Skip to main content



By Fire, by Water


Prologue: Darkness in Zaragoza

July, 1487

Under a sliver moon, Luis de Santángel, royal chancellor of Aragon, trudged down a narrow street toward the center of the capital, his high boots softly clopping against the cobblestones. A silk surcoat covered most of his tunic and hose. Abundant chestnut hair, tinged with grey, fell to the top of his back. Beside him shuffled Abram Serero, shorter than Santángel, with rounded shoulders, a thick chest, and a close copper-red beard.

They stopped before a stone building. Santángel pulled open the massive door. Fumes wafted out, cold, musty, rancid. Overwhelmed, Serero stumbled backward. At the bottom of the stairwell, the chancellor clanked a metal ring. A man coughed. A key rattled. The door grated as it swung open. The warden of the ecclesiastical jail, a dwarf in a formless robe, held a fat candle.

Santángel handed him a pouch. "This is for your discretion. Show us to his cell."

The warden counted the coins. He raised his eyes and peered at the chancellor as if to discern his features.

"Please refrain from gazing at me."

"Certainly, my lord. I meant no harm."

The two visitors lowered their heads and descended into the dwarf's bedchamber. A jug of wine sat on the beaten‑earth floor. A blanket dangled from the bed, a niche in the wall.

The warden led them through another archway and down narrow corridors. He opened a door into a cramped cell where Luis de Santángel's brother Estefan --- his brother who was not, in truth, his brother --- lay on the dirt floor, a gaunt and squalid heap. The chancellor fell to his knees. Estefan's eyes, beneath their lids, twitched.

"He is a brave man," said the dwarf. "He didn't give in."

"When did he last eat?"

"I leave what I can. A piece of cheese. A crust of bread. But the rats finish it before he gets to it."

"Thank you." Santángel glanced at Serero. "What are we to do? He can't ask God for forgiveness."

"He need not ask for forgiveness. We can still pray. Perhaps he will hear."

Abram Serero began chanting softly, in a rich baritone, a prayer recited every year on the Day of Atonement. Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi, hevinu. We have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have spoken falsely, we have caused others to sin.

Luis de Santángel watched his brother's face. Estefan, more than any other man, had witnessed the chancellor's struggle, taken pride in his precarious triumphs, cringed before the demons that haunted both their lives. He had cautioned Luis about the perils of their secret identity. Yet he was the one held captive in this place. Luis de Santángel gathered his reeking, emaciated brother into his arms and rocked him gently.

Chapter Two

The flowers, creeping vines, and fruit trees of Granada bloomed, a riot of yellows, whites, greens, and reds. In the workshop attached to Judith Migdal's home, Baba Shlomo taught her to transform black stones of raw metal into finished, gleaming objects of beauty and value. He guided Judith as she fashioned a beaker, beginning with the melting of ore and the separation of molten silver, through hammering, cutting and shaping disks and wires, filing, buffing and polishing.

To purify the lumps of raw silver, Judith placed them, together with a few grains of lead, over a layer of ash in a white crucible. Baba Shlomo pumped the oven coals with bellows until they glowed brightly. Holding the crucible with tongs, Judith set it inside. The impurities and lead floated to the top of the molten silver. Judith skimmed them off with a stick. When the silver was pure, she removed the crucible, sprinkled a pinch of salt into it, and poured its contents into a hot, circular mold.

When this circle of silver cooled, she removed it from the mold, centered it on the end of an anvil, and folded it away from herself, over the anvil. She beat the metal with a round‑headed hammer, striking it in soft concentric circles to an even thinness, until it took the form of a cup, then filed it inside and out and around the lip to smooth it.

"All the beauty," Baba Shlomo told her, "will be in the details. But you can't master the art of filigree until you learn to write."

The waves and curls of silver that had adorned Yossi's pieces were characters of the alphabet, spelling words like jewelry spilling over the edges of a bowl or serving dish. When the filigree did not represent letters, it resembled the distilled essence of Arabic writing. Judith longed to receive that essence, like a potion of knowledge, but it eluded her.

Although Baba Shlomo was unable to see her creations, he measured her progress by running his fingers over her work, or feeling it with his cheek.

"It's lopsided."

"How can I fix it?"

"If you hammer it, you'll destroy the filigree. You'll have to re-melt it and start all over."

Judith took the beaker from Baba Shlomo and turned it lovingly in her hands. She dutifully picked up the mallet, and began crushing the beaker, folding its sides over each other so it would fit into the crucible.

Again, Baba Shlomo stoked the flames while she held the crucible in place with long iron tongs. Because the oven was low, she had to stoop, causing her back to ache. The heat brought beads of sweat to her face. Removing the tongs from the fire, she burned her arm.

Again, she poured the liquefied silver into molds, hammered them to an even thinness, cut and twisted wires, poured molten silver into seams.

Four days later, the second beaker was finished. Baba Shlomo held it to his cheek.

"The filigree doesn't seem right." He felt it with his fingers. "The slope of these wires. Too wide. It's not symmetrical." He handed it back to her.

Judith pushed the beaker to the side, lowered her head onto her arms, and wept silently.

Dina Benatar, the mother of Levi's friend Sara, was the only woman of Judith's acquaintance who knew how to read and write. She had grown up in Fez, where her father exported cinnamon, ginger, pepper, "dragon's blood," and other spices. Like Dina, her father spoke Arabic, but when he wrote to Jewish vendors in other lands, he used a stylized Hebrew alphabet. After his brother and business partner died, he taught his daughter, too, to write in Arabic using either Arabic or cursive Hebrew letters.

Judith offered to pay for lessons, but Dina refused compensation, saying she would relish the opportunity to spend more time with the fruit merchant's daughter. "It will be an honor to get to know you."

Judith laughed. "An honor?"

"You're raising a child, taking care of an old man, learning a difficult craft. And all without a husband to provide for you."

Stout and ungainly, wearing an elegant robe the color of robins' eggs, she led Judith into her scriptorium to show her the work of well-known Arabic and Jewish calligraphers. "Since you'll have both Arab and Jewish clients, you'll have to learn both alphabets. But we'll start with Hebrew."

In some of her precious texts, the letters bent into each other, over each other, and through each other, forming complex geometries. In others, the words rippled, ebbed, shivered, and flowed across the page like water. For Dina, these writings were a pure, rarefied art not of the body but of the mind.

"Calligraphy is the highest art form," Dina told Judith. "There are so many styles of writing, you can't hope to master even a small fraction. Look at the proportions, the balance, the firm grace of the writer's hand. The shape of the letters says almost as much as the words. They are blades of grass, bending under a spiritual breeze."

Dina showed Judith the tools they would use: a reed pen, a knife for shaping the pen, an ink bowl. "Is this an acceptable daleth?" Judith asked, trying her best to copy Dina's model.

"That's good, but write from top to bottom, like this, or you'll get in trouble later."

At the end of every lesson, the two shared a cup of lemon water, almond milk, or pomegranate juice and spoke of matters neither broached to others. Dina's husband Yonatan, a spice merchant like her father, traveled almost all the time. He communicated with her as much in writing as face-to-face. Dina spoke of the frustration of raising her daughter alone. Judith talked about the unanticipated duties that had fallen upon her, her responsibility for a heartbroken child and a defeated, helpless old man, and how unprepared she felt.

After eight months of training, Judith sat beside Baba Shlomo, proudly holding a decorated silver alms box. "I'm ready."

"You're not ready," the old man told her. "Ready for what?"

"To fill the order from the Great Synagogue in Cairo."

"Too much time has passed."

"But they deserve an explanation, and a gift."

"How would we pay for the materials? The transportation? You'd be better off selling trays and cups in the marketplace."

"I'll borrow the money."

Baba Shlomo shook his head. "Getting further into debt, just when you're starting a new enterprise, is not good business. That's why I said: This is not a job for a woman. Business sense, women are not known for."

"Nevertheless," insisted Judith, "we do owe them an explanation. And a gift."

Chapter Twenty Seven

A week after Judith's departure, the chancellor met Cristóbal Colón at the gates of the Alhambra. His intent was to support the mariner's project of exploration, but he secretly feared he no longer possessed the influence necessary to bring about a royal assent.

"Look," burbled Colón, peering out over the city. "The rains, they're ceasing. The clouds, they're clearing. This day could not be more auspicious, Señor de Santángel. At long last, we're about to witness the fulfillment of my destiny."

"Perhaps," said the chancellor. "But the king and queen don't care about your destiny. What they care about is Christianizing millions of pagan souls. This will justify the massive theft they'll authorize you to undertake --- on their behalf."

Colón smiled. The courtier's bitterness amused and saddened him.

The two waited more than an hour before meeting with the queen and Hernando de Talavera. The king was attending to other business, visibly keeping his distance from his chancellor.

Cristóbal Colón knelt before Queen Ysabel. He reminded her of her promise to reconsider his project following the conclusion of the war against Granada. She turned to the recently installed Archbishop of Granada. "Father Talavera, have you had the opportunity to study Señor Colón's proposal?"

"We have, Your Highness. And we have conferred with several of the greatest minds known to us --- Diego de Deza, Rodrigo Maldonado, and others."

Both Santángel and Colón knew of these men. They were luminaries of the ecclesiastical and political world the Archbishop inhabited, but not the intellectual equals of the greatest living astronomers and cartographers, Abraham Zacuto, Joseph Vizinho, and Paolo Toscanelli --- with all of whom, Colón had consulted.

"We commend Señor Colón," continued Talavera, "on his diligent work, assembling bits and pieces from sources as diverse as the pseudo-prophet Esdras, the itinerant merchant Marco Polo, whose writings have largely been discredited, and even certain ancient philosophers. What an exhaustive undertaking this must have been for a self-taught sailor."

Luis de Santángel glanced at Colón. The Genoese refused to show any reaction. He was watching the monk's lips, absorbing his every syllable as attentively as a bloodhound stalking its prey.

"However," the Archbishop continued, "all of us, without exception, have found Señor Colón's calculations to be wanting in several respects, the most egregious of which concern his estimation of the circumference of our terrestrial globe. In this matter, we have inherited figures from Eratosthenes, Posidonius, and the Arab El-Ma'mun, who agree on a number several times larger than the one put forth in Señor Colón's proposal."

Colón could no longer contain himself. "Father, if I may, Posidonius, according to Strabo, estimates 180,000 stadia --- 70,000 to the east, in the form of land, and 70,000 to the west, mostly water. Such a distance, it would certainly be navigable."

Queen Ysabel held up her hand. "Please, señor, allow the archbishop to finish."

For the first time, Talavera turned to face the captain. "Strabo, Señor Colón, is wrong. And by the way, 70,000 plus 70,000 do not add up to 180,000."

Colón looked down, pursing his lips.

"But these are mere details." Talavera turned back to the queen. "There is also the matter of Señor Colón's compensation. He wishes to be named Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy of all the islands and mainlands he might discover, titles that would make him and his heirs members of the noble class. He wishes to retain one-tenth of all wealth produced in any such lands – again, for him and his heirs, through all future generations. He makes other requests as well that we deem excessive, to say the least."

The duke of Medina-Celi had encouraged Colón to demand these emoluments. "The more outrageous your request," he had insisted, "the more seriously they'll take you." Now, in the light of Talavera's withering critique, Colón wished he could forfeit them.

The queen looked at Talavera for another moment, as if digesting the full weight of his devastating judgment. She was about to turn to Colón, but he spoke first. Behind her shoulder, through a wide entranceway framed by ornate columns, what he saw took his breath away.

"Your Highness, my lady, please." He pronounced these words in such a mellifluous voice, just the opposite of the tone she expected, that she took notice. Clawing the air, his palm facing upwards, he waved her toward him.

"What on earth is the matter, Señor Colón?"


The queen glanced at Talavera, then at Luis de Santángel, and rose from her throne. She allowed the sailor to lead her out of the room, to a vantage point where they could see the city of Granada, wet with rain, shining in the bright sunlight, which streamed through holes between the dark clouds.


As Santángel and Talavera joined them on this portico, the queen's eyes followed Cristóbal Colón's fingertips all the way to the horizon. Rising out of the earth, far to the east, stretched the brightest, most color-saturated rainbow any of them had ever seen --- climbing to the clouds, then falling toward the land, to the west.

"The struggles of our Mother Church, in Rome," Colón muttered. "The war against the Jews. The sign of the covenant."

Of those assembled, only Luis de Santángel understood.

"It is lovely," Queen Ysabel replied in an equally calm, low voice. Something at once ingenuous and manic in this sailor's deportment charmed her. "But the most beautiful rainbow in the world wouldn't prove, as far as we can discern, that the Ocean Sea is smaller than Father Talavera says it is."

"It is time." Cristóbal Colón sighed.

Luis de Santángel, no less moved than his Genoese protégé, finally spoke up. He did not know exactly why he spoke up, but he knew it had something to do with the last words Colón had uttered, with paradise, with the fate of the Jews, with the destiny of the world, with the Book he had studied while detained. He felt as if a gaping hole had opened in the walls of his office in the royal palace of Zaragoza. He could see beyond the immediate interests of the king and the queen, beyond even his own life. He appreciated the zealous fantasies of a Colón or an Isaiah. The only hope, if there was any hope at all, lay beyond the known world. Its roots stretched deep into the soil of an ancient faith.

"Your Highness," he began, still looking toward the horizon. "All this talk of distances and titles is academic."

The queen turned to him, puzzled. "What on earth are you trying to say, Señor Santángel?"

"Someone will go there, Your Highness."

"Are we deliberately being obscure?"

He continued looking out over the darkening landscape. "If I were to underwrite Señor Colón's voyage, with all the benefits accruing to the Crowns, would you then consider supporting such an expedition?"

The queen's voice betrayed her astonishment. "If you were, in effect, to pay for it, while offering us all profits?"

The chancellor turned to her. "Yes, my lady."

The queen looked at him. This man could not be the ambitious, skeptical, cautious courtier she had known. He had changed. "Why would any man of sound mind contemplate doing such a thing?"

Santángel turned back to the landscape. The rainbow had vanished. So had the rain. The sun was declining. Dusk was falling on Iberia. On the horizon, far to the west, the land shone in hues of gold-streaked ocher.

"Because it is time, Your Highness," muttered the chancellor of Aragon. "Because it must be."

Excerpted from BY FIRE, BY WATER © Copyright 2010 by Mitchell James Kaplan. Reprinted with permission by Other Press. All rights reserved.

By Fire, by Water
by by Mitchell James Kaplan