[Banner sources: 1) the final page of the Alhambra Decree (1492) with the signatures of the Reyes Católicos, via wikipedia (Public Domain), 2) a 1585 print map of Toledo (about a century late for this story, but there was no digitalized 15th century city map I could get my hands on) by Ambrogio Brambilla, via the BNE, Digital Edition, 3) p. 55 of a 15th century Sephardic Mahzor (prayer book, manuscript), via the BNE, Digital Edition, 4) p. 873 of a 15h centry “Hebrew Bible” [sic], illustrated manuscript, via the BNE, Digital Edition.]
Nerd Notes (lengthy):
- This story is, time-wise, situated in late 15th century Spain and centers around the Alhambra Decree (signed March 1492 by the Reyes Católicos Isabella of Castile and Fernando of Aragón) that forced the Jewish population of Spain – later to be known as Sephardim – into conversion or exile. The biggest exile community was in Salonica/Selânik (Thessaloniki) in current Greece, back then part of the Ottoman Empire. The Sephardim have largely preserved their language (basically, 15th century Spain with Hebrew and Arab borrowings, plus influences from the countries where they settled) to this day. If you speak Spanish, chances are you can read it without much difficulty. Also, to this day, you can find in Thessaloniki big, old rusty keys on display – the keys to the houses in Spain that the Sephardim were forced to give up in 1492 (hence the story title, among other things).
- Geographically, this story takes place in the Spanish city of Toledo, where, for a long time, Muslim, Jewish and Christian cultures coexisted in a largely civilized manner (there was no equality, but under Muslim rule, religious minorities were allowed to practice their beliefs, with some dynasties being more lenient than others; under Christian rule, things worsened gradually). Even today, Toledo, with its medieval core remarkably well preserved, gives testimony to that era between the 8th and late 15th centuries: there are medieval synagogues and the ruins of old hammams, just as well as monasteries and a cathedral next to an alcázar. The Jewish quarter – the judería – is situated in the Southwest of the old city center; part of its walls are integrated into the city walls. While only two synagogues from the 15th century are still preserved today, we know from reports of survivors of the 1391 pogroms that Toledo housed at least 10 synagogues at that time (plus five education centers).
- Of course it’s preposterous to use this setting as a backdrop – there is so much to know, and most of it, I don’t know. I mean no disrespect. This story is nothing but a queer little fantasy, inspired initially by the architecture of Toledo, and by the coexistence of different religious cultures. I tried to research culture, wardrobe and names, but all I can offer are vague approximations. There was no concept of lesbianism in 15th century Spain, but of course there were women in love with women – aren’t there always? (which is, ultimately, my point).
- A brief debriefing on Spanish history: Toledo was the capital of the Visigoth Empire as “Toletum” (name stems from a Roman settling) until 712, then it was, as Ṭulayṭula, an important city during in caliphate of Cordoba and as capital of a taifa afterwards, and fell to the Christians under Alfonso VI in 1085. It was – then already Toledo – the capital of Spain (Castile) during parts of the 15th/16th century.
- Two of the most important things to know about Toledo: it is famous for its sword-making tradition, and it played an important part in making antique texts available to the occidental world: Greek and Latin texts that had been translated to Hebrew and Arab were then translated into Spanish (Castilian), recovering a wealth of knowledge.
- In the late 15th century, Christians conquered the last Muslim strongholds on Spanish soil during the so-called Reconquista – and don’t get me started on how problematic *that* term is – which brings us back to the Catholic Kings Isabella and Fernando, who were behind it. And then they went after the next “minority” and caused another horrific braindrain by expulsing their Jewish population. Isabella and Fernando also founded the Inquisition in the 1470s, so I think it is fair to doubt their overall sanity and intelligence (from a postmodern perspective).
- The song poems quoted above the chapters are taken from a recording of Sephardic laments and romances called “Endechar”, which is the old Jewish-Spanish term for lamenting.
- Finally, a word on names: I couldn’t have Myka and H.G. run around medieval Toledo being called Myka and Helena, so I adjusted them to the setting, but preserved their initials, as far as possible (turns out there are no Jewish-Spanish last names starting with “W”). Either way, you should recognize the usual suspects without problems. I’ve left a few words and designations in Spanish (e.g. river Tajo instead of Tagus) where it makes sense for local color and where the story requires it
Arvolicos d’almendra que yo plantí
Por los tus ojos vedrulis
Dame la mano niña que yo por ti
Que yo por tí me va a morir
(Arvolicos d’almendra, Sephardic Romance)
[Little almond trees I planted
For your green eyes.
Give me your hand, girl, because for you,
Because for you I will die.]
A cherry stone hits the wall close to where she lies just beneath the roof, one square of many on a haphazard chessboard of ochre, white and dusty red.
The dense walls of the houses seem to strain even closer to one another at this hour. Behind them towers the silhouette of the cathedral, a sharp-edged shepherd to the souls and the hands that move behind small windows. Its bells chime when even the clang from the blacksmith’s shop stops over midday.
Across the narrow alleyway, María sees the impish grin of Pedro Lopez, who mirrors her position. A shock of dark brown hair, and a head of somewhat lighter curls, burnished by the sun: like this, they gaze down into the street, where dark lines of shadow cut through the afternoon heat.
One day, when they are older, when their arms grow long enough to hold swords or cradle small children, María will simply be able to reach across the small distance and slap him when he spits cherry stones. For now, she settles for biting into another cherry herself and making the stone impact close enough to Pedro’s head to make him flinch.
He is still grinning, though, and his next attempt bounces off the shop sign with the dividers and the star, down in the street. María holds her breath, expecting her father to come barging out in anger, even at this hour. But Pedro, around a mouthful of cherry, has already found something else to hold his interest.
And María does look, because now there is a girl walking down the empty street below, perhaps a few years older than they are. Her hair, black in a way that makes the shadows look gray, is gathered up in a net at the nape of her neck, and filigree rings of what must be pearl and gold adorn her ears. They brush against a collar of stiff lace as she walks, and her dress is of a material that seems to float around her. Behind her, a servant is holding up a fan.
This street is one of honest sweat and modest dreams, but right then, María is embarrassed by the dust and the dirt that now soil the girl’s dress, a dress made for walking across polished, ornamented tiles instead.
“She looks like a princess,” she whispers.
The next cherry slips from her grasp and María can only look on as it falls down into the street and lands in the dust, directly in front of a delicate shoe.
The girl’s head whips up.
Her skin is pale and her eyes seem to be so very dark as they take in the girl balanced high up under the roof, with wild curls, an inquisitive gaze and her cheeks smeared with cherry juice.
María’s face heats up with another kind of red and she glances away, and when she looks down again, there is just the cherry, covered in dust, and the girl is gone.
“She’s one of them.”
Pedro nods towards the head of the street, where, just around the corner, the judería starts. María has never been in there, even though there is no wall, and she remembers her father saying that there was a wall once.
But she knows the scent of freshly baked bread and the foreign lines of chant that carry over and wrap around her on some nights, when the cod stew is eaten and when the only other thing she hears in the dark is the breathing of her parents and her siblings.
Her father also says it would be better if the wall were there again.
Now, he is yelling from downstairs. “Are you still up there? I don’t want you playing with that morisco boy!”
When their arms grow long enough, they don’t spend the hour of white heat up here any longer.
Pedro is a helpmeet now at the swordsmith’s shop, like his father was. He has talented hands and would make a good apprentice, but his grandfather’s name was still different, and his family has to sit in the back row at church and his skin tans much quicker than hers in the summer.
And María has to help in the shop, she is the oldest since her brother Juan is no more.
She handles dividers and quills and knotted threads and ink, she rolls parchments that depict jagged coasts and the names of foreign cities. She still sees their shapes when she closes her eyes.
She sits in the backroom and observes when the captains and chief mates come in to order maps for their travels. She watches her father’s bent back, drawing ornaments and alignments of stars, and the directions of the winds. He draws fewer ornaments now where once he took pride in them, when he still taught Juan.
When the captains don’t come for their maps, María dons the shirt and the jacket of her brother and pins her curls up under his cap, and her father, with reluctance, hands her the satchel with the precious cargo. He has to work and his back is curved, and María is quick and knows her way around the city, all the way up to the alcázar.
She carries a small dagger of steel on her chest, concealed by her jacket. Pedro has forged it, in hours that his master spends at the taverns. It has a small inlay of a red tear on its blade and has saved her from a drunken soldier or two.
And it is drunken words she hears shouted one afternoon, the empty satchel on her back, but when she rounds a corner, and then another, she sees that no one is drunk on wine, but on yelled slurs. It’s just four or five voices, but they clearly feel bolstered and María slips a hand between two jacket buttons, until she feels the hilt of her dagger. This is not the best part of town.
“And I’m telling you, she’s a witch! Just look at that hair!”
“Get her away from the well!”
“They’ll all go to hell anyway, they shouldn’t be here!”
Two girls are backed against a small alleyway gate in front of her, a taller figure with black hair and a dress the color of saffron shielding a younger girl, younger than María herself, in her arms.
She does not even think about it. In a heartbeat, she has pried open the gate, and pulls both girls through just as more people begin to join the mob.
For a moment, the taller girl looks with apprehension at the dagger in María’s grip, and only later María will startle at the fact that she did not cower away, did not flinch. But this does not happen now, now there are steps behind them and hands grabbing at them and María pushes the three of them forward, into a tiny passageway as she ducks away from those hands.
A cry tells her that her dagger has found a foot or a calf, and then she is free.
Another alley, a crossroad, two patios, while she holds onto the hand of the smaller girl behind her as they disappear deeper into the maze of shadowed streets, until there are no more steps and no more voices following them.
They stop, finally, and María hears her own breathing, echoed by two other sets. She turns around and finds the older girl looking straight at her with dark eyes, and recognition sets in. The girl’s hair has come loose during their flight and her dress – María knows now that such fabric has to be silk – bespeaks riches. For a moment, something like recognition seems mirrored in her eyes, but then it is gone again.
“Thank you,” she says. Her eyes are really very dark, and there is hurt pride in her stance. “For my sister more than for myself.”
The younger girl, now once more burrowed into her side, has hair the color of copper.
“You are welcome.” María turns the dagger over in her hand and hides it again under her jacket. She feels at once embarrassed and very tall and strong, and the black-haired girl still looks like a princess.
“Can we please go home?” The younger girl asks. She still hasn’t looked at María, who now clears her throat.
“I know the way.”
“I would find it, too,” the older girl says haughtily.
But María’s way back to the shop takes her along the same streets, so she adjusts the satchel on her back and they walk together. A few people stare, and María walks a little quicker.
“Come with us.” Where the wall once used to be, the younger girl suddenly reaches for her hand.
“I don’t think –”
“Our father will thank you, too.” The older girl’s eyes are so very dark and soft.
“There is no need,“ María tries to say, but then she steps across the threshold of the judería. She hastily makes the sign of the cross, half hidden from view, but those dark eyes catch her and stop her short.
And then there is a stout man with gray hair at his temples and softness to his face who tells her “thank you” in a tone that has María feel embarrassed once again. “My two darling doves, the truest memory of my wife. They are all I have left.”
He is older than her own father, María gauges, but he does not look the part. He stands tall. The alertness in his gaze, she knows from the captains in her father’s shop. But there is a warmth to it, too, like a rare memory of her mother’s face in the evenings, with one her little sisters in her arms.
He says, “Haya, Hannah – inside.”
But then María is inside this house, as well, and the entrance alone is as big as the room that her family sleeps in. There are small tiles with patterns of blue, and there is the scent of sweet dates and small bowls of almonds with spices that play with María’s senses. She stands among the boys and men of the house, at a distance to the women, and she hears the stout man talking still.
“A generation ago, no one would have dared.” He talks to several young men who look at him in earnest. “The balance is lost, with the Southern cities falling to the Kings, one after one.”
María nibbles on an almond. She still has the taste on her tongue when she returns home and her father berates her for being late.
It is not long after this that her father takes on an apprentice in the shop. He is called Gualterio Salazar, and his piercing gaze is unsettling María as it follows her. It reminds her of the one time she has seen the Kings, on Corpus Christi, as they walked in the procession. She remembers a face blotched with fervor, and the same kind of piercing gaze that had made her duck away. And silk, dresses of silk.
When she kneels in church now, María does not think any longer that the angels painted high above her head are the most beautiful beings she has ever seen. She thinks of dresses of silk and very dark eyes, and then she quickly makes the sign of the cross. It does not take away the imprint of those eyes, though. It stays with her, behind close lids, like the outlines of land and sea on her father’s maps.
- “morisco(s)” is a historical derogatory term for Muslim Spaniards who converted to Christianity.