Authors: Donna Callea
The Easter-Esther Festival
I admit it. I’m uneasy about the festival. It’s supposed to make people feel lighthearted, hopeful, happy. It just makes me feel uncomfortable—too much of a mishmash of religion and revelry.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the parade, plays, costumes, craft shows, and giant rabbits handing out treats to children. And I’m grateful as the next person that spring has come again, although I kind of figured it would.
It’s just that, in recent years, the other, more adult, parts of the Easter-Esther Festival seem to be getting out of hand. Out of control.
I have trouble understanding why people think excessive drinking, bawdy cross-dressing, and the copulation of married women with single men as an act of charity—topped off by a pious sunrise service and prayers—will please The Designer.
If there is a designer.
Some people, not many, don’t believe there’s a designer at all.
Sam is one of those people. Maybe because he considers himself a man of science. He’s a dentist, after all. But he’s very much in favor of the Easter-Esther Festival. He enjoys it immensely, and participates in just about everything but the sunrise service.
Of all my husbands, Sam is probably the most self-sufficient, the most independent. He takes care of himself, has friends outside the family, keeps busy. If he wants to dress up like a woman once a year and attend some of the more raucous events the Easter-Esther Festival has to offer, he has every right. Lots of men do, though Sam is the only one in our family who celebrates spring this way. And he knows better than to encourage me to participate. The rest of the year he acts responsibly. He’s a good husband and father, not to mention a considerate and very skillful lover.
I’ve asked him what appeals to him about wearing false breasts, a wig, a dress, and getting drunk with other men. He’s not homosexual. Not even bisexual.
“It’s just mindless, outrageous fun, Susannah,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s true, some men do things with each other. Mostly the single ones. They’ll take anything they can get. But most would rather have a woman.”
And a few lucky single men, ages 18 and up, do get one, for the night, at least.
Wearing their feminine finery, they’re given the opportunity to compete in “beauty contests,” judged by married women dressed as men. The judges, I’m told, are simply wives and mothers caught up in the spirit of the season. And since they’re in costume and wear masks, supposedly no one knows who they are. Each generous judge selects a “winner” who gets to copulate with her.
“You know, it’s traditional to masquerade during the Easter-Esther Festival,” Sam points out.
Yes, I know. Tom, who doesn’t participate in any of the bawdy events, has told us all about the historical, religious and cultural underpinnings of the festival.
Tom knows because he’s Jewish. His family name was Fine before we got married. And Mama Fine made sure all her children were well versed in the lore associated with their ancient bloodline. After two Great Floods—the biblical one featuring Noah and his ark 5,000 years ago, and the one that involved melting ice caps 600 years ago—there are still Jews. Not because they are The Designer’s “chosen,” but because they choose to remember where they came from, according to Tom.
His maternal family doesn’t really practice Judaism as a religion, per se. I doubt that anyone does. It’s more about passing on the heritage, and embracing some of the customs.
Tom and his brothers, for example, all have been circumcised.
He was my first husband, so it wasn’t as if I could make comparisons. But one of the first things he said to me on our wedding night was, “I hope you don’t mind.”
“I don’t, if you don’t,” I told him. And there’s never been anything to mind, as far as I’m concerned. All of my husbands are different. I make it a point not to compare them. I consider Tom a very companionable lover.
We have a good time. And although some people think the snipping he underwent as an infant must be a detriment to enjoyment—on the man’s part anyway—I’ve never found him lacking in any way. I love Tom. All of him.
Anyway, he’s passed on the story of Purim, the story of Queen Esther, to our family. At least, the version of it he’s been told. In the old days, Purim was a spring holiday noted for its merry-making right in the synagogue, which made it a bit unusual in the Jewish lexicon of solemn holidays. God is not even mentioned in the original Bible story, Tom likes to point out, although the story of Esther is included in sacred texts.
It takes place in Persia, maybe 3,000 or so years ago. The king of Persia, who’s been drinking heavily with his pals, orders his queen, Vashti, to come make an appearance dressed only in her crown. Vashti, being a strong-willed woman, refuses this outlandish request. The next thing she knows, she’s being told to turn in her crown, and the king goes looking for a new queen. A beauty contest of sorts is held throughout the land. And the winner is a Jewish girl named Esther.
It seems that young Queen Esther’s kinsman—a very upstanding man among the Jews—inadvertently gets on the wrong side of the king’s top advisor, a really nasty man named Haman. In retaliation, Haman convinces the king that all the Jews in the land ought to be annihilated. The king says okay, that sounds like a good idea. But then Queen Esther’s kinsman fills her in, and tells her she’s her people’s only hope. So Esther bravely approaches the king, tells him that she herself is Jewish, and gets him to turn the tables on Haman. Instead of the Jews, Haman and all his friends, relatives and supporters are killed. So the story ends happily, with lots of bloodshed.
The point, as I understand it, is that God, The Creator, The Designer—whatever name you want to use—works in mysterious ways, and people need a spring festival.
Speaking of which, Easter is not really similar to Purim, except that it, too, is about cheating death and happens to have been traditionally celebrated in spring. I don’t know who got the brilliant idea several centuries ago of combining the two holidays. But the idea has really taken off throughout the Great Lakes Coalition. I suppose if anyone needs a fertility festival, it’s us.
We humans, I think, have always feared annihilation of one sort or another, and look upon spring as a time of renewal, rebirth and fertility.
Easter, of course, has Christian roots, which were grafted upon its pagan roots. The name comes from the pagan goddess of fertility, after all, which is probably where the name Esther comes from, too. And like Judaism, Christianity has sort of survived. But there’s been a blurring of defined beliefs. From what I can tell, the only thing that sets Christians apart from other monotheistic believers is that they prefer to think of The Designer as someone who has a backstory, a gender and a name: Jesus.
Mostly though, The Designer is just referred to as The Designer. The title is logically conceived. If the Earth and everything on it was created by intelligent design rather than cosmic chance, there must be a designer.
Unfortunately, The Designer’s most intricate and confounding design is not very intelligent. In fact, we’ve been so stupid we’ve made a big mess of the planet.
What I think is, The Designer has had to take a closer look at our species and do some rethinking and tweaking. That’s why girls are now so rare. It’s not a punishment so much as a correction.
Acting ridiculous during the Easter-Esther Festival only makes us look more stupid, not less.
I suppose that’s why it makes me feel uneasy.
Or maybe it’s just the fact that I’m pregnant again, and I’m pretty sure it will be another boy.
And then there’s Rebekah.
“Oh my,” I say, when she emerges from her room with all of her beautiful red hair crudely cut off short, like a boy.
“Why did you do that?”
“I’m going to the festival parade dressed as a boy. There was nothing else I could do with all that hair.”
We all just stare at her.
I see that David stares at her with especially sad soulful eyes. He’s shot up recently. He’ll be quite tall when he’s a man, I think. I remind myself that he’s still very young. So young. But he’s not so young that he doesn’t feel real longing. And that makes me worry.
He must know that he can never have Rebekah. Yet he wants her. Perhaps he always will.
Rebekah asks David if she can borrow some of his clothes to wear to the festival parade, and he nods and goes to his room to get them. It’s traditional for children to dress up in costumes for the Easter-Esther parade. They usually wear animal masks, or pretend they’re characters from books or alien creatures. Things like that. Boys don’t dress as girls, and girls Rebekah’s age usually don’t go to the parade. No sense in reminding everyone how few and precious they are.
Rebekah’s idea of going as a boy has no precedent.
“So, what are you going to do about your daughter?” I ask John while Rebekah’s changing. “Are you going to let her go?”
“Why not?” he says. “I’ll go with them. She can wear rabbit ears and a mask. She’ll blend in and be safe enough. In a way it’s good she got rid of all that hair.”
Less of a temptation, he no doubt thinks.
“She should probably keep it short until she gets married,” he says. “It doesn’t do anyone any good for her to be so beautiful.”
David follows her out the door as they head for the parade. He doesn’t find her any less appealing, I think.
Rebekah has just come back to the house. She comes into the kitchen, where I’m making a sandwich at the counter, and slumps down at the table like she’s really tired.
I stare at the back of her neck. It’s a long neck, white skinned and creamy. I love the curve of it. The shape. The nape. I’d like to put my lips there. I couldn’t really see the nape when her hair was long. So maybe it’s not such a bad thing that she keeps it so short now. But I do miss her long hair.
“What’s the matter, David?” she says, sitting up, feeling my eyes on her. “Do I look so terrible?” She’s just had another haircut. Uncle John takes her with him now whenever he goes to the barber. He seems very pleased that she dresses like a boy and wants short hair, although she still moves like a girl, still sounds and smells and acts like a girl.
“You don’t look terrible. You’ll have to try a little harder if you want to look terrible.”
“Very funny,” she says.
“Don’t you miss your long hair?” I ask her. “If you don’t now, you will in the winter. Your head will get cold in the winter. Mine does.”
“It’ll be worth it to be able to go out and not get stared at so much.”
People might think Rebekah’s a boy from a distance now, but not close up. Since the Easter-Esther Festival, she’s been able to leave the house more, usually with someone in the family. And she’s stopped going to the old lady’s house where she used to study with other girls. She says they’d be appalled at the way she looks now. And she didn’t like going anyway. So I guess it’s better for her.
No one is listening to us, so I take a deep breath and decide to ask her a really inappropriate question.
“Hey, Rebekah,” I say, “would you have rather been born a boy?”
“No,” she says, staring back at me unflinchingly, almost daring me to continue this line of questioning.
“It’s just that I’ve heard there might be some girls who don’t ever want to be with men, just like there are some men who end up marrying other men because they don’t want to be with women. You know. Sexually.”
“Are you asking me if I’m a lesbian, David?”
“Well, no. Well, I guess, yes. I mean, I don’t know,” I mumble.
I don’t really think Rebekah is a lesbian. I’m just sort of provoking her. I think someday she’s going to love me the way I love her. She has to. I just want to get it out in the open why she’s so intent on looking like a boy. She’s really overdoing it, as far as I’m concerned. And I wish she’d go back to looking like the old Rebekah.
“I only wondered because you’re kind of different now, with the short hair and dressing like a boy. You seem happy doing that.”
“Well, I’m not. Not a lesbian, and not happy looking like this. It’s just better for now. I’m not like my mother, you know. I hate my mother. I would never be like her. If she’s a lesbian. Which no one really knows for sure. But that’s what some people think. I’ve heard adults talk about her when they don’t know I’m listening.”
She’s never talked to me about her mother before, but I understand why she has good reason to hate her. Her mother deserted her when she was three. I can’t imagine what that would be like, how much it would hurt.
“Do you want to come to my room?” Rebekah asks me suddenly, seemingly out of the blue. I nearly fall over, but I pull myself together enough to nod yes.
There’s no one around right now to tell me not to. So I follow her into her room, which is in the new wing that Papa Ryan and Uncle John built onto the house when Rebekah came to live with us. I’ve seen it from the doorway, but I’ve never actually been in her room until now.
“You can sit on the bed,” she says, and then she plops down next to me.
“I hate the way things are, David. I hate my life. I don’t want to make decisions now about the future. I don’t want to have career evaluations and then study to do work that society needs and a counselor says I’m suited to do. I don’t want to get married when I’m 18 to a man I don’t know, and then, before I know it, to another man, and then to another, and another, and do my duty and try to have a girl baby. For what? I think we’re all doomed anyway.”
Wow. What am I supposed to say to that? With a big sigh, Rebekah lies down on her back, across the width of the bed, and tears begin to fall down the sides of her cheeks. Then comes full out sobbing. When she breathes in and out, I see her breasts rise and fall through the shirt she’s wearing. I want to put my hands there. I want to feel her skin. I want to touch her everywhere, and hold her to me so tight that we melt into each other. I want to love her. I do love her. But right now, I just want her to stop crying.
Rebekah turns onto her side, toward me, and puts her arm over her head and continues to sob.
“I hate getting haircuts,” she says, sniffling. “I hate it, hate it, hate it.”
I thought it was her idea to have short hair. It
her idea. She’s the one who cut off all her hair in the first place because she wanted to go to the Easter-Esther parade. But I don’t say that. She’s upset enough as it is.
I stroke her shoulder and her back. Lightly. Just my fingertips, careful to keep myself under control. I want to tell her I’d do anything in the world for her, anything to make her feel better. I don’t want her ever to be hurt. But I don’t say anything. I can’t.
After a while, she stops crying and looks up at me with her eyes all red and filled with tears, and her long, thick eyelashes in wet points. Her lips tremble. She has the most amazing lips. Full and plump and pouty.
Then she reaches up and puts her hand on my head and pulls me down to her so that our mouths meet. I kiss her, tasting salt on her lips. She kisses me back, and every part of me—every single part of me—throbs, wanting her more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life. I think I’m going to die.
And then I see that someone is standing by the door watching. It’s Mama. She doesn’t yell at us. She just clears her throat very loudly and tells us to stop what we’re doing right now. She tells me in no uncertain terms to get up off the bed.
“You know you shouldn’t be here, David,” she says sternly. “Rebekah is your sister.”
“She’s not my sister,” I say. “She’s not even my cousin.”
“In the eyes of society, she is. You know better than to say that she isn’t. Besides, what you’re doing here is not allowed for many, many reasons. The two of you know that. This can’t happen again. Not ever again. Nothing like this can happen again. Do you understand me?”
I just stand there kind of quivering. Rebekah looks up at my mother, all tousled and stricken and ready to cry again.
“I said do you understand me?” Mama says, raising her voice.
I nod, and I see Rebekah nod, and then she starts to sob. My mother sits on the bed next to her, takes her in her arms, and tells me to go to my room.
I figure I’m in big trouble. But I wouldn’t trade that time in Rebekah’s room for anything in the world.
Later, Papa Seth comes into my room and has a talk with me.
Papa Seth is the easiest to talk to of all my dads, the least likely to raise his voice.
“Look, son,” he says, “I know this is difficult for you. But the way things are, it’s pretty much a taboo for you to be going to Rebekah’s room and kissing her on the mouth.”
“You can’t be lusting after Rebekah.”
“You’ve got feelings, though. You’re right on the verge of manhood. You’re what, 13 now? And you can’t help how your body responds to a pretty girl like Rebekah. But it’s your responsibility to make sure that when you’re overcome with those kinds of thoughts and feelings you head right to your own room and take care of things your own self. You understand what I’m saying?”
“There’s nothing wrong with masturbating. It’s natural. So go at it. All you want. When you’re a little older, you can start visiting Mrs. Edelson, or Mrs. Larson, or some other nice lady who knows how to make you feel better. And some day you may even have a wife, if you play your cards right. Rebekah, though, is off limits. You can look—from a safe distance—but you can’t touch. Understand?”
“Okay, then. Enough said.”
It’s not enough, though. No one can stop me from loving Rebekah. I’ll always love her, no matter what anyone says. And it’s not only her body I want, her body I love. I know what Papa Seth and Mama think—that it’s just sex. The start of sex. I know about sex. I know how to come by myself when I feel like it, and I know what people do at the pleasure shops. But that’s not what I want. I want Rebekah. And nothing else will ever be enough.
I don’t know if she loves me like that now. She probably thinks I’m too young. But she’s the one who asked me to come to her room. She’s the one who reached out to me for a kiss. That must mean something. When she’s ready, I think she’ll love me the way I love her, if she doesn’t already. I’ll be everything she needs. And she’ll be everything to me.
That’s not the way things are supposed to happen around here. I know that. But if Rebekah is willing, the two of us will figure out a way to make our own rules and live our own lives. Together. Always together. Just us.