Hermosa sos querida, en quantidá
A ti deseo alcansar
Se yo no te alcansí mi querida
La vida vo a’ empresentar.
(Arvolicos d’almendra, Sephardic Romance)
[You are beautiful darling, so very much.
I just want to be with you.
If I cannot be with you, my love,
I will offer up my own life.]
Among the clean laundry, she finds Haya’s scarf.
It carries the scent of Haya, of the Hammam, of a world so close and yet so removed from her. María trails her fingers over the garment, finely woven and soft. Now she has to see Haya again, to give it back to her.
When she kneels in mass on Sunday and looks up at the magnificent carvings of the altar, María still thinks she should feel guilty of something, but she does not know of what. Her heart is jubilant like it is at the sight of the candles on Easter Sunday, and she prays for this happiness to stay with her. Surely such joy can only be given by God, and if God has given it, it cannot be anything she should feel guilty about.
In the afternoon, she tells her sister that she does not mind fetching water and she walks to the well instead of Teresa, with her heart beating ahead of her steps as she rushes through the streets.
Haya is nowhere to be seen, though, neither in skirts nor in trousers, and María feels for the scarf hidden within her dress. On her way back, despite the weight of the bucket, she chooses a longer route that leads along an alleyway of the judería. Two women, with black hair gathered up in nets, cross her path and she almost calls out to each of them before she notices her error.
The strap of the bucket cuts into her shoulder hard enough to leave marks when she finally arrives at home. Her father and Gualterio are still in the shop, bent over parchments. Another captain of the guard has been by today, María has caught a phrase or two about maps that need to be dispatched to the South.
The next time María offers to go for water, Teresa holds onto the strap of the bucket.
“Are you secretly seeing Pedro by the well?”
María is so surprised that she laughs. “No.”
But of course she is seeing Pedro in secret, but it is not by the well, and it is not the kind of secret that Teresa means.
María thinks of Haya, whom she hopes to see by the well, but of course this is not the kind of secret that Teresa means, either. Or perhaps it is, María thinks, just for a moment, when she finally catches sight of Haya emerging from one of the narrow streets of the judería.
Haya is once more dressed in pants and a doublet, and María looks at her lips as she says, as always, “Shalom aleikhem,” and “Miriam,” and “Might I be of assistance?”.
“I’ve got your scarf,” is the first thing María blurts out and she tries not to glance down at Haya’s legs.
“Oh, did I forget it?” Haya says with far too little surprise. Her eyes never leave María’s, and María shifts under the intensity of her gaze.
“I hoped I would run into you,” she admits. “For the scarf, I mean,” she adds quickly and they fall into step.
“I hoped so, too.” Haya smiles, and it is disarming. “Not just for the scarf.”
Haya has taken the bucket from her and is struggling to adjust the strap on her shoulder while the weight keeps interfering with her steps. María has to bite her lip to keep from smiling.
“Why are you doing this?” She is not sure she wants to know the answer, but she cannot stop herself from asking. “Why are you seeking me out?”
Haya stills. “I have been looking for you for a long time, Juan with the dagger.”
“But I am not Juan,” María protests weakly, as Haya’s gaze keeps her pinned in place.
“I like Miriam just fine,” Haya says.
María still cannot look anywhere else and they are standing in the street, the empty bucket between them until voices ahead set them back on their path.
“I could never find Juan when I walked through the city, even though I looked for him,” Haya says. “And then I saw you one day, in your dress, walking past. At first I thought you were his sister, but I recognized the way you walk.” She casts a glance to the side, at María. “And your eyes.”
María exhales and she cannot think of a single thing to say.
Haya leans a little closer. “But we met before, even.”
They have reached the well.
“You will not remember, most likely,” Haya says as they lower the bucket into the water with the crank. “The girl with the cherry mouth…”
The crank slips through María’s fingers. “You remember that?”
“You looked at me without judgment.”
“I thought you were a princess,” María says, and then she bites her tongue and feels heat in her cheeks.
But Haya smiles.
They meet again, at the well, even when there is no scarf to exchange. Sometimes, Haya wears skirts. Sometimes, she wears trousers.
And when María kneels in mass, she thinks of the well.
And then, one night in sleep, she is back in the Hammam. Once more, Haya stands before her, wrapped in a sheet of linen and with a fine mist of steam clinging to her hair that she has swept up, baring her neck. And the sheet slides down, slowly, unveiling Haya’s back.
Again, María raises her hand and this time, she touches a finger to Haya’s skin, draws it through droplets of water and sweat, follows the curve of Haya’s spine with a fingertip. And Haya turns her head to look at her, her eyes dark, and she is smiling.
She does not move away, and María steps closer, until her lips almost touch Haya’s skin. Then she leans in the last bit, just as Haya’s torso expands with a deeper breath, and closes her eyes as she kisses the space between Haya’s shoulder blades with the reverence reserved for the housel.
Haya leans back against her, her limbs warm and heavy, and María senses her sigh against her lips, and she is burning and melting away like bright ore.
Then she is in bed, upright and startled from her sleep, her lips still open and her heart racing.
“Mm…’s happened?” Teresa mumbles next to her.
“Nothing, ssh… Go back to sleep.”
But María remains sitting up, her mouth dry, and her pulse simply will not slow down. Inside herself, she is still melting.
At the cathedral, she does not dare to look up at the altar. She cannot think of any part of scripture that condemns her for a dream, but it must be a sin to melt away like this and feel so fervently, and not have it be about God.
She welcomes the bite of the water when she has to return to the river and April sends yet more rain showers. She shivers and stumbles on her way back up to the city gate, and there is Haya, her cloak tightly wrapped around herself and already soaked with rain. She sneezes before she can even say, “Shalom aleikhem, Miriam” and María feels her heart in her chest grow and change shape, something she will have to paint on a map she does not know yet, with outlines she has never drawn before.
“What are you doing out here in this weather?”
The rain is still falling, but María does not notice it any longer.
Haya reaches for one of the handles of the heavy basket. “I thought you might like some assistance, particularly in this weather.”
Haya’s skirts are wet like her own and María’s hands are red from the cold of the river and she feels the small shudder when Haya shivers against a gust of wind. But Haya continues to walk with her, and María thinks that she needs a bigger parchment if she were to draw a map of Haya and the things that she does, that she is.
She catches Haya looking at her then, shoulders drawn up against the cold, and María wishes she could take her home and invite her in, to warm herself next to the fire.
“I can do this on my own,” she tries to say, even though she does not want Haya to be anywhere else. “You should head home.”
“It is Friday, I will still go to the Hammam,” Haya says. She bites her lip and then asks, “Would you like to come with me?”
María remembers melting inside herself, and the slope of Haya’s back. Her lips tingle and she opens her mouth to say ‘no’, and hears herself say “Yes”.
Again, they step into welcome warmth, surrounded by soft voices and laughter, but María cannot hear anything beyond the sound of her own heartbeat. Haya is standing next to her behind a screen, unlacing her dress, and María knows she should look away, she should take her basket, her mud-cakes shoes, and leave.
Instead, she reaches for the ribbons of her own dress. Never has she been so grateful for a cold rainfall.
“I brought you something,” Haya says. She is already wrapped in a linen sheet, wet hair swept up, and María cannot tear her eyes away and she wants to ask, “What else?” because she has never felt richer.
“Your hands,” Haya says, and she holds out a small cup with a lid. “The Tajo waters always break your skin –”
María looks down at her reddened knuckles and hastily tries to hide them behind her back, but then her dress threatens to fall away, and then Haya’s hands are on hers.
Haya sits, she pulls María’s hands into her lap and María does not pull away when Haya pries the lid off the jar and there is a scent of thyme and evening primrose. And then Haya is spreading ointment over every angry fissure and every cracked spot of María’s hands, a shy touch at first, then firmer.
María stares down at her hands – large and marked by work around the house – in Haya’s grasp, watches Haya’s fingers smooth over her skin, slick with the balm that she is applying. And then it is not just María’s knuckles. It is the length of her fingers and the curve of her wrist, it is the pad of her thumb and the hills and valleys of her palms.
And she is melting, she is ore on an anvil, and it is Haya who will decide its shape.
She does not dare to look at Haya, but when she glances from the corner of her eye, she sees that Haya’s head is bent, her lips parted, and she is also looking at their joined hands.
“Done,” Haya finally declares, although she has to clear her throat first. “Shall we go in?”
María only nods, she does not trust her voice.
Wrapped in a sheet of linen, she follows Haya into the steam, thick and white, that presses itself against their skin. In here, they are the same, just two more silhouettes. No one can tell their faith by looking at them, and the clothes that separate them and tell of their ties outside these rooms are gone.
And now Haya looks at her. The sheet has slid low enough to expose her neck, her clavicles, and her eyes have never been so dark.
There are other voices ahead in the mist, the vague outline of others, but to María, there is no one but Haya. She remembers her dream, the canvas of Haya’s back, and she has never wanted anything this much. She does not even know what exactly it is that she wants, but she steps closer and Haya is still looking at her, and then she is looking at María’s lips.
And María takes the last, small step to close the distance between them and presses her lips to Haya’s.
It has to be a sin, she thinks, but then she thinks it cannot be, since a feeling so pure, so all‑encompassing cannot be of the Devil. Perhaps paradise feels like this: at the threshold to something, and yet having arrived at long last.
And then Haya’s mouth opens and draws her in, and everything is wetness and heat – the steam around them, the sensation of melting from the inside out, the tongue against her own.
Her arms wind themselves around Haya because the only direction her body knows is closer, and closer still, and she never wants to stop again.
Then she is breathing as if she has been running, and Haya is looking at her again, and her hands still carry the scent of thyme that is rising up between them.
“Miriam,” Haya sighs, and it seems to reach right into María and twist a hand inside her belly.
María touches a hand to her lips, incredulous at her own actions. And they sit, together, in the steam, with small smiles curling their lips whenever their eyes meet. Until Haya, reluctantly, says that she has to go home.
“Shabbat will start soon.”
“Are you trying to convert me?” María asks when they are out on the street again, in the daylight, once more separated by custom and garb. She has blurted it out before she can think better of it, and Haya’s gaze is not as smoldering any longer.
“We do not convert,” she says with dignity. “You are born into our faith, or you are not.”
“And you do not marry outside of a faith,” María adds. It is how things are.
“But there once was a King Alfonso of your faith who loved a woman of ours,” Haya says. “She was not his wife, of course, but they were together for a long time. And no one saw the need to convert anyone.”
María is certain that this is a sin, and to talk like that, but she does not really care, not when she can walk with Haya like this.
And Haya asks, far too lightly, “Have you thought of marriage? You are long since of the age.”
“Not much.” Maria shrugs. “My family needs me, my siblings, my father at the shop…” She chuckles. “I think my younger sister thinks of it more than I do.” She looks at Haya. “Are you already promised to be married?” And she wants her to say no.
“Not yet.” Haya smiles. “Like you, I prefer to stay with my father, my sister.” She adjusts the handle of the basket in her grasp. “I suppose sooner or later the matchmaker will find someone with whom my father agrees. But it might be a while yet. Perhaps a long while.”
María cannot find it in herself to regret that.
Then they are at the border to the judería and today, María accompanies Haya to the door of her house. The scent of fresh bread hangs in the narrow, winding streets and the people who cross their path greet them with “Shalom aleikhem”.
They agree to meet after Shabbat, and after Sunday, and before they part, there is a dark alleyway where Haya kisses her cheek in goodbye.
“Two days will be long,” María sighs.
“I will be thinking of you,” Haya says.
And María thinks of Haya, she thinks of her at confession, but she does not speak of her. She thinks of her the next day before sundown, when she hears streams of chant through the window. She thinks of her in Sunday mass when she is giving thanks in her prayers.
But before Monday can roll along, something else happens, after mass.
There is a herald in royal colors in the square in front of the cathedral, still on his horse, and he is reading a proclamation. Her parents and Teresa draw closer, and so does she, and she frowns when she can finally understand the words.
“…we knew that the true remedy for all these injuries and inconveniences was to prohibit all interaction between the said Jews and Christians and banish them from all our kingdoms, we desired to content ourselves by commanding them to leave all cities, towns, and villages of Andalusia where it appears that they have done the greatest injury, believing that that would be sufficient so that those of other cities, towns, and villages of our kingdoms and lordships would cease to do and commit the aforesaid acts.
And since we are informed that neither that step nor the passing of sentence against the said Jews who have been most guilty of the said crimes and delicts against our holy Catholic faith have been sufficient as a complete remedy to obviate and correct so great an opprobrium and offense to the faith and the Christian religion, because every day it is found and appears that the said Jews increase in continuing their evil and wicked purpose wherever they live and congregate, and so that there will not be any place where they further offend our holy faith, and corrupt those whom God has until now most desired to preserve, as well as those who had fallen but amended and returned to Holy Mother Church, the which according to the weakness of our humanity and by diabolical astuteness and suggestion that continually wages war against us may easily occur unless the principal cause of it be removed, which is to banish the said Jews from our kingdoms.”
“It’s about time,” her father mutters next to her.
“This is not even Andalusia,” María whispers, and she cannot quite comprehend what she is hearing.
Her father shrugs. “Andalusia or here, they’re all the same.”
But María does not hear him any longer. She is rushing across the square, into the maze of streets that will lead her down West, to the river, to the house of Abraham Abenhayon.
She realizes on her way that news travels fast. The narrow streets are crowded with people, she hears cries and yells, and in front of Haya’s house, there is Haya’s father, surrounded by several men of different ages, who all seem to be talking at the same time.
Behind them, in the door of the house, María can make out a flash of copper and the figure of Hannah. And next to her, arms crossed in front of her chest and with a thunderous glare, stands Haya.
And María cannot imagine not seeing her again.
- The full Alhambra Decree in an English translation can be found here: http://www.sephardicstudies.org/decree.html; the quote used in the text is taken from there.
- Legend has it that Alfonso VIII of Castile, who resided in Toledo (and was married to Leonor Plantaget, daughter to Leonor of Aquitaine), had a longstanding love affair with a Jewish noblewoman.
- “La noche de alhad”, which is what María might have heard on a Saturday evening, is a ritual Sephardi song associated with the end of the shabbat. There is a recording on “El canto espiritual judeoespanol” done by Alia Musica under Miguel Sanchez. Regarding the rich Sephardi musical tradition(s) overall, there are a lot of examples available on YouTube (including various recordings of all the songs from which I took the chapter quotes).
- Shabbat, II: there are a lot (historically varying) rules regarding what you can and cannot do on shabbat. Bathing, for example, is out because it would require someone to work to heat up the water (at least it did in 1492). Women visiting the Hammam was a fairly common occurrence in Sephardi culture – e.g. on Friday in preparation for shabbat -, though I only know of sources for the Northern African Sephardim after the expulsion.
- I realized only belatedly that I messed up some things regarding the Toledo Cathedral – since it was built over a course of three centuries (not counting later additions that are post-Gothic), it is at times hard to figure out which naves/windows/portals/altars/chapels/etc were installed when, also since there are So. Darn. Many. of them. So the altar retable mentioned in this chapter was apparently only started in 1497. Sorry about that. The English wiki offers a good and fairly detailed account on the most important features and there where- and whenabouts.
- “marranos” is a derogatory historical term for the Jewish Spaniards who got, often forcibly, converted to Christianity and who in many cases continued to practice their Jewish faith in secret.