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"Abecedario"

Abecedario

About this chapter

Juana learns that her wet nurse is descended from the wizard Martín Ocelotl who, with his twin, Andrés Coatl, led an Indian uprising against the Spaniards. In their rebellion against European domination the brothers claimed to be incarnations of the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. The rebels were eventually arrested by the Inquisition.

In leaving Nepantla I lost a father. During the slow, jolting journey up to our new home in the pass I recovered the twin I’d all but forgotten. Amanda and I were wordlessly skirmishing over who was to get the preferred seat, nearest the back of the mule cart. To settle this, naturally one needed to know who was older.

"Same," Xochitl said, ever the peacemaker.

"Not roughly," I insisted, "exactly."

"Same day."

No one had thought to mention this. There were so many more interesting things to talk about around our house.

The same day — I a month early, and Amanda, who was Xochitl’s first, a week late.

"We’re twins?" Amanda asked, excited, for many of the old stories Xochitl told involved twins.

No, there was more to it than that, which I at least knew. But it was typical of Xochitl’s kindness that she seemed to share our regret.

So we alternated at the seat of choice. And within a day or two we were calling each other twin. It was our special joke but it expressed, too, all the wonder of a rediscovery that might never have happened at all. What if I’d ridden instead with María and Josefa up ahead in the first mule cart? What might my life have come to then?

Isabel drove the lead cart, a mantilla over her chestnut hair to shield it from the dust. My sisters rode next to her. Grandfather ranged back from their cart to circle ours before riding way up ahead, then back again. Our cavalry escort was looking nervous, I thought. Or else guilty, about being the most comfortable among us: he sat a horse as easily as a rocking chair. Maybe he didn’t want us to notice his delight at bringing Isabel to take over his obligations at the hacienda up in the pass.

It must have been March when Father left, for the ocotillo corral wore a crest of red blossoms. By the time the rest of us were ready to leave Nepantla, it was already late fall.

All criss-crossed and scored, the road looked like a big ball of twine as it rolled and bumped away under us. To roll over it was to grapple with an unseen wrestler. The awning’s noise and light and sudden shadow as it flopped and flapped were stunning, like being tossed in a blanket. But at least it fanned us. Closing my eyes, I tried to see myself lazing under an ostrich fan, on the deck of a barge on the Nile. The Nile in flood. The Nile in spate, the Nile in cataract ...

This was clearly not working. At any other time I’d have been content to look for menageries in the clouds, as I often did up on the roof in Nepantla, but at least a roof consented to stand still. Grandfather, riding by, said I looked seasick. Seasick — I hadn’t even been on a lake yet.

The seat next to the muleteer was heaped high with Isabel’s dining room treasures — chairs, cutlery, lacquered sideboards.... So there was no room to ride on our little barge’s upper decks — and anyway the driver was increasingly drunk on pulque, a ferment of the sweet sap of the maguey cactus.

To distract us, to distract me, for Amanda could sit still for hours, Xochitl had us trying to play a finger game with string. I was willing enough, but we had to reach out one hand or both to steady ourselves so often, the game fell apart. Just then the cart pitched, and a wheel dropped sickeningly into a hole before lurching out again. A small cry escaped Xochitl’s lips. As soon as she could breathe, she called up to the driver, "Are you even awake, you idiot?" Her hip had never knitted properly after the accident, a fall from a horse, and the pain must have been awful.

However bad, the accident could not have been worse than the agony of birthing Amanda after it. It took two days, and had Xochitl not herself been a midwife, who can say how it might have turned out. But it did spell an end to her work in the fields and her life up in the pass. After the fall and the agonizing delivery, her hair had turned all but white. She wore it in a single lustrous plait. Her face was the hue of oiled mahogany. To sketch it, I thought, one must begin with an arrangement of triangles: of her cheekbones, and chin; the black triangles of her eyes when she smiled; the sharp taper of her brows. Two triangles, base to base, formed her lips — the upper smaller, the lower quite full.

Isabel called her Sochee, but the X was a ‘sh’ and the end was like ‘kettle,’ only lighter. Like ‘rattle’ — it was a rattle, a faint rattling at the end. SHOchitl. Since I could first speak I had been calling her Shochita.

The driver was now garrulously singing away.

"Xochita, what’s wrong with him?"

"Ye iuhqui itoch."

"...his rabbit ...?" I said. Amanda nodded expectantly. I knew the words but what did they mean?

"Pulque," Xochitl said, "once was a sacred drink, offered to the Rabbit."

"God was a rabbit?"

"A double ... a mask ... "

And so it was said, sarcastically, each drunkard had his own way of making the rabbit sacred. Some fight, some sing, some cry and quarrel. And some vomit, as this one had just now done.

Such is his rabbit. I was enchanted. And so, distracting me in a way the finger game never could have, Xochitl set Amanda and me to guessing at riddles and the meanings of old proverbs.

"What is a great blue-green jar scattered with popcorn?"

"The sky!" I said. But Amanda had called it out too, maybe a little ahead of me. "Another!"

"It is good to see you take an interest, Ixpetz. We should travel together more often."

"Ixpetz?"

"PolishedEye." Amanda answered.

"I know, but — "

"It is used," Xochitl said, "for someone quick to see into the turnings of things." By the light dancing in her eyes I could see she really had intended it to rhyme with Inés. My second name came from Latin for ‘lamb,’ but Isabel used it whenever she was vexed. Which was usually. From then on Xochitl often said Ixpetz as a balm for the rasp in Inés.

"What about Amanda?" I said.

"That little one? Cuicuitlauilli in tlalticpac."

"Nibbler ... of earth ...?"

"A person who takes pains," Amanda said, "to learn a thing well."

Who learns by nibbling at the world. How lovely! NibbleTooth, that would be my name for her. And so, from that day forward we were to become PolishedEye and NibbleTooth, twins and riddlers and best friends.

She had blue-black hair, just like mine. Her skin was darker than mine, though paler than her mother’s. Pale lips and a square little chin. Brown eyes, while mine were black like Isabel’s. Always near her mother’s side, Amanda had seemed so still I had thought her passive. But now I remembered times when at a nod from Xochitl she burst into a run across the courtyard with an explosive joy, like a foal frisking in new grass. As into a wind she ran, and as she ran the mask of her reserve tipped back like a little hat on a strap.

It now seemed to me that those times of play were always when Isabel had gone out. Grave, still, poised ... Amanda was watchful, not passive.

"I have one," I said. "What dresses like a tree, is spiny, and leaves traces like a frightened squid."

"What."

"Books!" I felt my face flush. This one was not so successful as theirs. "Another, Xochita. Please?"

But instead it was Amanda who asked, grave and ominous, "Something seized in a black stone forest that dies on a white stone slab."

"Tell us...." I shivered, expecting the worst.

"A head-louse we crush on our nail!"

"This one is nicer," said Xochitl, making a wry face. "What goes along the foothills, patting out tortillas with its palms?"

"A butterfly?"

Amanda nodded and smiled. She had known, and let me answer.

Blinking, Xochitl looked from Amanda to me, to Amanda again. "Daughters," she said gently, "you make my face wide."

"It means she’s proud," said Amanda quietly. Indeed Xochita’s face was wide and smiling, and her eyes were very bright. And what else did I see there — relief? — but how could Amanda and I have been anything but the greatest of friends?

Amanda spoke our tongue hesitantly. In her mother’s tongue she was another person, and she had come to speak Nahuatl with a fluidity I now lacked. Our family’s language, Castilian, was a sweet deep river of breath, clear water over a streambed of smooth even stones. Nahuatl in the ear was all soft clicks and snicks and collidings of teeth and tongue, like the secret language of sibyls.

In the mouth, the canals of the cheeks, Nahuatl was rich, like atole — and thick like pozole! — yes, that was it, a thick stew. With chunks of the world bobbing in it like meat, and you wanted to chew it — but gingerly — anticipating a hardness, a stone or bone-shard, against the molars, and ...

But no, that wasn’t quite it either. Until I had tasted pulque I would never quite find it. Pulque, which wrapped itself like a film, clinging, viscous, to the palate and molars and tongue. That was the sensation of Nahuatl in the mouth. Finding this new love right under my nose was like finding Amanda again.

More proverbs, more riddles.

If I was PolishedEye and Amanda, NibbleTooth, what was Grandfather?

Xochitl barely hesitated. He had achieved the four hundred, he had accomplished many things.

And Xochitl herself? She shook her head. Isabel, then. WoodenLips.

What did that mean? — one of firm words, who cannot be refuted. Ah. Well. And Father?

No.

Please? No, it was not her place. But Amanda and I badgered her relentlessly. All right, enough.

Aca icuitlaxcoltzin quitlatalmachica.

What?

Aca icuitlaxcoltzin quitlatalmachica.

One who arranges his intestines artistically. I suspected she had used it ironically but I would put this away as a keepsake, in a quiet place, and work out its meaning myself one day.

Most of the heat had gone out of the afternoon. I watched the horizon for a while, the colour slowly draining back into the sky. I had glimpsed that a people’s riddles were roads into its world, and our language the mask our face wears. And I now knew riddles to cure seasickness. It was a secret I wondered if the old Basque whalers knew, and if there was hidden somewhere a riddle in my father’s leaving us.

The road rose and fell more steeply now. I caught a glimpse of two farm hands at the top of the last rise. "What about them," I said to Xochitl. "Is there a saying for them?"

She thought for a moment. "Ompa onquiza’n tlalticpac."

"The world ... spills out."

"For the poor, yes. Spills. From their pockets. And from the rags they wear, they themselves spill...."

At nightfall we halted in the churchyard in Chimalhuacan. Everything in the carts was caked in a fard of fine white dust, including us, as though we had been made up for a play or some ceremony. Grandfather was on friendly terms with the priest here, which was surprising enough, since he was always fuming about the priests he rented the haciendas from. But directly he finished his fulmination, he would usually cast a guilty eye my way to add, "Do not let that keep you from reading your Bible, Juanita. It is another El Dorado." The priest, Father Juan, was a distant relative and had baptised me. Natural daughter of the Church. That’s what he put on my baptismal certificate, just as he had for María and Josefa.

We stayed a day to rest a little and bathe. Amanda and I set off exploring, leaving Josefa and María to wail about the state of their hair. We ducked into the church. It was built of a pinkish brown tezontle cut from lava and rough as a file. Inside, it was dark and cold, with just a few candles shimmering on altars beneath shocks of fresh-cut flowers. As our eyes adjusted in the gloom, I saw the font where I was baptised. Above it a painting of John the Baptist.

We got as far as the crucero when Amanda tugged hard at my sleeve —

"Cinteotl ..." she whispered, backing away and pulling me with her. Seated on a rough wooden throne, and not crucified but bleeding from scores of wounds — as from volleys of arrows — was a black Christ. Not black — the blood was black; the skin was stained a deep mahogany like Xochitl’s. His head was lowered, and in a gesture of great weariness the fingers of his left hand ran through a dust-brown wig of what must have been human hair.

But what Amanda stared at — almost through — was the ear of corn held upright in his other hand: as of a king, bloodied, with a sceptre of corn.

I let her drag me back up the aisle, and once she saw me following she ran like a deer. Only the stone wall at the west end of the churchyard made her stop and wait for me. The moment passed like the shadow of a cloud, and we burst into nervous laughter. Later we helped Father Juan plant some pine seedlings along the fence. One day, he said, they would grow and shelter the church from the wind. As we worked he told us of his plans to raise funds for a statue of Our Mother Coatlalocpeuh to stand guard at the church entrance.

Later that afternoon as Father Juan continued to work in the churchyard, Xochitl told us Cinteotl was the son of the Mother of the Corn. So was that Cinteotl or Christ all bloody in there?

"Maybe a double," she said, the triangles of her eyes narrowing as she watched Father Juan still digging in the churchyard. "Maybe ask him."

We set out again the next day. From Chimalhuacan the road got smoother and rose only gradually. We were moving across the lower slopes of Popocatepetl and heading north towards Iztaccihuatl. We persuaded Xochitl to let us take down the awning. The air was cooler, and we travelled mostly in the shade of the enormous pines and cedars that flanked the road, thicker at the base than our little cart was long.

Leaning back against the corn sacks, Amanda and I rode quietly for a while, a little stunned by the great white peaks leaning in over the trees. From Nepantla they had been actors alone up on the stage of the horizon. Now they loomed like enormous attendants bent over three small creatures in a crate, or so it felt as we rolled along.

We had crossed over into a land of giants. Everything towered far above. The axis of this new country was the two volcanoes, so still as to make the sky around them race with clouds and wheeling birds. There were more birds here. Hawks and vultures, as there were back in Nepantla, but also falcons and eagles. Xochitl said we were just big enough now not to be carried off by one. She looked into my wide eyes and laughed. "And tomorrow, Ixpetz, you will have a sunburn on your chin from so much looking up." Her laugh — hup! — came out in a little swoop, pulling up. It made you want to laugh too. She was almost chatty, a real swallow’s beak, maybe because the road was smoother, less painful for her hip.

Did I know the story about the volcanoes as lovers?

"Muchi oquicac in nacel!" I said. Every one of my nits knows that one! Even this earned a smile, and she looked younger by years. Amanda was just as wide-eyed as I was at the change in her. But this was Xochitl’s land.

"Is it true, Xochita, what Grandfather said about Cortés sending men up there for ice?"

"The Speaker himself sent relays of runners every day."

"The Speaker?"

"Lord Moctezuma."

"Did they see each other, you think?"

"Who?"

"Cortés’s men and Moctezuma’s. Going for ice."

"Our people saw them. The Speaker was watching from the day their ships landed. He sent his artists to paint them. From hiding places all along the road."

"Someone told you?"

"I saw it. The ships and men. The horses ..."

"You’re not that old, Xochita."

She smiled again. "No, bold tongue, in a book."

"You read books?"

"Ours, not yours. It was my family’s place to keep the painted books. Intlil, intlapal in ueuetque.... My ancestor was the wizard Ocelotl."

"Your ancestor was a jaguar?"

"There are limits, Ixpetz, even for the young."

"I’m sorry ..." I felt a flush rushing to my cheeks.

From the way she smiled I could tell she was not angry. "And your ancestor also, daughter," she said, squinting one eye at Amanda. "One bold tongue is enough."

Xochitl talked lightly on, her face mobile and relaxed, its triangles tilting this way and that. I snuggled in against Amanda to watch the mountains as we listened. The keeper of the painted books, it seemed, was himself part of that book, and in speaking it the keeper kindled a fire in the hearer’s mind. Whereas the book itself was only the ashes of the fire the morning after, cool and delicate and precious, but not the same. To one who loved to sketch, how beautiful this notion of a book not written but painted.

"Up there — you see, near that big rock? There is a hidden opening. Some of the old wizards escaped through it and under the volcanoes, when the sea and fire descended on our people." Her eyes scanned the hills. "Every few years now, early morning or dusk, one of the old ones is seen, wearing the ancient dress and speaking words of jade, the old songs of heart and blood...."

She glanced around to get her bearings. As she looked away my eyes followed the windings of the braid coiled tightly at her nape. The strands of grey and black through the thick white coils were the graving lines of fine chisels in soft stone.

"Here the ground is holy," she said quietly. "The words are simple but we lose what it is like...." She seemed reluctant to go on.

"What is it like, Mother?"

Her eyes had not left the mountains. I thought she wouldn’t answer. I wondered where exactly she had fallen from the horse and if maybe she was remembering this.

"Here, Amanda, every step you take, you walk in halls of jade."

We lay back quietly, propped against each other and the sacks of maize. I was getting drowsy. The road wove in and out among those trees that had been too large to cut down and uproot. We watched the sky pivoting on its axis. Once, these volcanoes had been the East; now they could be in any direction at all. Now left. Back. Right ...

I slept. And dreamed of being carried off ... on enormous wings by a bird with an eagle’s head and talons, and the long white neck of a swan.

I awoke just before Amanda did. A light rain tickled my face. The sun, not far above the western hills, seemed lower than we were, as if the last light rose past us to strike the peaks far above, still radiantly lit. Quietly we watched the soft rain beat traces of silver through the sunbeams where they slanted up among the boughs.

The trees were thinning. We were entering the town of Amecameca, less than a league from Grandfather’s hacienda. María and Josefa were standing up in the lead cart, gawping shamelessly at the refinements of the largest settlement we had ever seen, and would traverse in under five minutes. Xochitl pointed out the school. "For girls like you." She looked at me with a crooked smile.

Then we were off the main road. The track bent sharply east. A gold light poured over our shoulders and cast ahead of us the shadow of a giant with two tiny heads — for Amanda and I were standing now, behind the driver. As we clung to his backrest, Xochitl clung grimly to our skirts to keep us from pitching headlong out. Across the ditch on the left and beyond a windbreak of oaks were orchard rows of apple and peach and pomegranate converging in the distance as they ran. Workers stopped and doffed their hats as Grandfather cantered grandly past. Close to the road, one woman squinted at Xochitl and waved with a little flutter.

I looked back. She stood there still, the sun setting red beside her through folds of road dust.

Closer to the house were plots of squash, and beans and tomatoes. We crossed a small, stone bridge over a brook that fed the irrigation ditches. At the far end of the bridge stood a little guard post, empty now. As was the watchtower that topped the house. The house itself was framed by two tall African tulip trees, and in each orange blossom glowed the sunset’s radiant echo.

As in Nepantla, the house was laid out on one floor. Here, though, the roof was not flat but shingled and pitched to shed rain — and, Grandfather promised, sometimes snow.

The western wall above the veranda was a pocked grey white. The watchtower and the chapel belfry still blushed the softest rose in the faltering light. Workmen in white cotton breeches and shirts took form round the carts as if exhalations risen of the dusk. We heard the quiet murmurs, "... don Pedro ... doña Isabel ..." They formed a brigade to relay the sacks and tools to the sheds. No one questioned that Isabel should work beside the men. A woman went with a taper and lit the lanterns strung along the veranda. Amanda and I chafed to explore the house, which was still dark. We were not to go in until Josefa and María had safely swept it out, and they looked in no hurry even to start.

Grandfather was soon relinquishing his burdens to the men, but when one tried to help Xochitl she refused — a tight urgency in the shake of her head. I distinctly heard one man call her Mother in Nahuatl. I wanted to call out to them — She’s not as old as she looks! — then bethought myself. It looked more like respect than consideration of her age. And I noticed the workers themselves were careful not to let this be noticed by don Pedro or his daughter.

It was full dark now and enthusiastically supported by my sisters, who were sick already of sweeping (though they’d hardly started), I begged that we be allowed to sleep around the firepit. Xochitl was in the kitchen struggling to bring enough order for breakfast in the morning. Isabel was back from the sheds and briskly sweeping out Grandfather’s room.

Grandfather helped us light the kindling, a fragrant heap of pine and mesquite, a waver of flame soon reflecting in eight black beady eyes over blankets pulled up to our chins — how chilly the nights were up here.

"A story please, Abuelo. Please?" And he obliged us grandly and continued even after my sisters had nodded off, though weariness crumpled his great round face and bedraggled his big mane. In repayment for his putting my sisters to sleep, I offered to tell him about the wizard Ocelotl. But as I quickly realized he knew much more than I, I asked the difference between priests and wizards. It was complicated, he said, but a priest has words and laws, and a wizard has visions. I wanted to go get Xochita so they might tell us together about Ocelotl.

"It’s late," Grandfather said. I didn’t think she would mind. "Mira, Angelita, que te lo cuenta." A warning in his tone stopped me. "This Martín Ocelotl, and his twin — "

"Twin?"

"And his twin, Andrés Mixcoatl, led an Indian uprising. It began right here in these mountains." The brothers were incarnations of the gods MirrorSmoke and FeatherSerpent, or so people here claimed. For this they fell afoul, Grandfather said, "of a horror called the Inquisition" and were finally condemned. Mixcoatl burned. "But Ocelotl ..." he concluded mysteriously, "Ocelotl disappeared into the night."

He had his second wind. The firelight glowed softly on his face. Now there came tale after tale of golden cities and fiery mountains, blue hummingbirds and eagle knights, wizards and jaguars, curses and troths. Of the magic traps the Mexica wizards set for the Conquistadors, but who, not knowing Mexica magic, rode right on as if through gossamer.

Through half-lidded eyes I saw Amanda’s eyes blinking, slow ... close — flutter, stop. Then the threads unravelled and we were lofted up and up towards the mountains, Amanda and I, and softly stretched on sleep’s stone ledges. By hummingbirds.

The next day we ran everywhere together, exploring. We scrambled up to the watchtower, and to our delight found a little bronze cannon, battered and so long out of use there was a nest in it. To the south, beyond the belfry of our chapel, faint blue smoke smudged up from the town. Beyond the house to the east bristled fields of maize, then what might be the grey green of agave and then a glimmer of water. From there, deep forest rose in ranks of pikes sharply up to the snow line. It felt like mid-morning, yet the sun had still not cleared the volcanoes. They were right there, right over us. That first day we must have stared up at them for an hour.

We had come up to get a commanding (even superior) view over the house, towards which our eyes finally condescended. I have kept the sketch I made during those early days when it all seemed so new. The firepit around which we had slept stood near the centre, and next to it a well. A wide, shady arcade ran right around the courtyard, except for the main portal on the eastern side, between the kitchen and the library. At the four corners, full rain barrels bulged beneath waterspouts set in the eaves. On the north, near the kitchen, was a tiled basin in the shape of a cross.

The flower beds — roses, calla lilies, hyacinths — had run wild and now nodded and buzzed and beamed along the colonnade from kitchen to dining room to what was now my bedroom, next to the watchtower steps at the northwest corner. From my bed, which Amanda and I had dragged under the window, I could see all but the tips of the volcanoes, so high were they, so close by.

I had expected a hard fight from my sisters for that room. But María found the volcanoes oppressive; Josefa just shuddered to imagine the sight of them at night. So instead they made a great show of their maturity by choosing to share the only room left. I applauded this. And, yes, it was the largest — fractionally. To one side of them was our mother’s room, on the southwest corner next to the entrance to the chapel. To the other side was Grandfather’s room, in the southeast corner next to the library.

The library, I resolved, would later be reconnoitred from every possible angle. Chins propped on our forearms, forearms on the sill, we had been kneeling on my bed under the window onto the courtyard.

"But Amanda," I said, "where do you and Xochita sleep?"

She led me at a dead run past the dining room and into the kitchen: beyond it hung two hammocks in the pantry’s back corner. It seemed unprepossessing to me, cramped even. She was thrilled that she and Xochitl each had a window, and that the two afforded a cross breeze (so designed not for their pleasure but to keep the pantry cool and dry).

I kept this last observation to myself but resolved to take the matter up with Grandfather.

"Let it alone, Angel. Amanda is happy." And so I did. There was so much else to do.

*

Once we had settled in, the next order of business was to thwart the movement to put me in school. I had missed the first two months, and was certain to be made the butt of the cruellest pranks and jokes. Isabel surprised me by taking this seriously. Besides, I told Grandfather once she was out of earshot, there was not much chance of falling behind in only a year since apparently my classmates could not yet read. Here I let my head loll about like a boggled newborn, at which Grandfather laughed wheezily.

"I’ve been reading for three years already, Abuelo, did you know that?" My average was a book a week, and lately more like two. So that made over two hundred now, and I began to recite them for him in alphabetical order. Thus was the matter quickly settled.

And next fall was an eternity away....

I was not quite as confident of my advantage as I let on. Through each siesta I read furiously while the others slept. Beside me, Grandfather snored his bliss for an hour in a hammock strung between the arcade’s columns before the library door. I sat at a small table, his hammock beside me, an armspan away. Under one window, on the inside table, was a chess set. Reaching through the wrought-iron bars we could have played, my imaginary opponent and I, like contented prisoners whiling away the years. But I had a library to conquer, book by book. And so at the little table crowding the door, I sat — stuck. For this was the threshold I had not yet won Isabel’s permission to cross.

"I said no, Inés. The library is a man’s place. It is not for little girls too accustomed already to having their way." She had said this not even looking down, with me trotting alongside her on the way to the paddocks. "I don’t care what he said. He spoils you." She was splendid, I had to admit, striding out in the sun, tucking that thick chestnut hair under her sombrero. In her riding boots she was almost as tall as I remembered Father, taller than Abuelo. I hadn’t known anyone could cover so much ground just walking — it was a wonder she bothered with horses at all. She walked the way I talked — would she stop for a minute, wouldn’t she care to explain? — we could negotiate. She laughed, then. A laugh deep like a man’s. Warm. Brief. I couldn’t remember ever making her laugh. I would try to be funnier the next time. But she still didn’t stop or even look down.

Still, that day and the next and until she stopped bothering to reply, I got some inkling of her reasons. Women and books had no place in this country; a woman’s place was out in the world, in the fields and grain exchanges and stock markets, if she was prepared to fight for it. And if she wasn’t, she would be at the mercy of men all her life. Not all the wishing or fighting in the world put women in libraries.

We would see about that. Time, I thought, was on my side. And since she had been so obliging about school, I laboured mightily at patience.

In the meantime, Grandfather brought me out each day a heaping tray of books to choose from — and a fine, adult selection, too. Each afternoon he shuffled through that doorway, and in his face was the quiet pride of a baker with a tray of loaves fresh from the ovens. In just that way did he place the tray before me.

And through those days and weeks, it was as though I had broken open a vast garner. But I was no granary mouse, I ate like a calf, like a goat — everything at once. Herotodus, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Thucydides — here, at last I had reached the source of all learning. Our great poets, Lope de Vega and Góngora — the early Góngora, Grandfather stressed with a certain severity. Our Bible, of course, and now Juan de la Cruz and his love lyrics to Christ.

And popular novels — of hungry picaroons erring through the Spanish countryside. While reading Don Quijote, I woke mi abuelito in the Hammock of the Sacred Nap almost every afternoon to protest the cruelties of Cervantes, who, Grandfather conceded, had suffered sufficient indignities himself to know better.

This is probably why, the day I reached for Homer’s Iliad, Grandfather placed his hand over mine. There was something we should talk about first. An attack by Apollo — ¡el ambuscada más cobarde! — against Achilles’ noble friend Patroklos. Though Abuelo sketched out for me just the barest outlines of that craven blow to the back — and from a god — his voice grew husky and tottery under the base burden of Apollo’s disgrace. So when the dark day again fell across those pages, I prodded his shoulder till he woke, and shared with him my outrage. No, Abuelo, you were right, this was not at all a thing for a god to do.

For a week or two that first winter we puzzled together over a volume by an Italian, Pico della Mirandola, which I thought a marvellous sort of name. It was a treatise, Grandfather believed, on updating the hexachord to the octave, which he was very keen to read. This splendidly named musicus had written it in Latin, which my abuelo read easily. The trouble was that by inadvertence he’d purchased an Italian translation of an Italian who wrote in Latin.

At one point, we had fairly run the gamut when Grandfather sounded a note not far from fury. "Ut!" he sputtered. "This ... this is finally and completely enough!"

I responded with a great severity of my own. "A terrible translation, no, Abuelo? That it should give two such scholars so much trouble?"

At this he coughed and patted my hand. "Yes, Angelita, a bad translation. That must be so...."

By then an eternity had translated itself into a year. It was autumn and time to enrol in school, which brought me crashing to earth. I sat — dazed, in a sort of horological horror — in the forecourt of the school, under the motto Charity, Chastity and Grace. Just inside, Grandfather was arguing that I should be placed if not with the teenagers then in the third year at the very lowest.

Yes, don Pedro, but grandfathers were, after all, expected to think their little nieta very precocious. "Más, fíad, señor, in our long experience with children." Since this would be my first year, I must of course begin with the beginners — but — but, they, the reverend sister teachers, would know just how to bring me along at a satisfactory pace.

The fourth week ended prematurely, on Wednesday afternoon, though it began exactly as had the others, and that was the problem. With our ABCs. As ever, Sister Paula stood before the class and led us in the most maddening singsong sham of question and answer — this was the Socratic method she was playing with. How marvellous that we had somehow divined in under a month that A should stand for? Avocado! And were we sure? Oh yes, very.

So stubby were her legs, and arms to match, that she was forever treading on her rosary and then dipping her head to check herself, as though the beads were slung not at her waist but round her neck. And how she exclaimed over our sham right answers. My mind was invaded by the sketch of a pullet — pacing and bobbing and rearing back to crow, and stuntedly flapping and clapping over our great successes.

For weeks now, to quell the need to scream I would chant along under my breath. The chant ran on and on like this. Hard and quickly:

A is for Aleph in Hebrew; it comes from Chaldaean. B is for Beta in Greek, a borrowing from Phoenician. C is for — can we name the capital of Chaldaea ...?

This question of the sorcerer’s passing through Sister Paula’s classroom that day, the precise wording of the hex I threw, has been taken up by those whose qualifications are beyond reproach. And I do not dispute that by the Wednesday of week four my ABCs had spiralled and ramified within me until I had perfected a whole new gamut. As an alternative to Sister Paula’s version, my solo began at M, for ‘mi,’ of course, and for ‘Mem’ in Hebrew ...

Well Mem is interesting. Does it not look to you like the horns of an owl? Which is after all the almost universal symbol of muerte y mortalidad. Now, the Reverend Atanasius Kircher believes the alphabet is modelled after forms in nature, and yes, just like the hieroglyphs of Egypt — of which one of the clearest is — precisely, an owl! But a Mister Herotodus says a gentleman named Cadmus introduced the entire alphabet to Greece from Phoenicia. And we know the Phoenicians were mariners and? — no? — why merchants too. But this Cadmus brought back not only our abecedario but also the boustrophedon, the lovely flow of our script from left to right, and down and back again — much like the tilling of your father’s fields, is it not? And if we trace this now in ink, see all the little "m’s" lying on their sides — hmmm? Well, why not indeed? — maybe it was the same field in which Cadmus had sown the dragon’s teeth. The very teeth which then sprouted up as men, if memory serves. Yes as enemies, unfortunately. And the Greeks — well, yes, right after Cadmus’s funeral maybe, quien sabe — called this new marvel of the alphabet stoicheia. And surely felt it was minted expressly to convey stoicism — an invention the God of the Hebrews only imparted to Adam after the Fall. And here is the best part now: God still denied the stoicheia even to the seraphim, for after all — angels never had to sit in school with so many SIX-YEAR-OLDS.

I did not go on to the letter N. Sister Paula was in such a flap of crossing herself that she had come within one stub pinion of her own miraculous assumption.

My hexachord may not have run to exactly these words and notes that day, but whose childhood recollections are not coloured by the perceptions of others? Elders, adults like Sister Paula, should know to be more careful about exaggeration and its effects on children — especially on the truly credulous. Her version of how the sorceress hexed her classroom has followed me for years, and it is greatly vexing that I can do so little against it.

When Grandfather brought me home that day, he described for Isabel the "little Inquisition" the sisters had held before releasing me. He was scandalized that their chief concern should be whether the others had been infected by my polluted lips.

"Infected?" he snorted. "Such a disease we should all hope to catch...."

So that’s what an Inquisition was. To calm Grandfather I told him I thought it might have been much worse. Still, this idea of pollution, infection, was unsettling. Just from my being near the younger girls? I was not so very different. I was good with facts, never forgot what things were or where they came from, and sometimes grasped even the whys. But I knew so little about how things were, how they felt.

And then, there were the books Grandfather had not let me see.

 

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