Consider the girl. On a star-littered night, she rides a cart among empty crates, facing the way they have come. She has no seat but the uneven boards of the cart’s bed, no padding but a polluted blanket. She stares into the night and sees only black. There are no other travellers on the road. The girl is dark-eyed and hollow. Her hair is matted to a glassy forehead, cheeks, neck. Hours after the event, her hands still tremble. Her legs dangle listlessly. A dip in the road jars her heel, and she flinches. She draws her legs up under her, slowly, unmindful now of blood.
The rattling crates drown out donkey and driver. Her village is gone from sight. Cresting a rise, she can see the far-off city of Jerusalem. It shines in the night, though it grows ever more distant. She will never see the city again, nor her village.
Her mind bounces with the movement of the cart. It is the mind of a child becoming a woman. She cycles through scenes of violence, uncomprehending, events out of order. She is beyond scared. Her world has ended. It ended in fire, in death, in this orphaned exile in an Iturean’s cart.
At the village, he had gripped her arm. Hard. “Do you know where you are going?” he asked. He loomed over her while her childhood home burned. “Do you know where to go?”
“I’m just a girl,” she whispered into the nearly black face above her as firelight flickered across his cheeks.
They had fled the village: the gentile man and the Jewish child. He had spread a blanket so she would not stain his cart.
Beyond the cart was darkness and hidden there a harsh Judean landscape of rock, sand, scorpions, and snakes. She had a vision of herself escaping only to wander in that waterless place until death found her, otherwise alone and unknown. She would spend her last hour begging the sun, hands reaching with stilled fingers, a wordless cry to a sand-sea. Her ghost would forever be tethered to unburied bones.
The Iturean’s cart was taking them through northern Judea toward the land of the Samaritans. There she would be despised for being a Jew, a girl travelling with an Iturean, in public during her time of blood.
An owl hooted. It prophesied her fate as well as any jackal.
The cart bounced again, and she gasped and leaned into the crates, which were abrasive against her back and shoulders. She heard the driver shout at the donkey. Her throat constricted around ragged breaths, and she hunched lower in the cart, tasted the saltiness of tears. She was an animal, a thought that had never occurred to her before.
She slept in brief intervals, wedged between towers of crates. She woke at bumps and slept again but roughly. As dawn approached, the cart stopped. She awoke.
The Iturean came around to the back of the cart. He looked at her in the dim light. He had a sack in one hand. He pulled her to the road. She stumbled. Her knees were weak and shook. Her back was stiff as an old woman’s. He pushed her forward. She felt her way carefully in the dark, and they came to a pool. The sky grew lighter, the sun minutes from the horizon.
“Take off your things and clean yourself.” His Aramaic was thickly accented.
She looked around. There was nothing there but the pool. “Where?” she said. She could barely hear herself.
He stared at her. “Wash.”
A whisper: “I cannot.”
“The Samaritans will not accept you, or me, with your blood. Clean yourself and your clothes, or I will leave you for the jackals and lions. You will wear this.” He held up the sack, which had a torn hole in the bottom. “Until your clothes dry. And this”–he held up a strip of linen–“between your legs and keep it there until you stop bleeding. Do you understand?”
She nodded but did not move.
The Iturean snorted. He dropped the sack and cloth on the rock at her feet and walked away.
She worked quickly, bathing in full clothing. The pool was not deep, but the water was cold and swift. Her feet slipped on rocks that were the size of her father’s fist. The place where she bathed was just a wide spot in the stream. There were large boulders downstream and up. Her toes slid between rocks, and she twisted her feet sideways, felt forward, tried to find a place where she could crouch, and finally sat in the water. She scrubbed at her undergarment, at herself, at her hair, her face. She silently cried as darkness gave way to dawn.
She heard him with the donkey around the bend. He talked to it. It came to her that her mother and father would only know this existence now. Even less than this. They would have no hope of a cart, another human voice, a village, a house. They would die of exposure. No one would clean their wounds. Father’s arm. Mother’s back. She started to shake in the stream and then splashed more water on her face. Forceful. Desperate. Finally, she stripped out of her wet clothing and stood shivering, naked, as the sun peered over the horizon.
She pulled the dry sack over her head. There were no holes for her arms. With her hands emerging from the bottom, she grasped her dress and awkwardly rubbed the bloodstained fabric in the dust at the side of the stream. Once she had created a puddle of mud in the bank, she began scrubbing the stains even more vigorously. Back in the water, she rubbed the cloth hard against loose stones and fine sand just beneath the surface. She dipped it again and again, deeper in the stream. She worked hard and focused on her task until his voice behind her made her leap in surprise. She stumbled into the water, nearly fell without the ability to throw her arms out for balance. One bruised foot stayed wedged underwater. Her hands pulled the sack down.
He held the cloth out to her. “Here,” he said. “You’ll ride in the front with me. I don’t want your blood on my cart.”
She stepped fully onto the shore. She could not see his expression. The sun was behind him, his face a shadow. He pulled out a knife. The blade swung toward her and stabbed at her left shoulder. She staggered as he pulled her roughly around and made a cut on the opposite side. He reached into it and pulled her arm through the hole in the sack. Then both arms were free. She was uncut.
“Here,” he said again and thrust the strip of linen at her.
The blanket she had sat on through the night hung from his load of crates. Water dripped from the cart. He had washed it himself. He arranged her dress so it too would dry. She sat in the front as he commanded. The cart moved again. She shivered with cold and emotion, too ashamed to look at the road ahead. An ache clamped her skull tight and squeezed her eyes.
Everything that mattered had happened before the Iturean. She wrapped her arms around herself and tried to remember yesterday. All that came before. What started it.
Her mother had leprosy.
The disease had come more than a year before. Mother and Father kept it secret. Mother became an excessive cleaner and a slow cook. She stopped touching the children. She was distant with Joazar when he came from the siege at Dagon. “You’re a man now,” she said by way of explanation, as though mothers did not embrace their grown sons.
When Joazar returned to defend Jerusalem, Father and Mother told Keziah and her little brother the secret. It had spread to Mother’s left hand, where she could conceal it no longer. She had cut herself, and it would not heal.
Keziah knew what leprosy meant. Her mother would be banished to the wilderness. A cave would become her new home, and then an unmarked grave would follow it.
Her father looked at his two youngest children with red eyes. “We’re not going to let that happen to your mother. We will protect her here and pray for God to heal her of this disease. We will hide her until then.”
Beyond Keziah’s village, throughout the region of Judea, a terror reigned that had nothing to do with leprosy. The Seleucid Empire, the northern Greeks, besieged Jerusalem. Their war machine of cataphract cavalry, with each breast and horse dripping in thick chain mail, thundered through the countryside with spears twice the height of a man, and behind them came the densely packed infantry with their even longer sarissa spears and small shields. Behind them farther yet, the war wagons, followed by terrifying creatures, the scent of which panicked even Seleucid cavalry mounts. The professional Seleucid army came in coded colours and phalangite formations.
The Jews had no professional army to respond to the invasion. Like Keziah’s brother, volunteers manned Jerusalem’s walls with what weapons they could find or fashion. King Simon was dead. His son, Hyrcanus, was no Simon.
The family kept Mother’s leprosy secret throughout the winter. The local people lived in fear that the Seleucids would relent against Jerusalem or conquer Jerusalem and, in either event, turn on the surrounding villages. Fear, it seemed, served as a great distractor. The disease remained a secret well into spring. Until yesterday. Leprosy, it turned out, was a village-sized problem.
Keziah first knew of the village’s discovery when she saw the house wearing a hat of fire. She was returning home. She had crossed a wet field and walked a strangely quiet road. Then she saw the flaming roof and saw a man walk from the house and toss a firebrand back inside, saw the crowd, the entire village assembled. They paid no attention to the man or the burning. The man joined the crowd; they all stood with their backs to Keziah.
“She will die out there!” Father shouted.
“She’s already dead.”
“Stay back, Keziah! Stay there!”
She was halfway through the crowd when her father stopped her. He stood in an open space, hunched like a dog surrounded by tormenters. His opponents spread out before him. Behind him were several men from the village with long poles. They prodded at Mother. Father backed toward them, glanced behind him, then returned to his accusers.
“Get that woman moving!” a voice said.
“Let her be!” shouted Father. “Let her be!”
The villagers surged forward, and a man with a threshing flail led the way. The end of the flail was a thick, knotty branch, crudely fashioned and unsmooth. The man was long-haired and large. Keziah did not recognize him. She saw him walk past Father, between the men with poles, and carve a path through the air with his tool. It came down across Mother’s shoulders with a sickening, dull sound. He retracted the loose end to himself and tore a strip of clothing from Mother’s upper body and with it a gouge of flesh.
Mother screamed, and Father screamed and ran. Keziah had never before seen her father run, never seen her mother’s blood. Keziah ran toward them, her vision blurred. She made it into the clearing, staggered, and then fell, palms to the ground, as the sky swung overhead. She looked toward her parents. The long-haired man raised his tool again, and as it came down, Father inserted himself in between, arms up. One forearm cracked, and a spike of shorn branch penetrated flesh. It came back to Father’s attacker red with both Mother’s and Father’s blood. There was a moment of pain violently revealed, and then Father was beside his wife, covering her with both his broken and good arms, pulling clothing over fresh wounds that would never heal. A child’s wail rose in the heat.
“Now you are cursed as well! The blood from her is in you.” His accusers pointed at Father’s bloodied arm, wrongly bent at the place of the puncture. There was blood in his beard and on his face. “You too are unclean. You are never to see another human being until God takes your life!”
“We will starve.”
Keziah cried out, and their eyes remembered her. She was on her knees. Twenty steps separated her from the arms that had held her from birth.
“She’s bleeding.” A woman’s voice from the crowd. “She was down in the village, and she’s bleeding. It is her time of blood, and she’s been out in the village!”
There was a roar. Hands reached for her, and then her little brother shouted with his small child’s voice and ran across the open ground. He sprinted toward her as fast as his fat legs would carry him. A man in the crowd cocked his pole. “Moshe!” Father shouted, and the boy stumbled. As he fell, the pole shot forward. Instead of finding a waist or legs to stop the boy, it found his falling head. The sound snapped through the crowd like another flail crack. Moshe fell, face into the ground. A dent lay at the base of his skull in place of missing bone. His legs twitched excitedly while his torso and head were still as death.
The crowd surged past Keziah. The men with poles blocked Father and Mother. Keziah rose unsteadily and found herself behind the crowd as it surrounded her brother’s small body. Then a rough hand closed over her mouth. An arm dragged her backwards, past the burning house, down the street, and around the bend in the road. She twisted and clawed at the big arm. They passed for the last time the houses of her childhood. She struggled harder when they turned at another bend in the road, and a growl came in one ear. “Quiet, girl! They’ll take you next.” Other words were said that she did not remember until later.
A gentile shopkeeper came up beside her assailant, holding a large blanket. She recognized him from the outskirts of the village.
“Get her in!” Her kidnapper rolled her into the back of a cart. She could see her attacker now. An Iturean trader often seen at the gentile shop. Then the blanket covered her, and she saw only late-day sunlight diffused through a coarse and threadbare cloth.
The shopkeeper moved to the front of the cart with the Iturean and talked quickly in a language she did not understand. The cart swayed as the driver entered. She could hear the shopkeeper’s quick steps as he kept pace beside. The men came to an agreement. The shopkeeper drifted to the rear, and then his voice spoke above the blanket. “Stay hidden.”
The Iturean did not check on her until just before dawn when he told her to wash. She could have slipped away at any point in the night, and he would not have known. She did not leave the cart. There was nowhere to go, and no way to get there.