Miriam stirred reluctantly as her mother's voice shattered her sleep.
"Miriam, it's time to get up now! I've called you thre times already. You've got chores to do!"
Miriam tried to rise. The pain in her back brought her up short.
"Coming, Mom." Even to herself her voice sounded weak, and she felt utterly spent, despite having just awakened.
Getting down the ladder was a tremendous ordeal. Her legs felt rubbery–almost useless–especially her right one–and she held on to the sides of the ladder so hard that she felt splinters in her hands as she descended. Once her feet were safely on level ground, she paused for breath. She was trembling.
Shuffling into the courtyard, she noticed her mother grinding grain–something she should have been doing. Suddenly, the sun burst over the top of the bluff above Nazareth, reflecting off the white limestone, spraying sunshine in all directions. A quail cried out to all around, always sounding panicked even when nothing at all warranted it, and A crested lark greeted the morning rapturously. Normally Miriam would have agreed with him–but not today. Though her friends hated getting up early, Miriam loved mornings. She loved listening to the calls of the many birds that coexisted beside the villagers. The dawn always seemed to hold the promise of a brand new day, and the relative coolness made it easier to do the never-ending tasks without having to wipe sweat from one's face and eyes. She was usually the first one in her family to get up, and, sometimes to the annoyance of her parents, especially her mom, she was always effervescent in the morning. Today, however, she knew, something was very different–and very, very wrong.
"Miriam, are you all right?" Miriam turned and found her mother studying her, eyebrows creased in concern. "What is it, child?"
"I–I don't know. I just hurt. And I'm so tired!"
"You look flushed." Anna reached out a trembling hand to touch her daughter's cheek.
"You're on fire, child!" she said in alarm. Here, drink this, and go back to bed." She handed Miriam a clay cup of water, cold from only recently being brought from the spring. Miriam devoured it, then felt a twinge of guilt as she realized once again that her mother had done a chore that was normally assigned to her.
"No, Mom, it's ok–I can help with that." She reached to take the mortar and pestil from her mother's hand. Anna lightly slapped the girl's hand away.
"I said go to bed. You'll never break that fever being up."
"I–I don't know if I can make it up the ladder, Mom."
"Joachim!" Ever the lady, it always surprised Miriam how powerful her mother's voice could be when she wanted it to. "Joachim!" Miriam thought she noted a touch of panic in her mother's voice.
Joachim emerged from the house at a run. He, too, must have also noticed the panic in her mother's tone, Miriam thought.
"What is it, Anna?" Then he stopped short and looked at Miriam. "What's wrong with you, girl? You are definitely not your bubbly happy self."
"I told her to go back to bed. She has a terrible fever. She says she doesn't think she can make it up the ladder. Can you help?"
"Isn't that what dads are for? Come on, Miriam, let's go. When we get to the ladder, hold tight onto my shoulders."
The pair inched slowly up the narrow wooden ladder to the roof. Once at her bed, Miriam let go of her father's shoulders and collapsed onto it, exhausted.
"Shall I get your mom to help you get into your night clothes?"
Miriam shook her head.
"I'm sure she'll be in to check on you shortly. Do you need anything?"
Again Miriam replied with a simple headshake. It seemed to her father that it simply took too much strength to do anything else."
Joachim climbed hastily down the ladder, leaving his daughter to undress.
"I'm worried about Miriam," he told Anna once outside.
"So am I. Just a few days ago, as you know, the taylor called me to their house because their daughter Leah had the summer fever. Despite everything I tried, she just didn't make it. I feel so bad. Now I wonder if I brought the fever here."
"You're a wonderful healer, Anna. You've saved many lives. Everyone here in Nazareth says there's no one as skilled with the herbs as you. You did your best. You always have. You've nothing to be ashamed of."
But the feeling that she might have brought the sickness to Miriam gnawed relentlessly at Anna.
Anna ground several herbs together, then set them to steep in boiling water. Once done, she put part of the mixture into a cup of cool water and carried it to Miriam.
"Drink this, Sweetheart." Miriam tasted the herbs & made a face.
"Forget it, Mom"
"Miriam, you will drink this."
Sick as she was, Miriam knew that certain set of her mother's jaw, and realized it was futile to refuse. She drank the nasty mixture to its dregs. She understood she could not have done otherwise.
The ritual continued throughout the day. Each time, though, it seemed harder and harder for Miriam to sit up to drink the awful liquid. Even when Anna offered pure water, the effort required for Miriam to drink seemed to increase as the day wore on.
Miriam was aware that her mother was offering liquid again. She didn't even try to take it. Dimly, it registered on her consciousness that it must have been night. It felt cooler, and the light didn't hurt her eyes. Suddenly, she was unable to breathe. Fear clawed at her stomach as she fought for air. She herd her mother shriek her father's name. She knew she was dying.
Then, just as suddenly, all fear left. She felt as though she were floating, warm, and peaceful.
"Miriam." The voice was that of a man, and Miriam thought it was the kindest, gentlest voice she'd ever heard. She looked up into the man's face. He was smiling, all the way up to his hazel eyes. He held out his arms, and she went to him eagerly, climbing onto his lap.
"Miriam, you can't stay here. You have a very special mission on earth that only you can fulfill. You need to go back now."
"Please, no! It hurts so much!"
"I know, Sweetheart. But I'll help you. You'll get through. Your mission–it'll change the world. And think about your folks–they'll be devastated. If you absolutely refuse, then of course I'll have to honor that, but I hope you won't." He smiled again–that smile that made the love in his eyes light up every part of his face.
"Can you tell me what is?"
"you'll find out in good time," he reassured.
"This isn't a dream, is it?"
He chuckled a little.
"No, it's not a dream, I assure you."
Miriam sighed. "All right, I'll go back–but only because you've asked me to."
"Good girl. Life on earth is hard, I know, but your mission will change the world very much for the better, I promise." His face began to fade, and she suddenly realized she was falling at a tremendous speed.
"Miriam!" her mother was screaming her name, sheer panic in every syllable.
Miriam coughed out, "Mom!"
"O, dear child, I thought you were dead!"
"I had a dream, Mom. It was the most beautiful dream."
"Don't push yourself, Now, Sweetheart. It's very common for sick people to have strange dreams. You can tell me later."
As the time passed, Miriam noticed that she was less content to rest and found lying in bed extremely boring. Truthfully, she was beginning to feel like a burden. Her mother insisted she rest, though, because she still had a fever. Several times she tried to tell Anna about her dream, but always got the same reply. After awhile, she stopped trying, much to her dismay, because she wanted to remember every little detail, and she thought that repeating it might help her do that. She also thought that if she forgot something, perhaps her mother would remember.
Miriam thought the happiest day of her life was when her mother at last proclaimed one morning that her fever had broken. She bounded out of bed with her usual energy–in her mind at least–and was shocked and horrified when her body didn't follow suit. Her right leg almost instantly buckled, and she sat heavily on the bed in order to keep from falling. She looked down at her twisted, bent limb, and a wave of nausea swept over her. She looked to her mother for reassurance, only to find that she, too, appeared horrified and perplexed. The realization that the illness might have longterm ramifications seemed to have hit the two women full force simultaneously.
"Joachim!" Anna's voice was tremulous, and Miriam wondered where its power had gone. Her dad came up the ladder, eyeing the mother and daughter questioningly.
"Miriam needs help to get down."
"Isn't that what dads are for?" He got in front of her, took her hands, put them over his shoulders, crossed them, and the two proceeded, snail-like, down the ladder.
Miriam felt incredibly grateful when they finally reached level ground. Her father helped her sit, then looked down at her right leg, which stuck out awkwardly. Miriam could see he was clearly wondering what, if anything, he should do. She took the useless limb in both hands and tried to maneuver it into a position where no one would trip over it.
"good to see you up and about, Miriam."
Despite the ordeal they'd both been through, Joachim was smiling at her broadly.
"Good to be up," Miriam said, through a ragged breath. She wiped the sweat that was dripping down her forehead. It made her hair feel wet and stringy.
"That's gotta be attractive," she thought. She wondered fleetingly if she'd have to spend her entire life literally dragging through it.
"Well," Joachim sighed as he rose, "Chores won't ever get done if I just stay here sitting on the end of me that's southbound when I'm headed north. I'd better get a move on." He kissed the 2 ladies lightly and smiled his ubiquitous broad smile. "Love you both."
Miriam alternately looked down at her useless leg, then at her plate, then picked listlessly at her breakfast. Finally, she pushed the bowl of porridge away, almost untouched.
"Feel up for some weaving today, Sweetheart?" Anna asked.
"O, great!" Miriam mused to herself, "a chore where I can sit on my behind all day. Well, at least it was better than feeling useless."
"Your dad could use a new tunic, Miriam. I should have gotten around to making it long ago."
"No problem, Mom. Consider it done."
Miriam leaned hard on her mother, dragging her leg, as the pair walked to the loom. Anna put the material down beside her daughter.
"I'm going down to the waddi to wash clothes, Dear."
Miriam nodded, then looked down. It occurred to her that this was yet another thing she'd miss–the laughing and talking about women's things, the playful splashing between them when the air seemed it was about to broil.
Miriam wove in fits and starts, stopping every few minutes for a break. The utter fatigue she felt was unfathomable. She jumped when her mother returned, raising her head from the loom.
"Sorry Mom," she said, her face aflame with embarrassment.
"You've had a hard sickness, Dear.. You're bound to be tired for awhile," Anna reassured.
Miriam looked, astonished, at the barely started garment. She should have had far more than this done by now.
"Mom, I think I just need to rest for a bit." Miriam was looking down, her shoulders slumped.
"I checked the cheese this morning. It's ready. We're going to have toasted cheese sandwiches for lunch–your favorite–won't you stay up and eat just a little bit?"
The daughter shrugged, disinterested. "Maybe later, Mom. I just really need to rest now. And I'm too tired to climb the ladder."
"I think, my dear, that we're going to have to make you a bed on the lower level, at least for the time being."
"O, that'll be nice–hot in the summer & smelly from the animals."
"I'm sure it won't be for long. You'll be better soon." But miriam wasn't convinced, and, judging by the downcast look in her mother's eyes, she didn't think that Anna was, either.
When Miriam next awoke, the house was dark and quiet. She felt incredulous that she'd slept so long. She should have felt rested, she realized, but she didn't. The next thing she was aware of, her parents were moving about, and doves were cooing outside.
Miriam maneuvered herself into a sitting position. Feeling she was being watched, she looked up into her father's smiling face.
"I brought you something."
Miriam found herself gazing at two beautifully carved walking sticks–the top of 1 was a dove, the other a donkey. They were beautiful. She was impressed by the intricacy of the work.
"Well, if one has to use a walking stick, these are certainly stylish. Thanks, Dad. You must have worked a long time on these."
"I wish I could say I'd done them. But it was actually Joseph. I'm quite certain he stayed up late into the night making those for you. I hope there will come a time when these can be mere souvenirs. Meanwhile, though…" His voice trailed off.
Miriam rose with the help of the walking sticks and hobbled to the breakfast table. Occasionally she'd look back over her shoulder and find her father watching, though he quickly averted his gaze when he realized she saw him. She wondered if life would ever be normal again–free from concerned stares, from being unable to enjoy a simple walk to the creek, from having to sleep in the hot smelly downstairs quarters. Still, she mused, at least today she didn't need another human being to help her get to the breakfast table. That was something. She felt for the first time the faint stirrings of hope.
"Miriam, do you think you feel up to going to synagogue today?" her mother queried.
Miriam started. It hadn't been something she'd considered. She realized suddenly that she hadn't been in public since her illness. How would she get there, she wondered. Would the walking sticks be sufficient, since driving of carts wasn't allowed? Would she be shunned–or worse–laughed at?
" I guess," she replied, doubtfully.
Miriam struggled up the hill to the synagogue. Her arms and shoulders burned from the effort. Sweat drenched her hair, and rolled down her forehead, stinging her eyes. Her father stood behind her, while Anna walked at her side, both ready to catch her should she fall. When she finally arrived, she fell into a seat, exhausted, wondering how she would get back home. She scarcely heard the service.
"Wait here," Joachim ordered Miriam and Anna when the service concluded. "i'll be back."
When her father finally appeared, the apprentice rabbi was just greeting the last of the stragglers. He scowled fiercely as Joachim parked a cart by the door, got out, and joined Anna and Miriam.
"You know that neither man nor beast is to work on Shabbat–carts are not permitted." The young rabbi glared at Joachim.
"It's either that, or deny my daughter the chance to go to synagogue. I'll not do that. For as long as she needs it, she'll use the cart–or my whole family doesn't attend–or give. It's up to you."
"If she hadn't sinned, it wouldn't have happened.
Joachim felt his face flush. His fists and jaws clenched, and a rage he didn't know he was capable of welled up within him.
"Come on, Joachim, let's leave now." Joachim looked grateful for his wife's intervention, knowing he'd have likely punched the rabbi out if she hadn't. He walked over to Miriam who sat, slumped in her seat, face in hands, sobbing. The anger won.
"Is that the kind of God you serve?" he roared at the rabbi, "a God that condemns people who became ill through no fault of their own, and who makes rules that deny them the chance to worship? Well if that's how it is, I want no part of it!" His fist raised.
"No, Daddy, no!" Miriam practically shrieked.
Suddenly, Joachim felt his wrist in an iron clasp–his fist unable to move. He looked up into the face of his friend, Joseph the carpenter, towering over him.
"Don't be a fool, man."
Joachim glimpsed Miriam's swollen eyes and tear-stained face and trembled with rage. Knowing that he would be unable to free himself from Joseph's grasp, however, Joachim acquiesced.
When he was certain Joachim would not strike the young rabbi, Joseph released his grip, but his face was granite as he looked at the apprentice and his eyes bore through him.
"You know what you just said isn't true." The words were little more than a whisper. "You know Abbigail–who and what she is–and she has no disease. Miriam and my Ruthie, on the other hand, were pure as any lady to walk the earth, and yet they both became ill. You only say what you say in order to delude yourself that it can't happen to you, because you're so holy and pious. Well let me tell you what, my man–it can. Furthermore, I think Rabbi Bar-rubin would not be happy to hear about this on his return. Joachim and I are both very devout–in our attendance as well as our tithes. We may not be rich, but those offerings would be missed. Were I you, I'd just pretend this little incident never happened, and I'd let Miriam and her family come to synagogue however they can." Miriam marvelled at how Josephs's voice, although soft, seemed to cut the air, as though even the silence paid him heed.
"You, an uneducated carpenter, telling me what to do?"
"Education is more than just books, Rabbi Bar-Jacob. The truly educated man knows how to control his tongue. You should learn. It would behoove you."
The rabbi raised his hand to slap Joseph's face–the carpenter intercepted it just as he had Joachim's. He loosened his hold only a little when he noticed that the young rabbi's fingers were blanching white and his face was tightened in pain.
"Hitting someone a head taller than yourself probly does not fall into the category of what most people would consider to be a good idea, Rabbi. Were I a different person, you might have found yourself missing a few teeth. Now why don't you give it up and go home?"
The rabbi yanked against Joseph's ironclad fingers, and Joseph opened his hand. He spit at the carpenter, pivoted on his heel, and left the building.
"Nice!" Joseph remarked. "And a rabbi to boot!"
"Thanks for preventing me from putting his lights out."
"Actually, truth be told, I would very much liked to have done it myself."
The men laughed heartily, despite their religious surroundings.
"Well, I guess we'd better be getting home–not that anyone's waiting for me."
Miriam felt her heart ache for him. Joseph cast a concerned glance in her direction. "Can I help in any way?"
"I think we'll be fine, Joseph, but thanks–really. You probly saved me from getting into a heap of trouble I didn't need tonight."
Joseph smiled. "If he'd kept it up, I'd probly have been in the soup myself." The men clapped each other on the back. Miriam leaned on her canes and hopped on her left leg while dragging her right to the cart. She was incredibly grateful for it.
A fat bulbous moon lit the family's silent way home–the only sounds were the droning of a few locusts, the padding of the donkey's hooves, the creeking of the traces, and the bumping of the cart wheels on the unlevel spots. Miriam stared at the copious stars. All the different luminescences, colors, and sizes–they seemed to be dancing to some heavenly music only they could hear. They reminded her of of that wonderful dream. But with each reliving, the beauty and the detail seemed to grow more distant. For the first time, she wondered if it had really ever happened at all. She realized, too, why so few disabled people attended synagogue, or went anywhere, for that matter, and she understood that for her, the pain had only just begun.
It was the morning preceding the next sabbath that a knock came on the door.
"I'll get it!" Joachim called, "I was on my way out anyway."
Joseph stood there smiling. "I have a gift for Miriam."
"Shallome, Joseph, come in." Joseph ducked to avoid hitting his head on the door frame as he entered.
Miriam rose, having just finished her breakfast and, hearing her name mentioned, hobbled over to the two men.
"Joseph has a gift for you, Sweetheart." Miriam's eyes widened in surprise and disbelief, then rose in a question.
"I do," he said, a smile playing at the corners of his lips, "But I can't exactly bring it inside. Would you like to come out and see?"
Miriam nodded shyly, and followed her father and Joseph outside. There, on the path in front of the house, was a sort of cart chair–it had wheels on it, and it allowed someone to pull her. Miriam's eyes lit up, then her brows furrowed in thought.
"Do you like it?"
Miriam smiled at Joseph's question. He seemed much more perceptive than most men, she thought.
"Well," she hesitated. "I was just wondering if you thought an attachment could be built for little Samson, my donkey, to pull me."
"He's not harness trained yet, is he?"
"No, but I think he'd do well at it–especially if he knows he's helping me–he's so devoted, you know–and I think it's about time he started to learn."
"That's the little runt donke you fed when its mama abandoned it, isn't it?"
However did you come up with a name like Samson for that little thing?" Joseph was smiling broadly, his eyes sparkling with laughter.
"Because, like his namesake, God will give him the strength to do the work he has planned for him."
Brilliant! Both the name and your idea. I hate to take back something I just gave you, but let me see what I can come up with and I'll be back in a couple days."
True to his word, Joseph appeared the afternoon following shabbat with the redesigned cart chair. It was considerably smaller than a standard cart, with just enough room for Miriam and some small items, and a harness tongue to which Samson could be attached to pull her. Miriam could scarcely contain her joy at the gift, and set about that very day to begin Samson's harness training.
"Do you want me to come with you? You know Samson gets a little rambunctious when he wants his treats. I'm really afraid he could knock you down."
"I'm fine, Mom.," Miriam wondered why she didn't sound convincing, even to herself. Samson had a habit of nudging with his nose very aggressively until he got a goody. "Samson will be fine, too."
"All right," Anna sighed, and watched apprehensively as her daughter tottered determinedly down the path, leaning on the walking sticks Joseph had carved for her.
Miriam opened the stall door. True to form, Samson started to run, took a few steps, then froze. He walked slowly over to Miriam, sniffing her, and especially the walking sticks. Finally, he put his head on her shoulder and nuzzled her cheek. His breath was warm on her face.
"Samson, little buddy, you need some mint, Boy! If you'd lived in the time of your namesake, there would have been no need of superhuman strength. All you'd have to do is breathe and they'd take off."
The donkey brayed pathetically. "It's almost like he knew what I said," Miriam thought, then doubled over with laughter–she couldn't help it.
"Good boy, Samson." She gave the donkey a fig, then slipped the bit in his mouth and the bridle and reins over his head while he was otherwise occupied. "That was a dirty trick, I know."
Miriam fully expected the animal to rebel, but he did not. It almost seemed as though he'd been wearing bit and bridle his entire young life. Before long, she was teaching him commands. Within the month, he was harnessed to the cart and pulling it around the yard and up and down the street. One mid-winter day, Miriam finally decided that Samson was ready for real travel.
"Miriam, I'm going down to the well now," her mom called over her hsoulder.
"Let me do it, Mom. I think Samson's ready."
Anna's eyebrows creased in concern.
"Well, why don't you let me come along just to make certain all goes well."
"It'll be fine, Mom." Miriam wondered how often she'd uttered that refrain in the months since her illness.
She guided the cart out into the street, then turned right onto the narrow, bumpy hard-packed dirt path that the villagers passed off as their main road. The air was cool, 55 degrees or so, but the sun was warm. She literally felt in her bones that spring would soon be arriving. The wind blew dust from the cart back in her face, and she shielded her eyes with one hand while guiding the cart with the other.
"Hay, Miriam!" her friend Joanna called as she passed by her friend's home. "Wow, it's great to see you out and about, Girl!" Her school friends Esther and Rachel greeted her likewise.
Miriam got water without incident. As she made her way toward home, she felt the burdens of the last few months slipping away. She no longer felt useless. She could lead a normal life again. She was convinced.
That night at dinner, Miriam animatedly told of her adventures.
"Sounds like you had a good day, Hun," Joachim said. "I'm so happy the cart is working out so well. I have another bit of news– I've invited Joseph the carpenter to be with us for Purim. No one should have to be alone on a joyous day such as that."
Wonderful!" Anna replied.
"That's nice, Dad. I'm sure it's a pretty hard time for him, since Ruth died a day or so after Purim last year."
Both parents nodded gravely.
"And he can celebrate my coming of age and betrothal to Jacob with us. That'll be splendid.
"it will, Hun," Anna answered, smiling. Joachim looked down at the table, frowning, and said nothing.
"I'll tell you what, though–that little forray of mine today sure tired me out," Miriam confessed. "I think I'm gonna turn in." Not long afterword, she settled down into bed and fell asleep.
"Miriam seemed so happy today," Joachim remarked. I have an awful feeling things won't always go quite so smoothly. I hope she'll be able to cope when that happens."
"You know our Miriam. She always copes." Joachim nodded.
Purim dawned cold and clear. Miriam hooked up Samson to get water as she had every day since her first outing with the little donkey.
"Want me to do that, since it's your birthday?" Anna inquired.
"Of course not!" Miriam knew the novelty would soon wear off, but, right now, the sheer joy of being independent was almost overwhelming.
Hens clucked and pecked in the yards as she passed, occasionally there was the lowing of cattle, mingled with the ever-distressed quail's cry and the trilling of the lark. How she'd missed these things when the illness confined her. When she reached the fields on the outskirts of town, she knew the well would not be far. Suddenly, she saw Jacob, trying to turn the hard cold soil, in order to prepare it for planting. She thought the smell of dirt, recently moistened from the rains, was unlike any other. It made her heart sing.
"Hi, Jacob! Are you comin' over tonight for Purim?"
He eyed her coldly.
"What had happened?" she wondered. "Normally when I greet him, he's all smiles." Miriam tried again.
It's my birthday, and, since I'm of age, our betrothal will be announced. Will you be there?"
Jacob did not look up.
"There is no betrothal. It's obvious god's cursed you for doing something very, very bad. My dad says I don't have to marry you under the circumstances, and I won't. He's already told your father."
Miriam felt a knot in her stomach, and then a suffocating feeling, like the time their old donkey had accidentally kicked her. The way her father had looked down at the dinner table when she'd mentioned the betrothal suddenly sprun to mind. She hadn't paid any attention to it then–now she understood.
"Shallom, Jacob," she muttered, and turned quickly away so he wouldn't see the tears that sprang, unbidden, to her eyes.
"What could I have done that was so bad?" she asked herself. I mean, there's Elilal, the tax collector, eli the money changer, who routinely cheats people, and Abbigail–we all knew what Abbigail was, though we ladies didn't dare speak the word. They were whole and I wasn't. What had I done?
At the well Miriam looked around to see if anyone was nearby, and, seeing no one, she buried her face in Samson's fur and sobbed. He seemed to know things were not well, and, laying his head on her shoulder, nuzzled her hand.
She didn't know how long she stayed there crying. She finally managed to get the water, splashed some in her face to try to conceal the tear tracks, loaded the bucket onto the cart, and went home.
She put the bucket inside the door, then rewarded Samson with a couple juicy figs, which he devoured greedily. He eyed her pleadingly when he'd finished.
"No more, you little glutton! Otherwise, you'll get so fat there's no way you could carry anyone or anything." He brayed pathetically. Normally Miriam would have given in, but not today.
"Just stop!" she snapped, and the little donkey turned away from her, lowering his head, almost as though his feelings were hurt. She felt bad about taking her pain out on her poor faithful animal, but he was the only one she could lash out at without consequence.
The synagogue was abuzz with joyful celebrants as Miriam and her family took their traditional places near the front. Miriam had always considered Purim a joyful time, celebrating the Jewish people's deliverance from Hayman's plan to exterminate them, but tonight she could not rejoice. The rabbi intoned familiar words from the book of Esther:
"Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people. Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, "All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days." When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, "Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this."
Miriam had always found it thrilling that a poor exiled Jewish woman had been able to play such a pivotal role in history. Tonight, though, she simply didn't care, and the droning seemed interminable.
Miriam breathed a sigh of relief when the service finally ended. Anna, Joachim, and Joseph talked animatedly on the way home, but Miriam remained silent and aloof.
"We thank You, o Lord of the universe," Joachim prayed before the celebratory meal, "For this joyous day of Purim when we celebrate our peoples' deliverance from our enemies. We also thank you for Miriam, that she survived the terrible illness that befell her and has now become a woman. May this food nourish us and may the words of our mouths and the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer."
Miriam noticed her mother's disapproving eyes on her throughout the evening as she slugged down cup after cup of wine. She told herself she didn't care what her mother thought, but part of her felt bad nonetheless. She wished heartily it would dull her pain considerably more than it did.
"Well, thank you so much for having me," Joseph finally said, as he rose and clapped Joachim on the shoulder. Everyone walked toward the door to say last goodbyes, when Joseph's eyes suddenly locked onto the ladder, and he stood there frozen for a moment.
"Miriam climbs that to her bedroom?"
"No, she's unable to," Joachim answered. "She sleeps on the lower level."
Josephs dark, unruly eyebrows creased and almost met in the middle of his forehead.
"I think it wouldn't be so terribly difficult to make a ramp. Anna'd be thrilled by that, too. It'd make haulin' stuff up a lot easier for her as well"
Anna smiled broadly.
"Thanks, Joseph, but that sounds like a pretty expensive project to me." Anna's face fell.
"Look, Joachim, I'll trade the work for a couple new outfits. You certainly look quite sharp in the new clothes Miriam made for you. Mine, on the other hand, are starting to look like something rats might wanna live in. Since Ruth died…" His voice trailed off, unable to finish, and he lowered his eyes and shrugged.
"Well, if Miriam's willing," Joachim answered.
"Thanks, Miriam. I'll come by tomorrow. I can start the ramp, and you can take measurements and start the outfit, if that's ok."
"Sounds fine," Miriam replied unenthusiastically.
"And you were gonna tell me when, Dad, that Jacob and his father had cancelled the betrothal?" Her voice held an edge that took Joachim by surprise.
Joachim sat down, looking abject.
"I had planned on talking with you about it tomorrow, Miriam. I didn't want to ruin your birthday today. Evidently Jacob did it anyway. I'm so sorry." He turned his head away, and though it was only fleeting, but for a moment as he did so, Miriam thought she saw a tear on his cheek. "How did you know?"
"I met him on the way to the well. I greeted him and asked if he was coming over for our betrothal announcement. He answered there wouldn't be any betrothal, because I had obviously done something very very bad, and for that God was cursing me."
Dad drew a shaky breath, and, as Miriam looked in his direction, she could see his chin trembling. It seemed an eternity before he spoke again.
"Miriam, don't you ever believe that–not for a minute, you hear me? If that's the way he feels, then he doesn't deserve you." His jaw was not trembling now, but clenched in anger, his cheeks were flushed, his gaze was piercing. The sight almost frightened Miriam, as it was rarer than rain on the Negev that her father got angry.
"I don't know what to believe anymore, Dad."
Joachim rose, walked over to Miriam, and held her close.
"I guess you'll have to determine that for yourself, Miriam, but, whatever it is you eventually come up with, don't let it be that, because it just isn't true. I don't know why you got sick, Sweetheart, but it definitely isn't because you're bad or you're cursed. All I can say now is that somehow it will work out for the best in due time. That's what I believe."
"I'm glad you do, Dad, cuz I'm finding it pretty difficult to."
"We all face those times of doubt, dear daughter. I did when your mom and I wanted so badly to have children, and for so long none came. Then when your mom eventually did conceive the first time, she was unable to carry the baby to term. I tried to hang onto my faith, but, truth be told, I was pretty disappointed with God–and then, one day, your mom said she was pregnant again. I was almost scared to hope, but the pregnancy went off without a hitch, and here yu are. When you got sick, we were so afraid we'd lose you–it seemed so cruel that the child for whom we'd waited so long might be taken from us, but you survived. Still, what I've come to realize through it all, is that there are women who never conceive, and many children, sometimes their parents' only one, die. God doesn't owe us anything, and he definitely doesn't always give us everything we want. I think he does, however, give us what we need, although it's hard to believe that sometimes."
"Were you disappointed you didn't get a son, Dad?"
the smile returned to Joachim's face and eyes.
"When a man has a daughter as beautiful as you, how could he be disappointed?"
My right leg stickin' out isn't exactly beautiful, you know."
"But your smile and independence and your loving and kind spirit are. The rest is mere trappings."
"You kinda have to say that, Dad."
"I do? I don't see anyone forcing me. Miriam, dear girl, I truly believe you're destined for something very very special. I always have."
"Don't most parents think that about their kids?"
Dad laughed a little. "I suppose. But in your case it's accurate."
"And you know that because?
"Because I'm your father–and parents just know these things. Think about how many couples in the torah that had children late in life who went on to have very special destinies. There was Abraham and Hannah and…"
"Yeah, right, Dad." Miriam cut him off abruptly. "That was then; this is now."
"Perhaps you're right. But God's been quiet for an awful long time now. I think he might be about to start working in a big way."
"And a cripple's gonna be involved in that."
"Why not? Jacob was crippled–and very blessed by God."
"God kinda helped that situation along a bit. I mean, he did dislocate Jacob's hip."
"Indeed–which indicates he doesn't have anything against those who can't walk well."
You're the best, Dad."
She hadn't looked at it quite that way, and as she hobbled off to bed, she somehow felt better, if only a little.
But sleep did not come easily for Miriam that night, despite her having drunk more wine than usual–or necessary. Jacob's taunts echoed a never-ending litany in her head, despite her father's earlier words. "you must have done something very, very bad." She rummaged through her brain, trying to figure out what it might have been. Yes, sometimes she admitted, "I disrespected Mom and Dad–was that it? Sometimes I questioned God–that surely must be why. But David did so in the Psalms, and he wasn't crippled. So what was it, then? She wrestled with her thoughts till at last exhaustion overtook her, and she fell into a fitful sleep.
The rooster crow came entirely too early. Miriam rose, dressed, and staggered outside to milk and feed the goats. The 2 little ones gnawed at her canes. The mama and daddy started toward her, but Samson herded them away, as though he feared that they would knock her over. She sat down on the stool, and Mama-goat, accustomed to the routine, came over to be milked, as well as for a few treats. When Miriam had at last finished, she left the milk outside the door. She and Anna would begin making cheese after breakfast.
"You're not looking very well rested," Anna commented as Miriam hobbled into the house. Miriam shrugged and sat down at the table, where a bowl of porridge awaited her.
"He went to get the plow blades sharpened. It's getting pretty close to planting time."
It was almost dinner time when Joseph appeared.
"I'm sorry I'm so late. I was fixing a broken door for Elizabeth,you know, the old lady next door to me. It wouldn't be right to have her there with night coming on and a door that wouldn't close properly."
"No problem," Anna smiled. "Since it's almost dinnertime, why don't you stay and eat with us?"
"If you didn't know me better, you'd have thought I planned it that way." A mischievous smile played at the corner of Joseph's lips.
"You didn't?" Anna asked, feigning surprise. Everyone laughed.
Miriam measured Joseph under Anna's watchful eye. His face was craggy and wrinkled, the result of many hours in the elements. His eyes were deep dark brown and seemed to have a perpetually thoughtful and somewhat sad look about them. His hands looked rough and calloused, his skin swarthy. He was taller than most men in the village, by almost a head in most cases. He had broad, muscular shoulders and looked for all the world like he'd make a good warrior, save for the fact that his shoulders seemed stooped by the burden of loss that he carried, and that he always had a ready smile for everyone he encountered. He was surprisingly soft-spoken for such a large man, and somehow, inexplicably, compassion just seemed to emminate from his very core to those around him.
"I think, if you have some blue dye, I'd like that for my outfit." Miriam jumped, startled, as her revery was interrupted.
"Sorry," Joseph laughed, "I didn't mean to startle you. I should have waited till you weren't concentrating so hard."
"I'ts ok," Miriam said, smiling. "I'm pretty sure we have enough blue–for this, anyway."
The two men carried on pleasant conversation over dinner–about the weather and the upcoming planting season. Even when their talk turned to the leaders of the town and the Romans, Miriam noticed it was filled with good humor and none of the rankor she'd heard so often with the other men. She grudgingly admitted she couldn't help but like that about Joseph–he had an extraordinarily charitable spirit, especially for a guy.
"I had a look at the situation regarding Miriam's ramp before I knocked on the door. Thought I'd best do it in good light. I think what we can do is to build the ramp going from the courtyard by the gate to the roof. We'll make it from bassalt so it won't cost so much. It should be a fairly easy slope. I'll put a wooden rail on one side for Miriam to hold onto, should she need to."
"Sounds good, Joseph, but I'm not altogether sure just two outfits is fair recompense for all that."
"It's fine, Joachim. Besides, the company is truly payment enough. It gets really lonely in the evenings without Ruth."
Everyone nodded their understanding. To her surprise, Miriam felt a twinge of sadness when Joseph rose to leave, but dismissed it as quickly as it had come.
Joseph spent a lot of time at the house throughout the following two months while Miriam workked on his outfits and he worked on her ramp. Miriam had actually finished the clothes in about a month–it took Joseph 2 to finish the ramp, which, from Miriam's perspective, was none too soon. Summer had set in with a vengeance, and it was hot and stuffy and smelly sleeping downstairs. It wasn't much better trying to weave down there, either. Miriam thought the first night sleeping on the roof with the rest of the family was nothing short of a preminition of heaven–cool and fresh and surrounded by the easy, rhythmic breathing of her beloved parents. It had been almost a year since she'd been able to do that. It had been something she'd dreamed of so often, and her longing had only intensified as the ramp neared completion. Now the dream had finally come true, and she was ecstatic.
Miriam noticed, though, that throughout the following days, she felt a sadness she couldn't shake. Joseph didn't visit, and, surprisingly, she found herself missing him. Most nights after working on the ramp he'd stay for dinner, and although he primarily talked to Joachim, Miriam realized she couldn't help but like having him around. Somehow it felt lonely and empty and a little sad without him. She realized she'd come to regard him as part of the family–like a nice uncle, perhaps.