Desired The Untold Story of Samson and D
Author:Ginger Garrett

MOTHER

The Pleiades twinkled above us. My husband, Manoah, and I sat on our roof, escaping the heat that lingered even at this hour. I poured a fresh skin of water into the crock at his feet. He slipped off his sandals, sinking his feet into the water, groaning in happiness. At our age, harvesting the wheat cost us more in physical exhaustion than eating the wheat would ever return. We had loved each other since we were children, so I could speak boldly to him, without fear of his hand.

“We can afford more servants,” I said.

“We can afford to buy our clothes,” he countered.

“I like to weave.”

“I like to harvest.”

I settled in beside him once more. A little bird alighted on our roof, cocking its head at me. It visited me often. I reached into the sack at my feet, grabbed a fistful of the wheat heads, and tossed them in its direction.

Manoah frowned. “We have to sleep up here.”

“I always sweep up after he eats.”

“That wheat is worth good money!”

“You are handsome when you are angry.”

He frowned, but I knew a smile was beneath it.

Samson appeared on the stairs.

I smiled, patting the seat next to me. “Come! Sit!”

Manoah folded his arms, looking away.

Samson leaped up, skipping the last two steps. I gave him a good smile, and he came over, kissing me on the forehead before sitting.

“Give me your hands,” I instructed Samson as I lifted a little pot of oil from the bag that hung on my sash. A little olive oil at night on hands roughened from harvest made all the difference.

Samson looked at his father. His father pursed his lips, looking away.

“I did not harvest today,” Samson confessed.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I went to Timnah.”

Timnah. A Philistine pit of filth. And at the time of the marriage festival. I looked up at the heavens, beseeching God. Samson was still a boy in my eyes. But he had a destiny to fulfill. His name was meant to be great. His, and mine.

“And what was your decision? When will you speak to the elders of the tribe?”

Samson looked confused. He looked to his father, a look of helplessness.

“You did not tell her?”

Manoah glared at Samson in answer.

“Mother, I did not go to spy or make war on them. I went to their festival.”

“I am your mother. You can tell me.”

“No, I did. And I saw a girl. I want her.”

“You went to their festival?”

“Father.”

Manoah held up his hands, standing and walking to the roof’s edge, away from us.

“The festival?” I boxed Samson on the ears. “What kind of Hebrew goes to a festival for Dagon? And you, of all Hebrews!”

“Father!”

“Leave him out of this! Do you want to kill him, too?” I stood up and clutched my heart, gasping for breath.

“I saw a girl there. I liked her.”

The stars swirled together, faster and faster, spinning all around my head. I must have groaned in agony, because Samson jumped up, putting his arms around me. He helped me sit back down.

“Slap me,” I begged him. “This is a dream. I want to wake up.”

“Father. Please.”

“I want nothing to do with this!” Manoah roared. “You said you wanted to study the enemy, not marry one!”

Both men stared at me when I burst out laughing.

“It’s a joke, then. Samson! You could have killed me. Wait till I tell the women at the ovens tomorrow. Oh! Our great deliverer, hope of our people, pretending to love the people who have oppressed us for generations, stolen food from the mouths of our children, mocked us, and robbed us!” My voice grew shrill as I talked.

“Mother.”

“You don’t want a Canaanite girl! They’re flat-chested. They have no breasts.” He knew nothing about women. I could at least reason with him.

He grunted. “Stop that. I like lean girls.”

“Lean girls? They can’t give you children! Tomorrow I will walk with you through our village. I will show you the girls I like best for you.” I gestured to my chest, a promise of the big-breasted girls he could have.

Manoah rolled his eyes at me. As if I was making this trouble. I narrowed my eyes at him, willing him to feel their searing heat. He knew as I did how wrong this was. We had spent our lives and our wealth, preparing Samson to be a great warrior, a mighty deliverer. I had long forgotten all the shame of barrenness.

Samson appealed to Manoah, who would not look him in the eye again. “Father. I can’t explain it. But she is the one I want. Get her for me.”

I clapped my hands. A reprimand. “You want a nice Hebrew girl with big breasts. That’s it. No more foolish talk.”

“I don’t want a nice Hebrew girl! And I didn’t ask to be anyone’s deliverer!” He stomped down the stairs in disgust.

I brayed at him and turned to Manoah.

“You let him go to Timnah. Alone.”

Manoah shrugged. As if helpless.

“Timnah. A Philistine rat hole.”

“It was better than Ashkelon.”

“He’s been to Ashkelon?” I grabbed my tunic at the neck with both hands, threatening to rip it in blackest horror. “My son? Ashkelon?”

Manoah trotted across the roof like a little puppy, waving his hand at me, casting glances about as if the neighbors would hear.

“No, no, no! He asked to go there. I said no. He did not stop asking. So I said, ‘Go to Timnah. Come right back.’”

“You let my only son, the son born to me in my old age, the son whose birth was prophesied by an angel, the son born to be the great deliverer of our people—you let this son go to a Philistine rat hole, alone. And of course he picked a wife there. Which would not have happened if you had told him no!”

“He is a man now.”

I made a coughing noise. I had to rest both hands against my heart and force a little breath in.

Manoah rolled his eyes. He took me by the hand and led me to our chairs, where he helped me sit and poured me some milk.

I sniffed at the bowl and turned my face away. But I could not hide my tears, which were real.

Manoah sat too. “I do not understand it either.”

“Liking a Philistine girl?”

“Eh. Some are good-looking.”

I raised my hand to strike him, but he caught it first. And kissed it, sweetly, then held it in his lap, my cold, wrinkled hand warmed by his.

Manoah sighed. “He was born to crush the Philistines, and instead, he is fascinated by them, begging me to let him go to their cities. Then he asks to marry one! It’s my fault.”

“You should have said no.”

“It would not have helped. No, I failed him long ago.”

“Speak plainly. I am only a woman.”

“When the angel appeared to our father Jacob, what did Jacob do? He fought. He wrestled. He demanded a great blessing, and he got one. And me? An angel appears, and I ask his name. That is all I wanted to know.”

“He might have had a nice name. It would have made the story better.” I did not have to elaborate that point. Our story had been mocked openly for some time. Other women sniffed at me when I reminded them of it. Their sons did not need my son to deliver them. Their sons rather liked the Philistine way of life—the gods, the sex, the festivals. Their sons scolded our generation, telling us we must embrace the Philistine ways. The sacred land, that gift from God, was a small price to pay for such pleasures, they said. They had forgotten their destiny, which was why I could not let my son forget his.

“I should have asked many other questions.”

I shrugged. Who could know what they should do or say when an angel of God appears to them?

“We wanted a son.” I leaned my head over to rest on his shoulder.

He kissed it and sighed.

I looked up at the stars, fixed in their cold, brilliant course. Just like Samson and me.

Early the next week, we left Zorah, heading for Timnah and this girl. Samson walked with urgency, stopping just once, to fill a skin with water at the banks of the stream at Sorek. His behavior worried me. I had delayed the trip as long as I could, but my efforts had only increased his desire to see her.

My back aching, I stretched in the early noon sun. Manoah was not far off. In front of me I could see the land of the Philistines. Beyond their cities stretched the sea. That is what the Philistines saw when they arose: a shapeless, formless world of water and mist. I saw these people as they were: arrogant overlords and squatters in our territory, sleeping under our stars. God had commanded us to cleanse the land of our enemies, but we had always been too weak. Until my son came along.

The sun had risen high and strong over the fields and vineyards. We would be in Timnah within the hour to meet his Philistine girl. I climbed up on a rock to see farther. The workers swung their scythes in golden fields of wheat, low voices singing the songs of harvest. Young girls cut lengths of rope and passed them, one to another, to the older men who tied the piles of wheat together. Bundles of wheat were building at the edges of all the fields, like a golden city rising before our eyes.

Samson lifted up a dripping clump of honeycomb, with a dark grin on his face. A peace offering, perhaps. I shook my head. I didn’t even praise him for bravery, risking a bee sting for me.

“You can’t stay mad at me forever.”

“I am not mad. I am right. What you are doing is wrong, and you know it.”

“Eat, Mother. You’ll be nicer.”

I needed the honeycomb. He knew that, my son. Nights of nothing but tears for my bread had weakened me. How could I have eaten from our own harvest when the son of our deliverance was throwing his destiny, and ours, away?

I took and ate as I watched the Philistine field hands. The men who swung the scythes worked with the speed that comes only from age and experience. Some paused when they noticed Samson. I watched their eyes dart to one another, the frowns on their faces. Another dumb Hebrew, but a big one, they must have thought.

Harvest time meant busy hands and sore backs, even in this land. I saw baskets of broken wheat heads loaded onto carts, and carts bumping down the dusty roads. Big brown dogs barked and played, happy to be out on such a fine day with their masters. Philistines loved their dogs. They treated dogs better than they treated us. I burned inside for the coming deliverance. I would make the war cry of my tribe, deep from within my dry, old body, and Samson would rise up.

I licked my fingers clean, turning my face away from them.

We moved on, closer now, so close I could smell the workers sweating. Samson stopped one man to buy broken wheat heads from his cart. Soon I saw the Philistine girls here. Some of them were as scrawny as I had hoped. But a few—oh! A few were lovely, with beautiful skin the color of almonds and black hair that sparkled in the sun. Their bodies were lean but strong. I could see muscles twitching in their calves and arms, their whole bodies as slight and scandalous as a wink at an altar. But they were flat-chested. Every one of them.

They pointed when they saw Samson. I waited for the twinge of pain he always had at these moments, when strangers first saw him and his hair. He blamed me, all these years, for that. But God made him live as a Nazarite, not me.

A group of girls returning from the fields screamed in terror, dropping their baskets as an unseen assailant startled them. Samson broke from the path, charging into the field to confront their attacker. My heart lurched up; could this be the beginning? Had God heard my cry?

My donkey snorted, stamping its feet. I saw it all happen, very slowly—an omen, I think now, of all that was to come. A black cobra slid across the path, crossing just in front of me, disappearing into the fields again. It moved with grace and speed, the most beautiful evil. My donkey screamed in fright and threw me. From my perch, I landed on my bottom, the breath knocked from me.

I had arrived at Timnah.





AMARA

I was next in line, but I was not impatient. Everyone in Timnah shared ovens, usually five or six families to each one. Ovens were set in a clearing with the houses in a curve around them. It was convenient and reduced our work; someone was always baking bread in the morning before you awoke, so the oven was always hot. If you had to start a fire and place stones over it and wait for the stones to heat, you would have no bread for that day. Next to the oven was a fire pit with a roasting spit over the center. We all shared that, too, and we could roast an animal or heat water or milk over it. Sharing was not just a lesson in patience; division of labor was its own reward.

The sun was warm, and I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. Fall was almost here, ending my constant labors of tending the olive trees, airing out the house, and repairing any earthenware that was damaged in storage over the winter. Already this morning I had swept our home and gone out to collect animal dung and wood for the next winter’s fires. After I baked our bread for breakfast, I would need to go out to the fields and help with the harvest. We did not have much to do in our own little field, but Astra and I always managed to hire ourselves out to another family for a few hours. This pleased Mother and Father.

I allowed myself the luxury of a long stretch in the golden sun. All of spring, summer, and fall meant hard labor and browned faces. But fall brought the early rains and then winter, at last, that blessed end to our labor. I would have lazy mornings and afternoon naps, and my palms would slough these thick calluses.

“Amara!” Neo and Talos waved as they headed out to the fields, using the winding common road that ran between the clusters of homes.

I did not wave back. I turned my back and gritted my teeth. Talos and Neo were sweet friends when we were children, but none of us were children any longer. I did not want to be their friend now. They might become bold and ask for me in marriage. I wished I hadn’t told them so many secrets when I was a girl. Now they thought they knew me. They might imagine that gave them an advantage, an early claim, a clear right to possess me.

I refused to dwell on the darker side of fall, those long, lazy hours when men’s minds were free to wander. Most betrothals happened in the late fall, just in time to get a new laborer for the husband’s harvest. I would not be waving to anyone. Father needed me more than I needed a husband.

And yet, even with this fearful cloud pressing down, I could rejoice that the biggest labors were almost behind us. Astra and I had worked long hours this season to bring in a good harvest. Last year, the crops were plentiful; so this year, we had to work harder for less return. That was nature’s way: one year of plenty, one year of want.

“The earth reminds us not to forget her power,” Father said. “Hungry people are humbled people.”

I did not see the wisdom in that. Hunger makes people want to find a new god. Yet we worked on without grumbling. Labor, especially in the olive groves, was a delight. The olive trees of Timnah were four generations old or more; some had been planted nearly a thousand years ago. Our olive trees were like family elders—beautiful, gnarled, and wise. We groomed their branches in the morning, pulling each toward us, carefully plucking the olives and letting them fall gently onto the blanket spread beneath us. We groomed each tree as though she were a beautiful and frail grandmother, and we spoke to her, and each other, as we worked. I remembered an outrageous lie that Astra had repeated to me.

“The Hebrew we saw?” Astra had ventured to me not long ago.

“Yes?”

“Do you know what Talos told me?”

“I do not.” I inhaled the green scent of the olives and the crisp perfume of their leaves. Spying an olive with a crack, I plucked it and dropped it into a bucket around my neck. The broken olives would go to the goats.

“Talos said—and I am not making this up—that the Hebrews have a magical box they dance around and bring offerings to. It’s the source of their god’s power.”

“Mmmm.” Magic was commonplace. Charms and spells changed from tribe to tribe, but everyone had gods, and everyone had magic.

“And that is not all. When a male Hebrew baby is born, the parents must prove their devotion to their god.”

“Do they sacrifice it?”

“Worse!” Astra lowered her voice to avoid being overhead, although the nearest woman was a good distance away in another grove. “They cut off his third hand!”

I stopped. “Astra. You shouldn’t listen to lies like that. And Talos should not be speaking to you of such private matters.” Astra was destined to be a wife, not a sacred prostitute. She had to observe proper morals.

“It’s true. Talos has never lied to us.”

“And how would Talos know? Has he ever seen a Hebrew naked?”

She frowned, considering that.

I laughed as I remembered her expression on that day. Sirena grabbed the flat wooden bread tool, resting it on what little was left of her lap. She scattered a handful of crushed barley across the surface and then pulled her dough from the crock at her feet, moving more from memory than sight, I guessed. Her belly was so big with child that I don’t think she could see anything below it.

Using one hand to push herself off the stone she sat on, and another to clutch the bread tool, Sirena stood to take her turn at the oven. Leaning forward, she slid the wood trowel into the oven and gave the handle a hard tug, dislodging the bread and causing it to roll onto the hot stone at the bottom of the oven. With great effort she carried herself back to her stone seat, and after she had lowered herself back down, she closed her eyes and sighed.

I smiled to myself, watching her. She was beautiful, especially now that she had filled out. Looking out at the horizon behind her, I let myself relax for a moment too. Morning’s white mist still clung to the gentle hills in the distance to the east, with only the green treetops visible. Breeze blew through the tall grasses in the fields around the houses, carrying whispers of crisp evergreens and the sharp tang of limestone. We heard donkeys snorting and oxen lowing as men harnessed them for work, driving them into the mist. A few pregnant animals stayed behind, growing fat, probably content to rest from the labors of the field. Everyone always tried to keep the male animals separate from the females to prevent the loss of a good working animal during this season, but nothing could prevent a female going into heat. Keeping the males separate was no guarantee of abstinence. More than once I had spied a wild-eyed male goat climbing a fence in the middle of the night.

Sirena’s bread smelled divine. I peeked in to see if it was done. Perhaps I could remove it for her and let her nap for a few more minutes. The crust was just turning gold at the edges, so I knew to wait. The only thing worse than no bread was half-baked bread that went bad within the day, leaving no leftovers for the night’s meal.

I could learn how other wives did their bread, what spices they added, how they got a crackling brown crust and still retained a soft dough center. Ovens were also where the younger girls like me learned to be wives. First they learned how to bake bread, which would keep their husbands alive. Then the wives told them of the art of keeping him alive for other reasons. I made a point to skip those conversations.

One wife, with a broad face and puffy eyes and hair that held absolutely no allure—all of her just plain and dark and lifeless—sighed as she took her cooling loaf from the resting stone and wrapped it in a cloth. She was tired, explaining to the other wives her morning. “He comes home, telling his master he must leave to take his meal. I’m telling you, he doesn’t want a meal.”

The other wives giggled. Last year I would not have understood. This year I do but wish I didn’t. Why did men think this way?

Her husband seemed very dirty to me. He was not a noble man, thinking of that in the middle of the day when he should have been working. Why she laughed, I did not know. I would not be a wife like her, and I would not marry a man like that. If my father heard conversations like this one, he would understand I had made a noble choice.

Astra’s cry brought me out of my thoughts with a start. She ran to me, her face pale and her eyes wide. I caught her in my arms, but she was breathless and doubled over with the effort of catching a good breath.

“Breathe, Astra!” I rubbed her back. “It’s all right. Whatever it is, you’re safe now.”

I scanned the path she had come from, the winding dirt road that led past other homes and out into the fields. Though nothing seemed to be following her, I saw the other women reaching for their butchering knives. Men working in the fields displaced plenty of vipers, which took revenge on our ankles when they could. And with no wall around our village, sometimes even a hungry lion or fox wandered into our houses. Mothers had to be very careful not to leave babies in baskets unattended. Their cries attracted attention from more than just other women. During harvest, Mother always insisted Astra and I carry knives with us.

Astra righted herself and swallowed hard before grabbing me by the arms.

“The Hebrew has returned.”

“What?”

“He has returned, and he brought two others with him. He was wandering through the houses, looking.”

She didn’t have to finish that thought. My hand flew to my mouth as the women shrugged and began putting their knives away. They decided there was no danger in a curious Hebrew wandering around our village.

If only they had known.

I pulled Astra away from the oven, off to the side. The women resumed their baking and gossip. Astra and I were still young enough that our own intrigues were of no interest to them. They assumed us to still be children since we were unmarried, and children were capable of nothing interesting, nothing that could cause any great calamity in their own lives.

“What are we going to do?” I asked. Astra always had a better idea of what should be done. She could see a problem from all sides, whereas I only saw it from mine.

“He is looking for something, but I couldn’t tell what it was.”

I had never told her about the scarf. Father still wore it as a sash around his tunic, and by now, it was nothing to me but a sash. I offered a suggestion.

“We could run into the fields. Come back at dusk.”

“No. The men will ask too many questions if we don’t have jobs. Besides, if we don’t know why he is here, we don’t know where he will go. I think we should hide inside the house. He would never enter our house.”

“We can’t get out of our work.”

“Do you trust me?”

I nodded.

“Come with me.”

“But wait—do you think he is still angry? About being hit in the head? He might demand money.” Both Philistine law and Hebrew law required payment for bodily injuries. Father could lose what little he had. Then he would have to accept the first offer of a bride price, not the best. What had we done that night? I chastised myself. We might have just arranged to sell ourselves to the lowest bidders.

Astra shook her head. “He didn’t look angry. He looked like”—she twisted her mouth as she sought the right word—“he looked like he was searching for something.”

We had no real market, not like Ashkelon or his own cities in the Judean Hills, but sometimes we did have unique treasures. Perhaps he was here for a treasure.

“We will hope that is all it is,” I said, grabbing her hand. I turned to the wives. “My little sister is not feeling well. If one of you will bake my bread for me today, I will bake yours tomorrow. Or you can wait and save the favor until you need to claim it.” Sirena opened her eyes and agreed at once. I was offering her the chance to stay in bed tomorrow morning.

“Thank you, and may Dagon bless your child,” I said with a grateful nod.

Astra led me from the clearing to behind the houses. On the far end, there was a spot of privacy where we could create mischief without being seen from any other house. That did not mean we were able to create mischief for long, though. Someone was always coming in from the fields or carrying food and drink back out to the fields.

Pulling me closer, Astra took out her knife and, in a blink, stabbed me in the finger. I squealed, but she grabbed my finger and squeezed without mercy, making the blood bubble up. Opening her palm, she squeezed the drops into a red pool in the center of her hand. I jerked my hand back and stuck my finger in my mouth, glaring at her. She didn’t pay me any attention as she lifted her tunic and smeared the blood on her thighs.

“I’ll tell Mother my cycles have started. She’ll let me stay inside today.”

Of course she would. No one wanted a menstruating girl in the fields during harvest. The wheat might be ruined. Astra was safe, but I wasn’t.

“What about me?”

“I need you, of course. Your cycles have already begun. I’ll say you will show me what to do. Mother can continue her work. She’ll be pleased to have you stay with me.”

I wondered what Astra would do next month and instinctively took a step away from her. She wouldn’t get any more fingers from me for this.

As if reading my mind, she poked me in the stomach and laughed. “Don’t look so grim. It’s the best plan we have.”

Astra grabbed me by my other hand, and we ran toward our house, my heart beating wildly. Thankfully, our house was close. I did not have the fortitude to run far with my heart racing ahead like this. We jumped inside and shut the door, and then collapsed into giggles. We were little girls again, playing tricks on the other children or taking part in some silly prank. But uneasiness sneaked in with us. This Hebrew was no child, and hiding from him was not a childish trick. We didn’t know what he wanted, but he did have a claim against us. If he had not forgotten or forgiven his injury, he had a right to Father’s money.

Mother came down the steps at the back of the house, returning from the roof. She carried our heavy wool blankets, taking them below to hang them out for a beating. Astra ran toward her at once and scooped the blankets from her arms. Of course she would do that, I grimaced, before the idea had even entered my head that Mother needed help. And yet, wasn’t it Astra’s quick thinking that was responsible for us hiding like criminals at the moment?

“Thank you, Astra,” Mother said, gesturing to the front door. “Set them there. I’ll take them outside later in the afternoon and hang them up for a beating.” She turned her attention to me next, taking me in, then frowning. “Where is the bread?”

My cheeks burned from shame.

“Sirena is baking it for us today.”

Mother raised an eyebrow. “Should I ask why a woman, so heavy with her first child, is baking bread for me, when I have two able-bodied girls standing right here?”

“My cycle started.” Astra lifted her tunic and showed just the edge of the blood smear.

Mother stared at Astra, who gave her the biggest, widest, most innocent smile I had ever seen. Mother frowned, sensing mischief but unable to resist Astra’s charm.

“I have to go to the fields. I can’t stay with you.”

“It’s all right, Mother. Amara will stay with me. She’ll show me what to do.”

Mother looked between us, her eyes boring into our very souls. I squirmed under her intense gaze; Astra did not. I think she enjoyed it a little.

“Very well. Amara, show her how to bind herself with the linens. But I’ll expect you both to work while you’re home. Get the late meal prepared, ready our beds for tonight, and check the baskets to see if any need to be repaired. I don’t want them to break while carrying the wheat. And make sure the crocks are clean, and carry them all to the roof. I don’t want to lose any time once we bring the last of the olives home.”

I was going to twist Astra’s arm, hard, for this. Her ingenious plan had not completely saved us. We were still in for a day of backbreaking labor.

Mother wrapped her scarf over her head, careful not to obscure her face. She wanted protection from the sun, not a veil to announce she was a prostitute. We had to be careful with our scarves. A strong breeze could ruin a reputation. With her scarf tucked into place, framing her face but not obscuring it, Mother left.

I folded my arms and looked at Astra. “Get to work.”

“What? By myself?”

“You got us into this. I’m going to take a well-deserved nap, and when I wake up, if Mother’s chores are not finished, I’ll tell Father and Mother everything you’ve done.”

“You would not!”

“And how do you know that?”

“Because I know you, sister. You would take a secret to the grave.”

She was right, and I knew it. But I kept my arms crossed, keeping my own secret this time, glaring at her until she set to work with a pitiful pout.

I woke, sweat beading down my neck into my tunic. The room was dark; Astra had let the oil lamps burn out. She slept soundly beside me, curled into a ball like a kitten.

Father’s voice shook the reed walls as he approached the house. “Good news, girls!” He threw open the door and swept in, lighter on his feet than he had been all year. We were in the year of less, the year when we worked harder and ate little. He and Mother were never light or happy in these kinds of years. They aged terribly, each lean year making them two years older. I wished we had a way to make the fields produce more even harvests, especially the olive trees. We had no command over nature.

Mother was right behind him, lifting her tunic with one hand so she could keep pace. From her anxious face, I could tell he had waited to share this good news.

“Astra! Wake up!” I nudged her awake before jumping up, fumbling for a lamp. I stumbled toward the door, thankful for the soft light shining behind Father in the doorway.

“Let me light a lamp, Father. Wait for me!” I picked up a crock of oil, tucking it under my arm, and grabbed a small lamp before dashing into the courtyard to our community fire pit. I wanted to hurry, but this was not a task the wise girl rushed through. I filled the lamp with fresh olive oil and tested the length of the wick. I rubbed the top of the wick between my fingers, making sure it had not dried out. My fingers were slick and shiny, so I pulled a burning stick from the fire and lit the wick. The flame was flat and lifeless. The wick needed a trim to get that dancing effect I loved but there was no time, not if I wanted to hear Father’s news.

I cupped one hand around the flame, walking back with care. Once inside, I set the lamp on the low table in the far corner, and set to work lighting the other two lamps in the house.

Father did not wait for me to finish. “I sold all my rugs.”

“What?” My mother screeched. Astra ran to hug him. He pushed them back to show them his money bag, which always hung limp on his belt. The bag had grown so heavy since this morning, as if by magic, forcing him to hold it, supporting it from the bottom.

“Are we rich?” Astra squealed. “We’re rich, aren’t we?” Her eyes flashed the news to me. If we were rich, she hinted, my troubles were over. I would not have to be married right away, not even if the Hebrew demanded a payment for his injury. How much could he get for a bruise, anyway?

“We’re richer than we were this morning,” Father said, flicking his hands to set her back to her chores. He pulled Mother close and kissed her right on the mouth. We giggled to see such extravagance.

“Wait! You were in the fields today. I saw you!” Mother shook her head in confusion. “You weren’t at the market at all.”

“True, but a remarkable event happened. While I worked in the fields, a man the size of two oxen walked toward me. He had hair that cannot be described! It was longer than I have ever seen, hair all the way to the ground! And he was a huge man, a son of the gods, surely.”

“This man, this son of the gods, bought your rugs?”

“Indeed he did.”

I watched him for a hint of what was to come. Had the Hebrew revealed to him our crime? Dread sickened me, boiling around in my stomach.

“And what sort of man would he be, wandering around during the harvest?” my mother asked. “Has he no family of his own? Or perhaps his gods do not need to eat.”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.” Father sounded hurt, hearing her tear down his best customer. I worried that a fight was coming. They fought a lot in the lean years.

“What did the man say to you?” I asked.

“At first, he was interested in my sash. He was on the road leading out of Timnah and spied it from a distance. Turned right back and walked up to me, asking me where I had found it.”

“What did you say?” My voice was thin and weak.

He shrugged. “I told him the truth, of course. You should always tell the truth, girls. Tell the truth, and you will escape many dangers.”

He was so wrong! He had no idea what he had just done, what disaster his truth had just unleashed.

“So what did this man say about the sash?” I tried to sound interested, not panicked.

“The sash? Nothing. I assured him I was a merchant with many beautiful wares to offer. If he found the sash to be striking he should see my rugs. So he followed me to our stall at the market and bought them all.”

Smart Astra moved to pick up the blankets, deciding to busy herself. If my face looked anything like hers, Father would see our guilt and confusion before we said even one more word. This Hebrew was a serpent setting a trap for us. I could already see Father had fallen into it and was besotted with him.

I needed a chore. I needed busy hands and a clear mind, so I looked around the room to find something to do. I could see all of our home from where I stood. Like most of the families in our village, we had one large downstairs room separated by support beams for the roof. In the far right corner were the pallets we slept on, preferring to sleep closer together during the winter. To my left, along the back wall, was a low table where we took our meals, sitting on our bottoms. My mother had another, smaller table just in front of me, where she often did chores such as stringing fruit to hang from the support beams to dry or sewing a patch onto a tunic. She had good light here from the door, which she liked to prop open whenever the weather held. Her friends knew that when the door was open, she was doing the sort of chore that was always better when good friends provided chatter.

I decided to tend to the meal table, which needed a good oiling after the drying heat of summer. Mother kept a small crock of olive oil on the table, so all I needed was a rag to rub it in. I rummaged around in the basket on the floor where Mother kept her rags, made from old clothes that were not worth repairing any longer. We never changed tunics, wearing the same one for every season and every chore, so our clothes did not last long. She was devout, however, in supplying us with new scarves quite often, especially before festival seasons.

I chose a small piece of knobbed linen with pitiful tears running through it. Pouring a thin green streak of olive oil across the tabletop, I knelt down beside the table and set my mind on my work. Astra came over, holding a blanket up for my inspection, as if I needed to see that yet another hole had torn the fabric.

“Why would he do that?” she whispered.

“I don’t know. We owe him double now, though. You cracked his head, and Father sold him cheap rugs that won’t last the winter.”

A little spark of life passed between us, the familiar tweak that made us see the situation from a stranger’s eyes. Astra giggled first. I shook my finger at her before I gave in to my own giggles. My ears heard my father speaking, but my mind was slow to bring his words into focus.

“We need a goat,” Father told Mother. “And do we have any remaining cheese?”

I waved my hand at Astra’s face to quiet her. We were having guests for dinner.

“None. The goats are pregnant.” My mother’s tone was thin and tense. This was the worst possible month to have guests for dinner. Pregnant goats gave no milk. We couldn’t roast a pregnant goat, even if we were desperate, because it would mean giving up two goats. And the harvest was coming in, but it was hardly ready to serve guests. Olives had to be pitted and pickled and pressed; grapes had to be crushed and poured into wineskins; wheat had to be separated from the chaff, ground, and made into bread. All month, we ate raw heads of wheat, raw olives, and grapes. But you would not serve such a meal to strangers.

Father soothed Mother by stroking her shoulder and then reaching for her hand. He placed the fat bag into her palm and grinned at her.

“We have money now. Go and buy what you need. Go and buy everything you need. The other families will sell whatever you need. And fill the oil jar, to the top!”

I had never seen what money could do, and certainly never on my mother’s face. She grew younger in the blink of an eye. She reached to me, wiping the tears away from my cheek. She thought I was crying in relief, and she was moved by my tears, which made her cry.

Father looked at me, and then back at Mother, with her own tears now, and threw his hands up in exasperation.

“You’re all crying? I just made you wealthy, and you’re crying.” He groaned. “I’ll be on the roof. Amara, bring me a bowl of grapes and call me when dinner is ready or our guests arrive.”

He fled from us.

Mother ticked off her instructions to us, assigning chores and making her shopping list. Astra and I set to work as she left.

“Mother! Wait!”

She turned to me, a smile on her face. She delighted in me. Money in her palm made me more delightful too, I could tell.

“Which neighbors did Father invite for the celebration?”

I would have loved to have Sirena and her husband as our guests.

Her eyebrows rose and she gasped. “I didn’t ask. Isn’t that funny—money makes everything else unimportant!”

Astra and I danced as we worked, a lightness sweeping our feet along. Friends from the village were coming for dinner. We didn’t even care who they were; we were blessed. Money meant joy in our hearts and freedom in our family and health to our bones. And money made us numb, so that we did not demand an explanation as to who our inopportune guests might be, or why a Hebrew beast would buy so many rugs, or even what else might happen that day.

One lie would catch up to us, but much later. Astra could now be given in marriage, too. After all, her monthly cycles had started.

Sirena brought our bread by while we worked, and Mother set to work kneading another loaf. The oven outside was free so Mother could get one more loaf in, and as long as the gods didn’t spit on her plans, it’d be done by the time our guests arrived.

Astra and I worked until our tunics were stained with sweat. We finished polishing the tables, tidying the pallets and blankets, and removing old, dried herbs from their hanging hooks on the support beams. Mother had bought a new batch of herbs, and we worked bundling those together with ribbon and hanging them on the hooks for a fresh-smelling home. When there seemed to be nothing else remaining to do, Mother gave us a critical eye and a new list of chores, all of which involved our appearance. She thought we could use some attention ourselves.

The roof, with those breezes we loved in the summer, was turning too cold for a bath, so Mother heated water outside over the fire and brought a crock in for each of us to freshen up. She plaited our hair, securing them at the back of our heads with a sprig of rosemary for adornment. I suspected the rosemary was to help disguise any remaining scent of our hard labor.

Father came downstairs at last, keeping a wary eye out for more unexplained tears, and tightened the familiar red sash around his waist. As he did, a knock at our door echoed through the room. Astra clutched my hand in excitement. We hadn’t had guests for months. I hoped it was Sirena. She might let me rest my hand on her stomach and feel the babe kick at it.

“I hope it’s Talos!” Astra whispered. “He’s more fun than Sirena.”

I glared at her. For all her wisdom, she didn’t see the danger in talking to boys.

Father opened the door, his back blocking our view as he offered solemn words of welcome. He stepped away, one arm sweeping back, gesturing for the guests to enter.

The Hebrew stood on our threshold with an elderly couple behind him.

Astra’s grip on my hand turned ferocious. I knew I would have a bruise, but I felt no pain. I felt nothing, because nothing stirred in my body. My blood froze in my veins, my heart stopped, and I could not breathe. Only my eyes still worked, taking in this massive Hebrew man-beast, with that black mane cascading down to the ground, his dark eyes twinkling as if he found amusement in my shock and horror.

He lifted up his leg, which looked like the massive trunk of an oak tree, and crossed the threshold into my home and into my life. For that moment, as he moved through the doorway, he eclipsed all remaining light from the outside world, the torches, the stars, the oil lamps in windows. Everything went dark in his shadow. I shuddered.

He stood before my mother and nodded. “Ahaziku. Strength to you.”

“And success to you,” my mother replied in kind to the traditional greeting. She cut her eyes to my father, who was busy exchanging small pleasantries with the elderly man.

“I am Jocasta. Welcome to my home.” Mother gestured to my father. “You have met my husband, Adon.”

The man-beast nodded. “I am Samson. And this is my mother.”

I gasped, just a little, as did Astra. I knew exactly what she was thinking. This woman was ancient. She could not have birthed this man—not unless she had given birth in her seventies. She was close to ninety. I would have bet my life on it. I shuddered again. The Hebrew was a strange man from strange people.

The elderly woman stood behind him in the soft light, nodding curtly. She had a soft, square face and must have been attractive in her day. Her lips were still shapely, and she had colored them red with a steady hand. Her eyes, though surrounded by deep folds of wrinkles, were clear and sparkling. But this is what puzzled me: Both she and her husband had neat, well-groomed hair. Her husband had a short, white beard and thinning white hair combed back away from his face. Her own hair was white as clouds and pulled into a single tidy braid, which was wound around the top of her head and secured with a jeweled pin. Their robes were clean, and the mother wore a single gold ring on her hand. These were not people who would raise a feral child.

My mother gestured to the low, long eating table. “Please be seated while my daughters prepare our dinner.” They all moved to the table while Mother pulled Astra and me aside, presumably to give us instructions.

“Your father did not tell me they were Hebrews,” she whispered. Astra and I stood mute, terrified to be implicated in this.

“They must be the ones who bought all his rugs!” Astra whispered. “That’s why he invited them to eat with us. He thinks they will bring him more business.”

Mother glanced back at the table. Father was helping the elderly couple lower their half-dead bodies to their seats on the floor. Samson was already seated. He looked like a giant of Gath with a child’s play table in front of him.

“I hope you are right. I cannot imagine another reason why your father would invite them in,” Mother said.

Astra reached out and took hold of our arms, pulling us closer in, a tribe of three conspirators.

“We can do anything for one night. We will be as pleasant as possible, just for one night.” Astra declined to mention that we needed to be kind because she had smacked this giant in the head with a stick, and that he had cause—and means—to devour us all on the spot.

Mother rewarded her with a wide smile. “And they will return again with heavy purses? You think like your father.”

“I am uneasy,” I confessed. “The big one makes me nervous.”

Astra’s grip on my arm grew tight. “That is why we must be so pleasant, sister. We will disarm him with kindness. And then send him on his way.”

I pursed my lips and let out a long silent stream of prayer. Dagon was miles away in his temple. I didn’t know if he could hear me. Mother broke away from us and moved to be seated. Astra and I remained standing, awaiting orders.

Mother nodded to us. Dinner had begun. “Astra, pour the wine.”

Samson’s mother shook a finger at Astra. “None for my son.”

We were all silent. Finally Mother spoke. “Your son does not take anything with his meals?”

“My son does not drink wine or strong drink. If you have milk, he will take that.”

I could not help but giggle. This enormous man-beast Samson drank milk with his meals like a babe. He looked unhappy with his mother but said nothing.

Mother shrugged in deference. “Astra, when you are finished with the wine, pour our guest a nice bowl of milk.”

Astra drew up a ladle filled with scarlet perfection from our wine crock and filled the bowls one at a time, setting them on the table. Neither of us missed the scowl Samson’s mother made when Astra set a bowl of wine in front of Mother. As if she was tainted because she drank wine and they did not. Astra poured an extra full bowl for Father.

“Olive oil, bread, and chickpeas, please,” Mother commanded. Astra and I moved to serve the feast, carrying the dishes from Mother’s work table to the dining table, laying out a straight row of delicacies right down the middle of the table. A normal meal for us was just one thing—stew, perhaps, or bread and olives. Tonight we got to sample a little bit of everything, plus Mother had clearly splurged on tonight’s wine. The bite of fermented grapes stung my nose and made it twitch. We Philistines were known to our enemies for our use of iron and weapons, but to those as well cultured as ourselves, wine making was our best achievement. We had yet to find another culture that could make a wine to rival ours. Not even the Egyptians, with their chemists and magicians, had been able to summon enough magic or technology to overtake us in this most important of achievements. Without good wine, my father often said, life’s labors were too much for any man.

Samson’s mother took a sip of her wine and raised a fist to her mouth to hide a cough.

Mother leaned forward, concerned. “Are you all right? Is the wine too strong for you?”

“Too strong? No, that is not it. I am used to the Hebrew wines, that is all. Our grapes are better. We have the best elevation.”

Only Astra and I would have recognized the flexing of Mother’s jaw muscles and known how that comment riled her. The Hebrews occupied the higher ground to the north and the hills to the east so that they looked down at us. Not a day went by that we did not feel their eyes trained on our homes and our land. Everything had been fine, Mother told me, until the Hebrews came. They wanted our land but could not drive us from it, unless they had decided to make us so miserable that we would leave.

“Yes, the wine of the Philistines is quite different.”

I beamed with pleasure. Mother offered such a gracious reply. She could handle this woman.

“Don’t feel badly about that.” Samson’s mother brushed off the comment with one of her own. My shock at her poorly veiled hostility made me almost drop my plate of bread. I glanced at Astra and noticed little beads of sweat rolling down her temples.

Father was still too busy, sitting at the end of the table with Samson’s father, to realize anything was amiss. Samson himself sat at the far right end, the three men making a horseshoe around the end of the table. I noticed that the seat to Samson’s left was empty. Astra or I would have to sit there when we were done serving.

Mother turned to me. “You may bring the roast.”

I was not going to let him near Astra. I nodded to her, marking the other seat with my eyes, the seat next to Mother. She understood, and I went to fetch the roast.

Mother had purchased a roast already finished, marinated in vinegar and scallions, with a crisp brown crust sealing in the juices all the way around. The warm scent had filled the room and carved out a hollow in my stomach, making me keenly aware that I had not eaten all day. I lifted the plate and carried it to the table, letting the aroma settle my nerves. If nothing else, I would get a good meal tonight. I set the roast down and then took the spot next to Samson, before Mother or Father could indicate where I should sit.

Astra finished refilling the wine bowls and sat next to Mother, across from me. I was in between the man-beast and his impossibly old mother. I looked across the table at Astra and almost had to sit on my hands to keep from reaching across and strangling her. I did not know why this Hebrew had come back, but it was her fault.

I sat rigid, careful not to turn my neck and catch sight of the Hebrew. I dug into the food right away, scooping a handful of chickpeas into my mouth before I realized the trouble had begun. None of the Hebrews were eating. They were staring at their food, and then at us. Even Father stopped talking long enough to realize there was a grave problem.

Mother cleared her throat. “Forgive us. We have neglected your needs somehow. What may we do for you?”

Samson’s mother sat straight, her shoulders squared. “We wash before we eat. And give thanks.”

“Wash?”

I could tell Mother was aghast. We had not prepared baths for them. That would take all night. I blanched at the thought of the Hebrew naked on my roof. I would never even touch the washbasin again if he used it for his naked body.

Samson’s mother deigned a smile, as if we were ignorant. “We wash our hands before meals. Of course, it is also customary among my people to wash the feet of guests when they enter, but I did not mind that you neglected us. That ritual is really one done more for good manners than purity. But we will insist on washing our hands before eating. Even though you are a Philistine, you can understand, yes?”

Though the sun was low outside and the oil lamps were the only source of light, I could tell that all the blood had drained from Mother’s face. Her knuckles clutched the edge of the table, turning white as a forced smile found its way to her face.

“Of course.” Her tone was as cold as the winter winds to come. “Girls, fetch a bowl of water and a clean cloth. Do you require anything else?”

Samson’s mother shook her head, a peaceful expression on her face. I knew that look. She thought she had won.

Samson leaned forward to catch my attention, taking hold of my arm. I could not rise. Astra stood still, waiting for me, until Mother snapped at her to be quick.

“You never told me your name,” he said.

Mother’s eyebrows shot up. I spoke quickly.

“My mother neglected to introduce me; yes, you are right. I am called Amara.”

“Amara.”

Every girl loves the sound of her own name, but when he said it, it somehow sounded dirty. I wanted to catch it and give it a good scrubbing and make him promise not to say it again. I looked at my parents, but they had not heard anything amiss in his tone. I did not want to provoke him. I smiled and turned to look at him, to keep the pleasant pretense as best I could while Astra fetched a crock of water. She went out the front door, which was not a good sign—we must have been near empty. I hoped she could borrow some from a neighbor, rather than have to run down to the well. I wanted desperately to be saved from Samson.

This moment was my first real look into Samson’s face, his expression lit by the wide flat flames of the oil lamps. A shiver passed through me though the room was warm.

In the flickering light and shadows, his hair was no longer the first thing I noticed. Instead, the light focused on his face, illuminating it for me, so that I looked into his eyes for the first time, startled. He had a kind face, a handsome face. His eyes were wide and brown, reflecting the flames as he watched me. He was young, too, younger than I had first supposed, being no more than eighteen or twenty, if I guessed right. And although I was embarrassed by my own animal nature, which seemed to appear as if on command, I leaned in, just a bit, and inhaled through my nose. I wanted to know what he smelled like. Every animal has its own smell.

He smelled clean. His hair, though long, must have been well cared for. His teeth were white and whole, and his breath was warm and sweet, as if he had been chewing on cloves.

I shook myself from such dangerous contemplation. This man was a Hebrew, and a strange one at that, and he had a grudge against us. We did not even know why he was here.

He leaned closer in and inhaled through his nose, keeping his eyes on me, those playful eyes that showed me the laughter he hid inside. He was making fun of me. I couldn’t have helped being curious about him. He had such an outrageous appearance, of course he must have been used to curiosity.

Samson turned away to address my father. “You know how I like the sash you are wearing. I had one myself a while back. Where did you get it? I would love to buy another.”

I made a wide-eyed plea to my father to say nothing, but of course he did not understand. He waved an arm across the table. “I’m a merchant, my son. You have no idea the treasures I come across every week.”

“I am sure.”

Astra came through the door with a crock of water and a clean linen cloth. I wanted to jump up and kiss her for such timing, but I sat, hoping the hand washing would give the man-beast something else to focus on.

His mother took the crock first, dipping her hands in and then wiping them on the linen. She passed the crock to me as I turned to receive it, her piercing eyes accusing me of some unknown crime as my hands touched hers. I passed the crock right over to Samson. Dirty man that he was, he laid his hands over mine as I held out the crock to him, not releasing me, as together we set the crock on the table before him. When it sat there, he slid his hands off mine, slowly, his fingertips stroking the back of my hands. I clenched my teeth together, with my eyes narrowing and my nostrils flaring up.

Furious that he touched me so boldly, I jerked my hands free and tucked them under the table. My thighs went weak and hot as I stared at his face, which was already filled with stifled amusement.

He knew the effect he had on me, and he held me in no respect. I balled my left hand into a fist, and when he leaned over to dip his hands in the crock, I turned my body toward him as if to speak, landing a hard punch right in his stomach. He coughed, nearly knocking the crock over.

Astra gave me a stern look of rebuke, which I returned viciously. She had thrown a stick at this man’s head. He wanted compensation, all right—wanted me to pay with a little fleshly affection. If he thought I would receive his advances with anything other than disgust, then he knew nothing about Philistine women and our opinion of the Hebrews.

Samson’s father washed his hands next and then spoke to my mother.

“You are a kind and noble woman to accommodate us. Please, now, allow me to give thanks.”

Mother nodded to acknowledge his offer of thanks, the wonderful praise she was due, but he bowed his head and lifted his hands, as did Samson and his mother.

“Almighty God, who looks upon His people with favor, thank You for this meal.”

At that, he ate with vigor, as did Samson and his mother. My family and I were slower to reach for a plate or bowl. Had this man really just thanked his god for this meal, when it was plain that my mother and sister and I had prepared it? What had his god done? Where had his god been when I was oiling the table and trimming the wicks?

Mother sliced the roast into small slices to be eaten by hand. She served herself then passed the plate to Samson’s mother, who held up a hand.

“What animal is this?”

“Pig,” my mother replied. “Seasoned with vinegar and scallions. That is what gives it that beautiful dark crust.”

Samson’s mother looked pointedly at Samson and her husband, a sour purse sealing up her mouth. She turned back to my mother.

“Pigs are unclean. We do not eat them. It displeases our God.”

“Didn’t your god make them?” Astra asked. Her smile was too sweet. It hid something.

“Of course He did,” Samson’s mother replied.

“Then why did He make them taste so good?” Astra asked.

Samson laughed, but his mother stopped that with one look before training a cold, sharp gaze on my little sister. I curled my hands into fists once more. Rugs or not, no one was going to scold my little sister right in front of me, in my own home, even if she was trouble.

Samson rested a hot palm on my thigh.

Samson’s father stood up then and bowed to my mother and father. “We should go. It is harvest time, after all.”

Samson’s mother rose. “At harvest time, my people work. We do not entertain. Only fools would waste this season.” She glared at her son.

Mother stood very quickly—happy, no doubt, to see them gone. Astra and I stood as well. Samson’s mother made a move toward me.

I thought she wanted to say good-bye, but instead, she plunged her fingers into my ribs. I squealed in shock, jumping back, but she clucked her teeth at me and kept searching. She ran her fingers along each rib’s indentation, and then grabbed the sides of my hips, patting them firmly, as if testing them. Taking hold of them, she spun me around and dug her fingers along my spine next.

My mouth was open, and I looked at Astra in utter disbelief. Astra’s face mirrored what mine must have looked like. Her mouth hung open, and her eyes were wide. She looked frozen in shock and disbelief that a stranger could handle me like this, in my own home, right in front of Mother and Father.

I looked at Father for help, but he watched, with a strained look. I think he wanted to stop her, but he didn’t.

Samson’s mother released me, pushing me to the side to address her husband. “She needs a good flushing. If this comes to anything, remember that.”

With that, they left. Samson allowed his mother and father to pass through first, before turning and thanking us for our hospitality. I made a fist, hoping he noticed. He winked as he tilted his head in my direction, and was gone.

I had no idea what she meant by “flushing” me. I did not think it could be good.