Chapter 34: The Mission

Hester was thinking about Athens as she threaded her way down the narrow streets of the Hebrew Quarter towards the kosher market.

In Athens, she’d heard, anyone could be exiled with a vote. Write a name on a shard of broken pottery—an ostrakon—and if enough of your fellow citizens agreed, the victim was ostracized, banished from the city and cut off from property and companions. It was a cruel process, an exercise in public spite. It did not require crime or proof of guilt. It required only the envy and resentment of a sufficiently large segment of the citizenry of Athens.

The Athenians can teach nothing to the Synagogue on that score.

Hester quickened her pace, hoping to shake off such gloomy thoughts. She needed a few items—some bread, some salt—to make her preparations for the evening meal. She’d waited until midmorning before heading for the market because that was when she and her friends customarily met to do their daily shopping. There was always time for a little gossip, a little laughter, while squeezing the fruit and sniffing the milk.

Will there be any laughter this morning? she wondered. After the synagogue this Sabbath?

She kept a fast pace, avoiding the eyes of those standing in doorways or passing her on the street. She could feel them staring at her, nudging companions and pointing in her direction. She tried not to imagine the whispered conversations left behind in her wake. Some of these people she knew well. Many of them she liked. But she could live with their whispers, if necessary.

Her friends were another matter. It would be harder to live with the whispers of people she loved. How would they react to her today?

Until this last Sabbath, she and her friends had managed to keep the recent controversies of the synagogue at arm’s length. Yes, Hester’s husband was responsible for much of the uproar, but women were accustomed to the follies of men. They did not blame one another when husbands behaved badly. Indeed, they comforted each other. That is what friends were for.

Part of Hester held onto the hope that friendship might somehow survive the rancor of last Sabbath. A bigger part, however—the more honest part—knew that in walking out of the synagogue with her husband, she’d crossed a line that even friendship could not bridge. She felt a nervous flutter in her stomach as she braced herself to meet old friends.

She entered Joachim’s bakery and found Leah fingering day-old loaves. “Good morning, Leah,” she called, putting on a brave face and hoping against hope. Leah looked up and smiled and then faltered. Hester could read the progression of thoughts in her face. The unguarded glance up. The recognition of a friend. And then the memory of the synagogue. The desperate search for a suitable response. The quick look around the shop to see if anyone else were watching.

Leah licked her lips nervously, caught and unsure. Hester felt sorry for her. She reached out to touch her arm. But the movement seemed to break Leah’s spell. She pulled away from Hester’s hand, put the loaf back on its shelf, turned a hard face towards Hester, and walked out of the shop without a word.

Hester bit her lip and looked at the abandoned loaf for a long while. She and Leah went back many years. They’d held each other’s babies. They’d mourned each other’s losses. Oh, Leah. Would it have cost you much to be polite? For the sake of all those years?

She picked up Leah’s loaf and turned to Joachim, fumbling in her purse for a coin.

But he held up a hand. “I don’t want your money.”

Hester was confused. It showed on her face.

“Take the bread and go,” he told her. “And don’t come to my shop again.”

“But … Joachim …” she stuttered. “I’ve bought bread from you for years. Decades.”

“Yes,” he said. His tone was accusing. “And it distresses me to think I have nourished such a wicked family with bread from my own hands. No more.” He pointed to the loaf. “That’s the last.”

“Wicked?” The word cut her as deeply as Leah’s rudeness. “Joachim. It’s me. Hester. You know better than that.”

“Do I?” He looked at her as if he’d never seen her before. “I wouldn’t have thought Crispus could harbor a blasphemer … encourage him! Or that you would stand up and support him in it. But,” he shrugged in a world-weary way, “people fool me sometimes. You did. Now please leave.”

Hester stared at him, torn between anguish and anger. How could he dismiss her like that? Would other shopkeepers refuse her? Did everyone else think she was wicked?

She turned and placed the loaf back on its shelf, just as Leah had done, and stumbled from the shop.

Across the street, a knot of women watched her emerge from the bakery. Leah was among them, pointing. Hester saw Miriam and Abi and Eglah—the old crew. She stood for a moment, wanting nothing more than to flee those familiar faces. No more rejections today. No more votes sending her into exile.

But instead, taking her courage by the throat, she crossed the street to see whether any piece of their friendship could survive. “Ladies.” She greeted them bravely enough, determined not to show them her hurt and the rising sense of panic she felt.

They stood side-by-side, four of them against her one. Hester felt vulnerable in a way she’d never experienced before. They offered no greeting. In fact, they said nothing at all, choosing instead to study her silently. Leah still wore her hard face. Eglah was haughty and aloof. Miriam watched her with large, luminous eyes and kept her expression as neutral as possible. Only Abi’s face showed any sadness, any sympathy.

“So,” Hester said finally. “Is this how it must be?”

Still they said nothing.

She lowered her eyes for a moment, fighting back tears, trying to think of something to say that might salvage a remnant of their friendship. But there were no words. Just a terrible regret.

She looked up at them and smiled—a sad, understanding smile. Then she turned back towards home and began walking. She had no heart for any more shopping. Crispus would have to make do with whatever leftovers they had in the cellar.

She heard Abi’s voice calling her name and the sound of her sandals slapping the cobblestones. She stopped and turned as her friend approached.

When Abi reached her, she threw her arms around Hester’s neck and hugged her tightly. “I’m sorry, Hester. For all of this.”

“Me too,” Hester said, hugging her back. “I wish it could be different.”

The two dropped their arms awkwardly, feeling the eyes upon them.

“You can’t come to the house, you know,” Abi said at last. “My husband won’t permit it.”

“You’re welcome at my house, Abi. Anytime.”

Abi smiled a little. “Perhaps I’ll drop by soon.”

Hester reached for her hand and patted it. “Oh, I hope you will.” She nodded to the others who stood watching them with folded arms. “You can bring them, if they change their minds.”

Abi looked back at them. “I doubt they’d come.”

“But you will?” Hester hated to hear the note of pleading in her voice.

“I’ll try.” Abi squeezed her arm and stepped away to join the other women.

Hester turned a final time and set off towards home.

She thought again of Athens. She wondered how it felt to have an entire city write your name on fragments of pottery and send you away, to have that many people wanting to be rid of you that much.

She knew how it felt to have a few friends and a shop owner do it—write her name on broken shards … send her away into lonely exile. A few was bad enough.

Only it felt like they’d done one thing more before throwing their ostraka into the ballot box.

Hester had dropped enough plates in her time to know the broken pieces were sharp. They could cut. And, just now, it felt like her friends had turned the shards on her, slicing at her hands and arms and legs and face.

She was bleeding in a dozen places. And they were not finished. There would be more cuts to come she was sure.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.