“If the Almighty blessed me with money, He blessed me with power, and I have done everything within my power to do His will”
Akey scrapes in the door of the prison cell. The door whines as it slowly opens.
Leonora starts, rises from her stool, and stands in the corner, in the depths of the shadow. Who has come?
It is only a woman. Leonora steps forward. A young woman, light-footed. She carries a lantern in one hand; the light bobs as she walks. She sets the lantern on the stone floor and sits down on the wooden stool.
There are two stools in the cell, a low cot with a rough blanket, and a mattress stuffed with hay. She’s given no desk, no pen and ink, no paper. There’s not even a lantern here, only the light that filters in from the tiny, barred window.
The girl sets down her basket and takes out a pen, ink, paper.
Leonora resists the urge to snatch them from her.
“I have come to collect your account of what has passed, to be delivered to the kadi and, at his discretion, to the Sublime Porte of Istanbul.”
“What does that mean?”
“Tell me about yourself. Why you have been brought here. If anyone else was party to your endeavors. And I will record it.”
“You shall talk. And I shall write.”
“Where to begin?”
“Begin wherever you wish.”
Leonora stares at the young woman. Dark eyes and hair. Thin. What makes her remarkable is the life force inside her. Both alive with curiosity and guarded. Suspicious, almost. She is… this woman looks the way Leonora imagined her own daughter would look. She wants to reach out and touch the girl’s hand, her cheek. She sits so close.
But the openness silences her. Where to start? What to say?
Eventually, the young woman — Bilhah, she says her name is — becomes impatient.
“Let me help you begin. We have letters from you, correspondence with the highest personages of the empire. Again and again, it appears, you write, suggest, advise, propose. Who gave you permission to deal with rulers and leaders?”
Who? Leonora blinks, trying to assimilate the question. Permission? This was the mantle of leadership she had inherited from her father. The letters — she no more thought of them than she thought of ordering herself a new cloak. She reaches into her cloak and brings out a small money bag. She empties it onto the floor. The coins hit the stone with a clink, and roll into the cracks between the stone.
The girl makes a note on the paper.
Leonora shakes her head. “You do not understand. If the Almighty blessed me with money, He blessed me with power, and I have done everything within my power to do His will.”
The girl stares at her for a long time.
“Where are you from?”
“And before that?”
“There was a short period in Egypt. Beirut. Italy.”
The pen hovers over the paper.
“Before that I was in Lisbon.”
The girl nods. “You were born there?”
“So your connections were made on your travels?”
“And you left Spain in—”
“In 1492. And Lisbon in 1497.”
She notes down the dates.
Leonora cups her chin in her hands and looks at the girl. “Where did you learn to read and write? I would be glad of a secretary like you.”
“My father was a printer.”
“Yes. From Salonika.”
Those words should connect with something that she knows, but in the dark, her body aching, she cannot place it.
Bilhah stares back at her. “And where did you learn to read and write?”
“My father taught me. All the women in our household were well-educated.” She pauses, thinks for a moment. “Write that down.”
Leonora raises her voice and speak slowly and clearly. “My father taught me to read and write. All the women in our household were well-educated. It was a source of pride for him.”
The girl bends over her paper, pinned to a board on her lap. Scratch, scratch sounds the nib of the pen on the paper.
“He taught us not only literacy, but statesmanship. Oh, the dinners. Each table festooned with the native flowers of our guests. And if the season had passed and the flowers could not be procured, then we had a craftsman who would come and sew them from silk.”
Leonora rises from her stool, wraps her arms around her and begins to pace the small cell. Six steps forward, turn, six steps back.
Bilhah looks up, a question drawn on her forehead.
“You asked me to begin my story, did you not? And as I am here, locked in a prison cell, then I will tell it to you. All of it. And that will be a relief for an old woman like me, who never had time to chronicle her past, but now finds that I am given not only time, but a scribe.”
Bilhah looks startled. “I have other work to do. I was not sent here to write your life story. Only what pertains to the Wall of Jerusalem.”
Leonora claps her hands, throws back her head and lets out a strange laugh. “But you do not understand, do you? It all has to do with the Wall of Jerusalem. All of it. All.”
“Much suffering has come from Spain, Portugal,” Bilhah speaks quietly. “And there were many choices that were not choices at all. In Salonika, the chachamim were occupied with this morning and night. Petitioners and letters from all the world.”
“And what did they say?”
“That there is always forgiveness.”
Leonora stops pacing and leans against the wall. The cold penetrates through her clothing, into her skin and bones. Forgiveness. This is what she always thought she was seeking, in building the wall, in hastening the redemption.
But maybe it is not that at all. Perhaps she is simply trying to destroy herself? Not to find peace. She does not know what that is. She would not want it. It’s as if she needs to hurl herself against the rock, again and again, howl with anger and pain, then pick herself up and say, ah, so this is life, this is the long and the short of it all.
She lets her legs slide forward until she is sitting on the cold stone. She leans her head back and turns to look at Bilhah.
“I had a daughter, but I gave her away.”
“Was not that the trial of the time?” Bilhah’s tone is even. “You are not the only Jewish mother who gave up her child to the church. They were snatched, were they not? Even with”—she gestures to the coins on the floor—“power and influence, there was little anyone could do.”
“Some mothers converted to Christianity, and in this way were reunited with their children,” Leonora says.
“In Salonika word was that many of the children were put on a ship and sent off to islands as slaves. Or they were hidden deep within the church, turned against Judaism, turned against their fathers. It was a severing of generations, what happened in Spain and Portugal.”
Leonora nods. She closes her eyes and tries, tries to find the words.
You are 14 years old, and in usual times, you would not have a child.
Apart from the fact that these are not normal times, and not only do you have a child, you have a widow’s hat as well. You have known a vigil of candlelight and the wail of mourning even though you were numb, unbelieving that the boy-man-husband was so weak; when the fever came, he did not fight. But all of that fades in the terror of the childbed, of being torn in half from the inside.
When you are handed the child, you look at it blankly. They prod and push you, to coo or smile or kiss the thing, but she is some strange creature who has appeared as if of her own accord, for surely you did not pray for her or even want her and now you are faced by a hunger that may consume you.
If her husband had been alive, he would have bought her a wet nurse, she tells herself. He had told her that there is money, aplenty, waiting for her in Bruges, hidden in vaults in Antwerp and Naples, in the form of gems and promissory notes and even ships filled with spices that need only be sold by the family agents and then they will have a cut. There’s money that carries the scent of cardamom and cinnamon and saffron, scents of the East, of a new world, of a place that is perhaps free of this tortured existence, wherein you wake up in the morning and you do not know whether you are pursued by the Christians of the town, or by your own flesh and blood, this little child who has come from you and yet is alien, who will never be satiated, whose sheer hunger frightens the life out of you, perhaps because it reminds you of the hunger you have inside you still, that feeling that you could consume the entire world, you could eat and eat and eat and still have a gnawing feeling inside that you are hungry and cold and alone and afraid, so afraid of the future, yes, but also of the present, of who you are and what you might do.
And then your parents sail away, on the fishing boats, while you stand on the shore and watch. They said they were going to France, then North Africa, but you never heard from them again, and you sent agents to every place in civilized world. Do not board a ship filled with Jews, they enjoin you before they leave. For these ships are accosted and attacked by pirates, and if there are no pirates from without, then the captain himself will sell you into slavery, as he has done to so many before you.
The decrees worsen, and the hunting and finding and searching and screaming, all night, every night, so there is no sleep to be had, and in the moments when she is jogged into the world of blackness there are cries, again and again, and Ines touches her arm and it is the baby again, the little girl.
And you tried, you found a fisherman who would take you, only to be turned back by the waves that rise up against you, dark and furious, so that the old fisherman, though he has been decades on the seas, insists that you return to shore.
What can you do?
What can you do but knock on the doors of the authorities and allow them to lead you to the convent at the edge of Lisbon and there, speak to the mother superior.
But then you notice the woman’s fingernails, that they are long and yellow, and you think for some reason of the story your father told you about Shlomo Hamelech, that he was deposed from the throne and Ashmedai, king of the demons, came to take his place, and the only way he could be identified was by his feet. For some reason, the demon was unable to fully take on the form of human feet, and its chicken feet could be discerned from under its robes.
You hold your daughter tight, and for once, she stops crying, just stares up, stares and stares.
The mother superior clucks and coos. “Give her to me. She will be safe now. Safe with the mother of all mothers.”
Safe, safe, safe.
And you think, she will be safe from the Judgment of the Almighty, who is sending them all His children to their deaths.
“You will be safe,” you whisper into your daughter’s ears.
Safe from you as well, for that day will come when you will turn on the child who arouses in you not just tenderness, but also despair.
Scratch, scratch, scratch. Pen on paper.
Finally Bihah speaks. “You abandoned your child in Lisbon?”
“To ensure your safety? You traded your life for hers?”
“No.” Leonora looks around the prison. She is in a grave. A sarcophagus. What does she want but to die? What is left but to die?
“I did not give her away to save her or to save myself. I gave her away because I did not want her. I did not want my daughter.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 834)
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