Dread coiled like an asp in Mara’s belly as the watery light of dawn seeped through the chinks in the roof of the clay house.
Only a short span of dirt floor stretched between her mother’s corner of their one-room house to where Mara and her little brother lay pressed against its farthest wall. Mara’s worn cloak, pulled over their heads like a shield, had failed to block out the carnal whispers that had drifted through the confines of the dark room during the long night. Shame and fear had twined with tormented dreams until she prayed for dawn.
Now, as the murky beams of weak light puddled on the floor, Mara raised her head and strained to see through the gloom. Is Alexandros still here?
Relief trickled through her stiff limbs. Her mother slept alone in the corner. When had Alexandros left? And where did he go? How could Mama be so foolish? Please, Lord, let no one find out about him.
Mara’s bare arms, prickly with cold, were wrapped around Asher’s small warm body.
She slipped from under her cloak and eased herself away from her little brother. As she kissed his smooth cheek and tucked the tattered wool around his shoulders, he opened his sleep-clouded eyes.
“Shh, my sweet, go back to your dreams,” she whispered, rubbing his back. Asher garbled a few words, wedged his thumb in his mouth, and closed his eyes again. Mara stroked his back until his mouth went slack and his breath buzzed in a steady rhythm.
Silently, she crept past her sleeping mother. Nava lay crumpled in the corner like a pile of dirty rags. She would not stir until mid-morning. Then she would act as if nothing had happened, as if she’d done nothing wrong.
Alexandros, a pagan from Sebaste, had visited her mother before. He didn’t seem concerned about Nava’s reputation. He ate their food, little as there was, complimenting Nava more boldly and laughing more loudly after each cup of wine.
Each time, they had been lucky. No one in Sychar seemed to know of his visits. Not yet. But the Sychar Samaritans did not abide sinners in their midst. When they found out—and they would find out—the strict townspeople would turn on them. They would surely stop providing the barley and oil that Mara’s family needed so desperately. They could, according to the law, march down the hill and drive them out of Sychar. No one in Samaria would take in a disgraced woman, a crippled boy, and a daughter old enough to be married.
Starvation or exile. Which was worse?
Mara stepped outside into the damp chill of dawn. The birds, chattering more loudly as crimson light stained the eastern sky, seemed to be scolding her. They should be scolding her mother. What are you doing to us, Mama?
Tall cedars and even taller mountains surrounded the little house, throwing dark shadows over the doorway and onto the front courtyard carved out of the scrubby bushes. A jumble of chipped clay pots and jars sat along the wall next to piles of straw and kindling. A few paces away, a whisper of smoke rose from the black remains of the cooking fire.
The familiar rumble of hunger twisted Mara’s stomach. Asher would be hungry too. The good people of Sychar gave them almost enough barley to live on. She knew exactly how much they had left: two meals’ worth—if they were careful. There would be no more if the town discovered Nava’s shame. Mara bent toward the fire to add a handful of straw to the last glowing coal, but straightened with a breath of surprise as a looming form rustled out of the dark bushes.
“Good morning, Mara,” Alexandros said, adjusting his short tunic.
She turned her head away, but not quickly enough to miss the smirk on Alexandros’s lips.
“I’m thirsty, girl.” He dangled a water skin in front of her averted face.
She glanced at him as she took it, careful not to touch his hand. His eyes were bleary and puffed—the result of the wine he had drunk last night—but his smirk of lingering satisfaction deepened. He didn’t look ashamed of what he had done with her mother. But why should he be? A pagan from Sebaste need not submit to the strict laws of Sychar.
Mara ladled the last of their water into the skin as Alexandros leaned against the wall, watching her. He was a big man, solid and strong, with short brown hair and light eyes that she tried to avoid. His clothes were clean and well made, and gold rings flashed on his ears and fingers. She had heard whispers that some of the village women thought him handsome, but he reminded Mara of the wild dogs that prowled the hills, preying on lost lambs. She handed the water skin to him without a word and bent back to the fire.
He drained the water in several big gulps, then crouched down close beside her. “What do you have for food?” he asked.
Mara hunched her shoulders and inched away but didn’t reach toward the cooking pot. If he ate their barley, she and Asher would go hungry today. She watched the tiny licks of flame devour the handful of straw. “Just some barley.”
He grunted and waved his hand. “Don’t bother. Barley’s for animals.” Alexandros heaved himself to his feet. “Time for me to go.” He followed the worn path to the back of the house, where he had left his pack animal.
Mara fed a piece of kindling to the crackling fire. She couldn’t let him leave without asking. She had to know. She stood, rubbed her damp hands down her dirty tunic, and followed Alexandros.
A rickety lean-to clung to the back of the house, and the garden stretched behind, tilled and planted. Alexandros un-hobbled the huge, spotted donkey that had stripped the leaves from Mara’s struggling fig tree while his master had defiled her mother. It bared its long, yellow teeth at her. Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she swallowed hard and blurted, “Are you going to Sychar? To the marketplace?”
If he showed up in Sychar, just over the hill to the east, at this time of morning, there would be questions. If they didn’t know already, someone would surely discover where he had spent the night. She wouldn’t be surprised if the bragging dog told them himself.
He stepped close enough for her to see his bloodshot eyes and the rough stubble on his jaw. She ducked her head and focused on his sandal-clad feet.
“Afraid that the pious Chosen Ones of God will disapprove of your mother’s good fortune last night?” he asked.
Mara kept her gaze on his worn leather sandals, but her face burned like the rising sun. He knew what would happen if the strict villagers found out that her mother had entertained him overnight.
“What? Worried that the last of God’s Chosen People won’t give you and the boy any more barley if they find out that Nava shared her bed with a pagan?” He stepped even closer. She smelled his sour sweat and the stench of last night’s wine on his breath.
Mara’s legs weakened, and her heart pounded. Who would give charity to a woman who flouted the laws of Moses so shamelessly? Her mother had done more than lie with the pagan; she had put her family at his mercy. One word from him in the marketplace and . . . starvation or exile.
Alexandros ran a warm, moist hand over her hair and down her cheek. She squeezed her eyes shut. He cupped her chin and lifted her face. “Let me see those eyes of yours, girl.” His hand tightened painfully on her jaw.
She opened her eyes. His face was close, his eyes narrow and rimmed with red.
A smile lifted his thin lips. “If you keep me happy, there won’t be any reason for me to spill your secret, eh, girl?”
She wrenched her face away, fear drying her mouth. Alexandros laughed and jerked at his donkey, turning the big animal toward the path that ran west. “I’m low on merchandise. I’m heading to Sebaste this morning, then to Caesarea. Tell your mother I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.” He paused, and his gaze traveled from Mara’s head to her dirty bare feet. He licked his pale lips. “I’ll be looking forward to seeing you again.” He started down the path, away from Sychar, but looked over his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Mara. This will be our little secret . . . for now.”
Mara’s heart slowed its frantic pounding only when Alexandros and his donkey disappeared around a twist in the path.
She rubbed her face where the imprint of his fingers still burned, then picked up the empty water jar. A trip to the well, where women traded gossip like men traded grain in the marketplace, would surely tell her if anyone in the village already knew of her mother’s shame. She threw a striped cloth over her long, tangled hair and started up the steep path.
Mara crested the ridge above her house and descended into a wide valley, her lips moving over her morning prayers. She prayed first for Asher and then for her mother as Gerizim, the mountain of blessings, rose on one side and Ebal, the mountain of curses, swelled on the other. She thanked the God of Abraham for the recent rains that had watered their garden and then asked for her grain jar somehow to be filled. She begged that her mother’s secret shame would remain known only to her.
Lord, send the Taheb to your people. The ancient appeal eased her mind like a soothing balm. Someday the Taheb, the Restorer, would come.
She passed the outskirts of Sychar, just a cluster of clay houses and a marketplace. A few women stood in the shadowy doorways. She knew them all by name, had known them all her life. Some turned their backs to her as she passed. A few shook their heads, their mouths pinched in disapproval. If they found out what Nava had done last night—if just one had seen Alexandros this morning—their outrage would descend like a plague of locusts.
Just past the village, the path met a wider, deeply rutted road. It came from Jerusalem and stretched north through Galilee, all the way to far-off Damascus. Her pace slowed as she walked past wide swaths of green barley and groves of silver-green olive trees. Around a sharp curve lay Jacob’s well, the only source of water in Sychar. She dragged her feet around the bend, forcing her head up and straightening her shoulders. She had done nothing wrong.
Jacob’s well, a hole in the ground ringed by a low wall of rock, was surrounded by half the women of Sychar. Facing the brood of women was never easy, but the covey of young mothers stung the most. They crowded together like a flock of sparrows, chirping and twittering, shutting her out. Mara had once been their friend, but none of them had spoken to her in years. Some were no older than her fifteen years but already married and proudly showing swollen bellies or babes in their arms.
The older women huddled in bunches, murmuring in low voices that stopped abruptly as Mara approached. Several heads jerked up. They looked at her with narrowed eyes and down-turned mouths. Mara’s hands grew damp and slippery on the smooth clay jar, and her legs trembled. She stumbled, almost dropping the heavy jar. They must know. What will they do to us now?
Mara lowered the jar from her head and pressed it to her chest. A burning heat crept up her neck, but she refused to look down—that would be a sure sign of guilt. In the quiet, the bees droned in the lavender bushes and birds chirped their morning song.
She straightened her shoulders and met Tirzah’s stare, then Adah’s. The undeclared queens of the village, the two women made it their business to pass judgment on the less fortunate of Sychar. Usually, that meant Nava.
Adah’s bulbous eyes flicked from Mara’s wild, tangled hair to her dirty feet. Her head swiveled on her long neck, and she bent her tall, bony frame to whisper into Tirzah’s ear. Adah was married to Shimon, a prosperous merchant in Sychar. She was his second wife, a fact that Mara could never forget.
Tirzah smirked and whispered back to Adah. Tirzah was married to Zevulun, the richest man in the village. She seemed to have more flesh than mere bones could support. Her face blended into her neck in cascading folds of skin, and her fine linen dress stretched over the wide expanse of her midsection.
At last, Adah and Tirzah turned back to the cluster of women. Mara let out the breath she had been holding. Something is going on, but it isn’t about Mama. This time.
Mara hugged her jar and stepped in line for the well. The women’s voices were somber, their faces grim. If they had been talking about Nava, she would hear the outraged gasps and titters that signaled scandal. No, this seemed to be another sort of bad news.
When the older women had filled their jars, Mara crouched close to the low rock wall. She lowered a dried gourd down the well, and a cool breeze stirred from its depths. From that first draw, she took a long drink, forcing the water down her tight throat. Then she sent the gourd back down again and again, filling her jar to the top. It would be heavy, but she could make the water last two days.
“Good morning, Mara,” said a soft voice behind her.
Mara turned and smiled at Leah. At least she was always kind. Leah’s long, silver hair fell down her back in a thick, shining braid that caught the sunlight. Although stooped and frail, Leah still fetched her own water; she had no servant or daughter to do it for her.
“Let me help you with that, Leah.” Mara reached for the old woman’s water jug and set it on the edge of the rocky opening. She sent the gourd back down into the well.
“And how’s your mother today?” Leah asked, her quick eyes darting toward the other women and back.
Mara replied carefully, “Sleeping when I left.” She tipped her head toward the women. “What is it?”
Leah bit her lip. “They found Dara this morning, dead, on the east side of Mount Ebal.”
Mara dropped the rope, and the full gourd splashed back down into the well. “Dead? What happened?”
“She must have been gathering wood and fallen down a ravine. Jobab always said she was clumsy.” Leah took the rope from Mara’s still hands and began pulling.
Clumsy. She had heard Jobab—old enough to be Dara’s grandfather—complaining in the marketplace about his young bride. Dara burned the stew and her hands as well. She broke her arm when she fell down a stony path.
A heavy ache filled her chest. Dara was her age and one of the few girls who still talked to her, although not since she’d married at the early age of thirteen. The girl had lived with Jobab on the far side of Mount Ebal and rarely came into the village. When she did, she rushed through her marketing, her head down and not a word for anyone. As though she was afraid.
Guilt brushed her spine like a cold hand. She should have made the climb to the shepherd’s hut to find out why Dara had so many bruises and injuries.
Leah poured water into her jar with shaking hands. “She lost another baby last month. Jobab was so angry.” Bright tears glittered on her wrinkled cheeks. “I should have told someone. I should have checked on her.”
It wouldn’t have mattered. A woman’s word against a man’s never did. Dara was Jobab’s second wife. The first had died not long after giving birth to a stillborn boy—fell and hit her head on a stone. Poor Jobab, the men would say, his wives died before they could give him an heir. Poor wives.
Mara brushed her hand over Leah’s stooped shoulders. She lifted the heavy jar to her head and turned to the road. A flurry of motion caught her eye, then her path was blocked.
Mara stepped around the girl who had once been her best friend. “Good morning, Rivkah.”
“Mara.” Rivkah’s smile stopped Mara mid-stride. Her eyes swept over Mara’s tattered tunic, her uncombed hair. She ran a hand over her own dark braids, twisted into an elaborate design and pinned with brass ornaments. “I wanted you to be the first to know. Jebus and I are to be betrothed. The ceremony is today.”
Mara sucked in her breath. She steadied the jar on her head. She and Rivkah had been childhood friends before Adah, Rivkah’s mother, had married Shimon and turned her back on Nava. Like all little girls, Mara and Rivkah had spent their days talking about their betrothal ceremonies, dreaming of husbands and families. A husband meant security and protection and, most of all, children—the ultimate sign of God’s favor. They had always assumed that Mara would be the first to marry, but Rivkah, more than a year younger, was betrothed first.
“You are blessed,” Mara said. She heard the tremble in her voice. “Jebus will be a good husband.”
“Yes, he will. He begged for the betrothal to be shortened. You know how men are.” Rivkah smirked. “But it will be a full year. My father insisted.”
Mara looked down at her bare feet and ragged tunic. Yes, I do know how men are. She stepped around Rivkah and hurried toward the road.
As Leah fell into step beside her, Mara slowed but didn’t speak. She couldn’t.
The path forked—one way went to the village, the other to the valley. This was where they would part. Leah patted Mara’s arm with her gnarled hand. “Your time will come, my dear.”
Mara shook her head and swallowed hard. No, her time would not come. They all knew that. She nodded good-bye to the old woman.
The path blurred under Mara’s feet, and the heavy water jar pressed down on her head. She should be mourning Dara—although she barely knew her—but she mourned for herself instead.
Rivkah was betrothed. And to one of the last unmarried men in Sychar. She couldn’t even hope for a young, handsome husband like Jebus. Not anymore. Rivkah would be married in one year and probably with child soon after. I’ll still be struggling to feed Mama and Asher. No one will marry me.
Today Rivkah’s childhood dreams would come true. Her father and brothers would carry her in a litter to the house of her handsome groom. Her sisters and friends would scatter nuts and dance to the music of harps and tambourines. And Mara wasn’t even invited.
I’d be content with any husband who treated me kindly and put food on the table. Anyone who provided clothes and a roof that didn’t leak. Anyone who would take care of me and Asher.
No, there would be no betrothal for her. No man would make a marriage offer for Mara, daughter of Nava, the most disgraceful woman in Sychar.
• • •
“Mama, you can’t let him come here again. You know that, don’t you?”
Nava didn’t answer. Mara knelt next to her mother’s huddled body, hoping that she would listen to reason, but Nava just pulled her cloak closer around her shoulders and turned her face to the wall.
“Mama, if they find out . . . what will we do?” Mara’s voice rose.
“What’s the matter, Mara?” Asher piped up from the corner. “Mara, what is it?” He crawled to Mara and climbed into her arms. He was small for his age and too thin, but she had never seen a more beautiful child in all of Sychar. His almond-shaped eyes were deep green. Long, dark lashes brushed his high smooth cheeks. Asher snuggled up to her, and she pressed her cheek to his dark curls. She kissed the top of his head and breathed in his musty sweet scent.
Yes, Asher was a beautiful child. But he had been born lame. Not just lame—deformed. And in Sychar, deformity meant sin. Nava’s sin.
He was in all other ways a perfect boy, but one leg, knotted and bent, hardly looked like a leg at all. The heel of his foot pointed sharply outward, like a misplaced elbow. The foot twisted so that the pink sole faced upward, and his deformed toes closed like a fist. But Asher’s heart . . . his heart was as pure and sweet as the water from Jacob’s well.
Mara pulled his thumb from his mouth. “Asher, no. You’re almost eight.”
Nava pushed herself up from her mat. “Let him be.” She folded her legs and patted her lap. “Come sit on Mama’s lap.”
Mara pushed Asher into his mother’s lap. “Stop treating him like a baby.”
He snuggled up to his mother and stuck his thumb back in his mouth.
Nava didn’t rebuke him. She pulled him closer and stroked his arm.
Even with dirty hair and a sleep-lined face, Nava was lovely. Her honey-toned skin was only slightly lined from thirty summers. Her teeth flashed white and straight behind dark, full lips. Long, black lashes and straight, black brows highlighted her perfect features. Even now, when other women showed signs of age, Nava’s skin stretched smoothly over high cheeks, and her chin was a firm, straight line.
Mara dipped a worn wooden ladle into the water jug and gave it to Nava. She had heard the same words her whole life: she was the image of her mother. Except for their eyes. While Nava’s wide eyes were as green as Egyptian jade, Mara’s were a startling mix of green shot with gold. No one had ever said they were beautiful.
Nava drank, then passed the ladle to Asher. “My poor baby boy. Why must God punish you for the sins of your mother?”
Blood rose in Mara’s face. “Mama, you act as though you have no choice.” Mara carried the heavy jar to the coolest corner of the house. “I didn’t see you asking Alexandros to leave last night.”
Even as Nava buried her face in Asher’s skinny neck and wept, Mara didn’t regret her words. Why couldn’t she see the danger?
“Alexandros?” Asher said, looking from his sister to his mother. He puffed out his cheeks and lowered his brows, very much like the big pagan. “I don’t like him.”
“I don’t either,” Mara agreed. She gathered her damp cloak from the floor and shook it hard. If only she could shake some sense into her mother.
Asher squirmed in his mother’s arms; she was still crying. Mara loosened Nava’s grip on Asher and dragged him from her. “Mama is a little sad, Asher. Go outside and gather sticks. We’ll make some breakfast.” She sent him on his way with a forced smile and a little swat on his bottom. He crawled quickly through the door, dragging his lame leg behind him.
She crouched beside her weeping mother. “Mama, you can’t let him come here again.”
“It is for Asher. He needs a father.”
I don’t believe it. She isn’t making any sense. “Asher has a father. Or did you forget about Shaul? You know, your husband?” She took a breath and tried to speak calmly. “Mama, Alexandros doesn’t want to be Asher’s father. He’s not going to marry you.”
Nava wiped tears from her cheeks. “At his age, Asher should be learning a trade, not playing with toys. He needs a man to teach him.”
“Yes. Shaul is the one who should teach him. If you would just . . .” If she would just get up in the morning and work hard all day. If she would just take care of her children. Then she could send word to Shaul—beg him to come back. They could be happy again.
But Mara couldn’t say that. They never spoke of her mother’s illness.
Nava lay down and turned her back on the room. She pulled her cloak over her head like a shroud, as though she intended to sleep forever.
Mara blew out her breath in frustration. Nava would not get up again today. Sleeping seemed to be her only refuge from the dark thoughts and sadness that bound her. Lord, why do we have a mother who is not a mother at all? If she is the one who is sinful, why must Asher and I suffer?
Mara left the gloom of the house and crouched by the cooking pot. The two looming mountains seemed to press down on her. Would she ever reap the blessings of following God’s laws, or would she only see the curses that were sown by her disgraceful mother?