The Book of Longings: A Novel (12 page)

Two days ago, when Lavi and I had returned from the cave, Mother had met us at the gate with typical fury. Poor Lavi was sent straight to the rooftop to scour away the plenitude of bird droppings. She restricted me again to my room, warning my aunt to keep her distance.
Undeterred, Yaltha came to me late in the nights with cups of wine and dates and listened to my tale of meeting Jesus. I’d found no rest since seeing him, and whenever I fell asleep, I dreamed of him coming through the rain.

In the great hall, torches were mounted on the columns, and the walls were lavishly frescoed with fruits and flowers and twisting ropes. A mosaic covered a vast portion of the floor—tiny bits of white marble, black pumice, and blue glass arranged into magnificent creatures. Fishes, dolphins, whales, and sea dragons. Looking down, I saw that I stood upon a large fish swallowing a small one. I could almost feel its tail swish. I tried hard not to be awed, but it was impossible. Wined and dazed, I moved across the mosaics as if walking upon water. Only later would it occur to me that Herod Antipas, a Jew, had broken God’s second commandment with a flamboyance that drew my breath. He’d made a sea of graven images. Father had once said our tetrarch was schooled in Rome and spent years gorging on the city. Now he imitated that world within his palace, a hidden shrine to Rome that the devout, common Jew would never see.

Mother appeared at my elbow. “You will wait for the ceremony in the royal apartments. You must not be seen by Nathaniel until it’s time. It will not be long.” She made a motion with her hand and a silver-haired woman led me along a portico, past the wing of Roman baths, then up a second flight of stairs into a bedchamber without fresco or mosaic, but paneled with the golden wood of the terebinth tree.

“So, you are the lamb to be sacrificed,” a voice said in Greek.

Turning, I saw a dark-skinned, wraithlike woman standing beside a grand bed that was swathed in jewel-colored silks. Her black hair cascaded down her back like a spill of ink. It had to be Phasaelis, Antipas’s wife. All of Galilee and Peraea knew that her father, Aretas, King of the Nabataeans, had conspired with Herod Antipas’s father to arrange their
marriage as a way to stop skirmishes along their common border. It was said that upon learning her fate, Phasaelis, only thirteen at the time, cut her arms and wrists and cried for three days and three nights.

The shock of her presence in the room left me momentarily mute. She was dazzling standing there in her scarlet dress and golden mantle, but pitiable, too, her life turned into a ploy by two men.

“Are you capable of speaking Greek or are you simply too docile to answer me?” Her tone was scoffing, as if I were an object of amusement to her.

Phasaelis’s rebuke was a slap, and it was like waking. A feeling of loss and wrath rose in me. I wanted to shout at her—
I am betrothed to someone I despise and who despises me in return. I have little hope I will see the man I love ever again. I don’t know what has become of my brother. Words are life to me, yet my writings are buried in the ground.
My heart is sickled like wheat tares and you speak to me as if I am weak and imbecilic.

I did not care if she possessed the stature of a queen
.
I thundered at her, “I AM NO LAMB.”

A flash in her eyes. “No, I see you’re not.”

“You heap condescension on me, but we are no different, you and I.”

A sneer slid into her voice. “Inform me. Please. How are we no different?”

“You were forced to marry as I am now forced. Were not each of us used by our fathers for their own selfish purposes? We are both wares to be traded.”

She walked toward me and her scent floated out—nard and cinnamon. Her hair swayed. Her hips oscillated. I thought of the lurid dance my mother had seen her perform. How I would have loved to see it. I feared she was coming to slap me for my insolence, but I saw her eyes had softened. She said, “When I last saw my father seventeen years ago, he wept bitterly and begged forgiveness for sending me to this wasteland. He told me it was for a noble reason, but I spit on the floor before him.
I cannot forget he loved his kingdom more than me. He married me to a jackal.”

I saw the difference then—her father had traded her for peace. My father had traded me for greed.

She smiled, and I saw this time there was no guile in it. “We shall be friends,” she said, taking my hand. “Not because of our fathers or our shared misfortune. We shall be friends because you are no lamb, and I, too, am no lamb.” Phasaelis leaned her head to my ear. “When your betrothed repeats the blessings, do not look at him. Do not look at your father. Look to yourself.”

•   •   •

W
E STOOD
in the torch-dark light atop the watery mosaic—my parents, Yaltha, Herod Antipas, Phasaelis, Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai, Nathaniel and his sister, Zopher, and at least two dozen other extravagantly coiffed people I could not name and did not care to. I planted my toes upon the scaly back of a fierce-eyed sea dragon.

I’d never seen Antipas up close. He seemed the age of my father, but heavier, with a belly that protruded. His hair was oiled and fell about his ears from beneath a strange crown that resembled an upside-down, gold-plated stew pot. He wore bracelets and silver circlets in his ears, and his eyes were too small for his face, as small as date pits. I thought him repulsive.

The old rabbi recited the Torah—“It is not good for man to be alone”—and then spoke the rabbinic teachings.

“A man without a wife is not a man.

“A man without a wife establishes no household.

“A man without a wife has no progeny.

“A man without a wife, household, and children does not live as God ordained.

“Man’s duty is to marry.”

His voice was perfunctory and tired. I did not look at him.

My father read the betrothal contract, which was followed by a token payment of the bride price, passed ceremoniously from Nathaniel’s hand to his. I did not look at them.

“Do you attest to your daughter’s virginity?” the rabbi asked.

My head jerked up. Would they now make the pink-brown folds between my legs their business? Nathaniel leered, a reminder of the miseries that lay in store for me in the bedchamber. Father anointed the rabbi with oil as a sign of my purity. All of this I watched. I wanted them to witness the contempt shining on my face.

I cannot record how Nathaniel looked as he read the groom’s blessings, for I refused to offer him even a glance. I stared at the mosaic, imagining myself far away beneath the sea.

I am no lamb. I am no lamb. . . .

•   •   •

I
N THE BANQUETING
HALL
Herod Antipas reclined on a luxurious couch, propped on his left elbow. He sat behind the center table of the triclinium while everyone waited to see who would be seated to his right and left, and who would be escorted to the sad little couches at the far ends of the tables. The only true and precise measure of the tetrarch’s favor was how near to him one was seated. We women—Phasaelis among us—were gathered at a separate table altogether, farther away than the hapless and wretched persons who would soon find themselves consigned to the distant seats. Here we would be served the less fine dishes and the poorer wines, just as they would.

Father typically received the seat of honor at Herod’s right—he boasted of it often, though not as much as Mother, who seemed to think Father’s power and glory extended to her. I glanced at Father, standing with Nathaniel, full of pompous expectation. How could he be so confident? His
son had joined Antipas’s enemies and committed public acts of treason. The entire city knew of his actions—I could not believe they would go completely unnoticed by the tetrarch. Surely not. The sins of the son were visited on the father just as the father’s sins were visited on the son. Hadn’t Antipas once ordered his soldier to cut off the hand of a man whose son was a thief? Did Father truly think there would be no repercussion for him?

It had perplexed me that Judas’s rebellion had thus far yielded no apparent consequence to Father. It occurred to me now, however, that the tetrarch would strike at Father unexpectedly, in a moment when he could inflict the most humiliation. Mother’s face was strained with worry, and I could see she had the same thoughts as I.

We watched the men being escorted to their places one by one until only four places remained: the two seats of gloat beside Antipas and the two seats of shame at the end. Left waiting were Father and Nathaniel and two men unknown to me. Shiny diadems of sweat had formed on the brows of the two strangers. Father, however, showed no sign of concern.

With a nod to his palace steward, Chuza, Antipas had Father and Nathaniel escorted to the seats of honor. Nathaniel clasped Father’s arm, a gesture that seemed to celebrate the alliance the two of them had made. Father’s power was intact. Their treaty was safe. I turned to Yaltha and saw her frown.

The women dipped their bread and ate. They prattled and tossed back their heads and laughed, but I had no stomach for food or gaiety. Three musicians played the flute, cymbal, and Roman lyre, and a barefoot dancer, no older than I, leapt about with her brown breasts protruding like mushroom tops.

Visit a pestilence upon my betrothal. Let it be broken by whatever means God chooses. Unbind me from Nathaniel ben Hananiah.
The curse I’d
written formed lips of its own and repeated inside me. I no longer had faith God would hear it.

Antipas lifted himself from the couch with some labor. The music ceased. The voices hushed. I saw Father smile to himself.

Chuza struck a little brass bell and the tetrarch spoke. “Let it be known that my counselor and chief scribe Matthias has not rested in his search for my enemies. Today, he delivered unto me two Zealots, the most vicious of rebels, who have waged transgressions against my government and the government of Rome.”

He looked toward the doorway, raising his arm in dramatic fashion, pointing, and every guest turned in unison. There, bare chested, his skin a bewilderment of whip marks and blood crust, stood Judas. His hands were bound and he was cinched about his waist with a rope that was tied to that of a wild-eyed man I guessed to be Simon ben Gioras.

I leapt to my feet, and my brother turned and found me.
Little sister
, he mouthed.

Yaltha caught my arm as I bolted toward him, forcing me back onto the stool. “There’s nothing you can do but draw trouble on your own self,” she whispered.

“Behold the traitors of Herod Antipas,” called Chuza, and a soldier led them stumbling into the room. It seemed they would be made into a sport for our entertainment. They were dragged a full circuit about the banquet hall to the sound of my mother’s crying. The men spewed abuses on them as they passed. I stared at my hands in my lap.

The bell was rung again. The parade halted, and Antipas read from a scroll that I imagined my father had penned. “On this day, the nineteenth of Marcheshvan, I, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, decree that Simon ben Gioras will be executed by sword for traitorous acts and that Judas ben Matthias will be imprisoned at the
fortress of Machaerus in Peraea for the same offense, his life spared as a dispensation to his father, Matthias.”

It passed through my mind that my father had not acted as monstrously as I’d thought, that he’d delivered Judas into the hands of Antipas in order to save him from certain death, but I knew that was more wishful than true.

Mother was slumped onto the table like a discarded cloak, her hair braid falling into a bowl of honeyed almonds. Just before Judas was led away, I looked at him, wondering if it would be my last glimpse.

xxv.

A fever sickness descended on Sepphoris. It came like an unseen smoke, blown down from heaven to afflict the unrighteous. God had always chastised his people with plagues, fevers, leprosy, paralysis, and boils. So people said. But how could this be when the sickness bypassed Father and took hold of Yaltha?

Lavi and I bathed her face with cool water, anointed her arms with oil, and sponged her lips with balm of Gilead. One night when delirium took hold of her, she sat up in bed and clasped me to her saying the name
Chaya
,
Chaya
.

“It’s me, Ana,” I told her, but she smoothed her palm along my cheek and spoke the name again.
Chaya.
The name means life, and I thought maybe in her feverish state she was calling out for her life not to leave her, or perhaps she’d simply mistaken me for someone else. I dismissed the incident, but I didn’t forget it.

The entire city was closed up tight as a fist. Father did not venture to the palace. Mother withdrew to her quarters. Shipra went around with a garland of hyssop around her neck and Lavi kept a talisman of lion’s hair in a pouch at his waist. Day and night I climbed onto the roof in quest
of stars and rain and birdsong. There, I witnessed the dead carried along the street to be laid in cave tombs beyond the city, where they would remain sealed until their flesh rotted and their bones were gathered into ossuaries.

“Keep out of God’s sight,” Mother cautioned me. As if in getting a glimpse of me on the roof, God would be reminded of my wrongdoings and strike me down with sickness, too. Part of me wished for it. My guilt and sorrow over Judas was so grave, I wondered if my going to the roof wasn’t really an attempt to contract the fever and die in order to escape my distress. The day after my disastrous betrothal ceremony, Judas left for the palace-fortress in Machaerus. Father announced his departure at the evening meal, then forbade Judas’s name to be spoken again in his house.

The war between my parents inhabited the house like a silent, prowling creature. Whenever Father left the room, my mother would walk to the threshold and spit on the place his foot had last fallen. She believed the fever would be God’s retribution upon Antipas and Father. She waited for the Lord to smite them dead. She waited to no avail.

Then one afternoon, a messenger arrived. We were seated on the couches in the reception hall, taking our midday meal, nothing more than dried fish and bread since Mother forbade Shipra and Lavi to venture out to the market. Nor would she allow the messenger into the house, ordering Lavi to receive his message at the door. When he returned, he cast a look at me I couldn’t quite read.

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