A man leaning over a carpenters table sanded away at a piece of woods’ rough edges. With much concentration, he burrowed his brow and looked at his work from the side, then bent down real low to be eye level with his project. Nitzah watched steadily from the door as his muscles worked to produce such precision. She was awed and alarmed at the heavy beating of her heart. He stood up once more, his back to her, and walked over to where his tools lay. For a moment, he stared at the array of iron, carefully choosing which would be best.
Nitzah tucked her body behind the door and strained her neck around the doorframe ready to duck out quickly. He would turn around any second and she knew the consequences could be high of he was like most men. Even as he walked back to his cutting board, he kept his head down, examining the condition of the hammer he picked up from amongst the tools.
The sneaky feeling didn’t suite her, but curiosity whirled inside her. Who was he? His furniture was slightly different than other work she’d seen by carpenters around the town. It had more expression and a certain personality or style that adorned every table, chair, shelf and dozens of other creations lined up in his small shop. A rocking chair, lying in the shadows, made of cedar from Lebanon caught her attention for a moment with its delicate engravings of vine leaves and small flowers all tenderly entangled.
The man’s hands, strong and rough, gently pulled the rocking chair from the shadows to her surprise. Before placing his other hand upon it, he paused, and the side of his face looked concentrated like it had been when he was sanding. Then the muscles relaxed and Nitzah wondered what he was thinking. Was this chair special?
He grunted as he lifted the solid chair over his head lest he scratch it. “Mother!” he called to the back of the house. “Mother, I’m going to bring the rocking chair out for selling. It’s been sitting there too long.” He turned and she saw his face. It was shining. And the shining face was looking into her stunned face. He stopped in his footsteps, as speechless as she. She gasped and ran. How could she have been so foolish!
“Hey, wait!” His commanding voice made her frightened.
She didn’t stop or slow down until the narrow back alley ended and opened up to the busy street. Cautiously glancing to her right and to her left, she inconspicuously walked forward through the traffic of people and donkeys and camels. Women stood along the side of the dusty street selling beads and water pitchers; baskets and specially made headdresses. Some held their little booths directly in the middle of the road, stubborn to move even as men cursed at them to move and stop blocking the road.
Across the street from the carpenters’ alley was the well where all the young women of the town came to fetch water for their mothers and their men. It was practically the only social time permitted throughout the day and even so, Nitzah was instructed each day firmly by her mother, “Nitzah, you go, you fill the jar, and you come back. Do not be drawn to the left or to the right and do not waste your time on foolish talk.” Her mother, Ana, was a harsh woman who ran a taut household. Every other day she had obeyed her mother’s words, except for today. She so badly wanted to tell the other girls about the man she had seen.
“What’s that look on your face Nitzah? Something happened! Oh, tell us Nitzah- tell us!” Abigail left her jar on the ground and ran the few yards to Nitzah. She grasped her shoulder and shook with excitement ready to feast on whatever hearsay Nitzah might have.
“Nothing happened.” Nitzah smiled, tongue-in-cheek. She knew if she squealed through her perfectly curved lips, all the women of the town would know about the man and her hapless encounter.
Abigail dropped her thin hands to her hips and studied Nitzah for a moment, doubting. “Are you sure?”
Nitzah laughed nervously; she knew she was blushing.
“Yes!”Heart pounding she begged herself not to give into
Abigail’s wide, hungry eyes. His face shown like the soft glow of a candle flame in the black night. This is something to keep to myself, she thought.
Other girls walked over, “What happened? What’s going on? Are they fighting?” They whispered to each other and those already at the scene quickly relayed the short dialogue that had gone on between Abigail and Nitzah. Nitzah moved out from under Abigail’s eagle eye and tucked her black waves behind the headdress. She walked away from the group.
“I have chores to do, as do all of you girls, I’m sure. So I suggest we do them before we find out what the punishment should be.” She lowered the bucket on the rope down into the water and then lifted it with much heave as it filled with the cool water. The other girls rolled pretentious eyes, but Nitzah didn’t care.
They can roll their eyes all they want, I’m not telling them. She heaved harder until the bucket reached the ledge.
“Oh come on, Nitzah, really. Why do you have to be such a mother all the time? You’ll never entice a man like that. Men want virgins, not mothers!”
The girls all giggled at Nitzah’s expense. She only offered them a sheepish grin in return to their comment. They continued with their chores, but Abigail sided up to Nitzah and helped her to tie the rope so that Nitzah could pour the bucket of water out into her jar. “You know,” Abigail spoke low and shrewdly, “I heard last week from some older men who were in search of husbands for their virgins, that there have been lots of migrations from another town not too many miles across the Jordan.”
Nitzah lifted her head slightly. Husbands? The man, she thought Was he one of those across the Jordan? Her curious look was feeding Abigail. She took the rope from Abigail’s hand and finished it off herself.
“Abigail, why would that interest me?”
Abigail leaned up against the wells’ wall and positioned her body provocatively as two men passed by and glanced their way. Nitzah only had courage to watch them as they walked away, not to stare them in the face the way Abigail did. She lacked the power Abigail possessed to draw me.
“Oh, well, you know,” she leaned in close, “just so you can keep an eye out for us girls.”She winked her long black eyelashes and strutted away. Abigail was the sort of girl that spent every spare moment she had maintaining her beauty and making anyone who didn’t do the same feel ugly and dirty.
Nitzah picked up her jug and walked back through the crowds of the street on her way home. The man’s face burning in her mind and Abigail’s voice threatening to scout out any migrating man echoed in her ears.
It didn’t have to be spoken out loud; Abigail knew that Nitzah had been snooping. And what trouble she could get into for that!
The doorway to her home was open, and she found Ana sweeping the floor of any bugs or scrap foods. “Watch your feet Nitzah.” Her mother commanded. She would have swept right over Nitzah’s feet.
“Sorry, mother.” The jar got placed on the table. “The water seems extra cool today mother. I’m sure the boys will enjoy that.”
Her short, stocky mother stepped heavily around her daughter and put the broom back in its corner. “Yes, the ground has been cooler these past few days. Why don’t you start dinner, my dear? The dough is already rising for the bread over there.”
She pointed to a lump of pale fleshy dough.
Her mind provoked still by the man, Nitzah pounded and kneaded the dough with her strong hands until it was ready to be baked.
Why? She wondered. She was so able. She could make a meal at any moment. She understood how to run a household. After all, she had been taught since she was ten years old. Everyone in her family had expected her to be married very young. By the age of eleven, the young girl had already begun to show signs of physical maturity. Her curves had begun to sculpt her body into a woman’s by the time she turned fourteen; the same year she showed the ability to bear children. That was an embarrassing day. Everyone rejoiced and smiled and even congratulated her! Even her father and brothers. It was awful. She remembered what they said.
“Well Nitzah, congratulations, welcome to womanhood.” Oh, but she had felt like a woman long before she had showed blood. She could never explain it, even when talking with her cousin Arabah. Together the two girls would be close and warm in Nitzah’s bed, under the covers, and they would whisper.
“Do you think it’s a gift?” Ten year old Arabah stared wide eyed at her dreamy-eyed cousin Nitzah.
“I don’t know,” Nitzah lowered her voice even more at the rustle of covers in the bed beside the two girls. “But it feels special; like I’m not alone. There’s a little thing in my belly that I get sometimes, like something is laughing inside of me, and it tickles me. Then I want to laugh. I just think that I will really know what love is. I think I might have it!”
Arabah gasped, “Nitzah, don’t expect too much. You know what our mothers say. We will marry who our father chooses.”
“Then I’m sure my father will choose the one I fall in love with.”
Seven years later, and not even an offer had been made. It irritated her that her father didn’t even seem to mind. She assumed he liked the extra help for her mother, but still why hadn’t she been married. Nitzah wasn’t foolish or desperate enough to think that her body wasn’t desirable. She knew that because sometimes while she’d be walking in the streets, men would follow her with their eyes. It made her feel vulgar, but it told her that that couldn’t be the reason that no man had ever offered to wed her. Maybe it was the resistance within her own heart that silently drove each man away. She knew what she was looking for, and she wouldn’t settle for less. It must be written all over her face when she finds herself around eligible men. Still, why hadn’t her father even tried to marry her off?
“Mother?” Nitzah felt the frustrating growing. She left the bread in the oven to be baked and stepped outside to find her mother out in the garden.
“Yes?” Ana wiped her muddy hands on the fold of her apron. The sky was still clear and blue, and the air was warm.
“When will I be married?” Ana gave Nitzah a strange look.
“When your father sees fit of course.” She worked the ground with the hoe until the dirt was fresh and moist, broken well.
“But aren’t I old enough now? I heard from some girls by the well that there have been migrations from across the Jordan. Men, husbands; fathers hoping to find wives for their sons.
“When the time is right, your father will say so.” She wiped the sweat from her brow and breathed heavily. The hoe dropped from her hands and she walked into the doorway, putting her hand on Nitzah’s cheek. “Really, my love, enjoy being a child while you can. I know a girl of seventeen must be anxious and embarrassed, but take my advice: milk itd.”
Nitzah laid her head against the wooden beam of the doorway and rolled her eyes up towards the Heavens. Ana hummed a child’s lullaby inside. God of Abraham, how much longer must I wait? Why are the girls who fear being married leaving home so quickly? I’m not afraid. Where is he? I’m seventeen. I’m strong and a quick learner.
Her mind drifted to the handsome man, the carpenter. Mmm, how Nitzah did love the smell of his shop. There was nothing like it. And the way his hand moved across the wood; it was as if he anticipated everything reaction it might give. He treated it with a gentle strength she has never seen in her father’s hands, or her brother’s, when they were working.
She pouted for a moment. But what use would pouting do? Her father would be expecting fresh baked bread with his dinner as always. She took her place at the wooden table, kneading at the second lump of dough. The kneading allowed an output for her frustration; frustration that was slowly being turned into a growing passion inside of her. It was almost uncontainable. Like the wind brazing through the fields of grain that her father and brothers harvest; that is how her soul felt. Something new and exciting! When was the last time that she had felt this new hope? It was different from the joy she felt with God. It was just different. The Rabbi’s would probably say that it was a consuming lust. If it was then she prayed God would forgive her, but if it could just perhaps be a true connection then…
“Nitzah! The bread is going to burn!” Nitzah jerked her head to the stove, a smoky scent drifting out from it. How foolish! Now her father and brothers would have burnt bread. She went to grab the bread but Ana quickly took the flat bread out of the stove and set it on the table. “I could smell it from the back room. What are you thinking about child to be so lost that you aren’t even aware of what’s going on around you?”
“I’m sorry, Mother.” Nitzah lowered her head and finished, spreading the last bit of dough she had kneaded onto the wooden pan. She pushed it into the oven. “I guess I was just thinking too hard.”
“Well, you best stop my dear,” Ana said as she broke the bread into pieces. Then she turned and held Nitzah’s face in her hands. “Love, I know you’re waiting patiently. I don’t know why things are the way they are, but keep holding on.” Her words were tender and full of the wisdom that crowned her. It comforted Nitzah, reminding her of reality. This was her life.
Ana looked down into the water jug. “What were you doing at that well, child? Did you even let the jug fill before bringing it up?” She muttered under breath, shaking her head and walked out the door. Nitzah finished her prep and headed for the door once again.
“Father, I’m running to get some more water from the well!”Nahum’s old voice resonated from the back of their mud-brick home. “Don’t be too long.”
She practically flew around the corner, intent on doing what she came to do; getting water. She promised herself that there would be no diversions. None.
The evening was upon their village, and as the sun began to fall below the horizon, Nitzah felt her curiosity rise once again. Few villagers were left selling and buying at the market. Most were home now, preparing for supper. She looked around, pulling her headdress tighter around her face. With soft steps, Nitzah ducked into the alley she had first come found earlier that day. It was cool in the shade, and darker than out in the open street. She couldn’t see very well and tripped on a pebble, crashing into some pottery. Hearing someone approach, she crouched behind large wine jugs.
“Who is that?” His voice startled her. “Hello?”
Oh, how much trouble she would be in now! Not doing as her mother told her to and spying on top of it! And on a man who must be much older than her. She hid behind the barrels praying that he wouldn’t look down to his left. Her head was in her lap in an effort to make herself smaller and that way less seeable. Feet shuffled this way and that. They padded down the little dirt road in the opposite direction. Should she move or not. What if he came back?
With great caution, she lifted her head and peered through a thing sliver of space between the barrels where she could see him walking. He was stiff, but something about him was radiant, and she was intrigued. If she hadn’t been afraid of the penalty, Nitzah would have jumped right out and started talking to him. Why didn’t she though? Was it a crime for a young unmarried woman to want to talk to a man? She smirked to herself. Maybe it was.
He turned around, his face looking perplexed, but soft and compassionate; not angry like men might have been if they knew there were trespassers.
She felt beautiful looking at him. She felt mysterious, like a jewel. Nitzah had never felt that way before in her life.
He tilted his head and stopped. Nitzah froze. Did he see her?
He walked slower, towards the barrel. She felt like she’d eaten bad fish. What could she do?
She slowly stood, keeping her head down. She knew well enough than to say anything.
He peered at her cautiously, slowly. “What do you think you’re doing here?” There was a flash of annoyance in his eyes, but curiosity swept over.
Nitzah stepped backwards, losing her balance on a loose pebble and nearly falling to the dusty ground. But she grabbed onto the large barrel nearby and let out a yelp.
The man instinctively and clumsily reached to stop the fall. Breathing hard, Nitzah heard voices heading past the man’s ally. She threw a glance towards the street then a wild look at his callused hand still holding her arm as she leaned on the barrel. With a gulp and a bewildered fright, she shook his hand off and vaguely heard him shouting after her.
The moment of her vulnerability nerved her and she feared he would try to seize her again. She would be disgraced; she would feel like such a complete fool.
Dust, aroused from the ground beneath her hurried feet, formed like clouds in her wake. It wasn’t until the busyness of the market surrounded her that Nitzah slowed her breathing and allowed herself to look back. She saw him standing at the corner of his alley watching her hurry away. She stopped and turned her body around to face him. She wondered about him.
Forgetting the water, Nitzah slowly walked back towards him, a seductive feeling, and strangely unmitigated, burning in her belly. Within steps of him, her doe-eyes stared him full in the face without the least bit of apprehension, the fire inside her snuffed. She didn’t understand what brought her before him, only their breathes hanging in the air, but she knew she needed to stay.
“Hello.” She said to him, with burgeoning liberality.