- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Yerushalayim
My aunt travelled for the temple at Tzor. She travelled for herself, as well. Forever, she seemed to have just arrived from a string of places then headed out to another long string of destinations.
I had thought she claimed Tzor as her first home. I appeared mistaken. I wondered how much of Bet Maryam knew about Mariamne’s life in Eskanderejai.
Likely it was none of them, or all. They were not much for secrets. Though I began to understand how well my foremothers knew how to keep specific knowledge to themselves if they thought it best.
“Oh, oh Hanna. Hanna, here, this is my husband Alphaeus. And look here are my precious boys. The tall one is Mateos. The sweet one is Iakobos. Oh how much I have missed you. Come and give me kisses to make me feel better. Under that chadour is your cousin, Hanna. She is your only girl cousin, so be especially nice to her.
‘Will you help me to find ways to be nice to Hanna? She is a little sad, a friend of hers had a terrible accident and is taking a long, long time to get better. Let’s sit down, I want to look at you. Taking a child in each hand, my aunt crossed the room to a long table with benches along it.
There we sat while Alphaeus brought us cool water to drink, with dates and almonds to nibble on. I had pulled the chadour off, and used it to make a cushion between me and the bench. My pack lay on the floor against the wall by the hearth. This was the first I had stopped moving since we had left Phaistos for the Queen of Waves.
I stared at Alphaeus. I could not stop looking at this uncle by marriage whom I had never suspected of existing. And an uncle long enough to have made Mateos, maybe a year at most younger than me. I hadn’t met Yeshua’s father, Yusuf. But I had known such a person lived and made things for the new resort on Yam-haKinneret.
“Hanna, have I never mentioned Alphaeus to you before? I vow on the Lady’s Wheels, I don’t forget you when I am apart from you Halfi, truly I don’t,” she leaned against him and squeezed him tightly planting a fond kiss on his cheek.
My cousins were staring at their own mamma much as I stared at Alphaeus. Mateos wore a longing look on his narrow face. Iakobos looked skeptical of the near stranger who had swooped into his home claiming to be his loved one, in the way only a small child can. I almost laughed at his solemn scowl.
“If I don’t remember his name coming up at one of the Bet Maryam dinners, I am still glad to meet the man you have taken to husband. I don’t suppose you have ever mentioned me to him, in return,” I replied pertly.
“There you would be wrong. The only girl child born to the entire generation of Bet Maryam? A prodigy of movement, counting, and languages with a flair for the fire crafts, unafraid of heights and a strong swimmer? Oh no, I have heard quite a bit about the wonder-niece at Tzor. Before that, I often heard of the doings of Hanna at Migdala,” Alphaeus returned with welcoming warmth.
“Maybe I didn’t mention Alphaeus because when I talk about him I think about my little boys, and then I start missing them so very much more than I can easily bear. The less said about the people I can’t be with the better,” Mariamne confessed with a shake of her head.
“The lilitu can’t see you to find you if you keep your eyes shut. Did you know that?” Alphaeus asked in a teasing voice. It must have been a joke between them, because my aunt blushed and shook her head harder.
“Are you really my mother? Really and truly? My mother wears a big yellow hat. She doesn’t wear a chadour like some of the ladies do,” Iakobos launched into a cross-examination of his purported mother.
“I am really your mother, Iakobos of my heart. I wore the chadour to make it more of a surprise when I came to see you. Now I have taken it off, and you can plainly see my face and my hair. And if I am not me, then who shall I be, and who shall be my sweet Iakobos?” She covered his face with kisses, and tickled his sides until he squirmed and giggled, snuggling up to his long absent rarely home mother.
“Am I your tall Mateos, then?” My largely silent cousin interrupted.
“Of course you are, tall and handsome.” Then in a carrying undervoice, “and smarter than either your father or even myself. Possibly as smart as your cousin Yeshua. You remember when Yeshua lived at the Place of the Camel? Sometimes he would look after you when your father and I went to a lecture at the Mouseion or out to the Theatron. So smart, that one, and so simple with it.”
“But you, Mateos, you have knowing. And you have grown all your days here in Eskanderejai. Not only can you read and count, but you know how to keep your mouth shut and your eyes open. No amount of smarts can teach that to one who will not learn,” Mariamne ruffled Mateos’ dark curls with painful, almost tentative, fondness.
“How long can you stay? When do you go?” Mateos asked directly.
“We leave before first light in two mornings. Our ship sails from the Kibotos Arsenal. We will have to take the first eye-of-the-mountain dray that rolls down the Canopic Way. And we will arrive with barely enough time to get aboard,” my aunt responded pragmatically.
“I could find a ride for you. We have enough time. Shlomo has a wagon, and this time of year he doesn’t have to be out and about before the sun comes up. I will ask him. Maybe we can make him a trade for taking you to the Arsenal. Would he want any of that rose perfume?” Alphaeus leapt to be useful to his peripatetic wife.
“That would be a future in rose perfume production. Attar of roses to be specific. But the rarest scent on the Mar Yam-haMariahne is worth more than a ride through the city, when we might just as well catch the dray,” she corrected.
“Sekmer told me they had assembled the necessary pieces and even made time to test them for leaks and separation values. She said they were only waiting on the rose petals. I assume that’s what brought you through town this time,” he finished plaintively.
“They were one of the errands. I want to talk to you about the other reason I came home, but that can wait,” she nodded significantly at the heads of the children. I caught the motion, but the boys didn’t seem to.
“I see. Fine. All the same, let me ask Shlomo what he might be willing to do two mornings from now. The worst that can happen is he says ‘no’ and you take the eye-of-the-mountain anyway.”
“And I will hold a dram and a half of the first distillation of the attar for Shlomo if this will not offend him,” Mariamne countered with the long ease of marital bartering. Alphaeus couldn’t stay married to my aunt, wouldn’t have married her at all, if he weren’t ready to negotiate and compromise when in the presence of his spouse.
“Very good indeed. Now, let's consider dinner. And whether there’s a talk at the Museon tonight, or a show at the Theatron. I am ripe and ready for any mischief,” she teased with business between them concluded for the moment.
“You’re both ripe enough for anything, there’s a certainty,” Alphaeus countered, “Why don’t you take yourselves off to the baths? I will bustle about preparing a meal and learning what goes forward in the city tonight.”
“I would love to take Hanna to the baths. But we wore chadours from the Arsenal all the way here. I think so public a place might negate the discretion we have observed so far,” Mariamne replied seriously.
“Too true. I can ask around about borrowing or renting one of the private baths in the Nome. Maybe Sekmer will be your hostess again before the day is through. She keeps the water in her baths hot with the excess heat from her kilns and furnaces.
“You two stay here and reacquaint yourselves with Mateos and ‘Kobos. They will be glad to entertain you, as we usually take siesta about now. I shouldn’t be long, the markets are empty at this time of day.”
With that and a broad rush hat clapped to his head, Alphaeus slipped out the door-- not forgetting his market basket either. Mateos stared at the door, then at us. ‘Kobos’ gaze had never wavered from his mother. Mariamne looked at me wryly and at her children with a palpable longing.
“Mateos, would you like to challenge your cousin Hanna to a game of s’n’t? She is a little older than you, but you have had more training in strategy and formal tactics. I think it would be a strong contest, always saving the bones.
“While you do that, ‘Kobos and I can build the ziggurats of Ur-Sum-Er. I travelled to the land between the waters earlier this summer, and their shapes are fresh in my mind. Kobos, bring your blocks over and we will see what I can remember,” she directed.
Mateos said nothing, but rose and fetched a shallow box. The game board had been carved and inlaid on the top with mother of pearl. A drawer pulled out at one end where the game counters and bone die were stored. We tossed to see who would go first, and set up our navies accordingly.
Meanwhile, great temples and observatories rose on the alluvial plain of the whitewashed floor. There was giggling and scrambling for straw and twigs to build out the features of the temple complex. Mateos concentrated on his s’n’t game. But he looked over at his little brother and mother from time to time with fierce desire.
This was a passionate family which saw too little of each other. Only my aunt’s calling to roll from place to place like the Lady in Her Cart kept them apart. She could have kept any shop, managed any service, or contracted any undertaking right in the city. If she had wished.
She left her children to follow her Goddess. But that Goddess allowed many paths to her followers. Very few chose to roll endlessly from venue to celebration to trade to consultation with no constant home to call their own.
Mariamne had made that choice. I had never considered what it might mean, beyond my envy of her wide acquaintance and her broad knowledge of the known and travelled world. I saw some of the cost in Mateos’ hungry yearning.
The bones fell his way most of the game. I might not have made the very best possible play each and every turn I took. I had the bull ring. I could let him have the s’n’t board while I stayed as a guest in his home.
When we finished, my aunt came to see the final disposition of our ships and asked us about our last moves. She nodded and pointed out alternative strategies-- one for each of us. Then we enjoyed a grand tour of the ziggurats. ‘Kobos glowed with our praise over the fine visible effect of his labors.
“Did I miss much while I did the marketing?” Alphaeus enquired cheerfully as he returned from his errands in the Nome.
“Mateos showed his cousin what he knows about s’n’t. ‘Kobos and I tried to recreate the great plaza of temples at Ur, Ur-Between-the-Rivers, not Ur by the other Har Ararat, of course.”
“Of course. I found fresh river fish, sheep’s cheese, dates and melons, diverse nuts and several kinds of honey pastry to have with our mint tea and melon sherbet. I also found Sekmer, and asked if you two lovelies might have private use of her facility. She said if you come now she can promise you half a jar of time to yourselves. Will that do for a place to clean up, my love?” Alphaeus asked and then kissed away whatever answer his wife might have given.
With toweling and fresh clothes in a basket we swung between us-- much lighter than a bale of roses, though you might not think of flower petals as heavy, Mariamne and I trotted over to Sekmer’s workshop and home. This time the wait seemed short for someone to answer our knock at the door.
We were led straight to the household’s baths, an unsuspected luxury in a crafter’s demesne, but a sensible one given her trades. With all the heat created for the kiln and furnace, it was not difficult to run some water over the heat and then send it along to the bathhouse. There we had the hot, the tepid and the cool pools all to ourselves. No servant interrupted us, no apprentice disturbed us. Such a luxury to finally rid myself of the salt, sand, and dust in every fold and crevice of my body. A sea journey may be healthful, but so is a hot bath.
Mariamne and I found the extra flannels and soaped each other’s backs. We braided each other’s hair to hold the rose-scented oil in it longer. We took our time and looked after our cuticles and the sculpted shells of our ears.
All this while, I told her the story of the Cranes from Vathypetro to Phaistos. She listened and nodded. She pursed her lips and slit her eyes. Indeed, the painted priestesses would be hearing from my aunt’s Hecatoi in good time, and they would feel regret for their choices when that occurred.
Yet I continued to cherish my time with the Cranes. We were a coven, a sisterhood, a team, a crew. We were superhuman in our achievements. I had danced the true dance of the Perfected One in my first year of study. I had participated in the holy liturgy of the Phaistaieon in honor of the Daburinthoio Potniai in the Bull Ring at Phaistos. My teammates and I were the only ones now living who could make that claim, according to what Mariamne admitted to me.
Back at Alphaeus’ home, Mariamne’s home in deed and name but not likely in her heart, we sat down to an early dinner and enjoyed everything he’d chosen for our dinner. When we finished, Mariamne and I put on our chadours while the menfolk added another layer to their light day tunics. With a basketful of cushions, we walked through the Nome and crossed the Via Regia. This road led out to the palace and defined the edge of the Nome Yudaica. It was almost as wide as the Canopic Way.
Once we had safely crossed, with just the one life-threatening moment involving a dray and two oxcarts, a few minutes more brought us to the Mouseion. Here Alphaeus paid, and we took seats near to the great open floor of the place. The cushions came out of their basket and protected us from the unyielding stone ledges which constituted our seating. Pillars topped with open-mawed beasts framed the space. Beyond it, statues of gods and men, and examples of all the necessary supports for both, lined the aisle surrounding our pillared atrium. The rectangle above the open space on the floor held no ceiling. In Misr there is so little rain that the sky is often thought to make the best roof for a place.
We children were surprised by an evening of music and dance presented by a troupe touring the Mar Yam-haMariahne. They came from a temple on Agion Oros, which isn’t near anything else to hear Mariamne tell it and the travelling natives confirm it.
The music sounded echoey in the great stone sided building. The cymbals and flutes and drums called to the wild, the wind, and open pine-forested mountains. I longed to twirl a thyrsus like a lancet, to leap and tumble.
I slapped my thighs in time as the audience did in this part of the world. I tapped my sandaled feet against the marble floor. Like all the spectators, I swayed as I mouthed the shapes of words I didn’t know sung in a rhythm I had never heard. But this was no different to how I had learned the Cranes’ lullabies at Bahar’s bedside.
The rest of the family clapped and stamped, and hummed where they could. They oohed and aahed over the feats of timing and technique displayed by the dancers with their ribbons, thyrsuses, and tambors. They laughed when the clowns came out and did a pantomime while the dancers changed their costumes.
When the last bow had been taken, we gathered up our cushions and trudged home. ‘Kobos demonstrated some of his favorite pieces of clowning. Alphaeus whistled snatches of the songs we had heard. This was the life of a family in Eskanderejai.
Food bought from stalls, not pulled from the ground or the lake. Culture and learning from everywhere. Broad streets, cultural events, family games. My mind whirled. My liver longed to take a place in a home where I would be valued, not for the many chores I could do but for the person I was and the one I might become.
Here I saw a dream of a life it might already be too late for me to live. Was Alphaeus on the market for a third child? Would I look at Mariamne as though she were more precious than pearls and more rare? Would I wonder when I would ever see her again and for how long, and would it ever be enough?
No, this night was its own magical time in its own magical place, and it wasn’t real. My aunt didn’t live here really. My cousins surely had their bad days as well as the good ones when they were on display for their favorite houseguest. Before we returned to the flat, I had reasoned myself back into the true state of the world.
Maybe I feared my time in the Temple. We would be there in a week, if I had understood the itinerary correctly. It would be strange to live under every last law of the Tanakh.
And weaving! I didn't love the string arts. Sobe had tried to teach me. So had Marmar and Haha. But I chose to haul wood in preference to making endless knots and loops with thread and yarn, cord and rope. Now I had no choice but to spin and weave for so long as Bet Maryam and the weavers at Beit haMiqdas chose to have me there.
Young as I was, I still saw clearly that there was no family life for me: in Eskanderejai or elsewhere. At least, not the sort of family played out by a husband and a wife with their children. I had the care and guidance of all Bet Maryam to see me through the developments and trials which constitute a life unfolding.
The next day, we took a picnic and the eye-of-the-mountain to get there. On the other side of the city, beyond the Moon Gate, lay a vast marshy network of dunes. We worked our way to the shore, making a game of swinging ‘Kobos over the wider fenny bits.
On the sand there, we made a lean-to of driftwood and a blanket brought for the purpose. Beneath it, we lay out another blanket and cushions and a fitting meal from the markets of the greatest trading port on the Mar Yam-haMariahne. We ate cold spice-roasted doves, fresh sheep's cheese, figs and myrtle berries, nuts and seeds, bread and olives, with wine and sherbet to drink. Then we napped in the hot salty breeze under the shade of our lean-to.
When we woke, we splashed in the sea and nibbled more of our picnic leftovers. Come evening, we packed up the apparatus of our day at the beach and picked our way back to the Moon Gate and the near terminus for the eye-of-the-mountain. Soon enough the dray came to carry us all back to the Nome Yudaica.
That evening, Shlomo and his family came to Alphaeus’ home and we all played instruments, who could, and sang-- whether we could or not. That night holds a warm spot in my memory. I played at being in, with, and of a family. I hopped and refilled the water pitcher when it ran low. I scooped up the visiting baby before it choked on a nut or a s’n’t counter. I gave the adults a hug before I took myself off to bed in the room I shared with Mateos and ‘Kobos. I could listen to the rise and fall of their voices out in the main room, where their bed also lay.