What makes some people yearn to stay by their hearth, to shape the mooring place from which others cast off? What makes some of us want to leave? to go thither and yon, to observe lands not yet seen and people not yet encountered? My people have not had the luxury of a permanent hearth, and though we fervently desire safe harbor, what of those of us who quite naturally cannot stay still? Can you imagine? From Ibn Sina, we read of the islands, like single travelers wrapped in their cloaks and hunched against the winds; we have been infected with a yearning, a yearning catch up to them and look, not for a miraculous shelter, but what? an elusive miracle of another kind, perhaps. I wanted to see the Ocean Sea; to find islands such as Ibn Sina describes, to go from island to island, like a child stepping from stone to stone in the shallows of a stream, to see Cipangu, to meet the Great Khan, to arrive from a direction which that exalted ruler would not have expected. All that I wanted to do for myself.
– Cara bat Elazar ben Faraj al-Bagdadi
❖ In the beginning… ❖
Along the winding streets behind the Valencian Aqueduct, and down towards the Lycos river, with its worried monasteries and vacant palaces shorn of Byzantium’s power since Mehmet the Conqueror took the city, we began to meet with our birds, who would sing and sing until one of them and its owner would be declared the winners. They had come—or their avine forebears had—from the Canarias…
At the edge of the world lay their islands–some say the remains of Atlantis, some say the garden where first grew the Golden Apples of the Sun, where monsters lay and where an island was known to rise in the mists and just when the sailor who saw it thought to land, it sunk again–from thence came a marvelous, rather modest-looking bird who, by the Prophet, sang like the birds in Paradise. No, not a nightingale. Not a Kungumapoo from the Spice Islands, not even a Hua Mei, descended from the Emperor’s gift to that Venetian, Marco Polo. This little bird had no glorious plumage, no entertaining antics; rather it was a dull greenish yellow, ordinary, modest sized but bright as a Frankish penny. Who was it that first arranged that such a bird would be sent to us? Well, often you can tell what is going on in the world by watching what arrives in the marketplace, what, under more favorable circumstances, would have stayed at home. Take tulips, for instance. Were they not a foreign flower to the Low Lands? Did that not tell the world that our remarkable empire, that of the Ottomanes, was “found” by those clumsy northerners, somewhere to their East?
So a modest little bird, who did not migrate, came by ship to these shores and to our dear city. What, we might ask, does that mean?
* * * *
A damp night, cold, with winds that swirled around the lighthouse on the cliffs of Sagres, that also housed Henry the Navigator’s observations and his school, so they say, and so constructed that when you looked out its windows, you had the sense of being in the sea. That is, the currents and the waves that crashed against the point seemed to surround the tower as if there were no connections to the mainland, nor a foundation to the pharo, at all.
He was not in that tower, but in hidden rooms in Lisboa, sitting in front of the fire, sipping port, mulling over what on earth he should do next. It was the Christian’s year of 1484; and the Portuguese king, Joao II, had refused him and his plan. How could he? An alternate route to the East, to China? Ophir! Tarsis! Spices! Gold! A route perhaps even faster if one were to take the Alexandrian Ptolemy’s calculations as seriously as the Portuguese did. Your ships will not survive, said the king’s advisors; but their ships had survived Cap Bojador… Portugal had circumnavigated the continent of the Moors and the blacks, had ports east in Goa, in the Spice Islands—why not encircle the globe? Had they only listened, Portugal’s supremacy would be established once and for all. Was it that the rulers of Castile and Aragon, next door, in their war against the Moor in Granada had asked Joao for his aid? Was that it?
“Fools!” Cristobal Colón swore.
The fire needed another log–add it, or simply go on to bed and decide what to do now that Lisboa had closed its doors…
PART ONE: Prologue
And on a narrow street in Granada, once persistently called Garnata al Yahud by the old Arab writers, near the walls of the great red fortress where stood a row of modest houses, with only their gardens separating them from those same walls, in one house in particular the lights burned late into the night. If you were able to enter , you would have heard the sounds of a woman in labor.
Inside, a slender man in his late twenties, slope-shouldered in drab leggings and a rumpled brown tunic, paced back and forth, back and forth, in front of a room whose door was firmly shut. His beard, it must be said, was untrimmed and thin. “Take Yitzak to the neighbors! Quickly! Now!” the father of the little five year old boy to be sent out of earshot, the husband of the woman in pain, shouted at his servants. “I must go to her, let me go to her!” No, no Don Elazar, this is woman’s business!’ the women at the door held him back. ‘The midwife is with her!”
“Listen to her! This is much worse than it was with Yitzak!”
Another shriek. Then silence. The mewling of a newborn infant. The father pushed the women at the door aside. The women tried to block him from going any farther, and one held out a tiny, red-faced baby with a full head of dark hair:
“It is just a girl, Don Elazar.’
Ignoring the newborn, the father tried to push them aside— “Miriam? my Miriam? how is she?”
“Call the Rab, Don Elazar. There is nothing more we can do.”
The family sat shiva for seven days. All mirrors were covered, a candle burned throughout that time, relatives and neighbors brought food. Don Elazar and his young son sat solemnly on two low stools, each with a tear in their clothing above their hearts, each pale and still, while mourners joined them; then after Miriam, the beloved wife and mother, was interred in the cemetery and the family shared that first meal, father and son sat, still numbed and speaking only when spoken to. Elazar’s wealthy cousin Yakob, gave them a slave, a Moorish woman named Amina, who also had a newborn, so that the woman could nurse her own and this poor infant whose mother had died before she could utter her first cry.
After the seven days were over, the house of scholar, Don Elazar ben Faraj al-Bagdadi and his small son, Yitzak, remained silent. As is so often said, like a tomb.
* * * *
Don Elazar immersed himself in his books, held more and more at an odd angle as he grew short-sighted from study. Absorbed in every detail of their contents, he also became even more stoop shouldered and, indeed, his beard remained untended. He was inconsolable at the loss of his beloved Miriam, so much so that he could never be persuaded to remarry. Nor was he so attentive to his children. Never having been a practical man, he was quite ignorant of the care of two young ones; nor did he know so much as a single one of the many children’s games that adults play with infants to make them gurgle and, later on, to laugh. Indeed, though he loved them with all his heart, for some time paternal sentiment appeared to be locked up inside him. Yitzak, however, and in spite of the loss of his mother, was a cheerful soul. Stocky, with reddish tinged hair, he was doomed never to grow too tall. Yet he climbed the apricot tree in their yard in a flash, stole birds’ eggs, and roughhoused with the other boys in the neighborhood; and, though clearly a bright little fellow, this boy child—“No,” sighed Elazar, “No, my son will not follow in my footsteps—” he would never be a scholar.
And truth be told, for the first several years of her life, Elazar shamefully neglected Cara, his little daughter, as if this child were a djinn, the clear cause of her mother’s demise and her father’s sorrow. At the end of the street, his Moorish neighbor, Salman, only shook his head at such sentiments. Short as Elazar was tall, plump as Elazar was lean, Salman would then stroke his black beard thoughtfully. With his brimless blue cap, particular to Muslims as prescribed by the decrees of Al Andalus, slightly askew, he proposed, “Don Elazar, clearly the djinn was not human but that djinn of childbirth—the Tabia—and it possessed your midwife. “Perhaps, ”he said, ever so gently, “perhaps you angered the Tabia in some way?”
And although Salman and Elazar had shared many a long night in deep discussion over the contents of their books, Elazar refused to speak to his friend for nearly a month. That is, until something in the writings on optica, by Ibn al-Haytham, sparked both of their curiosities, and, book in hand, Elazar cautiously knocked on his friend’s door one night. Salman could not resist.
Amina was a perfect solution to Elazar’s paternal ineptness. After a respectful pause, she came to stay at the house, bring her own new baby and the little girl whom Elazar, in his sorrow, had left with her and barely seen since she was born. Amina was grateful to join the household, for Cousin Yakob, who gave her to Don Elazar, was far more strict and not above an occasional beating. A Moor of generous proportion and evidently endowed with superb milk, Amina fed her own and the little Cara bat Elazar ben Faraj al-Bagdadi, as well as watching over the five year old Yitzak, Cara’s big brother. As they grew, she was the warmth they curled up to when the winter rains came, when their father was lost for days in his studies.
Little did they know what Cara, as she grew into a toddler and then a frizzy-haired four-year-old, what this little “imp” was up to.