Rose Among The Thorns – Merav Fima

My grandmother, Nona Paloma, has been enamored with El Cantar de los Cantares[1] for as long as I can remember. Already as a young child, I myself became entangled in its mysterious enchantment.

I remember those eerie nights when my siblings and I slept at my grandparents’ house in Ein Kerem, a serene village on the slopes of Jerusalem’s hills, the stone houses enlaced with lofty pine trees. My grandmother would put us to bed in the upstairs bedroom with the vaulted ceiling and painted floor tiles singing:

I am asleep but my heart is awake, the voice of my beloved knocks.
‘Open up, my sister, my beloved, my dove, my innocent one;
for dew suffuses my head, drops of the night fill my locks.’


On those nights I would have the strangest dreams. My eyelids would grow heavy as I counted the scintillating stars, brighter than anything I ever saw in the city, and smelled the fragrance of the almond blossoms penetrating the chamber through the open window. At that moment a procession of strangers would appear to me, claiming to be my ancestors. Though they all bore some resemblance to my grandmother, I did not recognize them.

One woman had my grandmother’s dimpled cheek and deep-set brown eyes and wore a gold crown on her head. Another was young and freckled and sat at a small Damascene table hunched over a sewing machine, her feet rhythmically tapping the manual pedal – as though it were a piano – as her hands gracefully slid the voluminous velvet across the wooden table inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Yet another, wearing a satin gown, sat in a rose garden strumming the lute. The water flowing from the fountain behind her punctuated my grandmother’s humming as she rocked in her chair, waiting for us to fall asleep.


Like the women in my dreams, Nona Paloma wore a gold chain around her neck, with a pomegranate-shaped pendant suspended from it. Its scarlet jewels – made of garnets, my birthstone – emitted an unusual radiance. Curled up in my grandmother’s lap, I couldn’t resist handling it, my fingers drawn, like metal to magnet, to its cool, smooth surface. Turning the pendant over in the palm of my hand, I would ask, “What does it say here?” She would recite the engraved verses:

My beloved is a locked garden, a sealed fountain;
A pomegranate orchard with exquisite fruits.


The necklace never left my grandmother’s neck. She never let me try it on, no matter how much I implored. “This necklace has been in the family for over five hundred years; one day it will be yours,” she promised, tracing the contours of my face with her soft fingers.


Nona Paloma refused to serve dinner on Friday nights, when the entire family gathered at her home to celebrate the Sabbath, until my grandfather, Nono Salomon, finished chanting all eight chapters of El Cantar de los Cantares to her. Enthroned in his chair at the head of the table, like his namesake, his melodious voice serenaded her at the end of every week:

Ec tú hermosa, mi companyera;
Ec tú hermosa;
tus ojos como de palombino.

You are beautiful, my love;
You are beautiful;
Your eyes are doves.

The flickering flames atop the tall silver candlesticks accentuated Nona Paloma’s high cheekbones and noble neck. Caressing her hand, Nono Salomon would gaze into her brown eyes with a tenderness that always moved me to tears.

Exasperated by the length of the ceremony, Tía Sarah would interrupt my grandfather’s recitation:

“The children are getting hungry!”

Bavajadas, they are no longer babies,” was my grandmother’s usual response. Winking at my grandfather, she’d continue, “Let them be nourished by their grandparents’ love, a love upon which the world’s very existence depends.” I always found my grandparents’ connection inspiring and hoped that one day I, too, would love and be loved.

Setting the leather-bound tome on the white tablecloth embroidered with silver thread, my grandfather would rise to his feet and kiss my grandmother’s outstretched hand. Her dimple would become apparent as she returned his smile and reciprocated his praise. All those gathered around the table would then join in greeting the guardian angels and sanctifying the Sabbath with the blessing over the wine. I could almost see the angels, donning translucent gowns of white light, hovering around the table, their iridescent wings fluttering.

Only then would the steaming delicacies be brought to the table – lamb with dried fruits, walnuts, and caramelized onions seasoned with cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves, rice with slivered almonds and raisins, and a green salad dressed with pomegranate vinaigrette, freshly extracted from the fruit of the tree in the garden. These were the dishes I craved whenever I visited my grandmother. The food was as delectable to the palate as to the eye, its aromas suffusing the dining room.


When my grandparents approached their golden anniversary, I sought an appropriate gift to mark the occasion. I wandered into the Old City of Jerusalem through Zion Gate and walked the narrow cobblestone alleyways to the Cardo, the Roman marketplace at the heart of the Jewish Quarter, dotted with a row of classical columns surmounted by ornate capitals. The cream-colored Jerusalem stone refracted the golden sunlight striking the statuesque buildings.

I knew that I would recognize the ideal gift when I saw it, and soon stumbled upon a small gallery – wedged between a jeweler’s studio and a ceramics cooperative – with bold abstract paintings hanging on either side of the arched doorway.

Bells chimed as I entered the vaulted chamber with muffled steps. My eyes jumped from canvas to canvas, replete with vividly colored birds in flight, until I was drawn to a lone painting on the opposite wall of the gallery that differed in its small scale and subdued tonality from all the others. Framed in silver, it depicted a majestic pomegranate tree with luscious red fruits and a pair of white doves nestled in its branches. “This must be it.” I knew how my grandmother relished the pomegranate tree in her garden, wrapping each individual fruit blossom to protect it from insects, and how much she prized her necklace. I couldn’t help but think of the pair of doves on the paper as my grandparents, eternally faithful in their love.

I had thought that the gallery was vacant, but as I examined the painting a woman of slight stature waltzed across the floor. Her long blond hair illumined her face like sunbeams and she lit up the dim space with every step she took.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked. “It’s one of my favorites.”

“Yes, it’s magnificent,” I stammered. “I am looking for a gift for my grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary. They will love its elegant simplicity.”

“I’m sure they will,” affirmed the gallery owner.

“My grandfather’s name is Salomon and my grandmother is Paloma – a dove. It’s as though this painting was made specially for them.”

“I had a feeling about it when I painted it. I always like to have an idea of the person for whom the artwork is intended in mind at the outset and knew that the doves would have special significance. Do you know that the painting contains the entire Song of Songs?”

My heart skipped a beat. I hadn’t noticed. I took a step forward and observed the work up close. I could now see that the jagged lines delineating the leaves, birds, and branches consisted of minuscule Hebrew script in colored ink, meticulous work that must have taken days of concentration to complete.

I read the words constituting the round red fruits topped with coronets:
Let us rise and head to the vineyards to see if the vine has budded,
if the vine-blossom has opened, if the pomegranates have flowered;
there I will give you my love.

I felt a shiver running down my spine. There could not be a more perfect gift.

The woman extended her hand to me. “I am Bina Ravel, by the way. What’s your name?”

I hesitated, but somehow knew that I could trust her.

“My name is Kitra Vardi.” An electrifying energy emanated from her fingertips as we shook hands.

“Kitra Vardi is a wonderful name for a poet,” she exclaimed. “Why don’t you come back here tomorrow evening? I will be hosting a gathering of artists and writers and would like to introduce you to them. I will have the painting all wrapped up and ready for you to take home to your grandparents then.”

With that, she pirouetted across the room to the next customer, her sequined bell sleeves swirling around her torso like outspread wings. I did not know how she had intuited my most profound desire to become a poet, but it was then that I started taking my ambition seriously and cherishing the uniqueness of my name Kitra, a name that had until then been the source of tremendous grief and countless taunts by classmates mocking its Aramaic origin. I soon became a regular visitor to Bina’s gallery, bringing her scattered verses and polished poems to read.

My grandmother’s hands shook as she unwrapped the parcel. “It’s a very thoughtful gift,” she said. “Of all my grandchildren, you have always been the most kindred spirit.”


The painting hung on a prominent wall in my grandparents’ living room and I admired it every time I came for a visit. When I turned twenty-five and was still not married, my twin sisters, Tiferet and Ateret, convinced me that I needed to take urgent action as I might be running out of time. Nona Paloma reassured me that my intended was on his way. “You’ve got such exotic beauty, la hermosa Kitra, I have no doubt that you will soon meet a deserving young man.” She urged me to try the method she had used to conjure my grandfather more than half a century before. “Read El Cantar de los Cantares in its entirety for the next forty days. It’s a sacred tradition in our family. Just don’t tell your mother that I told you to do this. She’ll say that I am brainwashing you with my primitive superstitions, even though she herself used this very same method to meet your father.”

Though I considered it highly improbable that my mother would have engaged in such practices in her youth and was unsure if I believed in the power of the incantation, I thought that it wouldn’t hurt to try. “Don’t worry about it, Nona. It will be our secret.” I sealed the pact with a kiss on her lined cheek.

I spent the next forty nights reading the Song of Songs from beginning to end before turning off the lights in my bedroom. Perched on my narrow bed, I savored the sound of every syllable I enunciated. I tried to imagine what my beloved would look like and how we would sit around the dinner table on Friday nights reciting these very same verses to each other.

I am the lily of Sharon, the rose of the valleys.
Like a rose among the thorns, so is my beloved among the maidens.

Perhaps I was the rose among the thorns, “la roza entre los espinos,” as Nona Paloma sometimes called me, unable to truly open my heart to another; perhaps I had put up a prickly façade, internalizing the rose’s properties bequeathed by my surname Vardi.

I always waited until my parents had gone to bed before beginning the recitation, but instead of conjuring my beloved, the procession of ancestors reappeared in my dreams. I usually forgot about them by the time I woke up in the morning, but would continue feeling unsettled all day long.


When nearly a year had passed and I wasn’t yet engaged, I decided to take more drastic measures. Reading the Song of Songs had proved to be insufficient; it would behoove me to transcribe the text in order to contemplate every letter. I made my way to the Old City, where my feet instinctively led me to Bina’s gallery, and asked her to teach me how to create my own micrography, like the one she had sold me several years before as a gift for my grandparents.

“The technique is really quite simple; you just have to be in the right state of mind.”

“What do you mean?”

“Start by envisioning an image from the Song of Songs.”

“How about ‘the rose among the thorns’?”

“That will do. Begin by outlining the rose in pencil and decide where you would like the biblical text to begin and end. Use colored pens to inscribe the verses along the outline. Once the ink is dry you can erase the pencil marks, et voilà!”

I made several sketches, my handwriting becoming more compact with each attempt, but felt that it was all mere craft and artifice. Bina examined my drawings. “They lack soul. I want you to do this on the next full moon. Meditate on the following verses from the Zohar, The Book of Radiance, and its mystical interpretation of the Song of Songs:

A song that is holy of holies
As the highest divine name is crowned by it
Because all of its words are love and joy

“I thought you weren’t supposed to study the Zohar before the age of forty. Isn’t it dangerous?”

“Not if it is done with the proper intention,” Bina assured me. “Besides, the best things in life come at a risk.” I was willing to risk it for the prospect of marriage.

Sitting at my desk, I closed my eyes and contemplated the verses Bina had dictated. The brilliance of the full moon penetrated my eyelids. Each ray of moonlight dissolved into the seven colors of the spectrum as it traversed the prism of my retina.

I opened my eyes and the white page glowed in the luminescence of the moonlight, forming a halo around the rose petals I had unknowingly traced with my eyes closed. I felt my own words flowing out of my heart, comingling with the sacred Scriptures, as the ink flowed from the pen. I had never before shown my poetry to anyone but Bina. She was the first person who ever believed in me, the only one who encouraged me to pursue my passion.

Still now, I sought to conceal my poetic words in miniscule script illegible to the naked eye, ashamed of the desperation and vulnerability they articulated:

Thou shall not take God’s name in vain
Why did you betray me?
Why did you breathe the four letters of the holiest name
Crowning the common name?

You did not allow the Shekhinah to dwell among us
And your soul did not cling to mine with the kiss of your mouth
For you are a wall, a locked garden

You have sought only to nestle your head
In my fragrant chest
To caress my dark skin

But my heart is awake and your heart is deaf to the throbbing between my breasts.

This was my first poem to take concrete form, the words shaping the rose’s red petals, green leaves, and brown thorns. As I placed the Hebrew letters side by side on the paper, I felt a burning sensation in my fingertips and an unknown warmth in my heart.

Merav Fima holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Her prose and poetry have appeared in a number of anthologies and literary journals, including: Parchment: A Journal of Contemporary Canadian Jewish Writing; Poetica Magazine; and Meanjin Quarterly. Her short story, ‘Bride Immaculate’, won the 2014 Energheia Literary Competition (Matera, Italy) and ‘Rose among the Thorns’ was a finalist in the Tiferet literary journal’s 2019 fiction contest. 


*This story was first published in Verge: Ritual (Monash University Publishing, 2020): 84–91.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.