The Book of Longings: A Novel (7 page)

BOOK: The Book of Longings: A Novel
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I’d understood even then that bringing Tabitha into my life was Mother’s attempt to distract me from my studies and lure me from things unbefitting girls. Clearly she did not know Tabitha had rouged her nipples with henna and proudly displayed them for me.

I glared at my mother. This time she would use Tabitha to divert me from my morning walks in the hills. While she didn’t know my true motive for these excursions, her suspicion seemed aroused.
Be careful
, I told myself.

•   •   •

T
ABITHA CAST HER GAZE
about my room. “When I was here last, your bed was covered with scrolls. I remember you read one of them while I wove your hair.”

“I did?”

“Even when I sang, you read. You are very serious!” She laughed, not unkindly, and I absorbed her amusement without comment. I resisted telling her that my seriousness had only worsened.

We sat on a floor mat in an awkward silence, eating the goat cheese
and almonds Lavi had packed for breakfast. I glanced toward the window. The morning was seeping away.

“So, we are both betrothed now,” she said and chattered on about her betrothed, a man of twenty-one named Ephraim. I learned more about him than I cared to know. He’d been apprenticed to her father as a palace scribe and now worked penning documents for a member of Antipas’s high council. He had little wealth. He was “firm in his demeanor,” which didn’t sound encouraging, but overall he was infinitely better than who Father had come up with for me.

I listened with one ear. I did not ask questions about her wedding date or her dowry price.

“Tell me of
your
betrothed,” she said.

“I would rather not speak of him. I find him vile.”

“I don’t find Ephraim vile, but I do find him ugly. My wish is that he had the face and stature of the soldier who accompanies my father to and from the palace.” She giggled.

I sighed, too heavily.

She said, “I think you don’t like me very much.”

Her directness caused me to choke on a piece of almond. I coughed so fitfully, she leaned forward and pounded my back. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m often accused of blurting my thoughts. My father says my mind is weak, and my tongue, weaker.” She looked at me with stricken eyes that began to fill.

I placed my hand on her arm. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I’ve been rude. I’d planned to walk in the hills this morning, and when you came, I felt . . . diverted.” I’d almost said disappointed. She wiped her cheeks with her sleeve, trying to smile.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I added, and it was almost true. My remorse had softened me toward her. “Sing for me and I promise not to read.” There were no scrolls left in my room to tempt me, but even so, I wanted to hear her.

She beamed and her sweet, high-pitched voice poured through the room as she intoned the song the women sang when they went out to meet the bridegroom before the wedding.

Sing, the groom comes soon.

Lift your timbrel. Raise your voice.

Dance with the rising moon
.

Let all of creation rejoice.

I’d thought Tabitha shallow, but perhaps she wasn’t superficial so much as lighthearted. She was a girl, that’s all. A playful girl who lifted her timbrel. At that moment she seemed everything I was not, and this came as a small revelation. I had hated in her what I lacked in myself.

You are very serious
, she’d told me.

Despite the soreness that lingered in my ankle, I pulled her to her feet, joining my voice with hers, and we twirled in circles to the point of dizziness and collapsed onto the floor, laughing.

Mother’s plot to bring Tabitha back into my life had indeed affected me, though not in the way she’d hoped—I could never be dissuaded from my studies or my walks, but I was far more pleased to sing.

x.

Tabitha came often to our house in the mornings, hindering my quest in the hills. I worried constantly that Shipra or Mother would discover my scrolls and my bowl in Yaltha’s room, and yet I was happy for my friend’s presence. Her visits were bright splotches amid the grimness of anticipating a marriage to Nathaniel. She knew untold songs, most of which she’d composed herself in hexameters and trimeters. There was one about a madwoman who starts laughing and can’t stop; another about a peasant who bakes a worm into a loaf of bread and serves it to the
tetrarch; and my favorite, about a girl who escapes a harem by pretending to be a boy.

Even Yaltha would rise earlier than usual from her bed to hear what Tabitha had concocted, bringing an Egyptian rattling musical instrument called a sistrum and shaking it in rhythm with the songs. Tabitha would free her straight black hair from its constraints and, without a trace of shyness, dance out the story as she sang. She had a small, lithe body and a lovely face with high arching brows. Watching her move was like gazing at mesmeric curls of smoke.

One morning when Tabitha arrived, she had an amused, conspiratorial look about her. She said, “Today we shall perform a dance
together
.” When I protested, she snorted. “You have no choice—I’ve written a song that requires both of us.”

I had never danced, not ever. “What’s the song about?” I asked.

“We shall be two blind girls who pretend we can see in order to keep our betrotheds.”

I didn’t know if I cared for her song’s proposition. “Could we be blind and pretend to see in order to keep our tutors?”

“No girl would enact such an elaborate pretense for a
tutor
.”


I
would.”

She rolled her eyes upward, but I saw she was more amused than exasperated. “Then you shall pretend that your betrothed
is
your tutor.”

There was something strangely beautiful about this, the coming together of two ways of life that I’d thought irreconcilable: duty and longing.

We slipped into Mother’s room while she was occupied in the courtyard and lifted the lid on her storage chest, the oak one carved on top with braided circles and fastened with a brass clasp. Tabitha dug out dyed scarves the color of rubies and tied them about our hips. She rummaged among the pouches for a kohl stick and drew a pair of staring eyes atop my closed lids, and when it was my turn to draw the same
upon hers, I giggled so uncontrollably the stick of kohl made a streak across her temple. She said, “We will dance with our eyes closed, completely blind, but we will look as if we can see.”

At the bottom of the chest, Tabitha found Mother’s wooden jewel box. Would we now plunder her jewelry, too? I glanced back at the door while Tabitha draped the carnelian necklace about her neck and tied lapis beads about mine. She adorned us with gold and amethyst headbands and pushed gold rings on our fingers. She said, “Just because we’re blind doesn’t mean we can’t look beautiful.”

Coming upon a vial of perfume, she opened it and the sharp smell of a thousand lilies cut the air. Spikenard, the costliest of all the scents.

“Not that one,” I said. “It’s too expensive.”

“Surely we poor blind girls deserve spikenard.” She blinked and the eyes I’d painted on her lids flashed me an imploring look.

I gave in easily, and she placed a drop of the oil on her finger and touched it to my forehead as mothers did when anointing and naming their babies. “I anoint you Ana, friend of Tabitha,” she said and let out a quiet laugh, making it hard to know whether she was being serious or playful, but then she held my eyes and repeated the words
friend of Tabitha
, and I realized she was being both.

“Now me,” she said.

I dipped my finger into the vial and touched her forehead. “I anoint you Tabitha, friend of Ana.” And this time she didn’t laugh.

We repacked the chest as we’d found it and hurried from the room, exhilarated and reeking, leaving behind a great deal of olfactory evidence of our plundering.

Yaltha waited for us in my room. She shook the sistrum, setting loose a shimmering sound. Tabitha began to sing, and with a nod at me to follow her lead, sank her eyelids closed and danced. I closed my eyes, too, but stood there, motionless and inhibited.
You are very serious
, I told myself, and then let my arms and legs do as they pleased. I swayed. I was
a willow reed. A floating cloud. A raven. I was a blind girl pretending to see.

Once I careened into Tabitha, and she found my hand and didn’t let go. I didn’t think once of Nathaniel. I thought of the young man in the market who’d lifted me to my feet. I thought of scrolls and ink. In the darkness behind my eyes, I was free.

xi.

On the days Tabitha didn’t visit, Lavi and I departed the house early and ventured across Sepphoris to the southern gate of the city, where I would pause to take in the valley, making a ceremony of it, gazing down on clouds and birds, then up at the sharp blue edges, and the wind would blow wild around me. Then I would descend onto the footpath that led across the hills, determined to find a cave to hide my scrolls and incantation bowl. Time pressed on me. Thus far, Mother had failed to search my aunt’s room. Perhaps it hadn’t yet occurred to her that the two of us were in collusion, but it might, and soon. Each day upon waking, I tore from my room, frantic to find Yaltha and inquire if the bundle was safe.

I asked myself why the prospect of losing thirteen scrolls, two vials of ink, two reed pens, three clean sheets of papyrus, and a bowl set off such desperation in me. Only now do I see the immensity I assigned to these objects. They not only represented those fragile stories I wanted to preserve. They also held the full weight of my craving to express myself, to lift out of my small self, out of the enclosure of my life, and find what lay beyond. I wanted for so much.

The urgency of finding a cave possessed me. Lavi threw himself into the mission, too, though he fretted when I veered from the path. The isolated thickets were populated with badgers, boars, wild goats, hyenas, and jackals. Each time we went out, I wandered farther and farther afield. We came upon men laboring in a limestone quarry, women
washing garments in a stream, shepherd boys pretending their crooks were swords, Nazarene girls gathering the late olive harvest. Now and then we passed a pious man praying in a nook of rock or beneath an acacia tree. We found dozens of caves, but none were well suited. They were too accessible, or showed signs of habitation, or had been claimed as a tomb and were sealed with a stone.

We walked the hills to no avail.

xii.

It was rare that Father, Mother, Yaltha, and I shared a meal together other than on the Sabbath, so when Mother insisted we all sit down together, I knew there must be news. Father, however, had taken up the better part of our supper with a tirade about bowls made of gold that were missing from the palace.

“But why should you be concerned with it?” Mother asked.

“They’re the bowls used to serve scribes and subordinates in the library. First, one went missing, then two. Now four. Antipas is angered. He has charged me to find the thief. I cannot see what I’m to do about it—I’m not a palace guard!”

This could hardly be the reason for our family convocation. “We’ve had enough of stolen bowls, Matthias,” Mother said and stood, ebullient, full of leaven. Ah, here it was.

“I have important news, Ana. Your betrothal ceremony will take place at the palace!”

I stared at a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds strewn on the serving platter.

“Did you hear me? Herod Antipas himself will host the betrothal meal. He will act as one of the two witnesses. The
tetrarch
! The
tetrarch
, Ana. Can you imagine?”

No. I could not. A betrothal had to be publicly formalized, but did it have to be a spectacle? This bore signs of my mother’s scheming.

I’d never been inside the palace where my father went each day to give the tetrarch advice and record his letters and edicts, but Mother had once attended a banquet there with Father, albeit confined to a separate women’s meal. It had been followed by weeks of obsessive talk about what she’d seen. Roman baths, monkeys chained in the courtyard, fire dancers, platters of roasted ostrich, and most alluring of all, Herod Antipas’s young wife, Phasaelis, a Nabataean princess with a crown of shining black hair that reached the floor. Sitting on her banquet couch, the princess had wrapped locks of her hair about her arms like snakes and entertained the women by undulating her arms. So Mother said.

“When will this take place?” I asked.

“The nineteenth of Marcheshvan.”

“But that is . . . that is only a month away.”

“I know,” she said. “I cannot think how I’ll manage it.” She returned to her place beside Father. “It falls on me, of course, to purchase gifts for the tetrarch and Nathaniel’s family and to accumulate your bridal goods. You will need new tunics, coats, and sandals. I’ll need to purchase hair ornaments, powders, glassware, pottery—I cannot have you arriving at Nathaniel’s house with tattered belongings . . .” On she yattered.

I felt myself swept like a twig into a coursing river. I cast a drowning look at Yaltha.

xiii.

One morning, while Tabitha and I nibbled honey cakes, Yaltha entranced us with an Egyptian story, a tale about Osiris, who was murdered and dismembered, then reassembled and resurrected by the Goddess Isis. She left out no grisly detail. Tabitha was so awed by the telling, she began to wheeze a little. I nodded at her as if to say,
My aunt knows everything
.

“Did this really happen?” Tabitha asked.

“No, dear,” Yaltha said. “It’s not meant to be a factual story, but it’s still true.”

“I don’t see how,” Tabitha said. I wasn’t sure I did either.

“I mean that the story can happen inside us,” Yaltha said. “Think of it—the life you’re living can be torn apart like Osiris’s and a new one pieced together. Some part of you might die and a new self will rise up to take its place.”

Tabitha scrunched her face.

Yaltha said, “Right now you are a girl in your father’s house, but soon that life will die and a new one will be born—that of a wife.” She turned her gaze on me. “Do not leave it to fate. You must be the one who does the resurrecting. You must be Isis re-creating Osiris.”

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