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The Girl in the Desert
He spurred his horse, which pulled behind it another horse, loaded with water skins and bales of hay.
Five nights in a row, the young Roman, King Herod's envoy, had chosen a campsite in the desert, poured water from the skins into a bucket, and watered the horses, then broke hay and spread it on a tarp of flax before them. He ate heavy barley bread and ripe cheese and figs. Then he tied the horses' front legs two palms above their ankles, as if handcuffed. If they spooked and took off during the night, the hooves banging on the sand would awake him.
When jackals approached, the horses whinnied and awoke the envoy, who bolted and waved his arms and shouted until the jackals withdrew. He lay back to sleep. When the dawn cracked the dark open, he was in his saddle already, horse leading horse. Each day, he rode the horse he'd spared the day before. The sunlight scalded his face. His cape fluttered behind him, like an angry flame billowing off his shoulders. Scanning with narrowed eyes the shadows of the dunes, and riding against them, east.
On the third day of riding, bones started cracking under his racing hooves. Skulls, hidden under shallow sand, exploded under his passage like blasts from catapult shots. The man stopped the horses, jumped off his saddle, and hunkered down. He dug the ground with his ornate Roman pugio. In an instant, the short heavy dagger revealed more skulls, with hair mixed with shreds of striped fabric still clinging to them the dead had been wearing tallits, male prayer shawls. The hair was dark. Those slaughtered men were young.
The Roman grinned at the desert's fiery air; he was on the right course.
He would find the Jews of the Desert, and there would be enough of them to bring back.
Hope swelled inside him. He got on his horse and rode on.
Ahead of the Roman man, hour after hour, the desert dried up more. It looked like a moon face, as in that old tale whispered before the writing of the Torah:
God made the earth, fertile and wet he made it. Then, just to play, God made the moon, but it came out barren. God slammed it to the ground, where it broke into a thousand shards.
God made another moon. Again, it came out barren. God flipped it with the back of his hand, off into the sky: Hover up there, and light up the humans' night, or what good are you? Obeying God's wish, the second moon shone silently in the sky. And the first moon, God let its shards mix with the earth, and they became the earth's deserts.
The envoy knew many stories of the Jews, even some not written in books. In the few months before sailing from Italy, he had learned so much about God's chosen people.
Across that shattered moon, he rode until he glimpsed palm trees. The oasis was no mirage. Had he not found it, he might have lost his way, using up his supplies until he died in the desert. But here he was. The awe of being alive twinned him with those unknown desert dwellers. He rode into that cluster of trees.
The water wheel was moved by a capstan, whose bars were pushed by girls walking in a circle, like donkeys toiling on a farm. Clay pots tied on the rim of the wheel brought up the clear flow, emptying it into a cistern large enough to water a caravan. The Roman counted the desert girls: eight, in wet robes of unfitted flax, treading that muddy rut. Small and malnourished, they urged each other on with brief, guttural cries. As the Roman hissed, tsstss, to slow down his horse, a girl jumped into the wheel and walked inside it, like a hamster in a cage.
Amused, the Roman stared at the camp beyond. A jumble of tents patched with rags. Rock walls, beehived with puffing holes. They live in those holes, he marveled. That smoke is from cooking pots.
The girl in the wheel started to run. The spokes creaked, the pots splashed water onto the other workers. The impatient girl flicked the hair off her face with a tanned hand. Cries of "stop," "slow down," made her run faster until the visitor sat up in his saddle and called out, "The rabbi, who is the rabbi here?"
The girls stopped pushing the capstan. Halting abruptly, the wheel threw out the prankster she flew to the ground, landing by the visitor's horse. Dizzied, she looked straight at him. Ite me dei, the man swore softly in Latin, so help me, gods! I've seen her before! Though he knew he had not. But since for five days he'd seen only barren sands and the flanks of his horses, maybe she reminded him of all that was nurturing and feminine. She was tall and wore the istomukhvia, the all-purpose shift of flax of women from Galilee. It was old and worn-out, likely handed down from her mother. Looking at her, he imagined a body without an ounce of fat under her shift.
He took in her face. So baked by the sun, it had the tint of ripe carobs. Freckles dotted the sides of her small, straight nose, a few above each delicate nostril. Her eyes seemed lilac in the shade, but when she stood up against the late sunlight, her eyes were brown. When she spoke, he felt that he knew her voice.
"My father's the rabbi here, and who are you to ask?"
"I am an envoy with a message from your king."
"Orpa!" the tallest one called out to a girl even darker and wirier. The one named Orpa nodded, then both of them whistled, while the other girls pulled out the capstan's ribs. In a blink, these children were armed with bats. The Roman's hand went to his sword, but he caught himself. Easy, he thought. The lips of the freckled girl were thin, but so finely drawn. "What's your name?" he asked her. His voice, thank the gods, was calm.
"Mary-amneh," she replied, a little defiant. But the Roman guessed that she blushed, as her skin started to shine under her tan.
A shadow drew close: a jackal, low-bodied, brightly fanged, followed by three more. The Roman gasped tame jackals! One of the animals put up its muzzle, and the girl stroked it. Were they trained to attack? If they jumped him, he'd be easy prey...
Seized by fear, he blurted out, "Herod the Great sends word to the tribe of Joachim ben Ahaz ben Matthan...Are you his tribe?" The brown-eyed girl nodded. "The king forgives you all! You're no longer in exile, you can return to your homes in Nazareth!"
They gaped at him. The silence dripped with the water from those pots.
Then Mary-amneh threw her head back. She gave a high, ululated call, like a desert bird.
There was a rush of voices from people lunging out of tents and caves.
The Roman jumped off his horse. Dizzy. He'd been in the saddle since dawn.
A crowd was hurrying over. Older men and women, boys with fuzz on their upper lips, a gaggle of children. They wore old clothes, discolored from use and washing; only one tall, gray-haired woman wore an apron smeared with bright color stains that's the girl's mother, and she's a dyer, the Roman remembered. The mother did not look much like Mary-amneh except for her height, but the bearded man running next to her had the girl's nose, her thin, expressive lips, her freckles even. Casus patris certi, unquestionably her father by blood, the envoy thought, silently enjoying the Latin words. He was lonely for home. He spoke Latin to other Roman soldiers in Jerusalem, mostly when they banded together to visit a whorehouse outside the walls, in the Kidron Valley.
The pale old man and his wife surged at the fore of the crowd. Here they are, he thought, Joachim and Anna. He was informed of these people's names, and alert for anything they would say speculator vigilans semper, a spy is forever at work. He glanced back. By the cistern, the girl pulled a hair slide from a fold in her shift and forked it into her rich hair. The crowd yammered in Aramaic, with harsh khh sounds, as if spit boiled in their throats. How many of them had survived King Herod's wrath, fifty, eighty?
He remembered those skulls in the desert, cracking under his passage. The tribe's young males had all been killed, but some boys had been spared he spotted them in the crowd now, grown, with fuzz under their noses. But who had fathered these wailing infants? The visiting camel drivers? I'll find the answers to all those questions, he told himself, when Rabbi Joachim, pale, his beard grainy white, stopped right in front of him and gazed at him suspiciously.
Civil, the Roman said, "My name is Apella, special servant to the king. You may have guessed that I'm not Judean or Galilean though I speak your language and know your customs. The king's message is that you may return to Nazareth, as of right now."
Joachim and his wife looked at each other; the crowd looked at each other. It seemed that this message, once so desired, was coming too late. Then Joachim asked, "You have a writ from the king bearing out your words?"
"Of course." He walked to the stamping horses, unbuttoned a leather holster, and pulled out the king's scroll, tearing the bone clasp that sealed it.
Joachim lifted his arms. When his sleeves fell back, Apella cringed Joachim's hands had been beaten severely. Fingers knobby and crooked, nails missing, he gestured with a maimed hand that the wife should hold up the scroll before his eyes. Then he read like a learned man, quick, without glancing twice at a word, and shook his head. "It says here that we've been amnestied, but of what offense? We were never tried in a court."
Apella shrugged. "It's the king's will that you return to your homes. You should take advantage of his generosity."
Joachim turned to his daughter. "Mary-amneh?"
The name was common in Galilee. King Herod's late wife, his one Jewish spouse among a harem of ten, was also called Mary-amneh. Herod's other wives were Greek or Phoenician. But Queen Mary-amneh was Jewish and the king's favorite until he had killed her in a drunken fit of jealousy. Allegedly, she had stared out her window at a young captain of the guards. Herod had snuffed her with a pillow. He had also killed Aristobulus and Alexander, the two sons she bore him. Everyone knew about Herod's crimes, but Herod was kept on his throne by the Romans precisely because he was cruel. That made him an optimus rex socius, an excellent client king, and client kings did the will of Rome all around the world.
The girl named after the murdered queen stepped closer to her father. Joachim whispered to her. She nodded and whistled again. Now a dozen jackals scurried out of the bushes, and two of the water girls ran leading them up the path, back into the desert.
Good, Apella thought. They would scour the dunes and find that I've come alone. After that, they will trust me. The girls particularly must be dying to leave this hole.
Mary-amneh turned to the cistern, scooped water in her palms, and washed her face. Apella stepped up. "I'd be thankful to wash, too."
She grabbed her shift, wiped her forehead and cheeks, then swung her bare arm at the cistern: Be my guest. She wasn't going to pour water, or wait on him with a towel. "You unscrubbed brat. Who needs your favors?" he grumbled under his breath, dunking his hands, forearms, then his face into the water. Flies and wasps floated where she had rippled it. He splashed them away, noticing that the cistern was built of freshly fitted planks. Wood was expensive in Galilee, earmarked for Roman ships; trading with the caravans, the Jews of the desert had done well. He was thirsty but fearful to drink from where camels drank. But the girl had just washed her face in the cistern. To hell with it. He drank with long gulps.
He stood up, stocky, his hair short and curly, his eyes piercingly brown, his nose strong, prowlike. Handsome, he rated himself.
"Mind the flies," Mary said. A cloud of them rose from the rippling water. He peeled off his subucula, his vest, revealing a gut swollen from eating barley bread, and slapped the flies away. The girls tittered. Having just turned twenty-five, Apella had never felt old or unfit in front of females. Scowling, he pulled his vest back on.
"Has the king arranged for our homes to be returned to us?" Mary asked. "When we were chased here, the clan of Shalafta and the clan of Aaron stole our homes, our herds, all we owned." Apella frowned as if this were the first he had heard about that; but he knew about those clans. "They joined the king's Syrians, to drive us to our deaths our own cousins. If we go back, they'll jump us and kill us."
"They won't. I'll stop in Nazareth on my way back, and convey the king's wish." He turned to Anna, "You dye clothes, yes? My mother was a dyer, too. Dyers pass their secret recipes to their children, yes?" She nodded curtly. He pointed to a purple stain on her apron. "I thought purple could only be drawn from Red Sea shells."
"That's true, but the caravans bring us shells," said Anna. "And we get colors from desert flowers, crushed with water."
He beamed at her. "You people made the well into a good business; you'll know how to bargain for your houses."
"Sweet-talking, aren't you?" said the girl Orpa, surprising him with her daring. "Tell the king to give us our homes back, otherwise this is meaningless." And everyone yelled, "Our homes, yes! Amen! Amen!"
Amen. That word which the Jews used so often and with such passion it really meant "I believe." The Romans felt excluded when they heard the Jews say it. Some Romans belched or farted when they heard it.
"What do you know about us?" Joachim asked. And the crowd became deeply silent, eyes drilling the stranger.
Apella answered softly, "Only what I heard at the court. I've been in the king's pay only a year. When you people still lived in Nazareth, the king's oldest son, Aristobulus, hired you, Rabbi, to build him a prayer chest, yes? You were renowned as a carpenter, yes?" Joachim nodded, suspicious but flattered. "But Aristobulus was scheming to seize his father's throne, so the king had him killed. Then he banished everyone who knew the prince, including your tribe, Rabbi Joachim, and that's all I know. After Prince Aristobulus was killed, Queen Mary-amneh drowned herself in the palace pool, but before she did that, she sent a letter to Rome telling Emperor Augustus that her husband had gone insane and Augustus should remove him from the throne..."
"The king was always insane!" someone yelled. "He's like the lame old lion who eats his cubs!"
"Why are you serving the king?" a teenager shouted, cocking his scrawny neck at the well-fed visitor.
"What's your name?" Apella asked.
The boy cleared his voice. "Shimon," he muttered, less hotly.
"I'm a soldier of fortune, Shimon. A good one, too, as long as the kings pays me, and that makes the king less suspicious."
"Less crazy, less rabid!" many voices shouted.
"Maybe so," Apella replied. "But just now the king's in a tight spot. He's old and sick, and must rein in his sons by his youngest queen, Malthace the Phoenician. So he hired new servants, me included, to put a new face on his rule. And I told him, 'Your Majesty, you have too many discontents. Pardon the Jews of the Desert, write the scroll, I'll take it to them...'"
Joachim's cheeks surged red. "You told him to do that?"
"Yes, that was my suggestion. He agreed so easily, maybe the conjunction of the stars two months ago was unusually favorable..."
"Two months!" the crowd marveled.
"I'm sorry it took that long. The king keeps me busy."
"It's not like Herod to forgive," an older man shouted. "This is a trap."
"Then it's your choice to stay here," Apella said. "But I give you the word of the urbs of Rome, I'm not putting you in harm's way! I am a vigil Asiae, a supervisor of these lands, it's my duty to maintain peace here. The king is sixty-nine, and his memory's slipping. I don't think he remembered who you were when he signed the scroll."
"So, we'll go home and no one will harm us?"
"Yes. You have nothing to fear."
The people crowded around Apella. The closest ones touched his vest and his tunic of platelets, while the children scurried to paw his boots. Dizzied by so many breaths and odors, he yelled, "It is as I said, amen!" Hearing "I believe" from the lips of a Roman made them laugh, and he laughed with them. "If you start on your way back tomorrow, I'll get a writ for your homes, too, and we'll meet outside Nazareth's gates."
"We can't leave tomorrow, we must decide what to do with the well," Mary said.
Her father nodded. "Yes, the lives of travelers and their animals depend on our water."
The daughter's the key, Apella concluded. If she trusts me, everyone will. I must try to speak with her alone. He gave her a quick bow. "Show me around, so I can tell whoever asks how you survived here. You could use some friends." She was silent, though she undoubtedly heard him. "Mary, don't waste this chance. Don't you want to go home?" He smiled at the other girls, folding his arms as if lullabying an imaginary baby. "Girls, don't you want to get married, have children, know the pleasures of neshikot ve reerim [little kisses and slobbers]?" The girls laughed, all except the tall one. She leaned toward him and whispered, "Why did you lie about the queen's death?"
"Huh?" The sun stabbed between two trees. He raised his hands to shade his eyes. She whispered again. "Or maybe you didn't know?"
"Know what?" He turned to avoid the glare, right into her eyes.
"The king killed Mary-amneh before he killed Aristobulus. So Aristobulus wanted to avenge his mother. He told me that when he came to Nazareth to see my father's work. If he failed, he knew that his father would kill him. It was just a matter of who would be quicker."
Apella gaped, without faking. "He said that to you alone?"
"No, he said it at my father's dinner table, for everyone to hear. He was drunk. Before the night was over, the king raided Nazareth. I saw him kill Aristobulus, while his Syrians whipped us out of our homes and into the desert." Her words conjured images of torture and murder. Meantime there was something about her that was so peacefully female, the arc of her lips, the appeal of her still-unripe body. Apella knew that with the special emphasis Jews put on virginity, the caravan masters called her betoola, "unopened young woman," "virgin." But Prince Aristobulus had been a terror with women, seducing so many of them, then forsaking them all. In the time he had spent in Nazareth, had Aristobolus tried to seduce the rabbi's daughter?
Molliter, molliter. Gently, gently. I'll find out all those answers.
The girl stood on tiptoe, turning toward the desert; the tamed jackals were trotting back. Behind them, tired, walked the two water girls. The jackals plunged into the crowd to be petted, drooling cheerfully, they'd found no hidden killers in the desert.
Mary turned to Apella and smiled. "Lucky for you, you didn't lie about coming here alone. I'll show you the camp."
Mary called Orpa and Shimon. All three surrounded Apella as he uncinctured his sword and handed it to Mary, who handed it to her mother, who stored it under her apron. Orpa whistled for the jackals. Under escort, Apella was steered around the oasis.
Behind him, his horses were being cared for. Buckets of ripe dates were put under their noses, while two boys sponged them first with water to cool them off, next with vinegar to snuff the ticks on their hides, then again with water. The presence of vinegar, too, Apella noted, indicated that the tribe was decently supplied.
They passed vats wafting the sweet stench of ripe dates, which older women mushed with their hands. The older women wiped their hands on their shifts and started following the little group. Apella was now convinced that these people were not witches; no matter where he stared, he saw no statues to pagan deities, or snakes or lizards hung on sticks for spells. A jackal hurried ahead of him. Watching its touchingly mangy rear, he couldn't imagine it as a witch's familiar.
Mary headed for a flight of steps carved in the rock wall. She climbed up, and the Roman man followed, thinking, If I strike the right tone with her, my mission could become pleasant. Mary's heels blew dust in his face. He tried not to give in to memories, but it was impossible. Rome, one year ago. He was following another girl back then, a Roman girl.
A jackal slunk up past him, agile like a circus animal. He called to Mary, "How, by the gods, did you domesticate these beasts?"
"Fed them," she replied over her shoulder. "The pups die, their mothers don't have enough milk for them. So we raised a few pups."
"But they should've run off when they grew up."
"And starve?" She laughed. "Ever seen hungry jackals jump after flies?"
"No." He laughed with her.
Behind him, the old women climbed the steps, too. Vigilant aunts. After a Jewish girl showed her first bloods, her dameem, she was monitored ferociously, as if a dome of unbreakable glass had descended over her. The way out of that imprisonment was into marriage. There was even a profession of checking if Jewish girls were virgins before they got married. An experienced woman, usually a former midwife, could make nice money as a yavesh zaken etsba, literally a "dry old finger," paid to palpate a girl's hymen before her wedding night, and hopefully confirm that it was intact. There was a whole street of such dry old fingers in Jerusalem, where the honor of noble families was counted in thousands of shekels if a girl had not been deflowered before the vows. Barbaric, and fascinating. Broad-minded Roman girls couldn't wait to get rid of that flap of skin the rich ones had their hymens removed by doctors, the easier to join the ludi carnales, the flesh games. The rich can afford progress, Apella reflected, feeling how much he missed Rome.
The rabbi's daughter stepped onto the desert top and into a tiny wheat field, perhaps twenty yards across. Tubes made of hollowed palm saplings sprayed it with water from the cistern. Next to the wheat, he saw patches of cucumbers, dill, parsley, and onions.
"Marvelous," he exclaimed, pointing to the pathetically small harvest. "Who brought you the seeds?"
"The caravan masters. It's all doing well, except for the wheat. But we feed it to our goats. Now we get good flour from the caravans."
The old women stopped at the edge of the gulch. They watched, shading their eyes from the dying sun. Which one's the dry old finger? he joked to himself. In the desert, he glimpsed goats grazing on nearly invisible vegetation, guarded by jackal mutts with tongues hanging out. He drew a chestful of hot air, and it seared his lungs.
"How do you purify here?" he asked, to show the girl that he knew her people's customs.
"There's a hot spring there, in a cave." She pointed between two dunes.
He looked, reckoned that it might take an hour to walk to it. He felt ready to faint. "You trek that far, to bathe in hot water?"
"It's running water," she said sweetly, infuriating him.
"I know," he snapped. "Jews only purify in running water. River, brook, hot spring: running. Lake, sea, desert well: not running. The most wonderful bath, if its water's not running, it can't cleanse Jews. But if Jews have running water, and their temple in Jerusalem, they're God's people!"
She pressed her lips together. "There's more to our law than that," she said carefully. She had tied a scarf over her hair. So low, it brushed her eyebrows. Her face against the red-hot dunes seemed like an actor's without make-up: Lips and nose, hmm, pretty ordinary, why would the audience fall in love with them? And yetâ .Â .Â .Â How could she know that she's pretty, traipsing around here among goats? He smiled at her. "Your father values your advice. He and everyone else."
She shrugged, as if replying, I help my people, and they help me. What is, is.
"How did he get maimed like that?"
"Are your hands strong?"
He grinned, boastful of his muscular body.
"Feel the sand, down here," she said. Apella lowered a knee, placed his hands on the sand. How could she walk barefoot on this skillet?
Mary jumped onto his hands. He uttered a throttled cry. She stepped aside.
"The king did that to my father. He broke into our house with his Syrians, they held me and my mother so we would watch, and the king jumped on my father's hands with his boots."
He winced from the pain in her voice. He knew Herod's boots, he stared at them every time he was called to the palace. Herod liked to dress Roman, and despite Judea's hot climate he wore double-soled hobnailed caligae, Roman assault boots. Herod was deathly afraid of the evil eye; he killed servants who dared stare at him. When speaking to Herod, Apella studied his boots.
Joachim's daughter completed her story in simple words. "We're afraid to be grateful to you. Even if you are honest with us, maybe the king still isn't. Maybe he's drawing us into a trap." A teardrop broke out of her delicately drawn lashes and slid down her cheek. Apella's heart beat slowly, as if timed by that teardrop's movement. She wiped it with the back of her hand.
"Did your father speak to the prince about Mashiah?" Apella asked, light, as if it were one topic in a hundred.
"My father told him that Mashiah would come soon. He believes that."
"When is he coming, then?" Apella asked naïvely. She shrugged, how would she know? "Does your father know what others don't know? Your father's a seer and diviner, isn't he?"
"No. He's just well read, and he listens to people."
He repressed his other questions. He had his own theory about why Herod had killed his eldest son and heir. Shortly before traveling to Nazareth, Aristobulus had sent word to one of the temple's high priests that he wanted to be circumcised and Herod had seen that request as a move toward the throne. Herod had not had any of his sons circumcised, he had raised them as Romans, and there was a law against mutilating Roman citizens non mutilatur, the law was known as, and it included circumcision. Aristobulus had contacted the priest in secret, but the priest had betrayed him to the king.
Maybe the girl knew nothing about that. Her lips were moving, as if whispering.
"Are you speaking to yourself?"
She laughed, and her voice broke. "When you walk alone around here, and the goats stray in the desert, and you lose your way...I got lost so many times, when we didn't yet have the dogs..."
"So what did you do?"
"I put my shift over my head, and prayed for the sun to set faster. When it got dark, I lay down, slept a while, then got up and followed the marks of the caravans." She pointed under their feet. Frittered camel prints were beginning to fill with the evening's shadows. "At night, the moonlight brings out the prints."
"That's when I learned to talk to myself, to be less afraid."
She sounded so friendly now.
"You talk about Mashiah?"
What had he touched? She drew her lips in, with that blue of held-back tears filling her eyes. Her upper lip shone with perspiration so fine, he felt like touching it, with the curiosity he'd had as a boy playing with puppies. Little marvels of simplicitas naturae..."Mary..." He gripped her hand; her palm was callused, but it felt so impatiently alive. She jerked her hand free, almost losing her balance.
He raised his voice. "Herod knows he is old, and his sons by Queen Malthace are not popular in Rome. He must make peace here, or we'll turn his kingdom into a colony!" What was he saying? Was he discussing Rome's policies with this dusty little vestal with hempy hair?
Just then Orpa dashed past them. Running, teasing Shimon, who tried to catch her but wasn't fast enough.
Apella evened his voice. "We, the urbs of Rome, want your tribe to survive for our own vested interests. We lack one thing that binds your people together, faith. Our own gods lost their appeal to the crowds." The girl listened, round eyed. "We need a new belief to get excited about...Emperor Augustus, a very busy ruler, believe me, took the time to read the books of the Jews, and that story of renewal heralded by Mashiah piqued his interest."
He was telling the truth now, and making one blunder after another. She replied, her eyes shining with worry. "Woe to the Jews when the Romans take a liking to their faith. I don't know when Mashiah will come or what he will look like, nor does my father. Is that why we're being forgiven, to provide those answers?" She sounded so concerned that Apella grumbled, confused: "No, puella...you don't have to provide any answers...Augustus thinks that Mashiah is a real person, but his curiosity is...philosophical. Will you gossip about what I told you?"
She shook her head. "I won't gossip. There's nothing to talk about, is there?"
"Nothing at all."
"Don't worry, then." Almost ready to reach for his hand now but her modesty won. She pressed her palms together and agonized until he smiled again. He wasn't angry at her. What could be tickled more sweetly than a girl's mind? the poet Ovid had written, the one poet Apella had ever read. The air was slightly cooler now; on the ground, her shadow and his met, and parted again..."Puella, I can be your friend. Trust me." Because you are that tribe, the one from the prophecy. That's Rome's intelligence on you! But he couldn't say that.
Her fingers touched his wrist, so quickly, they felt like a fluttering wingtip. "You must be starved." She called out to Orpa. "Go tell my mother to get the food ready...Wait, I'll go." Turning back to the Roman: "Will you eat mutton, flour cakes, and dates? Sit on this rock, take off your boots or your feet will swell. When you're done eating, stick the plates in the sand, so the lizards and scorpions won't smell them."
"What about water to wash and drink?"
"We'll bring you everything. But we can't keep you company."
"I know. Jews don't eat with the unclean."
He undid his platelet tunic, letting the air dry off his sweaty chest. He would eat a cooked meal for the first time in five days.
"Your young mothers can't trek back home on foot," he told the girl. "I'll lend you money to buy a few donkeys for them from the next caravan."
"Thank you, but we have a little money. We'll manage." She started toward the lip of the gulch. He stepped after her. "Were you in love with the prince?"
"No. And you're prying," she replied, soft, uninsulting.
"I'm prying, because I like you. I suppose you guessed that?"
She seemed amused. "A woman always knows about a man, for the woman was inside the man at the start." She shook her head, pleased that he seemed baffled. "Don't you remember? The man was made from dirt, but the woman was made of the man's flesh."
"Oh, yes," he grunted. "I see."
"You don't see, you're a man."
"Indeed." He laughed. But then a strange vision emerged in his mind. He himself was the first man, lying on his back, deep in that sleep which God threw over him, so he could remove his rib. He awoke and glimpsed that rib being pulled out of him. Red, palpitating, loaded with a future that the man could never experience by himself. That rib carried such secrets. But he, the man, would never guess them; the secrets were now hidden in the woman.
She was standing so close, he could have pulled her to him.
"I'll see about the food."
She whirled down the steps like a little fury. He watched from above as she ran into the gulch, under hanging palm fronds. He glimpsed the back of her neck, untouched by the sun, creamy white. Copyright © 2009 by Petru Popescu