|Publisher:||Bedazzled Ink Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)|
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IN THE SHADOW OF MOUNT SINAI
NOA WALKED ALONE, amid a chaos of bleating sheep, braying asses, clouds of dust, and a long shambling line of people. She preferred it. As the Israelites plodded into the desert, away from Egypt and slavery, being alone within the crowd gave Noa time to notice without being noticed.
Her mother saw her as ripe for marriage. At sixteen, Noa saw herself as ripe for the land her father promised, for streams splashing down verdant hills, for anything at all. She looked to the dry hills on the horizon, so different from the Nile delta. A tiny sunbird flashed overhead, catching her attention with its sapphire plumage. As she watched it fly to a red-flowered vine winding through a lone acacia tree, Noa heard a voice behind her.
"Like a jewel in flight ... yes?"
Noa turned and saw a young woman about her age, stunningly different from most. Freckles sprinkled her nose and the crests of her cheeks. Golden, wavy hair framed her face. Noa stared. She had never seen anyone so pale and shiny.
"Everyone stares ... at first."
"I'm sorry, I did not mean ..."
"I'm used to it," she said. "My name is Yoela. Do you mind if I walk with you?"
Embarrassed that she had stared, Noa was, for once, without words, so simply said, "Please."
"What do they call you?"
Noa could not seem to catch the rhythm of conversation.
"You know ... your name," Yoela urged.
"Noa. Noa! Oh, I'm not usually this blank."
She looked at Yoela, who was biting the insides of her cheeks to keep from laughing. Then both burst into giggles.
As they walked, they told what they had brought out of Egypt and what they expected to find at the end of their journey.
"My father trained Malah and me to breed flocks for the best traits," Noa said, leaking pride. "And he tells of the green land we are returning to. There I will lie on soft grasses under the shade of trees and watch goats I bred milk themselves."
A smile lit Yoela's face, pleasing Noa.
"You have a far different father than most. We have few sheep and goats, and no name to speak of. So, I will be happy with one tree. But anything is possible."
They walked in silence for some moments, each imagining possibilities.
Then Yoela said, "I saw you with another maiden. Your sister?"
"Yes. That's Malah. She ran up to walk with the daughters of Manasseh's headmen. She prefers to walk with the highest of our tribe. My parents should have switched her name with my sister Milcah. Malah thinks she is the Queen."
"So, there are more of you?"
"You ask a lot of questions. But, yes, three sisters besides Malah. Younger. And you?"
"A brother. Two years older."
"Like my sister. But Malah would never marry a man with no name. Me? Noa is name enough for me."
"I knew a Noa. She was married to a mouse."
"Impossible!" Noa laughed.
"Truly. But she, too, was a mouse. And what happened to them in Pharaoh's storehouse?"
"Better than what happened to us, I hope."
"Listen. I will tell you ..."
Yoela bubbled like a spring in the desert and was full of stories that helped pass the time.
THE TWELVE TRIBES had traveled beyond the boundaries of Egypt days before. After the Angel of Death took Pharaoh's first-born and the first-born of every Egyptian, Pharaoh finally released the Israelites. Setting out in darkness, their stomachs soured by fear, they took what goods they could and glanced furtively behind them. But the Egyptians were mourning their dead.
Zelophechad and his wife Ada kept their five daughters close, fearing Pharaoh's revenge. After their two older daughters were born, Ada had prayed for a son. Yet, their third child was another daughter — Hoglah. When a boy-child came crying into the world, Ada thanked the goddess Asherah. But Pharaoh had decreed death for all Israel's newborn males, a guarantee they would not rise up to challenge him. While her husband slaved in Pharaoh's quarries, the Shadows of Pharaoh stole into their mudbrick home. Two held her down as the third smothered her baby.
Ada birthed a fourth girl-child, Milcah. Then another baby boy, another death. Tirzah, the last of their children, was born writhing and bawling like a cornered cat. Ada favored her and let the honey-haired girl run wild, barely tamed by her sisters.
Exhausted by the trials of Egypt, Zelophechad spent the remnants of his energy on his two older daughters, pointing them to a future in their ancestral lands.
"We will return to these lands," he said, "where wheat and barley swell like the sea, watered by sweet streams. They are yours. Don't forget. And if anything should happen to me ..."
Malah spit against the Evil Eye.
"Nothing worse will happen," she said, assuring herself.
" ... if anything should happen to me, pursue your share of our land."
"But we are daughters, not sons," Noa argued. "Who will hear us?"
"Vow that you will."
Zelophechad planted seeds of the land he had never seen, and the need to claim it.
WHEN THE ISRAELITES reached the Sea of Reeds, the vast assemblage stopped. There, on the sandy banks, they huddled like animals, covered only by stars.
Lulled by the waving plumes of reeds along the water's marshy edges, Noa slept deep into the night, until she was startled awake by shouting.
"The Egyptians ... they have come for us."
"We will die in the wilderness."
Surprised by the Egyptian army's sudden appearance behind them, people panicked. They crowded forward toward the water in the pale light of the moon, afraid to go forward and drown, afraid to stay and be cut down by Pharaoh's warriors.
Finally, one man, Nachshon, stepped into the water. As he pressed forward, the water rose to his waist, then his shoulders.
"He will be smothered by the sea," Noa gasped.
Hoglah and Milcah turned their heads so they would not see him die.
Then the wind rose and stroked back the waters. Wind-charmed waters fell back from Nachshon's shoulders, from his chest, until only a puddled path lay ahead. He turned and motioned for people to follow. They began to cross, feeling their way through the night with their feet. Sea creatures spangled the rich ooze. They slipped on the knobbed backs of starfish and smooth clamshells that cobbled the sandy bottom. Crabs pinched at the toes of the miracle-dazed people.
The tribes struggled across the sea bottom, they and their camels and asses loaded with goods, their sheep and goats agitated by the rumbling waters on either side. As they dragged themselves ashore in the emerging dawn, they heard the war cries of Egyptians pressing their chariot horses on. The chariots' heavy wheels churned across the sandy bottom, then lurched to a stop, stuck halfway across.
The soldiers and the people on the shore watched as the sea came roaring back, wrapping waves around warriors, horses, and chariots, white foam spewing furiously against dawn's pink glow. When the waters calmed, all that remained was the sea's placid face shining up at the new day.
In the miracle of morning, Miriam the prophet, Miriam the sister of Moses, sang a song. She danced, shouting God's greatness. She danced, in a joyful fury. She danced, keeping the beat with the cymbals of her timbrel, the weight of her age lightened by holy ecstasy and survival. A ring of women wove themselves around her, ululating, shaking timbrels, stamping the drum of the earth.
Malah watched from afar and shook her head.
Noa grabbed Tirzah's small hand, and together they ran to join the ring of women.
THE ISRAELITES MOVED south from the Sea of Reeds into arid desert. Their tongues swelled in their mouths for lack of water. Their stomachs growled, and they forgot all of the miracles that brought them out of Egypt.
"What good are miracles when our children cry for food?"
Some of the old and weak fell prey to the tribe of Amalek, who swept down on easy targets. Behind bands of Amalekites, jackals, hyenas, and leopards waited their turn.
Parents feared predators, human and animal. Some put a hand on a son's back or kissed a daughter's forehead to communicate reassurance they did not feel. Their children were exhilarated by the drama.
Day after day, Noa and Yoela found each other, happy to share their hopes and plans, and forget their dry, cracked lips and the stones in their sandals.
"All my mother talks about is marriage," Noa said. "The best matches, the best bride prices. The way she talks, it's like when my father bought our donkey."
"So, you are the donkey!"
Yoela brayed, causing those around to look and Noa to laugh.
"Of course, no one asks me what I want."
"We're so poor, my family will be happy with whoever tumbles into our tent. Not me. I want nothing to do with it."
"The same. Let us see what the promised land brings before we submit."
They spit on their thumbs, bound them together, and vowed to remain steadfast. The day they vowed was the day the Israelites stopped on a plain before the great mountain — Sinai. There, tribe by tribe, they set their tents.
THE LAST LIGHT of day seeped through the entrance of Zelophechad's tent as the wind curled around the tent pegs, beginning its nightly dance. Outside, pebbles from the desert floor clicked by, driven by the wind toward the great mountain that filled their view of the north. Here Moses had promised an event that would change all of their lives.
Ada rested her arthritic back against piled-up sleeping rugs, wearily watching her daughters settle themselves after storing cooking pots from the evening meal. In the dim light of a clay lamp, they spun thread from baskets full of wool. Tirzah, only eight, sucked her thumb sleepily, her drop-spindle buried in her bedding.
"We've heard so many promises," Ada muttered. "Yet, with five daughters and no sons ..."
"... I am the unluckiest daughter of the tribe of Manasseh." Noa completed her mother's sentence, drenching the words with drama.
"Finally, you understand," Ada said.
"Mother," said Malah, "Noa is mocking you."
"I am not. But are we not as good as sons?"
"Noa, it is the way of things. Your father and I must make suitable matches for five daughters — five. To secure your future."
"Egypt is behind us, and we are on the way to the land of our ancestors. The land we have been promised. We will be settled by the next full moon. What could happen?"
"Oh, daughter, I have seen many things happen. In Egypt, we were toys of Pharaoh. And now we are toys of this One God."
Malah pulled Noa's arm and whispered, "Must you always argue?"
"We are between childhood and the life of a wife. Between rulers. Never will our strength be greater," Noa hissed back.
"But why not use your strength quietly. As I do. More cunning, and more powerful."
"That's not what father does."
"And sometimes it gets him into trouble. As it does you."
"Malah, stop whispering and bring your father some tea," Ada said.
Malah rose to ladle lemon-scented tea from the pot simmering on coals just outside the tent. With silky skin stretched over a body that bespoke childbearing, Malah was at the height of her attractiveness. She carried cups to her father's compartment, where he lounged, conversing with his younger brother, Boaz. Zelophechad, who spoke like a prophet, looked up at Malah and bestowed a distracted smile. Unlike his brother, Boaz was a man of common sense and an eye for beauty. As Malah turned to go, Boaz nodded at her with approval.
Malah blushed and returned to the women's side to hear Noa declare, "We must tie our fortunes to the tribe of Manasseh and press for our rights to father's small fortunes. After he is gone, the jackals of the tribe will try to strip us."
"Don't tempt the Angel of Death to find your father," Ada demanded.
"But our claim to father's lands would be just, and justice shines like the sun, burning away all objections."
Malah arched her eyebrow, but said nothing.
"Noa could be a judge, like uncle Boaz," said Milcah.
Hoglah picked at a callous on her foot, then looked up to say, "She can't. She's not a man."
Malah rolled her eyes at the obvious and reached to untie a small clay pot that hung from a tent pole along with spoons, awls, and waterskins. She handed the pot to Hoglah, who dipped in a finger and rubbed thick sheep fat on the cracked callus.
"You wind your reasoning as tightly as you wind your thread," Malah said to Noa. "Which often snaps. But, you could help father negotiate a good bride price for me."
"Why don't you marry Gaddi's son? That's what mother wants," Tirzah said to Malah. "His spears arc like anything."
"You know nothing about this," scolded Malah. "You're just a baby."
"I'm not. I threw Adam down and made him eat dirt."
Tirzah ground her spindle into the earthen floor to demonstrate. Her hair, wild like her, was full of knots and bits of feather from the bird she had tracked and killed that day.
"A just ruling of inheritance would protect us," Noa continued, ignoring Tirzah. " ... even if our husbands died. Even if we never married."
"I would be happy for a husband. One who is kind," said Hoglah.
At fourteen, already the tallest, Hoglah could control nothing about her developing body. Her feet flapped ahead of her like ducks. Now that her menses had begun, she wore a long, modest robe. She complained that her right breast was growing larger than the left. To compensate, she held her left shoulder a little higher.
Hoglah did not mind that Malah considered herself the queen, but it was hard being in Noa's shadow. Noa was blessed with a probing mind, luminous eyes, and sculpted cheekbones the equal of Nefertiti's.
"Asherah squeezed all her beauty into the first two," Hoglah sighed. "And what of Milcah and me?"
On this and most else, Milcah kept her thoughts to herself.
The reed mats covering the floor were spread with bedding at night so that each daughter had a nest where she sat. Noa married hers to Milcah's and watched as Milcah worked a bone hook to weave black and red threads into a unicorn medallion.
"The sign of Manasseh," Noa whispered as Malah held forth on which was more important in a husband, power or wealth. "Milcah, you have a gift. Stories told in thread."
"Malah, we will get you both. And, now, enough," said Ada.
After her daughters wrapped themselves in coverings and closed their eyes, she smothered the lamp, entered her husband's compartment, and lay down beside him.
In Egypt, before the worst of the Israelites' slavery, Zelophechad had taken Malah and Noa everywhere: to the fields where he taught them how to care for flocks, to meetings where they heard tribal politics and their father's well-reasoned arguments. Yet, for all his logic, when he lost his sandals in folds of the rugs, Ada was the one he appealed to. It was she who picked bits of wool from his beard before he went out to greet the day and anyone who might pass his tent door.
"Zelophechad," she whispered. "Malah must be married. Her shine will not last forever. Get a good match. The son of Gaddi ben Susi — he is the one. And Noa, who you think is so clever, she is not far behind."
His eyes heavy, Zelophechad mumbled, "Ummm."
Piercing his sleep, Ada said, "You train Noa for trouble. She will have trouble ... and be trouble. If only you could see that you have daughters, not sons."
He did not answer. From the other side of the curtain separating the compartments, she heard Malah and Noa whispering.
"... and, when it comes to marriage," said Malah, "the most important thing is how to change father's mind if the man he chooses is completely unacceptable."
Tired of marriage talk, Noa anticipated tomorrow's great gathering. "'Make yourselves pure,' Moses warned us. That will be difficult in this desert."
"Perhaps Moses meant more than our bodies," suggested Malah.
"And what do you know of purity?" Noa challenged.
Malah and Noa whispered knowingly of purity as if it were like scrubbing a garment. Ada listened as she drifted to sleep. Talk of purity made her think its opposite. She remembered the feel of Zelophechad's hand on her thigh, the warmth that spread from the quick of her. Wrapped in her robe, she rubbed her own hand along her thigh, feeling something of death there, the skin yellow and thick as a camel bag.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Judging Noa"
Copyright © 2018 Michal Strutin.
Excerpted by permission of Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company.
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