There are sisters and sisters.
Marta was the good girl and no-one ever noticed her except to tell her what she was doing wrong. Doing things right was the expectation. Marta was the oil in the machine of life, keeping things going, people fed and clothed. She knew where things were or might be or should be. She remembered special occasions. She wiped tears and held hands and gave advice when asked and tried not to mind when the advice was ignored. f she got angry or miserable, she was accused of moodiness. It disturbed people when the machine didn’t run properly. No-one ever said “you look tired or sad or lonely.” They just told her to pull herself together and stop being selfish. So Marta just got on with things. When she had been little, she used to lie out in the sun and watch the clouds or the sun playing through the leaves of the olive trees. Now she was always looking down – into the basin, into the fire, onto the floor.
Miryam on the other hand was fun. She could be scatterbrained and she could be untidy. She sang and laughed and cried and shouted in equal measure but no-one minded. If Marta was the oil in the machine of life, Miryam was the decoration on the machine and the spice in the sauce. People thanked her when did her duties, and excused her when she didn’t. Miryam was grown up yet still sat about outside whenever she could, grinding the wheat and singing, or just singing; taking her temper out on the laundry; playing tag with the children. Even when she was looking down, she restlessly wondered where the answers were. If Marta sat on her own, chances are she’d stay that way. If Miryam sat on her own, people swarmed round her. It was as if the light inside her warmed them up and just her presence brought them to life. Sometimes she wished that they would all leave her alone and stop trying to drain the energy out of her.
Eleazar didn’t really seem to care who was doing what as long as he had meals and clean clothes and a reasonable level of harmony in his home. But he did worry about things. How would he marry if he had two unmarried sisters snapping at each other in the house? How would his sisters marry if there was no money for dowries? How would Marta marry if she didn’t smile more? How would Miryam marry if she didn’t become more submissive?
On the Sabbath, when she was not allowed to cook or clean or sew, Marta sat with the other women and watched them. Miryam as usual was talking nineteen to the dozen to her friends, playing hide and seek with their babies. Marta wondered whether there was anything in Miryam’s head except silliness, if she ever thought a deep thought or pondered the heavens or worried about the future. Marta looked at the babies and small children and felt the ache in her spread from her empty womb to clasp her throat. She could feel her face hardening into a grimace, her lips thinning against the sob and her eyes stung. How could you grieve for something you had never had? But she felt a longing for a child even stronger than the longing for her dead parents whom she’d loved so much. Didn’t Miryam feel like that too? What if they never married? What if their lot was to stay with Eleazar until they wizened away? Marta longed for the Sabbath to be over so that she could get back to work and drive her sadness out with the dust on the floor.
Using her veil, Miryam hid her face from Adina’s baby and then peeped out feigning surprise. The baby gurgled in delight. There was no sound like it. Adina handed the child over to rest her arms and Miryam smelled the milky scent of his curly head. She wondered what she would call her own. Things would work out somehow. She looked over to Marta and watched her face closing down. Who knew what was going on in her head, but she’d be snapping at them all later. Miryam wished Marta would just smile a bit more. She wished they were allowed to go out and wander about like they had when they were little, hiding from the chores in the olive grove, making up stories, lying hand in hand on the wild thyme staring up at the sky in companionable silence, wondering if there was more to life than growing up, marrying, having children, working, working, working and then dying. Miryam longed for the Sabbath to be over so that she didn’t have to sit still so much and think. What if people stopped liking her? What if she got miserable like Marta? What if this was all there was to life?
The following day Eleazar’s friend Yeshua came to visit. Marta woke early and started to work, anger building and building. She turned over conversations in her head. Over and over: why am I the only one doing this? What would you do if I wasn’t here? I feel like running away. Where to? Where to? There was so much to do. Food to prepare and then clear away, the house looked untidy or maybe not untidy, but boring and drab. Marta moved things about and rearranged pots. She started work on the feast and put the bread to rise.
Miryam got up and started putting things back to where they’d been before and Marta snapped at her. Miryam rolled her eyes and walked out to get some water. Clearly she wasn’t going to be able to do anything right today.
By the time she’d got back, Yeshua had arrived and was sitting outside with Eleazar. They were talking. Talking about worry. Miryam slowed down and leant against the doorway, the water jar against her hip. Here was Eleazar pouring his heart out, how hard it had been to manage when their father died, how much he wanted his sisters to marry decent men, how much he wanted a loving wife of his own. He paused and spoke more quietly, more hesitantly: how he worried about what would happen if he died young, died before he’d found husbands for Marta and Miryam.
She had never thought about whether Eleazar worried, he was the calm, sensible one. Not brooding over fury like Marta, not stamping like herself, but just sitting quietly worrying.
Yeshua listened, scribbling in the dust with a stick, waited till Eleazar went quiet and spoke gently. “Take your worry to God. He cares about you. Imagine you are a child with a broken toy, wouldn’t you take it to your loving father to mend and then stop fretting because you know that he will fix it for you?”
Miryam looked closely at her brother. She could see the thoughts fighting for words – but He let our parents die, He left us to struggle, it must be something we’re doing wrong, He’s left us to sort it out ourselves.
In the end, Eleazar simply said: “some toys can’t be fixed.”
“That’s true” Yeshua answered, “sometimes you have to let go and let your father comfort you. But you have to go to him for that comfort, he cannot force it on you.”
Inside the house, Marta was banging things about. This meant that she was angry and fed up of working on her own. Miryam hesitated then put the water jar down and sat by her brother’s feet. She cleared her throat and said “But they say we must do more sacrifices if we want God to look after us but it seems nothing we can do is enough.”
She thought he would look angry at being addressed by a woman, but he just smiled reassuringly, “He demands mercy not sacrifice, it is a matter of faith. Trusting that in the end, everything will make a sense you cannot now see; looking to Him for comfort rather than to yourself for a solution.”
“How can we..” she started but Marta had appeared at the door, nearly crying from frustration.
“Teacher,” Marta stammered, “I am working all alone and my sister isn’t helping me. There is so much to do, so many of you to feed.” Her lip was trembling. “I can’t do it anymore. I am…”
Yeshua gestured to her to sit down next to Miryam and finished her sentence “You are at the end of yourself?”
Marta nodded and put her head in her hands. Miryam reached out to gently touch her, whispering, “I’m sorry, I just want to listen some more.” But Marta pulled away and started to go inside.
“No” said Yeshua firmly, “you must be still. You must all be still.”
More gently, he said, “Sit down Marta. Sit back Eleazar. Just be still for a little while. Don’t be afraid of the silence, of the sound of your heart. Let your thoughts stop. Listen. Worrying changes nothing. It just boils your mind.”
The meal was over, Yeshua had gone and the sisters had cleared up. Eleazar had gone to sit with the other men of the village. The afternoon was hot and the house was cool. Marta restlessly moved about in the shade, rearranging things again, wondering what job to start next, weaving or grinding or preparing the evening meal. She looked up and saw Miryam watching her and smiled. Little sister. When did we stop being friends?
“Let’s leave it,” she said after a moment, holding out her hand to Miryam “come and lie under the olives like we used to. It would be nice to be still for a while.”
Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission