A soft trilling warble broke my reverie, catching my attention. A bird called behind me on the porch. Another answered it from one of the sad fig bushes across the courtyard. Back and forth the birds whistled a few moments. The one on the bush flew over my head and must have landed with its companion. I shifted my hold on the chest and looked around.
There was the bird from the bush, but its companion was one of the Metzoraim. He wore a plain woolen tunic to his feet, which were bare. His hair was long and a black without any blue in it. I saw little braids, and wraps and beads in his thick and curling hair. He had a beard longer than Gamliel’s, though from what I could see of the rest of his face he seemed much younger than the priest. His brow beetled somewhat over deep-set eyes. The eyes had the blank, black fierceness of a hawk seen closely. I wondered if the little bird knew it had made friends with a predator.
“What are you doing here?” At his first question, the warbling sparrow flew off. “Do you know where you are? You aren’t supposed to be in here, no matter what your affliction may be. They can’t be so crowded on the women’s side that you couldn’t find space for a stool on the porch,” he insisted with bitter intensity.
“I am one of the junior Oreget,” I began.
“They would have hung the fresh Parochet yesterday, it was the first of Aviv,” he interjected.
“They did. The senior Oregot say it went as smoothly as it ever has. Of course we didn’t see how they managed in the Tabernacle, but they all came out in good time and good spirits,” I shared.
“Which begs the question why aren’t you out in the Court of the Gentiles throwing away the first money you’ve ever had of your own on cheap cotton scarves and a sad looking dove?” He returned.
“A girl tripped one of the chalalah who was carrying a chamber pot. It spilled all over my chest and things. We had to bring them here to get them immersed in running water so that I can be back in the dormitory after sunset,” I answered.
“Did she do it on purpose?” He asked without a pause.
“The chalalah, Ruth? Oh no. She helped me to get everything cleaned up and bring everything over. She’s just gone for the priest, and I’m keeping an eye on the things we’ve already immersed.”
“I meant the other Oreget. She was an Oreget, yes?” He pursued.
“She smirked at me and made sure I saw the robe she’d used to trip Ruth up, so I would say ‘yes’, she did do it on purpose,” I answered honestly.
“Whom have you told?” He demanded.
“The Oreget on door duty saw what happened. Who else should I tell? And what would I say? Such-a-one smiled at me meaningfully when the accident happened. That would be sure to make her guilt plain to everyone,” I snapped back.
This wasn’t anyone’s business but mine. It felt like what had been happening to me at Tzor with Marta and her cronies. I would try to deal with this on my own, better than I had there.
I wasn’t a snitch. I didn’t allow myself to think about how well things had been going at Tzor before I was abruptly sent along to Kriti. I did not want to imagine what else might have happened at the temple if I hadn’t been sent away.
“It might do, little Oreget. Why, Rabban Shammai! What in the name of the Name brings you on a visit to the Court of the Metzoraim?” the Metzora exclaimed.
What had the priest heard? How long had he been behind us, or me rather? The hinges of the door in the grille swung quietly. He could have heard the whole explanation.
“Look, Hanna. We have the famous Rabban to witness your immersions. No one will question their fitness for use when they hear who oversaw your purifications,” Ruth shared in oblivious satisfaction from behind the slight figure of the priest on duty.
The great Rabban Shammai, Av Bet Din of the Synhedrion itself, stood barely taller than Ruth. His beard grew thin and wispy, mixed reddish brown with plentiful grey. His robes and turban shone immaculately and lay nicely on his slight frame. His wrists and hands were larger than his body would lead one to expect. His feet in their sandals matched that disproportion. Rabban Shammai’s posture was very upright, perhaps to make up for his lack of etzba’ot.
“The Mach’lakhah had several members inform us of sickness, or conditions rendering them unfit to serve with the course of Huppah this cycle. So we have all doubled up in our duties, and here I am,” the older man explained to the Metzora-- whom he seemed to know. “What feels more pressing to me, is what you are doing here, Yohanan?”
“I suffer from a suppuration, and have yet some days before you will be called to adjudge its condition and my fitness for purification,” Yohanan answered.
“A suppuration? Well, I trust all will be well, and that you will not also have to be barbered for defiling your vows,” Shammai commented.
“You and I are alike in that wish. Whatever would I say to my mother if she saw me shaved and shorn? Thank goodness she’s off visiting the aunties and cousins and greats just now,” Yohanan spoke with fervor.
“But surely she will return in time for the Pesach season? No member of the Tribes should be away from the Queen of Cities then. And your mother is very devout to my knowledge,” Rabban Shammai further pried into the family business of the Metzora.
“Oh yes, she plans to be back in her nest on Har Zion well before the 15th of Aviv. Her visit to Tzor is an annual thing. With our Marmar and even Grandmother Sobe getting so rich in years, Mother dares not miss a visit lest they not be there when she next returns,” he explained.
The drip, drip, drip of the water jar keeping time in my head somewhere finally filled the waiting catchment bowl. I amazed myself. Shortly, I would amaze the gentlemen.
“Should I state my name for the rite of purification, Rabban?” I asked, a picture of eager compliance.
“Is this everything you needed to see immersed?” He asked me formally.
“Oh no. There’s the pack, still by the grille. It won’t be much, sir. Could you wait while we empty it into the trough, there?” Ruth broke in.
“Certainly, I will wait, chalalah,” he answered.
“Ruth. She has a name. It’s Ruth,” I muttered under my breath, my face turned from both the great priest and the Metzora for whom I had a surprise.
Ruth brought the pot with the pack in it, walking carefully around Rabban Shammai, so as not to make him unclean. Then she made another arc away from Yohanan. She hoped not to become more unclean by contamination from him, and his greater degree of uncleanliness. He was one who rested in the Court of the Metzoraim for eight days.
She dumped the contents of the pack into the trough and pulled up the sluice. It had been packed in haste long ago. Since I had arrived at Beit haMiqdas, I had had no time to be digging in my small collection of memories and schmattas with the Oregot working as they had.
Then I bethought myself of the one thing. That secret pocket, in which my mother and I had hidden away the carven goddess, lay still at the very bottom of the pack. Abigal would answer for her ugly choices, I vowed in my liver.
Ruth separated the leather kilt from a tangle of beads and feathers which had decorated my lancet (Mariamne had gently separated the lancet itself from my possession before we left the shelter of the Osey haTorah). I saw her disgorge more bangles and armbands. I had chosen them from the larger collection with which we had all been adorned for our rites with Elder Brother.
There was the battered little abacus Cousin Sobe had given me when I left for Kriti. Some of its beads were chipped. Most of the original dye had long since been worn back to the wood grain through handling. Ah, there, underneath the abacus.
It lay half hidden by the folded sewing kit my mother had sent with me when I had first gone to Tzor. The needles tucked into the folded, felted wool were mostly bone and thorn. My oldest brothers had trimmed and worked them to polished fineness on winters’ stormiest days when the boats stayed beached.
All would be well, and all would be well, I prayed fervently and silently. If only no one took any notice of that grubby scrap of cloth sewn around a stone not two full etzba’ot long. But each item had to be fully separated from every other and exposed to the running water. While the priest, this priest-- Rabban Shammai himself, witnessed my fulfillment of the requirements for purification. All this in order that my sacrifice be accepted at the altar of haShem. What if he asked about the pocket?
Yohanan, edged round the porch to observe the immersion. He was tall enough he could see into the trough from a good distance. This kept him politely away from the rest of us.
Rabban Shammai walked around to our side of the trough. He stood equidistant from the smirched Ruth and me on the one hand, and Yohanan under the shadowed portico on the other. His demeanor was solemn, displaying neither fear nor distaste for his work or its location. He smoothed his tzitzit and settled himself with his hands clasping each other.
“Now I require your name, Oreget,” he directed.
“I am Maryam Hanna bat Zebadyah of the Naphtalim. My mother is Miryam Shelomit bat Selomo of the Asherim.” I faced Shammai as I spoke, but I leaned on the words I hoped would mean something to Yohanan. Perhaps, being a boy, his mother the priest’s widow hadn’t drilled him in his generations. I knew he had been to Tzor at least once before I came to the temple, and should have learned them for the visit.
Of course, that had been years ago. I checked out of the corner of my eye. It was hard to see much of his face. The heavy beard hid most of it. The rest lay shadowed by his brows in the dimness of the porch’s deep shade.
Rabban Shammai opened with his blessing and made note of the purifications. He asked me questions to confirm our method of cleaning that which had been fouled. He finished with a prayer and a final blessing.
He had never stepped closer to the trough than he had when he first positioned himself. The dingy little pocket bobbed near the drain, the rush of the water competing against the weight of the secreted goddess. Once he completed his final benediction, he retreated from the fountain’s closed sluices.
“Child of Bet Maryam, for so I perceive you to be, how did all you possess come to be fouled?” Rabban Shammai had piercing eyes. His fearsome orbs were neither hooded nor deep-set. Like a frog’s, they appeared popping and able to stare in more than one direction at a time.
I glanced at Yahya, and knew he knew me for his cousin. I wished I could see from his face how I should answer the Av Bet Din of all Ysrael. I read no direction in his oblique gaze.
“There was an accident in the dormitory this morning. My things met the contents of one of the chamber pots. It was very sudden,” I cleaved to the truth, but left out the circumstances.
“Maryam Hanna bat Zebadyah, I happened to hear voices in the courtyard speaking of an incident just like the one you now describe as I arrived. I could not see the speakers, and they could not see me. Now what can you tell me about what happened?” For all his lack of heighth or prepossessing features, Rabban Shammai had the full force of command in his soft voice and bulging eyes.
“A smile is hardly a confession, Rabban,” I objected.
“Yet she smiled, you say, and made certain you saw what had tripped our unfortunate chalalah here. What was it, and where was it?” the adjudicator queried.
“It was a robe on the floor, but she had scooted it between her feet where it wouldn’t be noticed.” My hand flew to my mouth. I realized I had ceded the truth in that confirmation. There was no shame in being manipulated by the very head of the court. I gave up and told him what he had asked in full.
“And is this Oreget known to you? Do you know her name?” Rabban Shammai continued.
“I do, well her first name anyway. But what law did she break?” I cavilled.
“She caused damage to your property, and she did so on purpose. Further, she stole time from you, and that again she did on purpose. She can’t pay you for the loss of your holiday, but she can pay for the sacrificial doves which complete your purification with sundown. She can take on extra chores with the chalalah for a time, so that she learns to respect their work better. I would even allow her to be housed with the chalalah for that duration, so that you might enjoy peace in your moments of rest.
“I will not tolerate the perversion of justice here in Beit haMiqdas. It is an offense against the very hospitality of haShem. Now, the name of your Oreget friend, and also that of the senior Oreget on duty at the dormitory this morning. I may as well be thorough. I won’t have this kind of collusion from anyone on the staff. It is an offense, and offenses should be plucked out,” he pronounced with finality.
“It was that Abigal. And the Oreget at the door was Orpah this morning,” Ruth supplied, saving me face, whether she knew it or not.
“Thank you for your identification. Because you are women, I need more than one witness. Maryam?” Was he losing patience with me evading the answer?
“Ruth is correct, sir. It was Abigal who tripped her, or so I believe as I had my back to the room and didn’t see the accident, only its aftermath. And the Oreget watching the dormitory was Orpah, but I don’t see what her fault was.”
“She did not investigate the accident to find the source of the trouble. Thereby she protected someone violating the sacred precinct of haShem’s roof. This alone is all the accusation I need to see them admonished and disciplined. Not while the Mach’lakhah of Huppah serves!” Rabban Shammai spoke as sternly as a prophet.
“You and Ruth both will be considered purified and fit to rejoin the congregation of the Tribes at sundown. I will see that Abigal and Orpah share both the cost of the doves, and the work our chalalah dropped to assist Hanna.
“Please allow me to send the three of you something from the Mach’lakhah’s table for your morning and evening meals. You are guests in the House of haShem today!” And with that, he turned and called to have the grille opened as he walked away. His hands rested on his tzitzit. Was it to keep them from swinging and touching anything in the Court of the Lepers, or did he always walk so?