This is the full text of the novel, in one file. The print version (originally entitled La Hoya) is available from Micah Publications, 255 Humphrey St., Marblehead, MA 01945, www.micahbooks.com Roberta's other fiction includes: Orestes in Progress, Justice My Brother, A View of Toledo, Solomon's Wisdom, The Martyrdom of Stephen Werner, Autobiography of a Revolutionary: Essays on Animal and Human Rights, and Bodmin 1349.
Micah Publications also publishes Jewish vegetarian and animal
rightsbooks, such as: The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook,
Vegetarian Judaism--A Guide for Everyone, and Haggadah for the
Liberated Lamb. For a full list with descriptions, see www.micahbooks.com
Artists take their initial inspiration from a revulsion to human nature. They then spend their careers crawling away from that origin. Some succeed, others don't. In "View of Toledo" everything is falling down. El Greco spent a lifetime painting up, making his human beings less human as he went along. Even in "El Entierro," which is about a man going down into his grave, the spiritual movement is up. Heaven exists and exerts a magnetic pull on the earth's tomb. Success was almost El Greco's; then everything came tumbling down. In "View of Toledo" the whole town slides into the Tagus. There is no counterforce. The view is not so much of the town of Toledo, which lies huddled in a corner of the canvas, as it is of the bullock-like hills and clouds swollen with an overwrought omnipresence. There is light in these clouds over Toledo, but it is not the light of spiritual heaven. Everyone knows, just to look at the painting, that that light is not the same as the light in "El Espolio," or in "El Entierro." These pictures were painted before the grand auto da fé of 1600 given in honor of Philip lll's visit to Toledo.
The connection between El Greco's development as a painter and
such an event as the grand auto da fé of 1600 is implied for the
sake of establishing the principle that there is a gravitational
pull exerted by history on the psyche of artists. In "View
of Toledo" we cannot see beyond the clouds. They suggest
nothing but themselves, not even the wrath of Jehovah, that
anthropomorphic staple of a thunderous sky. In this somber and
portentous painting the light lights up nothing but the clouds. We
see that the town lies in the grip of a force which is quite of
this world, suggested by the massive hills and the storm that
seems capable of pulling Toledo from its moorings. All is in
descent, a fury of descent to some point below the Tagus River,
behind the house at the bottom of the picture, or just to
the right of the canvas. It is as if the world were being sucked down some hole behind a bush, probably where the town's cesspool is kept.
Instead of God or heaven, there's the Alcazar in the background,
bureaucratically squatty, and the insubstantial-looking Gothic
steeple shaggily rising up like one of those castles built on the
seashore out of the drippings of moist sand. There appear to
be some figures along the shore of the river, probably children
with fishing poles and a few stories under their belts. The
year is 1608 or '09 or '10, but they talk like children have
always talked, cosmically, trading their knowledge of the world
and examining each other's secrets. One, Tomé, has a great
deal to say this afternoon, for he had an adventure that
morning. He regards Rafael, six months younger than himself,
as a stupido or dolt, and dominates him. Rafael allows this
because he knows that Tomé is more knowledgeable about the world
than he is. A third boy, Alejo, enjoys the same seniority rights
as Tomé. For one thing, Rafael's mother and aunt are
regarded as half-wits, which already gives Rafael less leverage
with his peers. For another thing, he has ears which stick
out from the sides of his head, and for the last thing, he is the
youngest of the three, and there is
no overcoming the stumbling-block of his innocence in their eyes.
This story is about Rafael, and the subject is torture. Through Tomé's uncle, who is a torturer for the Inquisition, Tomé has discovered a spot where he can watch the secret proceedings. As soon as he had verified for himself that such a secret spot did exist, he ran straight for Rafael's house to tell him. As usual, Rafael's mother, Belita, stuck out her tongue when Tomé came through the door. She was jealous of Tomé's friendship with Rafael and kept up a perpetual battle with her son about his friend, hissing with venom that Tomé was maléfico. Although it was supposed to be a secret everyone knew that his uncle was a torturer for the Inquisition. For Belita this made Tomé an unholy child.
"Let him be," Rafael's father said. "A quí? Your company is better?"
Actually Rafael loved his mother and the aunt who lived with them
better than he loved Tomé, but he often found his mother and aunt
boring and without sympathy for his ideas, so he kept his distance
from them. Something warned him that they were not trustworthy and
he fought the frequent impulse he had to confide in them, small
matters and big matters, like the stories the older boys told him
of the brothels in Barcelona, or the bad dreams he so often had
where he saw a Moor's head on a platter, like the head of St. John
with Salomé. He knew his aunt and his mother would not
deceive him, but they always took his confidences in an unexpected
way. Once he told his aunt about his dream of the Moor's head, and
she cackled and said, "That was as it should be." She was
very pleased that this had
been revealed to Rafael, for it was a sign of God's mercy when horror was revealed in a dream instead of in life, and she said that Rafael was a holy vessel of God's prophecy. She was a firm believer in the faith, but she had a horror of the auto da fé, this business of scourging the flesh. Indeed, she feared the sight of anything she considered painful. If she passed a crippled man in the street she put her hands over her eyes. If she heard a troubled child crying she stopped her ears from hearing. She was forever covering one organ or the other, her eyes or her nose or her ears and crossing herself, babbling that God was merciful and that cruelty was a conspiracy against the innocence of her soul. She even pretended to be blind if the Grand Inquisitor passed her on the street. She would shuffle past him in her broken shoes and tap her cane vociferously. Since she did the same when a funeral passed her or a lame dog or a deformed child, people let her have her way. Both she and Belita were regarded as a pair of hysterical birds who became unhinged at the mention of pain and fled anywhere, Aunt to her favorite hill, Belita under the table or under the cow.
"Take care," Rafael's father would laugh at Aunt, "someone will report you."
Her invariable response to this was to cross herself, clasp her hands in front of her lips, roll her eyes upward, and whisper fifteen denunciations on her brother's head. Aunt felt she had the authority of St. Bernard and Gregory and who knew who else, authorities better than Roxas. But if she hated the thought of anyone or anything being in pain, the thought of herself suffering surpassed reflection. She stabbed the air with her terrible hooked nose and cursed her brother for mentioning such a possibility.
Sebastian was known by his neighbors as "un buen hombre con mala suerte," a good man with bad luck. He knew himself to be surrounded by household of half-wits, except for Rafael. He would go to see the auto da fé when it was being given and could not resist baiting his sister with a description of it.
Aunt would grab her crucifix and hold it in front of him as if she were disinfecting the air. "Mercy to sufferers," she would cry.
"Spare us," Belita would cry too.
"Justice to blasphemers," Sebastian would say, to heat them up a bit. "Take care, solterona," he would say to Aunt, "the fire will tickle your toes. Welcome it, woman. God knows, it's the only warm embrace you'll get this side of the grave."
As usual, Aunt picked up her skirts and fled from the house, as much insulted at the mention of her spinster state as terrified of the vision of herself burning. "It's a sin, it's a sin," she would cackle over her shoulder, departing on a pious note. "The sin of pride, to win men's souls that would not be won. Forgive them, forgive them, Jesus cried. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. Forgive them, Jesus cried, for they know not what they do." Throwing the whole lot together, she would pick up her skirts and run out of the house.
Rafael was always sent to bring her back. Sebastian would
not go, for everyone knew that would do no good. In such a
state, Aunt would throw herself into the river before she did
Sebastian the favor of returning to his house. Rafael was
sent because Aunt believed he was a holy child, clean without
corruption. At any rate, it was he who could always mollify
her hurt feelings and who knew in which hill it was that Aunt hid
herself. Once, when she refused even his entreaties to return, he
walked all the way back to the house to get one of her birds and
brought it back to her hiding place so that she would not be
lonely. Aunt burst into tears, made the sign of the cross
over Rafael and fell on her knees to kiss his feet. Rafael
was so startled he began to cry himself. Aunt hastily got up
off her knees and wiped his eyes with her dirty skirt. "Holy
child, sweet Rafael, don't cry
over your goodness."
Rafael wanted to confess his dreams to a priest, but Aunt
persuaded him that they were not a sin, though to him they felt
like a sin. It was she who mainly ministered to his
education, and even Sebastian had respect for Aunt's
learning. She stuffed Rafael with cakes, carried him on her
shoulders while he held one of her birds, sang hymns to him,
taught him Latin and took him to see the great churches in Toledo,
Santa Maria la Blanca and the San Juan de los Reyes where the iron
chains brought home by the Christians who had been taken from the
Moorish dungeons by Isabel and Ferdinand during their conquests
still hung from the ceiling. Aunt knew a great deal about
the history of the city and could remember the great auto da fé
given in honor of Felipe Tercero when he came through
Toledo. Of course she did not go to see the celebration, but
she said that she could
not escape the smell though she had put a clamp on her nose. Sebastian said Aunt's nose was so large she should put a saddle on it. Fifty Moors had been burnt in honor of Felipe. Aunt could also remember when Toledo was the capital of Spain and of the world, before Felipe Secundo moved the capital to Madrid. "That was the beginning of all Spain's troubles," she told Rafael, "because God had put his finger on Toledo to be the center of his religion." She never tired of pointing out that Toledo was built high on a bluff because God was drawing it up to Heaven.
Rafael was an only child, the apple of his family's eye. He never for a moment thought that any of them would deceive him about anything, yet they remained untrustworthy, beyond the pale of his soul's consolation. His mother had been a half-wit from the second year of her marriage. She knew some hymns, but no letters at all, or if she had ever known she had forgotten them. Rafael could not tell her anything he was troubled about.
He certainly would not tell her where Tomé had been that
morning. That would only give her another reason for her
enmity. And if Rafael described to her what Tomé had seen,
Belita would break into an idiotic dance or whinny like a horse or
baa like the sheep or whistle through her nose or tinkle a bell in
his ear. If that didn't cheer him, she got down on her hands and
knees and charged him like a bull, goring him in his stomach with
her head until he screamed, "Basta, basta." She would do
anything to make him laugh and her efforts threw him into dreadful
pain. If he screamed for her to stop, she sat down on a
stool and started to cry. Like Aunt, she could not bear it
if he was unhappy. She was a dumb animal who wanted to keep
him under her wing and lick him all day long. Belita could
spend hours sitting with Rafael, if he let her, looking into his
eyes or holding his
hand. Rafael understood why only he and his father could love her.
From his father Rafael got trust in endurance, but little
conversation. Sebastian was a tilemaker, and in spite of the
incompetence of his wife and sister who sometimes helped him, he
had a good trade. Rafael would follow it. He loved to
be in his father's shop, a shed behind the two rooms that was
their home. Often he went down to the banks of the Tagus and
dug up huge pots of reddish clay and brought them back for his
father to bake into tiles. Frequently he was allowed to
paint the designs on them, and Rafael knew he was good at
this. Tomé and Alejo had nothing to match the talent he
had. It was serenity to sit on a stool with a tile in his
hand, and the sun on his neck and go to work. The workshed
backed their garden
where they kept a cow for Belita, a lamb for Rafael, and birds for Aunt. No sooner would Rafael mount the stool when L?stima, the cow, would put her head into the window and Gentileza, the lamb, would take up her place at L?stima's tail. Sometimes Rafael signed his name on the back of a tile and sometimes he inscribed Ciudad Imperial y Coronado, for he was proud of his work and if his father was not looking, he held up the tile for Lástima to see, who swished her tail in recognition of his art.
Sebastian was not a man who wasted words on compliments, unfortunately more often on criticism, but Rafael knew when his father stood looking over his shoulder in silence that he was doing good work. If he were not, his father silently took the tile away from him. Between them, most of Rafael's conversation was "Si, Padre," or "No, Padre" or "Inmediatamente."
"Rafael, you draw the scroll too wide. Estrecho, estrecho, mal fragile."
"Si, si, Padre," whether Rafael liked his scroll that way or not.
His mother and his aunt were loquacious, tearful, soulful, prayerful, twittering or silly, but his father was never any of these things, so Rafael never told him anything except the information he asked for, that the cow had given milk, what he had sold the tiles for, and so on.
Even at night, if Aunt who slept with him, didn't hold his ears shut, he heard his mother chattering and whistling through her teeth, but never his father. Sometimes Belita jabbered like a bird and hummed, "Lentamente, Sebastian," or "Rapidamente," or sometimes she would cry, "Porqué no me quieres?"
There was no one Rafael could ask why his mother cried like that at night. Aunt's eyes would have rolled with horror, she would have rattled the crucifix over him and immediately he would know that what he had heard had been a sin. Already he had formed the idea that his mother cried in her lucid moments and whistled and cackled when she was insane. That was why she had to be "una poca loca," because when she was sane she was always in sorrow. Tomé knew a great deal about what went on between men and women at night, but Rafael knew he had heard something he should not have heard and he knew, as well as he knew that he had a soul, that to tell Tom? or anyone else was to shame his mother. Sorrow in her was so monumental when she was sane. That was she why she was una poca loca.
Sometimes, in the morning, Belita would sit with Rafael at the table, swollen-eyed and hiccoughing. "Tell me the truth, Rafael," she would say, "do I look like una poca loca to you?" He alwa ôys said no, but as if the words came from a frozen statue. He was ashamed when she asked him this question. He wanted to comfort her, but he could not. Mamadulce. He was wrung with pain for her. "Ah," she would say, "would you believe it, Rafael, I am not yet thirty." A bitter look would pinch her lips. She would take up a mirror, comb her hair, braid it, set her face in order as if she were resolving an idea, as if sanity were something she could make her mind up about. Rafael could read her thoughts: "I will not be una poca loca anymore. Before I was married, I was the envy of my friends for my beauty. Come, I will put shoes on my feet and walk with my head high." Then lucidity would vanish. She would throw her arms around Rafael and, weeping, whistling, laughing, tell him that he was recompense for everything. What woman had such a gift from God? Pity the women who had never borne children and whose wombs flapped like empty bladders. Pity the women who had ugly children and could đnot bear the sight of them. Pity, pity the women with wicked children and crippled children and ni-os locos. She, Belita, had a jewel and that was recompense for everything. She would grow gayer by the moment. "Belita," she would sing, "Belita, put your jewel away before someone robs it." Rafael wished he could be a saint and deserve his mother's love. He knew that the demented were in the special care of God.
"Vamos," his father said to Rafael if he were in the house when Belita was in such a mood. He could not stand to hear her mad talk. Rafael felt his tension. He always accepted his father's invitation to escape. It made him feel both guilty and grown up as if they were two men joined in a conspiracy against his mother's madness.
That morning Tomé called for him before Rafael went out with his father, and he got permission to go off for the day. Rafael saw right away that Tomé had something important to tell him. They flew down the stone streets until they came to an üappointed spot on the Tagus, where they joined Alejo who was fishing. Already the sun scorched the rooftops and the hills looked as barren as shorn lambs. They went past the great cathedral and past the house of El Greco, the artist in Santo Tomé, and past el Transito and down the streets of the homes of the rich and the powerful that overlooked the Tagus. Down in a bend of the river a group of women were washing clothes.
At first, Rafael thought Tomé had caught his sister naked or had gone down to watch the Judaizers scourged in the morning. Tomé came from a family with six sisters and was always catching one or the other naked, at least he would tell Rafael and Alejo that.
Alejo nudged Rafael to tell him that he had a bite on his line. Rafael grew tense, for he wanted to catch a fish for his mother. Tomé was disgusted with his luck that morning. He threw down his pole and went behind a bush to urinate. Alejo's fish got away, and as soon as Tomé left he threw stones in the water to ann úoy Rafael. Tomé came back, sat down again and wiped his brow. When he picked up his fishing pole, Alejo stopped casting stones, but by that time Rafael's fish had taken off too.
"Well?" Alejo said. He was waiting to hear Tomé's story. He said it without eagerness, for he would not let Tomé enjoy the knowledge that he was interested.
"Did you ever think how they do it?" Tomé asked.
Rafael stiffened unpleasantly. He imagined whips or men chained to the wall, and since he had heard stories like this from birth, his imagination had sorted out and absorbed some of the details, a few at a time. He understood that a man chained to a wall could not feed himself when chained or scratch an itch or claim ownership of his body. If thirsty he had to be given water by a guard, a disgusting thing for a grown up man. But he could not handle the problem of how the man passed water or eliminated his waste. Once the problem did come to mind and some necessary details floated into his imagination, he crossed them out from his consciousness. "Jesudulce," he whispered to himself, "perdoname," and crossed himself. It was a sin to think such things.
Tome gave his little laugh of superiority over Rafael's stupidity. "Have you never seen an auto da fé?" Rafael knew that Tomé knew that he never had and that he would tease him about his innocence. It was Tomé's way, and Rafael had no choice but to surrender to the baiting. It was a ritual between them. "Not even the auto da fé given in honor of Felipe when he came to Toledo?" Tomé asked.
"No, and neither did you," Rafael said.
"Si', I did. I was only a baby, but my father took me."
Rafael had a sensation of envy, yet he had no wish to see an auto da fé. But he would never tell that to Tomé.
"My father will take me the next time," he said.
"Ha," Alejo said, "you hide under your aunt's skirts." He and Tomé laughed, for they knew the joke was not only on Rafael's innocence, but on his aunt's decrepit spinsterhood. They drew in their poles, for the fish had gone for good. They linked arms and walked down to the Puente Alcantara.
Alejo would not say "Well?" again, for that would tip his hand, but Tom? felt that another note of solicitous interest was due him. They locked horns and walked in silence. Rafael was content to let the fate of battle be decided by them. They passed the cesspool at the bottom of the town. As usual, Alejo and Tomé threatened to throw each other in. They stood for some minutes throwing stones and watching them sink, leaving a sucking hole in the muck. Tomé winked to Alejo. Quick as lightening they flipped Rafael over, head down, feet up, and threatened to duck him. Rafael shrieked with fear and sportsmanship, for he knew that they wouldn't do it, though there was always a lurking possibility. He was so much lighter than they, they had flipped him a thousand times by now with no harm, but still there was the possibility he could slip.
"Decid qué sois Judio," Alejo said.
"No," Rafael said.
"Decid qué sois Judio," Alejo said.
Upside down, Rafael folded his arms on his chest and sealed his lips. Mild clouds floated overhead and Rafael looked at the upside down sky. Tomé and Alejo lowered him an inch. Rafael could smell the cesspool beneath him. "Decid qu? sois Judio," Alejo said.
"No," Rafael said.
Tomé tickled the sole of his foot. Rafael started to jerk and yelped rapidly, "Sí, soy Judio, soy Judio." Immediately Tom? and Alejo flipped him back and set him on his feet. "Confesion, confesion," they shouted. "Now we can report you. Vamos, vamos," they laughed and ran down the street.
They reached the Puente Alc?ntara and sat down to listen to Tomé, for Alejo had finally conceded Tomé's superiority by throwing his arms up and saying that the body of a Moor could rot faster than Tomé could tell a story.
Rafael tried to tell Aunt what Tomé had told them, but as soon as
he opened his mouth she fled to her crucifix and held it aloft
like someone with a candle trying to shed light. Bedraggled
like a wet hen with her black skirts falling about her, she
croaked fiercely, "Debes olvidarlo, Rafael. Debes olvidarlo.
You must forget what you have heard. You must think only
good, cheerful thoughts, Rafael, for your soul is the mirror of
your thoughts, and your thoughts, your thoughts feed your soul
like a river feeds the land. Sometimes circumstances force
one to sin but a thought is in your head, possessed entirely by
you and free of circumstances. You cannot blame your
thoughts on fate. Clean them, Rafael, scrub them.
Better to scourge your thoughts than your flesh." She
rattled the crucifix at him like a witch doctor. "My child,
my child, you have become tainted. Your
ear, your ear, which you thought was innocent, has been corrupted. A snake has crawled into your ear and into the passageway and up through the side of your skull and it now lies coiled around your brain."
Rafael started to cry.
"Aha," Aunt said, "see if you can tear it out." She pulled Rafael's head down and searched his skull as if she were looking for lice. "Where is that snake, Rafael? Give me that snake. You see you cannot find it because it is now part of your soul. You have heard a terrible tale and it is part of your soul because you cannot unhear it now. Innocence!" She threw her arms up. "How can I make you innocent again? Rafael, nino, nino, child, lamb, how can I clean you?"
Rafael was shuddering and crying as if a worm had crawled into his belly, unsavory and foreign to his system, a thing he rejected and yet it was inside him. Aunt could not bear to see him cry. "Ssshhh, ssshhhh, ssshhh," she said. "Courage, Rafael. Fight. We are struggling for innocence. God will not let a putrid soul into His heaven. Fight, Rafael. Bad thoughts drive out good ones, like gangrene, if unattended, possesses the whole body, like a wind that carries a foul odor drives out even the smell of a garden."
It was true, it was true! Rafael could not drive out from his head what Tomé had told him. He struggled to forget, but the thought breathed in his skull. It is easier to kill oneself than to kill a thought. That night Rafael had a bad dream. He had known all day that he would, and at night he saw the man as Tom? had described him, hanging from a beam like a slaughtered calf. The white scarf he wore around his neck had caught fire and burned till it made its way through the man's neck. His head came loose and rolled into Rafael's lap. There was a terrible noise in his dream. Soldiers with shields and swords stood in front of the man and laughed and in the center of their laughter was a terrible sound, a tap, tap, tapping like the sound of a bird in a tree or like the sound of Aunt's cane tapping in the street. The men wore helmets and on their breastplates the imperial design of Rome, and Rafael knew that the tap, tap, tapping was the sound of the nails being hammered into Jesus' body. The sound of the knocking woke him up.
As soon as his eyes opened Aunt's eyes flew open too, as if she
had been waiting for him, and immediately she put her hands over
his ears. "Debes olvidarlo, Rafael, debes olvidarlo." Rafael
gritted his teeth and knew he must concentrate on not
remembering. He heard Gentileza baaing under his window and
Aunt's birds fluttering like souls in the dark. He took his
silver cross that hung above his bed and went to the window to
pray. In the moony garden he could make out the form of
L?stima standing in a shadow with her everlasting patience. His
mother's cow! He loved her for Belita's sake, but also for
the cow's sake because she never caused anyone trouble, but just
stood wherever it was cool in the summer and warm in the
winter. They had bought her for the milk and for Belita to have someone to talk to all day, for Belita could not do without chattering. No one but a cow could stand to hear so much talk. His father's words, and true. Not even Rafael could listen to his mother all day long.
"Come to bed, Rafael," his aunt said.
Rafael stiffened. The more his aunt said, "Debes olvidarlo," the worse the memory gripped him. "Go to sleep, Aunt," he said, "I am praying."
"At this hour?"
"You have had a bad dream again."
"No, Aunt, I am only keeping Gentileza company. She is here under the window and wants someone to pat her."
There was a moment of perplexed silence, then Aunt said, "Very well, Rafael. But come to bed soon. A tired body cannot fight for its soul."
That was too terribly true, for Tomé had told them he knew a window where they could see what went on inside and Alejo had said "yes" and Rafael could not say "no". They were going to confess the same man again, and when he had confessed they were going to take him up in the auto da fé that week's end.
Rafael's cross fell to the floor. It clattered in the dark night. Gentileza jumped with fear.
"Rafael," Aunt called, "how can you be praying if your cross is on the floor?"
"Pronto, Aunt," Rafael said. He picked up the cross and kissed it and placed it on the window sill. He put his hand out to pat Gentileza, but her nerves had been shaken by the clatter and she shied away. Rafael crawled back into bed and prayed that the man would die during the night so that he would not have to be confessed again. But it is a sin to pray for someone's death and Rafael felt a constriction in his throat as if it had become paralyzed. He had a sudden terror that he would never be able to talk again. He prayed that his father would require his services all day long so that he could say to Tomé and Alejo that he had work to do, he prayed that he would be too sick to leave his bed in the morning. He thought of pretending to Tomé and Alejo that he had an order of tiles to deliver. But in the morning Sebastian said he would go to the Calle Tornerias that day to deliver the tiles himself, and when Tomé and Alejo appeared in the doorway he told Rafael he could go away with them and play until noon. Belita put her hands on her hips and stuck out her tongue until it touched her chin. Alejo stuck his tongue out at her.
Rafael was hurt, but it wasn't clear what he could say about this. His mother had done the same. Alejo saw that he was hurt and punched him playfully in the belly. "Come on, Rafael, I am only fooling." He and Tomé began to jostle one another. Tomé stuck out his tongue at Alejo and Alejo pulled his ears out donkey-style. Tomé found a broad stick with a point and brandished it like a sword. "I am Santiago Matamoros he bellowed. "Come, I will fight you to the death. Muerte, Moros," he shrieked and charged at them. They scattered and ran down the steep street. Tom? twirled the sword over his head like a baton. "Hiuup," he bellowed and came down the street slashing at the houses and the trees. "I am Santiago Matamoros," he bellowed to the sky, "Santo y conquistador por Dios."
"Chirp, chirp, chirp," Alejo teased him from behind a fence. Tomé slashed at him. Alejo skipped out of reach. He plunged to the bottom of the street and jumped into a deep ditch. Rafael followed after him. Tome made a leap with one yell. "Hiuuup!"
"Now I have you," Alejo said. "This is my dungeon. Do you know how the Moors torture their prisoners?"
"Neither do you," Tomé said. "You have never even seen a Moor."
"Sí, but my uncle was taken prisoner in the Battle of Lepanto, and one time he told me. It is worse than the fire or the rack."
Tomé wiped his nose on his arm and caught his breath. "Worse than the fire or the rack?"
"There can be nothing worse than the fire," Rafael said. But he wasn't sure, and immediately he felt his body stiffen in anticipation of something unpleasant, something that Alejo knew that was worse than the fire.
Alejo crouched down on his knees and beckoned to them to get down low so that he could tell them. The ditch was filled with refuse. A dog, attracted by the smell, poked about. Tomé threw his stick at him and the dog ran off. Alejo beckoned with his hand for them to crouch lower.
"You know how they chain a man to the wall," he said.
"Sí, sí, sí," Tomé said.
"Well, the Moors do not chain their feet together but apart as far as they will go, and his arms the same way. Then they take a long feather from a bird and between his legs they tickle him."
Tomé stuck out his lower lip. "That does not sound so bad."
"Sí, it is. They tickle him under the arms and on his feet as well, and after a while it makes him crazy."
"But he does not die," Rafael said.
They heard footsteps above them. Alejo popped his head up and saw a priest walk by. He crossed himself respectfully, then popped his head back down again. "No," he said, "they do not die, but they are crazy forever after that."
Alejo was right. Rafael felt something attack his human nature. He sensed a torment of indulgence that was worse than pain, a mockery of the susceptibilities of the flesh. He knew how prone his own body was to sensations and he felt a corrupting liaison with Alejo's victim. He was right. It was worse that the fire. Rafael felt wretchedly ill. "The Moors are very wicked people," he said.
"Sí," Alejo said, "my uncle killed many in the Battle of Lepanto and he said their blood was not red but black." Tom? shrugged his shoulders. He contested this information, not because he did not think it was true but because he did not want Alejo to know something he did not know. He decided it was time to get down to the Castillo.
"Vamos," he said, and they climbed out of the ditch.
They walked with their hands wrapped around each other's waists and Rafael forgot how wretched he felt in the satisfaction of their consolidarity. The stones on the street were a torment to his feet, but Tomé and Alejo wore no shoes and neither would he. Aunt said that the stones were slowly whittling Alejo's feet away and that he had already lost an inch. Belita said Tomé's feet, like his soul, were rotten with callouses. "But you, Rafael, have feet like Gentileza," she said, "and must have protection." When he had to, he wore the shoes she gave him, but took them off as soon as he was a distance from the house.
If Belita could have had her way, she would have glued Rafael to the stool in Sebastian's shed, for she liked nothing better than to sit under Lástima and watch Rafael at his work. Aunt too. She had twenty-two cages of birds in the garden and was forever re-arranging them, putting them into the sun and putting them back in the shade, letting them loose one at a time and caging them up again. They were named for the twelve apostles and other characters in the Bible whom she liked, Rachel and Leah, and Isaac who was her favorite. Sometimes she had a secret falling out with a character and took the name away from the bird that bore his name. Peter had been changed three times, and Jonah had gone back and forth with Noah. Aunt couldn't make up her mind which was worse, a fanatic or a drunkard, or a man who denied his God. Only Isaac's name was never hanged.
That was serenity for everyone except Sebastian, when Rafael sat
on the stool painting, Belita sat under Lástima, and Aunt cackled
to her birds, using them as a sermon for Rafael or as a story to
tell to herself. For Sebasti?n, life had been at first
excruciating, and then merely plodding, ever since his wife had
gone witless and he had brought his equally witless sister to care
for his witless wife. He had an incoherent affection for
Belita. He had loved her since he was fourteen, but had
never dreamed of marrying her. Her father was a rich
merchant and he was a peasant then. She had sinned with him and
married him against her family's wishes. Now he felt
responsible for her, however taxing he found her. The face
which Rafael loved tormented Sebastian with its shaggy pieces of
beauty in the uncombed hair and dirty skin, the dead black eyes
and the deader lips he
felt forced to kiss at night sometimes, never sure if he wished life in them or not. He almost never spoke to Belita, as if he could not bear to look at her. He kept his face in his food when he ate, his eyes on his work when he worked. He never looked out the window. Rafael knew him as a withdrawn man and, of course, what his father was he assumed he always had been. Sebastian occupied a place in his mind as fixed as God's, no childhood, no running down the steep stone streets with bare feet, no fishing in the Tagus. Childhood belonged to Rafael. Manhood, eternal manhood, belonged to his father. The only way Sebastian expressed a human trait was in teasing Aunt.
"Be careful, solterona, you they will string up by your nose, not your arms."
They had come to the Puente Alcántara and Tomé put his hands on his lips for them to follow him quietly. There was no need, but it added to the adventure. They crossed the bridge and crawled down to a spot near the castle. Here the ground sloped up and a sliver of basement window was visible. The space available for viewing was so low to the ground they had to stretch themselves out and press their eyes to the window. They looked down into a room which was round, all brick, walls and ceiling, and almost forty feet in height. Rafael felt he was looking into a chimney, except that against the wall was a table with candlesticks on it and against another part of the wall were chairs for spectators. Their eyes were level with the ceiling from which partly hung the apparatus for torture. The other part of the apparatus was stationed in the floor beneath them.
"La garrucha," Tom? said.
Alejo gave his head a smart nod and whistled low. "What do you think is worse, la garrucha or el potro?"
"La garrucha," Rafael whispered.
Alejo clicked his teeth. "I don't think either is so bad. Surely they only mean to scare him."
Rafael felt relieved. "Sí, sí," he said. He jabbed Alejo with his elbow and stuck out his lip. "S', that was why they took him away yesterday. They only mean to scare him."
"Sí," Alejo said. "It is only," he shrugged his shoulders smartly, "to scare him a little to loosen his tongue."
A door opened in the round room and several gentlemen entered. One who was the notary or secretary to record the proceedings, put pen and paper on the table. Two inquisitors entered with the Grand Inquisitor, Roxas, who was Cardinal and Archbishop of Toledo, and then the prisoner, two guards, and the torturer who was masked.
"Your uncle," Alejo sneered.
"No," Tom? said.
"Sí," Alejo said. "Everyone knows your uncle is a torturer for the Inquisition."
Tome denied it. The Archbishop put the Bible on the table and lit the candles. Everyone in the room, the prisoner too, bowed their heads and prayed. Then Roxas turned to the prisoner with polite impatience, for it was the third day of this inquisition and there was, in truth, nothing further but confession to be said. The issue had had ample exegesis by now. All that was left was the ritual of pressure. But Cardinal Roxas restrained ö his impatience. He asked the prisoner, courteously, for the love of God, to tell the truth. The notary picked up his pen and waited for the prisoner's answer. There was none, and he recorded the silence.
"Por Dios," Roxas said. "Tell the truth for the love of
God." Each word was pronounced evenly, without a shade of tonal
difference, uttered like the cry of a bailiff in court, calling
everyone to attention, neither more nor less than bodily respect
being asked for, uttered like the atonal sentence of a deaf man
who has never heard human speech. "Tell the truth for the
love of God." The sentence was a formula and the prisoner
did not register reaction. No one expected him to respond at
first, but everyone expected him to learn from experience sooner
or later. So Roxas waited to give the prisoner time to reflect on
his punishment. The prisoner reflected nothing. Roxas
had to decide whether he was being impertinent or whether he
had not comprehended. He did not think the latter was probable, for the prisoner had parried arguments with him well enough on the first day. Roxas rubbed his lip with his thumb nail. The prisoner kept his face averted from him. Roxas turned away and raised his hands to the crucifix that hung above the table.
The torturer knew this to be his signal. A guard took off the sheet that covered the prisoner. He was naked except for a loin cloth which covered what belonged to God, put in its usual way, "for decency's sake." Without clothes it was difficult to tell what kind of man the prisoner was, what station of life he had come from. He had the black eyes of a gitano and the beard of an hidalgo. The torture belt was slipped around his waist, cords were tied around his thighs, under his armpits and around his shoulders. The prisoner was familiar with the routine. Today he could encompass, without feeling violated, the touch of the guard undressing him. Trussed like a chicken, he stood while the torturer slipped sticks though the cords on his body and slowly turned each one. The prisoner's body jerked involuntarily.
An inquisitor said to him, "Tell the truth." Roxas kept his back turned. The notary paused, pen in hand. The inquisitor repeated, "Tell the truth for the love of God." Silence. The torturer pulled on a cord with his weight and the prisoner rose upward about a foot. He hung, twirling in the air, looking inconsequential, inanimate as a book or a chair or a pot hanging in the air. For a grown man to be tied, lifted, and carried into the air against his will, to be rendered inanimate is sufficient, without pain, to destroy him.
"Tell the truth for the love of God," the inquisitor said. He looked up at the prisoner. The notary, pen in hand, ready to record any reply, looked up at the prisoner too. Roxas paused in his prayers, his hands stretched to the crucifix, and waited. The notary waited, pen in hand, waited. He sighed at the inevitable. The torturer put weights on the cords and the prisoner jerked up another foot. The cords in his armpits cut to the bones. His fingers, tied behind his back, went spastic. The inquisitor repeated the command to tell the truth for the love of God, the torturer pulled the cords, the prisoner jerked up another foot. The cords split the skin in the hollows of his armpits. He registered the pain silently.
Roxas felt that something was wrong. He felt the concern and self consciousness of one whose position is new to him. He had been appointed only a few months ago, and inexperience will rob anyone of confidence. The torturer gazed at him for instructions, but Roxas kept an impassive stance, determined to find willpower in prayer and in the consciousness of his position, newly appointed or not. The torturer picked up a whip. With a pause between each stroke, to give the prisoner time to confess and to save himself from the next stroke, he began to beat him. The notary gazed up at the prisoner hopefully, that he would break his silence. He had no desire to see him suffer. His lashes fluttered with sympathy.
The organs on the prisoner's face lost connection to each other and went in different directions. His tongue hung out first from the right corner of his mouth, then from the left corner. His eyeballs rotated slowly like flowers on a pool of water. His skin broke at a hundred points and blood flowed from all of them. His body crumpled and then twirled like dead weight.
"Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth,"
the second inquisitor said. An air of impatience filled the
room, discomfort, thwarted expectations, mild desire for it to
end. The notary, pen in hand, put his head on a side and
waited hopefully. "Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the
truth," the second inquisitor repeated. His voice bristled
with impatience. Roxas kept his back turned and read his
Bible. His ecclesiastical robes, perfect in tailoring,
conveyed in fold and drape not
only majesty and tradition and lawfulness, but the triumph of the idea of man. He turned a page. His eyes wandered and searched here and there over the text for comfort and confirmation. Christ on Calvary had suffered for ignoble humanity. Should not ignoble humanity suffer for His sake?
The laws of torture are certain. Tears fell from the prisoner's eyes. A guard took a long pole with a dab of cotton at the end and wiped them away. Roxas suppressed the difficult admission about the man's discomfort. It was no use to sympathize. The schemata for spiritual survival demanded continual struggle against heresy, faith of martyrs in the victory of the spirit. The punishment of the flesh must not distress. A spiritual kingdom was no small reward for occasional agony. Europe retained its balance in the foundation of a pax Catolica. This hour in late September, 1608 or '09 reaffirmed the boundaries of her religious assumptions. Beyond these borders: spiritual disorder, metaphysical chaos.
"Tell the truth," the inquistor said. He repeated it after each descent of the whip. The weights were applied and the prisoner's body ascended. The whip fell on his back, on his buttocks, on his thighs, on his calves. "Tell the truth," the inquisitor shouted up to him. The whip caught the prisoner on the sole of his foot. He stirred. He was brought back from a cave of memories he had crawled into for shelter, a sweet bed of dreams he had found for himself in the moss under a tree. He opened his eyes reluctantly and discovered his irrelevant body twisting from a rope. This swinging body caused him pain and he rejected it. It was, surprisingly, the object of Roxas's desires. It could be had for a torturer's fees. He gave it to them freely and ascended in silence.
He hung and twirled and bled and his eyes, like moons moving slowly in the sky, rotated without further reflection or content. It was difficult to know if there was consciousness, or personality, or history left in them. So much had been emptied from them. They came to rest upon the crucifix, the tortured lids of the Christ wrinkled in black folds. Like the prisoner's, the eyeballs floated on the bottom lids, detached from seeing, no longer concerned with the concatentation of events that had brought him to this spot, swinging fifteen feet in the air, surrounded by strangers. The prisoner looked at the Christ figure with a universe of expressions, incredulity, bitterness, aversion, irony, a history of hatred. The belly of the Christ bellowed out to him in pain. His hands were tied behind his back, the muscles in his arms stretched with pain. The head lay on the chest, the tongue hung out in the idiotic stance of agony, the eyeballs swam along the lower lids.
The prisoner drank knowledge from the wooden eyes. Dead, carved, a sculptor's idea of ideal martyrdom, they no longer made connection between events. The eyes gazed downward with paradoxical peace. For the prisoner, pain destroyed the way back to life. He did not wish to return to the living, to be a man among men. He twirled past the Christ figure and their eyes locked in recognition.
Below, Roxas turned pages in a book, reading passages of beatitude and justification and high poetry.
The prisoner ascended. Blood poured from his mouth. He licked the dripping beads of sweat from his face. He kept his eyes on the Christ. In the crustaceous, tortured lids he searched for a response, that he might not die alone in this round room under the eyes of seven strangers, not a compassionate witness among them, not a soul to tell the world that his was a particular agony. He knew the Christ figure. They knew each other. They were the past and the present, participants in each other's agony. They were both spirit and matter, witnesses to the same event. They were the event. The prisoner ascended.
The name of the man whose suffering saved Europe on that afternoon is not known. He ascended in silence. When he felt the pain threaten his resolve not to talk, he drank un- consciousness as he had once drunk wine at his wedding, as he had once drunk water from a cup that an old woman living in the hills had given him.
"Gracias, Senora," he had said.
"De nada," she protested, "water is a gift from God, not from me." She did a little dance, shuffling in her broken shoes and bowed low, hiding her uncomely features.
"Sí," he said, "but you are the one who brought it."
She was overcome by the remark, as if the compliment was too much for her. She bowed, put her hand to her mouth and shuffled away. He drank the water and went to rest in the shade of a tree. He lay down in its monumental coolness and found there a box of precious jewels. It was his silence rioting in the sunlight. He whistled for his son to give him the gift. "Jorge." Two black eyes looked down at him. He was almost on a level with the window. Light struck his face. Children were staring at him. He struggled to slip back into darkness. Someone's terror brought him back from his journey again. He opened his eyes and tried to understand what he was looking at. Ah! children. He ascended.
Rafael did a terrible thing. He stood up to run, but his legs buckled and he could not move. He lost control of his body and flattened his head and his arms against the building. He screamed to the man to save himself. "Stop it," he shrieked, "stop it." Alejo put his arms around his waist and tried to pull him away, but Rafael clung to a bar on the window and screamed for them to stop it. "Stop it, stop it, stop it," he shrieked. Tomé tried to muffle him. Rafael bit his fingers. "Stop it," he shrieked again. He kicked the building. "Somebody stop it." They heard guards running. Alejo and Tomé ran. Rafael knew he had to run too. But he had a terrible feeling that he was deserting the prisoner. Fantasy and hope made him think he could run to someone's house and ask for help, he could run to Aunt or to his father. Someone would come in time. Someone would surely come in time. But he knew the man was dead. His guards had forgotten about him when they had seen Rafael and Alejo at the window. Roxas stood amazed at the interruption. Incapable of registering what he saw, his eyes squinted at the light near the ceiling. A score of unfortunate speculations ran across his mind, perhaps as Darius might have thought, that ancient Daniel had found a way of playing a trick on the universe. Roxas snapped his fingers for a guard to go immediately and investigate. Alejo ran. Tomé ran. Rafael smashed his fist against the wall. "Be dead," he screamed to the prisoner, and ran too, downhill all the way, without stopping until he got to the bridge. He jumped into the river without thought of what he was doing. His body jerked around without control. He swam until his arms were leaden with exhaustion. When he could not move them anymore, he let the river carry him, he didn't care where. He wanted to go anywhere to escape the sickness he felt. But he could not. The sickness stayed in his body, no matter how hard he swam or where he floa ted to. He crawled on to the bank of the river and lay there. He tried to push the sight from his eyes, but he could not. "Debes olvidarlo," his aunt's voice said. Rafael turned over on his arms and wept.
"Nino," someone sneered.
Rafael scrambled to his feet and peered through the bushes.
"Chirrp, chirp, chirp. Nino, nene, nene, nene."
Rafael crouched down and searched the bushes. A pair of legs was standing in the middle of them. He picked up a branch and crawled to the legs.
"Aha," Alejo pounced out at him. "Nene, nene, nene."
"Liar," Rafael screamed, "you said they would not kill him."
"Sí," Alejo said, "but he did not confess. They did not kill him. He killed himself. You saw how he did that."
Rafael covered his ears with his hands. He did not wish to hear anything. Tears were in his eyes and he did not want Alejo to see that either. He plunged through the bushes and ran in the direction of his home.
Without Tomé, the sport of baiting Rafael was dull. Indeed, at that moment, Alejo might even have preferred Rafael's company to being alone, but he could not resist demonstrating that he was in command of himself. "Nene," he teased him and flung a handful of sand at Rafael's legs. The sand did not hurt Rafael, but it stung him with insult and with perplexity at being insulted for feelings he could not help. His mother could not stand the sight of pain and she was a lunatic. His aunt could not bear the subject of torture and she was a disreputable spinster. His father could look upon pain with the same silence that he looked upon his work or his food, and he was manly. When Rafael came into the house Aunt said right away she could tell by the look in Rafael's eyes that something bad had happened.
"Sí, Aunt," he said to mock her, "I know where they torture the heretics. Tomé took me and Alejo there this morning and we watched a man being tortured with la garrucha and then whipped."
Aunt began to tremble. The dry skin on her face slid up and down for seconds before she could talk. "Cristodulce," she said, "what have your little eyes seen?"
Rafael burst into tears and buried his face in his
arms. Belita crawled under the table and began to
whimper. "Rafael," she called to him, "come, sit here with
me. If you sit under the table no one will hurt you." Rafael
wept. He knew that something irretrievable had happened to
him. He would never be the same again. A terrible feeling
threatened his life. Yet the sound of his mother trying to comfort
him filled him with loathing. She circled her arms around
his legs and tried to console him. He wrenched his legs away. He
struck his head on the end of the table because he wanted to kick
his mother and could not do that. "Nino querido," she
pleaded with him. If she could not soothe him she would go
utterly mad. But when she
tried to touch him he screamed so loudly she crawled away into a corner and buried her head against the wall.
Sebastian came flying in from the shed. "What is all the
screaming about? Is it you, solterona, frightening the boy
again with your babble? Leave him alone. Do you hear."
For once Rafael was glad to have his father shut Aunt up. He
flung himself into Sebastian's arms. The events of the
morning seemed to lose their force in his father's presence as if
they were absorbed into his practical ability to get on with life,
no matter what its terms. Rafael knew that was the truth
about it all. His aunt and his mother were broken stems on a
river. But it was beyond Rafael to decide in what way
Sebastian's survival was worth more, or to know that if he told
his father what he had seen that morning it would have reminded
Sebastian of similar experiences in his childhood. But this
confession would not have gotten them far. Sebastian would
have spit and have said cursorily, "Sí,
so what? If the man deserved it, who are we to question?" He knew how many doors one had to shut behind oneself in order to grow up, and that it was very dangerous, having arrived at adulthood, to open one of these doors again. He knew that Belita would never be well because she kept all the doors to her past open and constantly walked in and out of them. She remembered once having seen a dog tortured by some boys and then flung into the river to drown. She was six at the time, and still would crawl under the table and talk to the dog as it were alive. She remembered the time she had sinned with Sebastian in a field near the river and then had spent the night weeping on the church floor. She could not bring herself to confess
this sin, but she confessed it to Sebastian time after time, how she had not wanted to go into the field, how he had tricked her by saying he would do her no harm, and so on. She only did not remember when she took leave of her senses. And that was the one door Sebastian could not close for himself. "Go into the shed and do some work," he said to Rafael. Whatever the trouble was that was his remedy for it.
"Sí," Rafael said, glad to escape from Aunt and his mother. He wiped his running nose on his hand and climbed up on a stool, but it was no use. Grimly he painted designs on some tiles. Lástima came and stood by the window and Gentileza took her place at Lástima's tail, but it was no use. Rafael could not rid himself of the scenes in his head. There was an unaccustomed silence in the courtyard. Only after a while did Rafael realize it was because Aunt was not there, talking to the birds. He looked at them with dread, their black eyes, their pecking beaks, their wings forever flapping and beating against the sides of their cages. Peter, Simon, Paul and James, beady-eyed birds, forever watching him, forever plunging their beaks into his breast.
He could not sleep that night. His thoughts and the beating of
the birds' wings woke him again and again. He heard the terrible
sound of them beating their wings against the sides of their
cages, hopping about, looking for a little freedom of
movement. What they want is the sky, Rafael thought.
He lay as still as he could, because he knew Aunt was up,
listening to his soul. He slept fitfully, pursued by his
nightmares. Twice he woke from his nightmare and though he
was in terror he would not turn to Aunt and ask her for
comfort. Once he dreamed that he was walking in a
valley. The moon was out and all around him was serenity,
but he knew there was something sinister in the air, though he
could not tell what it was. Gentileza stood beneath the window and
baaed. In his dream he heard her, just ahead of him, always just
ahead of him, no matter how fast he ran. He
came to a Moor's castle and something warned him not to go in, but he heard Gentileza baa and he followed the sound, as a man in the desert follows the suggestion of water. He came into a room and there was a great feast prepared for him. The lords of the world were there to serve him, popes and bishops, knights, emperors and kings. This is the world, my son, someone said, and you must choose which course you would like, but if you do not choose the proper course. The voice did not conclude. It stopped, as in a dream where one is running and never runs anywhere. Three platters were brought to him, each covered with a silver dome. Choose your course, the voice said. But remember, if you do not choose the proper course. Again, the voice did not conclude. Rafael lifted the cover from the first platter. The moon was on it. Rafael was enthralled. He lifted the second cover with eagerness. The prisoner's eyes winked at him. The cover fell from his hand, but he tried not to betray repulsion. He knew the lords of the earth were watching him. He put the cover back on the table decorously, and lifted the cover from the third platter. Gentileza lay on it. Rafael woke up.
Aunt's eyes flew open. Rafael thought if she said debes
olvidarlo, he would run away from home and never come back.
But Aunt's feelings had been hurt by Sebastian's summary dismissal
of her in the afternoon. She wanted Rafael to see that her
feelings were hurt, although he was not to blame for this.
She pulled the cover over her head and let it be known in a fussy
way that her sleep had been disturbed, but she said nothing.
Still Rafael knew she was listening to his heart. He heard
the birds fluttering outside the window. But comfort of
comforts! He heard Gentileza outside the window too.
Oh! how he wanted to bury his head in her side. In all the
world, it seemed to him that nothing could comfort like an
animal. Human love had too
much complexity. Only an animal would stand and allow itself to be loved tirelessly, panting gently, its ears flicked up, waiting for more, never in a hurry to move on, never remembering bad things to diminish the moment. His dream had been terrible. Rafael could not bear it if anything should happen to Gentileza. If he told his dream to Aunt, she would be sure to say it was a prophecy. Rafael pressed his lips together and swore he would never tell her. He did not care to be God's receptacle for such a prophecy. He felt Aunt's eyes on him, but he kept his lips locked. Hopefully, hopefully, the dawn would soon be up. He fell asleep again, and again dreamed. He was in a round room. It had no end and it had no beginning. There was a terrible sound in his dream, terrible because it was familiar. Tap, tap, tapping like the birds' beaks against the walls of their cages. Tap, tap, tapping. He looked outside through a window of the room and saw a man tied to a post. There were men all around him, in helmets, with shields, soldiers and warriors, the mighty of the earth, and they were driving nails into the man's head. He wanted to tell them that they belonged inside the room where he, Rafael, was and that he should be outside, looking in instead of inside looking out. He had not done anything wrong. He wanted to tell them that, but it did not seem to matter. The prisoner looked at him with his black eyes as if he wanted to tell him something too. That was it. Rafael knew in his dream what he had almost known in the afternoon but couldn't make out then, that the prisoner had had something to tell him. His black eyes had been filled with warning. Go away, they said. Run. The prisoner stuck his tongue out to speak, but a soldier nailed it to his chin. The light went out in his eyes. A soldier climbed to the top of the post and put a superscription above his head: All Men Die With Me.
Rafael woke up. His heart was beating furiously. His palms were wet. But he held back, he held back. He made no sound and did not wake Aunt. There was some light in the sky. A rooster was crowing. If he could lay still another hour, everyone would be up. But suddenly he jumped out of bed and ran into the courtyard and within minutes, before anyone knew what was happening, he had set the birds loose. They took to the air like a pent up breath that was let out. Aunt woke up, alert with danger. She took the scene in with a glance and began to scream. She ran into the courtyard in her coarse nightrobe, her hair hanging down on her back, her arms flapping helplessly. "Maléfico, maléfico," she shrieked. She cursed Rafael and ran after the birds, trying to catch whatever she could. They fluttered to the rooftops, on the branches of the trees, on Lástima's back. They took to the air and went around in circles, crazy with this unexpected freedom.
"Come back, come back," Aunt shrieked.
Sebastián woke and looked out the window. When he saw the birds flying about, he said, "Good riddance to bad rubbish!"
"They are Aunt's friends," Belita murmured.
In the end, Aunt retrieved six and the only consolation was that Isaac was one of them. But her feelings were irreparably hurt. Not because Sebastián had insulted her, which she was accustomed to, but because Rafael, her sweet child, her consolation for spinsterhood and childlessness, had done this. His act was inexplicable, an act of inexplicable betrayal. She who loved him more than her breath! All morning she sat in a chair, dazed, with a cross between her hands and tried to make out the meaning of Rafael's act in breathless mutters.
"Why did you do this thing, child?"
"You used to love my birds. When you were a baby you used to walk with your hand in mine and I would tell you a story about each bird, David, Jonah, Peter, Joseph."
"Why did you do this thing? All I love in the world is you. Why did you drive away my birds?"
By noon she came to a decision. Rafael had been the one who had made Sebastián's cruelty to her and Belita's idiocy bearable, because of his good soul. It was for his sake that she had continued to live in their house, unwanted and insulted. Now his goodness and his magic were gone. She strung together the cages of the six birds and put her few belongings into a bag and without a word to anyone left the house. Only Belita sat under the table and watched her go.
But everyone knew where Aunt had gone. As soon as Sebastián noticed that the six birds were gone and Aunt's crucifix and her few belongings, he sent Rafael to bring her back.
"I do not think she will come back this time," Rafael said.
Sebastián considered the matter for a moment. "I do not think you should have let the birds loose. Sí, I know they are a nuisance, but they kept her company."
Rafael could not tell how he felt. He knew he had done a terrible thing, but it was good to know he would not hear them that night, beating with their wings. He was sorry Aunt had left the house, but he was glad she would not be sleeping next to him with her eyes on him, waiting for him to cry. He wanted her not to be alone or to be hurt, but he did not want her to come back either.
"She is a nuisance," Sebastián said. "Still and all, she is an old woman and we must show respect. Go, Rafael."
Rafael watched his father for a second or two, hoping for a sign of hesitation that he could exploit, but there was none. He turned slowly, hoping his father would say "wait" or "however," but he didn't. Sebastián did not have Rafael's love for Aunt and he was not troubled by her as Rafael was. He could resolve the problem with a principle.
Rafael went down the street slowly. He was in no hurry this time to find Aunt. His conscience bothered him, but he felt relieved that he might never have to share his bed with her again, or listen to her birds beating their wings at night. It seemed to him now that the only thing in the world he cared for was Gentileza.
He met up with Tomé and Alejo at the bottom of the street. They had spotted him first and were hiding in the ditch. When Rafael went by, Tomé stretched his hand out and grabbed his ankle.
Rafael jumped with terror.
"Aha!" Tomé and Alejo sprang out of the ditch. "Where are you bound for?"
"Aunt has run away again and I have to bring her back."
Tomé jabbed Alejo in his shoulder. "Aunt has run away again," he mocked. "Why does she run away so often?"
"I don't know," Alejo said, shrugging his shoulders with a broad suggestiveness. "Why does she run away so often?"
"Can it be that Aunt has a lover in the hills?" Tomé said.
"What? Aunt?" Alejo said. "A lover in the hills? What kind of lover can that be?"
"Why, only something that grows in the hills," Tomé said. "She keeps a tree stump for a lover."
Rafael felt his soul tighten, yet he could not come to Aunt's defense. He knew the suggestion was repulsive, yet he laughed with them. "I will be back soon," he said.
"Go, go," Alejo said, "we will wait for you right here." With a leap they jumped into the ditch again and disappeared.
Rafael ran at top speed. He wanted to get his errand over with and come back and play with Tomé and Alejo. He found Aunt, as usual, at the foot of a hill across the Tagus. She was sitting on a stool, facing the setting sun. She registered no expression when Rafael came into view. Her parchment-like skin slid over her cheek bones as she moved her lips in prayer.
"Come, Aunt," Rafael said, "Father insists that you return." She waited for him to say something else, something more conciliatory. But Rafael only pinched the sand between his toes. Her lips trembled and she turned away. She was puzzled and wounded. Nothing she had said to herself all day could explain his behavior to her.
"How have I hurt you?" she rasped.
"Me?" Rafael said. He shrugged his shoulders. "You have not hurt me, Aunt."
She looked up at him, standing against the setting sun. She sensed that something irreconcilable had happened between them, but she could not find out what it was. His face had changed. His big ears did not look lovable to her anymore, but coarse like disfigurements she had seen in other children. That could not be. It was a mirage. She was allowing her hurt feelings to judge him because he had set her birds loose. In all this world, Aunt loved nothing as she loved Rafael and she struggled to swallow her bitterness over the birds. What were they compared to Rafael? Birds she could buy anywhere. Ho ţw foolish she had been to chastise him for a childish act and make him feel guilty. Whose place was it to show understanding? She reached for his hand but Rafael moved perceptibly away. Aunt was astonished.
"How have I sinned?" she rasped. She leaned on her cane and stood upright. "Tell me, Rafael, how have I sinned against you?"
Rafael could not bear these questions that he did not know how to answer, but yet which struck his nerve center. "Oh, Aunt," he said, as if he were brushing away a fly. "Come, let me help you. Father says you are to come back."
His words were a dry formula and Aunt was too sensitive not to feel this.
Rafael turned to the six cages and laughed ruefully. "Well, at
least you have Isaac and Peter and some of the others left."
He began to gather the cages under his arm when Aunt struck him on
the shoulder with her cane. Astonished, winded by the
impact, Rafael wheeled on his feet. Suddenly his
childishness burbled from him. Tears ran from his
eyes. Aunt leaned on her cane, breathless, repentant and
haggard. "Go alone, Rafael," she said
weakly, "I cannot come back this time."
Rafael began to cry loudly. The conflict was too much for him. He hated her; he hated her agedness and her birds. He hated the way she made his friends laugh at her. He hated her babbling and her cackling. He hated her terrible breath at night and her red, watery eyes upon him. Only her coming back could absolve him and he did not want her to come back. He put his hands to his face and wept from so much confusion. "Oh, Aunt, you must come back. You know Father will not let you live here. And how will my mother live without you?"
"And you, Rafael?" she said. She hung on her cane, crippled and pleading. Rafael felt his soul being pounded between millstones. He could not answer her. The ground was dry beneath his feet. He twisted his toes around the prickly grass, curious that its touch could be so sharp. Aunt leaned on her cane and shook with emotions like a dry leaf. One word from this child and she would kick her heels in the air and run back with him Sebastian by himself was bitter company for an old woman, and how well she knew he only tolerated her out of pity for his wife and the guilt of his sin. But this child! Oh! this child.
"You must come back," he cried. Again he turned to the cages. "You know that Father expects you to."
"Father! Father! Father!" she screeched. She ran at him
with her raised cane as if she were herself a dreadful bird about
to beat him out of existence. Her old breath hit him in the
face and he knew how much he loathed her. She was dreadfully
ancient. Her skin looked as if it would crack on her
face. Never before had she looked so ugly to him. He
suddenly understood why Tomé and Alejo found her ridiculous.
"Father!" she screeched at him. The word rattled in her
throat. She hit his fingers and drove him away from the bird
cages. Isaac and Peter hopped about in mad fright. "It was
your father who drove your mother out of her wits," she screeched
breathlessly. "Cry, Rafael, cry. Tell me Sebastian needs
me. Sí, he needs
me. It was he who made her crazy. He hit her one night on the side of her head with a milk pail because he could not stand it when she reminded him how had made her sin. Sí, Rafael, he hit her for this, and then he asked me to live with him and take care of her."
Rafael threw his hands up to cover his face. He flew here and there, away from the reach of Aunt's cane. He covered his head and his ears.
"Liar!" he screamed. "Liar!" The accusation goaded
Aunt beyond control. She flew at him in further rage. There
was blackness throughout her head. She hardly knew what she was
doing. She beat him with her cane wherever she could reach
him. The birds fluttered madly, screeching and cawing.
Rafael covered his head and ran down the path. He stopped
midway and turned back to scream at her. "Liar! Liar!
Liar! We don't want you in our house." She lied about
his father. She, his father's sister, lied about him because
of jealousy and old age. "You're the crazy one," he
screamed. "You are old and
you smell from old age. You are crazy like my mother." Everyone laughed at the both of them. Now his aunt had hit him, a thing she had never done, his aunt who always had raisins or a cake in her pocket for him. She was a liar, a liar , and his mother was a lunatic. He turned and fled.
He did not know where he was running. He felt as if he had been beaten on every inch of his body. But worse, worse, he could not go home and tell his father that he had failed to bring Aunt back. There were dark clouds in the sky. If it should storm and Aunt did not come home, she might get sick and die. The fantasy frightened him even further. He ran up and down random streets and cried in a spasm of chaos and fears. He ran along the Moorish walls, hoping to find Alejo and Tom? who would tell him he was right to abandon aunt. She is old enough to make up her own mind. Sí. Let her sit in the hills. She was a liar. He ran back into the side streets and into the Plaza Zocodover. Every place was deserted. There was no one around to tell him what was right. Winded, confused at all the terrible things that were happening to him at once, he sat down on the steps of a building and cried. There was no end to his confusion and no end to his crying, and he had no thoughts of the future. Two priests passed him and stirred a hope that they would save him, that in their maturity, their competent, solacing adulthood, they would stop and ask him why he was crying and he would explain about Aunt's birds and how he had said dreadful things to her and now she would not come back to live with them. But the priests did not notice him. They walked on, their robes trailing the dust of the street. The world is full of crying children. Rafael buried his head in his knees. The sun went down. The sky was darkening quickly. If Aunt did not come back, she would spend the night in a stormy hill. If he did not go home soon it would make matters worse. He knew that the house without Aunt would seem dreadfully silent. There was no one else at home that he could speak to and no one else who would wake with him when he had a nightmare. Still, never would he believe what Aunt had said about his father. The look of the sky chilled him. "Aunt," he cried, "you must come home." He got up and wondered if he should go back and try again. His crying spent, he wandered, dazed down to the Tagus, knowing all the time that it was getting darker and that his crime was getting worse.
"Where are you going?" Tomé said. He and Alejo sat in a tree.
Rafael looked up and saw them. "Nowhere," he said. "You said you would wait for me in the ditch. What are you doing up there?"
"Sí," Alejo said. He spit out of the side of his mouth. "That was three hours ago. How long did you think we would wait?" They climbed out of the tree.
"Why, have you been looking for us?" Tomé asked.
Rafael had to admit that he had not been.
"What kept you so long?" Tomé asked.
"Aunt will not come home," Rafael said.
Tomé whistled through his teeth. "What will your father say?"
The sympathetic inquiry warmed Rafael, but he only shrugged his shoulders in reply. They knew what that meant. "Come with us," Alejo said.
"We found the bones of a Moor."
"No!" Rafael said incredulously, but he was willing to believe it forthe sake of stalling.
"Sí, sí," Alejo said. "In the ditch. After you saw us, Tomé and I were playing and you know that this dog always comes and digs in a certain spot. Well, this time we let him and he uncovered these bones."
"How do you know they belong to a Moor?"
"Oh, sí. Who cannot tell a Moor's bones?"
Rafael followed them back to the spot. They climbed into the ditch. After a full day's sun, the hole reeked with refuse and smells, but the children picked their way among the garbage, the dead rats, the rotting vegetables, as if they were treasures. "Sí," Alejo said. He uncovered the spot where the bones lay in a row. Rafael looked down at them and felt no suspense. They looked only like bones. "What?" Tomé said, "you do not believe they are a Moor's bones!"
Rafael felt empty and even baleful. Tomé and Alejo could not whet his appetite today. "Let us play knights and warriors," Tom? said. "I will be Santiago Matamoros."
"Ach, you are always Santiago Matamoros," Alejo said. "This time I will be Santiago Matamoros."
Tomé felt caught. He decided to distribute the roles with generosity. Alejo could be Santiago Matamoros, he would be the Grand Inquisitor, and Rafael could be a heretic.
Rafael objected. He would be a conquistador. Tomé and Alejo immediately pointed out that the conquistador did not operate in the same field as the Grand Inquisitor or Santiago Matamoros. The logic was inescapable. In order for the game to be played, they needed a heretic.
Rafael knew he was being bullied again, but he agreed. Alejo and Tom? immediately tied him to the trunk of a tree that was in the bottom of the ditch and asked him if he would confess. Rafael said he would die first. Alejo wielded a broad stick in the shape of a sword and said he would cut off Rafael's head if he did not confess.
"Wait," Tomé shrieked with excitement, "I know where I can get a faggot and we can make a real fire."
Rafael's head began to ring. "Let me loose," he cried.
"We are only playing," Tomé said. "We will only place one little faggot underneath your feet. If it starts to burn, we will put it out immediately. You, Alejo, Matamoros, guard the prisoner until I come back."
Tomé left immediately. Alejo was tremendously excited. He
assured Rafael they would not hurt him. It would only make
the play seem more real. Alejo's voice was seductive. Rafael
believed him and did not believe him. He wanted to please them,
but he was afraid. He had always let them tie him up in the past,
he was always the heretic, he was always the victim, always the
prisoner. Many, many times he did not mind, only being glad
to be able to play with them, but sometimes he did mind. He
too wanted to be a conquistador por la gloria de Espana. It
seemed very strange that Tomé and Alejo were never the heretic,
and when Tom? came back with a lit faggot in a cup Rafael told him
he did not want to play anymore, it was late and he had
to go home.
Tomé began to whine. "You will spoil our game for us."
Rafael pressed his lips together. That was a terrible accusation. He did not wish to spoil their game for them and he did not know how to insist that they let him down and be able to keep their friendship at the same time.
"Two minutes, Rafael," Tomé said. "Two minutes and we will let you down." He quickly built up some dry brush beneath Rafael's feet and placed the faggot in the center. He and Alejo bent over it and blew on it rhythmically and methodically. Soon a spiral of smoke rose from the brush and the sound of dry tinder cracking could be heard.
"Confess," Tomé said at once in a commanding voice.
"I confess," Rafael said eagerly. He wanted only to be let down. He was in terror over how late it was. He could never run back to Aunt's hill now before the dark. She would have to sleep the night out there and he would have to go home without her.
Tomé was disgusted with Rafael as a heretic. "You are not supposed to confess so soon."
"Sí, I must go home," Rafael said.
The note of reality was disgusting. It robbed Tomé of all the drama of his role. He nudged Alejo in the stomach with his elbow. Alejo knew immediately what he meant. They both ran away like the wind. Rafael was incredulous. "Come back," he shouted at them.
"Sí, we will," Tomé laughed from a hiding place. "Only a few minutes, Rafael."
Rafael did believe them. He knew they would come back in time to rescue him. His liaison with the human race depended upon their word. He prayed that he would not betray his fears and call for help.
He could smell the smoke and taste it on the back of his tongue. His hands were tied behind the tree and he tugged at the cord. Its strength in keeping him where he did not wish to be humiliated him. Toledo crouched above him like a giant, here a torso, there a finger jabbing the sky. It was already so dark he knew his punishment was certain. A wind blew. It swirled the refuse from the ditch and blew up the smell of dead and decaying things. It fanned the flame. Rafael pulled at his cords again, surprised to find how expertly they had tied them, how decisive power was. He felt utterly weary with his youth and his helplessness.
A flock of birds flew overhead. His heart burst with envy for
them. If only he could know that they were the souls of those who
had died in agony, he could find some peace for himself. One
bird circled over his head. The other birds flew off.
They circled over the steeple and then disappeared into the
turbulent clouds. But one bird remained and hovered over the
ditch. It was easy for Rafael, child, to imagine that the
bird was a prescient spirit. It seemed to him that it was
Isaac and that Aunt had sent it as a sign. Its presence was a
consolation, albeit a dreadful one. Rafael could barely trace its
flight through the dark clouds. Now and then a wing caught
light in the luminosity shooting along the cloudtops. Then
all locked into landscape with a title: Boy tied to a tree in a
ditch. History was transformed into mood: forever
apprehension. Mood is translated back into history.
Civilization is memory and art is both. Rafael, child, your terror
is only a game. No matter now the name of it. Pronto,
Tomé and Alejo will come back to release you.