The Jewish quarter slept.
The humid summer wind and
torrential rain had blended with the night, forming a sticky, oppressive mist
that hung low over the city like an ominous cloud. Hoofbeats echoed through the
Jewish quarter from a distance, the clip
clop clip clop sounding like the night’s beating heart.
A black carriage shot out of the
mist like a wraith, its lavish, embroidered exterior a stark contrast to its
surroundings. It raced through the night at a pace that bordered on the
dangerous, heedless of the slick cobblestones and lack of visibility.
Reaching the rabbi’s house, the
driver yanked hard on the reins, bringing the carriage to an abrupt stop. The
door of the carriage was flung open as a liveried servant jumped out and ran to
the rabbi’s door. Reaching it, he hammered on it relentlessly until it was
Rabbi Abraham peered out at the servant, blinking
rain out of his eyes. “May I help you?”
“You must come.” The servant’s
tone was harried, almost shaken. “Quickly. Señor Fernandez has asked for you.”
The rabbi frowned. “At this
“There is no time. You must
The rabbi nodded. “Give me a
moment.” He stepped back inside and placed a few items in a satchel. Slinging
the satchel over his shoulder, he stepped back out. “I’m ready.”
Señor Alfonso Fernandez. There
was not a Spaniard alive who didn’t recognize the name. Enigmatic as he was
wealthy, the Señor was the crown jewel of Valencian nobility. No one really
knew where he was from. He had emerged into Spanish nobility decades before,
causing a stir with his mysterious past and lavish wealth. Some said he was the
illegitimate child of distant royalty; others whispered that he was a pirate
captain, tired from his escapades. Rather than settle the matter, he had let
the rumors grow, seeming to enjoy the attention they got him. Whatever his
past, he had remained the focus of society for as long as anyone remembered,
his extravagant parties and lifestyle earning him constant attention.
He had never, as far as the rabbi
knew, had any dealings with Jews.
Rabbi Abraham paused to glance around the Señor’s
manor. Like its occupant, the manor was a lavish display of wealth and
privilege. Gilded tapestries hung from the walls, lush red carpets adorned the
hallways. Intricate gold vessels sat on oak and cedar furniture. Every inch was
a breathtaking tribute to the Señor’s seemingly endless affluence.
The servant gestured for him to
follow, then swiftly led him up a flight of stairs and to a set of wooden
doors. Pausing to knock gently, he eased the doors open, then beckoned the
Whatever Rabbi Abraham had expected to
see, it was not what lay inside. He knew that the Señor was growing old, but he
was not prepared for the sight of the weak, sickly man lying on a bed before
him. A doctor knelt before him, pressing a cold cloth to his forehead.
The Señor looked up as they
entered. “Rabbi Abraham.
Thank…” His words were cut off by a bout of coughing. The doctor leaned forward
to wipe the spittle; Rabbi Abraham
caught a glimpse of blood before the doctor tucked the cloth away. “Thank you
for coming,” the Señor continued. He then turned to the doctor and servant.
“Please give us the room.”
The doctor started. “Señor,
forgive me, but I must insist...”
“Out!” The word came out as a
hoarse shout, followed by several moments of coughing that racked the elderly
man’s body. When he got his breath back, the next words were softer. “Thank
you, doctor, for your concern. But I must insist that you leave.”
Sending a worried glance over his
shoulder, the doctor left without a word. The servant followed him, closing the
door behind him.
Señor Fernandez turned to the
rabbi. “He means well, the doctor.” He smiled wryly. “As well he should, for
the money I pay him. But there’s not much he can do for me now, besides ease
the pain. And I can bear a little discomfort.” He raised a frail hand and
beckoned. “Come. Sit.”
Rabbi Abraham stepped forward and sat down on a
chair. “If you’ll forgive me, Señor, you don’t look well.”
The Señor snorted, a sound cut
short by more coughing. “Well? I am dying, rabbi. Don’t look so shocked; I am
old. Old people die. I have just a few hours left now. Maybe less.”
The rabbi nodded. “Can I do
something for you, Señor, in these final hours?”
The Señor fell silent, his eyes
drifting. At last he spoke. “It is strange, isn’t it? I called you here to tell
you something. Yet now, with you in front of me, knowing that time is slipping
away from me like...like sand”—he lifted a hand, his fingers fumbling as if
trying to catch the grains of time, then let it drop—“I find myself strangely
speechless.” He shook his head slowly. “How pathetic we humans are.”
He turned to stare up at the
rabbi, rheumy eyes somehow still sharp. “Tell me, rabbi, do you know who I was
before I was this? Before I was the great ‘Señor Fernandez’?”
“No. No one I know does.”
The Señor nodded. “When I entered
Spanish society, I claimed I was the last of a destroyed noble house in
Germany. I don’t know if anyone believed me; it didn’t matter. No one had any
way to prove me wrong, and no one really cared to. I had money, and I brought
it to Spain. That was enough for everyone.”
He coughed. “The truth is nowhere
near so extravagant. I was born here, in Valencia. Orphaned from birth, I grew
up on the streets, living from one day to the next. And my name wasn’t Señor
Alfonso Fernandez, not then. My
name was Yosef. Yes, rabbi. I was born a Jew.
“It’s important that you
understand this. Understand how I went from being a nameless orphan to one of
the richest men in Spain. To explain this, I must take you back several
decades, to when I was just 20 years old.
“It began with a rumor.”
The Valencian market was a
well-choreographed dance of merchants and buyers haggling over prices. To the
skilled pickpocket, it was also a hive of distracted shopkeepers and
Yosef had almost reached his mark, hand outstretched for his purse, when
someone grabbed his arm and swung him around.
“It’s true.” An eager grin split
Yosef turned around, but the man
had moved on. He turned back and glared at his best friend. “You just cost me
Sebastián waved a hand. “Relax,
Yosef. Look at the way he was dressed. He probably only had a couple of pennies
“I’ve told you. I prefer being
“And I prefer being called Pope
Clement IV, but it’s not my name.”
Yosef sighed. “What’s true?”
Sebastian looked around, then beckoned
him to follow. He walked to a quieter area of the market where no one could
hear. After a moment, Yosef rolled his eyes and followed.
“The rumor. The rumor of the
treasure. It’s true.”
“Oh, this again? That’s what you pulled me away for?” He
turned back to the market place. “I don’t have time for this.”
Sebastián grabbed him by the arm.
“Look.” He pulled out a scroll and unrolled it. It was a rough map of a couple
of islands, with an X marked over one of them. “I stole this from a merchant’s
house. I think he’s located the treasure, but with this we can get there before
Yosef studied the map for a
moment. “This could be anything, Sebastián. For all we know, it’s the location
of where he buried the ugly vase his father-in-law gave him. Or maybe he was
bored and started doodling. I’m not risking anything on a myth.”
“Come on, Yosef. This isn’t just
a myth. Everyone’s talking about it; the treasure of a great Spanish slaving
vessel, rich from plunder...”
“I thought you said the ship was
Sebastián waved a hand. “Fine.
The treasure of a great English vessel...”
“And before that it was a pirate
vessel from ‘islands unknown.’”
Sebastián glared. “Look, I don’t
pay attention to all the rumors of whose ship it was and what the captain’s
name was and what color his favorite hat was. What I do know is that everyone
agrees that there’s a treasure. No, don’t look at me like that. You’re
right—this map could be anything. But to find a map in the house of the very
merchant who boasted he had located the treasure and would soon mount an
expedition to find it? Even you must admit that means something.”
Yosef sighed and gestured to the
map. “Even if you’re right, Sebastián, I have no idea where this is. We don’t
have a ship or a crew. It would cost a fortune to just get the supplies!”
“Don’t worry about the crew. Juan
and Alberto will join for sure, and you can convince Pedro. And we have the money, Yosef. We’ve saved up
for years. We have enough.”
Yosef stared at him. “You’re
talking about everything we’ve ever saved. You want us to blow it all away on
some...some fool’s errand? What if we don’t find it? We’ll have nothing!”
“Don’t you get it, Yosef? We have
nothing now! Living in gutters and alleyways, scrounging what we can off drunks
and fools, saving our pennies for a day that will never come—you think we have
a life like this? We’re one plague or famine, one knife fight away from an
unmourned death on the streets. Not just unmourned—they’ll step over our bodies
like we’re rats, not even sparing a glance down at us. Don’t look at me like
that. We’ve both seen it before. But this—this is the opportunity for more. Yes, it’s a risk, but if it works,
we could have everything we ever wanted.”
Sebastián stepped forward,
dropped his voice. “You could have everything
you wanted. I’ve seen where you look at night when you think no one is
watching. I know the hunger that burns in your heart. This could get you that.”
Yosef was silent for a long
minute. Then he sighed. “If we’re gonna find this, we’ll need a navigator.”
Sebastián grinned. “I know a
To feel your feet sink into soft
grass after three days at sea was a special kind of bliss. Yosef paused to
inhale, the clean, invigorating scent of sea and open land entering his
nostrils. The island they had landed on was only a few miles across, but it was
beautiful, rich with lush trees and tall, uncut grass.
Sebastián passed him by, slapping
him across the arm and jostling him out of his reverie. Seeing that everyone
was already heading inland, he ran ahead and caught up with Moshe, the
navigator Sebastián had found. The young Jew was counting something on his fingers with a concerned
Moshe glanced at him. “It’s
Yosef fell in beside him. “You
sure this is the right island?”
“If your map is correct, then
yes.” He left the rest unsaid.
They walked in silence for a few
minutes before Yosef turned to him again. “Done this before?”
Moshe frowned. “Joined an
inexperienced crew to sail in search of supposed treasure based on a vague map
with little chance of success? No.”
“Funny. It’s just that I’m
thinking that this is an odd type of place for a religious Jew to be, no?”
“You’re here.” The statement was
somehow both a question and not.
Yosef didn’t answer.
Moshe sighed. “You grew up in
Valencia. You know what it’s like. We have nothing. It’s just me and my father,
and he’s old now. Sick. He tries, but he can’t make much money. So I make what
I can, but there’s not much business for an inexperienced navigator in
Valencia. This…if this pans out, I’ll never have to watch my father try to hide
his worry from me again. Never have to fear how we’ll eat the next day. A
chance like that is worth the risk.”
Yosef nodded. “I can understand
Moshe turned. “What about you?
I’ve watched our motley group of treasure hunters for three days now. You’re
the sensible one. Why would you risk so much on a rumor?”
Yosef didn’t think he’d answer,
yet something made him speak. “I grew up on the streets of Valencia. I’d fight
for my food, fight for what little coin I could get. When I was just six or
seven, there was one night I couldn’t find a place to sleep. It was pouring
rain and freezing cold, and all the corners and nooks were taken. Finally, I
found one just under a leaky gutter, but an old beggar was there. Never knew
what his name was; we just called Limpy, ’cause his left leg was all busted up
and he limped. We’d never said a word to each other, but when Limpy saw me
standing out there in the cold, he moved over to give me the warmer part of the
corner, and then sat out under the gutter himself so that the rain leaked on
him. When I woke in the morning, he was dead. The cold got to him. That is my
world. My life.
“Then one day, I saw a man enter
the market. He was dressed in the finest silk I’d ever seen, gold trimming on
his sleeves and collar. I turned to a merchant and asked if he was a noble or a
lord. The merchant laughed. ‘Nah,’ he said, ‘He’s just one of them servants for
those fancy Señors.’ I couldn’t believe it. The servant of a minor lord wore
more wealth on his clothes than I’d ever seen. I decided, then and there, that
one day I would be one of them. One day I would be a Señor.” He gestured around
him. “This hunt is my chance.”
Moshe opened his mouth to say
something, but stopped suddenly. Yosef turned to see what had caught his
A shipwreck lay before them. The
wreckage of the ship was strewn across the beach, giant pieces of timber flung
from the explosion. The skeleton of the ship remained mostly intact, a large
rocky outcropping piercing its hull.
The treasure chests were nowhere to be seen.
Sebastián glanced up at the sky. The sun was beginning to
set, and the island was already getting dark. “We’re not going to find anything
in this light. We’ll rest for the night, then search in the morning.”
“Sebastián, enough.” Yosef plopped down next to his
friend. “We’ve searched for two days now. We’ve found two of the chests. Who
knows where the third is? It could be at the bottom of the ocean now. We’re
tired, Sebastián. Let’s go home.”
Sebastián didn’t answer.
Yosef looked up in surprise. His friend was standing next
to him, staring in the distance, fists clenched in frustration. Yosef stood to
face him. “You OK? You’re never quiet.”
“It just feels like such a waste.” Sebastián’s voice was
quiet, taut with emotion. “We traveled all this way. To walk away without it
all.” He shook his head.
Yosef grabbed his friend’s arm. “It wasn’t a waste,
Sebastián. We’re already richer than our wildest dreams! It’s OK if we don’t
get it all.”
Sebastián nodded. “I guess you’re right. I’ll tell the
others to start packing.” He turned.
Sebastián spun back round. In the distance, Pedro was
perched over a large rock, balanced precariously on its slick surface. Large
waves crashed against it, drenching it in foam.
They ran forwards as Pedro waved down into the rock.
“There’s some sort of crevice here. The waves must have washed the chest into
it. I can get it down.” He started tugging.
As they neared, they could see the chest clearly, stuck
inside the crevice. “Pedro, wait!” Juan called. “We’re coming.”
“It’s OK,” Pedro called back. He kept on tugging. “I’ve
He was still talking when the chest came free from the
crevice. The sudden weight made him lose his footing, sending him and the chest
The group ran towards him, but it was too late. Pedro lay
sprawled at the foot of the rock, the chest on top of him. His neck had snapped
from the fall.
For a long moment, no one spoke. Then, gruffly, Sebastián
stepped forward. “Let’s go.”
It took them the better part of
half an hour for them to load the treasure onto the ship. The mood was subdued,
the elation of success dampened by their comrade’s sudden death. They had just
finished loading the last of the chests onto the ship when Moshe spoke.
“We have to stay.”
Juan turned. “What?”
“It’s Friday afternoon; it’s
almost my Sabbath. I can’t travel on Sabbath. I have to stay until tomorrow
night, after which I can travel.”
Alberto shook his head. “You’re
“No. I’m sorry; I know this is
inconvenient. But this is my religion. What’s one more day? We can travel tomorrow
No one spoke for a minute. Then
Sebastián waved his hand in disgust. “Fine. Stay. But we’re leaving.”
Yosef stepped forward.
spun around, furious. “No! Pedro died
for this. I will not—I WILL NOT—disgrace
his memory by just waiting around for no reason. If Moshe wants to stay, good
for him. But we’re leaving.”
Juan nodded and stepped forward.
“Sorry, but I agree. I signed on to get treasure; I have my treasure. I’m not
waiting around for anybody.”
Yosef turned, faced them. Then he
sighed. “Fine. Then at least leave him his cut.”
Yosef stared. “What’s wrong with
you? Give him his cut! He worked just as hard as any of us! He deserves to be
Sebastián shook his head. “We did
not travel for three days, risk all our money and have one of our friends die to throw part of the treasure away.
Look around you, Yosef. There’s nothing here. He stays, he’s not coming back.
That’s his choice, but I’m not leaving him his stake for it to rot here with
him. He wants the treasure, he gets on the ship. Otherwise he gets nothing.”
Yosef stared at Sebastián for a
moment, then slowly shook his head and turned back to Moshe. “Come on, Moshe.
You tried; no one can fault you on that. But they’re not going to give in. Are
you really going to let all this be a waste?”
Moshe didn’t move. “I’m sorry,
Yosef. If that’s the way it’s going to be, that’s the way it’s going to be. I
won’t travel on Shabbat.”
“Come on, man! Think of your
future, of your old father! You need
this treasure. Don’t give that up.”
Moshe’s eyes were sad. “I already
have a treasure, Yosef. One far more priceless than all the wealth on this
earth. I won’t give that up—not for anything.”
Yosef sighed. “Then I guess this
Moshe stepped forward. “Stay,
Yosef. You’re Jewish, too. This is the right thing to do; you know that it is.
Don’t turn your back on your religion.”
Yosef hesitated for a moment,
then Sebastián stepped forward and grabbed him by the arm. “Don’t be a fool, Yosef. If the idiot wants to stay, he
can stay. But don’t follow his madness. Remember your dreams. They’re in your
hands now—everything you’ve ever wanted. Don’t throw it all away for nothing.”
Yosef nodded and wordlessly
followed Sebastián onto the ship.
“Yosef!” Moshe’s voice echoed on
The young Jew didn’t turn around.
“My name is Alfonso.”
Rabbi Abraham listened in rapt silence as the
Señor finished his story. “I never saw him again. I don’t know if he made it
back; if he even survived. I turned my back on that part of my life, convinced
myself that I had made the right choice. I never even stepped foot in the Jewish quarter again. I
had never been religious, but I distanced myself entirely from Judaism,
amputated myself from all traces of my past. With the riches we had
found I was able to do anything, be anything.
And so, I recreated myself, became Señor Alfonso Fernandez in earnest.
“I may very well be the only one
of the crew left now. Alberto, I heard, died not long after from plague. Sebastián
settled in England as a merchant. He died about 10 years ago. I never heard
from Juan. Rumor has it he was kidnapped by pirates. And now, it seems, it’s my
“The last few decades have been
good, rabbi. I’ve lacked for nothing, had every luxury man can think of. Yet
now, lying on my death bed, I cannot help but recall young Moshe. The
conviction in his voice, the fire in his eyes. He was so sure that his treasure
was the greater one. And I cannot help but wonder: was he right? I have
everything there is to have, and yet, in my final moments, I realize I have
nothing. Nothing that will prepare me for what is to come. Nothing that gives
me comfort in this final hour. I need to know, rabbi: did I make a mistake?” He
leaned forward, grabbed Rabbi Abraham’s arm in his frail grip. “Did I walk away from the
greatest treasure of them all?”
The room was silent then, the
only sound the dying Señor’s rasping breath. Soft morning light streamed into the room; they had
talked for hours. Slowly, the rabbi detached Señor Fernandez’s grip from
his arm, helped him lean back in his bed. “Señor, I don’t know what could have
been. That’s not my domain. But, if you wish, I can help you experience Moshe’s
treasure now. I have in my satchel a pair of tefillin and a prayer book. I can help you put them on, maybe pray
The Señor looked up with tears in
his eyes. “I would like that very much.”
Slowly and gently, the rabbi
rolled back the Señor’s sleeve and helped him don the tefillin. Reaching for the prayer book, he turned the pages for
him. “There is a very old prayer we say called the Shemah. It’s a prayer about how G‑d rules the world, and it assures us
that as long as we realize that and follow His commandments, He will take care
of us. I will help you with the Hebrew, but in Spanish it means, ‘Listen,
Israel, the L‑rd is your G‑d, the L‑rd is one.’”
The wealthy Señor echoed the
words, tears streaming down his cheeks.
And then, amid much stumbling and
coughing, the rabbi helped him pray.
When he was done, the rabbi
furled up the tefillin and put them
away. “Thank you, Rabbi Abraham,”
the Señor said. He looked calmer now, more at peace. “Could you call the doctor
back in? I am ready now.”
News of the Señor’s death rocked
Spanish society like a tidal wave. They were still reeling from the shock when
his will was opened and his odd, final request read. Eyebrows were raised.
Questions were murmured. Yet no one was surprised. Though no one understood it,
it was fitting for the enigmatic, unconventional Señor to get the final word in
such a peculiar way.
When people asked Rabbi Abraham why a Señor who
had never had any dealings with the Jews had requested to be buried in their
cemetery, he would just smile and remark, “So that he could finally come home.”