The Secret Magdalene

Selections from The Secret Magdalene


A day or so later, Ananias leaves his camels and beckons me aside. He does not beckon Salome, who is well caught up in a discussion with Seth and Dositheus on what Dositheus calls the “threefold nature of God.” Ananias tells me this: In the Jericho market buying up the Galilean oil for Egypt, he has heard word of me. Father has let it be known far and wide that I am no longer his daughter, Salome is no longer his ward, and that we have been entered by demons. It is said that these demons number three for me and four for Salome, but this number rises each new time Ananias hears the tale. Father has also let it be known that he would not transgress the First Noachite Law; therefore, our fortunes, hers from her father, Coron of Memphis, mine from my mother, Hokhmah, are deposited in our names with the Temple priests, and there they shall remain until we are proven dead or until we come for them, demon ridden or not demon ridden. Ananias says Josephus has called me whore, a cruel word men use to brand females not in the care of a brother or a husband or a father or an uncle or a son.

By the stars, even our very sons have precedence over us.

Ananias’s news is like a blow to my heart. My father calling me whore is more terrible than John the Baptizer calling me unworthy of life. But I will not tell Salome because I would not see her hurt more for my very soul. And I will not have Ananias tell Salome.

By and by, with much talk and little adventure, save the miles under our feet and the dust in our throats, we come out of a world of heat and sand into a world of heat and wet. Here, in the confusion of the seven waters, Ananias dismisses his camel drivers and his camels, offloads his jars of oils and aromatics onto a large slow barge. From the fortress city of Pelusium on, where the lakes are bitter with salt and the sea is a sea of reeds, it is much too marshy to walk further. It seems we shall come to Alexandria by way of the fabled Nile!

Therefore, in this manner we reach the westernmost branch of the green-watered Canopic Nile and from there sail into a reeded canal cut through the flat and endless delta. And all along, there have been waterwheels, and boats of many styles and many purposes, and houses made of mud-brick, and sloe-eyed people born out of Egypt’s bounty. There have been great, flat, fearsome-toothed water lizards hiding in the rushes, and there have been great, fat, hippopotami lurking under our keel. I have hung my head over the side as keenly as has Salome, for what amazing things they are! They are like enormous gray pigs with huge fatty yellow mouths that could swallow Goliath whole. Their teeth are like the stubby legs of Father’s best table. Their ears turn full round in their great fat heads like pegs in holes. They could turn us over, barge and all, with one watery grunt.

From the canal we enter an enormous lake edged with reeds and scattered with islands. We float in and out of a jungle of bean plants that hold up their huge leaves like cups to be filled with the light of the sun. The islands are out where the water is clear, and on the islands are temples, but on the banks of this lake, and spreading out as far as we can see, are vast vineyards lying green under the Egyptian sun.

Tacking against a wind from the north, we slowly move across the lake of islands and wine. Upright in the prow, Salome and I strain for our first sight of Alexandria. We see nothing but more islands, nothing but water birds rising above us, nothing but the blue flash of a kingfisher in the reeds beside us, nothing but strange fish gliding below us, and around us, nothing but other boats laden with wine from the rich estates on the lake shore. Where is Alexandria? Where is Alexandria? We shall fall in a faint if it does not show itself in all these reeds and all this water. But there is nothing, nothing, nothing, and then—a dark line between the blue of the sky and the blue of the lake. And then—tiny boats, tiny docks, tiny buildings.

Salome seizes my hand. We are almost there, almost at Alexander’s great city set at the edge of the sea. A moment later, there is movement in the distant streets. A moment after that, and the whole city lies clear before us. It is almost more than our hearts can bear.

As we said we would, Salome and I have come to Egypt.

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