It is not a long journey, she repeats to herself, a mantra. But it is a journey that means stepping into the unknown
TO stay or to go? Just when Bilhah thinks she has decided, something — a stray comment, a thought, a shiver of fear — comes along, and her decision evaporates. During the early morning leisure hours in the gardens, she shuns the company of both Katerina and Aisha, although she feels them watching her. She goes for long walks alone.
How long does she have before Hurrem Sultan pushes her? How long before another emissary leaves to Jerusalem? For this must be her destination, she is fed up of being chased from country to country, she needs to find a place to stay, to rest.
Jerusalem. She searches her mind for things she has heard about it. Stories, comments, snippets of description. There is little in the way of details: what the people there eat, how they dress, how they support themselves. Instead, she closes her eyes and sees a shining, glowing vision of gold and purple and aquamarine. But when she tries to look closer, everything blurs and fades.
To travel, you need to have faith — either in the world or in yourself. It is too dangerous, too frightening, to go out in the world without being able to trust. Anyone might be readying themselves to attack you. Anything might destroy you.
So you are combative and you hate yourself, or you withdraw and try to live a solitary existence until you think that you are like that silver birch that grew in the river near your house in Salonika. One day the storm rains and winds uprooted it and carried it away. It was gone, and you could look at the river, stare and stare, and there was nothing to mark it, to recall that there had once grown a tree, that there had been anything there at all.
That is what it is like to leave the place you know, the place where you are known. You are in danger of becoming nothing at all, of disappearing into the storm waters with no one to mourn your loss.
That is what it means to travel to Jerusalem. But to stay? That would mean marriage to Kamram.
Marriage to Kamram means listening. Listening between his words to hear his threats. Listening during the day, identifying his tread, his knock, so she can slip out from a back door or even a window, then apologize later that she was delayed at the palace or the marketplace — that woman who sells fish will never give you a price until she has told you the woes of each of her 13 children. It means listening at night, hearing the sounds as he puts down his cloak and pours himself a glass of wine, to see if it is safe to be awake, or whether she must pretend to be deeply asleep.
She tries to imagine herself in a little house in Istanbul. Perhaps there will be a beit knesset nearby. Perhaps there will be Shabbat as she knew it at home, where the air in the streets seemed to stretch and shimmer. Perhaps she would have a child.
She shivers. Wraps her arms around herself. A child, who would be, could be, shaken, frightened, harmed.
No. Never. If the only alternative is Jerusalem, she will take it, although she does not know where or how her life will continue.
When Bilhah asks Yasemin for a quiet conversation, Yasemin leads her to the room where they mix the ink.
“It is one of the only places in this whole great palace, with its hundreds of rooms, where I know I can be alone.”
Glass bottles filled with ingredients line the walls. Soot. Ash. Water.
Bilhah looks at the bottles. “My father adds walnut oil to the ink he makes. But that is for a printing press.”
“Yes. I have often thought about trying some kind of oil, they say it helps the color adhere to the surface. I am just afraid that it will smudge and ruin the expensive parchment or an important and long missive.”
“We used to buy ink from Florence, but it was unreliable. It arrived weeks, months sometimes, later. And it was always different.”
Bilhah knows well the problem of ink. Too thick and it is a globular mess. Too thin and it does not cleave to the pigment of the parchment or paper. Some inks are better for parchment, some for paper. All of them are an art, rather than a science, for when the weather is warm, more water must be added, with the ash that is from the mulberry tree, rather than from oak or poplar or elm; it is not as dark, and a different effect is achieved.
Yasemin could talk to her all afternoon about ink, but Bilhah speaks quickly, directly, afraid that otherwise the palace will start to work on her again, through her, softening her resolve.
“Can you get me sent away from here? The envoy to Jerusalem is leaving soon, I heard. I could join them, as a correspondent.”
Yasemin looks sad. “I thought it would come to this. My most talented translator.”
Bilhah’s head jerks up, surprised.
Yasemin tips her head and opens her eyes wide. “What, you did not know?”
Bilhah shakes her head. She has been so busy trying to be acceptable that she did not know that she had any special talent.
Yasemin nods. “Most see a word and think of an equivalent in Spanish or Italian or Persian. But you hold a word up to the light as if it a precious gem, and you watch how the light refracts through the different planes: What would this word mean in this sentence? How would it change the meaning of that phrase? And then you choose which word to use in a different language.
“But you, I can give you letters written by queens or diplomats, for you will read between the lines and tell me what they have said, what they implied, and what they have failed to say, or withheld from saying.”
Yasemin picks up a bottle of ink and spills some out, watching it run down an old piece of parchment.
“Do you see how it is still not black enough?” she says to Bilhah.
“Add more ash.”
Bilhah reaches up to the glass bottles, her fingers close over the nearest.
Yasemin shakes her head. “Not oak. Elm ash. Elm or birch, both are the best, though if oak is burned in a hot enough furnace, it will take on the same shade. But the furnaces were not hot enough this year, probably fed with wood that was slightly damp.”
Bilhah tries to lay down the facts in her memory, for surely where she is going, there will be no ink room, filled with ingredients, and she will be forced to buy ink from peddlers and then add to it whatever she can to improve its quality.
Yasemin looks at her: “So you want to leave us?”
“It is not that I want to leave, but I cannot marry this man, Kamram.”
Yasemin nods. “I understand. In the old days, Hurrem Sultan was more pliable. Less afraid, perhaps. Although she suggested many matches, she did not follow them through.”
“Is this what happened to you?”
Yasemin does not answer. Instead she says, “I wonder what would have happened if I had been less afraid. I hid in the palace. I have no children, Bilhah. And I was my parents’ only child.”
Yasemin’s words fail to move Bilhah. If there is one thing that Papa does not deserve, it is a continuance.
Yasemin works quickly, it seems, for within two weeks, the arrangements are in place. The night before she is due to leave, a circle forms around Bilhah in the sleeping hall, forming a ring of friendship. Bilhah looks around at them. Katerina. Aisha. Yasemin. Two girls from the Room of Letters. Nafiza, whose sleeping mat is near her own, and Sura, who sits near her at breakfast and prayers.
Bilhah looks around.
“A gathering of friends,” Aisha pronounces.
Bilhah looks up in surprise. Is this what she is to them? Is this what they are to her? Perhaps Katerina. Maybe Aisha. But the others? Are they not simply the girls and women whose lives happen to brush her own? After two weeks, she will have forgotten their names, two more and their faces will have disappeared from her memory. It is confusing to her that they call her a friend.
“We have brought you farewell gifts and wishes from the heart,” Katerina says.
Nafiza hands her an acorn. “Plant it, and you will have an oak tree from the imperial gardens.”
A scrap of green fabric embroidered with her name lands in her lap. This, from Katerina.
“It will help me remember who I am,” Bilhah says, holding it up and admiring it.
A piece of virgin parchment, supple and soft, along with a small bottle of the finest ink the Imperial Palace produces. Yasemin smiles at her and squeezes her hand as she passes it to her.
Aisha says, “My gift to you is already in your keeping, but I would like you to hand it to me so that I can hand it back to you.”
Confused, Bilhah leans forward, close to Aisha’s ear. “What is it that you mean?” she asks.
“The cat charm,” Aisha whispers.
Bilhah feels her face go red. She fumbles through her pocket purse, trying to avoid the questions that graze like embroidery needles. The tiny gold charm that she purloined — that she stole on one of the first nights after she had arrived.
She had never looked at the face of the woman who lay asleep, only seen her golden hair and instantly envied her, for a girl who had hair like this could never have suffered as she had, she decided. Maybe somewhere in her mind she had justified it, thought she may return it if she did not need it, but she never had.
She digs it out of the pocket and holds it in her palm, unfurling her fingers. Aisha takes it and holds it up to the light, then lightly drops it back onto Bilhah’s palm.
“My gift to you,” she says quietly. “A reminder that friendship and forgiveness are intertwined, and neither lessens the other.”
Bilhah nods and swallows, she looks at the circle and smiles, but sees no faces for all has become a blur of the sweetest tears she has ever shed.
She does not sleep. As the first light washes the room, she is up on her feet, a relief to have passed the night. Her traveling bag — complete with clothes and a thick cloak embroidered with the initials of Hurrem Sultan — a last act of proprietorship or a means of protection and confidence? — has already been given to the guards and stored on the carriage that will take them on the short journey to the harbor. From there, they will board a ship sailing to Jaffa, stopping at Famagusta and Tyre, depending on the wind and supplies, and from Jaffa, traveling by caravan to Jerusalem.
It is not a long journey, she repeats to herself, a mantra. But it is a journey that means stepping into the unknown, heading to a place from where she will never return.
She straightens her back. She is strong. She has always been so. She has never allowed herself to be beaten. She will find it in herself now, to step out of the gates of the Imperial Palace and onto the gangplank, and she will never once look back.
To be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 818)
Oops! We could not locate your form.