Two Excerpts from The Wayward Moon

Roses and jasmine sprang from shapely clay pots in our courtyard. The door to our home was framed by two date palms that curved downward, as if in a gesture of humility. Inside the house, the walls were hung with woven tapestries, and our floors adorned with soft carpets swirling with images of flowers and birds. The back of our house opened onto a green garden where, under skies bright with stars, my father and I would sit on warm nights, drinking mint tea and speaking of every subject under the sun. But on this night, his mood was sober. For a long while we sat in silence as he gazed at me with wistful eyes. When he finally spoke, he said he had something important to tell me.

But I already knew what he was going to say.

It was Adar, the month of the spring Kallah, when the Assembly of the Seventy Scholars convenes at the yeshiva in Sura to debate queries sent by Jews from every corner of the Caliphate. The inns and markets were filled with learned disciples and promising students, and whenever I went out into the street, I would steal furtive glimpses of their sprouting beards and bright turbans, thrilled and terrified that one of them might soon be my husband.

Since childhood, I had viewed the young brides, older girls who had suddenly become women, with envy and longing. I yearned for the day when I would don an embroidered gown and veil, and how, with eyes made beautiful with khol and lips painted red, my new relatives would hang necklaces of gold around my neck and sing me wedding songs. In time, the brides were no longer older girls, but girls of my own age, and lately, to my great dismay, girls even younger than myself. Many of my childhood friends were already raising their children, and the women of Sura had begun to regard me with pity and concern.

There was only one reason for my prolonged maidenhood, and that was my father. From the time I first bled I had begged him to find a groom for me, but he had always refused, insisting that no girl should enter into marriage before the age of seventeen. When I protested, he would try to frighten me with stories of the birth ordeals of young mothers. For he was a physician, and he had seen countless girls endure grave complications, which often, as in my own mother’s case, led to their deaths on the birthing chair. But now, when my seventeenth birthday had arrived and I was practically an old maid, he had finally decided to make inquiries among the scholars attending the Kallah.

“As we agreed,” he began, “I’ve made it known that my daughter is now of marriageable age.” I tried to keep my expression serious, even as my feet tapped a dance under my robe. “Two days ago Rabbi Elhanan sought me out. He told me of a young man who might be a suitable candidate for you.” He paused, and with great effort I willed myself to sit still while he poured the tea. “Hiyya Bar Raban of Basra is attending the Kallah with his three sons. The older two are married, and word has it that he’s looking for a bride for his youngest, a youth by the name of Asher. Rabbi Elhanan knows the family well, and can vouch for their good name and honorable status. He arranged for me to meet with the father and son.”

My feet froze. “And so you’ve met them?” I managed to ask.

“This morning. In Rabbi Elhanan’s library.” He broke into a maddening smile. “They’re fine people, and I’m sure that Bar Raban’s son will be to your liking.”

I drew a long breath to calm my racing heart. “Tell me everything about him! I want to know every detail!”

He laughed. “There’s little to tell. “They’re carpet merchants. They have a workshop in the market of Basra, where they employ twenty weavers. The two older sons help run the business, but the youngest has shown great promise as a scholar, so much so that he has been invited to stay on and study under the tutelage of Rav Yanai. Bar Raban has consented to the offer and will provide full financial support, on condition that the boy marries.”

“A scholar,” I murmured, clasping my hands together like a gleeful child. “Is he very clever?”

He considered my question. “It’s hard to say. During the meeting he barely said a word. But he seems likeable enough; modest, and respectful of his father.”

As he spoke, I envisioned a pale, timid youth, and thought of Shalmai, the baker’s son, his face spotted with skin ailments, and his voice croaking like a frog’s. “What does he look like?”

“He is in good health.”

“Is he handsome? How tall is he? What color are his eyes?”

“Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain,” he replied, quoting one of his favorite sayings. “But you’ll be able to judge for yourself tomorrow evening, when Natan Bar Raban and his son pay us a visit.”

“Tomorrow?” I cried. “But I’m not ready. It will take days for me to prepare. Maybe even weeks!”

“There’s no need for any preparation,” he said, chuckling. “You couldn’t be more charming than you are right now. On the contrary, it is they who ought to concern themselves with winning your favor.”

I shook my head. “Impossible. How can I observe him when I know that he is observing me?”

“It is a delicate matter,” he agreed, “but I can’t make this decision in your place. First impressions are the most telling, though. Watch him carefully; take note of everything he does and says, and we’ll discuss our findings afterward.”

                                                                           ***

When Abu Said burst into our house, I was about to perfume my wrists with rose water. As I drew the delicate glass stick from the vial, it occurred to me that Asher Bar Rabban might not like the smell of roses. Iyad, our gardener, had told to me that not everyone did.

It was then,  at that exact moment, that I heard a shout from the front room. I put down the vial and ran out to the hallway. My father stood in the entrance of our home, and not ten paces from him, eyes flaming with the crazed gaze of a madman, was Abu Said. Although he was not a large man, the sight of him, panting and fuming with fury, was terrible. In his right hand he held a dagger.

“No believer will consent to this treachery,” he cried. “Do you hear me, Ben Shmuel? You will renounce the appointment, or suffer the consequences!”

“I will renounce nothing,” I heard my father reply sharply. “The governor himself has personally requested that I take on the position.”

“We will not be ruled by a Jew because of one foolish heretic!” he screamed.

“I advise you to watch your tongue, Abu Said.”

“What’s that, Ben Shmuel? You threaten me?”

“If you know what’s best, you’ll turn around and leave this house at once.”

Perhaps if my father had not been a proud man, events would have unfolded differently. Perhaps if he had agreed to renounce the appointment, or even say that he would reconsider the matter, Abu Said would have been satisfied. On the other hand, it is possible that nothing would have appeased him, for he had brought his dagger and the notion of murder had taken root in his heart.

“Honored sir,” Shafiqa cried, falling at his feet. “Please go home. Your father, in his great wisdom, will fix everything.”

But Shafiqa’s words only fed his rage. “You!” he roared. “You, who were once a good Muslim woman, shame yourself by working in the home of a Jew. Don’t you know your rightful place? Where is your self-respect? This man should be our servant!”

Somehow, my father remained unmoved by Abu Said’s hysteria. “This is your last chance,” he warned. “Leave now, and we will both forget your childish outburst. Go home to your father. The Qaddi will be very distressed if word of your behavior reaches his ears.”

“Allahu Akbar!” he screamed out, and in a mad rage, charged up to my father and plunged the dagger into his heart. Shafiqa let out a shrill wail. I ran to my father, and fell to the floor, where he lay crumpled and moaning, a bright red stain of blood spreading rapidly over his robe. “Run!” he groaned. “Run to the study, close the door and move my desk to block it.”

“No!” I screamed as I tried to lift his shoulders. “Don’t close your eyes.”

But his eyes fluttered shut, and with his last remaining strength he pulled me to him and whispered, “I'm dying. Save yourself.”

I looked up and saw Abu Said’s face, contorted with insane ecstasy, his hand still holding the dagger, wet with blood. I jumped up, dashed to the study, shut the door and flattened myself against the wall.

Abu Said’s steps were heavy. I heard the study door open, and I slid behind it. “Where did you go, you little snake,” he muttered. “I saw you run in here. Do you think you can escape me now?” I was paralyzed beyond reason. It could only have been pure animal instinct that made my eyes dart around the room like a terrified animal until they fell on my father’s desk where, alongside the bowl of fruit lay the knife my father had used that morning. I reached out to grab it, but my trembling fingers pushed it to the floor, where it landed with a low thud. Abu Said swung around, his face shining with madness. In the space of an instant I swooped down and retrieved it. His eyes flashed just as they had in the moment before he stabbed my father. “Allahu Akbar,”he cried, lunging toward me.

With a terrible howl, I raised my right hand, and plunged the knife into his neck. Blood spilled from the wound onto his robe. I watched in horror as his fingers slowly released the knife, which fell to the floor and spun around in frenzied circles. Shafiqa ran into the room screaming hysterically, while Abu Said gasped and writhed like a fish pulled from the river. He staggered forward several steps, then fell to the floor. It was a gruesome sight, and I, too, began to scream.

Like a crazed choir we screamed in unison. But while I felt myself to be on the very brink of madness, Shafiqa, by the grace of God, recovered herself. She held me in a tight embrace, as if she could see the powers of madness beckoning me to fall into abandon. “My daughter, you must run and hide,” she whispered as she stroked my hair. “When word of this gets out, Abu Said’s family will surely avenge his death.” Somehow, the steady tone of her voice calmed me enough to hear her words and know that all she was saying was true. It was only a matter of time until Abu Said’s relatives came looking for me. Revenge would be demanded and taken, long before I could plead my story to a judge. The only way for me to stay alive was to flee.

Shafiqa ran out of the room and returned seconds later holding items of my father’s clothing. “You must dress in the clothes of a man.” I glanced down and screamed again. My white dress was splattered with blood. The sight was so horrible that I could scarcely move. Shafiqa pulled my dress off, raised my arms, and wrapped an old headscarf of hers around me, flattening my chest like a boy’s. She put my father’s tunic over my head and his pants around my ankles, and his rider’s boots by my feet. Still stunned, I stepped out of my girl’s slippers, slipped my arms and legs into the clothing, and donned the boots. In the meantime, Shafiqa had found one of my father’s turbans. She gathered up my hair, stuffed it into the turban, and fixed it tightly on my head. Stepping back as if to appraise her work, she shook her head and muttered, “God willing, you might just pass for a boy.”