Daughters of Miriam

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Early Morning by Hannah Rubenstein for Daughters of Miriam by Catherine Norton

The stars wail in grief as the moon dies, clawing through the black darkness to reach their mother and embrace her before her silver light diminishes for good. They burn bright, like distant dots of brazen fire burning with a desire to say goodbye to the world as they know it. I watch the stars, wondering what it’s like to know that you will die, be reborn, and die again.

The wind mourns a low and hollow note, the cold air whipping across my skin and lifting my shawl. Its melancholy cry warns the desert creatures to crawl back beneath the sand, for the monster is coming. Picking up again, the brash bales howl in fear and disgrace as I race over the dunes, feet sinking on uneven slopes of sand.

When I make it to the well, I begin to hum, lulling the water spirit from her sleep. Reaching down with my voice, I extend my early morning greetings and lower the bucket, praising the spirit so she will give me her bounty. I come up with a heavy pail full of sloshing sweetness. Then I begin my trek back to the tents.

By the time I arrive, the men’s tent is abuzz with relatives talking politics and boasting of their great exploits in courageously loud voices that could wake the dead. There are significantly fewer men in my family than women, but their tent is the largest. We congregate there for meal times and evening prayer, but other than that, I don’t often venture through the thick ivory cloth that guards best against the sun.

We in the women’s tent have been up for hours. We’ve been awakening the fire spirits and preparing the bread. We’ve been rolling up our beds and cleaning the oil lamps. We’ve been preparing our festival clothes and washing the embroidered cloths that will line the main table where the festive meal will be laid.

Inside my mother’s tent, my sisters and I total six, and all covered from head to toe in loose, dull cloth, we bring the breakfast to the men’s tent. The aroma of warm za’atar dances with the steam from the pita, and the dolmas unravel slowly as they touch the humid air. We’re having a small breakfast this morning, as the festive meal this evening will fill us for the next week.
“Come, daughters,” my father smiles, light from the morning rays in his eyes, “we have much to praise the Lord for today.”

As the oldest sister, I set my food down first, then the second sister, then the third, and finally the triplets. Our brother is the youngest of us, but he will take my father’s place someday. Zev is seven, and is very dutiful, handing our father the prayer book without being asked.

My cousins come in next. Then, my uncle and grandfather bring the chairs forward and place them around our blanket. My mother and grandmother help my grandmother’s mother into one of the chairs. Next comes my grandmother’s sister and her eldest daughter with a blanket to drape over my great-grandmother. My eldest three cousins are carrying bowls of dates, but it’s the youngest who catches my eye. The littlest, Asahel, was named after me, and the toddler reaches toward me when our eyes meet. I smile and hold out my hand. She grabs my finger.

“Now that we are all here, dear ones,” my grandmother nods, “I invite you to pray before the morning meal.”

My father begins to vocalize; luminous and light, his tune languidly swerves between low, elongated notes and impassioned sounds that climb up, out of the throat. The syllables of the ancient words are whole and purposeful, and it doesn’t take long before I join in. I sing the ancient melody strong and clear, letting my emotion warm my voice as it spills into the heavy air. Together as a family, our rich song resonates across the desert, enchanting the grains of sand that spill in quick excitement.

As our song slides down from its swell, we reach into the bows and pass one another food. My father picks up a date and kisses it up to God.

“This is for you, Ashira,” he whispers so only I can hear, “keep your voice ready for tonight.”

I nod and accept the gift, biting down on the sweet clumps of skin and filling that make my mouth thick, as if it were full of honey.

“Does it taste good, Ashira?” my father questions.

I grin shyly, giggles bubbling over my lips as I try to focus on keeping the food in my mouth. My father kisses my cheek and passes me a pita covered in za’atar. I rip it in half and give him some.

I spend the rest of the day preparing for the festive meal, as does the rest of my family. My father takes all the men to the holy shrine with a sacrificial offering which takes most of the day. By the time they return, it is past the hottest part of the day, and we have killed, bled, cut, skinned, and cooked two lambs. I run to my father as he returns, breathing in his sweaty scent of sand and spices to wash away my guilt over the animal spirits.

“Did you miss me, my girl?”

“Abba,” I swallow, forcing the words from my mouth, “the lambs, they, they bled and—”

“Ah, Ashira,” my father kisses my head, “God adores your innocence, but he made the animals to sustain us. His law says we may eat only certain kinds, remember?”

I nod, taking in a deep breath of air.

“Did you say lamb?” Zev pipes up.

“Yes,” my brother’s eyes of mirth makes me smile, “we need the shank bone, remember?”

The men have missed a meal, so my sister and I bring them bowls of apricots and grapes to fill them until the festival feast. Then, I go back to the women’s tent as the afternoon light breeds beads of sweat on my back and my brow. My mother, my aunt, and their cousins will be awake to mind the food, but as the heat becomes unbearable, many in the family lie down to rest.

“Here she is.”

All of us who are daughters rest in one tent, which we do because we like one another’s company. Although sometimes we have disagreements, we mainly laugh, tell stories, and sing.

“Will you sing now, Ashira?” Cousin Nitzana asks.

“Sing now,” Cousin Yafit claps, “sing now.”

“Now, Ashira.” Cousin Talia agrees.

“Just a lullaby, a short one,” I tell the girls, “tonight is a very important festival.”

“Sing about the Prophet Miriam,” Cousin Dalia asks, “I like her.”

So I do sing about the prophet. I begin, humming slowly and swaying, then my voice takes flight. I sing about the prophet Miriam and her kindness. I sing about her hope and happiness, and I sing about her praise of the miracle of freedom.

“That was nice.” my sister whispers.

I smile and lie down amidst a tangle of arms and legs. Cousin Gevira kicks sometimes, so we give her some space, but I don’t mind the closeness of it all, this is my family after all. I fall asleep to the harmony of breath coming from my sisters and cousins.

“Ashira?”

It’s my mother’s voice I hear, rubbing my arm slightly as she whispers for me.

“The shadows are long now,” my mother continues, “it’s time to dress.”

Some part of me comprehends it’s time to prepare for the festival, and I smile.

“That’s right,” my mother whispers, “it’s time to prepare.”

By the time I sit up my mother is gone, but I gently wake my second and third sisters in the same way my mother woke me.

“It’s time to dress,” I murmur, “soon it will be time to eat.”

While the triplets wake our cousins, I prepare our dresses. Daily we wear tan linens that often turn brown after years of wear, but this night, we wear our beautiful cloth. All of our dresses and wraps are bright saffron yellow, and we’ve embroidered vermillion string into flowers, diamonds, and other designs on the edges.

I pull on my cloth, styled the same but slightly more embroidered because I’ve had more time to work on it. Five years ago my father bought blue thread. I made my first careful stitches into this wrap with that thread.

“Are you ready, girls?”

It’s my grandmother’s niece who asks this, her inquisitive eye turning pleased when she sees we are.

“Come now,” she beckons, “you must watch the food as your mothers change.”

The lambs are each on two large spits with spices rubbed into their meat.

“Prepare the ritual plate,” my mother instructs.

I nod, my mind spinning as I remember what the plate requires. Taking Asahel in my arms, I go to my triplet sisters.

“Will you go to the chickens,” I ask, “and carefully bring me an egg?”

My sisters smile at each other and scamper off. They know I’ve given them an important job.

“Dalia, Hadas,” I gesture toward me, “I have a special mission for you.”

Giddy, the girls toddle over and I ask them to fetch me the karpas. They nod and chatter excitedly as they go, eager to please.

“Michal, Yana?”

My cousins turn to me, noses crinkling in disgust as I ask for the maror.

I smile kindly at them, “Can you bring me the jar of it?”

Michal shakes her head, “Ashira, it’s gross.”

“You don’t have to eat it yet,” I tell her kindly, “not even smell it, just bring me the jar.”

Yana takes Michal’s hand, “We can do it.”

Then, someone taps me on the shoulder; it’s my second sister.

“I thought you might need this,” she winks, offering me the ritual plate.

I laugh, “Thank you.”

My sisters help me assemble the ritual plate, and then we prepare the spread of food. Zev and our boy cousins cheer as we enter the main tent holding plates of food. Our uncle gently holds them back from the food.

“Silly boys,” he teases, “the family isn’t here yet.”

Our other uncle holds out his arms and I pass him Asahel.

“Thank you for looking after her,” he smiles.

“Of course,” I respond, “she’s a very calm one.”

My uncle laughs, “That she is.”

The sun begins to set as our great-grandmother is brought in to rest on her chair.

“Bring the candles toward me,” she commands, her voice strong though aged, “I would like to light them with my daughters and granddaughters.”

As the fire sparks, I close my eyes and welcome the heat toward my eyes. Mumbling the holy words, I praise the Lord, King in the sky, for the blessing of fire and this holy day, and thank his spirits for their bounty. When I open my eyes, my brother spreads his arms. “The ceremony is upon us.”

We laugh good-naturedly, smiling at my little brother trying to emulate my father.

“We begin with the story of emancipation,” my father booms, “it’s the story of our fear and our freedom.”

My favorite part of this story is Miriam, the Prophet. She saves her brother, and by extension her whole faith and family, due to her loyalty and her courage. From watching over her brother’s basket to leading our ancestors in praise once we were free, Miriam was wise, and she performed her duty with such joy. My father says every action we take must honor those who came before us, and I intend to bring pride to Miriam with every breath I take.

“And now,” my brother smiles, grinning, “we begin the festive meal!”

Exuberance spreads over our family like a wave of wind that brings the call of prayer. We’ve completed the ritual eating but now comes for sharing a meal as a family. There’s lamb, couscous, roasted pistachios, coconut-covered baklava, more lamb with tamarind paste, salad with zucchini, feta, green onions, tomatoes, and lentil soup with mint and lemon.

“So this is what you’ve been doing all week.” my grandfather nudges my grandmother.

“You better eat,” she huffs. “That’s our reward.”

So we do eat, stuffing our faces full to praise the Lord and remember our precious freedom. My father smiles at my mother, “How about some music?”

The little ones cheer in agreement, and my mother stands, tapping me on the shoulder. I rise after her and walk to the corner of the tent where an ornate chest lays closed. I open it and reach in, pulling out tambourines, an oud, and a guitar.

I pick up a tambourine and hand my mother the oud. Then I stand and begin to dance. My mother understands immediately and plucks the strings quickly and with purpose. I wiggle the tambourine in a rhythm of nine eight, moving my body in the fluid movements of the Mediterranean. I think of my grandparents forced to leave Spain, and I mimic the passionate gestures of Andalusia as I spin, holding my hands above my head and yearning for a land I never knew.

My aunts and cousins stand, energized and joining in at our mingled phrases.

“Sing, Ashira!” my grandmother calls.

And I do, I sing of the Daughters of Jerusalem, the lilies of the valleys, the roses of Sharon and how they dance around the fire like their mother Miriam, smoke billowing around them. My voice is proud and thunderous, roaring with the shadows as they sway across our tent.

“My beloved is mine,” I vocalize, “and I am his, and we shall dance till the darkness flees, come Daughters of Jerusalem, and frighten the darkness with your praise.”

I continue belting sounds and words that mesh into a tapestry of music, remembering the Old Quarter of Toledo that I never set foot in, calling forth the winds from the great sea we traveled to reach our home in the Syrian desert, and exalting the dunes we lay our tents on. To end I, throw my head back and cry for all the Daughters of Jerusalem to come home and dance.

Cheers echo throughout the tent as I finish with a flourish, and I’m greeted with applause and joyous laughter ring in my ears as I bow.

“Well done, Ashira.”

I meet my great-grandmother’s eyes; praise from her is like milk and honey itself. I smile so wide my face hurts.

“Sing some more!” Zev cheers.

Next, we sing in Ladino, the language of the Jews from Spain. It’s a mixture of Spanish and Aramaic, sounding like the beating of the sun’s rays on sandstone skin. As my mother strums, I think of the stories of my grandmother’s kosher paella, and how wonderful it smelled with the sea air. “Kuando el Rey Nimrod, al kampo salía—”

Singing is a joy for me, especially when I recount the tale of Abraham’s birth. The tune is lively and fun, with a slight, tickling spark when I shake my tambourine at the climax of the crescendo. It’s wonderful, and my father joins in; it’s glorious. His voice is sweet as spiced goat milk with every ounce of its strength and distinct flavor.

“Avram Avinu, Padre Kerido, Padre Bendicho, luz de Israel—”

My younger cousins clap along, swaying to our music. As I wail for Terach’s wife, thinking of her fear and suffering, the room seems to go cold, and suddenly, my voice can’t continue.

“My sleep has been disturbed,” an unholy voice rumbles through the air, “and I am displeased.”

My little cousins run to their mothers, and my sisters form a huddle around our own. “I wish to address the one who sings,” continues the voice, droning like an angry wind, “stand if you will.”

I look to my father, his gaze is steely, calculating. He nods. I stand, saying, “I’m the one who sings.”

A cloud of blue smoke billows into the tent and vaguely takes the shape of a face with horns and sharp eyes that scream of cruelty. It’s a spirit, an evil one.

“I want a gift for my discomfort,” the Djinn, states, “if you can not give me one by the time the sun rises in the morning, I shall take your voice.”

My family is silent as the spirit disappears, then I begin to cry.

“It’s alright, dear one,” my father whispers, embracing me, “we shall give him all our gold if we must.”

“I’m sure he can conjure gold,” my Aunt swallows, “what can we give him that he can’t already get?”

No one has an answer at first, then, my mother raises her head.

“The loom,” she answers, “we can give him the labor of our love.”

“Let us go then,” my great-grandmother clasps the handle of her chair as she stands, “let us weave the Djinn a tapestry.”

All the women in my family go back to my grandmother’s tent to access the large loom, but I stay shaking in my father’s arms for a moment longer.

“Be brave, Ashira,” he strokes my head. “Be a Daughter of Miriam.”

And I do. I steel myself, swallowing my fear and molding it into shaky courage, and as I make my way to my grandmother’s tent, I promise myself I will not lose my voice.

“Come, Ashira,” my mother commands, eyes on the string, “prepare the dyes.”

While my sisters and cousins brush the wool, then spin it into yarn, I prepare the dye. I crush saffron for yellow and madder roots for red, I soak the indigo leaf powder in water to create a dark blue, and take black ashes from the fire to make an onyx mixture. Then I leave the thread to soak and dry. By the time this process is finished and I take out colored strings, my mother, aunts, grandmother, her sister, and my great-grandmother have discussed the patterns and techniques they will use, and have laid the foundational threads. Then, we begin to weave.

We work till the oil lamps run dry, are lit, and run dry again. Then we light the lamps one last time. The night was bright with stars when we began. Starlight rained down on the desert, like glorious shining water coloring everything silver and creating a safe circle around our home, what we hold dear. Then the sun rose, and our tender fingers melted in pride.

I feel a snake of dread slither through my stomach, but I choke down my doubt. My family was willing to drop everything and help me, the men even put away our leftovers! I stand in the shifting sand, looking up at the sky. The vermillion glow of the heavens glimmers with strands of gold and swells the color of apricots. My headscarf slides back slightly as I stare at the cloudless sky.

“Ashira,” my mother clasps my hand in hers, “we are here with you.”

The familiar azure smoke pools in the air, forming a nasty, horrid face that glares condescendingly down his nose at me.

“Where is my gift?” his eyes slim down.

“Here, spirit,” my mother steps forward, dramatically unfurling the tapestry, “we, Daughters of Miriam, give you the fruit of our affection for our love of song. We hope this quilt will bring you the ease of rest you deserve.”

The tapestry is beautiful, it’s a scene of the silver moon, resplendent in all her glory above a tall fire surrounded by dancing women. It reminds me of the moon I was born under, but will the spirit accept it?

The Djinn’s face contorts in concentration, and goosebumps line my skin. “I accept this gift,” the spirit uses the wind to pull the quilt from my mother, then he turns to me. “Enjoy your voice, child.”

Then, he’s gone, and in my joy, I begin to sing.

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Catherine Norton is a member of the class of 2021 at Meridian High School in Falls Church, Virginia. She is Ambassador of the Spanish club, one of the co-leaders of the Writing Club, and a student journalist for the newspaper. She has a pet cat named "Whiskey" and her favorite ice-cream flavor is mint-chocolate chip.
Accompanying photo: “Early Morning” by Hannah Rubenstein