EXCERPT: "THE MULTITUDE"
The opening pages from the final story of my new collection,
now available here:
In the waning days of that year Aba would allow Menachem to run home,
gather up Sariah in a blanket, and bring her out to the low hills near their
home where she would sit fiddling with her beloved colored stones and an
earthen bowl, looking up from time to time to giggle at the clumsy play of
the lambs. They were still gaining their footing upon the slope when grazing
and would bump into each other and tumble down. This delighted his tiny
sister so much that it caused Menachem himself to laugh. Aba too, at least
The grizzled old farmer beyond the largest hill, Jotham, was scandalized by this. A man did not bring his daughter to his place of work. He never said as much, but it was something Menachem could see even across the fields where he was tending to the soil after the harvest, already preparing for the planting season. His body language broadcast disapproval. His head bobbed up and down and shook from side to side. They could practically hear the old timer muttering.
Menachem did not give this kind of attitude towards his family much thought. He was used to it, having learned at a young age that neighbors and villagers will cast judgment. In a way this was characteristic of their people, though no one would admit to it. His family had been treated differently earlier in his life in Jerusalem when Aba worked as a stonecutter on Herod’s many projects. But after Sariah arrived and people learned of her condition, it was not long before the family was effectively cast out.
Sariah had now been alive nine winters but looked as though she’d seen no more than five. Menachem’s memories were hazy. He had only been five himself when his sister was born, but he knew his mother had not even finished her fourteen days’ seclusion, since Sariah was a girl, before the other women had begun making comments about them all.
They had been forced to abandon their modest but comfortable home within the city borders and go into the hills near Bethlehem, the closest village, an hour or so’s journey to the south on foot. Aba had been obligated to take up a new trade, that of shepherd, although he had no experience with sheep or goats and none of his forebears had done this sort of work.
Menachem learned from all of this. It was a habit, maybe even a tradition, among his own kind to look upon the birth of a child with any physical impairment, let alone a cognitive one, and assume that the affliction was reflective of one or both parents’ sinfulness. But this was a fallacy, he understood instinctively.
He naturally saw his mother and father as virtuous people and could not understand why they had to leave their reasonably comfortable life to effectively wander the hills outside of town. The reasons his parents gave him seemed flimsy even at the tender age of five. He knew they were not the whole truth.
It was not long before Menachem discovered that the real reason was his small, innocent sister. Especially after Sariah grew enough to be able to speak, had she the aptitude, and move around to the extent that she could. She had been born with one foot slightly clubbed at the end of a leg that was too short, the foot itself turned inward unnaturally. By the time she had lived four winters, she was still not talking, only forcing out grunts and cries to express herself.
Even those few neighbors or vagabonds who encountered her after they had moved to the hills south of Bethlehem assumed she was cursed. Her parents were to blame. Probably Ima, as women were more corruptible, according to those who would occasionally give voice to these views right in front of Aba or Menachem.
The boy had meager education, having only just begun to receive instruction on the Torah and the Talmud when his family was forced out. But he possessed a more limber mind than most believed. What he did not acquire through instruction was complemented simply by what he took in with his own eyes and his innate belief, even at a young age, that the Lord would reveal to him the things He wanted him to know.
Thus, Menachem could see, though he was ignorant of medical matters, that Sariah was not as afflicted as most others assumed. Yes, she was lame, but she could walk, merely with a pronounced limp. Running was not so easy, but one would be surprised how fast the tiny girl could move when properly motivated, such as at washing time. She was nine years old and still fought it, never having taken to water, to Ima’s general dismay.
In terms of her mental aptitude, Sariah was no blunted club, as people often assumed. More like a sharpened stick. Menachem and his parents saw this early, but no one else did, because none would give her half a chance. The main problem was that she was mostly deaf, for reasons none of them knew. It had been ordained by God Himself. But being unable to hear much - some louder noises seemed to seize her attention - she could not speak in any articulate way and she could not receive instruction in the customary manner.
But as the little girl grew - not much, for her diminutive size seemed a third affliction, behind her leg and her hearing - and they all settled into relative isolation, the tiny family figured out ways to communicate. They developed a rudimentary sign language, entirely organic to their circumstance, through which she could express herself in a limited capacity. Through these efforts they soon discovered that Sariah was aware of things considerably more than even they had believed.
Not only did she grasp more than anyone thought, but Sariah at times demonstrated an understanding of things she should not have had occasion to know. At first they did not understand this about her.
She might be sitting cross-legged on a small mat on the hard-packed dirt floor late on a winter afternoon, not far from the fire, playing with a doll made by her mother out of palm reeds, or with the tiny set of clay figures Menachem shaped together one time for her, or with one of the numerous puppies, when suddenly she would look out the entrance to their home, cock her head, then grunt to gain Ima’s attention. When Ima looked up the girl would hold up both hands and flitter her fingers while moving them downwards. Twenty minutes later fat raindrops would commence falling from the slated sky.
Or, perhaps, Aba would travel to the agora - the marketplace in Jerusalem, although why they called it that Menachem did not know, since they spoke Aramaic and some Hebrew, but not Greek. In any case, their father made this journey once a month, loading up Eli (their donkey) with carded wool, skins bursting with sheep’s milk, salted mutton, sometimes sheepskin drawstrings or bags, to barter with the hundreds of sellers. Commonly an all-day affair, with Aba returning well after dark.
Sometimes, though, he would sell his wares fast, returning home with prayers of thanksgiving flying from his lips. Or, rarely, but it happened, he might be attacked by Samaritan thieves or other robbers and lose half of his possessions, counting himself fortunate to still have a hold of his life.
On such days, more than not, Sariah might stand up from her games, or rise from a nap in the middle of the day, go find Ima without so much as a glance outside. She then would place her hands together and bow her head low. Father. Then she would extend the index finger of her right hand and trace it around the inside of the cave. Home.
No, no, my child, Ima would say. It is too soon. You will see Aba when you are ready to sleep.
Sariah might nod, walk away. Aba would then walk in within the next quarter of an hour with his explanation, joyful or sorrowful.
Naturally after these incidents and others like them continued, they no longer questioned Sariah. God has a bold purpose for our daughter, Aba would say to Ima with great pride. After all, we named her Princess of the Lord - and we just might be right.