When you live within the babble of other people, it is harder to hear the voices of the people inside you
Late at night, when Yannai is snoring gently, Eliyahu walks to the cave entrance, grasps the rock, and hoists himself up. He looks back down; it’s like staring into a black hole — nothing to see, but doing so gives the sensation of falling, plunging into nothingness. He closes his eyes and wills away the sudden dizziness.
With his injured leg, Yannai is trapped inside, unable to heave himself up without Eliyahu’s helping hand. Eliyahu shivers in the night air. He could just walk away, here and now, and leave him. Leave the man and his questions. Leave the man who has invaded his life, his tranquility. He will go and find somewhere else to live, another cave, another stream, somewhere even more concealed.
What are you, a murderer? A demon? Some dark nameless creature that somehow survived Noach’s deluge and snakes up now, to hurt a poor man who seeks help?
Come, come. The man will find a way out eventually. He will stack Eliyahu’s pots one on top of the other, and he will unify his will until it fills his body and then he will climb out.
Leave him? Or stay?
Eliyahu walks over to the stream and plunges his hands in. The water falling over the stones is freezing. Just a few weeks ago, icicles formed on the rocks: sharp, jagged knives that made him feel as if all the world had turned its back on him. But in the lushness of spring, when the sun is hot, the water is cold. When he sips, it gives him pleasure and for a moment, the world is kind to him, and he can be, well, not happy, but something inside him soothes. Now, the cold touches his skin and calms him, even as it pierces and snaps.
Yannai, looking around, told him that he was strange. That he was running away from the world.
But it is not that. It is just that others are occupied with a leaking winter roof and finding money to pay the taxes and buy a bolt of wool for the blankets that are thinning — they don’t last forever, you know.
And he cannot think of these things, none of them. They scrape up against his soul and chafe at it until it is raw and he feels forgotten in a world that has gone on, that is determined to go on, even when everything is destroyed.
He climbs up the hill and past the small pen that holds his sheep. Two ewes will be lambing soon; spring has already come, and they are growing agitated.
It is not just that, he realizes, as the sheep trot out toward him, moon shining on their light coats. When you live within the babble of other people, it is harder to hear the voices of the people inside you. It is harder to hear Tzipora’s murmured Tehillim, her hum, the way her words were held in for so long and would suddenly rush out, like a sudden burst of summer rain. And harder to hear, too, the weak wail of the baby who made him into a father, but whose face has blurred and faded.
The older woman greets her quietly as she walks into the room where the scribes work. Bilhah dips her head in return and takes in the scene.
Fourteen women are bent over individual desks, dipping their pens into wells of black ink, poring over parchment. Two women in the corner point at a scroll, quietly discussing it. It could be anything, Bilhah realizes. A dispatch to the Sultan’s advisors from Hurrem Sultan or a new translation of some work of wisdom.
The place is quiet but for this conversation, conducted in low tones. She looks around. Unlike the rest of the palace, it is quiet here, and still. The women work diligently, but without urgency, it seems.
The older woman introduces herself as Yasemin and she hands Bilhah a small piece of parchment containing a short paragraph. Bilhah looks. Persian. Papa was often sent books in Persian, though he hated working in languages other than Lashon Kodesh.
“I would like you to translate this into as many different languages as you know.”
Arabic. She surely expects Bilhah to know this incomprehensible tongue.
Bilhah nods. She takes the seat offered her, in the far left of the room, picks up the goose-feather quill and examines it. It is sharp, but there is a tiny nick at the tip, which will compromise the beauty of her writing. She may not be able to write in Arabic, but she will impress them with everything else that she knows.
She reads the words:
“Whoever is born must die, but his words live on. Language is the interpreter of thoughts and science, it gives man dignity. But language can also demean man and cause heads to roll. It is on words that man can rise and acquire power and prestige.”
—Yusuf Has Harib
She looks up at Yasemin. “Do you agree with these words?”
Yasemin inclines her head. “Words can bring us immortality, yes, but they only live on when they are spoken and written and copied. That is why we are here.”
Bilhah spreads out the parchment with her fingers. “I will start in Spanish. Then Italian.”
Arabic. What about Arabic?
She looks again at the woman. She has olive skin, and a scarf pulled forward so that none of her hair is exposed. Unlike the other older women, whose gold chains swing across their forehead, she wears only a turquoise ring on her right hand.
Katerina has told her that those who wear turquoise — or aquamarine — are announcing their allegiance to Hurrem Sultan, for this is her favorite color.
“You can write, too, in the holy tongue,” Yasemin states in a low voice. “We have use for this, too.”
Heart pounding, Bilhah suddenly looks up.
“There are medical tomes that we want translated from Hebrew.”
Is it simply the medical tomes? Or is the woman a Jew? The woman meets her gaze steadily.
“You may begin,” she says quietly, and walks over to the two scribes, still leaning over a parchment together and pointing to a word.
Where does Yasemin come from? She bites her lip. Where do any of them come from?
Suspicion once again trickles through her, and she does not know what to say or think. Istanbul is filled with Jews, and they are quick to praise the Sultan for his magnanimity, although a cynic would say that it is simply good business sense to settle the Jews in this capital city, for they bring wealth and flourishing commerce with them.
She closes her eyes and thinks back to that favorite game, acted out after school, or after the prayers on Shabbat, when fathers were exchanging the week’s news or the latest court decision.
One child was the wanderer, and she would stand in the middle and raise her hands to the heavens and call out: East or West?
And the children surrounding her would call out, West! East! East! West!
The wanderer would take a step left, to the West, and the children would call out: No!
There are no Jews in France.
There are no Jews in England.
There are no Jews in Spain.
You cannot travel West!
The wanderer would shrug and say, “Where to, where to?”
She would step to the right and the children would say: Beware of Italy!
Where to, where to?
And they would all chorus. “Go East, to the city of Suleiman the Magnificent. There you will be safe.”
They would stamp their feet and clap their hands and start to sing,
“Though we’re back on the road, our hearts are full,
There are Jews aplenty in Istanbul.”
What a mazel for those children that of all the places they were taken to, it should have been one with a name that splits so neatly into three syllables, each with equal emphasis, ready to be tapped out or clapped out or drummed: Is-tan-bul. Is-tan-bul.
The wanderer would run to the east, and all the children would follow, whooping and singing, and then they would race each other, and the girl who reached the oak tree first would be the winner.
She looks down at the parchment. Who would have believed that here she is? But then, who would have believed that the Jews would leave Spain? For a thousand years — more — it had been home. A thousand years. Next to that, what was 17 years in Salonika?
Those with great faith said, “The Almighty does not close one door until He opens another.” She had always snorted at the notion, as if the Almighty actually cared about little people like her.
She looks around her and feels the place seeping into the pores of her skin. She sits there, quietly, and slowly her body begins to feel heavy. She breathes in and out, in and out, feeling the air enter deeper into her lungs, and the calm heaviness spread through her limbs.
Safety can be found in Istanbul, the children had said.
Perhaps the Almighty had forced her out of one place because there was something better waiting for her.
She has forgotten what safe feels like, if she ever knew. And outside this room, there are lies to be told and coins to be pilfered, if need be.
But now she breathes in the smells of parchment and ink and it takes her back to when she was a little girl, at night when Papa was still busy in the printing press, dispelling the night with expensive torches, she would sometimes sneak into the beit haknesset.
There was a corner there, between a cupboard and a chair where she couldn’t be seen; anyway, no one walked into the ezrat nashim. But there was the same smell there: wood, and the beeswax they rubbed into the furniture to make it shine, and parchment, and safety.
In the morning, the usual servant enters and places the water next to Leonora’s bed. She thinks that Leonora does not feel her stare, or the slightest touch as she feels Leonora’s face, then fingers the stiff velvet collar of her day dress. She thinks that Leonora does not hear the hushed discussion at the entrance of her chamber, or the footfalls as one servant leaves and another comes.
A little later, Leonora opens her eyes and sees Ines sitting on the bed next to her. For any other servant, for anyone else at all, it would be the greatest impertinence. But here, Leonora just sighs. She closes her eyes. Her head throbs. No, it does not throb. It feels like someone has taken an axe and cleaved through her mind.
She moans. Ines puts a cool hand on her forehead.
It feels good. Leonora closes her eyes. She hears the sound of water and then feels coolness. Ines has placed a wet linen compress on her forehead. A drop trickles down her face, but she does not lift a hand to push it away.
“Leonora,” Ines whispers.
Leonora moans. “Kayades. Quiet.”
Ines stands and clears off the wineglass and the clay jug from next to her bed, then wipes up the small, sticky puddle on the floor next to the window.
“Leonora,” she whispers again. “Mi querida. Dearest.”
The pain has eased somewhat and Leonora opens her eyes.
“You have been drinking wine.”
Leonora stiffens, waiting for Ines’s tide of disappointment and indignance. It does not come. Instead, Ines gives a deep sigh and lifts Leonora’s hand. Finding that it’s sticky, she wipes it clean, then wipes Leonora’s mouth and her neck. Leonora doesn’t move, allows her servant to clean her, and tries to orient herself, despite the pain in her head.
“It has been many weeks, now, that you have refrained.”
Leonora opens her eyes and looks up at Ines. “We were journeying.”
“Yes. I have noticed. And you have been much on horseback.”
It helps her. It always has. Since she was a child, riding around the paddock at the back of their home, on a small, plodding pony. Then, when she grew older, riding side-saddle on her mother’s most reliable mare, only to reject it in favor of a more high-spirited mount, a stallion that shook its head and pawed the ground and responded to any frisson of fear or tension, such that Leonora had to calm herself and the horse, urging it onward.
There was the rhythm, the tattoo of hooves on earth. The sound, repeated again and again, entered her hands, her chest, steadied her own heart and emptied her mind, so that, while she sat on a saddle, at least, a sense of calm filled her.
“Perhaps you should return to that.”
Leonora nods. Since their arrival, she has been so taken up with her affairs that she has not gone riding at all. The soup kitchen, the wool factory, the emissaries of the rabbis. Her male-servant can lead the horse to the edge of the town, and then she will go out into the hills and valleys of the Galilee. Perhaps it will ease the slow squeezing of her heart.
“Thank you, Ines. I will do so.”
She closes her eyes. Ines touches her cheek with her fingers. “It must stop you know. It must stop.”
Leonora nods. Before Ines she is not a mother, a grandmother. Not a wealthy woman of influence. Not a woman who will gather Jews together in Tzfat and ready them for the final redemption. Just a child.
It is a relief.
“I will leave you now.”
She closes her eyes, and hears Ines’s slow, steady tread. The door of her bedroom opening and closing. She turns onto her side, suddenly breathless as the sharpness pierces her head. She feels a tear roll down her cheek, and she closes her eyes tight, so that no more will fall.
There is no use in crying; she learned that long ago. A tear rolls down and we think it will help, that the tears will bring a relief, or at least a hollowing out that makes us grateful, that brings poignant sweetness to each small good. But it does not last, and the bitterness and anger return, until tears themselves are useless, just small crystal drops that are neither talisman against despair, nor against hope.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 796)
Oops! We could not locate your form.