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And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that he was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, … (Luke 7: 37-38)
It was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was
sick. (John 11:2)
Martha: I watched the young girl. Sandaled feet milled around me in the marketplace. They shuffled down the bricks of the walk beside the street noisy with the sounds of donkey hooves. Riders clicked their tongues to control the animals.
I stood alone.
A frontlet encircled her forehead. Her name embroidered on it announced her profession. Heavy gold rings weighted her hands. The rings glinted in the sunlight as she reached toward the men who passed. She smiled an invitation.
The slight frame of the tiny woman identified the little girl I scolded and raised. She lured the men with her beautiful brown--almost black--eyes, rimmed in curling lashes. Though I wasn‘t near enough to see them I remembered those lashes. The immodest garment showed her figure. She reached forward and took the arm of a man, and walked away.
I stepped toward her and stopped. The weight of my pain lay like a millstone on my heart. My sister, Mary, shamed her family.
Memory returned me to the times I combed her hair, now cut to the middle of her back. Lights jumped and glittered from jeweled braids. She wore no head cover.
I looked toward heaven, grateful my parents had long since joined their ancestors.
A scarf bound the heaviness of my curls against my neck as law and custom dictated. A thin blue veil atop the scarf trailed across my shoulders. As I walked away, I lifted my head and thrust my shoulders back. I greeted any woman who smiled. Many might shun me but no one will pity me.
Jemima walked past and smiled. “Shalom Martha, how beautiful the sky this evening.”
Bless dear Jemima, my husband’s wife. Her full lips always smiled. The hips on her wide body moved from side to side with each step. She towered over me as she passed.
I rushed toward home, hips motionless. and back straight. Lazarus will want supper soon..
Chapter 1: Mary Left
Martha: The day Mary left dawned with sunshine. Light shone on the white leaves and red centers of the lilies and red windflowers in the doorway. My mood lifted with the promise of a pleasant day.
Two days before, we celebrated Mary’s sixteenth birthday. Today at noon I sent her to the market. Each week, she shopped for the items we didn‘t grow or raise. When she left, she wore a scarf wrapped around her head. Coins hung from the edges to display her availability for betrothal. Despite her beauty, no one asked my husband, Hamel, for permission to take her as his wife.
Five hours later, I paced between the fire pit, and the courtyard entrance. Frantic, I gazed at the street, waiting for her to return. Sunset loomed. A respectable Jewish girl must come home before dark.
Hamel and Lazarus walked through the door together after a long work day.
I rushed at them. “Mary went to the market hours ago. She didn’t come home. What can we do?”
Lazarus put his arm across my shoulders. “She met a friend. You know how distracted she gets. Here, Hamel and I will bring her home.”
Hamel nodded and smiled. He took my hand and rubbed it. “Don’t worry. I’m sure we will find her.”
Both men bounded through the door to the street, nearly tripping one another. When they returned, several hours later, neither man had eaten since midday--and then only a snack.
Anxious to find Mary, they ignored their hunger. Hamel trudged through the entrance, followed by Lazarus. Lines marked my brother’s forehead, brows nearly meeting.
Hamel walked to the table. “No one knows where she went. I’m hungry. Please forgive me. I must eat.”
“Of course. Your food is ready.”
“No one has seen her. It’s dark. I pray she stayed with a friend. Her reputation already suffers.“ Lazarus fought tears. “We’ll rest and try again tomorrow.”
I stared. What does Lazarus mean? What don’t I know about Mary?
“We can’t see. Our torches flicker.” He flashed a painful smile. “I’m sure she will walk through the door at any moment, embarrassed at the concern she caused.”
Chapter 2: Lazarus and Hamel Search for Mary
Lazarus: I sat at the table with Hamel. Martha laid lentil soup and fish at my place, and I ate without noticing. My attention stayed on the entrance. Mary will walk through at any moment. I prayed in silence.
I slept little that night. In my thoughts wild animals tore my little sister apart or her body lay in the street, the victim of chariot wheels. When I comforted Martha with the comment that Mary met friends and forgot the time the words didn’t comfort me. She should have come home by now.
The next morning, before the sun came up, Hamel and I threw on our mantles, and hurried away from the house. I stopped everyone I met and casually asked if they saw Mary this morning. They mustn’t guess she hadn’t come home. Without exception, each said he had not. Sympathy showed in the eyes of many. Their troubled eyes raised my suspicions. I reached the market as merchants arranged their wares on the tables.
Storekeeper, Bela, shifted his gaze from the raisin cakes sitting on his table to the ground. “I saw her.” He moved the cakes, still unwilling to meet my eyes. “She stood with Gersham, and left with him.”
“No. It can’t be.” I stared at him, unable to believe his words.
“You asked. I told.” He turned his back, ending the conversation.
Surely Gersham kidnapped her. She didn’t go by choice.
I found Hamel, and we ran toward the house of harlots owned by LaRue, mother to Gersham. Gersham stood in the entrance. His two large friends hovered behind him, arms folded their huge chests, a human wall. Mary stood looking through their arms, eyes outlined with kohl, lips rouged bright red, and hair braided. She made no move or gesture to us, the innocent garb she usually wore gone. I stared to recognize her. My sister lurked in this harlot.
“Mary. Why are you doing this?“ Hamel’s livid face shone with perspiration. Air whistled between his teeth as he spoke, a nervous tic.
She turned, and walked in the house.
We stood stone-like as we watched her go. Grief and anger overwhelmed me. I longed to kill the man standing before me who defiled my sister.
Gersham gazed at us through slitted eyes, one blue, inherited from the Roman who visited his mother one day, the other hazel. The eyes told the story of the day on the road when big boys beat the smaller boy. One poked a sharp stick in his eye. The young devils punished him for his mother‘s profession. They only stabbed the circle of color, missing the black center. His vision survived, but the hazel eye didn’t return to blue. Gersham went nowhere alone after that. He found large young boys as troubled as he, and they became inseparable. Now they protected him from us.
Later, if we met Mary in public, we turned our backs to her. She slid past us with face turned toward the ground, or walked across the street.
A week after our encounter with Gersham, I came home to see Martha sitting on the bench in the courtyard, shoulders bent. Martha never rested during the day. Her hands always stirred pots and made bread. Her feet always ran to finish her work.
As I moved closer, I heard her sob. She dabbed at her eyes with a cloth.
“Martha! What happened?”
“Hamel gave me a bill of divorce.”
My chin dropped. “What?”
“He gave me a bill of divorce. The council will expel him as leader with a harlot in the family, so he separated himself from the family.”
“I can’t let this happen.” I determined to find Hamel. “He will listen to me.”
Martha lowered her crumpled cloth. Red eyes scanned my face. As rage engulfed me, her eyes widened.
I heard the fright in Martha’s voice as I charged through the door. “Lazarus, he treated you as his son.”
Chapter 3: Remembering The Early Days
Martha: As children, our home rang with laughter. My parents loved us. But just before my twelfth birthday, Mother lay in bed for the seventh day. I never saw her in bed until then. She always worked past our bedtime and rose before us. I couldn’t prove she slept. My stomach ached when I imagined my beloved mother unable to rise. Cursed stomach. Must it react to every worry?
Sunlight warmed the bench where I sat as I played with my friend, Jasmina, on the roof. I patted a mud patty in the shape of a fish, and laid it on the stone I used for my fire pit. Invisible bread and lentil soup cooked.
Mother cooked lentil soup daily. The scent welcomed everyone who entered. Now her deep fire pit stood unused, covered by a square of oiled canvas. No fragrance of soup filled the air. Neighbors brought dinner, but no one cooked as well as my mother.
Jasmina, tireless, animated, jumped to her feet. “Prissy, Junia! Stop arguing or I will send you to bed.” Her pretend children obeyed without hesitation.
Dissatisfied with her too-good ghost children, she ran to Mary as she played. “Come, be my little girl, Mary.”
Mary waved her away, rapt in her game. She took the sewing bag Mother used and wrapped fabric around herself, gazing in Mother’s mirror in admiration. I imagined her scolding Mary if she knew. The folded cloth she wove lay ready for the seller, Navid, to add to his table at the market.
Momma spent hours teaching me to wind the thread. My small fingers didn’t pull the fine strands to match her work. “You’ll get better. You will become a fine weaver.”
I did get better. I hope she knew.
The faint mooing and baaing of calves and sheep rose from the animal pen in the courtyard below.
My tiny, usually energetic, mother lay sick. She developed a cough, and caught her breath as she struggled to breathe. Her legs no longer held her. The physician’s helper guarded her from us, forbidden to enter her room.
Bobeshi (grandmother) stayed with us to help, but she complained of maladies, proudly describing each ache. “Wait until you get old. Every bone will hurt.” She planned to end her visit soon.
As Jasmina and I played, I saw Father climbing the stairs. He dragged himself toward us bent as though pulling a boulder on a rope tied to his back. My stomach knotted. He looked weary, the skin under his eyes dark, his thin body skeletal. Lazarus trailed him.
Unease filled me. Why did Father take Lazarus from school before the end of his classes?
Father adored Mother. He gave her whatever she wanted, though she didn’t ask for much. A small man, Father’s smile, visible through his beard, revealed his love for us.
“My beautiful Martha. Soon no one will recognize you. They will mistake you for your mother.” His prejudiced eyes didn’t realize I resembled him. Mary’s nose copied Mother. My nose reflected a smaller version of his. People called our twin bumps regal.
“Lazarus will surpass me as a wheel-maker. You did a perfect wheel today, son. But what donkey can carry such a large chariot? We will work on getting the size right tomorrow. I should not leave you alone. I expect too much.”
“Mary, my baby. Come sit on my knee.”
Watching this troubled man now walking toward us, I returned to the moment, my daydreams of the past gone.
“Jasmina, go home now. Martha will play with you later.” Father’s hand guided her toward the steps. Jasmina bounced on each one.
Father told us to sit on the bench, and we took our places. “Your mother sleeps with her ancestors.”
“What do you mean?“ Mary asked.
“Your mother died. She’s gone.” He said nothing else. He turned and descended the stairs to the covered tent in the courtyard where he kept the materials for his wheels.
We sat dumbfounded.
Only six, my little sister wailed. “I want my momma.“ She clung to my waist. I towered over the others as the firstborn. Lazarus, ten, put his arms around us. I patted them, but my mind felt numb. How could I comfort her and Lazarus when every sense cried out, “I want my momma.”
I never felt more alone. We cried huddled together, no one to comfort us. What did this mean to us?
Without mother, who will care for us?
Chapter 4: Mother’s Burial
Martha: Mother’s sisters prepared her for burial in the family tomb. They dressed her in an embroidered tunic made from fabric she wove. The women hurried to anoint her with perfumes. She must enter the tomb the same or the following day before the odor made their jobs vile. To stay undefiled, they wore cloth sacks tied around their hands.
Father and her brothers carried her bier to the tomb outside the city, and placed it on a stone shelf inside. The bones of her family lay piled against the wall. We needed no paid wailers. Those who loved mother, and they included everyone who met her, wailed for hours.
I sobbed aloud, mouth open. Only Lydia, Jasmina’s mother, thought of the children. She hugged me. Strong arms drew me close to her. Her lined, tan face carried the signs of her grief, skin blotched from crying. Mary came to us, and Lydia pulled her into our circle. She reached for Lazarus, but he ran away.
Lydia played with Mother as a child, and they remained friends through the years. Mother and she often met in one of their homes to embroider or cut vegetables from a pan on her lap. They chatted while Jasmina and I sat at their feet, or played. Their adult concerns fascinated us.
On this somber day, the Rabbi lit candles and spoke of memories of Mother, Father and his helpers placed a stone in the opening as we gathered around the vault. Lazarus stood behind us.
When the men pulled the huge stone over the opening of the tomb, my mother forever left us. Momma, please don‘t go. I can’t live without you.
I ate, slept, and worked as though pulled by puppet strings. I detested life, desiring its end. Many nights I didn’t fall asleep as much as I passed out after crying in my bed covers for hours. Months later I returned to life, though I carried my mother’s memory with me. Our father moved as a man sleepwalking. He built wheels day and night.
Later, our Bobeshi told us God took Mother. I didn’t understand a God who robbed us of our mother when we needed her. The subject overwhelmed my Bobeshi. How can you make a child understand death?
After Mother died, the village children avoided us for several months. Their parents feared they might catch her disease. None of us caught it. No one knew what disease she had or if we could contract it. Our Bobeshi, despite her complaints, remained well.
Chapter 5: Growing Up With Hadas
Martha: I needn’t have worried about who would care for us. I did.
Father hired Hadas, a woman from the village. She moved in within days of Mother’s burial. Father retained her to tend us, but paid no attention to her. This stranger in my house insulted me. Her vulture’s nose made a roof over her slit of a mouth, downcast and lipless.
Scrawny claw-like fingers shook in my face when I didn’t move quickly enough. “Martha, can’t you do that faster? What a trial you are to me.”
She gazed at us through close-placed and crossed eyes. My anger at her increased because of her inability to be Mother.
She expected children to act as adults and had no patience if they didn’t. “Can’t you do anything right? Why do you cry? Are you a child?“
Only Lazarus escaped her complaints. She loved the little boy on sight. He never displeased her.
Once, he bounded in the house holding a beehive. “Hadas. I bring honey for dinner,” so pleased with himself for bringing her a gift.
The problem? Bees flew out. One flew in her tunic. We noted the buzz from inside the folds and fought laughter as she screamed, and slapped her chest. She ran and jumped across the room. We later called it her dance of the bees. The buzzing stopped, a dead bee at her feet.
Father heard the scream, and raced to the roof to see Hadas in her frenzy. He watched, puzzled. Taking in the scene, he understood. “Get rid of that thing. Throw it in the pond.” The bees followed the hive. As though charmed, Lazarus suffered no stings and no punishment.
When he returned, Father scolded him. “Lazarus, honey doesn‘t come to us until the beekeeper takes it from the hive.” His pursed lips hinted that the man struggled against a rare smile. “Don’t bring a beehive in again.”
I grabbed Mary as Jasmina and I raced outside to laugh unnoticed. Mary didn’t understand. But Jasmina and I laughed for days each time we remembered the dance of the bees.
Hadas forgave Lazarus as everyone forgave the sweet-faced little boy. I sometimes wondered if his innocent “mistakes” didn’t hide a naughty spirit. A beehive?
Jasmina came as often as Hadas allowed. I told her how much I missed Mother, and of my loneliness without Father. “He never eats with us or teases us.”
Jasmina possessed no special wisdom. Her opinions remained unformed. But she let me talk. We cried together. “Oh Martha. I’m so sorry.”
Lydia invited Lazarus, Mary, and me to visit several times a week. Lydia used food to heal. I cried and she let me talk. “Here. Eat these date cakes with a pot of goats milk. Do you want bread and cheese?” Those foods still comfort me. I don’t understand why my figure remained thin.
Hadas did nothing.
“Martha, sweep the floor while I rest. I’m tired from my hard work.” Her voice rose in a whine.
What work? Did she work from her bed?
“Martha, stir the pot. I’m unwell.”
“Martha, press the olives for olive oil. I will rest.” She flopped on her bed mat.
Mary hid on the roof or in the garden. Lazarus continued to liven our days.
I stirred lentil stew one day as he walked in with a tiny snake in his tunic. Since Eden, snakes existed as an enemy of man, but, like many little boys, Lazarus did not fear them. He stood jabbering to Hadas who lay on her bed.
“May I have that bread in the bowl? I found a bird outside. Look, I found this tiny thing. It wiggles and the girls run away from me.” A tiny head crawled out of his tunic and stared face to face with her.
“Lazarus, get rid of that thing.“ She shot off the bed and disappeared out the door. Lazarus, still chattering, followed her. Would she return to this house of wild beasts?
Father lectured Lazarus. “Lazarus, you have no sense. You know a snake when you see it. Leave snakes outside.” His stern expression looked forced.
Hadas complained to Father each day. “These children cause me work and exhaust me. They don’t help me.” With flirtatious unlashed eyes, bony arms pulled the nearest child to her in a rough hug. “But I love them.”
Each evening before bed, Father called us together. “Stop your laziness and trouble to Hadas. Do your work or I will punish you.”
Father accused me of laziness after I cleaned his house, and made his dinner. I didn’t realize the value of those years. I learned to make a home. But I fought resentment. “Unfair.”
Father never punished me. Apart from these lectures, he never spoke to us. Lazarus told me that Father instructed him in wheel making with short statements. Unlike the father who guided him when Mother lived, he expected Lazarus to understand after one lesson. Lazarus learned to listen.
I longed for the father who played and teased as he directed our chores. I can’t say whether I missed Father or Mother more.
Father sent Hadas back to her mother on my fourteenth birthday. Many girls married at fourteen. He considered me a woman ready for the responsibilities of a home. I tried not to show my joy as I carried Hadas’ bags to her donkey.
“I will miss you so much.” Nose dripping, she grabbed the three of us in an awkward hug. Her sobbing rent the air as the donkey carried her away.
Later, when we saw her, she ran toward us and gathered us in her skinny arms. “I miss you so much. Ask your father to hire me again. Remember our fun?” Despite my pity for her, I didn‘t want her to return.
After one of these meetings Lazarus said, “Let’s ask father to hire her. I’ll find a beehive.”
“If you do I will add pounded eggshells to your bread.”
“Just spread goat cheese with garlic on the top.” He grinned. “I’ll enjoy the crunch.”
Mary’s innocent face gazed at us. “I don’t want eggshells.”
I patted her head. “Lazarus will get all of them.”
At thirteen, Jasmina abandoned the dirty play clothes she wore when she played with Abdiel. Instead, she wore colorful tunics. Abdiel and I shared the honor of “best friend.” They spent hours running, and climbing trees together. Abdiel endured the teasing of the other boys because he played with a girl two years younger.
When we left the house, we wore a scarf with coins hanging around the edges to show our availability for betrothal. We wore no veils. Young men understood they might ask our fathers for us. The coins displayed our wealth and dowry.
After Hadas left, I took care of the family, free from the extra work she caused. But Father never noticed the polish on the floors. The polish came from mornings I spent on my knees scrubbing, the mud floors hardened to stone. The evening meal surpassed those made by older women.
He lived in his world, I suppose, of memories.
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