Leaning against the stone railing of my balcony, I saw him disappear into the crowded streets beneath me, his head still slightly stooped, but his step lighter as if planted with renewed hope.
I held my hand up to shadow my eyes, the bracelets on my wrists jingling softly. The setting sun gently dried my tears, sparkling on my cheeks, and the evening wind played with my dark hair, falling down my back, a beautiful contrast to the royal blue satin chosen for me this morning. In the distance the mountains loomed dark, their pointed peaks decorated with bright snow, while in the valley below the almonds and pistachios already blossomed in white and pink.
The city swayed like a pile of colorful snakes. People rushed through the alleys before night fall covers everything with a heavy blanket. They carried cages with chicken, led goats tied with a rope. Children sloshed through puddles from the recent rain, tossing small stones to the adults’ discontent. Stallholders had already collected their goods, loading the remaining ware to carts and in bags of colorful fabric on the backs of small donkeys. Many of the women had straw baskets on their heads laden with rice, lentils, dried fruit, and vegetables. They walked in pairs and small groups, laughing and talking about everything and nothing. Some families already spread their mats on the cobble-stoned street for the night’s rest. The smell of cumin and cardamom rose and mixed in the air like incense, flying, lying.
Huddled inside my cashmere scarf from the evening chill as the moon rose in the east, almost full, I heard a long, lone ood string vibrating from afar.
“I’ll be in my room”, I heard her, “if you just need anything … “
I nodded, wiping my eyes again with the back of my hand.
I mouthed a little smile, nodding over my shoulder without turning back. A bird spread its wings to roost at the top of the tall palms leading to the main gate. The scent of burning oil reached my nose now.
“Good night your majesty,” she said, curtsying in the hallway.
I took another deep breath. Everything was still, and oh, how I missed my mother in these moments. My mom was the most beautiful woman in the city, and my uncle was madly in love with her. But she opted for his younger brother who was handsome and talented and promised her the moon. Sadly, he died in a strange accident when his workshop caught on fire shortly after I was conceived. My uncle told my mom that he’d care for her and her baby, once I was born, but I believe she couldn’t bear the thought of living without her beloved man, and died at my childbirth, as if completing her mission upon my delivery. Every year, I celebrate my birthday and her memorial day. I think of how brave she was, following her heart. Will I be able to ever do that?
Loud voices and clanking glasses reached my ears from the courtyard. Two servants dragged a wooden wine barrel from the cellar. Another, almost frightened, carried a thick book. I sighed with relief. Whatever it is, the king would be busy again tonight, and I can finally rest from the long day.
Life in the palace was hectic. My schedule included endless meetings with the many who roamed our courtyards, enjoying luxury banquets, and thinking they are a critical part of the kingdom which extended from India to Ethiopia.
But today… it started out as usual. I sat with my girls, laughing, as always, in the center. They threaded pretty beads in my hair, rubbed oil on my feet, fixed my gold earrings, tied the silver sandals up my thigh, decorated my flower parasol. I have to look my best. Everybody knows I was chosen for my beauty, and when I’m called, everybody will stop in their tracks and look. At me.
But suddenly, I was rushed to the window. It turned out that he’d been waiting for me all morning! Why was he not more careful? It is forbidden for anyone to know about us! I could see his silvery curls adorning his head like a crown, surrounding his high forehead and tanned skull; his all-knowing gaze was smoldering. I heard the screams and the guards trying to calm him unsuccessfully. I peeked and noticed, in horror, the shabby clothes and worn, torn gray robe, sackcloth and ashes on his head, walking restlessly by the gate, refusing to hear nothing of it.
Ashamed, I sent Hatach to bring him new clothes, a light cotton shirt and matching, white embroidered pantalones. He refused to accept my gift. He will not leave until he conveys his message. It’s an emergency.
When the sun reached its zenith and the girls went to eat in their kitchen, Hatach brought in my lunch, carrying porcelain bowls of steaming stew with saffron rice and vegetables on a platter, his canvas shoes shuffling along the marble corridor. I learned to recognize his footsteps, the limp. The king did not want him; too old and unfit, but because of complicated family relationships he avoided firing him and sent him instead to be a eunuch for the women.
“He says the situation is very difficult,” Hatach whispered, looking over his shoulder, and out loud said, “Here’s your lunch, your majesty.”
“Thank you,” I replied politely as I was taught, then whispering back, I asked, “Do you have more information?”
“I hope this dish pleases you” he said. He looked around again and pulled out a small note from his pocket. “Here” he whispered, “He says to tell you this, and insists you go over there” he nodded towards the chambers, “without any delay”.
“Indeed, the food looks excellent, as always,” I replied loudly trying to buy some more time. “You know that if I go there without an invite, he’d kill me!” I mumbled through my clenched teeth. “I haven’t been summoned for thirty days, and suddenly I should just show up? In the inner chamber? And then what?” I looked up questioningly. The king’s personal guards were a crew of four thousand men of the nobility, carrying sharp spears. Any stranger who approached without permission was killed immediately. It happened to Vashti. I would be no exception.
He shook his head. “I will convey that to the chef”, he said officially, and added, whispering “I told him. Here, read,” he said bowing, glancing to check the hallway.
“But, I can’t! You understand me, don’t you?” The fine parchment laid folded, untouched in my lap. “He’s the one who made me promise not to tell anyone! I have to keep our secret! And so do you “, I looked up at him, pleading.
His eyes met mine in silence.
I sighed and rolled open the note, finding my uncle’s familiar handwriting, angular and excited: “Think not for a minute that you shall escape in the king’s house, and be better off than all the Jews. For if you hold your peace at this time, relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews from another source, but you and your father’s house will perish; and who knows whether you have not come to royal estate for such a time as this?’”
I read the text again and again, closed my eyes and breathed deeply. Who knows. Really, who knows. Is that why it all happened just so? Images passed before me…
“Thank you for lunch,” I said out loud,” Please come back later to get the tray, and please, let the girls know I need my rest and have no desire to go out to the gardens.”
He bowed again and left.
Sometime later I got up and went out to the balcony where I stood, gazing at the changing colors and sounds, praying and crying, praying and crying. It’s night, dark and quiet now. The storm has subsided. I have a plan. And whatever happens, happens.
I can hear Hatach’s footsteps in the yard, his trailing robe, rushing to me with my uncle’s blessing. He’s also made sure my favorite delicacies have been prepared. He already knows that this is the last meal I would eat for the next three days.