The other sister

If it were the regulated and domesticated Heaven I suspect she envisions - for a life conducted day in, day out, with such admirable assiduity -

then wings would be permitted only for offically designated missions: otherwise (protectively swathed in muslin) kept neatly hanging in cupboards every fortnight thoroughly sprayed with some celestialized product Highly recommended. Family haloes ditto. For these, like tiaras in a less hallowed sphere, doubtless would be prudently stashed away in plush-lined coffers, until required for ceremonies sufficiently august to justify the whopping expenditure incurred by all that voltage. Even anthems of praise? What obligatory choir- practice, under a strict baton, thesem would exact! No last-gasp improvising. No carefree caroling down a golden street. . . . In brief, wouldn't it all come pretty close to what, here on earth, she has striven for so compulsively and against such odds? Except, of course - and this the heavenliness! - now verified as holym. Without invidious comparisons.

The other evening

(in a Jerusalem so cruelly imperfect) I was asked by friends just arrived from London to dine with them where they always stay when here: the most charming of hostelries - once a sheikh's palace, and for decades frequented by the sort of travelers who move in a different orbit from the packaged-tour groups, with their itineraries, and guides, and guaranteed immunity from any awkward involvements with a teeming populace. . . . After dinner, we came out into a jasmine-scented courtyard. A little fountain modestly tinkled. But the great stars overhead seemed to ring, as they blazed, like portent stars. Old Khalil had just greeted us, with his usual courtesies, when two other guests - accompanied unobtrusively by a hesitant third - suddenly stopped at our table. By name, they were both at once known to my friends.

And within moments it was evident that the unexpected encounter couldn't have been more welcome. For not only was there a matching of scholarly reputations but also of an exceptionally informed concern for this Jerusalem - this most beautiful and haunted of cities - that so often (when resided in) can feel like the adamantine embodiment of everybody'sm betrayal of what it's held to represent. An hour had now passed. And the third person, the hesitant one, though at the outset graciously enough introduced, had remained unexplained. A middle-aged woman. Nondescript in appearance. With the air, or so it seemed, of someone all too conscious of being ''kindly'' included without adequate credentials. At any rate, she had noticeably contributed nothing. Had even, indeed - in the relaxed atmosphere of a conversation so fluently assuming its own momentum - receded still further. A mute presence: marked only by a certain taut attentiveness, such as might have befitted an attendant stationed, respectfully, at the edge of a banquet. Perhaps even at the edge of life itself . . . Until late in the evening, and apropos of a perceptible change of mood, one of my own friends asked, ''If Mary wasm among those at the cross, what do you suppose Martha was doing?''

And suddenly - startlingly -

into the momentary pause it was she, the outsider, who was speaking up. ''Im know what! Preparing a meal to be ready when the others returned.'' Then adding, with an intensity so embarrassingly in excess of anything called for that it seemed to make havoc of a whole mannered scene: ''And weeping toom! Just as they wept!

Only there - in a kitchen - ''

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