Read Lilah Online

Authors: Marek Halter

Lilah (5 page)

She had come here to tell Ezra that Antinoes had returned and she wanted to marry him. But how could she do that now? How, after all she had heard, could she say, ‘I, too, have news. Antinoes has returned from the wars to marry me. I spent the
night with him. I love him. I can still feel his caresses on my hips. He wants to make me a great lady, one of those who enter the Citadel and bow down before the King of Kings'?

Suddenly Master Baruch's voice rose, drawing her from her thoughts. ‘Ezra has the anger of youth, and that's good,' he said, with a half-wicked, half-serious smile. ‘All I have is the remorse of age. I was not much older than the two of you when Nehemiah left Susa for Jerusalem with the consent of his King of Kings. At the time I was living in Babylon, among the exiles. I spent my days studying the teachings of Moses. A man named Azaryah came to me. “Baruch,” he said, “Nehemiah is forming a caravan for Jerusalem. He's going to rebuild the walls and the Temple. He needs hands and minds he can trust. He thought of you because it's said you know a great deal about the Law that Moses received on Mount Sinai.” I gazed at this Azaryah with the look your brother sometimes has. Blazing dark eyes . . . although mine have always been light blue.'

Master Baruch stopped. His throat quivered with a grating laugh – whatever the gravity of a situation, he could always find amusement in men's trials and tribulations, especially his own.

‘I thought about it for a while, then answered seriously, “I'm studying, and can't interrupt my studies.”

‘“Come on,” he insisted, “you can study in Jerusalem. Is there a better place to study?”

‘I refused again. “Going to Jerusalem will mean interrupting my studies, and I can't do it.” He lost his temper. He was breathing like an ox, this Azaryah, he was as red as a beetroot. “Is that your answer to Nehemiah, Baruch ben Neriah?” he asked. “That you'd rather study than rebuild the Temple of Yahweh?” “Yes, that's exactly what you're going to tell him,” I replied, very proud of myself. “Baruch ben Neriah obeys a higher will. When you're studying the Law of Yahweh, you don't interrupt it, even to rebuild the walls and Temple of Jerusalem.”'

Master Baruch was laughing, but the tears that welled in his eyes were not tears of joy. ‘Oh, Nehemiah, poor Nehemiah! May the Everlasting bless him for all time!' he exclaimed, beating his chest with his fists.

Lilah risked a glance at Ezra, who was listening impassively, head tilted. She waited a moment, then got up with a determined air. ‘I'm going to make herb tea with honey,' she said to Master Baruch. ‘I've brought some fresh herbs. And I'll bake some biscuits that you can dip in a little milk. It'll do you good and calm your stomach.'

She went out before Master Baruch could protest. But his laughter pursued her. She had to admit,
however reluctantly, that Ezra was a good pupil and had learned a lot from Master Baruch – all except one thing. He had not learned how to laugh and joke. That was a true gift, especially when your eyes burned with the tears you were holding back.

The kitchen was only six feet wide and twelve feet long, but it was simply and efficiently laid out. A long flat stone, worn smooth by daily use, protruded from the far wall, with a furrow cut into it to drain away the water through gaps in the bricks. Sogdiam was cleaning onion shoots and turnip roots. He had already put away the sacks of vegetables and dried fruits in big cane baskets with lids, which were lined up on the side. Under a board of palm-tree wood, which was used as a table for kneading, cutting or crushing, there were other baskets, without lids, containing a few cucumbers and two small, white-veined melons.

Bunches of mint, sage, peppers, aniseed, cardamom and oregano hung from the ceiling beside pieces of mutton and dried fish, which swayed in the heat from the brick oven. Two feet high and shaped like a water tank, the oven stood in the middle of the room. Inside it, right at the bottom, a thick layer of embers glowed between big stones, on which stood a pitcher of boiling water. A cleverly angled opening in the
roof let out the smoke without allowing rainwater into the room.

No sooner had Lilah entered than she asked if the dough for the biscuits was ready. Sogdiam threw her a look, wiped his wet hands on his tunic, then lifted a cloth from the kneading board. Five round balls rested on it.

Lilah pressed one with a finger. The dough sank, soft but firm, and resumed its shape when she released the pressure.

‘I made them early this morning,' Sogdiam said, resuming his task. ‘We had some flour left over from last week.'

‘So now we just have to bake them, if the oven is hot enough.'

Sogdiam thought of replying that he had kept up the fire since dawn for that very purpose. All Lilah had to do was place her hand against the bricks to discover that he had spoken the truth when he claimed to know the day on which she would come. Now he judged it wiser to keep silent.

What was the point? Lilah never noticed his efforts. With the back of his wrist, he rubbed his eyes, which were smarting more from the injustice than the heat of the oven.

Unafraid to soil her beautiful tunic, Lilah picked up one of the balls of dough, flattened it between her palms and then, with a gentle, regular movement,
rolled it between her hands until it was a thin, soft disc. She leaned against the oven and, with the skill of habit, bent double, plunged her face into the heat and stuck the disc to the inner wall. It sizzled. She stepped back, straightened, pushed a lock of hair off her brow, then seized another ball of dough. ‘While I'm making the biscuits, Sogdiam,' she said, ‘heat a pitcher of water with mint leaves and the green part of the onions I brought. Make sure you cut them very small first. And pour a jug of milk for Master Baruch.'

Sogdiam obeyed without a word.

For a while they busied themselves in silence. The space was so narrow that they constantly brushed against each other, almost colliding as Sogdiam placed the herbs in the pitcher of hot water at the bottom of the oven.

No sooner had Lilah, her cheeks and brow reddened by the fire, stuck the last disc of dough into the oven than she wiped her hands, lifted the lids off the baskets, and made a face. She was surprised to find nothing there but the bags Axatria had prepared that morning.

She stood up abruptly, knocking Sogdiam's arm as he was pouring goat's milk from a big gourd into a double-handled pitcher. The gourd fell from his hands, the pitcher overturned and milk spattered the vegetables and the wall beside the draining table.
Sogdiam caught the pot before it rolled off the table to smash on the floor, then let out a torrent of oaths in the dialect of the lower town.

‘I'm sorry, Sogdiam,' Lilah cried. ‘It's my fault.'

‘Yes, it is!' Sogdiam exploded, pushing the cork back into the gourd with his fist. ‘You said it – it's your fault! Ever since you came into this kitchen you've been treating me as if I wasn't here. Your eyes are open, but you don't see me any more than if I were a spirit from the underworld.'

‘Sogdiam!'

‘Sogdiam, do this! Sogdiam, do that! Sogdiam got up at dawn to make everything ready. Sogdiam isn't lying when he says he waits for you. All you have to do is put the biscuits in the oven. Everything has been cleaned and put away. You can lift every lid in this room! You don't have Axatria to help you today, so I'm helping you instead. But if Sogdiam wants you to say thank you, he's got a long wait.'

‘So, now Sogdiam is also losing his temper, is he?' Lilah took him by the shoulders, drew him to her and pressed her lips to his brow. ‘Forgive me, Sogdiam,' she whispered. ‘It's a bad day. Ezra's angry, Axatria's angry, you're angry and I . . .' Sobs rose in her throat. She hugged Sogdiam tighter, not so much to comfort him as to reassure herself. ‘Of course I see you, my Sogdiam. Of course I thank you.' She kissed his eyelids. Sogdiam did not reply,
and dared not put his arm round her waist. He stood stiffly, breathing in gasps and shaking all over.

Lilah pushed him away gently. There was still so much mistrust in his eyes, she was reminded of a wild animal that could never be truly tamed. ‘Smile.'

His lips stretched into a grimace that was not a smile but betrayed the depth of the affection he felt for her and his hunger for love.

Lilah took his chin and forced him to look at her. ‘You'll never be my husband, Sogdiam,' she said quietly, ‘because I'm too old for you. But I'll often regret that. And I know that we'll always be friends.'

They remained like that until Sogdiam, with a gleam in his eyes now, seemed convinced that Lilah was not joking. Then he freed himself. ‘It's all right,' he said. ‘There isn't much spilt milk. I'll wipe it up.'

With a knot in her stomach, and surprised at the strength of her own feelings, Lilah watched him go about his work, cleaning and putting away the flat stone, the containers and the utensils. He was a serious and loyal young man, braver and more determined than most boys of his age in the upper town.

‘I wasn't inspecting your work, Sogdiam,' she said. ‘I'm well aware you do far more than Ezra asks of you. I was just surprised by how empty the baskets are. Ezra eats nothing, and Master Baruch has
the appetite of a bird, yet there's almost nothing left of the barley and the dried vegetables that Axatria and I brought you last time. There must have been at least four or five
minas
of each. I find it hard to believe you ate the rest. And there's no reason to throw it away.'

Sogdiam did not reply immediately. ‘We don't throw it,' he admitted at last. ‘We give it away.'

‘You give it away?'

‘It was Ezra's idea.'

‘What do you mean?'

Once again, Sogdiam took his time replying. He looked into the oven, where the biscuits were darkening. For some time now, the room had been filled with the sweet smell of barley, but neither had noticed.

‘Your biscuits are turning brown,' he said.

‘Lord Almighty!' Hurriedly Lilah seized a long wooden spatula and a thick serge cloth. She bent down to the oven, screwing up her eyes against the heat, skilfully prised the biscuits loose with the spatula, without breaking them, and collected them in the cloth. She stood up again, breathing hard, face bathed in sweat. ‘One moment more and they'd have burned.'

‘The herb tea must be ready, too,' Sogdiam said, and he took the pitcher out of the oven.

Lilah placed the steaming golden biscuits on a
platter of woven palms, then added a few dates and the pot of milk. She looked at Sogdiam, who was filtering the tea into a large bowl. ‘What do you mean, you give away the food?'

Sogdiam looked at her reproachfully. As reluctantly as if he were about to betray a secret, he pointed his chin at the courtyard. ‘Three or four moons ago, a woman from the
zorifes
came here. She was moaning so loudly you could have heard her in the upper town. We gave her a little barley.' He stopped, and smiled. ‘Wait.' He bent over the oven and took a small earthenware dish with a lid from beneath the ashes. ‘A surprise for Master Baruch,' he announced, lifting the lid with a cloth and waiting for Lilah's reaction.

In a wreath of steam, a mouth-watering aroma reached her nostrils. ‘Mmm, it smells wonderful.'

‘Turnips, dates and chopped fish mashed together with cardamom, basil and curdled milk. A dish I invented.'

‘But Master Baruch has a bad stomach and says he won't eat anything!'

‘Oh, he has a bad stomach until he gets this under his nose! You'll see, as soon as he smells it, he'll shake with pleasure.' Sogdiam shook, too, but with laughter.

Lilah laughed with him. ‘I didn't know you were so fond of cooking.'

‘I try this and that. I mix things, and taste them. If I like what I taste, I suggest it to Ezra and Master Baruch. They don't eat much, but they taste. They aren't hard to please. Sometimes, they really like it. Especially Master Baruch, to be honest. He always used to ask for barley gruel, because of his teeth – or, rather, his lack of them. And I was fed up with always smelling the same smell here in the kitchen . . .'

Lilah had dipped a wooden spoon in the dish. The delicacy of the flavour surprised her. ‘It's good.'

Sogdiam glowed with pride.

‘But you didn't use everything in the baskets, making this kind of food,' Lilah went on. ‘So tell me – the woman who came here, what was she complaining about?'

‘You won't let go, will you?' Sogdiam sighed. ‘“No more flour,” she was bawling, “no more flour, nothing more to eat!” She said she had three boys and no more food left to give them.'

‘What happened then?'

‘She made such a commotion that Ezra had to leave his study. “Sogdiam, why do you let the courtyard get so noisy?” he asked. I explained to him. “Why doesn't her husband give her enough to feed her children?” was his reply. How was I supposed to know? I asked the woman. She told me she didn't have a husband. Ezra was angry. “She has
three sons and no husband?” I reminded him that my mother had also had a son and no husband. “That's why you took me in,” I said. Ezra gave me one of his black looks – like a moonless night, I always say. Master Baruch was laughing into his beard but, as usual, didn't say anything. The woman was still weeping in the middle of the courtyard, moaning loud enough to set your teeth on edge. Ezra came to a decision. “Give her what she wants,” he said, “as long as she stops wailing. I need to study in peace.” And there you are.'

‘What do you mean, there you are? Did you give her all your reserves?'

‘No. Just enough for four days.'

Lilah shook her head, too surprised to react. ‘How long ago was this?'

‘The month of Kislev.'

‘And you've been giving her grain since then? Is that why your baskets are always so empty?'

Sogdiam lowered his eyes, trying to conceal a wicked little smile. ‘Her and others.'

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