Why. Because Leonora is an old woman. Because Leonora is a powerful woman. Because Leonora, like Hurrem Sultan, feeds and clothes the people of her town.
He presses his face to the bars. “Who is there? Who are you?”
She answers with a calm that surprises her. “It is me, Papa. Bilhah.” It is on her tongue to say, your daughter, but he does not deserve it.
“What?” He shakes his head in confusion.
Then, suddenly, his face grows red. He jerks forward, banging his head against the bars. Thud, thud, thud.
Bilhah stares, trying to push away the horror building up inside her.
He pulls back and his mouth twists into a terrifying hole. “Let me out! Daughter, I command you. Open the door. Release me.”
She stands there, not moving, watching the impotence of his rage. She searches for something, some level of feeling, some fear. Is it exhaustion that has left her feeling numb?
His knuckles are white, his fingers red and swollen. His eyes bulge. His beard pushes through the bars, and most of it is white.
He is an old man.
He may have printed the Talmud, but he is no messenger of G-d. He is no giant, no ogre, just a cruel old man.
And he is locked away.
And she walks free.
All of a sudden, laughter wells up inside her. She opens her mouth and it is there, echoing around the cell. She smacks her hands over her mouth, covering the noise, in fear and sudden exultation, but then uncovers it again, and allows the laughter to ring against the stone walls.
It is a sudden sound of freedom.
Then she turns and she leaves.
Bilhah hesitates before she walks into the work tent. She feels like she has been emptied out from the inside, and there is nothing left to steady her. She wants Elvira to touch her arm and say, What is wrong? What is on your heart? Did you collect the witness statement?
She looks down at the paper she took with her. It has only a few lines. Soon enough, she had forgotten her task as scribe and listened with a terrible fascination to Leonora’s words. She will have to reconstruct them now, from memory.
She takes a step inside and glances in the direction of Elvira’s desk. The desk is empty. She looks around.
Elvira is standing at Bilhah’s desk. The wooden carton of correspondence is set atop the desk, the one filled with letters to and from Hurrem Sultan and others. Elvira is reaching inside and scanning them, one after the other, then setting them down into different piles. She works frantically, as though someone is behind her with a whip, pushing her.
Bilhah hurries forward.
Elvira turns and grips her arm. “Oh, how I have been waiting for your return. Castro has been here. This woman. What have you found out about her?”
Bilhah shakes her head, not understanding. Although the light is falling, Bilhah can see the pallor of Elvira’s skin. Her eyes are wide, and a tiny pulse can be seen on her forehead.
“What is wrong?” she asks.
“Castro is frantic. He has come in again and again, wanting to see the statement. He is adamant that he must see it before it is sent to the kadi or to Istanbul.”
Bilhah looks down at the paper. “I barely wrote one.”
Elvira takes a step back. “I do not… what happened?”
“I… I started of course. I took down where the woman comes from, her travels. But after that—” she takes a deep breath. “She started telling me her story.” And it cut me in half, she wants to add. “But Elvira, what is the great tumult?”
“This woman. She is going to be filling up the prisons.”
“What do you mean?”
“She has a web of connections. The kadi has been tracing them, all of them. He is compiling a list. If she is found guilty, then she will not be the only one who is banished or killed.”
Bilhah shakes her head. “I do not understand. Who else has been implicated in her deeds?”
Elvira leans close and whispers in Bilhah’s ear. “There is talk that she may implicate Castro himself.”
“But… Castro? The man is… he is virtually in charge of building the wall. They all answer to him. The foremen and the suppliers and even the architects consult with him, although they send all their plans to Istanbul, as well. He is one of the most powerful men in all Jerusalem. And is he not high in the Sultan’s favor?”
“He would not be brought to the prison, true. House arrest, then hanging perhaps.”
A strange thought comes to Bilhah. Would it be a terrible hardship to be locked into that great, white house? Vines trailing over the walls, the trees — lemon and pomegranate — he has even built a large pool and word is that he bathes there on hot evenings.
But then, the Imperial Palace was a hundred times more opulent, a world in and of itself, and those walls mocked her every day.
She takes a deep breath. On her desk, she sees that Elvira has sifted through a pile of letters, and the careful organization Bilhah always kept — first date, then alphabetized according to the name of the sender — has been ruined.
“What are the charges against Castro?”
“He has been training a private army. A Jew is not allowed to employ soldiers. There can be no force of law other than Ottoman law. And of course, there is the question of why he needs it.”
“But we all know the reason for this. There are records in the court of the kadi. When the foreign workers arrived to build the wall, Jerusalem was filled with theft and petty crime. The people were afraid to sleep at night. Women insisted that their husbands stand guard.”
Elvira waves her hand through the air. “Yes, but where is the evidence? The Jews did not issue any formal complaints. They simply went to Castro.”
She nods. It is true. The Jews turn to their own.
“And what is more, he should have offered to pay for extra Ottoman police. Why did he establish his own?”
Bilhah’s mind works furiously. “And all of it — the uniform, the weapons, the wages — paid for by Leonora,” she says, slowly. “Who is herself a traitor.”
Leonora’s letters. She has seen them. There are records. But what do they say? There are the words and then there are the words between the lines, as Yasemin would always tell her. But… she did not notice anything. There were too many letters to sift through, too much work, too little time, too little tranquility to study letters and their contents, although this is what she was taught to do in the Room of Words.
“They have been working closely together. So if he is found guilty and hung, she will be, too.”
Her heart starts to beat. “Truly?”
“Unless the Sultan has mercy on them.”
“Or Hurrem Sultan?”
“Yes. Or she. The kadi would not dare to rule without instruction from Istanbul. If Hurrem Sultan decrees that there be mercy, there shall be. But why should she?”
Why. It is a good question. Why. Because Leonora is an old woman. Because Leonora is a powerful woman. Because Leonora, like Hurrem Sultan, feeds and clothes the people of her town.
And because she… she may have abandoned her daughter, but she has not abandoned her people?
“Is there any hope for her?”
“Do you want there to be?”
She shrugs. “I do not know. It feels wrong that she is incarcerated. Like a force of nature — a great storm, perhaps — has been locked indoors.”
Elvira squeezes her hand. “In the meantime, find every letter you can from Leonora. To Castro, mainly. And also to Hurrem Sultan.” She hesitates. “And your new… friend. Perhaps you should warn him. It would be better if he leaves.”
“What do you mean?”
“One jerk of her wrist and she can draw all of them in, all of them.
“The treatise begins with two poems. He wrote them. He worked for Leonora, producing the wool for her factory.”
“He was in charge of the flocks,” Bilhah corrects, although it does not matter.
“Go and warn him to travel away from here. If he is in Tzfat, they will not trouble themselves to travel there. He is just a small catch. But if he is here, while the net of the law is trailing through the city, he may be taken, too. Warn him.”
A new fear shadows Bilhah as she walks into the city gate and along the narrow road to where they are staying. She knocks on the wooden door and puts her ear against it, listening.
She looks up at the sky; there is perhaps one hour of daylight left. They will likely still be at the cave, mining the last few blocks of stone. And then they will go to the great dining tent and receive their meal. Perhaps after that they will go the beit knesset. She could send messengers after him, but that would raise questions.
So why, exactly, did she come to the house?
She is about to turn and leave when she hears a voice. She listens carefully.
Someone is singing. The voice is high and breathy, but there is some kind of a tune.
She pushes the door open and stands at the entrance.
Yes, indeed. Someone is singing.
She tries to make out the words; it is hard because each comes after a long pause, as if he has breath for only one word at a time.
“Heitivah virtzonecha et Tzion, tivneh chomot Yerushalayim.”
Through the hallway, to the left, she sees an old man lying on a low cot. His eyes are closed, and he sings the words again and again.
She steps back and raps sharply on the front door.
“Who is there?” he cries out in a thin, reedy voice.
She leaves the door open behind her, and approaches. The old man’s face is ashen. So this is the man that Eliyahu counts as part teacher, part father.
“What ails you, Saba?” she asks.
“Nothing at all. I am working hard, that is all. Building the walls. Through my arms and through my song.”
He wheezes as he speaks, as if each word is laborious and has to be eased out of his throat. “I have pains. Every time I pick up an axe, there is a pain that begins in my arm and travels through to my chest. And then it feels as if there is a stone on my chest, I begin to cough in the hopes that it will help me to breathe again.”
She looks around. Is there another pillow, here, that could make him more comfortable? She will order some brought.
“Saba. You need to rest. And when you are well again, you need to go home. I will arrange your passage. You came on horseback, did you not?”
“The horses are stabled in the city’s stables. But we will get you a carriage home. I will ask the master of horses if those horses can be tethered to a carriage. If not, there are others.”
Poor old man. She cannot defend him from the angel of death, but she could help him to die in his own bed, with his wife and children and grandchildren around him. It is something small that she can do, and it is a relief, to put her mind to something concrete.
Her anger against Leonora flares. It is her fault, is it not? It is her fault that this saintly old man is lying here alone.
Well, do not fear. She is imprisoned now. She will receive her just deserts.
The man smiles. His eyes close, then flicker open. They are a bright blue, the color of the sky in the early hours of a summer’s morning. “You are… you are the girl.”
Despite herself, she smiles. “Yes, I am a girl.”
“The girl that Eliyahu has been talking to.”
“You… your father.”
“My father is imprisoned now, too.”
His head lies back on the pillow. “Ah. Good. The Almighty metes out justice, you see.” But his face screws up in pity. “But the great woman, Leonora.” His face creases and he starts to get agitated. He tries to sit up, but fails, then tries again, hoisting himself onto his elbow, but then falling down again, breathless.
Watching him is painful.
He gives up and lays back and tries to speak. “She should be released, to spend her final days with her children and grandchildren. Can you do that?”
She shakes her head. “This is a matter for the palace of Istanbul. I am a lowly scribe. Nothing more. I have no influence in their decisions. None at all.”
“But sometimes… If you write the words… The right words can change everything. Words can tell the events with understanding, with compassion. Or they can accuse and condemn.”
She nods. “It is true.”
She could couch the woman’s testimony in a way that she will not appear so culpable. Show her to be a woman of resources, but without understanding. She could, perhaps, write to Hurrem Sultan, to Yasemin and even Aisha.
But if she does that, if she works towards the woman’s release, then….
She squeezes her eyes closed, hiding from the possibility. If Leonora is found innocent, then Papa would be released as well.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 836)
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