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Dorothy M Jones

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Rachel, A Medieval Tale
by Dorothy M Jones   

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Books by Dorothy M Jones
· Tatiana
· Aleuts in Transition: A Comparison of Two Villages
· A Century of Servitude: Pribilof Aleuts under U.S. Rule
· When Shadows Fell
                >> View all

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Category: 

Historical Fiction

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Fiction

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Dorothy Jones

Set in a small town in 13th century England, RACHEL weaves a story of a powerful and enduring bond between three women--a Jewish money lender, a daughter of the overlord of the nearby manor, and an escaped serf from that manor. The friendships started during their childhoods. What follows is an incredible story of how, against all odds--the rigid separation of Jew and Gentile, of nobility and the lower classes; their communities at war--these three courageous girls become women whose lives are both enriched and complicated by their enduring friendship. The book has not yet been published. The first five chapters appear below. The entire manuscript can be found on my website
www.dorjones.net/Books

Chapter One appears below.

    Rachel, A Medieval Tale CHAPTER ONE Dornfield, England Summer 1241 At dawn, Rivkah died; I mean everyone said she died. But she couldn’t be dead. I wasn’t dead and she and I couldn’t be parted. We were twins, alike in nearly every way— tall and skinny, and aside from a tiny rose-colored birthmark on Rivkah’s brow, the same snub noses, black eyes, and mops of springy black hair that Agnes, our caretaker, had to tame with tonic. Being nearly identical, I was baffled a few days before when Rivkah’s bleeding started and mine didn’t. I loved Rivkah, but I felt downright mean and jealous when she went to her first mikvah. She didn’t know I followed her. She didn’t know I hid behind shrubs and watched her enter the purification bath. She didn’t know I waited until she came out and followed her home. . That night in our beds, just a few feet apart, Rivkah gazed at me for a long while. I figured she was waiting for me to bless her ripening, but I was so ashamed for having spied on her I pretended to be asleep. When finally I did doze off, I had a bad dream. Rivkah fell into the rushing current of the River Ashe; the river sucked her under; she kept bobbing up, each time thrashing and clawing at the water. I tried to get to her, but my feet froze to the ground. When her head disappeared for good, I woke with a jolt. I had to touch her, feel her skin warm and alive. I turned toward her ready to confess my spying. She was coiled in a cramped position, her mouth twisted in pain, and she began to shriek so loud the timbers in the walls shook. Three days later, our healer declared her dead. Diarrhea, she said, from having drunk from the river where people dump their chamber pots and slop buckets. Our graveyard lay six furlongs beyond the northern boundary of Dornfield. We had to move it there after the council banned the burying of Jews in or near the town borders. The cemetery was in a small clearing carved out of a grove of broad-leafed beech trees so dense it blocked the sun. I dreaded going there, especially on the day of Rivkah’s funeral. Everyone in our Quarter, about eighty people, gathered around that unpainted wooden box next to a black pit in the graveyard. They moaned and wailed: “Only twelve years old, so young, so young.” The rabbi stood in front of the casket offering a prayer that exalted the Lord so He wouldn’t think we blamed him for Rivkah’s death. When the rabbi finished praying, three men on either side of the casket slowly lowered it into the pit. My father, brother Saul, and grandmother Comitissa shoveled clumps of dirt onto the lid—thud, thud, thud. I refused when Comitissa offered me the shovel, for I knew Rivkah wasn’t inside that box; she was here inside of me. I had to get away from that graveyard. My legs felt like sponges as I tumbled through the woodland, my mind fixed only on getting home and crawling under the bed cover with Rivkah. Back in my chamber, I fetched Rivkah’s chemise from a basket of unwashed clothes. I carried it to my straw pallet. I pressed it against my nose and smelled her sweat. And with that smell came her face--the mole on her brow, her mouth pursed as it does when she eats ginger, her eyes flashing as when we put ants in my brother Saul’s bed. I heard her laugh as she did when Agnes leaped around the hall like a monkey looking for her shoes that we’d hidden. I heard her whisper secrets as when she told me about cousin Yitzchak showing her his private parts. I saw her lips turn down in a scowl as when we argued about which of us would keep the cedar chest with the swirling design that Comitissa’s father had brought from Paris. I stayed in bed with her, kept her alive with a continual conversation, sometimes talking aloud, as I did on this morning. “Rivkah, remember when we decided that growing up meant taking risks, maybe breaking some rules like exploring Boike forest where, Agnes had warned, brigands and trolls and gargoyles hid? Remember how faint we felt when we neared the forest and how we decided to do something closer to home? Remember how we then blew loud whistles outside of St. Mary’s church during vespers? How Father John and his deacon rushed out to find the culprits? How we hid behind an elderberry bush in the church yard?” When I heard her tinkling giggle, I broke into laughter, too. But then I saw the women who watch over me peering through the curtain that separated our chamber from the rest of the house, and, reluctantly, I silenced myself. Ever since mother died, the sisterhood women have kept their eyes on me. I shouldn’t complain; they are kind. But sometimes, like now when I want to be alone with Rivkah, they make me feel suffocated. Agnes came to my chamber more often than anyone else. She started each visit the same way, tossing the contents of my privy out the window and tidying my room, all the while watching me through slitted eyes. When I didn’t move from the bed, she’d try to rouse me with my favorite treats--soft bread, herb-flavored cheese, roasted apples and chestnuts. When that didn’t work, she’d suggest a story. I loved her stories but I’d turn my back to her. I wanted her to understand. I couldn’t lose touch with Rivka, When I did, a gulf opened beneath me, a deep, dark, black hole. . My grandmother Comitissa also visited me frequently. Despite aching joints, she’d manage to squat on the floor beside me. She’d comb my hair with her bony fingers or suggest a French lesson or dangle balls of red, blue, and green yarn, hoping to lure me to her loom in the hall. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. She was like our mother. Our teacher, too. There were no schools for girls, but Comitissa was the daughter of a rabbi who trained her as a scholar. She taught us reading, scripting, numbers, English, French, and Aramaic—the language of the Talmud. But I turned my back to her, too. One day, tired of gentle approaches, Comitissa wagged an angry finger at my face. “Time to stop pitying yourself, time to get up and get doing.” “Oh Comitissa, don’t fret. You see, I cannot desert Rivkah.” “Rivkah is dead.” “Oh no, she is here with me.” A sob broke from Comitissa. ‘Keep this up and you’ll follow her to the grave, you will.” A shudder ran the length of my spine. I reached out for Rivkah. I glimpsed her face, but it quickly faded. “Are you growing weary?” I asked her. Silence! “Rivkah, Rivkah.” I called her name again and again. Silence! I closed my eyes, only to be greeted by an image of Rivkah and me lying stiff and frozen inside that wooden box. I tried to shake out the image, but it refused to leave. Comitissa’s plea rang in my ears—“get up and get doing.” I rose, but my legs crumbled and I fell back. Agnes came limping in—she had a short leg. Maybe one of her stories would erase that vision. “Tell me a story.” “When you stop shaking,” she said as she put an extra cover over me. And when I quieted down, she begsn. “There once was a woman who turned herself into a fox.” Agnes never told stories I’d heard at synagogue, for she was Gentile. She never told stories about her private life either, except once when I asked her how she came to live in a Jewish house. Her husband and only child, four years old, , drowned in the River Ashe when a sudden, wild storm smashed and overturned their small boat. A destitute Agnes, with a crippled leg and no skills except cleaning and washing and cooking, begged for work at one Gentile house after another. Finding none, she came to our door. It was soon after mother died and father, desperate for help, hired her without hesitation. I knew the Christian church forbade its members to work for Jews, but father assured me it was common practice and no one made a fuss about it, not even the priest at St. Mary’s. Other than that once, Agnes’s tales were about trolls, werewolves, cyclops, unicorns, and winged griffins. The one she told on this day sent shivers across my shoulders. The woman in the story who changed herself into a fox hunted all through the night. In the morning its human family found geese, ducks, hares, and squirrels piled on the table. One day a crossbow man shot the fox. The injured fox ran to its human home. And there the family found the woman dead with an arrow through her head. I had hoped the story would erase the vision of Rivkah and me inside that wooden box, but it had the opposite effect. It made me wonder--if a woman can turn herself into a fox and an arrow can turn the fox back into a woman, can Rivkah change herself from someone who lives inside me to a shrouded body in an unpainted box? Can I change from being alive to lying stone still beside Rivkah? I chased away these thoughts by again repeating Comitissa’s direction. I leapt from my bed, this time on steady feet, and moved toward the wardrobe. Agnes handed me my chemise, a plain cotton undershirt with a round neck and long sleeves. It smelled of the orange peel she uses in her oatmeal soap. I slipped it on, then my knee-length linen undertunic, and finally, my red, ankle-length gown that I had dyed from madder root. I sat on top of the chest and leaned over to lace my shoes while Agnes plaited my hair. Then she wrapped my cape around my shoulders, my wimple around my head and neck, and last, pinned my yellow badge into a fold of the cape. The badge, about as long as Agnes’s outstretched hand, was shaped like the tablet holding the ten commandments. We’re required to wear it whenever we go outside. But on this day, going out without Rivkah, I felt like ripping the badge off. I didn’t, for Jews caught without their badges could be fined or even sent to prison. I was on the street but didn’t know what to do or where to go, so I meandered. Our town, about eight leagues north of London, had about 3,000 people. It wasn’t protected by a surrounding wall like towns that had a wool or gold trade. Our marketing was limited to farming and fishing. The River Ashe was too shallow for sea vessels, so we had no trade with distant places. Fishing was limited to what small boats could catch--sole, oysters, salmon, trout, eels, smelt. The main street stretched from the north to the south end of town with paths spooling out of the sides to the river. Farm lands and hilly grazing fields lay to the west, and Boike forest, to the east. The street was narrow with gutters on either side where people dumped their slop and where flies and rats were as familiar as the air and clouds and rain. The dwellings in our small Jewish Quarter at the north end of town were narrow with connecting walls. Those with shops in front had overhanging signs etched with pictures of their trade for those who couldn’t read. Sometimes I felt like I lived in a cocoon in our Quarter where I knew every person, every house inside and out, every bend in the street, every path to the River Ashe. . I stopped to watch two boys try to jump across the gutters lining both sides of the street. They missed and fell into the slop. One of the boys, his mouth tight with determination, tried to pole vault across. Again he missed. I had a fit of mirth watching him shake like a wet dog to rid himself of the muck covering him from neck to toe. I caught myself—me, laughing when I’d just parted from Rivkah. I walked on, pausing at the synagogue, the center of our lives. It was built of chalk hardened with small pieces of shell, and had two stories. The bottom floor was for the rabbi and his family; the top floor, for study rooms and the Beth din, our Jewish court. Though wards of the king, we were allowed to live by our customs and laws and settle disputes in our own court run by the rabbi and two judges. Three cottages were attached to the south side of the building--the mikvah, the slaughterhouse where the shohet butchered meat according to Jewish law, and the community oven for baking Passover matzos. Someone touched my arm. It was Elfid, the rabbi’s daughter. She had a high squeaky voice that hurt my teeth and a mouth that looked like father’s when his accounts didn’t match. “Father said to fetch you for a lesson.” I was surprised, for the synagogue taught only boys. “What kind of lesson?” “For wives-to-be.” I’d been betrothed to Shimon, son of Isaac, my father’s partner in the money lending business, for three years, since I was nine and Shimon was thirteen. Elfid, too, was betrothed. We were both to be wed at the end of the light season. But what could the rabbi teach me about being a wife? I already knew how to sew, spin, weave, dry herbs, and tend the roses and violets in the garden. Comitissa and other women had told me I have to obey my husband. I wasn’t sure what they meant, though. Was I to obey him even if he said something mean or insulting? Maybe the rabbi will explain. So I followed Elfid to his study. Perched on a four-legged stool at his writing table, the rabbi grinned at me. “To be sure, it’s good to see you wandering about, Rachel. Are you ready to get on with other things?” “What other things?” I asked. “Sit, sit,” he said in his deepest voice, pointing to a bench across from him. “Do I have a gift for you two, a betrothal gift to be passed down from fathers to daughters.” I looked around but saw only some folded sheets of parchment on his table. He opened one sheet and waved it in the air. “Written by my father to my sister on the eve of her wedding. If you follow his advice, you, too, can look forward to the good favor of your husbands.” He read: “Be humble and obedient toward him that shall be your husband. Act according to his pleasure rather than your own. Be not arrogant nor contradict what he says, above all before other people.” Elfid sat with her hands folded in her lap nodding agreement. But I wanted examples. I was about to ask, only the rabbi didn’t pause long enough. “Take counsel from the good services your neighbors and kinswomen do for their husbands. Take counsel from the female birds who fly after their mates wherever they go. Take counsel from the little dogs who curl up at their master’s feet even after their master’s throw rocks at them. “Keep him in clean linen. Pull off his boots before a good fire when he returns home. Give him fresh shoes and hose, good food and drink. Bed him in white sheets and nightcaps. Make sure the roof doesn’t leak or the chimney smoke. Scold him not, but be gentle and amiable and peaceable.” Elfid bobbed her head and smiled, but I squirmed. Didn’t a wife differ from a servant? The rabbi’s next words furnished an answer. “And in winter, warm him between your breasts.” Indeed, that was something servants shouldn’t do. “And in summer take heed that there be no fleas in your chamber or your bed. Strew alder leaves around the room to catch the fleas. And if there are flies, take little sprigs of fern, tie them into threads and hang the threads from a hook until all the flies settle on them.” Ah, my imagination took wing. Here was my chance to take the risk Rivkah and I had avoided. I could roam Boike forest for ferns and alder leaves. Elfid followed me out of the synagogue. Though she was the only girl in the Quarter near my age, I seldom play with her. She was no fun. When Rivkah and I asked her to join us in blowing whistles outside St. Mary’s church during vespers, she ran from us as if we were lepers. She never did anything out of the ordinary, even for revenge against a church that charged us tithes but refused us entry. But now, seeing that she, too, was stirred up by our meeting with her father, I had an urge to invite her to go to the forest with me. “We could have a revel with this,” I said. “I know what we must do. But I hardly call it revelry.” “What must we do?” “Practice what we’ve just learned on our fathers and brothers until we become perfect.” “I want to practice, but not on my father or brother.” “On who, then?” “Elfid, come with me to Boike forest for ferns and alder leaves.” The color left her face. “We’re not supposed to go there; no one from here does.” Suddenly, that feeling of suffocation washed through me and I knew I would go. CHAPTER TWO To reach the path to Boike forest, I had to travel the length of the town, from our Quarter at the north end to the market place at the south end. Though the day was warm, I felt a chill as soon as I passed the synagogue and entered the Gentile world. No one will hurt me, I assured myself. After all, we were the king’s wards and he has ordered bailiffs and sheriffs to protect us from harm. Still my knees felt weak in that part of town, especially without Rivkah by my side. I straightened my shoulders and continued on. . Here, too, the dwellings were narrow and connected with common walls, except for a few belonging to rich merchants. The fanciest house in town, owned by William, the jeweler, was a large, two-story stone structure with front and side windows, a buttery and kitchen on the south side, and a cobblestone path on the north. William was head of the merchant’s guild, which controls trade and prices. He ranked second in power to the overlord of Babham, the nearby manor. I shuddered when I saw William’s son Ralph come out of his house. Rivkah and I feared him more than any other Gentile boy in town. He never touched us, but he would glare and smirk and walk in circles around us as if we were his slaves. I started to run, but he was close behind shouting curses: “pig of a Jew, dog of Satan.” My breath came in short gasps until finally he lost interest and veered off to the dock. Stalls filled with fresh fish and other things that rot quickly took up the space in front of the pier at the south end of town. The east side of the market was lined with shops, guilds, and the offices of town officials., The town people elect a mayor, a council of six, a bailiff, coroner, sheriff, and town crier. Three Gentile girls standing in front of the bake shop started to whisper and giggle when they saw me. During our last annual fair, Rivkah and I tried to chat with those girls, but they stared at us as if we had two heads and then walked away. I hurried past them to the west side of the market place, past the alehouse, shops of the smithy, tanner, and ostler, and the chirographer’s office. The four chirographers, appointed by the sheriff, keep detailed financial records of every Jew—all debts, pledges, mortgages, land, houses, rents, and movable possessions. The king uses these records to decide the most he can take from us in taxes and tallages, the special tax levied against all the Jews in the realm. Once in the forest I couldn’t stop my heart hammering my chest. The looming oaks looked like they were closing in on me; a gnarled arm of one of them seemed to reach out for me. Something long and slithery crept over my boot. I ran but my knees turned to water and I fell onto a bed of brambles. I jumped up, and after shaking off leaves and picking thorns from my clothes, I turned back. Then I felt silly. Old enough to marry, I should certainly be bold enough to walk through a woodland. I swung around and continued on, listening for the sound of a creek where I was sure to find alders and ferns Hearing the sound of water, I parted the leaves of a willow and saw a narrow creek rippling between banks lined with alders. Something was moving beside an elderberry bush. A fox? A bear cub? I was about to run off when I took one last look. A girl about my age was carving bark from the bush, probably to make purple dye. She couldn’t be from Dornfield, her clothes were too fine. She was wearing a brightly colored silk scarf, soft leather gloves, and ankle-length silk gown with tiny glittering beads embroidered on the hem and wrists. Her gown had a long slit down the center to allow for sitting a horse. I edged closer. . My breath caught in my throat. She had Rivkah’s high cheek bones and—did my eyes betray me—a mole in the shape of a rose petal on her brow. It’s Rivkah! My heart thrashed around like a fish on a line. I lookd more closely. No, not Rivkah. This girl had amber-colored hair and green eyes. But gazing her was like feasting my eyes on Rivkah. I wanted to be with her so the feeling would last. But a girl like her would never be interested in me. I started to creep away but was seized by a fierce leg cramp, I jumped up and stamped my foot. This startled her. “Who are you?” My stomach muscles tightened, imagining her backing away when I told her. She moved closer and studied my face. “Have we met?” I shook my head. “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “You’ve never been in this forest before?” “Never.” . “Your name, please.” I drew in a deep breath. “Rachel, daughter of Hayyim ben Zoma, the Dornfield money lender. She stared at my badge and I thought she’d run from me, but she smiled and introduced herself. “I am Lette, daughter of Baron Wickler of Babham.” Good Lord, she wasn’t just a rich girl, she was the daughter of the wealthiest and most powerful man in our district --overlord of Babham and owner of the peasant village of Belton and the town of Dornfield, except for us—we Jews are under the protection of King Henry. “Are you alone?” I asked, sure a girl of her standing didn’t wander around the woods by herself. She didn’t answer but motioned me to follow her. Eager to see what would happen next, I scrambled after her through brambles and gorse until we came to a small pond. She begins skipping stones but they sank into the water. I knew I could do better. Rivkah and I had frequent contests at the River Ashe. I began skimming flat stones that dipped in and out of the water all the way to the opposite bank. “I wish I could do that,” she said. I gave her a lesson. Me, teaching the overlord’s daughter! She was a fast learner and when one of her stones rippled across the water, she laughed and clapped her hands the way Rivkah did. Back on the main path, she walked close to me, so close I could smell her mint- flavored breath. “This was merry. You must come again. Meet me next Wednesday. There’s a clearing beyond this spot where a huge oak fallen oak forms a seat smooth enough for the king’s throne. Say you’ll come.” I nodded. And then she blew a whistle. “To call my guards,” she explained. “Are you a prisoner?” She chuckled. “I’m not allowed to roam about alone like you people. Father has bid Gocelyn, my groom, and Elena, my riding teacher, to ride with me whenever I leave the manor. But I grow tired riding the same paths so I bribed them with jewels. Now I can wander as far as I want so long as they can hear my whistle.” At that she waved and ran off to find her guardians. Walking home, my heart galloped like it did the first time I jumped off a rock into the River Ashe. I was excited at the promise of being with someone like Rivkah, and of knowing someone whose life was as different from mine as the dragons in Agnes’s stories. But suddenly my excitement curdled. Jews shouldn’t mingle with Gentiles. It was dangerous. Everyone said so. Yet, Lette wasn’t like Ralf and the girls who shunned me at the bakery. They treated me like I was two steps lower, but Lette acts as if we’re the same. CHAPTER THREE I should forget Lette I kept telling myself. I should listen to my people. They must have good reasons for warning me against mingling with Gentiles. Yet, no sooner I made that decision, when I found myself lost in fantasies of doing things with her, exploring dark places in the forest, finding secret places to hide, picking and gobbling berries, catching fish with our hands. When I caught myself dreaming about her during my cherished French lesson, I decided, right or wrong, I’m going to keep my appointment. The second time in Boike forest, I was so set on finding our meeting place, I didn’t notice the eerie sights and sounds. And without a misstep I came upon Lette resting on the stump of a fallen oak that looked as old as Abraham. She smiled. “Oh, I’m so glad I decided to come.” I was surprised that she, too, felt divided about our visit. I waited, hoping she’d explain. And she did. . . “I was afraid, afraid if my father knew he’d scream insults at me or lash me with a birch stick, or worse, forbid my horseback riding.” “He’d be that upset?” ‘He hates Jews, says they’re lower than dogs.” “And you came anyhow?” “First, I decided not to. But then a black mood fell on me. Albreda noticed. She notices everything about me. She’s my caretaker and tutor and as wise as the pope. ‘What troubles my mistress?’ she says. . I tell her I want to play with you. She knows about Jews. She was raised in a convent that gave them shelter. She pinched her eyebrows together. ‘Always remember this,’ she said. ‘Always remember that Jews are not hounds, but the hounded.’ Hearing that was like permission to see you again. So here I am.” Just like I imagined, Lette and I explored dark paths, pick berries along the way, and when we saw a fox we thought was rabid, we tucked up our skirts and scrambled up a sprawling oak. There, straddling nooks in sturdy limbs near each other, we sang songs, sometimes making up words as we went along. And then I told her about Rivkah . And when I finished she surprised me again by saying, “I’m not used to having someone to talk to like this.” “I picture your manor crowded with people?” “Oh, yes, servants, dairy maids, peasants, clerks, apprentices, pages, squires. But I’m not supposed to bother them at work, or play with their children.” “There must be someone—a cousin, a brother.” “My brother Stephen—he’s a page in Essex; my other brother Gilbert, he’s a novice at Westminster Abbey; my mother , I lost my mother.” “My mother died, too.” “But yours is buried in the ground. Mine is buried in her chamber. Ever since her accident.” Lette looked off as if she was watching something in the distance. “My mother had a passion, her horse Spirit. And…and…it was on my tenth name day, and raining hard and mother rode anyway. She and Spirit jumped a fence, one they’d jumped many times before. But Spirit slipped and tripped and threw mother in the air. She landed on a craggy rock that ripped her face, scarred it and made it lopsided. Later, seeing herself in the looking glass, she gasped as if she’d just glimpsed hell. After that, she shut herself in her chamber. Rarely comes out. Sometimes I stand by her door listening for a sound. Nothing, except once in a while a gurgling and growling like the sounds you hear on All Hallow’s Day. I felt so sorry for Lette. At least my mother was really dead. I knew I’d never see her again. You can get used to that. But her mother wasn’t dead or alive. Elena and Gocelyn suddenly appeared. “By my faith, mistress, what are you doing in that tree?” Elena said, looking angry. . “Hiding from a mad fox.” “We saw nary a fox. Better come down in a hurry lest you miss dinner.” Lette scurried down the tree and left without a backward glance at me. Was she in trouble for being caught playing with me? Did they know who I was? Will they tell her father? I sighed, wondering if this was to be our last meeting. CHAPTER FOUR We hadn’t arranged see each other the following week, but I had a hunch and went into the forest anyhow. And there she was, seated on the stump of the oak, her eyes fixed on something high in a nearby oak. She pointed to a bird. “That wagtail’s building a nest with spider webs and small sticks. See how he’s rushing around. Must be time for birthing.” I didn’t know one bird from another. “How do you know its name?” I ask as I sat down next to her. “Vincent took me bird watching on Saturdays.” “Vincent?” “My betrothed.” She paused. “Killed in a battle in Wales last Christmas.” “Oh dear God, how awful.” “At first I was crushed, but now—and maybe I’m cold hearted—I’m wondering how long I have to wait until suitors call again.” She cocked her ear and a few moments later, two of the baron’s squires stopped their horses in front of us. “Are you alone?” one of them asked Lette. Strange question I thought when I was in plain view. Lette’s face colored. “Elena is gathering blueberries. She’ll be back any time.” The squires hesitated and took another look around before riding off. “We’ve got to find a different place to meet” She jumped up and waved to me to follow her. We hiked through gorse and brambles until we come to a place that truly seems secret, a small patch of clear land by the side of a narrow creek and surrounded by thick growth. We sat quietly, listening to the fresh splashing sounds of the creek trickling over rocks. After a while, Lette removed her wimple and shook her hair loose. It fell in soft waves below her shoulders. “Want me to braid it?” I hadn’t planned to say that; the words just tumbled out. She bobbed her head and her eyes grew soft so I know my offer meant something to her. . I closed my eyes and imagined I was plaiting Rivkah’s hair. I took my time to make the feeling last, but Lette said something that brought me back. “Wish all my days were like this.” Again I felt sorry for her. She sounded so sad. “Sometimes my life feels as gloomy as mother’s, especially on days I don’t ride. Here’s what it’s like. Mornings go fast with chapel and lessons and fittings. But afternoons drag on and on. Before mother’s accident, something was always going on—cooks making blood puddings and shaping pastry dough into animals and flower for a festivity--hawking or hunting party or revels with masques, dancers, singers, jesters, and puppeteers. Everyone came—neighboring barons, knights, squires, priests, stewards, and the women and girls draped in colorful gowns and jeweled wimples. But after mother shut herself away, father stopped all entertainment. None of our neighbors would have come anyhow after hearing that a witch lived in mother’s chamber. “So, here I am, dressed in my finery as if I’m going to a ball at the royal palace. And what do I do? I wander the empty grounds like a ghost. Few greet me. Few look me in the eyes. No one plays with me.” A small smile lifted the corners of her lips. “One day, at the edge of our grounds, I stop before a yew tree. It has a huge trunk with pitted and rugged bark, and its leafy green boughs pointing so high I can barely see the top make me think that tree is as old as the stars. Rachel, I swear it moved its furry arms toward me. I felt embraced, and without thinking, I poured out my heart, about being so alone.” “A tree? You talked to a tree?” “Trees have lives, you know. And if they’re alive, they must have hearts. And when I revealed my troubles to the yew tree, a song came into my heart. Now, do you think I’m crazy?” I shook my head. Didn’t I talk to the ghost of my sister? And for the same reason? “Well, maybe you’ll think so when I tell you about the girl behind the yew tree.” “A girl was listening?” “When I tired of talking to the tree, I had a vision of a girl peeking out at me from behind the tree. I told her things and I imagined her listening and I felt warm inside. And that day when I saw you through a shrub at the creek, I thought you were that girl. Now you must surely think I’ve lost my mind.” Ah, finally I understood why she thought she’d seen me before and why she confided in me so soon after we met. I tell her about how I had kept Rivkah alive inside me by talking to her and how Rivkah had a pink mole on her forehead just like hers. Lette’s lips curled into a smile again. “Let me be her and you be the girl who peeked at me from behind the tree.” At that she jumped up. “Better go. Father questioned me the last time I was gone so long.” In silence, we walked to the main path; and, in silence, we parted, knowing nothing on earth would keep us from meeting the following week. CHAPTER FIVE Walking home, I realized that my fears about seeing Lette were fading fast. How could our visits be harmful when they flt so good. We talked as if we’d known each other forever. Strange that when our lives were so different, we had so many things in common. Like our favorite foods--partridges and candied orange peel and goat cheese. And story telling. Lette had never heard the tales I learned at synagogue, nor I hers about Jesus and Mary and Joseph and doomed lovers like Héloise and Abèlard. Sometimes we confided our day dreams, a thing I never did with anyone but Rivkah. Picturing our next meeting, I did a little skipping dance. As I neared home, I saw Shimon leaning against the door of my house, waiting for me. I had to get used to him he’d changed so much lately, the unexpected dips and rises in his voice, and his shooting up and becoming all angles--his elbows, shoulder blades, even the sharp lines of his nose and chin. “You’ve been gone most of the day,” he said. An unexpected greeting, for usually he was too engrossed in his studies at synagogue to notice my comings and goings. “Been to Boike forest.” “By yourself?” I nodded. “Whatever for?” Should I tell him about Lette? He never associated with Gentiles other than traders and merchants. And he, along with others in our Quarter, scorned Gentiles as heathens and idolators. Still, he was soon to be my husband and I shouldn’t keep secrets from him. But what if he insisted I stop seeing her? “For ferns and alders.” He squinted as if he was trying to figure out what I was talking about. I told him about the letter the rabbi read to Elfid and me, and its instructions for wives to clear their husband’s bedchamber of fleas and flies with fern and alder leaves. “You see, Shimon, I want to be a good wife.” His face colored. “So you consider alder leaves more important than…?” He stopped. . “Than what?” “Than embarrassing me--my betrothed running around alone in the forest like a wild thing. What will the rabbi think? What will my brothers at synagogue say?” Suddenly the front door opened and Agnes poked her head out. “Your fathers are waiting for you in the office.” Good Lord, it slipped my mind. We were to draw up our marriage contract today. Shimon had forgotten too. The office smelled of ink and parchment, and the air was musty, for the one small window was seldom open. It was a cramped space with two writing tables at right angles from each other, four stools, and a brazier for heating. Wall shelves above the tables held wax tablets, stacks of folded parchment, quill pens, beakers of black ink, and two lock boxes for coins and pledges. Father and his partner Isaac were an odd-looking pair; father as big as a bear and nearly as hairy with a beard that fell to his waist, and Isaac, reedy and pale with a bald head, a wispy beard, and watery eyes. They were sitting cross-legged on the floor. Father held a quill pen in his hand and a wax tablet on his lap. I slid down in the space next to him and across from Shimon. Father snaped at me. “You’ve missed the chance to have your say. We’ve finished negotiations.” He read the terms of the ketuba from his tablet. Father was to give a town house for a dowry, and Isaac, a smaller house for a bride price. If Shimon divorced me or died, I was to have the dowry and bride price. But if I died during the first year of the marriage, father got the dowry or, if in the second year, half the dowry. I was ready to accept the terms. I had never really thought about finances and Shimon never mentioned them. “Seems fine,” I said. Shimon noddded agreement. Then, thinking the business was done, we stood ready to leave. Stay,” father barked at us. We sat down. Father’s shoulder was twitching which meant he had something unpleasant to say. ”Money, it takes a pile of money to fill the larder and pay tithes and taxes.” His head jerked back and forth between Shimon and me. When we both remained silent, he said, “the plan, the plan, what is your plan?” I flushed, for I had no answer. Shimon cleared his throat as if ready to say something, but instead of words, he turned pleading eyes on me. I looked away. If he was to be head of our house, he had to speak for himself. Father and Isaac both stared at him, waiting. Shimon sucked in and then blew out a long breath. “I trust God to guide me.” “Well, has he done so?” father asked sharply. “He has given me the gift of learning. Scholarship is my tree of life.” Isaac frowned, not at Shimon but at father. “Hayyim, you’ve heard Rabbi Mordecai and Cantor Jacob boast of Shimon’s great promise. He’s the star scholar.” I knew father was proud of Shimon’s scholarship. I’d heard him boast about it often enough. And father knows scholars don’t have time for a trade. But he persisted in asking--“the plan, the plan?” An idea came to me. “The rent from the houses in our marriage gifts.” Father snorted. “Maybe enough for your daily bread, but not for tithes and taxes and tallages.” “Then we’ll find another way. I just don’t know what it will be.” Father bunched his brows in thought, then said to Isaac, “She won’t be the first woman around here to take up our trade; a widow in Dinsford and another in Essex are money lenders.” Isaac looked puzzled. “Are you suggesting…?” “Rachel has a head for numbers,” father explained. I nearly swallowed my tongue. Father had always treated me like a nuisance, not someone worth training. If I wasn’t soon to be wed, I’d have sung out.     


Professional Reviews

Rachel, A Medieval Tale
I read the book in a single sitting, unable to put it down. Through the character Rachel it creates a rare window into Jewish life in medieval England, playing the usual images of knights and squires off against the very different reality of the rabidly antisemitic blood libels. I know of no other novel that takes the modern reader into the dilemmas of this world with such empathy let alone with such historical accuracy.
Lesley Hazleton, author "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," and "Mary: a flesh-and-blood biography of the virgin mother"



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