I told Oregot Rivka, who congratulated me sadly. She forebore to hug me good-bye, as she didn’t have the time to spend a day at the Court of the Metzoraim becoming pure after an unclean contact. I reminded her about Eitan’s daughter, Hila. With me gone, there was indeed an empty bed in the dormitories for any virgin of the Tribes in good standing.
Hila would have her chance to learn the craft. She could build a fine dowry to bring her good fortune, and a better class of husband. And I would have held up my end of the bargain with Eitan.
My next stop would be the Court of the Metzotraim for myself. I could use my usual entrance into Ezrat haNashim. In fact, it was preferred for any of the Metzora to use that very gate, as it was out of the way and never crowded. Accidental contacts were feared by the priests most of all. They never used the gate closest to the Court of the Metzoraim irrespective of convenience.
On my way in to present myself to the concierge on duty at the Court of the Lepers I remembered I had a loop to close. I stopped to tell Noam and Eitan of my new condition. Again, I found myself congratulated with downcast faces.
“Don’t worry. With or without me, our plan goes through. Before I left the workshop, I reminded Oreget Rivka she has a freshly emptied bed in the dormitory, Eitan. Noam, if you perform as we decided, Ruth will work for your good all her days.
“With or without my presence, the deed is as good as done, so long as the schedule isn’t rearranged. I don’t need to be here at all. In fact, it might be better if I weren’t. Ruth and I know we can count on you two, whether I’m in Tzor or I’ve flown to the moon. Right?” I reminded them.
Much cheered, Eitan and Noam gave me their assurances. When the day came, they would come running at the first call. I felt satisfied they would do for Ruth and Abela all that was needed at the time.
Our morale building moment tied up my loose ends at Beit haMiqdas. Without regrets, I turned the corner into the portico and knocked once more on the oversized wooden doors guarding the unwary from the Court of the Metzoraim. I knew Tanai, the concierge on duty, only slightly. But she welcomed me warmly, promising me barley cakes and tisane to go with my requested writing materials.
Though I wasn’t sure what the fastest way to reach Bet Maryam would be. There was Tzor, to be sure. But would a note to Eskanderejai, and Alpheus’ home do as well or better? The places were about equidistant from Yerushalayim. Would they allow me to send two letters, one in each direction?
When Tanai appeared with a tray holding everything she had undertaken to bring me, I asked after the sending of two letters. She looked taken aback. I imagined most of the girls serving in the Oregot had families less itinerant than mine.
In the end, she decided there was no rule against it. Moreover it was for me, so she felt there would be no trouble in the matter. She scurried off for another sheet of parchment. I set to writing a letter for whomsoever at Bet Maryam cared to receive it.
Shortly, I finished and tied it off. Tanai came back with the next piece of parchment, apologizing for the delay in her reappearance. There had been a number of fresh inductees into the men’s side of the Court. They had needed orientation. Some had needed linens and mattresses to go with their stone pallets for overnight stays.
“Pooh, you have a job to do. And it isn’t waiting on the spoiled little former Oregot who wander through here. I took time over the note to Tzor. And now I will have plenty of time for my note to Eskanderejai. Thank you for the lovely tisane. And the barley cakes are everyone’s favorites. Maybe you could send a few out to Noam and Eitan at the gate here. They’ve never said no when I brought them,” I hinted. Tanai smiled back at me with a wink.
“I will keep those boys sweet with sweets so that they remember you and all you are doing for them. It won’t be long now, in any case.” By this, I knew she knew the open secret of the plot Ruth and I had fomented.
“I had thought of making a batch of sesame candies. I imagine they could be talked into trying one or two pieces of that. I will need to see about some honey and gum acacia. And the kitchen will have to pound the seeds for me….” Tanai recited to herself as she went off to see the first letter onto the next cart leaving for Ashdod.
The distance by sea to Tzor was short, though the trade winds blew contrary. Happily, the currents at our end of the Mar-Yam haMariahne shifted with the seasons. It might arrive at Bet Maryam in as little as three days.
I sat and stared, and changed the rags I was given as was needful. I waited for meals to be served. I tried not to make a nuisance of myself. I attended evening prayer services from in front of my cell, like the other inmates of the court.
I missed having Yahya there. The Court of the Metzoraim was bleak; though not the scary place some made it out to be. I don’t think I ever saw one actual leper there, for all that was the reputation-- and name-- of the court. I was mostly bored. Thank Our Lady Rolling I was going where I wouldn’t be stigmatized into inactivity for one in four turns of Her front wheels. What a trial the strictures of the Tribes have been to their observant women!
My flowers stopped after only a few days. They hadn’t been anything much. I had heard the stories, who hasn’t, of great gouts of blood for eight days at a stretch. I had been told of wracking, cramping pain, like childbirth without any issue. None of that happened for me. Maybe I was lucky. Maybe it was only for my first time.
I didn’t know, and wouldn’t ask any of the members of the Tribes who shared the women’s side of the Court of the Metzoraim with me. They were victims of superstition. They were subjected to a god and his minions who thought them less than men, and treated them with fear and contempt. I didn’t want to know what they knew, or thought they knew. I wasn’t ready to hear about divine punishment, as opposed to a natural function.
Tanai had left the court’s concierge office a few days after I came, but Hadassa had taken up the role subsequently. I knew her only slightly. Still, it was good to have one familiar face to greet every day.
It was Hadassa who told me someone from my family had come to collect me. I wondered which of them it would be. Likeliest, it would be Mariamne who often travelled and came through Yerushalayim several times every year on an irregular schedule.
I had brought nothing with me into the Court of the Metzoraim. Anything I had touched while in my flowers would only have to have gone through the immersions, prayers and additional sacrifices to be made clean again so that it could leave with me. All I did before walking out of my cell was to strip my linens and roll up my mattress for easy transport. The things from my wicker chest in the dormitory would have been brought to the concierge’s office sometime after I had checked myself into the body of Metzoraim.
In the office, I received my pack. Hadassa pointed me towards the great doors with a smile. She gave me a little push as I hesitated.
“He’s outside waiting on you. He said he didn’t want to crowd or hurry you. I hope he’s not so close a relative that your people won’t be able to think of him as a suitable husband now that you’re ready to be married,” she added kindly.
Then it wasn’t Yahya. Everyone knew the legends of his doings at Beit haMiqdas.. No one considered him suitable marriage material, even with his self-maiming a secret.
Maybe it was one of my brothers. I hadn’t seen any of them in more than six years. If it were Gabura or Dawid, though why would it be Dawid, I would be able to recognize them easily. If it were any of the younger ones, six years might have made too much difference. Though the red hair of Zebadyah’s children was always a helpful marker.
I pulled on the enormous door. It swung slowly, but readily. The hinges were well greased and well hung. I stepped across the threshold and into the full sun of late afternoon in mid-Av.
Blinking, I didn’t see anyone at first. Something broke the flow of the sun, shadowed in front of me. But the hair blazed in wiry gold, refracting the light of the sun and glittering in a nimbus around the shadowed face.
They had sent Yeshua. So much taller now than he had been seven or eight years before. The hair gave him away. The gold was a rarity in Yerushalayim, where purity in the blood of the Tribes made them mostly dark-haired and olive-skinned. My cousin’s light cinnamon colored skin and oil green eyes were striking with his shining curls.
“Are you free of your obligations to the Oregot, little Hanna? Are you ready to walk out of haShem’s house and return to Bet Maryam?” He asked kindly.
“And if I weren’t, would they let me stay? Would I have to join the chalakah to continue here? Oh yes, dear cousin, I am ready to leave this place. I have been at Beit haMiqdas almost two years, and served haShem faithfully and well in all the tasks to which I was set,” I answered. Why would anyone who knew of a better world want to stay where they could never be more than a servant?
“I heard you did better than that. Yahya is full of compliments for your gift of managing and motivating others to bring their best selves to the table of life,” Yeshua said with a smile.
Such a smile. How could I not smile back? He smiled with his lips and teeth, yes. But it was the way his smile lit his eyes. There was the infectious and irresistible nature of his kindness and good humor. He could warm a corpse with the sincerity, hope, and plain merriness in his face.
“What are you doing here?” I asked more sourly than I’d meant.
“The northmen liked the quality of trade with Yosif last year so much they met us in Tanais. We had our pick of furs, amber, and many unique pieces of goldsmithery. The Ai-Ramathea brought back more than twenty talent’s weight in northern ivories-- both worked and unworked. We’re back early, but only just back. Yahya wanted to consult with Mimi, so we left him there and came here straightaway.
“Yosif’s business in Yerushalayim wasn’t so pressing. It could have waited until after the High Holy Days. But we felt that collecting you in the course of other necessary affairs was the least we could do. We were back months early-- with a ship at our command,” he shared pleasantly.
“Where do we go from here? Did they send a letter for me, or anything?” For years and years, I had always had somewhere to be and that promptly.
“First, we go to the Osey haTorah. We will stay in the upper room, the same in which you slept when you first came to Yerushalayim with Mariamne and ‘Kabos. In a day or two, we will make for Ashdod. Yosif will sail us to Tzor from there. He has both trade business, and Sanhedrin business, to manage in town before we leave,” Yeshua informed me. “May I carry your pack? The day is very hot, and the way is not short.”
“Let me. If it gets heavy, I will let you take a turn, big cousin. Where on earth did you learn your lovely manners? And why are you wasting them on a scrub of a girl to whom you’re related? They aren’t trying to marry you off to me, are they?” I asked with real concern. Lots of girls married their cousins in the Tribes. It kept dowries in the family, and knit the Tribes closely to themselves. Yeshua laughed at my look of dismay.
“As far as I know, Bet Maryam does not plot a kiddushin for us, Hanna. I can’t help the manners. They were drilled into me when I was quite young. Like yourself, I fancy I am a naturally helpful person. I only wanted to be of use while you enjoyed your first moments of liberation. Truly,” he added to reassure me farther.
“All right then. As long as no one is plotting any simpleton crap like marrying me off now I’m a ‘woman’. I don’t know what I was thinking to believe they would arrange such a thing. I have been living under haShem’s roof for too long. It’s begun to turn my thoughts to muck.
”Sorry. Yes, of course you may carry my pack for me, dear Yeshua. I would be honored to have the pleasure of your company, and your service. Only, could we stop by the workshop before we leave? I want to tell Oreget Rivka good-bye. She has been very good to me, and very patient with me as well,” I asked with my own best manners to the fore and as winning a look as I could manage.
“We can stop by, but we won’t be able to stay long. As you know, the Osey haTorah are particular about when they dine so that they can hold their service properly. They won’t hold the meal for us. If we arrive after it has been cleared away, we won’t be fed there. Though we will still be welcome to their guest chamber,” Yeshua shared.
“I won’t take long. Oreget Rivka is the only one I really need to say farewell to. And it’s not as if we couldn’t eat at a thousand different stalls or carts in this city. I haven’t had anything but lentils and barley for two years,” I complained.
“Then we definitely want to dine with the Osey haTorah. They don’t eat flesh, and your body won’t tolerate it well after going without for so long. Mimi explained that to me once.” Did he sound wistful when he talked about Mimi? Probably that was all in my imagination.
“We could have falafel and tahineh right here, those aren’t flesh. And they’re very tasty,” I supplied.
“I thought you were on a diet of lentils and barley. How do you know how the falafels are?” Yeshua teased me.
“Oh fine, be stuffy. We’d better get going, or we’ll miss the Osey haTorah’s lentils and barley,” I pouted, not meaning it.
My good-bye to Oreget Rivka was necessarily short. She was busy, and I was no longer hers to command. She did point out a new girl sitting with the wool carders. Eitan’s daughter already slept in the bed which had been mine. Before I left, the senior Oreget explained that my dowry letter had already been sent to the women of Bet Maryam, and that they could redeem the letter with any one of a number of bankers who honored the seal of Beit haMiqdas in Tzor.
Would they let the money come to me? Would it be pooled with the family’s holdings? Would it really be my dowry?
These weren’t questions for Yeshua. He wouldn’t be in their counsel. I would have to wait to speak with Cousin Sobe or, if she had stepped down, Aunt Mimi.
It was very hot. Before long, I felt quite glad that Yeshua had my pack. I still wore my Oreget greys. There would be fresh clothes for me at the Osey haTorah. I would have those as soon as I came out of the morning mikveh. I hoped my morning stretches and tumbling wouldn’t shock Yeshua. Or maybe I hoped the opposite. I had known the child he had been, but not this young man walking with me across the Har Zion neighborhood.
He knew the way readily. We passed the Theatron on our way. I saw the legion troops at the entrances and guessed that a show was in progress. My guess was confirmed by a round of roaring and applause. Yeshua winced at it.
“What? Shouldn’t they enjoy the show?” I asked.
“It’s a new play about Theseus. He vanquishes a nest of bandits single-handedly,” said Yeshua sadly.
“And? Heroes are supposed to be heroical. What’s wrong with that?” I demanded.
“They use condemned prisoners for the bandits. And the protagonist isn’t pretending. He really kills them. On stage.” The flatness of his voice conveyed his horror better than any histrionics or denunciations.
“Why would the prisoners agree to that?” I asked blankly.
“They are offered blood money. It goes to their families. And they aren’t crucified instead, which takes a longer time to kill a man than you would think,” he confided miserably.
“I don’t think I could watch that. I know I couldn’t clap if I did. What kind of people are they that they can do that?” I wanted to know.
“People who are looking for excitement. People who want to be taken out of themselves and their lives for a little while. People who have been told this is a humane end for the condemned men they watch dying. People who will go to a crucifiction because it’s cheaper than going to the Theatron,” he enunciated with regret more than anger or disgust.
“Really? They go to watch the crucifictions on purpose? I would go the long way around to miss that spectacle,” I decided.
“And I, Hanna. And I,” he concurred.