She sat in a small patch of shade, churning the goat’s milk to butter. The courtyard was quiet with work, one daughter at the oven baking bread, the other grinding flour for tomorrow’s loaves. It was good to have these girls, she thought, who had learned their way and were of use to those around them.
Slowly, the butter started to come. They’d have it tonight with the bread her daughter was baking.
Good, clean food, but she would admit to counting down to the next feast day, when they’d offer up a ram if the year con- tinued so well. Already preparing the juiciest parts in her mind, crushed figs to bring out the meat’s succulence, cloves for pun- gency, she let her mind wander and didn’t hear the men’s voices until they were inside the house.
Her husband came to the doorway. We have visitors. Traders from Egypt. One of the field hands will bring in a goat. We’ll need a full meal.
She already had a fire lit when the boy brought the plump animal. While the girls continued to bake and churn, their mother quickly slit its throat and hung it upside down to drain. Once it was skinned, she quartered and pounded it so it would grill quickly and stay tender, then ran her hands and eyes over red lentils she spread across the ground, picked out the tiny stones that would masquerade themselves in the pot and ruin the dish.
The courtyard rustled with activity. It smelled of death and fire, cumin and bread. The scents, she thought, of a good life.
Amid the bustle of work, she looked at her daughters, 13 and 14, older than she’d been when she was married off, taken away from the tents to another land.
At least they lived in the city. She had this courtyard, with its round stove and barrel of flour. Women to sit with in the square at shearing time. It was more than she ever expected. But she would keep her girls closer. She could feel her old age coming in the creases of her knees and shoulders. She needed her daughters.
Too bad we aren’t preparing for a real feast, she thought, something to bring everyone together, especially after the recent infighting. Rich men are not to be trusted, she knew. A poor man might steal a donkey or goat. But a rich man will start a war over an entire herd.
Lot had gotten through these arguments before. This time, Pildash, who already had a bigger flock and more pasture than anyone else, accused him of taking the best grazing land. But they had to live together. Someone would slip some coins to the other. It would be taken care of.
The shouting began as the men settled down to eat. Muffled at first, but soon closer, and then someone banged on the door.
Let us see these strangers you have taken into your home, one yelled. Another jeered, Bring them out so we can get to know them. A howl of laughter went up from the crowd. She recognized some of the voices. Men with grudges against Lot, or the poor who resented his wealth.
She hurried up to the roof and peeked over the edge. Nearly 20 men, one egging them on. Usually, the other wealthy men in the town could be counted as Lot’s closest friends, and his only peers. But here was Pildash, shouting encouragement. So, this is how he’ll get what he wants, she thought, embarrass my husband in public. Make him look bad enough and he just might give up that pastureland without a fight. Rich men and their pride, she thought.
No one noticed her up there. But they wouldn’t. Life happened horizontally in Sodom—everyone on an even plane, landowners and the shovelers of shit all living side by side. It meant nothing. Four men still paid everyone else’s wages. But if you can see them sleeping and waking it’s easy to overlook how much more they have than you ever will.
No one would pay attention to a woman anyway. So no one saw her as she watched Lot open their door and step out into the hostility and the evening.
Friends, what can I do for you? he asked, as if he hadn’t heard their demands or anger.
Give us the strangers! the men called out.
Lot tried to speak, but they cut him off, closing in and poking him in the chest. All this over some grass, she thought, with a small twinge of worry. But she pushed it out of her mind. Her husband would work it out. They’d all go back to their dinners.
She watched Lot grow scared. He raised his voice.
Friends. You know I deal honestly.
What are they paying you? one voice called out.
Why should you get all their bounty? yelled another.
Finally, Pildash spoke. You shouldn’t be the only one with the honor of hosting them. Bring them out. Let’s see how tight their assholes are.
Again, the crowd surged, but Lot continued, fear audible in every word. I have offered them a meal and a bed for the night. That is all.
It wasn’t working. The men were getting more worked up. She heard the door slam as Lot rushed back in, and ran down to find him flustered, his cloak ripped at the neck.
I have to do something, he said to her. They’ll break into our house and drag these poor men into the street.
They’re a drunk and worked-up mob, she replied. Throw them some coins and they’ll be happy.
They’ll do unnatural things to those men. I cannot let my guests be raped by a bunch of drunken farmhands.
They don’t want to do any harm, she said, with as much vehemence as she dared in the face of his overweening pride. Go out with a few skins of wine, compliments of the visitors.
You’re not listening! What do you think “let us see how tight their assholes are” means?
It means they want to see if they have gold hidden under their clothes.
Lot didn’t hear her. He paced, head bent in concentration. Finally he said, Go get the girls.
My daughters. We’ll give them instead.
You’re going to throw our children to that mob? Are you crazy?
Finally, he looked at her. I have no choice. Our family’s honor is on the line.
Fully hysterical now, she cried, Those men will kill our girls. They will rip them apart from the inside and leave them for dead. How much honor can you have if you are willing to let that happen to your own children?
They will do that to my guests! To men! You’re the one who said they won’t rape anyone.
I said they wouldn’t rape the travelers. But our girls have only their bodies. If, by some miracle, they survive what twenty grown men do to them, we’ll never be able to marry them off. You’ll ruin them forever.
In tears, she clawed at her husband’s clothing. But Lot had heard enough.
Get them now. He turned and stepped out again. She only heard the first few words —friends! I’ve come with an offer —before the door closed behind him.
She only had a few minutes. She ran back to the courtyard, grabbed whatever she could—tufts of goatskin, batches of raw wool, and a pot of oil cooling by the fire. All the while, she shouted to the girls, Run up to the roof. Grab whatever valuables you see on your way. Gold coins, jewelry, anything.
She stuffed the wool into a piece of still-bloody goatskin, grabbed an unlit torch and thrust it into the oven. After its end caught, she ran upstairs. When her daughters followed, each carrying a bulging saddlebag, she was already putting the torch to the hay pile in the corner.
Mama! they cried. What are you doing? We’ll burn up!
We’ll be long gone by the time this is big enough to harm us. Slowly, a wisp of smoke rose from the hay pile. Once it did, she started grabbing tufts of wool and shoving them at her children. Start lighting them, she directed.
Confused and scared, the girls did as they were told. She hopped from their roof to the neighbor’s, grabbing a flaming ball of wool, hurling it down into the narrow street in front of her house. The girls followed, handing her their fiery missiles as they moved. They went from rooftop to rooftop, setting each hay pile alight, throwing more projectiles down to the city below.
Mama, panted the younger girl, what are we doing? They’ll kill us when they realize what we’ve done.
They can’t see us, she said. If anyone thinks to look up, we’ll already be gone.
But what are we trying to do? cried the older girl. I don’t understand.
I’m saving you, was the only answer she gave.
From below, they heard screaming as people noticed the cramped city was on fire. A few men near Lot’s house had been hit. They rolled on the ground, screaming in fear and pain as they were consumed.
What vengeance is this? came the people’s desperate cry. Why does God rain down fire on us?
Panic spread as people trampled others to save their own homes. By then, she and her daughters had reached a narrow patch of city wall. She was sure her daughters could jump down to the ground, but her body was already feeling the effects of the run across the city’s rooftops. Just see them to safety, she thought. They are all that matters.
Throw away the wool, she told her daughters. She flung the still-burning torch as far as she could. Now, jump.
Once down, she shouted, Head for the lake. Don’t stop and don’t turn around. There’s nothing here for us anymore.
The girls took off across the flat land. She followed as fast as she could, but her breasts pounded painfully against her chest. She struggled to find breath.
Eventually, she felt the ground change beneath her feet. She was closer to the lake. Up ahead, she saw the surface of the water wink behind her daughters. But she couldn’t take another step. She was too tired. Her breath caught with every inhalation.
Bending over, her chest heaved painfully. Her arms and legs shook from the effort of getting this far.
Standing back up, the blood rushed away from her head, sent her reeling, turning her to face the way she’d come. In the distance, Sodom still burned, higher than she ever thought possible.
Only then did what she had done hit her with its full force. Images of the life she had led passed through her mind. It was all gone. Her husband, who would have whored his own daughters out to serve his pride, was in there too, and she felt, in that moment, what it was to lose an entire life’s work, a history of love and loss.
For the first time, she saw what her hands had wrought. I have killed and I have destroyed to save my own, she thought.
It was then, her body struggling to reassert itself, her mind fighting to align her pride at saving her children with grief at losing her whole valued life and horror at what she had done, that she started to cry. Huge, dehydrated tears poured down her face, sobs wracked her body. She sank down, crying harder even than the morning her own mother had sent her away into her new marriage, into the long life ahead.
She didn’t want her daughters to see her cry, but she couldn’t stop. Something had opened within her. She could not close it.
Stand up, Mama, they said. You have to keep moving or your muscles will cramp.
She would get up. She would let her daughters half-carry her along the lake’s shoreline and into the hills. She would find a cave for them, sleep with her girls curled around her like lambs. She would wake the next morning to explain they could never return to their home, would have to forget all they had ever known and look only to the future. She would calm them when their fear of God’s wrath shook within them. She would explain that they had done God’s work, or the work God should have done when a man would ask a mother to sacrifice her virgin daughters for his own stupid honor. She would tell them they were instruments of God’s wrath, that God had guided their hands when they set their home alight.
And after they all slept again, she would face their anger when they accused her of making sure there would be no man alive who would have them. She would soothe them, say the riches they had stuffed into the saddlebags would buy them a new life. She would promise to find a way.
She would keep that promise, purchase land where they could live. She would buy sheep and goats, hire field hands and shepherds. When they had enough new wealth, she would find husbands for her daughters. She would see them grow large with child. She would hold her grandchildren on her lap and know she had done something good. But for all that she would go on to do, Lot’s wife would never rise from that spot by the side of the moonlit lake. She would never stop crying fat, salty tears for the life she left behind in flames.