Chapter One: Mustard Flowers
I should have been able to save my sister.
We were up late that night preparing for her wedding. I was only ten, and Raisa was thirteen, which seemed old to me at the time. So grown. An adult. The next day she would marry my father’s handsome cousin, Idan. There was a fresh eagerness to Raisa’s movements that made me giggle. My mother had told us that the physical pleasure of love was Yahweh’s greatest wedding gift. I thought love must feel like getting tickled.
For countless moons we, the women, had stolen every spare moment to make clothes and dishes for my sister to take to her husband’s home. For countless moons they had kept me inside spinning wool, when I longed to explore the hills with our herd. How I fretted about the goats! My brothers were more interested in throwing rocks at each other, and I was afraid they would lose a kid. I escaped to check on them when I could, but mostly I was trapped inside. I still felt slightly dizzy from the cloying scent of the madder root we used to dye our wedding tunics. The crimson was lovely with Raisa’s dark hair and eyes, but it made my brown hair appear dull.
That night, the night before my sister’s wedding, the groom sat with the other men in the front room of our house, discussing the new king. For many generations our tribe had remained immune to the religious wars in distant lands. Lately, though, Father complained that things were changing.
Mother sent me in to serve tea. Though I had swept until my palm-leaf broom was shredded, our mud walls looked meager behind the city men in their white linen robes. My father, Ahitob the priest, was dressed in rags. He took notice of his appearance only on the Sabbath. It was endearing—Father dressed nicely for Yahweh, but not for these wealthy men he considered unholy.
I poured the steaming ginger tea, raising my arm high so the stream could cool on its descent to his cup. I was proud not to spill a drop, but my father didn’t even notice. He stomped a foot. “The king sends even more troops to the garrison! This should make us feel safe?”
“Jerusalem is tense,” said my eldest brother. Asa was a religious scholar, tall and thin as a stork. He made me laugh with stories of our people in Jerusalem trying to impress the Seleucids, wearing short tunics that bared their legs. “I fear King Antiochus won’t tolerate our independence.”
“But Jerusalem prospers under his rule.” said my mother’s nephew, Manasseh. “The king’s garrison in Jerusalem grows stronger for his campaign against Egypt. Our religion is not his concern.”
He smiled as I served him, and the twinkle in his eye caught my attention. He was older than Asa, but his chin was hairless as a boy’s. As if to compensate, thick black curls hung down to his shoulders. He had noticed me—a child and a girl—listening. I smiled back.
“What do you think of the new king, Judith?” Manasseh asked.
I tilted my head to the side. He seemed genuinely interested in my opinion. I glanced at my father, but he was examining his cup as though he had never before seen tea.
“I should think a king wouldn’t bother with poor sheep farmers like us,” I said. “He would be too busy with more important things, like fighting wars.”
Manasseh raised his eyebrows, indicating that I should continue.
“And,” I said with weighty importance, “I should think he must have a lovely queen dressed in blue silk. With a gold tiara.”
“Would you like a gold tiara one day?” Manasseh asked.
My father met my eyes, disapproving, but what did he know about jewelry? I nodded.
Manasseh grinned triumphantly. “You see, Ahitob! Why should the king bother with us when there’s gold to be had?” The other men joined in friendly laughter.
Mother called from outside, but I didn’t run to her. This person was too interesting. “Why do you shave your beard?” I asked him. “Aren’t you Hebrew?”
“Enough,” said my father. He grabbed my arm and pulled me to his side.
“No, it’s a fair question,” said Manasseh. “She’s an observant child.”
I beamed, tugged my arm away from my father.
Manasseh leaned toward me. “I believe that each man’s faith comes from his own conversation with Yahweh, not from his choice in dress. Also, the people I trade with—the Seleucids and Egyptians—it’s their custom to shave. They pay me more if they’re comfortable with me.”
My father spoke before I could respond. “So you would choose wealth over the laws of Moses?”
Manasseh turned back to me. “What do you think?”
Avoiding my father’s eyes, I blurted out, “I think you’re very lucky to live in Jerusalem where you can do as you please.”
My father swatted my leg hard and shoved me toward the door, but he was laughing. Their attentions set a warm flame dancing inside me.
Out on the patio, my mother and aunties were cleaning after a long day of chopping, baking, and boiling for the wedding feast. The warm evening air was laced with the smell of roast lamb and mint. My mother, with my new baby sister strapped to her back, used moist ashes to wipe each bowl clean.
“Finally!” she snapped, as I closed the curtain behind me. “Why do you bother the men?” My little brothers sat on the ground picking pebbles from a basket of lentils. I took a step toward them to help, but Mother made a hissing sound to stop me. “Go with Raisa to fetch water.”
I kissed the baby on her head, grabbed the water pole with jugs hanging off either end, and ran after my sister. As soon as I stepped off the patio, my dogs leaped up to join me. I considered them mine because they spent their days helping me tend the herd. I understood them better than I understood people. People were always changing. Except for Raisa—she was constant.
My sister and I walked side by side, comfortably bumping against one another along a dirt path so familiar we could easily manage it in the fading light. She wore a new perfume that smelled of jasmine in spring rain. I hated it. “You’re leaving me,” I said.
She knocked her shoulder lightly against mine. “I told you. I won’t leave you to wither out here in the sand.” We never tired of planning our escape from the village. Most of our nights were spent whispering about our future life in Jerusalem. “You’ll follow me soon enough.”
“How?” I kicked a rock out of the trail so no one would trip on it. “I can’t weave like you. Or cook. There are no goats to tend in the city.”
Raisa laughed her full belly laugh. “Mother will teach you, don’t worry! As soon as I’m gone, she’ll focus on you.” She pulled ahead of me on a narrow stretch of the path, waited for me to catch up. “You must behave, little honeybee. You must learn to be quiet, or she’ll never find you a match.”
“You’re not listening,” I said. “You think life is magical because you have your handsome husband, but what do I have?” All day I had been trying to imagine my life without her. I stopped walking. “You were supposed to wait for me.”
“Oh, honeybee.” She brought her face close enough for me to see the familiar flashes of indigo in her eyes. She pitied me, yes, but she wasn’t sad about leaving. My bottom lip protruded. She pulled a strand of hair free from my mouth, while my own hands kept the water pole balanced on my shoulders. “You just wait,” she said, “I will make such beautiful robes, all the finest women in Jerusalem will desire them. I’ll sell so many that mother will have to send you to help me manage. You always keep me organized. And you bring me flowers and bones. Of course I’ll need you with me.”
My sister possessed a rare talent for textiles. She would carefully place tiny bones in her loom to create designs resembling the flowers I brought her. Already her weavings were known throughout the valley of Judea, bringing honor to my family. She was valuable: Idan had saved for an entire year to gather her bride price. I had no such talent.
As we slid down the embankment to the spring, Raisa’s long legs were exposed. They weren’t muscled like mine. “Are you looking at my antelope legs again?” she said, laughing. Raisa was always so quick, skipping from one task to the next. She never seemed able to eat enough to fill out her skin. Maybe I would point that out to Idan. He should reject such a skinny girl.
“Will your husband allow it?” I asked. “For you to trade?” Whenever I said the word “husband,” Raisa’s pale neck flushed pink against the white trim of her tunic. Maybe Idan should reject her independence.
She smiled brightly and shrugged, indicating that he would have no choice. We submerged our jugs in the spring, taking a moment to rinse our faces while the dogs lapped from the clear water. Our family had the privilege of living close to the spring because Father was the priest. Mother had begged him to dig a well, but he never bothered.
Raisa helped me fill the two small jugs on my pole before lifting her own tall clay water-jug. I didn’t splash her as I might normally have done. After all, she was a woman, almost married. To my surprise, though, she splashed me, drenching the front of my tunic with cold water. “That’s for feeling gloomy the night before my wedding day,” she said.
I used my feet to splash her back. “And that’s for leaving me here to rot like a pile of dung!”
Still giggling, we clambered expertly up the embankment, not spilling a drop of our precious cargo. Then we slowed under the heavy jugs. My sister swayed in front of me. Her form mimicked the curves of the jug on her head, despite her thin legs. I loved her desperately in that moment.
I said a little prayer. A selfish, meaningless prayer, more of a wish, really. Since I was the daughter of a priest I thought maybe my wish would be heard. I squeezed my eyes shut, heart pounding, my betrayal stinging, my loneliness aching. I prayed to Yahweh to make Raisa stay with me.
“What’s that noise?” Raisa asked, her voice low.
My eyes snapped open. I felt the vibrations rise up through my legs before I heard it. An unfamiliar rumble in the distance. The dogs bristled, growled. Searching the darkening valley, we could see nothing but the cooking fires in our neighbors’ compounds.
Within a few minutes we recognized the sound of horses galloping. Our people couldn’t afford horses. They were a rare sight, so much bigger and stronger than our little pack mules. I walked faster, calling the dogs to heel, rushing my sister forward, excited to see the magnificent animals up close.
I was the first to arrive at the patio. Before I could speak, my mother shook her head from across the yard, quieting me with her eyes. The women had stopped cleaning to stare in the direction of the pounding hooves. My sister stood at the edge of the patio, out of the torchlight. I didn’t understand why she remained in the shadows. Didn’t she want to see the great beasts? I wondered how many horses there were, and what they were doing in our little village.
The ground shuddered as the horses hurtled toward us, their speed unchecked; it seemed they would pass us by. At the last moment, they skidded to a halt in our torchlight, dust clouds billowing around them. I had never seen anything like it, but I knew that their riders were Seleucids because they wore short red tunics and carried oval-shaped silver shields.
The five mounted soldiers grimaced as though they found us disgusting. When the children ran up to them, the horses tossed their heads and snorted, releasing a rank sweaty smell. The children fled screaming with delight, returning a moment later only to be frightened off again. The game ended when a soldier jumped down, grabbed my little brother, and threw him to the ground.
I cried out in pain, as if it I myself had been thrown. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. The fires in the village went dark.
Neighboring clans had spoken of patrols in Judea, but we had never seen them. What could they want from us? Food? Water? Their leader dismounted, his helmet turning from silver to bronze in the firelight. He towered over my mother. The bowl of spiced almonds in her hands shook slightly.
“A celebration!” The soldier spoke with exaggerated friendliness. “What is the occasion?” He licked his lips and looked around, taking a moment to smile at me as though he loved nothing better than children carrying water. He had a long thin nose, like his horse, and his perfume smelled of rotten fruit.
My mother answered calmly, “It is only for the Sabbath.” She motioned for the rest of us to keep working. But the Sabbath had been yesterday. Why would she lie to a soldier? I glanced at my sister for an answer, but she only hugged her jug of water.
The officer took a handful of almonds from my mother. “We hear differently,” he said, before tossing them in his mouth. He chewed slowly and looked at the piles of dishes. “We hear there is to be a wedding!”
My mother glanced at Raisa and back, faster than an eye blinking.
The officer’s grin vanished. He spun in the direction of my mother’s glance. “Where is the beautiful bride?” he demanded.
My sister’s jug smashed to the ground. She bolted toward the front door. A soldier grabbed her waist. He tossed her like a sack of grain up to his companion on horseback.
Raisa screamed, thrashing her body from side to side, punching at his arms, but the rider easily held her. The officer flung the remaining nuts on the ground and swung up onto his stallion, kicking my mother away. She wailed, and my baby sister wailed, and I wailed.
At the sound of our cries my father rushed out, followed by the other men. I closed my mouth. He would stop this madness—men always listened to my father. But it was too late. The patrol was already galloping down the path, disappearing into the darkness. My sister’s screams faded quickly.
Only I chased after the horses, water splashing out of my jugs, the dogs running with me. “Stop! Let her go!”
Asa grabbed me. “You can’t. They’re gone.” It was useless. Raisa had been stolen. Gently, Asa lifted the water from my shoulders and led me back toward the courtyard.
I attacked my father, screaming and punching. “Why didn’t you stop them?” Until that moment I had believed he could do anything.
He only shook his head, still staring down the dark, empty road. When he finally spoke, his voice rose with grief and rage. “Wretched, evil king!”
The dogs raced around the patio, howling and jumping on us. My father kicked at them, but Asa gently pushed one away with his foot. He looked at our mother. “In Jerusalem I’ve heard tell of Seleucid soldiers taking Hebrew women before they marry. They claim it’s to prove their maidenhood.”
My mother stifled a sob. She kept her face hidden with one hand, and with the other she reached for me and pressed my head against her stomach, hard, as though to staunch the flow of blood from an unseen wound. Peeking through my mother’s arms, I watched the men close in around Idan, speaking urgently. I couldn’t hear their words, but they waved their hands around, agitated. Idan threw his head cover on the ground and stomped on it.
The dogs began to run up and down the road, barking like demons. Again, Asa pushed one away with his foot. He wasn’t fond of the dogs, but he would never be cruel to any being. He fetched the donkey from its stable near the courtyard gate. The donkey, unaccustomed to working at night, dragged its hooves. My father followed Asa down the road. My mother promised me they would find Raisa and bring her home, but she did not sound convinced.
When the others went inside, I sat outside on the patio, feeling helpless. If I had been stronger, I would have knocked the brutal soldier from his horse with my water pole. Monstrous horses! Had I really wanted to see them? Now their rancid stink followed me, coated my skin. I couldn’t rid myself of their wretched smell, no matter how much dirt I rubbed on my nose and hands. A sheep dog sat down with me. Together we watched the water from Raisa’s broken jug seep into the sand.
When I awoke the next morning I was in my bed, and my sister was curled there as well, her back against me. I went limp with relief, until I noticed her weeping. She tried to hide it, but I had shared a pallet with her my entire life. The old rise and fall of her sleeping breath sounded nothing like those raspy sniffles. Her jasmine perfume was gone. She smelled of blood and stale beer and horse sweat.
I turned to wrap my arm over her waist, understanding instinctively that she had endured something horrific, something unspeakable. “Did they hurt you?” I asked.
Her silent tears turned into sobs, as though knowing I was awake and listening only deepened her anguish.
“I’m so sorry,” I said softly. “I couldn’t stop them.” She turned to face me. Her face was swollen, her upper lip cracked and bruised. I felt an intense need for her to describe everything before she moved away, before she left me. “Tell me.”
She wiped her puffy eyes. “It was their leader. He…he laughed while he tore me. So cruel.”
“That golem is gone,” I said, smoothing down her messy hair. “You’re here with me now. I’ll take care of you.”
“You don’t understand. I’m broken!” She shuddered. “I’m afraid Idan will no longer want me. No longer love me.”
What could I know of love? I knew only the warmth of my sister’s body.
Over the following weeks, she shared pieces of her story. How she screamed until her throat bled, how they beat her face to quiet her, how they left her shivering in a corner of their tent while they drank and laughed, and how all the time she waited to be rescued. The Seleucid officer petted her head and offered her sweets, trying to calm her as he dragged her into a back room. Terror overwhelmed her until she fainted, only to be awakened by the searing pain of his body ripping into hers. She was left bruised and bleeding on his pallet until they allowed Father to retrieve her.
These details came later. I knew none of them on this first morning. I knew only that the world shifted as she wept into my hair. I wept too, frustrated that I could do nothing for her. Had I brought this pain upon Raisa? Was my selfish prayer to blame? I swore I would never again be concerned with my own happiness.
We lay crying until the damp pillow gave us a chill. How could this have happened? My sister was beautiful and warm and good. My whole life had been measured against hers. Now she was miserable, and still she would be leaving me tomorrow.
But tomorrow came, and Raisa did not leave. She sat by the gate, gazing down the road, waiting for her beloved. The following day we cleaned the patio. We divided the wedding feast into clay bowls and delivered it to our neighbors. Her dowry remained packed and waiting by the door. The next day, again, her intended did not return. Nor the next day.
After tending the goats, I ran down the path to where Raisa sat among the mustard plants. The blooms surrounded her with brilliant yellow. She started when I plopped down beside her, gave me an unwelcoming look, and then ignored me, just as she ignored the bees circling us. Watching her sullen face, I remembered her sitting in this spot with Idan when they had visited with each other over the past year. How her face had glowed then!
“Mother says come help with cooking,” I dutifully recited. Then I started weaving mustard flowers into a chain. “What are you doing here? Is Idan coming back today?”
“Shut up,” she said, scowling. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“No, how could I? You don’t talk to me anymore.”
“Now you know how I feel. The neighbors pass by on the way to the market, and they look away. I’m worse than a leper. No one will speak to me.”
“They’re all stupid anyway.” I finished the chain and placed it on her head. It shone against her dark hair. She was so beautiful. No one loved her the way I did. “Now you can stay here with me.”
She tore the chain off her head and crushed the flowers into her fist. “Leave me alone!”
I stared at her, blinking back tears, my skin prickling with a new understanding. My sister had never before sent me away. I forced a smile and reached out to her. “There’s a sweet new baby goat. The silly creature can barely stand. Come and see!”
The crumpled petals smelled sour as they hit my face.
A giddy excitement took hold of me when I first saw the figurine of Judith holding the severed head of Holofernes. That kind of thrill could only mean one thing: I was about to become a writer of historical fiction. I had to find out how this woman became a warrior, blood dripping down her arm, a proud symbol of resistance. And I had to tell everyone. The figurine brought images to mind—images made by Artemisia Gentileschi, Rodin, Klimt—countless interpretations of the iconic beheading. But who was she, and why had she done it?
The original Greek translation is short but compelling. The widow Judith walks brazenly into a camp of bloodthirsty soldiers who hold her ancient citadel under siege. She convinces the dreaded General Holofernes that she can help him triumph. After a few days of conversation, he holds a feast in her honor. Judith plies Holofernes with salty goat cheese from her farm. She quenches his thirst with wine. She sits closer. A few jugs of wine later, she slashes his own heavy sword through his neck. Not only that, she lugs his head up the mountain to inspire her people, who rise up and vanquish the leaderless army.
The definition of badass.
Each time I tell the story I feel glee—a rebellious, sneaky, solidarity-with-my-sisters glee. She beheaded the guy—disgusting. But he was about to destroy her entire tribe, so—justice. I felt similarly when I learned about Lorena Bobbitt. Remember the woman who got so fed up with being raped by her husband that she finally cut his penis off? I cheered for her. Didn’t you cheer a little bit? And most of the women you know? And men too, even as they shuddered? There is something deeply satisfying about women warriors. There is something deeply satisfying about resistance.
Judith used her brains and her courage to prevent the wholesale slaughter of her people. But what was her personal motivation? Why did she risk her life? After days spent debating political strategy with the General, getting to know him, seducing him—how could she do it? What happened in that room?
We can never know what happened thousands of years ago. Powerful men, their pens gripped tight, excluded the legend of Judith and Holofernes from their version of history. But I delved deep into research, and deeper into my imagination. I wrote about Judith’s family, her shame, her needs. I wrote about the tribes and their competing gods. I wrote about women worshipping the goddess Asherah long after it was outlawed. I tried to write a historically accurate account that is relevant today. After all, we need every resistance story we can get.
Melina Selverston lived all over the world advocating for environmental justice before settling in San Francisco. She completed a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University, publishing numerous articles, chapters, and a book—Ethnopolitics in Ecuador—along the way. She enjoys writing about people who find the courage to change themselves and maybe even change the world. Her blog is What Would Judith Do. Judith and the General is her first novel.
Embark, Issue 4, April 2018