the arms of Yam haKinneret, our watery father of days. The stilts hold firmly to my feet. I float easily with their buoyancy. Mother holds an oar out to me, and I use it to right myself and find my footing in the silty lake bottom.
The summer people's children stand laughing and pointing at me. Their voices sound harsh and high, like gulls fighting over fish offal. I don't know what I have done so these strangers wish to harm me. I look down and see a thin streamer of my own red blood curling into the clear lake's water, dripping from a small gash on my thigh where the rock struck me.
I look at my mother. Her lips are folded tight, and there is a crease of temper between her brows.
“Please let me walk in farther, mother. It doesn't hurt. I want to keep practicing,” I plead. Mother shakes her head at the wound on my leg, but she doesn't insist I get back in the boat.
“If I can walk all the way to the beach, can I try walking out, next time we go to the retting frames?”
“Yes, my brave girl, you can.”
And I do walk to the shore. The stilts are harder to manage where the beach becomes pebbly, but I don't let myself stop practicing. I don't even notice the city children as I make circles, waiting for my mother to beach our little boat. She helps me sit down to untie the stilts.
Only then do I see the summer people's children staring at me, quiet now. Their nursemaids are among them and look as frightened as the children. The gash does not bleed so badly. But I begin to feel the pain of it as the shock of the moment wears off.
My mother takes my hand and we walk down the beach to the visitors. We stop some amot from where they are gathered.
“Who threw that stone at my daughter? Who among you is such a coward as to attack a child this small? Which of you utterly lacks propriety? Who has so little home-training?”
The oldest, darkest servant woman steps forward. She wears bangles almost to her elbows, and fat, gold earrings almost to her shoulders.
“We are sorry for the injury to your child. No one means harm. We take steps to correct the one at fault.” She speaks our language thickly, but with pride behind her words.
“Why do you apologize? Did you throw the stone?” Mother demands.
“Ours is the household of a very prince. It is not fitting for these children to speak to one such as you,” the old one intones.
“I learned young that with station comes greater, not less, responsibility. Perhaps your charges were not born to a people with honor,” my mother challenges. The old one's chin comes up hard.
“You are peasants and not worthy even to look at these Children of the Son of the Sun.”
“Be that as it may, they wronged my girl. And you wrong them by refusing them the opportunity to do their duty. Do their parents know how little you care for their social graces? Do their parents know you raise these children without conduct?”
The old one grabs the arm of a girl standing by her. The girl stands nearly as tall as her wizened nursemaid, though she cannot be many summers older than me. The haughty child has a defiant brow, and pale skin to go with her smooth, golden hair. The senior nursemaid pushes her charge forward, muttering to her in a tongue I do not know.
“I threw the stone at a bird,” says the girl to us—contempt in her every word, “It struck you by accident. I regret you took injury from our play. Do not tax our patience farther.”
She is neither sorry, nor truthful. I see this at once, young as I am. My mother's hand tightens around mine painfully. She too knows we have been treated with more discourtesy.
Mother stares hard at the willful child, until she drops her bright eyes to the beach. Without another word, we turn and walk away from the summer people.
Behind us, I hear running, light footsteps. I twist to look over my shoulder. A small girl runs toward us. She reaches us and grabs my free hand, gently.
“Marta didn't mean it. Marta has never hit anything she's aimed at in her life. If she is not sorry, I am. I am Miryim. I am five. Will you be my friend?” The girl has a merry smile, and large blue eyes. Her hair is a rich, wavy brown. And she tells us the truth.
“A pity Marta has not your frankness of ways, Miryim. I cannot allow my daughter to play among children so lofty that they outrank the truth. We thank you for your words,” my mother answers.
I stare at the girl. I wish we could be friends. I shake my head at Miryim, but I smile.
“Thank you,” I say.
I don't know if I thank her for her apology, or her offer of friendship. But I say the words from my heart. Miryim drops my hand and tugs a thin, blue bangle from her arm. It has little gold flowers set in it. She grabs my arm again and works the bangle over my hand skillfully.
“We are not all so proud in my father's house. Remember me with this.” Miryim turns and runs back to the flock of children, playing noisily behind us.
The bangle is the prettiest thing I have ever seen. It is more beautiful than my mother's festival earrings with their filigree work and stones of dark, vein-shot green. I look back. The old nursemaid fusses and waves her arms at Miryim, the girl who would be my friend.
“You may keep the bangle, but save wearing it for feast days, Hanna. Your chores are too rough for baubles not to break,” Mother tells me. I know she is right, though I could stare at the pretty thing all day and all night.
“Give me the bangle, and I will put it in the box where I keep my jewelry,” she holds out her hand. I work the bangle off my wrist less easily than the girl slipped it on. Mother slides the bangle under her wide sash. I stare with longing at the place I know it rests, though the coarse cloth of her sash obscures its outline.
“Mother, what is it made of? I have never seen such a blue anywhere but on birds and butterflies.” I want to hoard up knowledge about my treasure. I have so very little of my own. And this is the first thing I have owned worth cherishing.
“It's a special glass, child. Enamel. And the flowers are thin wires of gold. It is a very pretty thing. I hope that Miryim doesn't find herself in trouble for giving away such a lovely bangle. Some families care more for things than people or honor.”
Before our noon meal, Mother washes and binds up the gash on my leg. Already, a bruise forms around the wound. My leg is stiff, too. The stone hit me square on. By midday the muscle begins complaining. I try not to limp as I help bring the meal to the table. I don't want my mother worrying over the hurt. She has enough to do without adding me to the list.
We feed the small boys their lunch. Afterward, because the day is so very hot, we lie down in the back room, where the two small windows high up on the walls admit air, but little heat or light. I don't sleep. I think about the bangle. It's in the carved box of fragrant wood in the room on the roof.
The small upstairs room has the loom, spindles and bundles of flax in it. On the back side of the room is a long narrow bench. It folds up flat against the wall most of the time. This bench serves for my mother's bed one week a month. When I ask her why she sleeps there, all alone, she laughs.
“Like everyone, I enjoy a piece of time to myself to think and feel and remember who I am and who I want to become. When you are old enough, child, you will spend some nights every month there with me. But that time is years away.” My mother smiles her warm, inward smile.