Bewildering Stories

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by Tala Bar

Table of Contents
Chapter 3 appeared
in issue 146.

Tamar, Water Maiden of the village of the Three Faces of the Moon, is next in line to become the Lady Mother and leader of the Golden People. When a tribe of gazelle hunters comes from the desert and settles near the Village, Tamar is fascinated by a tall, dark-eyed man among the new people.

The desert folk are very strange: they cover their bodies, and their women remain hidden and mute. The sacred verses of Tamar's people enjoin friendship with all tribes; however, the nomad queen Atir devines a prophecy from the dread omen of the serpent, a vision that she and Tamar both share unbeknownst to one another.

Chapter 4: On the Balance

part 1 of 2


“They are leaving,” Re’ut, who had got her information about the desert people through her relations with the tall nomad, told Tamar one day. The two friends, together with a few other Village women, were doing a job they could entrust to no man or child: weeding among the precious corn seedlings sprouting in the wet soil. After the rains, the air was fresh and the sky clear blue; the breeze, though cool, was dry and invigorating after days of chilly wetness.

“Leaving?” Tamar straightened her back and stretched her stiffened limbs. For a moment she looked toward the purple hills in the east, sharply drawn under the rays of the climbing sun. “They are going back to the desert; the gazelle are resuming their wanderings, now that the rains have filled the water holes again and new grass is covering the earth.”

Tamar turned her gaze to look at her friend.

“And what about you and Yuda?” she asked with half an interest.

“Oh, we’ve had our game, and its result is here,” Re’ut replied, stroking her full, round belly; “he can go now, I don’t need him any more. But what about you?” she continued, sending Tamar a glance of sympathy.

The Water Maiden was saved from the need to answer when they both turned at a call from another woman: she was pointing at the path going up from the river; one of the nomads was running on it toward the Village.

“I’ll go and find out what this is about,” Tamar said. When she reached the Village center, she found a small, oldish man standing, confused, in front of the Lady, who was sitting at the opening to her house. Tamar thought that Devora was doing her best not to understand the man’s words or their meaning.

“I am glad you have come, my daughter,” the Lady Mother turned to the girl. “This man seems to be a messenger from Chief Ze’ev, but I am not able to understand what he wants; maybe you’ll make better sense from his words.”

“But can’t Asaf help you?” asked the bewildered girl, pointing to the old sage who was sitting by Devora’s side; she did not look at Amnon, who was standing beside his mother with a gloomy expression on his face. Old Ya’el was missing from the conference, having been called to tend to a sick child.

“This seems to concern you,” said Devora, “and for the time being I prefer you to handle it. Go on,” she turned to the man, “speak to her.”

“The Chief,” he said to Tamar, full of hope, “is sending his greetings, asking for you as wife for his son Eitan, promising he would take part in any competition conducted for this purpose.”

“Eitan? He wants me for a wife?” Tamar exchanged glances with the Lady Mother.

“That’s what we are trying to understand,” the Lady said dryly.

“Why shouldn’t Asaf explain our customs to him?” Tamar asked Devora.

“I doubt if this messenger would be able to explain them to the Chief,” Sage Asaf told the girl, “we need a face to face meeting here, and how is that to be achieved? Neither Lady Devora nor Chief Ze’ev would leave their places to go and meet the other without losing face. It is a delicate matter.”

“Yes, I see. So why don’t I go myself, as the matter refers to me...” she reflected. “I should take...” she surveyed the people around Devora, as if balancing the importance and validity of each of them as an emissary, “Amnon with me, to tell our customs. And Ya’el also, to back me up.”

“This is a very sound idea,” Devora said, smiling at her, as if glad of Tamar’s daring and courage; then she turned again to the nomad, “Tomorrow, we shall send a deputation to the Chief, to answer his request; go back and tell him so.”

When the man had gone, however, she dismissed all but Tamar from her presence. Gazing for a moment into the face of her adopted daughter, she asked, “Is that the man you want for your coronation?”

“That is the man I want,” the girl answered simply, but she wondered why her coronation had been mentioned. Had the time arrived, then, for Devora to cease being Lady Mother of her Village?

Continuing her thought on the matter, Tamar was not really surprised when the deputation had to be delayed. On her way up the mountain that afternoon with water for the Watcher, she shuddered to see a black snake crossing her way. It was a dark omen. At the entrance to the cave she stopped and listened. All was silent, deep as the deepest well. No sound was heard, no murmur or whisper. She sniffed, and felt no scent of incense smoke. The cave was full of heavy, deathlike darkness.

Confused, Tamar took off the water skin and put it down. Then, with a whispered prayer to Asherat, she stepped inside. The rows of shell-eyed skulls winked at her, and she looked to see what they were pointing at. Her eyes fell on a black lump lying on the floor; it took her a few minutes to realize it was the old Watcher who had dropped from the stone seat to the ground. She had fallen on the dish of leaves, quenching their scented smoke.

Tamar crouched by the body, staying there for a long time. As evening outside came, the glow of a pale, full moon glared from the innermost part of the cave; it reflected from the shiny skulls and was swallowed in their gaping mouths. Tamar shivered. She looked at the old woman bathing in a silver halo. The cave was filled with her old spirit, which enveloped the young girl’s soul until they joined together, uniting in their essence. Shell eyes lighted the cave in motley of colors; gaping mouths sounded a hymn in Tamar’s ears:

In the Garden of the Moon
In the Garden of mist we dwell
Walking among eternal flowers
Resting on green grass
Drinking moonlight
Eating sunflesh
Ruled by the Dark Goddess
Goddess of Wisdom
Listening to her wise words
Hearing letters of prophecy
Learning things of eternal truth...

A face appeared in the face of the full moon, beautiful, dark and terrible; its eyes shone wisdom, its purple lips trembled song. Tamar’s spirit sunk in the eyes, were swallowed in its mouth; she was about to learn eternal truths, see all the secrets of the world...

She did not know how long she had stayed like that when all went dark again. The moon inside the cave had vanished, and Tamar found herself again crouching by the fallen body of the old Watcher. She sighed deeply and rose to her feet, turned and went outside, and down to the Village. The sky was clear, glittering stars threw a faint light on her way. When she reached Devora’s house she found the Lady Mother sitting, waiting at its entrance, as if she knew what had happened.

“Call my granddaughter Shoshana,” Devora told Tamar as the Water Maiden approached her. Tamar found the Shoshana in the Women’s house, nursing her recent baby; the young mother woke up one of the other women, gave her the child and followed Tamar out of the house. She was a tall, wide-hipped young woman, promising to look like her full-figured, heavy-breasted grandmother. Devora joined them, and the three left the Village enclosure and climbed up to the cave.

The gaping black hole of the cave entrance shone in the midst of the cliff in the light of a rising old moon. Some of its glow diffused inside the cave as the three women entered. They found old flint tools in a corner of the cave, which they used to dig the Watcher’s grave. The earth in that corner, though hardened to rock everywhere else, gave in to the tools, soft as a young girl’s flesh. Reverently, the live women carried the dead Watcher’s slight body to the grave, lay it in and covered it while chanting a prayer. The earth arranged itself at once to look like the rest of the cave floor.

“Go back, the two of you,” Devora said, taking her place on the stone seat by the altar. “You are Lady Mother now, Tamar; fill your position with dignity and wisdom. You, Shoshana, are Water Maiden; listen to Tamar and learn your job well. Goodbye.”

The girls were stunned. Shoshana fell on her knees at the feet of her grandmother, crying to her to come back with them. Tamar rearranged the bowls on both sides of the stone seat, filled one of them with water from the skin she had left there earlier. Around the entrance to the cave she found growing the weeds used for the incense; she picked some and put them in the other bowl. As she was thinking of a way to get fire to light them up, they started smoking by themselves, filling the cave again with the scent of incense.

For one moment the new Lady Mother stood silently in prayer; then she bent over the prostrate girl, lifting her to her feet. “She won’t talk any more, unless in prophecy. Come, child, we are going back to the Village.”

They came out into the gray atmosphere under the waning moon, which had the hills in the west; it paled the stars rather than lighting the earth, and they had to find their way mainly by instinct. When they reached the Village, the first light of dawn appeared, brightening the tops of the houses. All was quiet, no one had noticed their coming back into the Women’s house. Tamar had decided to take Devora’s place only after her mission to the nomads’ camp; once she was Lady Mother, she would never leave the Village again until her last trip to the cave to replace the Watcher.

In the morning, she told the villagers that Devora was keeping to her house that day; no one would question the Mother’s actions and decisions. There was no ceremony to mark the changes among the title-bearers of Watcher, Lady Mother and Water Maiden; the continuity of the Goddess’s representatives was perfect, with no gap to be noticed openly.


Tamar and her companions went down to the nomad’s camp the next day. Chief Ze’ev was sitting as usual in front of the wide, black-hide tent, which was used both for shade and as a hiding place for the women; only Eitan was standing by the old man’s side, the others keeping to a respectful distance. Tamar had a strong sense of tension between the young man and the old one, and she winced; she was not used to such strong feelings.

“Chief,” Ya’el opened after the preliminary greetings, the sitting of the guests and the serving of refreshments; Tamar noticed the Chief’s slight recoil as the woman spoke to him, but he was keeping his temper notably. “Lady Devora has heard your messenger’s words, but was not sure of their meaning; she would like to hear them from you through her daughter Tamar.”

“It is,” the Chief spoke slowly, stroking his long beard, “in regard to my son, Eitan,” he pointed, “and to this girl,” pointing to Tamar.

“And what is it regarding these young people that needs the attention of the Chief of his tribe and the Lady of her village? Can’t they sort it out for themselves, as young people usually do when they are attracted to one another?”

“This is not so simple, because of the position these two young people hold. Eitan here is almost certain to become chief, but he needs a highborn lady by his side to achieve and keep his position. I understand that this young lady is high-born and thus suitable to be his wife; that is why he is determined (admittedly, against his mother’s and my wishes) to win her for himself through any sort of contest necessary according to your customs.”

The words sounded clear enough, and Tamar glanced at the old healer beside her, to see what she had made of them; Amnon was standing behind them, and she could not see his face without turning.

As if answering Tamar’s silent gaze, Ya’el replied the Chief in a similar slow, measured tone of voice, “Tamar is not only high-born, she also has an important position to maintain. I am asking Amnon here, who is well versed with our customs and traditions, to explain it to you.”

To her sign, Amnon opened with a chant, first in a mumble, then with words, which had gradually become clearer:

Three are they
Three rule our village
Three goddesses which are one:
The Old One, the Watcher,
The Lady who is our Mother,
The Young One, Water Maiden.
When the Watcher dies
The Mother takes her place
The Maiden becomes
Lady Mother of the village.
The Lady takes a consort to mate with,
To make the Village fruitful
To make the Earth fruitful
To make all living fruitful.
The Lady Mother’s consort is
Her lover, is her King.
None but the King is consort
To our Lady.

“You see,” Ya’el said when Amnon fell silent, “when Tamar becomes Lady Mother of the Village, she takes the mate of her choice who becomes King. As things are, Eitan may become King and consort to Tamar at her coronation; but she can never leave the Village to belong to another tribe, to belong to any man and become — what was the word? — his ‘wife’...”

In the silence that had fallen, Tamar raised her eyes, green as grass, clear as the sacred spring, and looked fully at Eitan’s face. His own black, sparkling eyes had been lying on her all that time, but now she saw his dark complexion reddening, glowing over his black beard. He did not notice the Chief’s scrutinizing his face.

Proceed to the conclusion of chapter 4...

Copyright © 2005 by Tala Bar

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