City of Refuge

Photo by Ross Elliott
Photo by Ross Elliott

“To dig stone out of the ground and build a house is the sin of the city dweller,” her father taught. “Such permanence leads to nothing but problems. First the house, then the neighbor who wants to take it from you, then the wall to protect it from that same man.”

Yael sat at her father’s feet with all the children of the caravan. She was entranced by him, the thick braids that fell like ropes around his thin face, the passion that filled him when he taught them the lessons of their people.

“Remember this. We live in tents so we live free. We make no claim to any plot of land. The entire desert is open to us, and we go where we please.

“We were here before they arrived,” he continued, “and we will be here when they all pass away from the earth. We make peace wherever we pitch our tents. The desert was ours before these people came, but they have built cities, while we remain in tents. They claimed the land, and we still roam.”

The caravan had passed through this land every year of Yael’s brief life. The men pitched their tents on the great plain between two walled cities. Her father found a lesson in each place they stayed, pointed to the cities, the fields, and showed the children what their gods demanded of them.

“We will always be welcome. City dwellers have no time to learn the old trades, to stoke the fires, hammer the bronze and iron. So long as we make their pots and the tools to drag through the ground behind their oxen, we will go where we please.”

There was only one law they must not break, he warned. “Never make a sword for an outsider. It is as my father taught me and his father taught him. We pledge to live in peace with those around us. We must never raise our hands against another man. We must never make war with him.”

Yael grew up with the security of the treaty makers. Just as her father promised, her family’s caravan was welcome wherever it went. Agreements were made with all the leaders they encountered. They pitched their tents in exchange for the metalwork they provided. They stayed out of the skirmishes that surrounded them, watched as Israelites made war with Ammonites, and Ammonites went into battle with Philistines, who in turn fought the Moabites.

All around them, men struggled to take what the other had. Yael felt nothing of it. She grew up in a chrysalis of peace, her people’s traditions as steady as the change in season. They moved, made peace, crossed paths with other caravans with whom they sang their songs to the gods. Before they set off in opposite directions, the young men traded places so they could learn a trade and find a wife.

Heber had come as an apprentice to her father. He worked in her father’s shop for two years, sanding pieces of bronze into perfect ovals, rectangles, squares until his fingers calloused and his wrists hardened with muscle. Only then did her father allow him to approach the fire. It was then he taught Heber how to fan the flames, to smelt the iron from the ore. He placed a hammer into Heber’s hand and guided it along the metal.

By then, Yael had taken Heber to the caves that dotted the Judean hills. She had found the caves when they first arrived on the plain, then brought him into the cool semi-darkness where she kissed the cords of his neck, his jawbone, his mouth.

Yael’s life had gone as planned. At fifteen, the women of the caravan piled her black braids onto her head, crushed gemstones to powder to redden her lips, cheeks, and forehead. One year later, she married. By the time her thirtieth year came, she had a husband respected by his neighbors, a tent of her own, and children clinging to her thighs. Until Heber pulled back the tent flap at the end of a long day. “We have to leave,” he said. “They’re going to kill me.”

The baby Yael was rocking to sleep jerked awake in her arms at the gruff sound of his voice and began to cry. She shushed her down, but looked up at her husband. The years had not been kind to him. He’d grown anxious about the future and impatient for success. He’d been one of the first to scorn the old ways and take orders for weapons of all kinds once her father’s generation began to die off or became too old to work, or to object.

“It’s not our way,” Yael had pleaded when she first saw the swords and spearheads he had forged cooling in the yard. But he had brushed off her concerns. “Those are superstitions and old wives tales. We will grow richer than any of our parents could have imagined.”

“Nomads have no use for wealth,” she said. “We have enough to fill our tents. It is better for us to be righteous than rich.”

But it was as Heber said. In defying their ancestors’ warning, they had prospered. Business grew brisker than ever. Everyone rejoiced at their newfound wealth, so Yael hid her uneasiness about her people’s work. She watched as they made the instruments of war but still tried to live in peace with their neighbors. The echo of iron beaten into swords resounded all around them.

But when the Judean ended up dead on Heber’s shop floor, Yael had not been totally surprised. What else is a sword built for except to kill, she wondered, despair pulling her stomach and shoulders down toward the ground. Could it be counted an accident when the man complained about his weapon’s quality and ended up sliced through?

She believed Heber when he said it was an accident. At least, she tried to believe him. The fragile bonds of treaty between the caravan and their settled neighbors depended on it.

After the first moments of panic subsided, the men of the caravan went into the closest town, brought back the city elders, and showed them the body, the wound across his stomach and arm. They looked to one another, doubt moving from one face to the next as if passed by hand. The people of the caravan watched anxiously as the Judeans closed into a tight knot, conferred with one another.

“You have been honored neighbors to us,” they said when they turned back. “We have all benefitted from your presence here, and we thank you for bringing this unfortunate event to our attention.” It was best, everyone agreed, to proclaim the death an unfortunate mishap. Heber would leave, they decided, to keep the peace and appease the dead man’s family. Judean justice held out some hope for him.

“There is a city of refuge, Kedesh, in the north,” the elders said. “Go there. You can pitch your tents outside the city wall and still remain safe from the family’s vengeance. No one can touch you so long as you stay there.”


“Everyone needs a metalsmith,” Heber said by way of apology as Yael packed up their entire life. She resented him, but he was her husband, the father of her children, and every so often, she still thought she could see traces of the boy he had been, who had let her lead him into the cool shelter of a Judean cave. And so she loaded up all she owned: tents, rugs, textiles, deep bronze pots, and left the desert behind.

Now she walked among the people of Kedesh, each of whom may have spilled human blood, each an accident. No one spoke of past crimes here, but it never left her mind that she lived among killers.

Those who were burdened with bloodguilt carried their misdeeds within their hearts, just as Heber did. The two of them never even spoke of the man on the floor, his mouth open in motionless surprise.

Yael was lonely for her family here in the leafy north. Still, she had harbored a secret hope that they would find a more peaceful existence once they arrived in their new home. In her younger years, Yael had wondered if the desert caused men to lose their minds, pushed them into the frenzy of greed and war. But it was the same everywhere. Here, the winds didn’t roll in off the desert, bringing sand and heat, but from the shore of the sea. The breeze was gentler, mixed the scent of conifer with the distant brine, and yet the people to the east and west gave their battle cries and ran back to fight time and again. The wars came as regular as the spring.

She tried to live the old way, even in this place where the lemony smell of peonies filled her mornings. She taught her children the ways of their people, pointed to Heber, who defied his heritage at the forge but followed tradition and made treaties of peace with all his neighbors, even with Sisera, general of the city to the east. There was no justice for his people that did not come at the end of a sword, but her family, she explained to her children, would remain untouched by the violence of the city-dwellers. “Let them fight each other,” she said, her children sitting at her feet. “We have another way.”

What she could not get used to was the view outside. Every morning, Yael woke to air unchoked by dust. When she stepped out of the tent, blue sky met deep green hills in every direction. The roads she walked were lined with cedars, their branches reaching above her to touch one another, driving her deeper into forested darkness before releasing her outside the city wall, where cyclamens ran riot along the base of the stone.

And when she passed through the city gates with the vessels Heber made stacked and balanced on her head, the women praised his mastery and bought her market wares.

Yael never stopped missing her people, but in time she began to enjoy the north, how the trees absorbed the sound of her passage, unlike the rocky mountains, which echoed her footfalls back to her. Soon enough, though, the world’s tension flared.

Sisera, always ready for a fight, led his people out into the broad valley. The people of Kedesh followed his army to see what would unfold. They brought jugs of wine and water, rounds of tightly wrapped cheese and soft bread in preparation for the spectacle to come.

Yael walked as far as the crest of the mountain. Across the way, she saw a woman among the soldiers, her arms raised to the sky. Her men massed behind her, ready to battle, but no one moved until, in a single swoop, the woman dropped her arms and released them. The men coursed down the hillsides, ran over the dark earth. When the two armies collided, the onlookers couldn’t tell who was fighting whom, where one side ended and the other began.

Yael heard the screams of the wounded, the cries of the dying. She had never been this close to such carnage. Before the first wave of men had fallen, she left the crowd of onlookers, turned back for Kedesh. When she reached her tent, she went directly to the well, pulled up jar after jar of water, and scrubbed every part of herself clean, as if enough water could rid her of the bloody images she had just seen.

Even after the ground was soaked with water, even after she had rubbed the skin raw on her arms and cheeks, Yael still had a sense that nothing was as it should be. The trees did their work. They tamped the sounds beyond and below them so that she could no longer hear the battle that raged down the road. She watched their branches bend and straighten in the wind. The only sound she heard was the chirrup of a bird somewhere high above her head.

It distressed her. Yael wasn’t used to silence. She wasn’t used to being alone, but the paths around her tents that led in and out of the city lay empty. Everyone was there on the ridge watching men throw themselves at death. She didn’t know how to fill her time without the simmer of chores, the comfort of work.

She walked slowly around the largest tent, looking for rips to sew, but didn’t find any. She checked the fire pit, where she kept the embers smoldering in preparation of the next meal. They glowed, as predictable and orange as dawn. She counted the copper pots she had already counted that morning, then stacked them again. They were ready to be carried to the market, which sat empty now of everyone except the very old or infirm who couldn’t make the walk to view the battlefield. Finally, she went into the enclosure where they kept their animals, lured the goats to her with handfuls of fresh hay, and milked the females one at a time, until she had filled a jug with the steaming milk.

Yael let the milk stand for a few minutes, until it developed a layer of cream that she skimmed off the top to feed to her children for dinner. She was still there, hidden from the road, when she caught sight of a man running toward her through the trees. He was alone, and kept turning his head over his shoulder, as if to see if someone was following him. By the time he reached her tents, he could barely move. He ran through the property as if looking for something. When he found her, he bent over, his hands clutching the sides of his waist, his elbows flared to either side as his chest heaved. Yael watched as his back surged up and down with each breath he sucked in and let out.

He was looking for me, she realized, but she didn’t recognize him. He was clothed for war, his breastplate still tied around him, but he was a small man, shorter than many women, with stringy muscles running up his arms and legs.

It was only when he stood back up that she saw the cuffs he wore around his wrists. She recognized them immediately. Heber had forged them. He’d been paid handsomely. And why not? A general can afford to adorn himself with the best workmanship, the priciest metals.

The bronze that gripped Sisera’s arms shone pink from the alloys Heber had mixed in. The metal was hammered as thin as a leaf hanging from a tree. She could make out the designs, still as clear as the day Heber finished them, circles within circles that wound all the way around Sisera’s surprisingly delicate wrists.

“Give me some water,” he said. “I have run far to reach a friendly place. My enemies surround me. They pursue me. Please, give me some water.”

Yael’s hair still held the moisture from the water she had showered over herself. Here was the man who was the cause of her revulsion asking for water to sate and cleanse himself, as she had tried to clean herself of him. Heber had made his peace with Sisera, but to Yael, who grieved at each sword that came out of her husband’s shop, he was the living image of how far her people had fallen.

They were all barbarians to her, the Caananites, the Judeans, the Arameans; all would trample what the gods had made to claim a slightly bigger piece of it. Sisera was the worst of them all. Yet here he stood, above her but at her mercy. He could not drink unless she drew the water for him. Yael looked down. At her feet lay the jugs of milk and cream that she had just separated.

In that moment, Yael saw the choice that had just been given to her. The future of two nations had been placed in her hands. The Caananites had already lost the battle. Sisera wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t. He was the only thing that stood between more bloodshed and peace. If he died, the fighting would stop.

Yael recoiled from the thoughts that were forming in her head. She could not lift her hand in violence against another person. But no matter how she tried to deny it, she had watched aggression used to resolve disputes all her life. She understood its logic. She weighed out her choices. One death, of this man who had brought destruction to so many, against the countless others that would follow if Sisera were allowed to leave her home. She was torn. She had to decide.

Yael looked up at the general. She rose to her feet, gestured toward the ground. “Drink this cream instead. It will serve you better than water.”

She led Sisera out from among the goats and into the tent. “Thank you,” he said, as humble as a roadside beggar. Yael couldn’t swallow. The spit stuck in her throat, but her hands around the neck of the jug didn’t tremble.

She set the jug down, spread out the thickest skins she had. Sisera sank down onto them like a man saved. Yael watched her arms as they stretched toward him. She watched as his hands rose to meet hers, felt their fingers graze as the jug passed from her to him.

Sisera raised the pitcher to his mouth, swallowed quickly, the lump in his throat bobbing up and down as the cream filled him. When the jug was empty, he reached out his hand. “Give me the milk, too.” Yael ran outside, scooped up the second, heavier, jug. The milk splashed over its lip as she rushed back inside. Sisera grabbed it out of her hand, drank deeply, then lay back on the skins. His face had taken on some of the color that battle and retreat had robbed of it. Although he did not reach from one end of the skin to the other, he lay with his limbs spread wide. He was no longer a supplicant at her door. He was a general who expected to be obeyed.

“Thank you,” he said, his voice relaxed. “Don’t let anyone in. I have to rest, replenish my energy. Then I will go back and take my revenge on that woman, Deborah, and all who would fight me.” Yael saw that he felt safe with her. She was just a woman whose husband had made a pact with him. She didn’t carry a sword or spear. She would never go to battle. To a man like Sisera, who thought all men could be divided into those who fought for him and those who fought against him, the idea that a woman could harm him did not exist.

She wanted to be alone again. She wanted to cry and scream and tear at her hair. My whole life has led to this moment, she thought, and I don’t know what to do.

Yael watched him grow sleepier. She kept herself coiled next to the tent flap, afraid to go too close to him. His smell, of sweat and vinegar and something bitter she couldn’t identify but which she thought must be the vestiges of fear, radiated from him. It repulsed her. “Enough to kill him?” she asked herself.

Sisera sighed. He had forgotten his cares, if only for the moment. She had to act quickly if she was to act at all. Yael didn’t allow herself to think. She ran outside, scanned the ground until she found a tent peg Heber had made but tossed aside, and his heavy hammer, whose strikes against metal made up the soundscape of her life. She gripped them tightly.

“Forgive me,” she whispered up into the cedar canopy, where she imagined her father and every ancestor who preceded him perched, then reentered the tent, her hands behind her back. Sisera had curled onto his side while she was outside. He lay like a child, his knees drawn up, arms bent next to his head. He breathed evenly as she approached. She raised the peg above his temple, held it straight with her left hand. At the moment she swung the right hand over her head, he opened his eyes and comprehension lit them. He started to form a word, but Yael brought the hammer down with as much force as she could muster before he could finish it.

She felt the metal slip down. She felt how easily it cracked bone and slid into the soft matter within. Blood spurted up and onto her. She had hit the peg with so much force that it passed through his head, pinned his corpse to the ground.

When she saw that he was dead, Yael ran outside, bent over and threw up everything in her stomach.

She stayed there on the ground, afraid now of what she had done, afraid of the body whose blood even now stained the skins and leaked onto the rugs inside the tent. Her head filled with the sounds of crows, each releasing its harsh caw into the wind, churning in her ears above the sound of her father’s voice, repeating, “We never raise our hands against another man.”

Her thoughts were so tangled that Yael didn’t hear the footsteps of the men who ran toward her until they arrived in front of her. When she looked up, her face was splattered with blood, dirtied with tears. Her mouth was still wet with vomit.

“Sisera?” they asked. They still wore the mud of the battlefield on their legs and thighs. Each man’s skin shone, his eyes glinted. They had left the valley, but the trance of war still held them. These were the enemies Sisera had run from, the Israelites for whom she had become a murderer.

Yael’s throat closed again. It fought all language, so that all she could manage was a weak wave in the direction of the tent. One of the men lifted the tent flap and gave a shout of joy. He rushed back to his companions, his eyes glowing with admiration for the woman who sat shattered at their feet.

“We are saved!” he shouted. He pointed to one of the other men, said, “Run. Bring Deborah. This woman has given us victory!”

The men raised their voices, sang praises to Yael’s beauty and her bravery. They cursed the memory of the Canaanite general, celebrated his gory end. Yael heard none of it. As the men flung themselves into the frenzy of triumph, she crawled away, hid in the enclosure with the goats. Their earthy smell, pebbled droppings littering the ground, were a reminder of what her life had been until she lifted the hammer above a man’s head. She could never go back. Nothing would be as it was, even as the world itself didn’t change.


Noise filtered back to her from in front of the tent. Yael could hear Heber, the babble of her children, more male voices as they joined the men who had stayed to watch over Sisera’s body, as if somehow the dead could stand up and sneak away. For the first time since they had come, Yael felt afraid. Heber had made a pact of peace with Sisera. He would be angry with her. She couldn’t even imagine what he would do in that anger.

But it wasn’t Heber who found her there, her forehead bent against the flank of a pregnant goat. Instead of his heavy tread, she heard the hiss of fabric as it swept along the ground.

“Get up,” a woman commanded. Yael looked over the goat’s black and grey back. It was the woman from the battlefield, the leader of all the Israelites.

Deborah was the most striking woman Yael had ever seen. Her face was a quarry of etched lines and furrows, yet she did not look old. She looked like time did not touch her as it did the rest of them. Her lips were pressed firmly together. Her jaw pulsed. She was not used to being disobeyed.

They could hear the men singing verses in Yael’s honor. One by one and in small clusters, the men had gone to look at Sisera’s body, his limbs as calm as in sleep, his head pierced and deformed, and came out with a story of what happened.

“We came here for refuge,” Yael said, as if Deborah could know her husband’s history, the accident that sent them running to Kedesh. “I live here surrounded by killers, but I am the only murderer in the city.”

She thought Deborah would understand her grief. She had heard of the older woman’s wisdom, how she judged fairly between her people. This woman, Yael was sure, would see how terrible it is to have taken another person’s life, but Deborah grew impatient.

“Stand up, woman.” Her tone was as unyielding as an avalanche of stone.

Deborah strode over to Yael, yanked her roughly to her feet.

“Do not become weak as all the other women now,” she said. “It’s too late for that.”

“What of Sisera’s family? His people? Will they come to take my life in revenge? Will they kill my husband, my children?”

“Sisera was a coward. He ran as his men died. Only his mother will weep for him. He has fouled his own memory among all men.”

Yael marveled at Deborah’s ferocity. She thought she would find a woman’s softness, but Deborah was like everyone else in this cursed land. They all thought the only way to honor came through someone else’s destruction.

“You are a heroine to my people,” Deborah said, as if faced with someone so simple she could not understand the basic ways of the world. Outside, the men continued to sing. “Listen to them. Your grandchildren’s grandchildren will remember your name.”

“They are getting it all wrong,” Yael said. “I am not like you. I am not one of you.” Still, Deborah ignored her. Even she could not see how her men were turning Yael into one of them, who thirsted for bloody victory. Yael felt the world spinning around her, sky becoming ground, ground where sky should be.

Deborah kept talking, “Come out and meet them. Let them see the woman who accomplished what they couldn’t do.”

Yael allowed Deborah to guide her out of the enclosure. The goats scrambled after them as they walked. Yael saw the back of her tent, the fabric’s red and green dyes faded with time and exposure. It gave no indication that the proof of her crime lay within.

When they came around the front, the men shouted. A few let loose shrieks of frenzied war cries. Yael cringed at each sound. They didn’t belong here. A home was no place for battle. Too late, she thought, for such fine distinctions. She had brought the fight here herself.

Her younger children ran to her, clung to her thighs and hands. In their faces she saw a mix of pride and bewilderment. This was worse than everything. Worse than disobeying her ancestors, defiling herself with the blood of another man, she had betrayed her children. She had gone against everything she had tried to teach them. All those years of fighting against the bloodthirsty ways of their neighbors, only to prove to them that she was no better.

Her own death would be preferable to this, she thought. “I shouldn’t have done it,” she muttered. “Let them kill each other without me,” but only Deborah heard her. The older woman just snorted. “That’s a fine thought to have after you’ve already acted. Go ahead, say something. It’s not every day an army of men listen to a woman speak.”

Yael gathered herself. She had to find the right words to make this right again, to turn the tide back, to make them see what she had meant, that her act should lead to the end of war, not this crazed victory.

“Put down your swords,” she said. “Beat them down. Raise your hands in peace,”

but her voice was not loud enough to rise above the din. The men, who had left a valley where they had been prepared to die, could not stop their tumultuous revelry. They were possessed by it. They promised vengeance on all their enemies. They did not hear her.

She tried again, “Don’t celebrate this death. Let it be the last.”

No one paid any attention to her. She had already become the woman in their song, the one who went after the same glory they chased. Nothing she said would change that. Yael felt trapped between reality and the myth they were constructing, between the tents and the road, the ground and the sky. And in between, the tranquil cedars rose, unhearing, eternal.


Michal Lemberger

Michal Lemberger

Michal Lemberger's nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, and other publications, and her poetry has been published in a number of print and online journals. Lemberger holds an MA and PhD in English from UCLA and a BA in English and religion from Barnard College. She has taught the Hebrew Bible as Literature at UCLA and the American Jewish University. She was born and raised in New York and now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters. "City of Refuge" is a story from her upcoming collection, After Abel, which will be out April 7.

Michal Lemberger's nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, and other publications, and her poetry has been published in a number of print and online journals. Lemberger holds an MA and PhD in English from UCLA and a BA in English and religion from Barnard College. She has taught the Hebrew Bible as Literature at UCLA and the American Jewish University. She was born and raised in New York and now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters. "City of Refuge" is a story from her upcoming collection, After Abel, which will be out April 7.

One comment

  1. Lexie_Kahn says:

    Lemberger breathes life and dimension into biblical characters who were only archetypes. Although the story is told in simple, spare language, Yael is forced to confront ethical questions that are not so simple; we can relate to her dilemma.

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