They call me whore. When we pass on the street, heads down, eyes averted lest I contaminate them, they utter the word beneath their breath and hurry by, spewing judgment. They have seen their husbands and fathers and sons look long at me; bitterness must find a scapegoat somewhere. That is my role: scapegoat and whore. So be it.
I ceased long ago to live in their world. My life has been cruel, but life has given me a family—father, mother, brothers and sisters—all who depend on me for bread. I did not ask to be caregiver for so many, but I will do what I can. What I must. We are debt slaves, required to pay our obligations. I have some enterprise, for I am a woman of drive and intellect. I weave wool and I mill flax. But these tasks alone cannot provide for so many. I whore to feed my family. One day I will not be attractive enough or well enough even for that, but by then my parents will be dead and perhaps I can get by on my other work. That is the only hope I afford myself. For what could possibly change a life such as mine?
And then the rumors. I hear them from other prostitutes who hear them from their clients: they whisper of a wild transient tribe that dried up the waters of the Jordan and then slaughtered King Og and King Bashan. A thrill in my gut—is it fear or hope?—tells me the God these people follow has power. Power carries meaning for me, for powerlessness has been my life-long companion.
We are a walled city, I tell myself. Why fear a rag-tag tribe and their traveling God? And yet I do fear, for walls are built by human hands upon an earth built by hands I cannot see. What if those hands grasped our walls and toppled them?
Then two of them came—straight into our town, straight into my house. It looked to my condemners like business as usual. But for once I had the power. The spies visited my house; I could do with them as I willed: turn them over to the king, if I chose. Perhaps be rewarded. But I knew by now not to trust the power brokers of Jericho. These two men, spying out my city, felt more like kin than my own king. And their God seemed worthy of my loyalty. This day I could choose to be the woman I knew, rather than the woman others chose to see.
I hid the men under a flax pile on my roof. When the king’s men came looking, I lied. Told them my clients left before the city gates closed. If the seekers hurried, they might just catch them.
The spies emerged then, covered in flax and reeking of the fear sweat. I pressed them to spare my family when their God took our city. I had no doubt this God could do whatever He chose, for here was power beyond imagining. The spies promised, on condition that I hang a crimson weaving cord from my window and secret my family inside our house. I agreed, and lowered the two by rope over the wall and into the waiting dark. I cut a crimson cord, fastened it to the window and felt, for the first time in my memory, the hope of freedom.
Then came the strange daily marches: seven of their holy men carrying trumpets and four bearing on poles a golden box that flashed fire in the sun. The holy men blew their horns into the silence for, though the entire tribe, thousands and thousands of them, paraded behind their priests, not one made a sound other than the slap, slap, slap of sandals against dirt: nothing but the padding of countless feet, and the eerie sounding of the trumpets day after day, circling our city and then departing. I watched, mesmerized, and a thrill of something between wonder and horror settled in my belly. Six days all. Six days of trumpets and silent parading. People in the streets joked about it, making it small and silly, but I could feel their fear. It hung in the air, cloying and cold, and we could not escape it.
The seventh day began as the others: trumpets sounding in silence, a soundless circuit of the city walls. But when the wanderers completed one circuit of the city, they began again. A second circuit…and a third…and a fourth, fifth, sixth. The tribe began to circle Jericho a seventh time. Watching from my window, I saw their leader give a signal. Shouts erupted from the mass, shouts so loud, so fierce, and so wild, that I cupped my hands over my ears. My heart raced—it was happening—and I propelled my family to the center of our home. “No one leaves,” I commanded. “No matter what.”
The earth writhed beneath us and the walls above us rocked. Then the sounds and smells of falling rock and rising dust. Screams from the injured and the terrified. On and on it went until the only world I could imagine was the small space in my home and the people who occupied it. We could barely see for all the pulverized stone and dust in the air. We breathed it in and coughed it up. But we stayed, though our terror compelled us to run.
I bullied my family into submission. I had cared for them all along, had I not? They must trust me now. We must wait in place as our city collapses around us.
Two familiar faces emerged from the dust-laden air: the spies I had sheltered days ago. They led us out of the city and into the Israelite camp. I stood, watching war fires eat away what was left of Jericho; I watched my home and my business descend in ashes. Even from our distance, the smell of burning reached and engulfed us, stealing into our hair and our clothes. But I also watched the fire consume my debts. I was a free woman: my family safe and free. True, we were outsiders among these people, but had I not been an outsider all my life?