The lives of four sensuous, bold and remarkable women intersect in the year 70AD, in the desperate days of the siege of Masada, when supplies are dwindling and the Romans are drawing near. All are dovekeepers, and all are keepers of secrets – about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom they love. There is Yael, the assassin's daughter whose heartbreak leads to her true path in the ruins of the desert; Revka, the baker's wife who loses her dearest treasure on earth and yet finds the strength to protect her family; Aziza, the warrior's beloved who leads a secret life not even those closest to her could imagine; and Marit, beautiful witch of Moab, a woman as loyal as she is dangerous.
Release date: April 3, 2012
Print pages: 528
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We came like doves across the desert. In a time when there was nothing but death, we were grateful for anything, and most grateful of all when we awoke to another day.
W e had been wandering for so long I forgot what it was like to live within walls or sleep through the night. In that time I lost all I might have possessed if Jerusalem had not fallen: a husband, a family, a future of my own. My girlhood disappeared in the desert. The person I’d once been vanished as I wrapped myself in white when the dust rose into clouds. We were nomads, leaving behind beds and belongings, rugs and brass pots. Now our house was the house of the desert, black at night, brutally white at noon.
They say the truest beauty is in the harshest land and that God can be found there by those with open eyes. But my eyes were closed against the shifting winds that can blind a person in an instant. Breathing itself was a miracle when the storms came whirling across the earth. The voice that arises out of the silence is something no one can imagine until it is heard. It roars when it speaks, it lies to you and convinces you, it steals from you and leaves you without a single word of comfort. Comfort cannot exist in such a place. What is brutal survives. What is cunning lives until morning.
My skin was sunburned, my hands raw. I gave in to the desert, bowing to its mighty voice. Everywhere I walked my fate walked with me, sewn to my feet with red thread. All that will ever be has already been written long before it happens. There is nothing we can do to stop it. I couldn’t run in the other direction. The roads from Jerusalem led to only three places: to Rome, or to the sea, or to the desert. My people had become wanderers, as they had been at the beginning of time, cast out yet again.
I followed my father out of the city because I had no choice.
None of us did, if the truth be told.
I DON’T KNOW how it began, but I know how it ended. It occurred in the month of Av, the sign for which is Arieh, the lion. It is a month that signifies destruction for our people, a season when the stones in the desert are so hot you cannot touch them without burning your fingers, when fruit withers on the trees before it ripens and the seeds inside shake like a rattle, when the sky is white and rain will not fall. The first Temple had been destroyed in that month. Tools signified weapons and could not be used in constructing the holiest of holy places; therefore the great warrior king David had been prohibited from building the Temple because he had known the evils of war. Instead, the honor fell to his son King Solomon, who called upon the shamir, a worm who could cut through stone, thereby creating glory to God without the use of metal tools.
The Temple was built as God had decreed it should be, free from bloodshed and war. Its nine gates were covered with silver and gold. There, in the most holy of places, was the Ark that stored our people’s covenant with God, a chest made of the finest acacia wood, decorated with two golden cherubs. But despite its magnificence, the first Temple was destroyed, our people exiled to Babylonia. They had returned after seventy years to rebuild in the same place, where Abraham had been willing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to the Almighty, where the world had first been created.
The second Temple had stood for hundreds of years as the dwelling place of God’s word, the center of creation in the center of Jerusalem, though the Ark itself had disappeared, perhaps in Babylonia. But now times of bloodshed were upon us once more. The Romans wanted all that we had. They came to us as they swarmed upon so many lands with their immense legions, wanting not just to conquer but to humiliate, claiming not just our land and our gold but our humanity.
As for me, I expected disaster, nothing more. I had known its embrace before I had breath or sight. I was the second child, a year younger than my brother, Amram, but unlike him entirely, cursed by the burden of my first breath. My mother died before I was born. In that moment the map of my life arose upon my skin in a burst of red marks, speckles that, when followed, one to the other, have led me to my destiny.
I can remember the instant when I entered the world, the great calm that was suddenly broken, the heat of my own pulse beneath my skin. I was taken from my mother’s womb, cut out with a sharp knife. I am convinced I heard my father’s roar of grief, the only sound to break the terrible silence of one who is born from death. I myself did not cry or wail. People took note of that. The midwives whispered to one another, convinced I was either blessed or cursed. My silence was not my only unusual aspect, nor were the russet flecks that emerged upon my skin an hour after my birth. It was my hair, the deep bloodred color of it, a thick cap growing, as if I already knew this world and had been here before.
They said my eyes were open, the mark of one set apart. That was to be expected of a child born of a dead woman, for I was touched by Mal’ach ha-Mavet, the Angel of Death, before I was born in the month of Av, on the Tisha B’Av, the ninth day, under the sign of the lion. I always knew a lion would be waiting for me. I had dreamed of such creatures ever since I could remember. In my dreams I fed the lion from my hand. In return he took my whole hand into his mouth and ate me alive.
When I left childhood, I made certain to cover my head; even when I was in my father’s courtyard I kept to myself. On those rare occasions when I accompanied our cook to the market, I saw other young women enjoying themselves and I was jealous of even the plainest among them. Their lives were full, whereas I could think only of all I did not have. They chirped merrily about their futures as brides as they lingered at the well or gathered in the Street of the Bakers surrounded by their mothers and aunts. I wanted to snap at them but said nothing. How could I speak of my envy when there were things I wanted even more than a husband or a child or a home of my own?
I wished for a night without dreams, a world without lions, a year without Av, that bitter, red month.
WE LEFT the city when the second Temple was set in ruins, venturing forth into the Valley of Thorns. For months the Romans had defiled the Temple, crucifying our people inside its sacred walls, stripping the gold from the entranceways and the porticoes. It was here that Jews from all over creation traveled to offer sacrifices before the holiest site, with thousands arriving at the time of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, all yearning to glimpse the gold walls of the dwelling place of God’s word.
When the Romans attacked the third wall, our people were forced to flee from that part of the Temple. The legion then brought down the second wall. Still it was not enough. The great Titus, military leader of all Judea, went on to construct four siege ramps. Our people destroyed these, with fire and stones, but the Romans’ assault of the Temple walls had weakened our defenses. Not long afterward a breach was accomplished. The soldiers entered the maze of walls that surrounded our holiest site, running like rats, their shields lifted high, their white tunics burning with blood. The holy Temple was being destroyed at their hands. Once this happened, the city would fall as well, it would be forced to follow, sinking to its knees like a common captive, for without the Temple there would be no lev ha-olam, no heart of the world, and nothing left to fight for.
The desire for Jerusalem was a fire that could not be quenched. There was a spark inside that holiest of holy places that made people want to possess it, and what men yearn for they often destroy. At night the walls that had been meant to last an eternity groaned and shook. The more the Romans arrested us for crimes against their rule the more we fought among ourselves, unable to decide upon a single course of action. Perhaps because we knew we couldn’t win against their might we turned on each other, riven by petty jealousies, split apart by treachery, our lives a dark tangle of fear.
Victims often attack one another, they become chickens in a pen, bickering, frenzied. We did the same. Not only were our people besieged by the Romans but they were at war with each other. The priests were deferential, siding with Rome, and those who opposed them were said to be robbers and thugs, my father and his friends among them. Taxes were so high the poor could no longer feed their children, while those who allied themselves with Rome had prospered and grown rich. People gave testimony against their own neighbors; they stole from each other and locked their doors to those in need. The more suspicious we were of each other, the more we were defeated, split into feuding mobs when in fact we were one, the sons and daughters of the kingdom of Israel, believers in Adonai.
IN THE MONTHS before the Temple fell, there had been chaos as we labored against our enemies. We made every effort to win this war, but as God created life, so did He create destruction. Now in the furious red month of Av, swollen bodies filled the kidron, the deep ravine that separated the city from the glimmering Mount of Olives. The blood of men and beasts formed dark lakes in our most sacred places. The heat was mysterious and unrelenting, as if the wickedness of earth reflected back to us, a mirror of our sins. Inside the most secret rooms of the Temple, gold melted and pooled; it disappeared, stolen from the most holy of places, never to be seen again.
Not a single breeze stirred. The temperature had risen with the disorder, from the ground up, and the bricks that paved the Roman roads were so hot they burned people’s feet as the desperate searched for safe havens—a stable, an abandoned chamber, even the cool stone space within a baker’s oven. The soldiers of the Tenth Legion, who followed the sign of the boar, planted their banners above the ruins of the Temple with full knowledge this was an affront to us, for it threw in our faces an animal we found impure. The soldiers were like wild boars themselves, reckless, vicious. They were coursing throughout the countryside, killing white cockerels outside synagogues, meeting places which served as bet kenesset and bet tefilliah, houses of both assembly and prayer, as an insult and a curse. The blood of a rooster made our houses of worship unclean. Women scoured the steps with lye soap, wailing as they did so. We were defiled no matter how they might scrub or how much water they might pour onto the stones.
With each violation we understood the legion’s warning: What we do to the rooster, we can do to you.
ONE EVENING a star resembling a sword arose over the city. It could be spied night after night, steadfastly brilliant in the east. People trembled, certain it was an omen, waiting for what was to come. Soon afterward the eastern gate of the Temple opened of its own accord. Crowds gathered, terrified, convinced this occurrence would allow disaster to walk inside. Gates do not open if there is no reason. Swords do not rise in the sky if peace is to come. Our neighbors began to trade any small treasures they had, jostling through the streets, determined to escape with what little they possessed. They gathered their children and began to flee Jerusalem, hoping to reach Babylon or Alexandria, longing for Zion even as they departed.
In the ditches that filled with rainwater during times of sudden flooding, there was soon a river of blood running down from the Temple. The blood cried and wept and cursed, for its victims did not give up their lives easily. The soldiers killed the rebels first, then they murdered haphazardly. Whoever was unfortunate enough to pass by was caught in their net. People were torn from their families, herded off streets. There came the evening known as the Plague upon Innocence. Any illusion that our prayers would be answered vanished. How many among us lost our faith on this night? How many turned away from what our people had always believed? A boy of ten had been taken in irons, then crucified because he had refused to bow down to the soldiers. This boy had been afflicted with deafness and had not even heard the command, but no one cared about such things anymore. A world of hate had settled upon us.
The sin of this boy’s death rose like a cloud, evident to us all. Afterward, twenty thousand people panicked in the streets, trampling each other in a frenzy, forsaking their dignity as they flocked onto the roads.
By the time morning had broken, nearly all had abandoned Jerusalem.
AS FOR ME, my world was over before the Temple began to burn, before stone dust covered the alleyways. Long before the Temple fell, I had lost my faith. I was nothing to my father, abandoned by him from the moment I was born. I would have been neglected completely, but my mother’s family insisted a nursemaid be hired. A young servant girl from Alexandria came to care for me, but when she sang lullabies, my father, the fearsome Yosef bar Elhanan, told her to be quiet. When she fed me, he insisted I had eaten enough.
I was little more than a toddler when my father took me aside to tell me the truth of my birth. I wept to discover the circumstances and took on the burden of my entrance into this life. My name was Yael, and it was the first thing about myself I learned to despise. This had been my mother’s name as well. Every time it was spoken it only served to remind my father that the occasion of my arrival in this world had stolen his wife.
“What does that make you?” he asked bitterly.
I didn’t have an answer, but I saw myself reflected in his eyes. I was a murderer, worthy of his indignation and wrath.
The girl hired to care for me was soon enough sent away, taking with her all consolation and solace. I knew what awaited me upon her departure, the stunted life of a motherless child. I sobbed and held on to her skirts on the day she left us, desperate for her warm embrace. My brother, Amram, told me not to cry; we had each other. The servant girl gave me a pomegranate for luck before she gently unwound her skirts from my grasp. She was young enough to be my sister, but she had been like a mother to me and had given me the only tenderness I’d known.
I gave my gift of the pomegranate to my brother, having already decided to always place him first. But that was not the only reason. I was already full from my portion of sorrow.
AS I GREW, I was quiet and well behaved. I asked for nothing, and that was exactly what I received. If I was clever, I tried not to show it. If I was injured, I kept my wounds to myself. I turned away whenever I saw other girls with their fathers, for mine did not wish to be seen with me. He did not speak to me or take me onto his lap. He cared only for my brother, his love for Amram evident at every turn. At dinner they sat together while I was left in the hall, where I slept. There were scorpions secluded in the corners that soon grew used to me. I watched them, fearing them but also admiring how they lay in wait for their prey on the cool stones without ever revealing themselves. I kept my sense of shame deep inside, much the way the scorpion hid its craving. In that we were alike.
All the same, I was human. I longed for a lock of my mother’s hair so I might know its color. In that hallway I often wept for the comfort of her arms.
“Do you think I feel sorry for you?” my father demanded one day when he’d had enough of my wailing. “You probably killed her with your crying. You caused a flood and drowned her from the inside.”
I had never spoken back before, but I leapt up then. The thought that I might have drowned my mother with my own tears was too much to endure. My chest and throat burned hot. For that instant I didn’t care that the man before me was Yosef bar Elhanan and I was nothing.
“I wasn’t the one at fault,” I declared.
I saw a strange expression cross my father’s face. He took a step back.
“Are you saying I am the cause?” he remarked, throwing up his hands as though to protect himself from a curse.
I didn’t answer, but after he stormed out, I realized that we did indeed have something in common, more so than the scorpion and I, even if my father never spoke to me or called me by name. We had killed my mother together. And yet he wanted me to carry the blame alone. If that was what he wanted, then I would take on the mantle of guilt, for I was a dutiful daughter. But I would not weep again. Nothing could cause me to break this vow. When a wasp bit me and a red welt rose on my arm, I willed myself to be still and not feel its pain. My brother came running to make certain I hadn’t been harmed. He called me by the secret name he’d given me when we were little more than babies, Yaya. I loved to hear him call me that, for the pet name reminded me of the lullabies of my nursemaid and a time before I knew I’d brought ruin to my family.
I burned from the sting of the wasp but insisted I was fine. When I looked up, I saw the glimmer of tears in Amram’s eyes. Anyone would have thought he’d been the one who’d been wounded. He felt pain more easily than I and was far more sensitive. Sometimes I sang to him when he couldn’t fall asleep, offering the lullabies from Alexandria whose words I remembered, as if I’d once had another life.
ALL THE WHILE I was growing up I wondered what it might be like to have a father who wouldn’t turn away from the sight of me, one who told me I was beautiful, even though my hair flamed a strange red color and my skin was sprinkled with earth-toned flecks as though I’d been splattered with mud. I’d heard my father say to another man that these marks were specks of my mother’s blood. Afterward, I tried to pluck them out with my fingers, drawing blood from my own flesh, but my brother stopped me when he discovered the red-rimmed pockmarks on my arms and legs. He assured me the freckles were bits of ash that had fallen from the stars in the sky. Because of this I would always shine in the darkness. He would always be able to find me, no matter how far he might travel.
When I became a woman, I had no mother to tell me what to do with the blood that came with the moon or escort me to the mikvah, the ritual bath that would have cleansed me with a total immersion into purity. The first time I bled I thought I was dying until an old woman who was my neighbor took pity on me and told me the truth about women’s monthly cycles. I lowered my eyes as she spoke, shamed to be told such intimate details by a stranger, not quite believing her, wondering why our God would cause me to become unclean. Even now I think I might have been right to tremble in fear on the day that I first bled. Perhaps my becoming a woman was the end for me, for I had been born in blood and deserved to be taken from life in the same way.
I didn’t bother to ring my eyes with kohl or rub pomegranate oil onto my wrists. Flirtation was not something I practiced, nor did I think myself attractive. I didn’t perfume my hair but instead wound the plaits at the nape of my neck, then covered my head with a woolen shawl of the plainest fabric I could find. My father addressed me only when he summoned me to bring his meal or wash his garments. By then I had begun to realize what it was that he did when he slipped out to meet with his cohorts at night. He often wrapped a pale gray cloak around his shoulders, one that was said to have been woven from the strands of a spider’s web. I had touched the hem of the garment once. It was both sinister and beautiful, granting its wearer the ability to conceal himself. When my father went out, he disappeared, for he had the power to vanish while he was still before you.
I’d heard him called an assassin by our neighbors. I frowned and didn’t believe this, but the more I studied his comings and goings, the more I knew it to be true. He was part of a secret group, men who carried the curled dagger of the Sicarii, Zealots who hid sharp knives in their cloaks which they used to punish those who refused to fight Rome, especially the priests who accepted the legion’s sacrifices and their favor at the Temple. The assassins were ruthless, even I knew that. No one was safe from their wrath; other Zealots disowned them, objecting to their brutal methods. It was said that the Sicarii had taken the fight against Jews who bowed to Rome too far, and that Adonai, our great God, would never condone murder, especially of brother against brother. But the Jews were a divided brotherhood, already at odds in practice if not in prayer. Those who belonged to the Sicarii laughed at the notion that God desired anything other than for all men to be free. The price was of no consequence. Their goal was one ruler alone, no emperors, no kings, only the King of Creation. He alone would rule when they were done with their work on earth.
MY FATHER had been an assassin for so long that the men he had killed were like leaves on a willow tree, too many to count. Because he possessed a skill that few men had and claimed the power of invisibility, he could slip into a room as a shadow might, dispatching his enemy before his victim was even aware that a window had been opened or a door had closed.
To my sorrow, my brother followed our father’s path as soon as he was old enough to become a disciple of vengeance. Amram was dangerously susceptible to their violent ways, for in his purity he saw the world as either good or evil with no twilight space in between. I often spied them huddled together, my father speaking in my brother’s ear, teaching him the rules of murder. One day as I gathered Amram’s tunics and cloak to wash at the well I found a dagger, already rippled with a line of crimson. I would have wept had I been able, but I had forsaken tears. I would not drown another as I had drowned my own mother, from the inside out.
Still, I went in search of my brother, finding him in the market with his friends. Women alone were not often seen among the men who came to these narrow passageways; those who had no choice but to go out unaccompanied rushed to the Street of the Bakers or to the stalls that offered pottery and jugs made from Jerusalem clay, then, just as quickly, rushed home. I wore a veil and my cloak clasped tightly. There were zonnoth in the market, women who sold themselves for men’s pleasure and did not cover their arms or their hair. One mocked me as I ran past, her sullen face breaking into a grin when she spied me dashing through the alleyway. You think you’re any different than we are? she called. You’re only a woman, as we are.
I pulled my brother away from his friends so that we might stand beneath a flame tree. The red flowers gave off the scent of fire, and I thought this was an omen, that my brother would know fire. I worried over what would happen to him when night came and the Sicarii gathered under cedars where they made their plans. I begged him to renounce the violent ways he’d taken up, but my brother, young as he was, burned for justice and a new order where all men were equal.
“I can’t reconsider my faith, Yaya.”
“Then consider your life” was my answer.
To tease me, Amram clucked like a chicken, strutting, his lean, strong body hunched over as he flapped imaginary wings. “Do you want me to stay home in the henhouse, where you can lock me inside and make sure I’m safe?”
I laughed despite my fears. My brother was brave and beautiful. No wonder my father favored him. His hair was golden, his eyes dark but flecked with light. I saw now that the child I had once mothered had become a man, one who was pure in his intentions. I could do little more than object to the path that he chose. Still I was determined to act on his behalf. When my brother rejoined his friends, I went on through the market, making my way deep within the twisting streets, at last turning in to an alley that was cobbled with dusty, dun-colored bricks. I’d heard it was possible to buy good fortune nearby. There was a mysterious shop spoken about in whispers by the neighborhood women. They usually stopped their discussion when I came near, but I’d been curious and had overheard that if a person followed the scrawled image of an eye inside a circle she would be led to a place of medicines and spells. I took the path of the eye until I came to the house of keshaphim, the breed of magic practiced by women, always pursued in secret.
When I knocked on the door, an old woman came to study me. Annoyed by my presence, she asked why I’d come. As soon as I hesitated, she began to close the door against me, grumbling.
“I don’t have time for someone who doesn’t know what she wants,” she muttered.
“Protection for my brother,” I managed to say, too unnerved to reveal any more.
At the Temple there was the magic of the priests, holy men who were anointed by prayer, chosen to give sacrifices and attempt miracles and perform exorcisms, driving out the evil that can often possess men. In the streets there was the magic of the minim, who were looked down upon by the priests, called charlatans and impostors by some, yet who were still respected by many. Houses of keshaphim, however, were considered to engage in the foulest sort of magic, women’s work, evil, vengeful, practiced by those who were denounced as witches. But the min who performed curses and spells would have never spoken to a girl such as I if I had no silver to hand over and no father or brother to recommend me. And had I gone to the priests for an amulet, they would have denied me, for I was the daughter of one who opposed them. Even I knew I didn’t deserve their favor.
The room behind the old woman was unlit, but I glimpsed herbs and plants draped from the ceiling on lengths of rope. I recognized rue and myrtle and the dried yellow apples of the mandrake, what is called yavrucha, an herb that is both aphrodisiac and antidemonic in nature, poisonous and powerful. I thought I heard the sound of a goat, a pet witches are said to have, from inside the dim chamber.
“Before you waste my time, do you have shekels enough for protection?” the old woman asked.
I shook my head. I had no coins, but I’d brought a precious hand mirror with me. It had belonged to my mother and was beautifully crafted, made of bronze and silver and gold, set with a chunk of deep blue lapis. It was the one thing I had of any value. The ancient woman examined it and then, satisfied, took my offering and went inside. After she shut the door, I heard the clatter of a lock. For a moment I wondered if she had disappeared for good, if perhaps I’d never see her or my mirror again, but she came back outside and told me to open my hand.
“You’re sure you don’t want this charm for yourself?” she cautioned, insisting there was only one like it in all the world. “You might need protection in this life.”
I shook my head, and as I did my plain woolen veil fell. When the old woman saw the scarlet color of my hair, she backed away as though she’d discovered a demon at her door.
“It’s good you don’t want it,” she said. “It wouldn’t work for you. You need a token that’s far more powerful.”
I snapped up the charm, then turned and started away. I was surprised when she called for me to wait.
“You don’t ask why?” The market woman was signaling to me, urging me to return, but I refused. “You don’t want to know what I see for you, my sister? I can tell you what you will become.”
“I know what I am.” I was the child born of a dead woman, the one who couldn’t bear to look at her own face. I was immensely glad to be rid of that mirror. “I don’t need you to tell me,” I called to the witch in the alleyway.
I WENT HOME and delivered the gift to my brother; it was a thin silver amulet to wear around his neck, the medallion imprinted with the image of Solomon fighting a demon prostrate before him on the ground. On the back of the charm, The Seal of God had been written in Greek along with the symbol of a key, to signify the key Moses had possessed that had unlocked God’s protection. So, too, would this amulet protect my brother in the blood-soaked future he was set upon.
Amram was delighted with the token. He claimed I had the ability to know his mind, for he had been praying for guidance and wisdom, the smallest portion of that which God had once granted to Solomon. I kept from him that i
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