Content Warning: Violence, theft, scarring, hallucination, animal abuse, seduction, murder, graphic violence, shaming, divorce, gendered insult
The tears stung her eyes, mingling with the dust in the dry, raw wind as she stumbled down the road. She wiped them away with the back of her hand, smearing a thin film of mud across her cheeks. The hasty gesture brushed back the hair from her face, bringing a fresh rain of dust down from the top of her head, and she stifled another sob to avoid choking on it. She cast a glance back over her shoulder. The sprawling cluster of tents had dwindled in the distance, but she could still pick out her husband’s from among them. He no longer stood outside it, but since she had so far successfully willed herself to not look back, she could not tell how long he had watched her before returning inside. Wishing once more that she could also have willed herself to restrain her tears until she was out of earshot, she shook her head. No, he should know how he has wounded me.
Turning the thought into a prayer mid-sentence, she wished it away to the ears of whatever god was listening, but then she could not help recalling how her husband had lain next to her that morning, his body warm and firm and strong against hers in the last few minutes before dawn. He had kissed her twice before he departed to his day’s work, and the memory of his lips against hers dragged a fresh sob from deep within her chest. She wailed aloud as memory turned, against her own will, to that last kiss he had bestowed upon her only moments before—cold, regretful, and pitying—but wrung with the lingering and muted pain of a wounded animal in its death throes.
“You bring disgrace on me and all our household!” He had paced the length her tent, pulling at his beard and not troubling to keep his voice quiet. “How could you treat a guest this way—and one so favored among our allies?”
“His exalted position would avail us little if the enemies of your allies held us to account for our part in his escape,” she had said, keeping a level tone of voice.
“Always with you it is ‘your, your, your’!” he had cried. “‘Your’ kinsmen, ‘your’ herds, ‘your’ household, ‘your’ allies.’ Never ‘our’ family, ‘our’ allies.”
“You know what I am,” she had replied, feeling the blood begin to rush to her face. “I have bound myself to you as long as you shall live, but a man’s days are short. And you stray from the deed at hand. Is one lapse in hospitality a greater matter than the lives of you and me and all our house?”
“How can you be so certain of our destruction? The men of Hazor are many, and strong. None can withstand them. But you would throw our lot in with this little people, these dead dogs.”
“I tell you, your allies have already been defeated. Why else would he be here, weary and bloodied and stinking of fear?”
“And you have Seen this?” he asked, doubt creeping into his eyes for the first time.
She stiffened. “You know it is not like that.”
They had encamped five days before, near the Oak-House of Wanderers, for he knew how she loved the cool shade of the great Tree. Moreover, it bolstered his clan’s reputation as priests and prophets of the sky-god to return so frequently to the sacred spot. If she alone had ever achieved transcendence while those of his own blood remained firmly rooted in the visible world, it mattered little, for he revealed her gift to no one. By her counsel he had prospered, growing rich off the increasing might of the men of Hazor, as more and more they desired the weapons and instruments of war that he could craft with greater skill than any native smith. His herds and flocks had grown large, and they never lacked for grain or honey, or even spices, for they could obtain all they needed in trade. Indeed, when those goods grew too large to transport in the volume required to purchase her husband’s services, he began to amass gold and silver and rich fabrics in their stead. She had begun to grow comfortable, allowing herself to hope once more for a life of safety and plenty.
Nevertheless, a growing disquiet had crept over her for several weeks, gnawing at that part of her mind which she could never fully comprehend but had found dangerous to ignore. She had probed often for the source of this unease in the cool quiet of morning and evening, shutting out all other sensation for hours at a time and waiting for the truth to arise out of the depths of her consciousness, but to no avail. She could feel a change coming as surely as her face felt the shifting of the wind, but only when they had neared the end of their annual circuit, passing along the shores of the great lake, had she received her first hint of its form.
They had just begun to diverge from the water, hoping to reach the shade of the Tree by evening, when they passed a small house on the opposite side of the road, its farmland stretching out beyond it. As her part of the caravan neared the place, a flash of sunlight blinded her, gleaming from the armor of several bronze-clad men who stood outside the house. One of them was performing some repetitive task while his fellows looked on, and the harsh delight of their laughter sent the bile rising into her mouth with dread. Her husband, at the front of the caravan, knew his business and led on without comment, keeping his eyes on the road. As she passed the house, though, she gazed openly upon the scene.
The band of five soldiers hovered around a sixth, who stood over a prostrate form—the farmer who owned the house, she suspected. The man on the ground lay bleeding in a state of merciful unconsciousness, unable even to moan as his tormentor aimed one final kick at his ribs. She winced as she heard the dull cracking sound, and the soldier looked up at her. He seemed about to challenge her open disgust for his actions, but something in her cold stare dissuaded him. Instead, he left the farmer lying in his own blood and rejoined the others.
At the same time, two more soldiers emerged from behind the house, each leading behind him a cow. A woman followed them, wailing and pleading despite the red face and swollen lip where one of them had already struck her.
“Please no, we will pay! We will pay, we will, we will! Don’t take them, please, we’ll starve without them!” She clutched at the lead of the nearest cow, and the soldier holding the other end of the rope turned and backhanded her across the face again without any sign of emotion. She fell upon the doorstep, momentarily stunned.
“Pray that your crops grow faster next year, unless you have other livestock to offer,” said the soldier who had beaten the farmer. He led his companions back to the road, marching off in the opposite direction from the caravan.
Twisting around in her saddle to look back as the house receded, she saw the farmer’s wife slowly drag herself to her feet and examine her husband’s prone body. Turning him over, the woman wrapped her thick, well-muscled arms around his hips and heaved him over her shoulder with a grunt. Then she trudged back into the house, allowing herself only one more brief glance up the road at her stolen livelihood.
The heat of the day had faded as the caravan reached the Oak-House of Wanderers, but while the rest of the household welcomed the cool breeze blowing up from the lake, the chill within her own heart proved the colder. With a grim face and a furious vigor, she pounded the stakes of her tent into the ground, and when the last one met the earth she rose, looking up at the moon shining down on the Tree and fighting the knowledge that her days of peace had ended. She reached up her right sleeve and ran her left hand over the scar on her chest. It was beginning to fade; she could hardly feel the raised tissue beneath her fingertips.
She had woken early the next morning, and each morning after that, to sit beneath the Tree, her palms against the great trunk. The accumulated might and wisdom of its many long years flowed up her arms, soothing the tumult of her mind, but she had gained no other insight until the fourth day of their sojourn. The sun had risen high overhead, and she was just preparing to rise and return to the cool of her tent, when she felt that ebbing away of her own consciousness that signaled the advent of a vision.
At once she was standing on a road, a long, straight track disappearing into the horizon. The sun hung low in the sky, as at mid-morning. For a long time (or so it seemed), she waited, and the sun waited with her. No breeze disturbed her garments, and even the dust lay still about her feet. She saw no living creature—neither bird nor beast nor creeping thing—and she would have gone mad with the silence if her mind had been her own.
At last she saw, at the very limit of perception, a tiny flash of light away down the road. As she stared, it appeared again, and now she saw that a figure was coming toward her, flickering on the horizon. She blinked, and when her eyes opened again the figure had drawn closer—now less than a mile distant—and she knew that it was a man, a soldier clad in richly-ornamented bronze armor that shone in the sun. He walked as if incredible weariness was on him, but he covered a great distance with each stride nonetheless, and soon she could have seen his face if his head had not been bowed toward the ground.
Suddenly another movement caught the edge of her vision, and she saw that a small, rail-thin dog was approaching the road and would soon cross paths with the soldier. It limped along, favoring one leg as if injured or lame, and it whined when it caught sight of the soldier, looking up at him with an expression of pathetic hope. The soldier noticed it then, and aimed a kick at its head as it drew near. It dodged back, then leaped upon him with sudden ferocity, and as it did so, shifted and changed before her eyes, growing to three, four times its original size. Its jaws widened, its body lengthened, and the fur around its head and neck sprouted outward, and she saw that, where before had cowered a pitiable stray, a mighty and terrible lion now savaged the soldier. He fell under it with a cry before it tore out his throat, and she came to herself, hands still resting against the great oak and breath coming in short, needle-sharp gasps.
Rising with quaking limbs, she looked up at the position of the sun. Unless she had sat there all day and all night, scarcely a few minutes had passed since the vision began. So it always was. She forced herself to move with slow, steady steps back toward the tent and, once inside, threw herself down upon the bed and called for her maidservant to bring a bowl of water. Allowing herself a few moments of rest before the water arrived, she drew many long, deep breaths and felt clarity returning to her thoughts, but with clarity came certainty.
She washed her face and bade her servant depart to her own dwelling. It was cool inside, and she might have slept, but her mind now held itself alert, lending a restlessness to all her limbs. Despite the heat of the day, she emerged from the tent and seated herself before the entrance, looking down the road as it stretched away to the south and west.
The sun seemed to have grown to fill the entire sky, stifling even her very breath with its heat, but she coaxed her mind to ignore the discomfort and strive for that tranquility so elusive yet transformative during these times of anticipation. Strangely, despite the ominous events of her vision and the unsettling physical effects of having Seen, she felt her mind begin to clear. The sun descended from its zenith, and late afternoon drew near, but to her the passing hours seemed only as minutes, so completely did she empty her mind of all but a single thought.
And as she turned this thought over in her mind one final time, she saw a man stumbling toward her up the road. He had already come quite near before she noticed him, as her attention had been turned inward, and she felt a jolt in her stomach as she saw that he wore ornate, almost ostentatious bronze armor, exactly like the man in her vision. Moreover, she now recognized that armor, for her husband had made it himself, with great care and pains, laboring over two weeks in its forging. He had made it for the commander of the armies of Hazor, who now staggered, covered in blood and weary beyond death, toward her very door.
Without hesitation she rose and called to him. “Turn aside, my lord! Turn aside to me.”
He looked up, astonished, but when he saw her, doubt replaced exhaustion on his face. Peering from one tent to another, as if seeking a different refuge, he at first seemed determined to pass her by, clearly not wishing to dishonor her husband by entering her tent. Throwing off her veil, she let her long hair fall about her face and pulled open the door of the tent. In her silkiest voice, she assured him, “No other host will you find here today, my lord. Come in to me.”
This unambiguous invitation, mingled with his desperation, persuaded him. He half-ran, half-fell into the tent and collapsed on the floor. “Water. Please give me a little water,” he said after a moment, trying unsuccessfully to sit up.
“Of course, my lord,” she said. “But first let me warm you.” For he had begun to shiver in the cool air of the tent.
She folded over the edge of the rug on which he lay, so it covered him like a blanket. Then she retreated to the adjacent tent, where the stores and supplies were housed. Collecting a skin of milk and small bowl full of cheese curds, she returned to the exhausted commander and pulled the rug away from his body. He lay on the ground, breathing heavily. Despite the mingled blood and sweat congealing on his skin, her eyes slid along his legs of their own accord. Long years of warfare and training in arms had strengthened and shaped them, and his short leather skirt, split on either side, had fallen away from the right thigh. She followed the thick sinews all the way up to his hips before reminding herself of the task at hand.
Kneeling beside him, she raised his shoulders to fall on her lap and cradled his head against her chest. She opened the skin and pressed it to his lips. “Take this milk from your maidservant, my lord.”
He swallowed the milk greedily, spilling it over his beard, and she wiped it away with her hand. When he had drunk his fill, she dipped her hand into the cheese curds and said, “My lord, eat a little food from your maidservant’s hand.”
He looked up into her face then, and desire illuminated his once-dull eyes. Seeming for the first time to realize that she was holding his face against her breast, he pressed into her, and she responded with a soft moan. Then she held her hand to his mouth, and he opened it to receive the curds. Not content with merely feeding him, she pushed her fingers between his lips, and he sucked them dry. She murmured again, as if pleased, and repeated the process. Once again, he took her hand into his mouth, and once again she uttered a satisfied sound as his tongue passed over her skin. After the third mouthful, though, his eyes seemed to grow heavy, and his head dropped a little.
Caressing his face with her hand, she whispered, “Let my lord sleep a little before he satisfies himself any further.”
He nodded, and almost at once seemed to fall asleep. She was just preparing to rise and cover him again, when he roused himself suddenly. With an urgency surprising from one so exhausted, he said, “Stand at the door and keep watch! Tell… tell anyone who asks that no man is here.”
“But of course, my lord,” she said, honey on her voice. She rose, laying his head down on the ground, and covered him with a blanket from her own bed.
Then she strode to the door of the tent and looked out. “There is no one outside, my lord.”
He made no response, and when she looked down she saw that he slept.
Going again to the supply tent, she returned almost at once, hiding her right hand under her clothes. She stood for several minutes, motionless, watching the commander sleep. He never stirred, and not even his eyelids flickered, so great was his weariness. After a while, she knelt once more by his head and, bending down close, let a soft kiss fall on his cheek.
When even this failed to rouse him, she took her hand from under her garments. Shifting the heavy mallet to her left hand, she clasped the wooden tent stake in her right and placed it, point down, above the sleeping man’s temple. With one long, slow, deep breath, she raised the mallet above her head and brought it down with all her force.
After only a few seconds, the blood stopped spraying out from his head, and the last twitches of his limbs subsided. He had never even woken or cried out, and she muttered a short expression of thanks for the ease of his passing. Rising, she checked her clothes for blood, but here, too, the gods had been with her. She went once more to the door of the tent and looked out.
The sun had dropped to near the western horizon, and the air had cooled in the fading light, before another man made his appearance on the road. For hours she had waited, knowing his approach must be imminent, and she sighed with relief at his advent, but as he neared she saw that he was not alone. Behind him followed a throng of men, some four or five hundred at a glance, though more kept straggling into sight as the leader drew closer. He was running, and soon he had come within bowshot of her tent. Before he could accost her, she called out to him.
“Come,” she said. “I will show you the man you seek.”
Her husband returned late in the evening, arriving back from a routine visit to his herdsmen. He stumbled into her tent weary but full of good humor at the sight of her. Picking her up by the waist, for he was a tall man of great strength, he danced her all over the tent, laughing and singing, before tumbling them both into bed, where they remained until the next morning. As she fell asleep in his arms, she almost hoped he might never find out what she had done, but she knew it could not be so.
All the next day he was in his forge, and she had time to clean the blood from the rug as best she could, thrusting down the feeling of futility that kept rising up in her chest as she scrubbed it. Returning to visit her before his mid-day meal, he never even noticed the stain, and she again allowed hope to creep back in. But as he stood at the door, about to kiss her once more before departing, he suddenly spied the bloody mallet and stake where she had hidden them under the cushions of the bed. No doubt disturbed by their lovemaking the previous evening, the grim devices had fallen into plain sight, and he could not help but notice and demand an explanation. Unable to lie directly to his beloved face, she confessed with as much regret as she could muster that she had killed Sisera, the commander of the armies of Hazor.
“It matters not,” he muttered, after she had described the vision that had led her to the disgraceful murder of their guest. “Henceforth, everyone will know the house of Heber as traitorous and dishonorable hosts—what difference does one of your trances make? You have brought shame on me and my house.”
“I have saved our house from destruction,” she yelled. “Think you that the men of Israel would have left us in peace if we had allowed Sisera to escape—or worse, aided and concealed him?”
“Better an honorable death, in defense of our allies, then life with such dishonor,” he shouted back.
“You allied with the wrong people,” she said. “Can you not see that Israel has the favor of the gods?”
“You drive me mad, woman! It was at your counsel that I separated our household from Israel and made treaty with the king of Hazor!”
“So you were faithless already, and no mere killing of a monster and oppressor can add to the dishonor of your house.”
She saw at once from the hardness of his face how these words had chilled his heart toward her, and she opened her mouth to retract them, but he stormed from the tent. She paced back and forth for some minutes, unwilling to humble herself and seek his pardon, but he returned not long after with his scribe in tow.
“Write this woman a certificate of divorce,” he said. “I am finished with her.”
Numbly, she watched the scribe trace the scant words required to legalize his assertion, but when he handed it to her, panic welled up within her at the thought of leaving him. She looked up at her husband’s face—still almost as beautiful as it had looked to her when she first met him in his youth. Despite the coldness in his eyes, and against her own will, she found herself begging: “Don’t send me away from you, my husband. You loved me until today. Won’t you remember your love, and forgive my unkind words?”
He looked down at her, and for a moment affection seemed to triumph over his anger and injured pride. Slowly, hesitantly, he stooped his face to hers, and kissed her once more, but as soon as their lips met, he pulled away. Disgust and disappointment choked his voice as he pointed to the door and said, “Get out, witch.”
At this, rage bubbled up inside her, rising from her chest to the back of her throat. Thrusting up her face as close to his as her stature would allow, she said: “You, not I, have disgraced your house this day, Heber! Israel will sing songs of my deed, and bless my name, but you will be remembered only as the husband of Yael.”
Doubt and remorse flickered into his eyes, but she stayed not to see whether he would relent, for now her anger bested her. She strode out of the tent and into the road. Stooping, she picked up a handful of dust, then threw back her veil and uncovered her hair once more. Looking into his face for the last time as he stood watching her from the door, she poured the dust over her head and turned, marching away down the road and weeping with rage and heartbreak as she went.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed “She Dishonors Her House”, check out the previous story, “She Chooses Death”.