Did Jocef know the content of his father’s letter? And what is Mose trying to do, if not destroy her father?
T here is but one window in their home from which the night sky is visible. Papa’s study. Aster slowly steals inside past the bookshelves laden with tomes in Latin Arabic Hebrew Catalan. Past the desk littered with quills and inks of cobalt and black. Past the half-drawn map that is Papa’s latest commission. She opens the wooden shutters. The light-blue slats glow softly in the moonlight.
Aster places both arms on the windowsill and leans forward tipping her head up to the sky. She traces the shapes of the stars shapes the Arabic names Papa taught her with her lips: Humām al-Qaiḍ ar-Rishā’
Usually her nightly trail through the constellations makes her feel safe reminds her that the world indeed conforms to an order. Tonight though her eyes blur and the sky is awash with spilled ink and random pricks of light. She grasps the windowsill with both hands tries to think of the reason for her sleepless night. Papa? Clara? Perhaps it is the change of the seasons the turning of the year. Aster stretches her arms.
The note sails through the window just as she turns to leave.
It lands on Papa’s desk making only the slightest rustle. Aster runs back to the window. Hurrying back up the narrow alleyway is a slight figure narrow shoulders. She leans out further. He walks through a patch of moonlight and she catches sight of his short beard brown threaded with coppery red.
She hesitates for a moment and then picks up the note slitting the seal with her fingernail. She holds the paper up to the light and reads.
So it is not for her after all. Why should it be? The note is for Papa.
The first ship of the season dropped anchor this evening.
I bid you hasten to the harbor upon daylight. Bring the captain to meet with our fellowship of cartographers after noon.
Aster crushes the note between her palms.
Surely Mose knows of Papa’s labored breathing of the cough that hacked through him all winter long? It may be the first day of spring but the sea wind is sharp as a blade. To send Papa down to the harbor… Papa who has taken not more than a few steps all this long winter who has even neglected his commission — there is a patina of dusk at the edge of the vellum. Is Mose truly commanding Papa to brave the wind and the rain?
Aster places the missive on her father’s desk to the side of the map he is working on. She rubs the heel of her hand over the paper trying to remove the crumpled traces of her fury. She closes the wooden shutters and steps out of Papa’s study.
She lies down in her bed listens to Clara’s steady breathing and wonders at her sister’s sweet tranquility. Her own mind is a tempest of questions.
Did Jocef know the content of his father’s letter? If so did he remonstrate with his father did he walk the streets of the Call with a heavy heart? And what is Mose trying to do if not destroy her father?
When Aster wakes, she’s surprised to hear Regina already banging the broom against the table legs. Usually, instead of sweeping and plucking fowl and scrubbing wine stains off the linen tablecloth, Regina is at Sara, interpreter of dreams, insisting that she cannot begin her work until her spirit is at peace.
“I understand that you slept well last night,” Aster says with a smile, as she emerges into the dining room. Regina’s wrinkled face creases with worry and she clucks her tongue.
“Si. But if you had heard the roosters’ crow this morning…” she begins. “There was an extra sound in the middle, not just cock a doodle doo, but cock a cock a doodle doo, surely a portent of—”
Aster throws her cloak over her shoulders. “A sign, indeed. That the Parnas’s son was up at daybreak, tormenting the poor bird.”
Regina shakes her head. She opens a drawer and takes out a posset of herbs. “Sprinkle some on your father’s cane. It has been blessed,” she nods knowingly.
“Not by the local priest, I hope,” Aster says in an undertone.
She feels Clara’s presence, and turns to see her standing in the doorway of Papa’s study. Clara’s hair is swept back from her face, her dark eyes look huge. “Papa should not go to the harbor.”
Regina picks up the protest. It is a slippery walk down to the harbor, on the way home, it is steep, and the wind — what a wind there is this morning, and have you forgotten that Papa is getting old, all this winter did you not hear his cough, do you not…
Aster closes her eyes and places her hands flat down on the table. On and on and on, Regina’s high-pitched squeak and Clara’s low tones, the way she pronounces words as if she talks through a mouthful of linen.
Aster is filled with her own indignation. She looks around their home: the whitewashed walls, the scrubbed colored tiles on the floor, the velvet hangings that look slightly out of place in this small room. Do they not know that their home, their security, all depends on Papa’s standing in the fellowship? On Mose’s whim?
If Mose claims that Papa is too old he will refuse to hand him any commissions, and then they will have to buy flour and meat — and even pay Regina her weekly wage — according to the measure of the Parnas’s pity.
And Papa… Papa will become old.
She curls her hands into fists. There is no choice but to wrap up warm and venture down to the harbor.
Papa grasps his walking stick and whirls his woolen shawl over his shoulders. He pushes his hat onto his head and looks at Aster, his gray eyebrows a question.
Papa throws open the front door.
The smells of the day blow into their faces.
It is cold. The sun bobs in and out of gray clouds and a brisk wind carries the smell of the sea even to the labyrinthine streets of the Call Major, the Jewish quarter. A woman hurries past, cradling a basket of fresh-baked bread covered in a linen cloth. They watch as the wind seizes the cloth and tosses it into the air, where it hovers like a spirit. The woman bends over her basket, trying to protect the loaves from the rain. Aster threads an arm through Papa’s.
They set out, Papa’s birchwood stick tapping the wet cobblestones. Most people move to the side when they see them come; they pass by the Shamash and the butcher’s boy. A sudden rush of women crowd past them toward the vegetable market. The streets are narrow, and Papa’s gait is slow, unsteady.
Aster matches her pace to his, and reaches over to give Papa a reassuring pat. He snorts in response.
It has been a hard winter. But it will do him good, Aster convinces herself, it will do him good to get him out of the house and down to the shore, surely this excursion will not harm him. Surely she is not being cruel, as Clara accuses her.
Papa’s breath grows ragged. He slows as they pass through the gates of the Call into the main city, and she half-hopes the guards will stop them. But they are waved through easily. Aster tugs her father’s arm, tries to slow their pace, but the steep slope down to the harbor carries them at a speed not their own.
“Papa, we should stop.”
His mouth is opened like a circle, his white beard quivers in the breeze, the brown skin seems fragile and thin.
He shakes his head. “Come, girl, we must hurry.”
“But Papa, we must slow down.”
He shakes his head and there’s a tautness about his mouth. Papa does not change: he is the same, stubborn father he has always been.
“Just a few minutes of rest.” She feels him shaking. She reaches into her cloak and hands him a fig-stuffed pastry, his favorite. She baked them earlier in the week, but stored them at Sara’s, lest Papa eat too many and his humors be imbalanced. Last night, after Papa had retired, she had run over and retrieved a handful.
Papa’s eyes brighten at the treat, but he shakes his head. “Eat here, in the street? What do you think I am, a sailor, who makes his home wherever the waves toss him?”
“There can’t be a sin in eating if you feel weary. I’m sure the rabbi would agree.”
He pushes her hand away, and with it the golden pastry. He straightens his back and brings his cane hard against the cobblestones. “There is life in me yet.”
Papa charges ahead, down the road that leads to the harbor.
And then, suddenly, a forest of masts and the bellow of porters, the screech of gulls and the thump thump thump as barrels of wine, oil, and spices clatter down onto the stones of the harbor. The customs officer, in his long, silk-lined cloak struts up and down, flanked by two armored policemen. Papa points: the officer will be guarding the new ship, like bees around a honey comb.
Samuel hands his stick to Aster and hoists himself onto the gangplank. He holds himself erect and with a sure foot and surprising spryness, disappears into the ship. Aster watches him, filled with sudden pride. Papa may no longer be the mapmaker king, but he is a man of strength.
That afternoon, Aster again accompanies Papa, this time to the palatial home of Mose son of Isaac, at the very edge of the Call, just a few steps from the high iron gates that separate the Call from the rest of the city.
All these years later, and she still finds her cheeks heat when she steps over the threshold.
She settles Papa in the dining room with the other cartographers, the captain and navigator of the new ship, and slips out into the courtyard, where she can wait. She will stroll up and down, and try to be patient while they examine the ship’s portolan charts, riddled with the navigator’s scribbled corrections. She listens with half an ear as the men argue over the latitude of an archipelago of islands near Africa, their number, the directions of the currents that swirl around them. They will make notes and ask questions and draw sketches and she can only hope that they will return home before the stuffed vine leaves Regina prepared for their evening meal are dried up.
The sun begins to set. Aster clutches her hands together, and once again hopes that Jocef not see her that day. Then she reaches out to a lavender bush, plucks a green-purple-silver sprig and crushes it between her fingers, then rubs the leaves against the inside of her wrist. She feels around the nape of her neck, makes sure there are no tendrils of hair come loose.
Arms raised, she catches herself. It would seem that she really does want to see Jocef, after all. She shakes herself, and looks around for distraction. Inside, she can hear the captain’s broad voice. Aster sidles up to the door and peers inside. The captain is talking. The six cartographers of the island are noting his words, dipping quills into ink, scratching across paper.
“And there were people, their skin was orange and their teeth, those which they had, for some had gaping empty mouths, their teeth were black. And each night as the sun went down they would sacrifice to a pagan god, and then they played drums such as I have never seen before.”
“Show us,” Mose commands.
The captain brings out a small drum, leather pulled tight over the top, but hanging from each side is a small, brown fiber holding a large, pointed tooth. “These are the teeth of fearsome sea creatures, hunters of the ocean,” says the captain.
“The men are hunters, too? Cannibals?”
Papa speaks up, his voice a waver: “Have you considered that you might have landed on the shores of the great land mass of Africa?”
Mose seizes the notion and fires the captain with questions: What color the water? At sunrise, at midday, at sunset? At the midpoint of the day, where was the sun in the sky? Papa hands him a chart, asks him to mark the spot. What color was the sand on the beach? The face of the cliff? Were the rocks smooth or rough, did they leave dust on your fingers, was the dust white or vermillion?
Carefully, they gather information, these mapmakers of Mallorca, trying to paint a picture of a world they have never seen.
Aster watches them and shakes her head. All these men, Papa among them, leader in skill if not in influence and wealth, peering over the borders of the horizon, trying to glimpse what lies beyond the island of Mallorca, beyond the great mass of Spain, of Europe. Beyond the land, beyond the sea, beyond the wind, even.
The men talk through the dusk and Aster cannot help but wonder if these men — Jocef among them — so adept at charting the oceans and the land, would ever know to map the heart of a woman.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 544 – Shavuos 2017 Special Edition)
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