See here, high on the scaffold upon the wall, in the maw of the saint, a small man who knows immeasurably the ache of great longing.
He knows her name: Mencia. He knows where she lives: in a mansion close by the plaza San Francisco. Her bedroom is on the third floor and has a decorative stone railing and a tiled awning made from blue azulejo tiles, one of them with a fine hairline crack along its edge. She has a particular devotion to La Virgen de la Hiniesta Gloriosa, which is what has drawn her here.
Afligido por el anhelo.
Afflicted with longing.
He watches her unabashedly from his perch; she does not notice him. He might as well be one of the lazy, fat flies that endlessly circle the nave. She is wrapped in a light silk shawl which covers her hair, and a black mantilla veil hides her face. It does not matter. He saw her face uncovered once, and it was enough. He will remember her exquisitely now and for a lifetime.
He could paint her from memory.
She lights a candle at the feet of the Virgin and murmurs a few words of prayer while her duenna sits, white-lipped, in the pew. He wonders who or what she is praying for. He will never know.
And then she is gone, as silently as she came; the scuff of her shoe on the stone, the sigh of her imagined breath. He squints into the white light streaming through the great doors as she walks outside into the plaza and her waiting carriage.
He turns away. Long moments pass before his eyes accustom themselves to the gloom of the church again. He thinks he can smell roses and jasmine, the fine trace of her perfume clinging to the motes of dust.
Nowhere is safe from her depredations, it seems; not this church, so far from where she lives; not his father’s social circles; not his reverie, no matter how he tries to remain disciplined to his art. Her loveliness tramples everything. She slaughters and burns like a Mongol, an iron-shod butterfly.
He returns his attention to the mural, to Christopher bearing the Christ child across the river. Christopher bears an uncanny and not unintended likeness to his patron, the bishop. The child itself is blond. He could be the son of any good hidalgo. Well, you couldn’t have him looking like a dirty Jew, after all. Or the son of a Mudéjar.
He stands for a very long time staring at what he has done, then tries to focus again on the work.
“Pretend you believe it,” he says, his lips barely moving. No one can hear him. It is the middle of the day. Half the town is asleep. He is alone again in here. But you never know, not in Seville. At the least God might hear, and he certainly doesn’t trust Him.
He closes his eyes and imagines her as his wife. To do that, he must imagine himself as an ordinary man, or more likely, an extraordinary one, like Raul. His eyes blink open to dismiss the image. What is the good of it? He will never feel her breath on his cheek. She will never come as a bride to his bed, and all he will ever know of fulfillment are tempera paintings of saints who look vaguely like fat bishops.
Such talent he has. They all tell him so. He would rather be tall and dull.
He throws down the brush and clambers down the ladder. He wipes his hand with a rag then tosses it on the floor below the scaffold. It’s no good. The day is done. She has ruined everything with her impossible grace. Her fragrance has despoiled the must in here. He pauses by the Madonna and gives her a hateful look. Was she in on the plan, the day her Christ and all his blessed saints made him? Was she complicit?
He passes his hand through the taper Mencia Gonçalvez has lit at the saint’s feet until it burns him.
If he goes home now, his father will wonder why he has abandoned work for the day. He cannot bear the prospect of the interrogation and does not have the energy for fabrication. He could start work on the panel in his studio, but it is exhausting even to contemplate composition.
“A drink, then,” he tells the Virgin to spite her wooden tears. He wags a finger in her face. “Don’t cry for me. That is called hypocrisy. It’s you and your family that drive me to it.”
A last look at San Cristóbal, just a disembodied head, the shadow of what will one day be his body outlined on the wall. The way he has painted him, Cristóbal has the expression of a man who will drop the Christ child in the deep part of the river unless he is paid handsomely for his trouble. Smug. Devious.
Still, the bishop will not notice. His kind never do.
Diego Vasquez, El Trasgo, stands on the steps of the church and squints around the empty plaza. A dust devil chases the page from a missal around the empty fountain. He starts along the calle, headed west toward the docks. Even at this time of the day, he will find diversion in Triana.
He steps over the horse dung; a dusty wind from the Maghreb stirs the leaves of the palm trees. As he walks, the mansions and private gardens give way to more modest houses, and then he smells the river and hears the cries of gulls.
He wouldn’t have come down here without Raul once. Even the sheriff refused to patrol down here at night. It was Isabella who stamped it out when she took the throne. Throw all the murderers and thieves out of Triana and there will be no one left, or at least that’s what the burghers told her. After a few months, she called off the dogs, but at least you could walk there during the day without getting your throat cut.
But not always.
A pebble hits him on the side of the head.
He stops and turns. The stone lies at his feet, a small one, not large enough to bruise, but large enough to gain his attention. His spirits sink.
There is a gang, perhaps a dozen of them, youths, apprentices probably, bored with the siesta, looking for some sport on a hot, dusty afternoon. Diego reaches for his sword, then remembers he has not brought it with him this morning. He hadn’t imagined he would need it while painting murals in a church.
Another stone, larger than the other, skitters across the cobblestones. Laughter is followed by an insult. He hears the word enano, dwarf. Well, of course. Isn’t it funny to see a man in a boy’s body? Irresistible for the low sort.
If he was armed, he would charge at them, drive them off. Skewer them, if he could. But he knows there is nothing for it now but to run.
He walks faster, then turns down a narrow alley into the shadows, hoping they will not follow, that it is too hot even to run after dwarves. But of course, such reprieve would be too simple, not a part of God’s holy plan.
He hears them shouting, then the sound of their boots echoing off the walls. He runs harder, looking back once at the corner. Dios mio, they are bearing down on him. A great game. He has played it before, many times. A grown man with small legs cannot outrun a pack. The only question now is how bad the beating will be.
He hears the mewling of a cat and sees it hurry from the bright street into black shadows that he thought were a solid white wall. Here is a chance. He follows it down the callejon. It is barely wide enough for a man and leads steeply downhill. He waits, not daring to breathe. He can hear them gathered in the street, shouting to each other, Where is he? Where did he go?
He steps into a doorway then presses his back against the wooden door, waiting. A pigeon flutters between the eaves above.
And now one of them is coming down the alley. The others call to him, Come on, let’s go, he’s not here. He can hear the boy breathing. The temptation is to dart away and run. He tries to melt into the wood, crouch down, become invisible.
He can feel the boy hesitate. What is he waiting for? Another few footsteps closer. Diego knows he is just a few paces away now, he can see his shadow on the bright white wall on the other side of the callejon.
The boy calls out, “Enano! Salga! Sé que estas aqui!”
Diego has been holding his breath for so long his chest hurts. The boy’s friends call him again. He hears the boy call back, I’m coming. Just wait.
And there he is. A bully of a boy, apple-cheeked and stocky, with bright cruel eyes. They stare at each other, and the boy grins. “There you are,” he says, like he has found a kitten he wants to drown in a drain.
Diego runs, but it is no good. The boy laughs, knowing he has won, and trips Diego as he goes past. Diego goes sprawling on the cobblestones. The bully boy shouts to the others up in the street, and they all come clattering down to join the fun.
Someone throws open a shutter and yells at the mob for disturbing their siesta, as if that would stop them when there’s a dwarf to torment.
Diego rolls on his back and looks up at the bright, eager faces. “Let’s just get it over with,” he starts to say, but he doesn’t finish because the bully boy has already aimed the first kick.
Raul Beltran climbs down from his carriage then runs up the steps of the church. “Diego! Diego, where are you?”
He looks up at the abandoned scaffolding, the rag lying on the floor, the smudged fingerprints and bright lapis lazuli on the Virgin’s toes. It is still wet. Well, he has been here, and not long ago.
He calls again. “Diego!”
He sighs with frustration then stares up at the mural on the wall, with its latest additions of tempera. He stands closer, then moves farther away. He laughs and calls his coachman’s name. When the coachman does not immediately appear he goes back outside, drags him down from the running board, then brings him inside the church.
“Look at that.”
“What am I looking at, señor?”
“That, Pedro! Don’t you see? It’s beautiful.”
“It’s not finished.”
“That doesn’t matter. Look at what he has done to the face, the lines around the eyes, his expression. He looks as real as you do. Not so sour, of course, but then he’s a saint and you spend all your time with horses.”
Pedro does not even smile at the joke. “Look at this, then.” Raul spins him around and marches him to the altar and the wooden screen below the crucifix.
The Virgin holds the dead body of Christ in her arms, while Saint Michael and Saint Peter kneel at her side. The Cross and the walls of Jerusalem loom in the background.
Raul stares at it, transfixed. Pedro shifts uncomfortably, his hat in his hand. He is not sure what he is supposed to be looking at.
“It’s very fine,” he manages finally.
“Fine? Have you ever seen grief so tenderly portrayed? It is as if it is happening right in front of us. Look at it, Pedro. How does a man do this? How does he capture such intense emotion, the presence, the soul? And the colors he uses…it could be life.”
“Isn’t this one of your friend’s panels?” Pedro asks him.
“Of course it is. Why else do you think I’m showing it to you?”
“Isn’t he a new Christian?”
Raul releases him as if he is soiled. “His family have followed the faith for a hundred years.”
“They were Jews once, though.”
“He is the greatest artist in Seville, perhaps in all Andalusia. His work has been commissioned for every church in the city.”
Pedro shrugs. He is uncomfortable in a church without a priest there to tell him what to do. “Shouldn’t we be going, Don Raul?”
Raul is not listening. He is still staring at the panel; he touches Saint Peter’s face with his fingers, as if feeling for the contours in his cheeks. “Such artistry. It is a gift from God.”
“For the glory of God, señor.”
“Of course. For the glory of God.”
“It seems as if he is not here. Shall we wait?”
Raul shakes his head. “He must have left in a hurry. See, he hasn’t even put away his paints.”
“Too hot to work, señor.”
“No, Diego doesn’t care about the weather. He never cares about anything when he’s working. It could snow, and it wouldn’t stop him.”
“Snow’s not very likely.”
“I know that, Pedro. It was a joke.”
“Shall we be going then, señor?”
Raul shrugs, nods.
“Back to the casa?”
“No, take me down to the docks.” He walks past Pedro to the great doors.
“Can I ask where we’re going?”
Raul stops in the doorway, the glare from the plaza at his back. It makes Pedro squint. “I just told you where we’re going. To the docks.”
“But where at the docks, señor?”
“I’ll make up my mind when we get there. Hurry along now.”
“But Don Miguel won’t like you to be going down there, señor. With the low sort.”
“My father isn’t here, so it doesn’t matter what he likes or doesn’t like.”
“But shouldn’t we rather go back? It’s the siesta.”
“If that was what I wanted, we should. But I don’t. I want to go down to the docks. Now hurry along, Pedro.”
Pedro hesitates, torn.
“Don Miguel told me I was not to take you there anymore.”
Raul steps closer. “Don Miguel is in Granada, campaigning with the king, so it doesn’t matter to me what he wants. Nor should it matter to you. It is true he would be sorry to return and find his coachman has been dismissed for insolence. But by then, I will have appointed another, and he is a busy man. He does concern himself overmuch with the problems of servants. And a coachman…how hard could it be to find another?”
Pedro nods. “To the docks then, señor.” He returns to the waiting carriage then picks up the reins. Raul follows. This breathless heat has made him thirsty. He jumps into the coach and raps on the roof with his cane. The horses set off across the cobblestones.
So, what is it that alerts him to trouble? A gang of youths in an alleyway on a hot afternoon—there is nothing to that, not in this part of the town. They are close enough to the docks that he can smell the armory and the latrines and the sea rot of the wharves. But something in their laughter troubles him. He watches as half a dozen of them run off down a narrow alley. They look like dogs going after a wounded pigeon. He knows a hunt when he sees one.
He raps on the roof of the carriage with his cane, and Pedro reins in the horses. Pedro looks down from the running board, perhaps hoping the young master has had a change of heart.
“Wait here,” Raul tells him.
“Where are you going, señor?”
“Just wait.” He buckles on his sword.
He strides down the street then disappears from sight down the callejon.
It is like they have hung a side of pork and have taken turns to tender it for cooking.
They use a metal sconce in the alley wall for a hook and have him pinned upon it by his belt. He is hanging there, arms and legs flailing, roaring with rage at his tormentors. The more he roars, the more they laugh. And when the game grows stale, one of them slaps him about the ears or gives him a hefty punch in the face to keep him growling.
There is blood streaming from his nose, which appears broken.
There are shutters open along the alleyway, faces peering out, but none of them brave enough to come down into the alley and intervene. They are shouting at the youths to lay off, but why should they when there is good sport to be had and no one to stop them?
“Ya está bien,” Raul says. “Enough now.”
They all turn. Raul counts heads. Eight of them. He can see what is going on in their heads. They first look to see if he has bodyguards with him, then they look at his clothes, the fine linen camisa, the soft leather boots.
The sword at his side, for the moment still sheathed.
Raul spreads his arms and laughs. “Come now, boys. You can do it. One man against so many brave boys! Why do you hesitate?”
He takes a step forward. They all withdraw except one, the brawny one with the pig cheeks, no beard yet but overgrown for his size.
“I see you have already taken one prisoner today. What a scrap that must have been! I should like to have seen it. Why hasn’t King Ferdinand made you all knights in his army? He needs men of valor like you.”
Another step. Again, they cower back except for the bully boy, who has his hands clenched into fists at his sides. Oh, enough of this, Raul thinks. He laughs, walks over to the boy, then knocks him down. The boy puts his hands to his face. Blood spouts between his fingers.
“Why aren’t you laughing anymore?” he asks the others. He advances on them, and several of them break and run. Raul spreads his arms wide. “Wait, come back! We’re having fun, aren’t we?”
“Raul! Look out!”
Young men are so predictable, Raul thinks. He hears Diego’s shouted warning, and his sword is in his hand in a moment. He has practiced this movement so many times he does not have to think about it; a step to the side, followed by a half-turn, and the point of his sword is at the bully boy’s fat, piggy cheek, just below the eye. The lad freezes. He has a weapon in his hand, a heavy wooden torch snatched from one of the sconces on the alley wall.
“Don’t move, or I will take your eye out, boy.”
He does not move.
“Now, I think you should apologize to the señor for the trouble you have caused him this afternoon.”
The boy licks his lips and looks out of the corner of his eye for his friends. No help there. They have all disappeared. The street is empty. Blood dribbles from his nose, which has already turned purple and looks, to Raul’s expert eye, as if it is a little crooked.
Raul points at Diego. “This man is a celebrated artist. Did you know that? He paints the weeping mother of Christ so perfectly it brings the very soul to anguish. And look what you have done to him!”
Diego squirms on the hook. “Just cut off his fucking cojones, Raul. Do it!”
Bully boy is truly frightened now. How old is he? Raul wonders. Sixteen, seventeen? Old enough to kill someone if he is part of a mob, old enough to cheer and laugh at the marranos the Inquisition burn at their autos-da- fé.
The point of Raul’s blade touches the boy’s eyelid. There is a squealing noise from deep in his throat. He wets himself.
“Apologize to this man.”
“Lo siento. Lo si— Lo si…ento… mucho, señor.”
He can barely get words out, he is so frightened.
“A great crime deserves great penance. Kiss his boots.”
The boy hesitates.
“It is up to you. Do you think you can get through the rest of your life with only one eye? Think of me as your destiny. I am here, waiting for you to decide what you will do, and from there, your fate is decided. I am just destiny’s instrument, if you will. Now decide. One eye, both eyes?”
Raul moves the point of the blade an inch to allow movement. The boy moves very slowly, then bends over, his eyes never leaving the point of the sword.
Diego is still until the moment the boy’s lips are a hand’s width from his boot, and then he kicks him The boy screams and falls over.
He kneels there, doubled over, then spits two teeth onto the cobblestones. Raul stands over him and tucks the edge of his blade under the boy’s sorry nose. “There. I suppose that is penance of sorts. Now, stand up.”
He does as he is told. His knees barely hold him.
“Take off your hose and breeches.”
The blade flashes to his crotch, then up again. “Off. Be quick about it.”
He tries to obey, but his legs are shaking so hard he stumbles and falls over, his hose still around his knees. He sits to pull them over his ankles. Raul indicates that he should stand. “Hand me your hose and breeches. Thank you.”
“Cut his balls off!”
“Diego, please, let me deal with this.”
The boy looks at him, then at Diego. “Please señor, no, not that…”
Raul looks down. “Look at that, Diego. I have seen bigger acorns. He would scare miss it.”
The boy starts to cry.
“Ah, tears. Tears of repentance, I hope.” He tucks the blade under the boy’s chin. “I am not going to cut your balls off, such as they are. Do you know why?”
“Because I am a kind and merciful man. I am saving up good works for heaven.”
“You want to thank me. And it’s right that you do. But I am being impolite. You don’t know who you are addressing, do you?”
He cannot shake his head without cutting his own throat. His eyes move, that is all.
“My name is Don Raul de Tierra de Maria Santisima. My father is one of the biggest landowners in Seville and is presently a captain in the service of the King, fighting the Mudéjar in Granada. He is also the alcayde of this city. Would you like your breeches back?”
The boy nods vigorously, unable to speak.
“Well, then, you will have to come and get them. I am going to hang them on the gates of our estate. But if you do come to retrieve them, be careful of the dogs. They are always hungry, and if the gatekeeper sees you, he will set them on you. Do you know why? No? Because I will have told him to. Now, go.”
Raul lowers his sword, and the boy runs off down the callejon, one hand to his bloody mouth and nose, the other over his privates. His white buttocks wobble as he runs.
Raul lifts Diego down from the wall, then sets him on the cobblestones. Diego aims a kick at Raul’s shins, and as Raul steps back, Diego swipes at him, one-two, with his fists.
“What are you doing?”
“Besa mi culo, puto!” His nose is so swollen it sounds like the honking of a goose.
“What’s wrong? I just saved you from those culos!”
Diego starts to run down the alley after the gang, but they have long gone. He picks up the fallen torch then slams it on the cobblestones. Then he hurls it at Raul. It misses, but not by very much.
“I just saved your hide, Diego. Is this the thanks I get?”
“Me cago en la hostia!”
“Are you all right? How’s your nose?”
“Who gives a fuck about my nose?” Diego wipes it with the back of a sleeve, then stares contemptuously at the smear of blood. “Why did you let him go?”
“Thank you, Raul. You really saved my ass then. I’m really glad you came along when you did.” No?”
“It’s just a joke to you, isn’t it?”
“No harm done, Diego. They got what was coming to them and in good measure. They’ll think twice about doing that again.”
“Is that what you think, that you have set it all to rights?”
“Did you not love the look on his face when I asked him for his breeches? I thought he was going to cry.”
“Yes, laugh, Raul. It’s funny if you are fair and tall and well-favored and rich. When this is not your life every day.”
“I’m sorry, Diego. But they were just stupid boys.”
“Exactly, and they beat me up.”
Diego heads out of the alley. Raul shrugs and trails after him. Diego stops when he reaches the street and sees Raul’s coach under a spreading fig tree, the Beltran coat of arms emblazoned in gold on the shining black lacquer work.
“What are you doing in this part of the city, anyway?” Diego asks.
“Ah, so now we are talking like friends again, is that it?”
“You think you are Santiago Matamoros now? You appear in the middle of every battle to slay the enemy and save the day?”
“I came to the church to find you.”
“Let’s talk about it over wine. Get in. We’ll find a taberna.”
Diego’s shoulders slump. Raul calls out to Pedro. “Pedro, we need wine! My friend and I must pray together over the blood of Christ and thank him for our deliverance from evil.”
Pedro mutters something underneath his breath, outraged at this blasphemy. Raul and Diego climb into the carriage, and Pedro flicks the reins to get the horse moving. They head through the sun-baked streets to the docks, where good Christian men never go.