by Terrie Petree
The blood from my lips made a pretty smear on my palm. Pain and a bitter taste filled my head. The man on my right jerked me upward. Blood ran from my mouth and pooled on the golden kethoneth the weaver made. Vibrant on the pale linen, the red spittle was better than sumac. Blood was a color I had not yet worn.
A woman set her basket down and threw a stone. It struck above my ear. More blood flowed. The blow spun me blind and muted the shouted accusations and the scraping of my sandals across the stones. It silenced my agony. I leaned into the men dragging me, too dizzy to control my feet. Blackness spread into my eyes, and the past showed itself in my mind like a vision.
Before Yosef, I wore the color of animals. There was no purple or red or saffron or gold. I lived in the dirt and saw only the colors that feet touched. The day the spice seller took a wrong turn and then another wrong turn, he came down our alley desperate to extricate himself from the backstreets of the city. His sandals were worn but made from enough leather to cover his feet. Sitting in the doorway, my eyes followed the fading trace of a golden vine that twisted over the toe leather and around his ankle. I looked up to see what kind of man paid for embellished shoes. What I saw beside him brought me to standing. Leaning forward, I stared into his cart.
They sat side by side in little clay bowls. Red powders, yellows, oranges, blacks and greys. There was even a light purple. I didn’t know the names of those bold colors and except for occasional glimpses of roof-framed twilight sky, I didn’t know that such majesties could exist, let alone descend from the heavens to reach me on the ground.
The man lifted me away from his cart by putting his bent forefinger under my chin. “Have you never seen a spice cart before?”
“It is wonderful,” I said.
“This is nothing. These are the most expensive spices, yes, but it is not even a quarter of what I sell. These I take to exclusive buyers. Today I am to see a new customer, but I got lost. That is why I must speak with your father. Please, girl, don’t dawdle.”
“I have no father,” I said.
“Every child has a father.”
“Not here,” I said, indicating the alley. I had seen how children came to be, but I didn’t dare tell the spice seller that while every child was made by man, not every child had a father. The old woman who lived at the front of the alley told me it was a sin for women to do what they did if the men were not their husbands. I told her that I would do it as soon as I had the chance if it put food in my mouth.
The spice seller licked his finger. He wiped my brow and cheeks. “Your eyes are blue fire. Most exotic. You would do very well in the house of my best client. Like you, he loves color. He is a collector of birds so rare and brilliant that my spice cart looks like the dung heap next to them. He is a man of high honor, and he is in need of…” The man looked up and down the alley until his eyes glimpsed the roadway visible at the far end. “A girl,” he said over his shoulder, finishing his thought as he hurried away.
The next day, the spice seller returned with something more wonderful. His name was Yosef. His kethoneth was purple with fine yellow lines and his simlah was also yellow, but brighter, almost orange. His robes were so long that I could not see his sandals.
Arrangements were made. I left the alley and lived as his wife’s serving girl. She was a madwoman who spent her days weaving linen in a room off the courtyard. I rarely saw and never served her. I played with Yosef’s birds, ate dates, wore the fine clothes Yosef’s wife created for me and bathed as often as I liked by immersing my whole body in warm myrrh water. During the day, when the Pharisees came with their scribes, I kept out of the way and practiced the letters and numbers Yosef taught me. At night, when the Sanhedrin came, I sat on their laps and listened to them talk about the holy laws and the Roman scourge. They called me child. I called them nothing. Yosef told me that his was the only name I needed to know and that I was never to ask the others what they were called.
After my second Passover in Yosef’s house, a Sanhedrin called me damsel. He said he would take me off Yosef’s hands. Yosef said his wife would die without me. All the more reason to unburden you, said the Sanhedrin. Yosef laughed and stroked my hair. The next day, I was feeding the birds when Yosef asked me if I knew that, with my black hair like a raven and eyes bluer than a swallow, I was his most beautiful bird. I didn’t know how to be a bird, but I learned that afternoon. Together, we flew.
After that, I sat on no man’s lap except Yosef’s. At parties and in the street, I wore all the colors of the rainbow, and I walked unveiled. I was Yosef’s bird, not a woman who hid herself. In the market, he laughed at my habit of naming all of the spices and their colors. If ever there were a new spice, the seller brought it directly to Yosef, and he bought a packet for me to play with.
I wore purple and red when Yosef took me outside the city gates to see the Nazarene. That night, the Sanhedrin laughed when I told them that, from far away, the prophet and his people were so drab that they looked like a herd of sheep on the hillside. Even so, Yosef said to the men, there were enough sheep to make a large flock for the man from Nazareth.
Yosef and his companions feared the man and his miracles. It was visible in their eyes. I saw fear in the weaver’s eyes not many days later when Yosef forced her out of her room to accompany him to the funeral of one of the Sanhedrin. The last time a Sanhedrin died, Yosef was so anguished at not being chosen as his replacement on the court that God gave me as a gift to cheer him. With the seventy-first man dead so soon after being appointed, it seemed that Yosef no longer wanted God’s gift. He locked me in my room and said that he needed a wife for the funeral procession, not a peacock.
The next morning, Yosef came to me early. I thought he was sorry for locking me away. Then Pharisees appeared and pulled Yosef out of my arms. A man I knew but couldn’t name hit me twice across the face with his open hand. That began the bleeding.
“Adultery is worthy of death,” he said. “We’ll show you what happens to women who make men sin.”
“I am unmarried,” I said.
“He isn’t,” said the man, pointing behind him.
I followed his gesture eager to see Yosef’s wrath when he repudiated the man who dared hit his beloved bird. In the courtyard, where I used to see the colors of parties, the colors of food, the colors of jewels in noses and ears and on hands and feet, the silver flash of the tambourine’s tiny cymbals when the musicians played and we danced until all the colors whirled together, I saw only Yosef’s back as he put on his kethoneth and walked away. He didn’t stop them from taking me. He didn’t break up the procession in the street. He didn’t silence the men when they called out my crime.
“We have taken her in the very act!” shouted a man in the throng behind me as we marched up the pilgrim road, "Let’s see what the Nazarene thinks of her.”
Hearing the name of the Nazarene brought me back to myself. I tried to walk without leaning, but the men roughed me up the street anyway. The fruit vendor and the seller of perfumes fell in behind us calling for my death in the same voice they used last week to call me to their stalls and entice the money from my hands.
I looked down and saw that, like Yosef, the bright blood on my kethoneth betrayed me. The pretty red dried brown. It turned the color of goats.
From a side arcade, others from the Sanhedrin came up the temple steps and moved in behind us. The Nazarene and his acolytes heard the commotion as we crossed the women’s court. They still looked like sheep from far away, but it rested my eyes to see them there, colorless and plain. One of the Sanhedrin, a man for whom I danced at a feast in his honor, explained my wickedness and asked the Nazarene if he, like Moses, sentenced me to death by stoning. The Nazarene said that any sinless man was worthy to throw the first stone. Then, he knelt and wrote names in the dirt. They meant nothing to me until he wrote the seventy-first, “Yosef.” He stopped writing.
He pointed to the names and asked, “Which man condemned you?”
Because of the Nazarene, I finally knew them, but I would not say them. “No man,” I said, dismissing his list.
“Nor do I condemn you,” he said.
He leaned in and spoke to me quietly even though we were alone. The accusers and onlookers left while the Nazarene wrote his long list of names. “Go your own way. Sin no more.”
The spice seller came to the alleyway the next day. In the palm of his hand, he mixed arnica powder with oil and made a salve for my cuts and bruises. From his cart, he pulled a coin purse embroidered with Yosef’s insignia.
“The Sanhedrin give alms to the faithful,” he said.
Sometimes he brought new spices with the coins. He would say that Yosef saw the color and thought of me. Each time, I waited until his sandals were out of sight. Then I emptied the packets and watched the dust and spice whirl together until the color disappeared, and dirt was dirt again.
Terrie Petree & Hollands lives in Pacific Beach, California, with her husband and three children. Ms. Petree is currently working with agent Susan Golomb at Writers House to bring out her first novel, "Gods of This World." The book tells the story of five generations of an LDS ranching family and examines what lies in the space between believing and belonging. On Sundays, she can be found teaching Gospel Doctrine in the San Diego 7th Ward.