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Yahweh spoke his word to Hosea, son of Beeri, when Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah were kings of Judah and when Jeroboam, son of Joash, was king of Israel.
Gomer hurried from her private room, through a connecting breezeway, and into the brothel’s kitchen. Jarah, one of the servant girls, grabbed a few dried figs and, with a trembling hand, held them out to Gomer—an offering. Gomer took two and closed the girl’s hand around those remaining. “Eat them yourself, Jarah. Don’t let Tamir find them and give them to someone else.” Gomer walked away, noticing the girl slip one into her mouth, and tried to remember the last time she smelled warm bread baking in that kitchen. Her stomach rumbled at the thought.
She emerged into the sunlit courtyard of Tamir’s brothel, spotting old Merav tending three toddlers playing in the dust. Gomer glanced left and right, hoping to avoid a confrontation with the owner. The wealthiest businesswoman in Samaria, Tamir had built her business on determination, cunning, and the favor of the gods.
Yes, Gomer had been Tamir’s most lucrative harlot since she’d been dumped on the woman’s doorstep after Gomer’s twelfth year.
“Why do I have to go to the sacrifice this morning?” Gomer ranted while stomping toward Merav. “Why can’t the younger girls go without me? I’ve had only a moment’s sleep, and I’m tired, Merav.”
The old woman pressed a single finger to her lips and nodded at the sleeping infant in her arms. Merav, the brothel’s midwife, loved all the children inside the gates, whether born within or abandoned at the threshold.
Gomer adjusted her volume but not her tone. “Why does Tamir demand I accompany the girls? They are quite capable and can work the crowd just as well as I.” Disgusted, she gathered one of the toddlers in her arms, giving her a little spit bath to clean her smudged cheek.
“Tamir knows you represent her house well, and the other girls look to you for leadership while they’re on the streets.” Merav’s voice was gentle, and Gomer wondered how much of her soothing was for the sleeping baby boy in her arms and how much was meant to calm Gomer’s foul mood. “Here, eat your pomegranate skin.” The old midwife held out the dried rind and offered a wry smile. She was done listening to Gomer’s complaints.
Gomer planted the toddler back on the ground and reached for the pomegranate rind—but captured Merav’s hand and kissed it before letting go. The old woman brushed her cheek. “Now, take some pomegranate seeds with you. I don’t want to be holding your baby next year.”
A wave of emotion washed over Gomer at the thought. “Well, I wouldn’t know if it was my baby, now would I?” The question came out more accusatory than she intended, and when she saw the hurt on Merav’s features, she knelt beside the old woman. “I’m sorry. You know I didn’t mean anything by that. It’s just that, well . . .” She fumbled for words, trying to unravel the knot of feelings she’d awakened with this morning. “You know me, Merav. I try to forget yesterday and not worry about tomorrow. If it wasn’t for you and these pomegranates, I might have a dozen children by now.”
The old woman met her eyes and stroked her cheek. “What troubles you this morning, my little Gomer?”
“I awoke with a terrible sense of dread. Perhaps one of the gods is warning me of danger.”
“Or maybe you drank too much wine last night.” Her eyes twinkled with mischief.
“I’m serious!” Gomer shouted, causing the sleeping infant to stir. A warning glance from the old woman reminded her to lower her voice. “I’m getting older, Merav. I’ve lived through two childbirths and one rue-induced drop. No matter how many pomegranates you feed me, I’m almost certain to get pregnant again with the number of clients I see each night.Tamir says she’ll teach me how to run the brothel, but so far . . .”
“But so far she hasn’t begun teaching you the businessside of harlotry.” The old woman finished Gomer’s sentence.
“That’s right.” Their eyes locked in understanding. “She hasn’t taught me anything! Only you have taught me, Merav.You’ve taught me what herbs, roots, and teas prevent a man’s seed from growing inside me. You’ve taught me how to bring forth a child on the birthing stones. But I’ve watched the other girls long for the babies of their womb and become less human with each child that’s taken from them. I must know why Tamir sends all the male babies away but has decided to keep this one.”
“Even I don’t know the answer to that, my little Gomer. I’ve known Tamir since she purchased this house, yet she hides what’s special about this boy.” The old woman caressed his downy black hair and snuggled him closer to her heart.
“Then tell me why she refuses to let an ima know whichbabe is her own.” Gomer glanced at the little ones playing with sticks and stones at Merav’s feet. “Are any of these mine?”
Merav’s eyes welled with tears, but her voice was solid stone. “You know I cannot answer that.” She raised her chin and swiped her tears. “And you know how hard I try to keep any of Tamir’s girls from conceiving. If they would eat the seeds I give them and drink the tea regularly, we wouldn’t have to take the babies or give them rue to induce—”
“I know,” Gomer said, laying her head in Merav’s lap. “I’m not accusing you, my friend. I’m just frustrated, and for the first time I’m trying to see my future—but the path is very dark.”
Merav stroked Gomer’s hair and began humming a familiar cradle tune while still holding the infant in her other arm. Gomer’s mind wandered to her childhood in Bethel. It seemed ages ago. She saw her three younger sisters cowering in the corner during one of Abba Diblaim’s drunken rages. He was a priest at Bethel’s temple—and a pig at home.
Then she saw Hosea’s face. He’d been ten when she last saw him; she’d been six—that day in the temple, when she fell from the rafters. She didn’t even get to say good-bye when his abba took him from Bethel. Hosea had been her one friend, her protector.
When Abba Diblaim sold her to an Asherah priestess from Samaria a few years later, she learned the bitter days of a priestess and the lonely nights with drunken men. She’d believed one of the Baal priests when he said he loved her. What a little fool she’d been. Stripped of her ritual duties, she was labeled a harlot and dropped at Tamir’s gate. Merav had soothed her broken heart and tended the whipping wounds on her back. The poor woman didn’t deserve the tongue-lashingGomer had given her this morning.
“We’ve been together almost seven years now,” Gomer whispered, letting her tears wet Merav’s robe. “I know better than anyone how you love the girls in this house, and I want to make sure we both have a place to live after I’m too old to provide food and shelter as a street harlot.” She lifted her head, holding the woman’s gaze intently. “I need to know who Tamir talks to at the temple when one of our young girls reaches the age for service in Asherah’s grove. And how does Tamir decide which girls become priestesses and which ones work as street harlots or serving maids? What other ways does she bring in food and income for this house besides the street harlots’ pay?”
“Well, well,” came a silken voice from behind them. “It appears I’ve happened upon an important conversation this morning.”
Gomer saw the fear in Merav’s eyes and realized Tamir had heard too much. She leapt to her feet and faced the brothel owner. “I was telling Merav the questions I intended to ask you when I returned from the sacrifice today.” She could hear the quiver in her voice and cursed herself for it. She’d perfected her conniving with men but still struggled when lying to Tamir. “Is there anything I can help with before I leave?Any special instructions?”
Tamir’s eyes narrowed, and she placed balled fists on slender hips. “Yes, in fact, there is something you should know before you leave this morning. Today’s sacrifice will be the first of its kind in Israel. The drought we’ve experienced for the last two years has affected even King Jeroboam’s grain stores.” She glanced right and left, lowering her voice. “He’s finally desperate enough to show real devotion to the gods. Perhaps he’ll live up to the glory of his namesake, Israel’s firstJeroboam, who gave us the golden calves at Bethel and Dan. He’s built a new altar for the special sacrifice.”
She twirled a lock of Gomer’s auburn hair around her finger. “The altar fire will glisten off your curls, and the beating drums will arouse the worshipers. Make sure you and the rest of the girls are near the altar at the moment of sacrifice. I expect a full day of celebration, and I want all payment in grain.” She dropped Gomer’s hair and shooed her away like a fly. “We’re low on grain here, and the servants can’t make bread from silver.”
Everything within Gomer screamed indignation, but what other choices did she have? Where else could she go? “Of course, Tamir. I’ll do exactly as you ask.” She swallowed hard and tempered her voice, determined to find a way of escape. “Is there any other way I might serve you, my lady?”She bowed, hoping to hide the rage her expression could not.
“Yes. Get to the sacrifice. Now!” The owner of the house stormed away, shouting instructions at one of the serving maids across the courtyard.
Gomer trembled with pent-up fury and whispered to Merav, though she dared not look in her direction, “I will go as she commands, but when I return tonight, my friend, I will have enough silver for us both to leave this hen house.”
Merav reached for her hand. “Just be careful, little one. I’ve seen that look in Tamir’s eyes before. King Jeroboam isn’t the only one who is desperate.”
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