Ishshah’s Story is pleased to share our next guest contributor post, authored by Wondering Celt of Wales, UK. Featured is the first half of her two-part story. More of her writing can be read at wonderingcelt.wordpress.com.
From the corner of her good eye, the woman watched a small, black swallow flit under the eaves of the roof, white throat and under-wing flashing as it swooped past the ancient olive tree planted next to the house. She listened to the chattering of famished chicks as they demanded more. Her gaze took in the scrubland surrounding her home, the parched earth and the small, poverty-stricken dwellings a short distance away from her position on the edge of the little Hebrew village. A stray dog skulked behind the nearest house.
Time passed. How long had she been sitting there? Leaning against the mud and straw brick wall of her house allowed the warm, spring sun to seep into her body, letting it soak into her tired limbs. Aching joints slowly released some of the tension and weariness. Somehow relief never reached the icy, vice-like grip that held her deep inside.
Her tall slim figure under her clean but threadbare brown robe belied the hard years, the three children she had borne and the fourth that had died. It was the weary stoop of her shoulders and the shattered, wary look in her eye that gave them away. Still beautiful – despite the milky whiteness that veiled one eye – her brown, almond-shaped eyes, high brow, cheekbones and full mouth had always attracted attention. The long, wavy brown hair with its shades of red, only visible when she wore it loose, had likewise caused many glances. She often wore it free now. Her crowning glory was now a badge of shame. Her youngest son still liked to stroke it when he was ill and needing comfort.
She smiled as she thought of him and for a moment, the iciness within receded. The day of his birth had been one of the last happy days of her life.
She rose with a sigh, pulled her headscarf loosely over her hair, and reached for the water jugs. Her man would be home soon for his midday meal and she was behind with her work. She couldn’t afford to upset him.
In keeping with tradition she’d been married off young, around her fourteenth birthday, to an older man, almost thirty. The whole village celebrated. She’d enjoyed the attention; as a girl it made for change, being celebrated for her beauty and congratulated on her marriage. She found herself walking on air as feasting and music filled the night.
She’d been fortunate – her husband was kind and gentle. A widower, his first wife died giving birth to a stillborn child. He knew how to love a woman – slowly, tenderly, considerately, and passionately. He’d taught her well and she’d grown to love him. They’d been blessed with three sons in the years they had together. Hard years, poor as they were, had been filled with riches not always measured by money or possessions.
She’d woken one morning to find him cold beside her, the month old baby snuggled between them. As was custom, her grief had been loud and long, but very real.
Pressured by family and needing to provide for her children she’d remarried quickly to his brother, bound by yet another tradition. How could two men from the same family be so different? Violent and angry, he railed against the poverty and hardness of his life, the lot of a rejected and marginalized people. Physically abused by the senior wife, and raped and beaten by him – the milky, white eye a permanent reminder of his rage – she’d only endured her new life for the sake of her sons.
That is when the ice began to form.
Slow at first like the first frosts of winter, but accumulating rapidly as layer after layer formed. Then came the beating six months into her fourth pregnancy. The baby girl she had always wanted was born that night, dead. When her milk came in and her breasts ached with unneeded sustenance, she thought her heart would stop.
And the ice tightened its grip.
But her boys, so young, now so cowed and fearful, needed her to stay. Her family, guilty and ashamed of what had become of her, demanded that she be silent and endure for the sake of their honour. Trapped and alone, she had no choice.
She was not sorry when her husband failed to return from the fields one night. By late evening word filtered back that travelling caravans from Egypt had been peddling alcohol. She waited, fearful of the beating that would surely follow.
The next morning what was left of his body had been found, ripped apart by mountain lions. He’d started home, blind drunk, and fallen into a ditch. Knocked unconscious or falling asleep, it seemed he was unaware or uncaring of the danger that stalked him.
Relief and panic in equal measures flooded her exhausted mind. But who would provide for them now? Her father had barely enough for those dwelling under his own roof. Her mourning wail voiced her fear of the future.
And so began another struggle to survive. Driven by the need for food and shelter, eventually she had to settle for lower than second wife status. As a widow, she was vulnerable. There were superstitious whispers with two husbands dead. Attracted to her beauty and quick to exploit her need, the local men could not ignore her entirely. Besides, two husbands had left her with an appetite that needed to be met. But only a physical need. The tender love of her first husband was a distant memory.
Soon she was lowered to cold coupling in return for the provision of her needs. Her heart remained cold, untouched, aloof. First one, then a second and finally a third husband abandoned her, divorced by just announcement of the intention. Dragged away by jealous senior wives no longer willing to bare the shame of competition, they were further driven away by the coldness which she wrapped around her like a protective cloak. The desire that had lured them sated, they discarded her like an unwanted toy. Mercifully there had been no more children, no more mouths to feed – the beatings and miscarriage had seen to that.
Recently, another man had come into her life, like the men before. And she? Still ensnared by her need to provide for her children, there was no pretence of a marriage. One takes one’s comforts where they can be found when you’re poor and without choices.
The ice was now frozen around her like an iron mask.
To be continued in Part 2…
Photo credit - Statuette of a veiled and masked dancer, Hellenistic 3rd-2nd-century B.C.- Greek, Bronze Metropolitan Museum of Art