Miriam carries an ancient wisdom. Can she survive the fires to claim her true destiny?
|My hair was always kept covered, even as a very young child. It was kept tightly braided, secured into a heavy bun and covered with a cloth. "Your hair makes you special," my mother told me as I cried, watching my sisters run into the arms of my father, their hair streaming loose behind them. Even in sleep, my hair was kept covered, lest my father awake, see its shade and become enraged anew at my appearance. "She's the Devil's Child," he would thunder when a stray lock of hair would fall from its braid.
I was required to do extra chores, chores that would have gone to a boy if my mother had given my father the son that he so desperately wanted. "Girls," he would sneer. "What good are girls?" I chopped wood until my hands were raw and bleeding, hoping to show him that I was worthy, even if I was a just a daughter, but no matter how hard I worked, I couldn't escape the prayers.
I prayed for hours with the village priest, my knees aching on the cold, stone floor. I would pray to the Virgin to take my spirit and make it pure, to make me clean. I didn't know what I had done to make myself dirty in the eyes of God and my father, but as a very young child, I knew it must be something very bad. "Pray harder, Miriam," the priest would say, pushing me to close my eyes tighter and rock in response. When I would rock, the priest was sure that I had been overtaken by the Holy Spirit, that his exhortations were cleansing me of whatever evil my father saw when he looked at me, but in truth, I rocked the first time because my knees hurt. I learned early that the rocking would gain me approval, and on rare occasions, kind words from my father.
The one comfort in my hard early youth was my mother. She didn't look at me with hatred, as my father did, or with fear like my sisters. She would wake me before dawn and uncover my hair for a moment. She would brush it gently before pulling the braid taut and again covering it. "You are special, Miriam," she would murmur as she pulled the brush through my hair. I would hold the words in my heart. Special, instead of sinful and wicked.
One morning, as I lay half-awake in the normally silent hours just before dawn, waiting for my mother to come rebind my hair, I heard my father's voice raised in anger. My heart turned over in my chest. If Father was angry, I was punished more severely for imagined infractions, and my prayer load was doubled. And my hair- my hair was coming loose from its braid. What if he saw?
"She's a daughter," my mother cried. "We cannot keep her here. It isn't safe, and you knew that one day she would be sent to my mother. It's just earlier than we expected." I burrowed down into my bed. Sent away? To live with a woman that I had never met- only heard spoken of in hushed whispers? Mother loved me. Why would she send me away? I tried so hard to be a good girl. I wanted to run to Mother, promise to pray harder, to not be wicked and evil, when I heard my father speak.
"She's my daughter! I will not have her sent to live with your mother!" my father roared. Even though his voice was raised in anger, my heart soared. He did not want to send me away. He loved me.
"She does not belong to you." A third voice cut through my father's bellows. "She belongs to the Christ, and if she stays here, it will be the death of her. If she is not killed, she will die from your useless prayers. It will kill the spark inside her."
There was silence in the room as my parents both absorbed the strange words. Who would want to kill me, and what spark?
"She cannot go," Father thundered. "I will not allow it. What would the priest say? The others?"
"Your priest is not the idiot that most of his kind are," the strange voice spat. "He knows what and who she is. Why do you think he pushes her so hard in her prayers? There are others who know, as well. That very knowledge threatens her survival. They will wipe out the Daughters. Do you want to see your child killed?"
"Better killed than used to spread lies and heresy. Better killed than condemned to an eternity in Hell," Father said, his voice fading. But I knew. I had never heard Father's voice as soft as it was that day. I knew that he had lost his battle, and that this strange woman, whoever she was, would be taking me away. I fought back tears. I was not happy at my home; how could I be when I was told that I was sinful and evil at every turn? But I did not want to leave, I did not want to leave the only home I had ever known; I did not want to leave Mother.
"Miriam," my mother said softly as she shook my shoulder gently. "Darling, you must wake up." I opened my eyes and feigned grogginess, not wanting her to know that I had overheard the conversation. I felt my father's eyes on me and instinctively I raised my hand to feel the hair that had slipped from its covering. I tucked the stray strands back up, but the strange voice stopped me.
"Do not cover your hair, Miriam." The strange voice was gentle and soothing. How very different it sounded now than when talking to my father. "You never have to cover your hair if you do not wish it, dear one." My eyes focused on a woman with hair as red as my own, save for the streaks of gray that flowed from her temples. I tried to stifle a gasp. She was the first person I had seen in my short life with hair like that. She wore it free, hanging down her back in unruly waves. She wore it proudly, like a cloak. I was entranced by her, and by her soft brown eyes and the skin that seemed to take its radiance from her hair. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
She walked to me with extended hands. "Miriam, I am your grandmother." Her hands were warm against the skin of my cheeks. "You look so much like my mother," she said fondly. "Would you like to come live with me?"
"Where do you live?" The words sounded strained, not like my own voice.
"It is just two day's journey from here," she said.
"Two days journey?" I felt my eyes begin to sting with unexpected hurt. "Why? Why have you never visited me before? Why have I not been allowed to come to you?"
Her soft eyes hardened as she looked at my father. "It was felt that it would be in your best interest if we waited until you were older. I have always loved you,my dear," she said. "I have always wanted to come to you. You belong with me, my dear. "With your own kind." My own kind? I was with my family, weren't they my 'own kind?' She saw the confusion in my eyes. "You are special," she whispered. "Surely you know that you are different?" I nodded, slightly ashamed to admit it. "Your prayers bore you." Again I nodded, afraid to look at my father. "You feel as though you know more than the priest, more than your parents." I gasped at this, but could not nod, could not agree. No one knew more than the priest.
"The priest can read," I said. "No one else in the village can read."
"I can read," she smiled. "And soon you, too, will be able to read."
Read? My heart pounded at that the thought. My grandmother could read, and she promised that I would learn to read, too. The priest always said that it was not good for women to read. It was the Holy Man's job to read the Word of God and tell us what it said. We were not learned enough to read the Word ourselves. It would cause us to become confused and conflicted, and open to Satan's evil influence. I thought of the large, ornate book that rested on the stand in the Church. The mysterious figures and beautiful drawings had so captivated me. "Yes," I whispered.
"Yes?" Grandmother asked.
"Yes," I said again, my voice suddenly stronger, and strange sounding to my ears. "I will come live with you. Yes, I will learn to read." I smiled then, and my grandmother's face broke into a wide, answering smile. I tried to ignore the sound of Mother's soft sobs from the corner of the room.
"Wonderful, darling." Grandmother hugged me briefly. "We will leave after breakfast. You should gather your things first, in case we have to leave suddenly." I found her words odd, and a little frightening. I suddenly remembered the conversation that I had overheard earlier. I could be killed. Killed for something that had to do with who I was, and what made me special.
It didn't take me long to pack my meager belongings. I had two dresses, one nightgown, and a thin, threadbare cloak. Grandmother's eyes narrowed when she saw it.
"Is that the best cloak you own?" she asked.
"I'm a simple man," my father barked. He had been silent during my exchange with Grandmother and during my packing. I had almost managed to forget he was there. "I have a wife and three daughters. I cannot afford fine clothing."
My eyes roamed over Grandmother. Her clothes were indeed fine, almost as fine as the clothes of the priest. "Is your husband very rich," I asked.
"Miriam!" Mother cried. "That is not an appropriate question."
"On the contrary, I think it is a very appropriate question," Grandmother said. "She has the right to know about the household she will become a part of." She turned to me. "I have never married, darling, but I am comfortable, and I can offer you a comfortable life." Her eyes lingered on my dingy dress, one that had been handed down to me from my mother. A comfortable life. I would live a comfortable life, free from my father and his disapproving eyes. I could hardly wait for the journey to begin.