by Tala Bar
Table of Contents|
Chapter 3, part 1 appears
in this issue.
Chapter 3: The Covenant
When at last the leaf dishes were empty and only skulls remained of the animals’ heads, Chief Ze’ev rose and came to take Tamar’s place beside Lady Devora; the nomad woman joined him, but ‘Tamar’s man’ remained in his place; she noticed that the tall, brown-haired man came to sit by his side, and they fell into talking like old friends. Then Re’ut, baby in arms, came and sat at the tall man’s side.
“Tamar,” Amnon touched lightly on her arm, “where are you? You’ve been absent throughout the meal.”
She sent him a look from the corner of her eye. “I am here, of course. But...”
“Listen,” he signed at Devora and Ze’ev, “they are talking about us.”
“A lovely couple,” the old nomad was saying, “looking so much alike; are they twins?” He made a sign on his body.
“Why?” asked the Lady Mother.
“Twins are a bad omen in our tribe; luckily, these are not of the same sex, otherwise you would have had to kill one of them, and it would have been a shame; they are so handsome.”
“In our land, twins are a good omen, a blessing from the Great Mother and a mark of fertility. But, anyway, they are twins only in the sense that they have suckled together from my breasts; they were born to different mothers,” answered the Lady proudly. “Amnon came out of my own belly, but Tamar is my sister’s daughter.”
“This is a real wonder. That is my son, there, Eitan.” He pointed proudly at the young, black-eyed nomad.
A strange silence fell, and the village people stared alternately from the old man to the young one and back.
“Your son?” Asaf, the old sage, wondered, gazing closely at the Chief. “Did he emerge from your own belly?” There was a sound of tittering, and the old nomad’s face clouded.
“What does it mean?” he asked, scowling.
“We,” the Lady hurried to explain, “do not understand how a man can have a son. You did not give birth to him, did you?” She sounded quite sincere, as if half-expecting the feasibility of such a miracle.
He laughed, then, a harsh, hearty laughter; his men grinned, even smirked. The young nomad woman lowered her head, hiding her face, which had been partially revealed for eating, behind the skin veil. Tamar looked curiously at Eitan.
“Of course not,” said Ze’ev, recovering from his mirth, “we are not different from any other men. He is my son because he is the son of my wife. Any child of hers belongs to me, see?”
“Your wife? What is that?” Devora wondered.
“My woman,” he explained.
“What do you mean? How can a woman belong to you or to anyone?” The gap of understanding between the two was widening instead of narrowing. To Tamar’s experienced ears, the Lady Mother’s voice sounded as if she was both amazed and a little disturbed; it echoed her own thoughts almost to the point of apprehension. She could well see that the villagers listening to the two leaders, confronted with this novel idea, were unable to decipher its meaning.
At the same time, the nomads did not understand the villagers’ bewilderment, and the confusion was great. For one short moment the words hung in the air, unspoken, perhaps for fear they might lead to unwished-for results. Then, the Chief’s voice was heard, slow and measured, as if quite aware of the responsibility lying in his words.
“I won her fair and square in an open competition,” he said, his good-natured attitude sounding level, as if it was his normal state of mind. “That’s how I became chief. Now all the children she has given birth to are my children, and one of them — my son Eitan, I hope — shall be Chief after me, for he is a good, talented boy. But he can achieve this position only by winning Amina’s hand in combat” — pointing at the young woman by his side — “the daughter of my wife’s sister, because she is the only one who can grant him this right.”
“If I understand correctly,” Asaf turned to him in the same measured tone, accepting his words as a matter of fact, “your — wife, you said the word was? your woman? — was also the daughter of the sister of a chief’s wife?”
“Exactly!” the Chief beamed at the old sage, happy to have made him understand. The villagers breathed more freely; everyone knew that Old Asaf collected such strange ideas and customs in order to add them to the treasure of wisdom belonging to the Village’s tradition.
“Yes,” was the answer, “her mother was the sister of the wife of the chief at the time, who was my father.”
“Father? I have not heard this word before.”
“Father? But that is simple: a man to whom the children of his wife belong is their father! By being Chief, he actually becomes the Father of his tribe, as Yahu of the desert is the Father of us all and we all are his children.”
“Not all of us, he isn’t!” grumbled Amnon under his nose, and Tamar put her hand on his arm to subdue him; Amnon was Asaf’s student, destined to become Sage in time. He was well versed in the old myths, and this new one was not only foreign but also seemed to harbor hostility to many of the ancient ideas.
“And is the Chief’s wife the Mother of your tribe?” Devora asked curiously. A great part of her own confidence in herself had been drawn from the fact that merely by being a woman she had an important standing in the Village and had acquired the respect of her people. “Do you have both Mother and Father?”
“No, certainly not!” The Chief’s words had assumed an incisive tone. “She is mother only to her own children. You see,” he explained in a softer tone, “we, the desert people, need a strong man to protect us from our enemies. We feel that a mother would not be strong enough for that purpose, as much as she may be good to her children.”
“Enemies? I hope you are not counting us among them,” Devora said sharply.
“Our enemies,” the Chief answered, his tone obviously pacifying, “are usually other peoples of the desert, who want to use the same water holes we use, to hunt the same herds we hunt. We don’t regard village dwellers as enemies, because they live apart from us and their way of life is very different from ours.”
“I am glad to hear that; we think that Asherat’s land is big and rich enough for all.”
“Asherat’s land, maybe, but not Yahu’s.” He fell for a moment into some reflections of his own. “My Lady,” his voice had become soft and enticing; a shiver ran down Tamar’s spine, and a thought passed in her mind, ‘He must be a very strong and, maybe, dangerous leader’. “My Lady,” the Chief said, “Yahu’s land is a harsh, hostile country, and many tribes quarrel over not enough of its goodness. Wouldn’t you like to have a man as a Father to your children, protector to your village?”
Chief Hunter Eyal, who was standing behind his Lady, straightened up, put his hand on his hunting spear; the old sage Asaf rose from his seat, put a restraining hand on Eyal’s arm while Devora raised an open palm as a show of pacification. But her warm, brown eyes were suddenly veiled by such a deathlike blank gray, that the Chief almost visibly shrank back.
“Chief,” she said, her words dropping like rolling rocks, “Asherat is our Mother who has borne us all, and I stand in Her place in this village. She is the protectress of all my children, who are her children. We don’t need a father.”
Tension filled the air, people in both groups waited eternally for the Chief’s reaction. At last it came.
“Your word is law in this place, my Lady,” he said, softly, “forgive me if I have unintentionally offended you.”
The tension relaxed. The Chief had shown his wisdom in not violating the covenant just made. The villagers’ sigh of relief was mingled with a restrained sound of disappointment from the nomads; peace, however, was not to be broken.
Tamar, breathing in relief, looked around; her eyes fell on a small group standing at a little distance, seemingly oblivious to the events just cut short. She saw Re’ut talking in an animated way to the two nomads; the gaze of the gentle-looking giant was fastened on the young woman holding the baby in her arms, with the little tot by her side. The man’s hands were flying about as he talked, and sometimes, as if attracted by a magnet, accidentally touched the woman, who did not shrug away from them. His black-eyed friend was standing with them, taking little part in the conversation, his glance roving. Suddenly, it encountered Tamar’s gaze and he held fast to it.
“He is looking at you,” she heard Amnon’s voice by her side.
“Who?” she asked, innocent-like, breaking the contact and turning to look at her brother, as if noticing his fair loveliness with new eyes. He had been her first lover, remembered forever.
That very dark man the Chief called ‘his son’,” Amnon said, the sound of his voice changing inexplicably. His fingers were unheedingly grasping her arm, hurting her in an unwonted way. She removed them gently.
“I see Re’ut has found a new lover,” she said instead of an answer, “let’s join them.”
‘His name is Eitan,’ she thought, ‘and he looks as strong as the meaning of his name.’ Eitan, of medium height and solidly built, looked the exact opposite of Amnon, who was tall and willowy like herself. Perhaps it was the thought of the difference between the two men which had charmed the heart of the Water Maiden; for a moment she fancied herself lying between the two, who were together making passionate love to her...
Lying in the Women’s house and unable to sleep, Tamar pondered on one of Sage Asaf’s old chants which circled round and round in her restless mind:
Earth, Water, Underworld – expressed in the colors Red, White, Black –
Are the elements of Life.
Earth, reddish-brown, is the body of Asherat,
The matter from which the
Goddess creates all her creatures.
Water, white or light blue, springs out of
Earth’s body, reflected in the
Moon-face of Asherat. It is the
Pure soul of the Goddess, it gives
Life to matter; it is the
Enlivening the material body.
Black underworld, black night, and black
Death, is the sleep enveloping
All life at its end. The underworld,
Innermost of the earth, is a
Fountain of Wisdom, the
Source from which
All life emerges.
It was hot and stuffy inside, in spite of the chilly autumn night; to escape the chill, though the weather was still dry, two young women had brought their lovers into the House, giggling and murmuring almost audibly in their lovemaking. After a while it became too much for Tamar, she rose and went out.
Outside, the air hung heavily; no wind was blowing and the stars and moon were hidden behind a thick cover of heavy clouds. With a heavy heart, as if drawn away from or toward something unknown, Tamar started walking absentmindedly, mechanically; only after leaving the Village’s enclosure, she found herself on the path leading to the sacred grove, at the opposite side from the spring.
There was no one abroad. Village people did not venture out at night beyond its boundaries, for fear of spirits animating the earth among mountains, woods, rocks and shrubs. It was well known that the spirits of dead people and animals roamed the earth at night, searching for the fool who had strayed away from the protection of human company and whose blood would enable them to come back to life.
Tamar was not afraid. As Water Maiden in the service of the Goddess herself, she felt herself well protected, knew no harm would come to her. This was not the first time she had been out at night, under the moon and the stars. This time, however, no mark of the Great Mother was seen in the sky; darkness covered the earth with a stifling blanket. Tamar, her heart numb, instinctively continued on her way toward the sacred grove; she was able to distinguish it, shining in the distance under a faint, misty light, on the background of the surrounding darkness. She knew it must have been a divine hand that had led her there.
The grove was recognized by all as a place of wonder; its trees flourished, tall and wide and bearing heavy fruit, with no visible water to sustain them. It was a holy place, and in daytime people came there to pray, make special requests or ask for relief from trouble; no one dared harm a tree or touch an animal which had found shelter in the grove.
A slight breeze, a faint breath of air coming from nowhere, welcomed Tamar as she entered the grove; the trees, glittering in the dim, foggy glow, greeted her with their branches swaying in the light wind. She stood for a while, answering their greeting, caressing them with her loving gaze; then she sat on the ground leaning at the trunk of an old quince tree, listening to the rustle of the leaves.
The clouds seemed to grow heavier, lowering down on treetops; something in Tamar’s heart weighed her down, she lay her head on her knees in a silent prayer. Tears welled up from the innermost of her soul, gathering in her closed eyes; finding their way out, they coursed down the girl’s cheeks, dripping on her bare feet dropping to the earth, soaking the dry soil.
The air cooled down around her, as if drenched by her tears. Tamar opened her eyes and raised her head. Large, warm drops started falling from the pregnant sky: the first rain of autumn. She rose to her feet, spreading open her hands to catch the water from heaven, and the silent prayer turned into a thank-offering hymn to Asherat. The rain became heavier, and Tamar breathed in the scent rising from the wet soil, blessing the fields; then she turned to run back to the Village.
“Rain! Water! We are blessed,” she cried, her shouts raising the people from their sleep to an unwonted night dance of thanksgiving...
To be continued...
Copyright © 2005 by Tala Bar