Esther held her breath as the priest stroked the lamb and whispered into its ears. It was a moment in and out of time, between life and death, between creation and destruction. The fulfillment of God’s sacred commandment.
Ever since she’d been little, Esther had climbed the staircase to the balcony above the Gates of Nicanor to watch the Tamid ceremony. From here, she had an unobstructed view of the bloodstained altar blackened with ash. The guard, a portly man with a large key dangling from his belt, was a friend of her father’s, and he winked when he saw her. They both knew that at fourteen, she should have been down below with the crowd in the Temple courtyard.
Another priest raised his knife. The blade, honed to slice a single hair in midair, glinted in the rising sun. The lamb bleated and its legs twitched. Esther wondered if the lamb knew its fate. The day before, it had probably nuzzled its face in its mother’s warm, soft belly. Now, with a smooth, swift stroke, the priest cut its throat.
Esther tucked unruly strands of her long hair under her scarf. Sometimes she wished she could tuck her whole self underneath it. Almost overnight, she had gone from being invisible to attracting attention she didn’t want. Her sister-in-law Miriam said it was because of her eyes; they were even darker than her hair, the color of carob pods left out too long in the sun, with a ring of gold around her pupils.
But Miriam was wrong. Men weren’t looking at her eyes, or even her face. It was her body they were looking at, a body with curves that she hardly recognized.
Esther immediately spotted her father, Hanan, in a line of priests carrying jugs of olive oil, pots of incense, and baskets of flour toward the altar. Each wore a white robe covered with a vest woven with purple, scarlet, and blue threads. Their heads were wrapped with silk turbans, and their feet were bare. He wouldn’t look up--his every movement was prescribed--but he knew, of course, that she was there.
Even though she had three brothers, Esther was the one he’d asked to walk home with him and carry their share of meat left over from the offerings.
After the Tamid, Esther followed her father through the throng of people on the Temple Mount. He lifted the hem of his robe, sidestepping the sludge on the ground. She held the reed basket close to her chest, hoping the street dogs wouldn’t smell the singed lamb necks inside.
People moved aside and bowed their heads when her father passed. Hanan was a senior priest with an office in the Royal Portico, where there were one hundred and sixty-two marble columns so large that even when Esther and her brothers joined hands, they couldn’t encircle one.
Esther saw them first--Roman soldiers. One, with an iron helmet atop his head and a short red skirt, stuck out his foot. Hanan stumbled and fell to the ground. The soldier planted his muddy boot on her father’s back and held him down as he struggled to get up.
“Look, the Jew is kneeling before us,” he sneered. “Now you’re in the correct position, holy man, to pay homage to the great Roman empire.” He thrust a large wooden shield with a picture of a wild boar into her father’s face. “Kiss it!”
Her father turned away. There was a gash on his forehead, and blood ran down his face.
“Kiss it! I command you!”
Hanan lay motionless. People averted their eyes and scurried away. Her father’s white robe, woven from fine linen imported specially from Alexandria, was covered in filth and dung. His scrolls lay scattered, and his wax tablet had been smashed.
Esther’s eyes widened as two soldiers grabbed her father under his arms and yanked him up. Still, he remained impassive and refused to look at them. They shouted, but he didn’t respond.
“Dirty Jew! You and your scraggly beards and barbaric superstitions! You’d cut your son’s cock, but you won’t kill a pig? Is that right?”
“Let him go!” Esther demanded, dropping the basket and running toward her father. The soldiers laughed.
“Look at the little she-wolf who comes to the rescue!”
One stepped on a scroll while another snatched the basket. A soldier with feathers on his helmet pulled her arms behind her back.
“If he won’t kiss the shield, make him kiss the ass of the ass!” another one said. Laughing, they pushed her father toward a donkey tied to a low branch of a nearby tree.
“You Jews don’t like graven images?” the tall one asked. “You won’t kiss it? Then kiss the real thing instead!”
Esther struggled to break free.
“Kiss the ass and we’ll let her go.”
She sucked in her breath. Kiss it? An unclean ass? Her father wouldn’t do that! He was pure, a priest. God would intervene and strike down these vile tormenters. What was He waiting for?
The donkey, startled by the noise, flung his head back, flapped his large ears, and brayed.
“Stop screeching!” another soldier yelled as he brought the side of his gladius down on the donkey’s neck. “You sound like a woman!”
The animal’s hind leg shot straight back and grazed her father. The soldiers laughed again.
She looked at her father for reassurance, for a sign that this would soon end. She wanted him to stand straight, to break free, to be a warrior like Samson or Gideon and take her home. She willed him to look at her, but he wouldn’t; it was as if he were trying to shield her from his shame.
“What are you waiting for, Jew?”
Esther’s palms were wet with sweat. Hanan took a deep breath and stepped toward the donkey. He bent toward the beast, closed his eyes, and quickly touched his lips to the donkey’s haunches.
The soldiers cheered and gave her a forceful shove. The entertainment was over, and they had already lost interest. Her father grabbed her hand. He limped but still moved so fast that she could hardly feel her feet on the road. She didn’t dare look back to see if the soldiers were following them.
Her father pulled her into the dark alleyway under the arches, below the aqueduct. His face and beard were caked with clumps of mud and dried blood. She wanted him to bring her close and comfort her, but he closed his eyes, and his hands hung by his sides.
“We will forget this ever happened,” he said.
Esther clenched her fists. She hated the Romans. Every last one.
After the incident with the Roman soldiers, her father seemed to age years. The cut on his face healed, but he now walked with a cane. Slow, tentative steps replaced his once-brisk stride. They used to learn together in the early evenings--her favorite part of the day--but no more. He was too tired, he’d say. She missed his small, dark study, its shelves stacked with rolled parchment scrolls, its smell of the wax tablets.
The lessons had started when Esther was a little girl. Initially Hanan had tried to teach her older brothers, Yehuda and Shimon, the words of the prophets and the law. Yehuda had quickly outgrown their father’s teachings and gone to the study house to learn with Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the renowned scholar. Shimon made shadow pictures on the wall every time Hanan bent over the scrolls. She couldn’t understand how Shimon was bored by the same stories she found so exciting: Cain killing his brother, Abraham lifting the blade to his own son, and Joseph languishing in prison. Esther would sit on the floor in the corner, hugging her knees to her chest, hanging on to every word.
Sarah, her mother, would peer into the study and cast a disapproving glance. One eye, half-shaded by a drooping, pink eyelid, seemed to see right inside Esther. There was no hiding Esther’s greed for learning; her mother knew everything.
“Why are you filling the girl’s head with Torah stories?” her mother asked. “Will this help her suckle a child or knead dough? Will this teach her the laws of purity?”
“She thirsts for knowledge,” Hanan explained. “And her mind is like a plastered cistern that doesn’t lose a drop. Besides, what else should she be doing?”
Sarah placed her hands on her hips. “The Gamaliel girls are spinning flax on their roof. They’re eking out the last little bit of moonlight to be productive.”
Hanan shook his head. “Their mother is putting them on display so everyone will think they’re hard workers. They’re not spinning for yarn. They’re spinning for husbands.”
Despite Sarah’s protests, Hanan never made Esther leave the study. One day, Shimon didn’t show up. When he didn’t come the next day, or the day after that, Esther moved from the floor to the bench. Hanan continued to tell her stories but balked when Esther said she wanted to learn to read Hebrew.
“Girls don’t read,” he said.
“What about Deborah? She was one of the Judges. She saved Israel from disasters.”
He smiled indulgently. “You’re going to save the Jewish people from disaster?”
“Maybe,” she said. “Queen Esther did.”
“Yes, she did.”
“It even says in the Megillah that Queen Esther wrote a letter. So she must have known how to read too!”
Hanan sat back in his chair. Esther could tell he was trying not to smile.
“And besides,” she added, eager to press her advantage, “I’ll have to read my marriage contract, won’t I?” With that, Esther knew she had won.
Tonight, for the first time since the attack, Hanan called her into his study. Esther bounded into his room and sat down. He walked to his desk with a laborious shuffle and lowered himself onto the chair. She hoped she still remembered the Greek letters he’d been teaching her. She had learned to read and write in Hebrew faster than he’d anticipated, and now they were starting on Greek.
Her father put the fingertips of each hand together, like a temple in the air. She reached for the abacus on his desk, moved the small beads up and down in their grooves, waiting for him to speak. The echoes of the click, click, click of bronze beads hovered in the air.
“I’ve always been a counter too,” he said at last. “That’s what I do. I count the columns in the portico, the shekels in the treasury, the hides to be sold, the jars of incense. I count the wages of the stonemasons and bricklayers and carpenters.”
He sighed and sat back. “Even though Yom Kippur is past, I’m still making lists, counting all the good things I’ve done and all the bad.”
“You don’t have any bad deeds,” Esther said.
“Everyone who has lived has erred. I’ve sinned against God. I’m angry with Him for giving life, then taking it away.
“What are you talking about? God isn’t taking anything away.”
“Not yet, but He will. I used to count how many days I lived; now I count how many I have left.”
“I don’t like when you talk like this.”
“The truth often makes us uncomfortable,” he said, then smiled sadly. “But the thing about the truth is that it doesn’t go away if we ignore it. And the truth is that no one lives forever. I want to make sure you and the family will be safe when I’m gone. You know, most girls are betrothed by the time they’re thirteen.”
Esther knew the road she was supposed to take, but she didn’t want to travel it--at least not yet. She wanted to see where the other roads went first.
“I can’t get married now! If I’m married, I’ll have to move to my husband’s house, and we won’t be able to continue my studies. Even if my husband lets me read, I won’t have time.”
Hanan sighed. “Maybe your mother was right about filling your head with learning.” He sat up in the chair. “Esther, you need someone from a good family to be responsible for you.”
“Why can’t I be responsible for myself?”
“You’re a woman. You need a man to protect you, especially now, with all the unrest.”
Esther frowned. “There’s always unrest. The Romans have tormented us for years.”
“You’re right. But now people want to fight back.”
“Good. I hope we kill all of them.”
“Esther!” he admonished. “How can you say that?”
“How can you not after what they did to you?”
A pained expression crossed his face. “I thought we had agreed not to talk about that.” The truth often makes us uncomfortable. She bit her lip.
After a long pause, he said, “Those were a few soldiers having their sport. Yes, the Romans can be coarse and greedy, but they’re not forbidding our prayers and customs. Besides, Judea is a small province with no army. How can we defeat the most powerful empire in the world?”
“Yehuda says we will.” Her older brother claimed that it was written in the Holy Scripture: at the End of Days, the Jews will vanquish their enemy, and God will establish His kingdom on Earth. “Yehuda said the prophets have already predicted our victory.”
“I’ve read the prophecies of Daniel and Isaiah too. You can find anything in there.”
Esther squirmed in her seat. She didn’t want to talk about war . . . or marriage. “Can we learn now?” she asked.
“Maybe another time,” he sighed. “It’s late.”
The next morning, Esther threw millet seeds to the chickens, who were jabbing their beaks in the dirt and making loud clucking sounds. Matti aimed a small slingshot.
“You’re not going to help me feed them?” she asked, leaning against the coop.
“I am helping. I’m keeping the other birds away.”
Esther smiled, amused by the six-year old’s determined expression.
“I think I hit one,” he said in a trembling voice. “What if I hurt it?” He dropped the slingshot.
“Don’t worry. You couldn’t hit it even if you tried.”
“Really?” He lowered his head. “I’m no good.”
“But one day,” she said brightly, “you’ll be like King David. For now, though, I think the birds are safe.”
“I need to practice,” Matti said. “I need to be a good shooter.”
“Because when I’m older than you, I have to protect you.”
Esther tried not to smile. “I’m going to protect you. Always.” From the minute he’d been born, Esther had felt like he was hers; she slept next to him at night and cleaned his bottom during the day. Even now, it was Esther who mended the holes in his clothes, picked lice out of his hair, and reminded him to bathe once a week. Like all little brothers, he could be annoying, especially when he insisted on bringing his smelly pet goat with him everywhere he went or begged her to tell him another story.