“He is a prince of the Talmud,” a feverish boy whose dark eyes burned and shimmered in the smudgy light of a lamp told me
o one would teach a slave the alphabet.
But I knew how to read the signs.
When Brother Romegas sported a lance wound to the upper arm and a grotesque smile, it meant the corsairs had seen success in another of their violent sea skirmishes. They had captured another passing ship, plundered whatever cargo it was carrying, and taken the poor seafarers back to Malta, to be sold into slavery. The same story had brought all of us here. The same story played out often.
But a captive prince — now that was unusual.
The rumor spread rapidly between the Jewish slaves in the compound. It was passed along by the newcomers, whispered from mouth to ear. They had come from Genoa, from the north, they said, with the low, desperate urgency of those still caught up in their travails, hounded by the terrors of the past and the uncertainty of the future, unable to breathe deeply.
The doge’s relationship with the Jews had fluctuated many times in the past and they had known well the precariousness of their situation.
Yet still, the expulsion had been a brutal blow. There their story became twisted, broken, ripped from their mouths in shattered shards of words and pain. Ships, wagons, feet. Children. Belongings. Elderly parents. Heat and thirst, the vicious sun. And corsairs, those cross-toting pirates! They had known to fear the Barbary buccaneers; no one had warned them that Malta had its pirates, too. But worst of all, with them on the ship had been the Prince.
The Prince? The Jews of seniority in the slave complex pressed to know more. What sort of prince? What was he doing among expelled Jews?
“He is a prince of the Talmud,” a feverish boy whose dark eyes burned and shimmered in the smudgy light of a lamp told me. I grunted for him to continue as I mixed another pinch of catnip into the concoction I was making for him. “He’s a son of Jewish aristocracy, a noble of Torah in his own right. He journeyed to Padua, he studied under the famed Maharam!” The boy’s hand jerked as he said this, enthusiasm exaggerated by fever.
“What happened to him? Where is he?” I asked. The inconsequential conversation was good; it distracted the hapless lad as I treated his infected scrapes.
“We don’t know,” the heat-induced fervor seeped from his voice, leaving him defeated and weak. “He was there until almost the last minute of the battle, and then he disappeared.”
When he appeared, on a gurney in my lean-to, I had no need to confirm my first guess. This was a prince, all the way through. Suddenly I understood that lad’s ardor.
His captors had injured him terribly in their wanton hatred, and now, in my position as chief healer among the slaves in the compound, it was up to me to try and repair his shattered body.
I knelt by his side and rubbed ointment into his open wounds. His eyes, misty with pain, fluttered open, and for a moment gazed directly at me. Transfixed, I paused: what eyes! Deep as a well in the desert, and just as incongruously vibrant, their gaze held me, commanding — the gaze of a prince, for that’s what he was. Even in captivity, he maintained every ounce of royalty.
(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 647)