The Book of Longings: A Novel (10 page)

BOOK: The Book of Longings: A Novel
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He did not come.

xx.

On the day Mother announced my betrothal ceremony would take place in thirty days, I’d sewn thirty ivory chips onto a swath of pale blue linen. Each day since, I’d cut one off. Now, alone on the roof of the house, I stared at the cloth, sobered by the meagerness of chips that remained.
Eight.

It was the twilit hour. Moroseness didn’t come easily to me—anger did, yes; passion and stubbornness, always—but sitting here, I felt bereft. I’d returned twice to Tabitha’s house but had been denied entry. Earlier today Mother had informed me that my friend had been sent to live with relatives in the village of Japha, south of Nazareth. I was certain I would never see her again.

I was afraid I would never see Jesus again either. I saw nothing but God’s backside.

Had it always been so? When I was five, visiting the Temple in Jerusalem for the first time, I’d attempted to follow Father and Judas up the circular steps through the Nicanor Gate, when Mother yanked me back. Her hand clamped tight on my arm as I tried to twist free, my eyes straining after my brother, who moved toward the gleaming marble and gold gilt of the sanctuary where God lived. The Holy of Holies. She shook my shoulders to get my attention. “Under penalty of death, you can go no further.”

I stared at the smoke plumes rising from the altar beyond the gate. “But why can’t I go, too?”

For years, whenever I recalled her answer, it would bestow on me the same jolt of surprise I’d felt the day she’d uttered it. “Because, Ana, you are female. This is the Court of Women. We can go no further.” In this manner I discovered that God had relegated my sex to the outskirts of practically everything.

Taking up the snipping knife, I sliced away another ivory chip from the cloth.
Seven.

Eventually I told Yaltha about Jesus. About the colorful threads draped over his fingers in the market stall, and how, but for them, I wouldn’t know of him at all. I described the rough feel of his palm when he’d come to my aid, the sickening thud of his head on the tile when the soldier had shoved him. When I revealed how I came upon him again at the cave as he prayed the Kaddish and the exigency I felt to speak to him but stifled, she smiled. “And now he inhabits your thoughts and inflames your heart.”

“Yes.” I didn’t add that he caused heat and light to move about in my body as well, but I felt she knew that, too.

I could not have borne Yaltha telling me that my longing for him
only came from my despair over Nathaniel. It was true that Jesus had stepped into my path at the same moment the rest of my world collapsed. I suppose he was, in part, a consolation. She must’ve known it, but she refrained from saying it. Instead she told me that I had traveled to a secret sky, the one beyond this one where the queen of heaven reigns, for Yahweh knew nothing of female matters of the heart.

•   •   •

F
OOTSTEPS JARRED THE LADDER
,
and I turned to see Yaltha’s head pop up like a fishing bob. She was agile enough, but I feared one evening she would topple off into the courtyard. I hurried to offer her my hand, but instead of taking it, she said in a low voice, “Hurry. You must come down. Judas is here.”


Judas!

She hushed me and peered into the shadows below. Earlier, one of Antipas’s soldiers, the vicious one, had been positioned close by at the back entrance to the house. “Your brother waits for you at the mikvah,” she whispered. “Take care no one sees you.”

I waited for her to descend, then followed, remembering Father shouting that if Judas were caught, Antipas would execute him.

A thin blue darkness filled the courtyard. I didn’t see the soldier, but he could be anywhere about. I heard Shipra somewhere nearby cleaning the brazier. Overhead, the windows in the upper rooms of the house stared down, narrow and flickering. Yaltha thrust a clay lamp and towel at me. “May the Lord cleanse you and make you pure,” she said loudly for Shipra’s benefit, then disappeared into the house.

I wanted to fly across the courtyard and down the steps to my brother, but I clipped the wings in my feet and walked slowly. I sang aloud the song of purification. As I descended to the mikvah, I heard the heartbeat in the cistern—
drip
,
drip
 . . .
drip
,
drip
. The air in the small underground
room felt thick in my throat. Lifting the lamp, I watched a skin of light form on the surface of the pool.

I called in a quiet voice, “Judas.”

“I’m here.”

Turning, I saw him leaning against the wall behind me. The dark, handsome features, his quick smile. I set down the lamp and threw my arms about him. His woolen tunic smelled of sweat and horses. He was different. Thinner, browned, a new smoldering in his eyes.

Unexpectedly, my joy was overtaken by an upwell of anger. “How could you leave me here to fend for myself? Without even saying goodbye.”


Little sister
, you had Yaltha with you. If she’d not been here, I wouldn’t have left you. What I’m doing is larger than either of us. I’m doing this for God. For our people.”

“Father said Antipas will put you to death! His soldiers are looking for you.”

“What can I do, Ana? It’s the fullness of time. The Romans have occupied our land for seventy-seven years. Can’t you see how auspicious that is?
Seventy-seven.
That’s God’s holiest number, a sign to us the time has come.”

Next he would tell me he was one of the two Messiahs God had promised. Judas had suffered from messianic fever since he was a boy, a condition that rose and fell according to Rome’s brutalities. It afflicted almost everyone in Galilee, though I couldn’t say I was much affected by it. The Messiahs
were
prophesized—I couldn’t dispute it—but did I really believe a priest Messiah of Aaron and a king Messiah of David would suddenly appear arm in arm and lead an army of angels that would save us from our oppressors and restore the throne to Israel? God could not be swayed to break a mere betrothal, and Judas would have me believe the Lord meant to defeat the might of Rome.

There would be no dissuading my brother, though; I wouldn’t try. I
walked to the edge of the pool, where his shadow floated on the water. I stood there, staring at it. Finally I said, “Much has happened since you left. They’ve betrothed me.”

“I know. It’s why I’ve come.”

I couldn’t think how he might’ve learned of my betrothal or why it would bring him here. Whatever the reason, it was important enough for him to risk being caught.

“I came to warn you. Nathaniel ben Hananiah is a devil.”

“You imperiled your life to tell me
that
? Do you think I don’t know what a devil he is?”

“I don’t think you do. The steward who manages Nathaniel’s date grove is a sympathizer to our cause. He overheard certain things.”

“The steward spies on Nathaniel for you?”

“Listen—I must speak quickly. There’s more to your betrothal than what’s written in the contract. There is one thing Father doesn’t have, and we know it well.”

“He owns no land,” I said.

Most everyone has a private torment, some voracious badger that gnaws at them without ceasing, and this was Father’s. His own father had owned sizable papyrus fields in Egypt, and by law, his brother, Haran, the firstborn, should have received a double portion and he a single, but Haran, the same tormenter who had banished Yaltha to the Therapeutae, had secured a position for Father far away, here in the court of Antipas’s father, King Herod. My father was only eighteen then, too young and trusting to perceive the deceit. In his absence, Haran manipulated the law to take possession of Father’s portion, too. Just as it was with Jacob and Esau, a stolen birthright was the golden badger.

Judas said, “Nathaniel went to him, offering a quarter measure of his estates.”

“In exchange for me?”

He looked down. “No, little sister; marriage to you wasn’t a thought
in either of their minds then. Nathaniel wanted a seat of power within the palace and he was willing to give up large portions of his land for it. Already Father has promised him a place on the high council, where he can leverage his power for the rich and keep his tax low. If that isn’t enough, Father has pledged to rent Nathaniel’s storehouses to hold Herod Antipas’s taxes and the Roman tributes collected throughout Galilee. This will make Nathaniel the richest man in Galilee other than Antipas. And in exchange Father gets what he craves—the title that was stolen from him: landowner.”

“What of me?”

“It was Father who made you part of their pact. I don’t doubt our mother had been nagging him to find you a worthy betrothal, and suddenly here was Nathaniel. It must’ve seemed propitious to Father—Nathaniel had wealth and because of their arrangement, he would soon possess all the clout of the governing class.”

Father!

“I am sorry,” he said.

“There’s no escape from my betrothal. The contract has been signed. The bride price is paid. It can’t be ended except by divorce and I’ve tried to affront him every way I could. . . .” I stopped, realizing it would never matter how repugnantly I behaved. Because of his agreement with Father, Nathaniel would never divorce me.

I said, “Help me, Judas. Please do something. I cannot bear this marriage.”

He straightened. “I will give Nathaniel a reason to end the betrothal. I’ll do what I can—I swear it,” he said. “I must go. You should leave first and be sure the soldier I saw earlier is not in sight. I will leave by the gate at the back of the lower courtyard. If the way is clear, sing the song that was on your lips when you arrived.”

“I must appear as if I’ve bathed,” I said. “Turn your back so I can disrobe and immerse myself.”

“Quickly,” he said.

Peeling away my tunic, I stepped into the coolness of the water, then dipped under, splintering his reflection into a thousand black drops. Hurriedly, I dabbed myself half-dry.

“God keep you, Judas,” I said as I mounted the steps.

I went to the house, brokenhearted and singing.

xxi.

One morning three days after Judas’s visit, I woke with the image of a date palm branch. Had I dreamed of it? I sat up, pillows tumbling. The frond was a twisted contortion of deformed green-black fingers.

I couldn’t get it out of my thoughts.

The wind began to thrash about, and I knew the rains would come soon. The ladder thumped against the roof. The cooking griddles clattered in the courtyard.

It was early still when an urgent and relentless pounding began on the front door. Slipping from my room onto the balcony, I peered over the railing and saw Father hurrying across the reception hall. Mother stepped onto the loggia beside me. The heavy bolt on the door lifted. The cedar door groaned, and Father said, “Nathaniel, what’s all this commotion about?”

Mother reeled toward me, as if I were the reason he’d come. “Go and finish grooming your hair.”

I ignored her. If my betrothed wished to see me, I preferred to look my worst.

Tromping into the atrium, Nathaniel looked defeated. He was hatless, his fine clothes soot-stained and bedraggled. His eyes darted about, irate. His whole countenance was such an astonishment that Mother gasped. Father traipsed after him.

Nathaniel beckoned to someone behind him, and I had the feeling of
something terrible looming. I felt like a bird waiting for the stone to fly from the slingshot. A man in worker’s garb stepped into view. In his hands was the branch of a date palm. It was partially torched, dropping char onto the tiles. He tossed it at my father’s feet. It landed in a clatter, a shower of black cinders. The smell of smoke wafted over the room.

Whatever this is, it is the workings of Judas
.

“My date palms have been maliciously burned,” Nathaniel said. “Half of my grove set on fire. My olive trees survived only because I took care to put a man in the watchtower who raised the alarm in time.”

Father looked from the branch to Nathaniel. He said, “And you think it prudent to beat on my door and toss the evidence on my floor?” He seemed genuinely confounded by Nathaniel’s anger.

Nathaniel, this little man. His head didn’t reach Father’s jaw, but he stepped toward him, puffed up and righteous. He would tell Father now who was to blame, for I could see he knew. I pictured Judas’s earnest face at the mikvah.

“It was your son who set the torch,” Nathaniel bellowed. “Judas and Simon ben Gioras and their brigands.”

“It cannot be Judas,” Mother cried, and the men looked up, Nathaniel noticing me for the first time, and in that unguarded moment, even from this high distance, I saw his loathing for me.

“Leave us,” Father ordered, but of course we did not. We backed from the rail, listening. “Did you see him yourself? Are you certain it was Judas?”

“I saw him with my own eyes as he laid waste to my trees. And if there was doubt of it, he cried out, ‘Death to the rich and unscrupulous. Death to Herod Antipas. Death to Rome.’ Then, raising his voice even louder, he shouted, ‘I am Judas ben Matthias.’”

I dared to creep to the edge of the balcony. Father had turned his back to Nathaniel and was attempting to gather himself. For women,
the cruelest state is to be denied; for men it’s to be stricken with shame, and Father was awash in it. I felt a prick of sorrow for him.

When he turned to Nathaniel, his face was a mask. He questioned Nathaniel about every detail. How many men did you see? What hour did they come? Were they on horseback? Which way did they retreat? As they spoke, Father’s disgrace was set aside by rage.

“There’s a reason Judas went out of his way to declare himself your son,” Nathaniel said. “He meant to put you in disfavor with Herod Antipas. If that happens, Matthias . . . if you lose your power with Antipas, you will be in no position to carry out our arrangement and there will be no reason for me to go through with it.”

Had Nathaniel just put forth a threat to end the betrothal?
Oh, Judas, how clever
you are.
Of course, Antipas would not tolerate Father’s son waging these attacks. It would drive a wedge between them, making it impossible for Father to hold up his end of the bargain!

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