Jerusalem is not large, not by the standards of a modern city like Memphis, and I had grown up there, or thereabouts. I knew nearly everybody in the educated classes by sight. When I saw a man standing at the edge of the crowd, listening intently, my attention was caught. Well, listening intently. And then, I realised I did not know him, or only had the vaguest memory of him.
Quite a little man, very neat, very dapper in his clothes. A full head of hair, very well groomed. A good few years younger than me. I must have been in my mid forties by then, and he was about thirty years old. I finished my usual account of what was required, and the few who had been listening, or jeering, moved away, except for him. He came over to me. ‘Baruch’ he said, ‘Yes, what you say makes real sense.’
He tells me that I looked as though he had hit me. ‘You agree?’ I asked. ‘Yes, I could believe whole-heartedly in a God of justice, and decency, and kindness. But, can I be frank, I am not at all sure that speaking on street corners is the way to get the message out. We must think of other and better ways.’
The water vendor was passing by, and he stuck out a casual hand, to stop him, and gestured to me, ‘Drink?’ I looked at his hand, stained. For an uncomprehending moment I puzzled over the stains, so out of place in one whose dress was so precise. And then, then I took his hand and turned it over, and all the stains were between finger and thumb. ‘Can you write?’ I asked.
‘Professional scribe,’ he answered, laconically. ‘Don’t get excited, mainly it is just accuracy. I’ve been working for a party of merchants, working the routes to Egypt. Selling cashmere, buying dyes, and papyrus, of course.’ That was why I did not know him. He had been up and down the road to Egypt most of his adult life.
We talked. That is weak. Within seconds, I was plotting with him, laughing with him, drinking in hope from him, exploring what he knew writing could do. Standing on the street, learning the crisp hair, the little curl at the neck. Plotting how to hold in my memory the slight curve on the nose, the set of the eyebrow. Wondering if I had another good reason to touch his hand.
We walked slowly back to my home. Listen, there was no wife there to disturb us. I had never married. Yahweh had utterly forbidden it. I knew that as certainly as I knew anything. When I asked, as the evening drew on, if he needed to return to his home, he smiled a little. ‘Oh, my servants will hardly mind a free evening, no, no wife, no family.’
It was utterly natural to sit there with the light of a little lamp, eating cheese and grapes, dividing up bread, drinking a little wine. I was afraid to drink much. Afraid to dim these moments even slightly. Then, as the moon rose and lit the room, he turned to me, smiling up into my face. He put his hand behind my head, drew it down. Over eager, my mouth collided with his, mine terribly clumsy, his calm. Then, deliciously, his hand brushed up the inside of my thigh.
Ours was, is, the most perfect love. None of the things which interrupt man and woman, when they love, ever disturb it. There is no difference in rank. No buying or selling, no bride-price, no constant fear of death from child-bearing. We are two equals. This was, I knew, the gift of Yahweh to me – not a wife but a full and perfect partner, who made his covenant with me, as Yahweh made a covenant with Judah. Only, our covenant was unbroken, unshadowed by any unfaithfulness.