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Pearl in the Sand

Dawn had yet to appear when Rahab tumbled into consciousness, courtesy of an impatient nudge. “Stop your laziness, girl. Your brothers and father are almost ready to leave.” Her mother gave Rahab one more unnecessary shove.

Rahab groaned and gave up on rest. Bleary-eyed and sore, she forced herself to rise from her bedroll. For two months she had been doing the work of men, waking before daybreak and wrestling the land all day with little food, water, or rest to renew her strength. It was useless --- even at fifteen and only a girl she could see that. Their land had produced nothing but dust. Like the rest of Canaan, Jericho was in the grip of a brutal drought.

Though she knew their efforts to be wasted, every day she pushed herself almost past endurance because as long as they stayed busy, her Abba had hope. She couldn’t bear the thought of his despair.

“Child, hurry,” her mother snapped.

Rahab, who had already folded her bedroll and was almost finished dressing, continued her silent preparations at the same pace. She could move no faster if the King’s armies were at the door. Her father entered the room, chewing half-heartedly on a piece of stale bread. His face, pale and drawn, glistened with sweat. Rahab finished tying her sash with a quick motion and snatched a piece of hard barley cake that would serve as breakfast and noonday meal.

Giving her father a tight hug she said, “Good morning, Abba.” He stepped out of her embrace. “Let me breathe, Rahab.” Turning to his wife he said, “I’ve made a decision. If I find no sign of a crop today, I’m giving up.”

Rahab sucked in her breath just as her mother let out an agitated wail. “Imri, no! What will become of us?”

Her father shrugged and walked outside. Apparently his season of denial was at an end. He was admitting defeat. In a haze, Rahab followed him. She knew this day would be no different from the others. The thought of her father’s wretchedness made her cringe. Her brothers Joa and Karem were waiting outside. Karem munched on a raisin cake, a luxury their mother saved for her eldest son. His wife of one year, Zoarah, stood close, speaking in tones too soft for Rahab to hear. In spite of her worry, Rahab bit off a smile at the way they held hands. Theirs had been a love match, a rare occurrence in Canaan. Although she teased her elder brother at every opportunity, Rahab’s heart melted at the thought of such a marriage.

Sometimes in the cover of darkness when the rest of the family was long asleep, she dreamt of having a husband who would cherish her as her brother did his Zoarah. Lately, however, her thoughts had been too consumed by worry to leave room for pleasant daydreams.

Standing as far off as their tiny garden allowed, Joa, the youngest at fourteen, gazed at nothing. Rahab had not heard him string three words together in as many days. It was as if the drought had dried up his speech. She noticed dark circles under his eyes, and his tall frame seemed gaunt. He had probably left the house with no food in his belly. She reached for the bread wrapped in her belt, tore it in two, and brought it to Joa. Insufficient even for her, it would have to do for both of them.

“You eat that, young man.”

Joa ignored her. She sighed. “You don’t want me nagging at you all the way to the farm, do you?”

He glared at her with irritation, then held out his hand. She lingered to make sure he ate it, then traipsed after their father. Their pace was brisk as they walked toward the city gates. Rahab noticed that even Karem, who was rarely given to broodiness, appeared ashen with anxiety. Finally he broke the silence that hung over them. “Father, I went to Ebrum in the market as you told me. He refused to sell me oil or barley for the price you said. Either he has doubled his rates since you last purchased fromhim or you are mistaken about the price.”

“Send Rahab, then. She negotiated last time.”

“Rahab. You might have said,” Karem drawled, a good-natured glint lighting his eyes. “One glance at her pretty face and every thought of sums and profits leaves Ebrum’s flat head.”

“Not so!” Rahab objected, her voice rising higher with annoyance.

“It has naught to do withmy face, thank you. I ambetter at bargaining than you, that’s all.”

“Bargaining you call it? Batting your eyelashes more like.”

“I’ll bat my broom at you if you don’t watch your tongue.”

“Hush,” their father commanded. “You twomakemy head hurt.”

“Pardon, Abba,” Rahab said, instantly chastened. As if her father Needed more trouble. She must learn to subdue her impulses. He carried so much care on his shoulders she wanted to be a comfort to him, not an additional burden.

She could think of no words that would console him. Instead, following instinct, Rahab reached for her father’s hand and held it. For a moment he seemed unaware of her presence. Then, turning to gaze at her with an unfocussed expression, he registered her proximity. She gave him a reassuring smile. He pulled his hand out of hers.

“You’re too old for hand-holding.”

She flushed and hid her hand in the folds of her robe. Her steps slowed and she fell behind, walking alone in the wake of the men. At the farm, they examined row after row of planting, looking for signs of life. Other than a few hard-shelled beetles, they found nothing. By noon, Rahab was too dejected to continue, so she sat while the men finished their careful inspection. When they returned, her father was muttering under his breath, “What’s to be done? What’s to be done?”

Rahab looked away. “Let’s go home, Abba.”

At the house, she swept aside the ragged curtain that served as a front door and dragged herself in. Her mother shooed her out with a wave. “Give your father and me some privacy.” Rahab nodded and walked back out. She sank down against the crumbling mud wall, alone in the lengthening shadows. She longed to find a way to help her family, but even Karem and Joa had been unable to find work in the city. Jericho, already bursting with desperate farmers in need of work, gave them no welcome. How could she, a mere girl, be of any use? The sound of her own name wafting through the window brought her distracted mind back into focus.

“We should have given her to Yam in marriage last year instead of waiting for a better offer,” her mother was saying.

“How were we supposed to know we’d be facing a drought that would ruin us? Anyway, the bride price he offered wouldn’t have seen us through two months.”

“It’s better than nothing. Talk to him, Imri.”

“Woman, he doesn’t want her anymore. I already asked. He’s starving right alongside us.”

Rahab held her breath, not willing to miss a single syllable of this conversation. Under normal circumstances the thought of eavesdropping wouldn’t have entered her mind, but something in her father’s tone overcame her compunction. She flattened herself like a lizard against the wall and listened.

“Imri, there will be no going back if we do this.”

“What else can we do? You tell me.” A heavy silence met her father’s outburst. When he spoke again, his voice was softer, tired sounding. “There’s no choice. She’s our only hope.”

Rahab felt her stomach drop. What was her father scheming?

Their voices grew too soft to overhear. Frustrated, she strode to the end of the garden. In a dilapidated pen, two skinny goats gnawed on the tips of a withered shrub, already stripped to bare wood. With the men and Rahab working the fields every day, no one had cleaned the pen. A putrid stench assaulted her senses --- an apt background for her roiling emotions, she thought. Her parents had been referring to her as the means of the family’s salvation. But it wasn’t through marriage. What other way could a fifteen-year-old girl earn money? Taking a sudden breath, Rahab put her hands to her face. Abba would never make me do that. Never. He would rather die. This was nothing more than a misunderstanding. But the knot in her stomach tightened with each passing second.


“Your mother and I have been discussing your future, Rahab,” her father began the next morning as Rahab rose from her bedroll.

“You can help your whole family, daughter, though it will be hard on you. I am sorry ---” he broke off as if at a loss for how to continue. He didn’t need to finish his words. Horror seized her so tightly it nearly choked off her breath. With rising dread she realized her worst fears had come to pass. The nightmare she had dismissed as a misunderstanding the night before was real. Her father meant to sell her into prostitution. He meant to sacrifice her future, her wellbeing, her life.

“Many a woman has had to do it --- younger even than you,” he said.

Rahab threw him an appalled look. She wanted to scream. She wanted to cling to him and beg. Find another way, Abba. Please, please! Don’t make me do this. I thought I was your precious girl! I thought you loved me! But she knew it would be useless. Her father had made his decision and would not be swayed by her entreaties. So she swallowed every word. She swallowed her pleas and her hopes. You’ll never be my Abba anymore, she thought. From the time she had learned to speak, she had called her father Abba, the childish endearment that demonstrated her affection for the man closer than any person in the world to her. That child-like trust was shattered forever. The sorrow of this realization was almost more overwhelming than the reality of having to sell her body for gain. As though hearing her unspoken words, he snapped, “What choice do I have?” Rahab turned away so she wouldn’t have to look at him. The man she had cherished above every other, the one she had trusted and treasured was willing to sacrifice her for the sake of the rest of the family.

This was not an unusual occurrence in Canaan. Many a father sold his daughter into prostitution for the sake of survival. Even so, the commonplaceness of her father’s choice did not calm Rahab. There was nothing mundane in the realization that she was expected to live the life of a harlot.

Her father’s breathing sounded shallow and quick. “In the temple, you will receive honor. You’ll be treated well.”

Rahab gasped as if he had struck her. “No. I won’t go to the temple.”

“You will obey me!” her father yelled. Then shaking his head, he gentled his voice. “We need the money, child. Or else we’ll all starve, including you.”

Rahab strangled a rising scream, forcing herself to sound calm. “I am not refusing to obey you,my father.Only, I won’t go to the temples. If I have to do this, let’s not bring the gods into it.”

“Be reasonable, Rahab. You’ll have protection there. Respect.”

“You call what they do there protection? I don’t want the respect that comes with the temple.” She turned and looked him squarely in the eye, and he dropped his gaze. He knew what she was talking about. The year before, Rahab’s older sister Izzie had given her first child to the god Molech. That baby had been the joy of Rahab’s heart. From the instant her sister knew she was pregnant, Rahab had felt a bond of kinship with him. She’d held him minutes after his birth, wrapped tightly in swaddling, his tiny, perfect mouth opening and closing like baby kisses intended just for her. Love for him had consumed her from that one untainted moment. But her sister wanted financial security. She was tired of poverty. So she and her husband Gerazimagreed to sacrifice their son to Molech for the sake of his blessing.

They paid no heed when Rahab pleaded that they change their minds. They were determined. “We’ll have another baby,” they told her. “He’ll be just as sweet. And he’ll have everything he wants rather than be brought up poor and in need.”

Rahab went to the temple with themon the day of the sacrifice. She went hoping to change their minds. Nothing she said moved them.

Her nephew wasn’t the only baby sacrificed that day. There were at least a dozen. The grounds were packed with people watching the proceedings. Some shouted encouragement to the priests who stood before enormous fires, covered from neck to ankle in white, offering prayers. Rahab recoiled at the sight, wondering about the nature of a god who promised a good life at the cost of a priceless baby’s death. What kind of happiness could anyone purchase at such a price? She held her sister’s precious boy in her arms for as long as she could, cooing to his wriggling form. He smelled like sweet milk and honey cakes. Rahab nestled him against her one last time as she kissed him goodbye. The baby screamed when rough hands wrenched him from Rahab’s arms, but nothing like his final shriek as the priest reached the raging fire…

Rahab stumbled back into Gerazim and found Izzie already slumped there.

That was the day Rahab promised herself she would never bow her head to such gods. She hated them. For all their glittering attraction, she had seen them for what they were. They were consumers of humanity.

Now Izzie and Gerazim’s land was as wasted as Imri’s. So much for Molech’s blessing. She would never seek it.No, the temple wasn’t for her.

“Rahab,” her father pleaded, biting an already ragged fingernail.

“Think of the life you’ll have outside the temple. You’re young. You don’t understand.”

It wasn’t that she felt no fear. Life for prostitutes outside the temples was hard, risky, and shameful. But she feared that life less than she feared serving Canaan’s gods.

“Father, please. I don’t know if I will be able to survive temple life.” Daughters were expected to obey their parents without question. Her objections and pleas could be construed as disobedience. Her father could take her to any temple by force and sell her, and she would have no recourse. She told herself her father would never stoop to such behavior, but then remembered reassuring herself only the night before that he would never ask her to prostitute herself either. The very ground under her feet had been shaken. Nothing seemed secure anymore.

Karem, who had walked in halfway through this exchange, burst out, “Father, you can’t do this to the girl. She’ll be ruined!” Imri slashed the air with an impatient wave. “And you have discovered a way to support the family through the winter, perchance? You have arranged a job? An inheritance froma rich uncle we knew naught about?”

“No, but I haven’t tried everything yet. There are other jobs, other possibilities.” Rahab’s heart leapt with hope at her brother’s support. But the hope died quickly with her father’s response.

“By the time you realize your confidence amounts to nothing, your pretty bride and unborn child will be dead of starvation. Rahab is our only sure means of survival. Our only means,” he repeated with brutal assurance.

Karem dropped his head and did not speak again.

Rahab sank to the floor, unable to check her tears. Imri moved to the opposite side of the room and sat in a corner, staring into space. All discussion ceased as their unspoken words separated them. In that silence, Rahab felt a wall rise up between her and her father that was as impregnable as the walls of their city. It occurred to Rahab that they were both mired in shame. He because he had failed her as a father --- a protector --- and she because of what she was about to become. She felt numb with his betrayal. A sense of loneliness darker than anything she had ever known closed in over her heart like the seal of a tomb.

Pearl in the Sand
by by Tessa Afshar