That was the story my mother Magdalena used to whisper in my ear every Friday after sunset when I was still willing to hear it. I was listening to her silent voice as my father led me toward the altar, over the worn black-and-white tile floors laid by the Mudejares, the Christian and Muslim artisans who had erected the cathedral, then a mosque, under Islamic rule. I looked at the building’s Moorish features—the arches within arches, the slender columns, the glazed tiles—and contemplated the golden, centuries-distant land of Sepharad. Surely it was all a lie. My mother had died never knowing such a place, and that night, I, Marisol García, was sure that I too would die without ever finding it.
Night muted the ocher and ivory hues of the cavernous Chapel of the Fifth Anguish, but the light from the candles on the altar and two hanging chancel lamps made every gilded surface gleam.
There were only four of us, including the priest, so it would have been wasteful to illuminate the entire chapel, now damp and cold from the December rain.
I held a clutch of silk orange blossoms and wore black silk—a tradition among Spanish brides, although I’d worn the same gown to my mother’s funeral the previous week. The black veil, though sheer, made my surroundings even darker and more indistinct, adding to the sense of unreality. I kept my gaze lowered as my father, don Diego, and I walked slowly toward those standing at the altar. My father offered me his arm; I ignored it, unable to look at him, afraid that I would cry. Instead, I stared down at my whispering skirts and the fringe of my mother’s finest woolen shawl.
As we neared our destination, I glanced up at the aging wraith of a priest. Behind his spare form and the altar, set within a recess beneath a massive golden arch, stood an assembly of painted, life-size statues depicting Christ’s Fifth Anguish, his death by crucifixion. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, on tall ladders balanced precariously against the cross, had fastened a sling of white linen around the dead Savior’s shoulders and were frozen in the act of lowering his body toward the grieving Madonna and Saint John. Despite the poverty of this particular parish—my husband-to-be had insisted on going to a distant chapel where we were unknown—the saints’ garments were of real cloth, as was the linen sling. The congregation diligently maintained both, and the Holy Virgin’s gown was often coordinated with the liturgical season. This night, the color of her gown had faded with the light, but beneath her sunburst halo, her upturned face caught the glow from a hanging lamp, revealing carved wooden tears spilling from her eyes.
My betrothed stood at the bottom of the steps leading up to the altar. Viewed through my filmy veil, his bulk merged with the darkness, leaving his great head to float disembodied.
At the sound of our measured footfalls, Gabriel turned and looked down at us; my father was not a large man, and Gabriel dwarfed him.
At twenty-three, Gabriel had a thick neck, muscular chest, and shoulders twice as broad as most men’s. His profile was normal and his nose straight and of reasonable length, if sharply pointed at the tip, with skin that bore a lunar pallor. His limp white-gold hair—so pale that the pink of his scalp showed at the center part—hung a few inches below his surprisingly delicate ears. That evening he wore a black wool tunic with no adornment, in pious Spanish fashion, and a look of terror in his eyes, a light, clear green.
Gabriel moved aside, and my father moved forward into the vacant space, pulling me along by my elbow until I stood beside my anxious groom. At that point, my father reached down for my resisting hand—I wouldn’t give it to him—and whispered into my ear:
“Marisol…” His blue eyes were liquid with sorrow beneath golden brown brows; his hair, mottled with gray at either temple, fell to his collar. The most handsome man in all Seville, my mother had generously called him, and he had rightly called her the most beautiful woman. “I know you don’t want this, but one day soon you’ll understand.…”
I turned my veiled face sharply away. When he gathered himself, he gave my groom a carved wooden box containing thirteen gold coins, representing my dowry as well as the twelve disciples and Jesus. My groom accepted this gift with a timid nod and handed it back to my father for safekeeping. The entire time, neither Gabriel nor I dared meet each other’s gaze.
My father accepted the false blossoms I thrust at him, then stepped back. Gabriel folded his huge fingers over my hand—lightly, tentatively—and together we climbed the few steps leading up to the platform directly beneath the altar.
We stood motionless as the priest, trembling with age, blessed us with the sign of the cross; we knelt as he turned to the altar for prayer.
Gabriel bowed his head and let go of my hand. I repressed the impulse to swipe my palms against my skirts, to rid them of his sweat. I’d known him all my life—or rather, known of him, since his family, the Hojedas, avoided us, although their family home stood across the street from ours. Even though my father, Diego García, was a solid Old Christian who sat on Seville’s city council, the Hojedas weren’t pleased when he built a palace across from theirs. My father often entertained his fellow civil servants and important higher-ups in the local government; he’d once welcomed the powerful Duke of Medina Sidonia to our home. I was his only surviving child—I watched my mother suffer seven ill-fated pregnancies—and grew up overseeing his lavish parties when my mother was in ill health. Gabriel’s family was never among the guests, despite my father’s open invitation.
The Hojedas were a suspicious lot, Old Christians who owned most of the looms that wove Seville’s finest silk. The father, don Jerónimo, was twenty-five years older than my father and already white-haired when I was born. Stern and scowling, don Jerónimo was a major donor to the Dominican parish of San Pablo, many of whose priests taught that conversos could never be trusted because their tainted Jewish blood poisoned their souls. (Not all Dominicans believed this, however; indeed, there were many who were themselves conversos, and many who were Old Christians who held fast to church law, which taught that all Christians, convert or not, were equally beloved by God.) When don Jerónimo’s second son, Alonso, was old enough for schooling, the old man sent the boy to the local Dominican cloister to become a monk. By the time I was born, Jerónimo’s first wife was long dead and his second wife had died six years earlier giving birth to her first child, his youngest son, Gabriel—my groom.
Gabriel’s half siblings were all much older than he was; he grew up with an ailing, aged father and was raised by servants. During his youth, he spent as much time as he could outdoors, playing with other boys in the narrow neighborhood street that separated us. His older brother, Fray Hojeda, visited him often. Tall and heavyset in a white Dominican habit beneath a black cloak, Hojeda reminded me of a great owl. His head was round as an orange, with no indentation at the bridge between his eyebrows. His profile continued in one unbroken curve from the top of his sloping forehead to the tip of his oddly long nose. His eyes were heavy lidded and large, the opaque murky green of the River Guadalquivir. The judgment in his gaze never failed to humiliate me, for I had come to hate myself for what I was—a conversa, with Jewish blood in my veins, a taint that no amount of spiritual scrubbing could ever wash away. I would often see Gabriel and his older brother speaking together solemnly at their front door, usually conferring about their father’s health or Gabriel’s future. When Gabriel reached eighteen, don Jerónimo—after much loud argument with Fray Hojeda on the second-floor balcony across from ours—sent Gabriel off to the university in faraway Salamanca, where he studied canon and civil law. Upon his return to Seville four years later, Gabriel didn’t marry as was expected but worked as a city prosecutor and lived with his father until don Jerónimo passed away several months ago.
I grew up watching Gabriel play in the street, but because we attended the Franciscan church instead of San Pablo, I encountered him face-to-face only twice. The first time, I was eleven and screaming, and he seventeen, red-faced, and sweating. He’d been kneeling on the dusty cobblestones between our houses, his left arm wound around a struggling fourteen-year-old boy’s neck, his right pulling back in order to deliver another blow to the boy’s head. I’d cried out Gabriel’s name. I remembered how he had looked up, startled, to gape at me, an angry girl, and how, still staring at me, he slowly released his grip on his victim. I remembered too how quickly the rage in his eyes evaporated only to be replaced by a strange light. It was a look I would become accustomed to seeing in men’s eyes as I grew older.
The second time I encountered Gabriel, little more than a week ago, I’d been screaming again.
This time I was the one pinned by his brute strength; he’d held me back from diving into the deep waters of the River Guadalquivir.
“I’m sorry,” he had said. Those were the only two words he said to me before coming to ask my grieving father for my hand.
I fidgeted, fighting to repress memory and tears; by then, the priest had finished his prayer, and we were obliged to stand as he read the obligatory passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.”
In a strong tenor belied by his feeble appearance, the priest began to sing an abbreviated liturgy.
The three men accompanying me sang the compulsory replies, but I couldn’t lift my voice.
Instead, I stood, face downcast beneath my dark veil, and tried to will myself to another, happier place and time, where the events of the previous week had never happened, where the events of today could never occur.
The priest began his homily, which he rattled off with the same enthusiasm a bored child might a Latin prayer learned by rote. Again, he invoked Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”
I remembered my mother, Magdalena, and her constant love, whose perfection would have pleased even Saint Paul; I closed my eyes and saw her smiling beside me. She was more than a decade younger then, stronger of body and mind because she had yet to undergo much suffering. Eager for her company, I returned to her in memory.