The Harem Midwife
Village of Kas CIRCASSIAN MOUNTAINS OTTOMAN EMPIRE 1578
ONE SPRING MORNING as the sun dappled the rocks with golden light, drying the dew from the night before, making the world look as scrubbed and as fleecy as a cloud, Leah made a blunder that was to lead to her death. It was a small thing—a matter of no consequence. She failed to hear the terrified bleat of her favorite black lamb and the answering cry of its mother. A lamb in distress is always a sign of danger, but Leah was squatting on the hillside, singing an old lullaby in Judeo-Tat, the language of the mountain Jews.
As she sang, she stroked the milky blue quartz that dangled from a lanyard around her neck. The pendant, her nazar boncugu, offered protection for both Jews and Muslims against the evil eye. Because she believed she was alone on the mountain, she sang with gusto.
There were wolves in the hills. Higher up, beyond the point where even scrubby pines grew, were the goat-hair tents of the Yürüks, so dark in the distance they looked like raptors, the tent poles like talons ready to swoop down on prey. The Yürüks were nomads; their ancestors had invaded these mountains centuries earlier, thundering down the steppes of Mongolia on their heavy-rumped stallions, leaving in their wake destruction and death. Leah had never ventured high into the mountains to the tents of the Yürüks, nor did she want to. Her world was her mother, father, brothers, grandmother, and, of course, Eliezer, the handsome boy to whom she was betrothed. Kas, her village, huddled at the base of the Circassian Mountains, was no more than a handful of crude houses clinging to the side of the scorched hill, a half day’s hard ride from the Yürük tents.
Herding was her older brother’s job, but he was ill with fever, so the chore of driving the sheep to the summer pastures now fell to Leah. It was not a task for a girl. Look what had happened to her older sister, a girl so beautiful that their father used to joke that a path of wild roses sprang up behind her as she walked. Rivka must have shouted for help. There were only rocks and wind-bent trees to hear her. But Leah,
with her nazar, a gift from her grandmother, felt she had nothing to fear.
Kagali, the family’s herding dog, had wandered off to rest in the shade of the pines and was tonguing his yellow fur as the flies buzzed around him. Two vultures, limp as shrouds, glided on a current of air. Leah’s flock had long ago cropped the meadows bare of the wild sage and garlic. Now just patches of grass remained.
Leah bent down, picked up a pebble, blew off the dirt, and tucked it inside her cheek. The stone would keep her from feeling parched. Her goat’s bladder hung empty at her side, long since drained of water. There was no well nearby, only in Kas. A brook lined with flat rocks ran through Kas. It was where the women washed clothes. Tonight when she returned, Leah would be greeted by the smell of her mother’s stew and the sound of her father teaching her brothers to read.
Leah paused her singing to take a breath and at last she heard the black lamb’s pleas. She hiked up her kaftan, tying it around her waist to free her legs. She took up her brother’s crook, which lay beside her. As she stood and listened, the lamb’s bleating grew weaker.
Leah raced up the ancient path, which had been beaten like welt in the ground by centuries of footsteps. There had been no rain for three winters. The earth had split into fissures, each one an open mouth, greedy for water. The lamb’s bleating seemed to be coming from a crevice at the top of the hillside.
When her chest began to heave from the upward climb,
she spit out the pebble, afraid she would choke. She thrust two fingers into her mouth and gave a long, piercing whistle. She waited for Kagali to amble into sight. He was as big as a ram and so savage he was kept chained at home when small children were nearby. His collar, embedded with sharp iron spikes, was crusted with the blood of wolves foolhardy enough to attack the flock.
Leah reached the crevice and crouched at the edge, peering down and listening, the ewe beside her. She knew the lamb’s shrill, tremulous cry, so like that of a newborn infant. She had pulled this winter lamb by his tiny hooves out of his mother’s belly many days ago when the moon was still full. It was her favorite—a black lamb with one blue eye and one black. Squinting into the crevice, she saw that he was struggling to free a hind leg that was jammed between two rocks. The ewe stood helpless beside Leah, her front hooves working the stony ground, sending a shower of pebbles down onto her lamb’s withers.
Suddenly, the dry perimeter gave way, causing the ewe to lose her balance. She twisted as she fell into the gully and landed with a thud on top of a boulder. Even from above, Leah could see thistles had torn a ragged slash on the poor ewe’s udder, scoring her from belly to teat. When Leah returned home that evening with the flock, her mother would pack the wound with flowers from yellow coltsfoot and dress it with mosses. She would heal it by reciting a passage from the Torah, blowing forty-one times over the gash.
Each year after the spring thaw, Leah’s father daubed the ram’s chest with a mixture of fat and soot from the cooking pots. In this way, he could tell which of the ewes the ram had serviced. The ram’s sooty mark was still on this ewe’s back, a black smudge where he had mounted her.
Leah fell to all fours and peered down at the ewe and her lamb, heedless of the rocks cutting into her knees and palms. If she lost both ewe and lamb, her father would scold her. And rightly so. She should not have been singing songs. She should have been paying attention to the flock.
She inched her way down into the gully using her hands to brace herself along the sides, unleashing an avalanche of rocks. The heat in the crevice intensified the smell of the lamb, still milky from its mother’s teat. The dust and the buzz of insects in the narrow space made Leah dizzy. Her face was sweaty and coated with a dusting of grit. Eventually, she reached the bottom.
Stuck between the two boulders, the lamb was unable to move. It was only then that Leah noticed his foreleg, the bone protruding, white as an ivory backgammon tile. As she was reaching for the lamb, she heard the sound of cascading pebbles and looked up. She expected to see Kagali’s yellow eyes peering over the edge of the crevice. But she saw only the vultures circling high in the air.
Leah shoved and pushed at the boulders until the lamb’s leg was free. The ewe was crying frantically. She straddled the lamb and grasped her delicate foreleg. Quickly, she
maneuvered the bone back into place. She tore off the hem of her kaftan and used this strap of material to bind the lamb’s leg. Then, with the bleating lamb tucked under one arm, she began her awkward ascent. The lamb struggled and twisted out of her arms as she toppled it over the edge. Leah hauled herself out of the crevice after it. She paused to catch her breath. Now she would have to return for the ewe.
She glanced around. Where was the rest of the flock? And then, a few paces away she noticed a heap of yellow fur—Kagali, splayed under a clump of wild grass. His tongue hung from his mouth; his eyes were open and fixed. His flews had fallen away from his teeth, which made him look as though he were snarling. The dog seemed to be staring at something just beyond her shoulder. “Kagali?” Leah drew closer to him. Why didn’t he spring up to greet her? She put her hand on his snout. As she leaned forward, she noticed that the dog’s throat had been slit cleanly and with such force it had nearly severed his head.
For a moment she froze, refusing to believe what she saw. Kagali’s fur was matted with blood from the red, gaping wound in his neck. Had it not been for Leah’s hesitation, this moment of stunned paralysis as she worked out the obvious—that no wolf could have inflicted such a wound—she might have escaped.
When she looked up, she saw a man in dun-colored hides—a man with legs as thick as the ridgepole of her
father’s house. A man so big he blotted out the sun. By his high cheekbones and his flat black eyes, which stared at her expressionless as stones, she knew he was a Yürük. The bones of a large animal strung around his neck rattled in time to his panting. Leah would not think of her sister. Her mouth opened to scream.
“Be quiet, or I’ll slit your throat too.”
He towered over her, his knife hanging at his side still wet from Kagali’s blood. A man without a proper headdress, just a filthy cloth tied around his head. Broken sandals on feet so black Leah could barely see where his sandals ended and his feet began. A man covered in scars. A man who reeked of goat cheese and yogurt. Whose beard glistened with grease. Who looked as though he had been smothered in mud and dirt, stung by insects, ripped by thorns, scarred by the hooves of trampling horses, and had survived it all.
“Who are you?” he demanded in a voice that seemed to come from the low clouds above her head. He spoke a coarse dialect she could barely comprehend.
“Do not kill me,” Leah said.
“Who are you!” he roared.
“Leah, daughter of Avram, the shepherd.”
She repeated her words.
“Where do you live?”
“Kas.” Too far away for her father or brothers to hear her screams. “I am only a child.” It was a lie. She was fourteen,
but skinny for her age. He seized her by the chin, looking into her eyes. “Your father cares nothing for you or he would not send you into the mountains alone.”
Leah avoided his gaze, looking instead at his camel-hide tunic, which moved of its own accord. It took her a moment to realize that waves of lice made it seem alive. A few paces away, the man’s horse nickered. Nothing was real—not the man nor the horse. All was a dream, like seeing the world through the wings of a moth.
“My brother tends the flock, but he is with fever.”
The man grunted. His fingers clamped harder on her. A reckless anger took hold of her. Knowing the words were foolish before they were out of her mouth, she said, “You killed Kagali. You should not have done that.”
“Brave, for a girl.”
The man grabbed her by the waist and turned her upside down, shaking her as though emptying a sack. The heel of yesterday’s bread fell out of her kaftan and bounced on the rocks. Kagali’s corpse was so close to her face she could smell his blood.
He tossed her to the ground. She lay there, the air knocked out of her. Several paces away, she heard the bleat of the black lamb. She watched the man pick up the bread from the ground and cram it into his mouth, gnawing and sucking it. Leah fumbled her nazar from under her kaftan, rubbing it back and forth between her fingers, trying to calm herself with the
smoothness of the stone and the tracery of veins in its depths.
When the man hunkered down hunting for bread crumbs, she tucked the nazar under her kaftan and scrambled to her feet, thankful she had worn her old sandals and not the new ones her father had made for her that flopped because the straps were too long. If only the earth would open up and conceal her. If only she could crawl back into the crevice and disappear. She steadied herself against a large rock, took a gulp of air. She used to be the best runner in her village, faster even than the boys.
Behind her, she heard the Yürük run to his horse and heave himself into the saddle. She raced downhill toward Kas. Her father, uncles, and brothers would sever this savage’s head from his shoulders just as he had severed Kagali’s.
A hundred paces into her sprint, a stone gave way under her foot and she lurched and fell and skidded, grit filling her nostrils and mouth.
The Yürük was off his horse and on her in a flash, seizing her by the waist. He drew his fist back and struck her above her ear. Her head jerked sideways from the force of the blow. The sun exploded in her head. Grabbing her hair, he forced her head back, exposing her throat. She thrashed and bit his hand, grinding it between her teeth, but it was no use. As he heaved her over his shoulder, the matted fur of his hides cut off her air. He clambered over the dry rocks toward his horse,
carrying her with little effort as she tried to kick the part of him where his legs joined. He growled something in his guttural tongue that she could not make out.
Just as a wolf drags fresh kill to the lair for its pups, he would carry her in fetid hides to other tribesmen. They would use her, and when they had taken turns they would kill her with no more thought than she would have given to wringing a chicken’s neck. Crying, she bounced upside down against his back, her head thumping against his goatskin bag. In front of her appeared the legs of his stallion, strips of dried meat hanging from the saddle. As the Yürük heaved her from his shoulder and over the pommel onto his horse, her lanyard broke and her nazar fell and caught in one of the strips. Leah reached down and grabbed the stone before it shattered under the horse’s hooves. The man threw his leg over the saddle, picked up his reins, and spun the horse around in the direction of Kas.
With each stride, the pommel dug deep into Leah’s tender belly. Blood rushed to her head, banging in rhythm to the horse’s gallop. She grew dizzy. And then the light dimmed and faded. When she regained consciousness, she was flat on the ground, stones poking her back, her kaftan rucked up around her waist. Above her spread the sky and clouds. The sun was setting. She did not know how long she had been lying on the ground. Her ear throbbed. She put a hand to her head and felt a knob the size of a winter apple.
The Yürük stood, his feet planted on either side of her, a
grin exposing toothless gums. She kicked and twisted. In his rage, he seized a rock next to her. He raised it over his head, about to smash it into her face. He hesitated. Leah began to pray. God, if it pleases you, let this savage kill me quickly. Better to die than to be dishonored.
Leah thought of her family. If she was murdered, who would tend the sheep when her brother was ill? Who would spoon mutton soup into her grandmother’s mouth? Who would help her mother bake bread? Who would play backgammon with her father? And what would become of her betrothed? Who would bear his sons? Did not the Torah say that destiny favors those who are resourceful and brave? She pivoted to one side, squirming out from between the Yürük’s feet. She scrambled on all fours and then regained her balance and ran, stumbling, as fast as she could. The sun was over her right shoulder, so Kas had to be straight downhill. She raced to an outcrop of rock where she would be able to see her village in the valley. She stared down, thinking she was in the wrong spot. These blackened houses below, with smoke rising from crossbeams, could not be Kas. But there were the familiar houses arranged in a semicircle around a well, her family’s house nearest to the stand of pines with the donkey tethered in front. The door hung by one hinge; the roof was on fire. Among the ruins, Yürüks rummaged, heaping booty into a mound—carpets, rounds of hard cheese, kilims, quilts, sheepskins, and cooking pots. Women and children ran in all directions. In the midst of the chaos was her grandmother
standing stock-still next to their house, as though in a daze.
Leah ran faster than she had ever run before, falling and getting up, again and again, all too aware of the Yürük who had mounted his horse and was pounding behind her. As she approached her village, she saw her grandmother carrying Leah’s baby brother in her arms. She had nearly reached them when there was a sharp crack, like the snap of a bullwhip. Her grandmother was too hard of hearing to look up. A burning timber from a neighbor’s house crashed upon her and the baby, crushing them so swiftly they had no time to cry out.
Leah wanted to drag the timber off them, kiss her grandmother’s lined face, take her baby brother in her arms and bury him in the hills in a grave with a pyramid of stones on top, but there was no time. She had to find her father. Where was he? He had always protected them. Why had he allowed this to happen? Leah heard shouting and yelling. She turned in the direction it was coming from. In the field beyond the houses, a mob of horses and Yürük horsemen charged after something, bending double in their saddles to seize an object on the mud-packed ground. A rider snatched up the object and hoisted it level with his horse’s withers. As he was about to heave it over his saddle, the rider next to him wrestled it from him and sped away.
The nomads were amusing themselves with buzkashi, a game played with the headless carcass of a goat. They had reveled in this sport for as long as anyone could remember. But something was not right. Leah tried to identify the oddly
familiar object the men were fighting over. She strained to see. Dear God. She refused to believe what her eyes told her. It was the body of a man, the legs cut off. Wound around his neck was a scarf of blue wool that Leah had knitted.
It was her father’s body, bruised and lifeless, covered in mud and horse excrement. One horseman gained possession of his limbless body, dragging it to a pile of stones on the side of the field, and with a triumphant cheer that seemed to tear a hole in the sky, he claimed victory. The game was won.
Leah had no time to fall to the ground and be sick. No time to bury her head in her hands and weep for the father who had fed her plov and borekas de handrajo from his plate, and had given her his blanket on winter nights when the wind whistled through the chinks of their dwelling.
Hear me, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. She’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
A shadow fell over her. The Yürük had caught up. He seized her, pinning her arms to her sides. If she did not manage to wriggle free, he would hurl her to the ground. When he was through, his seed still trickling down her thighs, another man would take his place, and another and another.
Have mercy on your daughter Leah. Steady me in your arms to keep me upright. Send the wind to my back so that I may run swiftly. Pour your strength into me, so that I do not falter. If you shield me from these savages, my voice will grow hoarse, so loudly will I praise your Name.