Friday, February 19, 2016

Servant Girl

I dug into the archives from about a decade ago for this one.  I started this novel and got about fifty pages into it, but then shiny objects or something must have distracted me.  The story here contains snippets from my attempt at a re-telling of an incident from the Hebrew Scriptures found in 2 Kings 5:1-14.  Naaman, commander of the Army of Aram, was a “great man in high favor with his master because by him the Lord had given victory.”  Despite his prestige, wealth, and natural skill as a commander, the equalizing force of leprosy leveled him.  No one could help the mighty warrior with his affliction.  No one, that is, until, “a young servant girl captive from the land of Israel,” who served Naaman’s wife, approached her mistress and told her about Elisha.  Elisha was a prophet of the God of Israel, and was rumored to hold the power of the only One who could give what Naaman sought.  Eventually, Elisha instructed Naaman to wash in the Jordan River; Naaman complied and was healed.  In the Bible, the men are described in detail.  The women, including the servant girl, are unnamed. 
*          *          *
Eliana crouched in the grove of olive trees, waiting.  She stealthily crawled from tree trunk to tree trunk, hoping the lengthening shadows of twilight would hide her completely.   She silently cursed her skirt for rustling the short, stubby grass.  Silence was key to her mission.  Sensing her prey approaching, the lioness pounced.
              “Bah!” she yelled, jumping on to her brother Jesse’s back and pulling him to the ground.  Jesse screamed like their little sister Chedva and dropped the basket of olives he was carrying.  Eliana rolled onto her back and laughed until she hiccupped.  Jesse picked up a handful of the scattered olives and pelted her head, but it only made her laugh harder.  Even after Jesse dragged Eliana to her feet and made her help him pick up all the olives, she was still giggling.
            “Eli, I’d be careful.  Brave girls marry ugly old men,” said Jesse.
            “A girl doesn’t have to be brave to scare you.”
            “Well, a snake in your bed doesn’t have to be brave to scare you either.”
            “Mother would have your hide!”
            “Maybe.  But remember—I know where you sleep.”
            Eliana laughed again.  She knew Jesse might be good as his word when it came to snakes in one’s bed.  She also knew that snakes rarely stayed where you put them and if it ended up under Chedva’s blanket, Jesse would have extra chores until he married (and possibly until he gave their parents a third grandson). 
            “Shhhh.  Stop,” Jesse said suddenly.  He grabbed Eliana’s arm and pulled her behind a tree at the end of the grove.
            “Oh stop it.  I’m sorry about scaring you.”  Eliana wrestled out of Jesse’s grip.
            “No!  Hush.  Listen.”  Jesse’s whisper came out thick, worried.  Eliana strained her ears against the darkness.  On top of the gentle evening breeze, there came a faint noise like a horn’s call.  Heavy, ominous sounds reverberated off of far off walls.
            “What is that?” Eliana asked.
            “They’re coming again.  Come, we must warn father!”  Jesse dropped his basket and held Eliana’s hand as they ran.
*          *          *
The men marched by shoulder-to-shoulder, wearing hard plates on their chest and funny hats on their heads.  Eli watched their feet move simultaneously, in perfect synch.  There were eight men across in a line, but when you looked at their feet, you could see only a singular pair of legs moving in rhythm.  Eli huddled closer to Jesse and gripped Chedva's shoulders.  All three of them were standing behind their mother.  Their father had been called away to stand with the other dads and older brothers across the road.  Eli strained her neck to see, but all she could see was the snaking line of the strange men who moved together.      
Suddenly, the soldiers stopped.  There was a break in their formation.  A man in more richly colored clothes stood out in a line by himself.  "Hear me!" The man screamed.  "This land belongs to the king of Aram."
"Mama," whispered Chedva.  "Mama, where is daddy?"
"Shhhhh," her mother scolded.
"You here have been given the honor of serving our King.  Bow before his loyal servants, your protectors!"  The man's voice boomed off of the soldier's bodies.  Eli thought it seemed to shake the ground itself.  There was nervous twittering amongst the women and children.  Bow?  To these men?  The ones who marched through their peaceful village?  It had been only a few days since the soldiers had arrived this time, but the mood of the whole village had changed.  Before you could only hear animals rustling in the grass and trees.  Now there were distant cries and screams.
"I said bow!"  The man's face took on a horrible red shade.  He was growing angry--Eli could tell, but she did not know why.  Around her, women began to wearily sink to the ground.  The children followed their mothers.  Eli remained standing as long as she could, to see if she could see her father.  Fortunately, he was standing right in the break in the shoulders.  Eli smiled and almost waved, but her mother pulled her down to the ground. 
"Ooph," Eli grunted.  She glared at her mother and rubbed her hands.  She lifted her head up high and again saw her papa.  She was very far away, but Eli thought he had a very strange look on his face.  His eyes and nose were red, and his beard glistened like it was wet.  She tried to smile at him, to let him know it was all right.  "I can be strong like mama," thought Eli.
"Now servants of the King of Aram!" Boomed the man.  "Some of you are so fortunate as to come back home with us."  Mama gasped.  Eli wondered if the man would take papa to be a soldier.  He was still young and good shape.  But the man turned to face the women and children.  He pointed to a few of the soldiers.  "Pick strong ones." 
The soldiers strode toward the huddled, frightened group.  Eli's mother pushed Chedva out of sight behind her and gripped Eli and Jesse to her sides.  Still the soldiers came.   
*          *          *
            Eliana shivered against the darkness.  Nights got colder here than they did at home, and Eli did not have her mother’s woven blankets or her sister to keep her warm.  She curled her legs up to her chest and gripped her knees so hard her knuckles turned white.  The only thing warm about this restless place were the tears rolling down her cheeks.  Eli heard soft groans coming from others in the small room and wondered if their dreams made them fight sleep as well.  Eli had lost track of how long it had been since she’d been brought to this awful place up north.  Thoughts of her mother’s wails, her father’s helpless please to take him instead, her sister and brother’s stony silence from that horrible day still tumbled through her mind nonstop.  She wondered if the large men with terrible looking weapons had taken anyone else she knew.  She wondered why she had been the one plucked from the frightened mass.  She wondered if she’d only know the hard, scary places in the world from now on.   
            The next day dawned with a harsh glow.  Eli had somehow managed to drift off into a dreamless sleep for a few hours, but now, she hurried with the dozen other women to tidy their sleeping room.  Soon, they would begin their day in service to the army.  Suddenly, the door swung open and two men came in.  The women froze, the men’s hungry gaze turning them into statues.
            “You,” said one of the men, pointing to a young woman who looked to be several months pregnant.  He turned and surveyed the rest of the dirty, frightened group.  Eli silently whispered prayers that the men ignore her, to the God her mother promised was always listening.  As if hearing the thoughts in Eli’s head, the soldier swung and stared directly at her.  “And you.”  As the men pushed Eli and the pregnant girl out into the blinding sun, Eli kept praying. 
*          *          *
            Nehama groaned and arched her back as her body spasmed in pain.  Eliana shifted the rolled up cloths to try to make her more comfortable.  A breeze rustled the tent flaps and made the candles flicker.  Dim shadows danced all around.
            "Eli," Nehama said.  Eli slid closer and put her hand on her friend's forehead. 
            "Shhhhh," she whispered.  "It will be all right."
            Just then, Eve the midwife and two other servant women came into the tent where Eliana was sure she was unsuccessfully trying to help Nehama. 
            "Stand back, young one," Eve said to Eli.
            "No!" screamed Nehama, her body shaking again. 
            Eve paused a moment but then pushed Eliana gently to the side.  "You can stay close," she said.  "But you must let me work."  Eli nodded.  She crawled on her hands and knees and took Nehama's head on her lap.  She stroked her hair and shoulders.  Nehama looked up into Eli's eyes and Eli tried to look much braver than she felt.  The midwife pushed on Nehama's belly and then took her thighs into her large, thick hands.  Eve looked up, "How long has she been like this?"
            "Since it was light out.  Around midday she fell to the ground because it hurt to stand.  I was allowed to stay with her here and someone went to find you.  It is dark now, so it must have been hours."  Eve nodded and frowned.  Eli couldn't tell if this was because of what she had said or because of something else.  Eve turned to the other women.  "It is time."
            Sarai and Rebeccah, the servant women, each took one of Nehama's legs.  The women's faces were kind and they did not look scared.  Eli wondered if they had birthed children of their own.  Maybe they had just helped deliver them.  "Child," Eve said firmly.  Eli looked up.  "Now we push."  Nehama closed her eyes and screamed as the two women leaned into her feet.  Eli shook and tears rolled down her face involuntarily.
            "Child, your screaming will wear you out.  Use your breath to push out the baby.  Breathe in Ruah, breathe out your child."  Nehama opened her eyes and looked at Eli.
            "You can do it," Eli said, looking down at her friend.
            "I can't," Nehama whimpered.
            "Yes you can," Eli said.  "You are the strongest of all of us.  You carried this baby every day through all of our work.  Even when your feet were swollen you wouldn't slow down.  You're a mother now.  My grandmother used to say that mother's are the strongest of all God's creatures."  Nehama closed her eyes and nodded.  She reached her arms above her head.  Eli clasped them to her chest. 
            "Get ready child," Eve said.  "Remember Ruah."  Eli held tightly to Nehama's hands.  She drew in her breath and willed any strength she had to pass through her body in Nehama's.  "Our tears are our prayers, God," Eli prayed.  "Hear each one." 
            This time the women all pushed and breathed as one.  Nehama let out her breath and yelled in pain, but it was drawn out with effort and control.  "Again," Eve commanded.  Over and over they worked, until Eli felt light headed from the effort.  She wondered how anyone did this, how the human race didn't just quit multiplying from the sheer impossibility of the task. 
            Finally, what seemed like years later (but was probably more like hours), a new sound pierced the air.  A high, fragile cry flew up to heaven, to signal its arrival onto earth.  Eve held up the shrieking creature.  It looked shriveled and purple by the candlelight.  The midwife stuck her finger down its throat while the other two women helped deliver the afterbirth.  Nehama, too exhausted to scream, just propped up her head to see the baby.  "It's a boy," said Eve, smiling.  Eliana heart leapt at the news.  She was still sitting with Nehana's head in her lap and had long ago lost the feeling her in legs from staying there so long.  But it didn't matter.  Because Nehama had a son. 
            "Can I hold him?"  Nehama asked.  Eve paused.  She looked at the baby a moment with a sad, complicated look on her face. 
            "It would be better if you didn't, little one.  You need to rest."
            "Please.  He's mine.  He's all I have.  He . . ."  She was also too tired to cry.
            "Please, Eve.  She has the rest of the night for sleep."  Eli said.  Finally Eve nodded.  Eli slid forward and helped prop Nehama up a little.  Eve placed the bundle in Nehama's arms.  Nehama ran her finger along the baby's soft, pink check. 
            "He's perfect," she whispered.  Her son, who had been crying since his entrance into the world, grew quiet.  Nehama began humming a song and kept stroking the baby's face.  Eli leaned over her shoulder to get a better look at him.  Nehama turned and kissed her on her cheek. "I want to name him Josiah.  After my father.  It is a good, strong name." 
            Just then, a horn sounded outside the ten.  The women were startled and the baby woke up and screamed again.  Eve and the women who had been cleaning Nehama and straightening up the tent, got up and went outside to see what was going on.  Voices carried on the night's breeze, which had turned chilly.  Eli moved and pushed cloths under Nehama's back.  She stumbled when she tried to get up, pins and needles sticking her stiff legs.  She got a blanket and covered Nehama and the baby.  The voices grew louder outside, angrier.  But even though she crept back over to the tent's flap, she couldn't make out what they were saying.
            Nehama hummed Josiah back to sleep.  She shifted until she was lying down and feel asleep as well.  Eli, who could sense something was wrong outside, remained standing. The candles flickered and went out. 
            Soon Eve came back in the tent.  Sarai and Rebeccah stood holding the entrance open, each holding a torch.  Eve kneeled down and took the sleeping Josiah. 
            "Where are you taking him?" Eli whispered urgently.  "Shouldn't you tell Nehama?"
            "She needs to rest," Eve whispered back.
            "She can rest with him."
            "No, child."  Shadows shifted outside the tent. 
            "Move, old woman," a man's voice said from outside.  "We haven't got all night."
            "Surely," another voice said, "You wouldn't want us to seek sport with you."  Harsh chuckles erupted.  Nehama stirred. 
            "What . . ." she started to say.
            "Shhhhh.  Hush." Eve said.  She left the tent with the baby. 
            "Here he is.  Ten fingers, ten toes."
            Eli rushed to get out of the tent.  Sarai and Rebeccah put there hands out to stop her. 
            "Where's my son?" Nehama called from the ground.
            "Don't worry, mouse," said the man's voice.  "He is going to live in a palace far grander than this.”  Again the laughter.  The shadows moved away as footsteps brushed away into the darkness. 
            "What's going on?"  Nehama asked, sitting up.  "Where are they taking my son?"  With each word, Nehama's voice grew more desperate. 
            "Please child," Eve said firmly.  "Please.  Don't make a fuss.  You know he's a baby of a soldier."
            "What?" Nehama screamed.  "The man who did this . . . he is no longer here.  He went away with his men.  He did not want to marry me. He is no father.  He just . . ." her voice broke.  "He . . ."  Nehama choked as sobs came up from deep inside her chest.  She put her head in her hands and wailed. 
            "Shhhh," Eve tried to soothe her.  "Don't let them hear you, child.  You son will have a better life.  He will live free!  It is better this way."
            Eli dropped to the ground.  She curled Nehama's body, which was still bleeding from the birth, into her arms.  "How can it," her own voice quivered with tears, "be better . . . if he's . . . not here with us?"  Nehama drew her breathe in sharply and wailed. 
            "It's what it is, child."  Said Eve.  "God sees all things.  God will look after the baby."
            Eli buried her face in Nehama's shoulder.  She cried with her friend.  She tried to pray that God look after them, too.  But she found she had nothing to say. 
*          *          *
            Master Naaman had not been doing well for several weeks.  Everyone in his household knew this, especially the servants who had to clean his sores and change his bed dressings.  It was because of this a thought had been nagging Eli for days, but she didn’t dare speak it.  One morning, as she helped Nehama scrub their mistress’s basin, she wondered aloud, “Do you think the master knows of Elisha?” 
            Nehama did not stop scrubbing.  “No, why would he?  His armies don’t stay in the land long enough to chat with the people, now do they?”  She chuckled.
            “I don’t know.  The cooking in my village was so good, they wanted to take brides and live with our families!  They loved our wine so much, we had to coax them back to their king!”  Eliana and Nehama laughed.  But Eli quickly turned somber again.  “I think I should tell them.”
            “Tell who what?”
            “Tell the master—or at least the mistress, that we know someone who can cure the sickness.”
            “You’d be whipped for talking to the mistress!  And who knows what they’d do to us if Elisha didn’t help . . .” she trailed off.  She and Eli scrubbed in silence.  Eliana wondered what she should do.  She wished for the thousandth time since she’d been brought here that she had her father’s courage, or her mother’s strength.  But she didn’t.  Worse, her parents were worlds away from helping her now.
*          *          *
Eliana crept slowly, quietly down the hall.  The Commander’s home was a huge building, the biggest Eli had ever seen in her life.  She could dawdle in its nooks and crannies forever, though she never dared before.  Her job was to do her work, be invisible, and get out as quickly as possible.  To attract attention was to invite unfortunate consequences.  Today, however, was different.
            The room where the commander’s wife spent most of her day lay at the end of Eli’s trek.  She’d have to pass through the carved wooden door with a curved handle.  The door, that Eli had always thought was so beautiful, today loomed large, heavy.  Eli carried with her soft bedclothes to deliver to the chamber.  Eli approached her feet growing heavier with ever step.  She stood stock still just outside it.  Somehow, with a will summoned from places she’d never recognized until now, she lifted her arms and gently tapped several times.
            “Come,” said a voice from within.  Eli opened the door, kept her head down, and set the sheets down next to the bed.  She lifted her eyes a fraction of an inch up and saw that the mistress was alone, standing at the open window looking out.  Eli heard the mistress sigh.  Eli drew in her breath and took a step forward.  The mistress turned.  Eli turned just as quickly, head down, towards the door.  She put her hand on the ornate handle and was just to push through when she stopped.  She drew her breath in again and turned.  She raised her head up.  The mistress was looking right at her. 
            “Forgive me, mistress” Eli said.  “I know that I will be punished for forgetting my place.”  The mistress said nothing, only stared at Eli, her mouth hanging open slightly.  “But I think I know someone who can help master Naaman.” 
            The mistress remained silently staring.  Eli had never gotten a good look at her before this.  She noticed that the mistress wasn’t very old herself.  Eli had just turned 13; she doubted that the mistress was more than a few years older than that. 
            “What?” the mistress said. 
            “Ma’am, please.” Eli said.  “Where I come from, among my people, there are prophets.  Men to whom the God of Israel speaks directly.  There is one, called Elisha, whom God favors.  If master Naaman would go to him, Elisha could cure him.  I know it.”
            Eli looked back down at the floor.  She had grown used to being invisible.  She didn’t know how to deal with being the center of attention. 
            “Girl,” said the mistress slowly.  “Do you know that I could have you whipped for talking to me?  Or do anything I like to you?”
            “Yes mistress.”
            “And still you tell me this?”
            “Yes,” Eli said weakly.  She looked up, fighting back tears. 
            The mistress sunk onto a chair.  She stared out into space for a long time.  Eli waited, unable to move.  Finally, the mistress rose.
            “We’d only been married a few months when he became ill,” she smiled sadly.  “But in those months I knew I could love only him.”  She walked to Eli and took her chin in her hands.  “And you believe your prophet will heal my husband.”
            “Yes mistress.”  Eli inhaled the mistress’ sweet perfume.  It’s gentle warmth reminded Eli of the way her grandmother smelled.  She wanted to stay there and breathe it in forever.
            “Well, then.  Either you are a very brave or a very foolish girl.”  The mistress let go of Eli’s chin.  “Let us both hope you are the former.”  The mistress opened her chamber door.  “Go now.  Pray that your Elisha is who he say he is.”
            Eli bowed and followed the queen out of the room.  She returned to the servants tents where Nehama was waiting.  “Now what?” Nehama asked. 
            “I don’t know,” said Eli. 
*          *          *

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