Me dixites que t’aspere
En el bodre de la mar
T’asperí y no venites
Yo me metí a llorar
(Cuatro años d’amor, Sephardic Lament)
[You told me to wait for you
By the sea shore.
I waited for you and you didn’t come
And I began to cry.]
“You wish to leave? With us?”
Abenhayon is baffled, and perhaps he is also wondering whether this has been her plan all her along.
From behind María, Haya is quick to be offended on her behalf. “You do not want her to come with us?”
“That is not the point.” Abenhayon shakes his head. “But would that not put all of us at much greater risk? We are being hunted for attempting to convert, and traveling with a runaway Catholic girl…”
“Or perhaps that could be useful,” María suggests. “I could make connections. No one is hunting me.”
“Your family might.” Abenhayon has a way of smiling even when talking about the unpleasant. “Is the marriage arranged for you truly so horrifying? As a young person, you sometimes do not see…”
“I’ve seen that man kick at the stray dogs in the street and spit at a blind beggar,” Haya interrupts him. “He is not a choice for a husband, for anyone.”
María is trying not to bask in Haya’s protectiveness. She knows that it will come to an end eventually, whether she goes with them or not.
“I will leave,” she tells Abenhayon instead, and she can be calm, too. “But I would rather leave with you. If you would let me, I am sure I could be of use in your household. – I do not mean to convert, though,” she tacks on hastily.
Now Abenhayon looks offended. “We do not do that.” His eyes are not unkind as he regards María for a long moment. “But think about what would happen if we took you along, and if we made it. You would be among strangers, with little to no chance to practice your faith.” He sighs at María’s determined face. “I would likely not be able to arrange a marriage for you.”
Haya is still standing closely next to her and María says, “I don’t care.”
“That is easy to say now,” Abenhayon points out. “But it is hard to live, year after year. – Why don’t you simply travel to Portugal with us, and then find a new life there?”
María looks him right in the eye, even while she is so very aware of Haya by her side. “I may not be of your faith or your family,” she admits, and she stands tall. “But I would rather be with you.”
Abenhayon says nothing for a long while. Then, again, he sighs.”Fine.” He nods. “So be it, then. You helped us, and we will help you.”
And then it is the first time they say goodbye, out in the passageway, without tears and heavy hearts again. The brief hours in the barn – perhaps the last ones – are now giddy, full of plans.
“We won’t be like this,” Haya reasons, but her lips on María’s long, bare legs seem to promise the opposite. “But we will be together. Together.”
It is a glorious word, María thinks, but right then, nothing is quite as glorious as the path that Haya’s mouth paints against the back of her knee and up her thigh.
“This…” María takes a shaky breath. “This, for example, is out of the question on a small boat. – With eyes everywhere…”
Haya glances up at her, wordlessly, and raises an eyebrow in challenge.
And María closes her eyes and does not want to think of anything beyond this moment, but her smile turns into half a sob.
“When you get married –“
“If,” Haya corrects her, and her arms are around María, warm and reassuring. “If I get married. – And then I would take you with me, as part of my household.”
“No.” María opens her eyes and Haya is there, dark gaze focused only on María, every breath she takes palpable against María’s skin. “I could not bear to be close and watch you being given to someone else.”
“I would rather be close to you,” Haya’s murmurs against her skin. “In any way possible.”
María leans up on an elbow and smiles. “And if your father finds a husband for me?”
“He won’t,” Haya protests immediately and there is a spark in her eyes that says she is willing to duel any man for María, for the right to rest in the curve of her arms. “And if some man thinks… – Also, I still have your dagger.” She trails two fingers along María’s arm, raising goosebumps in their wake. “Do you want it back now?”
Maria laughs softly, contentedly. “Give it back to me on the boat,” she suggests then. “Once we have made it, once we are out of sight of Toledo.”
There is a boat now, not too small, but not big enough to make people ask questions. It is a little run-down and it lies past where the tanners work, where one can move down the embankment without being seen.
There is also a new house key that Abenhayon carries in his coat, a line of diamonds hidden in its thick teeth and down the shaft.
And then every time is a last time.
María walks up to the cathedral one last time, to the rhythm of its bells, and prays that God will not care from where she worships Him. “It is the same mountain,” she reminds herself.
She carries the familiar weight of the bucket of water back home, one last time. She remembers Haya, Haya’s legs that day by the well, and she wonders whether she should have known all along that she would go with her.
She sits down for the stew, sees her father’s hunched shoulders, her mother’s tired face. Teresa is still talking about Carlos, now that a date and the dowry have been set.
The date for María’s own wedding is also set. Gualterio’s gaze flickers across the table, touching upon the ladle, the side of bacon on the wall, her father’s good doublet, María’s lips as she eats, as if is testing what it will feel like to own all of it.
María casts down her eyes and swallows her stew. She will disobey her father, she will break the fourth commandment. By nightfall, she will have broken the seventh and the eighth, too. She will atone, later, in a place far away, under foreign stars.
She thinks of the small satchel stashed away under the roof, of the path she took from the well – past where the Hammam used to be, past Abenhayon’s house – and she remembers Haya’s quick greeting, by the window as she passed, and the whispered, “Until tonight.”
María bites the inside of her cheek to curb the nervous smile that threatens to spill onto her lips.
Now she just has to wait, and wait until night falls and everyone is asleep.
One last time, she is sneaking out, to meet Pedro underneath the window at dusk.
“So this is it, huh?”
He clears his throat, and María nods.
“Only because you helped,” she says.
“Don’t fool yourself.” He smiles, and she aches in thinking how much she will miss him. “You’d have gone anyway. I know you. You’re brave.”
“Running from a marriage and breaking the law?” María snorts. “Sure.”
“Well, brave and mad,” Pedro amends. “I wish I was as brave.”
He hugs her for long moments as they part.
“Perhaps I will leave the smith,” he says, almost in afterthought. “Let myself get drafted, try to make my luck in the King’s army.”
“Be careful,” she tells him, and she has to blink rapidly.
“Be safe,” he says, and then it is only the falling night and her heartbeat. And she waits, wide awake in her bed, listening to the even breaths around her, until the quiet of deep night brushes into the room.
She stands, and her feet know to tread the worn stairs that lead up to the roof without a sound. They have known since María was half her own size and snuck up to spit cherry pits into the street with Pedro Lopez. On her way down, she holds her breath as she takes Juan’s jacket and his cap from beside Gualterio’s bed. He sleeps curled outward, his elbows bent, like a spider easily roused from a slumber all too light.
She walks into the kitchen without a backward glance, assembles shoes and scarf, pins up her hair. And just as she moves to slip on the jacket, a voice breathes behind her, “That is mine.”
Gualterio stands in the door in his nightshirt, his hands on the doorway that he is now effectively blocking.
María’s heart is racing. “I just set out to do some mending,” she says, smoothly positioning the jacket on the table in front of her. “One of the sleeves has a tear.”
Gualterio does not leave his spot in the doorway. “At this hour of night.”
María shrugs. “I could not sleep.”
“And my cap?” He nods at the cap on the kitchen table. “Does that have a tear, too?”
“I better make sure,” María offers, and she sets out the sewing kit. She will still make it to the riverbank, if she hurries a little, and if only Gualterio will go back to sleep. “I might as well make use of the hours.”
“How diligent,” he observes, and his tone makes María’s skin crawl. “You will make a good wife.”
María’s prayers – and is this heavenly punishment already? – go unanswered when Gualterio pulls up a chair, placing it between the doorway and the table.
“I might as well keep you company.”
“That’s not necessary,” María hastens to say. Her fingers shake as she tries to put the thread to the needle eye.
He looks at her hands as she sets to sew. The satchel is out of sight, under the bench. She can feel it against her calves as she slides them backward a little. She has to think fast now, right under his eyes. The satchel is heavy enough to knock him out, if she acts quickly enough.
She wishes she still had her dagger. He is scrawny, a little shorter than she is herself, and she knows her stance is good. But her dagger is down by the river, in Haya’s hands, waiting for her. She has told Abenhayon that she will be on time, has impressed on him how important it is that they leave quickly, before anyone can get suspicious at the group of people down by the bank.
The satchel, then. It is all that she has. But even as she pulls it out, as she swings it, she sees that Gualterio is prepared in how he braces himself. He still staggers backward, but he does not fall, and with a sick feeling, María realizes that he knows, that he has known all along.
She dashes for the door, she has to, while he is still rubbing his head, but then his hands are on her skirts, in her hair.
“You are not going anywhere,” he whispers sharply, and then grunts in pain as María kicks at him, scratches in despair as she struggles, and she needs to be quiet. The moment anyone wakes, she is outnumbered, and she needs to leave, she needs to leave now.
Haya is waiting for her.
“You stay where I tell you to,” Gualterio pants, too close to her ear. “You better learn this, and soon. If you think I’d let you run off with that morisco Lopez –“
“Pedro?” For a moment, María is startled, and Gualterio’s hands close like a bench vise around her wrists. María laughs him in the face. “He is ten times the man you will ever be.”
That was the wrong answer to give, she realizes, as he throws her against the doorway.“You will not speak up to me!”
But at least they are in the doorway, and this is her last chance. She let’s herself go slack for a moment, and then slams an elbow into his gut. He wheezes in pain and she is free for a moment, two –
She does not see the heavy brass ladle until it connects with her head and she stumbles.
“Rebellious, huh?” He gasps through the haze surrounding her. “I know your secret. I followed you. To that Jew’s house.”
María stills, fighting the nausea. Something wet and warm trickles down her neck.
“I did not!” María protests.
“Oh, I don’t worry,” he assures her with a laugh and she wants to throw up at the sound. “I’ll get that out of you, once we are married. And I’ll see that they are burnt at the stake for their – ”
Black spots dance in front of María’s eyes as she kicks back one last time, disoriented. She scrambles to stand, at last free of his hands.
“I will get to them when they try to leave!” he snarls behind her.
And María freezes.
If she runs now, if he follows her, she will draw attention to their flight and condemn them all. And if Gualterio looks past his jealousy to realize that she wanted to leave with Haya, with Abenhayon, all along, all he needs to do is start a ruckus and alert the guard, right now.
“Yes, that’s right,” he sneers. “I’ll make sure your damned Jewish friends end up as firewood. The old man. And his daughters, too.”
“Really?” She has to stall him, she thinks feverishly. Stall him, until Haya and her family have left. “Because I was trying to convert them. I made headway with the daughters, too.”
It is almost Haya’s name on her lips, and María thinks she has to die this very second.
“I don’t believe a word of it,” Gualterio says, and at least he is still distracted.
“Why do you think they did not leave yet?” María taunts him and she prays, she begs for Haya to leave, and not to wait. “Converting is a lot more appealing when it means you get to keep your house, your goods…”
She knows Haya is stubborn, she knows it so well. Absently, María wipes at the wetness against her neck. Her fingers come away sticky, and perhaps she is crying already.
Haya will be waiting, and Haya will wait in vain.
“Marranos, all of them,” Gualterio says with derision and the moments are still too drawn out, distorting themselves.
“We have to leave.”
Abenhayon’s voice is gentle, moving through the night next to her, but Haya does not look around. She is staring up at the path to the city, her eyes straining against the darkness.
“I know she will come,” she says, and her gaze is wearing out the night. “She must have been held up.”
“Perhaps,” Abenhayon allows. He takes a careful breath before he continues. “But she is a smart child. Do not blame her if she reconsidered.”
“She did not!” Haya says so quickly that doubt is shimmering through.
“She has her family here, her whole life,” Abenhayon reminds her. “Marriages… You grown into them. With us, she would have nothing.”
“She would have us,” Haya insists.
Abenhayon says. “Anything else would be strange to her. And in a way, so would we.”
But Haya is no stranger to María, María knows her better than anyone else. And she knows that María will come. You love me, Lihi, she thinks. You would not lie to me. But she does not say that. She looks at her father’s sympathetic frown, more terrifying than her own nagging doubts.
“One more minute. Please.”
“One minute,” Abenhayon relents. They are the last ones still on shore.
And Haya scans the rocks above once more, feverishly. She listens for any sound beside the brush of dark waves to their feet and the wind in her ears. The seconds tumble by, and she wills them to stretch, to stop, until she will see María rushing down the riverbank, surefooted, a rush of wild curls and, after a moment, that impossibly wide smile that Haya sometimes still cannot believe is for her, because of her.
But there is no María now.
Haya feels for the dagger, María’s dagger, which she wears inside her sleeve.
Her father is calling her and in the end, he has to drag her along, carry her as she struggles against him, her eyes never leaving the path up to the city.
“Haya, we cannot endanger the others. Think of Hannah!”
Haya does not answer. It is unthinkable that something has happened to María – a young woman, at night, alone on her way out of the city, yes, but María knows the city well, she has been Juan for many years. But it is just as unthinkable that María has reconsidered, that she will stay and let Haya leave on her own because she has decided to do so.
Haya wants to know, and she does not want to know, and the questions still swirl in her head when she is finally standing on the boat, held by arms that are not María’s.
She cannot breathe past the ache in her chest.
“It will be fine again, Haya,” Hannah pleads, distraught, embracing her tightly, and only then Haya realizes that she herself is sobbing. The outline of the city above them disappears behind the river bend, but Haya cannot see it through her tears. Absently, she strokes her fingers through Hannah’s copper hair and even as Hannah is calming down, Haya knows that for her, things will never be fine again.
The water shimmers green in the sunrise hours later, green like María’s eyes, and among the relief on everyone’s faces, Haya is numb.
“Until tonight,” she had told María, and she had not even kissed her then, and now there is another day, and there will be another night, and another and another, and on none of them, she will ever kiss María again.
María carries the basket of laundry to the river that same morning.
She has lain down and gotten up, mechanically and by sheer habit. She has washed away the blood from her neck, from the bruise along her temple – “I fell,” she tells Teresa, and Teresa does not dare to ask further – and her body aches with every step, sore from the struggle.
But down by the riverbank, where the tanners work, the boat is gone.
And María smiles.
Smiling becomes a rare treat after that, or at least Pedro does not remember her smiling again after she tells him triumphantly that Haya and her family managed to escape. Their bodies are not floating in the Tajo with their bellies slit open. They are one step closer to Portugal, to safety, and to a new life across the sea.
“But you wanted to be with them,” Pedro says.
María touches her temple. “Gualterio woke up.”
“He will regret that,” Pedro swears, but María shakes her head.
“Don’t make it worse. – He thought I wanted to run away with you.” She wills herself into something close to resolve. “Perhaps I can follow her still, at a later date.” And she does not even now where she would have to go.
“Perhaps,” Pedro says, and she loves him for it.
“Speaking of running away…” Pedro straightens. “I signed up this morning. Took a page from you.”
He has to leave soon, moving West with his unit, but the day before he leaves, Gualterio comes back from an errand with a bleeding eye and a limp. He says he fell.
“Did you have to put those ideas into his head?” Juana snaps at María when Pedro prepares to leave home, in a new, stiff uniform that makes him look older and much too serious.
“Dashing,” he insists with a grin. María wishes she could find it in her to smile.
“Be thankful that she did,” Doña Inés pipes up from where she is sitting. “Boy was going to waste with that badmouth of a smith. He’s got a chance to make something of himself now. A sword does not care if it cuts a Catholic or a Moor!”
“I know, I know.” Juana sighs and wipes at her eyes. “And I am glad that he is taking a chance. But I have a right to worry, don’t I?”
There is something else before Pedro leaves, at dusk, underneath the window.
“I don’t want Gualterio to be the first,” María says, matter-of-factly. “I don’t want him to have that.”
“Oh,” Pedro says, and he nods. And than he snaps upright. “Oh!”
He does not ask any questions, he accepts her decision. It is awkward, and sad, and not uncomfortable. It does not hurt. They laugh a little, even, friends sharing a secret in the attic, like back when they were spitting cherry stones down into the street.
Afterwards, Maria is surprised that there is not more to it.
“Well, thank you very much,” Pedro says drolly to that and María smooths out his tousled hair, fondly. She does not care that she has broken another commandment. But she understands, at last: Haya has been the first. It has always been Haya, and it will always be.
Pedro leaves, in his uniform, and the days drag by more heavily without him. He is not there when María, pale and with the last bit of bruise covered under a few locks of hair, is led through the street in her best dress – not that she has that many – to be married to Gualterio. Her hand is limp in his and she throws up when almonds are served at the meal afterwards.
“But you like them,” Teresa says helplessly.
And María thinks of Haya’s hands and she bites the inside of her cheek until it bleeds.
The throwing up returns with a vengeance a few weeks later, and Pedro is not there to witness that, either.
He is not there to ask about the occasional split lip or bruised cheek.
He is not there to help María carry the heavy water bucket from the well when her body begins to gain weight, when her ankles swell and her face broadens.
And it is Juana who is there – and who is swearing because there is so much blood already, and why did no one care to call for her sooner? – when it is April again, and even Gualterio looks afraid and queasy at the sight of so much blood, but the baby is strong, and Juana’s arms are covered in blood.
April, María thinks, and she is so tired. Her body is tearing, breaking into pieces, and in between she hears the rain fall into the street outside, and its cadence seems to call, Miriam.
She slips away before she can even look at her child.
“A boy!” Juana declares, and despite everything, she is smiling at the marvel in her hands.
She is smiling every time she sees him in the street as he grows up, year after year, and she always has a hug or a sweet carrot for him. Even as her own frame stoops with age and his stretches into adulthood, he stops by her kitchen window for a treat, offering an all too familiar, dazzling smile in return.
Pedro returns after four years, with a captain’s sign on his lapels and a rough beard on his cheeks, and he cries in his mother’s arms when he asks about María.
“I wonder what became of María,” Hannah says, years later, as she walks with Haya through the streets of Selanik. She only says it once because the look of wild despair that suddenly seems to coil Haya’s shoulders inward spooks her enough to never touch that issue again. “I just meant… She saved our lives, and you barely spoke of anything else until we reached Lisboa. And then…”
“I would hope that she is safe, and happy,” Haya says, and it sounds stilted. It is all that she says.
Hannah is not a girl any longer, she is married, she has children of her own. They have a new house now, they celebrate Shabbat in peace, dates and almonds are on the table. And Abenhayon, his hair now completely white, still argues with young students about the Talmud.
Haya herself marries late, very late. She bears a single child – a girl – and is widowed early. She returns to her father’s house after that and takes care of him, of others, for the rest of her days. There are few moments she claims for herself. But in the mornings of early summer, bright and early, before the sun is fully up, she will find a spot to look out across the sea and search for the rare reflection of green out on the water.
She never again eats another almond.