Shmuel rarely missed Ruben’s secret midnight meetings, the rituals held in hidden chapels and open fields, beside the graves of rabbis and Sufi sheiks and Christian saints. One night, when rumors of a new Christian offensive were rife, Ruben and his followers secretly entered the Cathedral. Wearing the vestments of Catholic clergy, with Ruben as Bishop and his followers representing the subaltern orders, they summoned the demon Samael and his assistant Ammon No by performing the holy sacrifice of the mass. Once these demons were present, Ruben recited a long incantation:
–By virtue of the Great Name of forty-two letters, I adjure you even against your will to have not the power to fly or do anything or make any further accusation against the Israelite nation than you have done until now. I bind you and adjure you that you will have no more power to accuse Israel for all time. Rather, from this is day forward you will defend the Israelite nation.
Ruben was careful not to make the same mistake Rabbi Joseph della Reina had when using this incantation, and yield to the pleading of the now captive demons for a whiff of incense. Instead he commanded them to enter a special flask he had brought with him for this purpose, and which he kept in a secret place. Shmuel asked to see it once. It smelled to him rather like ammonia, mostly likely from aged and distilled urine.
For Shmuel, however, the Kabbalah was not primarily about secret rituals which attempted by what amounted to magical means to defeat and harness the demonic forces which had taken over this world. It was, rather, the vision of the Shekinah, the feminine face of God, which he say in Miriam which drew him and held him and nurtured his soul enough to keep him from becoming suicidal.
Shmuel was very much consumed with these questions when, in the second week of January, the news came. Qarnata had finally fallen. Shmuel thought little of it. The terms of the capitulation included, as his father promised they would, guarantees for the property rights and religious liberties of the Jews and Muslims.
–Just you wait, in a month or two everything will be back to normal. I will even be able to re-open my shop in Qarnata!
Ruben, on the other hand, kicked his plans into high gear. He knew that Shmuel would not even consider ‘aliyah, so he approached him with another task.
—Friend, I have a job for you. Those who stay behind will be in great peril, and while I condemn their sin —your sin— of faithlessness, you are all still part of the people of Israel, and you must be protected, as must this land, until mosiach comes to liberate it. And we must protect the righteous gentiles who dwell here, few though they may be. This will be your task.
Shmuel was unclear what Ruben had in mind. Shmuel was an odd choice to lead an underground resistance.
—You must prepare for me the Philosopher’s Stone.
—The Philosopher’s Stone? I am honored, but I am very far from that point. Great scholars have worked for millennia …
—No matter. You have shared with me your ideas before. They seem sound. And I expect results.
Then Ruben was off, no doubt to give equally ridiculous orders to another of his minions.
But Shmuel did, in fact, have ideas as to how the stone might be confected. Or he had, that was, ideas on how to complete what was called the “Lesser Work.” And since all of his teachers had cancelled their meetings until the political situation clarified itself, he now had several weeks when he might pursue his efforts uninterrupted.
The “Lesser Work” was the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone from vegetable matter. The “Greater Work” was the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone from mineral matter. Why the vegetable stone, as it was called, was “lesser” was not clear to him. Plants, after all, represented a higher grade of being than minerals. An animal stone would be higher still and, he imagined, a rational stone, forged from the transformation of the human psyche, the highest of all: the stone of true wisdom. Perhaps that is what true mystics achieved through their contemplative practice. But plants were cheaper than minerals and easier to work with than animals, so he was starting there.
The idea was simple enough. All material substances were formed by the influence of the heavenly bodies, which conveyed their qualities to the underlying stratum of prime matter, the womb out of which all things emerge. The sun made things hot and the moon made things moist. The other heavenly bodies exercised more subtle, but nonetheless important influences as well –the herbs and spices, as it were, in the cosmic stew. These influences were embodied in particular substances –mineral and plant and animal, which captured, as it were, the principle of a particular planet. These substances could then be refined to make that planetary principle more effective. This was the significance of the various stones and elixirs which philosophers and cabalists alike prepared. It was also possible, simply by harnessing planetary influences or reproducing them in the laboratory to transform any one substance into any other.
Now ordinarily, when one prepared a plant stone what one did was to first extract the essential oils from an herb by maceration and distillation, and then incinerate and calcine the herb, dissolve the salts in water, decant the water from the feces (as the insoluble part of the ash was called) and then evaporate the water and infuse the resulting crystals with the essential oil. Bits of the stone could then be dissolved in distilled spirits or in red or white wine and ingested to confer on the alchemist or his patients the qualities of the planet which ruled the herb from which the stone had been made. If one wished to obtain martial qualities, one used a Martian herb or spice such as allspice or basil or cumin. If one desired the capacity to rule, then one used a solar plant such as rosemary or cinnamon. Mercurial herbs such as fennel or lavender cultivated analytic and interpretive acuity, while Jovian plants such as sage and nutmeg conferred wisdom. He and Mariam always partook of a bit of the Apricot stone they had made together when they met outside the city walls. Apricot was a venereal herb and was known to support in the formation of harmonious partnerships, though it was, perhaps, the more immediate effects they enjoyed the most.
The Philosopher’s Stone, however, presented a special challenge. It was, in effect, the substance out of which the Empyrean Heaven was said to be constructed, and thus strictly speaking outside of space and time. It was for this reason that it was said to confer incorruptibility on those who possessed it. Shmuel rather doubted this. The attractive power of God did not make us incorruptible, but rather catalyzed growth and development. Growth, he understood, required change and change was always a sort of death. The stone he hoped to produce would not put an end to this change; it would accelerate it, bringing us ever closer to God.
The difficulty was that there was no herb which was ruled by the Empyrean heaven. Shmuel had read, however, in a manuscript of Dante’s Paradiso given him by a traveling friar in return for some wool cloth and a piece of his sage stone, that the divine power was divided, as it were, when it passed through the heaven of the fixed stars. Before this, in the Empyrean and Crystalline heavens, it was single and undivided. That power must, he reasoned, be simply a synthesis of all the particular powers of the planetary spheres. All he needed to do was to recombine them. And so for three years he had tested the power of various herbs to see which best represented its planetary ruler. His Philosopher’s Stone would simply be a synthesis of the stones of all these herbs. In order to communicate the influence of the fixed stars and of the crystalline heavens he would recite over it the prayers the cabalists had taught him to invoke the sephiroth of hokhmah and keter, which ruled these heavens, and then, at just the right moment, he would invoke the power of da’ath, the hidden sephirah, which he believed held the key to transformation . . .
With Miriam’s help he had convinced the priest of a small chapel outside the city along the road to Acomo to let him use the crypt beneath the chapel as a secret laboratory. The priest came from a morisco family, and thus had ties to the Muslim community. Miriam had cured his mother of a malignant tumor and he now believed himself forever beholden to her. The place was perfect. Once a synagogue and later a mosque, the Church was built in the midst of an old stone circle and surrounded by a beautiful, if overgrown, herb garden along with grape arbors and orange, lemon, and pomegranate trees. A blue dome, representing the heavens, sat above a perfect cube oriented towards the four cardinal directions, representing matter. The crypt itself held the bones of both some of the most renowned rebbes in Sicily, including not a few reputed to be among the tzadikim, as well as those of great Sufi sheiks and more recently, local Christian saints. And best of all it was hidden. One entered the crypt by turning the altar, which was located in the center of the church, on its axis …
For months Shmuel studied the motions of the heavenly bodies. Using an astrolabe, he had purchased from a retired ship’s captain from Genova, he searched for a day when all of the planets would be at their strongest. At long last everything was ready. The heavens themselves seemed to be on his side. Ever so carefully he measured out the herbs into their flasks and covered them with pure grape spirits. He then set them out on the floor of his laboratory, their positions mirroring those of their planetary rulers, with himself in the center, and began praying.
When he emerged three days later, it was to a different world. Approaching the city he noticed that something was very, very wrong. There were more soldiers than usual patrolling the gates and they seemed rougher. Everywhere people were gathered in small groups, arguing. Shmuel ran from group to group pleading with them to tell him what had happened, but they just stared at him dumbly.
–Are you the only man in Palermo who doesn’t know?
It was Ruben, finally, who told him. He was rushing through the center of the city towards the Jewish quarter, not sure whether to go first to his own house or to Miriam’s stall in the market. Just as he dodged left towards the market, he ran headlong into Ruben, who grasped him by the shoulders and said –so gleefully that it took Shmuel a minute to understand the actual character of the news– that the decree which he had long predicted had come at last: all Jews and Muslims within the Kingdom were to accept the Holy Catholic Faith by the 31 of July, or else leave. Those who refused, and who continued to practice their old religions, would be brought before the Holy Office of the Inquisition. And it appeared, his father’s hopes and expectations to the contrary, that the decree would be enforced in Sicily as well as in the rest of the dominions of Fernando and Isabella. ‘Aliyah was now the only road forward.
Or so Ruben thought. In the weeks that followed most of the “comfortable” merchants like Miriam’s father yielded. The decree, they said, would be enforced loosely if at all, and in time things would settle down, just like they always had in the past. But this time they were wrong. Those who accepted baptism were invited to feasts at which the favored meat was pork. New Christians, rich and poor alike, received “gifts” of pork fat from their neighbors on Friday nights. And those who refused found themselves visited by Inquisitors. By mid-June the majority of the Jews and many of the Muslims were, in fact, planning to depart. But they had set their sights not on Jerusalem but on Salonika, Nicopolis, and Adrianople, which, they were told, were good places for the wool trade.
For those who stayed, still worse awaited, as the draconian decree was enforced and the complex, multicolored fabric of the Convivencia unraveled.