Oh, Lover of Bethlehem
a monologue from the concubine of Judges 19
They told me I was crazy when I confessed that I loved you—you, the man who washed donkey hooves for a living with a bowl and a cloth, gathering sweat stains on your lower back at which I couldn’t help but stare as if they were not drops of sweat but stars. There are few things more intimate than this. They told me I was crazy when I confessed that I’d do anything to be near you. Really? Even be a concubine? one of them asked—the one you never liked, the one with blonde eyes who’d bring her husband’s donkeys and hardly look at you, their hooves wrapped in earth. At first I said No, and then I said Maybe, and finally I hoped, Well, he’d never make me. He’d want to marry me surely, which, of course, you never did.
And that, I suppose, is the reason I left you the night you slept beside one of your wives and I paced in the kitchen because I couldn’t sleep—again—and you didn’t care. That night, I went to you. Your wife tangled her legs in your blanket as if stealing it, leaving your shoulders and your chest bare, covered in a sheen of dark curling hair you were just beginning to lose. Placing my hand on your shoulder, I thought it odd that I could not be the one who possessed you fully—but only in part and only when you wanted. Andreas, can you wake up. Can you talk to me? I can’t sleep. You placed your hand on mine and turned away, nearly pulling my arm with you. The thing with desire—yours and mine—is that it begins as we all do. Desire begins small like a baby, skin still stretching and shaping itself around bones, and then, as if by magic, it leaps into a form that pushes on the walls of your insides until it breaks them entirely. And so, by your bedside, as I watched you loosen your fingers from my hand to fling your arm over the woman beside you—the woman I never liked, the one who made eyes at me when she saw me watching you in love and panic—I broke, and I ran.
And why did you follow? This is something that will never make sense to me—or my father who tried so hard to please you as if you were something more than a lover. Before you, he laid plates of food that I had never before even seen in my home, let alone eaten, and you hardly ate anything at all, picking at the insides of the bread he baked that morning and staring at me as if I myself was on your plate. With your eyes, you tricked me, but what could I say?
That night, you came to my room—the one I’d slept in since I was seven and couldn’t fall asleep without saying prayers with my mother—and I thought the feeling of you was odd. It was strange how natural you seemed in my space. It was as if you had always lived in this room—with me—since I was a girl, a piece of furniture in the corner I’d forgotten because it was covered with blankets and old pieces of clothing and dust. You came toward me, wordless and moving, and I let you, hardly remembering myself. Why did you leave? you asked me, and as you stood there—absorbing the space of the seconds as they shook into future—your hand on the doorframe upon which my mother cataloged my growth as if my whole life could fit beneath a penciled line, you were true. I didn’t leave, I said, hardly able to look at you because I hardly knew my meaning but was discovering it as I spoke. And as you discover your meaning, it’s nearly impossible to look at another for fear they might see it before you do. I didn’t leave, I said again, not really, at least. Then you took me, and the seconds that would become the future seemed to shed themselves off us, leaving us there where our lips became all that existed in a world that had become one of pure matter.
My father told us not to go, and truthfully, I didn’t want to leave. Every night, I’d wait for you, sitting in the corner of my room, weaving something because I couldn’t stand to sit still. Ever since I was a girl, my hands have needed something to tangle themselves in as if to remind myself that I was, in fact, a part of the world. Sometimes you’d be late, but I was never angry with you. You simply confused me. I thought that if love was real then love must be perfect—not like a circle drawn in the sand with a stick, misshapen and impossible to categorize. But when you’d place your hand on my door frame—your thumb always covering the pencil mark of the last time I grew like an unspoken metaphor—I figured that a misshapen circle was enough sometimes, if the circle were true. What are you weaving? you asked me though I knew you didn’t care. And the knowledge of this built me—knowing that it didn’t matter what I said, only that I was saying–breathing before you again. Then I’d move toward you, brushing away the minutes with my fingers as if they were weeds that I picked to hang in your hair.
Only during those nights, with you, was time anything more than simple motion—that tunnel through which we crawl for some reason we can’t seem to stop for a long enough time to actually know.
The last night we were together you told me that you would go, in the morning, and I with you. Your face leaned away from mine as if forgetting it, and your eyes flung themselves out the window as if already seeing them—your wives and the kids you taught to speak to the animals when nobody else would listen. But Ephraim is so far, I said, stitching my meaning, which was simply fear, into words that were too clean to hold my sense of flailing—words that were false. Oh yes, I know, you said, failing to sense the thing that lay beneath my question, as if my fear of distance was strictly geographical. We’ll stop on the way home, I promise. You took the hair on my head and parted it like the seas I imagined Moses walking through so quickly, like you, walking along the skin of me. Okay, I said, taking your hand and pressing it down, thinking of circles and how they never turn out as you want them to when you’re young, just beginning to sketch their bending, uneven curves in the sand.
We’d been traveling, and you were tired–so tired that a sound like that of the ocean began to leap out from beneath your feet. You can barely walk, I said, looking over at you tugging a couple of weary donkeys and shuffling so that your sandals hardly left the ground. Swallowing your profile—your sagging eyes and your upper lip which always seemed to overshadow the bottom—I understood that thoughts of me, the feeling of them, could not revive you as thoughts of you did for my own body. I could have walked to Ephraim and back and felt as if even that was not enough, like when I pressed your hand down on my head, thinking that your touch was not enough either—I could not make you become me as I wanted. Why don’t we stop? I asked, willing to do anything to avoid the wives with their braids and the children who looked everything like you and nothing like me. Do you understand what this could do to a woman?
The man was kind to us when we asked if perhaps he had a place for us to stay? His face was like that of a withering peach, and it seemed to grow weeks older as it folded to our request, saying, Yes, yes—please. Come stay with me in Gibeah. It’s been so long since I’ve had any guests. He didn’t ask me who I was to you, but simply dragged his eyes across mine and bowed slightly with his covered head. My father had told me about Gibeah, but I didn’t say anything about it as we followed the man to his home. You were so tired, after all, and I could see it in your shoulders and your chest over which I had scattered my fingers the night before—both now encircled by sweat.
You were laying on my hair when I heard them—before you—and it hadn’t even been a night. My love, you’re hurting me, I said though smiling and not really hurting at all but simply wanting to say my love in the context of some trivial, necessary thing. My love—I wanted to drink the novelty from the phrase and make it so commonplace that it seemed to lose all meaning, and in that, gain everything. My love—in the kitchen, throwing grains of rice into a pot. My love—in the village, surrounded, you tossing me the cloth you used to clean a donkey and asking for another as I held it, like something foreign and sacred. My love—in an old man’s home in Gibeah, tugging my hair from beneath your arm as you turned to me and grinned, softly taking it in your fingers. My love, was I ever something sacred to you, or was I like the water in which you doused your animals’ feet—useful and transparent?
You still hadn’t heard a thing when the old man knocked on the door frame, looking away from us as if to be polite—that old peach who’d soon be willing to toss his petite daughter out the window, quietly wedging himself into a corner. It’s the men, he said, still staring out at the rest of his dark home rather than at us. Smiling at me and narrowing your eyes, as if to say Would you look at that? Out of all the old men in Gibeah, we choose to stay with the crazy one, you dropped my hair from your fingers and sat up. What do you mean, the men? What do they want? You asked this innocently, but already, I felt the hands of your question rearranging things, placing their fingers on my throat and picking at pieces of me that used to be parts of a whole. Already, I sensed the current of your question changing things as the old man looked at you with a question himself, his head tilting like a planet falling and eyes striking the place where my knees rose like mountains beneath our blanket. I sensed your question changing things as I felt you understand the old man, finally staring down at your hands and then at my feet—passing his question on to me.
It was as if your question changed the past and Bethlehem itself—who you were within them—a man traveling backward to resurrect his lover. You let the ropes that held your donkeys fall when you saw me—doing something outside I can’t even remember—and recognized that you never did know me, finally wanting to know this breath you couldn’t hold.
Was it really love or was it simply possession that brought you to me, your lover in Bethlehem? I lie to myself every time I see you—like a habit carried on for so long that it’s become the truth. Only sometimes does love feel like anything more than this.
I’ll go to them, I said, knowing that you were the one they really wanted, knowing that you would not protest my offer which was really half a question, and knowing that you would’ve asked me anyway if I didn’t say this—and I wouldn’t have been able to bear it. Yes, I went out of love for you, but I also went out of fear for me. I feared the sound of your question pointed toward me—the revelation that you did not love me. A million savage men seemed like nothing compared to this. You seemed so easy as you looked at me and nodded, saying Thank you, which I thought odd—the fact that you could still look at me and say something so ordinary—and I thought that maybe in my attempt to avoid my fear, I laid right in it. The bed of a man who did not care.
Often I wonder, if when you discovered me, as if by chance, on the doorstep of the old man’s home the morning after, you felt anything besides simple anger—the kind a child feels when one of her toys is taken and tarnished and destroyed. My love, you said, your voice rising like the mountain on which Moses went to speak with God—the question trailing your words, piercing the clouds. And I thought it strange how, even with my clothes hardly anything anymore, even when I was so near dying, I felt as if I myself was with Moses on Sinai, swaying before God and waiting for his hand to write something absolute not on stone but on my skin, those words from you could still inflame me. Yes, I said with as much strength as I imagine it took Moses to hold those pieces of rock in place as on them, God transcribed his face. And you don’t even know their meaning—do you?
The old peach couldn’t look at me, and neither could you, really—not for much longer than you had to as you took the cloths you brought for your donkeys’ feet and wiped the bloodiest parts of my body. The old man’s daughter looked at me though. The way her thin hair looped itself around her elbows and then fell as she leaned over me with warm towels and ointment that smelled like ash before finally pausing told me that I was, perhaps, dying. In her dark black-brown eyes I saw what you could never give me—understanding. Oh sweetie, she said, though I was years older than her, taking my head in her arms and cradling it like a baby, placing small kisses on my forehead as if I was only a baby, just being born and hardly knowing a thing—not about men who found you in Bethlehem or what the words my love really meant when one person understands them and the other does not. On a chair, you sat in the corner of the old man’s home, staring not at me but at a piece of the floor beside me, almost seeing.
Often, I wonder how my body felt—split into 12 pieces–heavy in your hands. Did it feel as it did when it was still whole and beside you at night, in the quiet of Bethlehem? Did you kiss those parts of me when you sent them away as if you owned them, making some statement to Israel about which I couldn’t care less? Did my hand, now separate from my body, feel any different than it did when knit to the rest of me? And when you held it before you sent it away, were you, for a moment, tricked? Did your fingers rise up my skin, expecting to feel a wrist and an arm, but find vapor instead?
When you watched those young men you hired take all of my parts away, did you hear my body calling backward, prying the silence open—my love, my love, my love—12 times over? When I died, I spoke these words to the ceiling. My love, I spoke, but you couldn’t hear.
Brooke Stanish is a poet and writer whose poetry, short stories, and essays have been accepted in America, The Windhover, The Rectangle, Whale Road Review, Living Waters Review, Time of Singing, Green Blotter, Manzano Mountain Review, BlueHouse Journal, The Ricochet Review, and other publications. Currently, she lives in Sunrise, Florida.
Artwork: The Levite of Ephraim (Le Lévite d’Ephraïm méditant de venger sa femme morte victime de la brutalité des Benjamites) by Alexandre-François Caminade, 1837. Public Domain.