Within My Walls: Chapter 49| March 28, 2023
Papa. Leonora. Eliyahu. She rests her head on her hands. How is it that the three are tangled together now?
Bilhah stands for a few minutes, staring at Yannai’s face. His eyes have fluttered closed. She would be afraid for his life, but the blankets move up and down steadily.
And his skin….
She is reminded of one Yasemin’s first lessons to her in the Room of Words. “When you receive a letter, the first thing you do is take the parchment over to the window and hold it up to the midday sun. That way you see traces of the ink that was rubbed off the parchment, to make room for the new words.”
Now, Yannai’s skin appears thin and fragile, but there is something else she can discern, underneath. Like words rubbed off a parchment, his skin is a map of both suffering and tranquility.
Where will all of this end?
She should be out, searching for Eliyahu. Instead, she finds a stool and sets it gently near the bed. She sits down and watches him breathing gently.
Intervene on behalf of Leonora, he told her just a few moments before. Allow her the comfort of dying in her own bed, with her children around her.
If only it was so simple.
The three faces come into her head, one after the other. Three sets of eyes.
Papa’s — dark wells of violence that trap her breath in her chest and fill her with dread.
Leonora. Battlefield eyes that gleam with anger, then sorrow, then something indefinable, as they suddenly turn inwards and do not see anything at all.
And Eliyahu. When they talk, they walk together, so that his eyes rest on a stone, then up at a shape in the clouds, then turn to a pomegranate tree, the fruits blooming. But every so often, he turns to look at her, though she could not say what color his eyes are, only that….
That whatever she says, he will receive and honor and safeguard.
Papa. Leonora. Eliyahu.
She rests her head on her hands.
How is it that the three are tangled together now?
His face pressed against the iron bars; tufty, graying beard that reminds her that he is growing old, great void of a mouth open, a roar from the underworld. She shivers and folds her arms around herself, shielding herself from the terror.
For now, he is locked away. She is safe.
Perhaps she should feel a sense of guilt or shame? But the only thing she feels is relief.
And maybe something more than that.
She watches Yannai’s steady breathing. There is something calming in his presence; it stills the tumult inside her.
What else? A certain lightness.
It’s not only that she is safe from him. There’s also the fact that he has been held accountable.
There is a Judge, and there is justice. All the world may hail Papa as a messenger of G-d, but G-d Himself holds him culpable.
The words from Yom Kippur, the phrases that mocked her, return: V’taavir memshelet zadon min ha’aretz. And the dominion of evil shall pass from the earth.
Her eyes prick with sudden tears, and she lets them fall.
As for Leonora.
When Bilhah thinks of her, an ache rises up from inside. Yannai has urged her to free the woman, allow her to return to Tzfat. He overestimates the influence of a lowly scribe.
Although…. She has not yet written down Leonora’s statement. What could she, should she write? Name, places of residence, story. Story.
But which story to tell?
The mother who abandoned her daughter.
The daughter, abandoned by her mother.
A young girl, married when she is only a child, because in times of persecution, you ensure that your daughters are married, with turbans on their heads and rings on their fingers, and in doing so, you save them from violation on the road.
A woman who wishes to impose her will upon the world, to end persecution no matter what it takes, who has known cruelty and can inflict it on others as she bends them in order to do her will.
A young girl, a babe in her arms, torn between hatred and anguish.
A woman who feeds the town of Tzfat, bringing tables and benches into an abandoned building and urging them, eat, eat, and take home to your family. And she eats along with them, even as they squabble and slurp, it is the only place she will down food.
A woman driven by desperation, by self-loathing, haunted by the daughter she abandoned.
All of them are true.
Which story to tell? Where to start, where to end?
And who or what made her into the storyteller? What gives her, Bilhah, the right to decide what words should be chosen?
She swallows, stares at the face of Yannai.
What would he say, this man of wisdom?
The Almighty. The Almighty, who created worlds with words.
She, Bilhah could condemn this woman to prison — or worse. Or she could be a messenger for her freedom. She could write to Hurrem Sultan, sue for mercy. Write the testimony in a way that will pull at Hurrem Sultan’s heartstrings.
Bilhah thinks. The guards, who are charged with writing down a daily account of any words uttered, any confession, half confession, or hint of it all — they have sent her an account of a woman who is sailing slowly away from reality. The guard’s handwriting is rough and hard to decipher, but she puzzles it out.
She picks up the blanket on her bed, rocks it and sings to it, as if it is a baby.
She had sent a message back: What song does she sing?
The reply came:
Durme, durme hijiko de Madre,
Durme, durme s’in ansio y dolor
Sleep, sleep, mother’s little one,
free from worry and grief
As she read the words, Bilhah’s heart had twisted. She knows the song from the widow Mazaltov; she would visit new mothers, urging them to rest, pick up the baby and croon this lullaby.
More reports: There is suspicion that she has found a way of procuring wine, for her voice is slurred and she raises her voice each midnight and recites prayers for the redemption.
Not a wise or subtle course of action for a woman who is accused of betraying the authority of the Ottoman Empire.
Yannai is sleeping soundly and Bilhah quietly leaves the house, closing the door gently so as not to disturb his slumber. She walks quickly through the streets, toward Tzidkiyahu’s Cave, where the chaburah is stationed.
A comment of Leonora comes to mind: Papa used to say, it is a blessing to die in your own bed. She said, I did not know until now how right he was. Then she had tipped her head to the side and asked: But then, what is my own bed. Where is it? Toledo? Lisbon? Italy? Aleppo? Tzfat?
When Leonora had said that, it had touched a place inside Bilhah. Where exactly is her bed — her home? Salonika? Istanbul? Jerusalem?
Her mind strays to Eliyahu. If Leonora is proven innocent, Eliyahu is safe.
She does not know where he comes from, how many villages he has wandered through, but he has some rootedness, in the soil, in his soul. Where is he?
If Leonora is proven innocent, then Papa will also be released. Her stomach cramps and her face turns to stone.
He is a strange man; certainly, he looks very different from the smartly clad men of Istanbul, with their short beards and their colorful, embroidered clothing, sewn from the finest fabrics.
Eliyahu, with his thin face and messy beard, his baggy, plain clothing — he looks like he inhabits another world.
Maybe he does.
The thought angers her, though she does not know why it should.
What is he to her, anyway? Why should she care so much about his life that she would consider releasing her father from prison?
She passes her hand over her forehead. What does all of this mean? She does not know.
She just knows that for the first time in her life, there is someone to whom she can talk with the knowledge that she has nothing to fear.
A short walk from the quarry is a small copse of trees. Ignoring his aching back and arms, Eliyahu searches for medicinal herbs, a basket slung over one arm.
It is hard to find in this light. Aloe, meadowsweet, and wild garlic. Yannai will doubtless spit it out, complaining about the taste, but he will be firm.
He crouches and pulls his fingers through a clump of dark green. He pulls one stalk, tries to see its shape, but the shadows are too strong.
No matter, he crushes it between his fingers and holds it close. Yes, it smells like garlic.
He sets down the basket and begins to harvest the stalks.
Intent on his work, he does not hear the footsteps until they are close. He looks up.
It is the girl. Bilhah.
“What are you doing?” she asks. “I have been looking for you.”
He gestures at the ground. “I am gathering herbs.”
“Yannai is ailing.”
“I know. I saw him.”
He looks up. “Where did you see him?”
“At your lodgings,” she pauses. “He should return to his family.”
A spark of anger surges through him. “He is not well enough.”
She looks at him. “You are angry.”
Did he not tell the chaburah that this was wrong? To come all the way down here and think that they could build the wall of Jerusalem, as if they are still youths. Did he not tell them that they would be sacrificing their bodies?
And now this. The weakness. The dizziness. The sound of the pickaxe, dropped suddenly onto the ground.
He wrenches the wild garlic from the ground.
“When we are tiny babies, we know the world through our fingers. Hot, cold, hard, soft. Sharp. Tender.
“We know it, then. Mother is good, and a knife and fire and sharp stone are the enemies. And then we grow up and start using our head instead of our hands and everything goes wrong.”
She shakes her head. “I do not understand.”
Why did he bother trying to explain? Why did he think that perhaps she would understand?
He takes a deep breath and tries again. “We tell ourselves that we are doing something good, righteous, and disregard how it feels. Forget that if it feels wrong, that we must cease.”
“You came down to Jerusalem against your will.”
“And what you are doing here is also against your will.”
“And I wonder how it is that I allow people to command me, instead of being free.”
She is quiet for a long moment. “If you were free, you would not be weighed down with worry for someone you love. For Yannai.”
He sinks down onto the rock. So she does know, after all. That the price of love is grief. There, that sounds orderly, a transaction, something that can be weighed and measured and that makes sense.
But then along comes grief and nothing can ever capture what it is. How loss tears you apart from the inside, until all you feel is either pain or hollowness.
But then, he has lived with the alternative, and it is unthinkable. Two years in a cave. He shrivels up just thinking about it, the way he became trapped inside himself until it took nothing less than a messenger from heaven to coax him away from it.
“Listen. Take Yannai and return to Tzfat.”
“He is not up to traveling. He must regain some strength first. He must stay here until he is more stable.”
She pummels her hands against her head and he doesn’t know what’s wrong. “You must escape from here,” she says urgently.
“Because everyone who had anything to do with this woman is being implicated. And your poems are in the treatise she was about to publish.”
“But in there, too, were the works of chachamim from Tzfat and Jerusalem. They are not going to put them all into jail.”
“But these men did not work for Leonora. They did not shepherd her flock. They did not live in her soup kitchen. They did not….”
He holds up his hand to stem the tide. “So what are you saying?”
“Escape. Run as far as you can.”
He looks up at her, at the anguish on her face.
“And what about….”
“What about you? Do you think I would leave you alone, with your father here in jail?”
She looks down. “Listen, Eliyahu, you must leave. This is the might of the Ottoman Empire, we do not meddle with power.”
“But I am not going to leave Yannai.” He swallows, glances up at her face and then looks down again quickly at the floor. “And I will not leave you.”
Where do they come from, these words? Who is she but a girl he hardly knows, in a situation that no Jewish girl should ever find herself.
Her voice climbs, until it is a plea. “If you will not leave, then at least hide. Hide for a while until the fury blows past.” She holds out a small package. “Bread and a blanket and a lump of cheese.”
He takes it. “I will hide, yes, but I will not be far away. You can send messages to me through Yannai, for I will be at his side each day.”
He stands and watches as she walks away, head drooping, stumbling over the hillocks.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 837)
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