The days between my birthday and the beginning of Pesach always took a millennium. Yet they passed quickly with the chores and happenstances proper to the course of each hour. Yaakov and Yohanan, my mother’s twin boys born almost two years ago, required much of her time and mine. They were new walkers. Some days I felt there must be ten of them, not two, to bring the level of chaos in our home to such a pitch.
At seven years old, I ran the home rods with practiced ease. Goats, doves, chickens, garden and fruit trees fell to my sole charge. I sprouted, tended, harvested and processed flax from seed to garment. I cleaned, carded, spun, dyed, and wove the wool sheared every winter from Uncle Yusuf’s flocks up the hill at Na’tzeret.
I helped mend nets, tie floats, make sails, and re-pitch the Date Palm twice a year. I built fires, cooked, cleared and cleaned for our eight-boy family. I sewed, patched and darned their clothes and mine. I directed my siblings in their chores, minded the terrible twosome, and managed my father with my mother’s fire and my own daughterly love. Truly I have been fitted for the work of a woman of the Tribe of Naphtali.
I learned to slip and jostle beads on the abacus to help keep the village fishing accounts. Mother rotated our tallying systems, so that no one else might find and meddle with our totals. In this manner, I acquired the counting systems of the Babilim, ‘Elines, Roma, Senskerim, Phoenikos, and Misr as well as that of the people of the Tribes.
I listened when my mother negotiated the fish contracts thrice per year—once for each of the seasons of the lake. I hovered when old women gathered to shell almonds or pit dates and gossip. I hid in the rocks on the pier to eavesdrop while Gabura and Eleazar, and sometimes Yeshua, wrestled and bragged. In these things I learned that which fit me for work not deemed necessary to the women of the Tribes on our lake.
One mid-morning, I worked on the roof tending our seedling beds. Removable linen covers kept the strong spring winds off them, or pelting rain. That day the weather held fresh and fine. I rolled the row-covers back and allowed the bedded seedlings to take the sun.
In a few more weeks, when they have grown large enough to plant, we will rig up our folding crane, and slip lines through holes in the corners of these plant cradles. Then, with cursing, grunting and ‘I told you so’ in plenty from our corps of menfolk, they come to the sheltered side of the house to live on tall trestles in a penned area which keeps the goats out. Then one by one, the flats of foodstuffs are settled into the safe rows of our quince-acacia fenced vegetable garden.
I straightened from my stoop labor and took in the view. From our roof, I could make out the faint white haze of a blur of fishing boats scattered like shells along the edge of the horizon. I saw people at work in and around the villas to the south: hanging clothes, tending the pleasure gardens in the courtyards, and the kitchen gardens out the back, emptying slops and feeding chickens—all such things as my near neighbors engaged in when I turned and looked north into the village. To the west lay only the hills and the flocks pasturing on them.
I looked again to the south. I hoped for a glimpse of Miryim. Her people liked to be out of Yerushalayim when all Judaica came pouring in from near and far for Pesach. The first wave of their servants had arrived a week before my birthday this year. Surely the Children of the Sun were in residence.
My eye caught on and returned to a figure on the broad way coming over the headland just above the steep sided cove where the villas sheltered. The road led as far as Yerushalayim, and Yeshua had said it would take a willing traveller’s feet all the way to Misr.
The person coming over the road bore a full cloak, a pack and a broad hat, conical and ochre. I knew this traveler. This was my mother’s middle sister, Mariamne bat Cleopas, or bat Halfi if one were my father saying her name instead.
Aunt Mariamne fled Yerushalayim when all the observant Jews flooded in to mark the High Holy Days. She would be in Tzor by the first night of Pesach. What the women of Bet Maryam celebrated in the temple there was not then known to me. Avoiding the holiday was never the reason she gave each year when she visited us in Migdala as she passed through.
One year, she had had a dream of a laden ship, storm tossed, and wished to consult with her bankers in person. One year, she had brought an ass laden with acacia tears she won in a game of s’n’t in Misr, and thought she might find a good price for them if she hurried to catch the caravans going first to ash-Sham and then on to Maracanda and Kashgar. One year, she said Marmar had fallen, and no one performed restorative massage as effectively as she could. Every year she had a reason. Every reason sounded good.
“I always know spring is coming when I see Mariamne bat Halfi traveling to Tzor ahead of the Pesach moon,” Zebadyah said, affecting the accent of a wise old farmer. “Then I know we must plant cabbages and onions, chickpeas and spinach. Your aunt brings spring in her footsteps.”
We children laughed always when Zebadyah made his point, though we loved our aunt—and not just for the toys and games, trinkets and curios she brought us each visit. Aunt Mariamne talked freely of the distant places in which she traveled, and the unclean customs of the peoples she saw as she went about. She told us of our cousins, in Yerushalayim and Bet-Le’em.
Last year on the roof, as I measured and wound the winter’s linen, she told me about the women of Bet Maryam. Half the aunts, cousins and greats do become the helpmeets of Kohanim. The other half are pulled to the temple at Tzor, as the full moon pulls glowing worms to dance on the surface of Yam-haKinneret’s summer waters. Those are her words, beautiful and strange as they are.
When my aunt’s brown eyes shone and her voice dropped low, so her words left the roof-top room only written in our hearts, then I prayed that the good advice of Bet Maryam would bring me to a life at their temple in Tzor, whatever that might mean or become. But that was when I had only six birthdays measured.
At seven, I still prayed for Tzor as I stirred the morning porridge, or heated pitch to re-seal the Date Palm, or bribed the willful nannys with sweet herbs to shift them from their garden raids. I had become chief minder for Yak and Yoh, though I still climbed the fish towers to take a turn at flying if the fishing boats worked far from shore. I was the first that year to carry the news of Aunt Mariamne’s arrival to my mother.
“She comes. Aunt Mariamne comes!” I yelled, as I swung and twisted down the too-short ladder from the roof.
I woke Mother and the twins. The little ones were sick the night before. All three of them had been trying to catch up on their sleep. But Aunt Mariamne trumped exhaustion and toddler vomit on my scale of values, and my mother’s too.
“Will I kill pigeons and make pies of them, mother? She likes our pigeon pies,” I reminded my mother. I didn’t like opening their necks, as they stared offended from their ruby colored eyes, or plucking the feathers from their cooling, pimpled bodies. But I liked the smile on my aunt’s face when she saw the little pastries coming hot to the table.
“See if we have any eggs or almonds to stretch the filling. If we make them smaller, there will be plenty for a mezze with olives and whatever fresh cheese is in the kitchen,” she instructed.
I smiled. There was plenty of cheese in the kitchen. I decided to flavor it with wild herbs reduced to paste in our kitchen mortar. I did find a few hen’s eggs, and set Sa’ul and Timo to shelling almonds when they came in for lunch.
As we finished our flatbread and lentils, Aunt Mariamne gave her characteristic cooee from the lintel. She entered as though there were a chance of surprising us, and we all dropped our bread and rushed to give our favorite aunt, the only one we knew, our best hugs and loudest greetings.
After she slung down her pack, hung her hat from a hook in the ceiling we used to cure garlic braids, and ate her fill of our standard mid-day fare, we all clambered over her, searching the pockets of her cloak and the small bags she wore under it harnessed at her shoulders. Even Yak and Yoh tugged on the heavy material and smiled with their seed-pearl baby teeth. They didn’t know to fear strangers yet.
We found sugared melon seeds, and almond stuffed dates, both neatly tucked into packets made of large, fibrous leaves folded cleverly. A few ants traveled industriously across the valleyed surfaces of the fat, brown dates. My aunt laughed when she saw us brushing them off our treats.
“Those ants, like this aunt,” she pointed to herself, “come all the way from Misr to visit you. Show them, and me, some respect, you naughty children.” We giggled. Aunt Mariamne was one adult to whom we owed affection in plenty, but little ‘respect’.
Soon, I left to end the lives of our pigeons. I sliced their necks open as my mother had shown me to quicken their deaths and drain their blood. I stayed busy with the chore of plucking them, no boy-child yet had been tempted, threatened or blackmailed into learning the unpleasant task.
Mother and her sister went down to the beach to meet the boats and see what looked most choice for our dinner. Zebadyah bade Yev, one of my middle brothers now old enough to work the boat, to clean the fish my mother selected. That was one chore belonging to the boys in my family exclusively, for which I never ceased to be glad.
I braised the pigeons, stripped their meat, cut it and stirred in chopped almonds and crumbled hard boiled eggs. Moistened with gravy and folded into the soured, grey pastry our barley flour made, they would cook quickly and be full of flavor.
Mother and Aunt Mariamne found spring’s bitter herbs growing around the home rods. They brought dandelion, tiny borage, early lambs-quarters and wild chives. We wilted these together in a little oil and finished them with strong grape must.
The fish we seared hot and quick, then allowed to finish cooking covered on the cooler part of my clay flat-top.
We made hand-querned chickpea flour flatbread to round out the meal. Barley flatbread was more usual. I served it at nearly every meal. For a special occasion, the tender, savory chickpea crepes came hot and floppy off the flat-top, and every one of them devoured as quickly as they’re cooked through. They shielded fingers from chunks of sizzling hot fish flesh, mopped up pigeon gravy, or chased the last of the dressed bitter herbs across the bowl and featly into one’s mouth.