Chapter 4 - Though I Have Fallen
Whistling softly an old tune of celebration, Ashira approached the house of Jesse. The exhilaration of this morning’s news still ran strong through her and could not be contained. With a little skip, she reached the side entrance of their home—and froze, her hand reaching for the half-open door.
“Elizabeth! When will you learn?!” The shrill voice rang out from within the dimly lit house, alarming and painful in Ashira’s ears. “Just look at these loaves! You left them too long again—and they’re ruined!”
Zivah had already arrived! Ashira shivered. In a flicker, her jubilation was gone. Uuugh! she sighed. Another Zivah storm! At the peak of summer one of the most dreaded Galilean phenomena was the sharkia—it came furiously and without warning. The most tranquil day could be transformed in a matter of minutes to icy torrents of rain and a vicious wind that laid crops flat and sunk fishing boats caught in the havoc. Ashira always felt a similar impact from Zivah’s presence.
All thoughts of the Messiah and her father fled her mind. The only thing to do was brace herself and head into whatever was to come.
Elizabeth and Zivah looked up from where they stood, close to the fire. Both faces were flushed, one from the heat and embarrassment, the other from temper. The hazy air was choked with the scent of badly burnt bread. Ashira greeted them quietly and fell into awkward silence. Zivah hardly paused in her barrage.
“Do you know how much work has now been wasted by your carelessness? The entire morning’s labor has resulted in this!” She aimed a finger at the crisp, darkened flat loaves laid across the stones encircling the fire pit, where dying embers glowed faintly. “Go and tell your father that he’ll have to wait a while longer for his meal. I’m going to fetch more fuel.” Zivah whirled and stomped off towards the door through which Ashira had entered. Glimpsing Ashira’s pained, silent face, she stopped, hands on her hips. “Well?! You didn’t come here to stand and glower. Did it occur to you to help?” Without waiting for an answer, she slammed the door behind her.
Ashira’s face reddened and the familiar waves of anger broke upon her thoughts. She threw her head up. “Elizabeth, how long has she been here?!”
Elizabeth fingered her tunic. “She came in just before you did.”
Ashira slapped her hand against her leg, fuming. “That woman is a pure expert at stirring up trouble—will she ever stop?!”
“Ashira, don’t be bitter. There’s more than enough of that in this world. We should have compassion, not bitterness. Don’t let your heart be ruined.”
Ashira shut her mouth hard, her knuckles whitening as she clenched first one hand, then the other. She knew deeply that Elizabeth was right, but she could find in herself no other feeling for Zivah than furious annoyance. She thought suddenly of her father, and knew he would be erupting with the same anger if he were in this situation. Countless times, Ashira had been told how she had her father’s temper, and she was beginning to believe it. She knew it needed to change.
She glanced at the courtyard beyond the open front door. Ezra appeared, carrying a small and weary man in his arms. She caught Elizabeth’s eyes and forced a stiff smile. “I’ll tidy things here, Elizabeth. It looks like Ezra could use some help with your father.” Elizabeth brushed a hand across her cheek and nodded. Ashira dropped to her knees and began swatting the burnt loaves into a basket, and tossed the old ashes into a pot. Snatching the broom from a corner she swept the floor with swift, jerky motions. She paused from her irritated flurry of activity and peered through the door.
Together, Elizabeth and Ezra lowered their father to a mat in the shade of a tamarisk tree that hung over the wall of the courtyard. They propped up his weak body among some cushions, each movement made with utmost care and gentleness. Across his withered and twisted legs, Elizabeth spread a blanket she had woven, while Ezra brought him water. Jesse said something that Ashira could not quite hear and the three laughed together.
Ashira shook her head in wonder. Since the death of their mother years ago, Jesse’s two children had looked after their invalid father, caring for his every need. The burden of responsibility Ezra and Elizabeth carried, though it had absorbed a large piece of their childhood, was swallowed up by their utter love for their father. It had effected a maturity in them beyond their years.
I can’t imagine it, Ashira thought. Enduring all that they must, including Zivah’s constant criticism, with such patience.
“Oh, Ashira, thank you—you wouldn’t know by the looks of this house the mess I made this morning!” Elizabeth awakened Ashira from her musing as she reentered the room.
“A few burnt loaves isn’t that tragic.” Ashira remarked, with lingering resentment. “Zivah would never see it this way, but most of the trouble aroused is her own fault. She makes it look like the blame belongs to everyone but herself. I, for one, have a hard time getting anything done right when she is around.”
Elizabeth brought out the kneading trough and together the girls began working water into the flour for a new batch of dough. “No, it was careless of me. I was so intent on preparing the loom correctly that I simply forgot about my baking.”
“You see?” Ashira whispered almost triumphantly. “Even the possibility of her presence creates confusion!”
Elizabeth was silent.
In that silence, Ashira felt unclean about her quiet tirade. She quickly pushed her energy into preparing the bread with her friend, smothering the scraping of her conscience.
“Girls, why are you not at the loom?” Zivah strolled in, her headcloth was looped under her arm and filled with brush and kindling. She kicked the door shut. “You two were supposed to be hard at work on that cloth by now. Go on! I’ll handle things in here. Wait—why so much dough?” Zivah dumped her load of fuel and stooped over the kneading trough, scrutinizing the dough. “Ashira, you’re making enough bread to feed your entire household. We only need half this amount!”
Ashira’s quickening pulse throbbed in her temples. She tried to protest. “We were wanting to help….”
“And what do you know of help? Oh, go on before you make more trouble. I’ll take care of the bread.” Zivah sat down and worked the dough.
Ashira rose to her feet. Her breath came heavily, and inside she was churning with agony. Elizabeth motioned towards the back room, knowing better than to persist with her aunt—it would only fan the flame. “The loom is all ready; back here, Ashira.” Ashira moved over towards the doorway.
“Oh, and Ashira,” Zivah said. “I heard a bit of news while I was out. Your father is off again, this time to see some ‘messiah’!”
Ashira wilted and she stopped, stone still. Oh, no. Not this, too.
Zivah went on. “What did I tell you this morning? Once your father’s sight is set, you won’t be getting him back! Who knows what he’ll do next? No one has even heard of this newest messiah yet. None of the leaders have even once mentioned him—but your father just had to be the first to go investigate! It’s foolery. If you ask me, it will all come to nothing and he will have wasted his time. And leaving his household—how will you manage with so many mouths to feed? Jared doesn’t know how to handle the fishing—”
Ashira put her foot down and whirled to face Zivah. She could not restrain the stream of words. “Zivah!” She nearly shouted. “You don’t know my father! You don’t understand him! Do you think you know what you are saying?! My father isn’t like that! He is kind and he is loving. You are interpreting his passion for God as irresponsibility, and you are wrong! Abba loves God, and he loves us. You, on the other hand, you—” She stopped herself, at a loss for words. Ashira looked up, panting. She could feel the redness in her own face. Her mother stood in the doorway. Jedida had heard the whole thing, and her eyes were wide—filled with alarm and dismay.
“Well!” Zivah said in exaggerated offense. “Jedida, is this how you raise your daughter? Why, if these were the days of Moses, this child would be taken out and stoned for disrespect such as this!”
Ashira’s hands dropped to her side, and she stood unmoving, averting her eyes from her mother’s gaze. Jedida set down her basket and stepped over to her daughter. Pulling her by the elbow over to a corner, they exchanged urgent whispers. Snippets floated over to Zivah as she hummed and kneaded the dough before her.
“Ashira, you may never speak so! You must soften your heart and take responsibililty for your own failings, too!”
“Mother, you heard—I couldn’t let her go on like that. I didn’t mean….”
Ashira scuffled over towards Zivah. She did not look at her. “I’m sorry.” Her sullen voice and taut face meant everything but sorrow.
“Hmmm…” Zivah shook her head. With a few swift movements she arranged freshly-shaped loaves around the fire pit to bake. She drew herself up to her full height. “Well, Jedida, since you are here, I suppose it is possible the household will be adequately cared for. I must leave for now. Goodbye.”
The tall woman passed through the door in an abrupt swish of embroidered robes. Ashira made a small moaning sound.
“Come, Ashira,” Elizabeth said, her heart aching and her forehead furrowed in concern. “Shall we get back to the loom?”