The Ghee

by Kathryn O. Umbarger

The sounds of the city of Gophna faded with the setting sun. Miri watched as Mark dropped the silver and copper coins into Shak’s hand.

Shak counted aloud, then sneered at Miri. “Your brother is a mite short.”

One mite. One small copper coin. Now, because Mark hadn’t stolen enough, Miri would be whipped.

Shak yanked Mark’s dark hair. “What are you waiting for? Bring the switch!”

Miri turned her back. Inside her thin dress, she hugged the tattered cloak she called her Ghee. She heard the whistle of the whip before it struck.

She bit her lip. She would not cry. More than once she had seen tears in Mark’s eyes. How Miri loved her big brother. Their love formed a bond stronger than the iron cuff on Miri’s ankle.

Mark could have easily escaped from Shak, but Miri knew Mark would never leave her. Shak knew, too.

While Shak made Mark practice stealing the purse from his belt, Miri started supper. Though she was only 10, Miri did all the cooking for Shak’s bandits. Her kitchen was spotless, but beyond the length of chain that held her, no one cleaned at all.

Miri set the pot of stew next to some bread on the table, then climbed into a box behind the stove. Mark soon curled up beside her to rest.

On the Road
Miri awoke with a jerk, shivering in the quiet darkness. She fingered her Ghee’s fringe, feeling for the finer strands of yellow yarn in her mother’s weave. She knew the pattern by heart: two black, three yellow, three blue, five black. It formed a stripe in the otherwise plain wool cloth.

“Get up!” Shak barked from the other room.

An oil lamp flickered in the doorway. Trembling, Miri stuffed Ghee inside her dress and sat up. Shak walked straight at her and raised his hand as though to strike. Mark, though small for 12, moved to protect her.

Shak snickered and knocked him aside. He raised his fist again, then punched the air, stopping inches from Miri’s face. Laughing, he opened his palm to reveal something Miri thought no longer existed: a small black key.

Shak bent down, almost overpowering her with his smell. With one twist, she was free. She rubbed the rusty stain around her ankle.

“Today we travel,” Shak announced. “Each man to his own city for the census. Caesar Augustus has chosen to give us new business opportunities.”

He tied a rope around Miri’s waist and they left. He tossed the children two portions of bread. “This is all until supper.”

Along the road, Miri inhaled the sounds and scents of freedom. Not since she was a child growing up with her family tending sheep had Miri walked across fields, smelled fresh breezes, heard bird songs or seen children laughing.

“Heaven must be like this,” she whispered to Mark.

Later that day, as they passed through Jerusalem, long forgotten memories flowed into Miri’s mind... Father leading the simple shepherd’s cart... Mother riding with baby Esha... Uncle Thomas carrying cousin Jacob... Mark skipping behind as I wrapped myself in Mother’s cloak, pretending to be a queen.

Miri had held tight to Mark’s hand when the road became crowded. She had not let go when a man dashed through the throng and grabbed Mark, whisking the two of them into captivity.

Night Escape
At dusk they arrived in Bethlehem. Mark was sent to work the streets, and Miri was tied in the stable beneath the house of Shak’s cousin.

Miri nibbled the last of her bread, sharing with a lone goat tethered beside her. Dust shook from the floor above, and the noise grew as Shak’s relatives gathered. Miri fell asleep as the sun set.

“Miri!” The sound of her name jolted her awake. Mark leaned over her, breathing hard and his dark eyes dancing. She trembled as Mark cut her loose with a knife.

Miri clutched a corner of her Ghee as they ran. She didn’t know which frightened her more, the thought of Shak catching them or freedom itself. “Someone’s coming!” Mark whispered.

They squeezed behind some large earthen jars as two muttering forms hurried past. Miri’s heart seemed to thump as loudly as the walking sticks that matched the men’s steps.

The sound of a crash sent shivers up Miri’s spine. Was Shak coming? They ran on, right, then left, to lose him.

At last they came to a large street. People were everywhere, some with camels or donkeys, some with ox carts.

Miri rubbed the corner of her Ghee against her cheek and squeezed Mark’s hand. The crowd had looked like this the last time they’d seen their parents. Present and past mixed together in Miri’s mind. When Mark yanked her, she felt only the jerk and panic of the 5-year-old child she had been long ago.

She screamed.

Oil lamps raised and eyes focused on the children as Mark led Miri to a side alley.

“It’s all right, Miri,” Mark said gently as they squatted against a wall. “Can I get you something?”

She looked toward the glowing sky. “I’d like to see the moon.”

Mark helped her up and wrapped the Ghee around her shoulders. Though they walked toward the light, they saw no moon—only one very bright star.

Free at Last
Silently, they followed the light down a crooked alley that ended at a small pasture. Across the pasture the star bathed a stable in a pale blue glow.

“Oh, Mark,” Miri whispered. “This is just like the fields where we grew up.”

They climbed a fence. A sheep bleated as they moved between animals and entered the light. The scent of fresh hay drifted from the stable. Inside, a man and woman rested near a manger.

The man looked up. “Come in,” he said. “Have you come to see?”

Miri hesitated, then stepped forward and peeked into the manger. Her eyes widened. A baby! As tiny and wrinkled as Esha the day he’d been born.

Why is he here in a stable on a chilly night like this? she thought. He should have another blanket.

Miri pulled the Ghee from her shoulders, knelt and spread it over the child. She raised her eyes to the mother.

“May God bless you,” the young woman said, smiling.

As Miri rose, she felt a great peace. Sad memories were comforted, fears washed away. Her eyes glistened as she turned to Mark.

“I’m ready to go now,” she said.

“Stay and rest,” the father said. “You look tired.”

“OK, but only for a little while,” Mark insisted as they nestled in a mound of soft, clean hay.

Knitted Together
“Look at the pattern in that blanket! Thomas, isn’t that your sister’s weave?”

The voices woke Miri, and she looked toward the strangers near the baby.

“Black, yellow, blue, black. Yes, it’s Miriam’s. I’m sure of it.”

“But Miriam is at camp, and David stayed with the sheep.”

“It wouldn’t be theirs, anyway. Look how old and frayed it is.”

“But who else would have a cloak like this?”

“A young girl gave it,” the baby’s mother said. “She came with her older brother.”

“A girl with a brother! Thomas, you don’t think?”

Miri rubbed her eyes.

“Do you know which way they went?”

“No,” the father replied. “But I think they came from that alley.”

With robes flapping like wings, the figures crossed the pasture and disappeared into the alley.

Miri shook Mark but he slept on. She ran out alone, across the pasture and down the alley.

“Wait, wait!” She ran faster. “We’re here!”

Up ahead a man slowed, then turned back.

“Miri? Miri, is that you?”

They stared at each other in the light of the star.

“The image of my sister,” he said in quiet wonder. “Miri, it’s me, Uncle Thomas.”

He ran up and held her tight.

They headed back for Mark as the sun started to rise.

Uncle Thomas hugged Miri again. “Won’t your parents be surprised!”

This story first appeared in the December 2000 issue of Clubhouse magazine. Copyright © 2000 by Kathryn O. Umbarger. Illustration © Douglas Klauba.