“Hurrem Sultan told me she would find me a match. And I want to know if you would look in the stars and see if that will come to pass”
Mist hangs over the distant hills and the air is still crisp, not yet velvety with warmth. Leonora has purchased a large tract of land just north of Tzfat for the sheep, paying an exorbitant amount to the Ottoman governor, though everyone knows that you can simply mark out a piece of land and take it.
But Papa taught her: let your business dealings be irreproachable, and she has always heeded his advice. To the north side of the tract, she had ordered for the Aleppo pine to be planted, to shield the sheep from the worst of the wind, but yesterday Eliyahu told her that if she wants their wool to grow thick and long, the flock needs to be exposed to bad weather. So now a dispatch must be sent to stop the order and placate the supplier.
She watches Yishai struggle up the incline toward her. When he reaches her, he is breathless.
“You spend too long with the abacus and the ink,” she comments.
“It is a steep hill.” He defends himself.
“True. Though it is not yet hot.”
“But the sun is bright.”
They are both argumentative this morning. She tries to soften the charged air between them.
“The most expensive sheep in the world,” she says. “The finest wool. Cloth that is all at once supple and soft and strong.”
Yishai shields his eyes from the sun and looks around, surveying the flock. “How did you do this?”
This was one affair she had not handed over to Yishai. Delay after delay, and she had grown agitated — these are not sacks of legumes that can sit in burlap sacks for years until the weevils come, she had complained to Ines. These are not mere sheep, she had written to the captain of the ship. They produce the best wool in all the world.
And in Tzfat, too, she had laid careful groundwork. They are a clean breed, tahor, kosher, she had told the rabbis’ representatives, who oversee any changes in the place. And they are to be used for wool, and to bring coins into the city; she had deftly quashed any objections that may have arisen.
“The flocks of Merino sheep in Spain are owned either by the nobility or by the church. No Jewish owners. Certainly, no women. Hard negotiations.”
“Whom did you send?”
“Sanches. Only he. And he transcribed every conversation for me. You must have seen them.”
Yishai shrugs. “Amram must have filed them.”
Sanches is one of their most skilled agents. A gentile, of course, for no Jew is allowed into Spain.
Leonora walks over to one of the sheep and places her palm on the cloud of fleece. It feels hard and slightly oily. Tomorrow, under Eliyahu’s supervision, they will begin shearing. In the meantime, the sheep smell faintly of the herb mixture Eliyahu has doused them with to protect their skin under the fleece.
“If the Spanish had known that the wool will clothe the Janissaries who protect the Turkish Sultan…”
Yishai laughs. “Archenemies, eh? What is it the Spanish call the Turks? Infidels.”
She smiles. “Correct.”
“How did they agree to sell you the flock?” Yishai asks. He bends down to look into the sheep’s eyes. “This is not cloudy, is it? Eliyahu has checked the health of all the sheep?”
She nods quickly, and returns to his question. “They agreed — politics.”
“Only you, honorable Mama, could use politics to acquire a flock of sheep that will bring business to Tzfat, thereby encouraging people to settle here and bring prosperity to the town and so pave the way for the Final Redemption.”
She shrugs. She enjoys scheming. What else should one do at night, when the wine cask has been confiscated and you do not want to be observed padding down to the wine cellar alone?
“Mashiach will come from the hills of the Galilee, Yishai.”
“You never tire of telling us this. I just marvel at your focus.”
Something inside her hurts. What else is there to live for? She hopes he will hear the words without her speaking them aloud.
Yishai strides into the middle of the flock and claps his hands.
“They are fine creatures, indeed.” Then he turns to her, pensive. “But you know, Mama, all your schemes and efforts… they are limited.”
“The Final Redemption will only arrive when we are ready.”
“This is exactly what I am doing, getting us ready.”
He shakes his head. “Not only ready in terms of location and population settlement. When our souls glow.”
The wind picks up and the long end of her satin turban blows into her face. She pushes it away.
She wants to argue with him, but instead she asks, “So how do we do this?”
Something in her trembles. Here it is. He will be honest with her, at last. The conversation she has been waiting to have with him, about his abandoning his family, using work as a pretext, to join this chevrat teshuvah. When she speaks, her voice is harder and harsher than she would wish.
“When people look only at themselves, they forget the community. They are so absorbed with their own souls that they do not look around and see that there are children to feed and elderly people who need encouragement. There are jobs to establish so that families have livelihood.” She swallows, unsure of why she feels like something inside will break open. “Do you think those are not acts of repentance, too?”
Yishai gazes into the distance. He does not look at her at all, though she wills him to meet her eyes. “When a person does not look into himself, he will trample on the people around him, on his community.”
“What do you suggest?” she asks eventually.
“That along with the soup kitchen and the wool factory, you…”
Inside, something trembles and her heart bangs against her chest, a vidui beaten from the inside out. What does he know about her?
Repentance. The word takes her back to the cavernous roof and deep, cool shadows of the church, the smell of incense. A bundle in her arms, wrapped in the finest woolen blanket. White-dyed Merino wool, only the best for her child, for a daughter born into grief. As if she knows this, the baby wails all day and all night, while she and Ines would take turns walking her and patting her on the back. Shh, baby, shh.
But the baby wailed and it pricked her skin like a thousand needles.
What do you cry for, child? Ines would ask.
And still the baby wailed.
What was the question? The baby was crying for her people, surely. She was crying for the bitterness of the exile. She was crying for a Papa who was snatched to the next world before she was born, before her Mama even had a chance to know him. She was crying for a Mama who could not bring herself to love a child who had sundered her from her family so she was left behind, alone, in Lisbon, while they sailed to Italy and safety.
Yishai said the words so blithely, without realizing that there are some things too big for repentance. For him, perhaps, repentance is something easy. You were short with your wife. You dreamed about the abacus when you took three steps back to begin the Amidah. Such sweet little crimes.
He has no idea, no idea at all, that some people sin in unforgiveable ways.
The sun is growing warm but Leonora pulls her shawl around herself. She forces herself to speak.
“One cannot remake the past any more than a Jew can step foot over the border of Spain. There are some things that, when they are done, are etched into stone.”
Finally, finally, he turns to her. “When the Almighty dismantled over 1,000 years of Jewish life, He was telling us something.”
Her voice is tight. “And what was that?”
He has had an easy life. Who is he, who is anyone to tell us what the Almighty intended in the destruction of Spain and Portugal?
He looks at her once more, then walks deeper into the herd, examining the sheep as if he knows what to look for in their health. Eventually, he walks back to her.
“Mama, you do not live in Tzfat.”
She gives a bitter laugh. “What do you mean? Not only do I live here, I take notice of the community. Who built a soup kitchen? Who is establishing jobs for the townspeople? Who?”
“Yes, that is like any other town. But you brought here the sounds of Spain and Portugal. The clink of coins. Orders to servants. Even the bang of pots. The sound of Tzfat is that of the wind whistling through a fig tree. The sudden song of a bird singing shirah. Air. Silence. That is Tzfat. You have come to this place and pretend that it is still Lisbon.”
She is angry. What does he know about Lisbon? What does he know of the noises there? If he thinks they were simply accruing money for the sake of wealth, he is sorely mistaken. If there was money there — and there was — it was for the sake of power, not greed. And if there was power, it was only so that they could save their lives.
The sounds of Lisbon are not the clink of coin, they are the whisper of secret conferences, between the community and sometimes, with sympathetic bishops and ministers. It is the wail of children separated from their parents, the crash of the ocean waves that hold the ships promised to the Jews, only to be withdrawn at the last moment. It is the drop of water from the Baptist fount and the drone of unfamiliar prayer.
“You do not know what went on in Lisbon.”
“I have a good enough idea. I’ve heard stories.” He pauses, then puts his hand on her arm, suddenly placatory. “Mama, let me tell you what I mean. I mean that if the Redeemer will indeed come from this place, then we must not only set up wool factories and soup kitchens. We must get ten sweet and fractured souls to pray and learn and beg the Almighty that He forgive us for our sins and bring the redemption.”
She repeats after him. “Ten sweet and fractured souls.”
He nods. “They will meet every night at chatzot halailah, and learn and pray until the first rays of dawn.”
She turns the idea over in her mind. “A spiritual endeavor, then, to hasten the redemption.”
His face lights up. “Yes, indeed. They will need a place to be, and a stipend, for they will need to sleep in the afternoon hours, instead of hammering leather shoes or hauling firewood.”
Now she is back on familiar ground. Premises. Money. Instructions and details and people —where to find these sweet and fractured souls?
She bites her lip. It is a powerful idea, tugging at her like a great wave that pulls you far from the shore.
Repentance. But not a personal inventory, no. Something for the Jewish People at large.
She studies Yishai’s face, and for the first time in months feels a sense of pride.
Over the last few weeks, the randomness of the sleeping chamber has changed. Those who support Hurrem Sultan are on the far-right corner, claiming a place both by the windows and the brazier in the center of the room — not that they need the warmth any more, for the summer heat lingers long into the evening. The opposite corner, the front left, is for those who curry favor with Hurrem Sultan’s daughter, Mihrimah.
Bilhah, Aisha, and Katerina bed down in the far-right corner, wordlessly stating their allegiance to the most powerful woman in the palace, though almost every night since her conversation with Hurrem Sultan, Bilhah wishes she could do otherwise.
Now, as they lie down on their sleeping mats, Bilhah props herself up on her elbow. “Aisha, may I ask you something?”
“What do you see in my stars?”
Aisha turns to face her. “What do you mean?”
“Just… Hurrem Sultan told me she would find me a match. And I want to know if you would look in the stars and see if that will come to pass.”
She keeps her voice light, but her words are laced with fear. She has been waiting days until she could find the courage to voice her fears.
Aisha pulls a face. “None of it means much.”
Bilhah is shocked. “You don’t believe in it?”
Aisha pulls her pillow closer. “Oh, I believe that there is something to it. But not on an individual level. The stars will foretell the great movements of the world — and our rulers are part of that. I can tell if there will be war or famine or plague.” She lifts both hands. “But then again, there is always war, famine, and plague. Some years more than other. There is always love and fear and sorrow, too. Stars or not.”
Bilhah sits up straight. “In that case, you don’t know the future, you simply know what it is to be a human.”
“True,” Aisha says simply.
Bilhah hesitates. “So… you cannot tell me if—”
“Marriage. If someone is destined for marriage.”
Aisha tips her head back and laughs. “Oh, Bilhah. Marriage is not so hard to predict. People need love. And so, more likely than not, they meet someone who is also looking, and either they get to know and love each other or they fool themselves that they do. And there they are, man and wife.”
Bilhah drops her voice. “So… so you do not know what will happen to me?”
“Only you know that.”
“But I do not know.”
“But you can search your heart and find out. If your deepest wish was marriage and home, then when Hurrem Sultan mentioned her love of matchmaking, you would not have recoiled but would have nodded eagerly. So then, who shapes your life? Is it Hurrem Sultan? Is it something she saw in you that brought her to suggest marriage? Or is it the way you responded that made your own destiny?”
“What about Yasemin?” Bilhah asks. “She sent me to Hurrem Sultan.”
“And what does Yasemin want?” Aisha asks.
Yasemin could have simply disregarded the letter from this woman and added it to the crate of correspondence that, each day, is inventoried, checked, and carted off by the huge black guards. She had not done so. It was just another letter from the woman from Tzfat, this time with a business proposition: to produce fine woolen coats and blankets for the Janissaries, in return for a pledge that Hurrem Sultan would promote the proposal to build a wall around Jerusalem.
A strange woman, who deluded herself that not only could she make her own destiny, she could forge that of her nation.
Aisha yawns and motions that Bilhah lie down to sleep.
“The only thing I will tell you”—and suddenly, Aisha looks not just five years older than Bilhah, but 25—“is that whatever fate or the stars or the Almighty has in store for you, try to make peace with it.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 810)
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