Honorable Mention, Sophie Brody Medal, American Library Association
One of the Jewish Book Council's "15 fiction books that shaped Jewish literature in 2015"
“Lemberger imbues her characters with a consciousness that, although taking place in ancient times, seems contemporary, because she brings such empathy to her characters… It is this act of empathy that shines through…. an alternative dialogue that reminds us that it is the stories that we tell that are civilization’s true heritage.” — FORBES
Eve considers motherhood.
Miriam tends Moses.
Lot's wife looks back.
Vividly reimagined with startling contemporary clarity, Michal Lemberger's debut collection of short stories gives voice to silent, oft-marginalized biblical women: their ambitions, their love for their children, their values, their tremendous struggles and challenges. Informed by Lemberger's deep knowledge of the Bible, each of these nine stories recasts a biblical saga from the perspective of a pivotal woman.
|Publisher:||Turner Publishing Company|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Foreword contributor Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of the Jewish Journal, a longtime book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, a guest commentator for NPR affiliates KCRW-FM and KPCC-FM in Southern California, and an Adjunct Professor on the faculty of New York University’s Professional Publishing Program. He is the author of thirteen books, including the bestselling The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
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And Other Stories
By Michal Lemberger
Prospect Park BooksCopyright © 2015 Michal Lemberger
All rights reserved.
"Adam knew his wife, again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, 'God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,' for Cain had killed him."
* * *
This won't make it into the official telling. The men who will come later to write it all down will leave this part out. Something always gets left out. For so many years, it was just the two of us, and only God to talk to. He's great and powerful, but He doesn't have much to say. He talked enough to set this whole world spinning, but after that, shut His mouth. Now He parcels out His speech: a sentence here, question there, and short commands in between. And then Adam, trying his hardest to imitate Him, thinking he's like God because he guards his words, as if exhausted by all that naming he did before I came along. It leaves a woman lonely.
My first boy, Cain, his feet too soft for the hard earth at first, looked to his father for guidance. I thought his early babbles meant a change, but then he fell silent too, hoarded his words as if they were too precious to share. Only Abel, child of my heart, would fill the long nighttime hours with stories and songs. His voice was not pleasing, but it was a sound in this great empty world.
Adam and I had to figure it all out ourselves, how our bodies fit together, what they were capable of. We got better over time, found a private language our bodies could speak, but in those early days of fumbling, it was all buck and roll over. Not much in it for me, to be honest. He thinks he has it so bad, all that work in the fields, but I'm right there beside him, sowing and harvesting, breaking my own back to get us fed. He never almost died from his labor the way I did the second time.
Another thing that won't make it into the final telling, I'm sure, is the way his labor can lay a man out at the end of a hard day's work, irritable and hungry if the fields don't give, the goats run away, but when I labored to give birth to Abel I bled so badly God Himself had to step in. That was my first witnessed miracle. If He hadn't saved me, there'd be no more humans. No one around to feed the two babies I'd already birthed, either. No one to replace that one with this new one.
Finally I've figured out how to put them to my breast. It's only now, with Seth, that I've learned how to lift him without the bruising or swellings that hardened under my skin in the months after Cain and Abel were born. He bumps his head against me, mouth open and searching. He lays his hand against my skin as he suckles, smiles up at me, his mouth stretched around my nipple, sighs in pleasure. But it took losing Abel to learn it, and here's me with no girls to teach it to. Just these boys, full of jealousy, and murderous. One dead, the other gone. Where to, I have no idea. We found the body in a field, his head bashed in, face and neck covered in blood already turning to brown, and his brother disappeared. I lost two in one moment, and I felt a gash open in my stomach at the sight of that boy, whom I had brought into the world at the cost, almost, of my own life.
Who was there to teach me what a mother feels when she loses a son? Not God. He'd retreated somewhere beyond our vision. Not Adam, who clasped his hands together, looked down at the ground, and then spent the night with his back turned to me.
When we first found him, I thought he would get back up, his skull would undent, and we four would go back to how we'd been, growing and tending to the land and animals. I think now that Adam understood at once, but it took me longer to recognize or admit to that fly-covered finality.
It's not that I hadn't seen death. Animals died around us all the time. Mauled, torn apart by predators. Some fell sick or got old and curled up under bushes to depart in peace. One bad winter, we lost almost all the lambs. Adam took those deaths so personally at first, each a brief disappointment. Maybe it hardened him, crushed his first impulse to label, to name each creature as it came before him. Which is why it was left to me to find the right names for my sons.
I didn't make the connection between that body lying twisted on the ground and our own brief lives. I thought people lived by a different set of rules. God spoke to us, after all, even if less and less often as time wore on. Surely that made us special. Surely that meant we'd live forever. Scraped, bruised, broken, yes, but we lived. Adam never lost his limp after a fall off a rock shelf on our travels east out of the Garden, but it didn't kill him. It barely slowed him down. That very night he mounted me with an intensity I had never seen in him before. Not a year passed, and I got rounder and rounder, with rumblings under my heart and God mum on what was happening or why.
There too, I had the lesson of the animals to thank, how they also got fat and then lay down to push out their young. So I watched and learned. And Cain was an easy birth, slipped out of me like a gift. Now, two hard births later, I know what a mercy that was, how God took pity on me. Or maybe He just fooled me, wanted to show me how carefully I should have attended to His words. At the time, though, I thought—but didn't say, I never said it out loud—that God must have been trying to scare me with His talk of difficult childbirth.
That first time, a little panting, some cramps, and then him, slick and covered in white, his face puffy, but his form a perfect replica of his father's. It seemed a wondrous connection—the beauty of Adam's body making this new thing with me. I was fooled by it, fooled into wanting more, my desire growing stronger as the weeks and then months passed. It was just as God had promised, though I didn't pay close enough attention. My desire was for my husband. I was so young, my body alive to its tiniest sensations. I wanted Adam again and again. After we fled the Garden, wrapped in the skins God had covered us with, we found out what cold was and clung to one another. But the warmth between our bodies made Adam's clothes bulge and his breath quicken. His weight on me, the rocking of his body into mine, made me crave more. Dark came so early in those days. Nights I spent cataloging every part of him, naming and touching—shoulder, elbow, nipple, stomach, shaft, scrotum. Each a discovery, a new source of delight.
I think now that God must have known how little His words meant to me when He first said them. He must have waited to show me how wrong I had been. He had promised labor, that I would work to bring life into the world. How else to explain the screaming pain of Abel's birth? The pushing and pushing down through my bowels and him not coming, stuck as if in a vessel stoppered with rags. My womb was a cave hiding the clay of his new body from the winds, and it did not want to give him up. Perhaps my body knew, even then, that losing him would be the greater pain.
No, this will not make it into the final account. The men who will come to tell this story will never know that teaching this new baby how to be a man is the important part. They will think the tests ended where punishment began.
I will protect Seth. And he'll be my last. I won't do it again, give over everything in me to make him, only to see him crumbled like a leaf off the tree, the ground mulching to reclaim him.
God didn't tell the whole truth. But I've grown used to that. My desire has changed. It's not for Adam, who continues to reap and plant, reap and plant, whose body grows leaner, his skin slacker, each year. When he turns to me now, I turn away. Everything I have is saved for Seth, the last of my womb, who has to grow tall, who has to learn better how to survive this world. I have so much to teach him. He needs to know how to speak to God and the world in the languages they understand.
Adam also got it wrong. He focused on the penalties, the pronouncements, on our banishment. But he confused the consequences for the cause. Here's what happened: God said one thing. The snake said another. Which is how I learned that someone had to be lying. That was the knowledge. That was my first step out of the Garden, and no one chasing me with a flaming sword. It wasn't the bite into the fruit or sharing it with Adam. I knew that one of them had told the truth, the other hadn't, and the only way I'd know which was to take the fruit into my hand, into my mouth.
Here is the real lesson. Only God got to say which was good, which bad. Not because of truth. No. He got to decide because we—I—had tasted what it meant to see a future of our own making. That's what He couldn't allow. So He showed us the cost of choosing the wrong truth. Showed us the door and then shut His mouth tight.
Believe me, they're going to get it wrong when they tell my story. They'll miss what it meant to raise my boys. They'll write them off with a sentence. They won't show the mistakes I made, who had no mother to teach me how to love. No father to brush the hair from my face, the dirt from my scrapes. God was our only model, and we took all the wrong lessons: Adam to walk silently through his life, and me, with my decrees and a quick slap across the face when they were defied.
It took this—one dead, the other disappeared—to see what I could not have known all along. Cain was too much like me, too quick to anger, too quick to hide. I have finally learned. I will do better this time. I won't raise my hand. There is no lesson so urgent it has to end with Seth's cheek bruised and streaked with tears. I never want to see a son of mine cower in fear or hide from my anger. That's my promise, even though no one will ever know it.
None of that will replace my other boy though. It won't restore either of them. I was born twice before, once when I woke next to Adam in the Garden's shade, the green world opening to welcome me, the last of its fruits. Then again with that first rush of water between my legs, the small body cradled to my skin. This is the third time, and the last. I cannot be as I was. Adam named me mother of all the living. Now, mother and mourner both, I finally understand. To be mother of the living is also to be mother to all the dead.
Abel, my son, has come and gone, and I, the ground from which he rose, remain.
They won't write it down. They won't know. But I will not forget.CHAPTER 2
"So Lot went out to them to the entrance, shut the door behind him, and said, 'I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.'"
* * *
She sat in the small patch of shade, churning the camel's milk to butter. The courtyard was quiet with work, one daughter at the oven baking bread, the other grinding down flour for tomorrow's loaves. It was good to have these girls, who had learned their way and were of use to those around them.
Slowly, the butter started to come. They'd have it tonight, she thought, along with the bread her daughter was baking, some dates, and a skin of wine.
Good, clean food, but she would admit to counting down the time to the next feast day, when they'd offer up a sheep, a ram if the year continued as well as it had been going, the smell of the meat roasting, the smoke going up to God, the meat going to them. All the hired men would get theirs, she'd make sure of it. Even the slave girls. The family would eat well. She let her mind wander, already preparing the juiciest parts in her mind: crushed figs to bring out the meat's succulence, and cloves for pungency.
These were the moments she cherished. Everyone with her task to do. She could slip into her thoughts instead of keeping her eyes and ears open, alert to what could, and probably would, go wrong. Which is why she didn't hear anything until the voices came closer, until they were in her house. Someone was inside. She glanced at the sky. Sunset wouldn't come for hours. The men were still in the fields, girls in the orchards. But there was no doubt. Voices came through the building. All male. The only one she recognized was her husband's.
She heard him come through the house. He ducked out of the doorway and straightened in the air of the courtyard, near the oven where their daughter was shaping dough into balls.
"We have visitors," he announced. "Traders on their way to Ur. They approached me near the western pastureland."
"Did you take their animals?" she asked without stopping the movement of her arm.
"They had ten altogether. I had to split them up. They've all been watered and fed. Two of the boys are keeping watch over them. But the men brought a few of their bags with them."
"They must have something valuable to sell. Did they offer to show you?"
"No. And I wouldn't ask to see the inside of a man's saddlebags. But these are important men. We have to treat them well. I've told one of the field hands to bring a goat in. Kill it and dress it. We'll need a full meal by tonight."
He turned to go back into the house. "Bring a bowl of water," he ordered his older daughter. "Let the men wash themselves while the meal is being prepared."
She had already begun lighting a fire in the pit at the center of the courtyard when the field hand came in with the animal. He's picked a plump one, she thought.
Soon her older daughter returned, too. "Who are these men, Mama?" the younger one wanted to know.
"I don't know, but they're not from here. Their hair is curled and uncovered," said the older one.
"They must come from far away," their mother said. "There are places in the world, places you two will never see, where even the men leave their heads bare."
The younger girl continued to bake their bread, adding seeds and saffron to the plain pita they normally ate. The older one took over at the churn, turning the goatskin over and over.
Meanwhile, their mother took the animal to the corner of the courtyard, slit its throat, hung it upside down to drain, and directed the boy to peel off its skin. Once that was done, she quartered and pounded it so that it would grill quickly and still maintain its tenderness. She spread red lentils across the ground, ran her hands and eyes over them, picked out the tiny stones that would try to masquerade themselves in the pot and ruin the dish.
The courtyard rustled with activity. It smelled of death and fire, cumin and bread. These are the scents, she thought as she gathered the picked-over beans and poured them into a large pot, of a good life.
* * *
Everyone moved quickly, the time for slow and private thought replaced with a sense of urgency. She looked at her youngest daughters, fourteen and fifteen, and thought, they are ready to be married. She was determined to keep them closer than the others. She hoped her husband wouldn't insist on selling them off to the highest bidders as he had her older girls, though he'd found good husbands for them. She had to hand him that. Surely, he'd leave these to their mother. Her old age was coming. She could feel it in the creases of her knees and shoulders. She needed her daughters.
It's true they were already older than she had been, married off at twelve, given over to a much older man by her father, no say in her own fate, and taken away to another land.
But Lot hadn't turned out to be a bad husband. Easily swayed by other men's ideas, and he wouldn't so much as carry a bucket of milk for her. That was beneath him. He'd only busy himself with the owning and bossing. He left all the working to the hired hands. And to her, of course. But he had a rich and generous uncle who gave him enough livestock to start his own herd. And for all his faults, he really wasn't too bad in business. Mostly, he'd taken her away from the tents, wandering the desert behind her father's goats. At least they lived in the city. A real house to sleep and wake in. Women to sit with in the square at shearing time. Not like in her youth, when it was just her mother, sisters, one or two slave girls, and her. And she'd given him nine live births. Only one son lived to see his maturity, but the four girls who made it past childhood were of hardier stock.
And true, she had once had another name. Her own mother had called her Puha, but she'd been Lot's wife for so long she had almost forgotten the name of her youth. Even Lot called her that. But he would, just as his son was always "son," and his daughters, when referred to at all, were "Lot's daughters," though she had named them each as they came into this world, and named each of the four again as she buried them.
But she wasn't complaining. She had this courtyard of her own, with its round stove and barrel of flour. It was more than most had. More than she ever expected in her youth, when sand crawled into every corner of the tent and slitted up into her nose and eyes. Now she was the wife of one of the wealthiest men in Sodom. A third of the people worked for him. There were only three other rich families in the town who employed everyone else. Not that it made a difference to the women. Wives were wives. The weight of a man's body didn't change with his wealth.
It would be another hot night. They would all sleep on the roofs to avoid the stifling rooms below. After the heavy meal the family and its guests were about to eat, they'd all crave the cool air, and she had remembered to replenish the hay pile up there in the morning. The girls could sleep on the hay. Its smell would fill the air between them and the stars above.
Excerpted from After Abel by Michal Lemberger. Copyright © 2015 Michal Lemberger. Excerpted by permission of Prospect Park Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsForeword by Jonathan Kirsch
Author’s Afterword: The Book of Ruth