“The Muslim girl tried to kill herself, Eschiva,” the sister was explaining. “Your mother doesn’t want you to see all the blood.”
“I’m not afraid of blood,” Eschiva assured the sister solemnly, looking at her with wide eyes. “I wanted to talk to the girl. She’s my age, isn’t she? I thought maybe I could help her. What’s her name?”
“Her name is Yaqub,” the sister answered cautiously, with a glance at Richildis, but the latter had lost the energy to resist. The sister continued in a low voice, speaking French so Yaqub could not understand what was being said. “Today she received news that her uncle would not welcome her into his home. Her father and elder brother were killed, trying to protect her and her mother. Her mother and little brother have disappeared, possibly still slaves, but her mother’s brother survived. Unfortunately, he refuses to take her into his home because she is “debased.” He says he will never be able to find a husband for a “used” woman and will have enough trouble feeding his own family without a worthless extra mouth to feed. He said her survival disgraced the whole family. A “decent woman,” he said, would not want to live but would instead kill herself after sexual relations with five different men.”
Richildis drew her breath sharply and snapped, “Do you really think it is appropriate to say all this to a twelve-year-old?”
“Eschiva needs to know about the world in which she lives, madame, and she asked to help. How can she if she does not know the problem? Now, Eschiva, do you still want to talk to Yaqub?”
“Yes, I do,” Eschiva insisted bravely.
Richildis shrugged to indicate she’d given up trying to control the situation.
The sister took Eschiva’s hand and led her deeper into the room. This was a large, long chamber built over the grain storage as accommodation for low-born guests and travelers. The ceiling was quite low, and the windows small, overlooking only the courtyard as the exterior wall was part of the defensive perimeter. There were no beds, just straw pallets on which visitors spread their own blankets. All the rescued children had been lodged here when they were first brought to Ibelin, but most of the children had been claimed by relatives. Only two remained, Yaqub and a boy of seven, who had come screaming to the sisters with the news that Yaqub was “doing something terrible.”
Yaqub lay on blood-soaked linens with her face turned toward the wall. The sister guided Eschiva to her side, and switched to Arabic, “Yaqub, you have a visitor. She’s going to sit with you while we change the sheets. Please, get up.”
Yaqub immediately did as she was told. She rolled off the pallet and got to her feet, but she did not look at Eschiva, she kept her eyes fixed on the floor, her neck bent so much her chin nearly touched her chest. She stood with her hands in front of her, the white of the clean bandages a sharp contrast to the dark and bloody gown she wore. Eschiva went around and offered her hand. “My name is Eschiva,” she said in Arabic.
“May Allah’s blessings be upon you,” Yaqub answered in a whisper, without touching the offered hand.
Eschiva wasn’t sure how to respond, so she decided to ignore it. “I’m twelve. How old are you?”
“Thirteen,” Yaqub mumbled.
“Come, let’s sit over here.” Eschiva went to the stone bench that lined the wall, sat down, and patted the space beside her. Yaqub sat down six inches away and folded her hands in her lap. She stared down at the bandages through which a little blood was seeping.
“I’m very sorry about what happened to your family, Yaqub,” Eschiva assured her gravely.
Yaqub nodded and mouthed more than whispered, “Thank you.” But when Eschiva tried to put her arm over her shoulders, she shook her head and pulled away. “I’m unclean!”
“That doesn’t matter,” Eschiva assured her. “I can wash—”
“No! I mean—I mean—I’m not like you anymore. I’m not a maid.” The last word was almost inaudible, lost in a hiccup.
Eschiva didn’t know what to say at first but finally decided on, “That’s alright. I don’t mind.”
Yaqub shook her head violently.
The door opened, and Sister Adela, the most senior of the Hospitaller sisters at Ibelin, entered. “What’s this about Yaqub trying to kill herself?” She asked her subordinates, who hastily explained the situation and pointed to the girls sitting together.
Sister Adela crossed to the girls and sat down on Yaqub’s other side. She reached out and took one of Yaqub’s hands in hers. At first, she just sat silently holding her hand, but at length, she said, “Yaqub, I think you know that Allah frowns on people who take their own lives.”
Yaqub bent forward even more as she nodded miserably.
“He does not like us throwing away something He has given us.”
Yaqub folded in two. She clasped hands between her knees, her elbows on her thighs, and she held her head bent down as far as possible, her shoulders curling inwards.
“Since you know that, I want you to tell me why you tried to put an end to your life even though it would displease Allah.”
“But you already know,” Yaqub mumbled into her lap miserably.
“Is it because you don’t know what will become of you? Are you afraid of starving? Or of having to make your living as a prostitute?”
Yaqub shook her head so vigorously that she had to lift it a little. “No, no! I could never do that! Never!”
“No.” Sister Adela agreed. “You would never do that. So, you wanted to kill yourself rather than face the future?”
“I want to show my uncle that I am a decent woman!” Yaqub lashed out, for the first time showing a flash of anger.
Sister Adela smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. “Well said, Yaqub. You are indeed a decent woman—even if you went about trying to demonstrate it the wrong way. Yaqub, look at me.”
The girl tried to look sidelong at Sister Adela without sitting up, so the sister bent forward herself to look her in the eye. “You are a decent woman, Yaqub. You have committed neither a crime nor a sin.” Her words made Yaqub’s eyes widen with disbelief.
“May I tell you a story?” Sister Adela asked.
“Before you were born, not far from here, a married woman was caught in the bed of a neighbor. It wasn’t at all like you. She was not dragged out of her house, and she was not set upon by soldiers. No one used force on her. She went willingly to this other man and committed the great sin of adultery.”
Yaqub frowned fiercely and spat out contemptuously, “then she was a terrible, filthy woman.” Her indignation made her sit up a little straighter.
“Yes, quite so. So, the villagers dragged her out of the bed of this man and into the street where they started stoning her, as is the custom.”
Yaqub nodded in agreement, now sitting upright.
“But before they killed her, a man came along, and he walked between the villagers and the woman who was already half-dead on the street. He ordered the villages to stop stoning the woman.”
“Why?” Yaqub asked irately. “What right had he to interfere?”
“Well, he was a man who had studied the teachings of the Lord very closely and knew the law very well. He told the villagers they had no right to stone the woman unless they had never, ever committed a sin themselves. And do you know what happened?”
Yaqub shook her head.
“One by one, they put down the stones they were about to throw and slinked off into the alleys and back to their houses until not one person was left.”
Disbelief filled Yaqub’s eyes and a little frown settled between her brows. “Why would they do that?” Then she had a thought and suggested in a timid voice, “He must have been a very powerful lord, someone people were afraid of.”
Sister Adela smiled gently. “Yes, quite so. Now, when the others had all gone away, the lord went to the woman, and he helped her to her feet and gave her a cloak to wear. He was very kind to her even though she had done wrong, unlike you.”
“But why? Why would a great lord be kind to an adulteress? Did he want her for his concubine?”
“No, Yaqub. He wanted her to become an honest woman again.”
“Are you sure?” Yaqub sounded skeptical, but her shoulders were no longer hunched, and her neck no longer bent.
“Yes, very sure. You see, he is my master.”
“Yes, I am his slave, Yaqub, and I know that he would be even more kind to you, who did no wrong, than to that woman who had willfully sinned. I know,” she forestalled Yaqub’s question, “because I already told him about what happened to you.”
Yaqub’s eyes grew very large as she drew a deep breath. “You told a great lord about me? But why?”
“Because I’m very worried about you—”
“But why tell your master?” Yaqub was agitated and displeased by this thought. “Why would he be interested in someone like me?”
“Because he is interested in everything that happens in his homeland, Yaqub, and he has said, ‘what happens to the very least of my servants happens also to me.’”
Yaqub shook her head emphatically. “A man cannot understand what happened to me.”
“Most men can’t, I agree with you, but my lord did,” Sister Adela insisted. “He felt your pain so intensely that he wept for you and begged me to look after you and take you into my care in his great household.”
“He did?” A trace of hope could be heard in these two words.
“Yes, he did, so you see you have nothing to worry about. You will stay in my care and keeping as long as you need. You will not have to walk the streets and beg for a living. You will not go hungry or cold. Most important, Yaqub, I will keep you safe in the house of my lord.”
“But, but—won’t he—claim his rights from me, if I am his slave now too?”
Sister Adela shook her head, torn between tears and laughter. “No, Yaqub, my lord will never ever lay a hand on you.” Yaqub looked as if she wanted to believe Sister Adela but did not quite dare to do so.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish