|Jan/Feb 2009 Fiction|
All day I waited for the night. When at last the gentle winter twilight began to fall, I went with my mother to the bath. She helped me to undress, touching me gently as if I were still a little child, and lowered me into the dark pool of water, swirling it first with her hand to make sure it was not too hot, not too cold. I bent my knees and slid under the water, letting it close right over my head. For a moment I was a tiny baby alone in the dark, waiting to be born. Darkness, and quiet, and the mystery. I didn't think then about my betrothed husband or what we were about to do. I thought of my mother and then of the child I wanted inside me. Of its tiny fists and tiny face and how I would hold it to my heart. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this season.
My mother washed me all over, and I gave myself into her hands this last time—I am your child, hold me and I am safe. As the water grew cold, I began to shiver and swirled the bright stars with my hand. Then I stepped dripping onto the stones, and she wrapped me in the crisp linen towel, white wings enfolding me.
We went into the house, and now my mother prepared the perfume and sweet-smelling ointments, combed out my hair and braided it with tiny threads of gold.
"Your hair is even thicker than mine was," she said. "You have hair like a raven's wing, and eyes like a dove. You are beautiful as a wild bird, my little daughter."
With a soft pencil she drew smoky lines around my eyes. I sat very still, not thinking, only feeling like an egg about to be broken open, or a piece of ice about to crack. What was there inside me, deep inside, where I had not yet been?
In the depths of the night, a bird began to sing. My mother dressed me in the robe of dark red silk, the color of good wine, the same robe that she had worn on her own wedding day. Like a crust of dried honey, the gold embroidery clung to it. Heavy, I felt my limbs sink under its weight as if I were being pressed into the ground. Then came the veil, a cloud of sunset purple, pinned with rows of bright gold coins, and the golden bracelets for my arms, and the gold and silver necklaces and the gold earrings. I shook my head to hear myself tinkle, and my mother laughed, and then so did I.
From far off we heard the song of the bridegroom. My heart leapt into my mouth—was it fear or happiness? Now my cousins came and sat with me and began to sing, but I could not sing, there was something in my throat. Too much happiness, or perhaps fear...
I will sing songs to God at the coming of the Redeemer.
This terrified, innocent and fair daughter—
Hurry to redeem her now.
Elijah will come and she will be redeemed!
My little sister was up on the roof and saw them first. "They're coming!" she shouted, running breathless into the room. "I saw the torches, they're coming!"
My aunt took hold of her and squeezed hard. "Your turn soon, little lemon," she said. "But not yet. If we squeeze you now, we won't get much juice out of you."
Anna kicked, and my aunt let her go, shouting, "Imp of the devil!"
Just as my mother was about to speak, we saw the burning lights at the gate. Someone thumped heavily three times at the door, and my father went out to receive them. Open to me, my sister, my bride. Then we were all crowding into the courtyard amid the flames. They hoisted me onto the mule, people were loading things onto carts, children were running and screaming, and I just caught a glimpse of him, sitting very upright on a horse that looked to be covered in silver bells. His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers: his lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh.
Who is he? I wondered. Who is he really? Will he be kind to me?
We made our way down the dark streets. On all sides the lamps were lit, and the people were leaning out of their houses, waving and singing. I couldn't see much through the veil, only the glare of torches and the outlines of things in the dark. I held tight to the mule's harness, so tight it began to cut into my hand.
Very soon we were at the house. The whole village seemed to have gathered there, but we went swiftly inside, and they shut the door behind me. I looked round for my mother but couldn't see her anywhere. I wanted to cry—Mama!—but knew I mustn't.
Then I caught sight of her standing against the wall, her hand on Anna's shoulder. I want to be there too, I thought, standing at the back with Anna. We'd steal figs from the table and drink wine when nobody was watching... I don't want to be here, at the center, everybody looking at me under this heavy robe and all this gold. I want to go home and climb into our warm little bed and tell stories to Anna in the dark about the beautiful day when the Messiah will come to us. He will come on the wings of the wind, a golden sword at his side, and the angels will be his companions...
But already they were leading me to my husband. He took me by the hand, and I felt how strange it was, his touch. I was afraid I might cry. He brought me to the inner room, and they shut the door on us. Open to me my sister, my bride...
Now he was leaning over me, lifting the veil from my face, while just outside the door the music was playing louder and louder. The room was full of red, or so it seemed to me—a red room, like blood, why was it so red? He pulled me down beside him and stroked my arm. I saw that he was smiling.
"Don't look so scared, little pigeon," he said. Did I look scared? "Pretty little wife," he said, still stroking my arm. I wished he would stop. His eyes were so very black and bright. He pulled me close to him, and I felt his breath on my face. I turned my face away, and then he laughed and let me go. Somebody rapped sharply at the door.
"Come now and eat!" It was my father's voice. He came into the room, and I felt the blood rush into my cheeks. He whispered something to my husband, and the two of them went out, then came back in again.
"Let us sit down with our guests," my husband said. "You're not afraid to do that, are you, little pigeon?" I nodded my head, and he led me by the hand to the place of honor at his side.
There was so much food, so much wine, so many people. There was smoke from fires and incense, music from harps and bells and singers of songs, there were great chunks of meat and dishes of figs and best wheaten bread, and all the mouths were full and full again, all the glasses were full and then empty and then full again. But I could not eat. I only pretended, taking little bites, and my stomach heaved because of the smoke, the music, the smells of meat and men. Beside me my husband ate and drank, and his eyes were so very black and bright. Then the Ruler of the feast came up and whispered something in his ear, and his face changed suddenly.
"That's impossible!" he said. "There must be more somewhere in the house." But the Ruler was shaking his head.
Now my father-in-law got up as well and went off with the Ruler in a hurry. People were holding out empty cups and calling for more wine. The voices grew louder and angrier, and the musicians began to play even louder to drown out the angry voices. I heard someone whisper the word "shame."
At a table far down at the bottom of the feast, a man stood up. He went to the servants and spoke to them, and they looked at him questioningly. There was a woman there as well. She spoke to them, too. I couldn't hear what any of them were saying, but soon the servants were running in with jugs of water, filling the stone water pots till they overflowed onto the floor. Then the man was standing over the water pots, speaking again to the servants. I saw one of them fill a cup from the great pot and carry it to the Ruler.
Why are they giving him that? I wondered. You don't drink the washing water. Even a little child knows better than that. Is this man trying to make trouble? But the Ruler handed the cup to my father-in-law, who also drank from it, and now the two of them were hurrying in our direction.
The Ruler leaned over my husband, nearly shouting, smiling from ear to ear. "Every man serves the good wine first, and later, when the guests have had plenty to drink the worse. But you've kept the good wine until now!"
"What are you talking about," said my husband, looking annoyed. "I told them to serve the best wine right away."
"What's this, then?" said the Ruler, thrusting the cup into his hands. My husband looked into the cup for a moment. I could see that it was still half full. He took a swallow and looked up in astonishment. "That's not my wine," he said. "That's something else entirely. Where did you get it?"
"From the water pot," said the Ruler. "Is it some kind of joke?"
Now everyone was rushing to get a cup of the good wine. The servants were running up and down, pouring it out as fast as they could. Wine was running over the tables and spilling onto the floor in purple streams. Soon people's faces and clothes were stained with it, and everywhere there was an odor so sweet—like apples in the garden at twilight when the dew begins to fall. It entered my head and made me long to drink that wine.
Before I could even ask, my husband handed me the cup. "Say the blessing," he said, looking into my eyes, his fingers touching mine. "Say it for us, please. You are the woman of this house now."
"Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, Creator of the fruit of the vine," I said, and I drank from the cup, and then my husband drank, too, and that good wine went right down inside me where I was small and frightened and made me warm and strong and utterly without fear. We looked again into one another's eyes, and I saw that his were beautiful and that he would be kind to me. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is better than wine.
That was the good wine we had at our wedding, and it came out of a water pot. A gift to me on my wedding day.