The red dirt stuck to her feet, and the few rocks in the roadway bruised them. She had been pulled away so fast, and she hadn’t even been allowed to put on sandals. She had barely had time to pull her skirts down around her legs before she was hauled away. Now, she didn’t even feel the material brushing against her legs as she was escorted through town.
She knew where she was going, and so did everyone who saw her, for they knew what she was. They were taking her to the temple. Finally, they’d caught her, in the very act, and now she was going to die. She could say that to herself, calmly, in her head, but the very thought made her heart jump. She was going to die. Her head spun around those words.
So many times she’d though of this. So many times she’d wondered what this moment would be like…the moment where she found that her intimate business was being watched and the man before her was not a customer, but an informant. She had known it would come, but it’s coming still surprised her. Everything had been normal this morning…everything had been just like any other day.
She made herself think of the morning, just as she made herself look at the ground in front of her, to avoid the stares and the shame that came with them. She noticed the randomness of the stones in the street, she tried to find her own skin between the grains of red dirt that stuck to her feet, anything to avoid the stares and the shame. The men towing her along said nothing, nothing to distract her yet nothing to condemn her, either. Though she had no doubt that that would come later.
She was taken from her reverie, jerked and snapped out of it when she realised where they were taking her. She had known she’d be brought to the temple, brought to face the charges against her, but they were taking her across the court from the woman’s side of the temple and into the men’s. She hadn’t realised that this was common practise, that she would be facing the men on their ground and not her own. She looked longingly toward the women who were raising their heads from prayer to look at her. She wanted to be part of them again, to join them, to be worthy of approaching the Most High.
The temple had changed since she was last in it, she realised, but it was the same temple. She’d been away 10 years, a self-imposed exile of sorts. At first, she’d stayed away because she couldn’t explain her sins to the Most High, but she couldn’t stop committing them, either, and guilt had overwhelmed her. She had watched, sometimes, as women entered. Some days, she’d stayed and watched so long that she’d see the same women come and go, and she’d wonder what they’d prayed for and if their prayers had been answered. The last day she’d watched, she’d seen a wedding. The bride was so happy, so excited, so pure, and she’d thought of her own wedding day, so long ago. She left then, when she saw herself dressed as a bride, and had never come back. Later, though she wouldn’t have gone back anyway, she’d told herself that she’d stayed away because she wouldn’t be welcome. Which was true enough. To be back, to be hauled with less dignity than the animals who were sacrificed here, through this place where she’d longed to come for so long overcame her, and she fell to the ground and wept.
The men stopped then, unwilling to touch her any more than they already were, as if she would contaminate them and then they would have to be purged, too. Instead, they surrounded her, so that she looked up to a ring of male robes, male scent, and angry male faces looking down at her. She pulled her gaze away so as not to look at their eyes.
“Are you finished?” one asked. He appeared to be in charge, for the others said nothing.
She looked at her feet, still covered by the red dirt, and could not see any of her own skin. She longed to cry out, to call to the other women in the temple for help, but she knew it would do no good. They would never go against the men and risk being thrown out of the temple themselves, and they would certainly not risk it for her. Still watching her feet, she got up.
Immediately, the men began to walk, still surrounding her without touching her, toward the curtain that separated the men’s side from the women’s.
“Can we take her in there?” one asked the leader.
“She’s initiated in the ways of men, certainly,” said another, shrugging.
Several of the men smiled and looked at her from the corners of their eyes. They drew their glances forward again at a glare from their leader. This, clearly, would be done properly, so no one could complain and many could learn. She pretended not to hear or see, but watched her feet take step after step.
Their leader pushed the curtain aside, and the men marched through. She felt a change. The stood taller, held their heads up, and stepped more briskly. She couldn’t see over them, and could only catch glimpses of other men, other bodies looking up from prayer to behold her.
The men marched her to the middle of the court, then separated as if on command and left her standing alone. For a long moment, no one moved. Then, she noticed a large group of men entering from one side. She didn’t mean to look at them, but she felt her head turning against her will. One man seemed to stand out from the group, though she couldn’t have explained why. It certainly wasn’t because he was handsome, yet he riveted her gaze. And he was looking at her, too. She knew that she was flouting Law and tradition to look as she was, but she could not turn away.
She jerked her head back to the ground when she heard another man’s voice say, from behind her, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such somen; what then do you say?”
The voice echoed back and forth in her mind until its words were jumbled and it no longer made sense. She shuffled her feet in the sand, suddenly wanting them clean, but the soft red dirt would not come off. Instead it smudged, clumping in places and becoming more obvious. So she tried to keep her feet quiet.
The silence got long, and she risked another look at the strange teacher. He was on the ground, writing with his finger in the sand of the court. Red dust covered his robes. She tried to see what he was doing, but she could not, not without moving enough to draw attention to herself.
“Teacher, what do you say to this woman caught in adultery? Shall we stone her?” the voice behind her repeated itself.
Still he remained on the ground, writing in the sand. She could not see what he wrote, though by this time she did not care about the attention she was drawing in trying to see.
“Teacher, shall you answer us, or shall you persist in playing like a child in the streets?”
Still he wrote.
The voice trailed off because the teacher had risen. Again, she felt strangely compelled to look at him, and again she found him looking at her. He looked at her, even as he spoke to the men.
“He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
He stooped to write yet again and many of the men in the court crowded around him, looking at the sand. He wrote for what seemed like forever. Since he was surrounded by men, she could not see his face, and she looked at the ground again, waiting for the stones to hit her. She hoped it would be fast, that one would hit her head and leave her insensible early, even if it didn’t kill her. These were good men; surely at least one among them would stone her.
After what seemed to her like a long while, she looked up. The court was deserted except for the strange teacher and herself. Again, she felt compelled to meet his eyes.
Even his face was covered with the red dust now. A wind had stirred while he was writing and, though it was a relief to her, it had covered his face with a light dusting of red. But his eyes still held hers.
“Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” he asked.
She looked around, searching into the shadowed corners of the court.
“N-No one, Lord,” she managed to reply, though she had thought herself unable to speak.
“I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on, sin no more.”
He lowered his gaze to the ground and erased what he had written. She still could not see it but that didn’t matter. What he had written, whatever it was, had saved her life. She turned and walked out of the court, easily. The women looked up at her when she passed through their court, and moved away from her when she knelt to pray, but their actions didn’t matter anymore. He had not condemned her, and his eyes had held her as if she was his precious, newly born daughter. He had loved her, but not for a moment, as others had. This was different; it made everything else cease to matter. She knelt before the Most High, and she knelt in her heart. She didn’t have words, so she gave him her tears.
She never knew how long she cried. When she arose and brushed off her face, most of the other women had gone home to fix meals for their husbands and families. She left for her own house. On the way, she passed men she had known, but she didn’t return their sallys. She kept her eyes ahead of her and kept walking. Before she entered her home, she stopped at the well in the street’s courtyard to wash the dirt from her feet. It flowed off, revealing her flesh underneath, and looking for all the world, for a few moments, like streams of blood.