If you opened a book that started like this, would you want to keep reading?


THE BEEKEEPER’S DAUGHTER

Anna arched her back and stretched. She had come to the spring three times already today, and she was glad this was the last. She knew her mother yearned for its clear, cold water—especially now that she was close to delivering her sixth child—but the filled jars were heavy and the walk from the house seemed to get longer and steeper each time she took it.

Even so, she was thankful she hadn’t had to go with her brothers. Their father was with his friend Eliab, who was also his business partner, planning the expansion of Eliab’s almond grove. Abba—Anna’s father—was a shrewd merchant and a careful planner, and Eliab’s almonds were part of his long-range strategy to leave a thriving enterprise to his sons. He would help to propagate the new trees with healthy rootstock. The more trees, the more blossoms. The more blossoms, the more almonds for Eliab and the more honey for Abba and her brothers.

Anna loved and admired her father more than anyone she knew. He feared God, he was wise and hard-working, and he adored his family. Even now, as she approached womanhood, she would sometimes sit on his lap in the cool of twilight and together they would listen to the night sounds and discuss local gossip. Feeling the warmth and strength of his body gave her a sense of serenity, and she loved the sound of his laughter. He appreciated her quick wit, her curiosity, and the gentleness she expressed toward others. Abba was not an especially gentle man himself, except with his three daughters. He drove his sons hard, and with exacting standards. He wanted them to understand the value of hard work, to master every aspect of the family business, and to appreciate what they would one day inherit.

Anna’s family had grown prosperous from keeping bees. The apiary near their house was a place she had grown to love—from the calming drone of the bees as they busily filled the clay hives with honey, to the cloying, musky scent of the place and the orderly rows of clay cylinders, stacked several tiers high, that housed the hundreds of thousands of bees that had brought honey merchants to the city of Rehob for three generations.

Almond blossom honey was prized for its sweetness, its clarity and its nutty aftertaste. Bakers preferred it to any other, and foreigners used it to brew ale. It was expensive, but the wealthy clients who sought it always seemed willing to pay. Anna enjoyed listening to her father boast of its marvelous qualities as he haggled with buyers, and often smiled to herself when she heard them sigh with resignation as he named his final price. He had a reputation both for producing a high quality product and for driving a hard bargain.

Sometimes, Hittite or Assyrian merchants would appear with jars of bees they had brought to sell. Abba always bought them, knowing they were more productive and less aggressive than the bees from the Jezreel Valley. Even now he was trying to cultivate some hives of local bees, but he found them difficult to handle. He was about to give up.

The wildflower honey, which came mainly from the anemones that grew all over the valley in winter, was red and dark and had an aroma like perfume. It was not as expensive, so it was what most people used. Anna liked it better, possibly because she had an affinity for the weaker and less appreciated elements in life—from the feeble, blind widow who lived on the next street to the orphaned lamb she had nursed by hand with another ewe’s milk and a barley straw. She liked nothing better than dipping a peeled stick into a honey pot and savoring the floral sweetness.

There were some things about being the beekeeper’s daughter that Anna did not like. One was building new hives from clay, dry straw, and dung—a dirty, itchy job that she felt would be better done by slaves—but her father only kept one slave, a surly Egyptian girl who had become more of a liability than an asset to the family. When asked why he didn’t have slaves running his business, Abba would jokingly respond, “Why does a man need slaves when he has children?”

Another loathsome task was pulling the dead blossoms from the anemones, as her brothers were doing today. It made them produce more flowers, Abba said, but it was backbreaking work that kept the children out of the house for many days each year. Up until her marriage three months ago, Anna’s sister Mahlah had gotten all the good work—cooking, baking bread, and helping to care for their little sister Rachel, the darling of Rehob, who at twenty-two months was active and mischievous and could charm just about anything out of just about anyone. Anna loved being at home with her mother to cook, scrub, bake the daily bread, and visit with the other women of Rehob who stopped by to gossip or ask for advice. She even enjoyed serving the merchants who would come to buy honey or beeswax from her father. So she was glad that having to stay near her mother in these last weeks before she gave birth meant she didn’t have to pull blossoms. But because their maidservant was needed at home in case Anna’s mother went into labour, it did mean Anna had to carry water.

As she leaned over to pull the last earthenware vessel from the cool depths of the spring, Anna caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. What looked like a puff of smoke appeared toward Beth-Shan to the north—then another and another. It was still late summer, so farmers would not be burning off their fields. The closest village was more to the west, so it couldn’t be coming from there.

She watched, perplexed, wishing her brothers were with her. Surely they would know what she was seeing. An inexplicable sensation of dread crept into the pit of her stomach. Something was wrong, but since she was only twelve, her experience was not able to provide her mind with the answers it sought.

The puff became a cloud, writhing and scintillating in the afternoon sun. Then her ears detected a distant rumble that sounded to her like boulders rolling into the steep ravine that ran between Rehob’s “upper town” and “lower town”. Soon the rumble was accompanied by muted shouts, then coarse laughter. Suddenly, she could discern the sound of hoof beats, and a shiver of terror shook her body.

Soldiers. Please, dear Adonai, please let it not be the Syrians.

She had reason for concern. In Beth-Shan, the town just an hour’s brisk walk to the north, a cousin of her father had been burned alive in one of the recent raids the Syrians had been conducting on the border towns of eastern Israel. He had watched his wife raped and brutally beaten; then, she and his children had been run through with spears before his eyes as the flames had devoured him.

The clay jar fell from her hands with a crash, the water drenching her clothes. Anna gathered the skirts of her smock into her small fists and began to sprint back into town, screaming to all who would hear.

“Soldiers are coming! Run! Hide! The Syrians are coming! Mama! Abba!”—she choked on the words, gasping for breath as much from fear as from exertion. Other people had seen the danger as well, and women were already weeping and trying desperately to gather their children and what few possessions they could carry before fleeing for refuge into the folds of the hills of Gilboa that lay just to the west of Rehob. They knew what had happened in Beth-Shan.

 

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2 thoughts on “If you opened a book that started like this, would you want to keep reading?”

    1. I’m working on it, Deborah. I’d love to find a little house in a quiet place and hole up there for three months so I could get the project well in hand. Writing a book is a far bigger undertaking than I thought it would be.

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