Six days later, almost to the hour, the Ai-Ramathea docked at the Sidonian Harbor. No one from Bet Maryam stood on the quay to greet us, but they hadn’t known when we were arriving. Much had depended on Yosif’s doings in Yerushalayim. And he hadn’t been certain how long it would take to complete his business.
We left Yosif with the harbormistress, going over his manifest. Together, Yeshua and I zig-zagged up the ramps as I had done thousands of times in my now distant novitiate. Would they make me a Viragoi? Would I have to train and study more before that happened? Did I need to choose a field in which to specialize? Did anyone ever not specialize?
If I had come back to Migdala, I would have felt myself a visitor. But at Tzor with the harbor, the temple, the city and its walls, all these caused my heart to leap up, and my liver to swell.
I began to walk faster up those sturdy cedarwood ramps. I had been about in the world enough to know now what a statement those ramps made to any merchant, trader, captain, or banker. The cedars were Tzor’s other greatest export. They were coveted everywhere, nearly as much as the dye.
Everyone wanted a temple, palace, public edifice, or what-have-you enhanced with cedar pillars, cedar rafters, cedar shingles, and impressive pieces of carven cedarwood furnishings. That Tzor could use the cedar for their quays and ramps spoke loudly of the status and wealth of the temple across every language and dialect. The sound of my feet thudding on the planks with a resonance particular to this place, my home, filled me with joy and anticipation. Anything might happen next.
And it did. There was a grand feast in Cousin Sobe’s nest. Yahya, Yeshua and Yosif leavened the ordinarily distaff-only company.
Yosif was both grave and kind. He sat next to Mimi in a kind of staring bliss and obliviousness. Mimi never noticed, but Lilit hopped over and peed on Yosif’s shoulder twice in the one meal. The second time was surely for spite alone. Though Lilit regularly shared Mimi’s cup, I didn’t see her take a drink the whole of the evening, or not more than one.
Yahya held Marmar, Sobe, and my Haha spellbound with his discourse on the practices of northern barbarian shaman. I stopped listening when he got to the ‘naked in the snow having visions for three days’ part of his explanations. That just sounded cold to me.
So Yeshua told me about his years on the Ai-Ramathea. His apprenticeship had finished with their return from Tanais. Yosif had asked him to stay on as second mate. Yeshua had said yes, and in the future would have a share in the trading profits of the far-sailing ship.
“They call me wise and just in the Sanhedrin. I think they see my success in the luxury trades and mistake luck and good advice for more than it really is.” I heard Yosif say.
“You make your luck with clean weights, respect for your crew, and diligence in the maintenance of the Ai-Ramathea. The so-called ‘good advice’ you claim is cleaving to the chief precept of Rabban Hillel. ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.’
“But it is hard work, solid planning, and a commitment to fair-dealing for which they should praise you, Yosif,” Yeshua stated with absolute assurance.
“Yeshua, you have a golden tongue for praise. If I could teach you how to use that same tongue as a goad or a lash, I would count my work well done. You need a full command of the oratorical arsenal, son. Your specialization leads some to suspect you of speciousness,” Yosif replied to his former trainee and new partner.
“He wouldn’t take lessons in mockery and shaming as the draoidh practice it either. Although, the common tongue between us was that of Roma Imperia. In a sense, making a mockery of learning mockery. We shared the feeling of Mother Roma’s hobnailed caliga on our necks, you see,” Yahya contributed.
“Let him be sweet-natured, if it’s easier. Why should he have to be what he isn’t?” Mimi drifted into the conversation with her special perspective on life.
“He has the capacity to be a great leader of the people, Maryam,” Yosif answered without irony. “The people of Ysrael need great leaders. Now more than ever, with Beit haMiqdas hemmed about with her foreign overlords, Ysrael must once again become the home of the heart of the Tribes.
“Yudah has been overrun. Yeshua is of the Yam-haKinneret, at the center of the former kingdom of Ysrael. He could be great in the difficult times to come.
“The yoke of the Roma will chafe until the children of Moishe rise up. Let them be led with wisdom. Let them speak to the Romani so that they are heard and honored.
“You saw what Antipas, cursed son of a cursed father, wrung from the Senate and the People only by presenting himself in person. How much more might one accomplish if one were not the verriest serpent of Shaitan? They are not without reason in the Senate, though madness overtakes them there from time to time.
“We will need a voice Maryam. I can feel it. I hope to help in training the communicator who may go on to save us all from our own fiery impetuousness. Do you not sense that he might be a leader and unifier of our raging, splintered, fractious Tribes?” Yosif asked earnestly. Yeshua put his face down to his bowl, and let his hair hide him further.
“I see plainly that he likes to be liked. I sense that he is comfortable comforting others, not exhorting them. I expect he would be happier making people happy, rather than forcing an empire to make exceptions for the Tribes, which have never featured much in his life.
“Remember he grew up in Eskanderejai, and not long after became your apprentice. Since then, he’s spent more time floating around the Mar Yam-haMariahne and beyond than he ever has or likely will amongst the Tribes-- whether Yudah or Ysrael” Mimi explained, staring at her hand rather than risking eye-contact with her conversational partner.
“You must know your own son best,” Yosif acceded meekly. I almost spit soup across the room.
“Oh, I doubt that, Yosif,” she answered briefly.
Quickly, I found a rhythm to my days formed with the guidance of the Matroi. I had dance, weapons, tumbling and diving in the mornings. And I began taking flute lessons, though I did not have much feel for music. Though the Matroi shortly agreed, they pressed me to continue.
Afternoons, I studied quietly in the shady lecture rooms. I brushed up on my reading and writing in the most important alphabets: Hieratic, ‘Elines, Latium, and Phoenikos-- the parent of Aramaic, and Sogdian. Sogdian was a trade language used all the way to the far terminus of the dye routes in Chang’an.
Additionally, the Matroi enrolled me in listening training and memory extension. It had begun to be a lost art in the literate world. Scrolls and letters took the place of memory. But the Matroi taught us there were times when knowledge was safer locked in one’s liver than on bits of parchment or papyrus. And then they taught us how.
To store and retrieve memories, we learned to construct a great palace or temple, or public square. The different objects in our imagined place were tied to specific memories and concepts. I enjoyed the process, but the Matroi warned us we had to work at it and visit our memory palace every day: looking for things we had placed there, and finding places to put new information.
Listening itself was a different matter. We were taught to follow tones of voice. We learned to half repeat to ourselves what we heard as we heard it. Repetition could drill anything into one’s liver and leave it etched there. But repetition took practice as well.
We were encouraged to listen to the great old liturgies, prayers and praise hymns in different languages. We heard them once, and were meant to be able to repeat back the entirety of what we heard. The rhythms and pauses, and breaks for songs supposedly made this process of remembrance easier than following a conversation between two people and being able to repeat it back.
There were one or two Viragoi in my class who were able to repeat, and even mimic tone and cadence, word for word what they had heard only once. The Matroi knew this skill for a gift. These women were trained for spying work, irrespective of their vocational calling. Often, their other focuses were used as cover to place them where they would hear the most to the temple’s advantage. I did not have the gift of recalling perfectly, though my ears and liver worked well enough at keeping the meat of what was said in approximate order with observations about emphasis and tone. I was good enough, as with most of the skills I practiced which weren't in the movement fields.
My working internships took place in the early and mid-evening. Then the breezes picked up off the sea and blew the blistering heat down to merely scorching. The slight cooling helped when I was on furnace-imp rotation.
Older, and even a little taller, they promoted me to stoking the furnaces. I worked a range of monstrous maws, hungry for fuel, and never too hot according to the crafters. I soaked my leathern bracers, cap and apron in water to let the steam cool me slightly at my work. By mid-shift, I poured ladles of water over my head and shoulders regularly, and hoped for as much cooling as was likely before the fierce, dry heat steamed me crisp again.
As I trotted from level to level, streaked with smuts and soot, feeling the delicious salt breeze on my skin, I cherished the demands of the work. I revelled in the trust of the Matroi to allow me to keep the behemoths which formed the basis of their crafts tuned up and roaring for their creative endeavors.
I was imping one evening, at the smith’s level. I had stopped to admire the chasing of bronze over a carven ivory piece that might have been in the process of becoming a chair back, a room divider, or a window screen. In the event, it was lovely and intricate, detailed with delicate birds among foliage, flowers and fruits. While I gaped, a hand grasped my shoulder. Someone who knew not to startle in the roaring environment, where no sound carried over the eternally famished fire. I looked around and smiled.
“Let’s go outside,” I howled, pointing. Yahya smiled back and followed my lead.
“What is it? Has Marmar fallen again? She needs a full time attendant. Haha can’t be bothered to think about her when she’s not there, and Sobe is in worse shape if anything. I don’t know how she keeps from falling, though she does,” I rattled. I couldn’t think he would come looking for me unless it were some kind of emergency in Bet Maryam.
“No, no. As far as I am aware, everyone is hale and sound and not at all fallen, if they’re being truthful. But a letter came for you to Sobe’s room. Yeshua and I were learning accounts from her. I can see the point in teaching Yeshua, he will have the bookkeeping of the Ai-Ramathea to look after. But I’m just a god-touched ne'er-do-well. What use will I have for abacus training when I am half-way up to the Shekinah on a rope woven of my own hair?” he protested.
“Where’s the letter, then? Or did you all open it up and read it before you decided to share the news with me?” I asked pertly.
“Oh, I have it here with me, and it’s yours for the reading. Should I stand by, in case of trouble?” he returned with false solicitude.
“It won’t be trouble. What trouble would I have anything to do with?” Oh. Except the one thing I had set in motion for Ruth and her sister before I so precipitously left Beit haMiqdas. “So thanks, but I can read this alone.”
“In a hurry to be with your note? Is it a flame? Did you strike a spark with one of the guards at the gates of Ezrat haNashim?” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
“No. No, don’t be stupid. Nothing like that. It’s probably just a note from my boss in the Oregot. If you would let me see it, maybe I would already know,” I finished with asperity.
“Right. Then here you are. And don’t bother to thank me for tracking you down in this Mazdayasna-style labyrinthine hell. I can always use a little exercise when I’m cooped up on this decadent island,” Yahya winked and disappeared into the fading evening light before I could thank him for his effort on my behalf.
I looked at the tied and sealed packet. Yes, the seal was that of the Oregot. And the handwriting on the direction looked to be Oreget Rivka’s. But what would she need to tell me now that I had left the corps?
Maryam Hanna bat Zebadyah
Care of Bet Maryam
4th Elul 3778
You should know the outcome of the adventure you plotted to help Ruth and her sister. Everything went according to plan. The person in question found Abela inventorying linens with her work partner, and sent the partner off on a pretext-- ‘more parchment’. The dismissed partner went straight to your men, Noam and Eitan. They came on the run, in time to cause the person in question to unhand her with soldierly firmness, not to say roughness.
But that interfering busybody, you remember Oreget Orpah, came down through the storerooms just then. She scented out the fracas and demanded to know what had happened and what would be happening next. What could anyone do?
Next thing, the pack of them are standing in front of the adjudicator for this week’s Mach’lakhah. I don’t have to tell you how distressed Rabban Shammai became at the sight of his son in such company, and with such a complaint against him.
You have saved Abela, indeed no one will be troubled anymore by that importunate nothing of a pimple. I am very sorry for the Av Bet Din. But that child has been a disappointment to everyone who has ever had the misfortune to meet him, one way and another. I don’t know why the cheating scandal didn’t have this outcome three years ago, but there you are. Maybe the adjudicator that time wasn’t the strictest in the whole of the Mach’lakhot.
His father has sent him into scholarly exile. He travels to one of those ancient towns Between the Rivers, to parse the old texts there for information about the people of the Tribes in the time of Nebuchadrezzar. Serve him right. He’ll have to learn to read cuneiform, which is just an horrendous, eyestraining activity according to a great aunt of mine.
All the chalakah and the senior Oregot, the juniors are too young and silly, send you their regards and their acknowledgement of another debt between the women of Beit haMiqdas and those of Bet Maryam.
Stay well, learn everything, explore to the limit of your capacity to roam. Keep us in your heart as you do so. You travel for all of us whose lives are circumscribed by the boundaries of Har Moriah.
Rivka bat Salim