by Gershon Ben-Avraham
“And his soul was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl, and spoke tenderly to her.” — Genesis 34:3 (NRSV)
Her campsite appeared to be floating mid-air from the woman’s vantage point, an illusion of the day’s dying light and lengthening shadows falling one after the other across the rock-strewn desert. She carried a bundle of sticks scavenged from scanty trees and shrubs. She would use them to make a fire to cook her evening meal and provide a little warmth against the desert’s cold night air. A dog trotted beside her, dutifully keeping the woman’s pace.
Her shelter was no more than a shallow cave that the wind had carved out over eons at the bottom of a steep limestone wall in a small canyon. It provided limited protection from the desert winds and none against the desert heat. In camp, the woman took a piece of desiccated skink from a leather pouch suspended from a tripod and tossed it to the dog. She had killed the skink a few days earlier on her way to the wadi for water. She had startled it, sunning itself on one of the many stones scattered across the desert floor. With a single stroke, she had killed it with her staff. She and the dog had an agreement. The dog would keep the hyenas away at night while the woman slept, and in return, she would feed it.
After her meal, the woman moved closer to the fire and poked at it with a stick. Sparks flew up into the blue-black night. The air was cold. Her back never warmed, no matter how close she got to the fire. The dog dozed in the flickering circle of light the fire created. From time to time, it would raise its head, staring into the darkness, and then lay its head back down.
The woman was tired. As she drifted in and out of sleep, her thoughts roamed where they often did, up and down the well-worn paths of youthful memories—her parents, her brothers, the warmth of her mother’s tent, and herself, the naïve young girl she had been. She would wonder yet again if it was true what the boy had whispered so many years ago as she lay restrained beneath him, one of his strong hands covering her mouth, the other pinning her to the bed.
Against her will, the blood-red angry faces of her brothers arose before her. She groaned deeply. What had become of them? She gazed steadily at the fire’s dancing flames. Within them, she saw the image of her father, standing in front of his assembled family—pale, trembling, shaking like a leaf in the wind. “Odious,” he had cried. “Your killing the boy and his father, and your butchery of the city’s men have caused me, indeed all of us, to be hated by the people among whom we live. We are a minority here. Your actions have placed us and everything we possess in danger.” But he had said nothing about her or what had happened to her. Not a word.
The dog raised its head and stood up; the hair on its back bristled, drawn into a razor-sharp line. It began to bark and repeatedly run back and forth. The woman reached for her staff and called the dog to her. It came slowly, slinking, and lay down beside her. Its stifled barks descended into low rumbling, throaty growls. Then she saw the boy walking out of the dark into the fire’s light.
“You?” she asked. “Is it you, really you?”
“You? Hmm, well then, it must be time.”
Brittle, child-like laughter rang out against the thick silence of the desert. “Thank God,” she said. “I was beginning to wonder if the time would ever come. I’m ready, more than ready, have been for a long time.”
“Could you see me from there, from where you were?”
“Clearly and distinctly.”
She smiled. “Well, will it take us long to get where we’re going; would it be possible for us to sit together for a few moments?”
“Of course. I would love that.”
They sat beside each other, their naked feet facing the fire. After a time, the woman spoke.
“For many years, I’ve longed to punish you, to show you the results in my life, in all our lives, of what you did. But, my brothers didn’t give me a chance. What you did and what they did had consequences for me. I had to accept them; I had no alternative. And I’ve had to live with them my entire life.”
A dark, intimate silence descended upon the couple. At last, the boy said slowly: “You probably won’t believe me, but I’m sorry; I’m sorry for what I did. I can’t forgive myself for what I did to you.”
The woman turned to face the boy. “My mother once told me that judgment comes to wrongdoers, sooner or later, either in this world or the next. It’s inevitable, she said. But along the way, innocent ones also suffer—fallout from the sins of others.” The woman leaned forward and poked the fire with her stick. “Eventually, I left home and came here, to the desert, to live alone.” She sighed. “A man defiles a woman; an avenger slays the man. And all the while, the woman’s happiness sits waiting.”
“But happiness does come,” the boy said. In the woman’s face, he saw again the young woman she had been once, the one he had loved, the one he still loved. “I’m told,” he said, “that joy comes in the morning.”
The woman rose and stretched before the glowing embers of the dying fire. The boy stood up and held out his hand to her. The two of them walked toward the morning’s rising sun.
Gershon Ben-Avraham’s work has appeared in Big Muddy, Image, Rappahannock Review, The Bookends Review, The Agape Review, and other literary publications. His short story “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) earned “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his poetry chapbook God’s Memory in 2021.