“The runes don’t lie.” The woman’s lips pulled into a toothless smile. Her pupils reflected the moon as she held stones in her hands, her special runes. She traced their curved indentations with her fingers.
A younger woman stood next to her, so close that each could feel the warmth of the other’s breath. Stars hurled shards in the black sky. Desert life hummed around them.
“Don’t tell anybody I came,” the young woman pleaded. “The master forbids the oracle.” Her eyes were rimmed with kohl, and her hair fell in bundles to her knees.
The old woman hissed a mirthless laugh. “I heard otherwise; that he is making a book of Magick. His next book. His sixth book.”
“I heard no such thing.”
“You won’t, but I have my face to the winds.” The older woman picked up a stone, and studied it carefully.
“Inguz, the rune of fertility and new beginnings. You’ll hold a babe to suckle at your breast.”
“There is a suitor. Zichri is the master’s grandson and he wants to marry a woman from Midian just like his grand-father. But I am scared. These people are different, though they have been with us for a long time. My aunt has reassured me that they are good. After all, she married one. Not just one, but the One, the master himself.”
“What does your heart tell you?”
“I want to go with Zichri, but I am not sure. He is restless and wants to leave the group to find the special land by himself.”
“I’ve heard of this special land,” said the soothsayer. “It will be found when the oracle yields the key.”
“It seems that Zichri’s people are at a standstill. But should I marry him?”
“I can’t tell you what to do. But listen: don’t be afraid. Be true.”
“True to what?” asked the young woman.
The young woman was puzzled, but did not want to show her lack of understanding.
“What is the master like?” The old woman asked.
“He is old but strong. His strength towers over other men, even his brother Aaron. He speaks with a gilded tongue, but when he starts, he takes his time. His words get choppy, then gain strength.”
“Yes, I heard that he stutters,” the old woman said.
The day broke through, in orange waves of light. The soothsayer’s eyes appeared as dark pebbles, lost in folds of skin. Henna markings reached from her lips to her chin. The distant sounds of a camp coming to life reached them through the clear dawn air. There were sounds of goats bleating, then piercing cries. Soon, the smell of burned flesh reached them.
“An animal sacrifice to please the god of the master,” murmured the young woman.
“Do the priests always start this early in the day?”
“Not usually, but this is a feast time. They’re busy building a special tent.”
“Do you worship Zichri’s god?”
“I will when we are to be wed, though his god scares me. He requires too many sacrifices. Right now, I follow the path of Anat, the all-seeing goddess of the desert. My father is one of her priests. ”
“I know. I’ve heard of Anat as well as your master’s god. They are related, you know.”
“I don’t think so. The teacher forbids us to mention her name.”
“She has many names. Shekinah, Isis, and others. Maybe in thousands of moons, people will understand. But you never told me your name?”
“My name is Zipporah, like my aunt, but everyone calls me Zippah.”
“Your name and your womb contain mysteries.”
“What is your name, old one?” Zippah asked.
“My name is Hokhmah, the wise one.”
Zippah stood up and gave the woman her fee, a small copper trinket, dug from a pouch tied close to her chest.
The fortune-teller threw a handful of sand at the young woman’s retreating figure, blessing her and her beloved Zichri. They would need it.
The camp was ablaze with activity. Thousands of the nomads pitched in, trying to ready the tent in time for the feast. The master had brought down specific instructions from the mountain, as well as measurements for the altar, and for the Ark of the Covenant, the repository of Sacred Tablets. He would personally place the final touches, as he had done every year. The tribe celebrated the Unnamable bypassing their homes in Egypt to spare their newborn sons.
Under the shadow of palm trees, the oasis felt like an island in an expanse of waves. In the distance, the desert loomed large and unknowable.
Children herded goats, while men constructed the tabernacle. Women lit fires, and pounded grains. Their voices rose with ancient lyrics that they had brought from Egypt. They sang of the river and its banks, where their master was nestled in a basket. There were odes to a miraculous escape, while some pined for the ancient days of servitude with their predictability.
The ghosts of thousands of their dead weighed upon their memory. It was a tragedy that they ignored, that nobody talked about hoping the memory would fade, but it cast a shadow upon their festivities. The will of the Unnamable, with His mighty wrath was carried out by the master, his brother and the sons of Levi. A generation ago, they had dug massive graves to bury their dead.
Zippah had heard the story of how some of them had worshipped the likeness of a calf, molded from gold, while the master was away with his god on the mountain. His god ordered the guilty killed. It was a tragedy that she couldn’t understand, though she tried. Anat, her goddess, never hurt anybody; all she wanted were flowers and incense on her altar.
Mismatched fabrics, woven over the course of many years, constituted a major part of their wealth, and hung from wooden poles, swaying in the wind. The huge tent was taking shape.
It was time to serve lunch to the men. They sat on the ground, and the women brought pitchers of beer. Bread was served along with greens and dates, followed by roasted rabbit.
Zippah saw her betrothed drinking in big gulps, the foam cresting his upper lip. His muscular shoulders strained the fabric of his chemise.
Their eyes met in the distance. Zippah felt a flutter go through her at the sight of him. She was feeling more assured that he would be a good husband. They had been adults for three years now. It was time to pitch their own tent.
The master stood on a pedestal, his long beard tapered on his chest. His head covering hid part of his forehead, and hung in loose flaps around his shoulder.
“Hear this. We are now closer to the special place.” Tear drops descended on his cheeks. His brother, Aaron, stood by his side.
There was grumbling from the assembly. They hadn’t moved from the oasis in a generation, some said. How could they be closer? Where was this place? Beyond the oasis, there was an endless blur of sand.
“You must believe,” the master said. His face shone, as if illuminated by a secret source.
The tent was almost finished now. Lingering rays of light teased the blue, crimson and purple yarns of the linen curtains. The men moved the large sculpted tablets inside and carefully placed them in the Ark of the Covenant. The rich acacia wood of the cabinet and its gold cover adorned with cherubim adding mystery and a further blessing to the tabernacle. The heat of the day yielded to a tepid night. People congregated around a fire, singing, clanging their cymbals, beating their tambourines, and fiddling their lutes.
Zichri pulled Zippah close to him. She had been careful to rub her wrists with cactus flowers before she came to him.
He guided her aside, and ran his lips over her neck. As he pulled her closer, she could feel him harden at her touch. He placed his lips on hers, and their kiss exploded like thunder. She pushed herself closer to him. Zichri took her hand and guided her behind the large ceremonial tent. He placed her on the ground.
“Zippah, you are as sweet as dates, as beautiful as the moon.”
She blushed as he slipped his hand under her dress. He possessed her, as she willingly opened herself to his embrace. In a tiny corner of her womb, their humors mixed in a timeless dance.
“We shall be wed before the moon reaches its fullness. Soon, we shall be together in our own tent.”
Looking at his face, she started loving his god for the first time. She would learn the rules from the other women, for she knew there were many rules, but she would start with the ones that were carved into stone, the ones they kept in the tabernacle.
A season turned ,and a new crop of flowers appeared in the oasis, with brilliant hues. The date trees and the prickly pear bushes developed new vigor. But there was a sense of apprehension at the camp, a collective gasp as if cataclysmic events were impending, disasters waiting to strike, golems lurking in their midst.
Miriam the prophetess sang her last song. She strummed the strings of her lyre, which quivered with her gifts. Soon, she took sick to her bed. Aaron and the master visited her. When they came out, Zippah could see their farewell etched on their faces.
Then Aaron kept to his tent and a few days later, word came that he, too, had died. The teacher stood with his wife and two sons on his side; an unspeakable sorrow smothered the camp. Black ribbons dangled on their tents. Preparations took place for a burial before sunset the next day. Women wailed, men rent their clothes.
The master went up Mount Nebo by himself. He gave instructions to Joshua, the chosen one. People murmured that the master was meeting with the Unnamable but they weren’t sure what would happen next. Would he return with new laws? He did not give them a clue before leaving, only asking them to listen to Joshua.
At the edge of the camp, where vegetation grew at the mercy of sand storms and flashes of rain, the old woman picked grains, removing dirt and leaves, and setting them on the ground outside of her ramshackle dwelling.
The old woman felt rather than saw Zippah’s arrival, and looked up to see the young woman’s belly swollen with child.
“Greeting, old Hokhmah. I bring you tidings from the master.”
“So he knows of our meetings?”
“The master knows everything,” Zippah bowed her head.
“Maybe he doesn’t disapprove, after all.”
“I don’t know. Why would he say that he doesn’t allow the oracle?”
“Some rules are meant to be broken by those of understanding.”
“He left a leather scroll, and asked me to give it to you.”
The old woman unfurled the scroll, and studied it for a long time, absorbed in her labor. It was covered with circles, lines and letterings. For the rest of her life, she would decipher, adjust and elaborate, merging her knowledge with the master’s, to synthesize a new understanding. The master had written his thoughts, like seeds to grow, a backchannel to secrets that were familiar to her, a way to cement a union between his god and her goddess. Finally, she smiled as she looked towards Mount Nebo. “Kabbalah. I accept the gift.”
Then lightning hit the top of the mount, tearing the sky with purple light. It was followed by a crack of thunder, an earth shattering shriek. Fire lapped at the mountain with tongues that rose thousands of feet. Smoke twisted in a vortex to the heavens. The mountain trembled, its base like pegs about to be unhinged.
Zippah leaned against the old woman. The sand rippled, forming phantasmagorical shapes. The mountain suddenly quit its trembling, and the fire and clouds dissipated. The sun shone in a blue sky, supplanting a terrifying secret with a reassuring banality.
“What happened?” whispered Zippah with a hoarse voice.
“His god came to take your master,” Hokhmah said.
A young boy ran towards them, his arms lifted behind him. Zippah didn’t recognize his refined features, surprised at the stranger in the camp. He was pale like the early morning and a faint sheen covered his body.
“The journey starts,” he said, his voice hitched up like a starling. He didn’t await their response and continued running, an evanescent creature blurring like a dream.
As he disappeared, they saw Zichri rushing towards them with his arms wide open. His stride was powerful and his head cover bobbed like the awnings of a tent.
“The master is gone. Come quickly. Everyone is looking for him. Some think that he died and was buried on the mount,” his voice broke. “Others think that he is buried in the valley, but we can’t find his body. Joshua says that it’s time to go.”
“Come, Hokhmah,” Zippah said out loud.
“I will stay. I have work to do.” She unfurled the leather scroll once more, holding it at arm’s length. She didn’t have many seasons left.
Zichri grabbed his wife’s hand, and they returned to the center of a quiet camp, as if it had been cast under a spell of silence. Their hearts ached as they realized the fullness of their loss. It was as if time stood still, as if history needed a pause to ponder the imponderable and to regain its momentum. Their master was truly gone.
Then her baby kicked in the womb. People moved, aimlessly at first then with resolve. Their cries rose as they packed their bundles, saddled their donkeys and camels. Children whined. A group of women left a wreath of flowers at the base of the mount.
Joshua was confident, giving orders and pointing the way. He led them across the desert and they walked for many days and nights.
During these tumultuous days, her aunt Zipporah and the master’s sons disappeared as well, as if magically raptured to other realms. Their stories halted, swallowed by dunes of sand.
No one knew what happened, though people stopped questioning this season of mysteries. With the dawn of the third day, an emerald green valley appeared to them, like a mirage.
“Finally,” they shouted.
They were exhausted, filthy, thirsty yet giddy with happiness. They sang of Moses and other tunes that Miriam had taught them, her voice still ringing in their ears. Zichri held Zippah’s hand, and they walked together.
Hokhmah sat by her tent, looking at the horizon. She discerned a whirr in the air, the tune of a complex story yet to unfold, invented by gods, redacted by men.
“They have arrived,” she said to herself. She looked towards Mount Nebo, holding the scroll with the mysterious symbols in her hands.
“Thank you, Moshe Rabbenu. You have given beyond measure to all.” She finally allowed the tears to fall on her parched, furrowed cheeks.
Nadia Ibrashi’s work received prizes in National Federation of State Poetry Societies Poetry Society of Michigan, Ebony, Writer’s Digest, Gemini magazine, Springfed Arts, the X.J. Kennedy Awards and others. Her work appears in The Southeast Review, Nimrod, Narrative, Quiddity, International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program, Tidal Basin Review, The MacGuffin, The Whirlwind Review, Rosebud, Atticus Review, Alimentum, Mobius: the Journal of Social Change, The New Sound, and others. Her stories were finalists in Tifferet Journal of Spiritual literature writing contest 2015 and in The Raymond Carver contest 2015. She is assistant editor at Narrative magazine, and graduated as a fiction fellow with The Writers’ Institute, CUNY. She is a member of Detroit Working Writers, and Springfed Arts, and has practiced medicine in Egypt and in the States.