Jerusalem 1099

 

“May we see her now? We have been waiting for some time.”  The deep voice of the Master rolled around the corridor as if the boom would impress upon his students he was to be obeyed. Unfortunately for him, he was facing Abigail, whose first duty lay not with the Master but with the woman within the chamber.

“I have not woken her yet, Sirs.  It will take some time before she will be able to see you. If it pleases Your Worship, she would not like to meet you in a state of unreadiness. Perhaps the maid can fetch you some refreshments?”

Abigail clapped her hands and a pretty servant appeared at the end of the corridor.

“Please see that the Masters have all they could desire to eat and drink whilst they await the pleasure of an audience with my Lady.”

The girl bowed and disappeared as silently as she had come. The men stared after her. Some of them grinned and muttered to themselves, pulling beards and tugging clothing. A sharp hiss from Abigail brought their attention back to her. They reddened.

“If you would be seated, Sirs, I will prepare my lady as fast as I can.”

Satisfied, Abigail turned and opened the heavy door.

The lamps sputtered in the draught, sending black plumes of pungent lanolin smoke into the already foul air of the sick chamber.

“This will never do,” muttered Abigail. “What were they thinking of? The smell alone will hasten her death. No wonder those others were dismissed. I’d better buy some fresh olive oil as soon as I can.” She snuffed out the guttering lamps and crossed to the windows, throwing back the shutters. Her face received the blessing of the early morning sun and she smiled.

A cough from the bed brought her back to her patient. Abigail moved over to the heavy bedstead and drew back the flimsy curtains. She helped the woman to sip some water. A nod of thanks came as she lowered her gently back onto the pillows. Using a soft cloth, she wiped away the traces of sleep that lingered among the wrinkles of the woman’s eyes. Then she cleansed the dried spittle from the corners of her mouth and rubbed her gums. She wet a small rag of cotton and carefully cleaned her patient’s ears and nostrils. The old lady suffered her ministrations with tightening lips. Abigail ignored the signs of annoyance. She had been taught well. It was no more than she would do for her when she was dead. The rituals were very similar since everyone expected to be cleansed before being sewn into her shroud. It would not be long before this one would follow that path. Abigail had nursed many to their everlasting rest, not to know the signs. She busied herself tidying the bedclothes. The light covers barely disguised the bony frame beneath. Abigail was careful not to add to the pressure of the weight of the linen as she pulled them straight.

The Masters waited outside in the corridor, anxious to pay their respects, to honour this woman in her final moments. The squeaking of chairs, mumblings in baritone voices and the sound of shuffling footsteps seeped under the door.  They were getting impatient.

“What have you done, I wonder, that they wait for you so?” Abigail brushed the long grey strands of hair until they spread out like a filigree necklace across the pillow.

“Uughnn…”

Startled, Abigail looked down at her patient whose eyes were open, a kind of blue film clouding the dark brown irises. Was that a plea in their depths, or just her imagination?

“Do you want to see the Masters now?”

A yellowing hand grasped her wrist and squeezed. A slow blink signalled yes.

Abigail eased her higher up the pillow so the woman had a good view of the room, then pronounced herself satisfied.  The sun was filching all the dark corners as tendrils of light crept in. There were chairs around the walls of the chamber with heavily embroidered cushions, a couple of footstools and an octagonal table with a brass tray on top.  A large decorated trunk was at the foot of the bed, its hasps dull with use. Abigail lifted the lid to find something to cover her mistress’s shoulders.  Sandalwood scented the air for a brief moment until the lid was replaced. As she draped the blue shawl over her thin frame, a seeming warmth suffused the parchment -like skin.   Slippered feet tapped on the stone floor as Abigail went towards the door.

“Don’t let them tire you,” she admonished her patient. A wan smile gave her a reply. Abigail opened the chamber door. The men stood up. Worry flickered across all their faces. A smile from her and they relaxed.

“Try and be mindful of her state, Sirs. She is very fragile.”  She stood aside as the Master pushed past, garbed in the flowing black robes as befitted a Gaon at the Yeshiva. He was followed by the others dressed in brighter hues, their robes nearly sweeping the floor.  Abigail watched as each bowed with reverence to the old woman and then took up positions around the bed.  One of them greeted her in Ladino, the language of the Iberian Jewry. Abigail noticed how the old woman’s eyes lit up at the sound. The man took her hand and kissed it.

“Reina, I am Ze’ev Raphaeli. I am so thankful to have come. Do you remember my father, Boaz Raphaeli? He is too old to make the journey safely but I hold his love for you here, in my hand and heart.” He squeezed her hand, receiving an answering pressure.

“My father bade me remind you of the time you and he were taken prisoner on board the pirate ship. He said he and his brother, Yaacov, of blessed memory, had joined you on the road from Toledo. You weren’t called Reina then, I believe you were Nissim bar Meir.”

Abigail saw a spark brighten the filminess.  That name meant something, she wondered what was coming.

Ze’ev smiled. “It took a lot of convincing from my father, but he said I had to tell the story exactly as he lived it, not as he might have desired. I didn’t want to show his faults to all, but he insisted. He said it was the only way your true worth would shine through.”

Tears threatened. Abigail was ready to help but it was unnecessary.

“No, no,” soothed Ze’ev. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Let me tell it to all this company as I heard it from my father. According to him, you saved his life. ”

The other men in the room sighed and nodded, curbing their impatience to speak. They settled themselves in the chairs. Perhaps what they would hear would tie in with what they knew about this woman, Reina bat Meir y Gracia. Each was aware they held a fragment of her story. Now it would come together.

Abigail closed the door quietly and sat on a stool. She was fascinated by the promise of secrets to be told. She made sure she was well behind the men and yet able to watch her mistress.

As Ze’ev began, the listeners strained to catch his words, some asking for translations that were given in a rapid undertone. Reina stirred as the memory came full force into her mind.

 

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