A village on the outskirts of ancient Palestine--7 A.D.
“Be a good girl and cover your face,” her mother counseled.
Anna draped a shawl over her head and bound it halfway up her cheeks. She watched her mother arrange bowls of dates, cheese, and olives on a tray. She then placed a pitcher of milk among the bowls and capped it with a square of linen. As her mother did these things, her hands came to rest on her swollen belly then flew off, repeatedly, like frightened doves.
“Hurry to Grandfather and be home before morning meal,” she said. She lowered the tray into her seven-year-old’s waiting hands. She pulled back the camel skin hide that hung across the front door. Anna’s head brushed the underside of her mother’s belly as she slipped around her and stepped, blinking, into the light.
Early morning had bathed the village in its usual peach wash. Thirty or so dwellings huddled together as a liquid glow dripped down straw roofs and reddened clay walls.
Anna walked past the manger her father had built. Its thatched roof balanced sturdily on hand-carved wooden beams. Beneath, two cows and a small flock of goats sprawled about crunching mouthfuls of hay. When the smaller animals caught sight of the young girl, they nickered and trotted in pursuit. Anna clucked gently as they nibbled her elbows. Her father said goats were the most foolish creatures the Lord had created. But Anna found their antics and stubborn friendliness amusing. And she laughed at how their upper lips curled in pleasure whenever she scratched their chins.
In a few more steps, she came to her father’s workshop. Its door was closed. The glow of an oil lamp shone through its crooked window. Anna heard the familiar brush-brush of the pumice stone used to polish wood. Whatever her father was making, he was close to finishing. For the past month, he had been rising earlier than usual to work on a special project. He had said it was a secret, and would not tell anyone what it was, but the mere mention of it brought a glimmer to his eye.
Curious to know what could be making her father so happy, Anna felt tempted to peek inside his shop. But she knew he would not welcome her visit and did not wish to anger him.
As she went along, the goats kept at her. A few guinea hens soon joined. Anna gripped the tray and kept her eyes on the shifting surface of milk. She did not need to watch where she was going. She could navigate by smell. When the scent of goats and hay gave way to the heavier odor of wood smoke, it meant she was near the farmers’ houses where the women had stoked fires to bake bread. She heard the grunts of men loading their mules with supplies to take into the olive groves. The time of the harvest had come. Anna lowered her face deeper into her shawl and hurried past. Despite the familiarity of the routine, of lifting fabric to face, she hated the act of hiding herself. The tradition felt stifling--as though someone were standing on her chest.
Farther along, a light breeze cleared the scent of wood smoke and ushered in the spicier scent of olive leaves and earth. She had come to the clearing just before her grandfather’s house. If she were to look to the west, she would see the olive groves stitched across the hills like embroidery. Beyond those, stark in its isolation, stood the great old sycamore.
Anna steadied the tray on her knee and knocked.
“Come in!” a voice croaked.
The door gave with a moan. Anna’s sight faltered as it adjusted to the darkness. She smelled her grandfather. His scent was sharp and biting, like old metal.
“Where have you been?” he barked. He was seized by a torrent of wet coughs.
Anna knelt before the leathery man. She kept her gaze downward and arranged the bowls of food on the floor.
“Hurry up,” he wheezed.
She poured milk from the pitcher. She handed him the cup and watched his brown-spotted hand curl around it.
“Is that goat cheese again?” he asked, pointing a knotty finger.
“Yes, Grandfather,” she said, wincing at her mother’s mistake.
He knocked the bowl with the back of his hand, spraying bits across the floor. “How many times must I tell you?” he roared. “Do not bring goat cheese. It upsets my stomach!” He popped olives into his toothless mouth. He gummed the oily fruits as he watched his granddaughter crawl about cleaning up the mess. When he had finished eating, Anna stacked the empty bowls on the tray. She bowed and left without looking back.
Outside, she yanked down her shawl and sucked in a breath of fresh air. She had barely begun to exhale when a clod of camel dung pelted the door beside her head. Startled, she looked up and saw a pack of boys. They scampered to duck behind an empty cart. She heard their giggles and knew the attack would escalate. Frightened, she lifted the shawl about her face, gripped the tray, and dashed for the village.
The boys leapt at their fleeing target. Ben, the stub-nosed ringleader, and Daniel, Anna’s neighbor, hurled their usual insults. “Freak! Fool! Funny goat! Better keep running!”
Anna’s grandfather rushed outside and began yelling about the dung on his door. Terrified of the old man, the boys scattered, abandoning their prey.
Anna’s legs pumped with fury beneath her. She knew she could run faster than the boys, but there were more of them, and she did not want to risk being caught. When the roof of her house came into view, she slowed and let the shawl drop again from her face. She glanced over her shoulder but did not see her pursuers. She bent to catch her breath.
It was not the first time they had taunted her. Nor, she knew, would it be the last. Her mother told her the teasing arose from her unusual appearance.
“It is because you are a mixture,” she had said. “Of boy and girl.”
Anna had wondered at the strange classification. She did not feel like a mixture. She knew she was not a boy. Yet she did not feel entirely like a girl either. At least not like the ones in her village who kept silent and shadowed their mothers.
“Anna!” a voice cried from behind.
Anna spun and saw Zahra sitting in front of the well. She was leaning her humped back against the ring of stones and bracing her crooked leg along the ground. In truth, she looked more like a pile of plum-colored rags than an old woman.
When Anna drew near, Zahra’s hand shot from between the folds of her robe. She grabbed the girl and pulled her close. “What would he not eat today?” she cackled, her voice dry and graveled, like the grit left in windowsills after a sandstorm.
“Goat cheese,” Anna answered. She held up the bowl.
Zahra’s eyes focused intently on the food.
“But it is unclean,” Anna said. “It fell on the floor.”
Zahra smiled. Her pale gray eyes gleamed with a wolfish light. “Given where goat cheese comes from, your grandfather’s floor is the cleanest place it has been!” She chuckled and lifted the bowl to her lips.
Anna giggled at the old woman’s foolishness.
A farmer approached, hurrying toward the groves. As he passed, he spat into the folds of Zahra’s robe. She continued to eat, accustomed to the insult. Many of the villagers disliked the old woman. They said she was a heathen who spoke to animals and disparaged the Lord.
But if Zahra were so evil, Anna wondered, why did everyone call on her whenever someone was ill?
She remembered the day her neighbor, Daniel, had laid on his mat unable to breathe. When the priest who often visited their village could not restore the boy, Daniel’s father had called for Zahra. The old woman had shown up immediately, as if she had smelled illness on the wind. With strong, wrinkled hands, she had spread a minty balm across the boy’s chest and pressed her fingers into the narrow canals between his ribs. As she worked, she had spoken to him in a soft voice, asking questions and letting him speak.
Within hours Daniel was back outside playing with his friends.
Daniel’s father had run through the streets shouting thanks to the Lord for the miracle. He later slaughtered a goat in gratitude. But to Zahra he offered no recompense, as if her efforts had played no role in the resuscitation of his son.
Unlike most of the other villagers, Anna was fond of the old woman. She especially admired the way Zahra could imitate birdsongs--so true were her calls that the creatures would flock around her! Whenever they could find a secret moment, away from the villagers’ prying eyes, Zahra would help Anna learn to emulate the songs of wheatears, bee-eaters, tree creepers, ravens, and doves. Still, no matter how much she practiced, Anna could not lure the birds into responding as Zahra could.
The old woman swallowed the last of the cheese and lifted her face toward the sun. “Thank you, Great Mother,” she whispered.
Anna often heard Zahra speaking to her mother, which she thought odd since her mother could certainly no longer be living. But when Anna asked her about it, the old woman would only shake her head and say, “Knowledge given too early can be more deadly than poison.”
Fearing that she had been away too long, Anna looked back toward her house to see if her mother had come outside. When she turned, the sun’s rays glinted across her face.
The old woman gasped, then marveled, as she always did, at how Anna’s green eyes glimmered like rare jewels. How the masculine line of her jaw, set wide and solid, stood like bedrock beneath coppery cheeks. How the cascade of black curls spilled to her shoulders. How her lips swelled with the curves and fullness of fruit.
“Blessings be, you are a handsome child!” she said.
Anna’s chest puffed at the compliment. “That is what Mother says.”
“Your mother . . .” Zahra whispered, thoughtfully. “How is she?”
“She is weighed down like a camel with too big a load,” Anna replied.
The old woman chuckled. “You are as clever as you are handsome.” She gave Anna a gentle tap under her chin. Lowered her voice. “But we must pray that the child in your mother’s belly is even more handsome than you,” she said. “Otherwise, there will be much trouble in your house.” She winced at the thought. Then waved her hand as if to shoo a goat. “Go home,” she advised. “Your mother needs you.”
Anna pecked a kiss on each of the old woman’s cheeks and darted for home, kicking up a cloud behind her. Zahra remained still, thinking as the dust settled. She knew the child was special. She had read it across the stars at the hour of her birth. She had also foreseen that the girl’s destiny would somehow entwine with that of The Way, though she could not yet perceive how.
Zahra had therefore not been surprised when Anna’s mother had approached her, secretly, behind the great sycamore, to request that her daughter be taken to study the old ways.
“It is in her blood,” Anna’s mother had said. “Just as it was in my sister’s.” She gazed into the distant fields. Her eyes reddening. “But if you do not take her, Anna’s life will unfold without purpose or honor. And she will wind up as miserable as--” She choked on her last words, unable to say more.
Having known Anna’s mother since she was a child, Zahra had understood and agreed to fulfill the request--but only after Anna had matured enough to endure the hazardous journey. The delay, she had said, would enable her to arrange for the girl’s transport, which, given the tragic losses they had recently suffered, required extraordinary care.
Until then, Zahra promised she would watch over the child and do all she could to protect her. Just as she had once promised to safeguard the child’s mother.
As she remembered these things, the old woman closed her eyes. Knowing that her efforts would involve great risk, she asked for strength to fulfill her duty and, even more urgently, for time.
Anna peered around the hide hanging in the doorway of her house. Finding the front room empty, she snuck inside and busied herself tending the fire. Moments later, her mother slipped through the partition of goatskins that walled off her private living area. She had changed into a fresh blue robe.
Anna kept her eyes low, staring at the hem of her garment.
“Where have you been?” her mother asked.
“At Grandfather’s,” Anna said. “He threw cheese at me.”
Her mother tossed her a skeptical look. “And did you let the cheese go to waste?”
Anna shook her head. “Zahra ate it.”
Before she could hide it, a smile of approval swept across her mother’s face. Then, just as quickly, it disappeared. “Your father will be here soon,” she said. “See if the bread is ready.”
Anna went to the flat rock nestled in the coals. A thin disk of bread was baking, curling brown at the edges. She lifted it from the heat and set it on a linen cloth.
Her mother knelt slowly, negotiating her considerable weight.
Anna marveled at how big her belly had grown. “Mother,” she asked, “how will the baby get out?”
“He will find a secret passageway. Just like you did, my little dove.”
Anna nestled close to her mother, bending until she could lay her head in her lap. Gazing up, she relished her beauty--her dark eyes flecked with hints of olive, her long onyx curls framing cinnamon-dusted cheeks, her neck curving gently as a wheat stalk, her lean limbs rippling with the strength of sycamore branches.
Anna’s father called her Mari, though the women who gathered at the well once a week to wash sleeping mats had said that was not her real name. Hiding in the bushes behind the gossiping women, as she often did, Anna had also heard them whisper that her mother came from a distant land, far to the south. Which explained, they said, why her face bore the fuller features of the desert dwellers and why her words sometimes rose on a musical curl.
Mari began to hum as she smoothed her daughter’s hair. Anna loved to listen to her mother’s songs. The melodies were simple yet uplifting. And though Mari was careful not to enunciate the words, sometimes a phrase or two would slip from her lips and Anna would hear, “Queen of Heaven around us,” or “Bless the earth that is to be blessed.” She noticed, too, that her mother would never hum such songs when her father was near. Since she had never heard anyone else singing the particular melodies, Anna came to believe that the songs were special, and something her mother shared only with her.