In Darkest Hours
She waited in deep shadow beneath the city wall, as instructed. A young moon cast only the dimmest light, and Jerusalem lay sleeping. Her breath formed small, ghostly clouds in the cool night air. She pulled her cloak tighter.
Where is he?
She took three steps along the wall, keeping in shadow, but going far enough to look around the side of the nearest home toward the streets. No one. She turned, pacing in nervousness down the narrow alley between the wall and a row of homes. A few, slow steps later, she startled at the sound of a voice behind her.
“I told you to stay out of sight,” he growled and pulled her back into deeper darkness.
“I feared you would not come,” she said.
“Be quiet!” came his hoarse whisper, “and stay out of sight! You know my coming here could ruin me!”
He was angry, but she approached and took hold of his cloak at the shoulders. She drew her body closer to him, willing him to have patience with her—to remember the precious moments they had shared.
“But you came anyway... as you always do.” She felt one arm slip around her and smiled even as tears stung her eyes. Surely he would find a way to make their impossible situation better. She sighed and snuggled closer. “What are we going to do?”
He said nothing.
“How are we going to tell them about us?” she persisted. “How will we tell them I am going to have your child?”
“But your betrothal is not even confirmed yet.”
“It was legalized this afternoon.”
“What?” She glanced up, panic seizing her. “But surely, it is not too late?”
The thin light illuminated only the outline of his features. They were hard, unyielding. He seemed different... emotionless. His right arm, though encircling her, felt rigid and pitiless. The other hung at his side. Had he given up? Had he decided to distance himself from her—let her face this disgrace on her own?
“Tell me, my love,” she said, her heart aching, “what shall we do? Should we simply slip away?” She felt her desire turn to desperation. “What are you going to do about this?”
She felt him stiffen. His arm gripped her in an embrace so tight and restricting, it caused pain.
“I am going to take care of the problem,” he whispered in a voice not his own.
Terror and bewilderment gripped her. She tried to pull away but he held her fast. In the dim moonlight she watched his other arm rise above her head. He was holding something. A rock! She fought him, clawed at his neck and felt her fingers catch on something.
A crunching blow to the right side of her head sent a burst of light and pain through her body, trapping the scream in her throat. She collapsed and slid from his arms to the frozen ground. The last images she saw were two feet disappearing into the darkness, through wisps of steam rising from a gathering pool of blood.
סֶ לָ ה
He is going to destroy me.
Darash kept his eyes on the larger boy. Elias circled, looking for an opening—a weakness. It did not take long for Elias to find one. He charged, staff raised, and brought it down full force toward Darash’s skull. Darash raised his staff in self-defense, stopping the other boy’s assault, but staggered back as he did so. Elias did not relent in his attack. As Darash retreated, Elias advanced, swinging his staff again and again, clashing against Darash’s raised stick and sending shock waves along its length. The smaller boy just tried to hold on.
Darash felt himself losing ground, pushed farther and farther from the center of the square toward a line of teenaged spectators. A few moved to avoid the onslaught. Others pushed him forward into the fray. He moved to the right, away from the crowd, defending his left side. But he was too late. Elias landed a swift blow against his unprotected right side, doubling him over in pain and shock. Darash dropped his right arm over the spot. Then, in a surprising display of speed and strength, Elias swung again, crying out as he did so. His staff landed in its heaviest blow yet against Darash’s stick—now held aloft with only the left hand.
Darash lost his balance and dropped his weapon. Elias had him on his back in the dust. The smaller teenager gazed up at the butt of a staff now hovering directly before his eyes. Elias’s lips turned up in a sneer. Though the spectators cheered and laughed, it was hardly a victory worth celebration. Elias moved his staff away from Darash’s face and raised it once in gladiator fashion to the crowd to signal the fall of yet another opponent. He called for the next challenger, Darash already forgotten.
Darash picked himself up from the dusty surface of the hard-packed dirt and shook out the back of his tunic. He rubbed the spot on his side, knowing it would become a handsome bruise by morning. The goal of the game was to force one’s opponent to the ground, not cause injury. Still, injuries did occur.
Darash kept his head down. His black, stringy hair fell before his eyes as he removed himself from the field of battle. Darash pushed through the row of teenage boys, avoiding glances of disgust or pity. He turned away from the girls who had escaped their mothers’ charges long enough to sit with their friends on a low wall and watch the masculine display of strength. They whispered and snickered amongst themselves, bare feet and sandals dangling inches above the ground.
Darash gathered his robe from one of the boulders lining the edge of the open lot, which had once housed a collection of ramshackle homes. Once the edifices had been torn down and looted for spare materials, the town children claimed it for their own.
He moved away from the crowd.
His shoulders sank at the sound. Darash turned and caught the eyes of his friend, Chaphash, a young man several years his senior.
“I did not know you were here,” Darash stammered.
“Do not be discouraged, my friend! You will be victorious next time.”
Darash nodded and tried to smile, but the pain in his side discouraged any hope he might have in future battles. He moved away, making a concerted effort to walk normally, holding his breath and fighting the temptation to hobble or grip his ribs.
“You only got what you deserved,” his mother would say had she been witness to his foolish challenge of the stronger, more experienced stick-fighter. “What did you expect would happen? ‘Pride goes before destruction.’ Besides, you no longer have the luxury of playing in the streets like a child now that your father is dead. Our family’s survival is your responsibility. You have far more important battles to face.”
סֶ לָ ה
Darash led his heavily-laden donkey through a narrow street toward the lower shuk, the southern market in Jerusalem’s Lower City, called the agora, in Greek. One piece of leather had come loose from his sandals and flopped about as he walked. It must have snapped when he fell in this morning’s dismal stick-fighting attempt. He sighed.
Imah will not be happy about this, he thought again of his mother, Revayah—Imah being the Hebrew word for mom. Now I am going to have to tell her what I did… or come up with some other explanation.
It was yom rishon, the first day of the week and the first day of the month of Kislev. Shabbat had just passed. He crossed paths with robed women, balancing clay jugs on their heads. Male pastry sellers sported baskets of honey-glazed cakes and sweetmeats, calling to passersby as they moved through the congested streets.
Mmmm…. That smells good…. Maybe I can tell her it just broke on its own….
The street of the Lower Market, lined with shops of dizzying variety, billowed with color and undulated with masses of bodies. Though always busy on the first day after Shabbat, today the heart and lifeblood of the city buzzed with new excitement. Despite the biting cold, the sounds of intense voices and rapid paces of sandals on stone filled the market streets and the small square where one of the city wells resided.
Or, that Nekoda stepped on it as we walked and tore it….
He led his small donkey, Nekoda, to the far end of the square. His little sister had named his father’s donkey after the many spots on her rump. Darash entered a narrow alley—a far from ideal location for a merchant. Putting aside his worries, he turned his attention to the conversations around him as he began to unload. Nib’haz, a blind seller who occupied the place next to his, spoke to the man who supplied him with reeds for basket weaving.
“When did it happen?” Nib’haz asked in Aramaic.
“Sometime last night,” came the reply. “It was very late. A woman who lives in the area found her body this morning.”
“And no one saw anything?”
“I know not. I believe Pontius Pilate has been alerted. One of the Roman magistrates started asking questions.”
“What a shame,” Nib’haz sighed.
“Yes, I agree. It would be better if one of our people conducted the search. We know Yerushaláyim far better than they.”
“No! I mean, it is a shame that such a tragedy has occurred.”
“What of her family?”
“They have been notified, of course. They are Greeks and live not far from where she was found. That is all I know.”
“Odd that she was killed just after the close of Shabbat then, no?” Valad, a seller of goat milk and cheese, said from his usual place directly across the narrow alleyway.
“Are you suggesting that a Jew was to blame?” the reed seller asked, voice hard and elevated with indignation. “That he would keep Shabbat but then commit a murder? Ludicrous!”
“What a shame!” Nib’haz said again and hung his shaggy head, shaking it back and forth more vigorously than a sighted person might. “So young!” Nib’haz muttered something to himself under his breath.
“Yes.... Well, Nib’haz, do you want these reeds or not? It is the usual supply.”
“Yes, yes, my friend,” Nib’haz replied. He finished his transaction and turned to Darash. “Did you hear?”
“A girl was killed last night?” Darash asked, resorting to Hebrew.
“Yes! Head smashed in with a rock! Killed at only fifteen—same age as you. Such a waste!”
“Does anyone know why?”
“No.... Who would do such a thing? And in Yerushaláyim, too! What is this city coming to? It seems every couple of weeks someone is getting crucified or stabbed or— Oh! I am sorry, my young friend! For a moment I forgot who I was talking to! Please forgive a forgetful old man!”
“It is alright, Nib’haz. It has been eight months since my father’s murder.”
Nib’haz paused. “But it never gets easier to hear such things, does it?”
Darash shook his head, but then remembered who he was talking to. Being blind, Nib’haz could not see Darash’s bodily response, so the boy responded aloud. “I suppose not.”
Nib’haz nodded in the boy’s general direction, but said no more and began counting baskets, broom handles, and reed mats with his fingertips. His unseeing eyes stared straight ahead.
Darash had no idea how long Nib’haz had occupied this spot. He only knew the old man was usually here before he arrived and left long after he packed up and went home. If Darash had to guess, Nib’haz was in his late sixties—possibly older—and lived alone on a steppe somewhere in the New City. Once, when Darash arrived unusually early, he had seen Nib’haz walking to market, carrying a bundle of baskets piled high on his back and shoulders. He knew the way so well he needed neither staff nor assistance. He simply called out, “Coming through!” and people knew to get out of his way.
“Nib’haz, why do you come all the way to the Lower City market when you live so much closer to the Sheep Market?” Darash had once asked.
“They already have enough blind people there,” he answered, as if everyone should understand this.
Nib’haz’s unkempt mane of hair had long since grayed and now bore streaks of white. Three teeth had gone missing in front. Sharp, aquiline features accentuated eyes white with cataracts. Though thin, he was not frail, and, though poor, he always made certain to clean his cloak and keep it free of holes. Like his person, he kept his spot on the square neat and orderly, making sure each item was in its proper place, murmuring to himself as he did so, as was his custom.
Darash unloaded his balance, weights, and wares—sacks of grain, wool, lentils—even bitumen. He also sold weapons, jewelry, metal tools, and anything else he could get his hands on. He tried to avoid selling baskets and reed items, however, as a courtesy to Nib’haz.
Today Darash hoped to sell a decorative, Egyptian cedar box he had gotten off a traveler who wanted to lighten his load. It was old and surprisingly heavy, but an unusual item due to its origin and intricate beryl, carnelian, and mother-of-pearl inlay. It bore a cracked but still beautiful depiction of a man pushing a reed boat on the Nile amongst crocodiles and hippos—both considered sacred beasts—surrounded by various flora. The sides and top bore simpler designs of flowers, reeds, charmed river animals, and symbols he did not understand.
Examining the artwork made him think of life as both dangerous and magical. Neither of these ideas appealed to Darash. He did not believe in magic, and danger frightened him. His mother, of course, would have loved the small chest for both its beauty and price. So Darash had made sure to hide it from her on the roof under some bags and a blanket. He needed it to fetch a good price.
“Feh! Here comes Pertho,” Valad said as Darash positioned the box in a prominent position in the center of his mat.
“I know,” Nib’haz replied. “I could sense his evil from here.”
Despite the older man’s blindness, he noticed a great deal. Nib’haz could tell if his customer carried Roman gold, the silver coins of Tyre, the bronze, less valuable coins of Judea, or some combination of the three. He could identify his regulars simply by the sound of their sandals on the stones, catch snippets of conversations from far away, and tell a truthful man from a dishonest one by the tone of his voice and his choice of words. He often knew where a person was from simply by the smell of their garments. A pungent, sweet-sour aroma, Nib’haz claimed, spoke of the vineyards that dotted the steppes and hillsides surrounding the city. A dry, musty smell spoke of the fields and tall grasses of the Negev. The smell of sheep differed from the smell of cattle or of donkeys and so on.
“You could smell him, you mean,” Valad laughed.
“Sometimes it is difficult to smell anything beyond you.”
“What? What are you saying, old man? I have no smell!”
“You smell of goats and sour milk.”
“That is only because I make cheese from goat milk! Everyone knows this!”
“True, but you most certainly have a smell. And a strong one. But sometimes I also get a hint of fig juice from your direction.”
“So I like figs. There is no harm in this. And fig is a very pleasant smell.”
“True. Unfortunately, it cannot make up for the smell of goat, which is not.”
“You blind, old—!”
“Shhh!” Darash cut in. “Pertho is looking this way.”
Valad changed the subject, immediately forgetting his irritation with his friend. “I would not be surprised if it was he who killed that poor girl last night. It would not be the first time a woman died at his hands.”
“What?” Darash asked.
“Ah, young one,” Nib’haz sighed. “There is much that goes on in this world that is best you never learn.”
“Who did he kill?” Darash insisted.
“Well, no one could prove it, but...”
“His wife,” Valad interrupted. “Five years ago. He beat her for years—her, the servants, the animals. Everyone knew it, but no one could do anything. He claimed she died from an illness, but everyone knew it was from her injuries.”
“Silence! Finish setting up,” Nib’haz ordered. “He is coming.”
By observing Nib’haz conduct business for the better part of a year, Darash had learned a great deal about the powers of observation but he was still amazed at the older man’s mastery of his senses. Darash hoped to learn his mentor’s skill with sound and smell, and eventually apply these same concepts to what he saw. Unfortunately, at the moment he saw a large, bald, harsh-looking man approaching.
Pertho was known to Darash and, indeed, to most of Jerusalem, for his filth as much as for his cruelty. In a city full of Adonai’s People, who obsessed about cleanliness in every facet of personal and religious life, Pertho stood out like an ugly, penetrating stain—a blemish that could not be removed. A noxious stench followed him like a shadow which, by itself, would have made him unwelcome in every Jewish shop in the city, and most others as well. However, his overpowering aroma came secondary to his bad temper and an uncanny ability to avoid legal prosecution.
Today, a young Hebrew girl of about eleven or twelve followed the hulking Greek, struggling to keep up under a large sack. The child kept her head down. Stringy brown hair spilled about her face, hiding her features. Boney arms and legs protruded from a smock that looked more like a rag than a garment. The sight of this girl made Darash think of his own little sister, Tsarah, now eight, and he seethed.
“Who is that girl following him?” Darash whispered to Nib’haz.
“Is there a girl? ….Ah! I have heard he had a young, Jewish slave, but she is rarely seen.”
“How did a man like that obtain a Jewess for a slave?”
“Her father was his bondsman,” Valad interrupted, speaking quickly and keeping one eye on the rapidly approaching man. Pertho now headed directly toward Darash, eyes fixed on the Egyptian box. “She was born into her position and, when her father died, she had no protector.”
“But what of her mother?”
“No one knows,” Valad said under his breath, for at that moment Pertho reached them.
Darash swallowed and sat back on his haunches, trying to avoid staring in the direction of the staggering child and the muscular, intimidating man. Pertho grabbed the box, knocking over a few other items in the process.
“Ah! Egyptian, I see!” he declared in Greek, more loudly than was necessary for such a sparsely populated corner. He spoke in Aramaic, the common trade language. “I will give you two denarii for it.” Without waiting for a response, he shouted at his servant girl, “Amah, come take this box!”
The child called merely amah, female slave, hobbled forward. She already carried more than she could reasonably manage. When she glanced up, Darash noticed a large bruise on her left cheek and a cut above her right eye. As if by instinct, he raised a hand in protest.
“I will take no less than eight denarii for this box,” he said with a confidence that surprised both Pertho and himself.
Nib’haz’s head turned slightly toward Darash. Valad starred unblinking.
Pertho’s surprise became anger. “Eight denarii? You must be mad! I offered you two days’ wages… more than adequate payment for this beat up, Egyptian castoff!”
Darash swallowed again, but squared his jaw with resolve. With a hand, he brushed the hair out of his eyes and said, “It is quite obvious many weeks of work went into the construction of this box. Eight denarii is like giving it away for free. But, since you like it so much, I will take seven.”
Pertho glowered at the scrawny, young man. “This box is old, cracked, and scuffed up! ...I will give you five denarii, and you will consider yourself lucky!” He began digging into his money pouch.
Five denarii was more than twice what Darash had paid but there was nothing about this man he liked.
“Egypt is far away,” he said, hoping his voice sounded calm and steady. “If you think you will find another box like it, feel free to take your five denarii and look.”
The other merchants and customers in the area ceased their bargaining and watched to see how this encounter would end. Pertho stopped digging and eyed Darash, taking in every detail of the youth’s skinny frame—from his worn, broken sandals and faded brown cloak to the straight, dusty, black hair and dark eyes.
Darash met his gaze but tried to adopt a relaxed, uncaring expression, despite the fear growing inside. For what seemed an eternity, Pertho tried to stare him down, but Darash filled his thoughts with the little amah’s bruised face.
A slow smile spread across Pertho’s lips, never reaching his eyes. “You are far too young to be playing such games,” he began and paused. Then, pulling seven denarii from his pouch, he added as if to the crowd, “But I will humor the child... this time.” Then he turned to his servant. “Amah!” he cried, holding the box out to her.
Darash leapt up. “Let me help you carry the box back to your home,” he offered. Without waiting for an agreement from Pertho, he took the box from Pertho’s hands and glanced back at Nib’haz, who seemed transfixed by the course of events. “Nib’haz?”
“Huh? Oh, yes, yes, of course! I will take charge of your things while you are gone,” he said.
Darash followed Pertho and the slave girl back toward the main square.
“You are a fool to leave your belongings in the care of a blind man,” Pertho barked. “And here I almost thought you were clever.”
“Nib’haz sees more than most,” Darash replied.
Pertho only grunted.
Darash followed closely, watching the girl. Despite her despondence and unhealthy appearance, she was a beautiful little thing. He could only imagine what a horrible life she led and wished there was something more he could do for her. Amah teetered under her load, and he almost offered to carry hers as well, but feared she might suffer reprisal for the kindness.
They left the shuk and headed down the same street Darash would later take home, but two streets later they turned left and angled through a dusty path, entering a predominantly Greek neighborhood.
Even before seeing the source, the stench of death accosted Darash’s nostrils. It emanated from the carcass of a bloated dog on the side of the road, evidently trampled by a horse and left to decay in the sun. Flies swarmed loudly above it, and maggots crawled amidst the red-brown, rotting flesh. Darash’s stomach lurched.
Do Greeks not care about the revolting odors seeping into their homes at all hours of the day and night? Or about the health of their children? Such a thing would never happen in a Jewish neighborhood!
Darash felt the familiar seething in his chest against this entire race of filthy, drunken, wife-murdering idolaters. Normally, a Jew would not even venture into this section of the city, let alone go to the home of a foreigner. Of course, that meant it was unlikely Darash would be seen here by anyone who would recognize him.
They came upon a small, run-down home. Though the dwelling may have been nice at one time, years of neglect showed in the chipped brick edges, the tattered remains of a roof-top lean-to, and the broken fencing surrounding a small, abandoned sheep pen. Shards of broken pottery lay strewn about the path and the long dead and overgrown garden. Weeds partially hid the unusually large rubbish heap leaning against the southern wall. Filled with everything from chicken bones and rotting food to human excrement, it welcomed all who ventured near with a putrefying stench that rivaled that of the dead dog.
Loathing rose in his chest, darkening his eyes and hardening his features. Yet, despite his repulsion at witnessing this painfully unclean home, his greatest feelings of loathing came from seeing a filthy Greek owning and abusing one of the People.
Darash slowed, finding it difficult to will himself any closer, but about that time Pertho turned and snatched the box from his hands. Evidently the man had no intention of inviting the youngster any nearer, which suited Darash perfectly. Without another word Pertho headed inside, Amah following closely. Darash tried to catch the child’s eye to offer her a smile, but she never glanced his way.
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