City of Refuge

My first apartment there was a busted old flat in a building from a long time ago, with Greek colonnades outside, and faulty wiring, and parquet floors that were missing some of their planks. My roommate was a young woman with face and hands covered in puckered pink scars. She had burned her son in a fire. At night I would wake up to the sound of rain and her weeping, and I would go to her and hold her and I too would weep.

The woman had been married, but after the fire, her brother murdered her husband, blaming him for starting it. She was afraid her husband’s family would come after her. I cooked for the woman, and she cleaned. In the wintertime we had to make do with damp and cold because she was afraid of lighting the stove.

Hanging in the air of this city with the smell of mildew is always a question. How can we live with what we have done?

Its walls call their answer: Like this. I took a job, at a shop down the street. It sold tobacco and newspapers. There are things we speak of and things we do not. It’s all understood in small glances and nods. We may remark on the breadth and smoothness of the road that took us here, but we do not speak of where we came from.

We may tell fearful stories of the rage, grief, the family of the deceased, but of our own rage, grief, shame, of our own families, we do not speak.

To the people we are close to, like the old woman who owned the flat and brought us tea and day-old newspapers to patch the holes in our walls, we might speak of pleasant or unpleasant memories, but we sidestep any memory involving the emotion we are all feeling: guilt.

We know we are lucky to have such a place. To be, if not absolved of our guilt, at least sheltered in it, and less alone. But I would be lying if I said I did not wish for death. I did every day at the beginning.

Now I can at least enjoy things like the sun on my skin, or how snow catches in my eyelashes. I still read the weather like some read the lines on people’s palms, although my days of it making much of a difference in my livelihood are long gone. On rainy days fewer people buy cigarettes, and some may be more or less inclined to buy newspapers, depending on how they intend to use them: as shelter, held above their heads, or as means of remaining in some small way connected to the world outside, where there is justice and agriculture and war. But whether it’s raining or sunny, I still sit and stare at the street outside, at the people passing, at the family of cats that’s made a home in a cardboard box across the street.

To be sure, there are suicides. I know because I hear the call of the crier and the bell, which rings seven times in the case of death self-inflicted, eight times in the case of a death not chosen. About half the time, I listen for the eighth ring and it does not come. It happens in waves. For months there will be eight tolls each time, and then a rash of suicides hits the city like the outbreak of a disease. So I was not surprised when, after two weeks of seven tolls almost every day, I came home to find the woman I lived with swinging on a rope from the rafters. The only color left to her was her shiny pink scars. They let me move after that.

Of course, there is manslaughter here too. Fate is evil like that. I have heard of two such cases in the ten years I have lived here. But because none of us have family to miss us, because we are already guilty and alone, there is nobody to seek our vengeance in these instances. But those unfortunate few who have accidentally slaughtered two are always dead soon after. And of their victims in this city, we can only say, if anything, that they have gotten their just deserts.

Because although we live uncondemned and unbothered, as much as the refugees and the courts and the council of elders agree that our crimes were accidents of fate, we all feel the same unease in the face of accident. I have heard that there are some who believe that there is no such thing as accident, that some willful force is behind everything. And on the other end, some here come to suppose that there is no such thing as good or bad, only cause and effect, action and consequence, some violent game of nature.

These people are the happiest, it seems. One such young woman came into my little shop every day, smiling and sunny, for a new packet of cigarettes. She’d smoke the last one outside the window, smiling and waving at me before she lit it. Her older sister had fallen through ice, and the girl, instead of rescuing her, had thought the sister was joking. Her parents had spat on her and made a slave of her and two years later filled their pockets with stones and met the same watery fate as their daughter. Still she smiled. So she had been sent here, this land of innocent murderers, as a girl of nine.

It was uncommon to have a child come here. Children are generally too weak and ineffective to cause the death of another, which is why we see them as innocent. But isn’t there in all of us, waiting for the strength to step out of the shadows, evil?

My case took a long time to decide, longer than usual, and for that reason I wonder if perhaps my prettiness, my stature, my youth hadn’t made the court more inclined to allow me to stay.

We had married only a few days before. He worked at night and he had forgotten his house keys. I awoke to the bedroom window opening. It was him, trying to come home, but I didn’t know. People had told me that his village was dangerous. I did not hesitate. I grabbed the gun by my bedside and shot the man to death. After he fell on the ground I went to look and saw it was Lev.

Perhaps it’s because we married for love that the city granted me refuge, that made my case more believable. I was not one of those women who are used as pawns in a game of their father and brothers, and then go hysterical on their wedding night, only to claim it was an accident. But it was just this reason that I knew I was endangered even more. I had no family who could afford to take me back, nobody who could defend me from my new mother-in-law and her rage. My poverty, my youth, her son’s love for me: these all enraged her.

“Lev?” I remember calling, and there was no answer but a songbird tweeting outside. There were no such birdsongs where I came from. I began to weep, but then heard his mother stirring, the slap-slap of her house shoes against the dirt floor. I did what anyone would have done. I ran.

I ran hard and fast despite my bare feet. The rocks on the ground cut and bruised me but I felt nothing. When the sun rose and a man stared at me as I ran past, I became aware of how blood-spattered my nightclothes were. I came finally to the road marked Refuge, and I understood why it was so smooth. The nature of Refuge is you are never prepared for when you will have to seek it. You might not be wearing shoes.

There were others on that road, some walking because they were old and infirm, but many were running, all trying to get there as soon as possible. I came upon a grizzled man driving a cart and weeping. He had run over someone in an accident. His cart was full of the blameless guilty but they made room for me. Their faces, like mine, were dirty and ashamed. Some huddled under blankets and robes despite the hot sun. Their eyes squinted and darted at the horizon, looking for those who might come after them. They jumped at every sound. We moved northward through a crusted over desert mostly in silence.

Another woman, younger than me, kept turning around to look behind us and exclaiming in a language that I did not understand. She would be turned away by the council of elders, because she was from a neighboring kingdom at war with our own, and the elders saw no reason to invite an attack on our city by sheltering one of their criminals. We later learned that when she returned to her village she was stoned to death.

Before nightfall we could see the limestone walls of the city of refuge, the setting sun turning them from ochre to cadmium red. Once we got through the gates we were led to the room of waiting to be judged. In the room were more of us. A boy of eleven or so came about and recorded our answers to his questions. I listened to the replies of everyone, and when he came to me, I was already prepared:

“I am Yehudit B’nee Shmuel. Nineteen. From Eilat. I was a farmer. I killed my husband.” The little boy wrote my answers down officiously in shorthand and then informed me that if granted refuge I would be provided work and a home, and moved to the next person.

Other than the boy and his questions, the room was mostly silent. I would grow accustomed to this. We are all reflecting in this city. It’s a city of looking backwards.

Later a little girl brought about bread and tea. Night fell. The boy shook me awake a few hours later and told me it was time for my case to be heard.

I can remember very well the first time I saw Lev. It was at market day and he had come to sell a pig and buy a goat to clear some land he had just received upon the death of his neighbor. Death for him was fortunate, until it was not. His eyes split a seam in my heart that I did not know was there. I was shy but he was not. He discovered where I lived and to my father made his intentions known while I watched through a crack in the door. My father sighed and said that we had nothing to give him. Lev smiled and said it meant nothing. He had already had a wife, who had died in childbirth, as had the child. He was rich from that dowry but full of sorrow.

Two weeks later he returned with figs and dates and olives and I went with him to his village. I would never see my father again. I wonder if he knows what I have done. He must have heard by now.

Men look at me in the store. Some of them find reasons to come back again and again, pretending to have forgotten something. Others are more reserved. I prefer them.

My new neighbor taught me how to make preserves out of gooseberries and I spend my evenings doing that. I sell the gooseberry preserves in the store. Sometimes, when the light is golden and children come in, I think that I want to take care of something. Silence returns when they leave, and I finger the jars of preserves, and I get a chill. I’m still getting used to the cold.  

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