Dame la mano tu palomba
Para subir al tu nido
Mal dicho que durmes sola
Vengo a durmir contigo
(En la mar hay una torre, Sephardic Lament)
[Give me your hand, dove,
to climb up to your nest.
It’s no good that you’re sleeping alone,
I am coming to sleep with you.]
Perhaps it is that Haya does not move within the throng of people surrounding her in the stretch of space between thick house walls. Perhaps it is that she stands still and does not speak, while all around her, desperate voices cut through the air. There is no share of that air left for María, and she is not even sure what she is doing here, but then Haya catches sight of her.
“Why are you here?”
She does not call her ‘Miriam’ and her gaze is still thunderous.
“I came as soon as I heard,” María says. She does not say: I had to see you.
“This is not your concern,” Haya says coolly, and there is that bit of stubborn pride that María has already come to know well. “I do not see anyone tossing you out of your house, or your country.”
“How could it not be my concern?” María is at a loss. “I know you did not do any of this. I know you did not convert anyone.”
Haya scoffs. “Really?”
“You could have tried with me,” María admits, her voice low. “You would have. And you did not.”
And Haya is quiet then. The tense lines around her lips soften.
“Perhaps we could appeal to the Kings –” María is grasping at something, anything. She briefly wonders who would live on this street, in all these houses, if all the people around her were gone.
It is Hannah who sides with her, her skirts now pushed against hers, against Haya’s, in the crowded street. “There has to be something we can do.”
María nods. “Your father, perhaps –”
“We do not even know yet what is true,” Abraham Abenhayon says. He is surrounded by a group of men and María remembers him to be taller somehow, but there still is the same commanding warmth about him. She sees a bit of it in Haya, too, with more of an edge.
“I was at the cathedral, I heard it,” María blurts out.
Abenhayon looks at her with curiosity, and he gestures for her to continue, in front of the men who keep asking him for advice. And now she is among them, in their midst, but they give her space, they do not brush against her skirts, not even accidentally, not like Gualterio does whenever he passes her in the staircase. And she is talking, and her memory is good.
“There have been rumors since March,” Abenhayon finally says. He sighs and María sees the silver in his hair, in his beard, and the sadness in his eyes. “Friends close to the court have warned me, but I did not want to believe it.”
“But you did not do anything wrong,” María says helplessly. Behind her, she feels Hannah’s nod more than she sees it.
And even with his sad eyes, Abenhayon smiles. “That may not be the point.”
The proclamation is hung for everyone to see, a parchment blotched by the mark of the royal seal. Most people in María’s street cannot read it, and they do not bother to ask.
“As long as they’re gone, that’s what counts,” María’s father says, and Gualterio nods before he has even finished his phrase.
“Yes, Señor Blazquez.”
“Witches and murderers, and they poison the wells,” Pedro’s master, the smith, says, loud enough to carry down the street and across the corner, where the judería starts. “They have no place in a country of God, and I won’t have one of them as a customer ever again, no matter their money.”
“What does it say?” Pedro asks María as they stand before the decree. He looks at the lines and curves that form letters upon letters to spell out that Haya and her family and all those of her faith will have to leave Toledo and the reign within three months.
“Unless they convert.” Pedro has heard that much.
María has thought about that, more than once. She has imagined going to the cathedral on Sundays with Haya, and Haya could stay.
“Your grandfather converted,” María reminds him. “And even now, you’re only good enough to be a helpmeet at the smith’s.”
Pedro shrugs. “They’d be marranos, but they wouldn’t have to leave.”
María does not think that Haya would shrug and let it pass, just like that. “There’s more.” María points at the proclamation. “If they leave, they may not take their gold or silver, or any money.”
“And how are they supposed to travel then?”
María has no answer for that. The town is full of murmurs, like an angry bee’s hive hit by a bear’s paw. When she passes the streets of the judería, coming from the well, María finds the people walking a little deeper in the shadows.
Haya is not among them, and María cannot imagine her clinging to any shadows. They do not meet by the well any longer. It has been two days, two endless days, since she has seen her, and María thinks of Haya’s mouth on hers and the thought of not seeing her again is more frightening than the thought of purgatory.
She walks by Abenhayon’s house, at dusk, and her father will be mad because she is late and her mother will be too tired to say anything, but it is for naught: The windows are dark. From further ahead, she hears threads of song sailing on the air and they trail behind her steps as she hurries home, alone.
But then Haya is there, early on the third day, by the gate, as María is on her way down to the river.
María does not feel the weight of her basket or the stares of the people as she smiles and pushes through the crowd, towards a fall of black hair and dark eyes and pale features.
“Have you been waiting for me?”
She is breathless, and she cannot stop smiling.
Haya looks to the ground between them for a moment, as more women push out of the gate, toward the river, and others pour in, the ebb and flow of daylight.“I was just walking by,” Haya tries to insist, even though she was not walking at all.
There is another surge of tenderness that María adds to her map of Haya, the one whose lines she has followed these past restless nights, over and over, in her mind.
“No Miriam?” she asks, gently. “No shalom aleikhem?”
Now, Haya looks up and María involuntarily takes a small step back at seeing the past three days mirrored back at her: the yearning and the fear and the restless nights, far more boldly than María even dared. And there is something else, something that makes her remember how dark Haya’s eyes can turn, and there is the sensation of melting licking at her insides again, like flames.
María has been taught to be afraid of flames, afraid of hell, but her first instinct is not to run. It is to throw herself forward and burn bright.
The laundry does not matter, nor does the bustle of people who move through the gate, in and out, and who look their way with disapproval. “Come,” she says, and she brushes past Haya. “Come with me.”
Out of the city gate, and along the wall, away from the Tajo River. There is a ramshackle barn, it belongs to the smith for whom Pedro works, and Pedro has to tie up horses there sometimes, when clients come for swords from outside town. But the clients are few because Pedro’s master prefers the taverns, and so the door does only have hinges left. There is a ladder up to a attic with a few bales of hay and María has never climbed up here, but now she goes first and Haya, in her skirts of finest wool and with silk ornaments on her corsage, follows her.
There is daylight up here, falling in through a badly kempt roof. There is no steam to envelop them and keep the world at bay, only the heady scent of hay and the sound of their breathing.
María cannot name what she wants, but she knows that she needs to be close to Haya, closer than this, so she reaches out a hand, and Haya moves quickly, and her lips are open when they meet María’s.
This is what she wants, what she needs, María thinks, but then it is not quite true. She wants more, something more, she still needs to be closer to Haya, as if she knows that Haya will catch her if she simply melts into her. She does not know how close she has to be until this yearning stops, but she knows she has to get there, right this instant.
Fingers are pulling on the ties of her dress and Haya shrugs off her own skirts with impatience, fine wool pooling onto stray bits of straw. The laundry basket topples over, cushioning their fall and María’s lips find their way along Haya’s neck, onto a pale curve shoulder that she is trying to free from a sleeve. She feels Haya’s hands on the back of her head, in her hair, and she does not remember when she has closed her eyes.
A metallic clang makes them draw apart as María’s dagger clatters to the floor between them, the tight leather sheath only showing the hilt and the small, red inlay on the bottom of the blade.
“Juan with the dagger,” Haya says. And she says, “Miriam” and her voice is like nothing María has ever heard before, like she imagines the velvet lining on the royal chairs in the cathedral to be. And then Haya is kissing her again, like she did at the Hammam, and it is all wetness and heat, even though there is no steam around them.
If she could never do anything else again but kiss Haya, it would be the closest to paradise María can imagine. She has never been so much herself as in this moment, and yet she moves with a knowledge that is not hers, brushing away last bits of clothes with intent. Perhaps this is God, she thinks fleetingly, or this is how God intended her to be.
But when Haya stretches, naked and smooth, stretches up and curls a hand into María’s hair and pulls her down into her body, when María feels warm, soft skin against her own, her knowledge of what God could be realigns itself around this moment, and then God does not matter any longer: It is just Haya, and herself, and this moment.
Her hands seem to draw a map and find it, all on their own, and Haya breathes faster and she has trouble keeping her eyes open.
“Lihi,” she whispers and her lips graze María’s ear. “Not Miriam. Like this, let me call you Lihi.”
María shivers and kisses the foreign name from her lips, and she is melting, they both are, burning bright and liquid, and forged into something new, together.
She is curled around Haya, with the skin of Haya’s neck, of her back pearled in sweat, just out of reach of her lips, and she leans in and kisses the spot between Haya’s shoulder blades. There is a small, breathy sigh that escapes Haya’s lips at that touch, and María wants to hear it again. And again.
She wants to forget that there are only three more months, and she cannot think of anything else. And if it is three months, just three months, she will take those months and atone for the rest of her life.
But even here, the world outside invades.
“If being close to you is a sin, did we bring this on? Is this the punishment?”
“The decree?” Haya shifts and leans up on an elbow, and one of her hands rests on María’s stomach. “It was signed over a moon ago.”
María knows that she would have kissed Haya over a moon ago already, given the chance.
“No, it is not our fault.” Haya’s voice is low and gentle. “I don’t know what God says, none of us can know, but we do not break faith, being like this.” She pauses, her hand sliding up to rest above María’s heart. “Thank you for not suggesting we convert, when you were there.”
“You never asked me to convert, either,” María says and she wishes she had never even thought about Haya coming with her to the cathedral. “Why would I ask it of you?”
Still, part of her is afraid that Haya will go to hell because she is not baptized, but María will pray, and pray hard enough to absolve both their souls.
“What was your father so mad about?” Pedro asks in the evening as they cower underneath the windows of his house. “I heard him yell all across the street, in our kitchen, and my mother is not exactly quiet when she cooks!”
“I was late with the laundry,” María admits. Pedro gives her a questioning look, and she relents. “Very late.”
“And is this the reason why you look both the saddest and the happiest I have ever seen you?”
“I…” María searches for words, but she does not have any words to describe Haya’s hand on her skin, painting a map of María, with sighs for mountains and whispers for valleys. She shakes her head and hands over a small, cloth-wrapped package.
“More almonds!” Pedro exclaims happily. “You saw Haya?”
“Yes.” But she did so much more than just see her.
“Mmou mmmike ‘er,” Pedro says. Then he swallows. “And she brings gifts. – Don’t you want any?”
But she cannot eat, her insides seem peopled with the flutter of birds’ wings, and the only thing about that her that is hungry is her skin against the night, yearning for Haya and her hands.
“Hey, wait – that’s no reason to cry.” Pedro takes the last almond out of his mouth again before he can close it. “See? I put it back.”
“That’s not it.” María looks at her hands. She hesitates. “Do you think it is a sin?”
María sniffles and glares at Pedro.
He sobers. “That you spend time with Haya? Because she is a Jewess, and you are not?”
“And that I like her.”
He shrugs. “She makes you smile. Smiling is good.”
“I really like her,” María insists and she thinks of Haya’s eyes, deep and smoldering, just before she kisses her, kisses her like King Alfonso must have kissed his lover.
Pedro is silent for a while and when he looks at her again, María thinks that he understands far more than people give him credit for. “Do you take from the poor?” he asks. “Do you harm widows and orphans?”
“Of course not,” María protests.
“Do you break any of the commandments?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, then it is not a sin. At least not a bad one,” Pedro concludes. “Can I have another one of those almonds?”
She gives all the almonds to Pedro and only keeps the small piece of cloth they came in, and she keeps it in her dress, against her chest.
She does not see Haya by the well again, but she sees a group of women from her own neighborhood pushing a Jewess away from the water and calling her names. And when she goes to confession, she sees the wife of Pedro’s master, the sword smith, who makes sure the priest notices the alms she is leaving, far more generous than usual.
“Some desperate Jewess sold me her jewels, very cheap,” the smith’s wife says, and she says it inside the cathedral, and she is smiling. “I sold them away, and a fair share of it belongs to God, who is ridding us of those people.”
The priest commends her, and María remembers the earrings Haya wore the first time that she saw her. She does not speak of Haya in confession. If it is no sin, it does not concern her confessor, and even if it was, she still has no words for the way she melts into Haya’s arms, and her map of Haya is hers alone.
On her way home, she takes the path that leads her through the judería. It is becoming a habit. Bent into the shadows, a woman crosses her path who will not meet her eyes, but María can see that her eyes are hollow and tear-stained.
When she sees Haya, they do not speak of the Decree, not of the rumors the creep along the thick walls of the town, of Jews being denied ship’s passages and of merchants not selling their goods to them any longer. The stolen hours in the barn are theirs alone, and María’s mother complains that the stains will not wash out of the laundry so well any longer.
But now they are not in the barn, now María stands in front of the house of Abraham Abenhayon, and she says, “I want to help.” She says, “Please.”
Haya will leave, she has to leave, and María will make sure that she will be safe.
Abraham Abenhayon stands in the door, kindness in his alert eyes. “Shalom berakhah ve-tovah,” he says, and there is Hannah, and Haya, whose eyes light up at seeing her. A group of young men sits around Abenhayon.
“We do hold our own court, how can they even command us?”one of them asks. He gestures at María, but does not look at her. “The nonbelievers?”
“We are still subjects on their soil,” Abenhayon says.
They debate and argue, and María frowns.
“They are students of his,” Haya whispers. “This is not arguing, this is studying.”
There are almonds and sweet dates and María looks at Haya and then she sinks her teeth into a date, soft and pliant.
“Portugal,” one of the students suggests and once more, Abenhayon shakes his head.
“I do not believe any Christian country is safe for us any longer. The tide has turned. It will turn there, too. We would fare better among the Moors again, in the Ottoman Empire.”
“But how shall we travel that far, without gold? And when no one will sell us a ship’s passage?”
“They will sell us passages, eventually,” Abenhayon says, and his voice is still calm. “Even if at a price too high. – But what price is too high for our faith and our lives?”
“We would need ships on our own, to not depend on greedy captains,” one of the students says fervently.
Another one rebuts him. “But how would we navigate, all the way across the sea? We would need a very good map, and no one will sell us a map!”
And María speaks up. “I can get you a map.”
There is silence for a long moment and María does not know whether it is because she has spoken, or because of what she has said.
“I can get a map, a good map,” she insists.“I will help you to leave here safely.”
“Miriam, it is?” Abenhayon looks at her with gentle hope. “My children and grandchildren will say your name with thanks, and include it in their prayers.”
Past his shoulder, Haya looks at her, her eyes dark like they are when she calls her ‘Lihi’, and when she chants her name like a prayer.
- A word on Gualterio/Sykes calling María’s father “Señor Blazquez”: it is historically not quite correct, it would be more common to call him “Don” and then add his given name, but I could not find a translation for “Warren”, so I went with something that reinforces María’s last name instead.
- The Alhambra Decree was signed on March 31st, but published (meaning it was proclaimed aloud in the cities) on May 1st, 1492 (in Jewish counting, the 19th day of Omer in the year 5252). Part of the Decree was indeed that the entire Jewish population was forced to leave the country or convert within three months’ time (by August 1st), although conversion did not really stop the harassment. Furthermore – because the most Catholic kings new how to pump their state finances – the emigrating were not allowed to take gold, jewels or minted money with them. When rumors arose that some of the emigrating swallowed jewels to take them along, there were murders of disembowelment (I did, sadly, not make up that reference). Likewise, there were ship captains who abused the despair of the emigrants, charging them exorbitant sums and then just dumping them into the open sea once underway.
- In Toledo, the Jewish population had a partially independent administration, including the right to hold minor court.
- “Shalom berakhah ve-tovah” (שָׁלוֹם בְּרָכָה וְטוֹבָה) translates to “Peace, blessing and (all) good (to you).” and is a general blessing used among Sephardi Jews. (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/hebrewgreeting.html)
- “Lihi” is Hebrew for “She is mine”, and is also used as a female name in modern Hebrew. I’m not sure about older usage; I could not find anything.
- The maps of the West that are drawn at the shop of María’s father are likely linked to the impeding Columbus expedition that started in August of 1492.Notes: