By S M Chen, posted Sept 19, 2017 [Based on Joshua 20] My sister was a young woman in the bloom of youth. She lived at home, as unmarried females were wont to do. She was not betrothed.
It was dusk and, although the time of day was a bit later than usual, Sara went to the well bearing pitchers for water.
She was gone longer than usual. I thought I might have heard her cry out from a distance, but wasn’t sure. By the time I reached our front door and flung it open, only darkness and the distant sound of barking dogs met me. To my shame, I did not go looking for her.
When she returned, she was so changed she was barely recognizable. She carried a shard of vase in a dirty hand, and walked slowly and with difficulty. Her clothing was disheveled and torn. Tears streaked her grief-stricken face.
“What happened?” My mother and I rushed to her side (my father had died a few years earlier).
Sara didn’t speak. My mother put her arm around her and kissed her forehead. “It’s all right, my child. Perhaps you need to rest instead of talk.”
“I was attacked,” Sara said weakly. She sat down in a corner and drew her shawl around her. She looked embarrassed.
“By what? Who?” I asked.
“I didn’t bring water. I’m sorry.”
“Never mind the water,” said mother. “What happened to you?”
The words came slowly, then in a torrent. We learned what had happened. What was not so obvious was the identity of the perpetrator. In the dark, Sara could not tell. He did not speak other than to issue short, gruff commands, which she obeyed. She was already beginning to block details of the trauma.
I had a pretty good idea of who it might be. Ours was not a large city; it was a village.
Suspects included the butcher and the baker and perhaps one other. There had been only one.
The elders investigated and arrested the first, a beefy fellow whose alibi had been the weakest. He denied any involvement, as did the others. After convening, the town elders declared him innocent.
We didn’t have access to an Urim and Thummim. The elders may have done their best, but I couldn’t help thinking that they regarded rape as less serious a crime as some others. For ours was a patriarchal society. Women and children were deemed inferior in the hierarchy.
I was livid at their verdict, my mother and Sara less so. It had to be somebody, and I was determined that this not, like unpicked grapes, die on the vine. If justice were not to be done, at least I wanted the perpetrator to taste fear, the kind Sara had known, if only briefly. Nothing could bring back the innocence and virginity she had lost.
Outwardly, I tried to maintain an appearance of calm. Inwardly, I seethed. And plotted.
One night a short time later, when the moon was full, I waylaid the butcher as he closed shop. I did nothing to hide my identity. He needed to know who I was.
From the shadows of an adjacent shop I stepped, and pressed the blade of a knife against his neck. Somewhat surprisingly, he did nothing to resist. He might have beaten me in a fight, but he put up none.
“Did you rape my sister, Sara?” I wasted no words.
“Yes,” he said wearily. “I am truly sorry.”
“Then why didn’t you confess to the elders?”
“The time was not right.”
“And it is now?”
“I think so,” he said.
“I could kill you,” I tried to sound menacing.
“That would be a relief.”
I took a step back. “What?”
“I’ve been meaning to tell someone. It might as well be you.”
He said that, although he looked fine, he was, in reality, pre-terminal. “I have but a few months, perhaps weeks, to live. I have been given no hope by the healers.”
I felt a sudden surge of compassion for this man, whom I knew not well and against whom, only a few minutes ago, I was prepared to risk my life to avenge my sister.
“So do what you must,” he said, hanging his head like a condemned man before an executioner.
“I cannot.” I stood here, feet stuck to earth as in mortar.
“Then I will do it.” So saying, with a quickness that belied his girth, likely honed by years spent in the butcher shop, he grabbed the knife from my limp hand and plunged it to the hilt into his ample belly.
He gave a moan and sank to the ground. Liquid, black in the deceptive light of the moon, trickled from his mouth. He quivered but a moment, then lay still.
My mother was mightily distressed, but she agreed probably no one would believe my story. I would be seen as the murderer. It seemed scant comfort for Sara to learn who had violated her. She rocked back and forth slowly and sat mute and unblinking as I spoke.
There were six cities of refuge, three on each side of the Jordan River. I fled to Golan.
I knew that I would be safe there until the high priest died, regardless of the outcome of trial. There was no denying the knife was mine, and the angle of attack was such that it would be easiest to envision someone else plunging the knife into the butcher.
At the forthcoming trial I would be declared either innocent, guilty of intentional murder, or something in-between, such as negligent or seriously careless. I harbored little hope I would be exonerated completely.
All signs pointed to me as the perpetrator of the butcher’s death. Although the elders had declared him innocent of Sara’s rape, had they been in error, that would have been sufficient motive for me to kill him. Inconveniently, he had apparently told no one else of his impending death from the disease that was ravaging his body.
My having fled immediately made me doubly suspect.
So, after declaring my cause at Golan’s city gates, I was accepted by the elders.
I lived within and, with time, melded. I sometimes wished for a third eye to see behind me. For, despite the supposed safety of the city, I feared the possibility of one of the butcher’s relatives coming for me.
I worked at a pottery shop. Days were spent in the routine of manual labor.
Nights I often ruminated.
I learned to sleep poorly.
Time passed. I heard that my mother was ailing, but I feared leaving the city.
Once I departed, I was at the mercy of the blood avenger, whoever he or she was. My sister sent word that the butcher had a brother who would likely be the one to seek vengeance.
I did not know such a man. He lived in another town.
One day I received a message from the butcher’s brother. He wanted to see me. Knowing I would be reluctant to leave, he said he would come to the city. I was to specify time and place.
The hairs on the back of my neck came to attention. What I had most feared was about to come to pass.
I could choose to ignore the message. Pretend I had never received it. But where would that leave me?
I would remain in a place of uncertainty.
Perhaps it would be better to meet him, when I could remind him that my trial had not yet occurred. If he killed me now, it would be harming a presumably innocent person, and my blood would be upon him.
I could contemplate no reason he would want to meet me other than to cause harm or mischief. Maybe he wanted to see me to make sure that, when he struck, he had the right man. Or perhaps he wanted to, like a cat playing with a mouse, toy with me and induce more terror at the thought of my impending doom.
I slept hardly at all. In the morning, my bedcovering looked like a strong wind had swept the room.
I decided to see him, but in full light of day, and with a third party within seeing, if not hearing, distance. After obtaining the participation of an acquaintance at the pottery shop, I stipulated conditions in my reply.
The butcher’s brother agreed to everything.
We met in the middle of Golan. The busier the better, I thought. I felt for the smooth worry stone in a pocket that I’d kept busier than usual in recent days.
Made of alabaster, it had a small recess for my thumb. The other hand I kept free. Just in case.
He looked a little like his brother, but the resemblance was faint. We did not shake hands. His mien was solemn. I could hear my heartbeat between my ears but could not quell it.
After we sat down and ordered tea at the tavern I’d specified, he suddenly broke into a smile. I was baffled.
“The reason I wanted to meet you is so I could tell you in person.”
“Tell me what?” I quavered.
“You have nothing to fear.” He paused. “I had a dream. I don’t dream that often, so when I do, I take notice.”
He poured sugar in his tea, swirled the cup and sipped its contents.
“In the dream it was revealed to me what really happened. How my brother killed himself. He was going to die soon anyway.”
I sighed with relief.
“It was so unlikely I knew it had to be true.”
I could not speak. I merely nodded.
We finished our tea in silence, stood up and shook hands.
I watched him first recede, then vanish into the distance. Even though I shaded my eyes with a hand that had once held a knife, the sun was almost painfully bright. I was looking into it, so I’m unsure about this; it could be my imagination: just before disappearing, he seemed to sprout wings and fly away.
I write this from my own village on some parchment. My muscles ache from the effort and prolonged position.
Mother is resting in her bedroom.
Sara is doing housework. She is pretty much back to her old self though she doesn’t visit the well anymore.
I am older and wiser. And most grateful for unexpected grace.
S M Chen lives and writes in California.