At the age of fourteen, Mariam is betrothed:
Yeshûa led me across the courtyard. My father was standing in the doorway of our house, with his arm around my mother, who had her fingers pressed to her lips in astonishment.
Yehûdâ looked at me in such a way, with such passion, that I knew in my heart what my brother meant. There surged through me a feeling for him that I had never realised was there, waiting to leap out and sweep me away, like a wave of the sea.
‘What is your answer, Mariam?’ he asked.
I held out my hand to him.
‘My answer is yes, Yehûdâ.’
He kissed my fingers and I saw from his smile that he could taste the pomegranate juice on them. Then he kissed me lightly on the lips. I was not sure that he should do this, but there was nothing furtive about it. We were in full sight of my parents.
‘Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely,’ he murmured, with laughter in his eyes, and kissed me again, not so lightly this time. ‘Thy temples are like a piece of pomegranate within thy locks.’
I had to catch hold of his arm to steady myself, for the sun, it seemed, had made me suddenly giddy.
‘Thy lips drop as the honeycomb,’ I whispered, ‘honey and milk are under thy tongue. I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate.’
‘My dove, my undefiled is but one. Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm, for love is strong as death. Oh, I am sick of love.’
‘Turn away thine eyes from me,’ I said, ‘for they have overcome me.’
Our betrothal took place the following month, in the kenîshtâ, in the presence of the entire village, together with Shim‘ôn of Keriyoth, and Melkha’s family. After the appropriate prayers and readings from the scriptures, Yehûdâ and I stood before the company, hand in hand, and made our pledge. A betrothal is not a marriage, but it is binding in the eyes of both Yahweh and the world. It cannot be broken without documents of divorce. After the ceremony, we crossed the square to the feast, which was set up where Melkha’s wedding meal had been laid six years before. She had given me one of her dresses to wear, a beautiful deep blue silk, which Yehûdâ told me was the colour of the MiddleSea where the water is deepest.
‘It will reflect the colour of your eyes,’ said Melkha, in an uncharacteristic burst of kindness.
My mother had washed my hair three times before she was satisfied, anointed it with precious citrus oil, then combed it until it shone. Melkha’s maid dressed it for me with a string of large sea pearls from Greece, which Yehûdâ had given me as a betrothal gift. Nervously, for I had never before worn perfume, I anointed myself from a little alabaster jar Yehûdâ had sent up to my room, containing jasmine oil. It smelled of springtime freshness, far more to my liking than the heavy scents Melkha favoured. Holding myself as tall and dignified as I could, so that I should not shame Yehûdâ and make him regret his choice, I took my place at the mistitha. I felt curiously outside myself, as though one Mariam talked and laughed with the guests, looking suddenly beautiful and womanly, while another Mariam watched her critically from above, knowing that inside her a fearful girl was hiding, waiting to be exposed for the impostor that she was. At the same time I felt gloriously, impossibly, released. Not to be married to some disgusting stranger! Not to be left a barren outcast! Not even to be required to fulfil the obligations of marriage for months yet! I wanted to throw wide my arms and embrace the world. Surely, to be a betrothed girl is the most enviable of all states, when the promised bridegroom is as fine a man as Yehûdâ. Throughout the meal, I saw Melkha looking at him and knew that she must be comparing him with Adamas, who had grown more greasy and offensive with time.
Shim‘ôn of Keriyoth had brought a troop of professional musicians and dancers from Sepphoris, who entertained us while we ate. One man played the kinnôr with a plectrum, another plucked and struck a pesanterîn resting on a stool in front of him, while a third clashed a pair of meshiltayim made of brass. Most of the women were dancers, but one beat the rhythm on a tôp and another blew the double hâlîl. The dancers wore little – nothing but floating dresses of transparent silk, so that every line and movement of their sinuous bodies could be seen. As the evening wore on and the musicians drank more wine, their music became wilder, so that it seemed to make the very blood in my body throb to the rhythm. At last some of the young men ran out into the middle of the square to dance in honour of my betrothal. Yehûdâ beckoned to Yeshûa, who laughed and jumped up from the table. The young men stood in a line, linked their arms around each others’ waists, and began to dance, their feet flickering in and out as they moved first to the left and then to the right, stamping and laughing and shouting. At the end of the line, my betrothed and my brother began to spin them around, faster and faster, in a great wheel, like a rope spun round in the air. Then suddenly Daniel dashed out to join the dance. I jumped to my feet, afraid that he would be crushed by the whirling mass of men as he limped into their path, but Yeshûa, who was now on the outside of the wheel, reached out with his free arm as he spun past and caught Daniel up into the air. Daniel flew past me like a bird, his eyes fierce with excitement.
I remember very little about the next few days. My life had changed so abruptly that I felt unfamiliar in my own body. Though I went about my usual daily chores, I moved in a cloud of citrus and jasmine scent which lingered on my hair and skin, compounding the strangeness.
What I do remember was the way the atmosphere in the house changed from the joyful – and perhaps relieved – preparations for my betrothal to a series of explosive arguments between Yeshûa and our parents. After he had run off during that long-ago visit to Jerusalem, he had come back home, lowered his head in obedience to his parents, and contained himself in patience, though I now know how much it had cost him. He would not leave without their permission, but he begged now to be released from his promise. The arguments continued for three days. In the end, I think our father would have given him leave, though he would miss his eldest son’s skilled assistance in the workshop, because he felt that Yeshûa would never settle to his place in the family and in the village until he had satisfied his longing to travel and see the world. But our other brothers grew angry, shouting that he would be shirking his duties.
‘A promise made is a promise to be kept,’ said Ya‘aqôb bitterly. ‘You dishonour our parents.’
‘At twelve years old, I promised never to run away,’ said Yeshûa. ‘I am a man now, and I am not running away. I am asking permission of our parents to travel for a while with Yehûdâ around Gennesaret and down the JordanValley. I am not,’ he repeated, clenching his teeth, ‘running away.’
‘And who is to do your work while you’re gone?’ asked Yoses. ‘If I should choose to idle away many months, amusing myself, will you step into my place, and do my work?’
‘If you wish.’
The arguments went round and round in this profitless manner, but the most difficult demand for Yeshûa came from our mother.
‘I beg you, I beg you, my son!’ she wailed. ‘Do not go! Terrible things will happen to you – I feel it in my heart!’
Then she scooped up ashes from the hearth and smeared them in her hair and over her face. And tore her tunic, like one lamenting the death of a loved one.
Yeshûa could not hide his distress. He put his arms around her and tried to calm her, but she was beyond calming, pushing him away and crying out repeatedly that leaving the village would lead to his death. In the face of her lamentations, our brothers abandoned their arguments and shambled off in embarrassment. I remained, sitting, as I so often did, withdrawn in my corner, waiting to see what would happen next. I ached for Yeshûa. I wished so much that he and Yehûdâ would remain in the village, but I knew how he longed to break free. If only I were not a girl, I would have been as fervent as he to escape.
After a time my mother grew calmer and drank a beaker of water my father fetched for her. She sat kneading her hands together, squeezing her fingers until the knuckles turned white. Yeshûa knelt on the ground at her feet, his head leaning against her knee, his face pressed against the fabric of her tunic.
At last, long after the night shadows had gathered around us, while the three of them sat in the small circle of light cast by the oil lamp, she gave a shuddering sigh and slumped forward, one hand on Yeshûa’s thick curls, the other covering her face.
‘If you believe it will break your heart not to leave us, then you must go, son, but my heart will never be at rest until you return.’
My brother knelt before them, and asked their blessing. They had forgotten me. I slipped away and climbed the stairs to my room.
The next morning, Yeshûa and Yehûdâ set off on their journey. They each carried a knapsack with a little food and a change of clothes, and I longed to go with them, for I had still never been beyond the village, not even as far as Sepphoris. This journey with Yehûdâ would be the first time my brother had followed his own wishes in all those long years. I was not sure then—and I am not sure even now—whether they had a definite plan in mind, or whether this was to be no more than a holiday, but it was to prove the starting point for all that followed, inexorably, from their setting forth that morning.
I accompanied them down through the olive orchard, where the scene of our many lessons prompted Yeshûa to say, ‘Don’t forget your studies while I am away.’
‘I will not forget,’ I promised, ‘but I don’t expect to have much opportunity.’
He patted my shoulder absently, and I knew that his mind was already on the journey ahead. I noticed that Yehûdâ was wearing the bracelet I had made him as a betrothal gift, plaited from a lock of his hair and mine, threaded with tiny gold beads I had bought two years before from one of the Bedouin traders. They had cost me ten of my goat’s cheeses, and my mother said I had been cheated, but I was pleased now to see them glinting there on his wrist. His hair was fairer than mine, with a touch of chestnut in it, so that it looked almost red against my black tresses. He saw that I had noticed the bracelet, there on his arm.
‘It shall not leave my wrist while I live,’ he said, and kissed it lightly.
We came at last to the river bank, where we were to part. I found myself unable to speak, for fear that I should weep. They embraced me, first Yeshûa with a tender kiss to my forehead, and a murmured blessing. Then Yehûdâ took me in his arms and kissed me fiercely, so that I began to shake with a desire I had never known before. He released me reluctantly, as though he might abandon their journey.
‘You must go,’ I said, breathlessly, hardly trusting my voice.
‘Else we will never leave,’ said Yehûdâ.
They turned away and began to follow the river downstream. Somewhere far away, I had heard, it flowed into the river Jordan. At a bend in the river which would take them out of sight, they stopped and looked back, and raised their hands in farewell. Then they were gone.