Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Flame in the Night: Chapter 1


~ 1~

London: September 2, 1189


            Hannah sighed, her heart heavy as she walked along.  It seemed months since they had set out from their little Northumberland home, and now they were at last nearing their destination.  Before her, the massive city of London was spread out against the river.  Its dark walls of stone and towering structures reminded her of a great beast, brooding and evil, slumbering in its lair.  She shook the thought from her mind, shivering suddenly as a chill breeze overtook them.
Carts laden with goods for the markets lumbered past them, eager to profit from the crowning-day crowds.  The creaking of wagon wheels and the braying of pack animals filled the air.  Dust rose up behind her wherever she scuffed her feet, already weary and wishing they were home instead of at the other end of the realm.  She still felt uneasy at the thought of actually reaching her destination, but it was a sensation that could not be explained in words.  It was a foreboding, an inexplicable awareness that something was not right.  Their experiences on the road had only heightened the growing feeling of dread within her spirit.
Ahead of her, her father walked quickly, with long strides so that she was almost forced to run to keep up.  He was a small man, quiet and meek by nature, with a gentle disposition that warmed most to those who stood in need.  He was a man who was born in the wrong age, into an arena of hatred and contempt.  And yet even amidst the fury of his neighbors, he truly believed that love and faith could change the world.
Turning, she smiled to her uncle Eleazer, who walked behind.  He grinned back amiably, his bearded face lighting up with joy.  He always seemed to have a smile on his face or a laugh in his voice.  In his hand he held the reins to a small brown mare that walked behind, its back bearing the coronation gifts they would present to the new king.
She glanced ahead again, her eyes wandering to the overcast sky, a bitter presage of the winter to come.  The chill wind continued to gust down from the north, and she leaned in, pulling her shawl tightly about the bundle of warmth in her arms.  As she began to move faster to keep up with her father, still hastening towards the gates of the city, the little child began to whimper.  She frowned, looking down to whisper to the boy before the small pleas increased into louder cries for attention.
“We must be quiet now, my brother,” she smiled, placing a kiss tenderly on his forehead.
He gazed up at her with eyes full of innocent wonder, delighting in being the center of her attention.  She smiled wistfully, looking down at little Samuel’s perfect face, so young and pure.  If only Mother could have remained with us to see what a wonder she brought into the world, she thought.  After a moment, though, Samuel adjusted once again to the gentle rocking of her stride, drifting off into a deep sleep.  She sighed.  It had been several hours since he had been fed a bit of porridge, and he would awaken hungry.  They really should have left him with Ruth, the wet nurse who had cared for him since their mother died in childbirth.  Her father, however, could not bear to be separated from his son for so long.  She was only grateful that he hadn’t grown too large to carry.
She smiled warmly, looking at her father’s back.  He was indeed a gentle father, strong and proud of his heritage as a Jew, despised though they were.  She could still remember his eyes as her mother had died, lying silent in her agony while the screams of the newborn Samuel filled the room almost two years before.  Her father’s eyes had been full of pain and sorrow, a fear so deep and so terrible that Hannah had been frightened herself, wondering whether she would lose him from grief as well.  And now, each time she looked into his serene face, she could see a remnant of that awful pain that remained hidden deep within him.
But the season of pain had passed slowly, and they had grown together and helped each other through the difficult months.  They were no strangers to death.  Hannah, now twenty years old, had once had a brother only three years younger than she was, but he had fallen to disease in his tenth year and died.  Though her father never spoke of him, Hannah still recalled him in her fondest thoughts.  They had been the closest of friends.
“Father,” she said at last, her own voice dragging her out of her melancholy reveries.  “Are you certain about coming here?  The man said…” her voice dropped away into the silent question that was etched on all of their minds.
He frowned slightly, turning back to look at his daughter.  Her lovely face was etched with worry.  “There is nothing to fear, Hannah,” he smiled, coming back to place his arm around her shoulder.  She smiled, sinking against him, enjoying the feeling of his protective strength over her.  “I’m certain it was just an idle rumor.  Why would the new king ban all the Jews from his coronation?  We are citizens, just as any other English men and women.  We will be perfectly safe.”
“Yes,” Eleazer chuckled from behind them, “after all, we bear gifts.  What king in his right mind would turn away anything of value?”  He laughed again.  “But we should be careful anyway.  London is a hive of every kind of evil: full of thieves, princes, and other men of the same bad character.”
Hannah’s lips twisted up in a wry smile at the jest, but her father turned back, serious.  “Be careful, my brother.  We may be citizens, but we are not the most beloved of Englishmen.  We should be cautious about what we say.”
Eleazer grinned again.  There was nothing he enjoyed more than making his younger brother uncomfortable and uptight.  “You worry too much, Joel.  Everything will be fine.  I don’t think they hate us, though,” he conjectured, pulling on his silver-streaked beard thoughtfully.  “I think what they hate is the debts we make them pay.”
“Well, whether they like us or not, we are the only reason the money in this country keeps flowing,” Joel replied, his eyes scanning the city ahead of them.
“What is it they call this new king?” Hannah asked, trying to remember the peculiar nickname.
“Coeur-de-Lion,” her father replied, “Lionheart.  I wonder if that is supposed to convey nobility or savagery.”
“With these Norman kings, probably both!” Eleazer laughed.  “I heard he cannot even speak Saxon English well, and he plans to leave as soon as he can!”
“Some king!” Joel harrumphed.
Hannah turned to Eleazer.  “Where would this Lionheart go so quickly?”
“From what I have heard, he never much cared for England.  He would have preferred ruling these realms from Aquitaine or Normandy.  But in any case, he will be leaving for a war in the Holy Land.  It is said that the blessed city, Jerusalem, has fallen to the enemies of the Christians once again.”
Joel shook his head.  “I find it amazing how these kings of Europe treat our people like nothing, and yet would go to die for the lands of our fathers.”
Eleazer pointed off to a small tavern off to the side of the road. “Let’s find something to eat in there before we go into the city,” he suggested.
Joel turned his course reluctantly in that direction, eyeing the building carefully.  It seemed to be a safe enough haven considering its peaceful atmosphere, despite its extreme need of repairs on the rotted door-timbers and moss-covered roof.  Most of the people entering the establishment appeared to be well-respected citizens, so they joined them and stepped inside.
The interior was not well-lit and smelled heavily of wood smoke.  Eleazer made his way over to the corner that was devoted to a small bakery.  Hannah and Joel stood behind him, uncertain if they should merely wait or try to find somewhere to sit down.  A large man with a round, reddish face regarded them questioningly from his position near the stone oven.
“What can I do for you?” he asked suspiciously.
“We’d like to purchase some bread.”
“Are you a usurer?” he asked suspiciously, looking at one of the coronation gifts that Joel still bore in his hands.
Eleazer smiled disarmingly.  “No, my friend, I’m not.”
“Then what are you?”
“I’m a rabbi,” he said, carefully watching the man’s reaction.  Hannah groaned, knowing full well what would happen.
The man’s eyes widened as his lips curled downward into a hard frown.  “We don’t cook for Jews here,” he said brusquely, motioning two large men with a flick of his hands.  They stood up immediately and began attempting to strongarm Joel and Eleazer back toward the door.
“Gentlemen, please!” Joel protested, smoothing his robes as they released him.  We’re quite capable of finding our own way out.”
The exited the establishment quickly, Eleazer’s cheeks flushed with emotion.  “I can’t believe that!” he growled, shaking his fist at the closed door.
Hannah and her father exchanged knowing looks, but Eleazer was not quite finished with his tirade yet.  Spreading his arms wide, he shouted at the people quietly traversing the road.  “We are citizens!”
“Calm down,” Joel said with a wry grin.  “We can just eat some of the waybread we packed.”
“I’m sick of waybread,” he said.
Hannah shook her head, giving his arm a playful punch.  “And why did you think it would be any different here?  I could have predicted what would happen.  It’s always the same.  They can tell who we are.”
Eleazer cocked a wry smile.  “I think it’s the nose. It’s just too Jewish to fool anybody.”
Hannah laughed, switching Samuel to her other arm.  He had remained remarkably quiet in the tavern, but he was starting to grow restless.
Joel had been rummaging around in the mare’s saddle-pack and handed them each as small loaf of brown flatbread.  “Eat this and be quiet, Eleazer.  We should continue on.  We don’t want to be late.”
“No, of course not,” he grumbled, winking at Hannah. 
They continued on, watching the forests thin out into fields as they approached the final slope toward the Thames.  The city was sprawled out over the riverbanks, embracing the wide currents.  It was the largest city Hannah had ever seen, and it took her breath away, but more with fear than with wonder.  At the sight of that vast metropolis, the feeling of terror stirred once again within her, and she longed to be able to turn and run away from that place forever.
She shook her head as if to will away the frightening thoughts, concentrating on the walls of the city as they neared the gates and passed within.  It was not a beautiful place, she quickly decided.  It streets, crowded with men from all over England, reeked with filth and sweat and many even more unpleasant odors.  She had to sidestep mounds of excrement that had been left lying in the street by some of the livestock being herded there.  Samuel was still silent, his little eyes closed in the peace of slumber.  His mouth worked in tiny motions as he dreamt, escaping the world outside.  Her long black hair fell in cascades about her shoulders as they walked, hiding her bowed face from the dim light of the day.
“Filthy usurers,” someone spat at them as they walked by.
Tears sprang involuntarily into the corners of her eyes.  It was not easy to live with the hatred of nearly everyone she saw.  It was not so bad at their little home in Newcastle, but in the streets of London she could feel the malignant enmity of hundreds staring down at her.  Even the buildings seemed to frown at them as they passed by.  It was the aura of death she felt, the somber, callused indifference of a land that had seen too much of war.  The walls of wood and stone around them were blackened with age, and half the city seemed as though it was ready to fall apart.
She sighed, longing to be back home.  How wonderful it was there: to be able to sit upon the banks of the Tyne and watch the sun rise, and to know that it would set again that night.  She could watch the stars come out at night there, lying alone in an open field without fear for her safety.  It was a place of peace and security, even for a Jew, and it was her home.  Oh, how she wished she could be transported instantly from that wretched city back to their little house!  She cared nothing for all these kings and princes, and even less for the city of filth she was walking through.
After what seemed like hours of pushing their way through enormous crowds of people, down crowded streets and over ancient bridges, she heard Eleazer clear his throat.  He spoke in a hushed whisper, breaking her away from her thoughts.  “There it is: Westminster.”
Joel sighed, gazing over the vast throng assembled before the structure.  Bodies packed every step of the way to the entrance, all eyes gazing at the coronation procession that was slowly filing inside.  “It looks awfully crowded.  The king must already be there.  We may have to wait awhile before we can present our gifts to him.”
They walked for a little while, until they came to the edge of the barrier of bodies that ringed the abbey.  She could smell the sweat of the men packed close around her, their necks craned to watch the proceedings.  Standing on her tiptoes, Hannah too strained to catch a glimpse inside.  Then, certain that she could see nothing of interest to her, she leaned back against Eleazer’s horse, waiting for whatever they had come to see, for she wasn’t exactly sure what a coronation ceremony entailed.  Samuel’s thin brown hair was ruffled in the breeze, so she gently smoothed it back in place, watching his peaceful countenance while they waited.
It seemed like hours they waited there, surrounded by a sea of onlookers.  Every so often she would glance back up at the sun, astonished that it was still high in its celestial arc.  In the distance, there could be seen a thin line of men going in and out of the abbey, presenting their gifts to the newly-crowned monarch.  And then, all at once, a hush fell over the crowd as everyone listened to one voice that was swept up by the wind.  It was a terrible shout, indiscernible save for the feelings of utter rage and pain it carried.  It was a howl, a death-cry that shook the air with the very resonance of something evil.  She looked up, surprised as shouts began to echo throughout the crowd.  The wall of bodies began to surge, almost frantically, as they tried to make out what was happening.
Eleazer peered into the distance toward the abbey, trying to discern what had caused the commotion.  Before they could react, though, they heard a terrible cry go up, then another, and another: wails of death.  And with those cries, they could feel an impenetrable gloom fall over the city, as if the sun had suddenly vanished behind a dark cloud.  In that moment, Hannah’s ears heard the sound she would never forget: the quick flow of whispers, moving like waves throughout the crowd, hoarse and frantic.  She heard it on the lips of the Saxon and Norman nobles standing nearby, their brows furrowed in thought.  One of them turned around to his neighbor and whispered the words that Hannah would remember forever.  The king has declared that the Jews be slain!
Joel quickly turned and embraced her, holding the toddler gently between them.  “Don’t worry,” he whispered into her ear.  “They don’t know we’re Jews.”
She nodded, feeling the hard pounding of his heart, matched by her own, filling her veins with a terrible fear.  Her eyes snapped up, terrified, as a mournful scream echoed out over the Thames.  She looked toward the source of the cry, her eyes filled with terror as four young men swung knobbed clubs down on an older Jew of noble bearing.  He stood for a long time, unmoving and silent as the weapons rained blows on him.  Blood dribbled from his face, mixing with tears and falling to the ground.  With a sigh he fell, and Hannah averted her gaze. 
In that instant, after seeing a man slain for nothing more than race, she could feel in her soul an outcry, a rage against the massacre.  Heaven was weeping for the fallen as it watched them, destroying what they could not understand, ripping from the world the precious lives of its children.  Nothing could compare to the torment of soul that gripped Hannah as she felt those celestial tears raining down on her.  They were blind to their sin, killing with the indescribable treason of claiming to serve God.
Eleazer came up beside them, his eyes clear and full of focused determination.  Seeing him brought Hannah one fleeting instant of comfort amidst the agony of the day.  “Come on.  We had better try to move away.  Slowly.”
“Here,” Joel said, guiding Hannah by the shoulder, “let me carry Samuel for a while.”
She handed the sleeping boy into her father’s arms as they began to walk out of the crowd, which was now surging.  Some were running down the streets, yelling and hacking everything in sight as the riot swung out of controllable proportions.  Just as it seemed they might escape into the streets unnoticed, a shout came up just behind them.  “Hey!” a throaty voice resounded over the yard, “those three!  They’re usurers!  Jews!”
She screamed, feeling a pair of strong hands wrap around her waist.  “Father!” she cried out, weeping, but he had already begun racing down the streets, bringing the child to safety, and her cry was drowned in the furious clamor of the mob.
Tears streamed down her face.  She would die there, just like the old man she had seen beaten down.  She would never see her beloved home again, would not get to see Samuel grow up.  And her father—he would be crushed by the loss.  He had seen too much of death already.
She wept, shaking her head slowly as the grip tightened, moving, feeling her for any valuables she might possess.  She felt the arms begin to turn her, and she was twisted around to face the leering, unshaven face of a young Saxon.
“Well now!” he laughed, running a hand over her cheek.  She drew back in revulsion, shaking him away.  “Should I keep this one?” he called to the mob, holding tight to her waist, “or should I just kill her?”
Shouts rang out, engulfing the street with opinions of both persuasions.
He nodded, taking one hand off her to draw out his sword.  She tried to shake off the grip, but was too weak to do so.  The blade, already bloodied from the wounds of some other unfortunate Jew, was held back, ready to strike.  She closed her eyes, trying not to imagine what it would feel like to have cold steel rip into her flesh.  But, suddenly, she felt the grip behind her strengthen as the youth pulled her brutally up, pressing her against his chest.  She felt his mouth press hard against hers, and she wanted to scream.  Trying to pull away from the savage kiss, she still could not; he was too strong for her.
But in that moment, she opened her eyes and saw a blur flash out from the side.  A thick oaken staff slammed against the head of her assailant, throwing him to the ground.  She turned to face her savior and saw the grim countenance of Eleazer, already dragging her back away from the crowd.  She ran, stumblingly, as fast as she could go.
Eleazer ran beside her until they reached the place he had tethered the horse.  The expensive gifts had been stripped off its back, giving them room to ride.  “Hurry,” he urged, helping her up.  “This will be faster.”
She felt him mount behind her, and they raced off, through the streets already full of the cries of destruction.  A thousand horrible scenes rushed through her mind, and she heard the death-wail of England’s Jews as they rode.  The savage shouts and screams filled the air, and for a moment she wondered if they weren’t really riding through the deepest pits of Hell. 
Her mind returned to the scene at the abbey.  Turning, she looked at Eleazer’s tear-stained face.  “Where’s Father?”
“I don’t know,” he replied grimly, his voice edged with steel.  “We don’t have time to look for him now, though.  We have to get out of this city.”  She turned back, not wanting to look into his eyes again.  They were full of pain, and something she had never seen there before—fear.  All the smiles were gone; all the laughter had been buried in the same mass grave as the Jews of London.
She nodded after a moment, wiping the tears away from her eyes as the wind whipped her face.  They were nearly at the gate when they saw ahead of them a group of horsemen, riding about with drawn swords, their faces full of hate.  Eleazer slowed with a sigh, and turned the horse as quickly as he could, riding off down another street towards the river.  “Do you know another way out?” she asked, looking back at him.
He nodded.  “There are many roads.  Maybe we can find one.”
As they raced down street after street, Hannah’s mind returned to the carnage at Westminster once again, and she felt the sobs welling up within her. Glancing quickly down a street they had just passed, she choked a strangled cry and snatched the reins from Eleazer’s hands.  Her world had just turned upside down.
“No, Hannah!” he cried, but she did not listen.  Riding a short distance down the street, she stopped at the form she had seen, alone, slumped over in the narrow way.
Weeping through her quick gasps of terrified breath, she dismounted and rushed over to the motionless form of a man.  Beside him, Samuel knelt, tears pouring down his little face.  He was shaking his father as if trying to wake him, weeping all the while.  “Da…da…da!”
Shaking her head in terrified disbelief, she turned the body over to see the peaceful countenance of her father.  His simple gray tunic was torn and his face was battered.  His eyes were swollen shut against the torment of the world.  Those gentle eyes, so full of love, had been closed by one hateful fist. 
“No,” she gasped, falling down onto the dusty street.  Tears poured down her face.  “No, no, this can’t be,” she cried loudly, frantic with terror.  The thought flashed briefly through her mind that it was all some horrible nightmare, but it was driven away by the terror of it all.  “How could they?” she gasped.  “He was…he was just an old man.  Why…?”  She could feel her entire world falling slowly apart, spinning desperately out of control.
Eleazer shook his head sadly, holding her shoulders in a firm grasp.  “Come, Hannah.  Get Samuel.  We must get out of here now.  They will not hesitate to kill us, either.”
She did not respond, so he pulled her to her feet and placed the screaming toddler in her arms, leading her back over to the horse.  With a gentle push, he helped her back onto the horse, then mounted behind her.  As they rode away, her eyes remained fixed on the body of her fallen father, lying alone and despised in the narrow street.
She buried her face into the soft cloth around her brother’s crying body, not even wishing to look around at the carnage.  It was the same everywhere, she knew: Jews were dying, their lifeblood spilled out on the paving-stones of that ancient city.  Perhaps it would be better if she died as well.  In the distance, she could hear the loud crackling of a massive fire.  The lives of the Jews were not enough, even their homes had to be burned, until nothing but the shadows of their memory remained.  Screams echoed through the streets and over the river, mixed with the shouts of the raging mob.
Soon enough, she felt the horse slow down and Eleazer dismounted.  Glancing around, she saw to her dismay that they were still in the city, near the burning houses that she had heard being set aflame.  They had not escaped.  It was time to meet their graves. 
She could hear nothing but the crackling of the timbers being consumed by the insatiable blaze.  Eleazer shook his head slowly.  “There’s no way out, Hannah,” he said, choking back tears as he fought to see through the acrid smoke.  “We must find somewhere to hide.  Perhaps they will not look for any more Jews in here.  They will think all of us have died.”
She nodded dully, the events having disintegrated into a jumbled haze, completely apart from reality.  She knew what folly it could be to rush inside a burning city, but she did not protest.  It was better to die by fire than by the hateful hands of her father’s murderers.  She dismounted slowly, holding Samuel close to her as she walked towards the burning buildings, Eleazer following close behind with the horse.
She walked straight and proud, the daughter of the chosen race of God, knowing that she walked to her death. She could hear the crackling flames of the fires as they consumed the city, but she paid no heed.  It had all become meaningless to her, a mirage better ignored than watched.  She walked carefully, the burning timbers around her flooding the little street with waves of heat.  After a few minutes of walking, they came to the end of the little street, and were surrounded on two sides by the burning houses.  Before her, the road turned into a little dirt path leading down to the edge of the slow-moving waters.
“Come on,” her uncle urged, forcing her back up onto the lathering mare.  Just as he was about to mount behind her, though, she heard a cry go up.  Turning, she saw a group of several men rush out of the flickering shadows just as he managed to scramble up behind her.  She saw their swords glinting crimson in the firelight, saw the evil intent flashing from their eyes.  The horse rose up, rearing in fright, and casting Eleazer to the ground.  “Go, Hannah!” he cried.  “Go on!”
Without thinking, she complied, pulling the reins around and dashing down the street.  Behind her, the homes of the Jews rose up in a bloody flame, consuming London with the hatred of a thousand men.

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