“You can run, you can run far, far away, but always you will be returned to where you belong. You cannot escape”
From the shadows, Bilhah watches Eliyahu bend over Yannai. The cavern is slightly damp, and every sound echoes, so that a drip, drip of water seeping through the roof becomes insistent and carries fear in its vibration. A whisper becomes the rush of wind. A footstep is a drumbeat.
In the flickering darkness Bilhah sees a tear fall from Eliyahu’s eyes. It drops onto Yannai’s cheek. The old man raises his hand to his face and lifts the teardrop onto his fingertip. He holds it to his forehead in the place of his tefillin.
Bilhah stands and watches, pushing down fear. The air echoes with the sound of falling stone. She should have woken Elvira and brought her along. Not that she is safer here than anywhere else. The whole city, it seems, is being overturned.
Perhaps Elvira was wise: stay in bed, pull your blanket around you tightly, and lock the doors. Close your eyes firmly and pretend that you are not here at all, that you are floating on a cloud in the sky, toward a mountain covered in fruit trees, so you can reach down and scoop up a perfectly ripe peach and hold it in your hands, not even tasting it, just basking in the promise of a pleasure yet to come.
A huge thud shakes the ground. From the ceiling of the cave, a shower of stones and dust. She darts to the entrance of the cave and looks out.
The whole city, it seems, echoes with the sounds of falling stones. In the cavern of the cave, they feel the trembling, the thunder, and it feels like the whole cavern is shaking, for the vibrations and echoes reach all the way under the ground.
Fire. The black night sky is lit up with orange flares belching gray smoke. It comes from the direction of the city, from the direction of the prison.
Castro’s men have set the prison on fire.
Icy fingers of terror squeeze her. There are people inside.
People. Papa. That woman, Leonora.
Locked in their cells, are they to be burned alive?
Her body trembles.
Almighty, I do not know what to pray for.
I do not know what I want, or how things should come about.
Be with me, be with me, that is all I ask.
She runs back to Yannai and Eliyahu and as she does so, a low rumble sounds from the inner cavern. Some of the rocks, quarried but not excavated fully, have been loosened by the noise, by the trembling ground.
The noise goes through you, shuddering and moving your bones. It’s like the whole world has turned inside out, and the inner heart of all has been exposed and is beating, ba boom ba boom, until this is all that you can hear, even though you know that there are other noises: shouts and the crackle of fire; the high-pitched wail of babies and kittens.
Eliyahu looks up. When he sees her, his eyes widen. “You should not be out of the house on a night like this. The angels of destruction have been set loose. It is not safe.”
She nods and, breathless, manages to explain. “Castro has been arrested and he has released his troops. They are wreaking havoc on the city.”
He nods. “And the sound?”
“Stones being thrown down from the walls.”
It is like the world is falling apart. Is this the coming of the Mashiach? she wants to ask him, Is the crash of falling rock masking the blast of the shofar?
Or is this another chapter in the nightmare that began when Ferdinand and Isabella, regents of Spain, put their signatures to the edict of expulsion?
“The impact is rocking the earth and we must move from here,” she says instead. “We are in danger. The roof of the cave…. Any moment now it might collapse.”
He looks down at Yannai, who lies on a blanket on the floor of the cave. Why does he not see the urgency? “Do you not understand me? We must leave.”
“But where shall we go? Where is safe?”
“I do not know. Nowhere. But this cave is a certain danger.”
Sudden shouts. And then she looks up and she sees him.
He is not alone, of course, there is a cluster of men, they have come in from the prison. They have come to find shelter from the fire, from the soldiers, from the tumult of a city that is being overrun. There are shouts and screams and chaos.
And now he is walking toward her. He is before her. He stretches out his arms and both of his hands are on her shoulders.
Something inside her shuts down, and it feels like she is not there at all, she is watching the scene from above: Papa and Bilhah, father and daughter. She is no longer scared.
“I have been waiting for you,” he says. “I have come for you at last. “
And then she is back, looking up at the lines on his forehead, at the pouchy cheeks, and suddenly, she feels not fear, but hatred. A hatred so vast and wide and deep and fiery that the force of it can bring down the wall of Jerusalem. Either that, or it will destroy her, for there is no way she can contain it.
She steps back and twists out of her father’s grip.
“Do not touch me,” she commands. “Do not ever touch me again.”
“I am your father.”
He takes a step forward and she shakes her head. “No.”
For he is no father. He is no prophet. He is no messenger of G-d.
And she, she is no great spirit. She does not see into the world of the souls and she does not know how to talk to the dead or speak with Divine inspiration.
She thinks of the cat charm that she wears around her wrist, dangling from a piece of red string. No longer hidden away in her money bag. She is a thief, too. She fingers the charm, the gold warm from her skin. She made mistakes, yet she was befriended. Cared for. Someone trusted in her goodness.
But she is a thief. What has she stolen?
Has she stolen this life from her father? Or from the Almighty? Or perhaps He has given it to her as a gift, so there was no theft at all, merely a wrestling away of the good from the bad.
“I am not yours,” she says. “You are no father to me.”
He stares at her, and in his dark eyes she sees a pit of fear, but she does not know if it belongs to him or it is a reflection of her own terror.
“You are right.”
And here it is, the truth. She was not born because Papa wanted a child or prayed for one. She was born because the Almighty decided, for better or for worse, to bring her into the world. She is the Almighty’s child.
And suddenly, he is diminished. It is not about him. He was just there to keep her clothed and fed until she was ready to move on.
And Juan. He was never going to marry her. He was just the goat in the yard, the kick that made her move on. In a moment, it is like her past is simply a milky sheen over her vision.
Her house in Salonika. The printing press. None of it matters.
The Imperial Palace.
There is something bigger than that, too. She does not know what it is, only that it is the Almighty who has led her here, who has brought her from place to place to place. And she is His child.
Papa looks at her and hesitates. She stares at him, unflinching, the hatred in her eyes undisguised.
“You will never return me to where I was. Not to the place, and not to the little girl who was so afraid, who only wanted to run away and hide.”
And then his hand is around her wrist and it is gripping so hard that it takes her breath away. The pain. He will pull her arm out from her body, he will not hesitate to hurt her, she knows this because she has lived it.
Panting, bent over from stabbing pain, she looks up at him, but he is looking away, outside, dragging her through the great inner cavern.
She leans back, pushes all her weight into her feet, into her back, away from him. He grunts, but then takes her with the other hand as well, and this is it, she is lost. There is no way she can escape him, and if she tries, he will kill her.
And then, footsteps. Suddenly, she is surrounded. She jerks her head back to see. The chaburah.
The chaburah. What are they but a group of old men? They will be knocked over by her father, in one fell swoop.
Eliyahu is there. He stands before Papa and raises his voice. “I command you to let her go.”
“I am her father. You can do nothing.”
“Let her go, I say. Let her go.”
And then, Eliyahu has his hands on Papa’s shoulders and is shaking him. She sees Papa begin to waver, but it is useless. Papa’s years in the print shop, hauling and pulling, have made him an oak tree. Papa opens his mouth and roars.
With his other hand, he grabs Eliyahu by the hair. A shove, and Eliyahu lies on the stone floor. He lets out a small cry, but lurches to his feet, and he is standing again, wrestling with Papa, even though Papa towers over him and has the strength of two men, maybe three.
“Let her go!” Eliyahu shouts, even as he ducks and weaves, and she tries to struggle out of her father’s grip, but there is no use. His hand has become an iron chain and she cannot free herself.
“She is not yours!” Eliyahu cries.
Papa brings Eliyahu’s head toward his, and now she sees that Papa is choking him: Eliyahu’s face is grown flushed, even red, and he is coughing and wrenching.
She screams. The noise pierces the chamber and the other men of the chaburah fall on them, pulling at Papa’s arms, trying to free Eliyahu. Papa releases Eliyahu, but thrashes about with his arms, so that in moments, they are all on the floor, overpowered, some of them grazed and battered.
And then comes a moment of silence.
“When a man is intent on sin, we remind him of the day of death.” It is Yannai’s voice, thin and reedy, but gaining in strength. “Come, everyone together: Ashamnu.”
The chaburah repeat after him. “Ashamnu.”
“Bagadnu,” Yannai sings.
Papa pauses for a second, looks around. The sounds echoing around the chamber make it feel like he is surrounded not by ten men, but a hundred.
“Gazalnu” is returned to him. What a gentle melody for the harshness of grabbing, snatching, stealing. Bilhah is about to jerk herself away, but not yet, it is not the right time.
She cannot see Papa’s face, but she sees Eliyahu. He is back on his feet, and he is staring at her and at Papa and it is as if he knows everything. The duplicity, the clash between the words that Papa says and the holy words that he prints.
“He’evinu, hirshanu, zadnu, chamasnu.”
Chamasnu. Violence. He has done violence to her being; instead of safeguarding her as a father, he turned on her. Violence to her mother’s memory, too. Violence to her trust. Her mouth is dry, it feels like everything has cracked, but she must join in their words. Done violence to those who are weaker….
Now the chaburah is a circle around them and their eyes are trained on Papa.
They continue their chant: “You have spoken falsehood, offered bad advice, been deceitful.”
Through her anger and terror comes shame. This is her father. This is what she comes from.
But no, this is what she has escaped from. Daughter of the Almighty, she reminds herself, not of Papa. This is the ugliness of sin, of a man who will not look in the looking glass and see his twisted reflection, will not look into the mirror of his daughter’s eyes and see the terror he inflicts.
“Latznu, maradnu… we have scorned, rebelled, angered the Almighty, turned away, we have sinned.”
The list of sins goes on and on, and the men include themselves in their confession, and she wants to say, it is not you, it is him, but she knows what Eliyahu would say, that we must work each day to attach ourselves to good, to truth, to generosity, to compassion.
Papa’s grip on her wrist has loosened. If she wanted, she could pull away. Pull away now and run, and that would be the end of it.
But he may come after her still. It is not yet time.
“Pashanu. We have acted wantonly. Tzararnu. We have caused suffering.”
She lifts her voice, and it comes out a choke and a whisper and a scream. “Tzararta. You have caused suffering.”
He takes a deep breath then, and his hand is still around her wrist, but loosely, and they stand there like that, with the words of the confession throbbing around them.
“Kishinu oref. We have been stubborn.”
“Rashanu. We have been wicked.”
“You, Papa, you have been wicked.” She does not know if she says the words out loud or simply thinks them, but something enters his eyes and she thinks he has understood. She joins their condemnation. “You have been corrupt. Abominable. You have strayed.”
And then the last words come, and saying it fills her with terror, “You have been allowed to stray.”
The Almighty allowed him to stray, to pursue her and afflict her, and she does not know why. It is a wound she carries with her, the unknowing, the question of why He did not protect her from her father’s evil.
Because he was evil, she knows that now, she sees that. It was not her misdeeds or rebellion, it was nothing that she deserved, she was just a child.
And now she feels like a child still, not knowing what to think or feel or what to do, other than let the racking sobs be released.
And finally, finally, he drops her hand.
He lets go and he takes a step forward, and the chaburah, that circle of protection, parts to allow him to exit. He breaks into a run and they follow him, suddenly, because there is noise everywhere, they do not know whether it comes from inside them or from outside, a thunder of stone.
He walks toward the mouth of the cave. As he does, he must dodge the great piles of rock that have fallen, and even now, stones and dust are raining down from the inside. Something hits him and he stops, puts a hand to his face, and even after everything, she must resist the urge to run over to him and check that he is not badly hurt.
Then it comes, a great crack, and the air is filled with chalk and dust and darkness.
There is a strangled cry. Eliyahu runs forward even as she screams that he must stop, keep back, keep back.
She knows what has happened, no one has to tell her.
A great boulder has fallen.
A great boulder has fallen and Papa is dead.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 841)
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