Martha hit Miri’s estate like a cyclone swirling across the Eurythrian Sea.
In the aftermath of her arrival, she and Miri had a screaming argument, Hulpa quit her post, Yotapa retired to her room in terror and refused to come out. And Martha stood defiantly with her hands on her hips. Susanna stared at her in awe.
“You’re Aunt Miri’s sister?” she asked in amazement.
“Her niece,” said Martha impatiently, “But she needs a mother!”
“Well, you act like her mother,” said Susanna. “Is she in trouble?”
Martha frowned, then wiped her hands on her apron. “Do you know how to bake bread?” she asked the little girl.
Susanna shook her head.
Martha harrumped in annoyance that any female regardless of age should be unable to bake bread. “We shall correct that immediately! Come, you can start by sifting the flour!”
Susanna was delighted by sifting. She shook the cloth and took great pleasure in the pure powder that fell into the bowl before her. Her presence and childishness seemed to ameliorate Martha’s mood, and Martha warmed to the child, and through her, was more inclined to accept Miri into the kitchen when she arrived.
“I have spoken to Hulpa,” Miri announced as she placed the shopping basket upon the shelf beside the fireplace. Martha immediately removed the basket from its proximity to the heat of the fire and peered under the cloth cover. “Very nice!” she said.
“She refuses to return,” said Miri, “until you apologize to her for your insult.”
“Then she will be waiting for some time,” said Martha, “I was merely stating the obvious!”
“Still, I shall need her services, and..” Miri paused for emphasis, “…she is related to friends.”
“That is no excuse for sloppy housework,” retorted Martha, “If she is being paid as a householder, then she should have higher standards.”
“The bread was spread and hidden for the Passover sweep!” said Miri. “We sprinkled the crumbs on purpose! The bread was there so that Susanna could find the crumbs and participate in the cleansing of the house of leavened bread! We just missed it!”
Martha said nothing.
Miri remained silent to allow herself to calm down, as she felt her ire rising. Martha was infuriatingly intransigent.
“You left bread for me to find?” piped in Susanna, “Where was it?”
“Under your bed,” said Miri, then regretted saying anything about the bread being planted to Martha while her little charge, with ears the size of an elephant, was underfoot.
She crouched down before Susanna who had stopped sifting flour.
“Lambkins, you know why we clean the house of leavened bread for the Feast of the Unleavened Bread?”
Susanna shook her little head.
“Well, because we have to search out every piece of leavened bread beforehand, and Hulpa and Yotapa keep the house so clean, we have to sprinkle a few bread crumbs about so that we don’t get careless in our search.”
“It gives us bread to search for, even if we don’t have any?”
Miri smiled. “Exactly!” She turned and stared intensely at Martha’s back. “We just missed a spot!”
Martha put down the butter churn. “Still, you not only missed the crumbs for the Festival, but for the weeks afterwards! I shall remain here and make sure your household runs properly until Hulpa returns and apologizes for her sloppiness, and I can instill some responsibility into Yotapa.”
“Or ‘til Gehenna freezes over.” She added.
Miri bit her tongue, and left the kitchen, her frustration barely under control. She strode out into the courtyard and kicked over an empty basket. Susanna had filled it with stones the day before and the basket remained where it sat despite the full force of Miri’s kick, and Miri gasped at the pain of her stubbed toe. So, she kicked it again. The pain doubled and she screamed in frustration and stamped her feet, something she had not done for some time, which aggravated the damage she had inflicted upon herself and turned her into a screaming whirling dervish.
Her energy spent, she opened her eyes. Sister Miriam stood silently watching.
“What?” asked Miri impatiently.
“Nothing.” Sister Miriam said pointedly.
“We’re all possessed,” Miri said to Sister Miriam, “It would just be nice if we were not sisters!”
Sister Miriam held her hand out to Miri. “Yet we are! Come, walk with me!”
As they walked hand in hand through the olive groves, Sister Miriam picked up a fallen piece of foliage. She split it in two.
“I came to you because you would forgive me,” she said and passed part of the olive twig to Miri.
“Oh Honey, there was nothing to forgive!” said Miri. She sniffed the leaves; she smelled the dust of Galillee.
“Martha would never see that,” said Sister Miriam, “Her world is so cut and dried!” She pulled a leaf absently from the stick she carried.
Miri smiled. “Cut, dried, and half-baked!”
“I knew she would come to get me,” said Sister Miriam. She stopped and gazed into Miri’s eyes, “Don’t let her take me back!” she implored.
Miri brushed Sister Miriam’s hair and used her olive stick to pin Sister Miriam’s glossy black hair back. “You can stay with me as long as you like!”
“But she will not leave unless I go with her!” said Sister Miriam, “And I fear I cannot resist her that long!”
“You have a different strength!” said Miriam, and turned her face toward the lake. They resumed walking. “Yours comes from within and Martha’s from without!”
“She doesn’t think I am very useful!”
“There are many paths through life, and their utility is not a requirement for existence,” said Miri.
“But she’s right!” Sister Miriam stopped walking again.
Miri wrapped an arm about her sister. They began to walk.
“It doesn’t matter! You don’t need to justify yourself to anyone else! If it really bothers you, learn to do something contemplative, that would also fill Martha’s approval,” she suggested.
“Sewing?” asked Miri, and they both broke into laughter.
True to his word, Valerius returned from Perea. Though he had to return to Caesarea Maritima, the presence of Antipas in Tiberius gave him a logical excuse to tarry more than a single day or two. Each for their own reasons, unspoken but acknowledged by the lack of discussion, kept the relationship a secret, though they spent time together in the daytime. The secret was not exactly a secret for everyone in her household knew of Valerius’ presence on the estate. He remained now overnight, and arose at dawn to tend to his duties in Tiberius. In order to cover his absence from the soldiers, he arranged for a contract with Miri to house the Roman garrison on her property. The actual martial camp was out of sight from the house, but a short walk, and she arranged for Yotapa’s brothers, Yitzak and Avrahim, to take supplies to the camp by donkey.
Shortly after Valerius’ arrival, Shimeon arrived rather ungainly dressed in his finest synagogue robes. He was clearly uncomfortable dressed in finery and seemed acted in a very stilted formality that was unbecoming of such a large man.
“I wish to speak with you in private,” he announced to Miri.
“Very well,” she replied and led him into the olive grove.
“What do you wish to speak to me about?” asked Miri.
Shimeon took a deep breath. “I am requesting your hand in marriage!”
Such was the rush in which he announced his intentions, Miri almost burst out laughing, but she stifled the urge and answered a simple, “I see.”
A long drawn out silence ensued.
“And what are your reasons for marrying me?” she asked finally.
He was clearly embarrassed. “I am a man of means,” he faltered for a moment, “And I have fine prospects. My father has given me two boats and I make a good living. I have a house in Kefar Nahum.”
Miri frowned at his reply.
“And my mother likes you,” he added, hopefully.
“Those are reasons for me to marry you, I think,” said Miri, “I believe I asked you why you want to marry me.”
“You are a fine woman!” Shimeon blurted, “As fine a woman as any! I very much enjoyed your company when we traveled together,” Shimeon began, “And you are a very comely woman.”
Miri smiled and shook her head. “Shimeon, you are a fine man, too. Though you are dependable and would be a rock in any marriage, we are not compatible at all.”
“Compatible?” asked Shimeon, “What has that got to do with marriage?”
“Everything!” declared Miri.
“I am not rich enough for you!” said Shimeon darkly.
Miri grasped Shimeon by the arms and looked into his soul. He was clearly uncomfortable with the intimacy. “We are not suited. We are both too stubborn! Our house would be filled with arguments daily! You can see that!”
“But you have to marry me!” argued Shimeon.
“Have to?” asked Miri, “That is as strange an argument as I have ever heard! Why would I have to marry you?”
Shimeon’s eyes faltered.
“Shimeon,” Miri asked gently, “What is so important?”
“I love you, Miriam,” said Shimeon.
At that moment Valerius descended the stairs bare-chested, wearing only a short tunic. Shimeon gaped in horror. “Who is this?” he demanded.
“A friend,” answered Miri.
“He sleeps here?” Shimeon asked, decorum not his forte. Shimeon could no longer look her in the eye. “This changes everything!” he growled and turned on his heels. He quickly left the house, and threw the gifts he had brought for Miri on the ground as he strode down the lane to the road. He was almost in a run by the time he reached the gate and passed Susanna returning from her daily vigil by the road, her basket empty. She stopped and stared at the receding fisherman. Miri walked with Valerius down to the estate entrance.
“Who was that?” asked Valerius.
“A friend,” said Miri despondently.
“He was crying,” said Susanna in awe that such a man should be so vulnerable.
“Yes,” said Miri softly, “Yes, he was.”
Valerius left within the week.
During a shopping trip to Tarichae, Miri ran into Shimeon. He crossed the street to avoid her when he noticed her approaching. Miri cut him off.
“We must talk Shimeon!”
“There is nothing to discuss!” he growled petulantly.
“Did you not ask me to marry you?” she demanded.
‘That is before I knew you were sleeping with the Kittim!”
“Kittim?” asked Miri, “It is only one man, not the entire army!’
“Sleeping with the Procurator is the same as sleeping with the entire army, for it is on his orders they breathe!”
“So you shun me?” demanded Miri, “what right have you to do that?”
“I loved you!” spat out Shimeon.
“But I do not love you,” replied Miri, “Not in the same way!”
“Do you not see?” Shimeon grasped her arm. “Since you have been defiled by the Roman, I cannot marry you. You are no longer a virgin!”
Miri laughed, “Shimeon! You are such a dolt! Years have passed since I lost my maidenhood! If that is your criterium, then I was never eligible to marry you!”
“You insist still upon hurting me?” demanded Shimeon, “Is it not bad enough you refuse my hand, but that you have given yourself to others! Am I that ugly?”
“Nonsense! You are a strong and handsome man, but I could never marry you!” She placed her hand upon his chest. “You have a good heart, but I would crush it like a grape in the press! You need a woman who meets your expectations.”
“Expectations?” he asked.
“Faithfulness, fidelity, and obedience?”
“But I love you!” protested Shimeon.
“You do not know me, Shimeon,” said Miri, “Would I stay at home awaiting your return from fishing, baking bread and washing your woolens?”
Shimeon didn’t answer, but he could see her point. Miri would not probably be an ideal wife.
“You can see that, can’t you?” asked Miri.
Shimeon stiffened with a new resolve. “Since you are no longer eligible, I will have to marry another!”
“Why would you marry another if you love me?” asked Miri. She was teasing him, but regretted her impishness, for her humour was wasted on Shimeon.
“Listen, if you have ears to listen, Miriam! I was betrothed by my parents the day I was born to the daughter of kinsmen from Nazareth, and she is coming here to marry me! I have to marry before she arrives! The only way I can prevent that is to marry another!”
“Me.” said Miri flatly. “You were asking for my hand because you needed to avoid another?”
“No!” Shimeon frowned. “It’s not like that!” he protested, “I find you very attractive, and I could not marry another, having lust in my heart for you!”
“Lust?” asked Miri.
Shimeon cleared his throat. “I am not very good with words. I want you.”
“As a wife?”
They stared at each other for a moment.
Miri burst out laughing. Passers-by stared in wonder at them, and Shimeon turned crimson from embarrassment. He could no longer stand his humiliation and he stalked off.
“Wait!” called out Miri. He turned. “Am I still invited to your mother’s dinner next week?”
“Yes,” he said sullenly after a brief thought, “She would not have it any other way. I would not disappoint her.”
As it turned out, Shimeon’s prospective bride was a very warm and wonderful woman by the name of Sarai, though, as she came from Bethsaida, her birth had been registered under the Greek name, Perpetua. She arrived with her family, and the visitors were ushered about the neighbourhood and welcomed with great hospitality by Shimeon’s friends and family. Miri had no chance to speak with Shimeon for several days. It was not until the banquet at her estate that Miri and Shimeon had time to speak. Sarai was at his side, and Shimeon bent to embrace Miri.
“Please do not mention my offer,” he whispered into her ear.
She had no time to reply. He introduced Miri to Sarai and the guest line passed by the betrothed couple.
However, Miri had bigger fish to fry.
Hulpa and Martha faced each other across the banquet table. There was an extremely definite solid straight line between their Souls; a magnetic repulsion of great proportion under unimaginable tension locked their eyes together. Neither Yotapa, Sister Miriam or Miri or anyone else was prepared to step between the two. Susanna hid behind Miri’s skirts, peering out with a trepidation that would melt the hardest of hearts. No one dared move, and the entire gathering held hostage by the seething resentment generated by the two women.
As an outsider, Martha was at an extreme disadvantage, and unfortunately, both she and Hulpa had brought the same dish to the feast. The placement of the two ceramic bowls had lead to the impasse now confronting the hosts of the celebration. There was only one clear spot left on the table for the two dishes and now Martha and Hulpa stood on either side of that spot each armed with a large bowl of lentil stew.
Sarai, sensing disaster acted swiftly. She placed a fine large bowl of her own, a gift from her mother as part of her dowry, into the vacant spot on the table, and swiftly poured the contents of Hulpa’s bowl into the wedding gift. Hulpa was taken completely off guard, and a look of triumph crossed her face as Sarai returned Hulpa’s empty dish drained, but a moment later, Sarai did the same with Martha’s dish. Both Hulpa and Martha were in a state of complete shock.
Now, no one would know whose dish was the most tasteful, So that there would be no doubt, Miri immediately picked up a ladle and swished it about Sarai’s great bowl, thoroughly mixing the contents. She brought the ladle to her lips and took a sip of the stew.
“Excellent!” she announced to all within earshot, and several guests immediately dipped bread into the bowl and all declared it was the finest lentil stew they had ever tasted. During this time neither Hulpa nor Martha moved, so great was the blasphemy that had occurred before their eyes. No one actually witnessed their first words, but by the end of the evening, they were both complaining bitterly about the tragedy that had befallen their creations, and comparing their recipes as to which ingredients added which nuance to the mélange the union of their stews had created.
Sister Miriam had deigned not to attend the banquet, but she materialized at the party before the end of the night. By that time, Miri was into her cups and made an attempt to entice Sister Miriam into a dance, but as she was not entirely insensible, she was not adamant her niece join her, and steered the young woman to a quiet spot by a low wall beside a grove of acacia. Goats bleated nearby as they sat down.
“I am so glad you came!’ she said happily to Sister Miriam.
“Yohanna is here!” whispered Sister Miriam.
Miri craned her neck about to look for her sister.
“Not here, here!” said Sister Miriam sharply, “Back at your house!”
Miri was delighted and implored Sister Miriam to fetch Yohanna and bring her to the wedding.
“She is tired from her travels,” said Sister Miriam, “I thought you should know!”
“I will go back to her,” declared Miri, “but I must first tell Martha!”
Her sister was still in the company of Hulpa. Both women had taken to sorting the dishes on the banquet table, and Martha had been introduced to the company of women who controlled the domestic life of the village of Kefar Nahum.
“Miriam!” exclaimed Martha as she spied her sister approaching, “We have decided Hulpa will return to your household the day after tomorrow!”
“I have some family matters to attend,” said Hulpa.
“That will suit me fine!” Miri answered, “Martha, Yohanna has arrived, as is waiting at the house.”
Martha insisted upon returning with Miri, and they gathered up the sleeping Susanna, wrapped her in Miri’s robe. Hulpa heaped food offerings upon them for the trip back to Miri’s estate, despite the fact it was barely more than an hour’s walk away. They reconnoitered with Sister Miriam who had been cornered by a drunken and overly amorous young man, a cousin of Shimeon and Adam who occasionally helped with their nets.
“He smells like fish!” complained Sister Miriam after they rescued her.
Miri laughed. “Everyone smells of fish in Kinneret!”
Miri suddenly cried out in delight. Waiting by Hamesh was Eleazar. She passed the sleeping Susanna to Martha and ran to embrace her brother. “This is so nice!”
“I came to escort you home!” said Eleazar.
The siblings hugged each other by turn and then set to strapping Susanna to Hamesh’s back. Leaving Kefar Nahum, they were challenged half heartedly by watchmen at the toll booth, but one of the men recognized Miri and Sister Miriam, and Miri offered the two men the bread and cheese Hulpa had given her for the trip home. The customs agents were extremely grateful and offered to escort the women to the curve along the way. The late arrival of a baggage train from Damascus took their attention, and Miri and her companions continued on alone.
The full moon was high in the sky and lit their way back through Tarichae. The taverns in the fishing village were still roaring with the effects of spiced wine and spicier song, and they took the high road to avoid the drunken revelers along the docks. Soon, the watchtower above her wine grove stood defiantly against the night sky. The last few flames of a fire flickered in the brazier on the roof of the tower.
“It’s magnificent!” declared Eleazar.
Still dressed in her robe, Yohanna was already asleep when they entered the house. Miri unstrapped Susanna, and carried her to the roof while Martha settled Hamesh in his stable. The day was still warm and they all retired to the roof to bed down. They lay staring up at the clear night sky sprinkled with stars.
“It’s been a long time,” whispered Eleazar. “It seems like seventy years since we were all on the roof together.”
Martha was already asleep. Susanna was snuggled into the crook of Miri’s arm.
“Seems like just yesterday,” answered Miri sleepily.
“I missed you,” said Eleazar softly.
“And I, you, little brother.”
An owl called from the mountain, and Miri recognized the call of Lilith haunting the hillside. She floated on silent wings, passing over the sleeping village, searching for lost souls, and finding none that had lost their way, passed over the Valley of Kinneret, for there were others that needed her to guide them back to the bosom of the goddess with a thousand names.