Callí debaxxo d’ella
Hermoza como la estrella
Ya me quemí con ella
Me hizo entrar en el amor.
(Paxaro d’hermozura, Sephardic Lament)
[I fell to her, beneath her,
Who is beautiful like the star.
And I got burned by her,
She made me fall in love.]
Now it is Gualterio who gets to leave the shop with the satchel on his back.
María does not go by Juan any longer, not since Almería has fallen to the Kings. She does not roam the steep streets up to the alcázar anymore, or the patios that border on the judería. When she leaves the house, she is wearing skirts and it is to fetch water from the well or to wash linens down by the river, down the steep incline, outside of the city walls.
Her mother is of ill health since giving birth to little Juanito, and her sister Teresa is still too young to take of the house on her own. And sometimes, her father orders her to help in the shop. María does not mind. Her hands have a confidence that Gualterio’s lacks, and her eye is better in calculating the curves and lines. She handles knotted threads and cleans quills and inkwells and rolls up parchments to be placed in the satchel.
There is much work now. The Kings have moved on to the South, but captains come and go and order maps of the far West and the sea and both her father and Gualterio are very secretive.
Gualterio bows and calls her “Doña María” to her face. But when she turns around, she can feel his eyes linger on her.
“Weaseling bastard,” says Pedro, when María tells him about it.
María does not tell him that Gualterio and her father have names far more deriding for him in return.
They talk after dusk now, quietly, and it is a cool winter evening when news reach the town that Granada has fallen, at last, and Boabdil El Chico has handed the city over to Queen Isabel.
“Al-Zugabi,” Pedro calls him, as does Pedro’s mother Juana, and his grandmother Inés, but she has not always been named Inés.
Sometimes, María takes the laundry of Juana Lopez along with her own, for the site allotted to Juana to wash is close to where the tanners work.
It is February when María walks up from the Tajo, a basket of wet clothes on her hip and the hems of her skirts heavy with water. Her feet dig into the muddy path, numb with the cold as she struggles up the climb, past the bridge of S. Martin and through the gate into town.
“I could help you with that,” a smooth voice offers suddenly, and before María can look up or reach for her dagger, a hand reaches for the other side of the basket. It’s a hand of someone who has never been down to the river to wash, María thinks as she leans back on her heels and straightens her spine, and then she is caught up in a dark gaze she has tried her best to forget.
The other girl still looks like a princess, but she is not young enough any longer to be described as a girl, neither of them is.
The first thing to come to María’s mind is that, today, she is not wearing silk, but the cloak she wears above her dress has to be made of the finest wool.
“Juan with the dagger,” she murmurs, and her eyes follow the lines of María’s face and they feel like a murmur, too. She still has her hand on the basket.
And although it is the name of the Blessed Virgin, it has never sounded so mundane to her ears. Half the women in town carry it, and she could be any of them.
“Miriam,” she is corrected, gently, and it sounds as if it could only mean her.
They are still standing in the middle of the crowd, the basket of clean laundry between them, and María’s knuckles are red and torn from the water. She does not have to ask for a name.
Haya, daughter of Abraham ha-Levi Abenhayon, man of letters and adviser to the Duke, is not mundane at all. Her father’s father was a treasurer to the crown in turn, and their father’s fathers already worked at the court, as men of the word.
Those are things that María has not learned at home. When she asked about the men of the judería, still very aware of the dagger underneath her jacket, her father had raised his hand against her. And when she had asked her mother, her mother had begged her to stop asking questions that were unbecoming for a girl of the right faith.
But Juana Lopez had no such reservations, and thanks to her María knows that Abraham Abenhayon has the money to be one of the most influential men in town, but prefers to keep to studying and translating.
“Where are we headed?”
Haya still holds onto the handle of the basket and there are so many things María would like to say.
“It is this way,” she says instead, and Haya walks with her. She looks at her, too. It is not at all like Gualterio looks at her, and yet it is, but it does not make her skin crawl. It makes her remember the taste of almonds.
“I did not see you again in town,” Haya comments after a while. The streets are becoming more narrow, shadows high on the walls of the houses, and they are forced to walk behind one another. “You are not easy to find.”
It had not occurred to María that someone might have been looking for her.
She stops and turns, and Haya is smiling at her.
“I never truly got to thank you,” Haya says. “Back then.”
“There is no need,” María replies, just as she did then, but what she almost says is that it is reward enough to be able to look at Haya, like this. When she does not have to share the sight with anyone else, when she can see the crisp air of February paint a gentle blush onto pale cheeks.
Too soon, they arrive underneath the shop sign, and María quickly grabs hold of the laundry basket. But when Haya walks away and it seems as if the houses hold their breath and withdraw into themselves to let her pass, María wishes she would turn around and look at her again.
Her hands feel warm and she does not notice the broken skin any longer. Later, she stares at the red tears when she has her fingers laced tightly together in church. She does not dare to lift her eyes to the cross and she does not understand why she feels guilty.
The next time she walks to the river with a basket full of clothes, she walks purposefully by the judería and her heart is beating fast in her chest. She does not see Haya, and the morning is long and gray after that, and her knuckles burn where the cold water cuts into them.
Dusk is falling into the streets when she hurries out again in the evening to the well. Pedro usually walks with her, once they are out of sight of her father’s shop, but he is running an errand for his master, and María gathers up her skirts and walks a little faster on her own.
There is another young man by the well, leaning against the wall behind it. María looks at the small windows of the surrounding houses and steps closer. There is no one else around, and she has to bend over the water to pull down the crook and hang the heavy bucket from it.
When she is just beginning to reel it in again, the young man is suddenly behind her.
“Might I be of assistance?”
The familiar voice startles María so much that she loses her grip on the crank for a moment, but then there is another set of hands on the crank, and they are slender and pale, their skin unbroken.
“Shalom aleikhem, Miriam.”
She looks into Haya’s face, hair pinned up under a cap, dressed in a men’s doublet, and winking at her. She looks like one of the young men from the judería, one of those too young to have a beard yet.
“This does allow for much freer movement,” Haya concedes and María has to look away, so she looks down and then she cannot look away from Haya’s legs, and how the fabric of her trousers outlines calves, and knees, and thighs. And María thinks that if she had to draw a map, there would be no need for knotted threads or dividers, she would be able to draw this outline from memory, perfectly.
“I have no dagger, though.” Haya stretches out her hands and looks at her sleeves. She inhabits the garb with less ease, less practice than María did – she misses it, she realizes then – but she does not lack confidence.
“You don’t need a dagger,” María mutters, and her skirts brush against Haya’s trousers as the pull up the bucket, side by side by the crank.
María could have done it alone, she has done it many times, but she does not protest. Instead she says, “Thank you.” And then she asks, “Did you know I would be here?”
“I hoped.” Haya helps her lower the bucket to the ground. “It is the well closest to your house.”
María laughs because surely no one has ever given any thought to that. “But I am not here every night.”
Haya’s eyes are dark, and she looks at the houses behind María when she replies, “No, you are not.”
Steps and voices move up the street behind them, the small square with the well once more filling with the bustle of the city. María gathers her skirts to bend down and lift up the heavy bucket.
“But why –“
But when she looks up, Haya is gone.
Hung to the strap of her bucket, there is a small parcel, carefully wrapped. Curiously, María lifts it up and is enveloped by the scent of sweet honey and the tang of something she cannot quite name.
Her fingers are unsteady as she unwraps the piece of cloth and finds almonds, the kind she once tasted in the house of Abraham Abenhayon.
“Those… mmreally m’ood!”
Pedro nods around a mouthful of almonds.
It is after dusk, and they are crouched underneath the small back window of his house, the voices of Juana and Inés carrying above their heads from inside.
María savors a bit of spice on her tongue before she bites down and feels the almond crumble against her teeth.
“Please be nice to Haya, she might give you more,” Pedro decides.
María thinks that she does not have a reason to be anything but nice to Haya, and she reaches for another almond. “I do not even know whether I will see her again.”
“It seems she is pretty determined to see you, though.” Pedro reaches for another pair of almonds. “And in trousers, huh?” He cants his head to the side and gives her a thoughtful look. “Will it become a fashion that you all run around like boys?”
María slaps Pedro`s arm, but behind her eyelids, she sees a map of slope and curve.
The next time she sees Haya, Haya is wearing skirts again. María might have been lingering around the street bordering the judería and the path up to the well, even though the line at the well is not that long today.
Haya smiles upon seeing her, and calls her ‘Miriam’. She is not alone, though, Hannah is walking by her side and she is almost as tall as Haya now, and her eyes are not shy any longer.
María falls into step with them, just for a bit, until there are women gathered outside the back entrance of a building who glance their way.
“It’s the south door,” Haya explains. “To the women’s balcony.”
María nods. It has to be one of the synagogues. “You have a separate entrance?” She tries to imagine the cathedral that way, with a separate place for the women, perhaps a nave to the side. She wonders whether even the King and the Queen would have to sit apart, but the Kings are still in the South.
“We probably see the hekhál better than you see your cross during mass,” Hannah says somewhat testily, and then she tugs on Haya’s arm. “We have to go.”
“Yes,” Haya says, but she looks at María for a moment longer, and then María watches her disappear into the synagogue, Hannah’s arm linked with hers.
María crosses her hands, feeling the dry, marred skin on her knuckles, and makes her way to the well. At home, she will tell her parents that the line was long.
It is the next time she comes up from the river – the water is still cold, but the days are getting warmer and it is April – that Haya is waiting for her again. It is raining, and Haya stands leaning against the wall, skirts lifted away from the rivulets that wash the dust down the street.
María blinks drops of rain out of her eyes and she forgets about the weight of her soggy skirts and the shiver of cold from the wet scarf tied around her hair.
“Shalom aleikhem, Miriam. – Might I be of assistance?” Haya is smiling again and it makes María forget that she should say ‘no’.
She thinks that if Pedro was waiting for her like this, her father would beat him out of the street. If he could. Or he would ask Gualterio to do his bidding, and Gualterio would bow and say “Of course, Señor Blazquez.” And Gualterio is strong, but María believes that Pedro is stronger.
And then she does not think about Pedro or Gualterio or her father any longer because Haya has reached for one of the handles of the basket and her fingers brush against María’s.
“You’re cold,” Haya exclaims, and now Maria’s fingers are between hers, and María does not feel cold at all, even if her skin is clammy and raindrops still cling to her lashes.
“Come with me.” And then Haya is pulling her along by her hand, off to a side alley and deep into the belly of the city. María struggles to keep up, holding onto the basket, and the rain is still falling and raindrops are dotting the shimmering scarf that Haya wears.
They arrive at another low building, and a simple door.
“Another separate entrance?” María guesses, but this time, Hannah is not there and it is no synagogue, and Haya knocks on the door and waves her through.
A welcome wave of scented, humid warmth envelops María, and then there are hands taking her wet cloak, the basket, her scarf.
“This is the Hammam,” Haya whispers, close to her ear, and she does not bat an eye when she introduces María as “My cousin, Miriam.”
If there are any odd glances towards María – her clothes are those of a Christian woman, and their fabrics are plain in comparison to what Haya wears – at least no one speaks up. Not as they leave their shoes behind, and María does not know whether the tiles under her bare feet are indeed heated or whether it just feels that way, and not as they stand behind filigree screens, and Haya unlaces her dress.
There are other women around them, there are voices and soft laughter, but María only sees Haya.
“Come, Miriam.” There is challenge in Haya’s eyes as she wraps a sheet of linen around her torso, sweeps up her hair and keeps it in place with a ribbon. And María realizes that she has forgotten to unlace her own dress. “What are you afraid of?”
And María may be but the daughter of a humble cartographer, but she will not back away from a challenge. She thinks of Pedro, who would agree with her now. So, with a deep breath, she awkwardly wraps one of the linens around herself and follows Haya.
The tiles under their feet are slick and María cannot make out more than silhouettes around them, moving among the thick steam. At first, it rests like a stone on María’s lungs, but as her skin adjusts to the heat, her breaths come easier.
Haya moves with familiarity and finds them a bench. She lets the linen glide down her back, and María quickly stares down at the bench as she sits, examining droplets of hot water on a mosaic of small tiles.
“And your hands?”
María looks up, and then she cannot look away from the long, curved slope that is Haya’s back. Through tendrils of steam, she can see Haya’s torso rise and fall, rise and fall with even breaths. Slowly, a mist of water begins to settle against Haya’s skin, making it glisten.
María swallows, her throat tight. “My hands?” She raises a hand and looks at her own fingers, uncertain what Haya wants her to do.
“Are they warm again yet?”
“Yes, yes.” Hastily, María lets her hand fall to the bench again.
Haya turns her head to smile at her. “See?”
She is leaning back now, weight resting on her hands with the linen loosely placed across her lap, and María can see nothing else but her.
She could draw a map of Haya’s legs, she knows that, but now, she is afraid that the next time she puts quill to parchment, she will draw this, and only this: the even balance of Haya’s clavicles, the arch of her throat, the gentle weight of her breasts, the slight curve of her stomach.
María has been raised to know that her body is sin, a reminder of Eve. None but the Virgin has ever escaped that damnation, and María has to pray to her, whose name she carries, and hope that her sins will be redeemable in the end.
The wet linen unfolds and falls away from her body, and her body does not feel like sin.
Haya looks at her, with eyes that are dark and hooded, and María feels, more than anything, alive.
Haya closes her eyes and lets her head fall back, a content little sigh escaping her lips. And even though María’s limbs are drowsy with thick heat, she can feel her own blood thunder against her skin. Is this what committing a sin feels like? She feels carried away and torn asunder, but she does not know what her sin would be.
And yet, when she walks home later, and her fingers tingle where Haya brushed hers against them in goodbye, María wonders whether she has done something forbidden, something that is unspeakably bigger than visiting a bath house with a Jewess.
Perhaps it is written in the smile she cannot shake off, or it is palpable in her gait that is so much lighter than before, despite the heavy laundry basket. Perhaps her father can see it, too, because he slaps her across the face for her tardiness. Gualterio watches with a gleam in his eyes that threatens to extinguish the lightness she feels, but she barely notices the sting. Her mind is drawing a map, and she envisions long coastlines, curved bays and a feathered array of islands. And she will sign it, ‘Miriam’.
- “shalom aleikhem” (Hebrew for “peace be with you”) is a common Jewish greeting; since it goes back to Biblical quotes, I figured it would work for the time and place described here, even though I have found no sources on a specific Sephardic use.
- The hekhál is the core piece of a synagogue where the Torah rolls are guarded, not an equivalent, but somewhat similar in function to a Christian altar.
- The hammam sequence might be pushing it a little – but there are hammam ruins beneath one of the still existent synagogues from the 15th century (El Tránsito, which now is a Sephardi museum and was, after 1492, temporarily used as a church), so I took the cue from there. At the very least, there must have been bath houses.
- An overall note: Yes, of course my characters are much too modern in their thoughts (too little religion, too much individualism) and while that is something that always criticize in “historical fiction”, I have allowed myself certain liberties here to have Bering & Wells still be Bering & Wells. It’s my evil twin writing, after all.
on to Chapter 3