These were difficult days for Shmuel and for Miriam, as they struggled to envision what the future might look like for them. On the one hand, their fathers, who had previously opposed their relationship, as a marriage between a Christian, especially a converso, and a Muslim, was out of the question, now found themselves actively encouraging the couple, as Miriam’s father had quickly submitted to the decree and had his wife and seven daughters baptized with him. Where previously they lived for secret trysts outside the city walls, on the Trapani road, now their families were inseparable, constantly feasting together on the pork their Christian neighbors gave them as gifts, and asking the couple if they were ready to tie the knot.
—It will be a great alliance, said Shmuel’s father. My textile business joined to Ali’s spice empire? We will be unstoppable.
Shmuel, for his part, refused to have any part of this. He despised his father and everything the man stood for and even if he understood the prohibition on eating pork to be symbolic, he could not risk losing his credibility in the Jewish community, with which he had cast his lot. Miriam, on the other hand, was very close to her parents and especially to her sisters. And while her hatred for Christendom was, if anything, more profound than Shmuel’s, she had no problem with taqiya, or religious dissimulation, and had told Shmuel more than once that her family was already practicing it, as their original tradition was not Sunni and Maliki like the Sicilian Muslims they emulated, but rather Nizari.
The result was their first real argument.
—This may be our only chance to be together openly, she said to Shmuel. Imagine what we can accomplish together if we are freed from the need to hide our relationship?
—That is fine for you to say. You are woman and will never have a public life. But my goal is to become a public teacher. I can’t engage in dissimulation.
—Are you certain that you are just not trying to punish your father? she responded.
—Are you sure that you are really the independent thinker you claim to be, and not your father’s puppet? he countered. You are mired in a tradition which once produced brave warriors for justice, but which now teaches you to hide who you are and what you believe!
Miriam was enraged. They were sitting in the garden outside the blue domed church where Shmuel had located his laboratory.
—Do you have any idea what is about to happen here? Our world —the world in which you hoped to be a public teacher who could march into a disputation in any school, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim and rant about wanting to be God— that world is coming to an end. Whatever we do —and I am still convinced that there is much we can and must do— will be done secretly, in the shadows. It is not what either of us would choose, but it is the world we have been given.
Miriam took his hands and looked deep into his eyes. He saw the wisdom of what she was saying and wanted desperately to yield, but his rage overcame him.
—I don’t know you any more, he said, pulling away.
—Nor I you, said Miriam, turning to leave. You are no better than that idiot Ruben who imagines that a flask of stinking piss is going to convince the Ottomans to let him restore Zion.
—I thought you supported my alchemical research?
—That is different. It is science. Ruben is an ass. But at least he is planning to leave this place. You won’t last a day teaching publicly once the decree is in effect.
—And so you are just going to be some merchant’s wife!
At this she slapped him across the face and fled.
—Leave and we are done! he shouted after her.
But she continued on her way.
Shmuel was instantly contrite. And Miriam regretted what she had done as well. She knew that what she was asking was not easy for someone who had made the choices Shmuel had made, renouncing his father’s conversion and making teshuvah. And Shmuel had, after all, had at least the formal possibility of a public life, something which was not open to her as a woman and which she would not, therefore, be sacrificing. But she stood by her conviction that marriage was the right course, and wanted to make sure that her point was well made.
For three days in a row Shmuel waited below her balcony for her to appear after sunset, and for two nights he waited in vain. During the day he sent letter after letter begging forgiveness —though not, in fact, promising anything substantive. Then, finally, on the third day one of the family’s servants appeared with a note which said only “Tomorrow.”
Shmuel knew what it meant. The next day he waited in the garden above the crypt that held his laboratory. Miriam appeared at sunset. The air was crisp and cool and the trees a beautiful gold beneath the indigo sky, with the final light of the day oozing like honey through the nooks and crannies of the garden.
She caught him by surprise. He was sitting, crying, with his head in his hands. She stood above him and put her hands on his shoulders. He looked up and saw her smile gently, and he fell to his knees.
—I am so sorry, he said.
—I am too. We both said things that we shouldn’t have. It is a difficult choice.
—I don’t want to lose you. I want to be with you more than anything in the world. But I am not ready to lose myself …
He could see that this troubled her.
—And yet, she said, that is the path that we all must follow. Every time we grow we die and are born again. And the road ends in the total loss which is death, through which we must pass if we are become more than human.
He looked at her, wondering at her wisdom. Then she kissed him on the forehead and said:
—There is still some time. Just promise me that whatever happens you will not leave me and that you will listen and let me try to persuade you.
—Of course he said.
Then she took his hands and they looked into each other’s eyes. So wise, so forgiving, he thought. So brilliant, she thought, but still so young. Shmuel felt a pleasure rising in him which was so intense that he did not know how entering her could give greater pleasure. And she felt him as well, filling her with his intensity, an intensity greater than all others. And they each understood, in a way neither had before, what she had meant when she said that in the end we must all lose ourselves.
Neither of them remembered parting. Shmuel awoke alone in the garden. It was well past midnight, but the blue dome of the church and the golden leaves and the remaining flowers of autumn all glowed with life. It was the first day of the second month of his eighteenth year —the last of the Old World.