- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Migdala
Yeshua sleeps on the roof, where we shelter tender seedlings before the earth of the garden is warm enough in the spring. He sweeps away the remaining crumbs of soil at that corner of the roof, then lashes together a frame of narrow branches. These he weaves through with withes made of split willow soaked in the lake. Next, Yeshua layers on hay straw stuffed in a large envelope sack made of heavy linen. Over this, my cousin folds an enormous length of a fine, soft, white material. I touch the sheeting and it is the softest thing, besides the feathers of baby chickens, I can remember feeling.
“What is it? This isn’t flax or wool” I ask, my fingers insistent.
“Cotton. They grow it in Misr, also flax and sheep and other crops, too. The women of our block came together and sold candied melon seeds to raise the money to buy this cotton sheeting as a going-away present for me.
“I miss them. I like to be helpful and run errands and share news and do what I can to make myself useful. On my block in the Nome Judaica, on the street of the Camel—they named all the streets for unclean animals in our quarter, or set us where the streets all have names coinciding with our traditional taboos, I don’t know—I knew my way.
“My father would rather try to drive a camel through the eye of a needle than teach me his trade. Some people don’t wish to teach. If I want to learn carpentry, I must go from home to find my teacher. So I make myself useful at other tasks which come to hand.
“I like you, cousin. I like my aunt and uncle and all the other cousins here. Still, my liver is troubled. I lived all my days in Misr. Only two months ago, we came to Na’tzeret. Now I am here in Migdala Nunnaya. And I know no one. And no one knows me from a... a tower of fish.
“What must I do to make myself a part of the household as I do on the street of the Camel? As I once did,” he corrected.
“Why does your mother work in the temple?” I ask. My geography is weak. But the temple cannot be near the hill upon which Na’tzeret sits, or where in Misr the street of the Camels is. Aunt Mimi doesn’t live with her family.
“Mother needs the structure and likes the simplicity of a dedicated life. The temple allows her to foster her skills, like a servant in a vineyard. Each season, the servant knows more about the vines and the weather and the pests, and every year brings more attention and responsiveness to the position. And the vineyard flourishes under the attention of the skilled servant. She’s like that. She wants one level of focus in her life and one ideal to pursue. Maryam bat Joachim bar Yehudah prefers to do a few things well, and do them well indeed. She is perfection personified in her chosen field.” He smiles so brightly as he says this to me, I know the part he isn’t saying can’t be said.
“Where is it?” I ask as I stroke the fine-woven cotton of his sheeting
“Where is what?”
“The Temple,” I make clear.
“Oh, it’s not the Temple. It’s the temple at Tzor.”
“Tzor where Aunt Mariamne goes?” I ask.
“And where Bubbi HaHa and Great Cousin Sobe and Great Great Bubbi Marmar live, too.”
“Why do you know about my bubbi and my aunts and I don’t?” This is the next question I can find.
“Because I’m older. Because I go sometimes to visit them when the banking is slow and the spa empties out in late winter. Because I listen well when people talk about my family.
“Mimi left Misr when I still lacked a year in age. She told me she was sad past bearing when I was born. The work she found at the temple helped her feel less sad. She was only a little older than I am now, in a strange land with strangers everywhere and a baby. I wonder at the size of her burden.
”Mimi is Yusuf’s second wife. My half-brothers are my mother’s elders by at least a leash of lotus. Eight of my nephews are older than am I, some are older than Mimi is. We are a strange family. Half our women are in service to the Lady at Tzor. The rest of our women married to Kohanim serving at the Temple itself.
“Mimi served at the Temple. She wove the curtain, with the pomegranates worked in embroidery and the bells hung all along the etzba'ot of its hem for a year with the other virgins in good standing of the Tribes of Israel. It was her year to serve at the Temple in Yerushalayim, and no one cared if she must interrupt her training at Tzor to serve as the daughters of the houses of the Kohanim do. The virgins of Israel are a powerful force. The web of girls, and the business they do in life, is legend.
“The generations of Bet-Maryam are fierce in their regard. Their will made known, what could Mimi do? She did the will of the house of Maryam: your mother, aunts, greats and a handful of cousins.
“When Mimi returned to the temple at Tzor she made her own will known. Mimi is a sturdy branch of the tree of Bet Maryam in her own right.”
My cousin Yeshua knows so much about our family. I cling to his words like a vine climbing a post to learn all I can, to suck the understanding from his living force. I ask him if he wants a pillow for his bed.
“The prophets and holy fathers used their own arms for a pillow. If it was good enough for Ya’akov it’s good enough for me.”
“Will you have wives and concubines, then? Ya’akov made a large family with many branches to it.”
“When I find wives and concubines as pretty as you and as wise as your own mother, then I will make a family with many branches.”
“Who decides if your wives and concubines are pretty and wise enough?”
“You will, of course. You, and your mother—if she will take the time.”
“Mother will be proud to help you make your family. She will find the time to look for a wife both wise and pretty for you. Mother knows everyone on the lake. She will search carefully and make a good choice for you. Everyone said she was foolish for choosing the brindled cow to mate with the russet bull. But their second calf grows like no other, and their first calf bears only twins,”
“I shall make a prize family, with your mother’s careful guidance. Blessed are they belonging to Bet Maryam, for they shall not lack in good advice.”
“When I am older, Bet Maryam will choose me the right husband. I will take good advice.”
“You will. And may you cleave to their advice more closely than my mother.”
“What did Aunt Mimi do after she served in the Temple and went back to Tzor? What happened next?”
“She won’t say. No one will. But Marmar looks tense when I ask. Yusuf looks sad. And the Aunts look like a, a herd of goats in clover. Mimi turns away, or finds a snarl in her thread, or the fire smokes. I listen. Will you listen for me too, Cousin Hanna?”
“Would the wise women of Bet Maryam advise me to tell you ‘yes’?” I ask with mischief.
“Some yes, some no. The wise women of Bet Maryam are many.”
“I will listen for you, cousin,” I assure the shining messenger who saved me from the maw of the very Lion of Syria.
Zebadyah has not the patience to take Yeshua onto his boat, the Date Palm—named for my brothers’ mother, the ever-bearing Le’a. Maybe my father is a man like Yusuf and teaches not where he needs not. So my shining cousin falls to my mother and myself.
He scutches and heckles flax with us. Our guest finds eggs and goat forage on the home rods with me. Yeshua cooks porridge in the morning and stew at night for the family meals. For once, my mother is beforehand with her accounting of the fish towers and the retting yields with this extra pair of willing hands to help. He even makes us a new pair of heckling jaws to speed and smooth our labors.
I tell Yeshua the lore of Yam haKinneret. Here lies the husband of the clouds above. The Love of the Lake brings her rains and tides to show her love for her brother and husband. The fish are their children.
Where the Nahar-haYarden pours into Yam haKinneret, a sandbar of silts stretches just beneath the surge of the waters. When the lake is low through the winter, one may walk the sandbar as one does the beach though it is many amot from the shore. In early spring and late fall, the bar shines just below the rushing waves of our inland sea. My brothers all walk the sandbar on dares when they are deemed large enough and foolhardy enough to try their nerve. Most do so in winter.
I tell the lore of women’s knots to Yeshua. I hope he will share back what he knows of men’s knots. But my cousin from Misr knows city things: how to get a fair price for produce, how to find the best baker in the quarter, how to know if a stable charges fairly for fodder. He knows nothing of the fishing knots I covet.
My cousin works alongside Mother and myself. Day by day we grow into a unit. He learns to make and dry the dung patties for the kitchen fire. He gathers driftwood and shores up fencing for the goats’ home pen. He fashions another drop spindle and cajoles my mother into teaching him to spin—women’s work and no fit pastime for males of any age.
Yeshua learns from me the names of farm tools, fishing gear, the parts of a boat or a kitchen. He knows these words, some of them, in Greek or Egyptian or even Latin. In Misr people of all the nations huddle together and their habits and languages are blended together to make a rich stew of beliefs, customs and community. This is what Yeshua tells me. I trust my messenger angel tells me the truth as he told all the village the truth to save my hands and ears and head.
My cousin’s linen thread quickly becomes smoother and finer than mine, though I have two years at the spindle before him. He hardly looks at the work while he talks with and listens to my mother. She shares the trials of keeping count of all commerce for the village, of raising six boys not her own, of readying our household for the next baby and her own fears and limitations for us all after she gives birth.
I listen as he does, though I keep my eyes to my spinning thread. I learn what I can and ask them both questions to learn more. But I still don’t know what my Aunt Mimi did after she served with the prime virgins of Ysrael and before she married Yusuf.
My own mother, some six years younger than her oldest sister, knows little or nothing of Mimi at the Temple or the temple of Tzor. If I must gather information, Bet Maryam living at Tzor is my best source. But I am little, and may not walk the seventeen parsa’ot on my own to reach the Cradling Sea and my foremothers’ home.
I learn no more that year. Yeshua leaves to winter in Yusuf’s rebuilt home in the hills of the Tribe of Yissakhar. I stay in Migdala Nunnaya and spin a roomful of flax into linen, the surplus of which we will turn into silver—if not gold, should our sails stay whole and little ones not live too hard in the year to come. Mother grows great with the coming child and doesn’t use the ladder to the roof anymore when all the village accounts are complete.