- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Migdala
I am the last and least of the children of our house. I have six older brothers, and one sister already married. She lives with her husband's people in the hills south of us above the Plain of Jezreel.
My brothers are stamped with my father's heavy shoulders, long arms and barrel chest. The menfolk of my family taper away below the waist, like frogs stretched out. They are, one and all, strong for their size and age. They are clever-fingered and slow brained. Only the second eldest brother, Gabura, inherited my father's legendary temper. The rest are placid and staunch as oxen. Gabura is as warm as my father, and his hair as red.
Despite the difference in years between us, Gabura singles me out when he comes in with the boats in the afternoon. He brings me shells and pebbles polished by the little waves lapping Kinneret's temperamental shores. He shows me how to suck the sweet flesh of the fishes' cheeks and tails, and how to slip their hair-fine bones from the meat of them for easy eating.
Once, I remember walking up the beach with Gabura past a pair of village fishermen laying out their nets to dry. The wind along the shore gusted erratically. I heard my name on the wind, and turned to see who spoke. It was the fishing folk. Gabura heard too.
He charged back to the gossips and hit the first one twice before the second had time to stand up. Gabura knocked him down too. Smaller than the men he attacked, my brother looked like a leaf-hopper ant charging a pair of grasshoppers. Another time, the gossips were village children. Gabura taught them caution, if he didn't teach them forbearance or mercy.
When Gabura sees me limping at the evening meal with a bandage round my wound, he stands up from the table.
“Those princelings from Yerushalayim need an education in public conduct.”
Zebadyah stands too.
“They do. They do and you won't give it to them. Those children need guidance, but not from me or mine. Migdala keeps to Migdala. We do not mix with those unclean peoples. Their mother is not a daughter of Israel. No more is Shamsun Baal a son of any of the tribes.
Sit down and take your supper, Gabura. Sit down before I decide you need an education.”
Zebadyah stands before the doorway. Gabura rights his stool and sits. I smile at Gabura when I bring the lentils and onions to the table.
“Don't worry, Gabura. I can still work the stilts. I will walk in the festival and the flax harvest will be a good one next year.”
Gabura catches me around my middle and tickles me. I slide the earthen pot full of lentils onto the table before I drop them from all my squirming and giggling. Gabura and Zebadyah glare at each other over their dinner bowls. Mother smiles at me when I remember to bring the greens to the table without a second reminder.
The throbbing in my leg wakes me in the morning. My wound feels stiff and sore after a night's sleep. Gabura is long gone with the boats and Zebadyah when I wake in the dim pre-dawn light.
I roll and hop to the edge of the room crowded with tangles of my still sleeping brothers and mother. I hop to the shed-roofed kitchen outside to blow up the embers on the banked fire of yesterday.
First, I scrape the ashes from the dim coals. I feed them with straw and twigs. When the tinder takes flame, I add slivers of wood and a twist of bramble. Laying a few small sticks across the growing fire, I blow on the coals from as low as I can.
Flames lick up and start their dance on the frame of sticks. I set shards of dried dung lightly over the sticks. When the dung commences smoking, I add larger pieces. The shape of the fire is a broad cone.
I blow from beneath again. Smoke and flames cheerfully leap up. Sparks trail lightly.
I hop to the chicken coop to let the chickens out before they start pecking at each other. I crumble the barley flatbread from two days ago onto the ground. The chickens expect this, or some other supplement to their daily forage. They gather round, eating and fussing at each other over whose turn it is to eat.
I can't hop up the short ladder to the dovecote's latch. But I grab the hoe from a stand of garden tools and use its pointed blade to unlatch the cote's slatted door. The doves flutter and mumble into the world. They shake out their feathers and the dust of sleep dances in motes of early morning sun.
I blink at the beauty of the day.
And the one blink is all the time I can spare. I bring water to the goats and dry forage for them to eat until the boys are ready to run the small flock up the hill. I will have the help of my smallest brothers drawing water from the village well. The well is not far from our house, but my leg pains me.
Next I hobble to the kitchen. The barley flour batter fermented and bubbled to itself all night. I scrape the rekindled fire under the baked clay surface I cook on.
When I spit on the flat top, my spit bounces and dries in the air. The clay holds enough heat for me to cook breakfast. So I shift the fire to the other side of our cooktop. A three legged spider holds the rounded cooking pot securely just above the steady flame. I pour lentils and water into the earthen vessel, and set a bowl over the mouth of it to speed the slow cooking of our midday meal.
On the burnished surface of the cooktop, I fry tender, tangy barley cakes. To reach the hot surface safely, I stand on a rock Gabura brought just for me. I am almost as tall as Mother when I stand on my cooking rock.
Topped with fresh, soft goat cheese and accompanied by wedges of green fleshed sweet melons, the barley cakes are a favorite with the boys. Zebadyah drizzles honey on his, when he is home for breakfast. He says when the boys are men grown in their own households they may have honey on their barley cakes every time they think of it.
I clear and rinse clean the dishes while the boys scatter to their chores. Mother works on the calculations for the fish contracts. If Migdala finishes more dried fish than the amount we promise the fish merchants, we can sell the extra for any price. The fish from our village go to Tzor, Yerushalayim, and ash-Sham.
Mother keeps tallies and totals in chalk on the wall above her loom. She knows how much fish the village yields per season, and how many strings per boat are finished in the same period.
Mother teaches me counting on the kitchen floor sometimes when she teaches me cooking. Up to twenty is easy, with fingers and toes to help. After twenty, I make the picture for how many more I count and tally.
When I finish in the kitchen, banking the fire down to let the lentils cook quietly, I call up the ladder to my mother. She grunts. She has more work to do with those tallies.
I pull out the basket with my new linen stilt-walker tunic in it. We are adding beads to swing and sparkle when I walk in the procession. Mostly I don't like sewing much. But the beads are wonderful, Mother cut them from one end of a fine green scarf I'd never seen before.
“The scarf has two ends, just alike. I don't need beads on both ends,” she explains as she snips the tiny knots and carefully slides the beads into a shallow bowl balanced between her knees.
The beads are every color. Some are clear and some solid. Some are made of metal. The beads are like a flock of singing birds. Or wheeling butterflies. They are all unique. And all are of a kind and meant to be experienced together.
I sort the beads into color ranges. I shake the bowl and sort the beads by size. I shake the bowl again and sort the beads by clarity. My mother calls down the stairs.
“Not long. I must total the tallies once more and then we go out to the retting frames. We can put on the stilts at the beach and practice some dry land walking before we tire ourselves in the water. I need practice myself.”
I hide the loose beads away in my sewing basket, secured in a twist of yellowed linen at the bottom. My brothers know it's wrong to go in my work basket, but this doesn't stop them. I am the littlest and a wretched girl to go with it.
I leave old rags at the top of the basket to decoy my brothers into using those to bind up the goat's leg or their own fingers and not a table napkin half embroidered and destined for my trousseau.
Though young, I use craft in guarding the few items I feel are private. Beneath the beads, I keep an old pocket, sewn shut. In it is a small carved woman with a smile and a crown, given to me at birth by my mother's sister. I hold the pocket, and feel the shape of the image through the worn cloth. Sewing that pocket shut, with the goddess in it, was my first task with a needle and thread.
My mother doesn't tell me why the token is a secret, but we don't talk about it in front of the boys or Zebadyah.
When Mother comes down the ladder, she changes my bandage first. The wound is tightening and the bruise looks as bad as it ever will. My mother smears a salve on the gash, but decides a bandage doesn't make sense if we're working the flax for the rest of the morning. Finally we walk out to the boats and the stilts.
The salve numbs the sore muscles in my leg, and I don't even limp. The day is young enough the summer people are still in their villas. We tie on the stilts and practice walking on the beach. The rocks everywhere make this challenging. We are red-faced and breathless after only a short while.
Wading into the water cools us quickly. The walk to the frames is quiet. Some of the flax is finally ready to come in. We use the coding cords to bind up the retted flax. The bundles are knotted one to another, trailing behind us like a string of baby ducks as we tow them in to shore on our stilts.
We haul the bundles to the kitchen. Every year, we hang the retted flax to half dry on the kitchen’s eaves before we set up the scutching bench. Scutching breaks up the compost and leaves the fine flax fibers. We have a coarse, hinged jaw on a bench with a wide basket set beneath it. The jaw is toothed with wooden pegs all set a finger width apart, and closely meshed when the jaws are closed. We push the flax through the scutcher etzba'ot by etzba'ot.
When we finish scutching the flax, we fit a finer-toothed jaw to the scutching bench, and start the heckling. When we finish the heckling, we give the flax another soak and another drying. After it dries, we comb it to prepare it for being spun and then dyed and woven, or woven and dyed. Or just woven and made into another tunic or sail or door curtain. Most of the linen in our village is undyed, an old bone color.
We put food on the table for the little boys and ourselves. I work on my beading afterward, while everyone else naps in the next room.
I follow the beading pattern exactly. Making the tunics for the harvest festival procession takes patience and attention to detail. Mother tells me my beadwork on the stilt-walker tunic will prove I am steady and graceful enough to walk in the procession.
Mother traced the pattern to use for the tunic on the floor in the kitchen. I go outside to inspect the design and recount how I will string the beads. We have just enough beads for the pattern we chose. If I make a mistake early in the pattern, I will have to pick out every piece of the beadwork and start over.
I hold the tunic carefully as I compare my beads to the design on the kitchen floor. I still have the count: lotus, bull, lotus. Those are the counting pictures from Misr. In our own counting pictures, the few lines of one might be a bull, the others are the fist symbol. The ones they use in Roma Imperia are even uglier, and they write backwards too. My mother showed me once.
A shout comes up from the beach. I dash into the house and shove the beads and the tunic back in the work basket, with the rags on top. I slap down the lid and run, with a little hop in it for where my leg is sore again, down to the beach.
Our boat is in. My family's boat is pulled up on the shore, but it's early in the day. The men fish until mid-afternoon most days.
I run to the boat. They've caught a monster eel. It is enormously long and blackish green with streaks of rusty brown. It measures the length of the boat, and is thick around as one of my brothers. The eel is unclean to us. We don't eat them, but curse them when they run small and silver in the spring.
“Hanna,” Zebadyah barks, “Did you bring any beach sheeting? Get back to the house and bring what we have. Those children of the sun will want this impurity for their dinner and pay any price for it, too.”
I race for the house, and pull the salty, sand gritted sheeting out in one bundle half as big as I am. I trundle down to the shore, peering uncertainly around the folds of heavy linen canvas.
We spread three sheets out, overlapping them. Gabura and Dawud work one end and the middle of the beast with Zebadyah at its head. It leaks blood where the lifting forks pierced it to pull it free of the net and onto our boat’s deck.
They swaddle the monstrous thing, long and back-finned, in the sheeting and give a count for the lift. I trail along behind Dawud, stepping in the wet spots the shrouded corpse drips on the way.
At the end of the beach, there are wide stone stairs leading up to the promontory where the villas sit. I hop up the stairs on one leg. We don't have stairs in our village, just ladders. Stairs are different. I fall behind my family and the eel when I decide to hop down the stairs as well. And then back up. And then I don't see where they are.
I cross a wide paved area. More stairs, a few at a time with a courtyard of space between each batch. When I get to the columns supporting a grand covered space with worked doors of wood, I stop. And I hear brangling. Where there's brangling, there's my father.
I follow the sounds of the altercation off and around the side of the blank faced white villa. High up are wide-but-narrow windows, just like we have in the rooms of our house. The walls are so tall the windows look smaller than ours.
Around one more corner, and I'm on a back alley between a steep rock face and the bits of accumulated household the children of the sun have already broken or used entirely. My father is arguing with someone who might be a cook or a steward. Both men are waving their arms, but neither is waving a knife—so the sale of the eel is going well.
My brothers are hanging back sniggering about something. At their age, it could be anything from how someone caught a fish to which girl to watch at the harvest festival. I stand by my brothers and listen to my father and the servant.
“If I knew you would have such a thing for sale, I could plan for it. An eel like this needs some notice.”
“If I could plan my catch to suit the needs of my customers, I'd be the richest fisherman on Yam haKinneret. We caught it and brought it straight to you. This eel hasn't been out of the water half a bell. It's still dripping lake water while we talk. Keep it cold and you won't have to do anything else to it for two days. How many times have you even heard of such an eel coming out of this lake?”
“Don't get me wrong. We would love to have eel. And this eel looks pretty good. Though you handled it roughly somewhere along the line, it's not just dripping water. I think it's got a day at most before we have to use it or lose it. What's your best offer?”
“My best offer? You're looking at my best offer. This is a one of a kind catch. There won't be another in our lifetimes. Six denarius would be a fair price for this treasure of the waters.”
“Six denarius,” the servant shrieked, “How is the food budget for a month a fair price for a single eel? I'll give you one. One denarius.”
“One? One Denarius? Your household will speak of this eel. It will go down in the history of the august family whom you serve. And your wisdom in acquiring this delicacy will become a by-word. You can have it for five. Five denarius.”
Back and forth they go. They settle on three denarius and apologize for comparing one another’s' ancestors to various unclean animals. The servant at the door calls others, and they come running. More brangling follows when the servant pretends surprise that the sheeting isn't included in the price of the sale. Zebadyah enjoys himself when he's arguing. He enjoys himself a lot. He enjoys the sale itself as much as the profit.
“Don't tell your mother about this money. We will make it a surprise.” Zebadyah suggests with a lowered voice and a wicked, flashing grin. We all nod happily. Maybe my father will buy mother another piece of jewelry for her rosewood box. Maybe he will buy the household some new cooking pots, or sturdy new heckling jaws for the scutching bench.
The boys gossip together all the way down the hill. I trail behind quietly. If Zebadyah sees me, he will send me to my mother instead of letting me enjoy the exploits of the day. On the beach, Gabura drops back to me. He gives me a side squeeze—not so much affection Dawud has to say anything about it.
“Hannakin, I want to show you something special. Something secret between just us after dinner. I need your help. Help only you can give me.” I smile up at my Gabura. He is my favorite brother.
Gabura is full of mischief and plots as well. He and Dawud compete for everything. Never mind Gabura is the younger, he's also the stronger and as fast.
“After dinner, I have the dishes. But then I can help you.”