Authors: India Edghill
Content with this decision, Aylah closed her eyes. Still holding Delilah’s hand, she allowed herself to sleep at last.
I was pleased that the High Priestess came herself to gaze upon my new sister, and nod that, yes, Aylah was favored by Our Lady and would bring honor and riches to the Temple. When I told this to Aylah, when High Priestess Derceto had gone away again, I learned that Aylah was not mute, as I had half-feared.
“She does not like me.”
Those were the first words I heard Aylah speak, and they shocked me. “Of course she does. The High Priestess loves us all.” So I had always been taught, and I had no reason to doubt this truth.
Aylah stared at me, silent again. “No,” she said at last, and then, as I tried to think what to say, she twined her fingers through mine. “You are good and kind, Delilah. May I have more to eat now?”
I smiled, and squeezed her hand. “Of course. There is always bread and cheese in the kitchen, and sometimes honey-cakes. Come, I will show you the short way.”
So began my life with Aylah, who became a sister dear to me as though we had been of one birth. Good food soon softened the sharp angles of bone beneath her skin; careful lessons soon taught her how to behave in the House of Atargatis. Unlike me, she did not utter the first thoughts that came into her head, but kept her words locked behind
closed lips until she knew what words would be wise to speak, and when.
She was always wiser than I.
But it was long years before I learned that, wisdom hard-won. While we both dwelt within Our Lady’s House, I thought us equal in all things—save those in which I thought Aylah surpassed me. Was Aylah not the sister of my heart, a gift bestowed upon me by Atargatis Herself?
When we told Chayyat we wished to become true heart-sisters, we were let to choose whatever charm we wished from the jewelry-makers’ workshop, that we might exchange sister-tokens to seal our bond. I chose a coral amulet of a fish for Aylah, and she, after much slow deliberation, gave me a lion’s claw bound with copper wire. Once accepted, such tokens were worn always, knotted into a strand of hair.
A sister like me and yet unlike—she spoke words I had never even dreamed of uttering. She came to us a stranger from a far land; even she did not know where her first home lay.
“Strange men came to our land and took what they wanted. Horses, furs, women. They wanted me, and so they took me as well. It was because of my hair; it is an unlucky color.”
“It is a beautiful color,” I said. Her hair shone pale as dawnlight when the sun stroked its length.
Aylah shrugged. “Gold summons greed. No one sees me. They see only my yellow hair.”
“That is not true, Aylah. Everyone here loves you.”
She looked at me with an expression I could not understand, fond and rueful, as if I were a small and foolish child and she already wise as the Goddess-on-Earth. “They value me. That is not love. My hair and my eyes—that is why Derceto’s servant Summati bought me for this Temple. That, and—”
“And what?” I asked as she stopped, and she only shrugged.
“Is that not enough, Delilah? I am here now.” Her words seemed to drop from her lips like cold stones.
I stared at her, trying to understand. Surely she could not be unhappy in the House of Atargatis? “But—” Oddly, I found myself seeking words, I who too often spoke too freely. “Don’t you wish to live here, to serve Our Lady Atargatis? To be a priestess? You could be High Priestess of the Temple one day. You could be Goddess-on-Earth.”
“No,” she said, and that was all she said that day. And for once, I did not tease her to tell me more. I think, now, that I was afraid of what I might hear, if I forced her to speak.
But that day, I thought only that I was right, and Aylah too modest. There must have been a reason she had been brought into the Temple; I decided that Lady Atargatis had desired Aylah for Her daughter, and guided Summati the day he had gone to the bazaar to buy spices and had returned instead with a silent child from beyond the lands we knew. I knew the reason in my bones—my heart-sister would someday reign as High Priestess of the House of Atargatis.
I could not even hate Aylah for this; were I the goddess, I, too, would choose Aylah over myself. I consoled myself with the knowledge that I, as Aylah’s heart-sister, would stand above the others of Our Lady’s priestesses.
But any status we might earn was still long years away; now we were both merely New Moons in the Lady’s House in Ascalon. We had much to learn before we would be permitted to act as the goddess even in small rituals.
“Now there was a village called Zorah, and in that village lived a good man named Manoah, a man whose good wife had no child. No child, and they both growing old . . .”
The trouble that followed Samson through life like an overfaithful servant began even before he was born. Orev sometimes wondered if any of what followed would have happened if Samson’s parents had owned even a handful’s more wisdom between them. But that question Orev never asked aloud; he had learned very young that silence repaid threefold rewards.
Later, when all the passion and pain lay long years in the past, Orev often began his songs of Samson by saying, “Samson was a great hero and a simple man, and his tale begins simply . . . Now listen, it happened in this way . . .”
And, in a sense, all had happened as Orev sang it now. Truth wove through songs as a thin thread of gold through an embroidered robe. Sometimes the gold gleamed bright; sometimes the gaudy colors of the other threads hid it utterly.
“Listen, it happened in this way . . .”
Men never think children overhear what is said. Women know children listen, but like to think they do not understand. Orev learned a great deal simply by keeping his own mouth closed as his elders talked. Silence was nearly as good as being invisible. What interest could a boy playing silently with a bit of string or a wooden peg have in the chatter of his elders?
A great deal, of course. Staring intently at the cat’s cradle tangling his fingers, or moving a wooden peg about as if it were a shepherd and pebbles its sheep, Orev heard almost everything that passed in Zorah.
Not that overmuch of import happened in the village. Zorah lay on the border of the lands claimed by the tribe of Dan; the lands of the tribe of Judah began only a valley and a hill to the south. A small village on the edge of the smallest tribe; until Samson’s arrival in the world, the only thing of interest that had happened in Zorah was Orev’s birth. And that, Orev knew, was of interest only to him.
Samson’s birth, on the other hand, embroiled all Zorah in violent argument and in whisperings behind veils. And all, Orev knew, because Manoah and Tsipporah were neither dull enough nor clever enough to hold their tongues.
Manoah had married late, as men must who are not rich in land and flocks. His wife, Tsipporah, was half his age, neither pretty nor plain, and came to him with a dowry consisting only of a chest of linen and herself. A good enough bargain for both. Zorah’s folk happily celebrated the marriage and awaited news that Manoah’s wife had conceived. Why else did a man marry, after all, but to get sons?
Orev himself had been born just before that wedding and sometimes thought he remembered it—although he knew he remembered only hearing of it many, many times. Not because the wedding itself had been anything out of the ordinary, but because of what came later.
By the time Orev was fourteen, it was clear to everyone that Manoah had chosen his wife unwisely. “Fourteen years wed, and no child.” “Well,
what did he expect? He should have married a widow, one who had borne children.” “She should pray harder to Yahweh.” “Perhaps it is not her fault, but—”
But that the blame might lie with the man, and not with the woman, was hinted at only in whispers, and by the older women. Orev knew he heard such words only because he sat silent, and never reminded the women he had keen ears. And because he had been born with a clubbed foot and so must, in the minds of many, be dull-witted as well as lame, they often spoke freely even when they knew he sat within earshot.
“But Yahweh watches over His people like a loving father. And lo, one day Manoah’s wife went into the fields, and there she met an angel, Yahweh’s messenger. And the angel told her she would bear a son . . .”
An aging husband, a barren wife—a common enough misfortune. Had he been a wealthier man, Manoah might have taken a second wife, or a concubine, or bought a handmaiden to serve Tsipporah—any one of the three would have been good enough to get sons upon. But like most men, Manoah could not afford a second wife, or a concubine, or a handmaiden to serve his wife.
Then, when any sensible man would have long since lost hope, Manoah proudly announced that he had been greatly blessed by Yahweh. His wife was at last with child.
And then, when any sensible man would have closed his lips and smiled, Manoah spoke half a dozen words too many.
Although that hardly mattered, as by the time Manoah spoke to the men of Zorah, every woman in the village already knew that Tsipporah claimed to have met an angel in the fields. Orev himself had heard her, and could think only that if Yahweh were truly merciful, He would strike Tsipporah dumb before she could utter another word. Why say anything at all, save that she was at last with child? Why answer questions no one had asked?
“A son who would be strong and great, a hero who would deliver our people from the yoke placed upon their necks by the Philistines . . .”
Or, if Orev sang the Song of Samson to those who were not Hebrews,
“A son who would be strong and brave, a hero who would do great deeds . . .”
A dozen generations ago, Samson’s forefathers had come into this land as conquerors. The great and ancient city of Jericho had fallen before them. But to the surprise of the surrounding kingdoms, the Hebrews had not claimed Jericho as their own. The Hebrews, who might have ruled Jericho and its land, had instead destroyed the city and its mighty walls, not a stone left upon another. The ruins of Jericho remained their greatest battle prize. Only owls and jackals inhabited the shattered city now.
Once Jericho had been swept away, the Hebrews seemed to lose interest in conquest. But the lesson of Jericho remained, and for half a dozen generations the Hebrews had gone where they pleased, driving their flocks from plains to hills as the seasons demanded. No one dared hinder them, and they did not demand much of the lands they ranged over.
But that time, too, had passed. The Sea People had swept into Canaan from the west, gradually claiming the land for their own. Now the Hebrews dwelt in the hills, existing peaceably, but on Philistine sufferance. Somehow, in the lifetimes that lay between Joshua’s triumph and Samson’s birth, the Hebrews had surrendered power to the rulers of the seacoast and the fertile plains. The Five Cities ruled Canaan now.
How that had come to pass, no one living could quite explain.
“It is because the Five Cities are ruled by a single lord each. No one argues with him when he passes a law or claims a tax.” This was Manoah’s opinion, oft repeated. Several of the men who sat with him under the olive tree by the village gate nodded agreement. Others shook their heads, and Hamor drew in his breath and began the same counterargument he raised each time the topic was discussed.
“That is folly, Manoah. You might as well say it is because they have a city wall. It is clear that the true reason is the gods of the Five Cities—”
“Do not say again that many gods are stronger than our One. What have the gods of the Philistines ever done half so wondrous as—”
The deeds Yahweh has performed?
Orev finished silently, and began moving away from the arguing men. If he moved slowly and with care, he could walk almost as well as any other young man. The clubbed foot that marred him, marked him forever as lesser, inferior; he could not change. But he could pretend, at least to those who watched, that the painful weight of his malformed foot did not matter.