Time passed without any conscience. My body lay curled in my bearskin before a hearth. The fire was strong and warm.
Furtive whispering voices argued behind me.
“How did she end up on our doorstep?”
“It doesn’t matter how. What matters is that she came to us for help.” This voice was mature, and even in its tone.
“Help indeed,” huffed the first voice, young, male and impatient. “We can’t even feed or protect ourselves. This winter will kill us all.”
“Look at her father! Her appearance is more animal than woman. The merciful duty would have been to leave her to the grip of winter.” This was a second young man’s voice.
Finally a third young man spoke up. “There’s no need to whisper. She’s awake.”
I sighed and arose, standing before four men: a father and three sons. Their dismay fell upon me in an overwhelming wave of despair. Their thin frames betrayed four meager lives shared in the lonely cabin. A quick observation clarified that a woman had not been present in their lives for a very long time. “I will go if you wish it, but let me speak first with your father alone,” I said.
The father nodded and waved his sons through the front door into the winter morning. I sat at the table opposite of the father.
“Please forgive my sons for they mean well. We are poor and cannot even feed ourselves. Our supplies as they are would hard-press one man to live through the winter,” said the father.
I nodded. “Are any of them married?”
“No. They have had a bad run of luck finding suitable brides.”
I nodded again. “I understand your difficult position. To take me in for the night must have laid an incredible sacrifice upon you. Please let me pay my way and stay with you for a few days.”
The father assessed me with his wizened eyes and he exhaled, shaking his head. “I doubt what you offer could make any difference. Unless you were able to pay for all of us to survive through this winter, there will be no hope. And if you could, I would marry any one of my three sons to you.”
My hand reached into my pocket, feeling the large amount of gold coins cached there. I piled them on the table and watched the eyes of the old man bulge.
“That would see us through three years,” he rasped.
He called in the boys, explaining to them the news of their deliverance and their collective countenance lifted high with grins upon each face. Their father introduced himself as Avram and his sons were Eiver, Escher, and the youngest Eshrun. Then to my surprise, he told them that one them must marry me and they would choose amongst themselves for the honor.
My face flushed and I felt the sting of shame. Their eyes traveled over me in distaste and I felt the shame of my appearance and my stink. All of the young men were handsome, but clearly I was not a bride for whom they hoped.
“I cannot marry a woman with a beard,” Eiver said.
“I will not marry a woman with talons for fingers,” said Escher.
Eshrun looked at my bearskin cape and my filthy green coat and my matted hair and my long wispy beard and my curled nails…and then he looked at my eyes and smiled. “I will marry you. You have saved us all and it would be my joyful duty to be your husband and honor my father.”
My heart cracked and tears streamed down my cheeks. I wanted to refuse for his sake. I wanted to walk away. It was then I heard the shining man’s words ring in my ears for a second time: You are worthy of love.
And I nodded my consent to Eshrun’s offer for my hand in marriage.