| Family First Serial |

Within My Walls: Chapter 10

Aisha bursts out, “But you are a girl. How do you know how to read and write? The Hebrew tongue, no less”


The place is covered in dust and when Leonora enters, she coughs again and again, unable to dislodge the tickle at the back of her throat. She walks over to the window and throws open the shutters. Sunlight floods in. She looks around.

A small wooden table with four chairs, two of them slightly askew, as if someone had just stood up and walked out of the room. A small tapestry hangs on the wall. Leonora steps closer to examine it. Pomegranates of scarlet, purple, and blue are entwined with golden bells. The dust mars the piece’s beauty, and Leonora calls for a damp linen cloth. One of her servants passes it to her and she wipes the tapestry clean.

Now she sees how the bells are sewn through with gold thread and admires the intricacy of the stitching. Pomegranates and bells. The priestly garments. The chime of a bell, announcing someone’s arrival. The silence of a pomegranate; the surprise of cracking open the leathery skin to reveal hundreds of juicy jewels hidden away. Reveal, conceal.

She looks further around the room. What does it say about the owner? And what will remain hidden from view? Her curiosity has been ignited by the unusual tapestry.

In the corner of the room is a small oak chest. Leonora tests the lid — it is unlocked. She pushes it open and sees a collection of small scrolls, and small pieces of parchment. She opens one up. The handwriting is close and cramped, and it is hard to decipher the words. But she holds it up close to her eyes and reads.

Heaven’s gates open into the universe

And the celestial lights beam down on the crown of creation.

But that crown is tarnished; its shape warped.

Its diamonds have long fallen, stolen by foreign princes.

Poetry. The man who lived here was a poet.

She picks up another parchment and squints at the words.

When the ships finally set sail from foreign lands

When we left behind the graves of our dead ancestors and the books of tomorrow

When the tears mingled with the ocean spray

When we declared: The Rock, His deeds are righteous

We knew, You have sent us away, surely, so that mislaid and misplaced, we will long for home.

With You.

Leonora takes a deep breath. Who is this man? They said he had a wife and newborn child, so surely, he would not have been old enough to leave Spain? But then, ever since that Tishah B’Av, the Jews have been in place after place, and on the sea, as well. And if he was not, then his parents were, so it has become a memory of sorts. It may not have happened to him, but it did, for his soul experienced it through his parents’ losses and silence and prayers and the ache of unspilled grief that every Spanish Jew carries with him, passing it on to his children as if it is a treasure.

She looks around the place, suddenly feeling out of place. This is a man’s home. And he may have left, but vestiges of his soul remain and the small glimpse feels like trespass.

Her son Yishai touches her on the sleeve. “What do you think, Mama? This room could be a dining room. We’ll bring in a cook — either one of our own, or employ a woman from the town, which would be to your liking, would it not? She will cook in the courtyard. We will need to build a larger oven out there, for the bread, and a place for a sturdy cooking fire.”

She nods slowly. “And the storage?”

He points to a door she has not entered. “There is a bedroom. We could push the furniture to the side, or store it somewhere, and we will have a place for sacks of grain and flour.”

She closes her eyes, so that she cannot see her son or his plans or even the little children who will come hungry and leave satiated, with a little more color in their cheeks than before. She tries to touch this unknown poet, feel his presence. Maybe even that of his wife. Perhaps even the faintest whisper of a newborn cry.

She opens her eyes again. Yishai is looking at her curiously. “Honorable Mama?”

She shakes her head. “The dry goods can be stored in our home. Leave the bedroom untouched.”

“But why?”

She shrugs. “If the man ever comes home again, I would like to leave him a place to rest.”


Toward evening, the Imperial Gardens are filled with men; the young loll in the streams and spray each other with water from the fountains; the older servants and ministers recite poetry and debate the latest military campaign. Some visit the menagerie, poking the leopard’s haunches with a birch stick and watching him spring back and bare his large, white incisors.

Their laughter and talk are caught by the large windows and listened to by the women, inside their own palace, sighing for cool air and soft grass. But in the morning, while the men are in their prayers and their classes, hunched over manuscripts or debating political strategy or designing new warfare, the women are allowed in the gardens.

It is then that Bilhah sits with Aisha and learns Arabic, all the while wondering what Aisha will demand of her in return for the lessons, and why exactly she has made this offer.

As she copies down the shapes of the letters, Bilhah asks, “What is she like, do you think?”


“Who do you think?”

Aisha gives a half smile. “Hurrem Sultan?” She lets out a deep sigh and tugs at the emerald grass until her palm is covered with green.

“Have you ever seen her?”

It is a pointless question, and Bilhah wonders why she asks it. Hurrem Sultan is said to come out of her rooms for festive days and grand occasions, when she is transported in a curtained carriage and sits veiled behind screens. Who, ever, really sees her?

“I have seen her.”

Bilhah looks up from the letters she is forming and raises her eyebrows. Is the girl lying? Trying to show that she has more influence and connections than she really does? Well, she would do the same.

“How many times?”

Aisha gives her a long stare. “Every day.”

Bilhah starts. The girl is lying. She must be. Unless she is responsible for bringing the morning water basin.


“I am her astrologer.”

Bilhah puts down her pen and stares. “Astrologer? Stars? Predictions?”

Aisha nods. “Every day she summons me to hear the day’s predictions. The alignments of the stars and her fortune.”

Around them, the women are starting to drift back inside for the day’s work. But Bilhah does not move.

“How did you come to this position?”

Aisha shrugs. “It is in my family for generations. I told Aziza so, when I arrived here, and for a few years I hovered in the background, stepping in occasionally. But Hurrem Sultan took a liking to my predictions, when I offered them. Slowly, she began to rely on me.”

There is so much to ask. Does Aisha simply give vague nothings? Can she see Bilhah’s future? But to show that she is curious will put her under Aisha’s thrall. She rakes her lip with her teeth and says nothing.

“It is for this reason I study so. All the wisdom that I can find. There is great literature about what is in the stars. And I read the philosophers, too, so that what I say is interspersed with good sense.”

Maybe this is something that she can give Aisha in return, and thus pay off her debt. Surely, she does not know Hebrew, and there are Hebrew tomes about star gazing. But how to approach it? She turns back to her letters, ignoring Katerina’s brush on her shoulder as she walks past, indicating that soon it is time to return inside.

She writes the alif that Aisha has taught her — a small stick, with a backward number two floating on top — and waves it before her.

Aisha nods. “It is written from right to left, remember this.”

“So it is with Hebrew.”

Aisha sits up straight. “And you know Hebrew?”

“Of course. In Salonika, most of us spoke Hebrew even in our daily lives.”

“I thought it was Spanish?”


Bilhah leans over and copies the second letter. Beh. A little boat shape, with a dot underneath. Curve one side. Enough said. Let Aisha be pricked with curiosity.

Teh. A boat shape again, but instead of one dot on the bottom, two dots on the top.

Aisha bursts out. “But you are a girl. How do you know how to read and write? The Hebrew tongue, no less.”

Bilhah goes cold. “I am a Jew. This is what we do. Ahl al-kitāb. People of the book, remember?”

“But I thought that your books were lost when you left Spain. Confiscated or left behind or lost on the journeys. They said it was a tragedy, all that lost wisdom.”

Bilhah runs her hands through the grass and pulls out a tiny wildflower by the roots. “That is true.”

It was what her father had said, again and again, after a long day in the printing shop. He was working to replace what had been lost.

She was four years old when they completed printing the last tractate of the Talmud. It had taken four years since the first tractate, Berachos, was printed. She had been an infant in the cradle then. And it had taken years before that, in Lisbon, to find the formula for the ink, to build the printer, to form the type, that perfect partnership of ironmonger and poet.

Some, at first, had castigated her father, although he was not the first to print — in Italy, the Soncino family had been playing around with this for years, and there were other Spanish families, too. But they still said, what are you doing with this secret that we call letters? How can you pound them and fire them and stick them onto plates? How can you bully them and do violence to these holy sparks of creation?

Papa had simply shrugged.

“Do we not do violence to the turkey feather that we sharpen into a quill? Do we not do violence to an animal, whose hide becomes parchment? And do we not do violence to the letters, to bring them into this world at all, and wrestle them onto a dead animal by means of a dead bird and ground up dead wood?”

He would stare with his dark eyes — in her mind, they are always black, although that was mostly from anger or laughter or fear — and would say, simply being born into this world means that we take part in cruelty. The midwife’s legs ache from standing, and the mother may not even survive the birth, so ripped apart is she. We all come into the world stained.

It was one of those things that her father said that she hated. It made her clench inside and she wanted to shout out — but father, I never chose to be born. And if her mother died in the childbed, it was not when she was birthing me, but my younger brother, whose soul rose up together with hers.

But her father was not the sort of man you said these things to.

It’s not that she’s better than him. Not really. It’s just that she is watchful.

Four years old and the Talmud is complete. She is dressed in orange silk — it should be pretty, she still feels the fabric, soft and strong and fine like a dandelion puff. But the shade of orange — she is pale-skinned compared to Papa. A color like this would look fine on her father, but on her it looks odd, and throughout the evening, women she does not know keep clapping their palms against her forehead, to test if she is feverish.

Night fell and music played and they brought it out of the printing press, dancing and singing, ready to hand the treasure to the chachamim of the town. The last book of the Talmud, the final masechta. She rolled the word on her tongue — Tal-mud, tal-mud, until her nursemaid told her sharply to stop it.

“What is in it?” she asked.

Lots of holy letters, arranged into words and lines by your Papa.

All evening, faces peered down at her.

Your father is a clever man.

Your father is a visionary.

Your father does G-d’s work here on earth.

Your father knows how to rebuild after the destruction of our people and all the holy books left behind in Spain and Portugal.

She nodded and nodded and nodded, almost suffocating from their perfume as the faces nearly touched her own.

She understood what they were saying. Your father is the Almighty’s messenger, they were telling her, but she knows this already, and when he hits her with his leather belt or pushes her so hard that her head bangs against the stone floor and she sees first black, then red, then black again, she reminds herself of their words — Papa is only doing G-d’s work here on earth.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 798)

Oops! We could not locate your form.