Back story for The Woman of La Mancha
Want to know what Cinda's childhood was like? How she and Christopher became fast friends? What her family was like?
The action of the book begins when the protagonist is 11, in 1582. The text below tells about her early years through entries of the protagonist's journal.
February 14, 1578, from my journal
I am beautiful. I know this because my mother tells me. I sit at my mirror. She combs my hair with the jeweled comb my grandmother gave me. It is beautiful, and you are beautiful, my Luscinda of the blue eyes and dark curls, my mother says, looking at the comb, looking at me. She tells me I am fortunate because I am betrothed to Christopher Solidares, son of my father’s best friend. My mother says she is pleased to have a beautiful daughter for my father to give to Don Hernando’s son. I am six. At twelve, I will go to live with ’Topher as his wife.
Years after I had written this passage in my journal, I found it in a trunk of things my mother had not touched, but the servants had boxed up during the years I was lost from my family. Perhaps it is not an exact translation of a six year old’s writing, but I remember the intent. I remember the day I wrote this passage, and earlier still I remember events that happened in my life.
Looking eye to eye with Our Holy Mother Virgin Mary, I touched her painted cheek. It was smooth, even lifelike—fair, like my cheek that I saw in my mirror. I touched her painted blue robe, part of the carved wood of the statue, and then her hand that was outstretched and inviting me to come to her, touch her, take her into my heart as I was told she would take me into hers, ever ready to listen, to take my wishes to God to ask for blessings and forgiveness for me.
As he walked up beside me, my father said, “Ah, Cinda, is she not elegant?” His voice was rich with pleasure; his fingertips brushed the top of the statue, even as they did my head whenever I came to stand beside him.
“Yes, Papa!” I cried, my hands clasping together before me in my delight. I looked up at my noble father, broad-shouldered and tall, his short, dark unruly hair, crowning his head.
My father smoothed his wild hair with both hands. “See. The chapel is nearly finished!”
“For the tournament,” I said eagerly. I knew many important noblemen were expected at this grand event on our land.
His dark eyes smiling, Papa said, “You have never seen a tournament, eh, Cinda?”
I shook my head; my black curls bounced at my shoulders. “You will win on Spartan, won’t you, Papa?” I asked. Spartan was his white stallion.
“Shall I carry your colors into battle, Senorita Cinda?” He rubbed his closely trimmed beard as if he were considering it.
“Yes!” I cried, jumping up and down. “Oh! and Topher will too.”
Though our palace had more a hundred rooms, we could not house all the guests for the tournament. In a large meadow near the tournament field, dozens of tents were set up. Nearby was a large field for the horses. Large tournaments such as this one brought traveling minstrels and entertainers. Craftsmen, some from as far away as Valencia, set up booths to sell their medallions of saints on braided necklaces, leather belts, weapons carriers, scarves, weapons, wood-carved objects (toys in particular), among other goods. Food stalls sold turkey legs, whole pigeons, fruits, meat pies, and breads. The booths also provided games or gaming.
Early the morning of the first day, I stood with Christopher, my betrothed, on the hillock just above the meadow of tents and watched the camp coming alive. Amid the drab tents were splashes of high-flying banners, and as people began emerging from the tents, more color and noise punctuated the morning. My father and Christopher’s father had sent servants to the tent village with large trays of fruits and vegetables, breads and cheeses. One tray tipped over and a cascade of small loaves of bread from a variety of grains fell like a waterfall to the ground. Smoke from the cooking fires ribboned the sky. The smell of sizzling ham and fish, not to mention onions and garlic freely added to eggs and porridge, peppered the air and made me hungry—we, and both our families, would be eating soon in a nearby meadow.
Of the meal that day I remember in particular some small roasted birds, which were delicate and delicious, though I was impatient with eating around the bones. Christopher patiently tore the meat from the bones and fed me from his noble and generous fingers. I saw the shimmer of grease on his hand, fresh from the roasted bird, as he brought a waving string of meat to my mouth. Quickly, I parted each piece from those kind fingers, which were so ready to ease my childish impatience. That Christopher, who was six years my senior, and I were to be married had been arranged and sanctioned by the king the minute I had been born, and never did I once question or regret it. And Christopher? Did he wish it otherwise? If so, the child Cinda never knew it. As you can see, he was nothing less than a knightly gentleman to me.
While we ate, a couple of phoebes perched above us and sang their fee-bee, fee-bee song. I could see their light underbellies through the bright blossoms of a cherry tree. I finished my morning meal with grapes. I fed a few to Christopher. He took them between his white, even teeth and then lapped them down with his tongue. Some of them he took from me and, gray eyes bright in the sun, tossed them in the air, catching them in his well-defined lips. The coverlets we sat on were near a patch of mint, the purple variety, and Christopher got us mint leaves to chew.
My little sister, Alicia, was waddling straight-legged. She was three but was silent, like a pointed-billed grouse. My sister had thin, straight black hair and usual brown eyes. Her skin was sallow and her nose, like the grouse I compared her to, too thin.
Christopher’s hound, Bolero, went over to her, and she held onto his back. She squeezed the loose skin on the dog’s neck. When he went chasing after a rabbit, she plopped down. Her mouth flew open, her eyes round as a coin--maravedís. As she began crying, Christopher plucked her up and with his long fingers holding her firmly, he swung her in the air, taking her breath and all thought of the fall away. His dark and wavy hair blowing in the breeze, he said, “See, poppet, it was nothing.” He handed her to my mother and nodding a see you later at me he walked, his shoulders straight and noble, to the stream to fish with my brother Fernando.
In short order, Christopher yelled. I ran to see what he had caught. The fish was blue and green, not bright colors, but blue and green nonetheless. The fish flopped at his feet in the dust, dimming its iridescent skin. I touched it. It was smooth and wet, firm. The fish’s spiny fin pricked my hand, and I jumped back.
Christopher held my hand in the cool stream until it no longer hurt.
That night people gathered around bonfires to hear the storytellers. We sat near one of the fires with Christopher, Fernando, and his betrothed Patrecia, and Tomás, Christopher’s brother. The fire crackled and sent sparks showering up into the air to disappear into the stars.
I sat on a stump, and the boys sat on the ground. Christopher and Tomás looked like brothers with noble cheek bones and the same fine generous hands and fingers. Both had long, feathered eyelashes that often played shadows over their cheeks. Christopher’s square chin had a perfect cleft and his eyes were gray. Both were sturdy boys, though of the two, Christopher would always remain broader in the shoulders than Tomás.
It was fitting that the story told that night was of our ancestors. They were Christopher’s ancestors too, for once Solariego and Gasparenza had been joined into one very large estate.
The man who told the story of our families was dark and had hair to his waist, which he pulled back, tied with a leather strip. From his body hung several musical instruments, a vihuela de mano, a flute, a tambourine, small drums, and a trumpet. This gave him a comical, amorphous shape. His voice carried far, even above the roar of the great bonfire. His name was Chanctus, and because I do not remember his verse, I will tell you my version of the story of our ancestors.
Eight hundred years ago, the Moors invaded our homeland, Andalusia, seeking treasure and land. When our ancestors heard of their imminent invasion, they burned their crops and laid waste to the homes—only the monastery was left unscathed—and with their servants and serfs and taking what they could carry, they went to live in the caves in the hills of part of what was now Gasparenza. The invaders were not interested in the burned out land and ruined homes and left, though it was feared they could return.
For generations our ancestors lived in the caves and in small huts in and around the monastery, the story goes, in hidden caverns in the mountains until such time that the land was free from Moorish threat. In each generation, men and servants were sent to join the armies that tried to rout out the invaders. But for the most part, our ancestors lived quietly and in peace under the Islamic rule for hundreds of years, far enough away from Cordoba to be ignored. The Islamic conquerors, the Moors, did not force conversion as the Christians did later. Islamic law guarantees toleration for Christians and Jews as “People of the Book,” people to whom God has granted partial revelation, reserving the fullness of it for his prophet Mohammad.
In the fourteenth century, twin brothers, Maximilian and Emilio, were born to Gaspar Solidares. A girl Solestrella, a beautiful, green-eyed, dark-haired, daughter of a Valencian servant (who turned out to be a princess Gaspar had sheltered from her evil father), grew up with the twins and in time, the brothers fell in love with Solestrella, each hoping to marry her. When their father, Gaspar, died, it could not be decided which twin was the older, and a feud took place as each wanted to be the head of the family.
When the brothers themselves became locked in mortal combat, Solestrella forced herself between them, becoming wounded herself by Maximilian’s dagger and Emilio’s sword. As she lay bleeding, she declared they must abide by her solution to end the siblings’ feud, and in deep sorrow, the brothers agreed. She declared it was time for the family to take their rightful places again on their land and away from the caves. The land would be split between Solariego and Gasparenza. Maximilian took Solariego and adopted the family name of Estallar, while Emilio at Gasparenza maintained the name Solidares.
Before Solestrella died, the brothers pressed her to declare her love for one of them, but she would not. The brothers were heartbroken at Solestrella’s death and did as she decreed and left the caves with their riches and servants and built palaces to live in, but, in spite of the fact their lands adjoined, they were never reconciled.
We all knew the ending, and tears glistened in many eyes around the fire. In the break between stories, a servant threw more logs on the giant fire. The storyteller took a long drink. He held the wineskin high and the red wine, from our own vineyards, streamed into his mouth.
“I love that story,” I said. “Don’t you ’Topher?”
“Yes,” he agreed. “And our union marks the reuniting of the brothers.” It had only been with our grandfathers’ time that the two families had become friendly again. That was why my father and Christopher’s had determined two of their children would marry. I supposed Christopher and I were cousins, but that was so many generations back no one could figure it out.
Later all the people around all the bonfires sang the same songs—hundreds of people singing the same words and breathing at the same time, as if our hearts were beating together. And even more as if our whole bodies were beating together.
After the singing, Christopher and I sat and waited for Johanna to find me. The people wandered away to their tents, homes, or rooms. The fires had died down and were no longer towers but glowing cauldrons of blue flame. The night breeze greedily sucked the smoke into the sky, clearing the air of haze.
Christopher put his hands behind him and leaned back on them. He spread his legs straight in front of him and crossed them. Relaxed, he looked up. My hand rode on the gentle damp breeze of the spring night. I, too, looked up at the sky and said, “See, ’Topher, so many stars.” I pointed. The sky was very black, and the stars were twinkling white.
He said, “Lie back. To see better.” With his long generous fingers, he helped me lie next to him with my head on his shoulder, our bodies nearly perpendicular to each other.
The sky was a dome encompassing everything I could see. And we were far enough away from the departing people that I could hear us breathing together. In and out, in and out, as if we were one. And then that was all I heard—our quiet breathing. It was as if I slipped from my body, and I felt nothing of it or the ground beneath me. I felt invisible, expanded, large. I became one eye seeing only shimmering stars. I was with them in the sky, and I was near Christopher too. And in that instant, I felt one. I was one with everything and everyone. And I knew this—that one was the truth of the order of the universe. A truth as simple as the truth that Mama was my mama. A truth as simple as belonging, belonging here on Christopher’s shoulder in this field on this night. “I am one of the stars,” I said. My voice sounded distant, disconnected from this other me that was speaking.
“What do you mean?” Christopher sounded puzzled.
“Look!” My arm (ah, I saw it moving from my one-eye space) swept an arc to encompass the sky. “Just stars. Me and the stars. Us and the stars. One, we are one.” I declared in a strong voice that pulled me down, down from the sky. I felt the hard ground beneath my back, Christopher’s firm shoulder beneath my neck. It was as if I had thumped back into my body from a soundless space of peacefulness. This space, this feeling had seemed like a perfect example of one, as in the singing of the songs, we had all sang the words as one and breathed as one.
And so, for that brief instant, I knew all that I needed to know to live my life. But it was many years before I was able to apply to my way of life this truth that I divined on that night so very long ago. For just as quickly as I felt this truth, the feeling was gone, and I was no longer One with the All. I was little and outside with Christopher, and I was frightened by the immenseness of the sky, the numbers of stars, the emptiness of the space between them. The cicadas clicked in my ears; the frogs rumbled in the nearby pond.
“I’m afraid, ’Topher,” I said. Now my voice was small, nearly a whisper.
“Of what?” Christopher asked, turning toward me and touching my arm with concern.
“It’s so big, like God’s secret.” I pointed up. A secret was something I could not tell, so God’s secret had to be something I could not know. I liked thinking that God had secrets, too.
And there it was—the knowing of everything and the knowing of nothing. The feeling of Love, the feeling of Fear. And in an instant, because I knew well how to push fear away, I was ready to go on to the next thing.
“Imagine we are falling down into the stars, instead of up.” Christopher said from our flat position on the grass.
“Why?” I asked, though I was already trying to imagine it.
“Because it is not the usual way.” His voice trailed away, and I felt his arm and shoulder relax. He was imagining, too.
It was easy. I squinted at the stars and they softened and glittered—nothing a bit frightening there. I remembered the Nativity celebrations. Behold a child is born, heralded by the heavenly host. “Behold the heavenly carpet,” I said and extended my hands upward.
Christopher laughed. I felt his shoulder jiggle. “Lucita, you catch on quickly.” Lucita was his pet name for me; he said it meant his little shining light, like a star.
Then we lay in silence and it was not long before Johanna found me.
“Good night.” We both said at the same time, again as one. And that is how I had always known it was right that Christopher and I were to be together. For we could talk; we could imagine; we could be silent; we spoke the same words—there is harmony in that.
Because I wanted Christopher’s time to be my time, I went, when I could, where he went. For boys, some time during a tournament was spent in lessons, in particular, fencing. It was not expected that I, a girl, would join in the lessons, but I did go and though I was there to be near Christopher, I knew I could not sit with him, so I sat with my friends, Ruy, Tomás, and Judah, who were all nearly my age and still in their floppy child’s robes, just as I was.
Ruy would be my brother’s brother when Fernando married Patrecia. Though Ruy was my age, he was smaller, but he seemed older, perhaps because his body was compact and already proportioned as it would be when he grew up. Even his hands looked to be a man’s. He had a square face and dark, dark eyes. He carried a pouch at his side with his knucklebones in it and was ever ready to play. Knucklebones were usually from sheep, the knee bone, but Ruy insisted his were human bones! They may have been—there was nothing our noble fathers could not procure. He would jiggle his bag and ask in his already man-husky voice, “Toss the bones?” That day, Ruy, his knucklebones rattling at his waist, was intent on learning about fencing, but his passion was the bullfight, an event I had never seen, but because he lived in Seville, he had.
We sat on the ground near the instructor. At each lesson I was ignored as if I was not there, but I was not discouraged. Near the end of the tournament, I, to my surprise, was included. The lesson began the same as all the rest, whether rapier or cut-and-thrust sword, the instructor, Don Rufio, the third son of a baron, went over the principal rules. “Remember: guard, distance, place, time, space, patience, and practice.” He threw his rapier high in the air and caught it, snapping it through the air with a pfhht and a pouf that rustled my hair.
That day, Don Rufio motioned for me to get up and come forward. A cry of disapproval arose among the students, and Christopher stood up as if to stop him, but Don Rufio said, “Let’s see if she has learned what you should have.” With a knowing smile, Christopher nodded and sat. Don Rufio waved his rapier in an arc around the circle of boys, including all of them in his challenge of learning. He bowed to me and said, “Senorita, what is the most important thing you have learned this week?”
“Offence and defense are one motion.” I, breathless and nervous, rattled off a sentence I had heard him say dozens of times.
He eyes widened in surprise. “What else?”
I explained, I know it was in simple terms, what I had heard him say of the seven precious principals. I ended with, “Do it so often you do it in your sleep.”
He hid a smile behind his hand. He handed me a practice dagger and a practice rapier and asked if I could show him what I had told him. I was clumsy, and Fernando laughed at me—his laugh was flat and humorless—until ’Topher, my champion always, told him to be quiet. Another boy—I did not know him, though I had seen him with Fernando (he had blue eyes and dark hair, even as myself, and was from Italy)—complained that I should go, and Don Rufio said, “We learn as much from others’ mistakes as our own,” and with that, the boys watched as Don Rufio, helped me through the cuts, then also the parries, quickly following a riposte. He showed me how to set my feet and more.
His instructions were over sooner that I wanted them to be, and I think he was surprised that I was an apt, though miniature, student. Don Rufio bowed to me and, as a joke, I think, he let me keep the practice dagger and rapier.
He told the boys to pair up and practice. They all got up and as he had asked found a partner. Tomás and Ruy paired up and Judah paired up with the blue-eyed Italian boy, who though nearly our age, was dressed as the older boys.
Fernando, his dark eyes snapping, came to me and holding his small hand out, said, “Give them to me, Cinda.”
The Italian boy said, “She looks to be as good as you.” His blue eyes were clear and filled with humor. Though younger than Fernando, he was the same size.
Fernando turned angrily and said, “Gabriel, you dog, you will be sorry.” He took a handful of the boy’s dark curls and hit him in the face, bloodying his nose. Don Rufio pulled my brother off the lad, who was busy returning Fernando’s blows, and told Fernando to find a stable for his anger and concentrate on the lesson. Fernando scowled at the Italian lad and smoothed his dark wavy hair. I handed a handkerchief to the Italian, and he walked away to nurse his nose.
I turned from Gabriel and teamed up with Judah, now that he was partnerless, and we tried to use the clumsy swords. Soon Christopher came to me and said, his gray eyes serious, “You must be tired of this, Cinda. Why not go find Patrecia?”
But I stayed and watched him match up with a boy his size. Later I clumsily sparred with Tomás. Ruy’s little man-shaped body seemed particularly agile for this play, while Tomás, Judah, and I were not as agile, but, oh, so willing. It was hard, but now I was determined, for I wanted Gabriel, the lad who had said I could be as good as Fernando, to be right.
My room was on the third floor of the south wing around the corner from the nurseries, our school room, and my siblings’ rooms. It had few furnishings: a dresser with a bench and mirror, the bed, which was in the center of the room, a prie-dieu, and one wooden, straight-backed, armed chair. On the outside wall were two shuttered windows, which looked out into the courtyard. A goldfish pond was below, and during the day when the sun was in the right place, I could sometimes see the glinting goldfish. My clothing, which, at this time, was only a few child’s robes, for day and night, hung on hooks.
After evening prayers, which our family said in our gathering room, Mama came to my room to comb my hair and talk. She said she liked, after the end of her day, to do something simple and pleasurable, and it was her chance to include in my education, the proper behavior of a lady and the duties of a wife. When our routine for the evening began, she picked up the exquisite carved ivory comb and brush set that her mother, my grandmother, had given me. The back of the brush was inlaid with blue topaz and garnets in a flower design, as was the comb.
My mother smiled and said, “How beautiful these are!” She looked at me. “You are beautiful, my Luscinda of the blue eyes and dark curly hair.” She leaned over and hugged me. If she forgot this little ritual, it felt as if something was missing, the evening, somehow incomplete. Then she turned serious asking me questions, often about a Bible verse.
She might begin by saying, “Tell me what you know about perfect, Luscinda?” as she unbraided my hair and pulled her fingers through it to straighten it so she could comb it. My hair was thick, and if left to its own devices, it hung in ringlets and wisps of curls.
“‘Be perfect even as your Father who is in heaven is perfect,’” I quoted.
“How do you go about being perfect?” she asked, as she pulled the bejeweled ivory brush through my unruly hair.
“Honor your father and mother,” I replied.
My mother looked pleased. She stood behind me, her hand resting on my shoulder. We looked at each other in the mirror. She was fair, like me, and her lips were full, again like mine.
On the last evening of the tournament, in the courtyard of the palace, my father had our family and some of the visitors gather in a circle, and he presented Fernando with the trappings of a knight. The servants had set up torches all around, and the courtyard was nearly light as day.
Standing in the center of the circle regal as an eagle, my father began, “In the beginning of the world God planned for all humankind to love and fear God.” His voice was deep and solemn. “But, sadly, there came a time when Honor, Charity, Piety, Chastity, and Loyalty became less well known than cruelty, disloyalty, and falseness.”
Don Hernando, Christopher’s father, stood up and joined in the story. “Knights were chosen to set an example for the people.” His hand covered his heart; his deep voice bespoke of his pride at being a knight. Don Hernando was a short, bald man, with a noble mien.
Standing up, already as tall as his father, Christopher said, “Our Lord Jesus suffered many trials and wrongs and died a painful death.” I could see in the flickering torchlight that his gray eyes were filled with sadness. “And just as our Lord has chosen priests to support the Holy Catholic faith with scripture and reason against all manner of heretics, so has God chosen knights to conquer those who attempt to destroy the Church.”
My father smoothed his dark, unruly hair. “The knights who are chosen, God considers to be His most honored friends in this world and the next,” he said, looking at Fernando.
I stood up. “But, Papa,” I interrupted. “I want to be a most honored friend of God.”
My father looked surprised. Don Hernando and several others laughed at my statement. Don Hernando said, “Poor Luscinda. What ardor burns in your heart for God!” With his sturdy fingers, he reached out and nearly touched my heart. “Because a man has more understanding and wisdom and is stronger by nature than a woman, so we are doomed to have it in us to be more vicious.” His voice rang with his conviction of the truth of his statements. “By nature, we deserve a greater position than a woman.”
“It is not fair!” I was young and didn’t understand that fair had nothing to do with anything.
Fernando turned toward me, his fists clenched. “Sit!” he hissed.
Christopher reached out his hand. “Lucita, come sit by me and hear the rest of the story.”
So I sat next to the man who would be stronger and wiser than I, who would defend me and the Holy Catholic faith to the death if need be, and who was destined to be a most honored friend of God, while I . . . ? It was a question I had just learned, and I could not yet answer.
At the end of the story of how knights came to be, my father smoothed his closely cut beard and said, “My first-born son, Fernando, is now seven, the considered age of reason, where he can distinguish good from evil. Tonight we begin his preparation for knighthood.”
I could not remember when Christopher had been given his trappings of a knight, a few chosen things, made in a manner befitting a small body, which allowed the future knight to practice for his responsibilities. Fernando and Christopher would have the responsibility of overseeing their estates in a chivalrous and honorable manner. The crusades—the days of marching knights—were over.
Two servants placed a chest before my father, who raised the hinged lid. It was carved with acanthus leaves. Fernando stood next to our father. Fernando was short and thin in stature—what he lacked in sturdiness, he always made up for in surliness.
From the trunk my father took a sword. “Don Fernando,” he began. I was startled that our father gave Fernando the title of respect for a man. “Unto a knight is given a sword in the shape of a cross on which our Lord died. In like manner, the knight is to destroy and utterly vanquish the enemies of the Cross by the sword.”
The little sword was made of metal though blunt in every way, even with a balled end. It was small enough for him to wield and practice with, without (one hoped) hurting anyone. As Fernando grew, new swords would take this one’s place.
As my father and Don Hernando presented Fernando representations of the clothing which went with knighthood—a gorget, hauberk, the buckler, the gauntlets, the spurs, the spear, a helmet—they continued to explain the symbolism behind each article, for just as each vestment of a priest has some spiritual meaning, so did each article belonging to a knight. Fernando accepted each solemnly and without emotion.
From a deerskin sheath, my father pulled a knife. The blade caught the light of a nearby torch and flashed light in my eyes. “Because this must be used at close quarters, when spear or sword is gone, it teaches us that a knight must not place too much faith in weapons or his own strength, but he must place his trust in God.” He handed the weapon to Fernando, who took it eagerly and nearly smiled. He thrust with it from his shoulder, as if going after a mighty adversary. The knife followed a true course, as his falcon did when it took off in flight.
Don Hernando said, “Bravo, Don Fernando!”
“A knife can also be used to deliver death to a fellow knight who is mortally wounded,” Christopher added, his own knife sheathed at his side. He slashed his hand through the air, as if delivering just such a stroke. “Aim for the neck. A slice there and one dies within seconds.”
His bald head shiny in the firelight, Don Hernando added, “Or a knight may use it to dispatch himself were he ever dishonored beyond repair.”
“Nay,” my father said, shaking his head, his dark, wavy hair falling across his forehead, “the taking of one’s own life is never forgiven by God.”
“I see we disagree on this, Marco,” Don Hernando said evenly. “Do you not remember when we were students, we studied the Castilian code of the Partidas? It said, ‘For a man who has lost his good name, even through no fault of his own, is deprived of all Worth and Honor: better for him to be dead than alive’?”
My father was silent and thought carefully before answering his friend. “I see. Yes. The dishonoring of one’s family name. . . .” He paused as if thinking, then his eyes lighted on me and he finished, “such as bringing shame to a cherished sister.” He reached over and touched my cheek and smiled. “This is only supposition, you see,” he whispered to Fernando and me. He added, more loudly, “There would be no redemption for that, so death would be preferable.” He nodded at his friend. “I concede your point. Keeping one’s good name is of utmost importance.”
This willingness of my father to concede an item of disagreement was a good example he set for us, showing that changing one’s mind was permissible, though I think he would add, permissible only after studied and rational consideration.
My father had Fernando sheath the knife, admonishing him to be careful for it, of all the items he had been given, was real. “May you find many other uses for it before you ever have to defend your honor or,” he looked at Christopher, “dispatch a wounded knight.” With one finger my father made a motion as if slitting a throat. This idea of cutting throats was rather grim to me—maybe I was willing to allow a man’s world to be different from a woman’s.
My father nodded to a servant, who disappeared. When he returned, he was leading a large chestnut stallion. Everyone gasped. I could hear my mother murmuring. Fernando smiled broadly. My father handed the reins to Fernando.
“Is he truly mine?” he asked with unusual delight.
Christopher asked, “’Nando, what will you name it?” Christopher had named his horse Beleza, meaning beauty. His horse was a muscular black stallion.
“I will name him Red Devil,” Fernando said immediately. His dark eyes flashed with pleasure, as he smoothed his hand over the flank of the horse. “He will take me as fast as the devil anywhere I want to go.”
“Oh no, ’Nando,” my mother cried, “you must not invoke the devil!”
“Then I shall call him Mercury,” Fernando said quickly and without argument, for though he was often a quarrelsome lad, he never was with our mother. I knew Mercury was the messenger of the gods and was fleet with winged feet and helmet.
To end this ritual of giving Fernando the items of manhood, Father Francisco prayed: “May Fernando strive to become a most righteous knight, professing always the characteristics of the chivalric code: Honor, Charity, Piety, Chastity, and Loyalty.”
I was close enough to Father Francisco to smell his familiar garlic scent. I looked up and saw the torchlight around Mercury. What kind of knight would my fractious brother be?
The priest continued, “May he, like St. Michael, who defends the gates of Heaven from the evil ones, be a defender of the Holy Catholic faith in the service of King Philip. Amen.”
Fernando received congratulations all around. Mama kissed his forehead and even in the dim light we could see he blushed. Everyone laughed and Fernando tried to scowl, but he was pleased with the evening. He fingered his dagger happily and helped lead his horse to the stable.
The servants brought out warm cheese tarts and wine and everyone ate and drank their fill. Then we sat and sang until it was late and all were tired. Mama and Papa were nearby when I walked into the house. I took a hand of each of them, happy to have their attention just for me. On the way in, I asked Papa for a horse.
He looked thoughtful. It seemed he might say, “Yes.” He tapped his index finger under my chin, but before he could speak, my mother said, “Certainly not.” And in the torch light, I saw the finality of those words in her soft auburn eyes.
My father turned from me to her. A smile played softly on his face as he nodded and bowed his head—a sign that she had spoken for the two of them. But what would my father have said if she had not spoken first? And what would he say as the night father? I would hope for a horse.
It was a Friday and I got my first ride with my father on his horse, Spartan. My mother was near her time, and we could not go see the sad-eyed Brother Diego at the Way of the Saints. My father was going to get the midwife Tessera to come and stay at the palace until the baby was born. Though Tessera was an old and stooped woman, she had delivered four live and healthy babies to our family—good credentials to my father.
As he was leaving on this mission, I said on a whim, “Take me, Papa.” I had never gone with him before as he went about Solariego, and I had no reason to think he would take me now.
This day, he took my hand, and leaving Johanna speechless, for she was standing there, we walked to the stables, where he mounted his great horse Spartan.
Jadehar, a large heathen slave, put his big hands on my waist and lifted me, as if I were a flying bird, into my father’s nest of arms. My father placed me sideways on the saddle in front of him; my legs, dangling over his leg. I could have kicked Jadehar in the face, for my foot was right at his nose. Please do not think I would have done that, for I would not, but the juxtaposition of my foot and his nose, when I was so small and he was so large, amused me.
My father had a few slaves—in particular in the marble quarries—though mostly free vassals kept our lands and our home. Jadehar had been bought long before my birth, and my father had entrusted the livestock near the palace to his care. As the years went by, the stable had become Jadehar’s main charge. I never saw a cross word from my father to Jadehar and once when a mare foaled, I saw them, stripped to their breeches, arms glistening with sweat and blood, working as if in tandem to help the spindly foal come.
Using the Moorish language, which I had learned from some servants, I thanked Jadehar for putting me on the horse. He said, “I am not a Moor. I am from a place in eastern Africa; a place farther than you are ever likely to go,” he said. He moved back from us; his feet rustled the straw on the stable floor.
My hand rested on Spartan’s coarse mane. “Are there Christians there?” I asked. I heard Mercury whinny and kick against his stall.
“No,” he said. “We have many gods though one great God.” From his waistband, he pulled a large handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“That would be our God.” I said. “There is only one great God.” I folded my arms confidently before me and solemnly nodded my head.
Papa cleared his throat and brushed the top of my head. “Cinda, ours is the only true God. Just as ours is the only true Church.”
I did not understand. One God was one God everywhere in the world, wasn’t it? “Father Francisco says God created all things.”
Patiently, Papa explained what he saw as the error in my thinking, “Jadehar is an infidel. He does not believe in Jesus.”
“That is true,” Jadehar bowed his head at my father’s indictment. “But I am learning about him from Antonia.” Antonia was our French cook.
“She is a good teacher,” I said, for I received instruction in cooking from her. I reached over and patted Jadehar’s shoulder. “You must be baptized to get to heaven. Better go talk to Father Francisco.” I did not want to think of him in hell for all eternity.
My father picked up the reins and Spartan began. I clicked my tongue in time with the clop-clip clip-clop of Spartan’s hooves. We were accompanied by a page with two mules, which were to provide transportation for Tessera and her trappings. I liked sitting high on Spartan here in the sunshine in my father’s arms. An adventure! We were on a road I had never been on.
I looked around from my perch. From my vantage point, I could see fields and homes with neatly thatched roofs. Workers were raking straw into large piles. We passed one of the olive orchards, which was dense with gray-hued trees. I could see the olives were ripening on the branches. I knew that our olive harvest was mostly used to produce oil, not for fruit.
“Yesterday I wrote my numbers to six hundred seventeen,” I told my father.
“Good!” He pushed his wavy hair back from his forehead. “And do you do sums?”
“In my head,” I said and nodded; my hair flounced against my back.
“Can you add ten and seven?”
“Seventeen,” I said confidently. “Can you add fifty-seven and thirty-nine?”
“That’s a bit hard for me,” he said in his resonant voice.
“Ninety-six,” I said proudly.
“That is good, Cinda.” He patted my back. “Enrico says you are quite smart for a girl.”
I am smart, I thought. I am a girl. I used my hands to balance the ideas. “I am quite smart.” I put out my right hand. “I am quite a girl.” I put out my left.
My father laughed so heartily I nearly slipped from my seat. “Papa!” I cried. “Hold me.”
He tightened his grip. A wedge of geese flew overhead. One was lagging behind. Catch up! Catch up! I thought at it. Better to be with your family. I was glad to see it move closer to the flying V.
My father spoke, “Are you learning Latin?”
“Of course, the Psalms are in Latin,” I said simply.
“And other languages?”
“English, like my grandmother,” I said. “Italian from Enrico. French, too.” Our cook Antonia was from Paris. “I learn Dutch, from Niñera Johanna.”
“Johanna teaches you Flemish?” he asked. He seemed surprised.
“Papa, it is easy,” I said impatiently. “You speak what people speak to you.”
And you must know this too, dear reader, that this is how we learn—from others. What to say and what to do.
It was a grand feast day when the new baby Catherine was baptized. St. James’ day had been celebrated by the entire countryside at Solariego for generations. Hundreds of people came, including vassals, servants, slaves, the artisans and craftspeople from Riego, the nearby village, and the members of the monastery on our lands. Joining them this year, were the various notables that were invited because of Catherine’s baptism. It was a happy coincidence, my father said.
For the celebration, long tables were put in the yard. Antonia had planned for this event for months. Extra hunters and fishermen were hired, and carts and carts of food were transported from Seville and Cordoba in preparation for the annual feast. The amount of food consumed that day would read something like this: 2 tons of wheat, 150 barrels of wine, 50 oxen, 3 wild bulls, 200 sheep, 200 hogs, 100 swans, 100 geese, 200 capons, 500 suckling pigs, 1,000 quail, 100 peacocks, 200 wild ducks, 200 cranes, 200 kids, 1,000 chickens, 1,000 pigeons, 2,000 rabbits, 200 herons, 200 pheasants, 200 partridges, 100 woodcocks, 300 deer, 1,000 of various fishes, as well as 2,000 cold pies, hundreds of creamed dishes with vegetables, and great quantities of gingerbread, sweets, and waffles. And there would be nothing left!
As soon as Mass was over, I left the chapel and headed to find Johanna to see if she would help me get something to eat. After the feast, we spent the waning afternoon playing games, though most of the feast attendees simply sought a place to sleep off their satiety. When it was time for the music and dancing, some of the tables were still in place for the dancing of the jondo and other solo dances. Though soon everyone would be singing (for singing was often linked with our dances) and dancing wherever they were.
Are you familiar with the dancing of the Andalusians? The dances of our festivals and feast days were singularly Andalusian and spoke of the various heritages which were intermingled in our country. The dancers begin slowly, almost exhaustingly slow, for the ancient roots of the dances prescribe that the women barely move their feet so their legs do not show. Just as the dance seems fixed in its monotony, it is as if one is struck with a revelation, like Grace, and the dance becomes joyous and spritely, frantic and devilish.
Everything depends on the attunement to the intimate beatings of your own heart. One does not learn a dance, one divines it. You must forget the words that teach you, and what remains, remains in the blood—then and only then do you know a dance. Unlike a Sacrament, you let go of the form--the words—until all you have is the matter—the substance.
Soon everyone was dancing, and we children mimicked the adults as best we could, but it did not matter that we could not dance the precise steps. We were young and in our bodies, and we moved and twirled.
I sat outside with Christopher looking at the stars. I held my arms up. “Do you think the birds fly to the stars?”
“I don’t know,” he said, his gray eyes were dark in the torchlight. “What do you think the stars are like?” The shadows played across his noble cheeks and square chin.
“Why they’re like candles, only they have more tallow and wick, so they never burn out. That’s the magic of them.”
He hugged me. I felt his long, generous fingers press into my back. “I hope your imagination never runs down, Lucita.”
“It is not a clock, ’Topher,” I said. “It does not need to be wound!” I had watched the servants wind the clock in our hallway many mornings. He laughed, his longish hair waving about his shoulders. Soon Johanna came and took me in to bed, marking the end of a memorable day in my life, when my beloved Catherine was christened.
Christopher returned from a trip to Flanders with our fathers just before my sixth birthday—February 14. He brought me my first blank book, and I began to write in it.
Christopher gave me several pencils, quills, ink, and a sand shaker to help dry the ink once it was committed to the paper. I had been writing since I was four. I knew most girls were not educated in this way. Even Christopher’s sister, the querulous Luisa, would not be educated. My father and Christopher’s father, Don Hernando, disagreed on this point. I was glad my father was my father and that I got to learn. I loved to read; I loved to write, and I loved doing sums.
Christopher picked up one of the quills with his noble fingers and tickled my cheek with the feather end. I was standing beside him; he was sitting: our heads were at the same height and I liked that.
“Do you know what a diary is?” Christopher was patient with me. He asked me questions, and if I did not know the answers, he told me. If I did know the answers, he smiled and his gray eyes lit up.
“Like the explorers kept.”
He nodded. “Yes, that’s how we know about the strange things that they found.” He pushed his dark, straight hair behind his ears.
“Like how the Amerindians look?” I took the sand shaker and shook a bit of sand in my hand. It was white, like salt. I would not have anything as exciting as the explorers had to write down. Then I had a thought. “I can write you letters! When you travel.”
“Good,” he said. “I hope you do. When I go to study in Italy.” He would be going in the winter. “I will keep a journal,” he said as he rubbed his square chin. “I will remember everything I do and learn while I am away.”
I nodded. “And you can read to me about it.” As it turned out, we both went to Italy before he went to study there, but that was in the summer and both our families went to have our portraits painted by Tintoretto.