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The Dovekeepers:  A Novel
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The Dovekeepers: A Novel

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Author: Alice Hoffman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK, 2011
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman's most ambitious and mesmerizing novel: "striking....Hoffman grounds her expansive, intricately woven, and deepest new novel in biblical history, with a devotion and seriousness of purpose" (Entertainment Weekly).

Nearly two thousand years ago, nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. According to the ancient historian Josephus, two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic and iconic event, Hoffman's novel is a spellbinding tale of four extraordinarily bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom has come to Masada by a different path. Yael's mother died in childbirth, and her father, an expert assassin, never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker's wife, watched the murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her young grandsons, rendered mute by what they have witnessed. Aziza is a warrior's daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and expert marksman who finds passion with a fellow soldier. Shirah, born in Alexandria, is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, a woman with uncanny insight and power.

The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege. All are dovekeepers, and all are also keeping secrets--about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom they love.


Excerpt

The Assassin's Daughter

We came like doves across the desert. In a time when there was nothing but death, we were grateful for anything, and most grateful of all when we awoke to another day.

W e had been wandering for so long I forgot what it was like to live within walls or sleep through the night. In that time I lost all I might have possessed if Jerusalem had not fallen: a husband, a family, a future of my own. My girlhood disappeared in the desert. The person I'd once been vanished as I wrapped myself in white when the dust rose into clouds. We were nomads, leaving behind beds and belongings, rugs and brass pots. Now our house was the house of the desert, black at night, brutally white at noon.

They say the truest beauty is in the harshest land and that God can be found there by those with open eyes. But my eyes were closed against the shifting winds that can blind a person in an instant. Breathing itself was a miracle when the storms came whirling across the earth. The voice that arises out of the silence is something no one can imagine until it is heard. It roars when it speaks, it lies to you and convinces you, it steals from you and leaves you without a single word of comfort. Comfort cannot exist in such a place. What is brutal survives. What is cunning lives until morning.

My skin was sunburned, my hands raw. I gave in to the desert, bowing to its mighty voice. Everywhere I walked my fate walked with me, sewn to my feet with red thread. All that will ever be has already been written long before it happens. There is nothing we can do to stop it. I couldn't run in the other direction. The roads from Jerusalem led to only three places: to Rome, or to the sea, or to the desert. My people had become wanderers, as they had been at the beginning of time, cast out yet again.

I followed my father out of the city because I had no choice.

None of us did, if the truth be told.

I DON'T KNOW how it began, but I know how it ended. It occurred in the month of Av, the sign for which is Arieh, the lion. It is a month that signifies destruction for our people, a season when the stones in the desert are so hot you cannot touch them without burning your fingers, when fruit withers on the trees before it ripens and the seeds inside shake like a rattle, when the sky is white and rain will not fall. The first Temple had been destroyed in that month. Tools signified weapons and could not be used in constructing the holiest of holy places; therefore the great warrior king David had been prohibited from building the Temple because he had known the evils of war. Instead, the honor fell to his son King Solomon, who called upon the shamir, a worm who could cut through stone, thereby creating glory to God without the use of metal tools.

The Temple was built as God had decreed it should be, free from bloodshed and war. Its nine gates were covered with silver and gold. There, in the most holy of places, was the Ark that stored our people's covenant with God, a chest made of the finest acacia wood, decorated with two golden cherubs. But despite its magnificence, the first Temple was destroyed, our people exiled to Babylonia. They had returned after seventy years to rebuild in the same place, where Abraham had been willing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to the Almighty, where the world had first been created.

The second Temple had stood for hundreds of years as the dwelling place of God's word, the center of creation in the center of Jerusalem, though the Ark itself had disappeared, perhaps in Babylonia. But now times of bloodshed were upon us once more. The Romans wanted all that we had. They came to us as they swarmed upon so many lands with their immense legions, wanting not just to conquer but to humiliate, claiming not just our land and our gold but our humanity.

As for me, I expected disaster, nothing more. I had known its embrace before I had breath or sight. I was the second child, a year younger than my brother, Amram, but unlike him entirely, cursed by the burden of my first breath. My mother died before I was born. In that moment the map of my life arose upon my skin in a burst of red marks, speckles that, when followed, one to the other, have led me to my destiny.

I can remember the instant when I entered the world, the great calm that was suddenly broken, the heat of my own pulse beneath my skin. I was taken from my mother's womb, cut out with a sharp knife. I am convinced I heard my father's roar of grief, the only sound to break the terrible silence of one who is born from death. I myself did not cry or wail. People took note of that. The midwives whispered to one another, convinced I was either blessed or cursed. My silence was not my only unusual aspect, nor were the russet flecks that emerged upon my skin an hour after my birth. It was my hair, the deep bloodred color of it, a thick cap growing, as if I already knew this world and had been here before.

They said my eyes were open, the mark of one set apart. That was to be expected of a child born of a dead woman, for I was touched by Mal'ach ha-Mavet, the Angel of Death, before I was born in the month of Av, on the Tisha B'Av, the ninth day, under the sign of the lion. I always knew a lion would be waiting for me. I had dreamed of such creatures ever since I could remember. In my dreams I fed the lion from my hand. In return he took my whole hand into his mouth and ate me alive.

When I left childhood, I made certain to cover my head; even when I was in my father's courtyard I kept to myself. On those rare occasions when I accompanied our cook to the market, I saw other young women enjoying themselves and I was jealous of even the plainest among them. Their lives were full, whereas I could think only of all I did not have. They chirped merrily about their futures as brides as they lingered at the well or gathered in the Street of the Bakers surrounded by their mothers and aunts. I wanted to snap at them but said nothing. How could I speak of my envy when there were things I wanted even more than a husband or a child or a home of my own?

I wished for a night without dreams, a world without lions, a year without Av, that bitter, red month.

WE LEFT the city when the second Temple was set in ruins, venturing forth into the Valley of Thorns. For months the Romans had defiled the Temple, crucifying our people inside its sacred walls, stripping the gold from the entranceways and the porticoes. It was here that Jews from all over creation traveled to offer sacrifices before the holiest site, with thousands arriving at the time of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, all yearning to glimpse the gold walls of the dwelling place of God's word.

When the Romans attacked the third wall, our people were forced to flee from that part of the Temple. The legion then brought down the second wall. Still it was not enough. The great Titus, military leader of all Judea, went on to construct four siege ramps. Our people destroyed these, with fire and stones, but the Romans' assault of the Temple walls had weakened our defenses. Not long afterward a breach was accomplished. The soldiers entered the maze of walls that surrounded our holiest site, running like rats, their shields lifted high, their white tunics burning with blood. The holy Temple was being destroyed at their hands. Once this happened, the city would fall as well, it would be forced to follow, sinking to its knees like a common captive, for without the Temple there would be no lev ha-olam, no heart of the world, and nothing left to fight for.

The desire for Jerusalem was a fire that could not be quenched. There was a spark inside that holiest of holy places that made people want to possess it, and what men yearn for they often destroy. At night the walls that had been meant to last an eternity groaned and shook. The more the Romans arrested us for crimes against their rule the more we fought among ourselves, unable to decide upon a single course of action. Perhaps because we knew we couldn't win against their might we turned on each other, riven by petty jealousies, split apart by treachery, our lives a dark tangle of fear.

Victims often attack one another, they become chickens in a pen, bickering, frenzied. We did the same. Not only were our people besieged by the Romans but they were at war with each other. The priests were deferential, siding with Rome, and those who opposed them were said to be robbers and thugs, my father and his friends among them. Taxes were so high the poor could no longer feed their children, while those who allied themselves with Rome had prospered and grown rich. People gave testimony against their own neighbors; they stole from each other and locked their doors to those in need. The more suspicious we were of each other, the more we were defeated, split into feuding mobs when in fact we were one, the sons and daughters of the kingdom of Israel, believers in Adonai.

*

IN THE MONTHS before the Temple fell, there had been chaos as we labored against our enemies. We made every effort to win this war, but as God created life, so did He create destruction. Now in the furious red month of Av, swollen bodies filled the kidron, the deep ravine that separated the city from the glimmering Mount of Olives. The blood of men and beasts formed dark lakes in our most sacred places. The heat was mysterious and unrelenting, as if the wickedness of earth reflected back to us, a mirror of our sins. Inside the most secret rooms of the Temple, gold melted and pooled; it disappeared, stolen from the most holy of places, never to be seen again.

Not a single breeze stirred. The temperature had risen with the disorder, from the ground up, and the bricks that paved the Roman roads were so hot they burned people's feet as the desperate searched for safe havens--a stable, an abandoned chamber, even the cool stone space within a baker's oven. The soldiers of the Tenth Legion, who followed the sign of the boar, planted their banners above the ruins of the Temple with full knowledge this was an affront to us, for it threw in our faces an animal we found impure. The soldiers were like wild boars themselves, reckless, vicious. They were coursing throughout the countryside, killing white cockerels outside synagogues, meeting places which served as bet kenesset and bet tefilliah, houses of both assembly and prayer, as an insult and a curse. The blood of a rooster made our houses of worship unclean. Women scoured the steps with lye soap, wailing as they did so. We were defiled no matter how they might scrub or how much water they might pour onto the stones.

With each violation we understood the legion's warning: What we do to the rooster, we can do to you.

ONE EVENING a star resembling a sword arose over the city. It could be spied night after night, steadfastly brilliant in the east. People trembled, certain it was an omen, waiting for what was to come. Soon afterward the eastern gate of the Temple opened of its own accord. Crowds gathered, terrified, convinced this occurrence would allow disaster to walk inside. Gates do not open if there is no reason. Swords do not rise in the sky if peace is to come. Our neighbors began to trade any small treasures they had, jostling through the streets, determined to escape with what little they possessed. They gathered their children and began to flee Jerusalem, hoping to reach Babylon or Alexandria, longing for Zion even as they departed.

In the ditches that filled with rainwater during times of sudden flooding, there was soon a river of blood running down from the Temple. The blood cried and wept and cursed, for its victims did not give up their lives easily. The soldiers killed the rebels first, then they murdered haphazardly. Whoever was unfortunate enough to pass by was caught in their net. People were torn from their families, herded off streets. There came the evening known as the Plague upon Innocence. Any illusion that our prayers would be answered vanished. How many among us lost our faith on this night? How many turned away from what our people had always believed? A boy of ten had been taken in irons, then crucified because he had refused to bow down to the soldiers. This boy had been afflicted with deafness and had not even heard the command, but no one cared about such things anymore. A world of hate had settled upon us.

The sin of this boy's death rose like a cloud, evident to us all. Afterward, twenty thousand people panicked in the streets, trampling each other in a frenzy, forsaking their dignity as they flocked onto the roads.

By the time morning had broken, nearly all had abandoned Jerusalem.

*

AS FOR ME, my world was over before the Temple began to burn, before stone dust covered the alleyways. Long before the Temple fell, I had lost my faith. I was nothing to my father, abandoned by him from the moment I was born. I would have been neglected completely, but my mother's family insisted a nursemaid be hired. A young servant girl from Alexandria came to care for me, but when she sang lullabies, my father, the fearsome Yosef bar Elhanan, told her to be quiet. When she fed me, he insisted I had eaten enough.

I was little more than a toddler when my father took me aside to tell me the truth of my birth. I wept to discover the circumstances and took on the burden of my entrance into this life. My name was Yael, and it was the first thing about myself I learned to despise. This had been my mother's name as well. Every time it was spoken it only served to remind my father that the occasion of my arrival in this world had stolen his wife.

"What does that make you?" he asked bitterly.

I didn't have an answer, but I saw myself reflected in his eyes. I was a murderer, worthy of his indignation and wrath.

The girl hired to care for me was soon enough sent away, taking with her all consolation and solace. I knew what awaited me upon her departure, the stunted life of a motherless child. I sobbed and held on to her skirts on the day she left us, desperate for her warm embrace. My brother, Amram, told me not to cry; we had each other. The servant girl gave me a pomegranate for luck before she gently unwound her skirts from my grasp. She was young enough to be my sister, but she had been like a mother to me and had given me the only tenderness I'd known.

I gave my gift of the pomegranate to my brother, having already decided to always place him first. But that was not the only reason. I was already full from my portion of sorrow.

Copyright © 2011 by Alice Hoffman


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