It was from beneath the olive tree that I found respite. That ancient tree provided a shaded haven, offering me a special sort of peace. The olive tree stood in the partial shade of two abundant pair trees, all drinking from the banks of a narrow river. Their fruit, a combination of pears and olives, ripe and unripe, dropped to the ground—a feast for blackbirds and Persian Fallow Deer. And the river ran through the sands of Israel. It was 1838. I was 16 years old.
Settlements were popping up everywhere in Israel at that time. My family had married me off. I came with a substantial dowry from a grand lifestyle. He was older and disinterested in me, except for the dowry. He brought me to a village where tents were emerging like spring water from underground.
These structures were made of a rough, light‐colored material, were spacious, and kept us cool in the heat of the day and warm during the cold desert nights. All our tents were pretty much alike in size, save for one. It was much larger than the rest, decorated with flags. It could be seen from anywhere in the camp. I found there, in my beautiful Israel, mind‐bending sunsets, joy, the stars, and my first great love.
Sitting in the shelter of my olive tree offered me a feeling of peace. But peace found outside of oneself is always temporary. Lasting and authentic peace can only be found within. Why does it take us so many lifetimes to discover this truth?
As I consider myself and my life then, I suppose I should have felt lonely. My husband was gone a great deal, but instead of feeling loneliness, I felt free, and grateful for his absence. There had not been time to get to know one another before he began leaving for months on end. He would return unexpectedly from time to time, taking what he needed from the village and from me, and then leaving again. Still, I was deeply satisfied by my sunsets and walks along the river. There were nut trees, too—an abundant oasis in the middle of our kind desert that seemed to have no world outside of it.
I would hoard the meager bits of shade that my olive tree would offer just past midday. Its silvery green leaves gave decoration surrounding the deep purple fruit—olives the size of plums. The fruit felt smooth but when the light hit just right it looked soft like velvet. Tiny little white blossoms scattered themselves among the leaves promising more sensuous fruit to come.
I can’t remember the first time he joined me there, under the olive tree. He just showed up one day and started talking. The way his mind worked fascinated me. The pace of his thinking mirrored the quickness of his walk. He always left as abruptly as he arrived.
I enjoyed the lingering silences passing between us. It allowed for a connection that might easily have been interrupted by emptiness of words. He spoke of the moon and the stars and how each of us was meant to be in sync with their movement.
His clothing was made from practical, but fine cloth--trousers and loose-fitting blouse type shirts. I had seen him before, up at the tent on the hill—the one with all the flags. He was often together with a lovely young woman I assumed to be his wife. But I would never know that for certain.
He said that beneath the olive tree, and beside me, he found sanctuary, a place where he could be himself. Our friendship grew. It was natural and comfortable, with a mutual attraction between us that we never discussed.
I don’t remember exactly when the fever set in. Many of us became sick all at once. We took turns caring for one another. It was morning, and I lay there on the soft cushion that was my bed, both hot and cold and wet from sweat. A shadow came and went to and from my tent, providing extra blankets, sips of water and some sort of strong grass‐smelling tea. I felt disconnected, but grateful. As I began to feel better, the shadow slowly took form. I finally recognized him--my handsome friend with distinctive sharp features—my friend from beneath the olive tree.
He continued to visit me at my tent long after I began caring for myself again. He brought a blanket for me, made from what must have been a very expensive material. Its texture was different from the serviceable covers most of us used to keep warm. The feel of that blanket was heavenly, and I spent a lot of time wrapped in it, more for comfort than for warmth.
The last night he came, he wrapped us both in that blanket. Then, he made love to me. Strangely, he didn’t seem driven by passion or lust. It seemed that he had something to show me--a way to get closer to the stars. So that night, we traveled together. I was so very willing to go with him. That night I witnessed a world I had never known. He and I would never travel together in that way again.
I didn’t imagine that after just one intimate connection with my friend, that I would find myself expecting a child and trying desperately to hide my size and my shame. By the mid‐1800’s, public stoning of women for their moral infractions had become a thing of the past in Israel, though this form of execution would continue well into the 21st Century in other parts of the world. But adultery in Israel, and for me, would not go completely unpunished. Since my husband had been absent for many months, it was clear to everyone in the village that I had broken their law.
They came in the night. A group of men, determined to make an example of me. To my initial horror, my friend was with them. At first, I assumed he was one of them. I was more horrified by that possibility than by the anticipation of what they might do. Then, I realized that I had assumed incorrectly. The others were holding him. It took six men, including the one that had him by the hair, holding his head back, forcing him to watch what would come next. I tried to ready myself for rape, whips, beating. So, the machete slicing down on my left breast came quickly, excruciatingly, and as a total surprise.
There was relief in the mere fact that it was done. As I lost consciousness, his cries of anguish faded away. Later, as I woke, he was there. I saw that I was bandaged. He was still gently washing the remnants of blood and tissue from my skin. He offered me some sort of drink. He said it would take some of the pain. It did. AT least for a while, my left side was mercifully numb. So was my heart. I was angry, still with child, and still deeply ashamed. I blamed him. He blamed himself.
After that day, he returned just often enough to tend to my physical wound. We never spoke of what had happened that night. As soon as I was able to eat a bit and tend to myself, he was gone. So was my husband.
I had never given birth before this, in any lifetime. So, on that June morning in 1841, as I walked along the river at sunrise, I did not recognize the pain deepening through my lower back. I did not recognize the tightness wrapping itself around my lower pelvis. I began to pause involuntarily to wait out the vice‐like pressure that first gripped and then temporarily let go for regular intervals of rest.
The sun was just coming up, and I had been gathering small bits of wood from downed trees for the evening fire. A new level of pain sent me to my knees and the pieces of wood tumbled from my arms, making little streaks in the sand in front of me.
I had seen many women give birth, including my own mother. I had helped tend to them. I heard them scream and writhe through it. Somehow, from that vulnerable place on my knees, my bare feet covered in sand, and my robe clinging to the sweat on my back, I began to realize what was happening. I had to breathe hard, but I was determined to remain stoic and in control.
The shame was still with me and weighed heavier now than the child inside of me. I sat and leaned hard against the stump of an old rotten tree, and it felt good. I closed my eyes to wait for what might happen next. There was blood now—more blood than I ever remember seeing during a birth before.
Did I find sleep for a moment or did consciousness leave me? When I came back from wherever I had gone, I found myself back in my tent and he was with me, and the beautiful woman was there, too. I was tired and my body was ripping itself in half and there was so much blood. He offered me a sip from a bottle-- some sort of liquor. When I refused, he slugged down a good bit himself. My heart ached for him. Tears burned in my throat and hot on my cheeks. How dearly he was paying, too, for our one night together. I couldn’t blame him anymore.
My thoughts barely eked through during the short breaks between the pain. I wanted to give up, but he said if I gave up, we would lose our baby, too. They would take care of the child, he promised. Please, don’t give up. It was a deep and agonizing plea, so I didn’t give up. Before then, I had not yet realized that I was going to die.
Finally, she came. So tiny. So very alert and at peace. Chocolate skin and deep dark searching eyes. He held her against my cheek. Softness and the scent of blood and sage and flowers. There were more people in the tent now. Had they been there all along? Were they my neighbors or were they spirits there to help me move on? I’m still not sure.
My world moved farther and farther away as if everything and everyone around me was collapsing, and I was staying behind. It was like life was leaving me—instead of me leaving life. His face was the last image to fade. I looked long into his eyes and saw there his image of me. A good woman whom he had loved. My last thought was that I should thank him. I wanted to tell him that knowing the stars and him had been worth it. I would leave my body looking into his eyes, needing to say those words.
But as I left, finding myself halfway between here and somewhere else, I was shown what would happen next for me—and him—and our baby girl. It is said that as we pass over, we can come to know what in our lifetime, we have never known. And so it was, like a movie playing on a cloudy screen in front of me, I watched myself. I sat across from a beautiful young woman. Black hair, slight in stature. A more modern time. There was no mistake. Chocolate skin. Deep searching eyes. The scent of sage and flowers. I held her hand.
And behind her, a shadow came and went. All a preview of a new life to come. A preview that there is no loss. Not really. Because all that I thought had been lost, would soon be mine again. And so in knowing that, I finally let go--completely.