- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Migdala
At the village well the next morning, there is talk of a necklace missing from the rooms of the children up at the summer villas. A simple string of beads. Or an heirloom passed down, heavy with a single polished stone. But certainly a necklace.
In our village, we steal a fishing ground, or a boundary buoy. A piece of jewelry, where jewelry is rare, can never be worn once it is taken. Every piece of jewelry in Migdala is well known. ‘Why would anyone take a necklace?’ I ask, truly puzzled.
The older girls say a necklace could be sold in Bet-Tsaida. Or at one of the fairs before the harvest festivals.
If someone from the villa has the necklace, then they will wait and sell it once they return to Yerushalayim when the weather breaks. This is what the girls agree amongst themselves. None of us is a thief.
At our midday meal, I tell my mother about the missing necklace. Mother folds her lips.
“What?” I put a hand on her shoulder.
“The necklace, the one they say is stolen, it belongs to that girl who threw the rock.” I see what Mother thinks at once. Marta isn't honest. There might not be a missing necklace. Or it might be tucked away somewhere unlikely, or she might have broken it and didn’t like to say so and hid the pieces instead. She may not know, or if she knows care, where the consequences of her accusation lead.
Again, while the little boys rest with my mother at midday, I add beads to the pattern on my stilt-walking tunic. I have less than half the distance still to sew. The beads sparkle and dance against the simplicity of the undyed linen. I spread the tunic flat so the sun catches every bead. The light show dazzles me.
A horrible squawking sets up out past the kitchen. I set the tunic and the beads on the table and run outside. I see feathers everywhere. And bright streaks of blood so fresh it sits in beads on the dust, not even sunk into the thirsty ground. I look for the injured chicken. She's not injured when I find her. She's dead. Her back is broken. It's broken the way hawks like to do when they carry off a chicken. All the loose feathers I can find are a good match for the victim.
Is this the only dead bird in my flock? Are other chickens missing? I try to count them. But they move and hop, flutter and run, and turn the corner. The chickens do not want to be counted.
I hunt for eggs since I am out with the chickens. I need to find the eggs before the snakes or rats do. Our chickens lay eggs anywhere looking like a nest. Under bushes. In back of a clump of weeds. In the hay for the goats. Next to an obvious snake hole, where the ground is hollowed. Beside a rock or stump or bucket. I find six eggs and no other birds injured or dead.
I put the eggs in a bowl we keep on the clay shelving in the kitchen, where the air stays cooler. I put the dead chicken under the straw and manure we scraped out of the goat shed. I pile the compost up around the fallen hen. We can't eat her. We only eat meat when the blood drains from a throat cut at the time of the animal's death. The hen will be transformed into dirt in two months. She will grow the flowers around the house and the vegetables in our gardens.
I hear a hubbub in the house. I run back. Sahul has my workbasket overturned on the floor. He shrieks with the authority of a small boy who catches a long sought bug or lizard. Our house has shmamit batim. Every house in our village has these little pink geckos. They eat bugs. Lots of bugs. We welcome them in our homes.
But boys everywhere long to catch the shmamit batim. They do not wish to hurt the little lizards. The boys want to hunt them without harming them. And then release the geckos to prove their sincerity.
Sahul is such a boy. This one lizard is his column of fire in the desert. He knows her by the darker pink of her back. She likes to lead Sahul in a dance around the room. She is as nimble on the ceiling as she is on the walls. She moves and stills to a beat only she can hear with her flat lizard ears.
And Sahul chases her. He chases her every day. He loves chasing this lizard. Now he has the lizard. She's in my workbasket. I howl.
“Sahul, is this true?” Mother asks. Sahul's foot scrapes the floor, tracing a small arc. He nods his head once.
“What are you going to do with the shmamit batim now you have her?” Mother asks, not unkindly.
“...'keep her under a pot for a pet lizard,” Sahul mutters indistinctly.
“We need to let the shmamit batim wander freely. She will eat more bugs so. This is her work. We will not interfere with her work anymore than we would try to keep your father from going fishing in the morning.” So saying, my mother turns the workbasket over carefully. She puts her hand in and helps the frightened shmamit batim climb out. The little pink lizard scuttles across the floor to a crack by the door.
Two or three beads roll in the same direction.
The workbasket is tightly woven. But the beads are small, and each necessary to the pattern I make on the linen tunic. Mother shoos the boys out the door.
We set the workbasket on the table. Carefully, we lift each item from the basket. We collect beads as they roll across the table or down folds of cloth.
I inch across the floor hunting errant beads. I find a small handful. How many are still missing?
Mother picks meticulously at the reeds of my workbasket. We work silently. We know some beads are lost beyond recovery.
When we have all the beads we can find, they are many fewer than before. I am yet young. I cry.
If my tunic is not perfect, then I cannot join the stilt-walkers in the festival procession. Without sufficient beads, I cannot make a design fitting for the public occasion.
“Stop crying, Hanna. We have work to do. You will pick out the beads already sewn to the tunic. My scarf has as many beads again on it. I don't wear the scarf. But the beads will be seen by everyone on your tunic at the festival. We will reset the pattern, and take care to hide your workbasket between now and when you finish the beading.” Mother hugs me tightly until I stop shaking with sobs.
I work all afternoon. I capture each carefully stitched bead as I cut it free. I set the bead in a wooden bowl beside me at the table. I move my stool from time to time to keep the light steady on my beadwork.
I want every bead. I work slowly. I work carefully. I work hunched over the tunic. The shadows lengthen before I finish.
For the next few days, I rise early to work on my beads. I work while the little boys nap with mother through the heat of the day. I work while Zebadyah and the big boys talk over the day's fishing after dinner and gossip about the missing necklace from the villa.
A girl from Har Tabor goes home when they find she is helping herself to food from the kitchen before the noble family has theirs. But they don't find any jewelry in her room. Of course, they don't find the pot-mender who came through Migdala and stopped by the villas just the week the necklace disappeared. But the servants at the villa keep looking and asking.
All my brothers make a wide berth around my workbasket. None of them would touch my workbasket now on a dare. I don't know what threats Zebadyah uses, but my brothers believe him.
The new, richer pattern takes shape under my needle. Mother smiles, pleased with the progress I make each day. The boys slow to a walk if they see me working. They move with exaggerated care, as though I were a napping viper.
I work in the silence of the heat of the day. Loud braying shatters the stillness. I run outside. One of the nannys has her head stuck in the bucket where we ferment milk for making cheese. The crusty brown goat backs around in the cooking area, bashing into the stove, the shelves, our stone sink. The fire scatters when she catches her tail in it. She waggles her tail frantically back and forth. Sparks fly up and twirl all over the little kitchen. The goat brays louder, the sound amplified by the old wooden bucket. The chickens join in the chorus, flustered by the ruckus.
I grab for the bucket. The nanny shakes her head violently, banging it—and the bucket into everything. My fingers get caught between one of the roof posts and the nanny's blind slamming. The pain is more than I expect. Fingers are tender. I scream.
The rooster crows loudly, and from so closely, I can't hear myself at all.
I snatch the bucket's bottom rim and pull back. In a flash, the nanny is free. She trots away to the mangers in the shed, wagging her still smoking and stinking tail behind her.
The chickens are everywhere in the kitchen. I shoo them off the grill, where they like to pick at charred fat and flesh. I find one nesting in the shelves, warming up a wooden bowl. I fuss her out of her chosen shady spot and into the sunny day. I sweep up the cinders and a broken plate. The minute's interruption is half the siesta now.
At the doorway to the house, I pause. I wait for my eyes to adjust to the dim light inside. I hear the scratching and pecking before I can see anything.
A mess of chickens walk up and down the table. They love to come looking for crumbs after meals. We discourage this, as it means a lot of scrubbing afterward. These chickens are eating my beads from their little bowl. One of the chickens is picking the beads right off my tunic.
How long have these chickens feasted on my beads and tunic?
I scatter the chickens. I scoop up the bead bowl and scan the table looking for any stray beads. I stuff the tunic into my workbasket, and put the remaining beads carefully under it, wrapped in their old piece of linen.
I don't howl this time. I cry. Silent sobs course through me. I crawl across the floor looking for beads with tears streaming from my eyes. I can barely see. I hardly know why I bother to search.
I don't have the beads I need to complete the pattern. My mother doesn't have more beads to donate to my stilt-walking tunic. I can't take part in the festival this year without a finished, flawless garment.
Mother and the little boys, Timo and Sahul, get up from their siesta. Mother sees at once my condition of misery. I try to explain why the tunic project is ruined. My words come in more and more broken heaves and sobs.
Chicken poop on the table tells part of the story for me. With so many people and livestock living closely together, distractions and disasters on every scale run hand in hand through our days.
The scraps of thread lying on the table tell the rest of the story. My mother rocks me on her lap. She has no more solutions. She doesn't say so, but this idea is silently between us.
The boats come in from the fishing grounds. Dawud and Zebadyah come into the kitchen laughing and calling. Gabura isn't with them.
I finish unpicking the beads. I put the workbasket away outside at the back of a shelf near the kitchen fire. I stir more vegetables into the stew. The herbs and radishes do not take as long as the yams to cook through.
Gabura comes in as we sit down to our early evening meal. He wears his grin of mischief. He touches his sash significantly when he catches my eye. I don't learn more until after I have cleared the table and cleaned and stacked our dishes.
Gabura finds me in the kitchen setting the bowls away. The sun shines gold on the far side of the lake. Migdala is in shadow under the fertile ridges of the hills.
“Sahul told us about your beads when we beached the boat. Use my pearls for your beadwork. I brought the pearls with me. I got them after I walked to the villas.
“I had a talk at the kitchens. They want our mussels, too. As long as we bring them fresh. As long as the cooks have them in the kitchen by late afternoon—so the mussels can be cooked for dinner.” Gabura brings out his polished driftwood treasure box.
“Don't open it out here. We need more light.”
I fetch my workbasket from the back of the deepest shelves. We walk into the house and set the lamp close by our stools at the big table. Gently, Gabura wiggles the fitted lid of his box.
The box creaks. It pops. It opens suddenly. A few tiny seed pearls glint as they land on the table. These gems of the lake aren't round. They aren't smooth. They aren't even all one color. They are as different from each other as pebbles on a shore. Or shells.
“Use these to make your tunic for the harvest festival. Your mother will show you how to tie the pearls. We don't have the time to drill them into beads.” Gabura shoves the open box at me.
I know the pearls are precious. I understand they have a value beyond their connection to Gabura. There pearls on the dress of the Queen of Saaba in the story. I shall be clothed like the Queen of Saaba when she visits King Selomo to see the wonders of his rebuilt temple.
“I can tie them on? They don't have to have little holes?” I demand of my mother.
“We will use those pearls which are large enough. We will need a finer thread than the one you use now. My scarf will serve many purposes before the stilt-walking tunic is made. If we use all the beads from that old scarf, with the pearls, you will be magnificent come the day.” Mother kisses the top of my head, on her special spot.
“Are they special knots? The ones for tying pearls?”
My mother teaches me knots for tatting, knitting, mending nets, managing livestock, embroidering, curing meat, curing vegetables, curing cheese, stringing a loom, stringing a roast chicken, hemming sails, fastening food baskets, making food baskets—and all baskets, weaving linen, setting a tumpline, gathering flax sheaves and more. But I never learn the ones I want to know the most.
Fishers use all kinds of knots, and so do farmers. Every boy in my family learns knots upon knots. As a girl, I learn many fewer. Fishing knots are all forbidden to women. Some of the well and irrigation knots are also not taught down the distaff line.
Zebadyah has a rule: no women folk near the boat or any large tools. Ever. Including the plow and the wagon. We do not use the wagon. We never have draft animals. But Zebadyah borrows the neighbors’ mules or onagers to show each of the boys how to hitch a team to the wagon and how to drive them. He waits until my brothers' feet reach the wagon floor from the driving bench.
If I were the size of a giant, Zebadyah would not teach me to drive the wagon. If I learn the special knots for tying pearls onto my linen tunic, I won't care how tall I grow or how many years I take attaining height that height.
“You will have many new knots to your name when you are done with your tunic, Hanna. Some of the knots for tying pearls are said to be like the knots the fishers use to secure weights in the nets. These are very clever, sturdy knots. You have clever fingers. You have sharp eyes. Your tunic will be finished in time for you to wear it stilt-walking in the harvest festival procession.” Mother knows of my frustration regarding the secrets of knots.
“You can use my magic crystal,” Gabura offers. He fishes the wonderful lens from his sash, and sets it before me. “Tying the knots is less difficult when you can see them up close.”
The three of us plot the pattern that evening. I set the workbasket away, and we hang an old net across the doorway to keep the chickens, and goats, from wandering in to wreak havoc on my tunic's progress.
Timo and Sahul take over collecting water at the village well entirely. Sahul already likes the attention he gets there from the village girls and matrons. Mother teaches the small boys to clear the table and clean the dishes after every meal.
Mika and Jed add chicken care to their goat-herding chores. None of the flax is still on the retting frames. The flax won't be dry enough to begin scutching until after the harvest festival.
I have enough time to work on my beaded tunic. Mother shows me the special pearl knots, as she promised. At first, I work only an etzba'ot or two a day. But my eyes and fingers become accustomed to the fine thread and the infuriating needle.
Gabura and Zebadyah wrap the outside edge of the crystal with a length of hemp cord. They knot a length of the cord on either side of the lens, and tie it around my head. Now one of my eyes sees in magnification. And I can stop juggling the needle, the lens and a pearl or a bead with my two hands. So I work more quickly.
The border on the tunic grows. The border glows and sparkles and dances. These pearls are a thing apart. I will be the star of the stilt-walkers. No one in the village will see or remember anything or anyone else. I lose myself in dreams of glory.
The week before Tishrei all the stilt-walkers gather on the beach to practice for the procession on the first day of the festival. Much laughing, tying on stilts and tucking up skirts begins our practice. Migdala breeds handsome people. They wear dark skin, bright hair in rich red or black with plenty of curl, heavy brows and firm chins, and brown or golden eyes. The noses of the people, men and women alike, are strong and proud and bring character to the face of every person who more than toddles.
“Look how our baker's daughter takes a wide stance with her stilts,” one crone guffaws to another. “Won't Etan be pleased to note it when he sees her in the procession?”
No one minds if the little girls overhear them. Migdala needs every pair of hands from early youth. Her children are wise in the ways of nature and persons from very tender years. The cackling and gossiping of the older women is only exceeded by the squealing and gossiping of the young women and girls.
We totter and strut up and down the rough lanes we mark out with the plentiful rocks of our beach. We share fresh water from our skins and tips for how to handle a change in incline. I see some women talking hard while they look my way.
I am very small for a stilt-walker, but the village knows I have skills from my feats on the fish towers. Yet my size still causes some fear. Does walking gracefully make the flax harvest come in heavily?
The Kohen says no, it is the will of the One on High. But he claps and chants as loudly as the rest of the villagers when the day comes. And he offers a shoulder or steadying arm to any faltering stilt-walker in his compass.
No one wants me to stumble on the day. Some wish I would stay on the sidelines until I am a little bigger and surer of myself. I am sure.
I am sure with the certainty of a natural athlete. At four and a half years of age, I am one whose body has never failed to acquire a new level of competence quickly. I am supremely confident in my ability to walk the length of the processional route without one misstep.
My family are equally certain I am ready for the honor. After two rehearsals on the beach, most of distaff Migdala feels I will acquit myself handsomely on the day of the festival. But a few of the villagers are not convinced.
Even when I win the race, and I'm the smallest one in my age group. Even when I make two more full spins than the biggest girl in my age group. Even when I don't fall once during the whole last rehearsal before the festival.
I don't care about any of their worries. I will wear the finest tunic on the lake. I have only a few more etzba'ot to go on the border. I am so careful with the beads, there will be a few to decorate the short sleeves of my tunic.
The tunic's light color deepens my summer browned skin. The beads flash with my eyes and my smile. I am ready to dazzle the village with my special outfit and my perfect stilt dance.