| Family First Serial |

Within My Walls: Chapter 42

“Fools all of you. You arrest me, when I am just a messenger from a foreign land. I was duped into this. It was all a plan for my downfall. Me, the printer of Salonika”


Bilhah takes the note between her fingers. Then, she crushes it in her palm. Her cheeks burn, everything feels like it is tipping onto its side. She clutches the note as she walks outside.

He is here.

He is here and she is a fool, for why did she ever leave the palace?

She stumbles over the tufty grass and crouches down by a copse of rocks a short distance from the work tent. She grazes them with her fingers. As if they will protect her.

In Istanbul, the iron gates were her protection. Her veil was her protection. She may not have changed her name, but no one knew who she was. Just a girl in the room of words. Friend of Aisha. Protégé of Yasemin.

Yasemin. Her letter still lies on Bilhah’s desk. You seem unhappy in your new surroundings. I can speak to Hurrem Sultan and have you returned to the palace, if you would like, or ask if you can be discharged from your duties.

She blinks, dizzy. The Imperial gardens. Peacocks with turquoise-silver feathers with green eyes. That great wall. A wall. No one could have hurt her.

He cannot hurt you.

A great black raven lands on the grass just in front of her. It shakes out its wings and looks at her with steady black eyes.

She closes her eyes and looks down, gulping in air. You may not be in Istanbul, but you are still under the protection of Hurrem Sultan. You are her eyes and ears in the holy land.

Write to her. Tell her to hang him.

Hang him.

A strange excitement wells up inside her. She could do it.

But then it comes, a piercing pain in her chest, and she does not know if she can really feel it or if it comes from her head and her heart.

How? How could she think such a thing? She looks around. Did someone see her? Could someone bear witness? Sense her thoughts, prepare to punish her. Could he — Papa — feel what she thought, even in the prison cell?

But the thought is here now.

Perhaps it is evil, but it is laced with something intoxicating, like some ancient wine.

She wraps her arms around herself and squeezes, tight. The wine of Avshalom, perhaps, who rebelled against his father.

Not far from here is the tree where he hung by his hair, as the underworld opened to greet him. His father, Dovid Hamelech had lamented: Bni… bni… bni….

My son. My son. My son.

But what if it was all the other way around? If, as Avshalom had hung, he had called out, Avi… Avi… Avi….

My father. My father. My father.

What would have happened then?

Papa. Papa. Papa.

How could you have brought me to a place where the flames of the deep lick at my feet?

For is this what she is, what she has become? A woman who can think of a sword or a noose and….

She drops her head into her lap. Her back is rounded and she is as small as she can make herself without disappearing. The sun beats down and her skin is too hot, but inside is an icy coldness.

He is here. Here, not far away.

It is like some bad dream, but she is awake, can feel the sharp edge of the rock in her back, the jagged blade of time cutting away the years and months until she can feel his presence, it is like he stands over her, ready….

She gasps and presses her back into the stone. He is in the jailhouse. She is safe. She is safe.

When she left, she had been so filled with… with, what to call it? Joy? Exultation? Disbelief at her audacity? Filled with a sense of strength, the wide-open space that is freedom.

She should have known.

She drops her head on her arms and begins to sob, great racking cries that leave her without air.

A hand on her back. She startles, jerks up her head.



Elvira kneels down beside her. “What is wrong, Bilhah?” Her large eyes are round with compassion.


Nausea rises inside her. She clamps her mouth closed. How to explain? She sits up and folds her arms around her. She tries to think of something to say, but the noise in her head makes it impossible to think. The clatter of all the metal type. Letters, so many letters, arranged in a thousand ways to make a million words. But none of them….

Words are useless.

But Elvira is there, holding her hands, squeezing her shoulders.

Bilhah takes a deep breath. “My father….”

Elvira shakes her head, not understanding.

“My…” She chokes out the word. “Papa.”

All of a sudden, comprehension dawns. “The man from Salonika. In the prison?”

Bilhah nods desperately.

Elvira rocks her in her arms as if she is a baby. Bilhah closes her eyes and lets herself be soothed. After a while, Elvira speaks again.

“You are afraid?”

Bilhah nods.

What is she afraid of exactly? That he will hit her?

She can heal.

That he will drag her back to Salonika?


But he is behind bars. And he does not even know that she is here.

She tries again to find words, but how can she explain the dark dread that rolls through her, the sudden blackness that has settled over her.

“My… my father. He has a dead and fetid soul.”


Leonora shivers in the moonlight. The stable is strangely empty of horses, for the group she sent to Jerusalem is not yet back, and she thinks that her great black stallion is lonely. Or maybe it is she who is lonely, for Elul has brought a lull in her activities.

Two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, only the gentile agents will travel to her. There are a few dispatches, but not many. And the whole town seems to have turned in on itself, so that its vision sees only its soul, and not its houses or its poverty or its people. They walk around, and go about their daily business, but if there is a veil across the sky, it has been pulled down and people feel the Divine presence, it is here, settled over their shoulders, like the finest gauze.

Yishai and Amram tell her to slow her pace. You are not a young woman anymore, they say. Let things be. Let yourself rest. Gather yourself in hand and prepare to face your Creator and pray for your life and the well-being of our nation in the coming year, may it be the one of the redemption.

But they do not understand that with stillness comes memories.

With the cold breeze that blows in from the North, the first harbinger of winter, she is once again in Lisbon; the wind is a thousand knife blades on her face and eyes. She staggers backwards, buffeted by the storm and turns the baby towards her, face away from the wind.

With the cold that penetrates the stone walls, she is leaning against the icy flint of the cloisters, watching the nuns file past.

Leonora steadies her horse and looks up at the moon. Another day or two, and it will be full. The year has turned. Another two weeks and it will be Rosh Hashanah. Her day of reckoning is drawing near.


Eighteen stone steps lead down from the main floor of the prison to where the prisoners are held. Elvira leads the way. Just three steps down, and already there is no light, and the air rises towards them: cold, but also dank as if it has lingered there until it has grown first stale and then moldy. Here, the walls are so thick that no sunshine reaches in at all. In the winter, the water freezes overnight in the clay jugs.

They have arranged between themselves that Elvira will ask the questions, and Bilhah will simply record the answers. The questions have come partly from Castro, but others are the standard questions to ask anyone who has overstepped the bounds of the law: where are you from, what was your reason, who else joined you in your endeavors.

They stand outside his cell door. Bilhah lights a candle that juts from the wall and readies her writing equipment. Her hand shakes and she stiffens it, then shakes it loose, but it does not help.

Elvira calls through the bars. “We have come to ask you some questions. All your answers will be recorded.”

“Ah, so you have come, finally.

“Fools all of you. You arrest me, when I am just a messenger from a foreign land. I was duped into this. It was all a plan for my downfall. Me, the printer of Salonika. Do you know who I am? I am a respected man.”

Bilhah’s hand races across the paper.

It is that voice. That voice again, the words said like they are traveling over a heap of sand or gravel stuck in his throat. And then he raises it. She had forgotten the sound, for a month or two, but now she feels her arms stiffen and her skin grow cold.

“Can you explain to me the contents of the manuscript that you carried?” Elvira continues with her questions.

“What do I know of a manuscript? I just print the thing. Do you know what that means?”

It is not true. He never agrees to print anything unless he has checked it and it is accompanied by a letter of recommendation.  She tries to signal to Elvira, but it is too dark.

“Yes,” Elvira replies, voice dry. “So you claim that you did not know the contents of the papers that you carried.”


“And this, despite the fact that you are a man of the world, and aware that a printer carries power almost like a king. Despite the fact that you are aware that ten years ago, Tyndale was burned for printing his version of the Holy Bible? I do not think that there is a printer alive today who does not know his power.”


“And may I suggest that it is precisely because you knew this power that you traveled to this land?”

Silence. Only the sound of heavy breathing.

“It was not for power,” he says eventually. “It was for money.”

“Money?” Elvira repeats.

“A great lady offered me a large sum of money to set up a press in Tzfat, and to bring along my moveable type and my ink. The sum was large enough to induce to me to come.”

Bilhah transcribes each word, though they do not seem to make sense in her mind. But then, nothing makes sense, only the sound of his voice and the grip of her fingers on the pen.

“And do you know what she was so eager to publish?”

“I think a great many things.”

“And the first?” Elvira hardens her voice. “There is no need to lie. We have the contents. We have read them. It was about bringing the Final Redemption, was it not? About how this Wall of Jerusalem is not really for the glory of the most magnificent ruler, Sultan Suleiman, but for the son of David.” she pauses and a hint of irony creeps into her voice. “Suleiman is merely supplying the money and the manpower.”

He says not a word. For he knows, he does know, her father, that words have power. That if he says the wrong thing, it will betray him. Send him to the noose or the sword, and perhaps others with him.

Why should the Ottomans have mercy on him, after all? He is like a pesky fly that has flown into the vast rooms of the Imperial Palace. Almost small enough not to be noticed, but that whine, that buzz — it irritates. And so the fly is slammed with a book. Squashed. Obliterated.

“So who is this woman?” Elvira asks eventually.

“She is a great woman. Wealthy and influential.”



to be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 830)

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