Alexandria – The Hidden Text

Hearing footsteps in the hallway, Mariamne quickly rolled up the scroll she was reading and slid it behind a cushion on the divan – but not quickly enough. Fortunately it was her sister Arsinoë, laughing as she came in, her sandals slapping on the pink and black marble checked floor.
“What are you reading?”
“Don’t tell Father. Sappho.”
“Why would he mind? When he’s not reading Torah he’s reading Plato.”
“Because of Hathor.”
“The goddess?”
“Don’t be silly. Hathor down the street. Mother told me that I have to stop spending time with her. That people are talking.”
“People always talk, but no one talks as much as Mother.”
Arsinoë, two years younger than her sister, sat beside her on the divan, and the two of them began to laugh.
“Mother is so old fashioned,” younger sister said to older.
“She’s from Jerusalem, not from here. What do you expect? She grew up on Hebrew and Torah and hasn’t been able to get beyond them.”“He may be strict at times, but at least Father is modern. I’d die if we had to live in Jerusalem.”
“I agree. Whenever we go there to visit, I can’t wait to get back. Alexandria is the center of the world, and Jerusalem . . .”
“Is filled with boring people and boring prayers, and the smoke of burned-up animals is always blowing in your eyes.”
“Mother would go berserk if she heard you.”
“Mother tells strangers in the market that her brother is the high priest. Like anyone cares.”
“Here, not even the Jews care.”
“So read me what you were reading.”
Mariamne slipped her hand behind the cushion and pulled out the small parchment scroll.
“This one’s from a series of ten poems Sappho wrote about one of her rivals.”
Unshackled, she comes toward me in the marketplace.
“Darling,” she says, “it’s been so long that you
once obsidian shiny bright
have bested yourself and
become the night sky streaked with shooting stars.
I turn to her, smiling, shoulder weighted down by . . .
“I don’t understand it.”
“Of course you do. Last week I read you another poem about her rival. Don’t you remember her name?”
Arsinoë looked down at the floor.
“Her name was the same as the woman we read about with Father, from one of the Greek stories. The one who was chained to a rock. Andromeda.”
“So that’s what ‘Unshackled’ means. But what about the obsidian?”
“Think about it, Arsi. What color is obsidian?”
“Black.”
“Once obsidian shiny bright, you have bested yourself and become . . .”
“I get it! She’s saying, ‘Sappho, you’re hair is turning gray.”
“Exactly!”
“That’s way better than the Psalms. Father has me memorizing them again. I can understand his insistence that there’s only one god, but if it were up to me, I would have chosen Isis.”
“Or Hathor!”
“You and your Hathor.”
“You told me you thought she was pretty.”
“I do. But she’s not very smart.”
“What do I need a smart girlfriend for, when I have a brilliant sister?”
“Because we’re going to be married off to rich men who will swell us up with babies, year after year, for their greater glory.”
“I refuse to allow myself to be married off like a slave girl.”
“You’re descended from a long line of priests, you’re the niece of the high priest, and your Uncle Philo is a famous philosopher. So you’ll be married off like Queen Esther. And no one will ask you what you want. But if you’re lucky, Father will sneak you copies of Plato and Aristotle, but even he won’t dare to bring you Sappho. And that’s the only freedom you’ll get. And you know that as well as I do, my dear big sister.”
“Arsinoë, I can’t believe you. We’re living in modern times. This isn’t our mother’s generation. And nobody is going to marry us off.”
“Come on, Mariamne. They’ve been trying for years. And we can’t keep putting them off. As Father says, we’re not getting any younger. And they’ve got it all planned out. I heard Mother talking about it with Aunt Leah. You are going to fat cousin Alexander Judah, and I am going to Julius the dimwitted son of the priest in that silly fake temple in Leontopolis.”
“No, I am going to run off to one of those Essene communities in the desert, where the women all live freely.”
“And celibate!”
“How do you know that?”
“I read it in Uncle Philo’s new book.”
“Well Hathor and I haven’t gone all the way yet, but . . .”
“You only like Hathor because she’s not Jewish.”
“I liked Shulamit!”
“That’s because Rachel told you how good she kisses.”
“If Mother and Father could hear us now.”
“They would die.”
“It’s a good thing that Salome and Hyrcanus and Jonathan all have kids. They can’t pin all of that grandchildren stuff on us.”
“What’s the chance of one family having two daughters who like girls?”
“You know what our wonderful uncle says – ‘It’s a Greek affliction. Our girls don’t have it.’”
“That’s because he always has his nose buried in some book. Otherwise he’d know that it was his own lovely daughter Rachel who corrupted both of us.”
“Thank God!”
“Which one? Adonai? Elohim? El Shaddai?”
“Yours and my favorite – El Isis.”
“But do you think that there will ever be a Jewish Sappho?”
“There must have been, and there will be again – if you keep writing!”
“Well, we’ve put off getting married for this long. Maybe we can keep going.”
“Boys have it so easy. Jonathan had sex with Simeon every afternoon for years, and no one said a thing.”
“That’s because boys can whip it out in a corner and get off so fast that no one notices.”
“But in the end the parents still married him off to that annoying Bernice.”
“Well I supposed marriage is better than being a virgin priestess.”
“I think virgin just means not being with men. Those priestesses are probably making it with each other all the time. You’ve seen them, on holidays when they parade through the city. No one could look that happy and be a middle-aged virgin.”
“It’s the drugs they do.”
“It’s the hot new girls they recruit.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Read me another one of those poems.”
“Here’s one of my favorites. It’s way better than that Song of Songs Father likes to read to us on Shabbat.”
The way your shawl falls over your shoulder
Andromeda
like water over the rocks of a descending stream
here clinging to your body
there concealing it
here covering your breasts
there baring your lovely throat
so beautiful that
for a moment
I forget everything and think
Amphitrite or one of her Nereids
has come to sit beside me
for a while
her fragrance
scenting the air
then I remember Atthis
and how you took her from me
and the hand
that began to open to yours
like a crocus
moves slowly toward your
swan-like throat
“What if Huldah the Prophetess wrote things like that, but the priests and prophets threw them out?”
“Maybe someday someone will find them buried in an old trash heap.”
“That’s how life is. The beautiful and the sordid pressed together.”
“Don’t remind me of Cleo.”
“In the beginning you liked her sordidness.”
“I guess I have limits. I am, after all, a nice Jewish girl.”
“There. You said it. Some things cannot be gotten away from. And the parents would be so happy to hear you say that.”
“Speaking of which . . .” they both turn toward the sound of footsteps in the hall. Mariamne slips the scroll back behind her sister.
“Mother! We were just talking about how glad we are that we’re Jewish.”
“Of course you’re glad, girls. Your uncle is the high priest. Your grandfather was the high priest. And even though we don’t live in Jerusalem, we belong to the Diploston Synagogue, the largest one in the entire world. What’s not to feel glad about?”
Arsinoë turns to her sister and rolls up her eyes.
“Not being a high priestess?”
Their mother froze in the doorway, horrified. “Our people don’t have priestesses.”
Mariamne cut her off. “What’s for dinner, Mother?”
“I invited your cousin Julius. He’s in town for the week.”
“Mother, have you ever read Sappho?” Arsinoë asked her.
“Of course not! Sappho is forbidden.”
“And have you ever eaten pork?”
“Never.”
“Shrimp, or crab?”
“Not even the night your father and I were invited to the palace by the queen.”
“They say she’s lovely.”
“Like a goddess.”
“Now you sound like Sappho, Mother,” Mariamne replied.
“My father would die if he heard you talking.”
“Your father is dead.”
“You know what I mean.”
“And you know what we mean,” Arsinoë added. “We’re Jews of the future. We don’t sacrifice animals to our God. We pray, in a brand new synagogue that’s so big that
someone has to stand in the middle of the prayer hall to signal the people in back with cute little flags when it’s time to say Amen. ”
Their mother looked back and forth, from daughter to daughter, not sure if what her youngest one just said to her was said in jest. But Arsinoë looked up at her with big dark earnest eyes. “All right, dear. Read me some Sappho. Just don’t tell your father.”
Mariamne once again pulls the scroll out from behind the cushion.
Tonight
the moon is lying on the horizon
on her side
and I remember the night you lay beside me
on your side
running your fingertips over my facereciting Homer
“Your Father loves Homer. He says it’s just like reading the Torah.”
“That’s what it’s all about, Mother. Loving with all our heart.”
“Is that from Sappho?”
“No, it’s from the verses we recite right after the Shema.”
“Then I suppose it’s all right. Read me some more of this Sappho. I like it.”