She will need a scribe. Someone who will walk around the factory and not simply assume that he has seen destruction, but will open his eyes and note down the details
IT is dawn by the time they come to call her. Dawn, and too late.
Leonora has been sitting by the window — another sleepless night had come to call — so she sees them as they come through the streets, a little knot of men with lanterns bobbing in their hands, even though they barely need them now, for the summer sun rises early.
Leonora cranes her neck out of the window and narrows her eyes better to focus.
She recognizes the foreman of the wool factory. What has happened?
Kindling the lanterns was a delay.
Perhaps a delay that was justified, for who knows what time they left their homes.
It could have been dark. It could be that they were not lax in their obligations.
They bang on the door, and she is swept out into the night with them. She knows, without them even telling her, where they are going, and she is not afraid. Only, these men, as they pull together words and stories, insert details and then contradict them, foist their theories into their tale — they fill her with impatience.
“We discovered it this morning.”
“We heard noises in the middle of the night.”
“The damage is considerable.”
“It is only surface damage.”
“It is the Turks.”
“It is the townspeople.”
“It is a small band of renegade boys, come up from Jerusalem to make mischief.”
She listens, biting back her tongue so as not to point out the contradictions in their story: How could the noise be heard at night, when the factory is located well away from the residential area? Her mind works fast. Perhaps they heard the band of boys, men, Turks threading through the streets of the town, bent on destruction.
She sighs. She will need a scribe. Someone who will walk around the factory and not simply assume that he has seen destruction, but will open his eyes and note down the details: which machines were damaged, which supplies destroyed. It is only by seeing the facts that there is a chance of piecing together a story.
She strides, and even though sometimes when she walks her knees ache and her left hip throbs, today she feels nothing.
When they climb the hill next to the factory, she pauses for a moment. If only the men would be silent and let her hear the river. Each time she thinks she catches the sound, there is another yell or guffaw or some instruction that covers the sound. She rubs her arms and waits. The place is bathed in gray: Although the sun has begun to rise in the distance, this place is still dark.
The foreman goes in first, and she is happy to let him do so. The door hangs off its hinges, the oak split and hacked so it hangs, useless. A broken limb. She reaches out and touches it, careless of splinters, wanting to soothe the great gash.
She lingers there, but the men are already inside, their lanterns making little circles of light in the dark factory.
What matters, really, she thinks, as she closes her eyes, hiding from the violation, is the pelts. The wool that is still being processed from them. Standing at the doorway, reluctant to enter, she sniffs. The air carries the smell of wet grass, the metal smell of the river washing the stones, the animal smell of wet wool. No fire. Thank the heavens, they did not fight her with fire.
Her eyes fly open. Wood can be repaired. But the wool — that is what needs to be saved now. The wool.
She runs inside, soles drumming on the wooden floor. Reaches the storage room. It, too, has a door hanging loose. Empty. She sprints around the perimeter of the factory, looking for the bales of grayish white, cleaned, combed, waiting to be dyed. Nothing.
“The wool,” she cries out.
The men look at her and shrug. They are worried about the building, the broken doors, the dye vats that have been upturned, not realizing that none of that matters, none of it at all. All of that can be repaired or replaced. It is the wool which is priceless. She runs outside: Maybe there will be some evidence — a dropped bale, a ball of grayish white, something, that will direct the search.
She looks around desperately, lifts her hand to shield her eyes from the new day’s rising sun, and circles the factory. At the back, near the river, she sees it: a trail of wool. She bends down and scoops it up, following the beard of gray. Her eyes scan the banks of the river, and then the river itself. A little downstream, where a crop of rocks bare teeth, she sees it.
The wool. It has been dumped in the river, and is now tangled around the gray boulders. She yells to the foreman as she runs up the hill, until she is parallel with the lost wool. She steps into the river. The water is cold, but it doesn’t touch her, only she feels unstable, off-balance. One tread and then another, feet feeling out the riverbank, step by step, never sure where she will find something solid under her feet, each time she puts down her foot, unsure if it is on stable ground or on a rock that will twist and slide away. The water swirls around her, frothing and spitting: She is in until her waist and if she leans forward, she can… can she? She stretches, her fingers touch the wool, a great roll of it, held in place by the rocks.
There. She grasps it with her fingers, claws at it, pushes her palms against the sodden stuff. She looks down at it. There is no way she can haul it all to the shore. It is saturated with river water, it would be like carrying—
—like carrying the great boulders that will make up the wall of Jerusalem.
She wades in closer, resisting the push and pull of the current. She raises her arms, leans forward, and pulls the huge bundle against her. And then she stands, river swirling around her, waiting for the men to come.
Ines keeps urging her to rest, to return to bed. Early afternoon, when everything aches her and the chill that entered her bones while she stood in the river seems like it will never leave, she wonders whether, if the tables were turned and Ines were the younger of the two, she would heed her own instructions. But as it is, Ines is older, and that makes Leonora young, even if she is a grandmother many times over. Even if her hip aches and her fingers have taken on a slight tremble.
She pushes away the dread of illness and the fogginess that has descended on her mind and sits very straight, with Yishai and Amram beside her.
The men talk, and she presses the small of her back against her chair. Her straight-backed chair that neither Amram nor Yishai can sit on, complaining that it is too uncomfortable, how does she work this way — not knowing that she never sits back when she works, only leans forward, as if her very body is pushing the pen, the contract, the plan, the world, history, time, toward its final destination.
She watches the foreman, the manager, the senior workers. They talk and gesture, and then they sit back and wait. She sits, impassive, while Yishai leans forward, a frown between his eyes, mouth curled down, and Amram diligently writes down their meandering words.
The men seem to enjoy discussing the damage. The attack on the wool factory. It gives them some kind of satisfaction, she sees, they rub their hands with relish, and it is as if they are delivering a challenge — maybe because she is a woman, maybe because she has hope for the future, maybe, maybe because she is daring to take on the world and bend it to her will — and they enjoy showing her how it is impossible.
It is as if they are saying, when they lean forward and speculate on just how much the damage will cost, and how they will transform sodden wool into fine blankets fit for the Sultan’s army — it is as if they say, now we shall see what you are really made of. Will you dissolve, as every woman must or should, and leave it for us to take care of? Or will you prove that you are no woman at all, maybe not even a person, but some kind of animal — a lion or a wolf, perhaps — in a woman’s clothing.
She sits straighter in her chair and tries to draw her mind into the debate, but it will not obey.
She lets her eyes rest on the tabletop, and slowly, it comes to her. The room buzzes with the conversation: the length of time it will take to clean the wool, the possible culprits, the law and order in this town, the lack of law and order in this town, the Jewish community that lives peaceably, until it doesn’t, the laws that are broken so often that they are no longer laws, the tax man who harasses them, claiming that he is paying for the law and order.
She clears her throat, and the noise stops. “It is the wall, is it not?”
“The people who attacked the factory are protesting the wall around Jerusalem.”
The men look down, uneasy.
“This is not some bored children, who are looking for something to do on a warm summer night when the moon is full. Children would not have taken an axe to the door. Children would have taken the wool and rolled in it and played with it. They would not have thrown it into the river.”
The foreman opens his mouth to speak, but Leonora holds up her hand to stop him. “I know who it is. It is the zealots who know that I support the building of the wall. They are warning me. They are showing me that they will do anything to stop it.”
Bilhah wanders the dusty, narrow streets, trying not to choke from the dry air. There is no shade here, in Jerusalem.
There are few gardens.
The few that there are surround large villas and are protected by large walls and fences. The only hint that they exist are the trees — orange and lemon and plum — that rise above the high stone walls. She stares at the fruit, the color a relief. For all she sees is brown dust, dun-colored stones, yellow sand.
She thinks of the Imperial Gardens, where she walked each morning. Green. How many shades of green? And the blue of the stream and the sky, and the flowers, and even without the flowers, the fragrance of it all: sweet and rich and heady, lavender and jasmine and rose, the very air was perfumed with lush extravagance.
Jerusalem. She leans against a wall and wraps her arms around herself.
She did not realize how lonely she would be. Oh, there are other women here, but it is not the same. There was a camaraderie among the odalisques, a joint striving to adjust, to succeed. They strung together the beads of information that they discovered about life in the palace, the unspoken rules and rituals. There was a joint quest to learn which women were benevolent, and who was harsh. They whispered in the sleeping halls, made signs to each other as they bit into the soft loaves of bread and spread salty cheese, and even as they filed into the prayer hall, minds not on their souls or their maker, but on who was in favor, which styles everyone coveted, which colors and fabric they would be wearing that summer, for one of them had seen the women buyers enter the palace with bolts of the stuff, and had summoned the courage to ask which of the samples was cheapest.
And there were the gates and the wall. How they complained about the wall. How it stifled them, how they were in the most luxurious prison in the world, they would all say. What they didn’t say is what it gave them, how it enclosed them and stifled them — kept them safe.
And now she is here, in Jerusalem, and it confounds her, not only the differences but how dislocated she feels, as if she is on unsteady ground.
As if any moment she might stumble and fall.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 820)
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