The testimony of Friar Alonso de Hojeda
Seville, Torre del Oro, April 1495
Deep in the heart of the night and I am alone in my cell. Sleep will not grace me with its balm. A single candle sputters, its light flickering across this parchment where I transcribe the secrets I dare not share with anyone, except you. I began this testimony two months ago having no one to confide in. The confession stall is far too dangerous. I must finish this entry before Lauds; it might be my last. I’ll discover the verdict of my earthly masters in a few hours. Then I may not have much longer to wait for the heavenly father’s judgment.
If this testimony is discovered whilst I live, I will burn on the cross. Once I depart this benighted world, I hope my testimony is found and that whoever reads it will not judge me harshly. Some might deem my actions sins. I fervently believe they were justified to further the faith. If absolution is not granted me in this life it will come in the hereafter; from the Almighty or from the readers of this account. Perhaps from both Him and you.
Is there one of the seven cardinal sins I have not committed? Pride, greed and envy, surely - but gluttony, anger and sloth are not weaknesses of mine. A tendency to self-pity is. It might not be a sin, but perhaps it should be. To even think that is to put words into God’s mouth. Another sin.
I have not spared myself in this account. I hope it will be viewed as an honest counterweight to the version of the story I fear will be propagated by those with most to lose from the real truth.
I look up at the only adornment on these walls and wonder whether Jesus on the cross looking down upon me forgives my thoughts, let alone my actions. I will get down on my knees and pray on my threadbare mat that he does. And that the Lord will guide me through whatever is to befall me when the sun rises.
Two months earlier …
Isaac Camarino Alvarez stands alone in Bar Averno, thrumming the fingers of his right hand impatiently on the oak counter. At last, the barmaid brings salty rye bread, thinly sliced ham and the mojama, glistening in olive oil. He pushes the plate of ham to one side and places a slab of the salty tuna atop a hunk of the bread. His mouth full, he grunts at the barmaid as she returns with a glass of sherry. His hunger appeased he is now relaxed enough to take in his surroundings.
Bar Averno is not somewhere you would find prostitutes and scoundrels; it is not in Triana after all. It is usually frequented by people who Isaac thinks of as similar to himself: intelligent, professional, interested in the day’s politics. The dark wood, dim lighting and low ceilings allow Isaac to keep to himself whilst eavesdropping. This is how he keeps up with what is going on in Seville, rather than far away in the Indies. Sugar contracts occupy far too much of his day at the Real Alcazar.
A tall man sits in the corner beneath the only window. A jagged scar disfigures the right side of his face. Isaac knows one of the two men he is sitting with: Cristobal Arias, night watchman at the cathedral, having a drink before he starts his shift. An oaf. Isaac ignores the suspicious looks they cast in his direction. Concentrating on his food, he listens discreetly to their conversation.
‘Say what you like about them, they were damn good at what they knew,’ states the large man sitting in the middle of the three. His companions grunt their agreement.
‘I suppose the Jews were good people for the most part,’ Cristobal Arias says, perhaps waiting for his companions to disagree. ‘Aside from being Christ killers that is!’ He bellows with laughter.
‘Old Queen Isabella done the right thing getting rid of them three years ago. What do we need their like now for, anyway? Good accounters of money and such, but with good old Cristoforo Colombo bringing back those treasures from the Indies we shall all be rich,’ says the large man.
Cristobal and the tall man bang their tankards on the table. ‘Another round, another round,’ they chorus.
Isaac cannot help but stare. As Jews by birth he, and Maria, were baptised as Catholics a year after their marriage. They did so before the growing violence against the Jews resulted in their expulsion from Spain. The men are too busy congratulating each other on their wit to notice Isaac’s disapproval. He absent-mindedly strokes his greying, unkempt beard. Challenging their bigotry would be futile and as a converso, outright dangerous. Principles could get you killed.
He should be going home, back to Casa de la Felicidad. Maria will probably not have noticed that he is a little later than usual. She will be too busy overseeing the preparation of something delicious for dinner – he hopes for lamb, even though it causes him indigestion – whilst Isabel and Gabriel read or study. Of this he has more doubt.
The children are much on his mind. Isabel is fifteen and becoming more distant and difficult. Maria insists that Isabel acquire knowledge of the world. But what of her chances of finding a good match? A prospective bride should acquire a deep knowledge of household economy if she is to complete a successful union. Isabel does not spend enough time on domestic matters. Gabriel’s chief assets are typical of any eleven-year-old boy: boundless energy and finely-honed selective hearing. What occupation will those attributes prepare him for? A royal courtier? He might have a word with King Ferdinand on the matter. They are, after all, connected by family history.
The conversation of the men has become more raucous, jarring Isaac out of his reverie. He finishes the sherry and slams coins down on the bar with such force that all three turn their heads in unison. He returns their stares and leaves.
Stumbling out onto the calle, feeling unsteady – Am I getting old? – he hears raised voices. It must be the trio of braying idiots in the bar. But the heavy wooden door has swung closed, so the noise must be from somewhere else. And it is getting closer. It sounds like, ‘Stop! Murderer!’ coming from far down the calle on his left. He turns to see a white-shirted man, vaguely familiar, with long, black hair flowing wildly behind, running straight at him. Isaac catches a glint of light and sees the drawn rapier. The man stumbles, for a second it looks as though he might fall, but he steadies himself against a wall and picks up pace.
As the man closes in on him, Isaac shrinks back against the door. But then Isaac sees the wide-eyed stare of terror. Or is it recognition? The man draws even nearer, panting with exhaustion. The door hits Isaac in the small of the back and he is shoved into the middle of the street. He faces the running man, who is almost upon him. The three drinking companions mutter some apologies but stop when they see the chase. They shield themselves behind Isaac. Cowards, after all.
‘For the love of God, please help,’ the running man cries, coming to an abrupt halt in
front of Isaac, ‘they’ll burn me.’ Isaac looks around wildly, for what or whom, he is uncertain. The man casts a hurried glance behind him, turns back, clutches Isaac’s arm and whispers, ‘Please, hide me, help me, I beg of you.’ It is Juan. Isaac feels his stomach lurch as he holds his friends’ pitiful gaze. Then he sees the blurred red movement of two soldiers running towards them. Isaac shakes his head, almost imperceptibly, and mouths, ‘Forgive me.’
The soldiers are almost upon them, shouting, ‘Stop him. Child killer.’
The three idiots are muttering something. They push Isaac aside and grapple with the fleeing man, pushing him to the ground.
‘Here he is officers, we’ve caught him for you,’ the scarred man declares with a smile.
Isaac hurries away, and does not look back, not even when he hears Juan cry out, ‘At least help my family, please.’ He has walked straight into the pursuit and arrest of Juan de Mota, his closest childhood friend, and has done nothing. What is he to tell Maria?