by Tala Bar
Table of Contents|
Chapter 2 appeared
in issue 75.
“I would like to take you with me to Shomron,” Yin’am murmured into Ya’el’s bare bosom. It was late spring with its hot days and cool nights; the lovers had been meeting continually throughout the months of autumn, winter and spring and, with the approach of summer, Ya’el sensed some change hovering in the air.
“To Shomron?” she asked, her fingers playing with Yin’am’s longish hair, her mind absently noticing the places where the gold was turning into deep copper. “What shall I do there?”
She loved his hair, it was the first thing she had loved about him; but she loved the whole of him so much, she never thought she could love anyone in this absolutely physical way.
“I’ll keep you in the Palace, and I’ll come to see you from time to time.” He turned and smiled into her eyes: “We won’t have to hide our love, then.”
“In the Palace? In the harem, you mean, among your other women? No, thank you.” He laughed. “I don’t have ‘other women’, you silly girl.”
“Maybe not now,” she said soberly, “but you’re going to, and I will not be a concubine! Anyway, you forget I am engaged to be married!”
“This can be arranged.” He was so sure of himself that she laughed. “And we may even marry,” Yin’am continued. “After all, I am not the heir to the throne; I have older brothers, and I told you the King lets me do what I want.”
“You’ve never talked about marriage before.” She looked at him suspiciously. It was that kind of love: as much as she wanted him, she could never trust him.
“That was because I knew you were betrothed.”
“I still am.”
“At the beginning -” he looked at her seriously, his green eyes entreating, “I did not know I was going to feel this way about you; and I did not know what you were going to feel about me.”
“And now you know? Are you sure?”
“I am almost sure, of me and of you. So what about it?”
“About marrying me instead of the other one.”
“I don’t know.” Suddenly, she felt very tired.
“You don’t know? Don’t you love me?” She heard the fear in his voice, and it pierced her heart.
“I do! I love you terribly!” She held him, rocking his body in her arms like a baby. “I love you more than anything else in the world.”
“So?” He raised his bright green eyes, looking deeply into her golden brown ones.
She did not answer. This turn in their relationship not only surprised her; it also forced her to take a new look at her own life.
“When is your fiance coming back?” he asked prosaically, sitting up.
“Nahshon? We received news that the caravan is returning in a few months. Last time we heard, it was near the area of Dan, in the north.”
“You have some time to make up your mind, then,” he determined.
“Let’s not talk about it until the time comes, all right?” she begged. With a hot kiss she shut up anything else he was going to say, and they became preoccupied in their favorite business: mutual adoration. He loved her small face and adored her rounded young breasts; she admired the golden curls of his pubic hair and loved to play with his pink penis; they were like a couple of children playing with their favorite toys. Their relations alternated between cool pleasure and moments of blazing lust, with no comforting warmth in between. Ya’el found this kind of love, so full of pain and joy, not easy to cope with.
Yin’am himself, she sometimes thought, was not an easy man to deal with. This was besides the fact of danger she could not ignore, in which she was putting herself in case she was discovered. Nothing much would happen to him, of course; after all, he was a man as well as the King’s son. If he was found out, he could be told off for having tempted a betrothed woman, possibly exiled to a more remote place than Yizre’el. But what about her, a woman, and officially engaged to be married? Besides the scandal, the shame to her family, she might be killed... stoned to death, perhaps! Or have her hair cut off and forced into a life of eternal prostitution at Ashera’s House... Ya’el shivered, letting her mind go blank, becoming deeply engrossed again in their lovemaking. Afterwards, she knew she could never blame Yin’am for her own enterprising, however unfair it was for herself as a woman.
Besides, they were not going to be caught; she had made sure of it! People scarcely came to this particular spot, which was at some distance both from town and from cultivated fields. She had chosen well the site for their meetings, and she felt quite secure...
Yishma’el, Elihu’s nephew from the village of Shunem, had come to town to sell some surplus vegetables and corn; as usual he stayed with his uncle’s family. Ya’el liked this cousin of hers, as dark as her own father, who was a young giant of a man with a rumbling voice.
The village of Shunem, one of the largest in the area of Yizre’el, was situated on the opposite side of the Valley, at the foot of the Hill of Moreh. Yishma’el had arrived earlier in the day wanting to finish his business in the market before coming to his aunt’s house, to allow for the leisure of the visit.
The family had gathered for the evening meal, sitting or crouching on the floor in the eating corner of the yard outside the house; rugs and cushions made the flat, pressed earth softer for the body, and people made themselves as comfortable as they wished.
“My sister Mikhal is getting married just before the Wine festival,” Yishma’el announced, taking a break from wolfing his bread and goat cheese after almost a whole day of fasting. “You are all invited to Shunem to celebrate both occasions.”
“Who says so?” grunted Elihu, who hated travelling. Since he had left his family in Shunem to become a goldsmith apprentice in Yizre’el, he had aspired to leave town as little as possible.
“My mother says so, your sister Sho’it, Uncle, and you know nobody can defy the word of the Great Woman of Shunem. Especially her own brother.”
“I’d be very happy to go,” Timna said; “it’s been two years since we last visited the village, and I would like very much to experience again these joyful days of the Wine and Love festival; besides, there is no question about going to Mikhal’s wedding.”
Elihu muttered under his beard, but he knew very well there was no way out of his obligations.
“Who is Mikhal marrying?” asked Ya’el. Her cousin was about a year younger than she was, and in previous meetings they had become good friends. She remembered Mikhal as a big girl — much bigger than herself — slow and thoughtful in her movements and words; she had always been better at work than at games, even from a very young age.
“His name is Yadid, and he is a good boy and a good farmer,” answered Yishma’el, turning his attention to a dish of cooked vegetables and slices of meat.
The youngsters were very excited in prospect of the trip; the mere change, going out of town into the country, meeting with other children of the family, and the main thing — taking part in the Wine and Love festival — all these enhanced the merry expectations. The twins, Eran and Ya’ir, youngest of the family, made the greatest noise, as usual. There could not be two people more unlike, who complemented each other in every way: Ya’ir was a chubby boy with dark hair and brown eyes, quick to take on any wild action instigated by Eran, who looked thin and pondering, a slow-acting child with light brown hair and innocent-looking blue eyes; together they were the menace of the neighborhood, chasing birds and mice, teasing children and playing endless contest games. It was Rahel’s job to supervise them and she, before reaching puberty, used to join them she in their pranks. The twins were too young to remember the village, having been there last as mere babies; but the idea of running in open fields with no hinderance of town streets and houses, made them so excitable that Rahel needed help to quieten them down.
Ya’el sat detached from all the commotion, images of the Wine and Love festival rising before her mind’s eyes, turning into a fantasy. In it she saw Ayelet, tall and regal, stripped to her waist and revealing her full, heavy breasts; a long skirt wrapped her hips and a garland of cornflowers crowned her red hair. She was dancing in the fields to the sound of flutes and drums with the crowd kneeling around in adoration... So entranced was Ya’el in her vision, that she had almost started moving in her place to the music...
While the twins were keeping the noise up in their expectations for the voyage to Shunem, Rahel was panting in her own excitement; while trying to quieten her younger brothers, she at the same time attempted to continue her conversation with her elder sister.
“Are you going to invite some man to the dance, Ya’el?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Ya’el said, awakening from her reverie and absently looking at her sister. The younger girl looked oddly attractive with the contrast between her black curls and her light, transparent eyes. Since her first period a few months before, Rahel’s long, lean figure had filled a little, and the sharp lines of her face had softened. Ya’el noted how she pushed forward her sprouting breasts, as if impatient to become an adult. “At least,” Ya’el added, “I hope you don’t think you could invite a man to the dance.”
“Why not?” the younger one challenged.
“You are still too young,” was the answer. “You can’t be sure to make the right choice.”
“I don’t care much for the right choice as long as it’s a good one! At least, I am not hindered from making any choice. I am not betrothed, like you!” she replied impudently, avoiding Ya’el’s quick try at a slap. But, wistfully, she added, “Have you ever danced with a man?”
For one moment Ya’el recalled unwillingly some of the unpleasant incidents at the House of Ashera; she drove away the memories by thinking of Shunem. Though she had said nothing, she was very happy to go — to get out of town, to experience some change she had longed for in her life, to see Mikhal again — she’d better here more of the news about her cousin.
“Shut up, now, Rahel,” she said softly, “I want to hear what the others are saying.”
“She is absolutely wonderful!” Yishma’el was saying, and Ya’el assumed rightly that he was talking about his mother. “She knew my sister was with child even before Mikhal herself had realized. She arranged the marriage, although Yadid’s parents thought he was too young, only fifteen, you know.”
“And Mikhal is not yet fourteen,” commented Timna; “don’t you think they are both rather young for managing their own house and farm?” There was a tinge of envy in her voice; at one time, she was thinking it a prestige to connect her family with that of Sho’it’s through a marriage between Mikhal and her own eldest son Elishama; but the girl was too young then, and at seventeen, the boy married a daughter of Timna’s own brother.
“Mikhal is quite mature for her age, even more mature than Yadid himself,” Yisma’el boasted. “She can manage anything and anybody I know, and I will not be at all surprised to see her take Sho’it’s place as the Great Woman of Shunem when the time comes.”
Listening, Ya’el remembered some of her talks with Mikhal; though a year younger than herself, her cousin was much more knowledgeable in adult matters. One story she remembered well told when the two girls were sleeping together under one blanket in a corner of the yard, when it was too hot to sleep inside the house.
“Adults,” Mikhal had whispered in Ya’el’s ear, “turn at night into beasts and animals.”
Ya’el blushed slightly when recalling the story, not just for realizing the true meaning of the metaphor, but also for her own naivety at the time; she remembered herself wondering about grownups growing horns and hooves at night, only to shed them every morning...
Naturally, she turned in her thoughts to Yin’am and his wish to take her with him to Shomron, to live in the Palace. This was the right time to make a decision: in the bustle of preparations and starting on their way to Shunem, she could easily slip away to join her lover; it would take some hours before anyone would notice her absence, and by then they could be some distance away, with nobody knowing where and with whom she had gone.
But did she want to go with Yin’am? It was true she wanted to get away from her marriage to Nahshon, and it would be wonderful to live all her life with Yin’am; he was an intelligent boy, educated, as the aristocracy was, not a simple farm boy or a merchant whose sole interest was money. And she knew he loved her. But if she went with him, she would not actually be living with him but in the harem, among many other, probably unhappy, women. She would have to wait the prince’s pleasure, and would have no power over her own life, not even the freedom to roam the streets or go outside town into the fields or the woods as she could now. The only woman who had power in the palace was the king’s mother, or sometimes his sister; what was Ya’el but a common town girl, with no royal blood in her veins, no family connections to support her in time of trouble? No, this picture did not look attractive at all.
“I’d like to see Mikhal again,” she said to Rahel when the dinner table had broken up and the sisters were helping clearing and cleaning the yard. “Last time I saw her, we both were not much more than little girls, and she taught me some things I should never have known otherwise.”
“What, what did she teach you, tell me, Ya’el!” Rahel cried, panting to hear, to advance herself, to join the grownups.
“What d’you want to grow up so quickly for, Rahel?” Ya’el remonstrated. Childhood was so free of the problems she was facing now that just for a minute she would go back to it.
“You are almost fifteen and not married, Ya’el,” she heard a very slight contempt, a clear lack of satisfaction in the voice of the young girl, who, after all, loved her elder sister. “I’d rather be like Mikhal, married and with a child, than an old maid like you...”
Slipping away from her sister’s threatening movement, she had gone to play with the twins. But Ya’el did not pursue her, having other things on her mind. She was not really offended by Rahel’s words: her secret relations with Yin’am could compensate for any insult of this kind; besides, a clear revulsion to marriage and married life was just beginning to form in her mind, and she could not explain to herself why she had such a feeling about what every ‘normal’ girl wanted. It was there, however, forcing her to realized how important it was for her to listen to her innermost feelings.
Still, what was the alternative to marriage? To be a concubine in the palace? or an Ashera priestess and a sacred harlot giving her body to anyone bringing a love offering to the goddess with no choice possible? None of these ideas was really acceptable to her, but she could not think of any other that would be...
When Yishma’el was gone, Ya’el had been wandering for days about the house in a sort of confusion, being an eternal target for her mother’s endless scoldings. One day, having finished peeling vegetables and throwing them into a big pot for cooking, she turned to grind some grains of corn; Rahel and the twins had gone with Timna to the market, and for a time she was alone in the yard.
Some pigeons swooped down from their cote on the roof to feed, as was their wont when grain grinding was in process. Ya’el loved the sight of these “Love birds of Ashera,” as they were called, throwing them some seeds as she was listening to their soft cooing; it seemed to her the perfect sound of love.
Two of the birds, she noticed, were not feeding; they were a lovely pair of white doves, soft and bright, who chased each other in the ritual of love, and for a few minutes she watched them, enchanted. Suddenly, she had an idea. Leaving her grinding stones, she stole behind the birds, which were too absorbed in their game to pay any attention to her; at that moment, it seemed that even a wild cat could have grabbed them easily. She came after the pair, and at the right moment scooped up one of the birds. In a minute, the other stopped running, turned to face her, continuing its ritual of bowing and raising its head.
Fascinated, she watched it for a moment, then collected it softly to join its mate in her arms. “These,” she thought, “would make a perfect gift for Oshrat.”
With a trembling heart, Ya’el stood in front of the white tent, holding the birds to her chest. There was no door to knock on and she hesitated, not sure what she must do. Then the tent’s flap was pushed away and Ayelet was standing at the opening, her deep blue eyes glowing, her scarlet lips partly opened; she wore a dress as scarlet, overshining the redness of her hair.
“Come in,” she smiled at Ya’el, her low voice making the air around her vibrate.
Ya’el went in, wondering how Ayelet had known she was there.
“I see you’ve brought a gift this time,” the woman said, “that’s good.” She stretched out her hands, and Ya’el handed over the doves; the woman hid her face for a moment in the brilliantly white feathers, then she straightened, lifted her hands and gave the doves a slight push. The birds flew in the air, circled once or twice and landed in the corner, in the lap of the old woman whom Ya’el had just noticed.
“Good,” croaked the old one, passing her bony hand very lightly over the white feathers. The birds crooned, and Ya’el’s heart leapt.
“You’ve made a very good choice,” the young woman said; “the Great Mother is pleased.”
“The Great Mother?” wondered Ya’el, looking at the crone.
“Oshrat - that’s who she is; didn’t you know?”
“Are you going to sacrifice the doves?” Ya’el asked in a trembling voice, knowing nothing about the customs of the Great Mother.
“Sacrifice! Great Mother! Of course not! We don’t kill people.”
“People? They are only pigeons from our dovecote.”
“Only pigeons! You really have a lot to learn. They are Oshrat’s own children, like all living things, and these are her favorite. That’s why I said you had chosen well, but it seems you did it unknowingly. Come, now.”
Ya’el, her mind full of the strange vision of the variegated serpents she had seen on her last visit, stepped carefully over the plain-looking mats and cushions. What was in store for her now?
Ayelet led her to the other side of the tent; when she pushed the flap, a closed door was revealed fixed in a high wall.
“Prepare yourself,” the woman whispered in the girl’s ear. “Close your eyes now, count slowly to five, and then open them.”
Ya’el nodded; Ayelet stretched her hands toward the door, and Ya’el closed her eyes and started counting in her mind: “One” — she felt a thick fog enveloping her — “Two” — covering her like a blanket — “Three” — a tangible darkness — “Four” — seeping in under her eyelids — “Five” — a pause — “Open your eyes!”
Darkness enveloped her, thick, tangible. Her heart was pounding and her head felt dizzy. She realized she was inside a cave, which was very different from the one at the side of Mount Gilbo’a from which the sacred Spring of Harod flowed. This one was so deep it felt fathomless; black darkness surrounding her on all sides, making her feel floating in the heavy, black air.
Time stood still. Then, through the darkness she discerned dots of glimmering eyes — hundreds, thousands — shining out of thousand glowing skulls; thousand black mouths gaped around her in a silent scream.
A taut spring inside her snapped, and Ya’el screamed... At once, all was gone; she was standing in front of the closed door in the wall, Ayelet by her side. The woman’s arm encircled her shoulders.
“Don’t be afraid, nothing is going to happen to you. Just tell me what you saw?”
“It was a cave, I suppose, full of skulls...” she shuddered, unable to go on.
“Ah, that’s good. Now, come over and sit here, on the rug; and here are some cushions that are right; now, here is something to drink, to calm your nerves. That’s it.” Her voice was so warm and comforting, Ya’el did not know what to think or feel, mechanically taking the drink to her mouth. She did not know what it was, but it was very reviving. She breathed deeply, her eyes clearing, her mind settling down.
“Now,” said Ayelet, standing over her, gazing at her with eyes full of compassion, “you’ll go back home, and tell nobody anything. You’ve had a terrifying experience, and you need some time to make up you mind whether you want to come back to us or not. That door,” her eyes twinkles, “will always be open to you.”
‘That door?’ Ya’el did not think she’d ever want to see it again!
The woman helped her to rise, saw her to the tent’s opening. Ya’el hardly caught her farewell words, burst out running all the way home, glad to be back to hear her mother’s rebuke for her truancy.
“Where have you been? You’re never here when I need you!” setting her to clean the house, to leave everything shipshape before going on their trip to Shunem; relieved, Ya’el turned to the hateful task in unwonted fervor.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2003 by Tala Bar