Really Long Author's Note With Various Explanations
Tubal makes references to "new banks" in this chapter. These are the Medici family banks that were beginning to open in big cities around Europe at the time of this story. The Medici banks (run by Christians) didn't charge interest as Jewish moneylenders did; instead, they made a profit by transferring money between their branches and benefiting from the exchange rates. This is a highly simplified explanation, of course, and more details can easily be found online if you're interested.
The quotes in this chapter are from Act I, Scene III of Merchant of Venice.
I may have made mistakes in the Hebrew spelling and/or translation. I welcome feedback.
A wonderful journal on Dreamwidth called The Anachronistic Venetian Chef provided my information on Shylock's cooking. Many thanks go to allvenicechannel for writing it.
Also, I didn't make up the practice of throwing perfumed eggs at ladies during Carnival. I think the Council of Ten banned it at one point, but that seems like a pretty hard thing to enforce.
Chapter 8: Shabbat
The footsteps, I have discovered, are the worst part.
For my first few days here, I tried to spend as much time hidden away as I could. It was the sensible thing to do — Shylock and I were far less likely to fight that way. Ignazio has left me alone, apparently picking up on my fear of being shut in a room with any one person. Shylock, however, bursts in at regular intervals and threatens me with death unless I go to the kitchen and eat something. I hated that until I discovered it was easier than sitting up there by myself.
The first day, it was agony, hearing footfalls I could not identify. Because that was how it began, all this — lying awake, hearing steps on my stairs, and not understanding where they came from until two strange men forced their way inside and dragged me out to face the mob. The footsteps of my housemates are identifiable now — Ignazio skips and talks to himself, Shylock stomps around and slams doors — but they still nearly drive me mad at night. And any strange person — the doctor, the priest, the messenger, or Ignazio's betrothed — leaves footsteps that have me shuddering in fear.
Terror is bad enough on its own, but I never knew how being constantly frightened and in pain leaves one exhausted. Every time I try to think about what I must do next — I cannot stay in Shylock's house forever — even moving my body seems like too much. The obvious solution is to leave Venice and sojourn to some other city, but between my barely healed injuries and the wreck fear seems to have made of my mind, I can hardly imagine undertaking such a venture.
Shylock seems distracted at the moment, which may buy me some time. If Ignazio's chatter at breakfast is accurate, his friend (or at least former colleague; 'tis difficult to imagine Shylock having friends) is attending supper here today. Shylock is in the kitchen at the moment, preparing food. His cooking skills are extremely annoying. They make me actually want to eat.
I despise him, as I have cause to do, and he despises me, as, I can just admit, he has cause to do. We have barely let up fighting and insulting each other since I came through his door, and yet, for all that, he has not hurt me. Not because he's afraid; I saw in his face yesterday that he was ready to strike me, and yet resisted. And I hate this the most.
The last thing I want is pity, from Shylock or anyone else. I think of beggars in the street and the pigeons clustered on the steps, all dependent for their food on how generous the better off are feeling that day. What they have can be taken away at any moment, and I do not know how they handle the suspense.
I had been ready to die, last Friday night. For all my life, I have taken care to appear upstanding, but I sinned in thought and deed with Bassanio, and others before him, and sinned most of all in that I could never truly repent for it. I loved my friend; I could not cast that love away even if it went against God's law. When God punished me for my deeds by turning Bassanio away from me and delivering me into the hands of the mob, what more was left for which to live?
I was ready to die, and then came Shylock — maddening, bloodthirsty, bitter Shylock — who flatly refused to go along with my suicidal notions. I tried to starve and he made me eat. I walked out of his house and he dragged me back. I talked about cutting my wrists and he hid the knives. I tried to provoke him into hurting me and he promised he would not.
Now, having been kept alive against my will so long, I realize that I want to live. I want to believe that what happened is not my fault, not the just reward for a lifetime of sin. But Shylock is as cursed as I am. How can I believe his words?
"Signor Antonio? Are you asleep?"
I am not, of course. I have never been a heavy sleeper, and now I startle awake at the smallest noise. 'Tis easy to hear Ignazio coming, and I emerge from under my blanket to blink at him. "Didst thou need me for something?"
"No. But Master Shylock says if you do not eat he'll scald you over the fire. He will not do it, but 'twill be less trouble if you pretend you are at least a bit afraid." Ignazio tilts his head to one side. "You do know he will not hurt you?"
"Well, he has not so far." I use the wall as a support to hoist myself up. "I suppose that counts for something."
"Master Shylock says you need our help." Ignazio folds his arms, his customary smile gone. "I know not why he hated you before, and I care not. I would have helped you, had he meant you ill. But if aught of harm comes to him through what he has done for you—"
"It will not," I cut in, before realizing I can hardly keep that promise.
Ignazio glances at the door. "I care about Master Shylock," he says quietly. "I may be naught but a servant, but if you mean to hurt him, I'll declare you to the city."
"I have no plans to—" I begin, then break off. I endanger everyone in this house by my very existence here.
Shylock's servant goes on. "If anyone comes looking for you, do not dare to tell them Master Shylock held you here against your will, or had any part in the injuries you bear."
"Would I do such a thing?"
Ignazio shrugs. "How should I know? We are hardly acquainted." He goes to the door, and I find the sudden return of his smile more bizarre than its disappearance. "But the food downstairs is really good, and there are portions left for us. I do hope you will not be so silly as to waste it." He vanishes, and I hear him skipping down the stairs.
Would I do such a thing? How could Ignazio even ask that? I was not so spiteful, so hateful. I had never meant to hurt anyone in my life. Had I?
I have meant to do good, and have sown pain instead. I may very well have ruined the marriage of the man I love most, and the woman who saved my life. So perhaps Ignazio is right to be concerned. If I can do that to people I care about, what could I do to Shylock?
What have I already done?
I did not hate him, not like he thinks I did. Hatred is for equals. I certainly despised him for being a Jew, but I never put much energy into it. Until my bond was forfeit, Shylock was never anything but a means to an end, an afterthought, and it never occurred to me that he would care about being stepped on or spit on anymore than a cobblestone in the street could care. So when he turned from the carefully neutral moneylender into a snarling, raging would-be murderer, it was a shocking aberration, no warning given beforehand. Or so it seemed.
The night before the trial, I sat in a cell prepared to face death, and had no idea why I was about to be killed. All I could think was that Shylock wanted revenge for my lending out money without interest. It seemed an deplorable reason, the reason of a man who valued coin above all else. After all, had not his main complaint, when his daughter married, been more about the ducats he had lost than about her flight? But now I have nothing to do but think, I cannot help but remember that one of the few times Shylock had honestly told me his grievances, there had been no mention made of money at all.
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine...You, who did void your rheum upon my beard, and foot me as you spurn a stranger cur over your threshold...
But it was not enough. It could never be enough to justify murder. It had to be coin, or the unnatural desire of the Jew to kill Christ's people. So I had called him names, spit on him, tripped him once or twice. I would never kill someone for that alone.
You spat upon me Wednesday last, you spurned me such a day, another time you called me dog...
I never took the trouble to remember all that. I never thought it was important. But I would wager Shylock did. I would wager he remembered every casual insult, every friend I had warned away, every time I had watched someone kick him and laughed. Shylock had always had his share of tormentors, and even his debtors mocked him, for they knew they could come to me to be relieved.
Shylock's rage seems a shocking aberration when one thinks of him as a cobblestone. When one thinks of him as a person, it begins to seem inevitable.
There's no point to these thoughts, I decide, they merely disturb me. It would be best to take Ignazio's advice and eat something. I rarely need the support of the wall to get me to my feet now, except when plagued with a bout of dizziness, and that reassures me somewhat. The stairs still seem perilous, but I manage well enough. I can smell the food now (I should scorn Shylock for cooking himself when he can afford to hire a servant, but I simply cannot bring myself to do it — especially since Ignazio has assured me his own cooking is deplorable).
I enter the kitchen, where Ignazio is moving towards the side door.
"Do not mind me. I am just going to feed the songbirds. Master Shylock neglects them terribly."
He vanishes outside as I go to investigate the plate of fish on the stone counter. 'Tis coated with onion sauce and almonds and currents, with various spices, and I find it as good as Ignazio has said, though a part of me wishes I was truly forced to eat stale bread and so would not have to acknowledge that Shylock has treated me well.
Food finished, I discover I dislike the idea of hiding back in the upstairs room. Fear or no fear, the time passes slowly there. But neither do I wish to associate with Ignazio. His unabashed friendliness reminds me of Gratiano, and 'tis best if I do not think of any of my old friends. If I do leave Venice, I doubt I'll see them again. As these thoughts are worse than loneliness, I leave the kitchen and climb the stairs.
Passing the closed door to the dining room, I hesitate. I can just hear murmurs of conversation from where I am. If I draw closer, I might be able to hear what they say. Eavesdropping is wrong, I know, but my curiosity is more than capable of overcoming that barrier. What does Shylock talk about with his colleague, especially when that colleague is a Jew? 'Tis hardly likely, but there's still that part of me that believes I'll hear them speaking of blasphemous ceremonies involving Christian blood.
Were they to come towards the door, I could hear them easily, and pretend to be only passing by. As quietly as I can, I kneel down and press my ear to the crack in the door.
"—really find it so vital to distract yourself?"
"Yes, actually." That's Shylock's voice. "Besides, cooking and cleaning saves money."
"You hardly need to save money."
"I do now."
The colleague — I think I heard his name was Tubal — is silent for a moment. "It must be difficult, to be unable to practice your trade."
Shylock laughs, a sound that shocks me, for I have never heard it sound so sincere. "Truly? I hated lending money."
Truly? He did?
"'Tis a relief to hear someone say so!" Tubal joins in the laughter. "I still do. Everyone despises you."
"When people could not pay back what they promised, they blamed us."
"And now they look at these new banks for the merchants, that do not charge interest, and ask why we cannot do the same."
"They forget that some people cannot open a bank in every city."
"Oh, well." Tubal sighs. "'Tis hard to bear the debtors ill will anyway. They may hate us, but they have problems of their own. I certainly do not envy anyone who borrowed money from you."
"True enough. I suppose you are the better man." Shylock pauses. "You learned to be patient with those who did not deserve it. I just learned how to stay angry for years."
"I am not sure I deserve that compliment."
"Well, I deserve the criticism, at least," Shylock says dryly. "'Tis hardly done the world any good for me to be so hateful, even if the world all but asked for it."
Tubal chuckles. "You still are one for frankness, even about yourself. I had almost forgotten."
"So had I. We used to have a good time, did we not?"
"Remember how we threw perfumed eggs at Leah and Esther?"
"I do, of course." Shylock laughs again. "Leah told me later how delighted she was I had noticed her."
A woman had wanted Shylock's attention?
"I do not think Esther ever forgave me for that, much as I pined for her." Tubal's voice mocks an old sadness.
"I told you to forget her and marry Naomi, like your father wanted you to, that you'd be happier with her anyway," Shylock says smugly.
"There's no need to gloat, even if you were right. And Esther married Benjamin."
"Oh, Benjamin. The pranks he used to play on us. We had to drench him with canal water once in retribution, remember?"
Who is this man and what has he done with Shylock?
"Of course I remember. They are all merry, his family. My son wishes to wed his daughter."
"Which son — David?"
"He's rather young, is he not?"
"Yes, and so is she. We shall have to wait and see. I think he has weddings in his head after my daughter married a few months ago." Tubal pauses. "I would have asked you to attend, but I heard you had fallen ill and could not leave your house."
Shylock snorts. "Ill from self-neglect. It was my own fault. Besides, I would have had no wish to poison your happiness with jealousy."
"I am truly sorry about Jessica. I wish I could have done more to help you find her."
"I just wish..." Shylock's voice trails off.
"What do you wish?" Tubal asks curiously.
"She married a Christian and I hate that. If she had asked permission, I would have forbidden her. But had I known that she would just run away...Tubal, I had a daughter one day, and the next, she was gone. I would rather have consented than had no part in her marriage at all."
Shylock goes on, his voice heavy. "I was terrified for her. Still am, some days. I do not know if this Lorenzo treats her well. She would not be the first girl to have some man, Jewish or Christian, entrap her with pretty words and abandon her."
"Shylock, do not think of such things. He did not—"
"Is he going to leave her anything when he dies? Does he hit her? Does he look for love with other women? I could have found out, but she never asked!"
"What was Jessica's marriage? Some strange priest in a strange church, sprinkling water and saying words over her? A marriage without one friend present, without her own house to go to afterwards, without a contract or a proper dowry? I may not have been able to give her much love, but I could have seen to it she had those things at least! But I never got the chance."
Tubal's voice is quiet. "I am sorry."
Shylock laughs again, but this time 'tis bitter. "I have thought of sending her some of her mother's things, but then I remembered she took Leah's ring and traded it for a monkey. I expect she does not want Jewish things in her Christian household."
"About that ring..." Tubal suddenly sounds awkward.
"What about it?"
"I, uh, I have it for you."
"When I spoke with the creditors about Signor Antonio's financial troubles, one of them showed it to me. At least, I think that was the one. It was a turquoise, was it not?"
"I thought so. I bought it back for you, and I was going to give it to you that day on the Rialto, when I brought you news of your daughter. But then, well, you were half-shouting to everyone on the street that you cared more about the money you had lost than about Jessica..."
Shylock groans. "I had forgotten that."
"...and then it sounded as if you were going to rip Signor Antonio's heart out. Which you almost did."
"I give Jews a terrible name, do I not?"
"Well, yes. I think you could tell I was angry, when we met in the market."
"Oh, I remember."
"But Naomi talked me around. She told me to come tonight, and I am glad I did. Even if you still are the most sarcastic person I have ever met." There is a rustle of cloth on cloth. "Here is the ring."
For a moment, they are so quiet I am afraid they will hear me breathing outside the door. Then Shylock simply says, "Thank you."
Tubal clears his throat. "Speaking of..."
"Speaking of what?" Tubal says something I cannot hear. "Oh, yes, he's alive. You do not have to be so quiet, no one outside will hear us. The doctor took care of him, and he seems to be recovering."
"So he's still here?"
They are speaking of me, I realize, and prepare myself to hear nothing good.
Shylock's voice is exasperated. "Yes, he's still here. We do nothing but fight."
"I am not surprised."
"No, of course not. I could fight with a pot of water for not boiling. And he's afraid of everything just now, so of course he lashes out."
"What will happen to him?"
"I do not know. I suppose I could—" Shylock stops. "He needs help," he says abruptly. "He's terrified, because he has no safe place. I almost wish I could give him that, for the time he needed it...but he would not accept it from me."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." Shylock's tone suggests that the subject is closed, and he and Tubal turn to other matters. I creep away from the door and into the room where I have been sleeping.
The bewilderment that has been gnawing at my mind since I came to this house threatens to overwhelm me now. I cannot reconcile what I just learned — what I have been learning all week — with the image I hold of Shylock, the image of a man who would have cut out my heart. He's not the kind of man to have friends and jest with them, to tease or court a woman, to admit he made mistakes. He's not the kind of man whose servants defend him, who resists hitting his enemy, who opens his door to an injured stranger. And yet, he has done all these things.
In my life, I have caused pain. I have tempted Bassanio into sinful ways, and those ways may have cost him his wife's love. I have tormented Shylock when he has not deserved it as well as when he has. But I devoutly hope I have done good as well. I have given money and employment to those who need it; I have been a good friend to Gratiano and Lorenzo and others. That does not alone make me a good man, just as the pain I have caused does not alone make me an evil man. I am neither, in truth. I am just human.
It shames me now to realize I made these excuses for myself, but could not make them for Shylock. But I could no more see the man behind the myth of the Jew than he could have greeted my taunts with equanimity. I thought myself so far above him, but we are only two people struggling to do the right thing with the evidence we see.
Now I have new evidence. But I am still not sure what the right thing is.
I have no reason whatsoever to be hunting for candles to light this Friday night. If anything, I am more angry at whatever God exists than I was at the beginning of the week. After all, it was supposedly His laws that left a broken wreck on my doorstep. The harshness of Antonio's pain had sent him far beyond that place where he could derive any good lesson from it. The only point of it was revenge, and if God was so much like me, he hardly deserved to be worshipped.
Earlier, though, I polished the silver candlesticks. I sought out wine and the goblets I had not yet broken. I cleared a table and spread a cloth on it. The reason for this I know not, for I have no one with whom to celebrate Shabbat. Even if I did, it would not be a proper service without challah, which I have had no time to make.
But somehow none of that seems to matter. What I long for is rest, and Shabbat promises that. What I long for is guidance, though I hardly want it from the image of God I've built up in my head.
I reach for a match and strike it. I remember Leah lighting these very candles, her face softly glowing. The flame I hold catches the wick and burns. These words have power, she told me once. Even if at first you're mouthing them for convenience's sake, if you say them often enough, you begin to believe.
Unfortunately, 'tis not songs of praise I have mouthed to myself over the years. 'Tis prayers for revenge, unholy prayers, and I cared not if they reached God or Satan as long as I got what I wanted. And Leah was right. I did begin to believe them.
Words hurt. Misbeliever, cutthroat dog, sodomite, sinner. I needed songs of praise to stand up against them. As the ritual requires, I cover my eyes with my hands.
"Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu, melech ha'olam, asher kid'shanu be'mitz'votav v'tzivanu l'had'lik neir shel Shabbat."
"What does that mean?"
I whip around to see Antonio standing in the doorway, dropping my hands from my face. Curse it all, how was I supposed to know he had left his room? He'd been up there almost all week. "What are you doing here?"
Antonio shrank back. "I'll just, ah, go away then."
"Back to that hole you've been hiding in since you got here? I think not. Go talk to Ignazio. Make it so I don't have to."
"I do not want to talk to Ignazio." Antonio folds his arms. "He reminds me of my friends."
There's not much I can say to that, but I expect something more is going on. "You fear to be alone with him."
Antonio slumps. "Yes."
"To be alone with any man."
"Well." I look at the candles. "That's hardly surprising, given what has happened. And yet you are alone with me now."
"If you want to hurt me I cannot stop it," Antonio mumbles.
"A good philosophy," I say sarcastically. "It will get you far in life."
"Must you always force the truth?" Antonio demands. "I spend my days up there unable to forget even a second of what that gang did to me. I would rather hear you recite that heathen tongue."
"'Tis Hebrew," I snap, shuddering inwardly at the thought of anyone constantly reliving being raped and beaten. "The language your precious Bible was originally written in."
"Very well. Educate me." Antonio sits down across from me. "What do those words mean?"
"The prayer?" I shrug. "It means: 'Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe. You have sanctified us with Your commandments and command us to kindle the lights of Shabbat.'"
Antonio blinks. "I see."
"What were you expecting? 'I am a murderous blasphemer'?"
"No, thou craven fool." Antonio rolls his eyes. "Truthfully, I knew not what to expect. Do you still do this..." he waved a hand toward the candles, "...often?"
"Never from the trial until now." I reach for the goblets and fill two of them, resigning myself to Antonio's presence. "You must be a bad influence on me."
"Thank you," Antonio says dryly.
"You are welcome. Do not drink until I have said the blessing."
"Oh. Should I cover my eyes as you were doing when I came in?"
"No need," I reply, surprised by the courtesy. "This prayer does not require it." Antonio nods, and I begin.
"What does that mean?" he inquires when I finish.
"'Tis the story of Creation. On the seventh day God rested, so we do too. And it thanks Him for the fruit of the vine. You can drink now. 'Tis not Christian blood."
"Very funny." He sips the wine gingerly. "Your sense of humor is a positive ray of sunshine."
"I dislike sunshine. 'Tis frivolous."
"Is there anything you like?"
"Everyone likes something. I like pigeons, and cooking, and not being told what to do."
"But what about people? Do you not love anyone?"
"Of course, thou dolt," I reply, stung. "I love Jessica. I loved Leah when she was alive, and—" I cut myself off. "And you care because...?"
"I do not."
"Fair enough." I take another drink and change the subject. "Have you thought of where you'll go when you are well enough to travel?"
Antonio laughs bitterly. "Well enough to travel. Every time I even think of stepping out of this house I grow dizzy with fear."
Through and through terrified. Who had the right to wreck another person's life like this? "Curse that gang to hell and back!" I hurl the goblet at the wall. It flies to pieces with a delightful crash.
Antonio cringes. "What are you doing?"
"Losing my temper. You should try it." I walk to the corner and begin heaving out the chest with the rest of the pottery.
"Try losing my temper?"
"Absolutely." I turn back around. "'Tis very satisfying. You ought to have no trouble with it."
Antonio huddles down in his chair. "I cannot."
"Do not be absurd. You can start by smashing that goblet on the floor. Pretend 'tis your enemy."
"Antonio, you have at least a dozen men to hate that I know of, and the only person you have shouted at is me. You need to feel something besides fear."
"I should not be angry, 'tis not..."
I fold my arms. "If you do not throw that goblet down in the next five seconds, I am sending you back to your room."
The goblet hits the floor and shatters. Antonio looks startled, as if he does not quite realize it was he who did that. "I have never broken anything on purpose before."
"Then you are behind on your education," I tell him, pulling out another plate. "Try this. It shall drive me mad, watching you turn all your rage on yourself."
A wild look comes into Antonio's eyes. He seizes the plate and flings it down, where it bursts into fragments. Without asking, he goes for the rest of the pottery set in the box. I watch, half horrified and half proud, as Antonio demolishes every cup and dish he can find. They thump on the floor, shatter on the walls, and make the windows rattle.
And then, suddenly, there's quiet, no sound but the wine dripping on the floor and our breathing. Antonio is shaking. "I did not mean to do that," he whispers.
"I am glad you did," I reply.
Antonio's voice is ragged. "I do not want to be pitied!"
"I am not pitying you!"
"Then why all this?" Antonio rasps out. "Why did you open your door to me, with all the sins I have?"
"When you are hurt, I do not see your sins. I only see a person as broken as I am. I do not know why I opened my door to you, but that is why I let you stay." I take in a breath and blow it out. "That bastard of a lawyer in the courtroom said the quality of mercy is not strained. 'Tis ridiculous. There is nothing more difficult."
"Are you sorry?"
I do not even think about it. "No, I am not."
"Mercy that's given easily is of less value. You are worthy of respect for what you have done."
Looking into Antonio's face, I see no scorn. I know my own face reflects no malice. Such small changes, yet such a miracle.
"I thank you for that."
Neither of us says any more. We simply stand here, amid the smashed pottery and spilled wine, with the light of the candles glowing around us. Searching for the blessing in brokenness.
Final Author's Note
When I finished this story, I promised a sequel. And I am glad to say I have delivered. It is entitled Friday Night Candles, and can be found on my author's page. Check it out!
Many thanks belong to Anbessette, my beta, who stuck with me through a process that took more than a year.
Writing Usurer's Mercy has been a crazy road, and part of what makes it so great are all those who've reviewed or will in the future. Thank you so much for sticking with me, and I hope you enjoyed the story.