Read Lilah Online

Authors: Marek Halter

Lilah

About the Book

397 BC: In Susa, the opulent capital of the Persian empire, where the Jews are living in exile, one extraordinary woman risks everything.

Her name is Lilah.

Lilah is due to marry a Persian warrior well known at the king's court. But her beloved brother Ezra is opposed to their union.

If she follows her heart, Lilah must renounce all ties with Ezra, but she knows that he has been chosen by God to lead the Jews to Jerusalem and to revive the laws of Moses: laws that promote justice and fairness.

Abandoning the promise of a golden future, Lilah stands by her brother, urging him to leave for Jerusalem. But Ezra is blinded by his faith and he orders that all foreign wives should be rejected.

At the risk of losing the one person she still has left in her life, Lilah speaks out against her brother's fanaticism, ensuring the survival of hundreds of women and children.

But her stand against extremism comes at great personal cost . . .

Contents

Cover

About the Book

Title Page

Epigraphs

Prologue

Part One: Two Brothers and a Sister

The Roofs of Susa

Bad News

A Day for Anger

The Queen's Friends

The Sage of the Lower Town

The Promise

Master Baruch's Smile

The Book of Days

Part Two: The Rejected Women

Epilogue

About the Author

Also by Marek Halter

Copyright

Lilah
Marek Halter
Translated from the French by
Howard Curtis

And God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.

I will make him a suitable helper.'

Genesis 2: 18

‘If he deserves it, she is a helper; if not, she is against him.'

Midrash Rabbah, on Genesis 2: 18

The fewer dogmas there are, the fewer quarrels;

and the fewer quarrels, the fewer calamities:

if that is not true, then I am wrong.

Religion is established to make us happy

in this world and the next.

What do we need to be happy in the next world?

To be just.

To be happy in this world,

in so far as the poverty of our nature allows it,

what do we need?

To be lenient.

Voltaire,
Treatise on Tolerance
, Chapter XXI

Prologue

Antiones is coming home.

My heart trembles.

My hand trembles. I hold the stylus tight between my fingers to make sure that the words the camphor ink is laying down on the papyrus are legible.

Antinoes, my beloved, is coming home!

Last night, a messenger in dusty tunic and sandals brought me a wax tablet. I immediately recognized my beloved's writing. A sleepless night followed. Tossing and turning, I pressed the tablet to my breast as if to stamp the words into my flesh.

Lilah, my sweet, my love, in three days and three nights I shall be with you again. Count the shadows of the sun. I am returning nobler and more victorious! And yet until I have you in my arms, until my lips are sated
with the taste of your skin, I will have achieved nothing in two years of separation from you.

My heart is beating faster than it does before a battle. Soon, by the will of your God of heaven and of the mighty Ahura Mazda, god of the Persians, we shall at last be man and wife.

All night long, my heart has been drinking in Antinoes' words. If I close my eyes, they are still before me. If I try to forget them, I hear my beloved's voice whispering them in my ear.

That is my madness. And if I tremble, it is also with fear.

This should be the hour of peace. The darkness is receding. All is silent in the house. The handmaids have not yet risen, the fires are not yet lit. The light of dawn is as white as the milk that they say conceals poison at the banquets given by the King of Kings.

Man and wife, that was our promise. Antinoes and Lilah!

A children's promise – a lovers' promise!

I remember when we were like the fingers of one hand. Antinoes, Ezra and Lilah. To see one was to see the others. Two boys and a girl, always together. That one was the son of a lord who attended the meals of the Great King and the others the children of exiled Jews mattered little.

The roofs of the upper town of Susa echoed to our laughter. Whenever our mother called us, we heard a single cry: ‘Antinoes, Ezra, Lilah!'

Then my mother's voice fell silent. My father's too.

A deadly disease spread through Susa, through the fields along the river Shaour as far as Babylon, striking rich and poor alike, not only in Persia, but also in Sion, Lydia and Media.

I remember the day when Ezra and I, drained of tears, stood before our mother and father, asleep in death.

We held hands with Antinoes – our grief was his too. We stood shoulder to shoulder. The three of us had become one, like some strange animal whose limbs had become inextricably entwined.

I remember the scorching summer's day when Antinoes led us into his magnificent home and presented us to his father. ‘Father, this is my sister Lilah, and this is my brother Ezra. Whatever they eat, I eat. Whatever they dream, I dream. Father, let them come to our house as often as they wish. If you refuse, I will have no other roof over my head than that of their uncle Mordechai, who has taken them in now that they have neither father nor mother.'

Antinoes' father laughed until he could laugh no more. He called the handmaids and told them to
bring fruit and cow's milk. When our stomachs were full, we hurled ourselves into the great pools of the house to cool ourselves down. Children are greedy for happiness.

Once more our days were carefree. ‘My brother Antinoes!' Ezra would cry, and Antinoes would answer, ‘My brother Ezra!' Together, they forged swords, bows and spears in Uncle Mordechai's workshop.

Oh, Yahweh, why must we stop being children?

I remember the day when the games ceased, and the laughter faltered at the touch of a caress.

Antinoes, Ezra and Lilah. Two men and a woman. A new expression in their eyes, an unaccustomed silence on their lips. The beauty of nights on the roofs of Susa, of embraces, the joy of bodies catching fire like over-heated lamp oil.

The three of us becoming one: that was over now. Now it was Lilah and Antinoes, Lilah and Ezra, Antinoes and Ezra. Lovers and siblings, jealousy and rage.

I remember it well, it churns in my memory, like the dark waters of the Shaour in the rainy season.

The handmaids have risen now. The fires are lit. Soon there will be shouts and laughter. It may be a fine day, alive with hope and promise.

As I write, my face is reflected in the silver mirror above the writing desk. Antinoes says it is a beautiful
face, that my youth is the scent of springtime. Antinoes loves and desires me, and loves the words that speak of his love and his desire.

But all I see in the mirror is a furrowed brow and anxious eyes. Is this the face – this sad, preoccupied beauty – that will welcome my beloved on his return?

O Yahweh, hear the plea of Lilah, daughter of Serayah and Achazya, I who have no other god than the God of my father.

Antinoes is not a child of Israel, but he is faithful to his promise. He wants me for himself, as a husband must want his bride.

Ezra will say to me, ‘Ah, so now you are abandoning me.'

Yahweh, is it not your will that our bodies should grow beyond childhood? That we should become men and women, each with his own breath, his own strength, the joy of his own senses? Is it not your will that the man's caress should delight the woman? Is it not your Law that a sister should find other eyes to love, another voice to hear and admire than her brother's? Is it not your teaching that a woman should choose her husband according to her heart, as did Sarah, Rachel and Zipporah, the wives of Abraham, Jacob and Moses?

Whichever I am faithful to, the other's pain will be just as strong.

Why must I cause pain when my brother and my lover have an equal place in my heart?

O Yahweh, God of heaven, God of my father, give me the strength to find the words to appease Ezra! Give him the strength to hear them.

Part One
Two Brothers and a Sister
The Roofs of Susa

IN HIS MESSAGE,
Antinoes had not specified the place where they would meet. There was no need.

As she approached the top of the tower, Lilah's heart beat faster. She stopped, closed her eyes, put her hand on her stomach, and tried to catch her breath.

It was not because of the dark, narrow staircase. She had found her way again easily enough. She had climbed these brick steps so often that it was no problem to find her footing. No, what made her breathless was the knowledge that Antinoes might already be up there, on the terrace, waiting for her.

In a moment, she would see his face, his gentle eyes, hear his voice, touch his skin.

Had he changed? A little? A lot?

She had often heard women complain that when
their husbands returned from the wars, they were like strangers. Even when their bodies were intact, they themselves had become colder, more aloof.

But she had nothing to fear. Antinoes' message was eloquent enough: the man who had written those words had not changed in any way.

She moved the gold and silver fibula that held her veil to her beautiful tunic and adjusted her belt, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Her bracelets jangled, and the sound echoed like bells against the blind wall of the tower.

Light-hearted and smiling, Lilah climbed the last flight of stairs. The door to the terrace stood open and the setting sun blinded her. She shaded her eyes with her hand.

No one was there.

She turned, looking round the little terrace.

No voice called her name.

No cry of impatience greeted her.

Disappointment pierced her heart.

Then she smiled with relief. She was behaving like a child.

Beneath the canopy that covered most of the terrace was a low table, surrounded by cushions and laden with fruit, cakes, and pitchers of water and beer. A large red ceramic vase held an enormous bunch of pale roses and lilac from the East, her favourite flowers.

Her disappointment faded away. No, Antinoes had not forgotten anything. Wars and battles had not changed him . . .

On their first night of love, he had covered their bed with rose petals from his father's garden. The summer heat had been stifling, but Antinoes had shivered with desire.

That evening, that first night, seemed to Lilah both very close and very distant. So much had happened since . . .

Slowly eating grapes, translucent in the twilight, Lilah rested her elbows on the parapet. At this hour, when night was approaching like a caress, there was nothing more splendid than the view from this terrace.

A hundred cubits above the river Shaour rose the immense cliff walls of the Citadel. The royal courtyard, the Apadana, was lined with marble columns, carved in Egypt and transported by thousands of men and mules, which gleamed like bronze flames in the sun, and themselves were surrounded by marble terraces even more vast than the place. Giant sculptures of bulls, lions and winged monsters guarded the Apadana, which was reached by flights of steps so broad and so high that they could have held the entire population of the city. Few, though, were entitled to climb them.

At the foot of the walls, enclosing the Citadel like a casket, were the palaces of the royal city, with their many gardens. In a last flash of brilliance, the rays of the setting sun, reflected in the lazy meandering of the Shaour, lit the gardens, then faded amid the dense cedars and eucalypts.

The royal city was encircled by a brick wall, pierced with small square windows and flanked by tall, crenellated towers, coloured red, orange and blue, which separated it from the busy streets of the upper town. These streets, squeezed between flat-roofed whitewashed houses, ran as straight as if they had been cut with a double-edged sword. They stretched far to the east, north and south: dark, crowded trenches, which Lilah could barely make out from here. She could still hear the hum of activity, though, and imagined a mass of people bustling about as the awnings on the stalls were lowered.

Antinoes' house and garden occupied a rectangular strip in the patricians' quarter, close to the royal palace. The garden was old and luxuriant. The elegant palms and cypresses that lined the path from the outer wall to the house were as high as the tower.

There was a sudden sound and Lilah froze. The shadows were already lengthening in the twilight. She looked at the door leading to the staircase.

All she had heard was a slight rustling. But she knew he was there.

‘Antinoes?' she called.

A face emerged from the shadows, a face she had so often evoked in her daydreams: the broad, aquiline nose, the finely drawn nostrils, the well-defined lips, the arched eyebrows, the narrowed lids, the look in the eyes that made her tremble.

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