Miri stirred the ashes in the fire with a stick. From the moment she had entered the house, there was something that was not quite right. The old woman was not home. It had taken Miri some effort wandering the warren of streets and buildings in old Caesarea to find the old woman’s house, but by mid morning she found the alley upon which the crone’s house opened. The camel hair blanket covering the doorway was tattered and looked as though it had suffered years of deterioration in the last three days since Miri had seen it. Within, the floor was again silted with sand and fireplace was empty, the ashes cold. The ceramic bowls from which she had eaten from lay in scattered shards on the shelf. The brass lamp stand still stood in the open room, but the lamp she had lit was missing. Something was amiss. She feared for the old woman. Miri dropped the stick through the iron grate and ascended the interior staircase to the roof, but only a small whirlwind skipped across the windswept roof.
Miri sighed and descended into the dark interior. She checked the sleeping loft, and with a last glance about the house, stepped through the door into the hot morning sun. Her appearance frightened a woman passing by. She stopped in shock and stared at Miri. She had definitely not been expecting to see Miri emerge from the building.
“I’m sorry!” said Miri, “I didn’t mean to scare you!”
“A scare and a half, you gave me!” said the woman.
“What is your name?” asked Miri.
The woman eyed her suspiciously. “You tell me yours and I may tell you mine!” she retorted, slipping her hand inside her dress to grasp the talisman hanging from a silver necklace about her neck.
“I am Miriam of Tarichae,” replied Miri and the woman glanced at the talisman in her hand, and hearing the name, seemed relieved.
“I am Zara, daughter of Zora,” she said, “What were you doing in that house?”
“I was looking for the old woman who lives there!” said Miri.
“No one lives there!” said Zara quickly
“That’s impossible!” said Miri, “I stayed there two days ago. I slept on the roof!”
“You slept there?” asked the woman incredulously.
“I was a guest of the old woman who lives here!” said Miri.
“That can’t be!” declared Zara, “That house has been abandoned since Caeasarea was built over Sebaste!. You spoke with this woman?”
“Yes, an elderly lady in black”
The woman kissed the talisman and touched it to her forehead then her heart.
“Great Mother, Protect Me!” she whispered. “Did she tell you her name?”
“No,” said Miri slowly, “No, she didn’t!”
“When I was a child, an old woman lived in that house. She kept a lamp burning in her window.”
“Her son was lost at sea. Or that is what was said. At any rate, he had told her he would return. Her obsession was such that every night, she would sit on the roof and stare all night out to sea, waiting for her son’s return. Her daughters married and moved away. Her eldest pleaded with her to come and stay with her family, but she would not. She died on the roof, still waiting. No one knew she had died until the crows on the roof became a nuisance! The birds had pecked her eyes out!”
The woman crossed herself with her talisman. It was an intricately filigreed Hand of Miriam. Miri smiled for it was an omen.
Of what, though, she was just not sure.
She had claimed the bodies of the boys and had arranged for them to be anointed with oil and packed with spices and perfumes. She was not sure that they were all Galilean, but she determined she would return them all to Galilee for burial. Though the funeral workers had offered to provide mourners for the journey back to Tarichae, she refused the offer, but accepted the rental of an ox wagon to carry them, and an escort.
The cart, already packed with the corpses of the slave boys, arrived at the palace well before dawn. As Miri stood while the cart was provisioned and loaded with her baggage, Chuza appeared. He handed a small eartenware jar. From the weight and the sound emanating from it as she took it, she knew it was filled with coins.
“That is not necessary, Chuza!” she gratefully.
“Perhaps not!” he replied, “But I cannot see you home for I must travel to Yerushalayim soon to prepare the way for the new governor, and cannot travel with you!”
“Tell Yohanna I am well!”
He smiled. “I shall, though she will know it already I am sure! Take care, Sister!”
“Peace be with you, Brother!” she replied and hugged him tightly. “I shall pay you back!” she whispered.
“There is no need for we are kin! But if you feel the need, repayment should go to those whose need is greatest!”
“So be it!”
“So be it!” he said softly. His eyes were filled with tears. “You did the right thing!” he whispered. They broke from their embrace and he turned on his heels.
The cart was ready and the portly driver helped Miri onto the buckboard. His thinner, much thinner, assistant took the head of the oxen, and with great squealing and groaning the cart moved forward, and they wound into and through the streets of Caesarea.
The driver’s name was Asher Ben Asher, and he and his father had moved from Tyre to work in Caesarea when he was about thirteen years old. His father had been a mason, but was injured pouring concrete to build Herod’s Harbour. At first, he had hired a nurse to look after his father while he continued to work in construction, but, as his father had badly injured his head, a demon had entered into his father and no nurses would stay for the abuse the old man poured upon them.
“He called up all the demons in the Underworld and the wrath of the gods upon each and everyone who came near him!” said Asher. He smiled. “It was determined he had been possessed by the very demons he had sent after everyone else!”
He clucked at the oxen as the cart rumbled through the street, encouraging the oxen to turn toward the Sebastian gate. “I had to quit my job to look after him, but thankfully, I had saved enough to pay the surgeons to cut open his skull to allow the demons to escape, and the priests enough to chase them away!”
“And he was better then after that?” asked Miri, for she had seen a Greek doctor perform a trepanning in Alexandria to relieve the pressure of bleeding on the brain of a Roman soldier.
A cloud crossed Asher’s eyes, “He was not the same, and though he could look after himself, he was dull and emotionless. I think his own soul fled with the demons!”
“How is he now?”
“He died,” replied Asher. He wiped the memory from his mind and brightened. “So I went back to work and bought this cart, and now I spend all day sitting!”
He patted his belly. “Too much time!”
They reached the gate, and as the bleary-eyed guards discovered in the waybill they were carrying the dead, they were waved on with a quick godspeed. Free of the city, Ephraim, the lead man abandoned his hold at the head of the oxen and joined Miri and Asher on the cart. They had brought their own food, cheese and bread, but Miri had packed grapes, wine and some cold mutton. As they traveled, they opened their lunch bags. Suddenly, Asher caught his breath.
“Dear Lord!” he exclaimed.
Before them, a line of crosses passed in stark silhouette against the purple sky. Soldiers slept soundly in a small stone watch house, as they rumbled past.
Ephraim snorted. “Some watchmen!” he said contemptuously, and spat on the ground. “Rome’s finest!”
“Oh Dear Mother!” whispered Miri as she stared up at the bodies hung from the crosses. The corpses were in various states of decomposition, and Miri wondered why she had not seen them on her trip into Caesarea. She became acutely aware of the five small corpses in the back of the wagon. She got the distinct impression that she and her escorts were undertakers in a plague-ridden land of the dead. And the plague that had struck them was the curse of imperial oppression from the West. Her Egyptian training had imbued her with a deep sense that the west was the direction in which the dead traveled after they expired, and now, in one fell swoop, it seemed the dead had reincarnated themselves as the Kittim of Rome and now were invading the land of the living, for everywhere that the Romans turned their attention death and destruction beyond imagination was the inevitable result.
The prophecies of the coming of the Messiah were being fulfilled. She could see that now. The Sons of Darkness, the Men of the West, the dead, were returning to the Promised Land and crushing at every quarter the Sons of Light. The End of Times had arrived.
No sooner had the thought enveloped her, she heard her name.
Asher pulled the oxen to a sudden stop.
“Did you hear that?” he asked in a whisper.
“Someone called my name!” said Miri.
“Lord preserve us!” whispered Ephraim.
“Shhh!” Asher put his fingers to his lips. Motionless, the three of them sat motionless, scarcely breathing. The cart goaned on her wooden axles as the oxen snorted ans shifted their weight, but a voice came again.
Ephraim clutched his telefim, and glanced about wildly.
“Demons!” he hissed.
The voice came again. Miri stood up on the buckboard and stared into the twilight.
Someone was calling to her from the cross to her right.
“Daedalus!” she cried and leaped from the cart. Lifting her skirts, she scrambled up the road embankment and stood at the foot of the cross.
The guard hung, sticky from blood and striped with lashes of the flagellum. “Daedalus!” she turned to her companions and called to them, “Help me get him down!”
Ephraim remained frozen to the seat until Asher prodded him and the two of them tumbled from their tumbrel.
“Bring the cart close!” said Miri. “We can gain some height from it!”
Under her direction, they maneuvered the cart and the oxen as close as possible to the cross. They lifted the cross beam from the upright hooks, but Daedalus cried in pain.
“His feet are nailed!” said Ephraim in frustration.
“Pull it out! Pull it out!” said Asher. He lifted the lid of his traveling trunk. “Here!” he said, and lifted out a large iron crowbar, and lifted a loose plank from the cart. He wedged a large iron crowbar beneath the nail pinning Daedalus’s feet. “This is going to hurt,” he said grimly, “Cover his mouth!” Miri placed her hand across Daedalus’s mouth, and, using the board as a fulcrum, Ephraim heaved as hard as he could.
Daedalus growled and his teeth bit down on the fleshy part of Miri’s palm. She gasped at the pain, but Daedalus was free! They fell in a heap upon the corpses of the boys, and an echoing clinking of armour came from the guardhouse. They all froze.
Their struggle had aroused on of the soldiers, but he groggily settled back down, and they breathed a sigh of relief.
“Adrastos!” said Daedalus.
“Where is he?” asked Miri. Daedalus pointed down the road, and fainted.
“We must find Adrastos!” said Miri.
“Oh right!” said Ephraim sarcastically, “We’re going to cut down every criminal from here to Yerushalayim! What then, Madame Bandit Queen?”
“Drive ahead!” she commanded.
“I’ll turn you all in if I’m caught!” said Ephraim, “I’ll tell them you forced me into this!”
“Not if we turn you in first!” said Asher. “Let’s go!”
They did not find Adrastos, but Nathaniel, one of the other guards who had invaded the brothel with Miri. Already to cut him down, they released him from the cross in just a few quick breaths. The man moaned as they set him on the cart.
“Where’s Adrastos?” Miri asked.
“Two places down!”
They moved on and found Adrastos, but he was dead. Miri insisted they pulled him down anyway. As they were lowering him to the floor of the cart, the guards in the watch house awakened and, from the sound of their armour, they were getting back into proper uniform.
Sure enough, in the distance, dust rose on the road from Caesarea as the day watch approached to relieve the night watchmen.
“Let’s go!” said Asher, and he urged the cart out onto the middle of the road. Miri looked back and one of the guards, having stepped out to relieve himself, was staring straight at her. His fellows were focused on readying for the day captain and paid them no attention. The soldier stepped forward to peer through the waning twilight at the cart, his dog-like curiosity aroused. Miri turned away, to avoid his gaze, and as her eyes traveled forward she saw Ezra, the fourth guard, still alive hanging from a crooked cross. The light had waxed enough to see him smile. His eyes bid her farewell with an infinite sadness she could not bear.
His life and hers passed between them. In that fading moment that their eyes met, she knew he held no grievance or blame toward her. He gave her his forgiveness, and exacted a promise to avenge his death. She knew she must bury Adrastos. She would lay the bones of the little sons of Israel on the Mount of Olives, and sacrifice at the temple for the deliverance of their souls. Though she worshipped the avatar of Astarte and called upon the Shekina, she also acknowledged that Yahweh was her consort and her protector.
She blew Ezra a kiss, and he closed his eyes and died.
They traveled until midmorning in silence. They had all dismounted from the cart and walked alongside the oxen to compensate the load for the extra weight of Daedalus, Adrastos and Nathaniel. As soon as they had entered the foothills before the Plains of Jezreel, they wrapped Adrastos’ body in burlap, and buried it beneath the corpses of the slave boys.. Miri removed a fine brocade from her baggage and covered the two survivors with it.
“It attracts too much attention!” said Ephraim. “Stack the boys on either side of them, and if someone approaches, we must use the corpses to hide your friends!” His eyes narrowed and he stared intently at her. “Just who exactly are you?” he asked suspiciously.
“I am what I am!” replied Miri.
“Indeed!” said Ephraim huffily. “We shall see what we shall see!”
“We shall cross the Kishon,” he announced, “With any luck we can find water, and wash away the blood! I don’t think we will pass the next checkpoint unless we clean up this mess.”
It was true. The cart, their clothes and faces were smeared with the blood of crucified Adrastos, Nathaniel and Daedalus. As it was, they skirted the hill of Har Meggiddo to avoid the Roman Camp established there upon the road, and veered southeast of the Roman colony in order to reach the Kishon.
They found a clump of trees on the banks of the Kishon, and camped beneath them beside the waters of Kishon. Miri began to gather firewood, for when she suggested Ephraim perform the task, both men stopped what they were doing and stared blinking at her. Woodgathering, like woolgathering, was women’s work. She was too tired to argue and actually was thankful, for Asher and Ephraim occupied themselves with washing Adrastos’s corpse and cleaning up Daedalus and Nathaniel. They were large men and lifting them would have been a great strain.
Along the way, she discovered some wild berry brambles, and using her dress as a bag, gathered several shekels’ worth. She girded her dress to enclose her harvest and lifted the bundle of wood on her head, and thus arrayed, her legs displayed, walked beside the water on the stony drifts in the riverbed.
As she approached their campsite, she saw Ephraim and Asher speaking heatedly with several shepherds. They were rough and hairy men; she counted seven in all. Her heart pounding nervously as she approached the group. It seems the men demanded payment for camping in their grazing territory, and use of the river. Ephraim and Asher were of the opinion that, if they were indeed the owners of this river, they should produce proof of ownership. This, the shepherds had not done. Their flock, an exceedingly large one, wandered about the group, a nervous mass of black and white animals, twisting this way and that.
As they caught sight of her, the men fell silent. She realized they were all staring at her bare legs. She had no wish to drop her dress and lose the berries or drop the wood in the water, so she continued to walk toward them.
She found a dry spot to drop the bundle and poured the berries out onto a large flat rock. Having deposited her load, she dropped her skirts and smoothed the material primly and turned to the men.
“What a fine welcome!” she said sweetly to the shepherds, “And which of you is the eldest?” Automatically six fingers pointed to a tall hawk-nosed man in their midst.
“Pleased to meet you!” she said, “My name is Miriam of Tarichae, And these are my brothers, Ephraim and Asher.”
“Shimeon ben Zebulon,” he answered reticently, “They said nothing of a sister!”
Miri smiled, “They were afraid perhaps for my safety. That is the way a brother should be, don’t you think?”
“Of course,” Shimeon replied, but Miri interrupted.
“We are just waiting for our older brother to arrive,” she said, “I am sure he will be able to pay you for your land and water. It would not be right for either Ephraim or Asher to negotiate on my eldest brother’s behalf. Perhaps you could return at dawn?”
Simon was hesitant, but she was right. The eldest should negotiate for his younger brethren. “I shall be back at sunrise!” he said in frustration.
“Good!” she said sweetly, “We shall be here!”
The shepherds reluctantly made to move away, but Miri stopped them.
“I wonder…” she began, “I wonder if you would have some blankets we could purchase from you?”
A grin passed Simon’s face. “I think that would be possible!” he declared, “and perhaps some cheese!”
“Of course!” said Miri, “That would be wonderful!”
The shepherds moved away. They looked back often, but she did not relinquish her position until the entire flock and its attendants crossed the brow of a rise and dropped from sight.
“Bandit Queen!” exclaimed Ephraim enthusiastically.
Miri spent most of the night nursing Daedalus and Nathaniel. She had gathered herbs to infuse into a tea, and also had mixed some wine with pine resin and myrrh to treat their wounds. Nathaniel was comatose, but his breathing, though shallow, was even and natural, but Daedalus trembled all night and ran a high fever. She washed him with water from the stream heated over the fire, which she tended as well. Asher and Ephraim slept like babies, and their snores were loud enough to keep jackals at bay.
She slept fitfully, nodding off at her place beside Daedalus, and his fever dropped as dawn appeared. She was awake, though, when the shepherds reappeared.
The meeting in the morning went well, and they purchased a number of finely woven blankets and several rolls of cheese. The shepherds promised to watch for Miri’s brothers, and let them know she had passed by.
Ephraim and Asher were impressed. They had merely disputed the shepherd’s right to charge a toll, but Miri had deflected their demand and managed to actually barter for goods in exchange for the cash that would have to others, only been bakshish.
“How did you do that?” asked Ephraim, “could you teach me to do that?”
“You don’t have the legs for it!” declared Miri with a laugh.
With that they continued on to Nazareth.
Somewhere along the way, Daedalus died. As they were unclean due to their contact with the dead, they were forced to bypass Nazareth and made their way forward to the southwest of the town. There, they came upon a small village, and as they reached the edge of the little group of houses, they came upon a group of elders sitting under the shade of a huge fig tree. The squealing of the cart axles attracted the attention of the old men and they stood up and stared at the visitors under shaded eyes. At some point, the men saw the cargo on the tumbrel and they called out excitedly and waved their hands to stop the travelers in their tracks.
“You cannot come this way!” they shouted, “Go back!”
Miri and her companions stopped.
“Is there a way around to Tarichae?” asked Asher.
“To the left!” called out a man in a blue turban, “But it is a tricky path!”
“Wait there!” said another, and the old men conversed as a single organism, and sent a small boy scurrying into the cluster of houses.
Asher hobbled the oxen with a hemp rope, and found a large rock upon which to sit. “Now I know how a leper feels!” he said with a sigh.
Three women appeared. On each head was balanced a platter, a bowl and a water jar. The women were three generations of a single family. They approached Miri, and a few paces from their party, the three women placed their burdens upon the ground. The younger brought fish, and also carried a jar of wine. The matron brought bread, and the elder, wine.
The matron spoke first.
“I am Miriam of Bait Lehem. From our house, we have brought the fruits of water and earth. We cannot welcome you into our house, for you are unclean. But, for your promise you will not touch anyone from our village, nor enter it, we shall provide you with these offerings. Do you so pledge?”
“I do!” declared Miri.
“And I!” declared Ephraim enthusiastically, rubbing his hands in anticipation of consuming the victuals.
“I so declare!” said Asher as he stood up, “And on behalf of me and my companions, I offer you our allegiance for as long as you may need to call upon us! You have treated us as you would treat kin, and for that, I declare my kinship with you and your family!”
Miri was taken aback by Asher’s declaration. She raised an eyebrow.
He smiled and shrugged. He was obviously impressed with Galilean hospitality.
“Then Peace be on you!” declared Miriam the Matron.
“Shalom!” replied the travelers in unison.
“When you leave, take the dishes with you and smash them when you cross the wadi to the road!”
The women turned on their heels and walked back arm in arm to the houses without looking back.
Miri offered wine to Nathaniel, which he sipped gladly. Then she washed it down with water. Adrastos was still sleeping, so she left him to heal. They ate their fill of the bread, fishes and wine, gathered the earthenware together, and, where the trail dipped into the wadi, they broke the dishes with great gusto and enthusiasm, in a spot where the winter rains would wash through the gully.
Before they returned, Miri checked on the two crucified survivors.
Daedalus was dead.
Miri cried out in shock. She had never considered that he would die. After her ministrations to him the night before, she was confident he would recover.
Asher wrapped an arm about her.
“There is nothing you could have done!” he whispered.
“How could he die?” she asked. She was numb. Her knees gave way and she sank to the pebbled wadi bed.
“It is the Will of God!” said Asher.
“Will of God?” cried Miri, “You think this is the will of God? He was killed by men! The Great Yahweh did not descend from the Heavens on a fiery chariot and strike this man down! He was crucified so that the Men of the Empire could gather fat about their bellies! This,” she held Daedalus’s head, “is not the will of God!”
Asher was perturbed by her outburst, and her railing at God, but he held his tongue without comment, until she regained some power to her muscles.
“He’s been dead for a while!” said Ephraim in a feeble attempt to comfort. Her.
“What!” screamed Miri.
Ephraim realized his mouth should have remained shut and gulped.
“He-” Ephraim stuttered, “He died after we left the shepherds!”
“What!” screeched Miri, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“There was nothing to be done,” replied Ephraim, “He was dead!”
“Dead!” cried Miri, “and how can you be sure? I could have revived him!”
“You cannot revive a dead man!” protested Ephraim, “It is against the Will of God!”
“There are ways to bring the dead back at the moment they are taken!” shouted Miri, “I have seen it! For a time after the last breath, there is still time to call the dead back!”
“That’s impossible!” argued Ephraim.
“You are such a dolt!” she shouted back. “I could have saved him!”
“Are you a witch?” asked Ephraim, fear growing in his eyes.
Miri snarled and pulled away from her companions. She stomped along the wadi, kicking loose gravel as she passed. Her sandals filled with small stones and she growled and cursed, and finally, because her sandals still gathered stones, sat down to take them off and shake the rocks from her footwear.
“Are you finished?” called Asher.
“Yes!” she shouted back and growled again.
Their squealing cart awoke everyone at the estate, and even seeing the corpses could not stop a joyous reunion. Miri was dog tired and crawled thankfully into her bed, and decided she would never leave home again.
Nathaniel, for the first three days, was delirious and cried out so often that Miri secreted him in one of the empty tombs on her property. She allowed no one to visit him for fear he might be betrayed by his cries or a loose word. In particular, she knew she could not allow Antipas to discover she had rescued one of the condemned guards, and she was not sure that Phasaelis could be trusted to keep such a secret from her husband. She suspected she had become persona non grata with the Royal couple. She was both relieved and concerned over the slight, for she was not sure she could remain civil with Antipas after he had betrayed the young boys to Lucifer.
She knew that Nathaniel was on the road to recovery the day he threw his soup across the tomb. He lay, not in the tomb itself, but on a cot in a small antechamber leading to the shelved mortuary beyond.
“Get away from me!” he shouted hysterically.
Miri backed off the stool beside his bier.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“What’s wrong?” he shouted, “What’s wrong? What’s not wrong? I’m dead! That’s what’s wrong!”
“Dead?” asked Miri, “What are you talking about?”
“You can’t see it?” he demanded. “I was hung on a cross! Then, you!” he pointed at Miri, “The author of my torture and harrion of my crucifixion, cut me down, and place me in a tomb!”
“I’m sorry,” said Miri, “I had not thought that…”
“No thought, indeed!” he shouted, “But then you are a woman! And thought does not come naturally to you!”
Miri’s hackles rose, but Nathaniel was under a great deal of pain, and isolation. “Perhaps I am, but I could not have left you hanging on the cross, could I?”
“Yes!” he cried, “What difference would I feel, had you left me there? Look around you! I’m dead! I live in my tomb, and you, dressed in black, come to anoint my brow as a widow would her husband! Tell me I’m alive! Say it! How would I know that? Is this rock not cut to house the dead?”
He held up his arm. “See how it festers? How long before I rot away completely? I am a dead man!”
“No, you’re not!” said Miri firmly, trying to keep her temper under control. “”I’m sorry about keeping you here! But if Antipas hears about you, how long do you think before his men, your brothers, would be here, tearing down my walls and raping my servants?”
“I don’t care about you or your servants!” countered Nathaniel, “I cannot live as a fugitive! I can’t stand another moment trapped in this God-forsaken tomb! If that is the way I must live, then I would prefer to be dead!”
“You are not safe here!” said Miri, “I can’t let you out!”
“I shall leave, anyway! I might be condemned to live as an outlaw, but at least I could sleep under the stars! What would my father think? How could my mother face her friends? What of my wife?”
“Your wife?” asked Miri. She had not even considered he as married. Most soldiers were required to remain single. “You have a wife?”
“Of course!” Nathaniel retorted, “Though now I am sure she knows I an dead!”
“Where does she live?”
“We have a farm near Sepphoris!”
“Look, I’ll write you a letter of introduction to friends of mine in Alexandria,” said Miri, “I’ll get your family out to you and get you land in the Egyptian Fayum! Though he would not be pleased, I think my uncle Yusef would find you passage! You can have a whole new life there! The land is replenished by the Nile every Year”
“So, I should go into Exile?” said Nathaniel. “I’m not leaving! I have no need of your help! Not all of Palestine is under the thumb of the Romans and Antipas! I am still the same man I was, but I have died, and lived beneath the Earth long enough! I am a man reborn!” He clenched his fist and touched his heart. “I was a warrior, and a warrior I shall be! I was a Son of Israel, and more of a son I shall be! “
He swung his legs to the stone floor.
“Let me out! I have no more need of you and your comforts!”
With that he heaved himself up, swayed for a glorious moment, full of magnificent wrath, then toppled face forward to the floor.
She managed to help him up. “I can’t breathe!” he croaked. Miri decided the foul air of the tomb was at fault, and she struggled to carry him outside. She helped him to a low stone wall and he sat gasping for air. Miri held him until his breathing settled, and he slowly fell asleep. As she cradled his head in her lap, and stroked his wooly head, Susanna, a bundle of wild flowers in her arms, ran up to Miri. The girl stopped short when she caught sight of Nathaniel. Without hesitation, Susanna split her bundle into two bouquets, and pressed the flowers from her right hand between Nathaniel’s fingers and her those from her left, she gave to Miri.
Tears welled from Miri’s heart, bringing a smile to her face..
“I love you,” said Susanna sweetly to Miri.
“And I love you, Poppet!”
Susanna was quiet. She sat unspeaking, staring at Miri.
“So where is Benjamin?” she asked.
“He is with the Great Mother!” Miri replied softly. She was grinding roots for an infusion for Nathaniel’s still festering wounds. She had prepared a tea already that would help his festering thoughts. “Can I see my brothers?”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea, sweetie. They’ve been dead for too long.”
“I want to see him!” said Susanna defiantly. “How else will I know it’s him?”
Miri frowned. Susanna was right. Miri had noticed the girl slept more fitfully since she had returned. Perhaps seeing the body would help Susanna realize the Soul had left its home. In the moment Miri decided she would unwrap Daniel, she realized she wasn’t sure which body should be unwrapped. Or whether Benjamin was one of them. At least one child had escaped. She had made no enquiries for fear of revealing one had avoided the fate of the others, but she wondered often about the missing boy. Who was he? Was he killed before the others were captured? She tried to comfort herself by imagining the possibility that one of her boys was still alive.
“We shall do it now!” Miri stood up. “I will prepare the tomb, first!”
“I will help you!” said Susanna.
Miri brushed Susanna’s hair from her eyes. “You should wait until I prepare them!’ she said softly.
“They are my brothers!” said Susanna firmly. “We shall do it together!”
Miri sighed. “Together!” she said out loud as she thought about it.
“Alright!” she said, making up her mind, “We shall do this together!”
All five bodies were laid in niched shelves inside the tomb. The smell of putrefication mixed sickly with the sweet aroma of aloes and incense, a smell so intense that it penetrated the very pores of their skin and filled their flesh with a fluid mustiness that forced their senses to withdraw. Miri covered her mouth and nose with a linen handkerchief. Sister Miriam stood silently against the wall, not touching it, and as still as she could, so that nothing could touch either her or her clothes. She was acutely aware of the impending contamination she was about to undergo from contact with the dead, and already she was creating an inventory of invocations and fasts she would have to undergo in order to recover her cleanliness. Her head was filled with proscriptions of defilement, and as much as she knew she should be there to support Susanna, she was definitely ill at ease.
Miri, though, was buoyed with the absolute fearlessness of Susanna. The little girl had picked more wild flowers to present to her brothers when they were unwrapped. Hulda stood resolutely on guard outside the tomb, insisting that due to her household and cooking duties, she and Yotapa should remain clean and uncontaminated. Yotapa, on the other hand, was eager to see the unveiling, but was restrained from doing so by her fear of Hulda. Although the housekeeper could not keep her from entering the tomb, Hulda had the power to make Yotapa’s life incredibly miserable. Nonetheless, the young woman hovered and fretted as close as she could to the entrance, hoping to get a view of the proceeding inside.
It took some thick gloves and a combined encouragement from both Susanna and Miri, to get Sister Miriam to participate. After a great deal of pulling and twisting, Miri lifted the first swaddled corpse from its niche, and they placed it on a temporary wicker bier in the center of the tomb. Susanna and Miri alone were involved in the unwrapping for the moment the corpse was laid out, Sister Miriam, her skin squirming, stepped back and held her hands up and away from her body. It took some time for them to find the end of the linen bandages, for they were tucked skillfully behind the windings. The pulling was hampered by their reticence to touch those parts of the white cloth discoloured by the bodily fluids. A talisman, a small piece of papyrus, fell from the bindings. Miri picked it up.
“May god and his angels take to Heaven
This little, precious, and unnamed Soul.
In the name of Senoy, Sansenoy and Samengelov,
I command thee, Lilith, thou demoness, evil harpy,
To flee empty-handed from this scroll.”
Miri was saddened, for the prayer was simply an ignorant plea from a well-meaning mortician, that had he known Lilith at all, was only the avatar of the Great Goddess welcoming the innocent back into her Womb. She placed it at the foot of the bier, determined to burn it with the bier after the disinterment was over.
The stench was overwhelming, and she felt bile rising in her throat. She gasped for air and fled the tomb, leaving Sister Miriam and Susanna standing agape within. She made it out to the nearest olive tree, using an arm to support her against the bole, and retched.
Hands reached around her and pulled her hair back. She glanced up briefly and Yotapa smiled back. After she had emptied her stomach, Miri took some deep breaths as Yotapa helped her wrap clean linen bandaging across her mouth and nose. Miri doused the mask with perfume, nodded her thanks to Yotapa and returned to the tomb. Susanna had pulled up an empty upended stone ossuary beside the bier, and now stood upon it. She had unwrapped the head on her own, and was examining the face of the corpse.
“It’s not Daniel,” she announced, “Or Benjamin!”
“Oh sweetie!” said Miri, and hugged the little girl.
“We should wrap him up,” said Susanna, “His name is Samuel.”
“How do you know that?” asked Miri in surprise.
“He told me!” said Susanna. “He said to open that one!” She pointed at a corpse on a lower shelf.
Miri and Sister Miriam exchanged glances. Quickly, Miri, with Susanna’s aid, she wrapped new linen, and sprinkled aloes and spices inside the windings about the corpse. Sister Miriam hovered nervously in the background, and finally, after the rewrapping was over, she helped Miri put the corpse back.
They lifted the corpse to which Susanna had pointed earlier and placed it on the bier. It was wrapped identically to the first and, as Sister Miriam had made the decision to plunge in, the three of them began to unravel the windings immediately.
It was Daniel.
Before they could stop her, Susanna bent down and kissed his lips. She placed the flowers on his chest and, without saying a word, left the tomb. Miri and Sister Miriam did not follow immediately for they had to rewrap the corpse and return it to its resting place. The chore done, Sister Miriam walked silently from the tomb and kept walking, finally stopping at the low wall that led to the upper pastures and sat upon it staring out to the western horizon.
Hulda and Yotapa hovered without.
“Where’s Susanna?” asked Miri. Hulda and Yotapa pointed down the lane.
“By the Tree!” said Yotapa.
Sure enough, Susanna had retreated to her favourite spot beneath the sycamore. She sat upon the stone bench by the spring, her legs dangling. She smiled at Miri and waved.
“I will need a bath,” said Miri to Hulpa and Yotapa, and walked down the lane toward the sycamore.
“Susanna, are you alright?” asked Miri, as she approached the little girl.
“Yes!” the little girl answered, “I have said goodbye to Daniel. And Benjamin is still alive, so I will wait for him to come!”
“How do you know that, sweetie?” asked Miri as she sat down beside the little girl.
“Samuel told me!” she said simply.
“The dead boy?”
Susanna nodded. “He said to thank you for trying to save them, but he had to go.”
“To join with the others.”
They sat in silence. No one passed by for a great while, and the singing of the cicadas and buzzing of bees and flies filled the soft breeze that barely rustled the trees. Birds sang from the thicket and larks trilled from the meadows. Shepherds sat idly watching their flocks in the hills above the valley, and the village of Tarichae bustled far away. Her awareness expanded to fill Galilee, and at the moment she thought she could no longer take in all that happened in the land, she realized she and Susanna were thinking the same thoughts. They both looked at each other, Miri in amazement and Susanna in amusement.
“It’s a big world!” she said with a sweetly satisfied smile.
Miri hugged her tightly and they rocked together.
After she put Susanna to bed, Miri carried a lamp and hot soup for Nathaniel. With Hulpa safely abed, Yotapa came out with her, carrying new laundry for their charge. But, when they reached the tomb, the stone had been rolled aside. They looked at each other in alarm, then peered into the purple shadows, then ran inside. The bier was unoccupied, and Nathaniel’s bedding linen and clothing lay discarded about the room. The tomb was empty.
“Where is he?” cried out Yotapa. Miri moved to the doorway and glanced about the orchard for a sign of Nathaniel.
Yotapa held up Nathaniel’s tunic.
“Wherever he went, he’s naked!”
“Men!” said Miri in frustration. “Where in Gehenna did he go?”
“Out!” said Yotapa, and despite herself, Miri laughed.