There are men who sit astride their world as giants, and there are three truths about these men, her mother would say. Three immutable truths. First, they will assume women are weak. Second, they believe they are smarter than everyone around them. Finally, they are convinced that they are irresistible.
And when you are small, when you are soft, when you speak gently and walk gracefully and smile readily, it does not matter that you have a sharp dagger up your sleeve.
Be clever, Judith, her mother would say, and be temperate.
So in the darkness, she gathered her courage and wits, as well as a sharp dagger, and snuck out to meet her nemesis with her maid, Abra, for what good lady would go unescorted? And they billowed through the city like a cool breeze in summer, barely touching the ground beneath their feet... and he believed, of course. Believed she was alone, believed she was attracted to him, believed her pleas for mercy. Believed that he was far smarter and stronger than her.
He was right on one count, of course, because the one thing her mother failed to tell her was how strong even a drunk man could be.
He was faceless, she told herself, a struggling calf. Not a man at all, for if he was a man, this was a sin, and with a fistful of dark curls, with ground teeth, with the stringy tendons in her neck straining against the soft flesh, she pushed the sharp metal forward. Pulled it back and pushed it forward. One for the city. One for the people. One for God, and a final push for the women, who were too often subject to brutal pushes.
He struggled through each movement, scalding blood drooling down the fine sheets of his fine bed, slipping away as so many sons had slipped through their mothers' fingers. When the head came free, it took on a life of its own, gaping at her with thunderstruck eyes at the soft, smiling face that had undone his mighty world.
The strength of a woman, Judith, her mother had said, is in the softness. It's in knowing to pick the right moment, and knowing that dignity is not rigid. A woman, she had said while brushing sweet oil through her hair, cannot afford rigid dignity or mighty pride, for they are brittle and victory can be found in the low places of the world if you make your dignity bend and your pride small.
Keep humble hands and a humble mind, and how the mighty may fall. She had whispered in Judith's ear, making the dark tendrils of hair shiver and kiss her ears. Each night as she swept away the tangles and wound the hair around her fingers, her mother found some pearl of wisdom to impart, and as she grew, those pearls when from white to grey to smoky and dark. Like whispers behind mourning fans. Like soiled sheets in a marital bed.
Like fresh blood on a clean rag.
And she had been right, time and time again she had been right. With unladylike sweat on her brow and red rings around her fingernails and scratches on her face, she touched Abra's face. A kiss for each eye. For each of the hands that had held the tiger's tail.
Mighty Holofernes had fallen so low that even the floor couldn't hold his blood up. It sank and sank until it was just a stain, seeking ever lower ground, slinking into the darkness. It seeped through the woven fibres of the bag, still warm and sticky with the last pumps of his heart.
And she carried it home quietly, softly, with humble hands and a serene smile, and every man who passed seemed not to see the blood. Nor the shine of the dagger up her sleeve.