On my twelfth birthday, my father discovered that I could read.
He came home long before the supper hour that night, an occurrence so rare that in my shock I forgot to greet him. Instead, I sat stupefied, clutching a forbidden clay tablet.
“What are you doing?” he asked, his gaze arrested by the sight of the tablet clasped to my chest.
My father, a royal scribe in the Persian court, treated his writing tools as if they were the holy objects from the Ark of the Covenant. Before I had learned to walk or speak, I had learned never to go near his scrolls and tablets for fear I might damage them.
“You know better than to touch this,” he said, when I didn’t respond right away.
I swallowed the ball of gathering dread in my throat, knowing myself caught. Truth seemed my only option. “I was reading,” I said, as I replaced the tablet on the floor with extravagant care.
He studied me from beneath lowered brows. “Even if you could read—which you cannot—you should not be anywhere near my scribal supplies. It is very wrong of you to lie, Sarah.”
“I am not lying, Father.”
He heaved a sigh. Spreading his hand in mock invitation toward the tablet, he said, “Demonstrate.”
The tablet was in Persian, one of the most complicated languages of the world. I could have chosen to teach myself Aramaic, a simpler language for a beginner and more appropriate for a Jew. But most Aramaic documents were recorded on parchment, and I had decided that there would be fewer chances of accidentally damaging clay or stone tablets than fragile parchment scrolls.
Licking my lips, I concentrated on the complex alphabet before me. The symbols looked like a series of delicate nails standing upright or lying sideways, an occasional incomplete triangle thrown in for confusion. With halting accuracy I began to read the first line from left to right. Then the second and the third.
My father sank to the carpet next to me, his movements slow. He was silent for a long moment. Then he asked, “Who taught you to read Persian?”
“Nobody. I learned by myself. I’ve been studying for five months.”
He seemed speechless. Then, with jerky movements, he fetched three small clay cylinders and placed them before me.
“What’s this word? And this? Can you make out this sentence?”
We must have sat there for hours as he tested my knowledge, corrected my pronunciation, and demonstrated grammatical rules. He forgot about my months-long transgression of secretly handling his scribal supplies. He forgot to remonstrate with me for having taught myself to read without his permission.
But then he also forgot to ask me why I had wanted to learn. Although I was surprised by his lack of anger at my behavior, his lack of interest was all too familiar. In the years since my mother’s death when I was seven, my father had rarely spoken to me of anything save mundane household matters, and even that was rare. My desires, my motives, my hopes, held no appeal to him.
Late that night, after so many hours of his company, when I crawled onto my thin cotton-filled mattress, my mouth spread in a wide smile. I had finally found a way to hold my father’s attention. He had spent more time with me on this one night than he was wont to do in a fortnight. Months of hard work had won me the desire of my heart; he had found something in me worth his while.
After we lost my mother, Aunt Leah, my mother’s only sister, began coming once a week to our home to help us with the housework. She tried to show me how to sew and clean and cook. Our conversations around these topics tended toward frustration—for her—and pain for me.
“Weren’t you paying attention when I showed you how to pluck the chicken?”
“No, Aunt Leah. I beg your pardon.”
“You can’t use a broom like that, Sarah. You only move the dust from one spot to another. That’s not called cleaning. That’s a migration of dirt.”
“Yes, Aunt Leah. I beg your pardon.”
“This pot won’t clean itself just by you staring at it and sighing.”
Silence seemed the best response at times like this. I could not offend my only aunt by telling her the truth: that I would rather hit my head with the pot and make myself lose consciousness than have to face the frustrating boredom of scrubbing its black bottom.
My one consolation was that our house was small—four rooms and a hallway with a tiny garden the size of a large carpet in the back, so there wasn’t much to clean. The few rugs we had were woven rather than knotted, and I just beat them against the stone hedge outside. Our furniture, modest to start with, had served my family a good twenty years; even my impatient treatment of the pieces could not ruin them more than they already had been.
Aunt Leah came to visit the day after my twelfth birthday and discovered me practicing the Persian alphabet on a fresh clay tablet. The tablet fit comfortably in the palm of my hand; I held one blunt end with my thumb and used a stylus to carve new words on its wet surface. Since my father had uncovered my secret and seemed to sanction it, I felt no reason to keep it hidden any longer.
Aunt Leah slapped a hand against the crown of her head. “Are you writing now?”
“I am,” I said with pride, stretching my cramping legs on the crude carpet.
“It’s a scandal. What will your father say?”
“He is teaching me.”
“It’s a scandal,” she repeated. She made me put the tablet and stylus away and help her with the laundry until my father arrived.
Although I was dismissed from the room so that they might hold a private discussion, I could hear snatches of their conversation through the drawn curtain that separated the rectangular room into two parts. My heart beat an uncomfortable rhythm as I considered the possibility that Aunt Leah might convince my father to stop teaching me. I waited with fuming resentment, barely able to keep myself from marching in and demanding that she stop interfering with the first good thing that had happened to me in years.
“The child just wants to learn to read and write, Leah. There’s no shame in that. She even shows a glimmer of talent.” I was surprised to hear my father defend me; I couldn’t remember his ever doing so before. The simple words soothed my rising anger.
“The child is a girl.”
“Literate women are not unknown. The queen reads as well as any scribe, they say.”
“Sarah is not a royal Persian woman. She’s a simple Jewish maiden.”
I could not make out my father’s answer. Aunt Leah’s response came heated and fast, though. “No good will come of this, Simeon. You mark my words. Your stubborn refusal to listen to reason will cause that child nothing but harm.”
She stormed out of the house, not taking the time to put her shoes on right. As soon as she left, I gathered my practice tablet and borrowed tools and walked into my father’s room. He sat on the floor, his head bent, a hand covering his eyes.
With care I laid my bundle in front of him. “Would you like to see what I did today, Father? It’s not much; Aunt Leah interrupted my practice.”
This was new for me, this bold approach to my father. I had known for years that I was a bother to him. He found my conversation trying; my presence aggravated him. But my literary endeavor had given me a new confidence. I knew my father loved his work. I might be a nuisance, but the work wasn’t. I thought he would bear with me as long as we had a clay tablet between us.
He lifted his head and focused on me for a long moment. One corner of his mouth lifted. I let out my breath when he made no protest. “Let’s see what you have accomplished, then.”