Sidika stepped back from her half-finished manuscript and scowled. “I wish,” she said with an agitated stomp, “that we could make finer brushes, Father. It is so difficult to achieve the correct level of detail with these tools.”
“Never mind, my dear. You have a very steady hand, which more than makes up for the clumsy tools we must use,” Tamrat smiled.
“Perhaps I shall cease learning to scribe and invent a better brush instead,” Sidika growled crossly. “As well I should, for you and I both know that these skills will be useless to me once I marry.”
“Useless? There are no competent shaykhas for a hundred miles of here!”
“A woman must be trained in a madrasa or by a scholar of renown to be a shaykha, Father.”
“So? And have I not made you read the Qur’an and understand its concepts? Such beautiful prose and expressions of devotion in that book!”
“I am not a religious scholar father, and neither are you. We should both leave these musings to those who devote their lives to such questions.”
She glowered at the illustration on the paper before her. It still looked too heavy-handed, and she continued to glare at her brush until Tamrat took it from her hand and set it down on the table.
“I shall buy you some new brushes the next time I am in Damascus, my dear.” He hesitated, looking at her sideways. “Truly, my daughter, what do you want in your life? Do you really think you cannot continue to scribe once you are married?”
Sidika stared at him for a moment. “I am a woman. I have no right to want anything.”
“I know not where you got that idea. Your mother and I never encouraged it.”
Sidika wiped her ink-stained hands on a cloth and removed her ragged wool apron. “You and mother are not normal, Father. What else can a woman aspire to but to bear children and hope that she or they will not die, or to marry a man who rarely beats her.”
“When I met your mother, she did not wish for any of those things. She made herself a valuable member of the community with her knowledge of herbs.”
“As I said. Not normal,” Sidika kissed him on the cheek and walked outside to the little oven, whose coals glowed dimly, nestled in a bed of ash. Tamrat followed her out and watched her for a moment as she poked a reticent flame to life with a stick.
“You are also not normal, Sidika. I know of no other young woman your age who is as well-educated as you, and I have known princesses and matrons of great houses. I wonder if I did you a disservice, for most men find an educated woman to be intimidating. Here now! Perhaps we could find a way for you to join the nuns! They are also educated and spend their days reading and writing.”
“Father!” Sidika laughed. “We are Jews. I do not think the nuns would take me. Why do you have a sudden interest in converting me to another religion?”
Tamrat shrugged. “You do not have to convert, and they do not have to know. Since you are a Turk, you could always tell them that, and maybe they will not ask about your religion.”
Sidika shot him a flat look. “I feel certain that the nuns would ask about my faith. No, Father, I want nothing. I am happy here with you. I shall take care of you until you die, and then I will either marry or take a job in the city.”
“No man would hire you, Sidika. I worry about you. I have promised that you may choose your husband, but how will a village man deal with a wife such as you? You must have some protection and income after I am gone.”
Sidika held up her bow in one hand and a quill in the other.
“What were you saying?”
Tamrat laughed. “Yes, I see you can take care of yourself. But my daughter, perhaps we should send you to the land of the Franj. There are learned women there, and some of them write. The von Bingen woman – she even counseled kings!”
“She was a rarity. “
“And so are you!” Tamrat pounded the side of the house, sending a shower of dried mud-plaster to the ground.
The world in which he raised his children was not the world he wanted. He knew that to take Sidika to Francia or to the Italian peninsula would mean exposing them to danger and discrimination. He knew that if she did not marry, she would be accused of witchcraft because of her knowledge. He also could not imagine any man who would not be threatened by her intellect. He had cursed her with this learning.
“Father, I am happy,” she said, putting her hand on his arm. “I know no other women or girls in this village who are happy. I do not aspire to be a counselor to kings. I just want to stay here with you. I want to keep learning.”
“Daughter, I wish for you to go out into the world and move the stars in the sky. Change the thoughts of men and fill their hearts with fear and awe when they see you coming, because they know you have knowledge and courage. I wish all of these things for you, and I know that you cannot have them because you were born a woman. But I can still wish them for you.”
Sidika smiled. “But I love you for wanting it, Father, and perhaps I will be so lucky as to meet a man who also feels the same way.” She scanned the ground of their small dooryard until she spied two little brown eggs that the hens had left hidden in their dust wallows, then took them inside.
“You should marry a king. You should have the run of your own scriptorium. A hundred novice scribes under your care…” Tamrat drifted off as he followed her in.
“It is not wise to wish for things that you cannot have. And besides, if I become truly desperate for the arms of a man, there is always Fakri,” she laughed.
Tamrat chuckled and helped her prepare supper. Evening birds swooped over their heads, and a hot breeze swept across the dry hills. When the meal had finished cooking, they sat outside on the bench beside the door, balancing their clay bowls on their laps and waving at the neighbors as they walked past.
When they had finished, Tamrat remained outside alone, his face lifted to the heavens as the stars appeared one by one in the mellow, autumn sky. Hashem, he pleaded, I am getting old, and I have not been the most faithful of Your people, but I beg you, please let no harm come to my daughter after I am gone. She is too talented and unusual to let her waste away.
Hashem was silent, and the stars looked on him impassively. Despite the heat of the night, Tamrat shivered.