“What are you doing?” Shimshon, my best friend, asks.
“Digging,” I reply. Four holes. Two long ones for Abba and Savta Leah, and two shorter ones for Devora and me.
“I can see that,” he says. “What are you digging for?”
He looks at me. “Ezra, you are the only one I know who would think of something like that at a time like this.”
I keep digging. He settles down on a nearby rock to watch.
“One for Savta Leah,” I explain.
She’s been like a mother to me since my own mother died. This is the least I can do for her.
“Going to do one for me?”
I plant my spade in Masada’s dry, sandy earth and wipe the sweat from my brow. “You do your own. My arms are tired.”
“After tonight we’ll have all of eternity to rest.”
My hand makes its way unbidden to my throat. Will it hurt much?
“Only a moment, and it’s done. That’s what my father would say. We’ll barely even feel it.”
Shimshon knows what he’s talking about. Before being killed by a ballista bolt last year, his father was the shochet.
I can hear Abba’s heavy hobnailed footsteps crunching down the path.
“Ezra, what are you – oh.” He knows. “That’s . . . thoughtful.”
“Where’s Devora?” I ask.
“With Savta Leah and Doda Naama. I think Yael and Barak are with them, too.”
Doda Naama. Everyone says she’s not quite right in the head, after watching Roman soldiers murder her husband and sons. And G-d knows – they say – what the Romans did to her. They make the “crazy” sign and cluck their tongues with pity when she does strange things, but Savta Leah says we must be kind to her.
Looks like I’ll be digging another grave.
The sun is hot, though it’s near evening, and the spade is heavy. No matter. Like Shimshon said, I’ll soon have all the rest in the world. I bend to the task. Shimshon is still watching.
“Remember we used to go looking for treasure behind the bathhouse?” he asked.
I snort. As if the Romans would have left any after taking over King Herod’s mountain palace. Like locusts, they descend on a place and leave only devastation in their wake.
But we were only boys then. And now . . . we’re boys still. Forever. We will never become men.
I hate the Romans for that.
Water . . . I need water. I forgot to bring any when I came here to dig. Shimshon seems to read my mind.
“You want some?” he asks.
I accept his offered water skin and take a deep gulp. “Thanks.”
He takes it back.
Plant, dig, dump. Plant, dig, dump.
“I wonder,” he says, “when . . . you know –” he draws his finger across his throat “– will everything we ate and drank come spilling right out?”
My stomach churns. Where does he come up with these questions? I grab the water skin from his hands and take two long swallows. Much better.
“No,” I say. “There’s just some meat and bone inside. And blood. Lots of blood. Like goats and chickens.”
He shivers. He’s probably hoping I didn’t notice, so I just go back to digging.
Plant, dig, dump.
I saw a dead man once. That’s how I know. He was a lone traveler, probably fleeing to Masada, like we were. Only, the Romans got him. Cut his throat clean through.
Elazar, our leader, said they kill Jews for sport. Bastards.
He was still – too still, and too white – and the ground under him soaked with blood. His eyes were open, but there was nothing behind them. Like the gaping windows of an empty house. Abba wrapped him in his own cloak and buried him in a hole in the ground. He said it was a mitzvah, for a spirit can have no rest while its body remains unburied.
Plant, dig, dump.
“Ezra, they’re going to have the lottery now.”
I jump. I didn’t hear Abba coming this time.
“Are you all right?” he asks. His brow is deeply furrowed.
“Yes, of course,” I’m quick to assure him.
He sighs. “As I said, they’re holding the lottery now. Then I’m going to help hide the Torah scrolls.”
I drop the shovel. “I want to come too. I want to help.”
Abba shakes his head. “The lottery is not a thing for a child to see.”
I accept that. The waiting would be unbearable. Best keep busy until it’s all done.
“Will you come for me after?”
Please, please say yes . . .
He hesitates. I hope he sees how much I want this.
“Yes,” he says. “I will come for you after.”
“Thank you,” I say in a rush of breath.
“Will you tell us who the Ten are?” Shimshon asks him.
The ten men who will help the others after they have finished helping their families.
Abba turns to him. “Absolutely not,” he says. “You don’t need to know.”
“But will you tell us if you’re to be the Last?” I ask. If Abba is chosen to help the last ten after they help everyone else, there won’t be anyone left to bury him. The thought upsets my stomach again.
He looks at me for a long moment. “That I will tell you.”
He nods at us and walks off.
Plant. Dig. Dump. Plant. Dig. Dump. Plant. Dig. Dump.
“Remember when we found that cave and hid in it and nobody could find us?”
Plant. Dig. Dump.
“Yes,” I pant.
“Remember playing King of the Mountain on the rampart? And they yelled at us and told us we could get shot?”
Plant. Dig. Dump.
Shimshon takes a drink from his water skin. “Remember when Yael chased you around trying to kiss you and you jumped into the goat pen and she gave up because she didn’t want to get her sandals dirty?”
I feel the corners of my mouth creep up. “Yes.”
Plant. Dig. Dump.
I stop. His voice is all strange. “Yes?”
“Are you . . . afraid?”
Am I? Can I afford to be? My fingers caress the spade, tracing the worn grooves in the wooden handle, and I think.
“Yes,” I say.
Shimshon sighs a very deep sigh. “Me, too.”
“But,” I add, “I’m more afraid of the Romans.”
He looks up at me, and I see it in his eyes. “Me, too,” he says.
Plant. Dig. Dump.
And suddenly I’m done. Five neat graves, all in a row. Three adult-sized, two child-sized. The sun is getting lower. Time is short. Where is Abba?
The wind blows sand in our faces, and ash from our burning wall. Shimshon sneezes and wraps his arms around himself. The desert night chill is creeping upon us. And there Abba comes, over the rise. He looks at the graves and back at me. He puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes gently.
“I’m not the Last,” he says.
Thank You, thank You, G-d! I feel the tension flowing from my body in waves. I hug Abba tightly.
“Are you one of the Ten?” Shimshon asks.
Abba shakes a finger at him in rebuke. Shimshon is always pushing boundaries. But he answers anyway.
“No,” he says. “No, I’m not.”
He ruffles my hair. “You wanted to come with me. To the synagogue.”
I hand the spade to Shimshon. He looks like he needs to dig now. “Your turn,” I tell him.
He smiles weakly at me. As I turn to follow Abba I can hear him begin.
Plant, dig, dump.
They let me carry a Torah scroll. My heart bursts with love and pride and grief and regret as I cradle the stiff, crackly parchment in my arms and join the procession of men going toward the scrolls’ final resting place. All along our route people brush the scrolls with their fingertips, a last gesture of reverence. We walk slowly to permit it.
I stumble over a rock.
“Steady, Ezra,” Abba cautions from behind me. “Is it too heavy for you?”
I shake my head fiercely and clasp my precious burden to my chest. I will not fall. I will not drop the scroll.
I will never stand up at the bimah and read from this scroll to the congregation as a man of Israel. But maybe, someday, someone will. Maybe that person will have heard of us, of our sacrifice. Maybe he will pray for our souls.
We lay our scrolls in a hidden cave. I press my lips to mine before I set it down, and I can see Abba doing the same. When no one is looking, I pluck a hair from my temple and tuck it in the scroll’s wrapping. It’s a small comfort that something of me will remain with it for as long as it’s there.
Abba spreads his cloak to cover me as we walk back. The sun is now just a thin red band on the horizon, and we need torches to see by. The night chill has arrived in earnest. A warm, wet drop falls onto my forehead. I look up.
Abba – my big, strong Abba, slayer of a hundred Romans with sword and bow – is weeping.
Plant. Dig. Dump. Plant. Dig. Dump.
There are two more graves dug when we return, and Shimshon is working hard on a third. He looks up when we approach.
“Nearly done,” he gasps, and goes back to work.
Now it’s my turn to sit on the rock and watch him. Abba goes inside. A terrible rasping begins. He is sharpening his sword.
Shimshon’s rhythm pauses. He looks at me.
“When we go in,” he says, “it’s going to be real.”
There are the women and girls, coming over the rise.
“Remember when Doda Naama went up on the wall to shout at the Romans and she got an arrow in her shoulder?” I ask. “Remember she didn’t scream or cry when Pinchas the healer pulled it out?”
“Think we can be that brave?”
He takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders. “If a woman can do it, we certainly can!”
I force a grin. “That’s the spirit!”
Plant. Dig. Dump. Plant. Dig. Dump. Plant. Dig. Dump.
The little group arrives. Savta Leah is grasping her walking stick like the staff of Moshe while holding Devora’s hand. Doda Naama is holding Barak’s hand. And Yael is holding a basket of freshly washed laundry. She looks pale, but resolute.
The spade has fallen silent. Shimshon is finished. The awful rasping sound from within our house has stopped. Now, as the first stars begin to twinkle in the sky, we can hear muted wailing from the other dwellings.
The killing has begun.
Devora runs to me and wraps her arms around my waist.
“Hello, Ezzy-pezzy!” she says.
I sweep her up and bury my face in her soft black curls. My eyes are suddenly wet, and I can’t let anyone see. When I look up again, Yael is holding Barak on her hip while clutching Shimshon’s hand tightly. Doda Naama has the basket. What do they want with clean laundry now?
Savta Leah hobbles past us and through the door without hesitation.
We wait. After a little while, Doda Naama shoos us in, too.
We go inside. Abba is sitting on a stool with his head in his hands. Savta Leah is standing over him, leaning on her walking stick. Like a teacher rebuking a naughty schoolboy.
“Now, Levi,” she is saying. “I know you to be a reasonable man. This – this obsession Elazar has stirred up in all of you is senseless and craven. You know this. In your heart of hearts, you know it.”
“The Romans will probably kill them anyway,” Abba says, his voice muffled.
“Then they would be no worse off than if you had your way.”
He raises his head, and his face is streaked with tears. “They might make slaves of them!”
Savta Leah bangs her stick on the floor. “But they would have a chance to live for a better time. Elazar would have you steal that chance from them!”
I find myself shaking my head. “I don’t want to be a slave!”
Everyone turns to me. My face gets hot – I didn’t realize I spoke aloud.
Savta Leah strokes my cheek. “Nothing is certain, dear boy,” she says. “But one thing is: if you stay here, you will die. Is that really what you want?”
I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. I don’t know what I want anymore. Shimshon and Yael look stricken.
“We will outlast them,” Doda Naama says. Her eyes are clouded and her words slurred, but she speaks with the authority of a prophetess. “The day will come when the Romans will be no more. Our grandchildren’s grandchildren will tread on their dust.” She thumps her fist into the palm of her other hand.
“Lies,” Abba says through his teeth. “All lies told by women to justify cowardice.”
Savta Leah strikes the ground with her stick. “No, Levi. It is Elazar who told lies. Yes, we lost this battle. We were not worthy – only G-d knows why. But He is not finished with us yet. Think of the remnant that escaped to Yavneh – with Rome’s blessing!”
“Rome’s blessing,” Abba mocks. “We need Rome’s blessing to worship our own G-d in our own land. Does this not turn your stomach? How long do you think Rome’s blessing will last? And what will that remnant in Yavneh do once it is revoked? Do you think they will fight, like the Maccabees in the time of our grandfathers? They were against this war from the beginning!
“No, there are no Maccabees anymore. We were the last! And if we are to vanish into history, better we go on our feet than on our knees!”
I have never seen Abba so angry. That is more frightening than ten Romans.
“If you love your children,” Savta Leah says in a quiet voice, “you will let them have the chance to prove you wrong.”
Abba turns to look at us, his eyes shining wet. He looks at us for a long while. Then he turns back to Savta Leah. “You know I love them,” he says. “I love them more than my own life. And you know, too, that even if the Romans let them live, they will likely endure great suffering.”
“Very likely,” Savta Leah agrees.
My head goes light. Black spots begin to swim before my eyes. I tighten my grip on Devora, who has fallen asleep on my shoulder.
“But,” she continues, “I know these children – I’ve mothered them for five years. They’re tough. They can make it through, and they will come out stronger.”
She has more faith than I do. It’s one thing when the Romans are far on the other side of a great wall. Then it’s easy to thumb our noses at them and shout defiance. It would be quite another thing if they were all around, up close, and we were helpless among them. I’m not sure how strong I could be if I were in their power.
Abba closes his eyes tightly and rocks back and forth. I look at Shimshon, and he looks at me. We spent all afternoon coming to terms with the idea of dying; we didn’t give any thought to what might happen if we should live. He looks at Yael and Barak and I look at Devora. Our siblings are so young. Even if we can withstand what the Romans do to us, can they?
I don’t know. And more than anything else, it’s the not knowing that I can’t bear.
I step forward before I lose my nerve. “I’ll be first.”
Abba opens his eyes. He look pierces me to the core. “Are you sure? Because once this thing is done, it cannot be undone.”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m sure.”
Abba nods at me solemnly. I whisper goodbye to Devora and give her a kiss as Doda Naama takes her from my arms. I go to Savta Leah and stretch up to kiss her weathered cheek.
“Thank you for everything,” I whisper in her ear. “I’m sorry.”
She looks at me sadly. “I’m sorry too, my child,” she says, and brushes my hair from my eyes.
Shimshon envelops me in a tight bear hug. “You’re braver than I am,” he whispers.
“You will do what you must,” I tell him.
He squeezes my arms. “Wait for me,” he says.
I squeeze back. “I will.”
Yael gives me a quick kiss on the cheek. My face gets hot. “See you in the next world,” she says, and turns away, blushing.
I nod, strangely dry-eyed. After all the waiting, the endless anticipation . . . the time has come. And I’m relieved.
I follow Abba into the back room, where he and I and Shimshon and Barak sleep. Abba closes the door. His sword is already there, resting on our clothes chest. A double-wicked lamp is lit, also on the chest. I watch the light flicker, reflected in the burnished metal of the blade. Then I look up at Abba.
“I’m ready,” I say.
He wraps his great, strong arms around me – the arms that will wield the blade. I shiver. He pulls back.
“Are you sure?” he asks again.
“Yes,” I say.
I go to my bed and lie down. I lay my arms at my sides and shut my eyes. This must be what Isaac felt like awaiting the fall of Abraham’s blade. My mind is at peace, yet my heart is beating so, so fast. I wish he would do it already.
A weight on my neck – light and thin as a hair, but I feel it. I lie perfectly still. And it doesn’t move.
What is Abba waiting for?
The sword clatters to the floor.
“I can’t do it,” Abba gasps. “G-d help me, I can’t do it!”
He gathers me up into his arms and weeps into my hair, wild, heaving sobs. My heart is galloping like a speeding horse. Relief explodes through me, tempered by guilt. I put my arms around Abba, stroke his hair as he has stroked mine so many times, and try to reassure him.
“Shh, Abba, it’s all right. I’ll go to the Romans if that’s what you want. Abba, please don’t cry. It’ll be all right. There will be better times . . .”
I wish I could believe half of what I tell him.
I step out of the room first. Abba follows, his hand resting on my shoulder. Savta Leah’s eyes light up to see me. She grasps Abba’s hand and brings it to her lips.
“Thank you, Levi. Thank you,” she murmurs.
“You have to go,” Abba says. His voice is hoarse from weeping. “All of you. You must hide. The Ten will be coming around soon.”
“Come with us, Levi,” Savta Leah says. “The children need you.”
I look up at him hopefully. If he comes, it will be better . . .
But he is shaking his head. “No, Savta. The children are strong.” He squeezes my shoulder. “Did you see how Ezra walked into that room, knowing what would happen? That courage will stand him in good stead, and he will strengthen the others.”
He turns to me. “After you leave,” he says, “I will wait for the men to come. Then I will lie down in the grave you dug for me, and I will let them cut my throat. That is as it should be.”
I knew this would happen. Of course I knew. But I never expected to still be in this world when it did. I’m shaking as I wrap my arms around him.
“But you, Ezra, you must live. All of you must. Whatever it takes, live. If you must serve the Romans, then serve them. But remember how the few fought the many for the honor of G-d and the liberty of His children. Do not worship in the Romans’ temples, kill in their arenas, or serve in their dens of iniquity. If they require those things of you, you must let them kill you rather than obey. And if it happens that you must go to your death, go with dignity, as you, Ezra, did just now.”
“Promise me,” he insists.
“I promise,” I say. It takes much effort to keep my voice steady.
He wipes away the wetness that has spilled down my face. “Take care of Devora and the others,” he bids me. “Make me proud.” He glances toward Savta Leah, and then turns back to me. “Prove me wrong.”
“I will, Abba,” my voice catches on the lump in my throat. “I promise.”
He kisses me on both cheeks. Then he kisses Devora's curly head. She stirs, but does not wake.
“It is good that she sleeps,” he says. “It will be better for her that way.”
He turns to Savta and Doda Naama. “Go now. Take the children and hide in the cistern. Keep to the shadows under the wall and no one will see you.”
I take Devora from Doda Naama, and Yael adjusts her hold on Barak’s small form.
“Take the basket, Naama,” Savta Leah instructs her. She turns to Abba. “May G-d grant you peace, Levi. You are a good man.”
“May He protect you, Savta,” Abba says. “May G-d protect all of you.”
Savta Leah shepherds us out and the door is closed behind us.
There’s no time to think, no time to cry. The nearly-full moon lights our way. The wind blows, and we can hear the crackle of flames from across the mountaintop. The only other sound is our footsteps. Even the faint background wailing has stopped.
We arrive. Doda Naama puts down the basket.
“Quickly now,” Savta Leah says, all business. “Here are our Shabbat clothes. We are all going to put them on. You three older children change first, and then you will help the younger ones.”
Shimshon gives voice to our confusion. “Why? What difference will it make?”
Leaning on her walking stick, Savta Leah draws herself up to her full height. “My boy, we are not going to cower behind a rock and let the Romans discover a frightened band of bedraggled refugees. For make no mistake: they will find us. And we are going to walk into their hands, proud, dignified, and unafraid.”
We are Sicarii. We ought to put up a brave front, even if we are surrendering.
It’s time for Devora to wake. I will my tears back below my eyelids and put a smile on my face. I can’t allow myself to cry. I must be strong, as Abba said, for her.
“Devory-bory,” I whisper in her ear. “Wake up. I need to put you down now.”
She lifts her head and blinks at me. “Ezra, where are we? Why is it so dark? Where is Abba?”
“He had to – Abba had to leave,” I say. “On a very long journey. We have to leave too, in the morning. We’re getting ready now.”
“He left without saying good-bye to me?” Devora says.
My heart breaks for her. It takes all my will to talk normally, without letting my voice betray my grief. “He said good-bye, silly, only you were sleeping, so you didn’t hear. He gave you a . . . a big kiss . . .”
I turn away until I’m composed again.
“And he said he loves you forever and ever,” I finished.
Devora wiggles out of my arms. “When will he come back?”
“I don’t know,” I lie. It will have to do for now.
I can see our house from the top of the cistern steps, so I’m standing guard. If anyone comes looking for us, I can warn the others. A shadowy figure walks up to the door. I stuff my fist in my mouth to keep myself from crying out. I can’t believe this is really happening.
The door opens. Now there are two figures outside. They walk together to the place where I dug. Their shapes disappear toward the ground. After a few moments, only one stands up and walks away, back toward the center of the settlement.
I’m alone now, so I can finally let the tears fall. Then there’s a presence behind me – Doda Naama. She takes me in her arms and I cling to her and cry and cry until I can’t cry anymore.
When we wake in the morning the smell of burning is overpowering. The early morning breeze blows sand and ash down the long staircase to where we are sitting. The silence is so strange. The usual sounds of morning are absent. There is no one left to make them.
Barak is complaining he’s hungry. We breakfast on dried figs and dates and water.
And we wait.
Soon, as the sun rises higher, we hear the creaks and groans of the Romans’ monstrous siege tower as the soldiers climb up onto it.
Battle cries, met by silence.
That crash must be our burnt wall giving way.
More battle cries. More silence.
Clanking armor. They’re here.
Savta Leah stands, leaning on her stick and Doda Naama’ arm. We stand too. Shimshon takes Yael’s hand in one of his and Barak’s in the other. I take Devora’s hand.
The trumpets are louder. They’re getting closer to our hiding place.
My heart beats fast, but steady. My eyes are dry. I will be strong for Devora and the others. I will be strong for Abba.
Savta Leah begins to climb the stairs.