At dawn, Abi put on the same attire she wore the evening before, including the jewels. Dew kissed the morning, and the smell of green filled the air. Her horse waited for her near the front entrance.
As she took her position to lead the caravan, Melech, mounted on her father’s mare, rode toward her. “Negasi sent me to escort you.”
“What a relief. I hoped you’d come. Who’s taking care of the goats?”
“The others. Let’s not talk of the goats just now.” Darkness shadowed Melech’s face.
“Little child—you will always be a young one to me—we will soon part.”
“Don’t think that, Melech.”
“It is as I dreamed.”
“That I would travel away from Meroe as the sun does.”
“Each morning the sun returns, but you may never.”
“Oh.” She scrutinized every detail of her home city.
“Your father won’t let an opportunity pass. Prepare for that. We can talk for a small moment. If you can remember one thing, you will survive.”
The stench of the approaching camels pricked her nostrils. “Tell me what it is. Quick. Speak your wisdom. The big foreigner will come over here soon, and we will not be free to talk about personal things.”
“It is love in two parts. Love the Lord with all your heart and love all others as yourself.”
“The first part I can do,” she said. “The second part will require effort.”
“I’ll try also. You’ll leave today. Remember you go with my prayers.”
“How do you know?”
“Tell me what you know.”
Before Melech could answer, Simon, the big left-handed man, approached. The Meroitic guides assisted him to mount the same camel he’d ridden the day before.
Pretending not to see him, she pulled her veil over her face. No longer showing the playful nature she’d demonstrated the previous evening at the court, she behaved with the restraint instilled through generations of Jewish heritage.
Without exchange of words, Melech and Abi led the travelers to her father’s place. The home, a sprawling hut made of mud, straw, and donkey manure with a clay cote on top for pigeons, greeted her.
Wishing her father would never force her to leave, she studied every detail so she’d have a permanent picture the same way she’d studied Meroe as they left it. She and Melech guided their horses to the side so the strangers could pass. After the travelers went by, she said, “I wish I had time to draw a picture of all I see. I’d take it with me.”
“Silly girl, you can draw and paint pictures later.”
“I know, but if I could just—”
“Adonai has given you and your brother the talent of drawing and painting. What more could you want?”
“Exact memories.” Memories of happy days when Zebediah helped her stain the exterior walls brown with nut dye brought a smile to her face. They drew and painted pictures of simple orange flowers on the walls, and she had applied the orange color around the edges of the doors.
“Dismount and I’ll put up the horses.” Melech stood waiting. The camels delivered the men to the spot where her father stood.
Full of regret, Abi crept along. Inside the house, she stationed herself by the open window and whispered, “Hadassah, I’m hungry, but I must hear what they say. Slip me some food, please.”
“Sure.” Despite the stepmother’s glare, Hadassah brought Abi a crust of bread and a bite of cheese.
The big foreigner opened the dialogue of trade. “I am Simon of Cyrene.”
“I am Negasi. Delighted to begin transactions with you.”
Simon and Negasi walked away from the others. Abi could hear fragments of their conversation. They talked about the exchange of merchandise and coins. After striking several deals, they talked about her. She was nothing more than a piece of property.
“The girl with the goats,” the stranger said. “Last evening I heard her play her flute and sing. She danced for the Candace.” The stranger and her father clarified their conversation by speaking Aramaic. Abi, who knew a little Aramaic, understood some of what they said.
“For a prostitute?” Papa asked in Meroitic. “You could keep her for yourself and your men or make a fine profit with her.”
“Never.” Simon also spoke in Meroitic.
Anguish spread through her belly. Papa haggled to get the best price for her. If he could sell her, he wouldn’t have to furnish a dowry, as she’d suspected.
“She is a strong and skillful girl. Perhaps you need a servant.”
“Will greed make my father forget his dignity? Has he no regard for my soul?” She hissed to Zebediah, who stood by her and held her hand.
“You speak of her as though she is a slave you have purchased.” Simon tilted his head toward her father. “Is she not your daughter of your own seed?”
“Yes, she is my daughter.” Her father dropped his chin.
“Is she circumcised?” Simon asked.
“We are loyal to the laws of Yahweh. We circumcise our males as a sign of the Covenant, but we do not practice female genital mutilation, as do the tribes in neighboring territories. We believe that the bodies of our women belong to our God.”
Why did Papa carry on so? Was he trying to impress Simon with his Jewishness?
“Answer me direct. Is this maiden circumcised?”
“I take it that you have brought her up in the suitable traditions of the faith.”
“Certainly.” Papa jutted out his chin as he folded his arms.
“But you would sell her for a prostitute?” Simon frowned.
“The gold you wear is only for your adornment when he puts you on display. He’ll remove it when he finishes the trade,” Hadassah, standing on the other side of Abi, said.
Sad they understood so much about the evil of their father but relieved they were wise enough not to fall under his influence, Abi placed an arm around each and pulled them close to her.
“You misunderstood me. I would never do such a thing. I was merely trying to establish your motives.” Her father Negasi clapped his hand twice and yelled, “Abi, come out.”
Hadassah reached and kissed Abi’s cheek. “I love you.”
“I love you, little one. Be careful.” Abi covered herself with her silk scarf.
“You too.” Tears rolled down Hadassah’s face.
“Don’t let Papa hurt you,” Abi whispered to her brother. “I love you, little man.”
As Abi walked toward the handsome stranger, he avoided looking at her. He spoke in a low voice. “I seek a bride.”
“I have just married her older sister in a good match. I spent much of my wealth. Little remains for a dowry.”
The skin on her face heated at the sound of Papa’s lies. A picture of the horded gold spilling over the top of the hole underneath his bed zoomed through her mind.
Papa flashed his teeth in a hard frozen smile.
Presenting her best appearance, she masked her fear.
The old man unwrapped her veil so he could display her as a piece of merchandise to the stranger.
Thanks to Adonai, the others didn’t look at her. She stared at the ground.
“This young woman?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
Her father motioned toward her body and lifted her skirt. “She is lovely. A virgin.”
The young man raised his palm toward her father and turned away. “No. Enough.”
She rearranged her scarf and walked back toward the house.
“Wait. Don’t move,” Papa Negasi told her.
She stopped a few feet away as they finished their negotiations.
Papa rested a pensive hand on his chin. With drama, he paused. “She is dear to me.”
Simon, with the shrewdness of a seasoned trader, allowed silence to pass as they drifted away from her.
Negasi deliberated. “If I should part with her—”
“Since she is dear to you, you will pay me a suitable dowry.” Simon’s tone was harsh.
Abi’s heart twisted with anxiety, while her face remained unchanged.
Simon and Papa Negasi walked until Abi could no longer hear their words. They wrangled several minutes. The old man waved his arms and flashed his eyes, but the young man kept his arms folded across his chest and his jaw set hard. Her father returned to her and reached for a bracelet on her arm.
“No.” With a firm grip, Simon restrained Negasi’s hand.
“I was straightening the bracelet on her arm.” Did the look he gave Simon reflect new respect?
Simon ignored Negasi’s explanation but continued the essential negotiations. “We have no time for a full ceremony, and I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“The Nile may determine that,” Papa said.
“I must hurry north before the water recedes.”
“I understand,” Negasi said. “Enough of this. Show me more of your merchandise.”
Simon gave an order. “While we attend to our business, have the maiden and her family prepare for the betrothal.”
“But of course,” Negasi said. “We’ll serve you wine out here.”
Abi was an entrée being served on a plate to the strange man.
Helping prepare for the ritual, Melech put up four tent poles and draped a cotton canopy over them. He brought a table with two stools from inside the house. The stepmother placed two cups beside a skin of wine on the table.
Abi concealed all she felt—relief mixed with dread, sorrow upon being scooped away from her family. Numb, she walked inside. Since she would soon leave, she sealed within her being pictures of every room.
She dressed in her other white flowing garment, a shift woven of wild cotton and embellished with a multi-colored border. Around her waist, she tied a belt of calf’s leather. A tasseled prayer shawl made of goat’s hair covered her neck and shoulders.
The stepmother placed a delicate ivory necklace on Abi’s neck.
“Thank you, Mother.” Although the weight of the gold jewels caused her to ache, she accepted the gift with grace.
Hadassah and the stepmother stuffed Abi’s clothing into a leather bag. Zebediah placed her bow and quiver of arrows nearby, each arrow tipped with a razor sharp bronze point. He also added an extra string, her sling, and some smooth pebbles. “You want your flute, don’t you?”
She grabbed him in a tight hug, tousled his hair, and kissed his face. “Yes. Thanks. Also get me my arrows with strings tied to them.”
The family added hair pomade, shea butter, cheese, three small loaves of bread, and a cleansing bar made of goats’ milk and tree ashes.
Hadassah filled Abi’s water skin. “Do you want the little bag of face paint?”
“I suppose so.”
Abi opened the leather bag and loaded a treasure near the top—a small dainty box of carved ebony with cinnamon inside.
Melech brought out gold; other servants carried leopard skins, rugs of goats’ hair, and luxurious blankets.
The men exchanged merchandise, this time as gifts. When Simon of Cyrene bestowed treasures upon Negasi, the old man couldn’t hide the pleasure showing on his face.
“Get out here.” Negasi barked in the general direction of his house.
The pile of stuff her father had stacked had been replaced by another heap of trade goods. The men loaded the beasts and the cart.
A camel waited for Abi.
(Funny Camel: 08-16-10 © kostab/IStock)