The Series: REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPENED
It was not that he could comprehend the chaos of images and sounds as he burst into the light once again after that long confinement required for his re-creation. Nor, to this day, can he call up the words, although the images are clear — or, as you would say, frozen on strips of film that he can unreel at will. Now that he has learned the labels, he can describe the images to you just as clearly as if he were his father waiting, stroking his goatee, and smoking in the downstairs parlor with his friends. Or his mother amid the suffocating consolation of old women. Or the midwife who has long since forgotten the moment of his birth, as intent as she is on her own small births and deaths.
It was simply that he had been so accustomed to images that carried the truth of things and thoughts, undistorted by words, unclouded by symbols and metaphors — so accustomed to knowing how it was without struggle. The things that he could now describe to you he had no names for then, no differentiation of that which was living from that which they called “inanimate” — not living — but which was simply living in another space. That light above him was one with the midwife who raised him up to examine his sex, and he could not tell where his self left off and that which was the other began, because there had been no difference where he came from. All had been one — one energy, if you like — or one thought rolling onward unbound, untimed. Or one supreme being, if you insist. But really, none of these are adequate to explain how it had been with him until he was sentenced to this time of separateness. For that is how it seems to him still, although he can no longer remember as he could then. Just a vague uneasy notion that he must remain here for awhile, not punishment exactly, but to learn something rather, although he has forgotten what, because that was a necessary condition. Like a form of sensory deprivation, you might say, imposed by whoever or whatever he had been before, the result of which is this illusion of separation. He knows that, which is more than most of us know.
They had acted excited about what they took to be his birth, which he knew to be his death — he could remember knowing this, although he no longer knew it, and sometimes he marveled at this memory that they had the life and death thing all mixed up. But then, what could you expect of people who thought they were separate and distinct beings, and whose mythology included the notions that rocks were solid and inanimate, and that dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations were less “real” than solid rocks, and that las aves were different from las flores — the whole lonely litany of bifurcation — and that there was such as thing as Nothingness, although they would keep discovering that what they took for nothing was something, like air and germs and universal space?
So, when he was born, he struggled for breath and, as he says, he remembers the images and attaches the correct words to them now in the perceived superior wisdom of his long cultivated verbal abilities that limit and distort things from what they really are, particularly himself. Then, he cried at the weight of air and the change from moisture to dryness and from warmth to cold and the sense that all his body had suddenly become unbound, flying loose in all directions, arms, legs and heavy head, as his mother’s pain seared through him and he saw the dimness of the midwife’s sight as she felt her way beyond a thousandth delivery, keeping clouded eyes a secret that all suspected, and knowing that this newest born might die in infancy as so many did, but pretending celebration.
He must remain in this place of terror for an unknown time and an unknown reason — or had he known it? If he had, it was gone now. But he was not yet separate, that was to come, so he was still one with his agonized mother and the midwife being raped by her son — no, that must have been before, or perhaps it was to come. It could not possibly be happening now in his mother’s bedroom where he cried at the pain of separation from all of them who were still one with him.
They were sponging off his new body, wrinkled like the one he had given up, and wrapping him in a blanket as he puzzled over the drabness of the colors here, how even the blue of the sky outside the casement was not the brilliant electric blue that he remembered. And why did the light hurt his eyes here when he remembered blending with a brilliance far greater?
A profound sense of loss engulfed him that he could not communicate except by crying; he could only remember knowing that the loss was temporary but felt forever permanent, the promise made before he had come here, now slipping from his memory as he had been told it would, because, for a reason he had understood once, he must believe himself circumscribed by space and things and time in order to accomplish whatever it was that he was destined to or assigned — but there he was, using the notion of “accomplishment” and it wasn’t quite that either, but something else on the edge of knowing.
When he woke again, he was lying in his cuna, naked only because it was hot, and, as his eyes scanned the strange room, all he could feel was the oneness of everything and of himself with everything around him, the same energy vibrating through all. He would, of course, be rigorously trained in the disjunction of things, how each has a name so that it could not possibly be one with something else, but his training was not yet begun. Except that he was encased in a body. He could move through the window out into the village street, but it was as if he were at the end of a tether, and he could not stretch farther away. He cried at the loss of this freedom. His mother said he was hungry and put him to breast, but he cried because he wanted to go back home to the other place.
Inadvertently, he knocked his hand against the side of his cuna, and it did not move through the wooden slat. His hand hurt, but he knocked at the wood again and again in surprise. He reached for the ceiling, but each time he moved his arm, his other arm moved, too, and his legs, and he had no control over this small prison. Too, he learned through kicking and flailing his arms that he could no longer fly, because he and they were solid, heavy, and separate. His energy was trapped, but that wasn’t really the word; he could not remember if there might be a word for the concept he had known once as an image, because he had been one with all concepts and all images.
He was not aware of how long his sister had been standing there, she of the dark mantilla hair with the flowered comb, but he recognized her instantly. She was the first he recognized, although there was something dimly familiar about his mother, and he had screamed in terror when his father bent over him, lifting the yellow knitted shawl from his face, as his little body stiffened and convulsed, the cries rolling from him. Perplexed, his father asked, “What did I do?” because of course he could not remember all he had done, which was a blessing on him of which he was unaware.
As for him in his infancy, he remembered only pain.
But now his beloved sister, Maria Constancia, was bending over him in her white linen dress — he says now that she was about four years old. The corners of her mouth upturned, she is murmuring, “Hush, Baby Cristobal! Hush, hush, little Baby Cristo. Do you want Mommy to feed you?” her curls clinging damply to her face, matted with summer heat and not blood yet, her wide and dark prophetic eyes gentling him — did she see already? She had always loved white best, the white Spanish lace mantilla flowing over her dark curls as they took her away with her mother after church — did she remember? Now it seemed a grace to him that she should have forgotten the images flashing across his brain — as you might say, like brilliant travel slides of where he had been, of their father who had been a different man, honorable Converso, barely upright between two soldiers in a room of prelates, thin arms spread-eagled, head hanging to his chest, barely conscious because they had put him in the tub and run the hose of water into his throat stuffed with linen, nostrils plugged as he bloated and almost exploded, asphyxiating, drowning, until he confessed that he had harbored the family of Jews fleeing Torquemada to Morocco’s capital. Here they found the gates of the city closed against them and stripped the fields of weeds and grasses bare with their teeth so as not to violate the Sabbath by gathering food, and when they could bear the cries of their dying children no more, they returned to Spain, begging conversion.
Now, their father sank between his torturers as the Inquisitor prayed for his soul so surely damned to Hellfire for sheltering the very enemies of the Christ, enemies who had ritually slaughtered a good Christian boy, castrating him and mashing the testicles to a fine powder, which, mixed with flour and water, they had baked into communion wafers and fed to good Catholics.
But God, in His infinite mercy, had filled his father with the Holy Spirit (as well as water), so that he had confessed his sins and earned the right to penance, his family’s as well as his own.
At a signal from the Inquisitor, the statue of the Virgin Mary rolled forward on iron wheels, the loving Mother who embraced sinners and interceded for them with her Son, her eyes glowering mercy on their father of long ago, iron spikes like daggers half hidden in her chaste robes. With the benignant permission of the Inquisitor, who prayed it would cleanse their souls, Cristobal and his mother watched, along with his beloved older sister of nine, who had prophesied the heresy of the Inquisition’s end. Their father was enclosed in the all-forgiving arms of the Virgin Mary, the clanking iron chains tightened. Miraculously, she clasped the repentant sinner to her spiked bosom, and he screamed the agony of pierced stomach, bowels, genitals, and eyes, every nerve impaled on forgiveness.
Their mother sank to her knees, imploring mercy on her husband, and the Inquisitor raised his hand, remonstrating that he had already shown it by allowing a holy death. But even his scarlet and purple robes could not conceal the bulge swelling between his legs as their father’s body showed the ultimate mercy on itself by expiring.
In separate cells, they awaited the auto da fé, the burning act of faith by an act of fire, but Cristobal himself was led to the Grand Inquisitor, who gave him sweets and held him close, because he loved all sinners as God does, stroking his naked white body while the chamber guard flogged them both, the bloody strips of flesh peeling, but he could not scream because his mouth was filled with the Grand Inquisitor, holy cream oozing from the corners, choking as his father had choked on water.
He did not have to return to his cell, so pleased were the Grand Inquisitor and his several prelates — he pleased them all with his six-year-old body — and at the auto da fé, he was given a seat of honor at the Inquisitor’s feet in the Quemadero, the place of burning, while hundreds poured into the plaza beneath the scourging sun, flagellators whipping penitents to the beat of the drum, among them his mother and his sister in their saffron yellow San Benito robes with the flames of hellfire licking at their hems, his mother so pale and thin he could see the fire through her, as he remembers now, and his beloved Maria Constancia with the blood running down her skinny legs in rivulets.
Clinging to the thigh of the Inquisitor, he begged him to let his mother and sister go, stroking him and kissing him enticingly as he had learned it pleased the great man, and the Grand Inquisitor signaled that those two should be set apart from the rest and proclaimed that little Cristobal, being filled with the Holy Spirit, had made confession for his mother and sister, and so they were entitled to the mercy of garroting and need not endure the flames alive.
The garroter leapt forward, but his sister cried out, stilling the crowd. The Inquisition was an abomination in God’s sight, she cried, and prophesied its end with the destruction of the Holy Office after it had spread to another land that was now unknown. There was an awed silence at the words of the child, then cries of “Witch! Witch!” At the signal, they bound her to the stake and lit the flames while she raised her eyes to heaven, screaming that she would come again, and calling on God to save her soul, and was consumed, while he hid his eyes in the thigh of the Grand Inquisitor, who stroked his head and offered him a sweet.
All this he remembered as images like slides from a long journey, as his sister stood over him, stroking his head and kissing him and singing lullabies until he fell asleep.
The Cave of Storms
by Patricia Weenolsen
Paperback: 300 pages