The Book of Longings: A Novel (41 page)

Without bothering to greet me, Skepsis lifted a parchment. “This arrived today from Haran. One of the soldiers who guards the road delivered it to the gatehouse.”

“You know about the soldiers?” I said.

“It’s my business to know what threatens our peace. I pay the salt boy to bring me news of them.”

“Read it to her,” Yaltha said.

Skepsis scowled, not used to being ordered about, but she complied, holding the parchment at arm’s length and squinting:

I, Haran ben Philip Levias, faithful patron of the Therapeutae for two decades, write to Skepsis, the community’s esteemed leader, and ask that my sister and niece, who are presently under the Therapeutae’s guardianship, be relinquished into my care, where they will be accorded every concern and favor. By delivering them to the men who encamp nearby, the Therapeutae will continue to enjoy my loyal generosity.

She dropped her hand as if the weight of the parchment had tired her. “I’ve sent him a message, refusing his request. The community will,
of course, lose his patronage—his threat is clear enough. It will mean a little more fasting, that’s all.”

“Thank you,” I said, saddened we would cause any privation at all.

She tucked the message inside her cloak. As I watched her walk away, I understood that she was the only one standing between us and Haran.

I would write the song.


The library was a small, cramped room in the assembly house, teeming with scrolls that lay about on the floor, on shelves and tables, and in wall niches like piles of scattered firewood. I stepped over and around them, sneezing at the dust. Skepsis had told me there were songs here that bore inscriptions of both lyrics and melody, even Greek vocal notations, but how was I to find them? There was no catalog. Nothing was sorted. My animal shed had more order and my donkeys’ fur less dust.

Skepsis had warned me about the disarray. “Theano, our librarian, is old with a weakness that makes it impossible for him to walk,” she’d said. “He hasn’t tended the library in more than a year and there’s been no one willing or able to take his place. But go and search for the songs—they’ll be instructive.”

It struck me now she’d had another motive. She was hoping I would become her ad hoc librarian.

I cleared a space on the floor, setting the lamp well away from the papyri, and opened scroll after scroll, finding not just Scriptures and Jewish philosophy, but works by Platonists, Stoics, and Pythagoreans; Greek poems; and a comic play by Aristophanes. I set about organizing the manuscripts by subject. By late afternoon I’d categorized more than fifty scrolls, writing a description of each one, as they did at the great library in Alexandria. I swept the floor and sprinkled the corners with eucalyptus leaves. I was brushing the mint-honey smell from my palms
when the marvel happened, the one that had been coming all day, unbeknownst to me.

Footsteps. I turned to the door. There, in the broken light, stood Diodora.

“You are
,” I said, needing to verbalize what I saw but couldn’t yet believe.

“So she is,” said Skepsis, stepping from behind her into the room. Her old eyes sparked with delight.

I drew my cousin to me and felt her cheek wet against mine. “How did you come to be here?”

She glanced at Skepsis, who pulled a bench from beneath the table and lowered herself onto it. “I sent a message to her at Isis Medica and asked her to come.”

“I didn’t know what had become of you and my mother until I got her letter,” Diodora said, still gripping my hand. “When you didn’t return to Isis Medica, I knew something had befallen you. I had to come and see for myself that you’re both well.”

“Will you remain with us long?”

“The priestess has given me leave for as long as I wish.”

“You will share the house with Ana and Yaltha,” Skepsis said. “The sleeping room is just wide enough for three beds.” Tucking stray pieces of hair behind her ears, she studied Diodora. “I asked you to come so you could be near your mother and she near you, but I also asked for myself. Or, I should say, for the Therapeutae. We have need of you here. Some of our members are old and sick and there’s no one to tend them. You’re accomplished in the art of healing. If you remain with us, we would benefit from your care.”

“You wish me to live among you?” Diodora said.

“Only if you wish a quiet, contemplative life. Only if you wish to study and keep God’s memory alive.” These were the same words she’d spoken to Yaltha and me the night we’d arrived.

“But yours is the God of the Jews,” Diodora said. “I know nothing of him. It’s Isis I serve.”

“We will teach you about our God and you will teach us about yours, and together we’ll find the God that exists behind them.”

Diodora gave no answer, but I watched a light come into her face.

“Does Yaltha know you’re here?” I asked.

“Not yet. I only just arrived and Skepsis wished you to accompany us.”

“I would not have you miss Yaltha’s face when she sees who has come,” Skepsis said. Her eyes pored over my neat, methodical stacks of scrolls. “I pray we shall soon have a healer
a librarian.”

•   •   •

sitting on the bench in the courtyard beside our hut with her head leaning against the wall. Her arms were crossed over her thin breasts, her lower lip fluttering with each puff of breath. Seeing her at rest, Skepsis, Diodora, and I paused.

“Should we wake her?” Diodora whispered.

Skepsis strode over and shook her shoulder. “Yaltha . . . Yaltha, someone is here.”

My aunt opened one eye. “Leave me be.”

“What do you think, Diodora?” Skepsis said. “Should we leave her alone?”

Yaltha started, looking past Skepsis to where Diodora stood near the entrance.

“I think we should leave her alone,” I said. “Go back to sleep, Aunt.”

Yaltha smiled, motioning for Diodora to come and sit next to her. When they’d said their greetings, she summoned me, as well. As I sank down on the other side of her, she looked at Skepsis. “My daughters,” she said.


Diodora and I followed a zigzagging footpath to the top of the limestone cliffs that rose behind the Therapeutae community. Sunlight lay across the summit and the rocks were shining white as milk. Scampering through the few remaining poppies, I was possessed by the ebullient feeling of being set free. I didn’t like to think I could be happy with Jesus so far away and his circumstances unknown to me, yet I felt it—happiness. The realization brought a twist of guilt.

“Your countenance has fallen,” said Diodora. She’d been trained to observe the body and little escaped her notice.

“I was thinking of my husband,” I said. I told her then about the circumstances of our separation and how much it grieved me to be away from him. “I’m awaiting a letter telling me it’s safe for us to return.”

She came to a standstill. “
Do you believe Yaltha will leave and go back?”

I stared at her, silence gnawing around us. The night she’d come to Haran’s house, she’d become distressed when Yaltha had spoken of returning to Galilee, and she’d made it plain she had no wish to go there with us. Why had I said anything about leaving?

“I don’t know if Yaltha will leave or stay,” I told her, realizing it was true. I didn’t know.

She nodded, accepting my honesty, and we continued on more subdued. Reaching the crest ahead of me, she took in the vista and swept her arms open. “Oh, Ana. Look!”

I hastened the last few steps and there before me was the sea. The water stretched all the way to Greece and Rome, glittering striations of blue and green, ripples of white. Our Sea, the Romans called it. Galilee was a million fathoms away.

Finding a cranny protected from the winds, we sat, squeezed together between the rocks. Since Diodora’s arrival she’d been effusive,
telling us about her days growing up at Isis Medica. She’d asked questions as well, eager for stories about us. Our whispered talks on our sleeping mats had left me yawning and heavy-eyed the next day. But it was worth it. She was telling me now about Theano, whose illness prevented him from tending the library. “He has a weakness of the heart. It will give out soon.”

Listening as she gave an all too vivid account of the bodily complaints she’d heard, I began to feel I should return and set to work on the hymn to Sophia. The forty-ninth-day vigil was tomorrow night and I sat idle on a rock while Diodora spoke of foot ulcers. “It surprises me,” she said. “After all the years I spent at Isis Medica, I do not yet miss it.”

“What about Isis? Do you miss her?”

“There’s no need for me to miss her. I carry her inside me. She is everything.” She continued speaking for many minutes, but I heard nothing more. I felt the song I would write quicken to life inside me. I didn’t know how to go on sitting there.

I stood. “We must go.”

She threaded her arm around mine. “The day we met, you said, ‘Let us be more than cousins. Let us be sisters.’ Do you still want that?”

“I wish it even more now.”

“It’s my wish, too,” she said.

•   •   •

I spied a figure beneath the eucalyptus tree where I collected my aromatic leaves. He wore the white tunic and shaggy cloak of the Therapeutae, but I couldn’t identify him. Treading farther, I lifted my hand to shield the sun and saw it was the spy, Lucian.

“It’s late in the day,” he said as we came nearer. “Why aren’t you engaged in study and prayer?”

“We could ask the same of you,” I said, assailed by the uneasy feeling he’d been waiting for us.

“I’ve been at prayer here beneath the tree.”

Diodora bristled. “And we’ve been at prayer up there on the cliffs.” I gave her an approving look.

“The rocks up there are treacherous and there are wild animals,” he said. “We would all be saddened if you came to harm.”

His face had such a quiet malevolence that I looked away. He seemed to be threatening us, but I was unsure how. “We feel safe enough there,” I told him and attempted to pass. The words
She is everything
were like a fire in me. I had no time for him.

He stepped to block the path. “When you are in need of a walk, it would be safer to travel down the hill and along the road to the lake. There are solitary places on the shore that are as beautiful as the sea. I will be glad to show you.”

Ah. That was it. The lake lay down the hill and across the road, just beyond the protection of the Therapeutae’s precinct.

I said, “The lake sounds like a pleasant place to pray. We’ll go there another time. Right now we have duties to attend.”

He smiled. I smiled back.

“Don’t attempt to go to the lake,” I told Diodora when we were some distance away. “You’ve just met Lucian, Haran’s spy. He means to lure us onto the road, where the militia wait to arrest us. The boy who brings the salt said the soldiers stop everyone who passes from the west, looking for an old woman with a drooped eye and a young woman with unruly curls. They could easily mistake you for me.”

My words sobered her.

When we arrived at our hut, we found Yaltha sitting in her spot in the courtyard reading a codex from the library. Seeing her, Diodora said quietly to me, “It isn’t merely a question of whether Yaltha will choose to go to Galilee or stay in Egypt, is it? It’s whether any of us will be able to leave at all.”

She’d spoken my fear out loud.

•   •   •

in the courtyard, I cleansed my hands and face in preparation to enter the holy room and write the hymn that was burning a hole in my heart. I set the lamp on the table and poured ink into the palette.

I dipped my pen.


The forty-ninth-day vigil began the next day at sunset. I arrived late to find the dining hall ablaze with lamps, the seniors already reclined on their couches, eating. The juniors were hauling about platters of food. Diodora was at the serving table replenishing a tray of fish and hen eggs. “Sister!” she cried as I approached. “Where have you been?”

I held up the scroll that contained my opus. “I was finalizing the words of my hymn.”

“Lucian has been inquiring of your whereabouts. He has twice pointed out your absence to Skepsis.”

I picked up a serving bowl of pomegranate seeds. “It is good of him to miss me.”

She smiled and rolled her eyes at her platter. “I’ve refilled it four times. Let us hope they leave a morsel for us.”

Though Yaltha had been designated as a junior, I noticed Skepsis had allowed her to recline on one of the couches reserved for seniors. Lucian left his couch and stood before Skepsis. “Yaltha should be serving us alongside the other juniors,” he said angrily, his voice carrying across the room.

“Anger is effortless, Lucian. Kindness is hard. Try to exert yourself.”

“She shouldn’t be here at all,” he persisted.

Skepsis waved her hand. “Leave me to eat in peace.”

I looked at Yaltha, who was biting a turnip, unfazed.

When the banqueting wore down, the community made their way to the opposite end of the room, where a waist-high partition ran along the center with benches on each side, women to the left, men to the right.

I sat on the last bench with Yaltha and Diodora. “Get comfortable,” Yaltha told us. “You’ll be here the rest of the night.”

“All night?” Diodora exclaimed.

“Yes, but you will not lack for entertainment,” Yaltha said.

Coming behind us and overhearing, Skepsis said, “Our gathering is not entertainment, as Yaltha well knows—it’s a vigil. We watch for the dawn, which represents the true light of God.”

“And we will sing ourselves into a stupor before it arrives,” Yaltha said.

“Yes, that part is true,” Skepsis conceded.

Skepsis began the vigil with a lengthy discourse, about what, precisely, I couldn’t say. I gripped the scroll on which I’d written my hymn. My song suddenly seemed too audacious.

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