It has been some time since I published Milcah and I thought I would revisit that title on my blog post today.
Milcah is a biblical fiction that narrates the lives of the five daughters of Zelophehad. They appear in three places in the Hebrew Bible and by name. Both facts mean that these women were important actors in the biblical history of the Israelites. The actions taken by these daughters changed the property rights of Israelite women, making them early feminists. Many midrash have been written about them.
I spent many hours researching biblical history and anthropology to lend some sense of veracity to the background details. I depended entirely on the Bible to shape the events that the five daughters witness and take part in. This story works as an action packed narrative. It can inspire a deep study into the events that surround the biblical tales of the Israelites during their travels to the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses.
To revisit this title I have included Chapter One here. I hope it inspires your curiosity. I would love to see comments from readers.
To the North, as far as I can see, lies a mountain soaring to the sky. Its many crests resemble giants; some standing and some lying. Whenever I approach it, I see wadi, crevices and precipices in between its peaks. It sits on a platform, a base of layered rocks. We call it Mount Hor. A sloping area extends from the pedestal. Rocks, low vegetation and bushes cover this area. A little water trickles down from the biggest wadi.
Like ants, we camp at the foot of Mount Hor during the exodus to the Promised Land. Our innumerable tents look like miniature mounds. The men use stones and make a pond so women and children can carry water for their everyday use. Farther down, there is a sandy valley.
My father Zelophehad, my mother Jemimah holding a baby, my three sisters and I sit around a wooden tray containing manna cakes and mugs with goat’s milk diluted with water.
“Finish your dinner and go play outside. Don’t come back until we call you,” my father tells his daughters.
“When we come back, will you tell us more stories, Father?” I ask.
“Sure, and we’ll memorize some more of Moses’ laws, so you’ll keep them in your hearts. And after that your mother will sing for you, to put you to sleep.”
“Shall we take the baby with us, Mother?” I offer, smiling and showing my two large upper teeth with a space between them.
“No. I’ll breast feed him now and then he’ll sleep,” My mother, answers, holding the baby over her protruding belly. After many pregnancies, her tummy doesn’t seem to shrink anymore. Forty days after Samuel’s birth she is still pale, but her green almond-shaped eyes shine with happiness for having given my father a son. She has great expectancy this one will survive.
I grab my little twin sisters’ hands and leave the tent. Hoglah and Mahlah have skin the color of weak tea. Their eyes are light brown. If you look close, you’ll notice Hoglah’s iris have slight glints of yellow. However, who will pay that close attention? So in order to tell them apart, Mother tied a leather bracelet on Hoglah’s left wrist when they were babies. As she grew, Mother loosened it a bit.
Noah, also younger than me has light brown hair, vivid greenish eyes and a wide mouth with an easy smile. She quickens her steps and says, “Father went a long while without asking us to go out to play. Not that we need him to ask that. I wonder why today he did it again.”
“Don’t you know?”
“Well, Samuel is forty days old, today. So mother is no longer considered impure. They want to be alone. They want another male baby.”
“But we already have Samuel.”
“Well, in case anything happens to him, they want to make sure one will survive. Mother says that every time she had a girl, Grandfather Hefer was angry at her. Father wouldn’t say anything, but she could tell he was disappointed. She desperately wanted to give Father a boy.”
“So he can inherit land in Canaan. Women have no rights of inheritance.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Talking about fairness, when a woman has a male child it takes forty days for her to be considered clean. It takes her eighty days when she has a girl.”
“Why the difference?”
“I don’t know. It’s in the laws.”
“How do you know all these things?”
“I listen to the women talking.”
Passing by Uncle Elhanan and Aunt Miriam’s tent, I ask, “Where are the children?”
My Uncle stands outside scratching his back on the tent pole, like a donkey. He answers, “They are in the clearing playing.”
We keep walking and reach the tent of Uncle Ephod and Aunt Abigail. The tent flap is closed, and we see no signs of our five cousins. Jeconiah and Shulamit’s tent is also shut and silent. It’s that time of the day when the children play outside, so the parents can have some privacy.
We turn to the direction in which the sun sets, and a cool breeze blows. “Hmm, that’s strange,” I say looking at the goose bumps caused by the sudden wave of cold. Still holding the twins’ hands, I notice them shivering. “Let’s sprint and we’ll get warm again,” I suggest and dash forward.
We reach the clearing. My heart leaps when I see cousin Jair. His wavy, coal black hair reaches his shoulders. At twelve he is already as strong as many grownup men. For this reason all the others obey him, except our friend Kemuel, who is the same age and muscular. Jair has determined who can be part of that group; only cousins and three friends: Kemuel, Elidad and Abel from the tribes of Benjamin and Ephraim.
Beyond this area, the terrain slopes down to a valley covered with sand. The boys slide down sitting on scraps of animal’s skin, but when the girls come, they play girls’ games with them.
“Now that everybody has arrived,” Jair says, “let’s play Blind Snake. Come here, Noah, you’ll be it.”
Noah approaches and he blindfolds her with a piece of woolen cloth. The children come, touch her, and run back. Desperately she tries to catch one of them. The touched one will be the next Blind Snake. However, before it happens, she grabs her bandana and pulls it up. “Somebody pinched me.” She cries out, “and I know it is Zared.
He’s the only mean person among us.”
“You need to punish him Jair,” I say. “You need to stop him.” “Yes!” Other girls add.
“Alright, alright,” Jair answers. He turns to a sturdy boy with eyes too close to each other and a wide forehead giving him the appearance of a square head. “Well then, Zared, you can’t play with us anymore today. Get out of here.”
Zared gives the other children a chilled look, kicks the dirt and limps away.
Jair starts to blindfold another child when we first hear the noise. It is as loud as if the earth is tumbling down. We look toward the valley and what we see shocks us. Nobody moves. A mass of sand and dust rolls like a giant sea wave climbing to catch us. Jair, after a moment of indecision, commands. “Run for your lives. Fast, fast, go!”
Noah and I pull Hoglah and Mahlah. I turn my head to see how close it is. I see billows of sand gathering dried bushes from the desert, twisting and swelling, readying to engulf us. “We won’t be able to escape from it,” I yell and bump something or somebody. Our friends Kemuel and Able have stopped to help us.
“I’ll carry one of the twins.”
“And I’ll carry the other.”
They throw Mahlah and Hoglah on their shoulders and run as fast as lightning. We follow panting behind them. In the camp people are scurrying back and forth, yelling, gathering their children and entering their tents. Father comes out. A mixture of ground stones and dust covers the sun.
“Go inside, girls!” He yells. “Jemimah, tie a bandana on each one of the children’s head, and on yourself. Make sure it will protect your eyes, mouth, nose and ears. Bundle up Samuel. Cover yourselves and stay put.”
“How about you, Papa?” I ask.
“I’m going around the tent to make sure the stakes are firm. I’m coming in soon.”
I hear a constant deafening roar. Sand and dust enter in the space between the edges of the tent and the ground, through the flaps and the holes that the stitches make in the seams, holding the skins together. Mother gives me a terrified look when we see the tent sway. She makes sure we are covered but I peek. I tighten my lips, my eyes burn with particles of stone grains and my gut blazes in desperation. Our only brother is in peril. Mother does her best to save him. She lies over her baby, supports her upper body with her elbows, covers herself with a skin and holds the corners. Father enters and lies face down, stretching out his arms to protect us. I hear Mother saying, “The baby is sneezing and squirming.”
“That’s a good sign,” Father answers with a muffled voice.
After a while, she says in anguish, “Now he is still and I can’t tell if he is breathing!”
“How can you with all this howling?”
Sand accumulates on the floor and on top of us. After the time it takes for a man to walk to the foot of Mount Hor and back, the silence feels heavy like the dirt that covers us.
Father and I stand up. He shakes away the dust like a wet dog shaking off water. I open the tent flap and the sun’s red, horizontal rays enter. Next, my father uncovers my sisters and Mother. She sits and with trembling hands unbundles Samuel. She lets out a shriek. Father takes the baby from Mother and sees he’s dead. The child is ashen and his nostrils and mouth are full of sand. Father starts wailing and we all join him.