The Book of Longings: A Novel (9 page)

Sometimes my pre-sights were not about events, but snatches of an image that floated behind my eyes. Once, a shofar appeared and that same day we heard it being blown to announce the Festival of Weeks.

I wasn’t granted these mysteries often, and with the exception of Yaltha’s arrival and the appearance of the ink dyes, they were revelations of the most mundane and useless kind. Why would I need to be informed of the meal Shipra cooked, or the delay of my tutor, or that a ram horn would be blown? There had been no presentiment of my incantation bowl or my betrothal. I’d had no hint of Jesus, the burning of my writings, or the cave.

For nearly a year I’d been free of these premonitions, and happily so, but as I waited there on the balcony, an image appeared in my mind with vividness: a tongue, pink and grotesque. I shook my head to clear it
away. Another inane visage, I told myself, but the strangeness of it disturbed me.

When finally Mother returned, she looked flushed and excited. She sent Lavi to the storeroom lugging a basket of vegetables, then swept past me into her quarters.

I caught up with Lavi in the courtyard. “Mother is out of sorts.”

He studied the ground, his hands, the crescents of dirt beneath his nails.

“Lavi?”

“We came upon the girl who visits you.”

“Tabitha? What about her?”

“Please do not make me speak of it. Not to you. Please.” He took several steps backward, gauging my response, then fled.

I hurried to Mother’s room, fearing she would turn me away, but she allowed me in. She was white-faced.

“Lavi said you saw Tabitha. Has something happened?”

She strode to her storage chest, the one into which Tabitha and I had pried, and for one irrational moment I wondered if Mother had simply discovered our interloping.

She said, “I can’t see how to avoid telling you. You will learn of it anyway. The city is already brimming with talk. Her poor father—”


Please.
Just tell me.”

“I came upon Tabitha on the street near the synagogue. She was making a terrible commotion, wailing and tearing at her hair, crying out that one of Herod’s soldiers had forced her to lie with him.”

I tried to comprehend.
Forced her to lie . . .

“Tabitha was raped?” came a voice from behind us, and I turned to see Yaltha standing in the open doorway.

“Must you use the vulgar term?” Mother said. She looked implacable standing there, arms crossed, morning shadows blossoming around her shoulders. Was this what mattered to her? The indelicacy of the word?

A pressure started in my chest. I opened my mouth and heard a strange howl fill the room. My aunt came and placed her arms about me and no one uttered a sound. Even Mother thought better than to reprimand me.

“I don’t understand why—”

Mother interrupted. “Who can say why she stood on the street like that and cried out news of her defilement to every passerby? And she did so using the same crude word as your aunt. She bellowed the soldier’s name and spit and swore curses in the vilest language.”

She’d misunderstood me—I wasn’t wondering why Tabitha shouted her outrage on the street. I was glad she accused her rapist. What I didn’t understand was why such horrors happened at all. Why did men inflict these atrocities? I wiped my face with my sleeve. Through my shock, I pictured Tabitha on the first day of her renewed visits when I’d been rude to her.
My father says my mind is weak, and my tongue, weaker
, she’d told me then. It seemed now her tongue was not weak, but the fiercest part of her.

Mother, however, was not done rebuking her. “It wasn’t enough that she made a show of cursing the soldier; she cursed her father for trying to seal her lips. She cursed those who passed by and closed their ears to her. She was distraught, and I’m sorry for her, but she shamed herself. She brought dishonor to her father and to her betrothed, who will surely divorce her now.”

The air crackled around Yaltha’s head. “You are blind and stupid, Hadar.”

Mother, unused to being spoken to in that manner, narrowed her eyes and jutted out her chin.

“The shame is not Tabitha’s!” Yaltha practically roared. “It belongs to the one who raped her.”

Mother hissed back, “A man is what he is. His lust can be greater than himself.”

“Then he should cut off his seed sacs and become a eunuch!” Yaltha said.

“Leave my quarters,” Mother ordered, but Yaltha didn’t budge.

“Where is Tabitha now?” I asked. “I’ll go to her.”

“You most certainly will not,” Mother said. “Her father came and dragged her home. I forbid you to see her.”

•   •   •

T
HE REST OF THE DAY
unfolded with unbearable ordinariness. Mother kept me sequestered in her room while she and Shipra paraded out bolts of cloth, threads, and a ridiculous array of baubles for my dowry and talked with endless banality about preparations for the betrothal ceremony. I could scarcely hear them for the screaming in my head.

That night in my room, I lay atop the coverings on my bed and drew my knees up, fashioning myself into a little ball.

Everything I knew about rape I’d learned from the Scriptures. There was an unnamed concubine raped and murdered and her body cut into pieces. There was Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, who was raped by Shechem. Tamar, the daughter of King David, raped by her half brother. These women were among the ones I meant to write about one day, and now there was Tabitha, not a forgotten figure in a text, but a girl who sang while she plaited my hair. Who would avenge her?

No one had avenged the unnamed concubine. Jacob did not seek vengeance on Shechem. King David did not punish his son.

Fury welled in me until I could no longer keep myself small.

I left my bed and crept to Yaltha’s room. I lay down on the floor next to her sleeping mat. I didn’t know if she was awake. I whispered, “Aunt?”

She rolled on her side to face me. In the dark her eyes gleamed bluish white. I said, “When morning comes, we must go and find Tabitha.”

xviii.

A servant, an old man with a deformed arm, met Yaltha, Lavi, and me at the gate. “My aunt and I have come to pay respects to Tabitha,” I told him.

He studied us. “Her mother has ordered that no one should see her.”

Yaltha spoke in a commanding voice. “Go and tell her mother this is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas and the overseer of her husband. Tell her he would be offended if his daughter were refused.”

The servant shuffled back to the house and returned minutes later to open the gate. “Only the girl,” he said.

Yaltha nodded at me. “Lavi and I will wait for you here.”

Their house wasn’t as splendid as ours, but like those of most palace officials, it had at least one upper room and two courtyards. Tabitha’s mother, a large woman with a bulbous face, led me to a closed door at the back of the house. “My daughter is not well. You may visit her for only a few minutes,” she said, and, thankfully, left me to enter alone. Turning the latch, I felt the drumbeat start in my chest.

Tabitha huddled on a mat in the corner. At the sight of me, she turned her face to the wall. I stood there a moment adjusting to the thick, dim light and the uncertainty of what to do.

I went and sat beside her, hesitating before resting my hand on her arm. She faced me then, covering my hand with hers, and I saw that her right eye had disappeared into the swollen fold of her lid. Her lips were bruised purple and blue, and her jaw was puffed out as if stuffed with food. A bowl, a very fine gold one, sat beside her on the floor glinting in the shadowy light, brimming with what looked like blood and spittle. A sob rose in my throat. “Oh, Tabitha.”

I pulled her head to my shoulder and smoothed her hair. I had nothing to offer her but my willingness to sit there while she endured her
pain. “I’m here,” I murmured. When she didn’t speak, I sang her a familiar lullaby, for it was all I could think to do. “Sleep, little one, night has come. Morning is far, but I am near.” I sang it over and over, rocking her body with mine.

When I ceased singing, she offered me a faint smile, and it was then I saw a ragged bit of cloth protruding oddly from the side of her mouth. Keeping her eyes fastened on mine, she reached up and pulled it slowly through her lips, a long bloody strip of linen. There seemed no end to it. When it was fully disgorged, she lifted the bowl and spit into it.

I felt a wave of revulsion, but I didn’t flinch. “What has happened to your mouth?”

She opened it so I could see inside. Her tongue, what was left of it, was a morass of raw, mutilated flesh. It writhed helpless in her mouth as she tried to form words, utterances that flailed about and made no sense. I stared at her, uncomprehending, before the truth hit me.
Her tongue has been cut out.
The tongue from my premonition.

“Tabitha!” I cried. “Who did this?”

“Faah-er. Faaaah-er.” A dribble of red ran down her chin.

“Are you trying to say Father?”

She grabbed my hand, nodding.

I only remember getting to my feet, stunned and desperate. I don’t remember screaming, but the door flew open and her mother was there, shaking me, telling me to stop. I tore away from her. “Don’t lay your hands on me!”

Rage shredded my breath. It clawed straight through my chest. “What crime did your daughter commit to cause her father to cut her tongue from her mouth? Is it a sin to stand on the street and cry out one’s anguish and beg for justice?”

“She brought shame on her father and this house!” her mother viciously exclaimed. “Her punishment is spoken of in Scripture—‘the perverse tongue shall be cut out.’”

“You have raped her all over again!” I ground the words slowly through my teeth.

Once, after Father had upbraided Yaltha for her lack of meekness, she’d said to me, “
Meekness.
It isn’t meekness I need, it’s anger.” I’d not forgotten this. I knelt beside my friend.

The shine of the bowl caught my eye once again, and I knew what, until that moment, had been obscured. Getting to my feet, I picked up the bowl, careful not to spill the contents. I thundered at Tabitha’s mother, “Where is your husband’s study?” She frowned and did not answer. “Show me, or I will find it myself.”

When she didn’t move, Tabitha rose from her mat and led me to a small room, while her mother followed behind shrieking at me to leave her house. His sanctum was furnished with a table, a bench, and two wooden shelves that were laden with his scribal possessions, shawls and hats, and as I suspected, the three other golden bowls stolen from Antipas’s palace.

I looked at Tabitha. I would give her more than lullabies; I would give her my anger. I flung her blood across the walls, the table, the shawls and hats, Antipas’s bowls, the scrolls, vials of ink, and clean parchments. I went about it with calm and measure. I could not punish her rapist or give back her voice, but I could do this one act of defiance, this small revenge, and because of it her father would know his brutality had not gone unwitnessed. He would at least suffer the rebuke of my anger.

Tabitha’s mother charged at me, but she was too late—the bowl was empty. “My husband will see you punished,” she cried. “Do you think he won’t go to your father?”

“Tell him my father has been charged with finding the one who stole Herod Antipas’s bowls. I would be pleased to inform Father of the thief’s identity.”

Her face slackened and the fight left her. She understood my threat. My father, I knew, would hear nothing of this.

•   •   •

B
ECAUSE
T
ABITHA HAD
tried so hard to reveal what happened to her and been silenced for it, I removed the last two sheets of papyrus from the goatskin pouch beneath my bed and inscribed the story of her rape and the maiming of her tongue. Once again, I sat with my back against the door, knowing if Mother were to come seeking me, I could not prevent her from entering for long. She would push her way in and find me writing, ransack my room and find my hidden scrolls. I pictured her reading them—the words of love and want that I’d written about Jesus, the blood I’d splashed on the walls in Tabitha’s house.

I risked everything, but I couldn’t stop myself from writing her story. I filled both papyri. Grief and anger streamed from my fingers. The anger made me brave and the grief made me sure.

xix.

The clearing where I’d seen Jesus praying was empty, the air spiky with shadows. I’d come early enough to perform my burial task before he appeared, stealing from the house before the sun hefted its red belly over the summit of the hills. Lavi carried the bundle of my scrolls, the clay tablet on which I’d written my curse, and a digging tool. I bore the incantation bowl beneath my coat. The thought that Jesus might return sent a shock of joy and fright through me. I couldn’t say what I would do—whether I would speak to him or slip away as I’d done before.

I waited at the cave opening while Lavi inspected it for bandits, snakes, and other menacing creatures. Finding none, he beckoned me inside, where it was cool and gloomy, speckled with bat droppings and pieces of stoneware, a few of which I gathered. Holding my head scarf over my nose to lessen the smell of animal dung and moldering earth, I found a spot near the back of the cave, beside a column of stone that I
could easily recognize when it was time to reclaim my belongings. Lavi jabbed at the ground with the digging tool, opening a gash in the dirt. Dust flew. Cobwebs floated down to make nets on my shoulders. He grunted as he worked—he was slight, unused to heavy toil, but eventually he fashioned a cavity two cubits deep and two cubits wide.

Lifting up the flax that draped the incantation bowl, I gazed inside it at my prayer, at the sketch I’d made of myself, the gray smudge, the red thread, then placed the bowl into the hole. Beside it, I laid the bundle of scrolls, and last, the clay tablet. I wondered if I would see any of this ever again. I raked the dirt over them and spread the pebbles and bits of pottery I’d collected over the site to conceal that it’d been disturbed.

When we emerged into the sunlight, Lavi spread his cloak on the ground and I sat looking toward the balsam grove. I drank from the wineskin in my pouch and nibbled a piece of bread. I waited past the second hour. I waited past the third.

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