I was reflecting last Sunday, Mother’s Day, on my own mother who died when I was fourteen. I was feeling the loss after all of these years as I know those of you who have lost your mothers at an early age must often suffer.
I find inspiration in all of my experiences when I write. The profound sadness and sense of being adrift that I felt when my mother died informed the character of Milcah in my biblical fiction Milcah. Today’s post is Chapter Two of that book. I hope you enjoy it and want to read more. In the days ahead I will be posting more of the story. I would love to hear from my readers about this work and/or your own experiences with the loss of a mother at an untimely age. God bless!
Father takes his sadness and frustrations for having lost his second son to Mount Hor. Every morning he goes up early enough to see the sun rising. He cries, yells, argues with Yahweh, prays for acceptance and finally, exhausted, he sleeps. He has a favorite place. An acacia tree had sprouted in a crevice a few yards down. It grew parallel to the cliff and became a shady, leafy tree among the rocky world. He spends the day wandering on the peaks and rests under the acacia tree during the hottest hours.
In the afternoons, my sisters and I wait for our father. We clap our hands when we see that tall, strong man coming down. A head cloth, secured on top by a ring of braided wool, hides his dark, wavy hair. His eyes are like two deep wells full of water. You can rely on them. His thick brows resemble two curved charcoal traces. His well carved nose looks like a smooth mountain ridge seen from afar. His thick mustache ends curled up on his jaw. His beard, like a forest, has a gash on the right side due to a scar caused by a fall on one of his descents from the mountain. His woolen tunic reaches below his knees. It is tied with a cord around the waist. His leather sandals are a reminder of the Lord’s promise that our shoes and clothes won’t tear while we are crossing the wilderness. They look as new as when he first made them. His body bends when he walks, due to the heavy weight of not having a son to continue his name in the Promised Land and to his father’s constant accusations.
Hepher keeps telling him, “Your sins are the cause for God not letting you have a son.”
Nine months after Samuel died father is coming down the mountain when he meets his two twin daughters, Mahlah and Hoglah, playing pebbles by the pond and waiting for him. They run and hug his legs, “Father, we came to fetch you. Mother is having a baby.”
He grabs his daughters’ hands, one on each side, and quickens his steps. The girls feel secure and happy by their papa and race to keep up with his fast, large stride.The warm odor of animals, dung, urine and hay suddenly hits Father’s nostrils. He didn’t realize the camp had a stench, but after breathing the light, clean and fresh air of the heights, it becomes noticeable. They pass by straight rows of tents and father greets their acquaintances and relatives. Now that he is used to the odor of the camp again, he smells the agreeable aroma of quail stews boiling in bronze pots outside every shelter.
He enters Hepher’s place. All of his brothers gathered there waiting for him look up and raise their hands in a sign of impatience. Hours pass. While the men talk, Mother suffers the incomparable pains of giving life. I sit beside her and hold her damp hand. She clenches her teeth and pushes as much as her feeble body can stand. Then she relaxes and dozes off. My aunts, Miriam, Abigail and Shulamit, take turns in kneeling behind Mother to support her back.
During the time Mother’s belly was getting bigger, she did not look well. Her face was pale and she got tired easily. Noah and I did all the chores. At night, to tuck the twins to sleep, she’d start singing to them, but then her voice would trail off, and she would change to a soft humming.
I sense Mother’s hand getting tense, and her forehead glitters in profuse sweat. She breathes in fast gasps. I hear the midwife say, “The head is out, it has dark hair.” Afterward, “The shoulders are coming, one after another.” And suddenly the rest of the baby’s body slips out, so quickly with a gush of blood and slimy liquid that the midwife isn’t able to hold the baby, and it slides onto the goatskin. The midwife picks up the child by its feet and holds it upside down with her left hand. With the right, she slaps its buttocks. The baby opens its mouth and lets out a cry. “She’s a strong, healthy, beautiful girl,” the midwife announces.
I think Mother hasn’t heard and repeat with my mouth close to her ears, “It’s a beautiful girl, Mother.” She smiles faintly and closes her eyes.
I am worried about her; she seems too weak. I keep by her side, and I see the midwife using a flint to cut the blue cord coming from the baby’s navel linked to my mother’s womb. She ties the little piece that stays hanging from the baby with a piece of woolen cord. She hands the newborn to Aunt Miriam, who lays it on another goatskin and starts cleaning it with a wet warm rag. The midwife turns her attention to my mother again. She presses her belly with movements down until a thin, bloody bag comes out. She folds it in a piece of cloth and hands it to Aunt Abigail, who then leaves the tent.
Aunt Miriam wraps the baby in clothes that my Mother has prepared previously and asks me, “Do you want to take the baby to your father to see? I hope he’s already back from the Mount.”
“I don’t want to leave my Mother’s side. She seems so pale. Is it normal to bleed so much?”
“Don’t worry! Your mother will be fine,” Aunt Miriam says.
“I’ll take the baby,” says the midwife. “I need some fresh air.”
I also need fresh air. The smell of blood is nauseating so I follow her. The midwife and I enter my grandparents’ tent. My uncles and grandfather pierce the baby with their curious look. She deposits the bundle in my Father’s hands. The question comes from Grandpa, “A boy?”
The midwife answers with a negative shake of her head. Father breathes twice deeply. Then he announces, “Her name will be Tirzah. She is one more blessing the Lord has sent me.” Elevating the baby on the palms of his hands, he chants, “Tirzah, you are the daughter of Zelophehad, granddaughter of Hepher, great granddaughter of Gilead, great, great granddaughter of Machir, great, great, great granddaughter of Manasseh and great, great, great, great granddaughter of Joseph and his Egyptian wife Asenah. May Yahweh bless you.”
“My son, will you be angry if I speak?” interrupts Hepher, standing with difficulty and supporting his bent body on his shepherd’s crook. “I was young and now I am old, and I have never seen a righteous man encounter disgrace. Think back now, Zelophehad! What faults have you committed against the Lord? What sins have you been hiding from the Almighty that He punishes you by taking away your sons and giving you only daughters? For sure, you’ll die before we cross the Jordan River. All of us, the old generation, will. Your name will disappear from Israel. You don’t have a son to take possession in the Promised Land. What a shame! You’ll die unknown! Turn to God and repent! He’ll give you another son.”
“Father, if the Lord is punishing me, I am blessed. Happy is the person whom God corrects! I was born poor and with nothing, I will depart. The Lord gave me two sons and He took them away. May Yahweh be praised! I am content with my five daughters. Milcah counsels me when I am distressed. Noah is a motion in the stillness of the wilderness. Mahlah is a song for my soul. Hoglah sings as sweetly
as a partridge and Tirzah is a friendly doe.”
“Nonsense, Zelophehad! You have given strength to many people when they became weak, stumbled and fell. Your words encouraged them. Now, you are the one in trouble and are too stunned to recognize it. Think back, name your sin…”
Turning to the midwife, Father says with a shaking voice. “Take the child to Jemimah. She must be anxious to hold the baby in her bosom.”
The midwife takes Tirzah and leaves the tent as quietly as she had entered followed by me, a thin, tall, dark-haired girl with green eyes, Zelophehad’s oldest daughter.
While we walk back to the birthing tent, I ask, “May I carry my baby sister?”
“Here,” the midwife hands me Tirzah. “Be careful!” She admonishes.
I cradle her with both arms and look at the baby’s swollen red face. Her eyelids are closed tightly due to the bright sunlight. She has a pointy nose like our mother. I tighten her close to my heart, raise her to my lips and say softly in her ears, “Don’t worry, Tirzah! Only grandfather is disappointed because you are a girl. Your parents and your sisters are not. We love you very much.” Then I recall, some years ago, my mother’s words clearly telling me, “Milcah, when I had my first son, Zaphenath, your grandfather and father were so happy that they had a feast fit for kings. Your father named him after your ancestor Joseph, his Egyptian name. Unfortunately, their happiness didn’t last.”
“What happened to Zaphenath, Mother?”
“It hurts so much every time I remember this,” Mother sighed. “It makes me mad at your father and especially mad at Hepher. They said it was God’s law. I don’t believe it. What God is this that demands suffering for a newborn child? I didn’t want them to hurt my baby, so when the time came for your father to take the baby to the priest, in my despair, I bundled up the baby tightly, grabbed him and ran away. I kept running and zigzagging in between the tents. It was very early in the morning; most of the people were still asleep. I ran for my son’s life. I felt a surge of vitality. I thought I’d have breath to run until I reached the land of the Moabites, and they would give me protection because they were also descendents of Abraham. I was already out of the camp, near the King’s Road, when Zelophehad caught me by my long hair, which had come loose. I had lost my head cover during the run.”
“Are you crazy?” Your father rebuked me. “You know Zaphenath has to be circumcised according to the law God gave us through Abraham. Hand me the child.”
“No, no, I don’t want the priests to hurt him.”
“I understand you, Jemimah. My heart aches too, but we have to do this. It’s God’s law.”
“No! No! I’m sure that God would not order suffering to innocent baby boys. Also I have this fear that something wrong is going to happen while the priest is murmuring his prayers and formulas and cutting the foreskin of our baby. He can commit a mistake and cut a portion of the gland. You know that sometimes it happens and the baby dies bleeding. I don’t want this to happen to our son. Your grandfather had reached us by then and breathlessly said, ‘You’re a troubled woman. No, you’re completely crazy!
Take the baby from her, Zelophehad. Don’t just keep standing there.’
“Don’t! Don’t take my son away from me. Don’t hurt him! You’re going to kill him. I want my baby to live!”
“They turned back taking the child with them. Despair took over my whole being. I pulled my hair, tore my clothes, scratched my face until blood started to drip, finally threw myself face down on the ground, and stayed there waiting for death to come and rescue me. I don’t know how much time passed. I felt no hunger, no thirst. I was conscious only of the heat of the sun baking my back. Once I heard donkey’s hooves and people talking in a strange language. It must have been a caravan of traders traveling from Bashan to Egypt.
“My sisters-in-law would have come to rescue me, but they didn’t know where I was. My husband would have come, but his father wouldn’t let him. What is the life of a woman worth? Hepher would be happy if I had died. In fact, he wanted your father to take another woman to give him many sons. I must have slept or lost consciousness. I woke up once it was completely dark. I still didn’t move. I woke up again with women’s laments and crying around me. With difficulty, I turned on my back. It was day again. I saw their faces against the blue clear sky. They weren’t crying for me. They saw I was alive.
Suddenly it dawned on me why they were crying. They were crying because what I feared the most had happened. My son had died bleeding. I woke up a week later lying on my fur pallet with your Aunt Miriam trying to feed me. A year later you were born, Milcah.”
The midwife and I arrive at the birthing tent’s entrance. My Aunts Miriam, Abigail and Shulamit are coming out. Death is stamped all over their faces.
“No!” I scream and hand Tirzah to Aunt Abigail. Mother’s body is soaked in blood. She has a serene expression though. I get down on my knees and shake my mother’s shoulders. “Don’t leave us! Please don’t leave us!”
Aunt Miriam comes and gently puts her hand on my head, “There is nothing you can do, Milcah. Your mother is dead.” I ignore her words, and express my despair in anguished cries. “It is my fault. If I hadn’t gone with the midwife to show the baby to my father, I’d have saved you, Mother. I’d have given you some more of that potion to help staunch the blood. I’d have convinced you not to give up. You still could have more children and one of them would be a boy to rescue our family from shame. I’d have talked to you until you forgot your disappointment for having had another girl. You bore a healthy baby girl, Mother. She needs you. Why did you give up fighting for life? Was it because you didn’t want to face Grandfather’s disapproving look? That’s what happened every time you had a girl. I shouldn’t have left your side. It’s my fault.”
“No, Milcah, it is not your fault. One day you are alive, the next you’re dead. That’s how life is,” explains Aunt Miriam. “Death is part of life.” Then she pulls me up and guides me outside the tent ofblood and death. My heart sinks with despair. I will never see my mother again. I’ll never hear her sweet voice singing for us. My mother will never tell us stories anymore. I am missing her already. I feel alone and abandoned.