If she, Bilhah, had been a mother, she would never have succumbed to illness and left a little one alone
Leonora, imprisoned in Jerusalem, tells Bilhah the story of her time in Lisbon, and how she gave away her daughter.
For a long moment, Bilhah stares at Leonora. The walls of the prison press in on her. In her throat is trapped a strange, inchoate cry, as if she is some wild, ensnared creature. I gave her away because I did not want her. I did not want my daughter. The words Leonora just said echo, over and over, filling her until there’s room for nothing else.
“You see that I am evil.” Leonora speaks quietly.
It is on Bilhah’s lips to say, yes, evil, evil, evil.
But something stops her.
She lifts the lamp, holds it up, so she can see Leonora’s face. She has the mark of nobility. Her silk cloak is grimy and her long skirts are hemmed with mud, but she is still a tall woman with flashing eyes and contempt for the world.
Or maybe she is not. Maybe she is another abandoned daughter.
Fourteen years old. Watching her parents sail away. A baby in her arms.
A baby. A mother.
She thinks, suddenly, of her own mother.
A vague scent of lavender, fingertips that were slightly dry and would gently scratch Bilhah’s cheeks.
This anger. This anger. It’s making her heart thump so hard that her body aches, and her face burns.
Why did her mother not fight for her life? For her child? She imagines her mother laid out on her bed, spirit of life ebbing away. Was it sorrow that ended it all?
Did she succumb to escape Papa?
So it again returns to Papa, and he is here, standing in a cell just a few steps away, behind iron bars and stone walls.
But then, the beit olam in Salonika was filled with women — dead in childbed, mostly, but also of bee stings or winter colds that went to their chests, or plague that arrived each summer. Every time a woman entered childbirth, the midwife would send a message to old widow Mazaltov, day or night.
And she would go to the beit olam, to the section where the women in childbirth lay, and say, “Rise up and implore the Almighty for the sake of your sister and for the sake of her unborn baby.”
If she, Bilhah, had been a mother, she would never have succumbed to illness and left a little one alone.
The day is drawing to a close, and a small pool of orange sunlight falls on the gray stones of the prison floor. Bilhah has a sudden urge to jump to her feet and stand in the small patch of sunlight. Instead, she drops her head into her hands.
Why does she care? Why is she so filled with rage and sorrow?
Bilhah looks up. “I do not know what I think. Just that… if I, if I ever had a child… I would love her and protect her until my last breath. With everything I had.”
She knows then, why.
Because she is an abandoned child. Abandoned by her mother. No, abandoned by her father. No, abandoned to her father.
And what of the Almighty? Her third parent, as Eliyahu liked to say. She can almost touch it, that great gash inside her.
Is there an answer? Can there be an answer?
Eliyahu is filled with answers. He talks about a vast net trawling across the globe, gathering lost sparks of G-dliness. He talks about great light that shatters vessels, and the fragments of heart that scatter and fall, to be rebuilt.
But none of these are answers she can ever understand. And she does not think that he understands, either, not really. They are just words, words that attempt to shake the world into some kind of order, when everyone knows that there is nothing that can be understood, ever. Nothing.
How could this happen?
How did He give this woman a child who would disappear into… who knew? The murky void between lives. Bilhah stands up and begins to pace. Six steps from one side of the cell to the other. Turn, six steps. Turn. Six steps. She senses Leonora staring at her.
A woman who herself comes from Spain, and it is like glimpsing a history that could have unfolded. What may have been. She is looking through a mirror, and seeing her story in reverse — not the abandoned child, but the mother who abandoned her child.
This woman could have had a daughter who had a daughter.
And she could have had a mother who had a mother.
They didn’t, of course.
If only both of them could haul the years into reverse, and meet at a crossroads to peer down the path that neither of them took, and wonder what may have been. It is only within the realm of dreams or could-have-beens, the road that both of them glanced at but did not tread.
She closes her eyes and shivers. What if she had been this woman?
What would she have done?
Bilhah pushes her palms together and threads her fingers so that they interlock. She pushes them together, tight.
Would she have been any different?
Her stomach turns and her whole body begins to shake. Of course.
But don’t we all just put ourselves first, and do everything we need to survive?
Not always. She thinks of the ceremony in the Imperial palace. She had kept her integrity there. She had managed not to swear her allegiance to Islam. Some things are more important than survival, she had realized then.
She fingers the cat charm that she wears on a leather band around her wrist. Friendship is not for survival. There are other ways of being. Even the way this man, Eliyahu, takes the time out to talk to her each day, though he is tired from his day in the quarry, and concerned, too, about the health of his teacher, Yannai.
Leonora stands and tips her head up toward the tiny window. The shaft of light shines onto her face, falling on her cheekbones, long Spanish eyelashes. Even in prison, even at an advanced age, the woman is royal. Although the sight of her also burns, fills Bilhah with horror.
Although, really, what would we not do when we feel the tentacles of desperation closing around our hearts?
What happens when we are so afraid of our lives? What darkness do we bring into the world out of fear or pain or terror or fury?
Always doubt yourself.
Her thoughts return to Istanbul, to the tinkle of the water fountains installed by Hurrem Sultan, and the words above them. A gift to the people of Istanbul.
Aisha had told her and Yasemin, and Hurrem Sultan herself had admitted in her letters to Leonora: if the people of the realm think of her as a mother, then….
Then they will support her against challenges to the throne, and her children will not be butchered should a rival accede to power.
She will do anything to protect her children — use every strained wit, don every facade, cultivate every powerful connection, and if necessary, show ruthlessness, feign love, resort to cruelty. So that her children can survive.
And so, she tries to be a mother to all of Istanbul, to all of the world — water, blankets, soup kitchens, mosques, she plans them all, funds them all, and why? To save her children.
Bilhah pushes her palm against her head, in an attempt to ease the heaviness, the growing ache. Isn’t motherhood the strangest thing of all? Take life and death, invert them. Turn them upside down and inside out and then merge them together. They say a woman’s womb is her grave, but the opposite is true, as well; without a child, there is just the emptiness of nothing, the darkness of a tomb.
She sits down again on her stool, limbs heavy. The air is cold and damp, but it does not touch her.
But this woman, Leonora, has not only done evil. All those letters. The correspondence. When she told Eliyahu that Leonora was in the prison, he had been shocked. She has helped Jews everywhere. She has given loans and paid doctors, she has established factories to bring jobs and income. And a soup kitchen to feed all those hungry children.
She is a powerful woman, Elvira had told her, and if you intervene to free her, if you write her testimony in a way that she could be released, she will be in your debt. And it would be a favor for the Ottoman Empire, too, for if she remains in prison, she will be an injured hero. A woman, an old woman, held by the Ottoman Empire, is a stain on them, although she is powerful.
She has tried to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, paying for soldiers to protect the city — a risk, for if the Ottomans convict her, then this would be evidence of a rival army. Sending bags of gold to the Jews whose homes may be destroyed, talking, smoothing the way, writing, persuading.
Publishing a treatise.
Bilhah squeezes her eyes closed.
As if she has read Bilhah’s mind, Leonora turns to her with a whisper. “I have tried to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. To make amends.”
Bilhah shakes her head. “I see no wall. I see brick and stone and timber and cement and wounded limbs and old men with twisted backs. Half-built towers lined with bodies and destruction.”
Why has all this come to pass? Why are their lives crushed under these walls of stone? Trapped behind the great bricks of time, the past and the present and the future, which all conspire to finish them.
Bilhah stands and leaves Leonora’s cell. She walks a few paces in the dim light. Stands at the door of the cell. Is it a moment of madness, or has she absorbed some of the woman’s courage?
He stands there, both hands in fists around the cold iron bars. His face is half shadow and half the face that she remembers.
She speaks. “Hello, Papa.”
The girl has gone.
Any Jew who left Spain knows where to hide money, and Leonora has brought a good enough supply of gold coin with her, as well as four diamonds that she snatched up and pushed into the hollow wooden soles of her boots. Now, she takes out one gold coin and calls to the guard.
“Do not condemn an old woman to the cold,” she wheedles.
He turns and starts to walk away.
“A blanket,” she says. “Bring me a blanket. And wine, to warm me from the inside,” she says. “Bring me a jug of wine.”
He stiffens, but she passes him the coin. He looks at it, at her, nods and disappears. A while later, he returns. He opens the door of the cell and hands her a blanket and a sealed earthenware jug. Sealed with the stamp of the Jews. She lifts it to her face and sniffs. It will do.
The man closes the door of the cells, locks it, and she sits on the edge of her bed. She lifts the jug to her lips and gulps. It is cheap wine, it starts off too sweet but leaves an aftertaste of vinegar. No matter.
She drinks. The sweetness chokes her, but she forces herself to swallow. Her skin prickles, it feels like she is bleeding, like her life force is running out of her.
Another swallow. Another. Her head begins to grow heavy. Another swallow.
Bile rises in her throat, but she forces it down.
The lines that mark the space between the bricks begin to blur. She walks over and traces her finger down the line, tries to keep it straight, but it moves like a snake.
Her fingers shake so hard that she pulls them down, pins them against her body with her other arm.
Another swallow. Another.
The world is beginning to cloud.
And then she sees it. In the corner of her bed. It looks like a blanket but she knows what it is in truth. She lifts the blanket into her arms and draws it close. She is still shaking but the warmth in her arms begins to calm her, and her heart lifts and sudden tears roll down her cheeks. She rocks the blanket, back and forth, back and forth.
Her lost baby.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 835)
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