Read Lilah Online

Authors: Marek Halter

Lilah (27 page)

They are the words I sang over the grave of Sogdiam, my child.

All the women who were, there repeated the words after me. It was not as beautiful as our chanting at the Water Gate, but it rang out in the desolate air around us.

We are tired, though, of chanting for those we bury.

Just as my fingers are worn and calloused by the stylus.

Among the older women, there is a great desire to lie down anywhere on the ground and go to sleep at last, seeking the eternal oblivion that will come to us all soon. I could see it in their eyes as the earth covered Sogdiam. And I was surprised to feel the same desire, I who am only twenty-five.

From time to time, I lift the back of my hand to my lips. It was there that Sogdiam touched me for the last time. But my skin no longer bears the memory.

Yahezya has been wounded in the stomach, but he can still speak, can still lead us. He asked me to gather together those who are still alive. He told us we should go to the sea of Araba where there are caves, which are easier to defend than an open field. He knew the way. He led us there, struggling to keep breathing until the cliffs of Qumran and the caves were within sight.

That is where we are now, with no land to cultivate, but protected by the walls we have built in front of the caves.

That is where we are now, gone to earth like desert rabbits.

Sogdiam used to bring us grain from Jerusalem. But Sogdiam died beneath his cart.

From time to time, former husbands came at night to see their children and weep in their arms. But many no longer had wives. They were either dead or in the arms of Gershem's men.

Sometimes, the former husbands came to see their rejected wives, caressing them in a way that recalled the time of their love. Then they left.

In the minds and bodies of the women, these caresses, this love disappeared, just as the memory of Antinoes has disappeared from the mind and body of Lilah.

For us, the rejected wives, I say and I write, ‘Time is dead.'

Yahweh pushed us outside, and time, for us, is dead.

That is the truth as spoken by Lilah, daughter of Serayah.

What I, Lilah, am writing, no one will read. My words belong neither to the sages, nor the prophets, nor Ezra. They will vanish in the sand of the caves of Qumran.

But I write because this must be said: these women, these wives, were innocent.

Their children were innocent.

This I write: the injustice of it will lie heavy on men until the end of time.


Just over a year after the foreign wives were expelled from Jerusalem, a man came looking for Ezra outside the Temple after the evening offering. ‘I have learned that your sister Lilah died yesterday,' he said.

Ezra stiffened, as if the only way he could grasp the man's words was to revive a memory he had long since dismissed from his mind.

Then he asked where she had died, and after he had been told, he thanked the messenger and returned to his tasks. He had much to do at that time, for he was establishing the names and responsibilities of the priests, the Levites, the Temple porters, the blowers of horns and others, as laid down since the reigns of David and Solomon.

But next morning, before dawn, he woke two of the young zealots. ‘Come with me. My sister has
died near the sea of Araba. She was no longer a woman of Jerusalem, but she was my sister. It is my duty to see that she is buried according to the Law. If I do not go, who will?'

They took mules and crossed the silent city. Trotting to gain time, so that they would be back before evening, they took the Bethany road and sped towards the plateau of red ash, salt and stones that overlooks the vast, desolate valley surrounding the sea of Araba.

As they approached the edge of the plateau, Ezra became aware of a strange buzzing. It was as if thousands of bees were moving over a field of flowers.

He frowned, thinking perhaps that Yahweh was about to show him something unusual.

What he saw when he started on the path that descended towards the plain made him open his eyes and mouth wide. It was a brightly coloured carpet of human flowers, like that which he had seen, one day long ago, in front of the Water Gate in Jerusalem.

They were there in their thousands. Not only the rejected wives and their children, but the men of the city. They were all there, chanting in unison as they buried his sister Lilah in the dust.

A vast multitude of men and women, children and old people, chanting in unison, without waiting
for Ezra's permission, the words of Isaiah so beloved of Lilah:

Now I shall give her,

like a river of peace,

like a river in full spate,

all the wealth of nations.

Surprised at the sight, Ezra's companions came to a halt.

He continued alone along the path, his face impassive. Then he, too, stopped.

His hands shook. From the assembled crowd, the throb of the chant of Isaiah rose towards him. For a moment, it seemed to him as if his cheeks, hardened by fasting and the sun and wind of the desert, were being struck by the words. His eyes faltered as they swept over the throng.

In the chanting, so powerful that it made the stones of the cliff behind him vibrate, he thought he could hear Lilah's voice, her laughter, her anger.

He saw her place her palms on his as she used to do in the old days in Susa, a long, long time ago, when the three of them were together: Antinoes, Ezra and Lilah.

He heard a voice whisper in his ear, ‘You are Ezra, my beloved brother. Go, lead your people back to Jerusalem! Rebuild the walls of the Temple!'

And he caught himself replying, ‘Lilah! Are you trying to teach me wisdom?'

Tears he had never before wept ran down his cheeks. His tired body collapsed with shame. Without realizing it, he began running towards the crowd. Like the thousands assembled there, like the women expelled from Jerusalem, he chanted Isaiah's promise:

You will be like a child,

Suckled at its mother's breast,

Carried in her arms,

Dandled on her knees.

As a mother comforts her child,

So I will comfort you
 . . .

But no one paid him any heed.


About the Author

Marek Halter was born in Poland, the son of a printer and a Yiddish poet. Narrowly escaping the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War, he and his parents spent time in Russia and Uzbekistan before emigrating to France. Once in Paris, he studied pantomime alongside Marcel Marceau before embarking on a career as a painter. In the 1970s, he founded the International Committee for a Negotiated Peace Agreement in the Middle East and played a crucial role in the organization of the first official meetings between the Palestinians and Israelis; a role he continues to this day.

Marek Halter speaks ten languages, and is fluent in French, English, German, Russian and Yiddish. He is the author of several internationally acclaimed novels, and is a regular contibutor to
Die Welt
La Republica
. In France,
Sarah, Zipporah
and most recently
have all been Top Ten Bestsellers.

Also by Marek Halter



and published by Bantam Books


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Transworld is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at

First published in Great Britain by Bantam Press
an imprint of Transworld Publishers
Copyright © Marek Halter 2006

The right of Marek Halter to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Version 1.0 Epub ISBN 9781409083528

ISBN 9780553816518

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

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