Author Raven West

Vashti’s Daughter

To make reading easier, I’ll only be posting the last 2 chapters on this page – if you would like to read the entire draft – it can be found on my other blog: https://ravenwest.wordpress.com/vashtis-daughter/

“Vashti” by Lisbeth Cheever-Gessaman

            The victory party moved to Bib’s apartment where he, Nate and the rest of the Syracuse University fans celebrated their historic win over USC. The festivities lasted a lot longer than Nate had planned. Considering he had to prepare for his presentation the next afternoon, he thought it would be prudent to stay the night, but with the after-image of Anna’s face burned into his eyelids, sleep wasn’t something he was able to achieve.

            Being the great host Bib was, a steaming pot of fresh coffee was waiting for Nate as he compelled his groggy body to get out of bed. He stumbled into to the kitchen where he nearly collapsed on the counter stool.

            “Not that I’m stating the obvious, Nate, but you look like one of the mummies we dug up on our last exhibition,” Bib poured the coffee.

            “I feel like one, too. Did you happen to see the woman wearing the California Syracuse t-shirt last night I was talking to? I know her name is Anna, she’s a friend of Elaine, one of the attorneys from the law firm I testified for, and she’s a basketball fan, but that’s all I know.”

            “You didn’t get her phone number? Nate, you are really losing your touch.”
            “Well, it was you who insisted I leave to go meet the team remember, so it’s your fault. I gave her an invitation to today’s seminar, I really hope she comes.”

            “In that case, you’d better get cleaned up cause if she does and sees you like this, you’ll never get her phone number!”

Nate picked up his coffee cup and headed to the shower. Bib was right, he thought. He never had this reaction to any women he’d met before, not even in high school or college. For some reason Anna made him feel like an awkward teen-ager who was afraid he was going to get rejected if he asked a girl to the prom.

When Bib helped Nate put his computer and hand-outs into the back of the car, he noticed a large envelope on the seat. He reached over to pick it up, but Nate stopped him.

 “It says Vashti’s Daughter, isn’t Vashti the topic of your seminar? I never read that she had a daughter.”

 Nate was visibly shaken, “You can leave that, it’s not part of the presentation. Let’s get going, I don’t want to be late to my own show.”

The drive up to the House of the Book was a narrow, winding dirt road on the campus of Brandeis-Bardin Institute just north of Simi Valley. Bib and Nate were met by the set-up crew who helped them unpack and set-up on the stage in the auditorium.

“What do you need for A/V – we can set up your computer on the podium and connect it to our control panel if you’re going to use a PowerPoint presentation,” asked the maintenance crew chief.

“That’s fine,” replied Nate. “I never use it. I find it to be more of a distraction for the audience and I’d rather have their full attention on me than a screen. I do have some photos and text pages you can connect and I’ll just switch them from here.” Nate handed him a flash drive and waited until all the connections were made and tested, before joining his friend on the side of the stage where they could count the number of people enter the auditorium.

Nate was relieve to see the seats were filling up fast. He was also disappointed there was no sign of the one person he was hoping to see walk through the entrance door. After everyone was seated, the house lights dimmed and Nate was introduced by Jacob Swartz, the head of programming. He was greeted by a somewhat muted applause as he made his way to the podium.

“Welcome everyone to what I believe is the definitive answer to the question of the role Vashti played in the story of Purim. Was she a heroine or a villain? I hope this talk will provide you the proof so that you’ll arrive at the correct answer, or give you a reason to question your presumption of the alternative.

As we know, in the actual text of the Book of Esther, Queen Vashti is unequivocally a heroine by any modern standard. Historical attempts to vilify her are the result of a combination of fear of women in power, xenophobia toward non-Jewish women, and the trope that there can be only one Good Girl in a story.”

The first picture on the screen showed an illustration of a woman holding a Book of Esther megillah scroll.

“But what does the Book of Esther actually say about Vashti herself? Not much. The megillah tells us that the king threw a banquet, everyone got very drunk, and the palace stewards were ordered to comply with every man’s wishes. At the same time, Queen Vashti threw a banquet for women in the royal palace. On the seventh day, when the king was sufficiently drunk, he ordered servants to bring Queen Vashti before him wearing only her crown, but she refused.”

Another picture on the screen of Vashti at a banquet, refusing the king.

“That’s the whole of Vashti’s actions in the story: She gives a banquet for the women and she refuses to come “display her beauty.”

The story records plenty of discussion of her actions afterward, mostly in the form of men spluttering how dare she, but all we’re given about what Vashti herself does is those two things.

In this plain reading, Vashti is a hero. She throws a separate party for the ladies, which has the practical result of ensuring they’re not putting up with the predations of drunken men who expect to have their every wish fulfilled. When she’s given an objectifying and potentially humiliating order, she refuses to obey. The story doesn’t beat around the bush as to why all the men were upset by her refusal.”

A text page appeared on the screen. Nate read his copy.

            “For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation!

The midrash is apparently just as horrified at the idea of women refusing to obey men’s orders, because it goes out of its way to insist that Vashti is utterly awful. The Talmud doesn’t waste any time in getting to the slut-shaming.”

Nate read the next two slides.

“In Esther 1:9, the verse states: ‘Also Vashti the queen made a feast for the women, in the royal house, which belonged to King Ahasuerus’. The Gemara questions why she held the feast in the royal house, a place of men, rather than in the women’s house, where it should have been. Rava said in response: The two of them had sinful intentions. Ahasuerus wished to fornicate with the women, and Vashti wished to fornicate with the men. Esther Rabbah 3:13 the midrash to the Book of Esther, announces that Vashti’s issue with the command wasn’t that it was humiliating, but that it wasn’t immodest enough. Rabbi Pinchas and Rabbi Hama bar Guria said in the name of Rav: she requested to enter even wearing bells like a prostitute, but they did not allow her.”

Nate paused for a moment to hear any reaction from the audience. Hearing none, he clicked the button to advance the slide and continued.

“But the commentators don’t stop there. Rashi insists that not only did Vashti have an unattractive disease, but she abused her Jewish employees, making them work on Shabbat. Another midrash claims she held the banquet because it gave her the opportunity to hold other noblewomen hostage if there was a coup, and another claims she refused to appear naked because she had grown a tail.”

A bit of uncomfortable laughter echoed throughout the auditorium.

“It should be clear by now that the intentions of a lot of the classic commentaries weren’t exactly pure where Vashti is concerned. Given the brevity of the actual text of the Megillah when it comes to Vashti’s disobedience, it would have been just as possible for midrash to interpret in the opposite direction: to portray Ahasuerus’ reaction as cruel and expand the story out into one in which Esther tames the beast. Instead, Ahasuerus is absolved and Vashti is villainized, because defiance of male authority is apparently a bigger problem, in the eyes of the rabbis, than abuse by male authorities. Vashti was a member of the elite. She was in a position of relative power in a patriarchal society, and she used that power to make a stand against being objectified, sexualized, and humiliated for male amusement.

It may be difficult for my male associates to agree, but there is little doubt that in our society, the first woman to speak up about problems, to refuse to play nicely with the old boys’ club, or to refuse an unjust order is usually punished harshly. But sometimes that sacrifice makes it easier for the next woman to get others to listen. Vashti didn’t sacrifice her position as Queen for Esther’s benefit, in fact, the women never met. Ahasuerus held the beauty contest where he met Esther occurred after Vashti was out of the castle.

We’ll know we’ve moved past our fear of women in power, our virgin-whore binaries, and our need to try to force women into competition when we get modern midrash in which Vashti and Esther can be allies, or maybe even friends.”

The last slide depicted two women, smiling at each other in warm embrace. In stark contrast to the response Nate had received when began his presentation, more than half the audience stood and applauded.

Jacob came to the podium. “Thank you, Dr. Braverman. We’ll now turn the lights on and open the discussion for questions.”

Nate was more than prepared to answer the usual questions that challenged his interpretation of the importance of Vashti to the Magillah story, he’d heard them whenever he hosted the seminar, however there was always one that he was never able to provide a satisfactory response. He always hoped that the question wouldn’t be asked, but it invariably was and this afternoon was no exception.

“Dr. Braverman, your interpretation of the megillah was fascinating, but many of us believe that Vashti was put to death after she rebelled against the king. Do you have any actual proof to the contrary?”

Actually I do, Nate thought, I just can’t tell anyone.

Nate answered the question the way he always did when asked, but not answering it. “Rabbi’s and scholars have been arguing these texts for millennia and millions believe what they read without any proof that any of the stories were based on facts, that’s why they call it faith”

Nate could tell by the sudden silence the room that his answer wasn’t what they wanted to hear, but that was the only one he was going to give. The follow-up question was a bit trickier for Nate to answer. He was more a pantheist Jew than a spiritualist Jew, many times arguing in theoretical debate that the universe what hot a haunted house. 

“You speak of faith, Dr. Braverman. Can you tell us why there no mention of God in the entire story?”

“That’s a very good question,” Nate replied. “In fact, if you’ll pick up the schedule, you’ll see I’ll be presenting that topic at a future date. I have no idea when.  In the meaning, there are plenty of interpretations on that very subject you can find on-line.”

Jacob came back to the podium for the closing. “That’s all the time we have, today. Again, thank you Dr. Braverman. Don’t forget to pick up a flyer for a list of all upcoming programs on your way out. Drive safe.”

            As the procession began to exit, Bib packed up the materials while Nate answered questions from several of the attendees who hadn’t had the chance during the session. When the room was finally emptied, Nate followed Bib into the lobby where, to his delight, Anna was waiting for him. He tried to suppress a smile and calm the frantic rhythm his heart was beating when she walked over.

“Sorry, I missed the beginning of your talk” Anna said. “I couldn’t find a parking place.” Her smile was radiant, Nate thought.

“That’s okay. I’m glad you made it. What did you think?”

“I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve always been a Vashti fan. Speaking of, I have to ask. Are you the Nathaniel Braverman, Ph.D. who wrote Vashti’s Daughter?”

“Guilty as charged, why?”

“I’m Anna Steine. Your manuscript has been showing up in my office and my apartment for the past week. I’ve been really busy and have not had a chance to finish reading it,”

Because I keep falling asleep and dreaming of you in a different time.

“I’d like to talk you about it. Do you have time tomorrow around eleven?”

Please say yes, please say yes.

“Let me check.” With a sweaty hand he was trying to conceal, Nate took his phone from his back pocket, read his calendar. “I’m totally free tomorrow, what’s the address and phone number?”

“Here, let me.” Anna took the phone from his hand, brushing her fingers slightly over his she felt a familiar shiver surge through her body. It was all she could do to control her fingers in order to tap the information into the keypad. She turned the phone. Nate gave it a quick glance.

“Eleven o’clock tomorrow. I’ll see you then.”

The two men watched Anna leave the building. The sun pouring in through the glass cast a glow over her body that radiated waves of warmth throughout Nate’s entire system.  

“You have her information now. See how easy that was?” Bib said to his flustered friend.

“You have no idea just hard easy that wasn’t!”

Chapter 15

As soon as she opened her apartment door, Anna’s cell phone buzzed. She didn’t have to look at the caller ID to know it was Elaine wanting to hear all the details about her going to Nate’s presentation. Elaine was a bit disappointed that Anna didn’t have that much to tell her since she had only spoken to Nate for a few minutes and that was only to set up the meeting in her office to discuss his book.

“You didn’t tell him anything about your dreams, or that sketch you drew, or that you’re suddenly speaking and reading a foreign language?”

“No, he would have thought I was a nut case. I will say that after hearing his presentation on Vashti I might really be interested in his book. That’s what I plan to discuss with him tomorrow and nothing else. We’re meeting at eleven.” 

Elaine sounded disappointed. “That sounds boring. Try to get a good night’s sleep for a change. We’ll talk again, I’m sure.”

Anna had planned on reading more of Nate’s book, but she was exhausted and really wanted to be well-rested for their meeting which was going to be totally professional. Contrary to Elaine’s queries, Anna was determined not to mention anything about her strange dreams especially the man who had shown up in the last one.

            Anna was torn between wanting to further her dream scenario, and wanting to have at least one uninterrupted night’s sleep. Although she wasn’t a big fan of drugs, except for the rare occasional aspirin for a headache or a hangover, she took two sleeping pills per Dr. Walters’ suggestion, more of an experiment to see if they would actually help her sleep through the night in her very own bed and not have her dream wake her up in a totally different location.   Somewhere in the nether world between sleep and awakening, Anna hear a repetitive annoying buzz. It took her a while to shake the cobwebs of the night from her mind, and even longer for her to recognize the sound of her alarm clock. Before opening her eyes, she reached her arm from under the warmth of the covers to her night stand and smacked the top of her alarm clock turning it off for at least another five minutes. When she realized she was safe in her own bed, Anna tentatively opened her eyes. She breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that her experiment to stay in her own time had been successful. She felt a slight bit of sadness when she realized that her experiment had been successful. Maybe it wasn’t the sleeping pills, she thought. Maybe her subconscious was done sending her to meet Darius in a dream when she’d just met what might have been him in real life.

            Whatever the reason, for the first time in days, Anna felt well rested and eager to return to the office. Anna showered and completed her morning routine, grabbed the manuscript and headed out the door giving herself extra time to stop at the café in her office building to pick up a croissant and latte.

            It was times like these that Anna was thankful that she’s won controlling interest in Steine and Stein in the divorce. Even though she kept two names on the masthead, figuratively hers had a capital S and Henry’s was only a very, very tiny one. Anna really didn’t have to punch a time clock, but she always got to the office by nine so that she could organize her notes in time to contact her national agents who lived in other time zones. If she left her apartment by eight, she could spend a quiet hour in the café with her breakfast and sometimes meet up with other publishers where they could discuss the latest trends in the book business in a private setting.

Rumors of secret dealings and behind the scenes cut-throat deals were rampant in the business and having firsthand knowledge as to which ones were true and which were mere speculation gave Anna  a huge advantage over the other publishing house. She learned the hard way not to pay much attention to the editors in the office who thought their instincts were so good they didn’t need to talk to, much less listen, to anyone else’s  knowledge or advice. 

            Early on in her career at Beacon Press Anna had attended all the book expos and conferences. She spoke little, listened much and asked the right questions, even though she wasn’t always happy with the answers. Now it seemed that everyone was an expert at one tend or another and the competition was so intense in the publishing industry, and their careers so precocious, that no one was willing to share anything, in the fear that another house would somehow discover the secret to the next hot new fad, and it wouldn’t be them.  

Maybe it was a generational thing, Anna thought, but it just seemed to her that the recent hires were more the cut throat secretive types while the more mature, she shuttered at the thought that twenty-nine was considered mature, were a bit more relaxed and willing to support each other without fear that support came with strings, or a hidden agenda. A few years ago, Anna had taken a new editor under her wing, only to later find out that he had been contacting her stable of agents in an effort to lure their authors to sign with him. After she discovered the betrayal, she had sat him down, raked him over the coals, and subsequently not only fired him, but sent out several emails warning other publishers of his actions so that they would be hesitant to hire him. It had taken Anna a long time to get over his betrayal and it was even longer before she was able to fully trust anyone the same way. The last thing she heard, he had moved to New York City to pursue an acting career on Broadway. It was a fitting move for a guy who was such a good actor, he even had Anna fooled, but not for long.  Even in a competitive business, you still needed strong relationships and fellow professionals who you could trust and Anna prided herself in the fact that she shared that philosophy with so many in an ever shrinking business. She didn’t have any difficulty keeping her trusted staff on payroll after the company split and had hired a few more to fill the vacancies created by those who went with Henry.

            Anna was about to take a bite of her croissant when she spotted one of her favorite agents who ran his own non-fiction literary agency on the floor below hers.  She waved for him to join her. Arthur Phillips had been with Steine and Steine as long as Anna. Prior to the finalization of her divorce, Arthur had become a friend with benefits, but after Anna became sole owner and president of the company their relationship was benefits free. It was good to see him, even though he looked a bit disheveled that morning, Anna thought.

            “Double espresso morning, Arty?” She asked when he sat down.

            “Triple, Anna. It’s been one crazy week. Three more agents have come in to renegotiate their author’s contracts. They’re all threatening to jump on the self-publishing wagon unless we increase their royalties and we’re stretched to the limit now.”

            “I hear you. With all the print- on- demand subsidy publishers out there, we’re losing a great deal of talented authors who want to take a short cut to seeing their books on Amazon. We’re seeing a lot less submission, too. I had to let a few of my editors go last month even though we’re still receiving at least ten manuscripts a day.”

            “Anything you want to share?” Arthur already knew the answer, but asked anyway.

Anna smiled. “Nothing you’d be interested in, unless you’ve opened submissions to religious genre.”

            “Good God, No. No pun intended. We’re still paying the lawyer’s fees for the last, and I do mean the last book we tried to publish with a religious theme. You know I’m still getting death threats, not as many, but enough so I’m not about to go anywhere near that topic. Why, do you have something?”

            Even though he was a good and trusted friend, Anna wasn’t sure she wanted to tell Arthur about the manuscript that was suddenly burning a hole in her briefcase.

            “I might. I’m not sure yet. Haven’t had the time to read the entire manuscript, and to tell you the truth, I’ve been a bit distracted.”

            “Really? What’s his name? Arthur sent her an evil grin.

            “No one you know, that’s for sure.” Anna’s smile was a bit more mysterious. “I tell you what, after I’ve read the book, if I think it’s something we don’t want and if it’s good enough, I’ll send it down to you.”

            “Don’t kid a kidder, Anna. You know damn well that if you think it’s good enough to publish, you won’t let it out of your pretty little fingers. When was the last time I felt those little fingers on my back, anyway?”

            “Long enough that the scratch marks have healed, I’m sure!”

            Anna swallowed the last bit of her croissant, emptied her coffee and began to gather her belongings.

            “You’re probably right. How about you check that out for yourself say, after the book festival next month?” Arthur asked.

            “Sure. If you think Sharon wouldn’t mind.”

            “My fiancé? Why on earth would you think she’d mind?”

            “You’re engaged? Congratulations, Arty. I always liked Sharon and hoped the two of you would make it legal.”

            “Well, I’m not married yet,” he said.

            “And if I took you up on your offer, you probably will remain single, but thanks for the offer anyway. It was nice to see you again.”

            Anna could feel Arthur’s eyes on her back as she made her way out of the café. He had been a really nice occasional bed partner, and she while hated to admit it, she was going to miss their infrequent hook-ups, but she was happy for him. After their conversation, she was a bit more hesitant to even finish reading Vashti’s Daughter because, even with Arthur’s warning, she knew damn well that if the book was good, it wouldn’t matter how many lawyers they would need, or how many death threats she might receive, nothing would stop her from publishing it.

            Anna only hoped that Nathaniel Braverman was a terrible writer and Vashti’s Daughter was an unpublishable piece of garbage that she could toss it into the trash once and for all. If all it took were a few sleeping pills to stop her from having weird dreams maybe she could throw those into the metaphysical trash as well.

            By the time Anna arrived at her office, the staff was well into their routine. Some were on the phone, some were on their computer and some were sifting through more stacks of manuscripts that were still being sent by agents who weren’t as yet confident about the security of electronic submissions. Seeing everyone behaving normally, Anna was starting to feel as if the strange experiences of the past few days were just an extension of her subconscious and like a normal dream, would simply fade from her thoughts. That way she could concentrate on what she knew to be real including her appointment later that morning with Nathaniel Braverman who, after their brief encounter at the basketball game the day before was, undeniably real.

            “Hi Janet, any calls for me?” Anna asked her assistant just before opening the door to her office.

            “No calls. I’ve cleared your calendar for your meeting with Dr. Braverman in case it goes though lunch. I’m also kind of curious to meet the author of that manuscript that keeps getting past me.”

            “Thank you for taking care of that for me, Janet. I’ll be sure to ask him how he did it. Buzz me as soon as he arrives.”

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