The Book of Longings: A Novel (2 page)

Nearly finished with my prayer, I cocked one ear for my mother and the other for the return of my brother, Judas. He had not been seen for days. At twenty, his duty was to settle down and seek a wife, but he preferred to madden Father by consorting with the radicals who agitated against Rome. He’d gone off with the Zealots before, but never so long as this. Each morning I hoped to hear him clomping through the vestibule hungry and spent, contrite over the worry he’d put us through. Judas, though, was never contrite. And this time was different—we all knew it, but didn’t say it. Mother feared, as I did, that he’d finally joined Simon ben Gioras, the most inflamed fanatic of them all, for good. It was said his men swooped down upon small bands of Herod Antipas’s mercenaries and General Varus’s Roman soldiers and slit their throats. They also preyed on rich travelers on the road to Cana, taking their money to give to the poor, but leaving their necks intact.

Judas was my adopted brother, the son of my mother’s cousin, but he was closer to me in spirit than my parents. Sensing how separate and alone I’d felt growing up, he’d often taken me with him to wander the terraced hills outside the city, the two of us climbing the stone walls that separated the fields, surprising the girls who tended sheep, plucking grapes and olives as we went. The slopes were pocked with honeycombed caves, and we explored them, calling our names into their gaping mouths, listening for the voice that spoke them back to us.

Inevitably Judas and I would find our way to the Roman aqueduct that brought water into the city, and there we made a ritual of throwing stones at the columns between the arches. It was while we’d stood in the shadows of that massive Roman marvel—he, sixteen, and I, ten—that Judas first told me about the revolt in Sepphoris that had taken his parents from him. Roman soldiers had rounded up two thousand rebels including his father and crucified them, lining the roadsides with crosses.
His mother had been sold into slavery with the rest of the city’s inhabitants. Judas, only two, was given shelter in Cana until my parents came for him.

They adopted him with a legal contract, but Judas never belonged to my father, only my mother. My brother despised Herod Antipas for his collusion with Rome, as did every God-loving Jew, and it incensed him that our father had become Antipas’s closest adviser. Galileans were forever plotting sedition and looking for a messiah to deliver them from Rome, and it fell to Father to counsel Antipas on how to pacify them while at the same time maintaining his loyalty to their oppressor. It was a thankless task for anyone, but especially for our father, whose Jewishness came and went like the rains. He kept the Sabbath, but with laxity. He went to synagogue, but left before the rabbi read the Scripture. He made the long pilgrimages to Jerusalem for Passover and Sukkoth, but with dread. He adhered to the food laws, but entered the mikvah only if he encountered a corpse or a person with a skin outbreak, or sat on a chair my menstruating mother had just vacated.

I worried for his safety. This morning he left for the palace accompanied by two of Herod Antipas’s soldiers, Idumaean mercenaries whose helmets and gladiuses glinted with flashes of sunlight. They’d been accompanying him since last week when he was spit upon in the street by one of Simon ben Gioras’s Zealots. The insult provoked a vicious argument between Father and Judas, a tempest of shouts that swept from the vestibule into the upper rooms. My brother disappeared that same night.

Occupied with these anxious thoughts of Mother, Father, and Judas, I overloaded my pen, which dripped into the bowl, leaving a black dewdrop of ink on the bottom. I stared at it horror-struck.

Carefully, I dabbed the ink with a wiping rag, which left an ugly gray splotch. I’d only made it worse. I closed my eyes to calm myself. Finally, drawing my concentration back to my prayer, I wrote the last few words with the fullness of my mind.

I waved a sheaf of feathers over the ink to quicken the drying. Then, as Yaltha had instructed, I drew the figure of a girl in the bottom of the bowl. I made her tall with long legs, a slim torso, small breasts, an egg-shaped face, large eyes, hair like brambles, thick brows, a grape of a mouth. Her arms were lifted, begging
please
,
please
. Anyone would know the girl was me.

The stain from the dribbled ink hovered above the girl’s head like a dark little cloud. I frowned at it, telling myself it meant nothing. It presaged nothing. A lapse of concentration, that’s all, but I couldn’t help feeling troubled. I sketched a dove over the girl’s head just below the blemish. Its wings arched over her like a tabernacle.

Rising, I took my incantation bowl to the small high window, where skeins of light fell. I rotated the bowl in a full circle, watching the words move inside it, rippling toward the rim.

Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight. May they be visible to eyes not yet born. When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.

I gazed upon the prayer and the girl and the dove, and a sensation billowed in my chest, a small exultation like a flock of birds lifting all at once from the trees.

I wished God might notice what I’d done and speak from the whirlwind. I wished him to say:
Ana, I see you. How pleasing you are in my sight.
There was only silence.

It was while I busied myself putting away my writing tools that the second commandment appeared in my mind as if God had spoken after
all, but it was not what I wished to hear.
Thou shalt not make a graven image of anything living in heaven, or on the earth, or in the sea.
It was said God himself had written the words on a stone tablet and given them to Moses. I couldn’t imagine he’d really intended us to go to such an extreme, but the commandment had taken on a strict interpretation as a way to keep Israel pure and separate from Rome. It had become a measuring rod of loyalty.

I grew still. A coldness passed through me.
People have been stoned to death for creating images cruder than the one I’ve drawn.
Sinking to the floor, I braced my back against the sturdiness of my cedar chest. Last evening when my aunt instructed me to place my likeness in the bowl, the admonition against graven images had tormented me for several moments, but I’d dismissed it, blinded by her self-assurance. Now my disregard for the consequences left me weak.

I wasn’t concerned about being stoned—matters could never go so far as that. Stonings took place in Galilee, even in Sepphoris, but not here in my father’s Greek-loving household, where what mattered was not keeping Judaic laws, but the
appearance
of keeping them. No, what I felt was fear that if my image were discovered, my bowl would be destroyed. I feared the precious contents of my chest would be taken away, that my father would finally heed my mother and forbid me to write. That he would unleash his wrath upon Yaltha, perhaps even send her away.

I pressed my hands against my breast as if to compel myself back to the person I’d been the night before. Where was the self who composed a prayer girls dare not pray? Where was the self who entered the mikvah? Who lit the lamps? Who believed?

I’d recorded the stories my aunt had told me of the girls and women in Alexandria, afraid those, too, would be lost, and I dug now through my scrolls until I found them. I smoothed them out and read. They emboldened me.

I searched for a piece of flax among my wiping rags. Draping it over
my bowl, I disguised it as a waste pot, then slipped it beneath my bed. Mother would never come near it. It was her spy, Shipra, I must worry about.

iv.

My mother’s name, Hadar, means splendor, a name she did her best to uphold. She stepped into the room wearing a robe the color of emeralds and her finest carnelian necklace, trailed by Shipra, who was laden with a stack of luxuriant clothes and an array of purses containing jewelry, combs, and eye paint. Balanced on top of her pile was a pair of honey-colored sandals with tiny bells sewn to the straps. Even Shipra, a servant, wore her best coat and a carved bone bracelet.

“We will leave soon for the market,” Mother announced. “And you will accompany us.”

If she hadn’t arrived with such a pressing mission, she might have noticed me glancing at the bowl beneath the bed and wondered at the object of my fascination. But her curiosity wasn’t aroused, and in my relief I didn’t at first question the irrationality of attending the market in such finery.

Shipra removed my robe and replaced it with a white linen tunic heavily embroidered with silver thread. She wrapped an indigo girdle about my hips, slid the musical sandals onto my feet, and admonished me to stand still as she lightened my brown face with chalk and barley flour. Her breath smelled of lentils and leeks, and when I twisted away, she pinched the lobe of my ear. I stamped my foot, unleashing a gust of bell ringing.

“Stand still; we can’t be late,” Mother said, handing Shipra a stick of kohl and watching as she lined my eyes, then rubbed oil into my hands.

I could hold my tongue no longer. “Must we dress so lavishly to attend the market?”

The two women exchanged a look. A patch of red bloomed beneath Mother’s chin and spread across her neck, as it often did when she was being devious. She ignored me.

I told myself there was no reason for unease. Mother’s pageants were not uncommon, though they were typically confined to the banquets she orchestrated for Father’s patrons in the reception hall—extravaganzas of roasted lamb, honeyed figs, olives, hummus, flatbread, wine, glittering oil lamps, musicians, acrobats, a fortune-telling magus. Her exhibitions never included ostentatious walks to the market.

Poor Mother. She seemed always in need of proving something, though I’d never known what, precisely, until Yaltha arrived. During one of our roof talks, my aunt had revealed that my mother’s father had made his living as a poor merchant in Jerusalem selling cloths, and not especially fine ones. Father and Yaltha, however, descended from a noble line of Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria with ties to the Roman authorities. Naturally, arranging a marriage between two families separated by a chasm like this would’ve been impossible unless the bride possessed extraordinary beauty or the groom bore some bodily defect. As it was, Mother’s face was unsurpassed and the thigh bone of Father’s left leg was shorter than his right, causing him to limp ever so slightly.

Realizing that my mother’s displays of grandeur were motivated not by conceit alone, but by an attempt to offset her low bearing, had come as a relief. It made me pity her.

Shipra pinioned my hair with ribbons and fastened a headband of silver coins across my forehead. She draped me in a stifling woolen cloak dyed scarlet, and not from cheap madder root, but from the rich red of female insects. As a last torment, Mother dropped a yoke of lapis beads around my neck.

“Your father will be pleased,” she said.

“Father? He’s coming, too?”

She nodded, pulling a saffron coat about her shoulders and drawing the mantle over her headdress.

When has Father ever walked to the market?

I couldn’t comprehend what was happening, only that I seemed to be at the center of it, and it felt ill-omened. If Judas were here, he would take my part; he always took my part. He insisted to Mother I be exempt from the spindle, loom, and lyre and left to my studies. He asked my questions of the rabbi when I wasn’t allowed to speak at synagogue. I wished for him now with all my heart.

“What of Judas?” I asked. “Has he returned?”

Mother shook her head and looked away from me.

He had always been her favorite, the lone heritor of her adoration. I wanted to believe it was because he accorded her the status that came from having a son or because he’d been troubled and brokenhearted as a child and needed the extra portion. And Judas was, after all, handsome and affable, filled with equal measures of principle and kindness, the rarest of combinations, while I was willful, impulsive, composed of strange hopes and selfish rebellion. I must have been very hard for her to love.

“And Yaltha?” I asked, desperate for an ally.


Yaltha . . .
” She spit the word. “Yaltha will remain here.”

v.

We moved along the main thoroughfare of Sepphoris like an imperial barge, gliding along the colonnaded street, over the gleaming crushed limestone, forcing people aside—Father leading the way, then Mother, Shipra, and I, flanked by two soldiers, who shouted to passersby to make way. I watched Father’s stocky frame striding ahead, listing a little side to side. He wore a red coat, as I did, and a matching hat that rose from
his head like a loaf of bread. His large ears protruded on either side of the hat like little shelves, while underneath, his great bald head, which he considered a reproach from God, was hidden from view.

Earlier, upon seeing me, he’d nodded at Mother in some tacit way and, studying me further, said, “You mustn’t frown so, Ana.”

“Tell me the purpose of our excursion, Father, and I’m sure I’ll appear more agreeable.”

He didn’t answer, and I asked again. He ignored me, as Mother had. It was not unusual for my parents to disregard my queries—it was their daily habit—but their refusal to answer alarmed me. As we paraded along the street, my growing panic sent me wandering in wild and terrified imaginings. It occurred to me the market was inside the same vast Roman basilica that housed the court, as well as the public hall where our synagogue met, and I began to agonize that we weren’t going to the market at all, but to a tribunal where Judas would be accused of banditry, and our show of wealth was meant to deter his punishment. That was certainly it, and my fear for my brother was no less than it’d been for myself.

Moments later, however, I pictured us at the synagogue, where my parents, weary of my constant pleas to study as boys did, would accuse me of dishonoring them with my ambition and self-importance. The rabbi, the supercilious one, would write a curse and force me to swallow an infusion of the ink with which it was written. If I were sinless, the curse would have no effect, and if I were guilty, my hands would waste away so I could no longer write, and my eyes would grow too dim to read, or perhaps they would fall out of my head altogether. Hadn’t a test such as this been given to a woman accused of adultery? Wasn’t it said that her thighs wasted and her belly swelled as warned in the Scriptures? Why, I could be handless and blind by this very night! And if the synagogue is not our destination, I told myself, perhaps we would go to the market after all, where I would be bartered to an Arabian prince or a
spice dealer who would carry me across the desert on the back of a camel, ridding my parents of me once and for all.

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