There is so much that she does not know. Who and how and where Papa is buried. How she came to Tzfat. Who brought her here to Yannai’s home
Bilhah pulls the rough woolen blanket more tightly around herself and turns over.
The mattress is made of straw and some of the stalks prick through the cover, but she slumbered like she has never slept before. Not in Salonika, not in Istanbul, and certainly not in Jerusalem did she welcome the heaviness that creeps into your limbs before sleep. Sleep was always a necessity, but a dangerous one, for she could not guard herself when her eyes were closed. Often, she would startle awake, heart thumping.
And now she is content to listen to the birds singing. Strange how she is aware of the rhythm of each day, when the days themselves and the weeks have passed unnoticed.
There has been food and footsteps and voices; the sound of prayer and of Torah learning. Occasionally, she has heard Eliyahu, she is sure of it. He must come to visit Yannai. She cannot make out his words, but she strains her ears to hear him.
Rosh Hashanah has come and gone, Yom Kippur, too, and even Succot she barely noticed, for she was half-blind. She had been sunken in a fatigue so deep and great that even the call of the shofar did not penetrate the thick mist that surrounded her.
Yannai’s wife, Miriam, is a small, lively woman who tells her exactly what she thinks. Rest now, she says, because we shall not be able to care for you forever, so get your full strength back while we can.
They are treating her like she has lost the use of her limbs, or as if she is fighting some dreaded disease. Miriam brings food that is bland but plentiful, and every evening, tucks Bilhah into bed so tightly that Bilhah must fight to release the sheets. She strokes Bilhah’s hair and as Bilhah fights back the tears, she bustles off to issue commands to a servant or a grandchild.
Now, Bilhah sits up. The effort makes her dizzy, but she takes a deep breath and waits for it to pass. She swings her legs around and plants them on the floor. The stone is cold under her feet.
Holding on to the wooden chest of drawers, she dresses, hands shaking, and leaves the room, steadying herself on the wall as she takes each step.
“And the day has come.” Miriam puts down the pail of apples she carries, leans over, and kisses her on the forehead. Her warm, strong arm threads through her elbow, and Bilhah is guided into the main room and seated on a wide chair. Bilhah sits down gratefully. She opens her mouth to thank them but it is hard to catch her breath.
Yannai’s wife places a blanket over her lap and smiles. “Just in time for your daily visitor.”
Bilhah shakes her head, not understanding. Then she sees him, leaning on the doorframe, face half in shadow.
“Baruch rofeh cholim.” He walks over to her. “You are up.”
Bilhah laughs. “I believe so.”
Yannai’s wife calls over. “He comes every day to ask after your welfare.”
She stares, disbelieving, but Eliyahu looks down and she cannot read the expression on his face.
“Here.” A mug of steaming liquid is set before her. Bilhah lifts it to her lips, drinks, and grimaces. Eliyahu takes it from her gently and looks inside. “Good. I made this potion just yesterday. Nettle, dandelion, and ground olive bark. But where is the honey pot I brought?” he calls out.
Miriam returns a moment later with a small pot of honey. Eliyahu spoons some into the drink and stirs. “Here. Try it now.”
“You made this for me?”
She blinks. If the drink were not so bitter, she would not know if she was in a dream.
“You… you protected me.”
“From…” She closes her eyes. “From Papa.”
“What else have you done for me?”
She remembers little from that night. The pain of Papa’s hands gripping her wrists, the great noise that shuddered through her, the grit in her eyes, the smell of burning, the cries.
There is so much that she does not know. Who and how and where Papa is buried. How she came to Tzfat. Who brought her here to Yannai’s home. She looks at the mug of bitter brew, sweetened now with honey, and lifts it to her lips.
She does not know all of this, but she knows that Eliyahu knows, and when the time is right, he will tell her everything. She looks up at him and sees that his eyes are bright with tears. She finds her own cheeks wet, but it is not that she is filled with fear and sadness, rather that she has found a place for her heart to rest at last.
Bilhah goes outside and watches the rising sun.
Last night, she went to the beit knesset and heard the familiar voice of Rav Shlomo Alkabetz. She closed her eyes, and imagined that she was back in Salonika, with people speaking the Holy Tongue on the streets. And then they had sung Lecha Dodi: rise up in anticipation of the Redemption.
It will come, it will come when they are ready. Not only when there have been enough tears, for there are tears to fill an ocean. Not only when there has been enough suffering, for who can count and weigh and measure the heartache of all. It will come when they can find the hope, when they can find the trust. For not just survival, but for closeness.
Afterward, she had joined Leonora for the Shabbat seudah. Although Leonora had sat at her customary place at the head of the table, it was not she who led the seudah, but her eldest son, Yishai.
There was talk, of course. About the wall of Jerusalem. About Castro, who, while waiting for the hangman’s noose, had rejected his Judaism and declared his intention to convert to Islam. Just words, Yishai’s wife had said. Just words he uttered to save his life.
But Bilhah had been transported to the Imperial palace in Istanbul, to the great rooms in which she had realized that words are a force.
They had gone on and on, the daughters-in-law and the grandchildren, in a hybrid language, their lashon hakodesh interspersed with Spanish. A new language is on its way, she had thought as she heard them speak. A language that is half exile, half redemption. Half diaspora, half Holy Land.
And it is fitting, for this is where they are. Half and half. Neither here nor there. Present but still displaced.
And even she, where is she?
Half filled with peace and tranquility, but the nightmares still visit. When she goes to sleep, some nights she suddenly sees Papa. She wakes up, blanket pulled around her, sobbing from fear.
This is new. She never cried before; there was only fear and hatred and a fierce determination to survive. She does not know what it means, these tears. Eliyahu says that it is the stone inside her gradually crumbling, making space for more heart. She does not know if it is true, but his words are like the morning dew.
She looks out at the hills that surround the city. Tzfat is the fourth place she has lived, and although it does not yet feel like home, the narrow alleyways are becoming familiar, as are the women who greet her on the street.
She pulls the blanket closer around her shoulders. It is the finest blanket in the land. No, in the kingdom. It is no wall, but perhaps, finally, she does not need a wall.
She thinks of the thin blanket given to her in the Imperial palace, and how she pulled it over herself, as much to separate her from the world as to give her warmth. It feels like a lifetime has passed since she was there, although it is only a few months.
In Jerusalem, the wall is continuing to be built. And here, she has the printing press. She has words. She has a dream of printing a siddur filled with the Shabbat zemirot.
She has asked that it include Eliyahu’s favorite song: Simu lev el haneshamah… Listen to the soul.
She will set the type herself, letter by letter, line by line, taking care that each block is exactly lined up, that the margin is perfect. If she had the money, she would ask a painter to color the sin with the fire of sunset.
The wind picks up. The winter day is beginning and with it, her own new start. She pulls the blanket closer around herself. It is warmth and care and love; it is the Almighty’s plan; she is swaddled in hope and trust.
Every time Eliyahu is unsure about why the paths of their lives have crossed, or when he lies awake wondering how much these paths can intertwine, he remembers that day.
Bilhah was still weak when he asked her to walk out toward the hills. They had gone slowly, down toward the valley where the air was fragrant with olives. They perched on rocks by a bubbling stream. They had both been silent for a while, at a loss.
What words to use? What to say? Maybe all that he had thought and felt until now was like a cloud, ephemeral, unable to be captured.
But the silence had settled, and they had grown comfortable inside it, and then he had begun to sing. “Simu lev el haneshamah…”
She had broken into his song. “What does that mean?”
“It means… hearken, hearken to your soul.”
He had pointed to the misty rainbow hovering just above the stream. “See that? The beauty? The place where you feel that, that is your soul.”
Her head had been tilted to the side, and her listening had a depth that could have surprised him but didn’t.
“Or when you hear a thunderstorm. That awe. Or when you hear the lonely call of a swallow. Or a child chanting Modeh Ani. Or…” He had looked down at his fingers. “When a lament builds up in your heart, or a silent scream of pain, or a fragile song of hope.”
She had nodded, and he noticed that she was crying.
“What?” He had leaned forward. “What did I say to hurt you?”
“It is just… the call that filled me up always was, Run. Hide. Do anything you must to save yourself.”
He hears it then. The echo of her soul, fractured by other people’s anger and pain, longing to be healed. He shakes his head. “But underneath it was something else.”
She stands and begins to walk away, slowly, back bent over as if she is an old woman. He runs after her and halts before her so she must stop.
“But that was also your soul. That was the cry of a soul clinging to life.”
“Life.” She thought for a moment, then she brushed away her tears and began to laugh, and he had laughed as well, and the sound had rung out through the valley.
Leonora pulls sharply on the reins and her black stallion halts. Behind her, Ines, on her tame piebald, stops and dismounts. She walks over to Leonora and hands her a lantern. “You do not want to halt closer?”
Leonora shakes her head.
“And do you want to dismount?”
To dismount is to subject herself to indignity. Since she returned from Jerusalem, she has found herself unsteady on her feet. The silver-topped cane that she always wielded to add luster and presence, has now become a necessity. She leans on it heavily, for it feels as though her body is too heavy to be held up without it, although she has become smaller and thinner than ever.
“I will have a better view this way,” she says. Ines nods and returns to her own mount.
No one will see them here, standing high up on a hill. But she can watch the crowd gathering as night falls, and then the torches are lit, and below all is a blaze of light.
The sound of a flute wafts up the hill toward them. It is time. Leonora finds her heart pounding.
It is hard to see much, but there is a figure in white surrounded by candles and she is moving forward, walking toward her future.
The thought comes to her unbidden. Somewhere in the world, your daughter may have had a daughter of her own. This girl — she might have been your granddaughter. It could have been your own flesh and blood walking toward the chuppah.
Sorrow washes over her. It will never end, this sorrow; that may be the one thing she knows for certain: that it will be with her always wherever she is, whatever she does.
She is trying. Despite it all, despite herself, she is still trying.
She sent a message to the girl — would she want to work the printing press? The great machine of wood and metal sits on the other side of the wool factory, silent and unmoving. The girl could work it, she knows that.
But in response to her message, she had simply received a note back from Yannai: leave the girl in peace.
She had been angered, and thought about riding down to Yannai’s home to talk to her in person. But Yannai, even in his frailty, is a formidable opponent. And her days in prison weakened not only her body, but her spirit as well.
But time… time had worked its magic. For when the girl was well again, she came with Eliyahu to see the wool factory, and she had caught sight of the printing press. Something in her had recoiled at first, but then she stepped forward and stroked the wood. She picked up the moveable type and began to arrange it on the palm of her hand.
From down below, there is chanting, but around her, the night sounds are loud: the wind whistling through the olive trees, the burble of a small stream. She will not hear the crack of glass as it breaks under the chupah. She will not hear the lament of destruction, only the song of joy that follows and she will not be able to bear it, one without the other, for it is only when the two are intertwined, the sorrow and the joy, that she can find comfort.
Leonora tugs on the soft, cracked leather of her horse’s reins and begins the ride home.
A single flute trills through the air, sweet and pure. It is time. She is garbed in a simple white linen dress, and a garland of flowers is a crown upon her head.
This morning, he sent a gift: a tiny vial of perfume he had made himself, and she lifts her wrist to her face to inhale the fragrance. She can smell rose petals and nutmeg, and there’s something else there, too, something that cannot be named but that brings sudden tears to her eyes.
Night has fallen over Tzfat, but she is surrounded by candles, and all she must do is follow the orbs of light. Through her thin veil, she stares at the flames until all she can see is sparks of orange and crimson. Then she steps forward and she is under the tallis, standing beside Eliyahu.
The sweet, rich taste of wine. The ring slipped onto her finger. The chanted blessings, bidding them to hear the voices of joy and happiness, to celebrate in the Garden of Eden that will be their marriage.
He lifts her veil, and she looks up at him, and she knows it is all there, it will always be there, the sorrow and the loneliness, the mystery and the anger, the trust and the joy.
They do not know when the Redemption will arrive, nobody knows, but together they can hope, hope for a sanctuary of their own, if not in Jerusalem, then in the home they will build together.
Oh, they are so different, he and she. He is barely of This World and she… she is a creature of survival. But they will learn from each other. She will help him to tread on the earth and he will point to the Heavens and bid her, see, feel, yearn.
And their home will be the Garden of Eden, oh yes, but built from four solid walls. Walls that shelter and protect them, and also mark out their haven, their peace, their sanctuary.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 842)
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