Lowering herself wearily onto the stool, she peered at her reflection in the small bronze mirror. Her last guest had left in the wee hours, and though she had slept late, her eyes betrayed fatigue. As she looked long and slow into her own eyes, from seemingly nowhere came the image of herself as a small girl running with carefree abandon through the overgrown grass and wildflowers that grew on the edge of the field where her papa worked the soil. The sense of belonging and home that had undergirded her happy childhood evaporated when she had been enticed into the world’s oldest profession years later. In its place came a sense of being unhinged and dangling only by a thread.
She worked her fingers through the tangles of her knotted dark mane and noted with mild ruefulness the increasing silver strands woven through the hair at her temples. Mindlessly she smoothed her hair away from her face and twisted it into a knot that she secured at the base of her neck. Leftover kohl from her makeup the night before was smudged under her eyes. Dampening the corner of a cotton cloth, she wiped it away with distracted meticulousness. With a last long look that took in the deepening crease being carved in her brow, she turned and pulled on a loose shift.
As she turned, her eyes caught the glisten of the late morning sun on the exquisite alabaster jar nestled in a small alcove by her bed. She paused momentarily as she felt the weight of an old and familiar sadness settle into her heart. He had loved her, he said. He would be back and they would build a life and a home together, he said. He most certainly was not like all the others, he said, and she had believed him. She had waited, anticipated, and dreamed for days, then months, then a year. Slowly the cherished dream faded into a washed-out, washed-up empty wasteland. Only that alabaster jar containing pure scent given to her by him, remained as a memorial to that time and the man she had truly loved. For years she had felt a rising hope whenever there was a knock on her door, only to have it deflate at the face of another “guest”.
She shook herself visibly and turned to the tasks at hand. Her work room was strewn with the remnants of a busy night of work. It would wait while she fetched the few things she needed from the marketplace. Tucking a basket under her arm, she made her way out the door and headed to the street.
Dust mixed with sweat and caked itself into the crevices of her toes and heels as she entered the bustling market street. She knew which vendors would serve her, albeit begrudgingly, and she jostled her way through the crowds to find them. She felt the sidelong glances even if she didn’t outright see them, but she steeled herself and quickly went about her errands. Wisps of conversations drifted to her ears as she selected her lemons, figs, and fish – He healed the leper! The widow’s son is alive because of him! The blind man – no longer blind! They must be talking about that man again, she thought. She had heard stories and rumours before about this man that healed people, spoke with a wisdom unlike any other, but also mingled with the likes of her kind. She was skeptical and intrigued at the same time.
Cradling her filled basket, she hurriedly slipped through the throngs ignoring the discreetly groping hand, and walked surely and swiftly to her little place. At her door, she stopped to pour cool water over her feet to wash away the ever-present dirt that lodged there. The refreshing cleanliness was a balm to her as she smoothed clean linens onto her work bed. As she tidied and made ready for another night of work, her mind wandered back to what she heard about this man. She wondered if the rumours were true.
When the shadows lengthened, she nudged the coals of her small fire and coaxed it into flame. As the fish sizzled, she imagined the dinner that was happening across the village. The market chatter said that he would be sharing a meal there. If that were indeed true, then he not only mingled with the likes of her kind, he also mingled with the likes of them. She thought about the people that would be milling about the house and the table laden with the best of feasts and wondered if anything miraculous would happen.
The idea, when it came, seemed as though it had been there a long time – like the dawn after the night or like a birth after gestation. With a reckless abandon, she threw on an outer cloak, deliberately took her prized perfume, and left the house.
She pushed her way to the door and slipped inside before anyone could stop her. The meal was winding down, but the dinner guests were all still gathered around the table. Immediately she saw who she had come to see reclining at the table, head thrown back in laughter. She willed herself to step toward him in spite of her thudding heart and in spite of the silence that descended on the merry gathering with her entrance. She was about to thrust her alabaster jar into his hands and flee, when she saw the grime on his feet where they rested on the chair. No one had washed his feet! Time slowed and the murmuring crowd faded as she drew back her hand and drew in a deep, slow breath. Then she broke the seal on the jar. A fragrant aroma filled the air as she slowly poured the perfume, first on his one foot, then on the other. It ran in tiny rivulets down his feet and between his toes creating little pathways in the dirt. On a whim, she tugged the pin from the knot in her hair, uncoiled it and shook it loose. Bending low over his feet, she used her tresses to work the dirt loose and to rub the ointment onto his calloused soles. She worked with a deftness of a woman used to working with her hands. Not knowing why, tears brimmed and spilled from her eyes and mixed with the both the dust and the ointment on his feet. She who could meet the lustful leer of any man and turn it into a night’s profit, could not lift her eyes to meet his gaze, but she could feel an open and accepting welcome enveloping her. Her! The woman of ill-repute. She could feel broken places within her being soothed and mended, while at the same time the hard places were being gently broken apart.
Carefully finishing her unplanned act of service, she pulled back her hair and wound it back up feeling the dirt and ointment on her hands. When she stood, she dared a quick glance and met the eyes of Love before she bolted for the door. The caustic comments that filled the room were hushed by his defense of her. Her tears welled up again, but there was a strange lightness in her heart. In her mind’s eye, she once again saw her little girl self with hair and feet flying, running with carefree abandon into the waiting arms of her papa.
(An adaptation of the story found in the Gospels)