The Book of Longings: A Novel (5 page)

Yaltha trailed us. “Hadar, release her!” A demand that did nothing but stir a mighty wind at Mother’s back.

I do not think my feet touched the floor as they whisked me along the balcony past the array of doors that opened to our various quarters—my parents’, then Judas’s, and finally my own. I was pushed inside.

Mother followed, instructing Shipra to remain outside and prevent Yaltha from entering. As the door banged shut, I heard my aunt shout a curse at Shipra in Greek. A beautiful one having to do with donkey dung.

I’d rarely seen Mother so lit with fury. She stomped about as she castigated me, flame-cheeked, puffing clouds from her nostrils. “You’ve disgraced me before your father, your aunt, and the servants. Your shame falls on
. You will remain confined here until you offer your consent to the betrothal.”

Beyond the door, Yaltha was now hurling slurs in Aramaic. “Bloated swine . . . putrid goat flesh . . . daughter of a jackal.”

“You shall never have my consent!” I spewed the words at Mother.

Her teeth sharpened in her mouth. “Do not mistake my meaning. As your father explained, he will make sure the contract is sanctioned by a rabbi without your permission—your wishes are irrelevant. But for my sake, you will at least appear to be a compliant daughter whether you are or not.”

As she started for the door, I felt the weight of her callousness, of being locked away in a future I didn’t know how to bear, and I struck out at her without thinking. “And what would Father say if he knew the lie you’ve been perpetuating all these years?”

She halted. “What lie?” But she knew what I referred to.

“I know you take herbs to keep you from becoming with child. I know about the linseed and resins.”

Mother said, “I see. And I suppose if I were to convince your father to abandon the betrothal, you would make sure this news did not reach his ears? Is that it?”

In all truth, such an ingenious thing had not occurred to me. I’d meant only to wound her as she’d wounded me. She’d come up with the threat herself and offered it to me as if on a platter, and I seized on it. I was fourteen, desperate. A betrothal to Nathaniel ben Hananiah was a form of death. It was life in a sepulchre. I would’ve done anything to be delivered.

,” I said, stunned by my fortune. “If you convince him, I’ll say nothing.”

She laughed. “Tell your father what you wish. It’s of no concern to me.”

“How can you say that?”

“Why should I care if you tell him what he already guesses?”

When Mother’s footsteps faded, I cracked the door to find her minion posted at the threshold, hunched on a low stool. There was no sign of Yaltha.

“Will you sleep here, too?” I asked Shipra, not disguising my anger.

She slammed the door shut.

Inside my room the silence became a searing aloneness. With a glance back at the door, I pulled my incantation bowl from beneath the bed and removed the cloth to expose the words of my prayer.

I heard wind scratching the sky, and the room dimmed as the clouds scattered. Sitting on the floor mat, I cradled the bowl against my belly for several moments, then turned it slowly, like stirring silt, and canted my prayer into the drab light. I sang it over and over until I was weary of begging God to return to me. The largeness in me (what a cruel jest that was!) would find no blessing, nor would my reed pens and inks. The words I wrote would not be read by unborn eyes. I would become the forgotten wife of a horrid little man lusting for a son.

I cursed the world God had created. Could he not have thought up anything better than
? I cursed my parents for bartering me off without a care for my feelings, and Nathaniel ben Hananiah for his dismissiveness, his sneer, his silly purple hat—what was he trying to offset by wearing that towering protuberance? I cursed the rabbi Ben Sira, whose words flapped through the synagogues of Galilee as if borne by angels: “The birth of a daughter is a loss. Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good.”

Offspring of serpents. Bags of rotten foreskins. Decayed pig flesh!

I leapt to my feet and kicked the damnable incantation bowl and its empty words, wincing at the pain that jarred through my injured ankle. Dropping back on the bed, I rolled side to side, my body possessed by a soundless keening.

I lay there until my rage and grief subsided. I caressed the red thread tied on my wrist, rubbing it between my thumb and forefinger, and his face flared in my mind. This deep, clear sense of him. We hadn’t exchanged a word, Jesus and I, but I felt the ripple of intimacy when his hand had clasped mine. It caused a voracious pining at the center of me.
Not for him, I didn’t think. For myself. Yet a thought pushed into my mind, a sense that he was as wondrous as inks and papyrus, that he was as vast as words. That he could set me free.

Dusk came, then nightfall. I did not light the lamps.


I dreamed. No, not a dream exactly, but a memory echoing in the coils of my sleep.

•   •   •

studying with Titus, a Greek tutor my father has hired after giving in to my inconsolable begging. Mother has assured me I would have a tutor over her dead and buried body, and yet she did not succumb. She lived to rail at me, at Father, and at the tutor, who was no more than nineteen and terrified of her. On this day, Titus hands me a true wonder—not a scroll, but a stack of dried palm leaves evenly bound with a leather cord. On them are Hebrew words in black ink and embellishments along the margins in a lustrous golden color I could never have imagined, an ink prepared, he says, from yellow arsenic. I bend close and sniff it. It smells strange, like old coins. I rub my finger across the color and touch the residue to my lips, unleashing a tiny eruption on my tongue.

He compels me to read the words aloud, not in Hebrew but in Greek. “Such a thing is beyond me,” I tell him.

“I doubt that’s so. Now begin.”

The exercise maddens me with the need to stop and dissect entire passages, then piece them back together in a different tongue, while all I really want is to tear through the story on the palm leaves, which is as great a wonder as the golden ink. It’s the tale of Aseneth, an arrogant Egyptian girl forced to marry our patriarch Joseph, and the ferocious tantrum she throws as a result. I fight
through the tortures of translation in order to discover her fate, which must have been the strategy all along.

After Titus departs, I lift my copper mirror and gaze at my face as if to assure myself it was really I who accomplished that impossible feat, and as I do, a tiny pain pricks my right temple. I think it’s nothing more than the strain of thinking so hard, but then I’m engulfed by a curdling in my stomach and a searing headache, which is followed by a flash of light behind my eyes, a ferocious brightness that flares out and swallows the room. I stare, mesmerized, as it contracts into a red disk that hovers before my eyes. Inside it floats the image of my face, a precise reflection of what I’ve just seen in the mirror. It startles me with a blinding sense of my own existence: Ana who shines. Gradually it crumbles, becoming ash in the wind.

•   •   •

The darkness in the room was suffocating, like being inside a ripe, black olive. Shipra’s snores thudded against the door. I got up and lit a single clay lamp and quenched my thirst from the stone pitcher. It was said that if one slept with an amethyst, it would cause a momentous dream. I’d had no such stone in my bed, yet what had unfolded in my sleep felt auspicious and God-sent. I’d dreamed the incident exactly as it’d happened two years ago. It had been the most peculiar event of my childhood, yet I’d told no one. How could they understand? I myself couldn’t fathom what had happened, only that God had tried to tell me something.

For weeks afterward I scavenged the Scriptures, discovering the strange tales of Elijah, Daniel, Elisha, and Moses and their visions of fire, beasts, and chariot thrones. Was it hubris to think God had sent me an apparition, too? At the time I couldn’t decide if my vision was a blessing or a curse. I wanted to believe it was a promise that the light in me would shine forth one day, that I would be seen in this world, I would be heard, yet I feared it was a warning that such desires
would come to nothing. It was entirely possible the vision meant little more than that I was possessed of some demonic illness. With time I thought of the episode less and less, and finally not at all. Now here it was once more.

Across the room my incantation bowl lay on its side, a small abused creature. I went over and righted it, muttering my sorrow. Holding the bowl in my lap, I loosened the red thread from my wrist and laid it inside the bowl, circling it about the figure of the girl.

I breathed out and the sound swept over the room, and then the door creaked open and closed. “My child,” Yaltha whispered.

I ran to her, oblivious of my sore ankle. “How did you get past—where’s Shipra?”

She pressed a finger to her lips and cracked open the door to reveal my mother’s servant slumped on her stool, her head drooped to her chest and a web of spittle woven at the corner of her mouth.

“I brewed a cup of hot wine steeped with myrrh and passionflower, which Lavi was happy to serve her,” Yaltha said, closing the door and beaming a little. “I would’ve come sooner, but it took longer than I thought for the drink to overtake the old camel.”

We sat on the edge of the bed and gripped each other’s hands. Her bones were sycamore twigs. “They cannot betroth me to him,” I said. “You cannot let them.”

She reached for the lamp and held it between us. “Ana, look at me. I would do anything for you, but I cannot stop them.”

When I closed my eyes, there were blurs of light like stars falling.

It couldn’t be happenstance that the memory had resurfaced in my sleep the same night I was locked in my room, doomed to marriage. Surely the story I’d translated of the Egyptian girl forced into an abhorrent marriage was a message urging me to be resolute. Aseneth had been merciless in her resistance. I, too, would be merciless.

And my
face inside that tiny sun!
Even if my parents married me to the
repugnant Nathaniel ben Hananiah, I would not be his; I would still be Ana. The vision was a promise, was it not, that the light in me would not be extinguished. The largeness in me would not shrink away. I would yet become visible in this world. My heart tumbled a little at the revelation.

“I think, though, I could persuade your parents of one thing,” Yaltha was saying. “It would not be a remedy, but it would be a consolation. When you marry, I will go with you to your husband’s house.”

“Do you think Nathaniel ben Hananiah would permit it?”

“He won’t like having a widow to feed and clothe and take up space, but I will convince my brother to write the arrangement into your betrothal contract. It won’t be difficult. He and Hadar will dance on the roof at the mention of being rid of me.”

In my fourteen years I’d never had a true and constant friend, only Judas, and I felt a momentary elation. “Oh, Aunt, we will be like Naomi and Ruth in the Scriptures. Where I go, you will go.”

Yaltha had kept her pledge not to speak of her past, but now that she’d bound herself to me, I wondered if she might reveal her secret.

“I know Father has sworn you to silence,” I said. “But we are joined now. Don’t withhold yourself from me. Tell me why you came here to Sepphoris.”

The bone-kindling inside her hand grew hot. “All right, Ana. I will tell you the story, and your parents will not hear of it.”

“Never,” I said.

“I was married to a man named Ruebel. He was a soldier in the Jewish militia charged with protecting Roman rule in Alexandria. I bore him two sons, both of whom died before a year of age. It embittered him. Since he could not punish God with his fists, he punished me. I spent my days bruised, swollen, and in dread. On the Sabbath he rested from his cruelties and thought himself virtuous.”

I hadn’t expected this. It rent something in me. I wanted to ask if
Ruebel had been responsible for the drooping of her eye, but remained quiet.

She said, “He fell ill one day and died. It was so abrupt and vile a death, it set loose the tongues of Alexandria. His friends claimed I poisoned him in revenge for his beatings.”

“Did you?” I blurted. “I wouldn’t blame you.”

She took my chin in her hand. “Remember when I told you that in your heart there is a holy of holies, and in this room dwells your secret longing? Well,
longing was to be free of him. I begged God to grant me this, to take Ruebel’s life if he must as the just price for his transgressions. I inscribed the prayer on my incantation bowl and sang it every day. If God were a wife, she would have acted sooner. It took a year for him to take mercy on me.”

“You didn’t kill your husband; God did,” I said, relieved, but vaguely disappointed, too.

“Yes, but his death was brought about by my prayer. It’s why I cautioned you to take care what you wrote in your bowl. When the longing of one’s heart is inked into words and offered as a prayer, that’s when it springs to life in God’s mind.”

Does it?
“Earlier tonight, I sent my bowl across the room with my foot,” I said.

She smiled. Her face looked ancient and somehow beautiful. “Ana, your betrothal has stolen your hope. Return to your longing. It will teach you everything.”

Her words seemed to release a raw power in the air around us.

“Be patient, child,” she continued. “Your moment will come, and when it does, you must seize it with all the bravery you can find.”

She went on describing the rumors that had circulated about her in Alexandria, stories that grew so dire she was arrested by the Romans, whose punishments were well known for their brutality. “Our oldest brother, Haran, is on the Jewish council in Alexandria and he struck a
deal with the Romans to allow the council to determine my fate. They sent me away to the Therapeutae.”

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