Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Abi of Cyrene, Chapter Eight

The Stranger
“Abi, do you remember when the family traveled to see the north waterfalls?” Melech glanced down into the green valley. “Or were you too young?”
“Yes, but I’m not sure why we went.”
He sighed. “Your mother wanted to see them.”
“Did Papa go with us?”
“No, but I did.”
“I’ve always wanted to go beyond that point.” She doubted he’d ever go as far as the waterfall again.
He turned around, piercing her with his sharp eyes. His mouth twitched.
“Yes, I know what you plan to say. I had my chances. As an archer I could have—”
“No need to say it.” He shrugged his shoulders.
Nubian Man on Camel 
“I wonder when the runners came to Meroe to get camels and horse carts for shuttling wares from the traders’ boats to the settlement. Maybe in the early morning?” She had no doubt he was as surprised as she was.
After Abi’s mother died, Melech taught her many things during her leaves from the Candace’s court. “Along the watercourse rough rapids make traveling miserable except when the floodwaters smooth them. Traders navigate the swollen river from the big sea in the north.”
Every year at the end of the rainy season, Papa piled rugs, silk, jade, and spices inside the mud brick house Abi called home. In exchange he gave gold, silver, ebony, and ivory.
“Conditions are ideal for visitors,” Abi said.
At dinner last night, Papa had hardly sat still because of the excitement. Almost pleasant, he’d said, “When the crocodile god sweats, the river overflows and brings goodness.”
No matter how many times her father recited his platitude, Abi found it ludicrous.
“The clouds bless us with fresh tears, which appease the crocodile god. When all the gods have had their fill, the rain stops until they require it again.”
Zebediah mumbled, “Papa, will that . . . the rain . . . quit soon?”
“Speak up, little worm.” Papa slammed his fist onto the table.
Squeezing her brother’s hand underneath the table, Abi checked the smile trying to break out on her face. Papa, who practiced the religion of Adonai, the one true God beloved by their ancestors since the days of Solomon (some believed their African heritage extended back to the days of Moses and Abraham) also paid homage to the river gods, the crocodile god, the sun god, and the moon goddess. Because she couldn’t change the fool, she laughed at him in secret.
For Negasi of Meroe, Abi was another commodity like the pelts, rugs, jade, and ebony that appeared and disappeared. She was worth no more than castor-bean pomades or shea butter.
He sold her favorite camel.
If Papa didn’t reach an agreement with Elan, she’d become the property of a man who would make her follow pagan rituals or become a prostitute.
Giving her to Elan would boost Papa’s standing in the community, but he’d prefer to discard his fourth daughter without shelling out more gold. All the alternatives were dreadful, and she had little choice. She wasn’t worth much.
It was rumored that Seth, a young pagan, wanted her for his bride. Not only was his kind of manliness revolting, but he made no pretense of worshiping Adonai, even though he had Jewish ancestors. She wanted a husband who would lead her future family in the Jewish faith. She could dismiss any thought of Seth, who was not as wealthy as Elan.
Time and again, her mind tried to wrestle through her problem. Interrupting her worries, the strangers riding the camels bounced along closer and closer.
Strange traders brought unpredictable peril. Not that they would harm her upon first encounter, not when she was with Melech. Any visiting merchants wouldn’t risk losing their transactions. Men loved trading more than anything else. Some man might strike a deal for her with Papa.
“Melech, look at that big man.” Despite the dread in the pit of her stomach, Abi laughed. She pointed at the huge man holding onto the saddle that encircled the camel’s hump.
“If he rode a Meroitic horse, his feet would drag.”
Snaking along the terrain, the ancient road constructed of flat gray rocks dipped and jutted toward the approaching lane, which wound so close that one segment almost touched another before it trailed around a cliff. The camels jostled in rhythm and passed the goats in the curve.
Her face veiled by the silk wrap, she squatted in a place where the goats would conceal her, out of the strangers’ view. She needed to be careful. If the men saw her, they might find her attractive. Since her earliest memories, her friends and siblings had admired her. They’d say, “Abi, you’re beautiful.”
“Beauty is of no value without wealth,” Papa always insisted.
The men would pass without noticing her hidden by the goats.
The hammers of her heart struck hard and fast against the insides of her chest. If Papa sold her to a stranger, what would her life become? At least with Elan she’d know what to expect—three other wives along with frequent beatings and constant unwanted intimate encounters. At least Elan didn’t confess paganism. He made a show of his Judaism, although his heart was too cold for him to be a true Jew in the eyes of Adonai.
The procession moved closer. Some of the Candace’s men serving as guides, followed the foreigners. The big man, the apparent leader, pulled back on his reins with his left hand and motioned with his right hand for the riders behind him to slow. He sheltered his eyes with his hand as he faced Melech, Abi, and the goats.
Not turning his head in the direction of the strangers, Melech led the goats toward home in his steady pace.
From Abi’s secure place where the goats concealed her, she scrutinized the peculiar foreigners. Holding her basket in place, she tried to walk in a squatting position. Two of the goats nudged the basket.
“Stop it. You’ve had enough to eat.” She held the basket high.
Her eyes returned to the leader, who appeared older than Abi, maybe as much as ten years. Perhaps a prince, he had a commanding presence that gave her the impression he was comfortable in his role of leadership. Something about the way he moved—sitting erect, holding his head high, commanding the others with a mere swing of his arm—told Abi and everyone else this man was in charge.
As Melech moved along, Abi had problems with the goats nudging her. It was impossible to hold the basket out of reach and keep herself out of sight. She stood tall, basket held by her hands on her head, as she tried to keep pace with the goats. As the distance between the traders and the goats narrowed, she got a good look at the man. The circling bends of the trail brought him closer. His hefty muscles bulged through his clothing. He had brawny legs and thighs, different from the slight limbs of Nubian men.
Abi realized she should have returned to her squatting position, but for the moment she stared at the man. Besides, the goats kept trying to steal greens.
She bent her legs to hunch over, holding the basket intact. To walk, look, and bend over at the same time challenged her. She could imagine how ridiculous she appeared.
Maybe he thought it was strapped to a goat. She was too busy looking to worry about details. He wore a white tunic and mantle made of linen or cotton—she was not sure which. His loose garments, embellished with fringe, had edges bound by blue ribbon. Around his waist was a wide leather belt. A leather strap over his right shoulder held a bag at his waist. A long beige prayer shawl draped over his broad shoulders.
Sitting rigid in the saddle on the camel, he came closer, his eyes aimed toward her, where the goats had nudged her to the far edge of the herd. Shameful. She had glared at him . . . in the heat of the moment she had looked too long at his forceful eyes and his massive erect shoulders. Maybe she wasn’t concealed as well as she had hoped. If he saw her, he didn’t let her know.
(Picture: public domain/Project Gutenberg)

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