If every life is a river, then it's little wonder that we do not even notice the
changes that occur until we are far out in the darkest sea. One day you look
around and nothing is familiar, not even your own face.
My name once meant daughter, granddaughter, friend, sister, beloved. Now
those words mean only what their letters spell out: Star in the night sky. Truth
in the darkness.
I have crossed over to a place where I never thought I'd be. I am someone I
would have never imagined. A secret. A dream. I am this, body and soul. Burn me.
Drown me. Tell me lies. I will still be who I am.
We lived in a tiny village in Spain. It is gone now, but then it was called
Encaleflora, the name of the lime flower, something bitter and something sweet
mixed into one. It was a town that had been my family's home for more than five
hundred years, a beautiful village in the most beautiful countryside in all of
It began on a hot day.
I was out in the garden when I smelled something burning. Not lime flowers, only
pure bitterness. Cores, rinds, pits. That was the way it started. That was the
way our world disappeared.
On the day of the burning, my dearest friend, Catalina, ran into our yard and
grabbed my hand, urging me to follow her.
Let's run to the Plaza, Catalina said. Let's see what's on fire.
Catalina was always curious, always fun. She had a laugh that reminded me of the
sound of water. She was shorter than I, but even though my grandmother said
Catalina's hair was too curly and her nose was bumpy, I thought we looked like
Catalina and I were so close nothing could come between us. We had been best
friends from the time we were babies. When I looked at my friend I saw not only
the child she'd been and the girl that she was, but also the woman she was about
to be. Other girls I knew talked behind your back and smiled at you falsely. Not
Catalina. She knew who I was deep inside: I could be lazy sometimes; I believed
in true love; I was head-strong and loyal, a friend until the end of time.
Because of our jet-colored hair, Catalina and I had been given similar pet names
as little girls. I had been called Raven and Catalina had been Crow. Our
birthdays were one week apart, and we had at last turned sixteen. We thought
about our futures, how they twined around each other, as if we were two strands
of a single braid of fate. Even when we were married women, we planned to live
next door to each other. We thought we knew exactly what our lives were made of:
still water, not a moving river.
We thought nothing would ever change.
On the burning day, we raced down to the Plaza, where we always went to fetch
water. There was a well in the center of the Plaza, and the water we pulled up
in wooden buckets was said to come from heaven. It was sweet and clear and so
cold it made us shiver.
To the north stood the old Duke's palace, but he was gone, and our church
council reported directly to the king, Ferdinand. The palace was empty, except
for the soldiers' barracks and the center where letters could be posted. People
said the ghost of the Duke came down to drink cold, clear water on windy nights
and that you could hear him if you listened carefully. But today no one was
drawing water from the well, not even a ghost. There were scores of men all
around, but they hadn't come for water. Soldiers had built a pyre out of aged
wood. Pine and old forest oak, all of it so dry it burst into flames the moment
a lit torch touched the wood.
At first I thought the soldiers were burning doves. White things were rising
into the sky. I felt so sad for those poor burning birds, then I realized the
burning pile was made of books. Pages flew upward, disappearing, turning to
embers and ash, drifting into nothingness.
I saw a man with a red circle on his coat, crying. He had a long beard like my
grandfather, but my grandfather would never cry, with tears streaming down his
beard, there for all to see. The crying man was begging the soldiers not to
throw his books on the fire, and they were laughing at him. A guard took a
handful of ashes and tossed them onto the old man so that sparks flared all over
He's from the alajama, Catalina whispered about the old man.
That was the part of town where Jews lived that some called the juderia.
Our parents didn't allow us to go there. We were Christians. A hundred years
beforehand most of the Jews in Spain had either been forced to convert or flee
the country. The stubborn ones who remained and declared themselves to be Jews
were the ones who lived behind gates–the red circle people who seemed
willing to do anything, even die, for their precious books; people who by law
could not own land, marry outside their faith, eat a meal with a Christian.
There were cinders floating down into Catalina's black hair. She didn't notice,
so I brushed them away.
Those are his books, Catalina said of the old man in the ashes. The
town council has posted a new decree. No Jewish books, no medical books, no
I saw the way the soldiers treated this man. As if he were a bird caught in a
snare made of his own bones. His coat had caught on fire, but he no longer
cried. I think he may have looked at me. I think I may have looked back.
Catalina applauded with the other onlookers in the square when a soldier threw a
bucket of cold water over the old man. I merely stood there.
My mother, Abra, had taught me that all people are made from the same dust. When
our days here are gone, all men and women enter the same garden. My mother had
put a finger to her lips when she told me this. She taught me some of what she'd
learned from her father, secret things I must never repeat. Lessons that sounded
as though they would be easy, but which turned out to be difficult. How to look
at stars and know their names. How to gaze into a bowl of water until it was
possible to see all that existed in that one small bowl.
Once I fell asleep while gazing, and my mother laughed when I awoke with a
start, my chin in the water.
I'm not smart enough to learn anything, I had admitted.
You don't learn such things, my mother had said. You feel them.
Now my mother saw me with Catalina in the Plaza. She looked shocked to see us in
the middle of the rioting, in a place we shouldn't be.
My mother had a basket of wool with her; she had been to the dye vats near the
river, and her arms were tinted from her work. My mother was known for the yarn
she sold. Whatever Abra did was beautiful; she had the ability to make something
wondrous out of something plain. That was her talent, one I envied. Any wool
spun at her wheel was finer than all the rest, even though our sheep were as
silly as any others.
Sometimes I went with my mother when she called on her clients, carrying a
basket of yarn that was dyed every shade of blue imaginable. Turquoise, aqua,
night blue, ultramarine, bird's egg blue, early morning blue, inside-of-a-cloud
blue, pond blue, river blue, blue as all eternity. My mother's hands were always
blue, sometimes like water, sometimes like the sky, sometimes like the colors of
a bird's feathers.
There in the Plaza, my mother was like a piece of the sky coming right at me. A
person should never come face-to-face with the sky. She looked as frightening as
my grandmother did when she was angry. Fierce. Unrelenting. She ran over and
grabbed me. There must have been sparks in my hair as there had been in
Catalina's, because my mother put her hands in my hair. She clasped my head so
hard that it hurt.
My mother and I had always been more like sisters than mother and daughter, but
not today. Today I was a child, one who should have known better than to be in
the Plaza. Without waiting for me to explain, my mother dragged me along,
tugging on my hair. My black hair that was so long I sometimes felt I had wings.
Even before the other children called me Raven, I had often dreamed I could fly.
I would fly until I could go no farther, so far away no one had ever been there
before. In my dreams I would enter into a garden where the roses were big enough
for me to curl up inside them. I would know how to decipher symbols I had never
even seen in my waking life.
As we left the Plaza, I looked over my shoulder. The man with the red circle was
curled up as the guards kicked him. There were no roses, only the brightness of
the flames. Ashes kept falling. The Plaza was dirty and gray.
Something from deep inside the world had crept up from the well; a monster set
loose in our midst. The fire was his breath; the jeers all around were his
snarls. I felt something burn inside of me.
I called for Catalina, but she was too busy watching the guards to pay any
attention. My mother refused to let me stay alongside my friend.
We are leaving and that's that. Never look at other people's bad fortune, my
mother said. If you do, it will come back to find you instead of its rightful
All that day we could hear people shouting in the streets. Stones were thrown;
windows were smashed; the gates of the juderia were painted red, the color of
the devil's work. In edicts posted all over the village, the town fathers
declared they were sick of the Jews stealing from them, although what had been
stolen was never disclosed.
Because some Jews were moneylenders, they were blamed for the town's recent bad
fortune. In truth, everyone knew Jews were only permitted to lend money because
the church wouldn't allow one Christian to lend another money. How much money
could there be in such dealings? The Jews weren't rich. In the walled-off
section of town where they lived, there were no lime trees, no ivy, no gardens
filled with jasmine. In summer, the heat baked the bare earth into bricks. I had
seen the children looking through the wall; they wore no shoes. At night, the
gate was locked, the way we locked the pens of our chickens and pigs.
People came to ask my grandfather, Jose deMadrigal, what he thought of what was
happening in the Plaza. Our closest friends always wanted his advice. My
grandfather was a respected teacher. Boys in the village often came to study
with him; only the best students, the brightest boys. These students were afraid
of my grandfather, as I was, but there was something more in these boys' eyes:
they admired him. They hurried to their lessons and bowed when my grandfather
walked in the door. They huddled around him to hear his wisdom, just as our
friends did on the day of the burning.
My older brother, Luis, was studying at the seminary. He was my grandparents'
favorite, and for good reason. Luis was compassionate and kind, a brilliant
student. Being at the seminary was an honor, and Luis had passed many difficult
exams before he was chosen. My grandfather had helped him in his studies toward
becoming a priest; he'd worked hard with Luis, teaching him Latin and Greek. I
often heard my grandfather say a prayer for my brother when he thought no one
could hear, not like the ones we said in church; something special, for Luis
No matter how proud I was, I missed my brother, especially today, when
everything seemed so frightening. I knew we'd all feel better if Luis were at
As for me, to the great Jose deMadrigal I was nothing more than a bothersome
fly, not worth the least bit of attention. I was jealous, because my grandfather
ignored me even when I asked the simplest questions: Why did we light candles on
some nights and not others? Why couldn't girls be educated?
Take the child away, he would call to my grandmother whenever I
questioned him. Teach her to make bread.
He felt that way about all women, except for my mother, whom he treated as
though she were a son. He adored Abra, and because of this my mother thought she
was the queen of all fate. My grandfather had let her run wild, so my mother was
not afraid of anything or anyone. She could speak so many languages, people
joked that she could speak to the birds. She was so intelligent that when my
grandfather's friends came over for tea and heated discussions, my grandfather
let her participate in the conversations. Women were not often allowed to do
this. Abra had to sit behind a screen at these times. Otherwise men who were
scholars might stop thinking about serious matters; one of them might even get
it into his head that he should marry my mother.
Abra considered herself married for all eternity even though my father, the love
of her life, had been gone for so long. He was lost to illness when I was only a
baby, in the time of the black fever. He left us before I could remember him.
But I remembered how much my mother loved him. She still wore an emerald ring my
father had given to her on their wedding day. She was partial to emeralds; she
said they were the single thing that remained constant, always green, always the
When our friends gathered in our doorway on the burning day, my grandfather told
them that the soldiers in the Plaza were driven by bloodlust and evil. A monster
brought to life, just as I'd thought. Something let loose from the very deepest
part of the earth.
Stay away, my grandfather told our friends. You don't fight a
monster with sticks and stones.
Even the pigs in the yard were frightened by the noise in the Plaza. Poor Dini,
my special pet, hid under the porch. Other families killed a pig every spring to
make chorizo sausages, but my family preferred green vegetables, so Dini was
getting strong and fat. Catalina and I often sneaked him into my room and let
him sleep on my bed while we played with him as if he were a doll. Once we
dressed him up in my brother's baby clothes. When I called Dini by name he came
running to me, and he would bow on command.
All the same, Dini was still a big baby, afraid of the screaming in the Plaza,
refusing to come out from under the porch, even when called, which meant I would
have to wash him later with lavender soap so my grandmother wouldn't complain
that he was a filthy creature that should be sold at market.
My grandfather may have ignored me completely, but my grandmother was even
worse. She noticed only what was wrong, never what was right. My grandmother was
called Carmen, but I never thought of her as a woman with a name. She was too
demanding for anything as human as that. I called her Señora out of
respect, but also out of fear.
My grandmother had long white hair that she braided and wore up, like most women
her age. She knew all the tricks a girl might play, and she couldn't abide
laziness. Sometimes I truly believed my grandmother could read the thoughts in
my head, especially if they were thoughts of doing bad things, like climbing out
the window at night to sneak through the Arrias family's yard and meet Catalina
so that we could dance in the field of sunflowers when the moon was high in the
sky. My grandmother would always be waiting outside the window, ready to catch
me when I came back. As a punishment I would have to sweep not just the house,
but also the yard where the chickens were kept.
Sometimes the little Arrias sisters from next door, Marianna and Antonia, came
to help me with my chores while their mother was out cutting sunflowers for the
market. All the while we worked, my grandmother would watch with a tight,
unfriendly smile. See, she was telling me without saying a word.
Even the little sisters do better than you, and they are only eight and
nine. She would offer the Arrias sisters drinks of iced lime, alicante
granizado, or horchata, almond milk, treats she never offered to me.
Nothing I did was good enough for my grandmother. When she taught me to make
kouclas, the dumplings we added to our favorite dish, adafina,
our Friday night chicken stew, she would stand right over me. Mix it
faster, she would say.
Any dumpling I tried to make always fell apart. Unlike my mother, I did not make
things more beautiful. Under my grandmother's watchful eyes, I grew nervous and
Don't cut your nails and let them fall! my grandmother would tell me.
That is a sure way to be cursed. She would gather my nail clippings
together and burn them in a dish till they were nothing but ash. She said she
wanted to protect me from any echizo, witchcraft; witches made spells
out of nails and hair.
Once I used rouge before going to church on Sunday, and although I swore that
the sun had burned me, my grandmother scrubbed my face with soap.