Peeking into the pages of THE SHUSHAN CITADEL: Meet Hadassah/Esther
Seven years had passed since the face of the earth had been stripped of its familiar landmarks. Young forests and other uninhibited plant life were rapidly reclaiming the land. In one small region of the planet, small bands of people lived in the wilds. Within that same area, three underground cities had also survived. Two of these existed peaceably within seventy-five kilometres of each other. The third, three hundred kilometres southwest, was headed by a leader who valued power and wealth above all else. Recently erected over this third metropolis stood a most unlikely structure.
Viewed from the east against the panoramic backdrop provided by the ever-changing waters of Lake Michigan, the Citadel of Shushan was a forbidding presence on the lonely landscape. Indeed, approached from land or lake, it was menacing. The Citadel’s exterior walls were grim by design, comprising thick, unadorned walls and stout, cylindrical towers.
Stretching out from its southern and eastern walls were the six Fortress Villages with their shared acreage. Each farm village consisted of six family dwellings, four shops, and three barns, solidly joined around a central courtyard. The inhabitants of the satellite villages, few of whom had previous agricultural experience, had been selected from the underground community by lottery. In exchange for raising crops and livestock, they received protection, goods, services, and other benefits enjoyed by Shushan citizens.
The gatehouse that bridged the moat and pierced the Citadel’s outer wall between Village 3 and Village 4 led to great courtyard with landscaped parks, recreation facilities and a lively marketplace. Rising majestically from the western end of the north bailey was a magnificent castle with a multiplicity of turrets, battlements, rooms and gardens.
A tree-lined esplanade skirting the courtyard narrowed as it wrapped itself around the southern and western faces of the castle. There it passed tall ivied walls concealing the lengthy Servants’ Corridor, the State Apartments, and several charming private gardens.
Because a hunt was now on for a second wife for the General, young women selected for screening were staying in the State Apartments. Chosen from the general population of the Great Lakes Region for their beauty, intelligence and charm, the candidates had been tutored for the past year by master tutor, Hegai. Secluded in the west wing of the State Apartments, they were undergoing training in music, drama, fine arts and court etiquette.
One young woman had already caught the discerning eye of Hegai. The girl pleased him and won his favour. Not only did he quickly provide her with all she needed for her dressing room and her meals, but he gave her seven special maids from among the candidates and transferred her and her maids to a ground-floor suite with its own enclosed garden.\
And so it was that nineteen-year-old Esther, orphan from Abbeylea, strolled in her cloistered garden alongside the esplanade on that fateful December afternoon. Actually, she was nervously pacing, but she had been coached to convey an impression of carefree strolling even while wrestling with inner turmoil.
And she wasn’t, in fact, Esther, orphan from Abbeylea. She was Hadassah, cousin-ward of Mordecai the Jew of the city of Shushan, but she was sworn to secrecy.
Esther and her maids had been in their suite for the past three months. In this time, Esther, aided by gardeners and in consultation with Citadel biologists, had added her own favourites to the garden. She began with spring plants: blue corydalis, white woodruff, snowdrops, lily-of-the-valley and lilacs. She learned that anemones could animate the garden throughout three seasons with white, pink and purple flowers swaying on long stems. Roses, daylilies, geraniums, delphiniums, and hollyhocks amused her in late summer. This year, there had been a lingering fall, and up to a month ago, daisies, asters, black-eyed Susans and cardinal flowers wantonly flouted their beauty.
But on this particular day in early winter, Esther was unable to find pleasure in the garden’s allure. She did not appreciate the contrast provided by cornus alba and dogwood exposing their naked stems of red and purple among the dormant greys and browns. Nor was she impressed by the bright berries of pyracantha and holly nestling among their leaves of shiny green.
Tonight would be her turn to display her charms and talents to General Ahasuerus. Trying to calm herself, she sat on a stone garden bench, pulled her woollen cloak closer, closed her eyes, and reminded herself to breathe slowly and deeply. She willed herself to allow the twittering of birds at the feeder and the feel of snowflakes caressing her upturned face, to envelop her senses.
Suddenly a coded tapping on the wall alerted her to the presence of Mordecai on the esplanade. She stepped furtively towards the garden wall and stood near an ivy-covered gap in the stonework. Leaves, dead and withered, rustled against her cloak.
“You’ll do well, Esther,” Mordecai whispered. “Remember everything I’ve told you, and know that I am praying for many blessings. Here is the nectar of good fortune. Apply it wisely.” He slipped a vial containing clear fluid into the wall’s crack.
Esther had been waiting for this vial of alleged good fortune. Still she wanted to scream a blast of outrage at her cousin. He had gotten her into this mess and it was fine for him to tell her how well she’d do. She slid the vial into her sleeve.
“Thank you, cousin,” she whispered tersely, returning to the bench. Breathing deeply and slowly, she sought to again retreat into meditative tranquility.
Soon, however, she leapt to her feet, overwhelmed by a stab of loneliness: loneliness for her homeland and her beloved family and cherished friends. Oh, how she missed her mother! Tzéna always had such wise advice. Then a pang of guilt crept on. Would her mother even approve of such an adventure? Certainly Abihail, her father, wouldn’t.
But she had been through all this with Mordecai, and he had reminded her that this was a different world now. He had assured her that her parents would have recognized this as an opportunity not only for personal advancement, which it was, but as a means of salvation for her people.
Next she was gripped by fear: fear of her inadequacies, fear of revealing her secret, fear of disappointing Hegai or of letting Mordecai down, fear that the General would think her a foolish little trinket to be bedded and tossed aside, as had been the fate of others before her. Why had she let Mordecai and Hegai convince her that she was different?
“Hegai!” she called in terror.
The custodian of candidates, never far away, came swiftly to her side. “What is it?” he asked, barely able to conceal his alarm. Surely she hadn’t managed to injure a hand or wound her perfect skin before this night of nights!
“I can’t go through with this. I’m too frightened.”
Relieved that there no physical damage, and accustomed to pre-audition jitters from his young apprentices, Hegai intervened smoothly. “Forgive me, my dear,” he said gently. “I have left you too long by yourself in the garden and you’ve caught a chill.”
“No, Hegai. You’ve done everything possible to prepare me, but I am not person you think I am.”
“Come inside for one of Riku’s amazing massages, some soothing herbs, and a long hot soak in baths. After that, you still have time for rest and cello practice before getting dressed for your appointment.”
Reluctantly, Esther took Hegai’s outstretched hand. Tenderly he led her from garden, his little protégé, his work of art. Oh, she was an adorable sprite, by turn spontaneous or wistful, comical or solemn, gifted performer or sensitive listener. Yes. She was his wonderful surprise for the General.
Some thought the General pompous and cruel, even sociopathic. But loyal Hegai counted only his attributes. General Haz was handsome, virile and brilliant. He possessed magnetism and charm that he seemed able to access at will. Hegai had witnessed Vashti bring out best in Ahasuerus. Esther could do the same.
Mordecai continued to pace anxiously along the esplanade between the fortress walls and the State Apartment gardens. He thought back to the life-altering day when he and Hadassah, his vivacious twelve-year-old cousin, had departed from Tel Aviv. The Citadel had not existed when Mordecai and Hadassah arrived in Shushan.
With guilt and sorrow he recalled how relieved he had felt when they boarded the plane and settled back into comfortable loungers inside the corporate air ship. Hadassah had chosen the window seat in order to gaze eagerly through the porthole. She scanned the crowd for a final glimpse of the familiar faces of Papa, Mama, her young brothers, Samuel and Adam, and Papa’s widowed oldest sister, Aunt Eva.
“We’re finally freed from those exhausting farewells,” thought Mordecai. Usually when he travelled abroad, he left with minimal to-do. But on this sunny September morning, even Eva, his mother, was here to see him off.
Well, she wasn’t really here for him. It was all about Hadassah, leaving for year at school in the underground city of Shushan. She was pretty in an awkward pre-teen way, and her navy blue eyes and long chestnut hair hinted at a future exotic attractiveness. Hadassah was an accomplished cellist, a gifted swimmer, and in the past year, she had placed first in a national science project on species evolution. She was certain that her future lay in the vast world of communications networking, possibly as a journalist or a performer.
After enduring endless pleading, her parents, Abihail and Tzéna, had agreed to let their precocious daughter spend a year at the famous Shushan College of Universal Communication on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan in the United States of America. Educators both, they prided themselves on allowing their children to participate in family decision-making.
The college at Shushan was operated by ShushaCom, a subsidiary of Schussmaan, Inc., undisputed leader of the communications universe which circled the globe and reached for the stars. ShushaCom excelled in every aspect of information and entertainment technology. Students as young as twelve were welcome at their college provided they passed the demanding pre-admission testing.
Professors and students alike came to Shushan College to be on the cutting edge of journalism, drama, television and movie production, animation, wireless technology, satellite studies, fine arts and music. Others came as resource consultants in other areas. Thus the college employed the sharpest international minds in the numerous fields of the arts and sciences.
“Can you believe that Shushan College is completely subterranean?” Hadassah had asked her parents when the application material first arrived.
The family sat down to experience the information on sensaview. From the tiny disc inserted in their sensaview station, they learned, in dramatic colour and sound, that for students at the college, most of the underground city was their classroom. This included access to theatres, media production, laboratories, satellite interactions, and best of all, in Hadassah’s judgement, Shushan’s world-famous entertainment complex, Shusha World. Only the private residences of ShushaCom management and sensitive corporate operations were excluded from student inspection.
Accommodation for a hundred paying guests was also available in the Shusha World section of the underground city.
“You can come and visit me!” exclaimed Hadassah excitedly.
“We certainly will, won’t we, Zay?” asked Abihail of his wife.
“Absolutely,” agreed Tzéna. “We’ll come after Hadassah’s had a couple of months to settle in. She’ll be able to show us around.”
A few days later, Eva and Mordechai dropped in at Abihail and Tzéna’s house to check out the ShushaCom infomercial. Mordecai, already a renowned environmentalist at the age of thirty, had previously been approached by ShushaCom to join its staff as an operational expert and possibly as a professor at Shushan College. Now, after viewing enticing details about the complex on his relatives’ home theatre, he decided that it deserved further investigation. The following day he contacted the corporation’s personnel department, and was invited to visit at his earliest convenience.
So when Hadassah passed the ShushaCom testing with flying colours, the family was delighted that Mordecai would be on hand to supervise her wellbeing.
“There’s a small Jewish community there,” said Eva to her son. “Perhaps you’ll meet..”
“…a nice Jewish girl,” supplied Mordecai.
“Oh, you! Mock me as you please, but mark my words, all those young women you escort about won’t wait forever. Time is marching on for them too, you know. The best will be gone by the time you get your act together.”
Now, a mere five weeks later, Mordecai and Hadassah were aboard ShushaCom’s private air ship, awaiting departure from Israel and adventure in America.
“Look, Mordecai!” said Hadassah, nudging him. “There they are!”
Mordecai looked out on the crowd and spotted his mother, along with Hadassah’s family, waving enthusiastically. Their smiling mouths shouted inaudible words of encouragement and advice. He felt a pang of love for them all, especially Eva, dotingly reproachful. Perhaps someday he would meet the woman of his mother’s dreams. For now, he was happy to be free.
“I wish I could lip-read,” sighed Hadassah, tears welling in her eyes. “Yes. That’s something I definitely must learn.”
Then, with a nearly silent whoosh, the sleek silver ship sped down the airstrip and soared off into the beckoning blue sky.