You saw nothing, you hear me, you saw nothing!
Matthias grunted when something rough, and moist touched his face. A cat meowed in his ear, and he pushed it off his chest, where it had been walking. He turned away and something hot sliced down his neck like a blade; when his eyes eased open, the light stabbed them. It took some time before he could open his eyes again. When he did, he saw sunlight streaming in. Broad strips of its rays stretched from the window like fingers upon him. All traces of night had disappeared. In the distance, the birds chirped merrily, possibly from their perches on the labyrinth of olive branches. There were faint sounds of voices somewhere, but none sounded familiar at the moment, and he could not focus on what was being said. He looked above him at the beams inlaid in the walls for ceiling and his muddled brain tried to latch on to some sense of his surroundings.
"Where am I?" Matthias instinctively sat up on the bedroll and cried out from the sharp pain drumming against his skull. He touched his head, only to realize the bandage wrapped around it.
What's this? His hands traced the bandage as he tried to remember the injury.
There was a patter of footsteps and someone joined him in the room.
"Ah, so you are awake!" A voice broke through the haze. Matthias looked up at the man with silver-streaked hair and beard framing his face, standing above him.
"I am Asa, and you must be Matthias." Asa's voice was strong like a commander's, yet his genial face wore a lop-sided smile. There was a tranquil air about him that eased Matthias' tension.
"How do you know my name?" The words grated in Matthias' throat, and he continued to wince from the pain in his head.
"Zahra, bring the feverfew. He's awake!" Asa called out. "You're lucky you have no broken bones after such a fall. Only a head wound and a few bruises."
Matthias blinked several times until he remembered where he was. This must be the girl's home, and Zahra must be short for Zahara. He looked at the man Asa again; he was old enough to be her father. The memory unwound before him and Matthias recalled trying to find shelter for the night, only to stumble upon the sight of Zahara and another man. He clenched his jaw from the building pressure in his head that came with the memory. When he heard her footsteps approaching, every one of his muscles became as tight as the bow of an archer.
"Zahra, why are you walking so slowly?"
Zahara ambled to her father and handed him the cup of the herbal remedy. She said nothing as she stood by whilst the cat purred and rubbed itself lovingly against her legs. Her eyes never once looked up at Matthias who sat silently, staring wide-eyed at her. Color ran high in her cheeks, and she gripped the sides of her tunic as if pained to be in his presence. It was then Matthias knew; she was aware that he saw what had happened. He wondered why Zahara and that man were intimate and he felt discomfited by the knowledge of their secret rendezvous. Try as he might, he could not help staring.
"She is beautiful, isn't she?" Asa's voice diverted his attention and his eyes fell on Asa who was studying him. "My daughter. You're staring at her as if you've never seen a young woman before."
Though there was humor in Asa's smile, heat crept into Matthias' cheeks as he looked at the cat instead. He should have guarded his expression more. Now Asa was misreading his reaction.
"Her name means a flower in bloom," Asa added as he handed Matthias the cup. "Drink this. It will ease the pain."
Matthias looked questioningly at the golden yellow liquid.
"It’s a pain reliever extracted from the plant feverfew."
"Thank you." He sipped the hot liquid after Asa's explanation. When he tasted the honey that sweetened the drink, he found it quite enjoyable and continued to sip.
"My nephew found you at the bottom of our stairs last night."
Matthias glanced up at Asa from the cup's rim. Nephew?
"Apparently you fell down the stairs while trying to go towards the upper rooms." Asa's brow hitched as he waited to hear Matthias' defense.
"My apologies. . ." He paused his drinking and placed the cup on the side of the bedroll. Suddenly nervous, he stammered and pulled his nose as he spoke. "I---I know it was wrong of me to sneak into your home. I---I just wanted a place to rest for the night."
"Judging by the fine quality and embroidery of your clothing, you appear wealthy enough. Don't you have your own home?"
Matthias noted his indigo blue overcoat lined in silver thread embroidery and his gold coated leather sandals. A marked contrast to Zahara's wash out blue tunic and Asa's dull brown. Their sandals were of strong material, though very worn. He felt the differences in their status as sure as he felt the heat of the morning sun on his leg. He noticed that there was no trace of aversion in Asa's voice, though he knew how things must look after he entered someone's courtyard at such a late hour. He sighed heavily, ashamed of what he had to admit.
"My father abandoned me without a word as to whether he'd be back---the dog," he uttered the last words under his breath. "I no longer have a family or a home because of him." The shame vanished like an ousted flame as he held the cup again and tightened his hold. "My uncle, Jethro, kicked me out of his home as well. All because I stood up for my mother's name. He called her a whore. I retaliated and now he wants to have nothing to do with me."
"So you're Jethro's nephew. I see. . ."
Matthias gulped the rest of the herbal drink, and Asa nodded his head as he gathered his thoughts.
A good smell flirted with his nose and convinced Matthias' mouth to water.
"I should get back to the kitchen. I'm not yet finished with the morning meal," Zahara said. She too had smelled the same aroma.
"Serve Matthias first, he must be hungry." Asa held out the jar and empty cup to his daughter. Zahara took them and hastened from the room without another word. Matthias noticed that she was certainly in a hurry to leave his presence. His nervousness departed when Zahara did, and he looked at the cat that had walked on his chest a moment ago, sitting by the door and licking its stomach. It was a white, slender cat with a singularly strange black patch on its forehead.
"Her name is Yasmin. She's Zahra's cat." Asa stooped and scratched behind Yasmin's ear, obviously very fond of the cat.
"You seem to like her very much and she you." Matthias ventured a smile when Yasmin dropped on her side and beckoned with her head for Asa to continue. He lifted Yasmin and with the purring cat in hand, he sat on the nearby trunk that doubled as a stool.
"Zahra sprang her on me. She never could turn away from treating the helpless. When Yasmin first arrived, she was the most timid kitten I'd ever encountered, clearly as a result of maltreatment. Her white coat was covered with black smudges and her right leg was broken, thus her limp, the leg never having fully grown to reach the others."
A playful Yasmin reached out for Asa's hand, holding his fingers between her paws and biting lightly on them.
Asa chuckled. "She was so frail I was sure she would not last the night. Somehow, Zahra was able to get the scared cat to trust her and she grew stronger as the weeks passed."
As Asa spoke, Matthias saw how highly he thought of his daughter.
He couldn't possibly know what Zahara and that man were doing and be so calm about it.
The smile grew beneath Asa's trimmed mustache. "I remember Zahra's first encounter with a stray animal. She would place supper leftovers in front of the door for the community’s neglected animals. Eventually, she started bringing the strays home. That's when I knew she was different."
No, he couldn't know anything.
Matthias looked down at his hands.
"When my mother Abiah was stoned to death for. . .her crime. . .everyone else left me. Zahara, however, stayed behind and tried to comfort me. I'm not sure I can ever forget that."
When he raised his head, Asa was quiet and Zahara stood at the door with the morning meal in hand. Matthias' cheeks tinged with blush and he immediately scratched his nose.
"You did not tell me you were there when Abiah was stoned," Asa said to Zahara who stood there as still as a mouse.
"I meant to come home, Abba," she began slowly, as she rested the jug of water on the mantel that extended from the wall. "I couldn't just turn away. Something compelled me to stay---"
"You still disobeyed me." Asa glanced at Matthias and stopped. Aware of his company.
Zahara's head hung. "I know."
"Uncle Asa!" A voice called from the courtyard, and the bleat of a lamb was heard. Matthias saw Zahara stiffen.
"We'll finish this another time." Her father arose. "Eat Matthias, you'll receive strength."
Asa left the room, leaving Matthias and Zahara alone. She looked about to burst into tears but bit her lip to keep from surrendering. A whisper of breeze stirred the leaves of the trees and Zahara's wild strands flew in her face from the invigorating drift of air.
"Please leave as soon as you're better." She handed the tray with his meal to Matthias, her downcast eyes silhouetted by long full lashes. "You shouldn't have even been here."
Matthias looked at the three bowls; oatmeal, pine nuts, and diced fruit. He chose the oatmeal first.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have---" He saw that trying to explain his actions was useless. "I'll leave as soon as my head wound heals."
He could tell she was scared from what he now knew about last night, but Matthias couldn't just overlook the incident. The Scribes and the Pharisees taught them that they were not to do according to the practices of the pagans in this land. What he discovered last night, was the doings of the Greeks and Romans and should not be found among the people of the Most High.
To think I believed in her. He couldn't explain the sadness that returned now that he saw her in this new light.
"Even if I left, it wouldn't change what I saw." He set the bowl down and spoke in a low voice. Somehow he found it easier to hide his scorn than his disappointment. "Zahara. . . what you were doing was not right. It was wrong. Very wrong. You're not even married."
The blood leeched from Zahara's face at his words, and she shook her head. "What did you see? You saw nothing." She gripped the neck of her tunic as if he was looking at her naked form. What was that in her eyes? Shame or fear? He couldn't tell.
"Yes, I did see something. Something that never should have taken place." Closing his eyes for a second, he swallowed hard, knowing the unpleasant memory would stay with him like the bitter taste of karela. "You know the law of the Holy One clearly states 'None of you shall approach anyone who is near of kin to him, to uncover his nakedness'. Yet, I saw the both of you---"
"Don't speak of it!" She exclaimed, eyes springing wide. "You saw nothing, you hear me, you saw nothing!"
"You're fornicating with your own. . ." It took some gulps before Matthias could finish his sentence. "Your own cousin!"
She shook her head wildly. "You think---you think I willingly did that with him?"
Zahara turned her back on Matthias, shoulders quaking as she sobbed. "I don't enjoy him touching me." Her voice came out in a whisper so soft, he wasn't sure he had heard her. There was silence as Matthias tried to understand what he had stumbled upon last night. Had he judged her wrongly?
"Are you saying, what I saw was a man forcing himself on you?" Matthias asked. He felt the fire in his veins. The thought of her being forced into an act she never consented to. He shook when he replayed the images in his head. If it was as she hinted, then Ishmael was to be severely punished for his crime. But if she was forced, then why did she just lay there? Why didn't she scream or fight him? Or tell her father!
Zahara dropped to her knees. Alarmed, Matthias crawled to her.
"Are you alright?" he asked as he slid next to her. Her hands rested limply at her sides, and she appeared to have given up. When she faced him, her brown eyes were dark with exhaustion. She's not lying. She's really being hurt.
"My father doesn't know. No one knows. You can't tell anyone about what you saw. Promise me you won't say a word." She gripped his hand and begged him. "Please Matthias, promise me."
"I. . ." He hesitated.
"Say the words. Say you promise!"
She released his hand and exhaled the small sense of relief.
"I'm not fine. I'm tired of carrying this. . .this. . ." Her voice came out in a croak and her eyes slipped closed. "So tired." She lay down on her side and as Matthias looked at her, he saw a glimpse of the damage the incident had inflicted. He had misinterpreted what he saw last night. Seeing Zahara's face now, he could see the fear raging in her eyes and hear the tears in her voice. Matthias looked back at the door in case anyone was nearby. He heard nothing but faint voices downstairs. Folding his legs, he sat before Zahara. She kept her eyes closed as long drawn sobs rattled through her chest.
He listened to her crying, not knowing what he could do to make it stop. The only thought that came to mind was speaking about his mother.
"I hear people calling my mother the foulest of names. No one wants to acknowledge they were even her friend." He paused when she opened her watery eyes, staring up at him as he stared into hers. "Even so, I still defend and stand by her. My family has forsaken me because of it. But I can't help it."
"You still respect your mother even though she's a condemned adulteress?" She sniffed.
He nodded his head. "Yes and I always will."
Sitting up languidly, she touched his shoulder. "Indeed you are different Matthias. I pray you won't change." Her hand slid from his shoulder.
"I'm despicable, aren't I? After what you saw, you must find me repulsive." Her voice broke on that line, and she wrapped her arms around herself. The moisture returned to her eyes, and she looked away again.
"No, just him," Matthias responded truthfully. "You are not the one at fault. He's your older cousin---he's a sick man."
"I brought this upon myself. I seduced him."
"Madness!" His eyebrows knitted together. One would think that Zahara had consented because she did not scream or struggle with the man, but if anyone could see her despondency, they would know she was the victim. Matthias could not understand why Zahara blamed herself for what her cousin had done. Hearing her self-loathing made him so irate his face burned. Her cousin was the one at fault, and yet she did not see it.
"You don't understand. I'm too open to people." She rubbed at the streak marks on her face, and her gaze flickered beyond him to a moth on the wall. Matthias looked at the moth as well, the black and orange patterns on the wings, like staring eyes. Matthias' heart raced in his chest and he could scarcely breathe as Zahara related what her cousin did to her during his stay at their home. He still did not see how Zahara seduced him. Instead, she made it much clearer that her cousin could not control his carnal desires. Incest was against the laws of God. Ishmael should be stripped, flogged and stoned near the cliffs. However, as a girl, it would be hard for Zahara's word to be believed over Ishmael's.
"I'll help you tell. I witnessed it, Zahara. I witnessed him taking advantage of---"
"Please." She held up her hand to stop him, and he instantly became silent. "What if I told you this was not the first time this has happened to me?"
Matthias looked at her, bewildered.
“What if I were to tell you Ishmael wasn’t the first?”
Zahara raised a dark, watery gaze to Matthias and began to explain.
"I told you about my search for a connection with the Almighty One. But at that time I also experienced something very terrible." Zahara bit her lip and pulled her knees to her chest before continuing. Her voice became softer and the hairs on the back of Matthias' neck raised, for he felt that what he was about to learn should never be told.
"My father was called to the house of the Rabbi Ezra to deliver clay tablets. I was playing a game with his son Timothy when he lured me into a secret chamber. I didn't cry out. I should have, but I didn't."
The shock swallowed him and Matthias turned to ice. His insides were frozen. No heart beat. No lungs expanded. Rabbi Ezra was one of the most well-respected rabbis in their community. Such an abominable secret could not come from the home of a highly respectable man. The rabbis were their teachers and the leaders of their people. They taught the very laws of Ha'Shem.Their lifestyles were held in high regard as pure and holy, which was why no one dared speak out against them.
His mouth opened and he managed no more than a whisper. "Do you know what you're saying? To think a rabbi’s son would. . .no, he would never. . ."
"I suppose a cousin would never do such a thing either, but look at what Ishmael did to me." Her voice broke again.
He was abhorred at what he had just heard.
"My Lord." The ice turned to fire again. He stood when the impact of her words crashed on him. "I don't want to hear any more of this." Matthias' emotions boiled until his headache returned. "Are you lying to me? Because if you are, may the wrath of God come upon your head for tainting the innocence of a rabbi's family."
"I swear to you by the Holy altar that if I have tainted the reputation of anyone, may the Almighty One take this feeble breath of mine."
No Jew in their right mind would swear on the Holy Altar in Jerusalem and not tell the truth. When Matthias thought about the unfair treatment Zahara faced by the ones around her, he repeatedly punched the wall, blinded by his hazing vision.
"Matthias!” Zahara called out his name, but he ignored her. "Matthias you’ll alert my father."
Holding the wall with one hand, he gripped his aching ribs with the other.
"What's wrong with you?" He hung his head and eyes burning with unshed tears, he fumed. "Why would you keep these things to yourself? People have been hurting you and no one even knows."
"You know now," she whispered, and he faced her with lividness marring his face. "I never told because I can't face the shame. My father is all I have and if he only knew what I just told you, he'll never look at me the same."
Zahara rocked back and forth. "It's too late; I'm not his Zahra anymore." She pulled a loose lock of black hair behind her ear.
Matthias only thought about the consequences the men could face for hurting her. He never stopped to think about the consequences she would face when the truth came out. He hated it, but he now understood her silence. She was indeed cursed. No one would marry Zahara. She was defiled. As he looked at the scared and vulnerable girl before him, he felt soft light filling him as an urge to care for her took over his heart.
"I'm ruined." She looked down at her hands as if seeing something there that no one else could.
She looked up at him, eyes glistening. He came to her side again and tilted his head to meet her stare.
"A girl told me on the mount; God knows the plans He has for us, plans for a future far beyond today," he said softly, and she stopped her rocking.
Momentarily speechless, she eventually murmured. "He has plans for you, Matthias. But. . .I now wonder sometimes. I'm not sure of the plans God has for me anymore. I'm not even sure if there's a future for someone like me." She smiled sadly. "I once dreamed I would be the bride of a good man who would take care of our household. I wished to honor my father by bearing the sons he never had. Now my dreams are ashes."
"How so? Because of what happened to you?" he asked because he knew what it was to not have any hope of looking forward to a brighter tomorrow. Zahara gripped her tunic as if the question stung like vinegar in a wound. "You're not ruined. You're the innocent one in all of this." He tried to comfort her, though he knew it could not wash away the truth.
"Then.Why.Don't.I.Feel.That.Way?" She lashed out at him. She sprang to her feet and started to pace like a restless tiger trapped behind bars.
Her words were sharp as a chest pain, and he wondered at the depth of hate she had for herself. She truly believed she was the guilty one. Matthias halted Zahara's pacing when he placed his hands on her shoulder and she gasped at his boldness. His eyes swept over her from her forehead to her feet.
"I don't see it." He finally looked into her eyes and said, "I don't see the ugliness."
He quickly removed his hands when he saw her stiffen and her brow drew together.
"You don't? Impossible. Any other man that knew what you now know, wouldn't be able to look at me without scorn."
Matthias shrugged his shoulders.
"I too am strange, Zahara." It had happened at his mother's stoning as well. Everyone else saw a condemned woman, but all Matthias saw was his beloved mother. Try as he may, he didn't see the ugliness Zahara claimed came upon her because of Timothy and Ishmael's abomination. He reached for the basin and water jar on the mantel and placed the basin between them. He poured out the water and waited for the ripples to settle before he showed Zahara what he saw.
"There, that's it," Matthias said as the ripples faded. "That's what I see."
In the water's image, he saw her stare at herself as if she'd never seen her reflection before. Matthias wondered if she saw how beautiful she was to everyone who laid eyes on her.
"Clear as water. . .without a trace of impurity," he murmured.
At first, Matthias could tell her reflection mesmerized her, but then she looked at herself ruefully, and her head hung to her chest. The gloom overshadowing her presence made the air seem eerie as if a sudden grayness had descended upon everything. Keeping these secrets was really burdensome for her. He could not even begin to imagine what she must have been through all this time, alone in the darkness with no one to help her.
"You could never undo what happened to you, but what if I told you that I could be a friend who would stand by you and get you through this?" He sat next to her.
She lifted her head. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying you're not alone." He pointed to the reflection showing them side by side. "Let me help you. If you wouldn't tell anyone, fine. Just don't carry this on your own anymore."
Zahara covered her face. "I can't let you do that. This is mine alone. You weren't even supposed to have seen it."
He peeled her hands from her face, just as she had done to him. He finally understood what he saw in the depths of her eyes then. She knew the unspoken language of pain. That's why the cat eventually trusted her. That's why she spent so much time with the hurt and the helpless. She empathized with them. That's why she connected so well with me on Mount Casius.
"I don't know why I was the one to have discovered your secret, but there must be a reason beyond explanation and I can't just overlook it. God knows my heart and He knows I can't just watch someone suffer."
Zahara reached for his hand and placed it on her own. He held her stare and her sadness dissipated as she managed a small smile.
"Ok, Matthias." She nodded her head. "From this day onward you and I are forever bonded by my secret."
The leaves rustled for a long moment, as if moved by a different kind of passing wind. Matthias looked towards the window, sensing another Presence was in the room with them. The words came to him then, fleeting and unbidden.
I am close to the broken-hearted and will save those who are crushed in spirit.
When Matthias looked into Zahara's face, he knew he would stay by her side.