The Wayward Moon, by Janice Weizman
Book of the TimesExclusive Excerpt

The Wayward Moon, by Janice Weizman

The year is 854. Rahel, a young Jewish woman, is preparing to meet her fiancé for the first time. She cannot know that even as she stands observing herself in the mirror, an enemy of her father is making his way to her house. In mere minutes she will have to flee, leaving behind her fiancé, her home and her identity. Set in the Golden Age of Islam, Rahel’s journey takes her into the lives of wealthy merchants, Islamic theologians, Christian monks, illicit lovers, and shrewd innkeepers. But when she is given the opportunity to rejoin a community of Jews, Rahel must confront the difference between what she once was and who she has become.

When Abu Said burst into our house, I was about to perfume my wrists with rose water. As I drew the delicate glass stick from the vial, it occurred to me that Asher Bar Raban might not like the smell of roses. Iyad, our gardener, had told to me that not everyone did.

It was then, at that exact moment, that I heard a shout from the front room. I put down the vial and ran out to the hallway. My father stood in the entrance of our home, and not ten paces from him, eyes flaming with the crazed gaze of a madman, was Abu Said. Although he was not a large man, the sight of him, panting and fuming with fury, was terrible. In his right hand he held a dagger. “No believer will consent to this treachery,” he cried. “Do you hear me, Ben Shmuel? You will renounce the appointment, or suffer the consequences!”

“I will renounce nothing,” I heard my father reply sharply. “The governor himself has personally requested that I take on the position.”

“We will not be ruled by a Jew because of one foolish heretic!” he screamed.

“I advise you to watch your tongue, Abu Said.”

“What’s that, Ben Shmuel? You threaten me?”

“If you know what’s best, you’ll turn around and leave this house at once.”

Perhaps if my father had not been a proud man, events would have unfolded differently. Perhaps if he had agreed to renounce the appointment, or even say that he would reconsider the matter, Abu Said would have been satisfied. On the other hand, it is possible that nothing would have appeased him, for he had brought his dagger, and the notion of murder had taken root in his heart.

“Honored sir,” Shafiqa cried, falling at his feet. “Please go home. Your father, in his great wisdom, will fix everything.”

But Shafiqa’s words only fed his rage. “You!” he roared. “You, who were once a good Muslim woman, shame yourself by working in the home of a Jew. Don’t you know your rightful place? Where is your self-respect? This man should be our servant!”

Somehow, my father remained unmoved by Abu Said’s hysteria. “This is your last chance,” he warned. “Leave now, and we will both forget your childish outburst. Go home to your father. The Qaddi will be very distressed if word of your behavior reaches his ears.”

“Allahu Akbar!” he screamed out, and in a mad rage, charged up to my father and plunged the dagger into his heart. Shafiqa let out a shrill wail. I ran to my father and fell to the floor, where he lay crumpled and moaning, a bright red stain of blood spreading rapidly over his robe. “Run!” he groaned. “Run to the study, close the door and move my desk to block it.”

“No!” I screamed as I tried to lift his shoulders. “Don’t close your eyes.”

But his eyes fluttered shut, and with his last remaining strength he pulled me to him and whispered, “I’m dying. Save yourself.”

I looked up and saw Abu Said’s face, contorted with insane ecstasy, his hand still holding the dagger, wet with blood. I jumped up, dashed to the study, shut the door, and flattened myself against the wall.

Abu Said’s steps were heavy. I heard the study door open, and I slid behind it. “Where did you go, you little snake,” he muttered. “I saw you run in here. Do you think you can escape me now?” I was paralyzed beyond reason. It could only have been pure animal instinct that made my eyes dart around the room like a terrified animal until they fell on my father’s desk where, alongside the bowl of fruit, lay the knife my father had used that morning. I reached out to grab it, but my trembling fingers pushed it to the floor, where it landed with a low thud. Abu Said swung around, his face shining with madness.

In the space of an instant I swooped down and retrieved it. His eyes flashed just as they had in the moment before he stabbed my father. “Allahu Akbar!” he cried, lunging toward me.

With a terrible howl, I raised my right hand and plunged the knife into his neck. Blood spilled from the wound onto his robe. I watched in horror as his fingers slowly released the knife, which fell to the floor and spun around in frenzied circles. Shafiqa ran into the room screaming hysterically, while Abu Said gasped and writhed like a fish pulled from the river. He staggered forward several steps, then fell to the floor. It was a gruesome sight, and I too began to scream.

Like a crazed choir, we screamed in unison. But while I felt myself to be on the very brink of madness, Shafiqa, by the grace of God, recovered herself. She held me in a tight embrace, as if she could see the powers of madness beckoning me to fall into abandon. “My daughter, you must run and hide,” she whispered as she stroked my hair. “When word of this gets out, Abu Said’s family will surely avenge his death.” Somehow, the steady tone of her voice calmed me enough to hear her words and know that all she was saying was true. It was only a matter of time until Abu Said’s relatives came looking for me. Revenge would be demanded and taken, long before I could plead my story to a judge. The only way for me to stay alive was to flee.

Shafiqa ran out of the room and returned seconds later holding items of my father’s clothing. “You must dress in the clothes of a man.” I glanced down and screamed again. My white dress was splattered with blood. The sight was so horrible that I could scarcely move. Shafiqa pulled my dress off, raised my arms, and wrapped an old headscarf of hers around me, flattening my chest like a boy’s. She put my father’s tunic over my head, his pants around my ankles and his riding boots by my feet. Still stunned, I stepped out of my girlish slippers, slipped my arms and legs into the clothing and donned the boots. In the meantime, Shafiqa had found one of my father’s turbans. She gathered up my hair, stuffed it into the turban and fixed it tightly on my head. Stepping back as if to appraise her work, she shook her head and muttered, “God willing, you might just pass for a boy.”

I stared at her blankly, barely comprehending what was happening, and what was about to happen. She grabbed the cloth bag that she used when she went to market and ran to the kitchen. Seconds later she returned and hung it across my flat chest.

I remember how she embraced me, and then put her strong, rough hands on my shoulders. “You must run, my daughter. Run toward the date groves that grow along the road into town. I have no words of advice to give you. May God watch over you, as He watched over the holy followers of the Prophet in their light from Mecca to Medina. I will tell Abu Said’s men that you ran off in the direction of the river, but remember, you run to the date groves. Allah protect you, child.” With that, she pushed me out the door.

Evening was falling. I flew through the darkening streets of Sura, the only streets I had ever known, and into the date groves that grow by the road that leads out of the city. I ran as the deer runs when she is escaping the tiger: blindly, with but one thought in her head. And when I reached the groves, I made my way through the labyrinth of their tall, jagged trunks until, breathless and exhausted, I collapsed at the foot of a low, sheltering palm tree.

Janice Weizman photo (1)Born in Canada and Janice Weizman has lived in Israel for over 30 years. She is the founder and managing editor of The Ilanot Review, an international online literary journal affiliated with Bar-Ilan University. Her writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Report, Lilith, Jewish Fiction, and other places. The Wayward Moon came out with Yotzeret Publishing in 2012. It is the recipient of a Gold Medal in the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards, and won first place for Historical Fiction in the 2013 Midwest Book Awards.

Read Janice Weizman’s reflection on writing this book in Writing about the silent and the absent, a Times of Israel blogpost.

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