He pushes open the door and sees Leonora sitting behind her desk. She looks different here, her authority is unmistakable
Strange. The door of his home is closed. Eliyahu pauses, hand hovering over the handle. Usually, it is ajar, and children dash in and out. Now it is quiet.
Ordinarily, late afternoon when he comes home from shearing or tending the flock, the soup kitchen is still swarming. With full bellies, the children are less inclined to bicker. Instead, they spin pebbles or chant Mishnayot. Some of the older boys are happy hauling pots to and from the courtyard, where they will be scrubbed and cleaned and then hung up from hooks on the ceiling to wait for the next day’s fare.
Eliyahu steps inside. He looks around. Where are the children? His heart begins to thud. Sweat breaks out on the back of his neck. What has happened? Who has died? Or has an earthquake struck the town while he was safe in the hills? But he would have felt it, he would have fallen to the ground as the earth rippled, would he not?
Where, then, are all the children?
He hesitates for a moment, then the dam in his mind loosens and movement flows into his limbs. He runs. Out of the house, down the cobblestoned street, and into the courtyard where the great woman, Leonora, lives.
He steps into the dim cool of the stone house. There are voices and the clip of wooden soles on a stone floor. A passing servant directs him to the office of the great lady. He pushes open the door and sees Leonora sitting behind her desk. She looks different here, her authority is unmistakable. In the soup kitchen, she is just an older lady, hungry like everyone else, for food, for warmth, for being remembered.
She looks up, and he sees that it was not just his thoughts running away from him. There is something in her eyes. They seem… less willing to listen, more inclined to dictate.
And he feels smaller here. Overgrown. Shabby. His clothes, which bothered him when he first arrived in Tzfat, seem to matter again.
“Where are all the children?” he asks.
She looks up. “I needed workers. The wool arrived in the factory.” She looks at him. “You know that.”
He nods. Most of the sheep have been sheared.
“Well, the fleeces were washed, and they needed to be beaten. I did not find workers to do it, so I came to the soup kitchen after the midday meal and asked the children to come.”
At first, he nods. But then something stops him. “What sort of job are they doing?”
Beating. The sodden wool is hung over wooden slats and beaten with wooden sticks, to release any impurities — small stones and insects — as well as to untangle the knots. It was a task he did here and there in his youth. It’s the sort of job that you watch others do and itch to do it yourself, but when you are wielding the stick, you realize after three or four blows that a transfer is taking place against your will: The wool becomes finer and stronger and your arms feel sodden and lifeless.
“This is hard labor. This is the job of full-grown adults.”
Her back is bent as she looks at her accounts, and here and there, her long fingers stretch out to click at the beads of the abacus.
“No harm for them to work for their food.”
He has many rejoinders. I thought that you were feeding them from charity. From compassion. From the principle of tzedek. But he is so angry that all he can do is to turn and walk away.
He knows where the wool factory is. The location was chosen very carefully: near a source of water for the dying process, but still close enough to the center of the town to enable the workers to arrive easily.
As he strides there, now, the ground seems to move under his feet; he barely breaks his stride all the way up the steep incline. The sound hits him before he sees it: the thwack, thwack, thwack of great branches hitting sodden fleece. He hurries forward. There are two lines of children, and between them, lifted on great branches, is the wet fleece. There is no talk or laughter, only low grunts and groans as the children bring their sticks down onto the wool.
The man in charge is not known to him; Tzfat has grown since he left. The credit for that probably goes to Leonora.
“How long have they been working like this for?” Eliyahu.
The man shrugs. “They arrived after the noonday meal.”
“Who brought them here?”
The man watches them and combs his fingers through his beard. “The great lady said that they had eaten and were led here by one of her servants. They don’t not have the same strength as adults, so it is not ideal, but we make do. There were not enough adults to be found, not for this hard job, for after all, who wants to stand all day beating the fleece? It is hard work, and the wool smells, and pieces can fly up all over you so that you become soaked.”
Eliyahu draws closer to the children. They are wet from the spray that rises from the sodden wool. But they are not cold, rather, red-faced from exertion. The younger ones, especially, look weak and somehow untethered from their backbones.
“They will become ill if they continue,” he says. “They may feel hot, but with their wet clothing, they will become feverish. This is a danger to body. They are too young for this work. They are just small, tender children.”
The man watches. “I receive my instructions from the great lady.”
“Well, I am her”—what to say?—“her agent. And I command you to stop. Send these children home. Tell them to change their clothing and eat.”
The man shrugs. “The work is not yet finished.”
“Then you will find grown men to finish it. Go and find them in the marketplace, loitering outside the batei knesset, it does not matter. Beg them or pay them or cajole them into doing this job.” He raises his voice and by his side, his hands close into fists. “But leave the children alone.”
For the second time in two weeks, Bilhah is summoned to Hurrem Sultan’s private rooms. Last time, the palace seemed like a labyrinth, rooms followed by hallways followed by corridors, with sunken gardens and prayer rooms and reception rooms. Just as you identified a fountain and decided to turn left, there was another fountain, the same as the first, so you never knew if you were going around in circles or whether Hurrem Sultan has a penchant for water.
But this time, the pathway to the inner rooms is clear, and though Bilhah tries to lose herself, she finds herself unable to do so. In less time than it takes to eat the evening meal, she is standing outside the great doors, willing her eyes to read the Arabic quote and commanding her mind to translate it.
I found a woman ruling over them, and she has been given everything, and she has a great throne.
It is followed by a line of explanation: The words of the hoopoe bird as the bird reported to King Soloman about the Queen of Sheba (Quran 34:13).
Bilhah blinks. So here is a woman who compares herself to the Queen of Sheba. She tries to think. What does this mean? What does it mean for her? But the only idea that comes to mind is that Solomon was the king who built the Beis Hamikdash.
Inside, Hurrem Sultan is waiting for her. Her veil is lifted this time, so that the full force of her dark eyes falls upon Bilhah.
“Now that you have declared your allegiance to Islam, I would like to amuse myself with your heart.”
It is as she feared.
“Go and wash in the hammam, and go to the woman of the wardrobe and ask her for…” She cocks her head to the side and looks at Bilhah. “Olive silk. Olive silk will not be too showy, it is fitting for your station, but it will give a glow to your complexion. The wardrobe mistress will give you something. And jewels as well, for let no one say that I do not take care of my girls.”
It is worse than she feared. Terror pounds through her, desperation keeps her locked in place when every limb screams to her: run, run, run.
“I see that you are not enthused by the idea.”
If the woman thinks she can speak, she is wrong. Her throat is closed. Her tongue stuck to her palate. Think, Bilhah. Think. Let words, like ribbons, spill from your lips.
“Oh, but my duty here is not to worry about my heart. It is to serve your most honorable.”
Hurrem Sultan scrutinizes her some more. Quick, while she does not speak, Bilhah can try to dissuade her.
“I work in the Room of Words, as the Sultana recalls. And so the love that I am interested in takes the forms of words of devotion.”
Hurrem Sultan looks up sharply. “Poetry? You have an understanding of poetry.”
“Test me.” She does not know what she is saying, only that this is her sole chance to save herself.
Hurrem Sultan throws back her head and laughs, clapping her hands.
“I agree. I will give you a word, and you give me a line of poetry.”
It takes all of Bilhah’s courage to nod and add: “And if my lines are to your satisfaction, then I have the privilege of devoting my heart to my words.”
The woman thinks for a moment, then says, “War.”
War? Think, think, think. What will she want to hear? Conquest. Glory. Admiration. She takes a deep breath and says,
“Astride a white horse, sword bright in his hand,
He spreads peace and wisdom throughout all the land.”
Hurrem Sultan does not react in the way she expects. Her beautiful eyebrows dip, and she says coldly, “Is that really what you think?”
She is shaking. She is shaking so much that soon she will liquify and pour over the floor.
Hurrem Sultan continues: “This is what my husband the Sultan has to say about war.” She recites: “What men call empire is worldwide strife and ceaseless war. In all the world, the only joy lies in a hermit’s rest.”
Hurrem’s eyes peer at her. “He longs to be a hermit. Imagine a world like that, where we could live on a small island — one of those that Barbarossa has not yet plundered — and have our children beside us, playing contentedly on the shore. Is that not something to wish for?”
Bilhah nods her head, silent.
“Correct. Of course it is. But do you not understand that this is what I can convey upon you? A husband. Children. A little home which is your island. And yet we stand here, fighting over words, as if I want to destroy you.”
How can she explain? She cannot. Instead, she says, “I see that you value sincerity over artistry.”
Hurrem ignores her comment. She looks around the room and then throws out another word: “Black.”
Bilhah speaks slowly, summoning the words from somewhere deep inside, giving thanks to the Creator of those words, for she knows that it cannot be her alone.
“Though black may be the future
Within it I can see
A shifting, swirling figure
For in darkness she is free.”
Hurrem’s voice grows sharp. “What do you mean?”
In truth, she does not really know what she means at all, only that her words have the cadence of wisdom. And if they have agitated Hurrem Sultan, then they must hold some power or at least some truth.
“I can talk to you in freedom, for you are a person who does not matter,” Hurrem tells her. “If you were to repeat my words, either people would not believe you or, if they did, I could have you silenced.”
Silenced. A poet’s way of saying killed.
“You will meet this man. And if you like him, then you will marry him.”
“And if I do not like him?”
“As the poets say, a woman’s heart is a fickle thing. Like a nightingale, it will sing when all is dark and there is little hope, and it will fall silent in the sunshine.” She holds her hands together. “I am a sad, hunted woman, and I must amuse myself as I can, otherwise what joy will there be to my life? The streets of Istanbul are filled with families that I have formed.”
“Can… can we try once more?”
“Very well.” She looks around once more, and her eyes fall on the mosaic that adorns the opposite wall. “Blue. Periwinkle blue.” She coughs. “I shall go first. The celestial vault of blue enamel will flush rose as the wine sky bids farewell to the day.”
So many comparisons. Too many. Blue enamel. Rose. Wine sky. She has overburdened these words, they struggle under the weight of all the colors they must bear.
Bilhah thinks. Blue. The sea. Secrets. She speaks:
“Mirror of the ocean, treasure of the deep,
Deep within the heart and soul, my mystery shall keep.”
She ends on a note of triumph. Surely, she has trumped Hurrem Sultan. Has proven that her words are worth more than her heart. She looks up to meet the woman’s eyes.
Hurrem Sultan claps her hands and laughs. “You tried hard, but I want your heart more than your words. Oh, I knew that it would be so. Tomorrow, you will meet Kamran. And do not forget the olive green silk.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 812)
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