She had the kind of beauty that would make a man sin. And sin he had. . .
Kerateion, Antioch, 18 A.D.
Zahara's beauty could make a man sin: sin was sweet and man's temptation was strong. To this day, she wished she never knew those words, for they brought an experience it took a lifetime to forget.
"Uncle Asa, come see what I've brought back!"
At the sound of Ishmael's husky voice, Zahara's nerves skittered. The knife missed the rough ginger and sliced into her finger. Sucking her teeth, she drew back her thumb and nursed it in her fist as she peered through the open window shutters. Her cousin appeared, pulling their ass laden with heavy sacks behind him. Holding her breath, Zahara watched him unload the sacks and lead the ass behind the fenced shed, where it plodded towards the clay bowl she'd filled with hay earlier. When Ishmael leaned over the stone water well at the center of their courtyard and took a drink of water, her heart beat like the nimbly plucked strings of a harp; not because he was pleasing on the eyes---far from it! He had a face scarred by eruptions of the skin. Splashing the water on his face and neck, he seemed harmless, but after last night, after what he did to her yet again---she knew he was not what he appeared to be. He caught her staring through the window and she gasped and sharply turned to the cooking pot over the brazier. The thick black mass of her braided hair whipping over her shoulder and smacking loudly against her back.
Zahara's father was still at work with the other farmers and now Ishmael would be in the house with her alone. Her breath quickened, listening to Ishmael's footsteps, echoing through the eating area to meet her in the kitchen. He stopped at the doorway, filling the room with the scent of balsam, which he used heavily and made Zahara nauseous. His tunic and overcoat made of many colors and the jewels chinking on his sandals bespoke his family's wealth; ever reminding her of her humble lifestyle. He leaned his head against the plastered wall lined with hanging baskets of honeydew, lychee, asparagus, and radishes. All were gifts bought with his money.
"It smells good." He must have been waiting for her to respond to his praise because as the silence stretched, he took bites of his fingernail. "What have you prepared cousin?" He attempted again.
She cleared her throat in an attempt to find her voice. "Roasted corn and beans." Her back rigid, Zahara stirred in dried parsley leaves to flavor the beans.
"What of the lamb I bought some days ago?"
Nervousness crept up her spine and so she clenched the side of her blue tunic. Though she feared Ishmael's reaction, she would not tell a lie.
"I cooked and distributed the leftovers to some children in the alleyways," she dried her hands on her apron and chopped another carrot. She needed to keep her hands busy or he'd see them shaking. To taste meat in stew was a luxury the rich could daily afford. A luxury Zahara and her father could afford only twice a week. Her generosity would cost them. No meat at the table for the rest of the week.
Zahara swallowed hard as she waited for his rebuke, feeling the sweat trickle down her back. Would he hurt her for giving away their food to the homeless?
"Asa has not returned?" Ishmael carried a water jar and a wooden bowl out of the kitchen to wash his dusty feet as if not a single word she said had registered.
She immediately put down the knife when he departed and released her breath. "He'll be coming soon." She wished she could only blink and have her father home with her. Closing her eyes, she prayed in her heart. Come home Abba, please, I need you to come home now.
"I'm starving, are you not yet finished?" Ishmael entered the kitchen again, returning with the washing articles. He covered the short distance between them and stood next to Zahara, lingering near the pot of beans and inhaling the scent of bay leaves and the cumin spice. She quickly moved from the closeness of Ishmael's body and switched to assembling the wares. His presence brought a sick tightening in her stomach and a memory she wished was not hers. She could smell the balsam oil on his skin and she had to grip the counter to steady herself when she recalled where he had touched her. Before Ishmael, balsam, a lovely and uplifting scent, now became revolting. Ishmael turned away suddenly, leaving her alone in the kitchen. She returned to the pot, her mind reverting to the past.
Upon first meeting her cousin, Zahara wanted to know everything about him, his sister and her uncle that Abba never talked about. At first, she basked in Ishmael’s gifts and his affection. She would take hold of his hand to walk him through their small garden and put aside the choicest portions of meat. She even danced for him whenever he was in one of his foul moods. What did she do wrong? It had to be something. She could not tell what drove him to want her in the wrong way, but she was sure that she was to blame.
When she felt a droplet of sauce on her toes, she realized she was not focusing on the meal at hand. “Oh, look what I’ve done!” Quickly she distributed the beans and then the corn in the nearby bowls.
Sometimes Zahara wished Ishmael would have a bad fall on the stairs, that would surely end her nightmare and this ugly secret would die with him. Her eyes watered as she dwelt on the thought. What would Abba say to such a malignant thinking? Needing a breath of air to calm her nerves, Zahara headed to the window and inhaled deeply. Two years ago she had to rise on her toes to get a view, now she was much taller than all of the other girls of twelve in the village. With the entire courtyard stretched before her, she took advantage of the clear view. The olive tree at the far left corner of the entrance wall, with its small white fragrant flowers and an ever-present company of fruit flies, stood perfectly erect in the brimming sun.
The first tree I ever planted. She reminisced with pride. Her lips forming a sad smile. Beneath its shade, an old stool remained set before a hand millstone and every morning she would grind spelt to make bread---a skill practiced by only a handful of women in the community due to the thriving public bakeries on every street corner in the city of Antioch. The pomegranate tree to the far right was laden with fruit bearing red seeds like tiny edible jewels. She circled the perfect little dot on her cheek that was in line with the crease of her smile before passing her finger across the slight overbite of her upper lip.
"You were right Tirza, the eggshells did keep the bugs away and the tree grew."
Near the shed and covered with a wool cloth was their ancient but faithful outdoor brazier, which they used when the heat made it unbearable to stay indoors. Over the years, everything had remained the same. Everything, except Zahara. "I wish there was something I could do to keep Ishmael away."
Zahara turned and saw that Ishmael was once again behind her, gaping at every move she made. Her mouth went dry for a moment and her chest constricted with mounting panic.
Was he watching me all this time? Was he listening to everything I said? I wasn't talking very loud, was I?
"I'll...I'll serve your meal right away." She washed her hands as Ishmael turned and headed to the eating area.
Lightheaded, Zahara swayed on her feet. Fear rose like bile within her as she prepared to serve Ishmael his meal. Her hands shook, and her eyes filled with tears until her vision blurred. No one was here to protect her should Ishmael decide to force himself on her again. He had been rougher the last time, seizing every opportunity to feed his insatiable hunger for her. Why is he always around when Abba isn't?
"Don't cry. Don’t make a fool of yourself and cry, Zahara." She paced and gripped the sides of her tunic before she dried her face with the back of her hands, removing the traces of tears. She tightened the white tasseled sash around her slender waist and smoothed her clothing, trying to appear calm. She heard the sprinkling of water into the basin and knew that Ishmael was doing the hand washing ritual of all Jews before he partook of the food.
"Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with Thy commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of the hands."
Zahara heard him recite out loud. She took a steadying breath, in and out. Balancing the bowls in her arms, she headed through the doorway leading to where Ishmael waited for the meal.
"I have good news for Uncle Asa when he returns." He sat on a cushion at a roundtable atop a large brown mat. Zahara kept her eyes downcast, though she knew how he gaped at her when she approached. His gaze bore into her and she sensed he struggled with the cravings of his flesh. The breadbasket already sat on the table. Thankfully she did not have to walk back and forth in his presence.
"Thank you." Ishmael's long-boned face stretched into a smile, and he took the food from her. When his fingers brushed hers, she quickly pulled her hands to her side. The obvious reaction caused Ishmael to scrutinize her. "Are you well, cousin?"
"I'm fine." She poured watered wine from a broad-shouldered jar into his cup; her tone not inviting conversation. She felt his intense stare and after giving him the drink, she moved towards the kitchen, eager to leave his presence.
"You've been acting strangely towards me. You no longer greet me with a smile. Have I wronged you?"
Zahara came to a halt, and her heart plunged. He asks as if he doesn't know why I can't be near him. A tear tumbled onto Zahara's cheek and landed on her chin. She turned and looked at him. Does he truly believe he did nothing wrong? There was not a hint of remorse on Ishmael's face.
"You seem different this morning."
Ishmael reached for a piece of yesterday's pita bread which Zahara had warmed in the oven. She almost choked on the tears that were ready to pour. How could he pretend that the act never took place?
His demeanor was calm. She was ready to shatter. Three years of living with Ishmael had reduced her life to a memoir of fear.
Her cousin rose from his cushion and as he sauntered to her, she lowered her head to avoid looking at his face.
"Zahara, come lie down. You don't fare well," he said and placed his hand on her shoulder.
"Please don't come near me!" she exclaimed.
They heard footsteps and both Zahara and Ishmael eyed the courtyard.
"Who brought this?"
She heard her father Asa ask aloud, and as she staggered away from Ishmael, her cousin turned to her, his glare pinning her feet to the floor. Ishmael's calm evaporated and the pretense of wounded prey returned to his true predatory temperament. She saw now he was fully aware he had wronged her.
"Zahara." His voice was a hot whisper and he said no more, but she heard the warning loud and clear. Ishmael walked past her with shoulders sloped from years of looking towards his feet and to her father who stood to examine the sacks against the well.
“Those are grain and barley, uncle.” Ishmael hurried to the goods and opened one of the bags for her father's viewing. "I bought it in the market today," he added.
Zahara stood in the doorway, staring at the two. Her father's simple striped overcoat was dark with patches of sweat beneath his arms and down his back. It was possibly evidence of harvesting but ever since she was a child, she noticed that her father sweated profusely. Years of toiling in the sun had left his skin the reddish brown of the terracotta vessels they filled with grain. Zahara's lightly tanned skin, however, delighted in sunlight, for it left her with a golden hue.
Asa scooped a palm full with his right hand and watched it slip through his fingers. Due to the recent rise in food prices brought on by weeks of destructive flooding, legumes---a precious commodity for poor families---became costly. Just that morning, Zahara uncovered the storage jar and saw there was barely a cup full of buckwheat left. The goods had come just in time for the upcoming Passover. Ishmael's motive, however, was to gain favor in the eyes of her father. Zahara saw Ishmael waiting for his approval, but it did not come.
"Ishmael, you know I cannot take this. It would not be right." Her father shook his head and Ishmael's face sagged. It would appear in his hasty excitement, he forgot the noble man her father was. Asa did everything with humility. Ishmael however, was selfish in nature and went out of his way to accomplish tasks because he delighted in praise. It was a trait her father pleaded with Ishmael to overcome, but he did not see his selfishness or rather, he chose not to.
“Uncle, I bought this for you and Zahara." Ishmael then shrugged as he reasoned. "Can you not see it's the least I could do since I'm staying under your roof and eating what little food you have?”
Her father tied the bag. "What I did was from my heart, Ishmael. I did not show kindness because I wanted something in return. You're family."
“As you are.” He sighed and motioned to the things he brought.“Think of it as gifts of thanks for your generous hospitality.”
"I do not want you to believe you owe me. Love is never given to be owed in return. Do you understand?" her father asked, searching for comprehension on her cousin's part. Ishmael nodded, and the two embraced. Zahara watched a smile venture upon her father's face.
"In You oh Lord, I placed the well-being of my household and once again, O God of Israel, You have provided for us."
The Ishmael that her father knew and the Ishmael Zahara had come to know, was completely different. Her father saw a young man who was trying to fix his past wrongs with his father through a renewal of his relationship with God, but all Zahara saw was a manipulator. He was a man who had an aberrant nature lurking beneath that outward display of generosity. To regard Ishmael, no one would see what he truly was. There was no beauty in his appearance to make him alluring to women. He was self-conscious; so too was Zahara, but it was most pronounced with him. His willingness to help and his boasting of completing mammoth tasks led many to believe he was a good man, unfortunately, cursed with plainness.
He would never believe me. She kept thinking as Ishmael and her father spoke. Fear of her father never believing her and the deep sense of shame that would spring forth if her father knew Ishmael was touching her, was tormenting. Even worse, knowing her father would never see her as his innocent Zahara again was compelling enough for her to keep her silence.
"Zahra!" Asa called out to her, snapping Zahara from her world of thought. "I got the eucalyptus tree you wanted."
He lifted a small tree resting against the well. Zahara walked towards her father and took the plant with its stringy roots. She had been waiting all day to receive it so she could continue her planting on Mount Casius that rose up from the plains.
"Thank you, Abba." Her voice was muffled, and she willfully kept her face towards her father; afraid that if she looked at Ishmael, she would break down.
"Are you well daughter? You're pale." Her father rested his palm on her brow to check for fever.
"I'm well enough, Abba." She stepped away from his keen fatherly sense telling him that things were not right with her. "Can I go to the mount now? I've finished all my chores."
"You're on the mount more than you are at home."
Zahara wanted to tell her father it was because the plain and Mount Casius were the only places she now felt safe, but Ishmael was staring at her and she decided it was best not to let him know her inner thoughts.
"Go ahead and hurry home before darkness falls."
Zahara nodded and as she headed to the gate, Asa stopped her.
"Zahra, aren't you forgetting something?" He asked in a teasing tone, and turning, she ran to her father and hugged him.
"Don’t stay out there too long," he whispered.
"Yes, Abba." Releasing him, she headed for her safe haven.
The tangy odor of the green leaves and the lingering sweet aroma of thriving quince perfumed the still air of the mount.
"My favorites," Zahara uttered as she picked one before she continued trotting upward. The land blazed with color and the jagged path leading up from the plains was carpeted with a cornucopia of wildflowers, evidence of spring's arrival. Preparations for the Passover would begin soon. Yet, not even the serenity of the plain could steer Zahara's mind away from the pit of despondency she had fallen into or the constant darkness hovering over her.
"How peculiar," she uttered. There had been no breeze within the last hour, and heavy clouds were descending slowly. This was such a contrast to the blooming scenery surrounding her.
Zahara moved to the spot she had set days ago for her tree. She trembled as she placed her hands on the warm earth and covered the hole she had dug for the small tree, by scooping and putting the rich soil around its stem to cover its roots completely. She breathed in the aroma of the black earth so fertile from the consistent rainfall which kept the plains in a rich emerald green even during the torrid summers and brittle autumns.
The vast knowledge Zahara obtained about herbs and plants was to the old widow Tirza's credit. The thoughts of old Tirza still threatened to summon tears that she allowed surfacing from time to time. The woman had been her tutor ever since her mother's untimely death and the emptiness left behind by her loss was beginning to expand, now that death had taken even old Tirza from her. It was through gardening Zahara was able to forget her troubles and find peace of mind. She worked vigorously to plant before a downpour, but her mind was far from her labor. The troubling thoughts clinging to her were not easy to be rid of.
The more Zahara dwelt on the subject, the more she realized no one would ever believe the ugly secrets she kept buried as deep as the roots in this soil. Her father had said on countless occasions she should be cautious when it came to how eager she was to open herself to strangers. He warned there were people who were intent on doing wicked things to the virtuous and she should ever always be on guard. She never believed such a person would turn out to be her cousin. She remembered the day, old Tirza explained to her the development that took place before a girl became a woman and how she was to guard her precious chastity until her wedding night.
"I had kept what Ishmael was doing, even from you, Tirza. Forgive me," she whispered. In her world, the deepest shame a woman could face was having her virginity taken from her by her own kin. Which was why Zahara believed the night Ishmael came to her was the start of her journey of maturing into a woman. As a child, she could withhold nothing from her father, but now she was learning to conceal the pains of her heart. Ishmael knew it was the one thing he had over her---she would never expose anything to hurt her father.
"No one would love me, no one would ever want me---" she said to herself as she remembered Ishmael coming to her once again last night. All her life, Zahara only had one dream: to be a good wife and have many sons so she could make her father proud and have his name mentioned in the circle of the elders. Heat flooded Zahara’s cheeks when she thought about never finding a prospective husband and forever dishonoring her father’s name.
Who would want to marry me?
Alone with burdensome secrets, she found there was no one to whom she could talk, no one who would believe she was speaking the truth...no one except for Ha'Shem. Lately, however, Zahara was beginning to feel too unclean to pray even to Him. This morning was the first time she had spoken to him, after days without praying to the Almighty One, fearing that her filthiness should not even be in His presence. Hardly conscious of it, she gripped the earth when she felt her stomach tighten into a ball of intense pain. The dirt worked its way stubbornly under her fingernails, as fear enveloped her body. Daily, her thoughts waged war in the battlefield of her mind.
I've become so filthy! I should no longer kneel before a God who demands holiness, according to the teachings of the Rabbis. Does He still love me even if...I'm defiled?
When the tree was secure in its new home and she patted the last handful of soil, Zahara straightened and stared at her grubby hands. She too was dirty. Twin tracks of tears slowly made their way down her cheeks. Every time Ishmael touched her, she cleansed and purified herself in the nearby spring; nevertheless, the blemish on her soul was permanent. She dabbed her eyes with the back of her wrists and plopped onto the warm swath of grass. She meditated on all her father taught her about God. Instantly she remembered the words of King David that she'd come to know by heart. In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness.
Zahara rolled on her side; she was so troubled she could barely unwind.
"Please help me not to hate Ishmael. I don't want to hate him, he's my blood!" she said aloud to God. She pulled her knees to her chest as if to cradle herself from the hurt. "Please help him to realize it's wrong and to stop what he's doing to me, so I can forgive him."
What scared her the most was the thought of bitterness consuming her heart and changing the person she was. She wanted to get rid of it, for she'd never hated anyone in her entire life and she did not want to start the practice of holding grudges.
“You have plans for me, isn’t that what you said?” she whispered, hoping to communicate freely with Him as she once did. The gentle stirring of the wind, which she usually felt when Ha'Shem was speaking to her, was dead today and so Zahara shivered from the feeling of separation from God.
"Bring out Abiah!"
Zahara heard a shout in the plains and sat up sharply. A multitude of voices resounded, and she jumped to her feet. In the distance, a crowd of over a hundred men and women gathered for the stoning of Abiah at the ruins of Nadav's well, the place of public execution. She ought to go home immediately, for her father had warned her to keep her distance if a death sentence was ever to take place. However, Zahara felt the inner pull to do otherwise. It was the first time she'd heard of someone being brought out to be executed. According to her father, the last stoning had taken place over a decade ago.
Other than Abiah's slovenly condition, Zahara found the woman to be of a demure appearance and she could not comprehend the cruel manner in which the villagers were reacting towards her. Curious as to what could be the woman's crime condemning her to death, Zahara gave in to the beckoning urges within. She climbed the nearby oak tree for a better view of the trial. Using the strong thick branches to pull herself up higher and higher until she sat on the paramount branch, she stayed hidden by the height of the tree. From the top Zahara peered at the condemned woman.