In the unrelieved dark of night, Mariamne shook me awake. I had repacked my things before I fell asleep. I had laid out my tunic, sandals and chadour at the end of my bed. I planned to dress, but Mariamne had brought a lamp. She went across the room, and awakened ‘Kobos.
“Come child, it’s time to go. I can take you with me on part of this journey, but we must leave soon, dear,” she said as she lifted the limp child and braced him against herself in order to tie on his sandals. Mateos lifted his head from the pallet where he slept.
“Are you leaving now?” he asked in a sleep sanded voice.
“I said I would. This is the second morning, and Shlomo has graciously agreed to take us to the Arsenal,” my aunt responded.
“Why are you getting ‘Kobos dressed? Is he going with you? Why does he get to go with you? Is it because you love him better? Is it because I’m not your child, only Alphaeus’?” Mateos let loose in a fury of desperation.
“Oh no. Oh no. No, don’t ever think that, Mateos. I fell in love with you when I fell in love with your father. I love you both so much.
“But I don’t want to interrupt your education. You have a good scholarship and a chance to learn with the finest teachers in this the best city for education in the world. I couldn’t take that from you, not even for a short time, let alone a longer one. You have such a fine mind. We must cultivate it, and let you have the luxury of choosing what you do in life,” Mariamne soothed.
“I would rather have the luxury of choosing to go with you. Why does he get to go?” Mateos grumbled.
“He gets to go because there are little boys just his age to play with at Aunt Shelomit’s. Hanna is the only child in that family close to your age, and she has somewhere else she has to be. Somewhere she doesn’t want to be even more than you don’t want to be here, I suspect,” she explained placatingly.
“If I did badly at school, would I be allowed to come with you next time?” Mateos asked with a spark of rebellion shining in his eyes.
“No, you wouldn’t. We would find a remedial school where you would continue to learn to your utmost capacity. This is your work at present, as you grow older, you will find the field you most wish to study and you will gain thereby the means of making a living for yourself.
“‘Kobos has no such duty at present, though his time will come. When it does, he will be set to the education and apprenticeship best suited for developing his innate gifts,” she set out this reasoning to appease her eldest’s outrage. He didn’t look softened to me.
“Promise you will come and stay for a month next time. Promise, and then I will let you take ‘Kobos,” Mateos negotiated. He had no real power in the discussion. Only the power given to him by his mother’s love and guilt.
“I promise, child. I do promise. And we will make a fair of every day while I am here. Now go back to sleep. We can’t keep Shlomo waiting.” With a series of fierce kisses and firm hugs, we left Mateos to find more sleep, or not.
I don’t know when she had managed, but ‘Kobos’ pack was waiting by the door when we straggled out of the bedroom. We put on our packs. I took up ‘Kobos’ pack and Mariamne took up ‘Kobos. Alphaeus stood at the door with sleep and misgiving in his eyes. He gave his wife and youngest child a long, solemn hug good-bye.
Shlomo waited below with his two-wheeled cart hitched to a dull looking donkey. We clambered into the clay-mired bed of the wagon and off we went. In the pre-dawn morning, I saw little of the great sleeping city. Shlomo had mounted a lantern at the front of his cart and made sure the donkey’s brass bell hung loosely to warn others of our approach.
When we set out from the Nome Yudaica there weren’t many others out at that early hour. In the time it took us to cross the city at a donkey’s pace, the streets came alive with carts, wagons, drays, camels, donkeys, teams of oxen or onagers, and many, many people on foot, not a few with barrows or push-carts. Dawn came as we drew near the Kibotos Arsenal.
‘Kobos had awoken as we neared our destination. He was able to self-propel down the pavement to the Arsenal holding onto his mother’s hand. I still carried his pack. The walk was not so long as I remembered it, but neither was it as short as I could have wished with the extra pack in my charge.
The Queen of Waves, and customs inspectors for Roma Imperia, met us at the dock. It was easy to search our packs. No contraband was found.
“Madam may have to consent to a search of her person, we must ascertain that no one in madam’s party carries what they ought not,” the inspector stated impartially.
“And has Roma Imperia seen fit to equip this customs station with women or eunuchs? I belong to a devotional sect which believes married women may only be viewed unveiled by immediate family. In a pinch a woman of irrefutable character might not be considered a defilement. Or even a eunuch, so that they are consecrated. Have you such on your staff at present? Are they on duty?” Mariamne demanded with haughty assurance.
“Madam, but madam. Madam the son of the god Augustus has decreed that all embarking passengers from the port of Eskanderejai be subjected to search for contraband,” the inspector insisted. Despite the early hour, sweat beaded on his shaven pate.
“And has the son of the god Augustus provided reasonable staffing for such a necessary function? If so, then I shall certainly submit to being searched beneath my chadour. If not, then I assume I am free to go.
“The son of the god Augustus would no doubt prefer not to outrage the first wife of one of the chief wheat brokers in all of Misr. Don’t you agree? Use your good sense, inspector!” Mariamne finished her tirade with a sweeping gesture towards the waiting Queen of Waves.
The inspector acceded. He looked as though he had been working the dock all day. Instead of having just greeted the dawn.
We trod up the gangway to the deck of the Queen. Mariamne instructed us, with a little malice I thought, to turn and wave to the nice inspector and his assistants on the dock. We did so with unbecoming glee for the hour and the cause. With ‘Kobos fully awake, the two of us produced an appalling racket.
“You told that man you were the wife of a wheat broker? Is that Alphaeus’ position?” I asked, knowing it was not.
“I did not. I asked him if he wanted to offend that woman. I did not state that I was the person about whom I spoke,” my crafty aunt corrected me.
I had been a short enough time ashore not to have lost my sea-body. I gnawed on ships’ biscuits and drank a little water most of each day. In this manner, I did not succumb to wave sickness nor did I waste away.
Ashdod took only two days sailing. From the old port at Eskanderejai to our berth at dock, the early autumn trades blew kindly.
‘Kobos took after his mother and suffered no wave-sickness. Within the day, he had begun climbing the rigging like Aunt Mimi’s monkey in her garden. The sailors encouraged him, and advised him to go barefoot for better traction on deck or rope. He pouted mightily, almost throwing a fit when his mother desired him to put his sandals on to disembark.
We arrived in the late afternoon. My aunt hustled us to a certain office in a warehouse nearby. There she hired a cart to take us to Yerushalayim without delay.
“You want to travel through the night?” the dispatcher asked again, even as he rang a bell to summon his staff.
“We do. I will happily pay extra for any additional persons you think our party may require. Though I will remind you, I chose a cart because it makes a much less tempting target for bandits. I prefer that we not use a horse, as they are also an inducement to robbery in my experience,” my aunt stated calmly.
“In your experience? Well, I… I…. Certainly. Your conditions are understood. Perhaps one additional man to take the front seat, if you and, and yours plan to seat yourselves in the cart bed itself. Two men going to market on the one cart will not draw undesirable attention,” he assured us before turning to the assistant and giving his orders.
“We can use our packs for cushions and our chadours for blankets. Then we won’t have so far to go tomorrow to arrive in good time in Yerushalayim,” Aunt Mariamne explained as she walked us to where we would wait for our cart and escort.
“In good time for what?” I wanted to know why we were in such a hurry to get to where I would be disposed of for at least the year to come. Maybe longer, if some of the things the women of Bet Maryam had said which I now began to understand better still held true.
“In good time for the beginning of Shabbat. If we arrive well before sundown, we shall find ourselves comfortable and accommodated and snug as a shmamit batim tucked into a cranny of the hearth,” she replied.
“Let’s do that,” I responded seriously. Another day of family time before I joined the corps of the virgins of Ysrael. That wasn’t too much to ask.
“We shall accomplish what the Goddess in Her Cart provides for. With Her blessing, it will be enough.” The platitude ended our conversation neatly.
The cart arrived a moment later. All our attention was consumed with climbing in, balancing over the two great wheels, mostly by our sitting closer to the back gate. Mariamne tested the latching on the gate thoroughly. I suspected having her horse stolen hadn’t been the only mishap in her many long travels.
The cart jounced over every rock, gully and bone between Ashdod and Yerushalayim. I felt every one. ‘Kobos lay his head in his mother’s lap and fell asleep. I shut my eyes and counted in different number systems, holding the image of each pictograph or symbol in mind as I silently named it. I must have dozed off. At least, some time passed of which I was not wholly aware.
The bumping, knocking, and rattling of our cart made an endless racket through the night. Mariamne hummed to herself, or prayed maybe. The noise she made was too slight for me to tell which it was from even a few handfuls of etzba’ot away.
Lucky ‘Kobos slept on, head bobbing on his mother’s well-padded thigh. I sighed, kept my eyes shut, and tried to name all the flowers I had ever seen, or heard of in the stories and liturgies. And our cart rolled along.
In the morning, the racket of the cart continued. There was nothing to see in any direction. The land around us felt sere and empty.
Not wholly empty, no. There were small farms with wind dusted olive trees making shade around the home rods. There were a few squalid villages, clustered against the roadside as though the very terrain were hostile, if not actively contagious. There were itinerant herds of goats and sheep with their commensurate little boys and switches. And there were the other travellers, though not so many as there would be closer to Yom Teruah.
In the night, we had ascended that mountain ridge which separates the land of Asher from the rest of Ysrael and Yudah. We had a valley, another mountain climb, and one last valley to go before we came to the gates of holy Yerushalayim. ‘Kobos and I peeked out at the scenery through gaps in the wooden slats forming the walls of our cart. Mariamne had pulled a mess of yarn from her pack and was teasing it from a tangle into a ball.
I taught ‘Kobos counting games in different languages, and then we practiced them on the sheep and goats we saw. Mariamne bore our repetitive singing very patiently. Still I noticed a certain tension in her work with the knotted yarn.
After a short time, the cart began to rumble along between orchards on either side of the road. And other travellers joined the way from roads feeding into the holy city from every direction. Then came the gardens, interspersed with gravel pits, quarries, ironworks, and concrete masters.
The ancient city continuously rebuilt and renewed herself. She refreshed and extended her great defensive walls, heightened her towers, added arches and stairways, plazas and reservoirs. Then she began again, as the cycle of time and decay decreed.
Closer to the city still, we left the heavy industry behind us. We gained prospects of gardens, and roadside food vendors. They worked from portable grills, hot stones, tiny twig-fed flames, and even the power of the sun alone, magnified within a box of polished tin.
The odor of the cooking food entranced me. The searing meat, the bubbling pottage, the smokey vegetables: they all spoke to my empty gullet. We had chewed dry flatbread bought for a days-end discount in Ashdod. We shared a jug of water, and nibbled on dates to make our breakfast.
I looked at my aunt with pleading eyes, ‘Kobos saw my ploy and added his engagingly piteous stare to mine. Mariamne felt the collective weight of our gazes and looked up from her still entangled yarn.
“It’s still very early. Could we not stop for something hot to give our livers courage for the day to come?” I cajoled.
“I don’t know what trials you believe you will undergo on the eve of Shabbat in Yerushalayim, but I do see your point. It smells delicious. If we pick the right stall, it will be as tasty as it smells.
“What’s your fancy? Falafel and hummus are both local specialties, and I know which of the vendors make the ones most treasured by the local connoisseurs. Or is that not exotic enough for you today?” Mariamne smiled in complicity.
“I will take the advice of the experienced guide. It’s one of the lessons our languages Matroi work to instill in us. If the guide isn’t to be trusted, get another guide. That’s what they tell us.
“And you are our guide, since you know where we’re going. What do you think ‘Kobos?” I asked my little cousin with all gravity, “Shall we trust our guide, or get rid of her and find another?”
“Don’t get rid of my mamma, I love her!” ‘Kobos shouted as he embraced his mother to protect her from my capriciousness.
“Oh, all right. If you feel so warmly about her, we will keep her. And we will let her decide where we stop for something hot to eat, won’t we?” ‘Kobos nodded, solemn as an Osey haTorah in the mikveh-- as I would soon learn from experience.
My aunt had a word with the cart driver. In less time than it takes to walk a stadion, we had pulled to the side of the now smooth paved road. Mariamne unlatched the back gate and let herself down.
“Can we come to help carry everything?” I begged.
“No, they will wrap it all well for me to carry back. And I can use the strap for the water jug,” she tossed over her shoulder. She dodged between a parasoled Pharisee riding an onager towards the city and an ox-cart loaded with raw timber headed back the way we had come. My aunt returned shortly with hot falafels double wrapped in thick grape leaves.
We dug into the food with a will. The falafel were hot, and the grease in which they had been fried had still been fresh. The bright herbs in them, and the cooling tahineh sauce made a perfect introduction to the customs of Yerushalayim.
I had eaten falafel other places. Several good stalls worked the markets of Ushu, across the mole from Tzor. These, though. These falafel were the epitome of crisp and rich, salty and lively. They were everything a snack bought from the side of the road should be. I revelled in them.
By the end of the short meal, ‘Kobos wore more tahineh on his person than he had gotten in his mouth. Mariamne wiped him down with some of the water from the jug and a corner of her chadour. We had not far to go.
The great Fish Gate stood open only a few stadia from our falafel stand. Already a stream of people flowed up to the gate. Soldiers in the uniforms of Roma Imperia, and others wearing the traditional suiting and arms of the Temple Guard, managed the influx of travellers.
We disembarked from the cart before the final turn off for the Fish Gate. Our escorts waved us away while we joined the foot traffic. After standing in a crowd, being shoved this way and jostled that, we came to the soldiers. One of each from Roma and the Temple asked my aunt who we were and what we came to do in the city. My aunt pointed me out and gave our errand. The Temple guard bowed to me, the soldier of Roma waved us through.