The women who met in the secluded sacred grove became sisters joined by blood. The bond they formed during the dark time was deeper and more intense than any other in their lives. Here they were equals. For a few days each month, they were not subject to the wiles of their men and were free from the demands of their children. As Miri grew older, her periods became synchronized with the rhythm of the women she shared the dark time with. They all sensed the quickening of the blood within themselves. They passed on the streets of the village, feeling the growing strength in each other. As the dark time approached, they exchanged knowing looks as the quickening of their bodies made itself felt. They were drawn closer to each other and the circle to which they belonged drew tighter and tighter, isolating them from the men of the village and the others who did not participate in the ancient rites.
At night they lay on the rooftops staring at the waning moon, knowing that the others were doing the same. Their thoughts slowly coalesced and they all focussed on the growing power within them. It made them strong. It made them feared. It made them dangerous. As the moon shrank, fear and suspicion grew among those who did not share in the secret rites upon the hillside. Even those who opposed the old ways and feared Yahweh, held their tongues for they also feared the power of the women who called on the goddess under the deep night sky. The village held its breath as the moon disappeared, and its women with it. It was at this time that each soul of the community clung as dearly to its chosen god and protector as it ever did. Amulets were kept closest to the breast, and phylacteries grew from foreheads and wrists where none had been even on the Sabbath. It was a time for fear for everyone.
All but the coven which met in the woods.
To the women, though, the dark time was a time of rest and renewal. The circle grew closer and their sharing of their souls brought them an inner peace. As they each opened themselves to the True Soul of the Goddess, their awareness expanded outward from the circle as a great crystal globe, a sphere ever expanding beyond the orbit of the Sun, beyond the wandering planets, beyond the stars, beyond the realms of the gods. They became as One with Astarte, the Great Queen of Heaven and their Soul shone as the Sun and all the other celestial bodies gathered into one. Expanding, the sphere of their consciousness spread beyond All until the Cosmos shrank to a pinprick of light, twinkled, then finally winked out into an all consuming velvet blackness.
A vast deep nothingness which was both infinite and absolute.
It was from that place of everywhere and nowhere, that time of all time and none, the realm of the One Soul and All Souls, where all was familiar and the mysteries were revealed.
Miri awoke languidly. Her face was buried in soft fur and her whole body vibrated with a deep distant purring. She smiled as she ran her fingers through the fur, and suddenly her eyes snapped open, for she knew she had fallen asleep wrapped in her wool robe!
She sat up and stared at her bed. She gasped as she realized she had been sleeping on the warm body of a lioness who now stared at her with half closed eyes. At Miri’s movements the yellow eyes came to life and burned with passion, and a deep gutteral growl rumbled from within the cavernous chest of the wild beast.
“Do not be afraid,” said the lioness, “I will not harm you!”
Miri became aware of the clearing about them, and realized she was still in the sacred grove where she had fallen asleep, but now the glade was flooded by the bright burning rays of Shammash the Sun. Where the sleeping forms of the other women had lain were now the tawny bodies of a pride of lionesses. Scattered between the sleeping cats were several cubs of varying ages and both sexes from small unweaned kittens to half-grown yearlings. The altar, the stones and all the other aspects within the grove had remained but were changed. The standing stones at the edge of the clearing were now all capped with lintel stones and the trees of the grove were no longer olives, but acacias, and beyond the trees lay a vast unbroken plain. Her cloak had disappeared, and she was dressed in a short one piece linen shift. She felt something poking into her back and she reached behind her. Her hand wrapped around a stick. She craned her neck around, pulling at her dress and saw the Wand of Ishtar sticking out from a pocket sewn into the back of her tunic.
Miri looked back at the lioness.
“Why am I here?” she asked.
“You have passed through the Lion Gate, the gate which faces the burning rays of the rising Sun, the Gate which dispels the mist of night. Each gate must be passed to gain the next of the seven mei.”
“Why do I need the mei?” asked Miri.
The lioness stood up and shook her head. “That is for you to discover, little Mistress!”
Miri cocked her head and narrowed her eyes, and stared at the lioness.
“Mistress,” replied the lioness.
Miri hugged the great carnivore and kissed her and laughed. “I sense an adventure! You have come to aid me in my quest!”
“There are some things I may not be able to do for you, Mistress. I-”
A loud roar echoed in the circle and the lionesses all sprang to their feet. Miri whirled about. A huge maned lion stood at the edge of the circle. He was old, his muzzle flecked with grey. He roared and advanced growling toward Miri.
Only half his size, Ninshibur slid between Miri and the lion, and growled back at the old male. As the two cats faced each other, the lion lashed out. Ninshibur and the male traded a mad flurry of blows, and in their fury, knocked Miri to the ground. The other lionesses and their offspring scattered, snarling at the two combatants. The lion was stronger than Ninshibur and backed her against a stone pillar.
Miri shook her head groggily. Her head and body ached and she reached up to to touch her forehead. A sharp pain stabbed her side. She had been slashed by the lion’s claws and was bleeding from an open wound in her chest. Out of the corner of her eye, a flash of movement. Another large male was slinking into the clearing. Then another. And another. The grizzled male roared and turned to face the three intruders, then without hesitation charged fiercely into the largest of the newcomers. In panic, Miri scrambled for cover under the altar. A small cub raced under the stones behind her and she instinctively whisked it from its feet and clutched the tiny cub to her breast. A second cub scrambled for cover under her skirt. Terrified, the three of them cringed under the altar. The ground vibrated with the blows of the battling lions. The air twisted and turned with the terrible snarls and roars of the combatants, and her mouth and nose filled with the taste and smell of blood, fur and dust. Miri screamed as a huge tawny feline body smashed against an altar pedestal and jarred the altar stone over her head. As she instinctively reached up to steady the stone although it was far too massive for her to control and water spilled over her from a cup which fell to the ground from its perch on the altar stone. Suddenly the roaring stopped and the dust slowly settled and drifted to the ground. The huge old lion lifeless a few arms’ length from her.
One of the intruders held the dead male in his jaws by the neck. A large gash across the old male’s abdomen glistened, his entrails exposed to the sun. The victor shook the lifeless lion, then let go of the carcass and roared in triumph. Then the males pounced upon the cubs one by one, snapping each of their small necks with a single bite. A lioness stood between them and two yearlings, but they charged her and she backed away, and with squeals of terror and a struggle that lasted for only the briefest moment the yearlings were killed.
The lust for killing did not die immediately with the last of the cubs. The three turned on each other and traded a flurry of blows to settle the hierarchy between them. Their battle rage diminished quickly. They calmed down, licked each other, and then turned to face the females crouched together. Ninshibur walked out from the pride and rubbed against the largest of the victors.
Holding the two babies in her arms, Miri slowly backed out from the altar, keeping it between her and the lions. Ninshibur and the male rubbed against each other. The male bit Ninshibur roughly by the neck, holding the skin of her shoulders in his mouth. Both cats growled as the male mounted the great lioness. Miri stared in fascination as the two cats mated.
Someone shook Miri’s shoulder.
Miri opened her eyes groggily. “Yohanna!” she cried in delight, but the tears in Yohanna’s eyes caused Miri’s heart to sink. “What’s wrong?”
“David’s been hurt! You have to come back and help me!”
Miri sat up quickly. The other women gathered around Yohanna and offered their help. Within seconds, all had packed their belongings and were ready to return to the village.
“Yohanna, you go first! Take Miri with you!” said Naomi, “I will take the back road. Salome, wait here with Ester and Edna, then leave after you think I have had enough time to reach my house-”
“I- I cannot go back!” said Edna, “Mordecai will not touch me or allow me to touch anything in the house until the purification time has past!”
Ester hugged her sister-in-law sympathetically.
“Then you two stay here,” said Yohanna, “You must all stay! There are more than enough women in the village to help me! You can come after the dark time has past! I will need all your energy! Stay here please! David loves Miri. She will be of greater help than all of you combined!”
After a bevy of hugs, Miri and Yohanna departed. They walked briskly through the grove. Miri had trouble keeping up to Yohanna. She could feel the blood trickle down her legs. “Yohanna,” she called weakly.
Yohanna stopped and turned to face Miri.
“What?” she asked tersely.
“I-” Miri started, “I’m bleeding!”
“Oh Mother!” said Yohanna, “How could I have forgotten!” Yohanna bent down and tore a strip of cloth from the hem of her skirt, and as she knelt before Miri, she ripped it in half with her teeth.
“Hold this!” she demanded.
Miri stood holding one strip while Yohanna rolled up the other. Quickly she pushed the roll inside Miri’s thighs and took the second strip of cloth. She deftly slipped it between Miri’s legs and around her waist, then cinched it tight and tied it quickly, while Miri swayed helplessly to Yohanna’s movements.
“How’s that?” she asked Miri.
“I feel like a donkey!” said Miri.
“It’ll do for now!”
Yohanna took Miri’s hand and led her down toward Sychar.
“What’s going on?” Miri asked Yohanna nervously, “What has happened?”
Yohanna seemed not to hear her and strode purposefully onward. “David has been hurt! We have to leave the village!”
Heads peered furtively from doorways then vanished quickly behind closed shutters. as Miri and Yohanna passed the first few houses. They were met halfway through the village by another woman.
“Elias is with him.” she said excitedly, “We have sent for another holy man, but I fear he will not get here in time!”
Yohanna set her mouth grimly and ignored the woman beside her and strode onward. Both Miri and the woman had difficulty in keeping up to the pace Yohanna set. Miri gamely tried her best even though her legs ached terribly from the walk.
At last they reached the gateway to their house. Yohanna released Miri from her grip and swiftly crossed the courtyard filled with neighbours, and disappeared into the cool darkness of the house. Hesitantly, Miri followed in Yohanna’s footsteps. She gaped in amazement as her neighbours carried off furniture and bricabrac from the house. In their midst, Martha stood looking forlornly about her, silent tears streaking down her cheeks. Silent sobs and staccato intakes of breath shaking her body, Sister Miriam clung, desperately anchored, to Martha’s side to prevent being lost in the mad sea of confusion which swirled about them. Martha looked forlornly about her, then saw Miri. Miri opened her arms and Martha and Sister Miriam rushed to her and she wrapped her arms around them both.
“There! There!” Miri whispered to them, “It’s all right! It’s all right!”
The first words struck her as hollow, but as she repeated them over and over, she found solace in the simple mantra, comforted by the words as much as the two children who clung tightly to her.
Yohanna and Silas were talking in the next room, but she could not make out what they were saying. Suddenly their voices raised in argument.
“What?” screamed Yohanna.
Elias replied, but his voice was muffled.
“Get out!” screamed Yohanna. The three children held their breath and their sobbing stopped as they all stared at the entrance to the sleeping chamber. Elias backed out of the room. The old man paused in the doorway holding the drapery to one side. He trembled in anger.
“You will regret this, Yohanna! The dark blood will kill him! A woman should not touch him until she is cleansed! You will bring a curse down on David! Please-”
“Get out, Elias! Whomever I wish will tend David!” screamed Yohanna, “Get out, and stay out!”
Elias sighed in disgust and stormed out through the front entrance with as much indignation his hurt pride could muster. Miri, Martha and Sister Miriam, struck dumb by the angry outburst stared after Elias, then turned their faces to Yohanna.
“Miriam!” shouted Yohanna, “Miriam, go to the well and fetch some water! Take Martha and Sister Miriam with you! See that they stay away from the edge!”
Salome appeared in the doorway beside Miri, a basket of food in her arms. She smiled sympathetically at Miri.
“I’ll go with you!” she said, setting her basket on the floor. “We can all go fetch the water!”
Miri crossed the floor to the cooking area and lifted an amphora to her shoulder.
Salome gathered Sister Miriam in her arms and wiped her face with the edge of her shawl. “Are you hungry?” she asked Sister Miriam who nodded.
“Well, let’s see what we have in here!” Salome said, digging into the reed basket. She pulled up a few figs and put them in Sister Miriam’s eager hands.
“Come!” said Miri and led the others through the door.
“Salome, what’s going on?” Miri asked her anxiously as they passed through the courtyard to the street.
“There is trouble brewing!” said Salome, “Big trouble! I heard a tax collector was killed on the road to Sepphoris!”
“Does it have anything to do with David?” asked Miri nervously.
Salome arched her eyebrows, but said nothing.
“O Mother!” sighed Miri, “I hope not!”
They slipped out onto the street, and walked toward the well. The eyes of the village followed them through the town and filled Miri with a sense of foreboding.
Her mind had been a jumble all morning since she had awoken. The ordered world of her childhood had been ripped apart and she stood on the edge the Abyss and stared into the face of Chaos. A wave of vertigo overwhelmed her and she stopped and closed her eyes to regain her equilibrium.
“Miri!” Martha called anxiously and gently touched Miri’s shoulder.
Miri opened her eyes and blinked at Martha. She looked about her, surprised that the world had not changed; she had expected the sky to be purple and the trees red, filled with creatures she no longer knew. But the road she knew still led to the well, and Martha stood patiently beside her. Miri began to sob.
Salome slipped the water jar from Miri’s arms and let it drop to the ground, then wrapped her arms around Miri’s shaking body, and pulled her into her embrace. For an eternity, they stood holding each other. Slowly, Salome’s grip steadied Miri, and her friend’s strength filled her with warmth. Energy seeped back into her arms and legs, and her knees and elbows straightened.
“Thank you,” she whispered to Salome. “Thank you.”
Salome smiled but said nothing. Martha bent and picked up the jar, and the four girls continued their journey.
As they approached the well, Miri stared up at Mount Gerizim and worried about what had happened to David. The sun was dipping down toward the edge of the hills.
When they arrived, an old woman in black robes sat on the low wall around the well. In her lap was a small reed basket. Her face was hidden deep within the shawl draped over her head.
“What brings you to the well at this hour, child?” the woman asked Miri.
“I must fetch water for my sister,” answered Miri. Martha set the jar on the ground and began to tie the draw string to the handles.
“For what reason?” asked the crone.
“She asked me,” replied Miri simply.
“Her brother-in-law is hurt,” interjected Salome. She and Martha lowered the amphora into the well. Salome looked quizzically at the crone.
“Who are you?” Martha asked.
“Mermaat!” whispered Miri.
The old woman lowered her hood. “I am who I am, child; my name is not important.”
The jar dipped below the surface of the water and Salome and Martha pulled on the rope, hauling hand over hand to raise the jar.
“You are worried,” commented Mermaat to Miri.
“Her brother-in-law is hurt!” said Salome defensively, “Of course she is worried!”
“I am talking to Miriam, Salome!” said Mermaat curtly.
The Salome and Martha stared at each other in shock.
“How do you know my name?” demanded Salome.
“It is not important!” said the crone. “I am here to help you!”
Salome looked skeptically at Miri.
The old woman stood up and grasped Miri’s elbow. “You must come with me!” she whispered. “If you wish to save your sister’s husband, you must do as I say!”
Miri looked at Salome. “Go! Take the water back to Yohanna! I shall return later!”
Salome reluctantly shouldered the water jar and she and Martha turned toward the village. They looked back.
“It’s alright!” said Miri. Salome, Martha and Eli continued toward the village.
Miri turned to the old woman.
“What do you want me to do?”
By evening, David and Yohanna’s house was in a shambles. Silas and several men sat around an open fire on a large standing stone set in the courtyard. They argued in whispers. The kitchen and the inner rooms were filled with women preparing food. The smoke and smell of purifying incense permeated the house and its environs. Carrying a small reed basket, Miri squeezed past neighbours in the doorway. She was tired and her back and legs ached. She smiled weakly as Salome approached her.
“Where have you been?” Salome demanded impatiently, “I was scared to death the old woman had eaten you! What’s in that basket?”
“I have gathered some herbs,” said Miri. “There is some willow bark to bring down fever and some to quell bleeding. I must make a tea of these, and I have some roots to make a poultice! Is there hot water?”
“Yes, of course,” said Salome, “But-”
“Bring it to me!”
Salome weaved toward the oven.
“And bring a cup!”
Miri pushed through the opening to the bedchamber.
Yohanna and Naomi turned. Their eyes were filled with fear and pain and hopelessness.
“Miriam, where have you been?” asked Yohanna.
“There is no time!” said Miri. Salome appeared at the doorway with a bowl of steaming hot water and Miri laid out her herbs on the reed mat before the sleeping platform. She closed her eyes, recalling the words the old woman had told her, and prayed to the Goddess for her aid. Salome placed the hot water beside Miri and handed her a cup. Yohanna and Naomi exchanged glances as Miri dipped the cup into the water. She rubbed the two herbs, now quite dry, together, one to stop the fever, the other to stop the bleeding. As the pieces fell from her hands into the cup, Miri called out.
“Holy Astarte, Queen of Heaven, blessed art thou amongst all women.”
Naomi, Salome and Yohanna answered with hushed voices.
“Blessed are your children for we are the fruit of thy womb.”
Beyond the bed chamber a hush spread at the sound of the chanting voices emanating from the inner room. Hands reached to touch amulets hidden within robes.
“Holy Mother, Queen of Heaven, blessed art thou amongst all women.“ called Miri clearly, “I beseech thy blessing in this, my hour of need.”
The reply came from several hushed voices, both male and female, “Holy Mother, First Daughter of the Moon, blessed art thou amongst all women!”
“Give me this day the milk of thy Breast and the warmth of thy lap.” chanted Miri as she stirred the tea she had prepared with her finger.
Voices in the darkness, both within and without returned her prayer, “And protect us from evil until we return to thy womb.”
As Miri lifted the cup to David’s lips, Naomi took up the prayer. Little by little she poured the liquid into David’s mouth. Yohanna wiped away the tea which dripped into David’s beard. The house had transformed to a temple. Incense wafted through the rooms and mingled with the prayers of the village and rose up through the roof to the heavens.
Far below, intoning supplications to Astarte, men sacrificed David’s finest lamb, the first of the first born, unblemished, slicing its neck with an ancient flint knife and poured it upon the ground before the fire in the standing stone in the centre of the courtyard. The lamb was eviscerated, the entrails spilled out into the fire. The smell of roasting flesh rose to mix with the incense. All the while, the villagers prayed to Astarte, the ancient goddess the Babylonians called Ishtar, the same goddess the Sumerians called Inanna, the sister of Ausar to whom the Egyptians prayed as Au Set.
Miri pounded the roots feverishly with mortar and pestle, mixing in a little water, and a little lamb’s blood one of the women had brought to her from the courtyard. Yohanna cleansed the wound in David’s side with steaming hot water and vinegar wine. Her hands cleansed with water Naomi took a bone needle and thread and sewed the wound closed. Miri wiped the paste she had prepared from the root and wiped it on the wound. The women bound a strip of clean white linen cloth around David’s abdomen and tied it tightly.
Naomi and Salome retired to the outer rooms. Yohanna and Miri were alone with David, Yohanna at his side, and Miri kneeling at his feet. Although the prayers continued in the house and the courtyard, Miri and Yohanna sat in silent vigil. Miri felt suddenly very tired and she rested her arm on the sleeping platform. gradually she drifted off to sleep, her thoughts and dreams mingling with the sound of prayers to the Mother Goddess.
Instantly, Miri turned her face to her sister.
“The child is coming!” whispered Yohanna excitedly. Her hands slid over her stomach, then held out a hand to Miri. “Help me!”
Miri moved to Yohanna’s side. They crouched on the ground, Miri slid in behind Yohanna to support her. She slipped her arms under Yohanna’s and held her in a tight embrace. Yohanna grunted again and tensed. Miri felt the tightening of her sister’s muscles flow into her own body.
“I’m with you, Yohanna!” she whispered in Yohanna’s ear.
Yohanna relaxed and pulled Miri’s hands around her so their hands clasped above her breasts.
“Hold me tight!” Yohanna demanded, then gasped. “O Mother!” she cried in pain as the grip of her contraction took hold of her. It had caught her unaware, but the gasp was her acknowledgement that the labour had begun. The child turned within her. Her body tensed on its own and she gasped at the power of the next contraction. He’s coming! It’s a boy!
Miri frowned as she realized she had shared Yohanna’s thoughts. It’s a boy! She had heard the thought as clearly as though Yohanna had spoken to her! She looked at Salome for help, for confirmation, but Salome was occupied with dabbing Yohanna’s temple with a damp linen cloth.
At that moment, Naomi entered the room. “O Lord!” she cried out as she took in the scene before her. She rushed to Yohanna, kneeling between the pregnant woman’s wide open legs. She reached under Yohanna’s skirt. “O My!” she said.
Yohanna tensed again and groaned.
“Push!” urged Naomi, “Your body is an open vessel! Breath in through your mouth and out through your vulva! In through your mouth! Out through your vulva! Free the child within you!”
Yohanna cried out. and sucked air in through her clenched teeth. Sweat beaded on her skin. Her body tensed and her hands gripped Miri’s with an iron grip. Miri winced at the pain, but held Yohanna tighter.
“That’s it!” urged Naomi, “Breath in through the mouth; out through the vulva! Yes!”
Yohanna cried in short bursts, crying “O, O my inside!” The cry echoed in Miri’s head.
“Push!” called Naomi.
Yohanna screamed and a bright white light burst in both their heads. Miri could feel the child passing through her own body, she and Yohanna were of one body. She could feel the child passing from her. Dragging a long drawn out wail from her mother, the child entered the world.
Naomi cried in delight. “It’s a boy!” She gathered the babe in a clean linen cloth, and passed the baby boy to Yohanna. The child stared up at his mother, at his aunt Miri, at Salome and the room filled with peaceful contentment. Tears filled Yohanna’s eyes.
“Thank you,” she whispered, “O, thank you!”
She hugged the baby close.
Miri squeezed Yohanna tightly. “Yohanna, he’s beautiful!”
Silas burst into the room. “Yohanna, you must leave! Herod’s men are on the road!”
Yohanna’s head dropped back onto Miri. “O no! No!”
Four of the village men crowded into the bedchamber.
They carried two poles which they began lashing onto the reed mat beneath David’s unconscious body.
“She cannot move yet!” protested Naomi, “She has not passed the afterbirth!”
“I am sorry,” said Silas compassionately, “But they will come here first looking for David! They know it was him who slew the tax collector!”
“What?” cried Miri incredulously, “But that is not possible! David would not kill someone!”
“I was there!” said Silas. “There is no time to speak of it now! You must gather as much food as you can. We will prepare a bier to carry Yohanna. You must all flee to the caves until the soldiers have gone!”
Miri hugged Yohanna and the new child. “It will be alright!” whispered Miri. She pulled away to prepare for the exodus, but Yohanna clutched her tightly. “Look after the children. Do not let Sister Miriam and Martha out of your sight!”
Outside the bedchamber, the house and courtyard were alive as people moved back and forth; neighbours were removing furniture and valuables from the house for safekeeping. She found Sister Miriam and Martha in each other’s arms in a corner of the kitchen. She hugged them both. “Martha, we must leave!”
“Why?” asked Martha, “This is our house! Why should we leave?”
“Something bad has happened, and there are some soldiers coming here to find us!”
“Why?” asked Martha. “We have done nothing wrong!” Tears filled her eyes, but her small face was filled with indignation. Miri felt overwhelmed by the events unfolding around her, and her knees suddenly folded beneath her.
Salome appeared at Miri’s side, and held her up.
“I’m coming with you!” she said, “You must hold on!”
“No!” protested Miri, “You cannot put yourself at risk for us!”
“I have my father’s permission and my mother’s blessing! Yohanna is nursing a new born. David has not returned to us yet. You are a strong-willed girl, Miri, but you are still too young for this much reponsibility! You need my help!”
“Yes!” admitted Miri, “Yes, I do!”
As Miri stepped out with Martha and Sister Miriam and set foot in the courtyard, Naomi pushed a bundle into Miri’s arms “There are lentils, flour and roasted flesh from the sacrifice. Dried fruit. A few herbs and spices. Everyone has given a little something. Silas has loaded your donkeys and prepared a travelling bier for both David and Yohanna. Pack them on the animals. Yohanna may be able to walk soon, but for now you must lead them and, Martha and Sister Miriam must herd the sheep.”
“Salome is going with me!”
As she spoke the words, Salome appeared with a bundle of her own.
“You girls be careful! Keep your eyes on the children in the dark! Watch them like a hawk!”
“I will lead the donkeys!” declared Salome. She turned to the men tightening the harnesses “David first, then Yohanna! Here!” She bent over the unconscious David strapped on the bier behind the lead animal, securing the wollen robe wrapped around him.
“Make way! Make way quickly!” Silas bellowed over the hubub of voices. Raised above their heads was Yohanna and her baby on another bier.
“Miri!” cried Yohanna, her voice tinged with panic.
“Here! Here I am!” called Miri.
“The children! You have the children?”
“Mama!” shouted Sister Miriam in her high pitched voice. The little girl squeezed through the throng to her mother’s side as her bier was laid down on the frame strapped to the second donkey. She wrapped her little arms around Yohanna’s neck.
“Be brave!” said Yohanna to her.
“Is that my new brother?” asked Sister Miriam, looking down at the tiny face peering at her from within the swaddling bundle in her mother’ arms.
“Yes!” said Yohanna proudly, “She is!”
“It is time!” said Silas.
As if by magic, most of the people had disappeared from the house and courtyard. One man stood on watch at the gate, another had brought the sheep from the corral. Sister Miriam was exhausted, her eyes fluttering with effort to stay awake. Miri picked her up and placed her gently onto the bier with Yohanna.
“She is very tired!” Miri said softly to Yohanna.
Sister Miriam snuggled into the curve of her mothers hips and her eyes closed contentedly.
At the sound of regular clinking of metal they all froze.
“They are here!” Silas whispered. “We must create a diversion! He unslung a wineskin from a hook on the wall. He sprinkled some on his head and took a quick gulp. “Nathan, come here!” he motioned to the man by the sheep. As Nathan joined him, Silas sprinkled wine on him as well, and handed Nathan a second wineskin.
“Follow me!” he said to his compatriot.
They moved swiftly to the gate and peered out briefly and slipped through the gateway. Once outside the compound, Silas began to weave like a drunken man, and began to sing a rousing hora. He slurred the words, and to all intents and purposes appeared the drunken sot. Nathan followed his lead, and hesitantly tried to imitate his friend. They drank of the wineskins and staggered down the main street of the town weaving toward the disciplined line of approaching soldiers. Their spears came down to a ready position pointing outward instead of up.
Inside the courtyard the refugees were ready to flee. The man at the gate peered throught he narrow gap between the gate and the entranceway, holding his hand out for silence. Salome stood inches from him, one hand tight on the reins and the other on Yatpan’s muzzle. Yohanna held her suckling baby to her breast with one arm, her other wrapped protectively around the sleeping Sister Miriam. Miri and Martha stood motionless amongst the sheep, who sensed danger yet did not yet know its source.
Outside, Silas and Nathan were closing on the soldiers, although they pretended not to notice the approaching corps until they were a few arms’ lengths from them.
“Aaah!” shouted Silas drunkenly, “A pack of dogs!” He wrapped his arm around Nathan. “nasty, filthy dogs sniffing around our sewers!”
“You!” called the commander.
Nathan and Silas swayed arm in arm before the armed cohort.
“Talking dogs!” declared Silas and he and Nathan snickered.
One of the soldiers stepped from the line and struck Silas. The two townsmen staggered back.
“Where is the house of David?” demanded the commander, drawing his sword as he stepped forward.
“Bethlehem!” responded Silas. He and Nathan true to form laughed drunkenly. “Want some wine?“ Silas asked, “’s real good!”
Swaying from side to side, Nathan and Silas looked at each other.
“Made it m’self!” Silas declared. The two began to dance a hora in the street, moving to one side, then the other. The soldiers were more relaxed. They felt no danger from the two drunkards in front of them. Silas and Nathan danced, and they danced sideways, staggering into a narrow alley.
They did not dance back out from the alley. One of the soldiers peered curiously into the alley, just in time to see the two drunks running at top speed around the corner at the end of the alley. The soldier reacted instinctively, his hunter’s spirit taking hold, and ran after them. Like water pouring through a breach in a dike, the soldiers broke formation and ran after him.
“You idiots!” cried the commander, “Stop! Stop this minute!”
No one listened to him. As the last of his soldiers disappeared down the alley, he sighed in exasperation and followed after them.
“Now!” whispered the watchman at the gate as he pushed the gate wide open.
Salome pulled Yatpan, and the line began to move. Sheba, tethered to Yatpan followed, and Martha and Miri moved their ovine charges into the street.
“Good luck!” whispered the watchman to Miri as she passed him.
“Thank you!” she whispered back.
“And God speed!”
Her heart beat so quickly and hard, Miri thought it would burst inside her chest. She glanced backward constantly. The alley into which the soldiers had disappeared showed no movement. For what seemed a dreamlike eternity they herded the animals down the street. Thankfully her charges remained silent. Martha, absorbed in herding the sheep, frowned in concentration as she moved in and out of the flock and prodded the sheep with a short willow switch.
Thankfully they rounded the corner without incident then climbed the steep roadway to the east gate in silence. Hidden in the shadows of the gate tower, the gatekeeper pushed the huge gate open. The huge gate creaked and scraped on its pivot sunk into the pavement. The noise was excruciating. It was as if the entire world was revolving about the axis on which the gate hung. Miri felt panic rising inside her and she pushed at the animals to hurry them as they pased through the gate.
“Hurry!” whispered the gatekeeper. He ushered the last of the animals through the portal and placed his huge hand on Miri’s back.
“God be with you!” he whispered and pushed her firmly through the gateway with one hand as he closed the gate with his brawny shoulder. Miri’s robe barely slipped through the closing gap before the gate closed with a huge echoing boom. The bar slid across the gate and all was silent.
The cool night air wrapped around Miri and gripped her heart. The blackness swallowed her and her family in one huge gulp. She looked behind her at the wall of the village and her heart ached. But there was something more than a sense of loss. The mass of the gate tower loomed over her conscious thoughts, it’s image burned into her brain. As the village walls and the gate receded into the blackness behind her, she sensed the passage through the East Gate was the beginning of a quest and a new voyage was about to begin.