Acres of agriculture and pens of livestock sat in the balance. Papa had left behind land, servants, and storage barns. Our wealth contributed to most of Bethany’s families’ income. Our village was known for dates, woolens, and the shrewd trading of every commodity on earth that passed by on its way into the city markets. There was nothing we could not secure if we needed it. Our generations had lived in Bethany since Jerusalem had been won by King David himself. Descending from the tribe of Dan and mingled with the tribe of Judah, our family was respected, wealthy, and – thanks to Mama – known for hospitality and healing.
I wondered what Mama’s remedy for this day would have been.
Our family required a leader.
“Unnecessary,” replied Talmai, “There is a next of kin willing to move here and raise children up in Shimon’s name.”
My tunic stopped moving. My hands froze in my lap. Yes, I was fourteen, but Papa had not arranged my betrothal. When Mama died two years ago, I had told Papa on the spot that I was never going to marry, but stay here with him and sit on Mama’s cushion and take care of him always. Perhaps he had agreed. Perhaps he was simply too sad to think about it. Papa, I need you!
“Indeed, if your wish is for a marriage, it can easily be arranged with one of our eligible men,” said Reuel. “The daughters can maintain the estate until the son is bar mitzvah.”
I knew exactly who they each were proposing, and my choice of husband had just landed between an olive oil maker and a tentmaker.
I reached over and took a big drink from my wine cup. Liam, a son in the olive harvester’s family, was only two years older than myself and Uri the tentmaker was a wizened old goat. My dowry would be substantial if Talmai allowed Reuel to marry me into the village and away from my family line. But if Talmai kept me for his tentmaker, then Uri would move in and take over the property, placing it under the family protection.
I snuck a glance at Uri. He was definitely an old goat.
A smug old goat, considering his fancy new options. This was a much bigger proposition than their village in Dan. Bethany sat as near to holy ground as you could get. Uri would be rich. Cosmopolitan. In the center of things. And through Uri, the village wealth would funnel north and stay there.
Talmai was no fool. If our estate integrated with the village through a marriage dowry, then it would be impossible to distinguish one shekel from the other. He was not going to fight Reuel or a child for what rightfully belonged to his clan, nor could he be sure that accurate records would be presented to him twice a year. He was not going to leave himself unrepresented.
“The concern is for the elder only. The other children will return with us to Dan until they are of age.”
Reuel paused, stroking his long black beard, looking for a loophole.
Miri has always been the village favorite. Everyone wanted her to stay here and several volunteered at once for guardianship from the crowd. “As you can see,” said Reuel, “the family is precious to us. We would be honored to preserve the estate in their name.”
Talmai’s voice grew hard as he said, “Mariamne will be betrothed as well, and must certainly move to Zorah for those arrangements.”
“Miri’s place is among her people,” began Reuel.
“The child’s people are in Zorah,” interrupted Talmai, “at the foot of the blessed Mt Hermon.”
“The joke’s on them,” I thought, and immediately reprimanded myself. Miri was a butterfly. She daydreamed and flitted around the village and had her finger in everyone’s pot. She made friends with everyone, even sour old Salome, if you call that a good thing. I couldn’t imagine her the wife of anyone, let alone running a house. “Although,” I told myself, “they don’t have big expectations in Dan.” In the wild north, women birthed sons and kept out of the way. Anything else was pointless.
“The children and their nurse will prepare to travel back with us immediately. Martha is to accept the hand of Uri ben Jonas and arrangements made for a wedding before the new wine festival. They will care for the property until such a time as Lazarus is old enough to return and claim it and continue the family tree in Bethany.”
And then I would move to Dan with my bleating husband. And twelve kids.
Miri and I weren’t threats. Maybe we were complications. But in the hands of men, we were pawns.
“And how would this be appropriate?” demanded Reuel, “How would our village business be mastered by a tentmaker? What does a desert dweller know of international trade? Can an outlander be content sitting in the city gates? Who among your entire clan can count the date harvest and set its time by the moon?”
More importantly, I thought, what did he know of hospitality and kindness? Tradition and festivals? Uri would have nothing to do with that. He would focus on making as much income as possible and as many babies as possible. In ten years time, Lazarus would be the master of nothing.
I inhaled sharply and glanced at Lazarus. His head snuggled into Miri’s arm and added his damp perspiration to hers. Did anyone understand about Lazarus?
“I can,” said a small voice. Everyone looked at me. A gasp escaped Zibiah’s mouth. Miri startled and then patted Lazarus on the back. Had I spoken aloud? Women do not speak at these gatherings. I squared my shoulders and looked Reuel in the eye. “I can,” I insisted.