Judith

 

 

Judith

By Amy Bitterman

 

 

After years of widowhood, ashes and black wool fell away from Judith like an old skin. High in her tower, she searched beneath her bed for the clothing that she'd put away after her husband's death. Shaking away the dust mites, she unfurled a sea of magenta, plum and malachite. Then she kicked off her sandals and walked through waves of cotton and silk. When she reached an open window, she hung an old robe over it. Memories of her dead husband, Manasseh, filled the room. She pressed her face against the material in the places where his scent lingered. At the wrists, just below the waist, around the neck. The breeze washed him over her. When she closed her eyes, she felt his callused hands on hers. She directed his fingers over her lips and between her breasts. By the time her hand grazed her hips, Manasseh was gone.
 
Street talk rode in on the silence. Judith leaned against the cold stone and listened to the latest war news. The Assyrian army had dammed up the feeder streams with limestone and brick, leaving the village to die of thirst. Day and night, the elders sat in a circle around the parched well, a colloquy of beards. Squatting on their haunches, they rocked themselves back and forth to loosen their thoughts. Plans and possibilities dribbled down their chins and stained their gray cotton robes. Everyone else collected what little water they could find. The women went into the hills at sunrise and sponged up the dew from the myrtle and asphodel with their skirts. The men dug deep into the scarred earth in the vain hope of striking water. And when neighbors passed in the market, they searched each others’ eyes for sin because the eyes were the mirrors of the soul and someone had to be responsible for the drought.
 
Judith saw all this from her tower. As she considered what to do, she took off her widow’s weeds, dipped them in saltwater and wrapped the material around her torso to shrink the swelling left by the scratchy wool. Without her sorrow, her waist was smooth and trim again.
 
She remembered how, years earlier, her two maiden aunts had mapped her middle to measure her bride price. Her future husband lived in the plains between Dothan and Balamon, where water ran freely, but his people were from the mountains and he wanted a home-grown bride.
 
“I don't want to go,” Judith told her aunts. She didn't want to leave the pines and the hills and the crisp, thin air that made her lightheaded when she took deep breaths.
 
“Think, Judith. The land of milk and honey,” her aunts said.
 
She saw herself as she would be, her bare feet sticking to the sweetened ground, sugar crunching under her heels. No more droughts, no more trips down the well, no more fighting with spiders for the drops caught in their webs. Was it a fair exchange? The threat of ending up like her maiden aunts weighted the answer.
 
Bells on the necks of her bride price announced her groom’s arrival.
 
“Two goats, three sheep and a ram,” Judith's father said, proudly wrapping his hands around her waist. “A fair price for a perfect girl.”
 
Judith slid her slim fingers under the veil that hid her face and stepped out of the shadows. Manasseh had a long straight nose with wide nostrils that she wanted to pinch on sight. The sun stoked the fire in his beard and bounced off his even, ivory teeth, but when she looked into his soul, all Judith saw were two tiny versions of herself drowning in an onyx sea. She blinked. When she opened her eyes again, she was a bride.
 
That night, hands trembling, Manasseh tried to remove the silk and linen dowry that Judith carried on her back. Each layer revealed another layer. As she retreated under the fortress of material, Manasseh gave up trying to find her. Although they made love fully clothed, barely touching, Judith still felt something stir as her new husband moved inside her. Words jumped to the tip of her tongue. She wanted to share them, but Manasseh kept turning his face away from hers. Their mouths never met.
 
When Judith woke up the next morning, Manasseh was gone. She took a deep breath. Not even a hint of honey, only the brackish smell of the previous night’s sweat and strain. Outside, earwigs sang love songs to each other. Judith burrowed under the covers to shut them out. She caressed the palms of her hands, her breasts, her belly—all the untouched places of the night before. By the time she was ready to leave her bed, the sun was directly overhead. When she stood, blood flowed down her legs and tears fell over her cheeks. A few minutes later, an old woman came into the room, dragging a large copper basin behind her.
 
“Who are you?”
 
“Beulah, Manasseh’s servant, and now yours as well.”
 
Judith stared at the old woman’s wide cheeks and thin lips. “You’ve got a mountain face, like me,” she said.
 
Beulah smiled. “You’re not the first one to make the journey down.”
 
After she bathed and dressed her, Beulah led Judith to Manasseh’s fields. Tall, yellow stalks swooned in the breeze. A golden haze softened the twisted outlines of the distant olive trees. There weren’t any hills or mountains separating earth from sky. As her eyes adjusted to the bright, even light, Judith saw that the plains were beautiful. And her husband was beautiful. Her eyes lingered over his strong legs and fiery hair. She took her assigned place next to him and helped serve the midday meal.
 
Side by side, they tore loaves of bread into small pieces, dipped them in honey, and handed them to the laborers lined up for their food. Manasseh greeted the workers by name and asked after their families. His kindness made her love him. Still too shy to speak, she began to dance. She spun around and around until her skirts whipped back and forth across her thighs and raised clouds of dust. Manasseh clapped for her. She danced to the music of her husband's hands until she was out of breath and on her knees. Manasseh bent down, lowered his face to hers and kissed her on the mouth. Eyes open, Judith stared into his soul and saw herself smiling back.
 
“Let me help,” she said. She walked to the other end of the field, picked up Manasseh's curved blade, and ran her fingers along the serrated edge until she drew blood.
 
“Women glean,” Manasseh said, “men sow.”
 
When she held her hand over his mouth, Manasseh's objections melted into her warm palm. She picked up the scythe and cut an arc through the sky, slicing the air into pieces. Her strokes were short and clean. The other workers moved to the sides of the field and beat on the ground with their fists so Judith wouldn't lose the music. Her dress was soaked through, but she kept going. When she reached the last row, she sat down to catch her breath. For the first time since she’d come to the plains, Judith felt that she’d arrived. Leaning back on the soft earth, she let the weight fall away from her limbs until she was light enough to meet the setting sun.
 
Once they were home, Manasseh kneaded the muscles in her arms and legs and sprinkled water from a copper basin over the sweat-stiffened pleats of her dress.
 
“You'd let me cut again if I wanted to,” she said.
 
“As if I could stop you.”
 
“Thank you, just the same.”
 
They stretched out on their bed and talked and talked and talked. She told him about the maiden aunts and the needle-sharp mountain rains. He told her about the loneliness of being an only son and the smothering valley heat. They talked until their stories merged. They talked until the night lightened to dawn. When he rolled onto his side to make room for her, she slid into the space next to him. As he shifted his weight onto hers, Judith shut her eyes. Behind her closed lids, she floated on a mountain stream, gently rocking over the water.
 
“Don’t rush,” she whispered. She knew they were setting out on a new and fragile course and that the smallest misstep might disturb it. Manasseh lingered over her, stroking her limbs, kissing the hidden, damp places he’d shied away from the night before. He feathered the back of her legs with his fingers and tickled the soles of her feet. With the tip of her tongue, she explored the whorls of his ear, the valley created by his collarbone, the soft indentations of his ribcage. Heat rose from their entwined arms and legs, transforming them from solid to liquid, so that thought and feeling flowed from the one to the other. When Manasseh returned to his side of the bed, Judith put her hand on her husband's damp chest and held it there. While her fingers rode his breath, she counted, slowly, until she fell asleep.
 
*
 
Beulah was the one who taught her to cook, but Judith was the one who asked. She had watched Beulah create macaroons from ground almonds, and sculpt corn meal into perfect squares redolent of lamb and sage. Having mastered harvesting and lovemaking, she wanted to see what other magic her hands could perform. Instead, she learned how to kill.
 
“Not all the domestic arts are pretty,” Beulah said, holding down a struggling hen. “Once across the throat; no point in cruelty. A tortured animal will leave its bile in your belly. And never stew the child in its mother's milk or it’ll come back to haunt you in your dreams.” Warm blood spurted onto Judith’s arms. She wrote her name with the drops that fell on the ground.
 
“Judith, daughter of Merari,” she said out loud.
 
“Where did you learn to read and write?”
 
“My father.”
 
“That’s a boy’s game.”
 
“He didn’t have any sons so he let me play.”
 
“I'd keep that to myself if I were you. Besides, that's not your name now. You're Judith, the wife of Manasseh, and, God willing, the mother of an army of boys.”
 
By the time Manasseh returned from the fields, the sky had already started to burn into smoky night. When she saw his outline in the doorway, Judith ran to him and tugged on his beard. "I did battle with a great beast," she teased.
 
“Who won?”
 
“Look at your plate.”
 
When they finished dinner, they decorated each other with dessert and took turns stealing sticky dates and sweet figs from noses and cheeks. Tiny seeds from the figs slid beneath Judith’s nails. Manasseh bit the tips of her fingers and kissed them clean. When he bent over her hand, the candlelight made his skin transparent and outlined the bones of his face. Something cold passed through Judith and made her shudder.
 
“What's wrong?”
 
“I thought I saw a ghost,” she answered.
 
In bed, she clamped his naked back between her knees and measured him vertebra by vertebra, cherishing every inch in a prayer to stop time. She blew on the thin layer of sweat that coated his shoulders and neck. Her mountain breath raised goose bumps on his skin that she smoothed down with her palms. He turned over and pulled her onto the bedding. Then he laid his head on her smooth, tight belly and listened.
 
“Tell me,” he said, but there wasn't any answer.
 
“Soon,” Judith promised.
 
Week after week, she woke up with Manasseh's ear on her stomach and his arm measuring her waist. Taking matters into their own hands, Judith and Beulah laid offerings of grain and wine on the stone altar in the center of the village.
 
“Only the best vintage,” Beulah instructed. ”Never try to fob off the dregs on our Lord. If anyone can tell a bad must, it's the Almighty.”
 
The honey-sweetened wine dripped slowly down the four sides of the altar. Crowds of flies blackened the surface of the granite. Beulah tried shooing them away, but they stuck to the sugary coating. “It’s a bad sign,” she moaned. “You'll never have children now.”
 
“You can’t know that.”
 
“True enough. I'm just an old woman with nothing to show for her years but work-tough hands and gums that could scrape the bark off a tree. Still, I wouldn't waste much time on baby clothes if I were you.”
 
That night, Judith curled up against Manasseh and folded her knees into his. His heartbeat tapped on her back. Without children, there was no end to what they would need from each other. Worse, their lives would end with their deaths. Absent a son to carry his name, Manasseh had no chance for immortality.
 
Judith took silent inventory of the blessings she did have: the house, the animals, the ivories, the copper vessels, the bronze combs and mirrors, the amber necklaces and silver bracelets. Beulah’s prophecy interrupted her count:
 
“He’ll divorce you. Where will you be then?”
 
“Where I started.”
 
“And what bride price does a barren woman bring? A broken heart and a dead name. Try selling that in the market.”
 
“He loves me.”
 
“Abraham loved Sarah, but that didn’t stop him turning to Hagar to keep his line alive.”
 
Judith woke up with Manasseh's arm across her waist and his head on her smooth, tight belly.
 
“Any day now,” she lied. “Any day.”
 
She put copper fertility bands on her arms. Mornings, she fasted to clear away any impurities her prayers might have missed. She shrank into her fear. Worry and sorrow were eating her alive. When the fertility bracelets began falling off her thin arms, she changed tactics, eating past her fill so the child would have a padded place to rest. She lied about her periods, but she couldn’t hide the blood that stained the sheets when Manasseh entered her during her forbidden time.  Day after day, she woke up to his rough beard nuzzling her belly while he mumbled sweet nothings to the void between her hips.
 
And then it was late summer again. Grapes swelled to bursting, fell and festered on the ground. Dates and pomegranates filled the air with a sugary, ripe smell. The earth’s abundance mocked her. There were days she couldn’t bear to leave the house.
 
Manasseh began going to the fields alone. Judith was not allowed to infect the crops with her bad luck. One especially hot morning, she stood in the doorway waving the straw hat he’d left behind.
 
“Never mind,” he shouted back. ”It's cloudy today. I won't need it.”
 
 
*
 
“It was sunstroke,” the workers told her when they brought Manasseh's body back. “His heart just stopped.”
 
Judith felt her body turn cold, then hot, then cold again. Curling her fingers into a fist, she pounded on her empty womb; she couldn’t stomach the thought that he had simply given up.
 
“He was working the fields. We begged him to slow down, to rest, to drink something, but he wouldn’t stop. It was as if a demon was chasing him. His cuttings were knee-high in places. When he reached the end of the last row, he fell to his knees and waved his arms in the air. Then he fell backward. By the time we reached him, his eyes were already sightless and fixed on God.”
 
Beulah sent the workers out to find a priest. When they were alone, Judith lifted the sheet that covered Manasseh’s body. Pressing her cheek to his, she prayed for a breath, a flash of warmth, any sign of life. For a second, she felt something, but she knew it was only her need. She tried to curl the corners of his mouth into the child grin that used to hover over her in the early, happy days of their marriage, before sex became work.
 
“I want him to greet God with wonder,” she told Beulah. But Manasseh's features had already hardened.
 
Before she buried him, Judith cut her hair off and wove the long, sable strands through Manasseh's fingers and around his arms. Slowly, carefully, she spread perfumed unguents on his neck and cheek.   She covered the bronze mirrors, tucked her scarlet, blue, and purple dowry out of sight, and wrapped widow's sackcloth around her waist. That night, she placed a pillow over her face and kissed it. Then she held it beside her and tucked her knees into its soft middle. When she remembered how she and Manasseh used to lay side by side, exchanging stories with their tongues and hands, sadness spread through her like cracks across ice.
 
On the seventh day after Manasseh's death, Beulah went to Judith's house to anoint her with ashes dampened in spring water.
 
“What do I do now?”
 
“You'll fast until evening and then you'll eat.”
 
“Then what?”
 
“Then you'll do what everyone else does, only you'll have better provisions than most.”
 
“I'll go back to the fields.”
 
“And bring your bad luck to the crops? Not on your life or anyone else's. Listen to me, child, you'll keep yourself to yourself and be honored for your grief. If you stay chaste and obey the mourning laws, people will forget you were barren. When you break your fast on Sabbath eve, you can speak again. Until then, not a word.”
 
Judith nodded.
 
Pinned down by her widow’s silence, Judith curled up on her bed and waited. And wondered why she hadn’t been enough for him. Or was it that he couldn’t bring himself to divorce her?
 
At Friday sunset, Beulah returned, pried open Judith's lips and listened patiently while she rambled on and on about her marriage and her loss. As Judith spoke, she felt more and more hollow, as if she were a ship at sea and each word was a weight tossed overboard. She groped for something that would fill in the empty space carved out by Manasseth’s death.
 
“Am I very rich?”
 
“In a manner of speaking,” Beulah answered.
 
“Tell me.”
 
“Your husband left you gold and silver, servants and fields, cattle and land.”
 
“Enough to build on?”
 
Beulah nodded.
 
“Find me the best masons we have,” Judith said. “And make sure they aren't afraid of height. I want to build up. I want windows, lots of windows.  I need to see beyond this place.”
 
When it was finished, Judith’s tower climbed past the mountains and brushed against the clouds so she could keep watch on the plains. She counted the weddings and births and watched the funeral processions wind their way to the burial caves. Month after month, she opened the shutters, looked down on the market, and watched merchants pile fruits and vegetables on rough stone stalls. Etrogs and lulavs, apples and oranges, barley and radishes stacked in red, green, and yellow pyramids. Arguments over weight and cut rose to Judith's windows.
 
“Tell me,” she said and the sky answered with the latest gossip.
 
Sometimes she saw passersby staring and pointing. Tourists seeking the strange. They looked at her with snake eyes full of pity that turned her to stone. She climbed higher to get away from them. From the upper floors of her tower, she imagined her way into the world beyond the plains and watched sailboats cross oceans and caravans lumber across continents. She visited places on the far side of the map to eavesdrop on families where women hunted and wives had more than one husband and children belonged to everyone. She learned that in other parts of the world the men stayed home and babied the children, while the women fought and built.
 
One morning late in her self-imposed exile, Judith climbed to the top of her home and saw foreign troops heading toward Judea. Armor-plated phalanxes crushed everything in their way, pausing only to send threats into the air to clear the path ahead of them. Dark clouds formed outside Judith's windows, hinting at revenge for slights to a foreign king.
 
Judith watched the Assyrian army set fire to all the towns between the desert and the sea. Homes and barns, shops and silos were reduced to rubble. She saw hundreds of bodies piled up and left to rot. She watched toddlers crawl over the corpses of their mothers to suckle empty breasts. An acrid, fetid stench invaded Judith’s tower. She doused her home with rose-scented oils, but the fear smell clung to the air.
 
*
 
Just beyond Dothan, the soldiers cut off the water supply and waited for the inhabitants to surrender. A month without rain left a bitter coating of dust on the tongues of Judith’s neighbors. Through the windows of her tower, she heard them hissing at each other:
 
“We should have paid tribute when the Assyrian king asked for it.”
 
“It wasn't too late, then.”
 
“Five more days,” the elders decided. “If the Lord hasn’t taken pity on us by then, we’ll surrender.”
 
“Our Father has abandoned his children.”
 
“We have no Father.”
 
Bastards, Judith thought, who are you to test God? She closed her shutters on the buzz outside, but a thin wail snuck through a crack in the wall. Judith covered her ears with her hands, but the high-pitched cries crept between her fingers. Behind her closed eyelids, she saw a young mother rock an empty cradle while a dehydrated old man reached for her blouse. She gently brushed back her father’s few remaining hairs and loosened her clothing so she could feed him.
 
There were all kinds of motherhood, Judith realized. When she thought about the flaking skin and parched throats of the other villagers, she felt her own breasts swell beneath her widow's sackcloth. Milk soaked the black material. She pulled the mourning linen off the mirrors and examined her face. Her auburn hair had silvered, her silvery skin had grayed, but underneath the layers of dead time, her almond-shaped brown eyes still glowed; her thin-lipped smile still lit up her face. Using an iron pestle, she crushed cinnabar and berries in a bowl and painted her lips and cheeks with the deep red mixture. Then she pulled out the rainbow of clothes that she’d put away when Manasseh died.  
 
Miles away in Jerusalem, the priests were burning incense in the Temple. Judith wrapped herself in a cloud of myrrh and sandalwood and prayed:
 
Lord God who ran and played with me in the hills
and kissed my brow with your frozen fingertips,
Give me strength to wound and kill
with a turn of my hips.
Show your sons and daughters
the power of a woman’s hand.
 
She summoned Beulah with the bells that had once hung around the necks of her bleating bride price. For the first time since Manasseh’s death, the two women went into the bedroom Judith had shared with him. Cobwebs garlanded the ceiling beams. Standing in the corner was a jar full of the almond oil that she and Manasseh used to rub into each other’s hands and feet. Its perfume had fermented into an unbearable sweetness that turned Judith’s stomach. “Get rid of it,” she ordered.
 
She lined her old jewelry across the floor: bracelets made of carnelian and glass beads, silver amulets decorated with garnet mounts. When the sun picked out her favorite pieces, she knew they pleased God as well and set them aside for her arms and wrists.  
 
“We'll need wine and oil,” she told Beulah, “and barley cakes and pure loaves and dried apricots and figs.”
 
“How much?”
 
“Enough for five days. If I don't act by then, it will be too late.”
 
*
 
They set out for the Assyrian encampment at first light.
 
“This is craziness,” Beulah wheezed as she struggled to keep up with Judith. “Two women against an army. What possessed you?”
 
“You wouldn’t understand,” Judith said.
 
“I’m entitled to know why you’re dragging my carcass up this mountain.”
 
“Look at me, Beulah. I’m not young anymore. I haven’t much time left, but if I can do this thing, this one thing, I’ll live forever. Without children, fame is the only way I can cheat death.”
 
“Death is a gift, child." She made a space between her second and third fingers and spat. “It’s a sin to try and cling to this world. Let’s go back; it’s not too late.”
 
Judith looked down at the plains. A thick, dark cloud covered the village. Only her tower was visible. “It's as if the place was never there at all,” she said. “As if we'd dreamed it.”
 
“The clouds are filling your head with cotton. If there was no Dothan, where did we get these barley cakes? And this wine?” Beulah poured a few drops of alcohol on her fingers and flicked them into Judith's face.
 
When they reached the summit, they saw the steel tips of the Assyrian tents glittering in the next valley.
 
Judith raised her braceleted arms to the sky and held them there until the gold caught the sunlight, attracting the attention of the watch guard.
 
“I'm a daughter and widow of the Hebrews,” she announced to the five men who approached her. “I want to talk to your General, Holofernes.”
 
“Why?”
 
“Because I don't want the scroll of my days written in the book of defeat. The Hebrews have sinned against their God and He’s not likely to forgive them.”
 
The guards agreed to escort the two women to the general's tent.
 
“Who would have thought it would be so simple,” Judith whispered.
 
“Men believe anything a pretty woman tells them,” Beulah mumbled back. “A beauty can have a thousand lovers and tell each one to ‘be patient with me, sweetheart; you're my first.’ Half an evening later, she's screaming to the same fool that he’s the best of all the men she’s been with and he believes her both times.”
 
*
 
Holofernes was a tall man with a red beard. The warmth in his hair revived an old memory of Judith’s days in the fields at her husband’s side. No, she reminded herself, this man would force his wife to glean. And worse. She closed her eyes and focused on a vision of slaughtered children, their small fingers clenched in permanent fists.
 
“Sin has taken hold of my village,” she said. “We're short of water and supplies. The instant their stomachs started rumbling, the Hebrews ate forbidden foods and divided the Lord’s portion of wine and oil among themselves. When I saw all this, I knew that God would punish them. That’s why he sent me to you.”
 
“And what form is this punishment supposed to take?”
 
“I don’t know. The Almighty's work can't be rushed. When He’s ready, He’ll send a sign. In the meantime, you must be patient with me.”
 
Beulah choked on her laughter.
 
“What's wrong with her?” Holofernes yelled.
 
“Nothing, my lord,” Beulah answered. “Just an old woman's gas.”
 
“I can take care of that,” Holofernes said as he unsheathed a scimitar from the folds of the purple canopy that hung over his bed.
 
Judith stood on her toes and grabbed the armed arm that Holofernes waved above his head.
 
“What's this old woman to you?”
 
“She's the only one here of my race,” Judith answered. “I need her to prepare my food. Otherwise, I'll provoke God's anger as well. It may be days before He shows His hand, but from that instant, I'll be your guide across Judea until you reach the holy of holies.”
 
“I’ll give you a week,” Holofernes said, staring at Judith's belt. “But I expect to enter your holy of holies before then.”
 
*
 
“Imagining his death is easier than I thought it would be,” Judith said when she and Beulah were alone again. “He’s not a person, he’s the enemy. The instant I labeled him, he stopped being human. I’ll be killing a thing.”
 
“And when do you plan on killing this thing?”
 
“I don’t know. In the meantime, stay away from the supplies,” Judith ordered as Beulah reached into a sack of dried food. “We’ve already eaten today’s rations.”
 
“But there's enough food for four more days.”
 
“It may take that long to find the right moment,” Judith said as she crawled under the fleece that covered the floor of their tent. By midnight, she was blanketed in sweat, but she stayed under the rug to keep her prayers close. When she threw off her cover, it was morning.
 
“What were doing under that thing all night?” Beulah asked.
 
“Purifying myself.”
 
“You don't smell pure,” Beulah said. "Not even an Assyrian in heat will come after you stinking of dead animal."
 
“Lust is lust, and there isn't another woman around for miles.”
 
“Then stop dawdling and get it over with.”
 
“I’ll strike when God gives me a sign.”
 
“What makes you think you’ll recognize it? You’re no prophet.”
 
“You don’t know that.”
 
“You’re the wrong sex for a start.”
 
“Then I’ll be the first.”
 
“We’re almost out of supplies. How’s that for a sign?”
 
“We have enough to last four days.”
 
“Two, if we’re lucky,” Beulah said.
 
Judith ran to the food sacks and turned them over. A few handfuls of dried fruit tumbled out.
 
“Where is the rest of it?”
 
“In my belly,” Beulah said. “While you prayed, I ate.”
 
That afternoon, Holofernes sent his eunuch, a beautiful boy with dark eyes and curled lips, to Judith's tent with an invitation.
 
“Give me two hours,”" Beulah said after he’d left, “and I'll make you as pretty as he is.” She dabbed ground sapphire onto Judith's eyelids and braided her hair into a crown.
 
“Fit for a king,” Beulah said, stepping back to look at her handiwork.
 
Judith walked across the camp to Holofernes’ tent. Wrapped in a mantle of silver and gray dusk, she slipped inside a world of red and gold, black and white. Leaning over the snoring general, she lifted her dagger and held her breath. She was sure the drumming in her chest would wake him, but her scent broke into his dreams first.
 
“Attar of roses,” he murmured, his voice thick with sleep.
 
Judith slipped her dagger into the purple canopy before he was fully conscious.
 
“You’re early.”
 
“I couldn’t wait.”
 
“You’re shaking.”
 
“You startled me.”
 
He patted the space next to him. After she sat down, he kneaded her back with unexpectedly gentle hands. Only Manasseh had ever touched her like that. She felt her iron will warp under his touch and had to remind herself that the man caressing her shoulders was responsible for thousands of deaths.
 
“Try this,” Holofernes said as he handed her a silver chalice and filled it with amber alcohol. “Fermented honey. Wonderful creatures, bees. They're a nuisance when you're in the poppy fields hovering over your honey with your tunic up, but they make a great wine and have the sense to worship a queen.” He saluted her by touching the bottle’s lip to his forehead. “That's the problem with the Jews. No goddess. You can't spread a religion around without a goddess. When I get to your holy of holies, I'll put up an Astarte with a nice pair and an open mound. Trust me, the real mystery is between a woman's legs. Drink up.” He knelt down in front of her and brushed his face against her breasts.
 
“Not yet,” she said. “I’d like something else to drink first. Something stronger.”
 
He opened another bottle.  
 
“You first,” Judith said.
 
He drank half before offering it to her. “Your turn.”
 
“My late husband could drink three bottles of strong wine in a single sitting and then make love for hours.”
 
Holofernes finished the second bottle and opened a third. As the wine took effect, his unsteady legs collapsed. Passed out on the floor, he seemed no more substantial than the snores pouring out of his mouth.
 
Judith stood up, reached into the folds of the canopy over the bed, and pulled out Holofernes’ scimitar. She froze for an instant, stuck in the moment that would split her life into before and after.
 
Strong, clean strokes, she reminded herself, but the first cut barely nicked him. Moaning, he roused himself from his stupor, grabbed her ankle and squeezed until her bones ached. When she looked into his eyes, she saw a scared animal.
 
“Only a thing, only an enemy,” she murmured as she raised the sword with both arms and sank the curved blade into his neck. The whole weight of her body hung on the weapon as she urged it in.
 
Holofernes’ eyes rolled upward; blood foamed at his lips. After a final spasm, the body was still. Judith shuddered as she watched his breath stop. She knelt on the floor, dipped her fingers into the pool of blood, and wrote out her name for the world to read: Judith, Savior of Her People.
 
 
 
 
Copyright © Amy Bitterman 2013 
 
Amy Bitterman is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and Harvard Law School, and has published short fiction in The Cream City Review, The Literary Review, The Sand Hill Review, Folio, Kerem, The Chicago Quarterly Review, Switchback, The G.W. Review, The William and Mary Review, and Poetica. She currently teaches at Rutgers University School of Law-Newark.

 



 

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