When I married Ephraim, I knew that although I was the first, I would not be his only love. I wasn’t that naive. Too many girls before me had fallen into that trap. They would marry a handsome and wealthy man, so quick to bewitched by his flattery. They insisted that their husbands would never take another wife or a maid. They insisted that they were the only loves of their companions, and that they were told so every night. But then a young and beautiful girl would come and throw herself at his feet, and it wasn’t long before the first wife was left with only a rare sighting of the man who once promised that he would never love another as much as she.
Throughout his lifetime, Ephraim’s father had taken a total of three wives and no less than four maids. I was given no reason to expect any different from Ephraim himself.
Our wedding was extravagant, if unusual in it’s quickness. The procession took place only hours after the betrothal, as if to bring as much attention to the affair as possible. The intricately weaved canopy we took our vows under laid upon the swept stone outside of the city temple for all of the village to see. My dowry was put on proud display and the whole community fawned at us, desperate for a chance to suck up to the wealthy and powerful. The day was filled with grand, romantic gestures under the gentle shade of palm fronds, although whether they were to please me or the crowd, I will never quite know. Even as he carried me the long journey to our new homestead, he would sneak in small kisses at every opportunity. He would hold my hand. He quoted poetry. At one point during our betrothal ceremony, I even remember him picking a jewel from my dowry box and making a show out of a scoff.
“Why,” he’d said, “even these fine gems do not hold a candle to your beauty!” The younger girls of the village cooed at the comment, undoubtedly thinking of my new husband as some idealistic prince charming from their storybooks. I tried my best not to laugh. They would learn soon enough that sweet words had about as much value as the dirt under their feet. Until then, I thought, let them dream.
I enjoyed all the romance while I could, certain that any day could be the last of it. I will admit, though, that Ephraim surprised me with how long the gestures went on. I expected a few months would prove his limit, if not a year. But his adoration of me persisted until well after the birth of our first child - a boy named Ezra, who inherited my dark skin and his father’s brilliant blue eyes.
When Ezra had come, I had expected Ephraim’s courting behaviors toward me to end. He was given a strong, healthy, male heir as a firstborn. I had figured that my use to him had officially been worn. But I was wrong. Instead, his gestures began to increase tenfold. He paraded me around the city center, the temple, and the marketplace, all the while strutting like a peacock. He dressed me in fine jewelry and clothing, exclaiming my excellence to anyone who would listen.
“Only a woman of the highest stock could produce such a boy!” His smile seemed impossibly wide as he showed off the newborn in my arms. “Just look at her beauty! It’s no wonder that such a woman could produce such a perfect heir!” On and on it went until I was lulled into a false sense of security. Yes, I regret to reveal that part of me began to believe that he truly did think so highly of me. I never trusted that his eyes wouldn’t wander eventually, but I will admit that I felt my expiration day had been extended significantly.
That was, until Sarai came.
Sarai was a sweet girl. One I had admired for quite some time. Three years my junior, she was of outstanding beauty and came from a long line of nobility. As one of the few women in the region to have been properly educated, she was equally seen as a threat and an asset to surrounding nobility.
I found Sarai’s company pleasant and her wit fiercely entertaining. If given the opportunity, the two of us could talk upon hours with one another, never growing weary of the other’s company. I hosted many a dinner party in the hopes that my lady Sarai would attend. As I entertained arriving company, my eyes would often steel toward the door, hoping that at any moment, I would see her enter in one of her brilliant gowns, a smile on her lips and a light in her eyes. I was overjoyed every time I had the opportunity to be around her.
As it would turn out, Ephraim very much felt the same way.
Around the time that Ezra was reaching his third birthday, it was announced that Sarai’s parents were seeking to marry her. Her bloodline ensured that her dowry was as handsome as her person, and I knew that my time as Ephraim’s sole lover was likely at an end. Shortly after the announcement, his visits, gifts, and praises grew more and more infrequent. I felt no shock when whispers of Ephraim courting the young Sarai began to surface, and even less when it was announced that Sarai was to be wed to my husband.
Besides my lack of surprise, I had trouble placing my feelings on the matter. The only thing I could eventually trace was a lingering sense of disappointment. At first, I thought, it must have been borne from some sort of insecurity. Sarai was a fair woman, there was no question about that. Her eyes were a unique, striking green, and her cacao-colored hair fell into delicate curls that framed her face, still rounded from youth. What woman would not feel at least a bit self-critical when living in the same home as one such as she? But the more I searched, the less I found the theory to have any validity to it. I enjoyed Sarai’s beauty, I did not envy it. I caught myself staring at her often, but all I felt behind my observations was admiration, not jealousy or comparison. And so I was left still questioning.
Upon much self-searching, the only other explanation for my feelings that I could concoct was heartbreak. I knew from the very beginning that the love Ephraim supposedly felt for me would not be permanent nor exclusive. But if I was not jealous of Sarai, then the only other cause of my feelings that I could surmise was disappointment that my husband no longer loved only me. The term heartbreak at least seemed to fit my feelings better than jealousy. And, above all, it was the only remaining answer.
After that, all of my anger and resentment was directed inwards. I reprimanded myself for apparently becoming one of the women I onced scoffed at. I did not understand how or when my feelings toward Ephraim had shifted into those of serious love, but they must have for me to have felt so sad and weary.
As both a form of protection and self-punishment, I therefore secluded myself from the world. I had my handmaidens bring my meals to my room just so I could dine alone. I could not bring myself to face my husband or Sarai.
Just as I had predicted, Ephraim’s visits were fewer and grew even more so at my newfound disbondence. I still gave my son his daily lessons, but no others were allowed near. Sarai, the woman I once tried so hard to please and be near, became little more than a stranger in my home. She would often come to my door, requesting my company in that angelic voice of hers. But seeing her was somehow even more painful to me than seeing Ephraim, so every time I sent her away. I could sense her sadness at every rejected lunch invitation. I pretended that seeing her saddened so didn’t just further the pain in my soul.
A few months before Ezra’s fourth birthday, it was announced that Sarai was with child. The news worried me some. She was a small woman, and there was no doubt that the birth would not be an easy one. I prayed for her sake that she bore a male. For a noblewoman to produce a female as a first born was a sure way to lose favor in the eyes of a husband. I wanted to prevent her from experiencing what I apparently had for as long as possible.
For many more months, I wallowed in my own wing of the homestead as slowly, the ever-persistent, enigmatic ache in my chest drove me mad. Sarai continued to call upon me, and I continued to ignore her. In the later months of Sarai’s pregnancy, Ephraim had left temporarily for another city to conduct matters of trade relations, leaving alone her in the care of her handmaidens. Although I am sure he would beg to contest, I knew that his trip was at least partially planned as an excuse not to be present for the birthing of his second child. In confidence, Ephraim was a squeamish man, unable to bear witness to the most difficult hours of my own labour. Even when the handmaiden offered for him to sever the birth cord, he had quietly refused, and did not lay a hand on Ezra until he had been thoroughly bathed of the remains of his womb. He could pass it off as business as much as he wanted, I knew that he was trying to avoid bearing spectacle to childbirth again.
One month to the day after Ephraim had departed for his travels, Sarai began to experience the pains of labour. The entire home was abuzz as midwives were called for and handmaidens prepared whatever they could to aid in the birthing process.
Ezra looked upon the women skittering within our clay walls with questioning, occasionally pausing to inquire a further explanation for a certain action. I answered what I could, all the while nervously pacing amongst our quarters. I found, for some reason, that I could not shake a deep feeling of concern from the depths of my chest. For the first time since Ephraim took the hand of sweet Sarai, the feeling of heartbreak was entirely absent from my being, only for the gap it left to be filled with worry. I sat with my dear son on the stoop, hoping to catch some passing word of how the lady was fairing. As ever more maids passed with their oils and clothes and wines and warmed waters, more prayers for her health and safety began to pass my lips.
I sat as I did for many hours, until my young Ezra was asleep at my side. Still I had yet to hear a clear word on Sarai’s condition. The pragmatic part of my mind told me to trust God on the matter. To settle my son down for the night and retire soon behind him. To leave the worrying and the praying to the midwives and the maids. But a deeper emotional attachment, one that I had fervently tried to bury away, prevented me from doing so. I justified my feelings in the consideration that many of the maidens tending to her were either too young to have had children of their own, or so old that the feeling of their experience would have faded with age. I told myself that I was perhaps one of the only people in the household that could relate to her experiences. Perhaps in that sense, I supposed, I could offer some form of guidance - or at the very least reassurance - to her.
With my mind finally set and resolute, I carefully placed my sleeping son amongst the bedding and ordered one of my handmaidens to tend to him if needed. I then slipped into the corridor, following the sound of chaos to Sarai’s quarters.
I had never actually set foot in Sarai’s bedroom before. Even before she had been living under the same roof as I and the room was just another servant’s quarters, I had never really the need to explore that portion of the residence. Stepping inside, I found it to be remarkably underwhelming. The floors were still the simple packed dirt that the rest of the servant inns harbored. I was surprised at my level of anger over that detail. A kind woman of such beauty and nobility should not be made to walk upon anything but the finest polished stones and woven carpeting. Even that, it seemed, would be too little for her. The rest of the room was of only marginally better quality. She had a bed of moderate quality, with fairly fine linens upon it, and a sizable jewelry chest on the opposite corner of the room. But other than the bare minimum of expected amenities for a woman of her status, the room was quite barren. For the first time, I truly began to see the privilege I had as the leading lady of the house, and guilt fell over me like the clouds of a storm.
Caught up in my own thoughts, I had near forgotten the reason for presence until I heard my name called upon my one of the handmaidens.
“Good lady!” the woman exclaimed, backing away slightly in what could have only been fear, shock, or an amalgam of the two. “Why, I beg your pardon, but what brings you here?”
I spared her but a passing glance and instead took a moment to finally digest the situation before me. Sarai was kneeling in the middle of the room on a plain-looking birthing brick while two maidens supported her weight from the upper arms. There were two midwives present, one in mid-prayer and the other subtly and nervously shifting her gaze between her work and my person, as if she were preparing for me to strike at her. Another two maids were at Sarai’s side, one rubbing her with oils and the other presenting her with things that were pleasant to smell. The maiden that had addressed me had been wiping at her brow with a moistened sea sponge, but now she, like many of the others, paused their work and stared at me with the cautiousness one would have while approaching a spooked steed.
Of course, I knew the reasons behind their wariness of me. There had been many a rumor over the years of noblewomen killing off the offspring of their husband’s other consorts in order to ensure her child was made the only true heir. I would have liked to have thought these women to have known me better than to think I would have done such a thing, but deep down, I knew that wasn’t true. I had become a cold woman in the past year, and I was growing to regret it with every hour and second that passed.
Just as I began to feel the heat of shame and embarrassment run through me, a quiet voice like milk and honey parted the silence.
“My lady! Oh, my lady, I thank the good God that you are here! These women have been running about without a clue. Like beheaded roosters they are, I swear! I praise the heavenly father that someone with their wits about them has arrived, I do say!” The woman - pale and weak from her lengthy labour - managed to smile through every word.
I was stunned to silence for part of a moment. After many months of neglecting this sweet, brilliant, beautiful woman, she still looked upon me with the same smile on her lips. A smile that held no hint of bitterness or betrayal behind it. A smile I in no way deserved, but was overjoyed to have received. I returned her gesture with a breathy chuff, parting the still-stunned sea of maids and midwives and taking my place at her side. I relieved the maiden supporting her right, and held Sarai upright and close to my body. The feeling of her, flush against me, caused heat to rise to my cheeks.
“Do not worry, my good Lady Sarai. I will take this matter into my own hands. No more of this ninnery shall be about while I’m overseeing the labour of my fair lady.” I gave her the first genuine smile I had given anyone in months. It was as if the past year had been naught but an odd dream, and now that I had awoken, it was just lady Sarai and I again, happy in our own world together. Her full lips curled upward ever so slightly, and I felt a small amount of pride in amusing her even as she was in such a state of exhaustion.
Turning my attention back to the gawking maidens, I began to take command of the situation.
“Why is the noble lady given but a kneeling brick to rest upon? Where is the birthing chair I was given for my labour?”
The handmaidens exchanged fearful and confused looks amongst themselves, all the while remaining in dumb silence.
“Well?” I drawled on. “Was my inquiry unclear? Or have you all lost the ability to speak in the last few moments?”
One of the handmaidens moved forward with an overwhelming sense of meekness. “I-it should be in the storing room somewhere. B-but the brick is simply what the master of the house had left us with upon his departure! He did not give us permission to fetch upon something else to use.”
The anger inside me grew with ferocious intensity. All this time I had been consumed by my own sorrows, blind to the neglect my dear friend had received at the hands of our husband. All along, she had been given so much less than I , while being deserving of so much more.
“I don’t recall asking what provisions were left by my husband. Don’t you see that this woman is weary? Fetch me the birthing chair. This is a difficult birth, and she’ll need to be as relaxed as possible.”
From there on, the maids obeyed every word of my commands. I eventually had them carry Sarai into my own bedroom, refusing to allow her to bear child in a place of such little provision. Ezra was moved into his father's room for the night. It was fitting. Ezra, at just four, was more of a man than Ephraim in my eyes.
The rest of the night, into the wee hours of the morning, was spent at the side of Sarai, holding her hand and whispering to her gentle encouragements. It was one hour after the break of dawn when finally, the cries of a newborn sounded throughout the halls of our estate. Sarai’s body eased greatly, the most difficult part of her labour then complete.
I took the brunt of her weight against me, still furiously dabbing sweat from her face. Her head lolled over to my shoulder. Slowly, her brilliant green eyes, still glassed from pain, opened to meet my own. My heart fluttered with her eyelids, and I suddenly felt that I could hold her like this for an eternity.
It was in that moment that everything finally fell into logical place for me. The past year of hurt and heartache, the reason I was unable to face my dear friend for all this time, it all seemed so clear in retrospection.
I had never been in love with Ephraim. Never once in all of this time was I mourning for the loss of his company or the exclusivity of our relationship. No, all along, I had been morning for my dear Sarai. All along, my heart hurt for the fact that her hand had been taken by one other than I. All along, I was heartbroken that I could not be with her, hold her and kiss her and keep her as I wanted. All along, I had been in love with Sarai.
“Please,” her voice was small and rasped, but still as beautiful to me as the harmony of thousand harps. “Please, good lady, have I been blessed with a daughter, or a son?”
Still supporting her with all the strength I had, I looked down to the midwives as they checked the child for any oddities.
A brief wave of fear passed over my being at what I saw.
“A daughter,” I spoke, seriously. “You have been given a daughter.”
I watched Sarai’s face carefully, fearful of her reaction. She was already treated as lesser than by Ephraim, and knowing how he ran his mouth, it wouldn’t be long before the whole community saw her as weak for bearing a daughter as a firstborn.
Though she did not despair as I thought she would. Instead, her entire face brightened, her smile turned brilliant, and she made a joyous noise to the heavens.
“Oh, happy day! The sweet Lord has heard my prayers and he has answered them! Oh, my good God has given me a little girl!” Her excitement was fierce. Gripping my hand in both of her own, she looked at me with eyes that shone with infinite joy. “I beg of you, please let me hold my blessing in my arms!”
Her elation was infectious. I smiled and reached out to the midwives, passing the newborn child to her mother. Sarai cooed at the babe, whispering to her the sweet words of a mother’s love. I gave her time with her child, taking a moment to help the handmaidens prepare a bath and swaddling cloths for the child.
Once the afterbirth was passed, I was called upon by my lady the cut the birthing cord. Never had I felt such honor. Severing the final, physical tie between mother and child, I bathed and swaddled the girl myself before returning her to her mother, who I had laid in my own bed to rest.
“My dearest lady,” Sarai greeted me as I joined her upon the bed. “How grateful I am to you for all that you have done for me this night. You are truly a gift to me.”
I was unable to contain a smile at that. Sitting besides her, I took a moment to brush away a few curls that had slicked to her forehead. Feeling brave, I also placed a small kiss against her brow.
“Aye, no, my sweet. You are the gift.”
We gazed at one another for a short moment. As the time slipped away, I could see her smile turn slightly sad and tears begin to dot the corners of her eyes.
“I have missed you.” Her voice was choked in a whisper, a sob clearly being forced back down her throat. My heart ached terribly. I turned my eyes away from her, too ashamed to face heartbreak. This time, that which I had inflicted.
A long moment passed, both of us too consumed by emotion to speak. But in that silence was suspended a thousand words that needed not to be spoken aloud. I knew that she was wise enough to have figured out the truth. Perhaps she had known even longer than I. In the end, all I could say to her was:
“I have missed you too.”