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The hot desert wind swirled dust devils across the parched earth, whipping up the sparse vegetation that had managed to sprout after the meager rains of spring. Two sluggish, muddy rivers-the Tigris and Euphrates-divided and carved out a large Y in this featureless plain. Few trees offered any relief for man or beast from the shimmering heat. Birds darted over the marshes where the rivers overran their banks, and tiny ripples in the shallows marked schools of fish feeding on insects. Bordering the rivers to the north and south, fields of grain spread across the desolate flat land. Occasional date palms offered fruit and shade for travelers coming from outlying farms into the city of Ur of the Chaldees, on the Euphrates River.
As the sun began to set in the west, a solitary vulture circled languidly over the busy metropolis, where fortified walls formed an elongated triangle that lay in the flatland near the confluence of the two rivers. The high wall surrounding the city was broken only by a few gates. Within that wall, in a broad, open section of the city, lay a sprawling temple complex, with a mud-brick ziggurat-dedicated to the moon god Nanna and his wife Ningal-rising eighty feet in three-step terraces.
The vulture tilted to his left and made a sweeping curve, searching for an evening meal. He studied the crowded mass of houses and bazaars surrounding the temple and the broad canal that circumscribed the city, connecting it with the larger of the two rivers leading to the big sea beyond. Another waterway cut through the heart of the city, along which path the vulture now soared until reaching the large harbor at the southern tip. The bird circled above the boats that sat quietly at anchor in the dead calm of evening. Having not spotted any carrion on the city streets, the vulture moved on, sailing effortlessly over the farmland that spread outward in every direction. There he would more likely find food.
A short, fat man, whose expensive robe barely covered his midsection, stopped along the streets of Ur to glance upward at the setting sun. A glittering stone on his pudgy finger caught the last rays. Eliphaz hesitated, tempted to return to the safety of his home. He was a timid fellow who knew that being out as darkness was gathering was inviting trouble. Nonetheless, he urged himself on, muttering under his breath, and scurried down the narrow, twisting streets. He knew them well, having spent all of his forty years within the city walls. He rarely stepped outside the gates into the open land, preferring the close comfort of the crowded houses, bazaars, and shops. The security of being around people was necessary for Eliphaz. He loved nothing better than the festival days when the farmers brought their produce and the city swarmed like a giant anthill.
Rounding a corner, Eliphaz halted at the sight of a large yellow dog emerging stiff-legged from the gathering shadows, his lips pulled back from his teeth. Eliphaz clasped the box he was bearing to his chest and backed up against the nearest wall. “Get away!” he shouted in as rough a tone as he could muster. The animal continued forward, his eyes glittering.
Two street urchins, no more than ten or twelve, were scuffling in the dust. Seeing Eliphaz shrinking against the wall, the boys grinned and pointed.
“Look at him! He’s afraid of an old dog,” one of them said, laughing.
“Give us the box, and we’ll make the dog leave you alone,” the other said. When Eliphaz did not answer, both boys approached him and demanded, “What’s in the box?”
Eliphaz stared at the dog, then at the boys, whose sticks were raised threateningly. He reached into the purse that hung around his neck, pulled out a sack, and stuttered, “H-here, you can have these dates.”
The smaller of the two boys darted forward and snatched the sack. “Come on, Nopaz.” The boys turned and ran, whistling to the dog, who stiffly trotted away after them.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Eliphaz hurried on down the street. Humiliated by the scene, he purposed that the next time he ventured out at dusk, he would bring one of his slaves with a weapon.
By the time Eliphaz reached the house he was seeking, the sun was disappearing below the top of the city wall. Eliphaz entered the courtyard of the large house, which was set back from the street. Even in the growing darkness, he could see the lush greenery of the plants in decorated clay pots. He called out, “Hello!” and immediately a man emerged from one of the inner gates. He was a wiry fellow, below average height, who grinned and bobbed his head as he approached the visitor. “You are late tonight, sir.”
“Yes, I am, Hazil.”
Hazil reached out his hands. “Can I carry your box, sir?”
“No, I’ll take it in. Am I late?”
“The meal hasn’t started yet, but they have been expecting you.”
“I’ll go right on in,” Eliphaz muttered, hastening into the house. Hazil turned, his hand on his hip, studying the man as he disappeared. Then he laughed softly and entered the house again himself, walking down a long corridor toward the cooking area. An oven half buried in the earth was sending up tendrils of smoke, which swirled about the dried onions and vegetables hanging from the ceiling. On one side of the room a woman was slicing vegetables with a knife, her back to Hazil. A mischievous grin tugged at Hazil’s thin lips as he silently tiptoed toward her. He threw his arms around her full figure, laughing when she shrieked. No sooner had she turned than he planted a kiss on her mouth, shutting off her objections, then stepped back and plucked a piece of roasted meat from a dish on the table.
“You stop that! That’s for the master-and keep your slimy hands off of me!”
The woman wore a tunic supported by a single strap over one shoulder. Although she was no longer in the flush of youth, her thin face was still attractive. Her lips drew down in a frown as she said, “You keep your hands off of everything in this kitchen-including me!”
“Oh, come on, don’t be angry, Mahita.”
“You’re a scoundrel, Hazil!”
Hazil reached up and plucked a grape from a cluster hanging from a beam in the ceiling. He chewed it, then reached for another before answering. With grape juice running over his chin, he grinned. “I’ll be by your room tonight for a visit.”
“You come near my room and I’ll gut you like a fish!”
Hazil only laughed, pulling her toward him and whispering in her ear, “It’ll be a treat for both of us.” This time Mahita barely resisted as he kissed her on the cheek, then sat down and helped himself to the meat on the table.
Mahita laughed softly and feigned annoyance. “What if you found Taphir in the room? He’d slit your skinny throat.”
“He’s not the man I am.”
“He’s twice as big.”
“Twice as big doesn’t mean twice as good.” Hazil winked and chewed thoughtfully on the meat. “This is good. What is it?”
“Goat. If the master comes in and catches you eating his food, he’ll stripe your back.”
“He’s too busy to worry over things like that. After all, his future son-in-law is here.”
“He’s come, then?”
“Yes-he just went inside. You think Hanna will have this one?”
Mahita began grinding corn in a hollowed-out stone, expertly crushing the kernels to powder with a smaller smooth stone. Without hesitation she nodded. “She’s got to have a man ... at least she thinks so.”
“Well, she’s tried hard enough to catch this one. He’s not much of a man, though.”
“He’s rich.” Mahita nodded. “That’s what counts.”
“There’s more to a man than money.”
“Don’t you wish that were true! But she’ll have him-you can be sure.”
As Mahita moved about, efficiently preparing the meal, Hazil followed her, sampling the supper and speaking of family matters. These two were well aware of the innermost secrets of the house of Garai, as were all the servants. Their master and his family labored under the delusion that the servants were all deaf. Either that, or they had grown so accustomed to the servants’ presence that they simply forgot to speak quietly or in private. Even if they had tried to maintain some secrecy, the houses of Ur provided precious little privacy. There were no doors to close, only openings between each room, which were occasionally covered with blankets or animal skins, but most of the time Garai and his wife, Rufi, lived in full view of servants and visitors alike.
Mahita looked around and gave a sigh of satisfaction. Picking up a clay jar, she poured some wine into a clay goblet and offered it to Hazil. She then poured herself some and sat down with another sigh.
“So Hanna’s going to get a man at last,” Hazil said, sipping his wine. “I never could figure her out. She’s not bad looking-she’s even pretty in a way. She should have been married two or three years ago.”
“Why, Hazil, I thought you were sharper than that!” Mahita sipped her wine, tilting her head back to savor the coolness of it, then grinned at the man across the table from her. “It’s Sarai, of course.”
“What does she have to do with it?”
“The men come here and all they see is Sarai. Hanna’s not exactly plain, but alongside Sarai, she’s like a desert toad!”
“But she comes with a good dowry-that must be worth something to a man.”
“That’s what Garai’s hoping for, of course-to find a man who wants money more than a beautiful wife.”
Hazil reached over and pinched Mahita’s cheek. “Now, if you had a dowry, I’d marry you myself.”
“You’ll never marry anybody. You’re not the marrying kind.”
“Don’t be too sure about that.” Sipping his wine slowly, Hazil’s eyes narrowed. “But Sarai is even a bigger puzzle to me. She’s as good-looking as a woman comes, and Garai’s offered a bounty as big as a camel to go with her. And yet she still awaits a marriage offer.”
“Even a big dowry’s not enough to entice a man to take her.”
“Why ever not? What about old Rashim? He was taken with her, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, until she opened her mouth! She got rid of him fast enough.” Mahita laughed shortly. “It’s her tongue that scares the men off.”
“Yes, she’s got a tongue, all right,” Hazil said ruefully. “She’s used it on me often enough.”
“That’s right. She’s run off every suitor who’s ever come.”
A call came from inside, and the two got up. Hazil wrapped his arms around Mahita, kissing her soundly. “Don’t go to sleep early. You’ll miss a real treat if you do.”
“Leave me be. Supper’s late. You know how Garai will yell.”
Hazil laughed and winked at her, whispering, “I’ll see you later.”
* * *
Zulda pulled the bone comb down through the jet black hair of her mistress. In her opinion, Sarai’s best feature was her hair, blacker than night itself, long and soft and glossy. It was a pleasure to comb it, and now Zulda said, “You want me to tie your hair up?”
“No, leave it down, Zulda.”
Zulda made two or three more passes through her mistress’s hair with the comb, then shook it out.
Sarai moved over toward the stone tub, slipped out of her robe, and stepped in. With a sigh of pleasure, she slid down into the water. “Don’t let my hair get wet, Zulda. Maybe you’d better tie it up after all.”
Zulda secured the hair up with copper pins and began to scrub her mistress’s back with a soft cloth. Sarai hummed to herself, enjoying the coolness of the water, and finally she got up and allowed Zulda to dry her off. Zulda rubbed a soft, sweet-smelling oil into her body, all the time chattering away. At times Zulda’s constant talk grew tiresome, but Sarai was fond of the little servant girl, whose life was devoted to pleasing her mistress.
“ ... and so your sister’s going to marry Eliphaz, and you’ll be the only daughter left in the house. Your brother will spoil you.”
“She hasn’t married him yet,” Sarai murmured. She began to rub herself down with a soft cloth, then stepped into the undergarments Zulda held for her. Her gown was pure white and, in the fashion of the aristocracy, was suspended by one strap over her right shoulder. She waited until Zulda fastened a belt studded with stones around her waist, then slipped into her sandals.
“You aren’t going to marry Abiahaz?”
“No!” Sarai said shortly.
“But he’s been coming around here for a year. You never said you wouldn’t have him.”
Sarai loosened her hair and let it fall down her back, staring into the polished bronze mirror on the wall. “It was amusing to watch him come sniffing around.”
The blurry image staring back from the mirror revealed a tall, proud woman, with a prominent nose, high cheekbones that accented the hollows of her cheeks, and black eyes with strange green flecks in them. Her skin was as smooth as a baby’s, the envy of every woman in the land. Sarai’s family was originally from the city of Uruk, many miles upriver. Being from the privileged class, and having been successful in business, they owned homes both in Ur and in the smaller, but also impressive, city of Uruk. The entire household would travel upriver with Garai and stay in their other house whenever he had business to attend to.
Zulda went on with her questions as she once again combed out her mistress’s hair. “What will your brother say?”
“I’ve already told him.”
“Well, what did he say, then?”
“He screamed like a wild donkey-as he always does.”
Zulda finished off Sarai’s hair by inserting two decorative jeweled combs. “But you’ve got to get married, mistress.”
“I do? Why?” Sarai’s well-shaped lips parted. Her enormous eyes, almond shaped and deep set, now sparkled with amusement. She loved to tease Zulda, for the girl was easily fooled. “Why do I have to get married?” she asked again in her deep voice.
“Why ... what else is there for a woman to do?”
Sitting down at a dressing table filled with cosmetics, Sarai put the tip of her finger into a small jar carved out of semiprecious stone. She pressed the contents of it to her cheek and began spreading it on. “What else is there for a woman to do? Why, nothing much. When I find a man I can love, I’ll marry him.”
Zulda stared at Sarai with astonishment. “But fathers choose husbands for girls! And since your father is gone, your brother will choose your husband.”
“I’ll pick my own husband.”
Zulda took in a short breath. She was shocked but intrigued. “Nobody but you would say that, mistress.”
“I’ll do it, though.”
“What kind of a man will you pick?”
Sarai paused from putting on the cosmetics and thought for a moment. “He won’t be old like that ... that old Malater my brother wanted me to marry! Why, he was so old he would have died on the marriage bed.”
Zulda was accustomed to Sarai’s half-ribald statements, and she merely giggled. “What will your husband be like?”
“Oh, he’ll have to be young and good-looking.”
“Is that all?”
“No, he’s got to be intelligent too,” Sarai insisted. Her eyes flashed with indignation. “Most men can only talk about business. The man I marry must have a broad knowledge of life ... and most of all, he must know that women are equal to men.”
“Mistress, you mustn’t say that!”
Laughing, Sarai reached out and caressed the maid’s cheek. “I do shock you, don’t I?”
“There’s no man like that in the world.”
“Then I’ll buy a young slave. I’ll train him up to be my husband. He’ll do everything I tell him to do. If you see a good-looking, strong young fellow for sale, let me know about it.” Sarai laughed and rose, moving swiftly and gracefully toward the doorway.
As Zulda watched Sarai disappear, she shook her head and murmured, “I don’t know what’s going to become of you, mistress.”
* * *
The family was gathered in the dining room with Garai, the head of the house, who paced about impatiently. He was a small man with sharp, light brown eyes and well-kept brown hair. His wife, Rufi, watched him moving back and forth nervously. She was a pretty woman, a few years younger than her husband, and she kept glancing at the door, waiting for Sarai to enter.
Zaroni, the mother of Garai and Sarai, stood calmly next to her daughter-~in-law. She was a small woman with greenish eyes, and traces of her youthful beauty still remained. Turning to Garai, she said, “Don’t be impatient, son. Sarai will be here soon.”
“She’s always late. She’ll be late for her own funeral!” Garai muttered.
Hanna, Sarai’s sister, stood next to Eliphaz. She was a pretty young woman, but her attractiveness was eclipsed by Sarai’s beauty. She stayed very close to Eliphaz, as if he were apt to run away, and now she smiled at him flatteringly. “I had them fix your favorite foods for supper.”
“It’s always a pleasure to dine here,” Eliphaz said, nodding enthusiastically.
At that moment Sarai entered and cooed innocently, “Oh, am I late?”
“You’re always late,” Garai growled.
“I’m so sorry, brother, but I’m here now, so we can eat.”
“You look very nice,” Zaroni said.
“Thank you, Mother.” An impish look touched Sarai’s eyes, and Zaroni knew at once that her daughter was up to some outrage. She watched as Sarai walked over to Eliphaz, smiled warmly, and said, “How well you look, my dear Eliphaz. That’s a new robe, isn’t it?”
“W-well ... as a matter of fact, it is,” he stuttered, flushing at Sarai’s intent gaze and proximity.
“It suits you splendidly.” Sarai reached out and fingered the robe, feeling its texture with an admiring glance. She then touched his cheek lightly and leaned against him. “You’ll have to tell me all about your trip to Akadd.”
Hanna turned pale, and the others saw her fury as she grabbed Eliphaz’s arm. “Come along!” she snapped. “It’s time to eat!”
Sarai smiled blandly as her mother came to her side and whispered, “Why do you torment your sister so?” She was not angry, however, but simply shook her head in a mild reproof.
“Because it amuses me, Mother. Come along. Let’s eat.”
Two young servant girls served the meal, while Mahita oversaw them with a sharp eye. They carried in flat metal plates filled with wild roast duck, goat, boiled eggs, leeks, and cucumbers, and poured wine from metal flagons.
Midway through the meal, Garai remarked, “I understand that the decision’s been made about where to put the new canal.”
“Yes, it has,” Eliphaz said, nodding eagerly. “It’s taken a long time, but the city council decided it just this afternoon.”
“Where will it be?”
“Across the northern sector of the city.”
“That’s foolish,” Sarai spoke up. “It should go where the old road was. There’ll be enough incline there to carry the flow.”
Garai threw his head back and glared at his sister. “You don’t know anything about it, woman!”
“I know that the council’s made a total wreck out of it,” Sarai answered with a sweet smile.
Hanna snapped, “Women have no place arguing with men!”
Sarai turned to glare at her sister but said nothing.
Her mother watched the exchange, well aware that this would not be the end of the matter. Sarai will find some way to get even with Hanna for that comment, Zaroni thought. She always does.
After the meal Sarai smiled slightly and went directly to Eliphaz, taking him by the arm and pulling at him gently. “Come along, I must show you my garden ... and you must tell me about your trip.”
Eliphaz stared at her, unable to speak. Her beauty was enough to stop most men in their tracks, and he allowed himself to be led out of the dining room. As the two disappeared, Hanna threw herself into a chair and began to cry.
Her mother went right to her, putting her arm around her older daughter. “Don’t let her see you crying, Hanna. She’s just doing this to torment you.”
“No, she’ll take him away from me!”
“No, she won’t. She doesn’t really want him,” Zaroni said quietly. “She does this only to stir you up. Just laugh at her, Hanna.”
Garai’s temper exploded at this and he blustered, “She’s driven away every man who has come to court her, and now she’s trying to drive Hanna’s man away!”
Zaroni shook her head. “It will be all right. The more you oppose her, the more she will resist. Haven’t you two learned that yet?”
“It has got to stop!” Garai blurted out. “She will have to marry now!”
Zaroni stared at her son. “Who have you picked out this time?”
“Elam who owns the vineyards outside of town?”
“That’s the one.” Garai grinned and rubbed his hands together. “He’s one of the richest men in Ur.”
“He’s also old and fat and has three wives,” Zaroni said sardonically. “She’ll never marry him.”
“She’ll marry him or I’ll beat her!” Garai shouted. “I’ve had enough of her proud ways!”
* * *
“You shouldn’t torment your sister like that, Sarai.”
Sarai had known when her mother entered her bedroom that she was in for a lecture. She shrugged her shoulders and ran her hand over her glossy black hair. “I know it, but I couldn’t help it.”
“I think I’d better tell you before you hear it from your brother.”
Sarai stared at her mother. “What is it now?”
“Garai’s making a match for you.”
“Who is it this time?”
“I won’t marry that old man. He’s already got two wives. Or is it three?”
“It’s three, but it doesn’t matter.”
“I won’t do it, Mother. You may as well tell him and let him have his screaming fit.”
“Sarai, you have strange notions about marriage.” Zaroni came closer and put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders. “We have to settle for what we can get. You want the ideal, but the ideal doesn’t exist. Not in this world.”
“In the next world, then? That’s when I’m supposed to have a husband that I want?”
“No, that’s not what I mean. You’ve got to see things as they are.”
Sarai loved her mother, but now there was a hard look in her dark eyes as she said between clenched teeth, “I’ll marry the man I choose, Mother, and that’s all there is to it. You may tell my brother I said so!”