“Ruth, was it? Would you let the chalalah serving as chatelaine know to expect our picnics coming from the Rabban Shammai? And see if she can dig up a couple of nice cells for the two of you. Adjacent, and not on the top level either. It’s a long hike up those stairs from the conveniences on this level.
“You, cousin, will keep busy gathering up your things. There’s no telling what miscreants might frequent this place, and you will want to make safe what’s yours,” my cousin Yahya suggested.
Ruth jumped to respond. She clearly needed to feel she had earned her day of rest. It was still before the morning meal, so she hurried along to the office where the chalalah served as concierges to the Court of the Metzoraim. She too gave a shout to cross to the other side of the grille enclosed courtyard.
“So, you are Haha’s youngest’s daughter, are you? You have a look of your Haha about the eyes. Nearly all of Bet Maryam grow that way. I take after my father, as the men in the family usually do.
“Look how big you are. You must be twelve, or so. Have I remembered correctly? No wonder they sent you to serve in the corps of the Oregot. You are still the only daughter of your generation. Shelomit and Mariamne both produced boys,” bad cousin Yahya mused.
“You’re a generation up from me. You could have a daughter who would serve here. She would be the same generation as I am,” I pointed out.
“Ah. Little Oreget, your logic is quite good, and your genealogy as well. But your facts are out, and that proves fatal to your argument,” he said with a voice fully bitter and wry.
“My facts? You are only a year older than Yeshua, who is the same age as Rahel, and you’re barely three years older than Dawid,” I objected.
“Dawid, who is Dawid?” Yahya asked in confusion.
“He’s my oldest brother,” I announced indignant that he had forgotten.
“Then he’s Zebadyah’s get and none of Bet Maryam, and nothing to do with me,” Yahya concluded. He considered the matter closed.
“Still, if you had a daughter, she would be in my generation, not one below it,” I temporized.
“But I won’t have a daughter, Maryam. That fate may no longer be read in my stars,” he said with some sadness and maybe a hint of humor.
“My name’s Hanna, we already have more Maryam’s than we can easily count,” I explained. “You might still have a girl child. You aren’t married yet, but Cousin Elisava must have some girls she thinks of for you,” I consoled.
“Oh my mother has girls from here to Misr selected for fortune, piety, housecraft, and even a certain nobleness of conduct. Most of them are not even hideously ugly,” he acknowledged.
“So?” I prompted.
“I had an accident a few weeks ago. It was a very serious accident. Now I am here waiting for the suppurations to stop, and wholly incapable of fathering children: boys or girls, for that matter,” he concluded.
“What kind of an accident keeps you from having children?” I wanted to know. I knew all about women’s insides, but a good deal less about men’s. Yahya didn’t even pause.
“You will know that men pee differently than women, because they have a different body part for that function, yes?” he asked.
“Of course. When I was little in Migdala, I saw what the billy goats did with the nannys to make the little kids come out of them. I’m not a little baby,” I spoke with all the indignation of any newly twelve years old young person.
“Well, that part of the billy goat which fits inside the nannys was cut off, so that function is no longer allowed to me,” Yahya said in a voice empty of emotion.
“Who did that to you? Are they crucified yet?” I demanded. His blank neutrality splintered into wide eyed interest.
“You’re definitely a branch of the Bet Maryam tree. They are a bloodthirsty pack of old women, all the way from Marmar to you. To answer your question, but I am trusting you with this information-- once you hear this, you may never speak of it. Is that a trust you will keep for me?” His eyes burned with that raptor’s intensity I had first seen in them.
“I will keep your trust and guard your secret with my own life,” I had often had to make that vow to Gabura and Eleazar when we played on the beach long ago. I meant it then, and I meant it now.
“It isn’t your life at stake with this secret, little Oreget. It is the family pride. It is the ruin of all my mother ever prayed for, and the end of all my father had hoped when I was born. His line will serve no more in the Mach’lakhah of Abijah. My maiming is permanent, even if I am able to cause the suppurations to cease.” In these words, he began to reveal his mourning for his lost manhood as he spoke.
“I was in Thraki, coming from Athenai. They have this festival to the god, or gods, or goddess maybe, I couldn't make out the declension around their barbarous accents. It’s not like the ‘Elines one hears in Athenai, at all.
“And I went to the ritual high on the mountain and deep in the forest. It lasted for days, but it might have been moments, or a single jar of time. I had drunk the drink, danced the dance, and run with the torches and thyrses up through the trees.
“When I came to myself, my wounds were bound up and so were some others I saw. It is part of the hidden mystery of this celebration that even strangers offer their potency in the ecstasy of worship. Even those, like myself, with the barest idea of what may be going forward.
“Only never let it be said I turned down a chance to know the face of the ineffable. Not in Misr, not in the deserts beyond ash-Sham, not at the austere altars of Sparte, not in the burning mysteries and temples of solemn menhirs belonging to the draoidh of Ultima Thule. HaShem is omnipresent. I believe gentiles of every ilk may see His face in their own rituals and liturgies, mistaking it for some part of their pernicious idolatry.
“If He is everywhere, then it would be stupid, and unworthy of our covenant to worship Him, to ignore Him solely because He appears in some back-woods pagan orgy. We don’t know what the Kohen Gadol alone in the Kodesh haKodashim on Yom Kippur sees. Could the One on High be bound to a wood and gilt box when He made the very stars and the firmament in which they hang? I abjure this narrow-minded foolishness. This is not my haShem.
“Moreover, Aron Habberit was never in Beit haMiqdas. It disappeared when Nebuchadrezzar debauched and leveled Yerushalayim. Whether it was taken into hiding by a few renegade priests, or one of the Tribes stayed lost to protect it, we do not now know. I will not pretend with my brother Kohanim, brothers no longer now that I am maimed.
“So I seek Him in all sacred places and transcendent practices. His Shekinah no longer resides in the Kodesh haKodashim. That place is a bride’s costume on a mannequin, no more. If He is everywhere, then there I shall seek Him. I shall not rest until I have found His face again.”
I stared gape mouthed at my cousin, the Metzoraim. I had never heard about rituals like the ones he described, not even late at night when the Cranes whispered dark truths to each other before falling asleep. And his theology was another matter for astonishment.
This Nazarite, born to the house of Aaron on both sides, had said things I knew to be a form of blasphemy within the Tribes. They shocked even me. And I knew of more the gods and their goddesses than just the One on High of Ysrael and his descendants.
Many of the beliefs at Beit haMiqdas seemed childlike to me: if I don’t step here, touch this, say that word, then I will please the Eternal Creator. But this idea that haShem could be found in any place of worship, wearing the guise of any avatar, this I think not even the philosophers of the ‘Elines had dreamed. The thought of Yahya’s search for the missing presence of haShem dazzled my sheltered soul.
Suddenly, I understood his wanderings. The prayers he had made at strange altars in foreign places. His relentless pursuit of the vision of the face of haShem. I could understand even his utter immersion in the dark ecstasy of the thyrsus, rattle, and drum on the hillsides of Thraki which had brought him to the status of Metzora in the eyes of his people.
Was he mad? Driven by haShem as the prophets of old had been? My cousin Yahya stands in my memory of him then as a man both kind and patient. Yet he had been possessed by a religious commitment which made the general run of the vows of the Nazarites look like the promises of children to their kittens. Poor Yahya. Like the prophets railing on the weakness of the Tribes, he had gotten lost in a desert of dogma looking for the Water of Life.
“Look what came while I spoke with Sarah!” Ruth exclaimed as she sallied through the grille, her arms full of a covered basket. She set the basket on the edge of the fountain. Unpacked, we found fresh cheese, flat bread made of wheat, the eternal lentils of Beit haMiqdas, a salad of bitter greens dressed with oil and citron zest, and a pomegranate apiece for the three of us. It was a feast.
“Not one shred of lamb? They must have done some business this morning,” Yahya said with disappointment.
“Oh sir, I am sure if it had been you alone they would have sent the lamb. But your cousin is an Oreget, and I am a mere chalalah. We only see lamb the one meal of the year. And our Seder is some days off yet. Of course, we would never, even then, have lamb for our morning meal. Do Kohanim really eat lamb in the morning too?” Ruth asked, eyes as round as Yoana’s in full spate.
“The Mach’lakhah certainly do, and Rabban Shammai said this would come from his table. I suppose he substituted the cheese for the lamb. It will do for us wretched Metzoraim.” With this ironic pronouncement, Yahya picked up what Ruth served him from the basket-- and she served him heartily.
“Look, there’s even a lump of date cake. It was under a napkin. This is a festival day for me indeed. And I shall spend the rest of it napping until our evening meal. What luxury! A room to myself. I adore staying in the Court of the Metzoraim when it’s not just the end of my flowers. Then it’s so many of us that we have a dormitory here up on the top floor. The Oregot only come there in ones or twos, so they have the single cells. This is better than a Queen gets, because I don’t have to share with the whole of the hareem,” Ruth announced with relish.
We ate to repletion. The fountain provided us with clean water to drink. Yahya’s sparrow sang to us as we dined, between snatching up the crumbs we sprinkled for our winged troubadour.
When we finished with the meal, Ruth wrapped away what was left in one of the napkins. Then she immersed the basket and the rest of the linens in the fountain sluices. The napkins she draped on the fig bushes. The basket she tip-tilted against a pilaster of the fountain’s marbled corner.
“That’s me, then. Off for a nap! Ask Sarah where to go when you’re finished with your things here, Hanna. She will take care of you. I told her you’re a special friend of mine,” she added matter of factly.
“Thank you, Ruth. That was very kind, when we only met this morning,” I declared with real feeling.
“After what we shared, I should think we were special friends. There’s nothing like what makes you unclean to bring you together. That’s why the Metzoraim-- not you sir, the lifers, I mean. That’s why they stay in groups. It might be harder to beg enough for everyone, but there’s always someone to commiserate with.”
“I. Well, I thank you for all your help today. This could have been the horrible time Abigal wanted me to have. Instead we’re enjoying lovely food, the blessings of the Av Bet Din himself, and we have the whole day off with not one thing anyone anywhere can ask of us. If you hadn’t given me so much help, I might still be mopping in the dormitory,” I explained with real gratitude.
“Oh you’re faster than you think. But I couldn’t walk away from you like that when it was me that made the mess. Even if I had help there I didn’t need,” Ruth returned.
“Have a nap. Come and find me when you wake up. I’ll be up there somewhere,” I told the chalalah as she walked along to the grille and called for Sarah. I turned to Yahya.