A Harlot's Tale
By Nishoni Harvey
Mountain goats bounded through the field, their tan coats shimmering in the hot sun. Some of the males sported horns that were longer than they were tall. Their movements seemed majestic and peaceful. Their bleats fell softly on Rahab’s ears. Oh! To be a goat and be able to bound away from my troubles!
The fields were full of wildflowers. A beautiful sea of purples, yellows, and blues. The gentle wind blew across them in waves carrying with it their wondrous scent. It had a hypnotic effect on Rahab, reminding her of everything good, pure and right.
She was drawn from her reverie by ear-piercing screams. A chill swept across her as she jerked her head toward the sound. Running as quickly as she could in the tall grass and flowers, she neared the old gnarled tree, tall from age and permanently bent and distorted from the winds and periodic lightning strikes, to where her frantic seven-year-old sister stood. Maybe a snake? As she rushed closer, she saw her baby brother, short for his age, lying on the hard ground holding his leg. Why wasn’t I paying more attention?
“What happened, Emma?”
“Aliyan was climbing the tree and fell. I told him not to!” Her voice was quick and spastic.
Kneeling lightly beside Aliyan, Rahab looked over his little body. Five years old is awfully young to break a leg, and it’s all my fault!
“Aliyan, can you move your leg?”
Big tears stained his flushed cheeks, causing a shimmer on his black skin. His breath came in short gasps as he slowly recovered from his crying. He nodded his head quietly. “Yes. Yes, I think so. It feels better now.” He gingerly moved his leg back and forth, testing it.
“What happened, Aliyan?” Rahab was trying to sound firm but knew she was failing. She caressed his head, running her fingers through his hair in a comforting gesture.
He looked down, picking at the grass beside him.
“I—I was climbing in the tree. I was climbing and fell.” He continued to pick at the grass, refusing to look up.
“Aliyan! You know you’re not allowed in the trees!” Searching his face, her demeanor softened. “I suppose I could let it go this time. Don’t let it happen again.”
“Thank you, Rahab!” He enthusiastically threw his slender arms around her neck and then tottered off to play.
Rahab walked slowly back to her work. She felt the warm sun upon her back as its rays gently caressed her sore muscles. She’d been harvesting flowers, many of their seeds edible, apples, olives and medicinal herbs, like Queen Ann’s Lace, since late morning. Now her body was feeling it. Of course, having her 18-month-old sister, Bilba, strapped to her back didn’t help either.
Rahab glanced at her three younger siblings again. If only I had that much energy! They were all eagerly gathering flowers “to make home pretty” and had been for as long as she’d been gathering food and herbs to add to their meager supply.
Jericho had two walls, a strong outer wall and a taller, much thicker inner wall. This offered Jericho two defenses against outside attacks. Rahab and the children usually stayed between the walls of Jericho, but Rahab had decided they’d travel outside the outer rim of the city today. She knew a change in scenery would be good for everyone.
She gazed compassionately at Hagdad, who looked almost like an exact duplicate of Rahab. She was flustered as she attempted to direct the children in an effort to keep them together. She had just turned thirteen years old, making her almost two years younger than Rahab. Her hair, dark as a moonless night, laid long down her back. It was the same color as her dark skin, which was a little darker than Rahab’s. Her kinky locks were woven into many small braids, which was how most Jericho women and girls wore their hair. Her dark eyes and thick lashes made her eyes look too large for her face. She had long bony fingers and pointy elbows like Rahab did. She, like Rahab, looked too skinny with a waist that was too thin and a chest that was too large.
Rahab’s mother loved to point out that the only difference between the two girls was in their facial features. Where Rahab had full, lush lips, perfect teeth, and rounded cheeks, Hagdad had pencil thin lips and a face that was marred with acne.
Their personalities were also complete opposites. Rahab was mature and responsible—the result of “playing Mama” for so many years. Hagdad, on the other hand, was whimsical and carefree.
The wonderful scent of wildflowers drew Rahab’s attention back to her task. A white fluffy cloud, one of the only a few in the bright blue sky, floated slowly across the sun, cooling Rahab a bit. She shivered, amazed at the quick change in temperature, but then it was that time of year—early Summer. It had always amazed her how the temperature could change so drastically from moment to moment—boiling hot one second and so cool the next. She stood upright and looked around in appreciation for all Astarte had given them in creating such a beautiful world.
The song of six of her neighbors wafted toward her as they worked hard harvesting flax in the next field. Although she was thankful for the many healing capabilities it had, the food it provided, and for the fibers that were extracted to make the cloth for clothes, she still hated to see the beautiful blue flowers on the flax disappear as it was cut down for harvesting.
She gazed at the many palm trees, which cast so much cooling shade in the middle of the hot summer.
A bird flew overhead. She heard another, sitting in a nearby tree and singing its pretty song.
In the distance, men drew water from a spring for their cattle grazing nearby. There were many springs spread around the city, inside and outside the walls. They provided a certain beauty and supplied cool, clear water. The springs attracted many people of many different origins and colors to the city as they traveled through the land.
She didn’t care for the strangers who came through Jericho. Strangers made her nervous. Most of them were good people, and she was told the money they spent was the majority of the income for many small businesses. Even her father’s small fish shop profited well from the many strangers in the land. But some travelers were evil men who would kill, rape, or plunder at any opportunity.
Rahab hated going through the alleys or around corners that hid her from the view of the crowds and tried to avoid being alone at any cost. She often took longer routes and harder roads to avoid making herself vulnerable. She didn’t mind the marketplace since there were lots of people there—not necessarily people to protect her, but people who would witness against anyone who committed a crime. Most people, even the worst people, wouldn’t try to hurt someone in a crowd.
She had heard of a young woman that had taken a shortcut through a dark alley in an attempt to make an appointment on time. She had been attacked by a group of drunken men. They had beaten her badly in just a few minutes. She was able to break free and rush toward the crowded streets. The group of men stayed hidden in the dark alley, away from the streets, and she had been spared by her wise move.
Other than the danger some of the strangers posed, Rahab loved Jericho—her Jericho. The small city was so engrossed in and encompassed by the worship of Astarte, the moon goddess, that the city, whose name meant “Moon”, was named in honor of the goddess. Jericho was the center of the worship of Astarte, and everything Astarte commanded was practiced in the city. The people of Jericho gave themselves wholly to Astarte unlike other lands around them. Yes, she loved her Jericho.
She smelled fires being started to prepare the evening meal. Fires! Supper! Late again! Time had always been her archenemy. Whether she was washing her long and kinky jet-black hair, oiling her body until her dark-colored skin shone brightly, doing one of her many chores, or just loafing around doing nothing, time always eluded her. Today was no different.
“Aliyan! Emma! Hagdad! Bilba!” Dummy. Bilba’s on my back. “Let’s go!” The setting sun was beginning to redden the sky. Oh! I’m in so much trouble! She knew that when she returned home she’d receive the wrath of her domineering father. Again.
Jericho always seemed to loom over her whenever she entered the city. It always made her feel so small. At the same time, the immensity of the tall, thick walls awed her and made her feel safe and secure. Nothing could ever get through those walls—ever.
Walking through the tall wooden gates, which would be closing as soon as darkness fell completely, she looked at the majestically clad guards. She always appreciated the fact that they were there to keep her and her family safe. She loved their flashy attire and the rigidity of their stance. The only thing she disliked was the fact that they smelled horrible, like a mixture of dust, sweat, and horse.
Inside the walls, the city bustled with activity. People rushed to and fro, some searching for last-minute buys, some looking for yet another night of pleasure, and some rushing to get home before darkness fell. The heavy dust flooding the air filled her nose, almost choking her, as people pushed their way through the crowded streets and past her little group. Why did they have to put the marketplace so close to the city gates? The smell of food cooking inside the many homes made her stomach rumble. She heard pounding hooves, people shouting, and the rumble of chariot wheels, the sounds of yet another race being run on the top of the city walls.
On the side of the street sat the old lady who was always there—day in and day out—selling apples. Rahab didn’t know her name but called her, as everyone else did, “the apple lady”. She was kind to the apple lady, and, in return, the apple lady had always been kind to her. She would always remember something the apple lady had once said to her: “Take life by the horns, girl! You can have anything you want. You just have to work for it. Decide what you want, set a plan in motion, and don’t quit until you get it!”
There was only one thing Rahab wanted. She wanted to live like the apple lady. Not selling apples in the marketplace, but she wanted to live free. Free of men and their tyranny. The apple lady stood up for herself. She was her own boss and took orders from no one. She took care of herself without the help of any man. If all men were like her father, and she believed they were, Rahab didn’t want anything to do with any man. That especially included marriage, but she knew it would happen—eventually. Every woman in Jericho was condemned to marriage by the age of sixteen. Stupid traditions.
Rahab heard cows mooing, goats and sheep bleating, and pigs grunting. She couldn’t see them, but she could hear and smell them. She wondered who would buy such disgusting creatures unless it was to butcher them immediately to provide meat for their family. The animals in the marketplace were covered in all kinds of nasty filth.
The light of the rising moon drew her attention. Astarte was happy tonight. She showed it by giving the blessing of a full and bright moon. Centered in front of the moon, outlined in its soft, white light, was a large, beautiful house. The house Rahab dreamed of owning one day. The most beautiful house on the top of the city walls. The dream that would never come true.
Remembering the apple lady’s words, “You can have anything you want. You just have to work for it. Decide what you want, set a plan in motion, and don’t quit until you get it”, she rethought her “never” statement. Why shouldn’t she be able to own that house? She could work as hard to achieve her dreams as anyone else!
The house was made of mud bricks, just like every other house in the city, but it was different. The house was so old that the merciless sun had slowly faded the color of the bricks, making it very unique. The house was bigger and the walls taller than any other house in the city, at least in the parts of the city that Rahab knew. The windows were round instead of the normal square windows of the city. The roof had different levels making it look like many smaller houses had been built to touch one another and were joined to make one house. She loved the old house. She’d heard many people admire it. I’m going to own that house. One day, that house will be mine.
Rounding a corner, she and her siblings came upon a man and woman shamelessly sporting in the street. He had his hands all over her as they kissed passionately. Surely they realized she and the children were there, but they continued on anyway. Stupid men. Always taking advantage of women. Taking advantage of every opportunity. Stupid harlots. They’re just as bad. What brings a woman to such a low place where she so freely and unashamedly offers herself to men? Men. Pigs.
Most harlots chose the dark alleys or inns to conduct their business in, another reason she avoided alleys, but this one unashamedly did it right out in the open. In front of everyone.
Corralling her siblings, she rushed them past the scene as quickly as she could, but not quickly enough. The damage had already been done. They had seen the disgusting display and had many questions, questions they asked in innocence.
Aliyan, who was clinging tightly to her hand, looked up at her, a complex look on his face. “Rahab, what were they doing?”
“They were being bad.”
“But, why, Rahab?”
“Because some people like to be bad.”
Emma, who had been sheltered from the degradation for seven years, took a deep breath. “Why were they touching each other so?”
“Because that’s what some bad people do.”
“Rahab,” Emma said to her, brow wrinkled. “I don’t understand.”
Rahab was getting more and more disgusted with what her siblings, her babies, had seen. Having raised the last three from birth, she’d kept them from seeing such filth. Until tonight. “Enough questions, she said firmly. “Let’s not talk about bad people and bad things anymore. Let’s think about good things, like the beautiful moon Astarte has blessed us with tonight.”
She saw her home in the distance. She couldn’t see the mud bricks very well due to the darkness that had enveloped her and the children, but she knew what her home looked like by memory. The people who had built the house had done a rushed and poor job, so there were many chips in the bricks and places where whole chunks had fallen off. The house was still sturdy and strong, though unsightly.
Through the open windows, she could already hear her father yelling. She grimaced at what was to come. This isn’t going to be pretty. The moon had crept higher into the sky, long past time for her to be home. The yelling quieted inside. Great! He’s seen me coming and is already planning what hateful words to use first.
Leaning against the wall of the mud brick house, Rahab took a deep breath and tried to calm her nerves. She didn’t understand her reaction since she was usually so callous and unshakable when it came to her father’s verbal abuse. She was usually so strong. She had to be for the children. If she didn’t, who would be? No one. Not her mother. Not anyone else. No one. She had to be strong.
He used to be a wonderful father when she was a small child, but over the years he had become more hostile and controlling. One close call with the business. He’d almost lost losing several years ago. Very close to losing everything he had. His heart. His pride. His life. He came so close to the worst loss he could imagine, and it changed him. It made him the way he was now. As he grew more tyrannical, she grew more stubborn and rebellious toward him.
“Children, stay out here until I tell you to come in.” Rahab desperately hoped they would listen. They usually did. She took a sleeping Bilba off her back and handed her to Hagdad. “Careful with her. Try not to wake her.”
As soon as she came through the door, Rahab knew something was amiss. She couldn’t place her finger on it, but something wasn’t right. Her mother was slumped in a light colored wooden chair at the large table, her face buried in her work-worn hands. Normally, her father’s tirades pushed her mother into uncontrollable crying. Then she would retreat to the corner by the window—her corner, which she sat in often, blocking out pain, the world, and consequently, her children.
Her father was pacing, his hands clutched behind his back and his head bent forward like he was searching the floor. His normal behavior after a tirade was to storm out of the house in a fit of rage, screaming obscenities as he went. No, something was wrong—very wrong.
“Mother? Father?” Rahab took a shaky, deep breath to steady her nerves. Has someone died? No, that doesn’t explain the fit of fury. The fire in the hearth had been allowed to burn down to grey coals, and dinner wasn’t even started. Odd. Mother never lets the fire go out… even on the hottest of days, and dinner is always on time. She took another deep breath as her eyes darted back and forth between her parents, who now stared at her. Sorrow—or regret—was etched upon their faces, neither daring to look her in the eye. This wasn’t about her being so late. This was about something else. What had she done?
Rahab winced at the deep bruises on her mother’s face. The latest abuse, no doubt. “What’s wrong?” She feared the worst. As she stumbled over the simple phrase, her words caught in her throat, her voice sounding high-pitched and quivering to her ears.
Her mother slowly rose from her seat and dragged herself off to her corner, her retreat in every emotional crisis. She turned her face from Rahab and stared through the open window at the silhouettes of other people’s happy homes.
Rahab slowly shifted her gaze to her father, hoping that he’d be more help. “Father?” her voice cracked.
“Well…” He paused to clear his throat. She’d never seen him act this way before. He was always so in control. Today, he seemed almost nervous. This worried Rahab even more. Was it truly nervousness she saw or was he trying too hard to act and cover something up? Something. But what? He shifted his gaze around, looking everywhere but at her.
“You’re getting married next Saturday,” her father said; as he said it, his eyes traveled to her face, gauging her reaction.
She felt the floor shift beneath her as her world came to a sudden stop. Married? What? She’d thought she had at least thirteen more months before marriage would be forced upon her. Women weren’t required to marry until sixteen.
Rahab took a step forward so she could grasp the back of the closest chair for stability. She looked back up at her father. His façade was starting to fall apart. He was smiling, only a hint of a smile, small, yet noticeable. It had all been a ploy! The nervous pacing, the look of concern and worry, all of it! She’d thought, for just a moment, that he was truly sorry, that he really felt for her, just this once. She was wrong. It was just a game to him—another of his twisted, demented games. Of course. Controlling monster.
An evil smile spread across his face. He crossed his arms in front of him and puffed out his chest. He took a big step toward her as his eyes narrowed and his smile deepened. “You’re marrying Yassib.”
The name hit her like a ton of bricks. Her world began to spin. No. She wouldn’t let him win. She’d stay on her feet and even appear collected.
She knew well why he’d placed emphasis upon the name. Yassib was a self-serving pig, and everyone knew it. He’d had it in for Rahab since they’d first met in the marketplace three years ago. That was the day she’d smashed an over-ripe mango in his face for calling her a scrawny no-good. Only Astarte knew what he’d do to her once he had her legally under his control, when he had her in a place where he could do anything he wanted.
“No!” She spat vehemently, regaining her composure. “No, I won’t do it!”
She looked defiantly at her father, her dark eyes narrowed and her head held high. She removed her hands from the back of the chair, stood to her full height of five feet six inches, and pursed her lips together, daring him to make her. She knew he would expect rebellion from her. She’d always stood up to him. She was the only one who dared try. Maybe this was how he planned to finally put her in her place and show her who was boss.
A full smile spread across his lips, a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. It was the smile he used when he knew he had you exactly where he wanted you—under his control. Monster.
“Well now,” he said, his voice was sickeningly sweet. “I don’t see as you have any choice.”
He was right. She didn’t have a choice. Not yet. Surely there was a way out. She just had to find it. She had to. She’d find a way out if it killed her.
“You’d better get your little self up to the temple,” her father said, “and await your turn to serve Astarte.” Every woman was required to freely offer her body to be used once for one man’s pleasure before she was allowed to marry.
The temple! Yes! That might be it! Someone would have to choose her over the hundreds of other women sitting in the courtyard before she’d be eligible to marry Yassib. Some women sat in the courtyard every day for years before they were chosen. Maybe she would get lucky. She wasn’t the most beautiful girl in Jericho. She was too skinny..