At the Temple there was the magic of the priests, holy men who were anointed by prayer, chosen to give sacrifices and attempt miracles and perform exorcisms, driving out the evil that can often possess men. In the streets there was the magic of the minim, who were looked down upon by the priests, called charlatans and impostors by some, yet who were still respected by many. Houses of keshaphim, however, were considered to engage in the foulest sort of magic, women's work, evil, vengeful, practiced by those who were denounced as witches. But the min who performed curses and spells would have never spoken to a girl such as I if I had no silver to hand over and no father or brother to recommend me. And had I gone to the priests for an amulet, they would have denied me, for I was the daughter of one who opposed them. Even I knew I didn't deserve their favor.
The room behind the old woman was unlit, but I glimpsed herbs and plants draped from the ceiling on lengths of rope. I recognized rue and myrtle and the dried yellow apples of the mandrake, what is called yavrucha, an herb that is both aphrodisiac and antidemonic in nature, poisonous and powerful. I thought I heard the sound of a goat, a pet witches are said to have, from inside the dim chamber.
"Before you waste my time, do you have shekels enough for protection?" the old woman asked.
I shook my head. I had no coins, but I'd brought a precious hand mirror with me. It had belonged to my mother and was beautifully crafted, made of bronze and silver and gold, set with a chunk of deep blue lapis. It was the one thing I had of any value. The ancient woman examined it and then, satisfied, took my offering and went inside. After she shut the door, I heard the clatter of a lock. For a moment I wondered if she had disappeared for good, if perhaps I'd never see her or my mirror again, but she came back outside and told me to open my hand.
"You're sure you don't want this charm for yourself?" she cautioned, insisting there was only one like it in all the world. "You might need protection in this life."
I shook my head, and as I did my plain woolen veil fell. When the old woman saw the scarlet color of my hair, she backed away as though she'd discovered a demon at her door.
"It's good you don't want it," she said. "It wouldn't work for you. You need a token that's far more powerful."
I snapped up the charm, then turned and started away. I was surprised when she called for me to wait.
"You don't ask why?" The market woman was signaling to me, urging me to return, but I refused. "You don't want to know what I see for you, my sister? I can tell you what you will become."
"I know what I am." I was the child born of a dead woman, the one who couldn't bear to look at her own face. I was immensely glad to be rid of that mirror. "I don't need you to tell me," I called to the witch in the alleyway.
I WENT HOME and delivered the gift to my brother; it was a thin silver amulet to wear around his neck, the medallion imprinted with the image of Solomon fighting a demon prostrate before him on the ground. On the back of the charm, The Seal of God had been written in Greek along with the symbol of a key, to signify the key Moses had possessed that had unlocked God's protection. So, too, would this amulet protect my brother in the blood-soaked future he was set upon.
Amram was delighted with the token. He claimed I had the ability to know his mind, for he had been praying for guidance and wisdom, the smallest portion of that which God had once granted to Solomon. I kept from him that it was the woman who dabbled in magic who had known what he'd desired, not I.
The demons, my brother pledged, must never win. That was the mission of the Sicarii, and they could not fail. He opened his heart, and when he spoke, I believed in him. Amram had a way of convincing a listener to accept the world with his vision, making it possible to see through his eyes. When I gazed upon my brother, all that was before me was the kingdom of Zion and our people free at last.
Excerpted from The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. Copyright © 2011 by Alice Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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