Yael’s Story

Poet’s note: The books of the Bible are spare, leaving us a wide margin for speculation. The Book of Judges, for example, does not explain why Yael is alone in a tent, with nobody nearby, ready to receive the enemy leader Sisera. Is it possible that the women, with Deborah in charge, tried to position her strategically? (Deborah had, after all, prophesied that a woman would have the glory of this battle.) Or, perhaps, Yael is in isolation in a menstruation hut… ? From these conjectures I freely go on to imagine a continuum of rejection: Yael as a divorced woman with no source of support except from other women, Yael being unilaterally served a get (divorce) as performed in 1986 in a Conservative congregation in America….

My question is: What pain and what fear in Yael is marshalled to accomplish such aggression?

Come, calm, and let me see the sea again,
hear its monotone erase these late, startling sights,
lull me to the time of cradling a warm infant,
laughing with the small child who thinks a camel is a boat
on the dark miragewater of the sands.

I have walked with my arms above my head seven times,
circling the room. I could feel my breasts and knew shame
before the men who watched: the plums of me begging
to be eaten, so useless, unpicked. This is divorce: to be ripe
and unpicked, all the rabbis watching, nodding at the ceremony,
approving at how exactly, alone, you walk circling a room,
counting to yourself, your hands above your head
holding a parchment with their holy writing.
Cut and sever, come together. There is a dance to do.
Given freedom in such a time, we might scream, or bare
our breasts in the rabbis’ chamber.

I wanted to dress as an old man with a beard,
hide my shape, play the clown and take their writ of divorce
between my teeth, walk a tightrope into the sky and let the precious
message drop to Sheol. Instead I killed a man, and they call me hero.
They sent me to a tent like a menstruating woman.
Twas there put aside with milk and crusts of bread from the weekly
baking. The women are trying to keep me alive, my family gone.
No one talks, they say, of why I am here alone in this flat stretch
in the middle of the badlands.

How long have I been ready to see blood,
ready to kill any man who reminds me of his turning away from me?
I did not know I wanted that.
I thought of tentpoles, yes, I thought of the empty space of tents,
the spine of the world itself filling me.
I though of animals, their enormity in rut, but not of murder.

I was only trying to summon the old quiet of walking
with a man you love in an arborway, he loves you
and there is the joy after love, the feel
of safety and the ease that comes after a summer storm,
rain washing away the spikiness in the air, the restlessness
in the chest and thighs gone for that little while.

I want the stillness of the desert,
the leathery sage, its leaves pungent and static in the heat,
the waiting snake coiled like the motionless rock it leans against.
I long for the pliant hardness of bodies. Death is so still,
the air heavy with a sweet flower no one has ever seen.

I took the tent pin, and put it through his head, yes.
I did that, stilled him, surprising myself, knowing
even as I did it, curious, as if I were making
a new kind of dough, it meant glory: the men
would approve of this; he might take me back, might like me again.
I thought of my son. I thought of this man’s mother.
And still I did it. I would have done anything
not to have been there to receive a fleeing coward.
I did not want to be a waystation on the desert.
I did not want to be alone. The carpet with its flowers was my friend
For days it distracted me.
He rolled himself inside the friend of my weeping and praying
I had only the carpet, the bedroll and the commode, and he
took the carpet and wrapped it around himself. Come, calm,
I would say to myself, come, calm, and God, please send me

sleep. Instead, he came, Sisera, like a breeze,
an answer to a prayer opening the tentflap.
He was no more than that, hardly solid,
the wind begging for safe-keeping in the tent,
stirring the air. I could feel how much he wanted comfort.
I gave him the warm milk I use to seduce sleep from the tense
shadows that keep me awake. He drank and slept under the carpet
I took the tentpin and put it through his skull, easy,
a sound
like a mouse caught under a boot in the dark.

Elizabeth Socolow grew up in New York City and received both a Reform and an Orthodox Jewish education. She now lives in Princeton. NJ and Poughkeepsie, NY, is the mother ofnvo grown sons and the author of a book of poems entitled Laughing at Gravity: Conversations With Isaac Newton (Boston: Beaton Press. 1988).