When Moses tried to etch another edict onto those sapphire tablets, God objected: ‘Five on one side and six on the other? It will ruin the symmetry. I’m sorry.’
The Antipodes are far from heaven, Australia not as far as Antarctica, but far enough. ‘God can’t hear you from here,’ Arielle told her friend. ‘You should leave well enough alone,’
‘You should leave me alone.’
They sat in Arielle’s garden under her huge peppercorn tree as she filled out a prescription for Pale Lightning — the juice of Meyer lemons, pearls of finger limes, club soda, vodka, ice.
‘Besides,’ Arielle said, ‘I’ve heard He hates to be bothered.’
‘Okay then, They, Them, This,’ she said. ‘Does it matter?’
‘It does to Them.’
The two had been friends long before Bethany came upon God, but Arielle was no longer sure their bond could survive the They-Them-This trinity. And now Bethany had decided to cover her hair. With brightly-coloured braided silks. Such drapery was surely a better option than the shiny, real-hair wigs affected by most of the sisterhood but both prerogatives were known to attract admiring attention. Arielle had always thought that this entirely defeated the purpose decreed by the elders: once a woman is married, modesty requires her hair to be seen only by her husband and to be concealed from all other men.
But clearly, glowing fabrics or wigs made from hair more lustrous that that which it covered would attract the very scrutiny it was supposed to keep at bay. On some level, it delighted Arielle, women subverting the law; but on another it appalled her that these same women still felt that subterfuge was their only choice
‘Why would you do it?’
‘It’s the Law. We cover our hair,’ Bethany said.
‘Not ‘we.’ Just our women; and only some of them.’
‘Our men cover their…’
‘Heads, not hair,’ Arielle said, ‘to remind them that there’s a greater power above their so-brilliant brains. It’s different for women. Some benighted clergy-fool decided uncovered hair was the same as uncovered breasts. Why would you fall for that? Shit, you used to be so smart.’
‘What am I supposed to do?’
‘I don’t know: play with your kids; lecture your students on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or whatever you teach in English Lit these days.’
‘But how will I identify with my people as a woman?’
‘Can you hear yourself?’
‘That’s not an answer.’
‘I wear this star,’ said Arielle, taking it between her thumb and forefinger as if showing it to Bethany for the first time. Amethysts and tiny diamonds flashed in the sun.
‘I know. But anyone of us can wear that. Men too.’
‘That might be the point.’
They went their separate ways, Bethany leaving bewildered husband and confused children to join the growing movement calling itself My Lord Speaks. Arielle continued designing gardens for the languid ones, the ones too upscale to work the soil for themselves.
Bethany posted photos of herself (I love it here!) on Facebook in the full regalia of the newly devout: head-scarf, long skirt and shirt obscuring her form entirely. Other photos followed: Bethany dancing with women in circles; Bethany praying in rooms segregated from the men; Bethany studying at women-only tables.
Arielle sighed and pressed delete.
Then the emails:
It’s getting weird.
They don’t care about my individuality.
It’s an ant colony.
There were times when Arielle thought to fly over there.
Don’t be ridiculous, her husband said.
Inside eighteen months My Lord Speaks imploded, riven, of all things, by climate change. All along the eastern seaboard, the US was hit by summer temperatures that staggered meteorologists. Old-fashioned glass thermometers became detonators for mercury. In Monsey, Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Boro Park sweating women were ripping off their kerchiefs and their shiny wigs, rolling their sleeves above their elbows. Some of them even hoisted up their skirts to dash into cascading waters of burst fire hydrants. Their wrists, knees and ankles — strangers to sunlight — gleamed pale in the city square.
Perspiring, men denounced this immodesty from the pulpits; in the streets they averted their eyes and at home their anger steamed as they threatened their wives.
One Sunday Arielle logged onto Facebook to be confronted by live-streaming images of Bethany standing sweating on a dais. Around her, the courtyard seemed to shimmer in the heat yet she was surrounded by bewigged women dressed for a northern winter. Muttering low, their sibilations spread wave-like on the air to the circle’s periphery. Bethany was tearing at the dull, brown fabric wrapped around her hair. She snatched at her skirt, ripping it to expose her long, almost translucent legs peering out from a pair of boxer shorts. Her blouse came next, revealing a matching T-shirt: modest under garments.
Arielle saw Bethany being pushed to the ground. Her breath caught. Women were doing this. They were landing kicks to her friend’s head and ribs. Blood spurted from a cut above her eyebrow. The women chanted: ‘We act in the name of the Lord.’
The video went viral.
Arielle brought her home. Bethany cried from the northern hemisphere to the southern, the skin beneath her eyes still bruised, the cuts around her lips still livid.
Not long after, Pale Lightning, peppercorn tree, mild evening scented by wisteria. The two friends sat in silence.
Bethany said, ‘You can say I told you so.’
‘What would it change?’
‘Nothing. I’m going back. There’s another group, not fundamentalist. I want to give them a go.’
Arielle was appalled.
‘Why would you even consider it?’
‘I’d hate to die wondering. I’ve heard they’re really different.’
‘You barely avoided death by wondering. What is the matter with you?’
Upstairs, God and Moses took tea.
‘Perhaps you should have allowed that eleventh commandment,’ said Moses.
‘It’s still not too…’
‘Yes.’ God shook Their head. ‘It is.’
Moses withdrew a crumpled piece of papyrus from his robe. He had carried it for millennia. Now there was nothing to do but let it drop through the clouds.
Arielle rose. ‘We need fresh glasses,’ and went inside.
Moses watched as, on a breeze, the words floated into Bethany’s lap. She could make out the number eleven but found the rest of the script indecipherable.
From above Moses whispered to her: ‘Thou shalt not listen to the ones in your midst who claim holiness for they are the desecrators.’
But Bethany couldn’t hear him over a sudden downpour, intense but warm. Like tears, she thought as she dashed inside, leaving the papyrus to melt in the grass.