The gray light haloed the early morning mist and dimly lit undulating green plains, where a solitary man and his horse breakfasted, the man on a heel of bread and the horse on abundant grass. Wrapped in a cloak, good but plain, and seated on a rock, the man took his bearings. The broad path he had taken from Ronceveaux lay some few yards off, winding west toward the shrine, his destination.
His hair, usually a bright blonde, lay in draggled brown locks over his dirt-streaked face. The tunic that had been a rich green was now nearly indistinguishable from the rocks and earth around him. His boots were worn through in spots and his trappings showed a touch of rust. Still, he wore a cheerful grin.
All he had to do along the way was introduce himself, “ Sir Geoffrey of Aethelston, on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela before setting of on Crusade,” and doors and hearts opened to him. Landless younger sons, knights who would have doors slam in their faces suddenly marched through village and town as heroes, welcome everywhere, refused nothing. The trick was to accept only as much as a good pilgrim should.
Off in the distance, a rise on the horizon showed where the walls of the town rose up from the plain like a broad low stump. Santiago of The Second Chance, thought Geoffrey, where God may forgive me, and temptation can find a seat under my foot. He finished his heel of bread and drank from his flask. His horse followed him willingly enough to a small flowing stream where he wet his lips and huffed. Thinking that his old Coney drank his fill in the night, Geoffrey saddled, mounted, and pulled the horse around to the Camino de Santiago.
Mist that had settled on the plain began to melt in the hazy sunrise. A ride without rain in the warm June sun would be a welcome change. As the mist faded into a cool memory, the wild flowers blooming in the fields around glowed. Flowers led to thoughts of garlands, and garlands to thoughts of shining tresses, and shining tresses led to… places a man in search of forgiveness and holiness didn’t need to look.
A gray light filled the courtyard, and as a touch of rosy dawn peeked through the gates, Belisa looked up from her careful tending of the herbs in the garden. She inhaled deeply and, smelling only a hint of greenness, thought today will have no rain. She heard clumsy footsteps in the cortile, and saw flashes of white shirt. Up already? Belisa pushed her dark braid back over her shoulder and looked around for her brother.
“Belisa,” shouted Barto, “Belisa, are you here? Are you in the courtyard? Belisa?”
His hair stuck out like the chickens had made a nest in it, and his tunic was unbelted.
“Barto, don’t shout,” said Belisa, “It’s early, Barto. What happens when you shout early in the morning?”
“Mami and Papi get angry.”
“Why do they get angry, Barto?”
“They… they get angry and… and… they wake up. Yes, they wake up too early. They don’t want to wake up too early!” He was nearly shouting again and looked anxious for approval.
“That’s right, Barto.” He smiled joyfully, and reached out for a hug. Belisa put an arm up around his neck and settled her head into his shoulder. Barto had always been big for his age, and strong, too.
“Why don’t they want to wake up, Belisa?”
“Because they want to sleep.” Belisa pulled out of Barto’s heavy grasp and went to the bucket to clean the dirt from her hands. She had her overdress ready and this she dragged on and twitched straight.
“Because, that’s why.”
“I’m going to the barn.”
“Not today, Barto. What is going to happen today?”
“I don’t know. I want to go see the piglets.”
“Barto, do you remember what we talked about?”
“You told me… you told me that… Belisa, I forgot.”
“Barto, the men are going to kill pigs today.”
“Barto, do we kill piglets?”
“So…” She held her smile and waited. This part Barto knew. They had talked about this every day since the piglets were born back before Lent. He hated the bigger pigs with their demon squeals and their smell. The piglets fascinated him. He enjoyed the few months of their gentle grunts and soft pink skin, and when they got bigger, he wished them farewell without regret.
“We kill big pigs and then we have ham and sausage and… I didn’t mean to forget, Belisa.”
“I know Barto.” Belisa looked to the east, where the cathedral went up stone by stone. Though her eyes looked on garden herbs and the columns of her father’s house, in her mind she saw the soaring arches of the walls, slowly filling with stone work and the shrine gradually obscured by architecture. And art. Rough stone would submit to sculptors’ hands and become saints, or angels. Or demons.
“I still want to go to the barn. I want to see the piglets.”
“Tomorrow means I have to eat two times and pray three times and sleep one time and then it’s tomorrow.”
“Yes, Barto, and now it’s time for the first time we pray. Clean your hands and face, Barto. You’re all over dust.” He stuck his hands into the bucket and sloshed a little water, and made himself as clean as he could. Then Belisa ran her fingers through his hair and managed a little order, then took his hand and walked with him to the hall, where the family took meals and prayed and sat.
The gray light filled a bedchamber in a large manor seven or so miles away. The single window looked out over rolling green plains, dotted here and there with horses, cows and sheep. Draperies of fine wool covered the stone walls.
Dona Altagracia sat before her mirror, combing out her long black hair. On the table beside her lay her garnet jewels, which would do for an ordinary day. The jewelry chest stood unlocked, in case any of the servants brought news of important people, for whom a little more shine would be necessary.
“Mis hijas,” she called over her shoulder, “Are you up? I didn’t have children so they could lie about in bed wondering why God put feet at the ends of their legs.”
“I’m up, Mami,” called Ximena. Her light brown head appeared in the doorway. “I’m saying my rosary. Cata and Isa are still in bed.”
“You say that rosary,” muttered Catalina, “you could die sooner than you think.”
“I heard that, Cata. Say anything like that again and I’ll have your hide,” said Altagracia.
Rustlings and patterings came from the room and the three sisters appeared before their mother in under dresses and slippers.
“Fetch the stools,” said Altagracia, and ordered the girls into a circle so that they could brush each other’s hair. They had all been blessed with their grandmother’s light brown hair, hair that streaked golden when it saw much sun, hair that grew thick and rippling as long as Altagracia could persuade it to grow. Hair like that did almost as well as jewels.
Make sure it’s brushed clean. Get the nits and dirt out. I want you all looking your best. No one notices a dull-looking girl.”
Ximena dug her brush into Isabela’s head and pulled, and Isabela let out a cry of petulant frustration. “Gently now, Nena,” said Altagracia, “but not that gently. Get the dirt out, but not the hair. No, no. Oh, let me have the brush. And you, Isa, control yourself. If you yell like that at hair-brushing, what will you do when you have some real pain?”
“Nothing. Sit still. Thanks be to God you all got your grandmother’s hair. Light hair catches the eyes. It might hide the fact that you, Isa, haven’t the wit God gave a sheep.”
Catalina closed her eyes. Next year I will be married. Next year I will be in my own house. Next year I will hear birds singing when I wake up, and not… Next year I will be married… her thoughts filled her head loudly. The brushing continued and the sun rose, and Altagracia offered her girls more helpful suggestions. “Straighten your shoulders… lace that tighter, you look like a sack of turnips else…” Most of it was addressed to Isabela, who swallowed her indignation and sat in silent resentment.
“Now, we’re all presentable,” said Altagracia, after hair had been arranged and overdresses laced and her own necklace and bracelets clasped, “and today we’re riding out to visit the tenants and view the plantings. Give them reasons to say good things about you. People talk and other people listen, and the more good that’s said of you, the better.
“We should also make some time to go to the shrine and put offerings in the box,” said Ximena.
“Will anyone else be there?” said Altagracia.
“Father Ignacio. The good doctor Pagano. And anyone else. You never know, Mami.”
“Good enough. Praise be to God and the saints, I have one smart daughter. I’ll bring my purse and you all, go get your rosaries.”
Heavy boots sounded in the hallway.
“Of all the prize fillies in father’s herds, here are the three most precious,” said Martin as he came in. Juan Carlos followed, also booted and cloaked for riding, and quietly kissed his mother and sisters. Martin continued, “Decked out in fine trappings and ready to prance and preen. What they cost us in fodder, grooming and dowries, they will more than bring back to us in influence. What powerful man in his right mind wouldn’t want a fine, strong thing like this,” and here he tapped Ximena’s backside in exactly the way she hated, “for a mount.” He turned and yelped as Ximena’s hand connected with his face in a stinging slap.
“Cat. Claws back in,” Juan Carlos said mildly.
“Should my own brother treat me like that? Like an animal? My own brother?” Ximena piously clutched her flashing beads and made an entreating face.
“Your own brother, indeed. Prayers,” said Altagracia, “then breakfast. And the next word I hear out of you that isn’t Ave Maria, Martin, will win you a whipping. I would wager my pearls that your mouth will be your downfall. Juan Carlos,” and here Altagracia offered her arm to her older son, who silently escorted his mother and sisters to the hall.
Once again, Geoffrey was grateful that his destination lay to the west, and so he did not have to stare blindly into rising sun as he traveled. His damp cloak dried in the climbing sunlight. In his leather bag was the parchment, signed and stamped with gold and wax and ribbon, which proclaimed him a holy pilgrim. He would need that to enter the gates of the city. Another proclaimed him a Crusader, but that he would not need until he left Compostela for the Holy Land.
The walls grew larger with each passing moment. The gates of the town were discernable in the distance. He pictured the pilgrim’s inn, described to him by Father Alfred, stocked with good plain food and clean beds. He could wash. His mind lingered sensuously over images of hot water and the sharp sting of soap, steam filling a room by a crackling fire and, as if bidden by the demon in him, a fresh-faced Spanish wench appeared with towels and a look of mischief in her sparkling black eyes. Animal! Geoffrey scolded himself. Will nothing but a damned Saracen’s blade purify you?
He brought his mind fully to the present, to the ache in his back and the sores on his legs. For you, O Lord, I endure this patiently. Every last jolt, sore, ache, chafe, welt, and scrape I offer up to you as my sacrifice to bring me closer to thy healing DAMN the little Spanish wench!
What started as a gesture of purest generosity and fellowship by a well-to-do yeoman farmer ended with Geoffrey sneaking off before dawn, with the taste of the farmer’s new young wife lingering on his lips, and the shame of her adultery bearing down on his already heavy heart. He had an idea that God wouldn’t stop to argue about who had provoked whom and which one of them kissed the other first, and certainly the sin of what they had done damned them both. Gone were the days when Geoffrey could happily lay the sins on the soul of whatever woman was fool enough to surrender her virtue. The words of Father Alfred rang in his ears: if they all do the same thing, maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s you.
On his way out of the farmer’s lands, Geoffrey left the most generous gift he could offer. And so his second horse, Dobbin, the one that had carried all his provisions and armor, stayed behind, lashed to the gate. Old Coney, who he had ridden since he came of age, bore up remarkably under the extra weight. Dobbin would have to make shift with plough and cart from now on. On reflection, Geoffrey felt his penance had done less to inconvenience himself and more to hurt the poor brutes.
In the light of the sun, which climbed steadily and cleared away the morning mist, Don Jaime sat with his youngest child, his Tiago, a boy so beautiful and so glowingly good he didn’t seem real most of the time. Don Jaime and Tiago were seated, facing each other, on a long bench in the courtyard. A handful of colored stones lay between them, and Don Jaime was teaching Tiago how to multiply.
“Three times eight now, conejo, tell me how much is three times eight, but don’t count them out. Add the eight to the sixteen.”
“Twenty four! It’s twenty four because sixteen plus eight is twenty four. So now I remember that three times eight is twenty four,” said Tiago, and he repeated the fact to himself three times.
“And tell me, conejo, what is three times seven? Think back to yesterday,” said Don Jaime.
“Twenty one. Oh! Twenty one plus three is twenty four and seven times three and eight times three are three apart.”
Ciomara walked restlessly around the courtyard, unable to settle down to the embroidery she thought might occupy her in the well-lit morning hours. The crowing of her little brother irked her, and the sweet persuasive instruction of her father rankled her. Don Jaime used to be a proud, stern man, master of his small but productive holding, and though not quite a wealthy man, he could trace his heritage back as far as anyone in the neighborhood and had a right to hold his head up among the richest of the land holders. To see such a man turn his talents to nursery minding was a thorn in Ciomara’s heart. Off to the side, she could hear Belisa sing-songing to Barto. They were counting piglets that Belisa had drawn on the tiles with a charred stick.
It didn’t help Ciomara’s mood that when she looked at Belisa, so identical to herself and indeed only thirty minutes older, she saw herself as she had always hoped she would never be. Belisa looked a cringingly awful sight, crouching on the ground, a smear of charcoal on her nose, her dress sullied by the ground and commanding not even a particle of respect. Barto was busy giving number names to the twelve piglets Belisa had drawn. Ciomara turned her back on them, and perforce faced her father cooing at Tiago, his baby and heir, and Ciomara fled to the interior of the house where at least her mother, Dona Inez, would not shame herself by indulging in silly games and childish prattle. If her father and Belisa were content to play the infants while there was meaningful work to be done, at least Ciomara was not afraid to take up some serious employment.
Dona Inez was seated in her chamber, poring over the list of accounts provided by the tenant farmers. Ciomara seated herself quietly and took up a stylus and a pot of ink, and began the next set of figures her mother would have done. Dona Inez flashed her daughter an austere smile and resumed her work.
“And what does it all mean,” said Ciomara, after everything had been added and recorded.
“It means that we aren’t as poor this year as we were last year, but that we still can’t call ourselves wealthy by any means. I had hoped for a little more, but as it is, I am afraid I can’t add much to your dowries. If we can’t get men to take you and Belisa out of charity, we’ll have to sell some of our holdings to Don Rodrigo. I had hoped not to do that.”
“Juan Carlos de Montanaro y Castillo might have one of us out of charity,” said Ciomara, a light of challenge kindling in her eyes. “And if not, it would be worth it to sell some land to make the match happen.”
“You might set your sights a little lower if you want to be realistic, Ciomara. It isn’t your looks, or your amiable nature, or your other attractions. He is simply a man used to better things. It’s not about your feelings, mi hija. It’s about the truth.”
“The truth is, Mami, that you’re afraid to ask. Would it hurt your pride so badly to hear a no right from his father? You don’t know. He might say yes, just out of respect for Papi’s name."
“There are some things you don’t have to ask to know.”
“And what do you know?”
“I know what a look of disdain is, having seen several from Dearest Dona Altagracia. Yes, and I know what it means when you send a gift and see it a month later dressing up a scullery wench, which is what happened to the gold chain we worked so hard to present to Dearest Dona Altagracia. It wouldn’t just be a no, Ciomara my rose, my sweet climbing rose. I’d have to listen to That Woman repeat every slight, and insult, and mark of disrespect, and all in that one little no.”
“Should I say I am sorry now, Mami? Should I cringe and pity you for your wounded pride? You are my mother, and you need to fight for me, and if you take a few wounds in that fight, bear them!”
“I hope when you do marry and you do have a daughter that she’s just like you.”
“And if I did have a daughter like me, I’d do better for her than to leave her groveling in the dirt scratching for the leavings of other girls.”
“I’m not asking you to take what’s left after the others have had their choice. I am asking you to take what you can get now before it turns into a leaving. There are lots of respectable men. The heir of Montanaro y Castillo is not the only prize worth catching.”
“If you had any respect for your name, you’d want the best for me,” said Ciomara, and then she shrieked as her mother snatched a handful of her hair.
“That is the last disrespectful thing you say to me!” said Inez, and she dragged her shrieking daughter off to the bedchamber.
The golden sunlight shone off the trappings of the mares, and off the garnet and gold jewels on Altagracia’s head, neck and arms, and off the carefully arranged tresses of the three girls. They made a pretty sight, with their riding cloaks draped just so, and their expressions schooled to a dignified benevolence. They stood at the gate of a farm that lay particularly close to the Camino de Santiago, three miles distant from the manor. The old farmer, Bernardo, who had farmed the land since he was a boy, often took in pilgrims who needed rest and food. Poor though the pilgrims might appear, they often happened to be quite well connected. Altagracia wanted the latest news he could give her.
“He left so early, Dona. He ate last night and I was sure he slept, and I wanted to hold him here so you could talk to him. I will ask my wife. Teresa,” he called to the house, “who was the man who stayed with us? He was no commoner, that I will say.”
“The man? Why, I…why should I know what his name was? Let me think, can I remember?” Teresa said, running to the gate. She was much younger than her husband, and newly married, and often looked as though she had just been hit with a sack of grain. “He was Sir… Zzhhhhefri de Ehtels…Etelson. He was going to the Shrine and then he was coming back. I mean, back this way on his way to the Crusades which his Holiness the Pope has commanded.” By the time her confused speech concluded, her husband was chuckling indulgently at her.
“What, my little flower, did the chickens pick your brains to pieces? He taught you his name so carefully last night. He is a knight, that I know, and as my little wife tells you, he is on his way to the Crusades.”
“Alone, or is he to meet with others?”
‘He did not say.”
“I know these English Sirs. They have nothing and are nothing. But they connect themselves with men who have much to give.”
“He was alone last night,” said the farmer, and his wife blushed deeply and looked away.
“That could mean anything. Very well. Other news?”
“My grain is growing well, and my red cow gave birth to twins. Perhaps Don Felipe would like a veal calf this year?”
“That’s business, not news. Tell that to my sons when they come for your rent. I mean news from the Camino.”
“Father Ignacio told me that San Tiago’s Day falls on a Sunday this year. Come July, we will have all the pilgrims we could wish for.”
“So it does. Well, if that is all you have for me, we’ll be off to the shrine. Good day to you,” said Altagracia, and she turned her horse to go. Catalina handed the old farmer a small pouch full of strawberries, which they hoped he would attempt to grow. Isabela handed his wife an old, worn gown, which she might be able to make over since she was so much smaller than any of the sisters. Ximena gave both of them a loaf of bread, baked fresh in the castle kitchens that morning. Bernardo and Teresa bowed and smiled.
When the horses were out of earshot, the old farmer grumbled, “Business is news, great lady. And just who was your father? ‘English knights are nothing.’” He spat on the ground, “She would have been happy to get an English knight when she was a young thing. She comes from nothing.”
“Such beautiful hair her daughters have,” said Teresa, while she turned the gown inside out.
“That was the old lord’s wife who had that hair. She was a true lady.”
“I wish mine were as pretty.”
“You, my little duck, are prettier by far, for you are mine,” he said, and reached his arms around her.
With a squirm and an excuse about looking for eggs, Teresa evaded her husband’s grasp and looked toward the west, sighing.