He stumbled upon an abominable act that could not even be whispered.
Under the shadows of the passing clouds, Matthias walked with Zahara in the cool of the day, westward of the market center. As he walked, he noted he had never been on this street of the community and he regarded the houses they passed by. Women were in their courtyards cleaning their homes for the Passover. Young girls followed behind them, guided in the lessons of household chores, and babes played with their toys under the watchful eyes of their mothers. The men would have been at work and the boys, learning a trade or at the Schools of the Prophets, thus the reason for their absence.
It occurred to Matthias that he had already missed a lot of time in the School of the Prophets. He was proud to be a student of the House of Hillel, he was told he was a promising student. Next year would have been his last in the Prophets before he was sent to Jerusalem to study the Hebrew writings with the greatest scholars. However, his future no longer easily fell into place. Nothing in his life was stable anymore, and he wondered what road his life could possibly take now. Even his home did not feel like a place he wished to return. He would only go back when the pain of his mother's last moments with him had died. For now, he would abandon his home just as his father had.
God alone knows what He wants me to do from here.
Matthias and Zahara walked for some time under a canopy of sweet chestnut trees. Though he tried not to show her, he was chafed by his friends' decision to cast him off because he had chosen not to hurt the girl. He knew they would not understand---to Elon you were either loyal to your friends or a traitor. Matthias never believed that he would stand up for Zahara, but he could not reprove the voice in his head telling him not to hurt her anymore and that the teasing should cease. Already, this was the second consequence he would have to bear. The walk to Zahara's house was in silence, the presence of the other filled the gap meant for words and as they neared the end of the road, Zahara stopped at one of the towering trees.
"My home is right there." She pointed to the large open courtyard that led to a home made of basalt, as all the other houses were. They became quiet again, with Zahara looking at her feet and Matthias staring off into the distance.
"Why choose to be so different?" He blurted his very thoughts. Immediately, he wished he could retract his words, but he already held her attention. She smiled that closed-lipped shy smile again as if she invited him to ask more. "I saw you today in the marketplace and what you did for those people. In everything you did, you tried to be kind."
She shied away from his eyes and looked towards the bark of the tree, which was thick and deeply furrowed.
"You were watching me?" A warm blush spread across her cheeks.
"Yes. . .I. . .I was. . ." He kicked at a gravel stone in front of him.
Wondering if she would take his statement in the wrong way, he ceased from saying another word until she spoke.
"When I was a little girl, my father told me the story of the Prophet Samuel. How God called Samuel into service when he was a boy. At first, he did not recognize the Almighty One's voice calling his name, for he believed it to be the priest Eli. On the third call, Eli told Samuel to answer 'speak Lord, for your servant hears'."
Matthias listened tentatively, and when Zahara fixed her eyes---perfectly shaped almonds---on him, he got an even closer look at her. Up close, he noted the beauty mark on her right cheek; to Matthias it was a rare sight to see a mole on someone's face, but it added to her beauty.
"Since then, I longed to be humble as Samuel and have God call me to serve Him. I was only seven, but I boldly sought God with all of my heart. You see, I longed to please Him as Samuel eventually did."
She closed her eyes and folded her hands over her chest. Her lips wore a singularly sweet curve.
"I heard His mighty voice of truth. It was a still soft voice, stirring gently like the wind, yet strong and certain. He said 'I know the plans I have for you. Plans of peace and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you shall call upon me and you shall go and pray unto me. I will hearken unto you. You shall seek and find me, when you search for me with all your heart.'"
Matthias leaned against the bark of the tree. Zahara had a sense of purpose---she lived to serve God by serving others. He envied her, for he too longed to have purpose. He kept the sacred laws as taught him by the Rabbis; he could recite by heart the holy writings and the history of their lineage as well. He could even perform any one of the ritual offerings, should he be called upon. Nevertheless, he did not know what Zahara spoke of. He repeated all that the Rabbis said about the Almighty One, but he could not speak of his own experience with Him.
She looked away from the tree and fastened her gaze upon his shoulder as if afraid to look him in the eye.
"Have your friends truly left you?"
Matthias pulled at the leaves on the nearest branch. "Elon does not make empty threats."
"All because you chose to help me? How absurd."
He saw her bewilderment and understood how trivial it must have all appeared to her. "You wouldn't understand. You don’t---"
"Have any friends? "
He opened his mouth to change his words, but she stopped him.
"You called me friend and helped me today, for that I am very thankful, but let me tell you here and now, don't call me friend."
Matthias was taken aback by her words and befuddled at why a girl, who had no friends, would ask that he not call her friend.
"Don't call me friend, if you do not truly mean it," she said, and this time, she looked him in the eye. Once again, he saw knowledge in the dark depths of her eyes. She knew what it was like to be used, but he could not fathom how.
"For me the word friend is not one taken casually. I wouldn't like to be called your friend, simply because it's a name you would have attached to me," she continued.
Matthias nodded his head in understanding. No longer were there the lifelong friendship bonds of David and Jonathon.
"Today, a man would call another his friend, and yet, stab him in the back for the sake of selfish gain. I don't need such a friend and I don't intend to be one." Her eyes fluttered away from his shyly.
Once again, the girl spoke with wisdom beyond her age. He saw that like Elon, she was loyal in spirit, but not to the extent of forsaking a friend when selfish pursuit was not achieved. She spoke of friendship with heart. Matthias folded his arms. There was an answer to his question he needed to know. It gnawed at him since their first encounter and he could not allow her to leave without knowing why.
"At the burial ground, you were the only one who stayed back. You tried to comfort me---me, who had been cruel to you like my friends were today. Why would you show such kindness to someone who wronged you in the past?"
"My father," she began. "My father always taught me to do good in the face of those who hurt you. I never fully understood what he meant, until now. If I hadn't shown you kindness on the mount that day, would you have shown kindness today?"
Matthias took a moment before he honestly replied. "No. I don’t believe I would have."
"I thought so." She stretched out her hand to him.
Something inside him uncoiled as he looked at her small hand and offered his own. He marveled at what made Zahara different and realized he had never known anyone like her, young or old. Someone who placed all pride aside to show kindness and who humbled herself to befriend the helpless. Earlier, her gratitude impressed Matthias beyond words, and he felt each heartfelt thanks melt away any wrong conceptions he had of her in the past.
"Take care of yourself, Matthias." Releasing his hand, she headed towards her house. Stopping near the courtyard's entrance, she looked back at him before she disappeared inside. Matthias leaned against the wall of a nearby house and thought about Zahara's response. While everyone else lived by the philosophy, an eye for an eye, this girl's father lived by the complete opposite; do good to those who weren't good to you. He felt a strange longing to know more and so, without a place to stay, Matthias made up his mind. He would stay near Zahara's household.
Night came and when it did, Matthias wished he had held his tongue and not allowed pride to get the best of him. At least then, he would have the comfort of a house, rather than the chilling night’s air. His overcoat provided some warmth, but a rush of cold air closed tightly around him and Matthias shivered from the cold he felt down to his bones. Many hours had passed since his last meal. He felt a slow fire rolling in his belly. Carefree fireflies busy with their mysterious night dance flickered near him. The moon with its modest glow bathed the streets in whitish blue---his one source of light. The stirrings of the community were muted and as darkness crept in, the hairs on the back of Matthias' neck prickled. He once overheard his parents' conversation about the unseen evils that took place under the shadows of darkness.Things no eye had yet to behold---brigands, homeless men disappearing mysteriously, street children being sacrificed to pagan gods and women who were raped by patrolling Roman soldiers. Though they were only rumors among the members of the community, no one dared to stay on the street at night to find out.
Matthias suddenly felt the urge to get out of the street. Instinctively he looked across at Zahara’s open courtyard when the thought came to mind.
It’s only for one night. I’ll be in and out before daybreak.
He rationalized as his eyes scoped out the street. He slipped into the courtyard, ears sensitive to the slightest sound and carefully walked towards the house. Already, he knew that the only place available to lay his head would be the rooftop. As he tiptoed to the outside stairs leading to the rooftop, a stone skittered, knocking into the well and resounding in the yard. Immediately, Matthias came to a halt and gawked in the direction of the ass in the animal pen, assuming that it would awake and alert its owners. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that the animal rose its head but made no sound in its fenced dwelling. How he went from sheltered son to sneaking homeless boy was beyond him. All he knew at the moment was that he needed a place to feel safe. The house was dead silent, as were the others, yet Matthias could not control his racing heart. He stopped at the corridor leading to the sleeping quarters. A ladder led to the rooftop, but he diverted his course, curious to see where Zahara slept. He inched to the window, wondering whether she was an only child or if there were siblings?
Matthias peered inside the first window. In the dim moonlight, he saw the two bedrolls were empty. Earlier he saw a man leave this household with an oil lamp after being called out by his neighbor, but where was the second owner of the bedroll? He peered into the window of the second room and followed the faint light to the furthest corner of the room. Matthias froze, and his stomach churned. There under the cover of darkness, his eyes beheld a sight that made his heart send off a sickening, heavy thud as it sank into his chest’s abyss. He shook his head, slowly stepping backward as a whirlwind of uneasiness swirled around him. He came searching for warmth and a place to rest, instead, he stumbled upon an abominable act that could not even be whispered. There before his very eyes, Zahara's dark secret was brought to light. Matthias tottered back and unaware he was on the edge, he tumbled down the flight of stairs.
A cry tore the night's silence. Zahara heard when Ishmael moved away from her, drained of color as panic pumped through his veins. He quickly rose to his feet fixing his tunic, only to realize he stood in the moonlight and was easy to be seen. Ishmael stepped away from Zahara, staring at her with scorn as if he had touch one of the diseased. With the gesture of a startled bird, he avoided the light, knocking over and shattering the nearby large vase her father made for her birthday a year ago.
"Don't look at me," she turned her face away from his look of revulsion. She sobbed hysterically despite her best efforts to contain the tears and she wrapped herself in the quilt. Every time Ishmael came to Zahara, he took a piece of her and she was sure she'd never be the same. Her father had left to pray for their neighbor Elon and his sick wife an hour ago; she knew, because ever since Ishmael's arrival, sleep evaded her and she was fully awake when the neighbor called for him. When Ishmael came to her again she pretended to be asleep, but to no avail. When he moved away, Zahara's entire body shook from her self-disgust. Something drew his attention. She assumed that the tumbling noise came from elsewhere, but when she heard the discordant bray of their ass drifting on the breeze, she too, knew that someone was in their courtyard. Her heart throbbed. Would this be the end of the disgrace she endured? Had Ishmael's secret finally come to light?
Ishmael saw her mouth sagging just as she was about to release a loud cry and he stopped her before it could start.
"Don't even make a sound!" His voice was a menacing whisper and he pressed his hand to her mouth to prevent her agony from spilling out again. Zahara choked back the sobs.
Ishmael slowly walked to the window; his chest heaving heavily and his breath coming out in erratic spurts, as he stayed hidden in the shadows and away from the line of silver light. She could actually feel his fear as if it polluted the room's air and she breathed it in. He scanned the courtyard through squinted eyes for a sign of another's presence until finally, his eyes landed on something at the bottom of the stairs.
"Someone's out there." He turned back to Zahara who whimpered in the corner. "You caused all of this." He stepped over the pieces of clay and left her in the room. Zahara waited until his footsteps were faded and he was far away before she pulled her knees to her chest. Her mouth opened and the strangled cry sitting inside her erupted. The thought of when this nightmare would end overwhelmed her. The room blurred and melted into silver liquid as she crawled on her hands and knees and began collecting the shards of the broken vase.
"Haven't I served you, God, as best as I can, just as Abba taught me?" Zahara's hands trembled as she collected the broken pieces. "I have been good to everyone I've met, blessing and never cursing. I have reached out to the poor and I have loved others as I have loved myself. So why is this happening to me?" She dropped the pieces and covered her face with her tremulous hands.
He cannot hear you. You are defiled.
"I can't take this. Help me. Please help me. Don't let me walk this road alone."
Zahara could not comprehend why those around her were hurting her. Spiritually, she was beginning to feel exhausted by this tribulation. Tears flowing, she prostrated herself to speak to God.
"I'm hurting, Lord." Raw anguish squeezed her chest as the words fell from her lips. They were the only words that could come out her mouth. "I'm hurting so much!" Zahara folded her fists. A wail of anguish rose in her throat when she could do no more, but weep. She slowly pulled herself up, unable to speak to the Almighty One without crying out hysterically. Pressing her back against the wall, she knocked her head against it repeatedly.
Your prayers are useless.
"I don't want to feel anymore. Please God, make me stone. . .make me stone."
Stones felt nothing. If she were like a stone, Ishmael and everyone else would not be able to hurt her. What could she do that she hadn't already? She prayed and felt as if God would not hear her. She tried to be good to Ishmael, knowing that it was the right thing to do, but still he hurt her again and again. She practiced what her father taught her and yet no one wanted to be her friend. She had done all she could to please God and she felt as if all she did was disappoint him. The battle in Zahara's mind drove her until she hit her head against the wall so hard, she became dizzy and slumped.
Unclean. Unclean. Unclean. A woman touched by her kin is defiled.
"The Lord is my shepherd, I. . .I shall not want. I shall not. . ." Her eyes watered again. She could not finish the scripture she effortlessly recited during her chores. She wanted to pray as she always did and receive that peace that she felt when she was on her knees. Yet, she was tired down to the marrow of trying to pray and feeling a presence that constantly told her that her prayers would not be heard.
Zahara heard voices downstairs and she raised her head frantically. Ishmael had not returned and there was no denying he was not alone in the courtyard. She listened carefully and recognized her father's voice, which was the heavier of the two male voices. He was home again.
"Abba." Zahara struggled for a moment and holding the wall, she managed to stand. She cautiously tip-toed towards the window. There below her in the courtyard, her father returned with an oil lamp for light in his hand. He held the light overhead and questioned Ishmael about the body he was dragging by the legs towards the entrance.
"He's only a boy. . ." Asa's eyebrow jacked as he stooped and moved the lamp to the boy's face. Zahara gasped when she identified Matthias.
"Oh no . . .Matthias." She turned and pressed herself against the side of the window.
"He must have tumbled down the stairs. I found him lying unconscious at the bottom," she heard Ishmael explain. "I know he's not one of the orphan boys. Just looking at his hands, his clothes and the gold entwined on his sandals, he must come from a well-off family. Still, he was sneaking around and Ha'Shem knows what he would have done had he found Zahara upstairs."
Zahara hugged herself and sank to the floor. Matthias was the one who must have been on the stairs, which meant he may have seen what Ishmael did to her. Terror exploded in her chest.
"Ohhhhh!" She placed a hand on her stomach and moaned, sick at the thought of someone seeing what Ishmael did to her. Mortified that her being unchaste might be discovered, she preferred to stay in the darkness squatting upon the sleeping land, than to step out into the moonlight. She pulled her outstretched hand from the light and pressed herself against the wall, determined to stay hidden by the shadows. The feelings of preferring the cover of darkness than the light repulsed her, making her feel even dirtier and Zahara scratched at her skin, wishing this body were not hers.
"Why would a well-off boy sneak into our dwelling at this late hour?" Asa was asking. "Could it be, he was in need of help?"
"Uncle, don't be fooled. Well off or not he's nothing, but a possible thief who should be dealt with by the authorities." If Ishmael could hear himself, he would know how eager he sounded to get rid of Matthias and to keep his true nature hidden.
"He's not a thief," she whispered to herself. When she remembered all Matthias did for her, she knew that a true friend would stand up for his character.
Zahara pulled on her overcoat to cover herself and after shakily descending the stairs, she headed towards the men.
"He's not a thief!"
Asa turned the oil lamp in Zahara's direction. "Zahra, you're awake?"
She saw the vile gleam in Ishmael's eyes and felt a chill spread across her skin.
"I---I heard the noise as well," she quickly tried to explain. Zahara looked down at Matthias who was unconscious and her eyes widened when she saw blood oozing from the gash at his temple. "Please don't give him over to the authorities. His name is Matthias. I know him."
"You know him?" Ishmael's mouth twisted in a snarl of disdain; the ugliness within at last revealing to be worse than its external self. "How well do you know him?"
Zahara ignored Ishmael's contemptuous glare and looked into her father's eyes, hoping that he would believe her when she said that Matthias meant to do no wrong.
"I do not believe he's a thief. Some boys were mocking me today and he stood up for me." She knelt next to Matthias' body and gingerly brushed his hair from his forehead. "I may not know him fully, but trust when I say Abba, he's not a bad person."
Zahara entertained no doubt about Matthias' character. Though she knew not the boy's heart, she believed that one's actions bespoke more about the character than words ever did.
There must be a licit reason for his appearance in the courtyard tonight.
Asa nodded his head as if that was all he needed to hear. "He stays."
"He stays, Ishmael." Asa cut across his nephew, hindering him from making another argument to hold Matthias in a negative light. "We are called to help those in need and the boy obviously injured himself with the fall. By morning when he awakes, we'll hear why he was here at this twelfth hour."
"Thank you, Abba." Zahara smiled and when she looked at Ishmael, his eyes turned a venomous glare as it narrowed at her. Asa gave Zahara the lamp and turned to Ishmael.
"Come, let's take him inside."