The Book of Longings: A Novel (3 page)

BOOK: The Book of Longings: A Novel
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I took a breath. Then another, calming my spinning, senseless thoughts.

Gazing at the sun, I judged it was almost noon, and I imagined Yaltha waking to find the house empty with only Lavi left to tell her we’d all traipsed off to the market in our most splendid dress. I willed her to come in search of us. She could scarcely miss us—there was nothing omitted from our procession except cymbals and trumpets. I glanced over my shoulder in hopes of seeing her, picturing how she would appear—winded, clothed in her simple flax tunic, somehow knowing I was in peril. She would fall in step with me, her shoulders drawn back in that proud way she had. She would take my hand, saying,
I’m here, your aunt is here
.

The city was clogged with the affluent citizenry of Sepphoris, as well as foreigners from across the empire—I caught snatches of Latin and Phrygian, as well as Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek—and, as usual, there were throngs of day laborers from Nazareth: the stonemasons, carpenters, and quarry workers who made the hour-long walk across the Nahal Zippori valley each day to find work in one of Herod Antipas’s building projects. They clattered carts through the streets in a din of bellowing donkeys and shouts, drowning out the jingle of coins on my forehead, the bells on my sandals, the pandemonium in my chest.

As we neared the city mint, someone in the crowd shouted, “Behold, Herod Antipas’s dogs!” in the Aramaic dialect of the Nabataeans, and I saw Father flinch. When others took up the chant, our guard at the rear trudged into the mob, pounding his shield for effect, which caused the laughter to die.

Ashamed of our extravagance and only mildly startled by the hatred for us among the peasants, I lowered my head, not wanting to meet their stares, and it came back to me, what I most wished to forget about the day Judas disappeared.

•   •   •

O
N THAT MO
RNING
,
he had accompanied me to the market where I’d hoped to find some papyri. Typically it was left to Lavi to be my chaperone, but Judas had offered and I’d been jubilant. Strolling along the same route we traveled now, we’d come upon an overturned barrow and beside it a laborer whose arm was partially pinned beneath a marble slab. Blood crept from beneath the stone on feathery spider legs.

I tried to restrain Judas from rushing to his side. “He’s unclean!” I cried, grabbing his arm. “Leave him.”

Judas jerked free and looked at me with disgust. “Ana! What do you know of his plight—
you
, a privileged girl who has never known a hard day of work or a pang of hunger! Are you your father’s daughter after all?”

His words were no less crushing than the slab of stone. I remained immobile and shamed as he lifted it off the man and bound his wound with a strip of cloth torn from his own tunic.

Returning to me, he said, “Give me your bracelet.”

“What?”


Give me your bracelet.

It was a band of pure gold carved with a twisting grapevine. I drew back my arm.

He leaned close to my face. “This man”—he broke off, gesturing at the entire ragged collection of sweat-slick laborers who had stopped to stare—“
all
of these men deserve your mercy. They know nothing but taxes and debt. If they cannot pay, Herod Antipas takes their land and they have no way to live other than this. If this man cannot work, he will end up a beggar.”

I slid the band from my wrist, and watched as Judas placed it in the injured man’s hand.

It was later that same night that Judas and Father had clashed while Mother, Yaltha, and I listened from the balcony above the reception hall, pressed into the shadows.

“I regret that a follower of Simon ben Gioras spit on you, Father,” Judas said. “But you cannot condemn him. These men alone fight for the poor and dispossessed.”

“I
do
condemn them!” Father shouted. “I condemn them for their banditry and rabble-rousing. As for the poor and dispossessed, they have reaped what they sowed.”

His pronouncement on the poor, rendered with such ease, such malice, incensed Judas, who bellowed back, “The poor have reaped only the brutality of Antipas! How are they to pay his taxes on top of Rome’s tributes,
and
their mandatory tithes to the Temple? They are being broken, and you and Antipas are the pestle.”

For moments there was not a sound. Then Father’s voice, barely a hiss: “Get out. Leave my house.”

Mother sucked in her breath. As uncaring as Father had been to Judas over the years, he’d never gone so far as this. Would Judas have lashed out if I hadn’t provoked his disgust earlier that day with my own words of malice? I felt sickened.

My brother’s footsteps echoed in the flickering light below, then died away.

I turned to look at Mother. Her eyes were shining with abhorrence. For as long as I’d had memory, she’d despised my father. He’d refused to allow Judas into the narrow precincts of his heart, and Mother’s revenge had been methodical and spectacular—she pretended to be barren. Meanwhile, she swallowed wormwood, wild rue, even chasteberries, known to be rare and of great price. I’d found the preventatives in the herb box Shipra kept hidden in the storeroom below the courtyard. With my own ears I’d heard the two of them discuss the wool Mother
soaked in linseed oil and placed inside herself before Father visited her and of the resins with which she swabbed herself afterward.

It was said women were made for two things: beauty and procreation. Having granted Father beauty, Mother saw to it he was denied procreation, refusing him children besides me. All these years, and he’d never caught on to her deception.

At times it had crossed my thoughts that my mother might not be driven solely by vengeance, but also by her
own
female peculiarity—not an unbounded ambition like mine, but an aversion to children. Perhaps she feared the pain and risk of death that came with birthing them, or she abhorred the way they ravaged a woman’s body, or she resented the exhausting efforts required to care for them. Perhaps she simply didn’t like them. I couldn’t blame her for any of that. But if she feigned an inability to give birth for such reasons, why, then, did she birth
me
? Why was I here at all? Had her chasteberries failed to work?

The question vexed me until I reached thirteen and heard the rabbi speak of a rule that allowed a man to divorce his wife if she had not given birth in ten years, and it was as if the heavens parted and the reason for my existence toppled from God’s throne and landed at my feet. I was my mother’s safeguard. I was born to protect her from being cast out.

•   •   •

N
OW
M
OTHER WALKED
behind my father holding herself erect, her chin high, looking neither right nor left. In the sunlight, her golden coat seemed lit with a hundred flames. The air shone brighter around her than the rest of us, filled with haughtiness and beauty and the scent of sandalwood. Searching the crowded streets once more for Yaltha, then Judas, I began to repeat my secret prayer, moving my lips but making no sound.
Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it . . .

The words calmed me as the city flowed past, magnificent structures that awed me each time I ventured out. Antipas had filled Sepphoris with imposing public buildings, a royal treasury, frescoed basilicas, a bathhouse, sewers, roofed sidewalks, and paved streets laid out in perfect Roman grids. Large villas like Father’s were common throughout the city, and Antipas’s palace was as rich as any kingly residence. He’d been reconstructing the city since Rome razed it all those years ago when Judas lost his parents, and what had risen from the ashes was a wealthy metropolis that rivaled any but Jerusalem.

Lately, Antipas had begun construction on a Roman amphitheater on the northern slope of the city that would seat four thousand people. Father himself had come up with the idea as a way for Antipas to impress the emperor Tiberius. Judas said it was just another way to shove Rome down our throats. Father, however, wasn’t finished with his scheming. He advised Antipas to mint his own coins, but break from Roman custom by leaving off his image and replacing it with a menorah. The ingenious gesture gave Antipas the appearance of reverencing the same Mosaic law I’d broken earlier that morning. The people called Herod Antipas the Fox, but my father was the slyer one.

Was I like him, as Judas had implied?

As the market came into sight, the crowd thickened. We plowed past clusters of men—members of court, scribes, government officials, and priests. Children hauled sheaves of herbs, barley, and wheat, armloads of onions, doves in stick cages. Women bore wares on their heads with bewildering steadiness—jars of oil, baskets of late-harvest olives, bolts of cloth, stone pitchers, even three-legged tables, whatever they could sell, all the while greeting one another, “
Shelama, shelama.
” I never saw these women without envy for how they came and went freely without the bondage of a chaperone. Surely peasantry was not all bad.

Inside the basilica, the commotion intensified along with the airless heat. I began to sweat inside my elaborate coat. I swept my eyes over the
cavernous room, over row after row of stalls and market carts. There was an odor of sweat, charcoal, skewered meat, and the putrid salted fish from Magdala. I pushed the back of my hand to my nostrils to lessen the stench and felt the soldier who’d tromped behind us nudge me forward.

Up ahead, my mother stopped midway along a row of stalls that sold goods from the silk route—Chinese paper, silks, and spices. She idly inspected an azure cloth while my father continued on to the row’s end, where he lingered, his eyes roaming the multitudes.

From the moment we’d set out, I’d feared we were walking toward something calamitous, sensing it not only in the oddness of our expedition, but in the minute movements of my parents’ faces, and yet here was my mother serenely shopping for silk and my father patiently watching the crowd. Had she come to trade after all? My breath left me in a rush of relief.

I didn’t notice the small man who approached my father, not until the crowd parted a bit and I saw him stride forward and greet Father with a bow. He was clothed in an expensive coat of deep purple and a towering cone-shaped hat, perhaps the tallest hat my eyes had ever beheld, which drew attention to his exceptionally short stature.

My mother laid down the sheath of azure. Looking back, she waved me forward.

“Who is Father’s companion?” I asked, reaching her side.

“He is Nathaniel ben Hananiah, your father’s acquaintance.”

He could have been a boy of twelve except for the voluminous beard that plunged to his chest like twisted hanks of flax fiber. He plucked at it, his ferret eyes darting toward me, then away.

“He owns not one, but two estates,” she informed me. “One grows dates, the other olives.”

Then one of those small, nameless moments occurred that would loom large only later—a sweep of color at the edge of my eye. Turning
toward it, I spotted a young man, a peasant, with uplifted hands and long strands of spun thread looped about his outspread fingers—red, green, lilac, yellow, blue. The threads streamed to his knees like bright falls of water. In time, they would remind me of rainbows, and I would wonder if God had sent them as a sign of hope as he’d done for Noah, something for me to cling to amid the drowned ruins that awaited, but right then the sight was nothing more than a lovely distraction.

A girl not much older than I was attempting to coil the lengths of thread into neat whorls in order to sell them. I could tell they were tinted with cheap vegetable dyes. The young man laughed, a deep, booming laugh, and I noticed he was wiggling his fingers, making the threads flutter, rendering them impossible to capture. The girl laughed, too, though she was trying very hard not to.

There was so much unexpectedness in the scene, so much gladness, that I fixed on it. I’d seen women offering their fingers as sorting pegs, never men.
What manner of man assists a woman with the balling of her yarn?

He appeared older than I by several years, as old as twenty. He had a short, dark beard and thick hair that fell to his chin, as was the custom. I watched him push a lock behind one ear, where it refused to stay, tumbling back onto his face. His nose was long, his cheekbones broad, and his skin the color of almonds. He wore a coarse, rough-weave tunic and an outer garment sewn with tzitzit—the blue tassels marking him as a follower of God’s laws. I wondered if he could be a Pharisee of the fanatical sort, one of those unyielding followers of Shammai who were known to travel ten fathoms out of the way to avoid encountering one unrighteous soul.

I glanced back at Mother, worried she would observe me staring, but she was absorbed in her own enthrallment with Father’s acquaintance. The haggling in the market faded and I heard Father’s raised voice cut through the commotion: “One thousand denarii and a portion of your
date groves.” Their meeting, it seemed, had progressed to an impassioned exchange of business.

The girl in the yarn stall finished winding her threads and placed the last orb on a wooden plank that served as a shelf. I’d thought at first she was the young man’s wife, but seeing now how closely she resembled him, I decided they must be siblings.

As if feeling the intensity of my stare, the man suddenly looked around, his gaze falling on me like a veil I could almost feel, the heat of it touching my shoulders, my neck, my cheeks. I should’ve looked away, but I could not. His eyes were the most remarkable thing about him, not for their beauty, though they
were
beautiful in their way—widely spaced and black as my blackest ink—but it wasn’t that. There was a tiny fire in them, an expressiveness I could see even from where I stood. It was as if his thoughts floated in the wet, dark light of them, wanting to be read. I perceived amusement in them. Curiosity. An unguarded interest. There was no trace of disdain for my wealth. No judgment. No pious smugness. I saw generosity and kindness. And something else less accessible, a hurt of some kind.

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