One terrible night it was not the wind but rather a troop of soldiers at the door. My father shrugged when Amram's name was brought up; he insisted he had no son. It was his bad fortune to have only one child, a worthless daughter.
When even Amram's friends, those who had praised him as the unconquerable phoenix, dared not help him, my brother knew his life in Jerusalem was over. He had no choice but to escape. There were fortresses in the desert our people had commandeered. If he could reach one, he might be safe. Before he left, he took the risk to come and say good-bye. After he and my father embraced, Amram motioned me aside. He had brought a farewell gift. A blue scarf. It was far too beautiful for me, more than I deserved, yet he insisted I take it.
"There are worms that spend their lifetimes spinning such threads, and now you refuse to honor their destiny?"
"No worm made this." I laughed to think of such heavenly fabric being spun by insects. It was the opposite of my father's spider-made cloak, which had been woven of fabric so pale it faded into air. This blue silk announced itself with a splash of unexpected color.
Amram vowed it was true, insisting that while the worms had spun their silk in the boughs of mulberry trees, they had been devoted to me, as he was. Upon completing their task, each worm had turned into a blue butterfly, arising into the heavens once its work on earth was done.
I looped the scarf over my hair. I would think of heaven every time I wore it and of my brother, who was so steadfast in his faith. I stood at the gate of our house, remembering that he had said the freckles on my skin were like stars. Like the stars above they would lead him to find me again.
THERE WERE FEW of us left in the city. We rummaged through ruins, cautious, in fear for our lives. At night we heard the screams of those who were taken to the Temple, captured by soldiers prowling the alleyways in search of anyone of our faith. The members of the legion drank wormwood, a dangerous, nearly lethal brew which made them vicious as well as drunk. No woman was safe. No man's life was his own. Whoever was able had fled to Alexandria or Cyprus, but my father insisted we stay. He had more work to do, and that work was the knife that he carried. In time, Jerusalem would awake, and like a lion it would free itself from the nets of slavery. Teeth and claws, I heard him say, that is what our future will bring. But I knew what he really meant was flesh and bones.
I knew from my dreams what it meant to come face-to-face with a lion.
SMOKE DRIFTED from fires set throughout the city, and the murk acted as a screen so that our people could escape from the marauding soldiers. I could smell olive wood, burning willow. Scorched remnants ignited palm-thatched roofs and haystacks. On the pallet where I slept, in our small house, I covered my head and wished I lived in another place and time. I wished I had never been born.
One afternoon while I was at the market searching the nearly empty bins of the venders for peas and beans for our meager supper, the Romans appropriated our home. I stood watching from a hidden place in my neighbors' abandoned courtyard, for their house had been ruined months earlier. The soldiers ransacked our house before they burned it to the ground and our belongings were strewn in the chalky dirt. Sparks flew up like white moths, but when they fell down upon the earth, they smoldered bright crimson, like the petals on the flame trees.
If I had little before, I had close to nothing now. I went through the rubble and took only what could fit in my two hands, a small griddle to cook flatbread, a lamp made of white Jerusalem clay to burn oil on the Sabbath, my father's prayer shawl, singed at the fringes on the four corners, his leather flask, a packet of salt that would taste of smoke when used in cooking. I waited for my father, hidden behind a wall. My skin was dusky, and there were ashes in my hair. If my father didn't come back, if he had been murdered or had fled without telling me, I thought I might simply stay behind the wall, planted there like a flame tree.
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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