A brother and sister''s search for a new life and new home . . .
5,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia during a terrible drought, Jomar and Zefa''s father must send his children away to the city of Ur because he can no longer feed them. At fourteen, Jomar is old enough to apprentice with Sidah, a master goldsmith for the temple of the moongod, but there is no place for Zefa in Sidah''s household. Zefa, a talented but untrained musician, is forced to play her music and sing for alms on the streets of Ur.
Marjorie Cowley vividly imagines the intrigues, and harsh struggle for survival in ancient Mesopotamia.
Marjorie Cowley was trained at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles, and taught prehistoric history to students from first grade through high school. In this capacity she was designated a professional expert by the Los Angeles Unified School District. She has written two previous novels with settings in ancient history, DAR THE SPEAR-THROWER and ANOOKA''S ANSWER. She lives in Santa Monica, California.
The drought had lasted for months. Jomar dug for edible roots in the dry, sandy soil, but found only three small, misshapen carrots that once he would have given to the pigs. He glanced up at the squawking blackbirds as they flew high above him. When he was younger, it had been his job to wave his arms and yell at the birds to scare them off before they ate the precious barley seeds. Now they no longer swooped down to pick at the brown and brittle grain.
Jomar stopped digging when he heard the bellowing of a cow. He had promised his father to help with the birthing of her calf.
As he ran across the scorched fields toward the cowshed, the rocky soil cut into his frayed leather sandals. The entire region was so barren that it was hard for Jomar to recall that all the farms in the area had once produced abundant grain, melons and grapes, plums and pears, cabbage and carrots. Gazelle and other wild animals had once been plentiful, attracted to the crops and to the water in the irrigation canals that cut through the countryside. Now the canals were empty, and the farm looked as if nothing had ever grown in the sunbaked land that stretched around him.
Jomar heard his younger sister, Zefa, singing as he passed the goat hutch. As she sang she strummed on a small wooden lyre, a stringed instrument he’d made for her when she was a little girl.
Veering from the path to the cowshed, Jomar darted into the hutch. Zefa sat on an overturned bucket, so intent on her song that she didn’t look up at him. Squinting into the shadows, he saw that Zefa’s eyes glistened like pieces of glassy black obsidian as she began a song to Nanna, the mighty moongod:
Look down from the heavens
and pity us—”
Jomar broke in. “Pity! What pity? Why make up a song to the moongod when he lets his people go hungry?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “And don’t let Father hear this sad song—he’s worried enough as it is.” He turned to leave the hutch.
“Wait,” Zefa said. “I’m in here so he won’t hear me, but you should listen. This will be the last time you’ll hear my music.”
He stared at her and realized why her eyes glistened— they were filled with tears. “What do you mean? Why are you crying?”
Zefa gave her news haltingly. “I heard Father talking to Mother last night. They thought I was asleep. Tomorrow he’s sending you away . . . to the city . . . to live in Ur.”
Jomar’s breath went out of him. “I don’t believe this! You’re sure?”
“There’s not enough food for us all,” Zefa said. “Haven’t you noticed they’re growing weaker?”
“Yes, I’ve noticed,” Jomar said, but he knew he had been pushing this knowledge away. Too full of hurt and anger to talk further, and aching to escape from his sister’s sad eyes, Jomar abruptly left the hutch. His mouth was dry; he could feel his heart pounding. Where would he live in the city? What would he do there? Farming was all he knew and all he wanted to know.
Trying to calm himself, Jomar looked out across the flat fields and saw the massive mud-brick temple of Ur looming in the distance like a mountain. Nanna, the powerful moongod of Ur, lived in the temple. Jomar had grown up feeling protected by him, but now he felt abandoned by Nanna. And by his father.
Again he heard the bellowing of the cow. Again he’d forgotten his promise to help with the birth of her calf. He started running, but dread as well as hunger made his stomach tighten with cramps. Because of the drought two boys his age who lived in surrounding farms had been sold into slavery in exchange for food.
Would my father do that to me? It was unthinkable, but he could think of nothing else as
he raced toward the cowshed.
2. Hard Times
Jomar burst into the shed and found his father, Durabi, kneeling over a newborn calf struggling to free itself from its birth pouch.
“The birthing was hard . . . the little one’s so weak,” his father said. “It must be released from its pouch so it can nurse.” Durabi handed Jomar his knife, sat back on his heels, and stared at his son with dull eyes.
Jomar took the knife and cut open the pouch that imprisoned the calf. He brought the newborn to its feet, stroking the small, slippery creature that had somehow survived its difficult delivery. Then Jomar lifted the calf to its mother, but it was so wobbly that he had to put his arms around its body to keep it from falling. The cow turned to lick her offspring as it nursed.
Jomar saw his father watching him, his face creased with care. Was his father worried about the calf ? Their last cow, so thin that her ribs could be counted? Or was he worried about him?
Jomar raised his chin and blurted out his concern. “Zefa said you’re sending me away to the city. This can’t be true!”
His father winced, but the silence in the hot shed was broken only by the noise of the newborn calf’s weak suckling.
“Father, speak to me!” Jomar persisted. “I’m needed here.”
“The farm grows nothing,” Durabi said bitterly. “Our barley is gone, and the only wheat left is emmer.” He picked up some of the hard, reddish grain on the floor and let it slip through his fingers. “We planted this to feed our animals. Now it feeds us.”
“Yes, I know, but—”
Durabi continued as if he hadn’t heard. “Our pigs and sheep are gone . . . taken by the temple, traded for barley, or slaughtered to keep us alive.” He pointed to Jomar’s worn sandals and shook his head. “Without hide I can’t even make you a new pair.”
“Father, listen! I know nothing but farming. What will I do in the city?”
“I haven’t told you this because I prayed that the snows would melt . . . .” He faltered, then gathered his strength. “The last time I was in Ur—to give my last two pigs to the temple—I stopped at a bazaar to eat my midday meal. There I met a man named Sidah, a goldsmith who works for the temple. We talked. I told him I feared I would have to send you to the city to survive because of desperate conditions on the farm. He told me his only child, a son about your age, had recently died. Sidah and I made an agreement . . .” Again he stopped speaking, and looked away. “You will be his new apprentice.”
“I have no interest in being a goldsmith’s apprentice!” Jomar’s throat closed up and his words came out in a whisper. “Will I be his slave?”
“He’ll take you into his house and teach you his skills, but I didn’t sell you to him,” Durabi said. “How could I do this to you? Or to your sister?”
Jomar stared at his father. “Zefa?”
“She must go with you,” Durabi said. “She grows too thin, and her hair has lost its luster.”
“This isn’t fair! How can I learn new skills and look after her at the same time?”
“You can’t,” Durabi answered. “She must have her own work.”
“And what would that be?” Jomar asked in a challenging tone he had never used with his father before.
Durabi bit off his words. “I made no arrangements for her because I had no thought of sending her away. You’re fourteen—soon you’ll be a man. Zefa will be your responsibility.”
Jomar felt his stomach hollow out. “I beg you, Father, let us both stay. The snows will melt, the river will run full again, and the canals and reservoirs will fill with water. Then you’ll need me to help with the replanting. Mother will need Zefa to help with her chores.”
Durabi shook his head sadly, the anger drained out of him. “I can’t wait any longer—I must act before you and Zefa weaken. The arrangement I’ve made for you with the goldsmith is good. Early tomorrow morning I’ll take you to the broad, well-traveled road that leads to the city. You must stay on it until you get to the great gate of Ur.”
“You’re not taking us all the way?” Jomar asked, embarrassed by the catch in his voice.
“That was my first thought, but your mother’s too weak for me to leave her for that long a time,” Durabi said. “She’s been giving you and Zefa most of her food, pretending that she’s eaten earlier or will eat later.”
Jomar’s anger lifted as he listened to his father’s words and saw his sorrowful expression. “When did you make your decision to send Zefa to the city?“ he asked softly.
“Only yesterday afternoon, when I found our last two goats dead of starvation in the far field,” Durabi said. “They were nothing but bones, their hair matted and coarse. I thought of Zefa’s hair . . . how it used to shine. . . .” He let the words fade away.
The calf stopped nursing and made small, plaintive noises. There was no more milk. The cow bent her scrawny neck to lick her newborn again. Jomar felt his future was as shaky as the calf’s. He was certain of only one thing: he would not be here to find out if this small, struggling creature lived or died.