It is not nothing, all this that she has done. Would she have done it had she been contented?
Leonora stands with her arms stretched over her head, hands grasping the iron bars on the small window of her cell. Tonight, the usual night sounds are absent. The owl that nests opposite doesn’t hoot as it sets off on its silent flight over the city.
Is it sheltering, hiding, hungry, like her?
When it sounds each evening, she imagines its silent flight, how it must inspect the growing wall each night, considering new places to nest, how it gathers food, the abundance of prey found in a thriving city, as opposed to the lack that is the fate of cities that are dwindling.
All day long the prisoners have waited for food, but none has come. As the day wore on, the water in her jug finished, too, and her mouth is dry. It has grown hard to swallow and every time she moves, the cell seems slightly off balance.
This time of day, when the life inside her limbs, trapped and unused for another day, makes her feel agitated, she takes flight in her mind, following the untrodden pathways.
What if she had left Lisbon that night, set sail with her daughter and her parents, what would have become of her? It is hard for her to get onto the boat, even in her mind. She does it, step by step. First, she simply grasps hold of her mother’s hand as she is on the shore. Then, she lifts her foot, puts one foot into the boat before flailing backward and returning to dry land.
She does not know whether these are dreams or wakefulness, for the next time she is in the boat, she looks down and sees that her daughter has grown still, cold, a waxen corpse, and she hears a great moan come from her as if from a stranger.
She rubs her forehead. She could have had a happy, contented life.
And if she had, would she have worked so hard, done so much?
She has lent money and established businesses to give people work and wages; she has fed the hungry and brought in doctors to set broken legs and healed hearts that beat too fast and lungs that cough up yellow phlegm. She has published a treatise on the correct foods to feed children, so that they grow up tall and strong, instead of with bandy knees and teeth that have fallen out by the time they are 20.
It is not nothing, all this that she has done. Would she have done it had she been contented?
They criticized her, Yishai and Amram, for always doing battle with the world, but then did not Yaakov himself strive with the angel of darkness a whole, long night through? He did not sit back and say, Ah, so this is the world that the Almighty created, we shall have to learn to live side by side.
She leans forward and rests her forehead on the cold stone wall of the cell. The thirst. The thirst. What has happened?
She knows what has happened. The guards have fled. Everyone who can run has done so, before Castro is arrested. She walks over to the door of the cell and calls out, “Water! Please, water!”
“There is no one here. They have all gone,” a voice replies.
So that is it. They will be forgotten. She will die of thirst. It is the end.
She remembers the jug of wine that she had brought in a few days before. In two paces, she is in the corner, lifting the jug to her lips, finding nothing but dry clay with a lingering taste of sweetness.
Not even a drop. How greedy she was. What an old, foolish woman.
She tips the jug once more, banging it against her palm, but there is nothing. The effort makes her light-headed, and the jug drops from her hand and shatters on the flagstones.
She looks down. The floor is covered with shards of clay, glowing slightly orange in the moonlight. It is nothing. Just a clay jug. Not so different from the earthenware pots that were broken outside her home all those months ago, when she established the soup kitchen. She should have known then. She should have taken the hint that she was dancing on the edge of destruction.
And now it has come.
She drops to her hands and knees and begins to gather up the pieces. They are sharp; the clay has splintered into shapes, and when she gathers them, they prick her skin. The clay leaves a light powder on her fingers.
She must work slower, more carefully, gathering up the fragments so that they form a little mound. As she works, she suddenly hears noises from outside.
Is it? The sound of cries. Running feet. And… she shudders as a great noise surrounds her. A great crack, a thud, a boom.
What is it?
What is it?
It is the crash of thunder after the midsummer thickness hangs low in the air, grazing their throats with heat. It is the sound of a hundred horses galloping in unison across the ground. It is the threatening boom of a cannon.
She gasps, and her hands clench, mindless of the fragments of clay that pierce her skin.
It is the sound of the wall being unbuilt.
Stones falling. Bricks, hurled from the top of the wall. The sound of her world coming apart.
What does all of this mean?
Castro. Of course, Castro. This is what it means. He has been arrested, or he is about to be arrested, so he has decided to show the Ottoman Empire who holds the power in this city, who is really building the wall of Jerusalem.
Another crash, and another.
The wall is felled. She lets herself fall to the ground, gives a moan that convulses through her body. From a distance, she can feel the fragments of clay under her fingers, scraping her palms, the prick, the smell of blood, slightly salty, metallic, warm.
Crack. A boom, a blast, a bang. She closes her eyes and sees the rocks tumbling down from a great height.
Until this moment, she has never surrendered. But now, all she needs to do is to close her eyes and allow her soul to set out on its long journey, a tiny fishing boat crossing the vast sea.
For there is nothing left but a boat she never stepped onto, a daughter lost, the wreckage of who she is, an old woman, unloved by most, feared by all, aching each day for the wine that will make her forget the pain that threatens each day to open up the earth beneath her feet and swallow her alive, still clutching her money and her power for it is all that saves her from oblivion.
She takes a gasp of air, feels it fill her chest. Stubborn. Oh, stubborn life. Why will her breath not simply cease? Why?
When she appointed Yannai as the leader of the chaburah, he had closed his eyes for a long time and asked her why, exactly, did she want to bring the Final Redemption.
She does not remember, now, what she told him. But she remembers his words. Strange how she has not thought of them until this day.
He had closed his eyes and spoken into his own world of darkness. He had spoken quietly, in no more than a whisper, so that Leonora had had to silence every voice inside her head, every unspoken reaction, and concentrate entirely on his words. Perhaps this is why they have remained with her.
“When the Almighty came to create the world, He had a dilemma. So much light!” Yannai had spread his arms wide, and the gesture had been so filled with wonder and bewilderment that she had become a child again, sitting at Papa’s feet and listening to the tales of diplomats and court Jews, seeing the glistening rubies they spilled out onto his table, gifts for noblemen in the West and viziers in the East.
“What could possibly hold all that light? He created a vessel, but the vessel wasn’t strong enough, big enough, wide enough, and it shattered.” Yannai brought his hands together, clap. The sound was loud; she had startled.
“And again, He tried, and again, and each time, shards of shattered worlds flew out, searched for a place to settle. For great light can heal, but it can also blind, and great light can shatter and destroy. Eventually, He made this world, but it was fashioned from destruction and this is the way it is until today.”
She had nodded, and he had suddenly opened his eyes and stared at her, so that she felt as if her soul was trembling.
“Again and again, our world is destroyed, and we are destroyed along with it. Almost destroyed, that is, because something remains, some fragments, some part of us that can pick up the fragments, the shards. They may make ribbons from our flesh, they prick us and slash at us.
“But we try nonetheless and slowly, in our hands, even as we watch with bewilderment, lost, unsure of what to do and how to do it, the fragments begin to reform. It is a crazed, scarred vessel that is recreated, but it is larger than before. Deeper and wider. Better able to contain the light that will come. For it will come.
“However, even as you bask in the light, and think, ah, this is it, we are here at last, the shattering begins once again, you hear the very first crack and you know that it will be followed by a thousand anguished howls of sorrow.”
She had shaken her head. “But why are we so brittle? Why do we have to crack and fragment each time?”
Tears had welled in his eyes. “It is a mystery. We must trust to the Shepherd of sparks.”
She had tried to find the question that was building in her heart. “What light is it that you talk of?”
“The light of redemption.”
Redemption. This was something she could understand. A Sanhedrin. A Mikdash. Korbanot. Forgiveness. This is the reason she wants this chaburah.
He had laughed, as if he had read her mind. “Redemption does not only mean an ingathering of the exiles, although we pray for this every day.”
His smile, that peaceful, faith-filled smile, how could he smile that way? Her voice had turned shrill. “So what does it mean?”
“Jews have been longing for the redemption for a thousand years. If you were exiled from your mother’s home, would you not long to go back there?”
I have, she wanted to scream. I was. But he does not notice her turmoil.
“Back to the familiar smells of your mother’s kitchen, the sage and braised fowl? Back to the comfort of her arms? Well, for us those smells are the scent of frankincense and cinnamon, the Ketoret that was offered each day, the fragrant loaves baked fresh each day, all the smells that showed us we were home, and cared for, and loved.
“And would you not long for your mother’s arms? To step into a place and feel the warmth and the light, even when outside the winter rain pours and the wind cuts like a knife and all is dark and cold. But there is a place where you know that all is well, where there is goodness and kindness and truth.
“And it’s more than that, more. It’s like you are on a long journey, and everything is unfamiliar and fills you with disquiet and worry. Will there be bandits on your path? Will you get lost? Will you die on a wayside, lost and forgotten? And suddenly you know that you are cared for, you are not abandoned and never were, you are loved and wanted, and throughout, your mother was praying for your welfare.
“That is what we long for.”
She had turned away so that he could not see the tears that gathered in her eyes. “But why?” she had asked, choking out the question. “Why does creation have to come from destruction? Why all the shards and the pain?”
“Ah.” A well of endless sadness had entered his eyes. “That is the question I was hoping you would not ask me.”
“But why not?”
“For I have no answer. No answer at all.”
Now, she lies on the floor, feels the crumbled jug beneath her cheek, and hears the sounds of destruction outside. Then, suddenly, she hears the noise of footsteps pounding the stairs, running across the stone floor of the jail. The sound of keys in the locks, and the creak as the heavy door swings open.
By the light of a flickering torch, she sees soldiers, Castro’s livery, his soldiers, the ones that she pays for. They call to her. “Get up. Get up now and leave. Leave while you can. Run.”
She does not understand but her body obeys. Her legs stumble and slip but they bring her to her feet and carry her out of the prison. Vaguely, she is aware of the other prisoners leaving, all of them, for the soldiers have stormed the prison, they have released everyone inside and they are throwing oil down on the floor, down the stairs, and now they are throwing in golden, burning boughs of wood and all she can think is, how beautiful is the flame.
She blinks and slowly, comprehension dawns: Castro’s soldiers are destroying the prison, before he can be brought here; they are wreaking havoc in the city, as if the Sultan was prophetic after all in his fear that Castro would rise up against him, finally, at the end of the day.
Does it matter? None of it matters. Only that she will find a horse, any horse, and ride, ride away from here. Ride toward freedom.
The wall may be tumbling, but she could still, perhaps, ride toward redemption.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 840)
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