| Family First Serial |

Within My Walls: Chapter 3      

A girl goes from her father’s home to her husband’s. If she cannot live in either of those homes, what place does she have in the world?


Morning. Bilhah wakes not to the whistle of finches or the raucous cry of the blue jay bickering over worms, nor to the dull thud of the printing press, as the type is inked and the platen descends and a new page is printed.

Instead, voices. Women’s voices. The only woman’s voice at home is that of Rosa, the servant, and every word of hers is a screech.

Papa’s voice is always hoarse, and when he raises it, there is a grind in his throat. His voice and those of his workers, full-bodied and rough, as if they need to be sandpapered into smoothness, can always be heard from the workshop, located in the stable next to their home in Salonika. But that noise is low, and here there’s a shrillness that hurts her ears.

She blinks. Around her, women are rising from their sleeping mats, rolling them with a crack and a swish. But she lies, listening to the layer upon layer of voices, high and gentle and husky and all of them, all of them women.

Humming. Talking. A shriek, followed by laughter. Gentle chanting.

She struggles to pick out words she can understand, but it seems that she has come to the Tower of Bavel. How can they all speak to each other when they all sound so different? But then, if there are girls and women here from far and near, then surely there will be some Jews or Conversas?

Follow, observe, imitate. Wash, dress.

A rumble from the outside draws her to the window, and she sees trolleys and barrows piled high with rice and sacks of grain. Another is laden with tiny peaches, flushed orange and pink with ripeness. Her mouth suddenly aches for moisture and sweetness.

To the dining hall, where she eats cheese and bread — not too much, although it is soft and fresh; not too little, for she does not know when the next meal will be served, and what it will be.

Her eyes flit around the hall, watching, noticing, catching on to details — a hibiscus leaf pinned into hair, three women each wearing topaz rings. She is bewildered by the differences — hair of all shades, black and white-blonde and brownish-red; some wear half-veils, some full, and most wear their hair free. What are the rules here? And who makes them?

The faces. Some of the girls’ faces are almost flat, save for cheekbones that slant up to their eyes, some have round eyes, round cheeks. There are women who are old and there are girls like her, all ages. Her eyes and mind try to sift through, identify what is important and what can be discarded, but the noise and colors ripple and blur and thoughts begin to snap at her. She rests her head on her hand and closes her eyes, to block it all out. Did she, could she really have imagined that she could survive in this place?

But then, what choice did she have? A girl goes from her father’s home to her husband’s. If she cannot live in either of those homes, what place does she have in the world?

The sky must suffice as her roof and her walls will be her arms wrapped around herself.

Or she can find refuge in the Imperial Palace, and be grateful for the good fortune that brought her here. She opens her eyes and straightens her back.

She feels a hand on her shoulder and starts.

“We came together on the caravan, I noticed you on the way.”

Bilhah blinks and nods. A girl stands beside her — where could she be from? She is not particularly beautiful, but her skin is clear and her eyes are limpid. She must be a Christian girl.

“Where are you from?” Bilhah asks.

“Ruthenia. Hurrem Sultan is from there, you know. So now she orders that caravans start there, so that some of the servants will speak her language and know her customs.”

Bilhah nods. She had heard that the caravan had started its journey in a place near Russia. “So this gives you… a privileged place here?”

The girl gives a bitter laugh. “As if we come here by choice. Hard work, talent, and skill. That is what gives you a privileged place in the palace. Or so I have heard.”

“From whom?”

“I spoke to the driver along the way. He told us to make peace with our fate.”

One girl’s misfortune is another’s refuge. Bilhah bites her lip. She should have milked the driver for information. A missed opportunity.

She let herself down.

“So what else did you learn?”

“That there is a menagerie here.”

She hates to ask questions. It makes her weak, somehow. “What is that?

The girl beckons her to a window. “Listen.”

Bilhah lifts her head and listens again to the air. She notices other sounds now, woven between the talk of girls. Growls. A faint roar. Birdsong, the likes of which Bilhah has never heard before.

“A collection of animals. I am Katerina, by the way.”

She nods. “Bilhah. Yesterday, I saw a bird walking through the garden. Large.” She motions with her hands. “It had feathers of such beauty, like a fan and on the fan were green eyes.”

She had stared and stared, trying to imprint its strange beauty on her memory. It looked like a creature in an ancient tale, half magical. A shiver had run through her. Perhaps the eyes were evil. Perhaps they were the portent of misfortune. She had forced herself to stare, not dropping her gaze until the bird with a hundred eyes had strutted away.

“Ah. A peacock.” Katerina winks. “Does it not remind you of the women here?”

Bilhah pauses, looks around, and turns back to Katerina. The eyes that she thought were limpid are full of curiosity and life. She finds herself warmed, just a little. Find yourself a mentor and a friend. Perhaps Katerina—

“Although we will not be peacocks for a good while,” Katerina says. She pulls at her clothing — a shapeless brown dress and grimaces. “We are here to work.”

In a cloud of chatter, the women are leaving the hall. Bilhah lets her eyes fall on them, examines their clothing. Many of them are draped in fabric the likes of which she has never seen before. It shimmers in one color when the sun hits it and then changes again when the sun is hidden by a cloud. She thinks back to her turquoise and gold embroidered wedding dress. Neither she nor anyone back home had had any idea of what color could really be: how it could catch the eye and ripple with a thousand shades at once, how it could be both strong and light and liquid.

“What work shall we do?”

“How many women live here, do you think?”

“A hundred?”

“A few hundred. And our guards, you must have seen them, dressed in white with black faces. And then there are the men in the main palace — there are maybe a thousand. Who washes the woolen blankets? Who plays the music? Who grinds the saffron and the cinnamon? Plucks the chickens? Feeds the chickens and collects the eggs? Arranges the flowers? Who scrubs the tiles on the floor and walls?”

Bilhah nods, slowly. “So there is space and place for us. What can you do?” she asks Katerina. Surely this girl will know what the best jobs are. The kitchen, perhaps, for kitchen workers never go hungry. But thinking of the meal that has just been served, hunger does not seem to be a worry here.

“I can sew. Embroider. Make clothing.”

Bilhah nods. All girls can sew. But when she sits with a needle and thread, something quickens inside her, so she must battle herself to remain seated and keep at her work. Others find a calm joy in the work, but when she rises from needlework, she resists the urge to run outside into the vineyard and stride through each row, tugging at the leaves as she goes. “I am a quick learner. But needlework. It requires a special kind of patience.”

“Indeed. It takes three years to embroider the dervishes’ shirts.”

“Three years?”

“Have you seen one?”

Bilhah shakes her head. Around her, young girls dressed in long navy robes clear the tables of food.

“They are made here. They are embroidered with verses from the Koran and the hidden secrets of the constellations.”

“Interesting to read but torturous to make.”

Katerina laughs. “Can you read, then?”

“My father owned a printing press. In Salonika. When I was a child, I played with the metal type that had worn out. I do not know if someone taught me, or I just taught myself. I cannot remember a time when I did not read. Forward and backward, for the cast letters on the type are arranged like those you see in a mirror.”

“Then you could work with the scribes. Hurrem Sultan has a whole room of young girls who copy holy texts and write her letters for her. But you would have to learn the Arabic type.”

It is on her lips to say, Oh, I can do anything. Everything. Perhaps not embroidering these shirts, but if I am left in peace, if I am safe, then I will scrub every tile on the wall, even if the intricate pattern makes me dizzy. I will learn to write in the Arabic script, if need be, though it looks not like letters at all, but waves on a river, rising up and falling down.

She takes a deep breath. “How would I learn that?”

“In the madrassa, of course. We are all to go to school here, and learn everything that we will need to serve Hurrem Sultan, and in doing so, add to the magnificence of Sultan Suleiman.”

Katerina’s finger jabs toward the girls, overburdened with platters and silverware. “Otherwise we will end up as servants of servants. The slave of a slave.” She laughs, but it holds threads of fear. “And if we fail at that, we will end up as beggars on the streets of Istanbul.”


Halfway up the hill something catches Leonora’s eye and she halts. The child does not look like a child at all, but a curled-up fox cub, with a darkened face and a body that shrinks into itself. When he — or is it she? — looks up at Leonora, its eyes are first dull and then grow bright with questions.

She stops, and behind her, the servants stop, too. She bends down. What language? Who knows? She tries in her native Ladino and points first to her middle and then to the child’s. “Are you hungry?”

The child does not reply. If that is what ails him, he might be well past the point at which hunger means a growling stomach. The stomach quietens, the world becomes woozy and unfocused, and then the sun grows very bright and the smallest sounds grow sharp with clarity. He could be at any of these stages. She remembers them well.

“Come with me and I will give you food.” It is a command, but she tries to keep her voice soft. The child hesitates, and Leonora walks on, leaving one of her attendants to help the child out of his gutter, wrap something around him and follow. A few paces down, she turns. They are still coaxing him up. He stands, unsteady on his feet.

He looks to be four or five, but doubtless that is poverty instead of age, he could be nine or ten, sent out of the house early in the morning to find work, a crust of bread, something, and tired and weak he simply curled up and went to sleep on the cobblestones. Surely there are more children in his home, hungrier than he.

She clucks the roof of her mouth with her tongue and clutches onto the cane she carries, not because she cannot walk steadily, but because it lends her an air of stateliness, and makes people listen when she talks, instead of dismissing her as a woman.

By the time they have wended their way through the streets of Tzfat toward her home, a clutch of nine children follow them, hungry.

At home, Leonora orders them all to sit in the garden, while she summons Ines. “These children need to be fed, but they are half starved. How will their bodies react?”

Ines walks up to the group sitting on the grass where the sun’s rays fall. They are silent, not even a whisper passes between the girls, which makes Leonora afraid for them. She touches the girls’ cheeks, bends down to see how swollen their stomachs are. Then she eases herself up.

“Give them a soup, with boiled wheat kernels. No fowl. No eggs. Nothing that is rich.”

The order is given and a little while later, the children drink down the soup, chewing on the kernels and swallowing them hungrily. Each of them is given an earthenware pot to carry home, and a loaf of bread.

“Come back tomorrow,” Leonora tells the children as they leave, in twos and threes, still silent, but now standing straighter, no longer weighed down by the heaviness of their backs and heads and arms. “Tomorrow, there will be more food here for you and for you to take home to your families.”

They nod and thank her, and she hopes that they have understood.

When they are gone, she summons Yishai. He looks at her, wearily. She chooses not to notice. “Yishai, find out who owns the property surrounding us. I want to buy it.”

He looks around. “What for, Mama? Your apartment is not large, but it meets your needs. And Amram and I are both grateful for our homes. The courtyard is spacious, and the well is in good working order.”

She inclines her head. “I am glad of it. But this place is full of hungry children. We must set up a kitchen and dining room, where they can come each day and eat their fill. If it is close by, then it will ease Ines’s aching knees and enable me to supervise it.”

He stares.

“Please act swiftly on my words, Yishai. You did well enough finding this place for us. Now find a place for all the hungry children.”

That night, as she lies in bed and waits with dread for the shadows to shape themselves into dreams, she thinks again of the children. Their eyes grow larger, taking over their faces, until the children become monstrous. Their mouths open in hunger and their hands press together in a silent plea. Her fingers grope for the jug of wine she keeps beside her bed.

It is not there.

She sits up. Blinks.

Ines. Ines has removed the wine.

Something inside her tears in fear and panic.

She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes but the children are there, mocking her.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 791)

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