After the meal, the boys scattered to make the most of their free time in the light the day had left. I trundled the bowls, serving pots and cups out to the kitchen to be washed and put away. There was hot water on the flattop, where it simmered all dinnertime. Cool water waited in tall, covered jugs. I couldn’t lift the full ones, but we had a fine gourd ladle, and soon I had hot water and clean sand to work away at the dishes. The wooden things I wiped dry then wiped well again with a scrap of old linen dampened in olive oil.
I worked quietly that evening. If I worked quietly enough, they forgot I stood just around the corner finishing my dinner chores. I worked quietly in hopes of overhearing what my parents and Aunt Mariamne said in after dinner conversation, helped by another pour from the wine jug still on our slab cedar table.
For more than two years, I had listened for the answer to Yeshua’s question. No one in my household, or village, ever spoke about what Mimi did after she had served at Beit haMiqdas in Yerushalayim. Sometimes I wondered if Mimi did ‘anything’ when she returned to Tzor. What I did hear finally, unnoticed, had to do with Yeshua himself.
“It was a dare. Yahya was at the root of it, of course. Which I suspected from the first,” Aunt Mariamne shook her head, beads and seeds and shells and bones and nuts echoed the movement with rattles and clicks as her many pieces of jewelry jostled and settled.
“Of course, Yahya himself would have been distant from Yerushalayim at Pesach. You remember Elisava made a donation, quite a large one, to the Temple. She promised the Sanhedrin he would be far from their steps on the high, and holy days through his minority. He would have been ten, or maybe just eleven, when she sent him to that military school in Lacedaemon”.
“You heard how he did there. And at the survival course in the Suriyan Desert, and the monastic school deep in the desert reaches of Misr. You don’t want to know the size of Cousin Elisava’s offering to get the last one hushed up and Yahya out of confinement for acts of profound blasphemy. He has a gift for it. I give him that.”
“What under the sun of the One on High was the nature of the dare?” Zebadyah asked.
The doings of our wealthy, spoiled fourth-cousin from Yerushalayim were always rich fodder in the family gossip mangers. His name was a byword in our clan for acting without filial piety—or piety of any ilk. His lack of reverence for the sacred had been made manifest on every continent occupied by Roma Imperia before he turned fourteen.
“Yahya wondered how long it would take Mimi to notice Yeshua’s absence on the trek back to Tzor. Yeshua took the bet. His unswerving attachment to seeing the best in others makes him easy prey.
“Remember, Yeshua had begged for them to go together, as a family to Beit haMiqdas. He and Yusuf had lived in Eskanderejai right up until they removed to Na’tzeret. So he had never celebrated Pesach at the Temple before. I don’t know how they ever convinced Mimi to go.
”Like all of Bet Maryam, she detests being in Yerushalayim for Pesach. The woman hasn’t touched animal flesh in more than a decade. She claims she can smell the slaughter in the Temple a full day’s ride from the city.
“But they did go together that one year. And whatever else may have happened on their trip, Mimi didn’t become more attentive to her only begotten son. They were more than a day’s ride on the way back to the Yam-haKinneret when Yusuf finished talking contracts with some craftsmen attached to the developers for that Roman resort down the lake here.
“He asked her where Yeshua was, and she shrugged—that’s our Mimi. Yusuf asked up and down the line of pilgrims traveling home. No one had seen the boy.
“By the time Yusuf and Mimi reached Yerushalayim, for the second time in the one week, neither was speaking to the other. Still, they found the boy quickly enough-- in the Court of the Gentiles.
“He was spouting, according to Mimi, a mish-mash of Mazdayasna, Osey haTorah gnosticism, and k’sm’t of Misr with lashings of ‘Elines mysteries. And all of these he linked to specific Midrashim. According to Yusuf, he held a conclave of scholars in thrall with his textual conjectures and expositions.
“What did the old man expect? He all but apprenticed Yeshua to a bookseller in Eskanderejai. The man was a scholar of the Tanakh, and read in ten alphabets fluently. Surely this outcome might have been foreseen. But the seed already in the ground, can’t be planted twice.
“Given his ties to Yahya, who stood by meek and mild for once in his life and with witnesses that he had been staying in Bet-Le’em at Cousin Shelomit’s gite, the Sanhedrin took a warmer view of Yeshua’s ‘teachings’ than would be usual in the case of an underage free-thinker in the precincts of the last known resting place of the Aron Habberit.
”Mimi’s father’s cousin’s wife’s people are sea merchants. So, she went to Shimon, I figure him to be a third cousin, once removed by marriage to us, and got Yeshua a berth on their ship, Ai-Ramathea. He’s been a cabin boy for the last year.
“The Ai-Ramathea makes a regular run up to Kernow in Albion for tin, and adds more to her cargo on the return trip at the old Phoenician mining ports along the coast of Baetica. The Goddess in her Cart alone knows what fresh heresies the lad is learning on his travels,” my Aunt Mariamne concluded, jewelry clattering in support of her nodding finish.
“Is he forbidden the land of the Tribes all his days to come? Will he sail without a home to turn to?” Zebadyah wondered aloud.
“He’s here now, and means to spend some time with Yusuf before the construction season in Augustus picks up again. I heard him say he hoped he might stay here in Migdala for a time, visiting with Yusuf down the lake as his schedule permits, and helping around the house here as he may. Do allow him to come,” she pleaded, “he never has spent much time with a real family. It’s good for the child to contend with other children and learn the rhythms of a hearth-enclosed life.”
“Will he be any real help? He’s been on a sea-going vessel.. Why doesn’t he want to work the Date Palm with his cousins?” Zebadyah queried with a frown in his voice.
“Maybe he wants a change. Maybe he needs a break. Maybe he wishes to learn the ins and outs of managing twins. They run in the Bet Maryam line as well as on your side, Zeb,” my mother interjected. “Did Yahya say what he won on the dare?”
“He says he earned the right to call his cousin Taleh-el in perpetuity, because Yeshua’s so easily led,” Aunt Mariamne replies. “Did I mention his lack of reverence?”
“And you want us to take in this little, lost Lamb on High for how long?” Zebadyah persisted.
“The Ai-Ramathea sails the second full moon after Pesach. They wait on the prevailing winds to blow them to sunset and the Outer Isles of Albion and Ultima Thule. They take copper, glass, dyed goods, rare woods and perfumes. They will return with tin and anthracite.
“They will wait in the Outer Isles on the other end for the currents to warm enough to drive them back along the coast the length of seaboard Gaul and Hispania, then across Mar Yam-haMariahne and back to portages linked with ash-Sham and beyond.
”He will be here to break a lamb shank with your hearth, and leave early enough to arrive at Ptolemais,” she made a face at Zebadyah, “All right, Akko, if you prefer. In any case, he sails with the Ai-Ramathea outward bound after Shavuot from that accursed port of many possible correct names.” My aunt looked at her hands, not at my father. Not even her jewelry stirs.
Zebadyah grunted, a noise which must mean assent. He was clear as Gabura’s lens when he said ‘no’. Aunt Mariamne breathed out hard and long. She cared so much for her ‘motherless’ nephew.
I wondered about Yahya. Zebadyah didn’t have much patience for the wildness in the Bet Maryam blood. He called it wildness, but I didn’t think Mother or my aunt disapproved of Yahya’s disposition. Maybe this was why none of us had met our second cousin—though he must have been fourteen or so, half a year older than Yeshua.
“Now, about Maryam Hanna bat Zebadyah. It’s time, Shel. Bet Maryam calls your daughter to Tzor. She is owed and the note has come due with interest,” Mariamne bat Cleopas stated, compassion and resolve alike strong in her voice.
“By what right do you make a claim on my daughter, a member of the Tribe of Naphtali?” my father objected.
“Hanna is the only daughter of this generation. Shelomit of Bet-Le’em became a midwife and has delivered hundreds of children, none of her own getting, let alone a girl. And now she is past it. As is Elisava who bore one boy child and bore him late.
“Mimi has sworn off motherhood, it doesn’t agree with her. We’ll see no girl children from her loins. You, Miryam Shelomit bat Selomo have whelped twice, a girl and two boys. Given Zebadyah for a sire, we expect more boys from you should you choose to keep bearing.
“We need Hanna. She is called to serve by her mother’s mother’s foremothers. In return, she will learn to read and write. She will have a craft in which she apprentices carefully. She may well become a person of wealth and status, as her Aunt Mimi has done in fewer years than it takes to raise a child to maturity.
“I know you value a husband with work and plentiful children for your daughters, more than self-determination and a choice, Zebadyah. But you gave Rahel bat Le’a to the Tribes in the manner of her father’s people. Let this daughter be given in the manner of her mother’s people.
”You have sons in full to bear your name. Hanna shall bear the stamp of Bet Maryam, and be a blessing to her family all her days. The temple at Tzor also values sororal piety,” Aunt Mariamne spoke with the practiced ease of one who convinced others against their own will as part of her day-to-day life
“I. Will. Not. Let. You. Make. A. Whore. Of. My. Daughter. Too,” Zebadyah thundered awfully.
“And what’s that supposed to mean, Zebadyah bar Adam? Do you really think that’s what I went to do at Tzor eight years ago? You giant, flaming simpleton. You’re dumber than half a two-headed calf. You ignorant… you, you Naphtalim!” my mother jumped up and banged his broad chest for emphasis with her pointing-and-yelling-at-her-husband finger. Zebadyah looked certain of himself.
“You didn’t go to lie with a stranger, with strangers, in the temple of the Whore of Tzor? You said you would mourn your ancestors in the way of your mother’s people. Do you think the men of the Tribe of Naphtali are so simple we don’t know what that means?
”The Kohen warned me I took a viper to my bosom when we wrote the kiddushin. He warned me I would be tempted and fall. He spoke truly. And now you want my daughter to become another like her aunt, aunts,” he corrects glaring narrowly at my mother’s sister.
“Whether I lay with strangers or yearling bullocks or turkey vultures even is no business of yours according to the agreement we have between us. But I warn you, Zebadyah bar Adam, you will treat me with as much respect as you ever gave Le’a, no matter your foul and superstitious suspicions.
”And whether you assent or no, my daughter will not be subjected to the barbarism of your people or their customs as she grows to maturity. I will not allow it, o man of the Tribe of Naphtali.” She continued to use her pointing finger to reinforce her words.
”Fine, if I have no say in her future, I have no daughter. Let your daughter go to that sink of perdition in Tzor and may she prosper with it, as her aunts are said to do!” Zebadyah headed out the door with his final words on the topic. He came close to mowing me down, where I lurked at the edge of the doorway’s shadow, listening without being seen.
My mother collapsed on the bench pulled up to the table. I ran into the room and crawled into her lap. “I want to go, Mother. Let me go with Aunt Mariamne. I’ll be good, and listen and do everything I’m told. I promise,” I smiled my widest, hoping the missing front teeth helped in pleading my case.
“Who will work the garden and the coop and the retting frames with me? Who will cook porridge and stir lentil stew and collect eggs?” Mother asked softly, though I don’t think she planned to keep me in Migdala.
“Gabura fights all day every day with our father, until no one wants to go out on the boat. He will help you in the garden and the kitchen and on the retting frames. He wouldn’t be afraid people might call him girly. The whole village knows he can beat up anyone in it these two years past. Father could spare one of his eight boy children to work alongside you,” I comforted my mother, or tried to, with my words.
But Tzor sang in my heart. I would read and write. I would learn a fine craft. I would own my own property and make my own trades, all my days. The temple at Tzor shone more brightly in my imagination than the gilded columns before the Tabernacle we had seen the year before when we traveled to Yerushalayim for Pesach.
I was a woman of Bet Maryam and I hoped I never go back to Yerushalayim for the High Holy days. There were too many people and I was too short to see anything in a crowd. It wasn’t sensible to travel so far so uncomfortably for a chance to see nothing and hear only the din of the dying lambs. Forced to smell only the stench of those newly dead, and of one’s fellow worshipers. Did anyone expect to feel closer to the One on High when they were so close to their neighbors?
I thought about these things in satisfaction to myself. I would not marry a Kohen, or a fisherman. I would give myself to the temple and make my life in service to the goddess of Tzor. Whore or no whore, her service would be more exciting than making porridge for hungry brothers, and one day a hungry husband and all his sons.
My mother, Miryam Shelomit bat Selomo, stood and gave her sister a level stare. She kissed me on the spot which was ‘hers’, and left the room. Aunt Mariamne and I exhaled breaths long and relieved. Zebadyah would say ‘yes’. He would say it after they fought, and made up, with their accustomed epic passion.
I packed up my young life in the morning. My workbasket would come with me. I took out the embroidered napkins and filled it with my other daily tunic, leggings, my doll fashioned from an old, worn spindle, and a small pouch containing my goddess in her pocket and the bangle Miryim gave me on the beach.
I sat with my stilt-walking tunic and carefully cut away the beads and pearls on it. Two years on, it had more layers of swinging beads along the hem, and the outline of dancing cranes worked on the back. I had meant to add fringe to the shoulders and neckline, maybe the red of the cranes’ legs and beaks too. But I would no longer dance with stilt-walkers through Migdala at Yom Teru’ah.
I made sure the pearls went back to Gabura. They had been on loan, only. Each day I saw how difficult it was for my father and my favorite brother to work together on the one boat. Gabura becoming the captain of his own vessel couldn't come soon enough for either of them.
Mother had put by one half-roll of sail linen every year for these last few. She hoped to help equip her son come the time. She added a strip every year to the hemp field, so that she could mend the Date Palm’s rigging and still have some to twist for Gabura’s sails and nets when he should be ready.
Gabura himself cultivated our step-cousin. Shimon was Zebadyah’s brother Yonah’s wife’s child by her first husband. Shimon built boats up the shore at Bet-Tsaida.
He wanted to build boats, but like most of the craftsmen of Naphtali, he mostly built luxury homes and shops in Augustus. Gabura tempted Shimon with a boat commission. Though Gabura insisted on acting as assistant. This would keep costs down. He would learn how better to mend his vessel, having worked on every step of her assembly. They had dickered so long over the terms, I feared they would not remember to make an agreement.
The small collection of pearls from my tunic might buy brass fittings, or contribute to a better grade of lumber. Anything to speed the day when Gabura took his own ship and nets out on Yam-haKinneret. I couldn’t be his mate and serve the Lady at Tzor, but I would do all in my power before I left Migdala.
After breakfast, Aunt Mariamne and I slung on our packs, Mother added straps to my workbasket the night before to make mine. We kissed the boys who don’t work the boat, only four in all, and then gave warmer kisses and hugs to my mother.
“Do as you’re told, Maryam Hanna bat Zebadyah. Listen to your instructors. Mind your great-great aunt and all your relatives there. Keep your head down in the dormitories. Send word of your life and your progress by your Aunt Mariamne, or any of your visiting cousins. I come myself later in the year to make mourning, and I won’t leave without seeing you, my darling daughter. Bet Maryam makes you an allowance to pay your way at the temple and provide for necessities as they arise. Is Sobe still the family purse?” my mother asked Mariamne.
“For another few years, yes. The job next passes to Mimi, unless Elisava or Shelomit bat Maryam comes to Tzor. The crones don’t think they will presently, but time wrinkles and bends persons and choices both.”
“Fine. If you need equipment, or materials, apply to your Great Cousin Sobe. She will make the arrangements. No matter how unpleasant your task or company, bring your best self to the table. Perseverance is well regarded at the temple. And never forget how I love you.” So saying, she drew me into a final, fierce hug which lifted me from my feet, pack and all.
Early though we left, the fishing boats pushed off earlier still in the pre-dawn. Zebadyah didn’t tell me good-bye. He hadn’t looked at me since my mother had made him agree to the temple for me. As we turned our backs on the lake which had been my cradle, a few hot tears escaped running over my chin and down my neck. I wiped them away furiously. Aunt Mariamne never saw as I walked behind her.