How does she do it? Scratching out words and numbers and talking to him at the same time?
Eliyahu bends down to examine the ewe; he holds her face still and looks at her eyes, then opens her mouth to examine her teeth. He frowns; it is as he thought. A slight froth foams around the mouth and is it the light, or are the ewe’s eyes dull?
He releases the sheep, and it wanders away. He watches. It pulls at a few stalks of grass, but does not graze fully as it should. Another animal approaches, and the ewe ducks her head and raises it again, warning: Do not come close. He does not know what is wrong, but there is something, he feels it in his bones.
He leaves the sheep with the boy who helps during the day, and returns to the town, where he walks down the narrow alleyway where the physician lives. The doctor is a man from Italy, with a nervous twitch and a stammer. No one uses him for big cases: the doctor from Damascus comes all the way once every month or two, paid for by rich Jews of Alexandria. But a doctor knows about blood and the body and muscles and the heart. Maybe he can advise him about the sheep.
He raps sharply at the front door, and the doctor’s wife answers, a paper in hand.
“Here are the day’s calls,” she tells him. “Memorize the first five, try out each address in turn, and then if you do not find him, come back for the continuation of the list.”
Eliyahu glances up at the sky. The sun is already high. “Surely he will be up to his third or fourth visit of the day, by now.”
The woman shakes her head. “He stays with each ailing soul as long as they need. There is no knowing where he might be.”
“Health is life and life is above time.”
She sets her lips together. It is something she has surely said many times over. Eliyahu takes one more look at the list, committing the names and places to memory, then turns to leave.
Eliyahu finds the doctor not at the first patient, but at the second. Through the front door, he sees the doctor hold up a large stick.
“I made this myself,” he says to a little boy, who has a large bandage on his leg. The stick has a wide handle, which he wraps in a blanket. “If you do not have enough blankets, then send to my wife and she will give you another for we keep a supply at home.”
“For people who are ailing?”
“Ailing, yes. And also for people who are cold.”
He helps the boy to his feet and shows him how to hold each stick and walk forward, slowly, keeping his injured leg off the ground. It takes three attempts until the boy learns how to use them.
When the man has finished showing the boy how to use crutches, he picks up his bag. Eliyahu approaches.
“I have a problem with a flock of sheep.”
The man does not laugh as Eliyahu had thought he may. He just nods and looks down, concentrating, as Eliyahu explains.
“The problem is not among the lambs, you say, but mainly among the ewes.”
“They have grown thin, and are aggressive.”
“Also to their own offspring?”
Eliyahu has been watching them carefully, but he finds that as he does, his eyes begin to close and he jerks himself awake a few minutes later, unsure of what has just happened. It is because of the nightly study and prayer sessions. The tiredness is catching up with him, and stopping him give everything to the flock. He wonders if he should stop.
“I do not think so.”
The man nods and thinks. “I am not a sheep doctor, you understand.”
“But the course of action that makes sense is to separate the ailing sheep from the rest of the flock. Keep them in a barn, bring them feed. That will stop any illness from spreading through the flock, and also will enable you to observe them better.”
Eliyahu nods, relieved. Of course. He should have thought of it himself. He clasps the doctor’s hand in thanks and hurries back to the herd.
By the end of the afternoon, 30 ewes are penned into the barn. Some of them are more listless than others. Their lambs are kept with them, and the flock outside is noticeably smaller. Still, Eliyahu feels hopeful at last, that the flock itself will be safe.
When he arrives home late that afternoon, a servant from the main house is waiting for him. He follows the servant, who leads him down to Leonora’s home and into the room where she works. He stands at the doorway, reluctant to enter, unsure of what is being asked of him.
She sits at a table, surrounded by her correspondence. She does not look up, simply dips her pen in ink and addresses him, while continuing her writing.
“I have heard that a section of the flock is penned up in the barn.”
“Yes. There are worries about their health, as I told you.”
How does she do it? Scratching out words and numbers and talking to him at the same time? For her brow is furrowed in concentration and her arm moves across the page.
“But will that not stop the fleece from growing? As I understand it, the sheep need to be outdoors for the fleece to grow best. Thick and plentiful.”
“It does mean that.” He hesitates. “But it is a loss for the here and now, while preserving the ewe’s health for the future. As well as ensuring that if she is suffering from some ailment, it will not spread to the rest of the herd.”
“It is a loss that we cannot afford.”
“Losing a sheep is a loss that we cannot afford.”
“But that is only a possible loss. And this is a certain loss.”
He looks at her and shakes his head. “I do not understand.”
She throws down her pen and looks up at him. Finally. She has deemed him worthy to be addressed.
“Do you want the sheep to die?” he asks.
“I do not care about individual sheep. I care about wool.”
“But one thing is the other.”
“No. You can push the sheep a lot harder until they are in danger. Most creatures are hardier than they seem. Tomorrow I want to hear that they have been released from the barn and are grazing on the hillside. And if the wind comes and they shiver with cold, all the better for the wool.”
He stands, leaning against the doorframe. The woman continues with her writing, oblivious to his presence. Eventually, bent over as if he has been wounded, he shuffles out of the house.
Sunset does not come. Bilhah stands on the deck of the ship, watching the great orange ball hang just above the horizon. They travel toward it, interminable, but it is like when Yehoshua commanded that the sun hang, still and unmoving in the sky. The longer they travel, the longer the sun lingers.
The sun tips toward the sea, the waters turns from blue to a palette of pinks and orange. Like spilled ink, the colors drip and spill across the sky, mixing into each other and tinting the sea purple and magenta, and still they travel toward the horizon and still the color glows, stronger and deeper until it is so beautiful that she can no longer look, for the beauty cannot be borne.
Until, all of a sudden, it is night.
In Jaffa, they are taken to a large stone building built and funded by the largesse of the great Sultan Suleiman. Here, they call him Suleiman the Lawmaker, for he has introduced law and order to the place, when the Mamluks simply thrashed and grabbed what they could.
Cold and disoriented, Bilhah follows the crowd into the dining area and sits down at a table. She shivers. Outside, the air is warm and comforting, but inside the chill bites into her bones, or perhaps it is tiredness, from these weeks of travel.
An old lady with a bent back hobbles over and sets a plate of soup in front of her, then returns with a second plate for herself. She slurps and sips, finishes one bowl and refilling it, before she turns to Bilhah and begins to speak. The woman has no teeth, and it is hard to know where one word starts and the other ends. At first, Bilhah does not know what language she speaks, until it dawns on her that she speaks in Lashon Hakodesh.
“I have come all the way from Alexandria,” she says. “Years ago, I heard this story and I always wanted to know if it was true. If I die while I am here, then so much the better, and I will not be surprised, either, for I think that all these years it was only curiosity that was keeping me alive.
“Since the time of Yishmael, the Arabs have been known for their hospitality. And look what we are using it for? To go up to the holy city.”
She takes her to the window and opens the shutters. “The air that wafts in… do you hear that?”
Bilhah listens. After a few minutes, she hears the sounds of jackals, howling in the distance.
“Hear that sound? That is the sound of your soul at night.
“People come to the land, but they do not always stay, for they cannot bear to hear their souls. Or feel them.” She clutches her hand to her chest. It aches. She takes Bilhah’s hands in her own. “Sometimes it feels like this,” she presses. “You feel it, it is there. And sometimes it feels like this”—she squeezes tight, releases, and squeezes tight again—“so it is like a great heart outside of you is pushing, pulling, squeezing, releasing.
“Many people cannot bear it, after a while. Oh, they say it is many things. Locusts. The food. The water. The fear of Bedouins riding through the night from the desert, to attack by sunrise. Disease. There is all of that, it is true, maybe a little more than other place, but really what they are saying is that this is a place where my soul is alive, and when it is alive, it feels how it was torn from its home and cast down into this world, and it aches. Oh, how it aches.”
She looks at Bilhah. “I wonder if you will stay. I do not know if you have it in you. Oh, you are strong. You have courage. But it takes more than faith to live here. It takes an opening up of the heart. For that is the only thing that stops the ache, you see.”
She does not see. And she does not know that she has any choice. And all of this talk of soul makes her uncomfortable. For months, she has thought not of her soul, but of her body, her safety.
“If you are going to Jerusalem,” the woman says, sidling up to her, “then make sure to go to the Western Wall — or the Wailing Wall or whatever you want to call it, and pray for the redemption of our people.”
She shivers. What is this. Everywhere she goes, people talk of the Redemption. It follows her.
“The story?” Bilhah asks gently.
“Oh. Yes. Yes, well.
“The story goes that Sultan Suleiman — or maybe it was one of his officials — saw an old woman carrying a basket full of waste on her head. He was angry that she was carrying it near the precinct of the Ottoman governor, and stopped her. What a lack of respect.”
The woman is an actress. As she acts out the part, she stands, puts her hands on her hips and screws her face into the angry pout of an official.
“‘Oh, I have come here all the way from Beit Lechem,’ the woman says.”
The old lady reaches up and steadies the imaginary basket on her kerchiefed head.
“For all those who live outside Jerusalem must come here once a month and cast their filth on the site of the ruins of the Temple, for the Romans did not complete the task and they commanded that all after them do so.
“The Sultan heard and he ordered his guards to be on the lookout for more of these filth pilgrims, who were coming to Jerusalem to spill their filth on holy soil. He found many, and he followed them to where they were going: a great, stinking hill of dirt and filth. He reported this to the Sultan, who handed him a big bag of coins and told him to scatter them over the hill.
“Well, you can imagine what happened after that. Within minutes, children swarmed the place, and the guards handed them burlap sacks and woven baskets and told them to fill them with dirt, the better to find the coins. They carried the dirt well away from the city. It took almost a week of days until that hill was removed, but when it was gone, there it was.”
“The Wall. The great, holy Wall.”
“How did they know?”
“Well, it was on the right site. And they knew as soon as they saw the stones. Great, huge stones, they are.
“The Sultan opened his storerooms and his servants hefted out great jugs of rosewater and he ordered that the stones be scrubbed with rosewater. But the Jews would not do it, for they were too afraid of the sanctity of the place. So little Arab children began, but then the women protested that it is not respectful — how can we let strangers clean our most holy site? So the women took the rags from the little children and they cleaned the walls.
“They say that one man tried to stop them and his body turned to stone. He was carried home and lay on his bed for 40 days and 40 nights.
“And do you know who that man was? He was an enemy of our people, one who stirred up trouble with the kadi and who used to write to Istanbul and complain about his Jewish neighbors.
“Since then, every time anyone needs a miracle, that is where they go.”
“I need no miracle,” Bilhah murmurs.
The woman opens her mouth wide and lets out a loud cackle. “Oh, you are mistaken, my girl, you need a miracle all right. You need a miracle.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 819)
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