Bruges, Flanders is in the hands of the Catholic King of Spain, Charles V. Martin Luther would change all that, as would the peasant rebels determined to liberate themselves from the shackles of the Spanish overlords. It has been thirty years since the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from Spain. The armies of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman are approaching Vienna.
Here lives the Spaniard, Juan Luis Vives. He is thirty years of age and engages with the greatest minds of his day: Erasmus of Rotterdam and Sir Thomas More of England. He is a humanist and humanitarian, a teacher who talks of the duty of all to "repair the world"; he lectures on the rights of animals and advocates literacy for all women.
But he has a secret that he must keep hidden at all costs.
Here are his diaries.
22nd November 1522
With a slap on the table and a clap on my back, Johannes, the dazzling student, slams down this leather-bound book of nothing.
It's full of blank vellum pages. It has a cover of filigree spirals, and the spirals form patterns like little eyes and ears that seem to follow me around the room. He, the lanky blonde, says to me, the swarthy master, that I should write all my secrets here. As if I could do that! As if I could write my own death.
But those words—perhaps they've opened Pandora's box, for here I am, contemplating writing all my secrets. He must have seen the look in my eye, for when I looked up, I found him smiling with boyish dimples and a summer glint in his eye. He turned around and breezed out like a court harlot off to a better job.
So, now that you're here, uninvited, what do I write? Maybe I should ask what do I not write? What secrets do I not tell? Perhaps I should ask you the questions, hoping that I'll get answers to the unfathomable. Let's start then. Why do they mean us harm when we mean them no harm to them? Why do they hunt us to the very corners of the earth? And one more, please: Why, if we say we're good Christians and go to their Churches, do they still try and root us out? But these questions, if they were found written here, would be enough to see me chained to the…
So, you force me, diary, to write in codes and ancient tongues on this cold November day with pine logs spitting and hissing in the grate. Here I am, the exile, sitting in the red leather-backed chair with its cracks and dimples moulded to my bent spine. What's here? I barely notice as a rule, but there's the smell of parchments and wines, of bits of spice and a lap-full of crumbs that I'm too slack to brush away.
My gaze is drawn through the diamond-shaped windows into the cobbled street below. Pretty girls are running with hoops and sticks.
The frayed ribbons in their hair go back and the hoops go forwards. I chuckle to think that the girls I stared at when I arrived here nine years ago are now teaching the game of hoops to their own daughters.
Could it really be nine years? Yes, that day I strode ocean-weary into the town of silted rivers and wooden bridges, of offal and butcher's carcasses. They float out to the ocean and then back in again on the next tide, and it's no wonder that the river is silting up and the town stinks like an abattoir. Nine years ago I didn't have the flecks of grey that invade my dark brown hair like weeds in a poorly tilled field.
I beg your pardon, diary. Did you say something? It was my father's finances, generations in the wool trade, that allowed it to happen. But if the terrible thing hadn't happened when I was seventeen, I would not have left Spain. I made my way through university in Paris and Leuven, there a pupil of Erasmus the Great, promising always to go back one day to Valencia. But no, you're right. I could not overcome my fear of what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears. As yet, to my own disgrace, I have not yet gone back.
And so I reached this town, just twenty years old, full of the Renaissance, but I quickly found I was human rather than humanist, for my heart and eyes were first drawn to the pretty girls with fair hair, plaited and constructed into lofty monuments. All I wanted to do was unfurl them and spend hours reconstructing them.
All right, so you push me. Next, my searching eyes and keen nose hit upon a few of my own kind. They were living here silently as good Christian folk, but I could see the signs. We were unable to look one another in the eye in public, but at dawn and dusk, we gathered in warm places by candlelight, singing ever so quietly the old songs.
So, diary, the town of your birth has become my home, for though these lands are under the control of the Spanish king, there is, as yet, no Inquisition. There is no familiarity with the limpieza de sangre, the cleanliness of blood, that marks my family in Spain as Nuevos Cristianos, New Christians. The title means that we are always to be regarded with suspicion. Here, I am free to walk the cobbled streets and take deep breaths. Here, I have little fear of being pulled from my bed and taken to a destiny darker and colder than the mid-winter night.
What's that? Why do they call me the Striking Man? Well, I'm no giant, and I wouldn't pitch in for a wrestling match with a Flemish man. My spine is slightly twisted so that my hips go east while my shoulders go west. My teeth, though, are straight and shiny, beacons of my good fortune. My skin is sallow, olive, almost green in winter, but glows when a new girl saunters by.
Anna-Lise was a Dutch girl who sauntered by. I could pay her with a florin or, if I had one, a Valencian orange. She said, with one tooth missing, that my strike was the glint, the piercing eye. These were her words, not mine. Don't think me haughty, please, but she said there was a light that hovered about me, a countenance of loving kindness. I wasn't like the Dutchers, she explained, for I washed every day in the warm scent of lavender, and through vanity clipped my beard while looking in the shiny brass mirror. She left me for a merchant from Saxony with deeper pockets, bigger oranges. I have not been striking enough to capture the heart of the one I long for with every aching sinew, the one for whom my broken heart waits.
What strikes me is Señor Apoplexia, the alien within.
He strikes with little warning and even less control. He will not be tamed and threatens to reveal me and devour liberty. Is that why I am striking? Will the apoplexies lead to the terror of the wrack and the screws, to a deportation in chains to the flames of the Plaza Major?
A glance around the room then. A quick sniff of the brewing infusion: rosehip for the body, nettle for the mind, camomile for the spirit. A tapestry of a solitary tree hangs high above the stone fireplace. It takes me to mystic places of buried truths in hidden corners. I look through the diamond panes again, and there are my pupil-boys, laughing and throwing soft punches as they rush to their warm homes in tall houses. They are strong now and almost as big as their fathers. And though their northern tongues sound to me like a hammer striking an anvil, their young lives remind me of the joy of waking to a new day. They bring back sweet memories and dreams.
I don't think I can write about my great dream for the future. It's too painful, and there is too much is at stake. But how I long each moment for my family to be reunited in a new Golden Age, or to write about the past. Surely, that is just too hard, too tricky a horse to ride.
But you're here, beckoning me to write something. You were meant to be here, yes? And you have unleashed something, like fragments of a lost dream suddenly remembered. In my dream, my three sisters are in our family home in Valencia, my father strumming the guitar as they sing warm songs by candlelight. I look closer into the dream, and they huddle together in the cellar of the granary, not because it's cold, but because they never knew if it would be the last time. Eva, the eldest, would get up to sing and dance, stepping high and lighting up Father's face, taking the deeply-etched lines off his worried brow.
Then there's the other dream: a memory of the fires, of a scream at midnight from a familiar voice, someone I was not able to save. I know I must go back there, and soon, and bring them safely here. But I also know that if I go back, the scream could very well become my own. These fragments of dreams are like leaves on this autumn day. Some are dazzling red and gold, while others are withered, grey, and brown. I must find the strength to weave them all together into a magical cloth.
I must bring my fragmented family back together again.
But I can't do it yet.
No, now is for the now, and, sweet diary, you have found a man in the making. The now is for living! Come on, Juanito, El Toro Bravo– The Brave Bull – live! I dare you, write it down—why you choose to live in this world of tyranny and injustice!
I am consumed with passion for a man, and though you might think that odd when my heart strikes so hard for women, it is because of him that I choose to live. His name is Aristotle, for to be conscious that I am thinking is to be conscious that I exist. And if do I exist, then I should fully exist, repairing the world rather than fearing it.
Today, thoughts of how I'd repair the world overwhelmed me as I rushed to lectures so fast that I stumbled on the uneven cobbles, tripping over my gown and dropping my manuscripts like a court fool in a comedy. At the lectern, though, I focussed intently on those young scholars. Those wide-eyed poor students in their black gowns and white shirts sat bolt upright. I laughed out loud and began my lecture.
"All of creation is equal, is it not?" I asked them.
"Ha! Yes, we are equal and that must bring change, no?"
They looked at me as if I were crazy, but I wasn't frightened to challenge them, for I am the Brave Bull who always gets that matador. Off we went on slavery, heresy, how we treat the little ones, the animals, always quoting always the Greeks, the Romans, the Hebrews. Afterwards, I retired to these four wood-panelled walls and slumped to my desk.
Hildergard, the maid, knocked so loudly that I thought it must be the officers of Louis de Praett, the Spanish king's man in this town. Had they come to take me back in chains? Hildegard, though, quelled that thought as she burst in, muttering a clumsy "Señor ... señor."
I grabbed the white silk covering from my head and hid it in my trembling hand under the desk. She ushered me from my seat and pushed me out of her way with hips that had known no rest from childbirth. She brushed the crumbs from my breeches and pinched me on the cheek.
"Argh! Get off, woman!" I said. It was only then that I realised I was munching on the hardened bread she had left me the previous night, for I was too caught up in Aristotle to eat. She threw more food at me as she cleaned the grate and collected the bones of a chicken, a wine glass, and apple cores.
"Whatever you do, do not touch my papers and books," I told her. I prayed that if she did, I wouldn't murder her and throw her body into the stinky river Dijver. She put them in a neat pile while I watched, helpless. All I could do was laugh. I could challenge Aristotle but not Hildergard. So much for El Toro Bravo.
She slammed the door. How long had she been here? Was there an "Adios, señor"? I don't know, for I was sitting in the corner, ruminating on the success of my famous work, In Pseudo Dialectecos, in which I wrote what I feel, that the poor should be in the care of the state, not the church. I wrote that academics—crusty old bastards—lack clear speech and common sense, and that a woman's voice must be heard at all costs. I need to bring what I was taught in secret places to the attention of the world. The poor were under the care of my father's family so they would not live in fear. Stop!
Ah, but I cannot stop, for we learned that we might all learn equally, one from the other. My middle sister Beatriz, always a wild one, hair tied back but still flowing down to her waist, sang a song that Mother taught her. She changed the lyrics to reflect that she would get her revenge on the Spanish king. The song said that though the kol ishah, the woman's voice, is nothing now but a whisper, one day it will be changed into a roar. I must do them a service while I have the chance. As I think of Beatriz's song, I am reminded that what I need to hear most of all is a woman's voice. And though I am not yet permitted to hear it, I know to whom the woman's voice belongs.
Diary, you have found a revolutionary! Your writer is in conflict with the most famous thinker of our age, Erasmus of Rotterdam, for if God has not given man free will, then why has he created him at all? Does the alternative God-given justice mean that my aunt and my cousin deserved their fate in the fires of Valencia?
Will I face that now? Will it help to write about it?
Diary, you seem to speak. "Go there, Juanito."
Well, I can always burn you when I have written this.
You're just vellum, no longer living flesh and blood. I strain my eyes to glance at the past now. I see that we were never safe, a family of secret Jews in Valencia, for we were always looking over our left shoulders, waiting for the day that the king's axe would fall and the bundles would be lit under our feet.
Dark waters seem to cloud my memories as if protecting me from the pain. If I try hard enough I'll be able to see through them. What was in our secret place, the cellar of our granary? Mother was there until the plague got her. Before then, teaching by example, she'd quietly welcome our guests, taking away their dark cloaks and shawls to reveal silks of bright purple against a sea of white. She gave the men their yarmulkes from a cavity behind a loose brick. Sand was strewn on the floor. Hushed tones reverberated off the walls until it felt like the walls themselves, not the mouths of our guests, were talking.
"Why sand, Father?" I asked
"Oh, my clever boy, to remind us of Moses' wandering in the desert."
I'd thought it was to muffle the sound of our footsteps in the secret places. And if we had not feared the rap on the door, would our guests have meant so much to me or would I have been bored, like my pupils at Mass? I do not know. I must get to work soon. First, I have to find a way to rescue my father and three sisters who still live in Valencia. Then I will find us all a safe haven—somewhere, anywhere. If not here, perhaps in the New World.
"Father, why don't we go to Salonika or Venice, where we might be safe?" I'd ask when I was fifteen and all my siblings were younger than me.
"Hush, my worrying boy. It will all be over in a year or two. The King and queen are not so stupid as to lose all their best doctors and financiers. It will all go back to how it was. Just be patient."
He believed this, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, he still believes it today.
So, diary, will you be a tool to help me? Will you be my counsel on these matters? No, not yet. You have not proved yourself yet.
But neither have you betrayed me. It seems cruel to put you on the flames, as my aunt was. That was the terrible event, you see, that made me leave when I was seventeen. And so under you go, into the hessian sack beneath the floorboard, between two walls bricked up on this side and with cloth placed either side of the loose board so that it will not creak. Away!