The Book of Longings: A Novel (8 page)

My aunt nodded at me, and I understood. If my life must be torn apart by this betrothal, then I must try to reassemble it according to my own design.

That night I lay on my bed determined to become free of my betrothal by a divorce before the marriage ritual ever occurred. It would be difficult, nearly impossible. A woman couldn’t appeal for a divorce unless her husband refused his conjugal duties after marriage—and if he refused those, I would consider myself the most blessed woman in Galilee, perhaps in the entire Roman Empire. Oh, but a man . . . he could divorce a woman before or after the marriage for practically anything. Nathaniel could divorce me if I went blind or lame or exhibited afflictions of the skin. He could do so for infertility, lack of modesty, disobedience, or other so-called repulsions. Well, I would not go blind or lame for the man, but I would gladly offer up any of the other reasons. If they failed, I would reverse Tabitha’s song and be a seeing girl who pretended to be blind. Even such small and ridiculous plots comforted me.

It was while slipping over the edge of sleep that a worrisome thought came to me. If I should be so fortunate as to goad Nathaniel to divorce
me before the marriage, a second betrothal would be improbable—a divorced woman was more or less unmarriageable. I’d thought this would be a blissful state, but since seeing the young man in the market, I was no longer sure.


As Lavi and I traversed the city, sunrise was loitering about the streets, pink light everywhere like little doused flames. I hadn’t lost hope of finding a cave to bury my writings, but I was growing impatient. It was our seventh trip into the hills.

Catching sight of the palace’s glinting white walls and arched red roofs, I came to a stop. A ceremony in the presence of the tetrarch would bring attention to our betrothal from every corner of Galilee and give it the appearance of a royal sanction. Prodding Nathaniel into a divorce would be even more difficult. I feared I would never rid myself of him.

We arrived at the eastern gate of the city; it was called Livia, named for the Roman emperor’s wife. Girded with cedar pillars, the gate had recently been slashed with swords and axes. I presumed the Zealots had passed through and left evidence of their contempt, and I wondered if Judas had been among them. Tales of Simon ben Gioras and his men had become rampant in the city. Lavi brought stories back from the metalsmith, the grain mill, the wine press, and each time they grew in violence. Two nights previous, I heard Father shout at Mother that if Judas were among the bandits, Antipas would have him executed and he would be unable to stop it.

Before descending into the valley, I stood at the Livia Gate for a while watching people below on the road from Nazareth. From this height the village with its white houses was visible in the distance, no larger than a flock of sheep.

The first cave we found showed the unmistakable signs of an animal lair and we abandoned it quickly. Then, wandering from the path, we strolled into a balsam grove. We walked toward a bright opening where the trees stopped and an outcrop of limestone began. I heard him first, his low, impenetrable chant. Then I saw him, and behind him the dark opening of a cave. The man stood framed in stone, his back to me, hands lifted, droning words. A prayer of some kind.

I crept as close as I dared without being seen. On a rock nearby was a leather belt that held an awl, a hammer, a chisel, and some other bowed instrument. His tools.

Sunlight sparked on the rock—an auspice. He turned his head slightly, confirming what I knew already. It was the man from the market. Jesus. I lowered myself to the ground, motioning Lavi to do the same.

The dirge of his song went on and on. It was the Aramaic Kaddish, the one for mourners. Someone had died.

His voice cast a spell of beauty over me. My breath shortened. Heat rose along my face and neck. A ripple in my thighs. I wanted to go to him. I wanted to tell him my name and thank him for coming to my aid in the market. I wished to inquire about the injury to his head and if he’d avoided the soldier who’d pursued him. What had he meant to say to me before he was assaulted? Was the woman who used his fingers as sorting pegs his sister? Who had died? I had so many questions, but I dared not disturb his grief or his prayers. Even if he’d been engaged in nothing more than collecting plants for his sister’s or wife’s dyes, it would’ve been an indecency to approach him.

I glanced past him to the cave. Had God not brought me here?

From behind my shoulder Lavi whispered, “We must leave now.” I’d forgotten his presence.

I collected my thoughts.
This man, Jesus, is a stonemason who walks to Sepphoris
from Nazareth. He’s devout, coming here to pray before his labors.

I looked skyward for the sun, noting the time, then slipped back into the trees, parting the blue shadows.


I found Yaltha in her room. She was my ally, my place of mooring, but when I attempted to tell her about Jesus and the longing I’d felt to speak to him, I was seized by an inexplicable diffidence. How could I explain, even to her, the pull I felt toward a complete stranger?

Sensing my reserve, she said, “What is it, child?”

“I found a cave in which to hide my bowl and my writings.”

“I’m relieved to hear it. It’s none too soon. Earlier today I found Shipra rummaging among my things.”

She looked at the cypress chest she’d brought from Alexandria. Soon after arriving she’d opened it for me, just as I’d opened my chest for her. Inside had been the sistrum, a beaded head scarf, a pouch of amulets and charms, and a wondrous pair of Egyptian scissors composed of two long bronze blades connected by a metal strip. Had she placed my treasures in the chest? Had Shipra discovered them? I felt a prick of panic, but she quickly retrieved the bundle of my scrolls from beneath a stack of clothing on a tripod stool—hidden in plain view—then withdrew my incantation bowl from beneath her sleeping mat.

Taking the bowl from her, I peeled away the flax cloth, spying the red thread still coiled at the bottom, and my limbs went loose. It came to me then—I
know what to say to her about Jesus, but I was too frightened to confess it.

The one text Father had forbidden me was the Song of Solomon, a poem of a woman and her lover. Naturally, therefore, I’d sought it out and read it four times. I’d read it with the same heat in my face and rippling in my thighs that I’d felt watching Jesus in the clearing. Fragments of the text lodged in me still and came back to me easily.

Under the apple tree I awakened you . . .

My beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me . . .

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it . . .

•   •   •

in my room, tucking my scrolls and my bowl beneath my bed. I would have to hold my breath and pray they would be protected until I could return to the cave and bury them. They did at least seem safer here than in Yaltha’s room, where Shipra felt free to pry.

Lavi brought me a bowl of grilled fish, lentils, and bread, but I couldn’t eat. While I’d been out, Mother had hung my betrothal robe on a peg in my room, a white tunic of fine linen with purple bands in the style of Roman women. Judas would’ve been enraged to see me in such traitorous garb. And what of Nathaniel—did my dress mean that he, like Antipas, was a Roman sympathizer? The thought of him precipitated a seizure of despair.

Under the apple tree I awakened you.

Remembering that I’d tucked three sheets of clean papyrus into the goatskin pouch, I pulled the bundle from beneath the bed and removed a vial of ink, a pen, and one of the empty papyri. Having no lock on my door, I sat with my back braced against it to bar anyone entering and spread the sheet before me on the tiles. My writing board was ash now.

I didn’t know what I would write. Words engulfed me. Torrents and floodwaters. I couldn’t contain them, nor could I release them. But it wasn’t words that surged through me, it was longing. It was love of him.

I dipped my pen. When you love, you remember everything. The way his eyes rested on me for the first time. The yarns he held in the market, fluttering now in hidden places in my body. The sound of his
voice on my skin. The thought of him like a diving bird in my belly. I loved others—Yaltha, Judas, my parents, God, Lavi, Tabitha—but not in this way, not with ache and sweetness and flame. Not more than I loved words. Jesus had put his hand to the latch and I was flung open.

I set it all down. I filled the papyrus.

When the ink was dry, I rolled it up and slid it into the bundle beneath the bed. The air in the room felt dangerous. My writings could not remain in the house much longer.


At midafternoon Mother strode into my room. She glanced toward my bed, where my bowl and writings were concealed, then away. She clicked her teeth at the sight of my betrothal dress in a crumpled pile on the floor. That she didn’t chastise me should have forewarned me something awful was coming.

Ana,” she said. Her voice dripped nectar. That, too, was an ominous sign. “Nathaniel’s sister, Zopher, is here to see you.”

“No one told me of a visit.”

“I thought it better to surprise you. You will treat her with deference, won’t you?”

The hairs on my neck debated whether to stand up. “Why would I not?”

“She has come to inspect you for afflictions of the skin and other blemishes. You shouldn’t worry, she’ll be quick about it.”

I didn’t know such an indignity was possible.

“It’s only to satisfy the contract,” Mother went on. “Nathaniel must be given a guarantee by one of his own relatives that your body meets the terms he set forth.”

Blindness, lameness, afflictions of skin, infertility, lack of modesty, disobedience, or other repulsions.

She eyed me with circumspection, waiting for my reaction. Insults caught in my throat. Obscenities I couldn’t have dreamed of until Yaltha. I swallowed them. I could not risk losing my freedom to walk in the hills.

“As you wish,” I said.

She didn’t look entirely convinced. “You will submit gracefully?”

I nodded.

To inspect me as if I were donkey teeth! If I’d known of this, I could’ve given myself a brilliant red rash using gopher pitch. I could’ve washed my hair with garlic and onion juice. I could’ve presented her with any number of repulsions.

The woman greeted me kindly, but without smiling. She was small like her brother, with the same pouched eyes and vinegary face. I’d hoped Mother might leave us, but she posted herself beside my bed.

“Remove your clothing,” Zopher said.

I hesitated, then drew my tunic over my head and stood before them in my undergarment. Zopher lifted my arms, bending close to study my skin as if it was some inscrutable piece of writing. She examined my face and neck, my knees and ankles, behind my ears and between my toes.

“Now your undergarment,” she said.

I looked at her, then at Mother. “Please, I cannot.”

“Remove it,” Mother said. The nectar had been sucked from her voice.

I stood naked before them, sick with humiliation while Zopher walked a circle around me, scrutinizing my backside, my breasts, the patch between my legs. Mother looked away; she at least did me that small courtesy.

I bore my stare into the woman.
I wish you dead. I wish your brother dead.

“What is this?” Zopher inquired, pointing at the black dot of a mole on my nipple. It had been all but forgotten to me, but I wanted to bend and kiss it, this magnificent imperfection. “I believe it to be leprosy,” I told her.

Her hand snapped back.

“It’s no such thing,” Mother cried. “It’s nothing at all.” She looked at me. A dagger flew out of her eyes.

I hurried to ameliorate her. “Forgive me. I was trying to soothe my unease over my nakedness, that’s all.”

“Dress yourself,” Zopher said. “I will report to my brother that your body is acceptable.”

Mother’s sigh was like a squall of wind.

•   •   •

did not appear. I lay down, but without sleep. I revisited all the things Yaltha had said about her marriage, how she’d rid herself of Ruebel, and I felt hope leak back into me. Making certain to hear the plow of Father’s snores behind his door, I slipped down the stairs to his study, where I pilfered a pen, a vial of ink, and one of the small clay tablets he used for mundane correspondence. Tucking them into my sleeve, I hurried back to my room and closed the door.

Yaltha had asked God to take Ruebel’s life if he must as the just price for his cruelty, and he’d deserved his fate, but I wouldn’t go so far as that. Death curses were common in Galilee, so prevalent it was a miracle the population had not died off entirely, but I didn’t really wish Nathaniel dead. I only wanted him removed from my life.

The tablet was no bigger than the palm of my hand. Its smallness forced me to shrink my letters, which caused the fervency inside them to strain at the ink.

Let the powers above look with disfavor upon my betrothal. Visit a pestilence upon it. Let it be broken by whatever means God chooses. Unbind me from Nathaniel ben Hananiah. May it be so

I tell you, there are times when words are so glad to be set free they laugh out loud and prance across their tablets and inside their scrolls. So it was with the words I wrote. They reveled till dawn.


I went in search of Lavi, hoping we might slip away quietly and return to the cave, but Mother had taken him off to the market. Posting myself on the balcony, I waited for their return.

When I was a child, I sometimes woke from sleep knowing things before they occurred: Judas will take me to the aqueduct; Shipra will roast a lamb; Mother will suffer a headache; Father will bring me ink dyes from the palace; my tutor will be late. Shortly before Yaltha arrived, I woke certain that a stranger would come into our lives. These glimmers would manifest as I clambered up from the dregs of sleep. Before I opened my eyes, they were there, silent and pure and clear, like pieces of blown glass, and I would wait to see if they would happen. They always happened.

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