“Next time your Papa gets angry. Next time, you must use your mind to build a wall around yourself, one brick and another and another”
IT is midafternoon by the time Bilhah reaches for the letter: that space in the afternoon when time folds into a plump pillow and invites you to rest your head. She yawns and turns the letter over. The seal on the letter is familiar: a great splash of red wax embossed with that mythical creature, a phoenix rising from a flame.
Bilhah stares at it a moment, tiredness forgotten. She knows exactly where this letter is from. In the Room of Words in Istanbul, she was never the one who broke the seal, but always, before she started to read, she would piece together the two ends of the parchment and rub her finger over the symbol stamped into the wax.
She breaks open the seal. It is that parchment, the goat parchment. Finely rendered, but still slightly rough and uneven. And the familiar handwriting: close and cramped, each letter finely formed, but shaken off the pen in haste, so that they lack beauty.
To the Honorable Sir Abraham Castro
Bilhah looks up and rubs her eyes. It is hot in the work tent. Maybe she should go and get some fresh air. But if she does, invariably one of Castro’s cronies notices and gives her another five tasks. Instead, she closes her eyes, just for a moment. She is back in the imperial palace, with Yasemin by her side. She misses Yasemin. The woman was wise, she knew the art and craft of words, and also of the palace. She knew what words to whisper into which ears, when to nod and when to object. Bilhah misses her.
The handwriting is addressed this time not to Hurrem Sultan, and there is no talk about sheep and blankets. This one is about money, and it is addressed to Abraham Castro. Well, she will add it to his pile of correspondence. Though first she must read it and summarize it.
I have considered your report and in particular, the question of thieves and bandits in the city, brought there both by the new plenty that pours into the place, and also by the sheer number of anonymous workers. Verily, as you write, in a town where everyone knows each other, there is no place for thieves. But the moment you bring in a man who has never known your grandmother, then you are at risk for every kind of mischief.
My suggestion to you is that you set up groups of men who shall patrol the city through the night. Let them wear a distinctive uniform, so that all will know that they are your men, and as such, will begin to further fear from your authority. It follows, that they will abide by your word.
I have sent you ample means to fund this, including the cost of uniforms, scabbards, and two horses, for although most of the brigade shall be on foot, two horsemen should also be employed, both for their swiftness and also for the sound of the horses’ trot through the city, which shall act as a warning sign.
Bilhah pauses and looks up. They have heard about the bandits. It is one of the reasons why the wall must be built with every regard for speed: as soon as it has been erected and guards are posted at each tower, then the city will be safe again.
Probably a copy of this letter should go to Elvira, for her to keep an eye on the budget.
She puts her finger back on the parchment and reads the final paragraph, translating it in her mind before she picks up a pen.
As well, I have dispatched from Tzefat a small band of workers to aid in the construction of the wall: hefting bricks and mixing lime and the like. It is important to me — as the security of the city is important to you — that they be set to work on the wall. They are an unlikely band, but the strength of their collective shall compensate for their lack of physical prowess.
I trust that you will deal with my request in all seriousness, as you in turn have taken seriously the rumors of the rising crime in this holy city and the failure of the kadi to secure the place, and so have sent down three purses of gold coin especially for this purpose.
Bilhah heaves herself up off the chair. The heat really is too much to bear. She walks out to the entrance of the tent and blinks in the sudden sunshine. More people. More arrangements. She takes a deep breath and steps back, for a stray dog appears in the distance. Dogs, as well, have arrived in the city, drawn by the leftover food.
Everything in this place feels so rough and raw, a thousand leagues away from the order and beauty of the palace. There was work there, every day, but it was not like this. Orders. Instructions. People to inform. People waiting. Bread. Broth. Bowls. Blankets. Beds. A house that will keep out the wild dogs.
She rubs her forehead. The dog is walking toward the work tent. She opens the flap of leather that is the door and returns to her desk. She picks up the letter once more. One letter — and so much work. Not just the translation and summary. The guards will need uniforms, though Elvira will see to that. And the weapons? A question for Castro. The accommodation, though, whether house or tent, beds and blankets and food, all of this falls to her to arrange. Both for the guards and for the new band of workers.
She searches through her desk and finds the list of empty houses that Elvira compiled. Most of them have been appropriated by workers. One or two must still be available, though she does not know if they will be furnished or not.
She will have to find out, before the men arrive and look around for a place to sleep.
Just before dusk falls, when their day should long have been over, Elvira appears at her desk. “Come.” She puts out her hand and pulls Bilhah up from her chair. “Let us abandon our desks for the day.”
Bilhah does not even bother to tidy away the great pile of letters and instructions. She pulls back her chair and follows Elvira out of the work tent, breathing in great gulps of cool air as she exits the tent, and raising her arms in a stretch.
They stumble eastward, without a plan of where they are going, Bilhah simply glad to feel her legs stretch and move and the ache in her back growing first worse, then easing. The men are still working on the wall, and the air is filled with their sounds: the ring of metal, the grunt of those who carry the stone, the gurgle of water poured into cement and mixed around. The yell of the foremen and the men who complain back to them.
They climb over tufty hillocks and between piles of stones. The late afternoon sun is low, and everything seems to grow. Breathless from their walk, Bilhah pauses.
“It is not just a wall. It is a wall upon a wall upon a wall,” says Elvira. Her blonde hair has escaped its coils and braids and whips around her face.
They stand from a distance, up above. “See, the bottom layer. The bedrock. Everyone who built, did not do so on virgin soil. They used this bedrock as the base.”
Bilhah holds her hand over her eyes to shield them from the sun. It is a sprawling, untidy mound of huge, dun-covered boulders.
“From the time of the Chashmonaim,” Elvira explains. She points. “The layer of brick on top.”
Bilhah squints. “Yes, I see it.”
“That was from the time of King Herod.”
“And we’re building on top of that?”
“I mean… the Sultan. The Ottomans.”
She looks at Elvira and shakes her head. “How do you know this?”
“The accounts. There were not enough bricks, according to my calculations. So I came here and discovered that they have incorporated some of the old wall into the new one.”
Old walls and new. If she closes her eyes she can see the old widow, Mazaltov, with her twisted fingers and crooked back. The other children ran from her, but Mazaltov was one of the townspeople who was always kind to her. In the rain of winter, she would let Bilhah curl up next to her oven for warmth, and in the summer, she would give her fresh milk to drink.
One day, Bilhah had arrived there screaming in pain, arm hanging from a strange angle. Mazaltov had lain her down on the floor and leaned over her. She had taken hold of Bilhah’s shoulder and jerked it forward. There was a flash of agony. Then the arm had rested in place. Bilhah had gasped, a great, juddering breath.
Mazaltov had lifted her up and sat her on a chair, given her a cup of wine of to sip. The wine made her feel warm inside, and sleepy, and gave the room a glow.
Mazeltov knelt in front of her and looked her in the eyes.
“Next time your Papa gets angry. Next time, you must use your mind to build a wall around yourself, one brick and another and another. In the cracks between the bricks, insert the four letters of Hashem’s name. You will see, each of the four letters fit perfectly. They hold it all together. You must practice, practice every day. A great wall of protection.”
She had done it. Sometimes it had worked, sometimes less. She would practice before she went to sleep. Even when Papa managed to push his fist or his foot through the wall, she still felt stronger. But then, she had seen the man she was supposed to marry, Juan. And it wasn’t just that he had struck his goat.
He had kicked at the wooden fence, and it had tumbled down.
She shivers. Elvira is still talking, chatting away to herself.
There are plenty of towers, too.
I have all the plans, I can show you if you like.
Do you know how much rock? How much stone? The bricks? The number of workers.
No. No. No. No.
She knows none of it. All that she knows is that this wall is being erected around her, and she does not know whether it is protection or a great prison.
They walk along a length that is nothing more than rubble, then turn a corner. From a distance, Bilhah hears the tattoo of a drum. She looks at Elvira, who simply nods and strides ahead, so that Bilhah is forced to run to catch up with her, stumbling over the uneven ground until they see the drummer clearly.
The drummer looks into the distance, his chin turned up slightly, a small black beard softening the point of his chin. He does not drum for nothing, though. In front of him, the wall is being built. With each strike of the drum, the pail is passed from one man to another.
Bilhah stares. It is not a line of men, it is a snake. There is something not quite human about the pairs of arms, moving in rhythm, the pails of cement and rock passed up from one to the other to the other, in time with the drumbeat. And then, in the same way the snake lifts its head to strike, the men continue up the wall, positioned on a ladder and on the top of the wall itself. The cement is poured upon the rock, and great bricks, hauled up by another snake of men, but this line with ropes and pulleys, are set on top.
Bilhah allows her eyes to blur, and then blinks them again into focus. Layers of brick, and the wall grows before her eyes as if it is slowly pushing itself up from the earth, as if all the time it was simply hidden in the bedrock, waiting to emerge. She could stand and watch forever, this rhythm of sweat and stone.
She steps forward and forces her eyes away from the wall, and onto the workers. They are red-faced, grimy and dirty. The men who carry the stones are bent under with their weight, and even the pails of cement are pulled with a grunt and a moan. On the side are two men: one stands over the other, wiping blood from his friend’s face with a rag. She looks away, and turns back to the wall. She bends down and picks up a chip of rock from the ground, holding it between her fingers.
If time could solidify and become a thing to touch and feel, that thing would be stone. So what is this wall? Maybe it is something else, not prison and not protection. Maybe it is the moments and hours and days, people who have come and passed away, at rest on a bedrock of fragility and strength. It is generations: father and son, mother and daughter, one atop the other atop the other, each one praying that the edifice never crumble.
As they stand, they hear a wail. First, the lament of a single voice and then a chorus. Elvira pulls her by the arm, and they continue their walk along the perimeter, toward the commotion.
They run forward, and then Elvira motions that they stand behind a low-growing olive tree and watch. “What is it?” Bilhah whispers.
The procession nears, and Bilhah notices that they are standing at the edge of a collection of fresh graves.
“A graveyard? A graveyard by the city gates?”
Elvira pushes aside an olive branch and points: Further ahead in the distance are two stone gates.
“They are called Bab al-Rahma and Bab al-Taubah.”
Bilhah translates in her mind. The gate of mercy. The gate of… she searches her mind… repentance.
“It is not for nothing. They say that Mashiach will come through these gates. There is talk of closing them up. Blocking them up with brick. There is a consignment of stones on its way for the purpose. I have the records.
“But in the meantime, they began to bury people here. They believe that this will stop the Mashiach arriving.”
Bilhah shakes her head, not understanding.
Elvira stares into the distance. “Tradition is that the Mashiach will walk through these gates. But he will be accompanied by Eliyahu Hanavi.” She looks at Bilhah, a smirk playing on her lips. “They wanted to stop that, so they are building a graveyard. They know Eliyahu Hanavi is a Kohein, and a Kohein will not, can not walk through a cemetery.
Elvira laughs as she points at them. “But they never learned the halachot. Because a Kohein can enter a graveyard of Moslems, and even of Christians, but just not of Jews.”
Bilhah’s forehead creases into a question. “So he can come through here?”
Her heart twists, one part excitement, and another fear.
Elvira stares, her face grim. “They have ordered a consignment of stones to here, not just to build up the tower behind it, but to seal the entranceway. They are not taking any chances. They will do anything to stop the Final Redemption.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 826)
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