Saturday, May 30, 2015

Abi of Cyrene Free Offer

Abi, a Nubian archer who lost her position in the Candace’s army, has one overwhelming fear—living in polygamy. She believes her father will force her to marry a man who already has four wives. 

Get this book free through June 1.

Thanks to those who helped me with Abi of Cyrene.

In 2009, I made friends on Facebook with Vonda Skelton, an author and speaker, who inspires as she entertains. She encouraged me to attend the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. She said, “Mary, you can do this.”
About this time, Dr. Wilton Wall, who was my pastor, preached an insightful sermon about the wife of Simon of Cyrene.  He planted the seed in my thoughts for this novel. Who was Simon’s wife, and what kind of woman would the Apostle Paul consider a mother image in the last chapter of Romans?
At the Blue Ridge Conference Ann Tatlock, award-winning author, who writes with a sensitive touch, making novels feel like paintings, conferred with me about my book idea. She said, “I wish I’d thought of this myself.”
After the conference as I waited in the airport at Asheville, bestselling novelist DiAnn Mills, introduced herself to me and invited me to present my idea for a novel. “Make her a Nubian,” DiAnn said.  She discussed the characterization and plot with me until her plane arrived.
When I returned to Louisiana, I was bursting with ideas. I wrote the novel, and rewrote it for six years. Now it feels ready for you to read.  Most of all, I appreciate you, who will read this book.
Early in the process, Jane Butel, famous Southwestern cook and author of acclaimed cookbooks, nudged me to keep working on this book and to finish the project.
John Cooke, my beloved fiancé, designed the book cover and helped style a map related to the book’s setting. He provided expert knowledge about seafaring vessels. John continues to give me enthusiastic support. Christie Underwood, my daughter, has listened to me as the story unfolded. She has read the final draft and suggested some excellent editorial changes. My nephew Jameson Gregg, author of Luck Be a Chicken, is a kindred spirit, who discusses the writing process often with me. Susan Shepard, my niece, offers encouragement. Ruth Ishee, my sister, listened to me read all of Abi four years ago. Her suggestions are always useful. My mother, Myrtle Hathorne Gregg Jordan, read the Bible to me.
My friends have blessed my writing career. Mark Bradford, who was living in Egypt and visiting Nuba, while I wrote Part One, posted pictures on Facebook, introduced me to a Nuban friend,  and shared recipes. On Facebook friends from all the chapters of my life have affirmed my efforts in amazing ways.
Rosie Buhrer has helped as a designing consultant. She is also an excellent teacher. Linda Yezak, noted author and editor, has challenged me to develop my technique. Lenora Worth, a prolific best seller of inspirational romances novels, has directed me to bring my thoughts together. “Don’t ever throw anything away,” she said regarding writing. “You may need it.”
Katheryn Haddad, a Bible teacher and author of biblical novels, read the book and wrote me this note: “You've got to get Abi of Cyrene published. What are you waiting for?” Thanks to Katheryn for igniting my desire to release the book after years of procrastination.
Writers’ groups have contributed to the development of Abi of Cyrene. The American Christian Fiction Writers’ Critique Group made suggestions one chapter at a time. Shreveport/Bossier City’s local ACFW group, the International Writers Alive! chapter in Amarillo, and Panhandle Professional Writers in Amarillo have provided helpful information about the writing process.
I will be eternally grateful to the online writer-critics who have not only shown me how to improve my writing but who have allowed me to comment on their manuscripts. Greg Austin brought my writing to a new level. Janine Islam inspired me with her outstanding ability, dedication, and vast knowledge. Using special software designed for blind authors, Kathy McKinsey proofread Abi and found more comma errors than most sighted people are aware of. Kim Stewart, who has considerable knowledge about Jewish customs, gave me valuable suggestions. She also made a priceless suggestion about the organization of the beginning of Abi.  Heidi Kortman, a talented author who writes about sailing, helped me with expertise and moral support.
Among the writers who’ve helped me are Carolyn Hill, Vicky Bray, Marguerite Martin Gray, Chad Cossette, Julie Fugate, Nancy Kimball, Lauren Lynch, Deidra Romero, Amber Schamel, Judy Sliger, TQ Quirk, Donna Stone, and Marcy Dyer. Please accept my apologies if I omitted someone inadvertently.

I appreciate the opportunities provided by Amazon Kindle. When I look at my bookcase full of books about writing, I’m amazed at all the writers who have given helpful information. Also I’m thankful for the God-given time to write this book, a laptop, and the inspiration.
Please accept my apologies if I've failed to list some of you who helped me.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Abi of Cyrene, Chapter Twelve

The Launch of the Voyage
A mere dot skimmed over the water toward Abi. Smooth and steady, it came closer until she could see an impressive boat. The Cyrenaicans changed to an alert mode with arrows positioned in bows. Confident she could help protect Simon’s men and the cargo, she raised her bow.
As the boat drew closer, the Nubians waved their shoulder wraps at the boat, now appearing as large as one of Simon’s. Before any of Simon’s men identified it, she recognized the ram’s head emblem on the front—it was one of the Candace’s fleet with archers returning from a campaign.
She lowered her weapon and ran in front of the arrows positioned tense in drawn bows.
“Our people,” she told the guards in a few Greek words she knew. “Lower your bows.”
Simon’s guards had no choice. They removed their arrows. She didn’t comprehend their words, but she detected they grumbled at her for risking her life. If one of them had taken it, he’d risk losing his own at the hands of Simon.
“Lisimba. Malaika!”
Not waiting for Simon’s reaction, she sprinted toward the boat. The Nubian men, running in a wave in front of Simon’s men, welcomed the Candace’s warriors.
She ignored the two Cyrenaicans, now standing on either side of her, as though they expected her to escape and return home with her people. 
“Yahweh Yireh!” Abi shouted. “The Lord provides.”                         
“Abi, my beloved sister,” Malaika cried.  
As soon as the boat landed, Lisimba and Malaika ran toward Abi. She greeted her sisters in a hysteria of tears and laughter. “Thank you, Adonai.”
The three of them talked at once. They stood back and looked at her as she gazed at them. Kohl and malachite streaked their eyelids. Gold collars accentuating their long necks gave Malaika and Lisimba an appearance of elegance. Authority.
“I prayed I’d see you, but I gave up hope.” Abi’s head fell on the shoulder of one and then the other.
As words spilled from Abi’s lips, they interrupted the conversation and gave orders.
“Congratulations on an excellent match. Simon is respected throughout the Roman world.”
Abi possessed power she hadn’t comprehended. She would make a difference. Never had she spoken with a commanding voice to the older ones, but she needed to. “Sisters, I stayed home as long as I could. I protected Hadassah and Zebediah from our father’s madness. No matter how you feel about him, you must look after these little ones.”
“We give you our word. As the Lord lives, we’ll do what we can. Go with God, little sister.”
Simon walked over to the spot where Abi talked to her sisters. Silently he nodded, and they returned the gesture.
“Be kind to our sister,” Malaika said.
As soon as Simon’s men unloaded a beast, the Nubians reloaded it with cargo. Lisimba and Malaika took charge. Abi wanted to stay and talk with her sisters, but they were busy.
Dahnay stood tapping his foot. “Board Simon’s lead boat.”
Waving her farewell, Abi climbed into the leading boat. Simon’s hand on her shoulder guided her toward the right side. He stationed her not far from the bow, and Dahnay occupied a position in front of her. Simon moved to the front where he would observe and command from the bow.
The men near the front kept weapons close by. It was probably all right to put her weapons away, but she couldn’t entrust her life and her husband’s future to the hands of his men.
Sooner than she’d anticipated, the captains of the four boats launched the river voyage.
Wherever Dahnay was, the problem of flies seemed worse. He taught her a few basic Cyrenaican expressions. She practiced the language lessons, but his body odor made it difficult for her to concentrate on what he said.
Simon’s men talked in happy tones. The mighty current rushing the boats forward relieved the rowing teams of most of their work. In both the bright sun and the blackness of the night, the men took turns bedding down on the rough benches. She observed them when no one looked her way. Never had she seen men who were not in her family sleeping, nor had she heard such snoring.
As they progressed, she watched for potential trouble. The warrior within her forbade her to while away the trip in mindless relaxation. Not long after they embarked on their drift to the sea, they passed rocks on the east side. Here the water was rougher.
“Don’t go near the rocks,” she mumbled under her breath. Simon would know what could be on the other side. He and his men were adept at navigating their boats.
If she’d cautioned him, he’d say, “Leave me alone so I can do my job.”
“We know about the danger behind the natural wall of boulders,” one of his men would say. “We know what lies ahead. We’ll move over when it’s time.”
“We aren’t stupid. We can see the reptile population is denser than usual this year,” Dahnay would say.
Whatever most of the men said would be unintelligible to her.
Crocodiles, devious creatures, no matter the season, played tricks on their prey. These predators attacked every available food source. They were too hungry to restrict their quest for food to nocturnal forays.
“But the crocs are quicker than ever,” Abi wanted to say.
Trusting Simon to direct the boat toward the other side of the river, she maintained tense silence.
“You are a marvelous man, and I have placed my life in your hands.” If she said those words, he would think she was sarcastic.
No sooner than she relaxed, Simon allowed the front boat to be steered into the perilous waters near an obstruction that jutted into the temperamental Nile. Danger loitered behind every rock. He led his boats into a potential ambush—or did she worry for nothing?
Ten or twelve crocodiles lurked behind the rocks. As the boats approached, the monsters pretended they slept in the sun.
Nobody took immediate action, no one realized the urgency.
Simon didn’t direct the steersman to move away.
Abi knew crocodiles. She had seen them waylay their prey before. As she expected, they burst into their attack mode, their powerful tails splashing water until it foamed. With rapid shots from her bow and her excellent arrowheads, sharp enough to penetrate the scaly hides, she killed enough of the monsters to ward off an attack.
After an initial delay, the men rowed in panicky motion escaping the danger.
As soon as the boats passed the boulders, Abi called to Dahnay, “Remind Simon to stay away from rocks. That way he can avoid the most dangerous crocodiles.”
How had they ridden from the mouth of the Nile to the waterfalls without learning about the attackers?
Dahnay gave her a condescending nod and then spoke with Simon.
A Sailboat on the Nile, Public Domain, Project Gutenberg
The boats bumped the rocks of the rapids in the roughened water intermittently. A few times she feared the boats would dump them out. They passed hippopotamuses, ferocious beasts that made the risk spine-chilling.
After what seemed forever, the river spread into a calmer, wider waterway. On the sandy shoreline a herd of wildebeest lowered their heads for a drink.
“What a lovely picture that makes,” Dahnay brought his hands together.
Out of nowhere a crocodile charged not at the herd, but at the lead boat. Just above the water, menacing green-black eyes glared at Abi.
“Quick—shoot that big croc,” Dahnay shouted at Abi.
Ignoring Dahnay, she reached for her bow, always nearby, and one of the steel-pointed arrows. She pulled back the string and aimed with precision at . . . a wildebeest.
“You really can’t aim very well. Or are you disturbed? The trip is getting to you. I knew it would.” Trembling, Dahnay moved as far from the edge of the boat as the space allowed. He brought his shaking hands to his face as he curled into his body.
She ignored him. The crocodile rolled over like a cylinder. His dirty purple belly showed as he rolled until his back was on top again. His great tail splashed the water into froth. In an instant he swam through the blood-stained waters and clinched the wounded animal in his jaws. From somewhere nearby, another black-spotted bronze beast joined him. Rolling and ripping, they tore the bleeding wildebeest flesh into chunks.
Meanwhile Simon and the rowers worked in a frenzy to move away from the shore. The other boats followed his lead.
“He was too close. He may have gone under the boat and made us capsize.” She suppressed the smirk that tried to pop out on her face.
The river smoothed out, and Dahnay made an announcement. “We have passed the worst of the rapids.”
“Dahnay, do you think we could take a nature break before dark?”
“Typical woman.” Dahnay laughed.
The wildlife along the river helped her focus on something besides the despicable Dahnay. The shores were pink with flamingos. Occasionally a baboon made an appearance. In Simon’s boat full of strangers, she floated farther and farther away from the coziness of her home. Most of what she had known in Meroe had been good. If only she could spread wings, she’d fly back south.
After the break one afternoon, Simon went to the back of the boat to nap awhile.
“Two of your sisters are counted among the Candace’s archers.” Dahnay’s eyes twinkled as if he’d introduced some embarrassing secret into the conversation.
“That’s correct.”
“But you and another sister were eliminated? And . . .”
“And she didn’t choose us.” She smiled and said no more.
He could think whatever he wished. He was a man of many words, a man who liked to be knowledgeable about other people’s affairs. She’d listen to him much but tell him little.
Dahnay told Abi about the Berber people, who lived in the deserts to the west of the Nile.
“The Berbers are vicious fighters who don’t welcome outsiders. They roam through the countryside in bands. On our way to Meroe we didn’t see any Berbers, but we may encounter them on the way home.”
“I’ve seen Berbers before. They trade with my father.” She remembered her first impression of Simon, whose appearance showed he had Berber blood flowing through his conduits.
“Why is Simon not a friend with his kinsmen?”
“Simple girl,” Dahnay said. “The Berbers who married into Simon’s family in former generations embraced our culture.”
“Oh, they were assimilated into the families of the Jews.” She was glad she understood, even though Dahnay was impressed with nothing she said.
After a late afternoon comfort break, the night settled over the black water. Berbers, crocodiles, leopards—what else? Busy looking at all the wild open eyes reflected in the moonlight, Abi dared not close hers. She would sleep during the daylight. As the night grew calm, she lost her fight with drowsiness.
A new day broke. From her quiver, Abi removed the arrows with strings tied to them. She shot enough fish to share with the men stationed near her. Other archers also fished with arrows. When the four boats stopped on a sandy bank, the cooks fried barley bread and fish for breakfast. Simon looked pleased as he ate, but it was clear his mind was on the logistics of the trip.
It wasn’t necessary for him to appreciate or notice her, but it would have been enjoyable if he had. Perhaps in future years she’d bear him sons. Nothing else she could do would ever matter to him.
“Simon, did you enjoy the fish?”
 “The fish were tasty.” Simon moved away.
Abi’s placement on the boat prohibited her getting to know her future husband. The next time he talked to her, she asked, “Could I change places with Dahnay some of the time?”
“Oh, no. That would be unthinkable. Dahnay is second in command. He must be in his spot. Besides, if I moved you to Dahnay’s spot, you would be in danger.”
The Nile grew wider as it sucked the boats farther north. Abi stared into the distance at a landscape more open than she had ever witnessed. They traveled hours without passing trees. Along the sides of the river she studied the sand dunes and far-away hills of the Sahara.
Oh, to escape into those hills! She wouldn’t run away because she was a girl. Life was what it was. Still she could let her mind take her wherever she desired.
Gazing as far as her eyes allowed, she scrutinized every detail of the landscape. An inviting grove of trees beside the water awaited them downstream. From the west, an unnatural object in the distance approached the river. As it moved closer, it appeared to be a funnel of sand. Simon needed to know about it, but she dared not take her eyes off the oncoming object for a moment.

Abi of Cyrene, Chapter Eleven

The Day at Hand
All that remained of yesterday was the time she spent with her friends. She let it go.
The north-bound trail carried her away from Melech, her brother, sisters, and the goats. As the sun lowered in the western sky, shadows lengthened. The animals laden with burdens shortened their steps. They climbed an upward-bound section of the road. When the camels, donkeys, and horses struggled under their loads, Abi wished she could protest on their behalf.
As the last slice of the sun slipped below the horizon, they arrived at a clearing. Simon led the men to an open spot. “We’ll pitch camp here. I don’t see any paths or tracks.”
A man accustomed to traveling, Simon didn’t stop in a road established by herds of elephants and wild buffalo centuries ago—roads that would be followed throughout the ages.
Dahnay raised his chin at Abi. “Notice that Simon didn’t choose a campsite under trees, where big cats lurk.”
She’d try, but she didn’t know how she could endure such a know-all, always pointing out the obvious to her as though she was a stupid girl.
He raised a hand toward the bare sky. “Forest fires could result from cooking flames. Are you listening?”
“If you’d pay attention—”
He was not her schoolmaster.
Chattering in strange tongues, some of the men brought deadwood for the fire.
“Notice. They inspect each branch for snakes and scorpions.”
As the cooks prepared the meal of figs, bread, and dried meat, she comforted her mind with memories of growing up in Meroe. Her brother Zebediah learned in school about holy men going into the tabernacle, where they spoke to the Lord.
On the Sabbath, the women went to the back corner of the tabernacle.
“Don’t try to say prayers,” the Nubian rabbi said. “You are unworthy.”
She believed him. Melech served as her intercessor, even though his castration made him also unworthy before the Lord.
She remembered what Melech told her. “Perhaps Daniel of old times was a eunuch. The Lord heard his prayers.”
“Leave praying to the men,” the rabbi taught. “If you are a woman, don’t even think you could have words the Almighty would care to hear.”
She needed Melech, her prayer warrior, to help her reach her God, the source of hope and comfort. When she and the archers had danced before the Lord and prayed, she had sensed a divine presence. If the rabbi had known, he would have insisted the feeling had no basis in reality.
At last, the meal was ready. She toyed with her food while the men ate as though they were starving.
When they finished, they sat around the campfire and laughed at stories told in a strange tongue. Loneliness overwhelmed her.  Stationing herself in the dark out of view, she braided her hair to occupy her time.
She would have welcomed a leopard so she could have some excitement to interrupt her isolation. With one of her new arrows and the fine bow the Candace gave her, she could defend the others. Then they’d respect her.
As her despair grew, she decided she’d pray even though she had no right.
In the Talmud, women of old had prayed to the Lord. If Hannah said words that Adonai heard and Miriam pleased the Lord with her song, why wouldn’t he want to hear from Abi, an humble maiden from Meroe?
In the midst of the men’s constant chatter, no one turned when she spoke. She could pray aloud. “O Lord, I praise you. I am desperate for a good life. Please attend to your humble handmaiden.”
The prayer calmed her for a time, but Papa Negasi appeared inside her head. A quick spindly man, he relied on unpredictable attacks to overpower his women. He often aimed at the backs of his victims’ heads so he wouldn’t leave visible marks. Simon, with his thick strong frame, would deliver hard solid blows. Abi wouldn’t be able to predict where he’d bruise or cut. She vowed she wouldn’t provoke him.
The day closed with the stars coming out.
Simon pointed to a spot on the ground. “Lie here between Dahnay and me for your protection.”
She nodded with gratitude.
Simon’s eyes glistened as he took her hand. “You can trust Dahnay with your jewelry.”
Dahnay took the gold and ivory from her trembling hands. He wrapped the jewels in cloth and placed it in his bag next to his pallet.
They provided her space so she wouldn’t be forced to lie close to them. She found it strange that she traveled in a company of men with no other woman present; however, she felt secure with Simon. If he’d planned to find a wife on this trip, he would have brought traveling companions from his country. Maybe he really did see her and fall in love.  He could have arranged with her father for a lady companion, but the boats were crowded.
Lord, if I could have seen Lisimba and Malaika one more time—I should have asked you earlier.
While Simon’s men laughed at what must have been jokes, then settled to quieter stories told by the older ones, she curled her body inside her blanket on the bed of earth.  No matter how hard she tried, she could not comprehend their words.
She made a pillow of her folded riding blanket. Resting her head, still sore from Papa’s blow, was more important than escaping the smell of the camel assigned to her. She kept her weapons and accessories—the bow and arrows, her leather arm cover, the sling, a few pebbles, her knife—inside the blanket that covered her. The incomprehensible noise of the low-pitched voices speaking in a foreign dialect with an unknown rhythm lulled her to sleep.  
She awakened to silence within the camp. Two Cyrenaicans guarded the camp. Perhaps they needed her help.
She sat up and stayed awake so she could listen to the nearby cries of the wilderness. Musky odors not attributable to the camels and horses announced threats lurking behind the shadows, but no beasts broke into their circle.
Hours passed. The two men stood when two others came to replace them. Soon after the guards changed, she went back to bed and slept until pre-dawn.
The following day the landscape changed to a date palm forest. After another routine evening, she bedded down underneath the stars and slept at furtive intervals. She prayed, not knowing whether Adonai heard her. He was capable of hearing everything, but she didn’t know whether he would consider her worthy of his attention. It wouldn’t hurt to try.
Throughout the days and for long periods of the night, she maintained an attitude of guarding their safety from the wildness of the untamed African countryside—Taferka, as she’d heard the Berber traders call the vast, lush earth land of her home.
Another day and evening passed. It was time to sleep. She observed that the men on first watch became drowsy near the end of their time; therefore, she guarded from her bed during the middle of the night.
Not far from her, Simon rested on his pallet. Because it was not a time to think about his manliness, she kept her thoughts pure.
After three more days, the road led them through a thick grove, verdant with a rich green that words couldn’t describe. The deafening sound of rushing water announced they were approaching the cataract. Leopards could take advantage of the noisy distraction and surprise the riders. Abi held her bow with a ready arrow in her hand, and she wore her leather guard on her arm.
Memories reminded her she would pass through her life without seeing Melech’s blessed face ever again or communicating with his mind.
The narrow road took them down, down, down to the side of the waterfalls. The broad sparkling fall danced down a sharp natural wall. As she passed it, she sensed a charge of power.
Papa said a river god empowered the water, but she knew the Creator Adonai gave the river its force.
“Devils ride down the waterfalls at dusk into hell,” Papa said. She wished she could respect him, trust him, but alas, a demon dwelled inside his spirit.
In the far distance, the high hills glorified the landscape. She needed her family. Her little sister and brother would share the wonder. Simon, who ignored her as she’d expected, did nothing to erase the loneliness.
Melech was probably milking the goats that very moment. The caravan moved deeper through the curves of the earth. A gnawing hunger for conversation persisted. Talking was impossible from the top of one camel to another. Simon, busy leading the caravan, had no time. Besides, he had not indicated he wanted to say anything to her. She had no words to speak to him. Dahnay, always busy with details, stayed near her.
Monkeys eating seeds in fern pines on the sides of the road irritated her because they made the men chuckle. She was not in the mood for comedy.
A monkey threw a stick that hit her shoulder. When Simon’s men laughed, she scowled. As the day passed, no one dared look her way.
Papa. She supposed she missed him. Although he threatened her comfort, he possessed a way of creating adventure. Papa merely wanted a good life for her. Papa beat her because she needed correction.
She searched her mind for something happy. Zebediah used to sing a Psalm King David sang.
He learned it at Torah school. If she sang it, maybe Adonai would hear her.
“Many say there is no help in Adonai.” She followed that line by humming a plaintive melody. “But you, Adonai, are my Shield. You are my Glory. You are the Lifter of my head. I cry out to you, Adonai. You hear me from your holy hill.”
Abi hummed a lively melody so she wouldn’t feel sad. “I lay down and slept, Adonai. I dreamed of glory. You kept me safe and awakened me.”
She sang more of the happy song prayer. “You struck my foes on the face. Lord, you broke their teeth. All is safe no matter where I go. La-la-la. Salvation belongs to you. You are my blessing. You are the Lifter of my head.”
Adonai, I believe you hear me. I think you like it.
They wound down the road, little more than a path that sank between banks of wet foliage, glistening like emeralds, in the sun. Despite her efforts to catch some happiness and hold onto it, gloom overwhelmed her. No matter how beautiful the earth was, it was impersonal. Her spirit cried.
If I’d seen Lisimba and Malaika one more time, I could have said goodbye. I would have known some peace. You could have implemented that little miracle for me, but you didn’t want to. Why should you? I am unworthy.
The monkeys intensified their commotion. They must have thought she was pouting as she ignored them swinging in the vines that linked giant trees near the road.
Anger, anger at Adonai, ruled. He plucked her out of the risks of facing hell on earth in Meroe, but he left her no tools of comfort for her frightened heart. Her stomach hurt. Her neck grew tired from riding the camel, and her lower body ached from the lengthy ride.
You called me out of my land the same way you called out Abram and Sarai. You took care of them. They were special, but I’m not.
The camels slowed as the trail grew steeper and curved around boulders. Wedged rocks in the sand made the path treacherous. The trees came to an end, the road flattened, and a band of sparkling sand extended both directions. A slice of high green grass ornamented the approaching edge of blue water. After the ribbon of green, more white dirt speckled with black rocks lying in piles lined the river, and finally the water flowed in astonishing power. No high banks contained the Nile as at home.
The angry bitterness that had boiled within her gave way to a sense of wonder. The forest on the other side of the Nile stood in front of a smooth horizon of low blue mountains, topped by a sky of lighter shades. She didn’t know blue could be so many colors.
The boats were bigger than she’d expected. Men who moved about with confidence guarded them.
Simon called a greeting.
“Simon,” the men yelled.
Preparing Boats to Sail, Public Domain, Project Gutenberg
A cluster of Nubians stationed a short distance from the big boats didn’t acknowledge the arrival of Simon. Some men paddled slender reed boats in the water. Others moved about on the banks. The two distinct groups at the water—Simon’s men and the Candace’s men –appeared aware of one another’s presence, even though they ignored each other. Her countrymen would take the camels back to Nobatia.
It felt good to dismount.  If the men hadn’t been around, she would have rubbed her bottom.

As the travelers readied the boats, she helped stand guard. If other merchants with hostile intentions approached, she would see them before they could come near. Also, animals of prey required vigilance in the African wild country. While she stood at her self-appointed post, she caught Simon glancing her way and grinning as he shook his head. 

Abi of Cyrene, Chapter Ten

The Hall of the Candace
Although it was an early hour, the festive dinner commenced. During previous soirees Abi had attended, the Candace took on a tired look early. Parties always began before the sun passed over the mountains, and the guests never lingered.
In the antechamber, ceremonial washings created a stir. The Jewish ritual preceded the elegant banquet in the impressive dining area. Bejeweled guests streamed into the room, where they sat in groups of fours at small tables piled high with figs, flatbread, honey, and salt-pickled vegetables.
The servants served each guest a stuffed pigeon. Obviously the cooks had toiled through the preceding night to prepare such a large feast. Everyone but Abi and Melech must have known the traders would arrive that day.
The aroma of dill and cumin mixed with the smell of roasted birds swirled through the air. Happy chatter filled the room.
Were her sisters in the court? Lisimba and Malaika never came home even when they could. In the past, arguments had broken out between them and their father.
Announcing the arrival of the distinguished guest, a drummer jolted Abi back into the moment. A uniformed guard escorted the traveler who had ridden by the goats on the road that morning. What caught her attention was the enormity of his feet.
Striding across the regal hall, he was conspicuous in his difference from the Nubian guests. His oily rose brown skin glistened like polished African mahogany.
As the attendant showed the stranger to the table of honor occupied by the royal couple, he became vulnerable to the staring maidens, lined up on the left. In a row of onlookers, Abi could look as much as she pleased. Thick black eyebrows with high natural arches accentuated his enormous eyes, which were focused on the Candace and her consort.
His hair, abundant and short, framed his face in ringlets. Both his hair and his well-groomed beard were warm dark brown. His nose had wide nostrils with a slight bridge. Prominent cheekbones and a forceful chin gave his face a strong chiseled appearance.
Servers poured wine into electrum goblets. Each guest also received ceramic pots of liquid brewed from Arabica beans.
Arabica Beans  (See attribution at end of this post.)

The stranger brought his goblet to his lips, sipped, and returned it to the table. What a splendid mouth—full with expressive lips thick in the middle with a graceful curve thinning toward the edges. How would his exquisite mouth feel in a kiss? The giddy thought surprised her, leaving her face hot and her breaths labored.
Abi knew nothing of techniques a young woman could use to attract a rich man’s attention. Now that her body had taken on a womanly shape, men she didn’t trust had stared at her. Abi inhaled a ragged breath“I will obey Papa, do what is expected.” She mumbled into her scarf.
Abi was merely the Candace’s young cousin no longer belonging in the royal court. If Amantitere ignored her, the chances of attracting the stranger would be slight. Abi resolved to employ all her abilities.
Her heart raced at the thought of performing. Whether or not the Candace asked her, she rehearsed mentally what she would do just in case. Once she arrived at the point of flinging herself into the music, she’d feel better. She would drink in the exhilaration of the moment, if such a time would come. Standing in the row, she visualized each move she’d make.
After her mental rehearsal, she returned to her fretfulness about the man she planned to charm. He had other wives, no doubt. She realized her desire to be a man’s only wife was silly.
“Oh, my head hurts.”
Nobody heard her. Nobody cared.
How rare it would be to become a foreigner’s only woman—how could a woman ever be valuable as a human being to any man? Remaining a virgin a little longer, if not forever, was her desire. Intimacy, she had learned, served three purposes—giving pleasure to a man, providing a woman with financial security, and procreating children. She already had her little brother and sister. Instead of marrying, she’d care for them.
Shivering with memories of the roughness of her father’s hand against the back of her head, Abi worked her way to a place near the table where the royal couple and the man sat.
Netekamane, the Candace’s consort spoke to the foreigner. “What brings you to Meroe?”
“Trading.” The man spoke Meroitic with an unnatural inflection.
Abi smiled, but not too much. She had never seen such a handsome man. He reminded her of traders she’d seen from many cultures—Greek, Berber, East African, Jewish—all in one person. His attire showed he was a son of Abraham.
Amantitere clapped her hands. “It is not an evening when we will conduct business.”
The foreigner acquiesced with a nod. “The palace is elegant.”
Two attendants dressed in yellow kilts, collar necklaces of turquoise mounted in gold, and gold bracelets on their upper arms appeared before her.
“Bring the gifts for Simon of Cyrene.”
Her Highness presented jewelry of gold and shells, a bronze vase, a tunic embellished with golden threads, knives with quality blades, double-edged swords.
Simon summoned two of his men, who were waiting nearby. They presented his gifts to the Candace—jewelry of carved jade and lengths of painted silk from the Far East. He included a gift of purple fabric from Thyatira and perfume oils not found in Nubia.
The royal family gave Simon an ebony platter. The gift exchange was a game the royal household relished.
Since Abi’s early childhood, she’d watched Papa exchange items prized by the wealthy. Also, she’d seen the elegant possessions of the Candace.
While attendants arranged the gifts on nearby vacant tables, Simon ate his dinner in silence. Near the conclusion of the gala, Amantitere summoned Abi with a nod.
“Abi, thank you for bestowing on us the pleasure of your company. I have missed your comely presence.”
Bowing to the floor, Abi spread the skirt of her dress with her arm like a bird opening a wing. Every mood, every sound, every gesture counted in her strategy. From the room full of beautiful young women, Simon could select anyone he chose.
Besides, she had no evidence he was looking for a wife. He most likely had one or two wives with children already awaiting him in his native land. Wouldn’t he select a new wife from his own people?
If he should find someone in Meroe, he and the woman would travel back to his home in disgrace and inconvenience. No women were in his caravan to maintain proper decorum.
If she wanted a better life, she not only had to prepare to face such an inconvenience, but she also needed to make the evening a success. Her insides tightened in uneasiness.
“Abi, please honor us by playing a song.”
“Yes, my Queen. It would be my honor. Please give me a moment.” Abi tilted her head to Simon, then rushed away.
In her chamber, she yanked off her leather sash so her clothing would flow as she danced and so she could breathe deeply as she played. The dress, a filmy shift of premium cotton, hung from her shoulders. She picked up her short open-ended reed flute. Warm-up notes surged from it as she floated back toward the banquet hall.
Back inside the great room, she willed her entire being into instant excitement. Clapping double time to the rhythm in progress, she skipped as the drum continued its persistent beat. Her wide scarf flew as she twirled about. Papa’s golden bands blazed with her constant motion. The other young women, the archers in training, joined her in a spontaneous folk dance and paraded around the guests. Everyone else in the court added to the rhythm.
Finger snaps that sounded like a hundred crickets.
Clucks with tongues.
Crisp slaps on thighs.
Clapping that throbbed throughout the massive room.
All the percussion made by the guests throbbed in flawless rhythm. The tension of the performance energized the dizzying music from within Abi.
As it reached a crescendo, she led the dancers, who now twirled with their arms outstretched, past each guest. She sent a furtive glance in Simon’s direction, but he didn’t make the slightest glimpse toward her.
Abrupt silence punctuated her song. The drum stopped when she did.
Her presentation was having no effect on him. She sought his attention not simply because he was sophisticated, handsome, and Jewish but because he was rich. What she needed—what Papa required—was, however, slipping out of her hands.
After a few more pauses in her performance, Abi reached a final halt. As she tiptoed over to the Candace’s table, where she laid her flute beside Simon, everyone’s eyes turned toward her. Practicing the skill acquired from her warrior heritage, she conquered the turmoil within her heart.
Abi, raising her right hand and snapping her fingers, went to stand in front of the royal table. The other young women formed a line with her in the middle. She hummed a melody, while the others added harmony. Shutting her left ear with her hand, she willed to make her voice sound as pleasant as it could. Her soprano melody penetrated through the complex chords of the rich accompanying voices.
The performers and guests clapped, clucked, and hummed songs of romance and hope for a joyful new season, the close harmony an auditory feast. Loving the music and loving to be a part of it. Abi tried with all her power to express the feelings of each song.
Before the diners could grow tired of the performance, Abi stopped. She grasped the bottom of her flowing dress in her right hand and lifted it outstretched as she gave the Candace a deep final bow. After their bows, the other dancers returned to the line.
Abi took her flute back to the chamber, where she put on her belt. As soon as she could, she returned to a place against the wall, where the other maidens stood. Her heart pounded as she gasped for air. Perspiration glowed on her skin.
The young men danced in a line to the accompaniment of clucking, finger snapping, and hand clapping. They bounced with springy knees. Rapid somersaults completed their performance. After two dances, the Candace signaled to the men. “Enough.”
As the public party ended and the young people filed out, Abi lagged at the end of the line.
Simon rose and turned toward the door.
Amantitere commanded, “Sit down.”
“Certainly,” Simon returned to his chair.
“You and your men will spend the night here.”
“Yes. Your chief servant has shown us to our quarters. Thank you, your Highness.”
“You came here on business, no doubt.”
“I am searching for a man named Negasi. His reputation has spread far from here.”
“Abi, come back,” the Candace called
Abi turned and walked to the royal table.
“Tomorrow when you return home, please serve as guide for this man. Take him to Negasi.”
“Gladly.” Abi kept her face expressionless.
“Simon, you will return here to my court tomorrow. I have urgent business I must discuss with you.” 

Attribution for Photograph of arabica beans:
Starr 070308-5472 Coffea arabica" by Forest & Kim Starr. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - 
See the following article for more information about arabica coffee:

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Abi of Cyrene, Chapter Nine

Escape from the Predators
Abi sprinted toward home. Papa would be glad traders were approaching Meroe. He’d thank her. As she bounded ahead, the sun warmed her skin until she glistened. She outran the goat stampede.
Papa wouldn’t tolerate an interruption from the business at hand. Providentially, Melech was safe from a thrashing about the loss of a goat.
As her fingers lifted the latch, she yelled over her shoulder. Papa, men are riding up the road on the Candace’s camels.”
He showed no surprise—no reaction. Did he expect the men? He must have known that, since the water had risen high enough to smooth the rough rapids, the time had come when merchants could sail with the winds from the north. Had someone else told him the traders were coming?
Out of breath, she fumbled with the latch. As she stepped aside, the goats thundered through the gate.
“Don’t rush the goats like that. How many times have I told you and told you again? Running overheats them. It keeps them from letting down the fat in their milk.”
Why was Papa fretting over the goats’ milk when the season of business was ripe? During the years she was trained in the court, Abi had received instruction about traveling on the Nile. Meroe, the gateway to African wealth, served as a trade corridor between Egypt and the tropics. If the traders returned before the waters receded, the Nile would take them back north with its current. Traveling farther south than Egypt was risky, but merchants made the hazardous trips because of the richness of ebony, ivory, steel, and gold.
Papa, merchants are coming.” Did he hear her yelling?
Okay.” He was sitting in front of the house on his stone bench across from the big rock where he had sat earlier that day. His lean legs were crossed, with his feet tucked underneath him.
“Jews,” she said.
He spit out a wad of chewed brown nuts. “Wash yourself well. You’re dripping with sweat.” His snakelike eyes darted at her. With his slender fingers that reminded her of reptiles, he centered his black turban on his head and stroked the immense gold-encased emerald.
“You smell rank.” Papa leered at her.
Let me help take care of the goats.” She skidded past him. “Then I’ll wash.”
He sprang to his feet.
Slap! Struck the back of her head.
Shove! At the same time he struck her, his raised leg became a barrier she failed to step over. Although she lost her balance, she managed to lessen the intensity of the blow by yielding as a willow branch. Curling to protect herself from the ragged pavement of rocks, she fell.
“Look after yourself.” He growled. “Melech cares for the goats.”
Raising herself to a standing position, she held her head and grimaced so her father would know the punishment was sufficient.
You filthy pig. Wash yourself and come back to me. This is your last chance.”
“Ouch.” She cowered toward the front door.
“You’re a worthless girl with no distinctive quality. So ordinary you make me sick. My biggest regret is that I didn’t dash your brains on a rock when you were born. It may not be too late.” His crazed eyes frightened her in a new way.
“I’m sorry.” With a gentle hand, she patted her injured head.
“If I make a smart trade, I can rid myself of you today. And maybe even turn a profit.”
At the wash table, she untied her laced leather bib at her neck and at her midriff. Next she yanked off the short garment made of braided leather straps and decorated with shells strung from a sash hung low from her waist.
She lathered with a creamy bar made from ashes and the fat milk of the goats, rinsed, and patted dry. With shea butter, she polished her skin to a glow. After the oil absorbed, she slipped into a flowing shift.
Her stepmother, holding oil of frankincense in her hands, stood before her. Abi had never worn frankincense, something her father considered too precious for his daughters. She stood with a serene pose as the stepmother dipped into the fragrance and dotted it behind Abi’s ears and inside the folds of her wrists, elbows, neck, and knees.
Abi set her mouth in a fine line. The lavish investment was something she would tolerate but not enjoy. It came not to honor her but to send her away. For the moment she assumed her role as the royal cousin of the Candace instead of the rejected female her father despised.
She returned to Negasi and stood unblinking before him. The loose bracelets and rings with which he adorned her weighted her arms and hands.
He fastened more bracelets onto her ankles. “Lace your sandals tighter. Don’t waste time.” 
Careful with her flowing garment, she bent to tighten the sandals and stood in front of him. Was she growing taller, or was Papa stooping?
In his hand he held enormous gold hoops. The holes in her earlobes, seldom used, had almost closed.
“Let me do that.” First her right ear. She pushed the metal into the spot sealed by new skin. She could handle the discomfort if she repierced her own ear. Sparks of light flashed before her closed eyes.
Little Hadassah fetched a rag from inside.
“Quick.” The pain had ceased, but blood trickled down her neck.
“Right there. Let me help.” The little sister blotted the drops before they could reach the top of her shift.
“Now, the left one.”
Perched on a low stool while Hadassah embellished her hair with ivory combs from her father’s stash of merchandise, Abi waited. Although she had questions, she held her words.
“Sister, you look like a princess,” Hadassah whispered.
Abi stood tall. It would have been gratifying to go to the little pool where she sometimes studied her reflection.
“Come here.” The stepmother shoved her to the wall where hung a sheet of polished bronze big enough to produce a dim reflection of her face.
“Thank you for letting me look.”
Papa stood in front of her again. “Come with me. Move with the elegance of a fawn.”
Humming a song too soft for Papa’s ears, she followed. Music helped.
He turned so fast she dodged to avoid a collision with him. “Where is your flute? You forgot it, didn’t you?”
“In my bag.”
They mounted the two mares that Melech had saddled for them. Abi trailed behind Negasi along the Arabica-lined lane to the abode of Amantitere, the Candace.
“Pay attention. Do as I say.”
“Yes, Papa.”                                                                                                           
When they arrived at the front entrance of the stone palace, he spoke softly to the gatekeeper and dropped a coin in an outstretched hand.
“Dismount your horses,” the gatekeeper said. “Enter through the gate.”
The chief steward looked passed Negasi and into Abi’s eyes. “Yes, the Candace will receive a foreign dignitary. After dinner she will expect entertainment. She might welcome your daughter.”
Abi and Papa passed into the vestibule.
“Abi, remember this is your chance.” He jerked her elbow. “Do your best. You must attract the attention of a rich man. You should find at least one such fellow in the group. Never mind how old he is. Don’t consider his looks.”
Silently she focused wide eyes on the stone tiles at her feet.
“When the festivities begin, stand near the wall with the damsels of the court. If you are lucky, Amantitere will call for you.” To her relief, Papa moved away and mingled with the palace staff.
Abi looked for her older sisters among the guards. “Lisimba,” she called out. “I thought I saw you.” Her face felt hot. “No, I was mistaken.”
While she waited for a signal to go farther into the palace, she surveyed the grounds through a window. Camels and horses delivered the travelers.
An official assigned the travelers their quarters for the night. Servants from the Candace’s court rushed forward, but the strangers raised stiff arms with palms turned outward. As two of the travelers stood as guards, the others unloaded their own baggage from the camels, cart, and donkeys.
Milling through the crowd, Papa gave the staff and foreigners sidelong glimpses. They eyed him with stern expressions. Any time he’d start approaching people and introducing himself as Negasi, cousin of the Candace. People would look at him with amazement.
Before the usual could happen, Papa left, holding his head high. Abi sighed with embarrassment because people laughed at him, and she was sorry she didn’t honor her father.
The aroma of poultry, vegetables, and fruit wafted through the air. Clay dishes thudded, signaling the preparations of the royal meal.
Pigeons, (Public Domain, Project Gutenberg)
Where were her sisters? She couldn’t divert her attention from her mission and look for them. If she failed to find a husband, she’d receive a larger portion of Papa’s wrath than ever.
Finally a female attendant escorted Abi to a tiny chamber. It seemed to be fashioned from a slot of leftover space crammed between larger rooms.
On her way to the bedchamber assigned to her, Abi studied each face in the gathering of young women filling the corridor. She needed to talk to Lisimba and Malaika for a moment. Too late, she realized she’d failed to greet her former companions. She must have appeared cold and indifferent.

No longer invited to share the sleeping hall with the others, she regretted being an outsider, although the matron housekeeper had honored her with the private chamber.