“When a man is this weak, you do not ask him what he wants.” He forces himself to stay calm. “Pillows. Bring me pillows”
Tzidkiyahu’s cave, where they go each day to quarry the glistening white stone, is wide — cavern after cavern, a vast underground stone city.
Eliyahu’s cave near Tzfat was roomy: a good size for one man to make a home, with a corner for sleeping and another for study and eating. But this cave is narrow and shallow; no more, really, than a great crack within the hills. When Eliyahu sits down, back to the wall, his legs touch the other side. He flattens his feet and pushes, hard. His back presses against the uneven stone and pain spreads through his back.
He eases into a sitting position, and then, unsure of what to do, he opens the package that Bilhah handed him. There is bread, but he has no means of washing his hands. There’s a water pouch, but it is only enough for drinking. The cheese. He takes a bite and tries to swallow, but it forms a salty lump at the back of his mouth.
Outside, night closes in. He feels around him, and his hands close on his basket of herbs. He thought to give it to Bilhah, tell her how to prepare it for Yannai, but shocked and afraid, they both ran.
His fingers run through the stalks of wild garlic. It will help the old man. When darkness falls, he will steal through the night and into the city. Not through the gates; he will scale a section of the wall that is unfinished, and in doing so avoid the guards.
In the meantime, he pulls the blanket around himself and closes his eyes.
He wakes with a start, cold and hungry. His fingers feel the floor. Where is he?
It all comes flooding back to him.
The memories, along with a certainty: he cannot do this again. He cannot hide away in a cave. He stumbles to his feet, and feels the two stone walls pressing in on him.
But where to go?
He remembers the basket of herbs. Yannai. Yannai is ailing, and he is sheltering here, in what is not even a cave, but the crevice of a rock. How far, how trapped, how desperate?
He closes his eyes and leans forward, so his forehead rests against the wall of the cave. The words come to him, the Almighty’s words to Moshe: I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by.
All he wanted to do was to see the glory of the Almighty.
After the sin. The fall of the Luchot; fragments of smashed stone and flying letters. Destruction. Forgiveness.
The Almighty’s back, that was all that he was permitted to see. The faintest glimpse of G-d is always, only, in hindsight. Afterward. And even that, a gift granted to the wisest, saintliest, humblest man to walk the earth.
What hope for the rest of them?
He runs a finger down the cave wall, feels the cold, clammy ridges, and pushes with all his might.
He opens his mouth, tries to find a song, a prayer, but all that remains is the silence.
No. No. He cannot stay here. He will not stay here. If it be G-d’s will that he return to the earth, then so be it. From dust we are fashioned and to dust we shall return.
Anything but this living death.
He snatches up the basket and walks the few steps to the mouth of the cave. Then, out, through the narrow opening.
When he steps into the night, the stars overhead gleam with a thousand flames.
Bilhah lights a lamp on her desk. Usually, they finish working at sundown, but tonight she had eaten and returned to the work tent.
She chooses a piece of the finest parchment, and opens a new bottle of ink. It is time for her to write the testimony. But not only this, she will also write to both Yasemin and Aisha. She will ask for freedom, and also protection. For her services to end, but for her to be given a privileged document that shows she is safeguarded by Hurrem Sultan herself.
She dips her pen into ink, shakes off the excess, and waits until her fingers stop trembling. Then she sets the pen onto the parchment.
The following is the testimony of Leonora de Dabela of the town of Tzfat.
She thinks back to their interviews. She had tried to clearly outline Leonora’s treachery. Why did you do it? Bilhah had asked. Are you trying to rebel against the Ottoman rule? Are you trying to sow discord among the Jews?
Leonora’s eyes were wide with bewildered innocence. “No, I just wanted to care for the Jews. Bring them forgiveness. Help them wipe away their sins.”
Bilhah had recorded the woman’s words, and then asked. “And how can you reconcile your longing for a Jewish power with your loyalty to the Ottoman Empire?”
Leonora had closed her eyes and rocked back and forth. “I do not know. I do not know.” She had covered her face with her hands. “Tell them that I am an old woman and I know nothing, nothing at all.”
She is an old woman, who pulls innocent people into a web of intrigue that she does not mean to weave. There is no rebellion here, only a bruised and bleeding heart. She has lost a child and she has not forgiven herself, for if she does not hold herself responsible, she must acknowledge that we live in a cruel and frightening world, one that is beyond our control.
When I saw her last, she was inebriated. I have questioned her servant, Ines, and she informed me that her mistress takes to the bottle regularly, for it is the only way she can live with her demons.
Although this may seem like a lowly woman, she is not so. She has a regal bearing and she has a wild, great soul, that seeks to bestow goodness on all of those around her. She is distressed by the pain of the world and whenever she can, she seeks to rectify it.
For her, the wall around Jerusalem is not an act of rebellion; nor is it even something that is made of brick and cement. It is an amorphous thing, not physical, but a solidified vision of the wall she has built around her heart, to stop it from mourning, and the wall around her soul saving it from the eternal fire of guilt and shame.
And so, I put to you the fact that if you release this woman, you yourself, the most honorable and tranquil, will be a mother to all the realm. For this woman tries to absorb the example of Your Royal Majesty, and so she has established a soup kitchen for the poor, and employs doctors to care for the sick of the people. If she talks of the redemption, it is only because her mind has become unhinged from pain and suffering.
The lamp oil is almost used up. Bilhah reads the missive once more, then folds it and seals, red wax dripping over the parchment.
She places it in the small sack of correspondence that will begin the journey to Istanbul on the morrow.
She has done her duty, for better or for worse.
The rest she will — she must — leave up to the Almighty.
Eliyahu flits like a spirit through the streets, skimming the walls, staying in the darkest shadow. It is late, but the city feels alert, watchful. Here and there, groups of Ottoman guards march. Each time they near, Eliyahu presses himself into an alleyway or darts into a courtyard.
The sight unsettles him. Usually, any guards loiter and laugh, drinking wine that they have bought from the Jews, for the Muslims are forbidden strong drinks.
It seems that Bilhah was right to tell him to hide.
He is breathless from nerves by the time he opens the door of their lodgings. He closes the door quietly, so as not to wake them, but when he walks into the entrance hall, he sees that the place is lit with candles and a lantern and everyone is awake.
They turn when he enters.
Chananya grips both his shoulders. “We were afraid for you, Eliyahu. Where have you been?
He sets down the basket and waves his hand through the air. “It is of no matter.”
He ignores the other questions and walks over to Yannai’s bed. Pinchas sits beside him, but he moves, making space for Eliyahu, who drops to his knees. The old man is unsettled. He tosses back and forth, his face contorting in pain.
He leans down beside the bed. “I will prepare one of my tinctures for you. But you must swallow it. Will you swallow it? For I have gone to much trouble to gather the herbs and even to come here.”
Yannai’s eyes flicker open.
Eliyahu turns to Chananya. “How long has he been this way?”
“Since we arrived back this evening.”
Pinchas steps forward. “That young woman, the one who works for the Ottomans, wants to transport him back to Tzfat.”
Eliyahu lifts Yannai’s wrist and feels his pulse. It is weak, but quick, the heartbeat of a bird setting off on a journey.
He blinks away sudden tears. Until now, he had opposed the journey — wait until he is stronger. But now…. It is different. Before he makes his final journey, he should take leave of his family.
He crushes the herbs between his fingers and mixes them with water. It must stand for long enough for the water to absorb the goodness, and then he must make sure that Yannai drinks it. In the meantime, perhaps he is also dehydrated.
He turns around and calls out. “Has anyone fed him? Some bread, a little soup? A spoon of water?”
Chananya spreads his arms wide. “I brought some soup from the kitchens. But he said that he was not hungry.”
Eliyahu takes a spoon of water, raises Yannai with his arm, and dribbles water into his lips. He catches sight of the tip of Yannai’s tongue; it is whitish. As he suspected, no one has been nursing him. He does not bother to dispel the anger from his voice.
“When a man is this weak, you do not ask him what he wants.” He forces himself to stay calm. “Pillows. Bring me pillows.”
They run and follow his bidding, although he is the youngest. Eliyahu carefully places the pillows behind Yannai’s head, but still the great man is not at ease.
But Yannai lifts his hands and tries to gesture. He shakes his head back and forth, back and forth. He tries to speak.
Chananya shakes his head. “Do not speak. Save your strength.”
But Eliyahu leans close. If he does not speak now, his words will be lost. Perhaps these are the most important words he will say.
Eliyahu nods, eyes wide, encouraging Yannai to find the strength, find the words.
Yannai whispers. “We… did not.” A long pause. “Pray.”
Eliyahu turns and looks up at Chananya, who rakes his fingers through his long, gray beard. Of course they pray, they pray each day, three times, and more beside.
Eliyahu stares at Yannai, whose eyes beseech him to understand.
Slowly, he grasps at tendrils of thought.
“We came… we came here to Jerusalem not to build. To pray.”
He stops. Yannai’s eyes light up, and Eliyahu’s heart wrenches. They are the eyes of a young man, a child maybe.
“And we did not yet do that.”
Chananya leans over them both. “We will do that. Pray for the wall.”
Yannai closes his eyes. Tears roll down his cheeks. He opens his mouth once more and whispers. “Not… for the wall. Pray… for the redemption.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 838)
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