“An old man does not mean a lame man. The next time the physician comes from Damascus, see him”
“You are too busy with your sheep.”
Eliyahu straightens. He looks around, sees Yannai, panting, red-faced, struggling toward him.
When he nears, Eliyahu orders him to throw down his walking stick and take a few steps. He kneels down and watches.
“Your leg is still not healed.”
A cloud passes over Yannai’s face.
“What do you want of an old man?”
“An old man does not mean a lame man. The next time the physician comes from Damascus, see him.”
Behind him, the penned-up sheep, still waiting to be sheared, call out their protest. In the next tract of land, the sheared sheep spring across the grass, comfortable in their summer coats, contented to be rid of that great bale of wool they have been heaving along with them all winter.
Yannai is quick to move to the offensive. “If I have been neglecting my body, you have been neglecting your soul. What of our learning sessions?”
“Shearing season. We are late for it. The sheep will not be sheared by Rava and Abaye.”
He points to the great, gleaming shears on a flat rock a few steps away.
He started the shearing at the beginning of the week, and while each day he gets quicker, he is also more tired. This morning, the fatigue seemed to have settled in his bones, as well as an ache in his shoulder blades and the top of his arms. He is used to hauling water from the stream and bringing it the distance to his cave, but this: move the sheep from right to left, bending over them, forcing the strength through his shoulders and down into his arms, into the shears, both delicate and determined—
“It is not easy work, this,” Yannai says.
Eliyahu startles. The man must have read his mind.
“Shearing the sheep is easy. What is hard is controlling the creature. Yesterday there were some difficult ones.”
“So what did you do?”
“What should I do? I talk to them. Calm them. If you become angry or filled with tension, then so will they. Remember that they are going through the ordeal here, not you.”
A young helper leads out a sheep and Eliyahu coaxes it onto its side and begins snipping at the creature’s belly.
“So you spend all your time with the sheep?”
Eliyahu shrugs, he waits to catch his breath and spreads out the newly shorn fleece. He snips off some soiled wool from the edges and then transfers the fleece to a pile.
Eliyahu grabs the shoulders of the next sheep, handed to him by a young boy. He pushes the sheep down to a sitting position, and then maneuvers its shoulder to the left.
Yannai settles himself down on a rock. “And what of the children?”
Eliyahu grunts as he pushes the sheep right and starts shearing the other side. “What children?”
“Have you not seen the children who eat at your home each day? Have you tested them on a Mishnah? Most of them are born amei ha’aretz and will live their lives that way, too.”
Eliyahu does not look up. “But I am not so different. Besides, we are in Tzfat. Everywhere they walk, they can hear the sounds of Torah study.”
He looks up to study Yannai’s face, but the glare of the sun is behind him and he must squint to make out even an outline. Why is the man here?
Yannai gives him a disarming smile. “Anyway, I did not come here to have arguments with you about the sheep or the children. I came with an offer.”
What could the man possibly offer him? He releases the sheep he has been shearing, patting it on the rump and watching as it runs off to join the rest of the flock.
“A group of us will gather each night, at chatzot, to learn and sing and pray for the Redemption. I have chosen them myself. I would like you to be part of them.”
“Me?” Eliyahu straightens and stretches his arms above his head to ease the ache in his back. “You need scholars and saints for this.”
Yannai shakes his head. “No. Only people who have suffered, and therefore have the smallest taste of the suffering of the Shechinah.”
Suffered. Is that what he calls it? Eliyahu thinks of suffering in a different way. All those men and women who lived in the shadow of the church, who converted and concealed themselves or fled, hopeless and penniless while their lives were dismantled behind them. Those people who wake up each night not from sadness, but with a howling anger. What he went through is different…
“I did not go to the cave because I was suffering.”
Yannai raises his eyebrows.
“I just wanted peace.”
“Well, true peace can only be found when our nation is at peace.”
The man sounds like he is reciting words from a book, or some aphorism from a rabbi. Eliyahu stares. It is the first time he has heard him so alienated from his heart. Eliyahu takes the shears and cuts at the wildflowers around him. Frothy white petals fall to the ground: a circle of destruction.
“There will be a stipend, of course.”
“A stipend.” Eliyahu repeats.
“Yes, yes. It has all been arranged.”
“What do you mean a stipend?”
Yannai rubs finger and thumb together. “Money. If you are up all night, then you will need to forfeit hours of the week to sleep in the morning, or in the afternoon, or sometime between chatzot halailah and dawn.”
“You will mix money into people’s souls? Into their yearning for… for… for redemption. You will give them money? You will mix them up like this and turn purity and yearning into something tainted, so a man can wake up and say, ‘Oh, I must sing for the redemption lest I lose out on the coins for the tailor or the water-carrier’?” He shakes his head. “What sort of redemption will that bring?”
Yannai drops his voice. “A human one. We are who we are. We need money for the water-carrier, too. That does not mean we do not want to bring unity to the Almighty’s holy Name and bring His presence to rest among us.”
Eliyahu shakes his head and takes a step backward. “Perhaps this is something for others among you. But for me, leave me to my sheep.”
Ines picks up the bowl of chicken and barley stew, sniffs it and looks around.
“I thought I would find you here.”
Leonora nods. The soup kitchen is her favorite place to eat, not that she is managing to eat much today.
In the corner, a knot of little boys devours their third helping. Leonora does not mind. She has given instruction to serve the children again and again, mindful that it is the only food they will eat. From the kitchen, there is the clang of pots.
The cook and her assistants are unhappy; while the food is cooked in the courtyard, they still work long and hard in here, chopping and cleaning in a place that is free of flies and cats. And it is hot. She has furnished them with hand fans. The only other solution is to find a few children who will stand and fan the women for a few coins. But the children should be learning with the melamed; she is reluctant to put them to work.
Ines peers over Leonora’s shoulder to the accounts book that is in front of her.
“Do not tell me that you are still working on this?”
Leonora shrugs. “The money from the Damascus rents has not come in.”
“Send an agent.”
“I will need to. A gentile. The Jews are too soft-hearted. They will never threaten, not in a way that scares the tenants and makes them actually find the money.”
Ines sits down next to her. “No wonder you have no appetite. Imagine Jewish families out on the street, scared like that.”
Leonora looks up sharply. This is Ines’s way of educating her, trying to convince her that she is better than she is. It only leaves her wanting to prove Ines wrong. Childish, perhaps. Show me that you will be loyal even if you hate who I am. She presses her fingers to her forehead. The headache that has been scratching inside her scalp all morning has now grown into a slow, painful drumbeat. A glass of wine. That is what she needs. But she would never drink here, and never in front of Ines. Still, the thought of it fills her with longing. Sweet and strong and burning, so that the weight crushing her shoulders lifts. And the tiny, infant fingers with their pearly nails that have circled her heart ease their grip, if only for a little while.
“That is not what takes away my appetite. Be kind to those Jews in Damascus, and you are cruel to the Jews as a whole. Where do you think that money goes to, Ines?”
The old woman looks crushed, but so be it.
Leonora pulls her accounts book close and flips open the page to her payroll. She blinks twice to help her eyes focus. She turns to look at Ines.
“When you think of those whom I pay, you probably think of Yishai and Amram, of the agents, the cook and the supplier, and the people who will be working in the wool factory. Look at these, Ines.”
She takes a breath and anchors her finger on the first line.
“These are the people I pay whom you would not even imagine. Whisper money.”
She follows the lines with her fingers.
Those who whisper in the ear of the emir of Jerusalem: Are you not afraid of the Bedouin raids? Jerusalem is at the edge of a desert, after all. They will come and pillage the homes and snatch your children. Build a Wall.
Those who whisper in the ears of the prominent families of Jerusalem: Are you not ashamed to live in a place without a wall?
Those who whisper in the ears of the imams: Do you not want to protect the Muslim religion? Any moment, Charles V could avenge Sultan Suleiman and raise a Crusade. He will march upon Jerusalem and all of Christendom would hasten to join him. Build a Wall.
Ines lays a hand on the page to stop Leonora reading more. “So you are worried about money?”
Leonora shakes her head. “Yes. No. Not really. There is enough.”
She squeezes her eyes closed. Ines waits. Leonora reaches into the small leather pouch she has tied around her waist.
“It is this that leaves me no rest.”
She takes out a small, rolled-up piece of parchment, soft and supple, and unrolls it. The letter is written in Castilian. The penmanship is exquisite and it bears the royal seal.
“For two years I have sent letter after letter to the Imperial Palace in Istanbul, and now I receive a reply.”
Allow me to talk to you as a woman to a woman.
I do not want coats. I want blankets. In the daytime, it is good for their manly courage to suffer. It is nighttime when I want them to think of home, to pull a fine woolen blanket around them and know they are protected, that somewhere in the empire is a mother who cares for them. That mother is me, Hurrem Sultan.
I tell you this because you, surely, are a mother yourself, and thus know that the pathway to loyalty is not through justice or glory, but through plentiful food and a warm blanket — and, perhaps, a thick, high perimeter wall.
But this means that come winter, I need not the 500 blankets that you have predicted you will produce, but double that or triple.
The letter is signed with a scrawl, but then there is a postscript, in a different hand — the letters are large and careless and looped over each other.
Those who stand at the zenith see ever the nadir.
Ines puts the letter down carefully on the table. “Can you do it?”
“No. Well, not at the moment. Unless I find another supplier to help me.”
“Then why do you not tell her that it is impossible?”
“If I fulfill her request, she will push forward the plan of the wall around Jerusalem. One word from her and it will all stop.”
“But do you have a choice?”
Leonora works through the progression in her mind. If she fails, then Hurrem Sultan will have no blankets for the soldiers who defend the realm. If she has no blankets, then at best, she has lost a chance to curry favor with them. At worst, they will have a scapegoat for everything from the lice that they scratch out of their hair and the friend who is wounded in another pointless battle against someone they have declared enemy or who has declared them enemy first. What will happen then?
When there is a fight over who will succeed Sultan Suleiman, then the Janissaries will decide upon whom to convey power. Perhaps on an advisor. Perhaps on Mustafa, the eldest son of the Sultan, born to his erstwhile concubine Mahidevran. And then they will turn against Hurrem Sultan, as they already whisper against her, that she is a witch, that she has too much power, that she controls the heart of the Sultan — and she will be killed.
And if she is killed, then the Walls of Jerusalem will remain rubble. The Redemption will still be but a distant dream.
Why is her fate suddenly joined up with some strange woman, across the ocean?
Something inside Leonora feels like it will catch fire.
How is it that one woman’s fear drives another woman’s hope? Or is it the other way around?
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 811)
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