Yoana was right. There was so very much to do to finish and confirm the finish of every aspect of the Parochet. I had no time to slip away to the Metzoraim to see if she passed the time tolerably. Instead, we worked extended shifts, seniors and juniors alike.
In those final days, speech dwindled to grunts and expressive eye-rolls. We took meals standing in the workshop itself. The evening prayer services were performed on site in the open space at the back of the hall where we laid out the Parochet for its final inspections and assembly.
When I looked around that hall, filled with tired, drooping Oregot of every size and age, I felt-- as much as I could then feel anything, pride. I was proud of my aunt. Her ability to gather sufficient numbers of capable women allowed the long-hallowed traditions of the Parochet to continue here in this foreign temple. Why had she done so much for the Oregot?
Was it because I was in service? Did that fact weigh in her choices at all? Was it respect for the textile and its careful production values? I would have to ask her all these questions and more the next time Mariamne sailed through my life for an hour, a day, or a week.
On the day of days, the first of Nisan-- still called Aviv by the priests, the great doors stretching up to the weavers’ loft were opened. The white and gold glory of Herod’s Tabernacle dominated the view through those doors. The Parochet, laid on a clean linen sheet larger than the sail of the largest sailing vessel, was rolled up for those three hundred strong priests to carry in ceremony.
They would cross the Court of the Gentiles. Then they manoeuvred through the Gate Beautiful and traversed the Ezrat haNashim. Once they were through the Nicanor Gate and into the Court of Ysrael, they carried it, still carefully not touching the ground at any point along the way, between Jachin and Boaz into the very Tabernacle. There they all performed the annual meticulous labor of simultaneously hanging the new Veil while disengaging the old, so that the Kodesh haKodashim was never exposed to profane eyes during any part of the change.
All went well. According to Dinah, the transfer and hanging of the new Parochet had gone as smoothly as it ever had within recorded memory. The Oregot, and a number of the Pharisees, considered this a very good omen for the year to come.
At our evening meal, we were served with wheaten loaves instead of our continual barley flatbread. With our monotonous rations, this was a treat of the first order. We even found honey pots set out for us to enjoy with the bread. What a feast we made that night. Even the water tasted especially refreshing, many of the Oregot said so and a few chalalah daringly echoed them audibly. I missed having Yoana to grab my elbow under the table so that she could roll her eyes at something foolish spoken within our hearing.
In the morning, we arose uncertainly. Would we have a holiday? Would we return immediately to warping and rope walking, dying and carding, spinning and weaving?
Abigal knew. With Yoana gone, she was the senior junior Oregot, as she had come to Beit haMiqdas two winters ago.
“We have a full day of rest, like Shabbat, but without the restrictions of Shabbat. Attendance at the evening meal and the service to follow are required. On this day, nothing otherwise will be asked of you,” she announced, full of her new authority.
“If any of you would like to look at what they sell in the market at the Court of the Gentiles, the senior Oregot have volunteered to chaperone you in groups of four or five. Please gather at the worktable in the Weavers’ Hall if you are interested,” Oreget Orpah informed us in her dourest tone.
“What if we don’t have any money to spend. Can we go only to look, or would it be wrong not to buy?” asked a timid girl no one had thought would last past the ‘homesick’ weeks of the new arrivals.
“Oregot Rivka and Dinah have put a little by as is traditional in the weavers’ corps. The senior Oregot have already received their thank-money. Each of you has a small number of shekels you may spend now, keep for another time, or send to your family if you wish. The money is yours. Some of the junior Oregot save it towards their dowry fund. This practice is both sensible and shows dutiful attention to their parents, who will have that much less to scrape and save to make their daughter a marriage when she returns to her father’s roof.”
Oreget Orpah had turned a thank-money bonus into a colloquy on filial piety. The woman had a gift for sucking the life and fun out of everything which came within her purview, and quite a few things beyond it. We all groaned, and some rolled their eyes in a pale imitation of Yoana’s wobbling orbs. Most of the juniors hurried to relieve themselves, wash their faces and hands, and throw on their dresses.
I joined the fuss of those preparing to go out. If I missed a day of stretches only once in the year, I would be in fine shape when I finally saw my Matroi again back in Tzor. I turned to the wall to concentrate on getting all of my hair to stay under all of my head wrap. The tangled, mahogany colored mass made a point of being everywhere but completely tucked away. This custom of covering our hair had become a requirement for the juniors, in imitation of the necessity of our elders in the corps.
A shriek, a crash, a splashing, and then general screaming sounded in the dormitory. The main fuss came from right behind me. I turned to see what could have caused so much commotion.
The smell of fresh urine hit me before my eyes had sorted out the scene. Then I saw runnels of liquid, flowing from my wicker chest across the aisle of the room. All the other juniors were standing well back from the unclean liquid, with looks of shock and dismay written on their ordinarily sheep-like faces.
Shards of a chamber pot were on the floor, and the top of my chest as well. The perpetrator stood transfixed with horror at what she had just done. She wore the dun uniform of a chalalah.
“Oh, miss. Miss, I am so sorry. I had my hands full, and my arms too, of course. I couldn’t see my feet at all, the pots are that big. And when they’re full, you pay more attention to the slopping than the aisle. And the aisle is almost always clear.
“But today, I didn’t see what tripped me. Something tripped me. And over I went. I can’t apologize enough,” she babbled, twisting her hands in her apron as she spoke.
“It was an accident. It was a terrible accident, but an accident. Most of what’s in there is just my linens and extra robes and wraps. I have a few other things, they will take some sorting out and looking after, and then they will need to be made un-unclean, or clean again, or what you will. If I touch them, I will become unclean. How can I make them clean again if I become unclean everytime I touch them?” I wondered.
“If you dump them in something like a big clay jar, then anyone can carry it to the running water they have at the fountain in the Court of the Metzoraim. Once it’s been sufficiently immersed, it may all be dried so long as you touch none of it until after sundown, when you can be made clean again, if you have them do a sacrifice-- probably only a couple of doves would be enough. You will have to spend the rest of the day in the Court of the Metzoraim, but you would be safe enough on the women’s side.
“Please let me help clear up this mess. I want a bit of a lie down after that scare. And if I’m going to be as clumsy as all that, then it will be better for everyone under the roof of the Beit haMiqdas if I do spend the day in the Court of Lepers,” the chalalah wound to a close.
I looked away from my self-appointed helper, and saw Abigal just behind her. She wore a vindictive smirk on her shrewish face, and tapped her foot significantly enough that I looked down. She had a robe by her foot. One she had slid into the way of the chalalah to cause the accident, and now she had kicked it back to shelter under her hem where it wouldn’t be noticed.
Abigal was certain she wouldn’t be punished for the mischief she had caused me. Had she really been waiting all the months since I had come to wreak belated vengeance on me? I had to guess she had.
She had waited until the Parochet had been taken to be hung before disrupting the routine of the dormitory. She knew our only day off was coming. She had planned how to take it from me neatly.
The chalalah, Ruth by name, and I used my bed linens to mop up the mess. While I did most of the mopping, Ruth fetched a large dish to carry my linens and smirched robes in, and another for my pack. I didn’t try to empty the pack in the dormitory. It would only have spread the mess around.
I had tucked up my robes to keep my contact with the urine minimal. I didn’t want to wear a splashy tunic all through the Ezrat haNashim. I was afraid that I might splatter and cause all kinds of befoulment right before the ungodly influx of peoples to the Beit haMiqdas to celebrate the Pesach season.
The dormitory emptied around us as we worked. The juniors jumped from bed to bed, making a game of leaving the dormitory without touching the floor until they’d arrived at the exit. Abigal had been one of the first of my shrieking, squeaking cohort to depart for the wonders of a free day in the largest marketplace in all the province of Palestinia. Oreget Orpah surveyed our progress as closely as she could from the doorway. She wouldn’t risk becoming fouled by the ordure herself.
Buckets of water, soap, and mops came next. Ruth knew where to get the tools we needed, and just when to fetch them. We hadn’t been there a full jar of time when we decided we had gotten everything. The wicker chest itself would also have to be immersed.
“We can set toweling under it to soak up the drips. When we come back, we can wrap it in sheeting so that we don’t have any little accidents along the way around to the Court of the Metzoraim. It is bulkier than it is heavy. We should be able to manage it easily with the two of us,” Ruth reassured me.
Both trips went smoothly. It wasn’t Shabbat, or any of the major holidays. Ezrat haNashim was almost empty. Our way from the one side of the court to the other didn’t require skulking through the portico, on either trip. In the Metzoraim, the chalalah on duty told us there was a good deal of cleansing going on at present on the women’s side of the fountain.
“I can supervise the immersing for the little Oreget here. Let us use the men’s side. They won’t care or bother us, as most of them got into trouble from causes other than leprosy,” Ruth winked and elbowed her fellow chalalah who chuckled back in response. When they were finished, the chalalah on duty unlatched the lathed grille and allowed us through to the other side of the enclosed courtyard with our pots and linen wrapped wicker chest.
We set down the pots and took the wicker chest around. The shadowed courtyard stood empty. There were a couple of bedraggled figs in tubs and the fountain in the middle. It had been designed with tilted side sluices and a drain running all around it at the base.
“Lay the sheets and robes in the trough. I can open the sluice. See how they’ve been careful that the fountain itself isn’t fouled when it’s time to go immersing?” Ruth advised with some good cheer. What must her life be like that she looked forward to a holiday in the Court of the Metzoraim?
The sheets were soon done. It took laying the chest on each of its sides so that the water ran over and through it to thoroughly rinse away the befouling waste. We dripped with water ourselves, though we hadn’t actually been immersed. The unwieldiness of turning and turning the trunk in the trough had seen to that.
“There. That should do. Leave everything where it is. The attendant priest will want to see that we have done all properly. I will fetch whoever is on duty. They shouldn’t be too busy now, as it’s still early in the day. Can you wait here and keep an eye on things? If the priest arrived and saw the wicker chest on the floor here, we would likely have to wash it all over again. Don’t worry about the Metzoraim. They mostly just stay in their cells. We bring them their food, so that they don’t have to spread whatever uncleanliness keeps them isolated here. Or if they’re only marking time until sundown, they don’t want to fall afoul of anything worse than what brought them here. And most of those don’t generally turn up until after noon. You won’t fret, will you? You will be perfectly safe. I will tell Sarah where you are and why. She will keep an ear out for you if you call for her at the grille, for any reason.”
With these many final pledges, Ruth took herself off to find the priest in the office. The first sacrifice of the morning, the one for haShem from the priests themselves, was long since completed. She wouldn’t have to wait, or wait long, for one of the Mach’lakhah on duty to follow her back and confirm that everything had been suitably cleansed. My thank-money would go, but only in part, for the doves I would have to purchase for sacrifice. I could send a note to the workshop and have someone drop the money into the correct collection trumpet on the portico and sunset would see me back in my own bed, after a stop in the baths and a mikveh to make all well between me and my Host with the many house rules.