“There are whispers…. That they have come to bring the Mashiach”
For days, they have traveled across the countryside; a muffled tattoo on springy ground. Now, as they ride into Jerusalem, the cobblestones ring with the sharp sound of the horses’ hooves. There is no chance of melting into the people on the streets, the workers of the wall, the horsemen arriving with dispatches or deliveries. Eliyahu finds himself tense, though he does not know why.
The guards direct them around the perimeter of the city, and they stare: foremen pointing, workers, red-faced and sweating, ropes and stone, bricks and cement. Calling, climbing, pouring, hefting, grunting, lifting and there it is: another brick lifted and laid.
They do not linger, merely take in the sights as they ride directly to the offices of Abraham Castro. They dismount, and stand, waiting for him to come out to them.
Eliyahu has heard of the man; it is impossible not to. The Egyptian Jew wears a turban on his head, but he eschews the modest colors of the Jews, wearing instead a silk cloak of burgundy. When he moves, Eliyahu sees that the man’s turban hangs with chains of gold. He is accompanied by a secretary.
“We carry with us deep respect and gratitude for the graciousness of the Sultan.”
Castro nods, his eyes on the parchment in his hands.
He stares at each of them in turn, and if he is surprised by the ragtag group of workers from Tzfat, he does not show it.
“You will need to register with the administrative office,” he says. He points to a large tent pitched a short distance away.
Yannai steps forward. Eliyahu watches, braiding his fingers together, as if he is a Kohein, giving a priestly blessing to Yannai’s efforts.
Yannai raises his voice. “We would only hinder your workers, if you set us to work on the wall.”
“How so?” The man is only half listening. He has already started talking to his secretary.
“None of us know Arabic. We would not be able to follow instructions.”
Impatient, Castro walks away, leaving his secretary to talk to Yannai. The secretary is a small man, and quick. His hands gesture as he speaks, as if his words cannot contain all he wants to convey.
Yannai tries again. “It would not be in your interests. We would not understand what is being said to us.”
“We have workers from four different countries. You do not need to know Arabic around here. You need to watch and copy. When someone points at a brick and then at the wagon, that means put the brick on the wagon. When someone points to a vat of lime and motions with his hands that you stir it like a pot of soup, you stir. Understand?”
The secretary nods vigorously, as if he hopes that Yannai will follow.
Yannai inclines his head. “Look at us. One after the other.” He spreads his hands wide to encompass the group. “We are scholars and teachers. One of us, true, is a shepherd, but he is scrawny, not much more than stick and bone. We will not be able to carry the pails of lime up these ladders. We will not be able to haul stones from the quarry, or mix the cement.”
The secretary opens his eyes wide. “It is true that you are not needed for yourselves. But there was an agreement.”
“Ah. The agreement.”
Eliyahu watches as Yannai bluffs his way through. Yannai does not know about any kind of agreement. With whom? For whom? What were the terms?
Not that he needs to listen to understand. Who else moves people around as if they were created only to advance her plans? Who disregards sheep in favor of a flock, and looks at a flock and sees not tender creatures, but political gains?
The creeping realization threads through him and as it does, leaves him feeling weak and unsteady. He swallows and turns his attention back to Yannai and the secretary.
“It is true what you say, what do we need you for? We don’t. But the man — or the woman — who holds the purse strings is the woman whom we heed.”
“And of course, you need her money.”
The secretary spreads his hands wide. “She pays for patrols around the city. The men. The uniforms. Wages. Upkeep. All of it. And if the city is not patrolled, then every evening these workers would twist open each doorhandle to check if the place is empty, and help themselves not just to wheat but to timber, and not just to timber, to the brass buttons on my soldiers’ uniforms.
“Now.” He points to a large tent at a small distance from them. “You need to go in there and register yourselves. You will receive”—he counts it off his fingers—“a blanket, a bed, two sets of work clothes, a leather drinking flask, and a pair of sturdy boots.”
He looks at the surprise on their faces. “Let no one say that the great Sultan Suleiman does not take care of his own.”
The house that is allocated to the new envoy of workers from Tzfat is near the edge of the city: abandoned by Muslims who, no doubt, went to seek prosperity in Alexandria or Aleppo. It is the sort of house that has been handed down through the generations, but now lies empty and desolate.
Bilhah has sent a message to the woman in charge of the cleaning, but has received no response in return. Toward midday, she gets up from her desk and passes Elvira hunched over her accounts.
“I am going to check up on the house for the new envoy.”
Elvira looks up. “The police force? Word was that Castro was overseeing it himself.”
Bilhah shakes her head. “No. The men from Tzfat. Sent by this Leonora woman.”
At the entrance, Bilhah pauses, suddenly apprehensive. If the woman has been there, there should be no stray dogs or cats or foxes or even mice. But word is that she is not the youngest or strongest, that she misses corners and sometimes whole rooms.
“Shalom!” she calls out.
In return, she hears the splash of water and the bang of a stick. Bilhah walks into the dusty gloom and walks over to the windows, to throw open the shutters. Better.
She looks around. There should have been a delivery of blankets and pillows, of straw mattresses and lamps. Food they will receive in the great kitchen, where all the workers line up morning and evening, jangling their brass food tokens in their palms.
Bilhah swallows her apprehension and climbs the stairs to the second floor. The old woman is there, pushing around a large puddle of water around with a palm frond, seemingly at random. Bilhah pauses to watch. The woman stands in the middle of the water and slowly turns around in a circle. Then, she takes two steps backward and thrashes at the floor. It looks exhausting and is probably the strangest way of washing the floor that Bilhah has ever seen.
The woman looks up. She seems surprised to find that she is not alone, but she does not look at Bilhah’s face, but past her. The woman must be blind, Bilhah realizes, or at least live in a world that is half-full of shadow. No wonder she does such a poor job.
She speaks gently. “I am here to ensure that the house is ready.”
The woman raises her voice and pushes her palm out, as if to keep Bilhah at bay. “It is ready, it will be ready.”
The woman is so thin that her face is like a triangle, cheekbones jutting out over skin that is almost translucent.
“You are working hard, grandmother.”
If she cannot see, it is no wonder she is splashing the water at random. Does she see the dirt? Can she tell where the walls are, without reaching out and touching them? Pity mingles with aversion. So weak. So dependent.
The woman lifts the palm frond and works faster.
Bilhah bites her lip. It was not fair, she thinks. This woman is not weak. She is working. She is surviving. She is earning her pennies.
The woman looks up. “Why are you here to disturb me? Do you not trust me? If this my job, I will do it. I do my job, and you do yours.”
Bilhah talks soothingly. “Abuela. Savta. I know that you are doing a good job. A beautiful job. But it is hard work. Let me help you.”
“No.” The woman is not just skin and bone. She is a force of will.
“Please, Savta. Give a young girl the zechut to help out a savta. I do not have a savta of my own.”
The woman pauses, then she drops the palm frond. It lands in the puddle of dirty water. Bilhah picks it up and, starting from the corner of the room, begins to wash the floor.
The woman calls out. “It has to be done right. It has to be done right.”
“These are holy men. From Tzfat. It has to be clean for them.”
Bilhah grips the palm frond tightly. Leonora’s letter comes back to her, the way she negotiated — no, manipulated — Castro into accepting these men. There is something here that is more than a group of workmen come to earn a few pennies.
“Why have they come here, grandmother?”
For a long time, the woman says nothing. And then, she drops the words one by one, as if they are treasured pennies that she cannot bear to part with.
“There are whispers…. That they have come to bring the Mashiach.”
As the youngest member of the chaburah, Eliyahu must take care of the arrangements, while the other men sit down on a circle of flat rocks, outside the administrative tent.
He is directed to the desk of a young woman, who stares at him with open curiosity. He looks down. She points to the entrance and bids him to wait for her there, then she gathers up a pen and parchment and follows him. They stand at a little distance from the others.
First she hands him a small bag that clinks with metal. “These are your food tokens. You present one at the dining room at the beginning of each meal. This ensures that the Sultan does not simply feed all of Jerusalem’s poor.”
He nods and takes the purse.
“You need not fear, the food would meet even your standards. Castro brought in two chachamim’s sons to do the cooking.”
He looks up in surprise. There is a small smile hovering over her face; she has enjoyed telling him that she is a Jew, it seems.
“Blankets and pillows are in your sleeping quarters, which will be shown to you.” She hands him a letter that she hastily signs. “This is for your work clothing. Again, you will be shown where to go.”
She stares over at the group and lowers her voice. “It is perhaps a pity for you to be wearing the Ottoman work clothes, instead of the cloaks you have doubtless brought along.”
“I do not understand.”
“Did you not bring along silken garments to great the Mashiach?”
Her words are like a rope, jerking him out of his weary confusion. Have they have heard here? What do they think? Is she an informer, here to get a confession out of him?
“We are simply here to build the wall.”
“And to show the magnificence of the Sultan.”
“We humbly seek to serve the Ottoman Empire.”
“As do we all.”
He takes a step back, clutching the bag of tokens and the letter.
Before he walks away, the young woman calls out to him. “All of your needs while you are here — direct them to me.”
He bows his head, and as he walks away he cannot resist answering. “All of our needs are directed to the Almighty, not to mere flesh and blood.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 828)
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