I stayed busy, as did all who labored in the corps of the Oregot. We sorted and carded and dyed and dried and spun and wound and twisted and warped and wove and knotted and blocked and stitched from one year’s Nisan to the next. Being fully staffed, and better supplied, the Treasury had insisted we make a fresh curtain for the door at the entrance to the Sanctuary as well.
It was of a different dimension than the one hanging before the Kodesh haKodashim. The curtain had many of the same motifs as its big sister indoors. However, the method of weaving and the embroidery in gold thread of the oversized, stylized cherubim required different skills and techniques. While not worked to exhaustion, the Oregot had plenty to do. Only Rivka’s exquisite logistical calculations coupled with Dinah’s management of the actual work crews made any hope of finishing the two complex works on time possible.
Equipment was at a premium. I once witnessed a fight over a tatty wool carding set which ran all the way to pulling out hair and some spectacular facial scratches. No sooner had one piece been cut from a loom than the warping monkeys, trained by me to take a more active role in the process, swarmed up and over that loom to see it reworked for the next weaving scheduled on it.
The senior Oregot with good-enough eye-sight and the necessary manual skills were set to the embroidery work. The gold wire wore on their fingers, and tiny flaws were magnified only once the thread had been couched in. This caused many’s the amot of work to be ripped out and started over. Even so, we were closer to the ideal schedule than Oreget Rivka had allowed for in her planning.
My next letter from Yahya came in the New Year: after Yom Teruah, but before Sukkot had ended.
Maryam Hanna bat Zebadyah
Care of the Oregot of the Parochet
12th Elul 3777
The north is wonderful. I don’t mind the chill of early mornings, or evenings. Maybe it was all my training in Stoicism at Sparte. Poor Yeshua is miserable. Even this little bit of cold has him wearing a lined cloak and the thickest boots we could find.
The trade goes well. Yosif has found buyers for all his goods. The Ai-Ramathea will sail lightly home with amber, bales of fur and the best ivories and metalwork we can find. The goldsmiths of Tzor will have a field day with some of the jewelry, harness pieces and rhytons we have in the hold.
Once copied, they could be sold anywhere at good value. And the goldsmiths of Tzor are the best copyists in the world. Even the Han buy from your temple, and their standards are the very highest.
We must leave our trading encampment soon, as the sages say Lake Mareotis may freeze early this year. Moreover, the rivers themselves are prone to becoming full of ice, making passage dangerous. Still, the voyage back should be quicker, on account of our following the flow of the river rather than being towed against the tide. And of course, our cargo weighs considerably less.
The Ai-Ramathea waits for us in her summer berth. Travel from Tanais back into Mar-Yam haMariahne should go smoothly, and the trade winds will soon have us back at dock in Tzor. Expect us well before the Festival of Lights there.
I assume you are still captive at Beit haMiqdas. Maturity comes for us all; you won’t be there forever. We will see you when we see you.
I read his letter eagerly, any news was more than I had from my nearer relatives: those who not only lived within Roma Imperia, but within the same province of Roma Imperia! Still, I cherished Yahya as a correspondent. He painted a vivid picture for me, and wrote in a clear hand.
My mother had written to me over the summer. Her letter was disjointed, full of verbs without clear modifiers. I wasn’t certain after careful reading if it had been ‘Kobos or Yak who had enticed the entire flock of seagulls into the house.
My mother’s figuring and percentages were peerless. Her narrations of life were a different matter. She read much better than she could write.
The Treasury continued in honest accounting with the Oregot of the Parochet. Whether it was their habit of keeping a clean reckoning, or the close oversight of auditors from their natural enemy-- the Bursary, the monies flowed through the Oregot calendar without stint or let. Our own accountants had a place for every last sheaf of minas down to the final half shekel to come within their budgetary purview.
The dyes never became less costly. Any wool or flax overages disappeared before they could be used in trade or harbored in stock against hard years in the Tribes. Labor remained constant, as did the volume of equipment and the wear we put on it.
The revenues from the skin trade were a help to the greater budget, but it was still a matter of pinch and tuck in all the workshop’s departments. To make our materials stretch to the length and breadth of a sacred curtain fit for the presence of haShem Himself every year remained a challenge.
Because I acted as gopher and general assistant to Oreget Rivka, there was no part of the workshop unfamiliar to me. I knew where the small flax shuttles and spare wool cards were stored. I read the coding to find any batch of wool, from any point of origin, in our bale inventory. I knew how to judge the correct dye concentration, and how to dilute it using the proper proportions of mordant, more stale pee (but the pee of Temple virgins, since they kept ours separate for just that purpose), to water. I warped looms to any pattern chart as quickly as anyone on the regular team. I could receive raw materials from gold ore and jewelry to sacks of crawling beetles (we dried them to crush for their red dye ourselves, to ensure no ‘foreign’ matter was in our approved mixture).
I enjoyed the running around, putting out procedural fires, locating necessary things in odd places. I got to know a lot of the regular Temple Guards by face if not name. I carried notes to the scribes in the front room of the lower level that comprised the treasury, bursary, and all systems maintenance departments. I waved, or stopped to say hello, to the Rabbans Gamliel and Shammai as I saw them.
For all the Av Bet Din had a fearsome reputation, sometimes justice must be hard to be fair. His character with the chalakah was one of absentminded kindness: he walked around a freshly mopped area rather than through it. And no one knew any evil of Gamliel. He was all that could be thought merciful and benevolent.
Oreget Rivka did not object to my acquaintance with the powerful leaders of the two main factions of halakhic philosophy. At Beit haMiqdas, stature with the larger community cut through bureaucratic fuss like sharp scissors through silk. Having a runner who knew how to find the Mach’lakhah on duty only smoothed matters for the weaving corps. In addition, facility with gatekeepers became a particular skill of mine.
I had free run of the Court of the Metzoraim, yes. But I also slipped in and out of the Courts of the Nazarites, Wood, Oil and Wine. These all had their corners in the Ezrat haNashim. I took shortcuts, and the guardians of passage smiled on my dedication to coming and going efficiently.
I continued to stretch and perform a little tumbling in the baths each morning. I had come to the age where the sinews tighten against the frame of bone in our bodies. If I stopped my stretching, even for a little, I would lose the limber grace I had created in Tzor and refined on Kriti.
I had made a good place for myself in the world to which I had been assigned at Beit haMiqdas. I still waited for Bet Maryam to call me back to Tzor. But I lived the life which was in front of me to lead.
One day, shortly before I turned thirteen, and months after I had heard a word from any of my family, the chalakah Ruth came to me.
“I don’t know who to talk to who can help,” she began.
“If I can help, I will. You know that,” I interrupted.
“But you’re only a junior Oreget. I just don’t know what else to do,” Ruth reiterated.
“But I made life better for all the Oregot and the chalakah when I was littler than I am now. So tell me what the trouble is. If I can’t help you myself, I will find the person who can. How’s that?” I offered in the flush of all my confidence.
“My sister, my little sister. I... my father had several children with my mother you see, so we are both chalakah. My brothers work packing the skins from the sacrifices and offerings into the barrels of urine to cure them as they travel. We get the work which is closest to unclean, because we are unclean in and of ourselves, I guess,” she perorated.
“Your sister, you were saying?” I prompted.
“My sister only started here a year or so ago. But there’s a priest, in one of the Mach’lakhah. He won’t stop bothering her,” Ruth twisted her hands in her apron.
“Won’t stop what kind of bothering?” I asked, hoping for clarification.
“Well, he likes her. That’s plain enough. But we are all out of bounds, on account of being unlawfully conceived. So he asks her silly questions, and has her run pointless errands. He spills things, and calls for her by name to clear them up. She dreads when his division rotates into service.
“She has memorized his Mach’lakhah’s schedule. She counts down the weeks, dreading it the whole time. When he’s here, he tries to be alone with her, as well. That just frightens her to bits. She knows what happens to chalakah who fill their wombs,” she concluded wanly.
“ So he bothers her. And you want it to stop?” I asked.
“Yes, I want it to stop. She wants it to stop. The other chalakah want it to stop,” Ruth responded vehemently.
“Who is this priest that no one wants to talk to him about his behavior and you’ve come to me to see your problem solved?”
“His name is Zadok ben Shammai, the only son of the Rabban himself,” she whispered.