Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The next few short stories examine the lives of wives in the Bible.

The Seal and the Cord

As Tamar0 reached for the jug it slipped in her clammy hands. Thank God, I didn’t drop it, she thought. After wiping her hands on her dress and with a firmer grip on the water pot lifted it to her head. She hesitated at the open doorway as she scanned the crowd already at the well so early in the morning. Tamar had grown accustomed to drawing water during the heat of the day to avoid the gossips, but today things were different and she had to face their nasty jibes.

The village women always gathered at dawn to fetch water and, more importantly, exchange news. Those deemed unacceptable, the outcasts, were forced to get their water later in the day when it was hotter and the earlier group had left. Their snippy remarks caused unseen, sharp wounds which could be difficult to hear for those who eked out their existence on the fringe of society.

Although Tamar was not immune to the women’s taunts, they wouldn’t bother her today. She had decided to fight her father-in-law for what was due to her, widow of his first-born son. It had taken months of debating and then very careful planning, but she’d come to the conclusion that there was no other way. Her honey-colored skin blanched at the thought of her undertaking and she took a deep breath to steady her nerves. As she waited for her turn to draw water, she held her head high, above the women’s barbed chatter.

This morning, despite her anxiety, Tamar’s countenance revealed determination. She scrutinized those closest to her as they exchanged news at the well. A breeze carried the lingering odors from cooking breakfast that clung to their clothes. She stood at the end of the line. Some of the women scurried away, pulling their children with them as if she were a leper.

A bold gossip whose hair circled her face with snakelike tendrils called to the others, "Be careful. Don’t touch her or let her shadow fall on you. Judah sent Tamar home because she killed his sons."

A hush fell over the women.

With a gleam in her eyes and in a loud hiss, the busybody continued, "She’s a witch, you know."

Ptuh. A red-headed woman spat at Tamar. Then the woman drew her scarf across her face to shield her skin from harm, as if she feared Tamar’s glance more than the sun. "Why did he send her back? He should have burned her."

Protective gestures to ward off evil and venomous looks assaulted her. As a crimson flush rose from her neck to her face, Tamar was rooted to the spot. When, at last, they had all drawn water, she filled her jug and headed back to the hovel she shared with Rivka.

Tamar huffed into their house and set her jug down loudly on the work bench. Rivka had waited for her after completing the other morning chores. Seeing Tamar’s red face and fierce expression, Rivka asked, "What happened?"

"The women say that I’m a witch. Since Judah accuses me of killing his sons, although he has no proof to carry out any punishment, they have concluded that his words must be true."

Rivka shook her head.

"It’s time. Judah still hasn’t sent for me. His wife was a good friend and ally; she would have interceded for me if she hadn’t died last year. Now there’s no one to confront Judah over this delay. Whether I’m burned as a witch or because I’ve behaved as a prostitute makes no difference, the fire will still be hot."

Rivka nodded and pulled out the sacks they kept under the bedding. It was a woman’s best hiding place because no man would disturb her bedclothes at the risk of becoming unclean from touching her blood. They spent the day cleaning the fabric and sewing the dress and veils in preparation for Tamar’s encounter with Judah.

From the time Tamar first crossed Rivka’s doorstep to the past week, they had debated Tamar’s predicament and explored a wide range of solutions. The plan they worked out would allow Tamar to regain her place in Judah’s household. Fraught with risk, it was better than constantly groveling for basic needs. Rivka’s supplies had dwindled, making their situation desperate. Despite their fears, they both knew that knew the time had come for Tamar to put the plan in motion.

Their strategy grew out of Tamar’s knowledge of Judah’s habits when she lived in his compound. Being recently widowed, he had been slow to return to his former routines. In the past few days, news had come that he was en route to Timnah to sheer his sheep and she planned to intercept him.

"Do you think you could wait another year for him to send for you and give you to Shelah as he promised? Must you take such a terrible risk, Tamar?" The higher than normal pitch of Rivka’s voice matched the worry in her eyes. They had debated this question endlessly. Although Rivka held a glimmer of hope for the possibility, Tamar had given up that Judah would keep his word and the law.

"I can’t take the chance that he might not check his flocks again in Timnah. As long as Judah thinks that no one will challenge him, I have an advantage. I’ve done nothing wrong and I want to be cleared of suspicion and shame. If only I could return to the home Er and I shared." Her eyes filled with unshed tears, but she blinked them back.

Although Rivka was eight years older than Tamar, age was not the only factor that provided her insights. She had been living alone since her uncle turned her out of his house when she was twelve years old. He had refused to expend time or money to arrange a marriage for her and provide a dowry as he’d promised when her father died. His excuse was that he could find no man to marry a lame woman incapable of managing the expected workload and liable to bear crippled children. Over the years, she had come to know the village attitudes and prejudices well. Prematurely grey strands threaded through her long, black hair. The hardships of life as a village outcast took a heavy toll.

Tamar and Rivka were opposites in disposition and appearance. Tamar’s tallness, grace and unusual beauty brought a different life. Her father married her off to Judah’s son as soon as she came of age, in an elaborate wedding with a generous dowry. Despite her married status, jealous women still found ways to disparage her. Although she wore her head scarf pulled tight to conceal her luxurious, dark hair, there was no way to hide her stunning appearance. Being taller than some men created an unspoken challenge, and if they couldn’t win her favor, they tried to humiliate her.

* * *

Hideous rumors had started as soon as Tamar’s father refused to have her in his compound and then, they escalated — this latest one accused her of wielding evil powers that could cause one to drop dead. When her first husband died of a brain fever, she had become a childless widow. His brother, who refused to carry out the letter of the law to give her a son on his brother’s behalf, was attacked and killed by a wild animal. Judah blamed her for the deaths of his two sons.

Although Tamar now lived in the village of her birth and she knew many of the women, they acted as if she were a stranger. When Judah, her father-in-law, had sent her home as a pariah, her father refused to accept her. He had stood imperiously with her mother next to him, flanked by her younger twin brothers.

"Out. You are a widow and have no claim on this household. Be gone!"

Her mother screamed, "No . . ." but could not say another word as her father’s hand sliced through the air and backhanded her. Blood dribbled from her lips as she stumbled back, but, she did not fall.

He turned to her brothers and hissed, "Get her out of my sight."

These were the boys whose bottoms she’d cleaned and noses she’d wiped. A firstborn female had value only in marriage, if she lived that long. The twins’ birth followed her by six years. Nothing was spared for them and she became their nursemaid. She lifted her head—they would not touch her now. She spun around and left, with no idea where she would go.

None of her friends acknowledged her. Only unwed, lame Rivka had opened her heart and home. On the farthest edge of the village Rivka’s meager shelter, cobbled together with castoff goods, was just large enough for the two of them and comfortable as long as it didn’t rain.

The day after Tamar moved in, she stood in the doorway, reflecting on all that had happened, being thrown out of two homes and thrust into the hovel of one of the poorest women in the village where she’d grown up. Tamar peered through the open door and watched a heavily-burdened woman hurry toward her. Suddenly, tears poured over her cheeks. Despite the load, Tamar recognized her mother’s smooth gait and held the door wider open for her. Her mother dropped the bundles and held her daughter in a fierce embrace.

The bruise at her mouth distorted her usual way of talking, but the message and feelings were clear. "You will always be my daughter and I will try to come to you whenever I can. I must be quick. Here are some things you may need. Oh—" Suddenly she spied Rivka standing in the darkest part of the room, and she turned to her with her hands outstretched.

"Thank you for taking in my daughter."

Rivka smiled. "Lady, you have always been generous to me; I can be no less to Tamar now."

Her mother bowed her head, reached for the opening and left. She’d been there so briefly, that the visit could have been imagined, if it were not for the large packages spilled on the floor. It was the only visit her mother had made in the past two years.

* * *

After Tamar returned from the well, the pair worked hard all day to make sure that her costume was perfect. The next morning, Tamar bathed and perfumed her willowy body. The rose oil scent enveloped them both. Then Rivka helped Tamar dress and braided her hair with red ribbons. Miniature whirlwinds of dust encircled Tamar’s feet as her black clothes fell to the floor with a whisper. She pulled on the sky-blue dress and Rivka handed her the dark red cloak. A small pile of jewelry sparkled on the grey blanket. Tamar slid the bracelets over her hands and hooked the earrings while Rivka fastened charms to Tamar’s ankles that tinkled with every move. Lastly, Rivka shook the wrinkles from the sheer veil — the sign of a prostitute — and dropped it over Tamar’s head concealing her identity.

Rivka stepped back and examined her friend. "Believe me. No one will recognize you." She hugged Tamar and opened the door. "Be careful. I’ll keep watch for your return."

"If I’m successful, I’ll be back before daybreak," Tamar said as she opened the door. She paused on the threshold until there was no one in sight. The setting sun cast long ugly shadows of the trees near the road. These distorted silhouettes created tension in the air, increasing her fear of failure. She made her way to the crossroads at Enaim and found her chosen spot under a huge willow tree that offered shade with a secluded bower nearby. It had taken the two women several days to clear the debris and surreptitiously add pillows and a blanket. After checking their handiwork, Tamar took her seat, arranged the folds of her dress, and waited for Judah. A light breeze rustled her veil.

* * *

Her eyes lost their focus and her clenched hands relaxed as she traveled back in time to the events that brought her to this day.

Tamar was fourteen when her husband, Judah’s first born son, Er died after a sudden illness, leaving her childless. Following the levirate law, Judah sent his next son to give her a child for Er’s linage. Onan, however, was always one to look after his own interest to the exclusion of others. He usually got whatever he wanted and to him, fulfillment of the law was optional. He entered Er and Tamar’s home with an arrogant swagger as she masked whatever feelings and thoughts she held toward him. She extended to Onan the respect she would have given to her husband and prepared her brother-in-law’s favorite delicacies. When they lay together, he played with her hair and stroked her body until she blushed in shame of her nakedness. Although he couldn’t hide his attraction and was ready to plant his seed in her, he rolled away to satisfy his needs. Two days later, a she-wolf attacked and killed him at the gate to the sheepfold.

Judah should have given her to Shelah, his last born son, as soon as he came of age. But, Judah claimed his son was too immature and sent her back to her father to be summoned later. Two years passed without any word from Judah. At fifteen years old, Shelah was recognized as a man — old enough for a wife. But, her father-in-law had no intention of risking his last son by giving Tamar to him.

* * *

Toward nightfall, Judah’s noisy entourage approached the intersection. Tamar rubbed her icy hands briskly to warm them. By playing the prostitute, she risked her life, but life as a village outcast wasn’t much to treasure. When Judah was a few yards away she jiggled her feet to make noise so that he would be sure to notice her. Judah smiled and made some comment to his friends, who responded in laughter. He walked on as if to continue to Timnah.

Tamar held her breath. Could all this planning and preparation come to naught? What if some other man tries to take me?

One of Judah’s companions pulled on his sleeve and spoke to him quietly. Finally, Judah nodded and gave orders to the others. They went on without him as he ambled over to Tamar. She stood and took a deep breath. In a husky voice, she said, "Welcome to Enaim and this humble bower. Rest a while before continuing your journey."

Judah’s salacious eyes caressed the curves of her body. "Come, let me lay with you. I’ll send you a goat from my flock." Both his quiet tone of voice and the way he took her hand, told her that the ruse had succeeded.

"Give me something as a pledge until you send it," Tamar said.

Judah smiled, "What shall I give you? My staff?" His walking stick was too large for her to handle.

She laughed and held out her hand. "Let me have your seal and its cord."

He handed them to her without hesitation before she led him into the dense arbor. Judah followed her so closely that his hot breath tickled her neck and the smell of his sweat excited her. Despite their age difference, Tamar considered her father-in-law a handsome man.

When they reached the cozy bower, a scent of flowers lingered in the cool, evening air. Colorful pillows and blankets covered the ground at their feet where he knelt and slipped the sandals off her feet. He fingered the tiny bells around her ankles, then slid his hands up her legs and drew her to him.

Once he’d sated his lust, he fell asleep. While he snored, she tied the seal and cord to her waist band and edged away from him. It surprised her that he had relinquished them so easily. The seal was the stamp used to verify his documents and mark his sheep. The cord had been carefully braided by his wife to allow seal to hang from his waistband, ready whenever he needed it. An owl hooted as she crept out of the thicket and hurried away.

Rivka held a burning lamp and opened the door when she heard familiar footsteps. She raised her eyebrows in an unspoken question.

Tamar smiled. "It went just as we planned. As soon as we retrieve the bedding, there will be no sign of this tryst."

* * *

Two days later, a man wandered through the village pulling a tan she-goat on a tether with a kid bleating as it trotted by its mother. He asked for the prostitute who stayed at the crossroads.

Indignant that a man would suggest that a prostitute lived in Enaim, the village headman straightened his back and barked, "There’s no prostitute here. We would have burned her for adultery. Take the goat back to your master."

Tamar waited anxiously for her normal time of bleeding. One morning she vomited after breakfast. As the days passed, she noticed the subtle changes in her body as it blossomed with pregnancy. First, her breasts swelled then her belly pressed against her dress pulling it taut.

One morning, four months into her pregnancy, Tamar was sitting with Rivka weaving a basket until the nausea passed. Suddenly they heard shouting. Men called for Tamar. As soon as she stood up, they seized her.

Rivka beat the man who held Tamar. "Let her go. What has she done?"

He shoved Rivka away and she tumbled into a stack of twigs and half-finished baskets. Another taunted, "Can a widow become pregnant? She’s become a prostitute, and so is Judah’s problem again. He’ll pronounce judgment and have her killed."

They tossed Tamar on the back of a wagon and hauled her to Judah’s village. When, they pulled her from the large cart she saw men and women building a pyre — the only sound was the clunk of wood as they added to the heap for the fire. The leader grabbed her arm and took her to the tree where Judah sat in the shade with his friends. His stern look made her shudder.

"My wayward daughter-in-law." He paused and eyed her from head to toe. "You couldn’t wait for my last son. By our laws, as a prostitute, you are to be burned," he said with an unpleasant smile.

Despite the venom in his words, she looked directly into his eyes. "And what is the law regarding the father of the unborn?" She, too paused for a moment. "I am pregnant by the man who gave me the seal and cord tied at my waist. Do you recognize them?"

All eyes focused on the shining seal that dangled below her swollen belly. The guard released his grip and yanked the cord and seal from her waistband. Tamar fell to the ground with her gaze riveted on her father-in-law. Judah slid the cord over the palm of his hand, then turned over the seal to examined its mark. He gasped, and the color drained from his face. Someone offered him a cup of wine and with his eyes still fastened on the seal, he took the chalice with shaky hands and drained it. Only the resonant thud of logs tossed on the pyre broke the silence.

He leaned back and bowed his head for several minutes. Finally, a chastened man whose eyes revealed shame and deep sadness, looked at her. "You are a more righteous person than I. I am expected to uphold the law, but didn’t, until you brought me to justice now reminding me of my responsibilities. I tried to make you an evil person by calling you a witch and seeking any excuse to avoid giving my third son, Shelah to you." He wiped his hand over his face and sighed. "Release her and get rid of the wood. Open Er’s quarters for her; give her anything she needs."

Tamar stood at the open door and relaxed at the sight of the familiar furnishings in Er’s house. As the weeks passed, her least request was fulfilled. Judah avoided any contact with her and if they happened to pass each other, he extended a formal greeting.

The pregnancy secured Tamar’s future. When time for her delivery drew near, she sent word for Rivka to join her. Their happy reunion was timely, because within two days of her friend’s arrival, Tamar gave birth to twin boys. Although Judah was their father and he chose their names, Perez and Zerah would be identified as Er’s lineage.

Judah’s firstborn, Er would continue to live through the twins and ultimately secure the future of the tribe. Among a people who lived by the rights of primogeniture in which the firstborn inherited all real estate and property, Tamar’s children guaranteed the future for all of the extended relatives and servants.

Tamar became a respected woman in Judah’s compound, afforded the same rights as if her first husband were alive. Life deepened with a richness in family and friends that she never could have imagined. Rivka, like a cherished older sister, lived with Tamar and remained her close companion. Over the years, Judah’s regard for her softened. He delighted in the twins and grew to hold their mother in high regard. While she was neither his wife nor his daughter, he sought Tamar’s opinion whenever they chanced to meet and extended her every courtesy for the remainder of his days.

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