Read an Excerpt
The Assassin’s Daughter
We came like doves across the desert. In a time when there was nothing but death, we were grateful for anything, and most grateful of all when we awoke to another day.
W e had been wandering for so long I forgot what it was like to live within walls or sleep through the night. In that time I lost all I might have possessed if Jerusalem had not fallen: a husband, a family, a future of my own. My girlhood disappeared in the desert. The person I’d once been vanished as I wrapped myself in white when the dust rose into clouds. We were nomads, leaving behind beds and belongings, rugs and brass pots. Now our house was the house of the desert, black at night, brutally white at noon.
They say the truest beauty is in the harshest land and that God can be found there by those with open eyes. But my eyes were closed against the shifting winds that can blind a person in an instant. Breathing itself was a miracle when the storms came whirling across the earth. The voice that arises out of the silence is something no one can imagine until it is heard. It roars when it speaks, it lies to you and convinces you, it steals from you and leaves you without a single word of comfort. Comfort cannot exist in such a place. What is brutal survives. What is cunning lives until morning.
My skin was sunburned, my hands raw. I gave in to the desert, bowing to its mighty voice. Everywhere I walked my fate walked with me, sewn to my feet with red thread. All that will ever be has already been written long before it happens. There is nothing we can do to stop it. I couldn’t run in the other direction. The roads from Jerusalem led to only three places: to Rome, or to the sea, or to the desert. My people had become wanderers, as they had been at the beginning of time, cast out yet again.
I followed my father out of the city because I had no choice.
None of us did, if the truth be told.
I DON’T KNOW how it began, but I know how it ended. It occurred in the month of Av, the sign for which is Arieh, the lion. It is a month that signifies destruction for our people, a season when the stones in the desert are so hot you cannot touch them without burning your fingers, when fruit withers on the trees before it ripens and the seeds inside shake like a rattle, when the sky is white and rain will not fall. The first Temple had been destroyed in that month. Tools signified weapons and could not be used in constructing the holiest of holy places; therefore the great warrior king David had been prohibited from building the Temple because he had known the evils of war. Instead, the honor fell to his son King Solomon, who called upon the shamir, a worm who could cut through stone, thereby creating glory to God without the use of metal tools.
The Temple was built as God had decreed it should be, free from bloodshed and war. Its nine gates were covered with silver and gold. There, in the most holy of places, was the Ark that stored our people’s covenant with God, a chest made of the finest acacia wood, decorated with two golden cherubs. But despite its magnificence, the first Temple was destroyed, our people exiled to Babylonia. They had returned after seventy years to rebuild in the same place, where Abraham had been willing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to the Almighty, where the world had first been created.
The second Temple had stood for hundreds of years as the dwelling place of God’s word, the center of creation in the center of Jerusalem, though the Ark itself had disappeared, perhaps in Babylonia. But now times of bloodshed were upon us once more. The Romans wanted all that we had. They came to us as they swarmed upon so many lands with their immense legions, wanting not just to conquer but to humiliate, claiming not just our land and our gold but our humanity.
As for me, I expected disaster, nothing more. I had known its embrace before I had breath or sight. I was the second child, a year younger than my brother, Amram, but unlike him entirely, cursed by the burden of my first breath. My mother died before I was born. In that moment the map of my life arose upon my skin in a burst of red marks, speckles that, when followed, one to the other, have led me to my destiny.
I can remember the instant when I entered the world, the great calm that was suddenly broken, the heat of my own pulse beneath my skin. I was taken from my mother’s womb, cut out with a sharp knife. I am convinced I heard my father’s roar of grief, the only sound to break the terrible silence of one who is born from death. I myself did not cry or wail. People took note of that. The midwives whispered to one another, convinced I was either blessed or cursed. My silence was not my only unusual aspect, nor were the russet flecks that emerged upon my skin an hour after my birth. It was my hair, the deep bloodred color of it, a thick cap growing, as if I already knew this world and had been here before.
They said my eyes were open, the mark of one set apart. That was to be expected of a child born of a dead woman, for I was touched by Mal’ach ha-Mavet, the Angel of Death, before I was born in the month of Av, on the Tisha B’Av, the ninth day, under the sign of the lion. I always knew a lion would be waiting for me. I had dreamed of such creatures ever since I could remember. In my dreams I fed the lion from my hand. In return he took my whole hand into his mouth and ate me alive.
When I left childhood, I made certain to cover my head; even when I was in my father’s courtyard I kept to myself. On those rare occasions when I accompanied our cook to the market, I saw other young women enjoying themselves and I was jealous of even the plainest among them. Their lives were full, whereas I could think only of all I did not have. They chirped merrily about their futures as brides as they lingered at the well or gathered in the Street of the Bakers surrounded by their mothers and aunts. I wanted to snap at them but said nothing. How could I speak of my envy when there were things I wanted even more than a husband or a child or a home of my own?
I wished for a night without dreams, a world without lions, a year without Av, that bitter, red month.
WE LEFT the city when the second Temple was set in ruins, venturing forth into the Valley of Thorns. For months the Romans had defiled the Temple, crucifying our people inside its sacred walls, stripping the gold from the entranceways and the porticoes. It was here that Jews from all over creation traveled to offer sacrifices before the holiest site, with thousands arriving at the time of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, all yearning to glimpse the gold walls of the dwelling place of God’s word.
When the Romans attacked the third wall, our people were forced to flee from that part of the Temple. The legion then brought down the second wall. Still it was not enough. The great Titus, military leader of all Judea, went on to construct four siege ramps. Our people destroyed these, with fire and stones, but the Romans’ assault of the Temple walls had weakened our defenses. Not long afterward a breach was accomplished. The soldiers entered the maze of walls that surrounded our holiest site, running like rats, their shields lifted high, their white tunics burning with blood. The holy Temple was being destroyed at their hands. Once this happened, the city would fall as well, it would be forced to follow, sinking to its knees like a common captive, for without the Temple there would be no lev ha-olam, no heart of the world, and nothing left to fight for.
The desire for Jerusalem was a fire that could not be quenched. There was a spark inside that holiest of holy places that made people want to possess it, and what men yearn for they often destroy. At night the walls that had been meant to last an eternity groaned and shook. The more the Romans arrested us for crimes against their rule the more we fought among ourselves, unable to decide upon a single course of action. Perhaps because we knew we couldn’t win against their might we turned on each other, riven by petty jealousies, split apart by treachery, our lives a dark tangle of fear.
Victims often attack one another, they become chickens in a pen, bickering, frenzied. We did the same. Not only were our people besieged by the Romans but they were at war with each other. The priests were deferential, siding with Rome, and those who opposed them were said to be robbers and thugs, my father and his friends among them. Taxes were so high the poor could no longer feed their children, while those who allied themselves with Rome had prospered and grown rich. People gave testimony against their own neighbors; they stole from each other and locked their doors to those in need. The more suspicious we were of each other, the more we were defeated, split into feuding mobs when in fact we were one, the sons and daughters of the kingdom of Israel, believers in Adonai.
IN THE MONTHS before the Temple fell, there had been chaos as we labored against our enemies. We made every effort to win this war, but as God created life, so did He create destruction. Now in the furious red month of Av, swollen bodies filled the kidron, the deep ravine that separated the city from the glimmering Mount of Olives. The blood of men and beasts formed dark lakes in our most sacred places. The heat was mysterious and unrelenting, as if the wickedness of earth reflected back to us, a mirror of our sins. Inside the most secret rooms of the Temple, gold melted and pooled; it disappeared, stolen from the most holy of places, never to be seen again.
Not a single breeze stirred. The temperature had risen with the disorder, from the ground up, and the bricks that paved the Roman roads were so hot they burned people’s feet as the desperate searched for safe havens—a stable, an abandoned chamber, even the cool stone space within a baker’s oven. The soldiers of the Tenth Legion, who followed the sign of the boar, planted their banners above the ruins of the Temple with full knowledge this was an affront to us, for it threw in our faces an animal we found impure. The soldiers were like wild boars themselves, reckless, vicious. They were coursing throughout the countryside, killing white cockerels outside synagogues, meeting places which served as bet kenesset and bet tefilliah, houses of both assembly and prayer, as an insult and a curse. The blood of a rooster made our houses of worship unclean. Women scoured the steps with lye soap, wailing as they did so. We were defiled no matter how they might scrub or how much water they might pour onto the stones.
With each violation we understood the legion’s warning: What we do to the rooster, we can do to you.
ONE EVENING a star resembling a sword arose over the city. It could be spied night after night, steadfastly brilliant in the east. People trembled, certain it was an omen, waiting for what was to come. Soon afterward the eastern gate of the Temple opened of its own accord. Crowds gathered, terrified, convinced this occurrence would allow disaster to walk inside. Gates do not open if there is no reason. Swords do not rise in the sky if peace is to come. Our neighbors began to trade any small treasures they had, jostling through the streets, determined to escape with what little they possessed. They gathered their children and began to flee Jerusalem, hoping to reach Babylon or Alexandria, longing for Zion even as they departed.
In the ditches that filled with rainwater during times of sudden flooding, there was soon a river of blood running down from the Temple. The blood cried and wept and cursed, for its victims did not give up their lives easily. The soldiers killed the rebels first, then they murdered haphazardly. Whoever was unfortunate enough to pass by was caught in their net. People were torn from their families, herded off streets. There came the evening known as the Plague upon Innocence. Any illusion that our prayers would be answered vanished. How many among us lost our faith on this night? How many turned away from what our people had always believed? A boy of ten had been taken in irons, then crucified because he had refused to bow down to the soldiers. This boy had been afflicted with deafness and had not even heard the command, but no one cared about such things anymore. A world of hate had settled upon us.
The sin of this boy’s death rose like a cloud, evident to us all. Afterward, twenty thousand people panicked in the streets, trampling each other in a frenzy, forsaking their dignity as they flocked onto the roads.
By the time morning had broken, nearly all had abandoned Jerusalem.
AS FOR ME, my world was over before the Temple began to burn, before stone dust covered the alleyways. Long before the Temple fell, I had lost my faith. I was nothing to my father, abandoned by him from the moment I was born. I would have been neglected completely, but my mother’s family insisted a nursemaid be hired. A young servant girl from Alexandria came to care for me, but when she sang lullabies, my father, the fearsome Yosef bar Elhanan, told her to be quiet. When she fed me, he insisted I had eaten enough.
I was little more than a toddler when my father took me aside to tell me the truth of my birth. I wept to discover the circumstances and took on the burden of my entrance into this life. My name was Yael, and it was the first thing about myself I learned to despise. This had been my mother’s name as well. Every time it was spoken it only served to remind my father that the occasion of my arrival in this world had stolen his wife.
“What does that make you?” he asked bitterly.
I didn’t have an answer, but I saw myself reflected in his eyes. I was a murderer, worthy of his indignation and wrath.
The girl hired to care for me was soon enough sent away, taking with her all consolation and solace. I knew what awaited me upon her departure, the stunted life of a motherless child. I sobbed and held on to her skirts on the day she left us, desperate for her warm embrace. My brother, Amram, told me not to cry; we had each other. The servant girl gave me a pomegranate for luck before she gently unwound her skirts from my grasp. She was young enough to be my sister, but she had been like a mother to me and had given me the only tenderness I’d known.
I gave my gift of the pomegranate to my brother, having already decided to always place him first. But that was not the only reason. I was already full from my portion of sorrow.
AS I GREW, I was quiet and well behaved. I asked for nothing, and that was exactly what I received. If I was clever, I tried not to show it. If I was injured, I kept my wounds to myself. I turned away whenever I saw other girls with their fathers, for mine did not wish to be seen with me. He did not speak to me or take me onto his lap. He cared only for my brother, his love for Amram evident at every turn. At dinner they sat together while I was left in the hall, where I slept. There were scorpions secluded in the corners that soon grew used to me. I watched them, fearing them but also admiring how they lay in wait for their prey on the cool stones without ever revealing themselves. I kept my sense of shame deep inside, much the way the scorpion hid its craving. In that we were alike.
All the same, I was human. I longed for a lock of my mother’s hair so I might know its color. In that hallway I often wept for the comfort of her arms.
“Do you think I feel sorry for you?” my father demanded one day when he’d had enough of my wailing. “You probably killed her with your crying. You caused a flood and drowned her from the inside.”
I had never spoken back before, but I leapt up then. The thought that I might have drowned my mother with my own tears was too much to endure. My chest and throat burned hot. For that instant I didn’t care that the man before me was Yosef bar Elhanan and I was nothing.
“I wasn’t the one at fault,” I declared.
I saw a strange expression cross my father’s face. He took a step back.
“Are you saying I am the cause?” he remarked, throwing up his hands as though to protect himself from a curse.
I didn’t answer, but after he stormed out, I realized that we did indeed have something in common, more so than the scorpion and I, even if my father never spoke to me or called me by name. We had killed my mother together. And yet he wanted me to carry the blame alone. If that was what he wanted, then I would take on the mantle of guilt, for I was a dutiful daughter. But I would not weep again. Nothing could cause me to break this vow. When a wasp bit me and a red welt rose on my arm, I willed myself to be still and not feel its pain. My brother came running to make certain I hadn’t been harmed. He called me by the secret name he’d given me when we were little more than babies, Yaya. I loved to hear him call me that, for the pet name reminded me of the lullabies of my nursemaid and a time before I knew I’d brought ruin to my family.
I burned from the sting of the wasp but insisted I was fine. When I looked up, I saw the glimmer of tears in Amram’s eyes. Anyone would have thought he’d been the one who’d been wounded. He felt pain more easily than I and was far more sensitive. Sometimes I sang to him when he couldn’t fall asleep, offering the lullabies from Alexandria whose words I remembered, as if I’d once had another life.
ALL THE WHILE I was growing up I wondered what it might be like to have a father who wouldn’t turn away from the sight of me, one who told me I was beautiful, even though my hair flamed a strange red color and my skin was sprinkled with earth-toned flecks as though I’d been splattered with mud. I’d heard my father say to another man that these marks were specks of my mother’s blood. Afterward, I tried to pluck them out with my fingers, drawing blood from my own flesh, but my brother stopped me when he discovered the red-rimmed pockmarks on my arms and legs. He assured me the freckles were bits of ash that had fallen from the stars in the sky. Because of this I would always shine in the darkness. He would always be able to find me, no matter how far he might travel.
When I became a woman, I had no mother to tell me what to do with the blood that came with the moon or escort me to the mikvah, the ritual bath that would have cleansed me with a total immersion into purity. The first time I bled I thought I was dying until an old woman who was my neighbor took pity on me and told me the truth about women’s monthly cycles. I lowered my eyes as she spoke, shamed to be told such intimate details by a stranger, not quite believing her, wondering why our God would cause me to become unclean. Even now I think I might have been right to tremble in fear on the day that I first bled. Perhaps my becoming a woman was the end for me, for I had been born in blood and deserved to be taken from life in the same way.
I didn’t bother to ring my eyes with kohl or rub pomegranate oil onto my wrists. Flirtation was not something I practiced, nor did I think myself attractive. I didn’t perfume my hair but instead wound the plaits at the nape of my neck, then covered my head with a woolen shawl of the plainest fabric I could find. My father addressed me only when he summoned me to bring his meal or wash his garments. By then I had begun to realize what it was that he did when he slipped out to meet with his cohorts at night. He often wrapped a pale gray cloak around his shoulders, one that was said to have been woven from the strands of a spider’s web. I had touched the hem of the garment once. It was both sinister and beautiful, granting its wearer the ability to conceal himself. When my father went out, he disappeared, for he had the power to vanish while he was still before you.
I’d heard him called an assassin by our neighbors. I frowned and didn’t believe this, but the more I studied his comings and goings, the more I knew it to be true. He was part of a secret group, men who carried the curled dagger of the Sicarii, Zealots who hid sharp knives in their cloaks which they used to punish those who refused to fight Rome, especially the priests who accepted the legion’s sacrifices and their favor at the Temple. The assassins were ruthless, even I knew that. No one was safe from their wrath; other Zealots disowned them, objecting to their brutal methods. It was said that the Sicarii had taken the fight against Jews who bowed to Rome too far, and that Adonai, our great God, would never condone murder, especially of brother against brother. But the Jews were a divided brotherhood, already at odds in practice if not in prayer. Those who belonged to the Sicarii laughed at the notion that God desired anything other than for all men to be free. The price was of no consequence. Their goal was one ruler alone, no emperors, no kings, only the King of Creation. He alone would rule when they were done with their work on earth.
MY FATHER had been an assassin for so long that the men he had killed were like leaves on a willow tree, too many to count. Because he possessed a skill that few men had and claimed the power of invisibility, he could slip into a room as a shadow might, dispatching his enemy before his victim was even aware that a window had been opened or a door had closed.
To my sorrow, my brother followed our father’s path as soon as he was old enough to become a disciple of vengeance. Amram was dangerously susceptible to their violent ways, for in his purity he saw the world as either good or evil with no twilight space in between. I often spied them huddled together, my father speaking in my brother’s ear, teaching him the rules of murder. One day as I gathered Amram’s tunics and cloak to wash at the well I found a dagger, already rippled with a line of crimson. I would have wept had I been able, but I had forsaken tears. I would not drown another as I had drowned my own mother, from the inside out.
Still, I went in search of my brother, finding him in the market with his friends. Women alone were not often seen among the men who came to these narrow passageways; those who had no choice but to go out unaccompanied rushed to the Street of the Bakers or to the stalls that offered pottery and jugs made from Jerusalem clay, then, just as quickly, rushed home. I wore a veil and my cloak clasped tightly. There were zonnoth in the market, women who sold themselves for men’s pleasure and did not cover their arms or their hair. One mocked me as I ran past, her sullen face breaking into a grin when she spied me dashing through the alleyway. You think you’re any different than we are? she called. You’re only a woman, as we are.
I pulled my brother away from his friends so that we might stand beneath a flame tree. The red flowers gave off the scent of fire, and I thought this was an omen, that my brother would know fire. I worried over what would happen to him when night came and the Sicarii gathered under cedars where they made their plans. I begged him to renounce the violent ways he’d taken up, but my brother, young as he was, burned for justice and a new order where all men were equal.
“I can’t reconsider my faith, Yaya.”
“Then consider your life” was my answer.
To tease me, Amram clucked like a chicken, strutting, his lean, strong body hunched over as he flapped imaginary wings. “Do you want me to stay home in the henhouse, where you can lock me inside and make sure I’m safe?”
I laughed despite my fears. My brother was brave and beautiful. No wonder my father favored him. His hair was golden, his eyes dark but flecked with light. I saw now that the child I had once mothered had become a man, one who was pure in his intentions. I could do little more than object to the path that he chose. Still I was determined to act on his behalf. When my brother rejoined his friends, I went on through the market, making my way deep within the twisting streets, at last turning in to an alley that was cobbled with dusty, dun-colored bricks. I’d heard it was possible to buy good fortune nearby. There was a mysterious shop spoken about in whispers by the neighborhood women. They usually stopped their discussion when I came near, but I’d been curious and had overheard that if a person followed the scrawled image of an eye inside a circle she would be led to a place of medicines and spells. I took the path of the eye until I came to the house of keshaphim, the breed of magic practiced by women, always pursued in secret.
When I knocked on the door, an old woman came to study me. Annoyed by my presence, she asked why I’d come. As soon as I hesitated, she began to close the door against me, grumbling.
“I don’t have time for someone who doesn’t know what she wants,” she muttered.
“Protection for my brother,” I managed to say, too unnerved to reveal any more.
At the Temple there was the magic of the priests, holy men who were anointed by prayer, chosen to give sacrifices and attempt miracles and perform exorcisms, driving out the evil that can often possess men. In the streets there was the magic of the minim, who were looked down upon by the priests, called charlatans and impostors by some, yet who were still respected by many. Houses of keshaphim, however, were considered to engage in the foulest sort of magic, women’s work, evil, vengeful, practiced by those who were denounced as witches. But the min who performed curses and spells would have never spoken to a girl such as I if I had no silver to hand over and no father or brother to recommend me. And had I gone to the priests for an amulet, they would have denied me, for I was the daughter of one who opposed them. Even I knew I didn’t deserve their favor.
The room behind the old woman was unlit, but I glimpsed herbs and plants draped from the ceiling on lengths of rope. I recognized rue and myrtle and the dried yellow apples of the mandrake, what is called yavrucha, an herb that is both aphrodisiac and antidemonic in nature, poisonous and powerful. I thought I heard the sound of a goat, a pet witches are said to have, from inside the dim chamber.
“Before you waste my time, do you have shekels enough for protection?” the old woman asked.
I shook my head. I had no coins, but I’d brought a precious hand mirror with me. It had belonged to my mother and was beautifully crafted, made of bronze and silver and gold, set with a chunk of deep blue lapis. It was the one thing I had of any value. The ancient woman examined it and then, satisfied, took my offering and went inside. After she shut the door, I heard the clatter of a lock. For a moment I wondered if she had disappeared for good, if perhaps I’d never see her or my mirror again, but she came back outside and told me to open my hand.
“You’re sure you don’t want this charm for yourself?” she cautioned, insisting there was only one like it in all the world. “You might need protection in this life.”
I shook my head, and as I did my plain woolen veil fell. When the old woman saw the scarlet color of my hair, she backed away as though she’d discovered a demon at her door.
“It’s good you don’t want it,” she said. “It wouldn’t work for you. You need a token that’s far more powerful.”
I snapped up the charm, then turned and started away. I was surprised when she called for me to wait.
“You don’t ask why?” The market woman was signaling to me, urging me to return, but I refused. “You don’t want to know what I see for you, my sister? I can tell you what you will become.”
“I know what I am.” I was the child born of a dead woman, the one who couldn’t bear to look at her own face. I was immensely glad to be rid of that mirror. “I don’t need you to tell me,” I called to the witch in the alleyway.
I WENT HOME and delivered the gift to my brother; it was a thin silver amulet to wear around his neck, the medallion imprinted with the image of Solomon fighting a demon prostrate before him on the ground. On the back of the charm, The Seal of God had been written in Greek along with the symbol of a key, to signify the key Moses had possessed that had unlocked God’s protection. So, too, would this amulet protect my brother in the blood-soaked future he was set upon.
Amram was delighted with the token. He claimed I had the ability to know his mind, for he had been praying for guidance and wisdom, the smallest portion of that which God had once granted to Solomon. I kept from him that it was the woman who dabbled in magic who had known what he’d desired, not I.
The demons, my brother pledged, must never win. That was the mission of the Sicarii, and they could not fail. He opened his heart, and when he spoke, I believed in him. Amram had a way of convincing a listener to accept the world with his vision, making it possible to see through his eyes. When I gazed upon my brother, all that was before me was the kingdom of Zion and our people free at last.
In very little time, my brother surpassed my father at their dark task. He was the best not by chance but by choice. He learned the ways of the assassin from my father and also from a man named Jachim ben Simon, who had become his teacher. Ben Simon was said to know death better than most and was revered for his use of a double-edged knife made of silver. Under his tutelage, Amram was determined to go forward with his skill, to rise above all others. My brother was devoted, practicing with the intensity of a master craftsman. But as he did so, his moods and tempers changed before my eyes. I watched the boy I knew disappear and a cold, fearless assassin take his place. From our father he learned to slip through the night unseen and climb towers using a single strand of rope wound around his waist. He practiced silence, not speaking for days on end, becoming so still that even the mice in our garden failed to notice him. He went barefoot to ensure there was no sound when he approached, only the suddenness of the blade, taught by Ben Simon, taken even further by Amram’s own natural grace.
Before long, my brother was called upon for the most dangerous assignments, all of which carried the chill of death. Although he hadn’t the cloak that was said to grant invisibility, his great gift was his ability to disguise himself. He dressed as a priest or as a poor man, hiding himself in borrowed garments, gaining access to whomever was considered to be a traitor. He could make himself appear ancient, his face transformed by etched lines of charcoal, or seem a mere boy, eyes shining. People whispered that he was invincible, and it was soon rumored that the amulet of Solomon around his neck protected him from evil. His friends adored him and called him Hol, the name of the phoenix. They vowed that he resembled this mystical bird that arose from fire and ash; he escaped from every attempt the officials made to catch and murder him.
Because of my father and brother, other men were afraid to speak to me. The Sicariis’ deeds were mysterious, but there were some secrets everyone knew, especially in Jerusalem. The men of my family were pointed to in the street, whispered about, both revered and despised. No wonder no one would have me as his wife, not even the brute who drove donkeys to the market. I was a young woman, but I was treated like a beggar, scorned, my reputation tarnished. It was only when men saw the unusual color of my hair that I noticed their curiosity and, often, their desire. Their gazes were disconcertingly sexual, obvious even to one as inexperienced as I. I knew I would enter their dreams when they couldn’t control what they yearned for. But a dream is worthless in the world. What good did their desire do for me? In the light of the day, they walked right by. I wanted to shout out Take me to every man who passed by. Rescue me from what has happened, from the pillar of bitter salt I have become, from the crime I committed before I was born, from themen of my house, who lurk outside the Temple seeking only revenge. Take me to your bed, your house, your city.
I removed my veils in public places. I did not bother to braid my hair but let it shine, seeking salvation from my loneliness.
Still they all turned away, unable to see me, for I was no more than red air swirling past them, invisible to their eyes.
BEFORE LONG there were posters with my brother’s likeness set upon the walls. The Romans would pay for information, more if he was captured, even more if he was found guilty of his crimes and crucified. Amram no longer came home and instead was resigned to moving around the city in the dark; he belonged to dreams rather than to the routine of our daily lives. My father and I were the only occupants in our house. Though we didn’t speak to each other, we both looked out into the darkness as it began to fall. We knew that was where Amram was. Once again we shared something. We could not hear of a capture without wincing. We showed each other flashes of raw emotion every time the door rattled. But it was never him, only the wind.
One terrible night it was not the wind but rather a troop of soldiers at the door. My father shrugged when Amram’s name was brought up; he insisted he had no son. It was his bad fortune to have only one child, a worthless daughter.
When even Amram’s friends, those who had praised him as the unconquerable phoenix, dared not help him, my brother knew his life in Jerusalem was over. He had no choice but to escape. There were fortresses in the desert our people had commandeered. If he could reach one, he might be safe. Before he left, he took the risk to come and say good-bye. After he and my father embraced, Amram motioned me aside. He had brought a farewell gift. A blue scarf. It was far too beautiful for me, more than I deserved, yet he insisted I take it.
“There are worms that spend their lifetimes spinning such threads, and now you refuse to honor their destiny?”
“No worm made this.” I laughed to think of such heavenly fabric being spun by insects. It was the opposite of my father’s spider-made cloak, which had been woven of fabric so pale it faded into air. This blue silk announced itself with a splash of unexpected color.
Amram vowed it was true, insisting that while the worms had spun their silk in the boughs of mulberry trees, they had been devoted to me, as he was. Upon completing their task, each worm had turned into a blue butterfly, arising into the heavens once its work on earth was done.
I looped the scarf over my hair. I would think of heaven every time I wore it and of my brother, who was so steadfast in his faith. I stood at the gate of our house, remembering that he had said the freckles on my skin were like stars. Like the stars above they would lead him to find me again.
THERE WERE FEW of us left in the city. We rummaged through ruins, cautious, in fear for our lives. At night we heard the screams of those who were taken to the Temple, captured by soldiers prowling the alleyways in search of anyone of our faith. The members of the legion drank wormwood, a dangerous, nearly lethal brew which made them vicious as well as drunk. No woman was safe. No man’s life was his own. Whoever was able had fled to Alexandria or Cyprus, but my father insisted we stay. He had more work to do, and that work was the knife that he carried. In time, Jerusalem would awake, and like a lion it would free itself from the nets of slavery. Teeth and claws, I heard him say, that is what our future will bring. But I knew what he really meant was flesh and bones.
I knew from my dreams what it meant to come face-to-face with a lion.
SMOKE DRIFTED from fires set throughout the city, and the murk acted as a screen so that our people could escape from the marauding soldiers. I could smell olive wood, burning willow. Scorched remnants ignited palm-thatched roofs and haystacks. On the pallet where I slept, in our small house, I covered my head and wished I lived in another place and time. I wished I had never been born.
One afternoon while I was at the market searching the nearly empty bins of the venders for peas and beans for our meager supper, the Romans appropriated our home. I stood watching from a hidden place in my neighbors’ abandoned courtyard, for their house had been ruined months earlier. The soldiers ransacked our house before they burned it to the ground and our belongings were strewn in the chalky dirt. Sparks flew up like white moths, but when they fell down upon the earth, they smoldered bright crimson, like the petals on the flame trees.
If I had little before, I had close to nothing now. I went through the rubble and took only what could fit in my two hands, a small griddle to cook flatbread, a lamp made of white Jerusalem clay to burn oil on the Sabbath, my father’s prayer shawl, singed at the fringes on the four corners, his leather flask, a packet of salt that would taste of smoke when used in cooking. I waited for my father, hidden behind a wall. My skin was dusky, and there were ashes in my hair. If my father didn’t come back, if he had been murdered or had fled without telling me, I thought I might simply stay behind the wall, planted there like a flame tree.
Finally my father appeared, slinking through the twilight, wearing the cloak that allowed him to make his way without being detained. When he saw the prayer shawl in my hands, he knew the time to flee had come. I wondered if he would leave me there to be the beggar woman I’d always feared I might become, to scrounge through the garbage. But he motioned for me to follow as another man might signal a dog. I resolved to do as I was told and trudged after him. Perhaps our blood relation meant something to him after all, or perhaps he took me with him because he feared how my mother in the World-to-Come might respond if he abandoned me there in the street. Or he may have simply remembered it was he who had gotten her with child, and that I’d been correct to consider him a partner in my crime. If my tears had drowned her from the inside out, he was the one who had ushered my life into hers.
AT NIGHT we went from house to house, pleading to be let in. There were fewer and fewer of our people in the city every day—they had fled or were in hiding—and it became difficult for us to find those willing to help. I was a dog and nothing more, asking no questions, unable to think for myself. I hovered in the shadows as people turned us away. Even those who believed in my father’s politics were wary, unwilling to leave themselves at risk. Only a few left their doors open, and even they made sure to look the other way and not greet us with an embrace. Often we slept on straw pallets, grateful for a shelter meant for goats. We shared the animals’ chamber and slept restlessly with the sound of beasts breathing beside us. I had the same dream again and again. In my dream there was a lion sleeping in the sun, one I dared not wake. One night I dreamed that the lion was eaten whole by a snake that devoured everything in its path. I stood barefoot in my dream, on a stretch of rocky earth that was so blindingly white I couldn’t open my eyes. I felt compassion for this wild beast, the king of the desert, for in my dreams he had given in to the snake without a fight. He had looked at me, beseeching me, staring into my eyes.
That night my father shook me awake. My feet were bleeding on the rocks in my dream. Before me there was the coiling black viper of the desert that wraps itself around its prey and refuses to let go. He had devoured the lion and now had come for me. In my dream I offered the scaled beast almonds and grapes, but it had a taste for human flesh. I begged for it to release me as I mourned for the lion. I yearned for that beast in the way that a person yearns for her own destiny. What happens is already written, and the lion had been written beside my name.
“We must go and not look back,” my father said when he woke me.
If I wasn’t quick enough, my father would doubtless leave me behind. I didn’t argue, though I felt a tide of dread in that dark chamber. There was blood on the assassin’s robe, and his eyes were shining. Something had happened, but I dared not ask what it was. I rose from my pallet on the floor, ready in an instant. I gathered the belongings I had carried with me from house to house. The blue scarf my brother had given to me, the griddle and lamp I had found in the rubble of our home. We left with another family, that of the assassin Jachim ben Simon, the man who had apprenticed my brother and taught him how to kill with the curved, double-edged knife. This assassin was known to be terrifying when he struck his enemy, a whirlwind who sought only vengeance. He had been a priest once, the oldest son of a family of priests, and had spent his youth in study and prayer. But he’d seen how gold lined the pockets of only a few, how the poor were trod upon and used and enslaved. He’d seen his own father agree to make offerings and sacrifices on behalf of the Romans in our Temple on the Day of Atonement, insisting that Roman sins could be laid upon our altars and be forgiven by our God.
He’d taken up the knife of the Sicarii and excelled at his work. He was a truly dangerous man, all sinew and muscle. I saw his big, distinctive head and cast my eyes down, not wanting to glimpse a man who was so feared. His wife was named Sia, his young sons Nehimiah and Oren. I heard the wife crying as she clutched her sons. Their family had little more than we did, but they did have a donkey, which Ben Simon’s wife and sons rode upon. I walked behind them, like a woman in disgrace. In truth, I was used to being an outcast, more comfortable on my own. Jachim ben Simon looked over his shoulder once and seemed startled, as if he’d forgotten about me and now spied a wraith.
As we made our way out of Jerusalem, I was already trying to decipher who among us would die and who would live, for surely we would not all survive. Without brute strength, even our escape would be difficult. The streets were mayhem. All Jews had been expelled from the city, and any found would be instantly murdered. That was the new edict and therefore the law. Many of the priests had plunged into the sewers, hoping to escape the city undetected. But their collusion could not help them now; they were in the realm of the rats, struggling for their lives along with the rest of us.
We could hear what sounded like a roar as the Temple was torn down. It was Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month, the day on which I’d been born. In the years to come, people would swear that six angels descended from heaven to protect the walls of the Temple so that it would not be entirely destroyed; they vowed those angels sat there and wept and are weeping there still. The Romans used battering rams that weighed one hundred tons, and more than a thousand men were needed to swing them so that they might loosen, then pull down the huge stones upon which King Herod’s mark had been etched. Ropes were hoisted by hundreds of men, some of them ours, enslaved, cursing themselves for their fate and for the wretchedness of their own deeds. Stone should last forever, but on that night I came to understand that a stone was only another form of dust. Streams of holy dust loomed in the air, and every breath included remnants of the Temple, so that we inhaled that which was meant to stand throughout eternity.
Once again the fires that had been set created a smoke screen and this helped in our escape. For that we were grateful, despite the smoldering heat. The air was thick and gray. I held my scarf to my mouth and tried not to breathe in sparks. I guessed that my father had killed someone that night and that was why his robe was spattered red. I was thinking about such matters when Ben Simon’s wife, Sia, came to walk beside me. She pitied me because I followed behind in the clouds of dust that had been stirred up. She was perhaps ten years older than I, with a mass of black hair set into coils. Her eyes were dark with gold flecks. She might have been beautiful had she not been the devoted wife of an assassin, worn down by fear. Assassins should not marry, I decided then, or have daughters, or allow anyone to love them.
“Would you like to ride with my sons for a while?” Ben Simon’s wife suggested.
I could see she was tired, and I was used to walking. I thanked her and said no, I was happy to follow. I hoped she would leave me alone.
“I’m so glad to have you here,” she blurted. “Leaving would be so much worse without another woman beside me.”
I glanced at her, wondering what she wanted of me. She smiled, taking my hand, and then I understood. She wanted a friend.
I urged her to return to her sons. She should leave me to tread last, as I was invisible to most people, even without a cloak such as the one my father wore. Perhaps I had inherited that ability, or perhaps I had learned its secrets from watching my father. Either way, the Romans who searched for us would see only a swirl of dust wherever I walked.
Sia wouldn’t hear of it. “You’re wrong,” she remarked. “You would be the first one they’d see. Your hair is so beautiful it makes me think of flame trees.”
I wondered if her words were a curse, for I had been standing beside a flame tree when my brother admitted he was an assassin. It was not possible for her to know, but on those rare occasions when I dreamed of my mother, she came to me as a flame tree, and in my dreams I bowed my head before her and wept.
When I studied Sia, I could see that her intention was to be kind on a night pierced by danger and uncertainty. We walked close, drawn together by the peril around us. We were journeying through the Valley of Thorns, under a sky hung with so many stars they made me think of stones in the desert, countless, too white to look upon. They say the face of our Creator is like that, so bright that a single glance brings blindness. I kept my eyes downcast. I would have preferred to walk alone, but Sia set her pace with me, her arm linked through mine.
She confided that my father and her husband had killed an important Roman general and that was why we had made haste to flee. She herself had cleaned the blades of their knives, washing the metal in pure water, reciting a prayer as she did. She was obliged not to ask questions, and to do as her husband demanded, but she had an urge to confess that she had handled a knife streaked with human blood, a confession made to me as we trudged after the men. Her voice broke as she spoke of it.
“How will God punish me?” she murmured.
I hushed her—women were not to speak of such matters—but it was too late. Ben Simon had overheard and turned to glare at us. He was a tall, imposing man, with dark olive skin, fearsome, a deep scar etched across one side of his face. Once again I gazed at the ground in an attempt to avoid him. He called sharply for Sia to be quiet.
“Let us not speak of this,” she said then. “Sometimes it’s better not to know what men must do.”
WHEN WE could walk no farther, we stopped at a resting place, an oasis the assassins’ friends had spoken of in glowing terms. Every Zealot had a plan should disaster come, a direction in which he would run if need be. This was the first stop, a small green space where camels who had run off during the chaos had gathered. The beasts ran when we approached, kicking up dust, afraid that we would throw ropes around their necks, as unwilling to be slaves as we were. There was a citron tree growing there. The fruit of the tree is called pri etzhadar, the lemony etrog that is made into a jam. These specimens were bruised, sour without honey to sweeten the taste, but we didn’t care. We were starving and thirsty. We ate in silence, wolfing down our meager supper. In the distance, we could see Jerusalem burning. The smoke rose up in a funnel cloud, then disappeared. I counted stars, so bright above us. Sia sat beside me and whispered. She insisted it was a good omen to find the citrus on the first night of our journey, and although I did not argue with her, I knew otherwise. This bitter tree was nothing more than a key to a door and that door opened into the desert.
I had overheard my father speaking with Ben Simon. We were not headed toward Alexandria, or toward Cyprus. Instead we were taking the ancient route that led toward the Salt Sea, the route of the doomed. In the month of Av, the birds were unable to fly where we were going, even at night. It was too hot, the air unrelenting, an oven. You could bake bread on a stone. We would roam as far into the desert as we could, for it was there my father believed we would find the Zealots and their fortresses, my brother among them.
On the night we fled, as the Temple burned and the sky was ringed with fire, there was a light breeze. This would be the coolest time we would know before we entered into the wilderness. But there was to be something more that cast me into a burning world on the night we left Jerusalem. I walked down to a well that had been abandoned long ago. There was no longer any water. That wasn’t really a surprise. People often lied about water, promising pools where there were none, dreaming of water in a world composed of dust. All the same, if someone crouched on hands and knees to dig, it was possible to find mud. Drained through clenched fingers, water would well up, there for whoever was willing to sink to her knees. I wasn’t too proud to do so.
Determined to get what I wanted, I managed to fill half a jug with silty water, strained first through my fingers, then through the fabric of my blue scarf. When I was done I rose, greedy with thirst. I turned away from the well, then gazed up in alarm. I didn’t see the night sky filled with stars, or the fires of Jerusalem, only the other assassin, Ben Simon, who had been watching me. My arms were covered with mud, my tunic cast open. I felt myself flush with heat. I didn’t understand why he had appeared out of the dark or why he stayed. He didn’t even know my name. I thought he would turn away, but he stared at me for a long time, the way a man looks at a deer to gauge if it’s too far away to chase, or just near enough to catch. He nodded, and then I knew. I wasn’t invisible after all.
I COUNTED OFF the days in the desert by cutting my leg with a sharpened rock. Our people were not allowed to injure ourselves; that was the practice of pagans and nomads in their time of mourning. Do not cut your bodies to mourn for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you, the Lord commanded us in the Fourth Book of Moses. But I heard only the voice of the desert, not the words of the Almighty. I hid the cuts beneath my shawl. In the life we led, pain was something to get used to, to inure yourself against. I would rather hurt myself than be hurt by someone else, and so I took up this practice with a sense of purpose and without remorse.
It was the first time I broke our laws. After that, the rest came easily to me.
I was thrown together with Sia and her children when I would have preferred to be alone. Still, she was kind to me and I became accustomed to her. Because she was older and married, I thought she would expect me to be deferential, but instead she considered me a sister, and I grew to enjoy her company. There were days when we laughed and made our rough life into a game, even though the men threw us sullen looks. We worked well together, collecting the few greens we could find, making stews of our dwindling supply of oil and olives, dried figs and lentils. We cooked bread on the hot stones of our fire, covering the loaves with ashes so they might bake. Sometimes the men went off to hunt, bringing back an occasional partridge, which we added to our stews.
I was deeply affected by what a good mother Sia was to her sons, how uncomplaining when they clamored for her attentions. Her boys were little more than babies, and she sang them to sleep every night, determined not to relinquish all of the loving-kindness they’d known in the world we had left behind. Each time she sang I thought of the girl from Alexandria who had cared for me when I had no mother. I often fell asleep beside the children, imagining that Sia’s lullabies were meant for me. My new friend had tirelessly combed out the ashes that had fallen into my hair during the burning of Jerusalem. When we found a shallow pool, we rushed into it as soon as we spied the glittering water, able to forget, however briefly, what our circumstances were, splashing each other as if we were indeed sisters.
Secretly, I continued to record my time in the desert by etching each day into my flesh. I kept to myself, but I couldn’t help but be aware of Ben Simon, taking note of the scar on his face. Whenever I saw him watching me, I quickly covered my leg. I didn’t want him to know who I really was, a neglected, ugly girl with callused hands. And yet something connected us, perhaps because we were both scarred. Clearly he saw me as no one else ever had. I could see his face transform as he stared at me; there was something burning and reckless in his glance. It came to be that the only time I felt alive was when he looked at me. His very presence was like bee stings, riveting my attention. I began to brood over him, wondering how he had been scarred and what dark matters he had attended to in Jerusalem. I had persistent, slow-burning thoughts of him jumbled inside my head, ones that embarrassed me and made me feel that I was a traitor, though I’d done nothing wrong.
Once, when there was a pale moon, I went to the pool where Sia and I had bathed. During my time of monthly bleeding, I had sequestered myself away as was our custom. Now it had ended and I needed to cleanse myself. In Jerusalem, we had gone to the mikvah to bathe. Here there was only the pool in the nachal, the ravine where birds came to drink in the evenings, flocks of ravens, larks, and huge griffon vultures, the strong, fearless creatures we called nesher that nested in the cliffs. I found that the water was fast disappearing with the rising heat of Av. Still, I took off my tunic and splashed myself and felt some relief. I heard a rustling in the tamarisk trees, a variety that can be found growing in the harshest of places. Quickly, I drew on my cloak, fearful that one of the leopards whose territory we had entered might be stalking me, hungry enough to consider me his prey.
There was an echo of footfalls, and I froze until they vanished. I returned to our camp, cleansed but on edge. Everyone was sleeping inside our small goatskin tent, which was fastened to the ground with bolts made of horn. Only Ben Simon was awake. He seemed restless. I flushed to think perhaps he had seen me at the pool. He called me to him, and I went, my eyes lowered.
“It’s dangerous,” he warned.
He had never spoken to me before. I didn’t know if he meant there was danger in walking in the wilderness alone or in raising my eyes to meet his. I felt outraged that he might think he could tell me what to do, treating me as he would a child, or worse, his slave, and yet I felt a flicker of pleasure when I noticed the spiky green leaves in his hair. They were from the tamarisk that grew by the pool, a tree that lifted its boughs toward heaven in a place where nothing else could survive.
TWENTY-ONE CUTS and then the night when it happened. Afterward I wondered if I had been marking off the time until it did. Was that what I was waiting for? Was that where my desire had led me? Perhaps I had peered into the Book of Life, which metes out fate, and while in the depth of my slumbers I had seen his name written there. Or perhaps it was only that I was an envious girl who had nothing, and was therefore willing to take what belonged to another woman, one who was my only friend.
I was building a fire to cook our meal of lentil cakes on the griddle I’d brought with me from Jerusalem. He crouched down next to me. The sky paled with heat. The larks were flying in the dim light, and great colonies of bee-eaters were calling, their brilliant blue feathers slicing through the hazy air. Jachim ben Simon was more commanding than most men and I could feel the heat of his presence beside me. He didn’t look at me this time. Instead he reached down and ran his hand along my leg, lingering over the cuts I had made until my skin seemed on fire.
“You’re not afraid of the things other women fear,” he said.
I realized this was true. He still wasn’t looking at me, but he seemed to know me, even though I was hidden inside my veils. Most women feared for the lives of their children and husbands. Their concerns were starvation, illness, demons, enslavement. I feared the lions in my dreams, half-believing I would be devoured by one of the creatures that stalked through my sleep. I was afraid an angel would be waiting for me in the desert, sent there to tell me that my life was a ladder of mistakes, that I was born a murderer, responsible for the death of my own mother before I took my first breath, that my crime was worse than that of any assassin, for I was guilty not only in the eyes of my father but in the eyes of God.
Ben Simon took his hand away, but I could still feel the heat of his touch. I felt it for days. Did that mean he was an angel, hidden among us, there to judge me? Or was he only a man who wanted to satisfy himself?
WE WERE nearly going blind in the white light that pierced through our tent during the most brutal hours. Travel was impossible in the heat of the day, for the winds were merciless and could cut a man to pieces. We were city people who had strayed in the wilderness, wanderers with no direction, stranded in the territory of robbers, and thieves, and holy men. Emptiness was the name of the desolate land we crossed. We saw no one. When the pool of pale water disappeared into the sand, when even the mud left behind became hard-baked and dry, there was no reason for us to stay in our camp.
We packed up our few belongings—the goatskin tent, the handheld spindles we used to spin wool, our knives and the griddle, a jar in which there was still some oil, the lamp that we burned to mark the Sabbath, though there was little enough oil to do so. We moved on, searching for water. We ventured onward beneath the inky sky in the early mornings, during hours that were less brutal, before the sun emerged from the dark. Our route led us to a well, but it was dry. It led to an orchard, but it was barren. Olive trees had withered here, their silvery bark turned to empty shells. It was said that the nomads who crossed this wilderness were often forced to kill their camels and drink hot blood when their thirst could not be contained. There was no grass, and even the herds of ibex, wild goats who were unafraid to race across the rockiest cliffs, didn’t often venture into this harsh land. Only the leopards came here. Though they were mysterious and rare, we occasionally spied paw prints. These were the fastest animals in all creation, unearthly in their beauty, but they journeyed alone. Only those who lived cut off from all others of their kind would come here.
We went forward, believers with nothing to believe in. Our lips were so dry they cracked and turned white. Sia rubbed the last of the olive oil on her sons’ mouths, so their lips would not bleed. The days piled up like twigs, bent and useless. At last we found a cave to shelter us from the light and wind. There was a pool of still water, murky, with a lacy film across the surface, unclean, yet we put our faces into it like dogs. The east wind, Ruach Kadim, came up from Edom, flaming with heat. We wound ourselves in linen scarves, thin fabric made from flax, cooler than wool, perhaps because the reeds from which this fabric was made from had grown in marshes and carried water in the thread. We veiled our faces, making sure to keep our hands over our ears. Even then we couldn’t drown out the sound of the desert; the howling railed against us like a living being.
WE STAYED in the cave for days on end, too spent and parched to go on, afraid of meeting with the Roman garrison that patrolled the desert. We burned bits of the thornbushes we found to frighten away the jackals. A drift of white smoke rose from the mouth of the cave, the ash catching in our eyes and throats. The assassins hunted, but they found no game. They prayed, but there was no relief. I still cut my leg with a sharp rock. If I didn’t keep track of my life, no one else would. As time passed we began to starve. Again I wondered who among us could outlast the others. Our hunger kept us rapt and exhausted. We slept so many hours I could not tell the difference between my waking life and my dreams. I dreamed of Jerusalem and of my mother and of the flame tree in the marketplace. Those images were more real to me than the foul stink of the cave. Secretly, I had begun to eat the damp earth where moisture gathered near the rocks. My skin turned dusky, and it appeared that the desert was spilling out of me, the way they say sand pours out when you stab a demon with a knife that has been blessed and cleansed in pure water.
One night my father and Ben Simon slit the donkey’s throat. There are those who say animals have no spirits, but I heard the donkey scream. It had a voice like any man or woman, one that begged for breath and life. When I ran out to the cliffs, I could still hear its echo. The men said a prayer thanking God for what they had convinced themselves had been an easy death for the poor creature, for they’d used a ritual knife; then they made a fire out of a pile of twigs and roasted the meat. I could see pools of the donkey’s dark blood on the hillside below our cave. The stars were above us in the sky. Some could be seen quite clearly, others were hidden in the murk of the darkness. We waited for the morning star, which we named Cochav hashachar and others called Venus, looking for it to break through the sky in bands of pale, shimmering light and give us one more day.
After we ate, I felt defiled. The donkey’s bones simmered in a pot over the fire so that we might have food until the next Sabbath if we doled it out in scraps that we wolfed down. We were like people who had gone backward, barbarians in the desert. There were nomads who lived in this way; we saw evidence of them sometimes. They were wild men, pagans, their faces painted, their spears double-edged, their calls to each other the bleating of savages. Their lives depended on their camels, who gave them meat, and milk, and shelter when the tanned hides were stretched into tents. Their women gave birth in the sand, staining it slick and black; their dead were left on the rocks for the carrion; their men were exceedingly dangerous, for they had their own codes. No one who