Andalusia, 1483 AD
In the Hiriji year of 888, in the sacred month of Muharram, I return to life.
Moments before I’m born, my soul previews my new home from above. In the realm of existence, stars still dust the ink of night, but behind the mountains of Andalusia, the faint pink of dawn blushes the eastern sky. Below, in the village of Vertientes, the whitewashed buildings that cling to the hillside are bathed in light as blue as Krishna’s skin.
Just as the spider web trembles from the struggles of the fly, the strings of the mortal world vibrate with the arrival of each new life. Beyond the cocoon of my mother’s womb, on the edge of an African desert, a dwarf admires the Damascus steel sword he has just traded with some Berbers for a manuscript on the genesis of rainbows. The sword’s blade is inscribed with the words: There is no conqueror but Allah.
Sensing some subtle shift in the orchestra of existence, the dwarf pauses, the dawn light catching the tufts of lion-yellow hair on his elfin ears. Surrounded by groves of strawberry trees, his belly sloshing after a night drinking apple tea, he looks up at the bright point of light above the mountains. “Ah, the Morning Star,” he says to his donkey, “the star of love trapped in the agony of desire.”
The donkey, both wiser and stupider than its master, replies with a bray and passes wind.
Further northwest, under a Lowlands sky sponged with clouds, my soul sees a beak-nosed woman with skin as translucent as the inside of a shell jolt awake from a fevered sleep, her hands fumbling the darkness for her Bible as she recalls her nightmare about the coming of the antichrist.
Back in Vertientes, inside the house of my rebirth, a copy of the Qu’ran rests on the tiled table beside my screaming mother’s bed. From my celestial vantage point, I see the top of the Jewish midwife’s head. Her bald patch resembles a monk’s tonsure, and crooked white hairs spring like tree roots from the mole on her chin. Life, insistent and irresistible, presses me into being. I arrive stunned by the cold, a shadow engulfing my soul’s light. I’m always born into heartache and disaster. So I refuse to breathe.
While still connected to the realm of my soul, I hear the thoughts of the Jewish midwife as she coaxes reluctant me into the world. What a time to be born! A baby girl without a father!
She is, however, relieved to see that, unlike the previous child born in this village nestled deep in the mountains of Andalusia, I don’t have a tail.
It happens when you die, but I can say with authority after many reincarnations, that it happens as well, when you are born. My life flashes in front of me. I hear my uncle whisper the first words a Muslim child must hear into my right ear. “God is great. Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. Come to prayer.”
A few days later, to celebrate my arrival, a sheep will be slaughtered, shared with neighbours, relatives and those less fortunate.
During the celebrations, I will be admired. “Ah, she’s already a beauty just like her mother,” says the Hindu physician, who, after years of peering into the secret passages between women’s legs, has the wrinkles and neck posture of a tortoise. “Such thick black hair! And those eyes! What a colour!”
“She has her father’s ears,” the Jewish midwife comments.
The mention of my father, who vanished before he knew about the seed he’d planted in my mother’s belly, sends a chill into the air.
My uncle scowls. “If I ever see that scoundrel again, I’ll cut off his cock and feed it to the pigs.”
Four days later, my mother, still bleeding heavily after giving birth, holds me and kisses me farewell. “I want to name her Soheila,” she says, “because she is my little star.”
My mother’s grip on me loosens as she dies.
Further my soul sees – over the hills and valleys of time – to the day my father returns when I am six. I comfort him as he weeps when he learns of my mother’s death. Then once more, like the setting sun, he departs on his travels. Despite my uncle’s threats, he keeps his cock.
I see the follies of the world laid out like black beads on a tapestry. I see Columbus set foot in America, a Bible in his hand, his heart on fire with Christian faith. Through the pine forests that surround the village of Vertientes, my ten-year-old eyes glimpse the pillars of flame that announce the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition. I feel the righteous fervour of those men as they plunder this slice of Heaven on Earth where people of many faiths live together in peace. Someone has told them Vertientes is full of sorcerers.
I witness the murder of my Sufi Muslim teacher, my aunt and uncle, my neighbours and relatives. Already I know the Buddhists, the Jewish cobbler and midwife will escape only to die at the hands of thieves in the Andalusian desert. I feel the hard grip of the merchant who abducts me. I see my watery voyage to a far off country where it always rains and how after the merchant fails to sell sickly, terrified me as a slave, he abandons me on the steps of a convent.
I have seen enough. I clench my newborn fists and scrunch up my face. No. I don’t want any of this. I refuse to enter this world of time and space and pain. The Jewish midwife regards my newborn body with eyes as wise as mountains. This child is a stubborn one, she thinks. Then, she delivers a wallop to my bare, blue buttocks.
In that moment, the shroud of mortality smothers my soul’s light and I surrender to what is to come. After all, no one chooses to be born. God’s plan is a mystery to even the oldest of souls. Outraged, my buttocks on fire, I open my mouth, inhale my first gust of air and scream. I am alive. Again.
I open my eyes and feel the great gap in my soul. I am already looking. For Him.
THE EXORCISM OF THE BARBARIAN MOOR
The Convent of Saint Wilgefortis-Near-Hertogenbosch
April 14th 1502
On the morning when all hell breaks loose the convent gardens are bright and plump with spring growth, the sky, achingly clear and beautiful, a pale reminder of the wonder of the Kingdom of Allah. As sparrows sing hymns to creation and I behead the season’s first dead roses, the veils of the mortal world shift. The sunlight breaks through a canopy of apple blossoms and my soul whispers from the world beyond. He’s on his way. My heart swells with bottomless longings.
Today, a vermin exterminator is clearing the Convent of Saint Wilgefortis’s Chapter House of rats and cockroaches. On the edges of the rose garden, a gathering of acolytes take their lessons on the garden benches in the sun.
“We are all fallen. We are all sinners and can only achieve salvation through faith,” says the Prior, who has come from the neighboring Klooster Janarius to ensure the acolytes understand the true messages of the Holy Scriptures. Rankled by his words, I accidentally jab my finger on a thorn.
“And Adam was not taken by deceit, but the woman, being tricked, became a wrongdoer.”
The scar across the landscape of my faith aches. So does my pricked finger. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Sister Heilwich – self-appointed eradicator of demons and witchcraft – watching me, her eyes as sharp as daggers. Something about her gaze sends a shaft of fury through my gut.
The Prior swipes at a bug that has invaded his holy space then, continues his lesson. “Four angels standing at the four corners of the Earth. What does this tell us about God’s World?”
“It tells us God created the Earth flat,” replies one of the acolytes.
Nine years of bitterness spikes my tongue. I mutter under my breath.
Sister Heilwich, on full witchcraft alert, rises from her seat. “What did you just say?”
I look into her mold-grey eyes set in the lard of her face and refuse to reply.
The Prior turns to me. “Do you have something you wish to contribute?” he says.
Vigorously, Sister Heilwich shakes her bulbously vast head. “Marjit is the gardener. She has nothing to contribute.”
“Everyone has a right to contribute,” the Prior replies, his gaze soft. “Please, tell us what you just said.”
All eyes turn towards me. I stiffen, fruitlessly trying to contain the storm rising from my core. My mouth moves ahead of my brain. “I said some Bible passages invite as many interpretations as there are flies in a cesspit.”
A shadow crosses the Prior’s face. As the acolytes gasp behind their hands, Sister Heilwich strides towards me, her eyes ablaze. “We have trained clergy to interpret the words of the Lord!” She screeches. “So there is no room for misunderstanding!” She stands so close I can feel the heat of her breath on my cheek and smell the pickled herrings she had for breakfast. “The Bible, The One Holy Book, is the only source of truth! Its teachings are drawn from the greatest life ever lived! Our Lord Jesus Christ!” she adds just in case I’m mistaken as to whose life that might be.
When I glance down at the crucifix nestled in the valley of Sister Heilwich’s bosom, my blood ignites. “The Qu’ran is also a Holy Book!” I reply. “And Jesus was a prophet of Islam!” I add just in case she’s mistaken about the workings of the Kingdom of Allah. The acolytes gasp and cross themselves. Sister Heilwich, nostrils flared, turns and addresses the Prior, whose eyes have turned dark and flinty.
“This woman is a sorceress and an infidel who, despite her baptism, still worships a Muslim devil god!” She waves her copy of the Bible at me as if it’s a weapon. “Muhammad was a false prophet! He devised his own heresy! He seduced ignorant Arab barbarians into accepting a gross, blasphemous and demoniac religion!”
With her Bible-free hand, she slaps my face so hard I drop my clippers. She turns back to the Prior. “You would do well, Reverend Father, to block your ears and avert your gaze. She has also been known to bewitch men and turn them from Our Most Holy Lord with her foreign tongue and strange eyes.”
The black dog of my lower self snarls. Are you going to keep taking this abuse? She’s a mad-woman!
Encouraged by that craven inner beast, I raise my hands and shove Sister Heilwich into a rose bush. Her eyes wide with shock, she drops her Bible and falls backwards, her bellow of outrage accompanied by a chorus of squeals from the seven acolytes. Face puce with rage, Sister Heilwich lurches back out of the bush and grabs a chunk of my hair. Crying out in pain as she tugs, I stumble forwards and grasp at Sister Heilwich’s crucifix to keep my balance. As we wrestle, her crucifix snaps and black beads scatter over the lawn.
“The Moor is possessed!” She cries with a spray of herring-fumed spittle. “This is why we forbid her presence during prayers! The vermin, the rats, the fleas and flies are all drawn to the convent because of this infidel!”
I kick and flail, fending off her attack, our cries echoing against the convent garden’s walls, sending doves fluttering from their roosts. As robes swoop around us, hands pulling our warring bodies apart, I knock Sister Heilwich’s wimple from its perch. Just before someone throws a sack over me and the world descends into musty darkness, I glimpse the pinkly veined orb of her bald head. I’m stirred into a brief respite of surprise. Without her wimple she looks as frail as a newborn bird.
I wake with a jerk and stare into the gloom, my breath hitching. Where am I?
As I fight the fog of sleep, panic rolls through me. A memory rises and takes hold. I’m ten years old, back in Andalusia, hiding in an old urn, watching through a crack as my world is destroyed. I see the pillars of flame that signal the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition and watch as three inquisitors string Pir Ibrahim, the village of Vertientes’ Sufi master on a makeshift torture rack. The inquisitors stretch the ropes until Pir Ibrahim’s shoulders pop from their sockets. As that gentle and soulful man who has taught me to trust the world and have faith screams in agony, I choke back sobs and bite on my knuckles to stay silent. I listen as the inquisitors accuse Pir Ibrahim of worshipping a Muslim devil god. They tell him Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and anyone else in the village of Vertientes who is not Christian will go to hell.
Now fully awake, I press the memory back into the deepest part of my being. Itching from the straw mattress I finally fell asleep on in the small hours of this morning, I sit upright and look around. Squares of light from the barred window set high in the wall pool on the floor at my feet. I glance towards the sound of a rat scuttling through the shadows. Directly opposite my mattress resting against the wall by the door, rows of serrated teeth glint inside the half-open maw of an iron maiden. Shackles and chains dangle from the mossed walls and the room smells of rusting metal and seepage from the nearby cesspit. In a barred and locked cell to my left, sit barrels of ale and racks of communion wine. The Convent of Saint Wilgefortis doesn’t have a dungeon. Officially, this is a store-room where those have lapsed from the path of righteousness come to reflect on their transgressions. As you can imagine, now you know a little about me, I’ve spent nights here before.
But it’s not the stench or the threat of those torture devices that make me tremble. No. It’s the figure in the shadows to my right. Chipped from age and awaiting painting and repair, a life-sized crucifix leans against the store room wall. Assailed by the misery of Christ’s bowed head, the rivulets of blood and the contorted architecture of his limbs, again, a memory hits me like a punch in the gut. I draw short, grasping breaths. Once more, I see Pir Ibrahim on that torture rack; arms stretched wide, his ankles together. Now, as the inquisitors flail Pir Ibrahim with leather straps, blood races from his body in a river of scarlet. Pir Ibrahim has a blood disease that stops his blood from clotting. Once he bleeds, he won’t stop. Crouched in my hiding place, I pray for Allah to take him so his suffering will end.
Again, I try to push the memory away. Here in my prison the stone walls still hold a damp wintery chill and I shiver, pulling my cloak closer to my body. I’m hungry and cold. I get up, move about to keep warm. I move the chamber pot into which I have passed a small amount of pee and a single turd to the furthest corner of the room. Even though I keep my back to the Lord, I feel His presence.
More memories leach from the shadows. I’m back in Vertientes, my legs cramping, knees raw from crouching against the sloping sides of the urn, watching in frozen horror as the inquisitors drag the bodies of the slaughtered villagers and place them in a pile in the centre of the garden. I see my dead aunt and uncle who have raised me since my mother died, and the mutilated body of the village rabbi, his fingers bloodied where they have torn away his nails. I see the bodies of children – Zoroastrians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews – my friends and neighbors –their throats cut. I see the inquisitors untie Pir Ibrahim and throw his body on top of the pile. Then, using the wood my uncle so neatly stacked by the kiln for his glass-blowing, as well as the villagers’ copies of the Torah, the Qu’ran, the Vedas, and Buddhavacana for kindling, they set everyone alight.
Back in the world of now, I start to shake and feel faint. I retreat back to my mattress and huddle into a ball.
Seeking comfort, I whisper a passage from the Qur’an I remember from my childhood.
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable
of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a
Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as if it were a
brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither
of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well nigh
luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light!
God doth guide whom He will to His Light: God doth set
forth Parables for men: and God doth know all things.
I pause and listen for Allah’s reply. Beyond my prison I hear footsteps. A man coughs as the bar lifts from the storeroom door. Inside me a kernel of hope grows. Is it Him?
The door opens into a blaze of orange torch light. A man dressed in crimson vestments embroidered with gold crosses stands on the threshold. Thrice, he waves his thurible. White smoke curls through the shadows and my prison fills with the smell of incense.
“I’ve come to save you,” my visitor announces with a flash of teeth tinted orange from the torchlight. He wedges the torch into a sconce on the wall then sprinkles holy water on the floor. As he steps into the light from the window, I take in his black felt hat shaped like a crown, his long grey beard that could serve as a nest for several families of swallows. I recognise him. It’s the exorcist from Klooster Janarius – a specialist in purifying the souls of young women and girls.
“I’m here to relieve you of the devil that has taken over your body,” he adds.
I bow my head in submission as the exorcist places a cloth sack on the table by the door and pulls a rolled parchment from his robe. “No living relatives,” he reads as he unravels the parchment. He smiles as if this pleases him. “Two exorcisms in swift succession after you were abandoned on the doorstep of The Convent of Saint Wilgefortis nine years ago.”
Another painful memory stirs inside the aching chamber of my heart. I push it back deep into my being, where it belongs. “Yes,” I say meekly.
“You are troubled.” The exorcist says as he scrutinizes me. “You are in the company of the forces of darkness.”
Humbly, I nod as once more, he waves his thurible. “No need to be afraid,” he says smoothly. “Now I’m here, I can purify your soul.”
Incense smoke catches in the shafts of light from the window and the smell makes me feel light-headed. The exorcist raises his voice. “In the name of Christ, I command these demons to leave this body!” He steps closer, holds my chin and looks deep into my eyes with a fearsome gaze. “Go out of her you foul fiend and give place to the Holy Spirit!” he commands with a gust of garlicky breath.
He places his thurible on the floor and insufflates on me three times in the form of a cross. I try to fight the swoon coming over me. “Part your lips.”
Again, I obey as he pulls another vial from his robes, slides up to me and pours the salt from half the Dead Sea into my mouth. I drop my eyes to his red silk shoes and try not to gag. The salt taste is unbearable. I cough and spit it out.
With an indulgent smile, the exorcist dips his hand back into his vestments. “Now remove your cloak. Bare your shoulders.”
Again, I comply as he pulls a bottle from his pocket and spreads olive oil over his hands. He rubs the oil over my shoulders, pushes my blouse aside and moves his hands over my breasts. “I anoint you in the name of Christ Our Savior,” he says, his eyes glazed as he rubs slowly, cupping my bare breasts, insufflating another three times over my bare skin.
“I must ensure the devil hasn’t move to another part of your body,” he says in a hoarse voice as he drops his hands and peels up my skirts. His cold fingers grope my thighs, move upwards and fondle between my legs. I gasp and shiver, feeling as if I’m drowning.
“Yes,” he murmurs, “trembling is good. It shakes the devil’s hold.”
His oiled fingers reach inside me. He breathes heavily, his eyes roll back and a drop of drool gathers on one side of his mouth. “Yes,” he croons. “Release the devil. Submit to the Lord.” He presses against me. Under his robes, I feel a hard something raise into being. My heart pounds and I fight the urge to retch. “Yield to the Scepter of Most Holy Union,” he says as he jostles me against the wall.
Shadows flutter across the light from the window. On the footpath above us, a group of nuns are chanting prayers. I gasp as I hear the voice of Mother Geertruyt, the Abbess. As the nuns pause by the window, the exorcist looks up. His look of rapture vanishes and his face takes on the expression of a cornered squirrel. He pulls his hand from under my skirts. “All done then,” he announces. “The devil has departed.”
He clears his throat, swiftly gathers up his thurible and his vial of oil. “You are safe now. The Holy Spirit has cleansed your body.” He shovels everything back into his pockets and sack. “I have restored you to the one true faith of Christianity,” he says as he pulls his torch from the sconce and opens the door. “Third time lucky. Praise The Lord,” he adds.
Just before he departs, he pauses and turns. “Remember, you must not share the details of your exorcism with a soul. It must remain a secret. To speak of the sacrament would be to nullify the power of the rite.”
I quake and lean against the wall to keep my balance as he sprinkles more drops of holy water on the threshold. Finally, he crosses himself, steps into the shadows and shuts the door. I hear the lock thud back into place. Salted and oiled, like a fish about to be fried, I hold my breath and wait until his footsteps have faded, clenching and unclenching my fists. Then, something inside me explodes. I pick up the chamber pot and hurl it at the door. The piss and turd arc through the air, briefly catching the light from the window. The chamber pot bounces then clangs to the floor, leaving a pale wound gouged in the wooden door. “Wa la ghaliba illa Allah!” I shriek into the darkness. “There is no conqueror but Allah!”
About an hour later I hear the store room latch open again. A pit opens in my stomach and I scramble to my feet. The exorcist has returned to finish what he started! My blood runs cold in panic.
When the door opens, my best friend, Sister Beatrice, crisp, starched and bleached in the full regalia of Sisterhood, stands in the slanted light from the corridor, looking like an angel of salvation. “Mother Geertruyt is back from Hertogenbosch,” she says, a faint quake in her voice, “and says you are free to go.”
My innards soften in relief. Mother Geertruyt, the Abbess, has always been steadfast in her protection of me, urging the nuns of the Convent of Saint Wilgefortis to practice forgiveness, reminding them that the Christian virtue of mercy prevails over disagreements about doctrine.
“Thank you,” I say, my lower lip trembling in gratitude as I gather my blanket and rush towards light, freedom, fresh air and a good breakfast.
First, however, I throw my arms around my liberator. When I first arrived at the convent, Sister Beatrice, dispatched by her wealthy family to the convent for falling in love with a servant, took me under her wing and stood up to the novices and nuns who taunted me. I am forever in her debt.
I bury my head in the folds of her wimple wanting to tell her about the exorcist, but instead fighting back tears, my tongue suddenly a lump of lead. Awkwardly, Sister Beatrice hugs me back. Her body, usually soft and forgiving, is taut, her arms as stiff as her wimple.
I pull back and see her eyes have a haunted look about them. “What’s wrong? “ I ask.
“Marjit, I fear this time, you have gone too far.”
I choke on my breath. “What do you mean?”
She glances into the corridor’s shadows. “Mother Geertruyt wishes to see you,” she whispers, “immediately.”
When I arrive at Mother Geertruyt’s office, she’s pacing the room and I can tell right away the news isn’t good. She looks at me, her eyes moist. My legs start to shake and my stomach feels as if it’s turned inside out.
“Marjit,” she finally says, “the Convent of Saint Wilgefortis has no room for young women who disrespect the Holy Scriptures.”
I try to compose myself by gazing out her window at an afternoon that has turned damp and gloomy. “I’m sorry about my behaviour yesterday.” I say, unable to look Mother Geertruyt in the eye. “This latest exorcism,” I add feeling vaguely ill, “it worked.”
When I finally muster the courage to look at her, she gazes deep into my eyes as if she knows I’m fibbing. “I have found a household for you,” she says.
What? my black dog yelps as if it’s been stung by a bee.
“What do you mean?”
“They’re a good Christian family,” she adds.
I step back as if I’ve been punched. No! my black dog wails, you’re sending me back into the arms of kidnappers and murderers!
“You’ll be safe there,” Mother Geertruyt says as if she’s heard my black dog’s howls. “The master of the house is respectable and well-connected.”
As she speaks, something niggles at me. How has this all happened so quickly? She’s only just returned from Hertogenbosch. And then, it hits me. “You organized all this when you went to the city!” I say, my eyes watering. “You did this before you even heard about my fight with Sister Heilwich!”
Mother Geertruyt gives me a long, deep gaze. “Marjit, this is meant to be.” She shakes her head, her eyes set. Her gaze falls on my long black hair which I refuse to cut. “We could no more make a nun of you, Marjit, than we could nail the wind to a cross.”
I look back at her, my mouth agape. Outrageous! Unjust! I have no desire to hear more! You have betrayed me! my black dog snarls.
Before I’ll say something I’ll regret I turn with a departing sob and race from Mother Geertruyt’s office straight into the arms of Sister Beatrice who’s waiting for me in the corridor. “Marjit,” she says, “what’s wrong? What happened?”
“I’ve just been expelled,” I wail.
SOUL MATES AND SODOMITES
Late morning, April 15th 1502
Summoned for preliminary inspection, I grind my teeth, my innards writhing as if a family of snakes has taken residence in my belly. Behind her desk, Mother Geertruyt, head bowed, hands clasped, quietly says her prayers.
Their fragrances arrive first. A breeze filled with lavender, lily of the valley and frankincense wends in from the corridor, accompanied by a swish of robes and the soft footfalls of expensive shoes. My belly pulls into a knot and I place the Bible I’ve been pretending to read back on Mother Geertruyt’s desk.
When he first steps into the Abbess’s office, I don’t recognise him. In this realm of flesh and rancor, I never do at first. It can take a lifetime to catch a glimpse of another’s soul.
All I see this morning is a peacock of a man weighed down by so many heavy robes and medallions it’s a wonder he can stand. But, as I breathe in another whiff of frankincense, a veiled memory rises then vanishes from my thoughts and my heart pounds as if there’s a jinn beating at the walls of my chest.
Peacock-man’s wife, her pale moon face sprouting from robes of red velvet, pearls, silks and furs, twists her lips when she sees me. She turns to Mother Geertruyt. “So this is the Moor?” she says. She narrows her eyes, gives me a long stare. “I was hoping for something darker. More exotic-looking.”
I stare back, my insides twisting. Her flame-red hair curls out from under a white, starched hat which has such wide wings that with a few turns of her head, she could use it to dust the Abbess’s book cabinets.
When he shifts his weight, his medallions clatter. My eyes drop to his slender fingers that have probably never plowed a field, weeded a garden or laid a stone. He raises his chin, outlined by a tightly clipped brown beard, his skin as pale as milk.
As I regard the gold cross on his breast, a wave of nausea rolls through me. What perversions does this Christian man harbor? Does he fondle and beat his servants? Does he laugh at witch burnings? I try to still my tongue, which is on a suicide mission.
“She is Arabian, not African,” he says to his wife. His voice is rich and deep and he speaks as if he has honey on his tongue. When his wife sniffs and shakes her head, it occurs to me that with her little nose, flared nostrils and tiny, deep-set eyes, she resembles a pig. Except all the pigs I know have kinder eyes.
“I hear Moors have trouble controlling their urges,” pig-woman adds, speaking as if I’m no more conscious than the vase of flowers on the Abbess’s desk.
“Marjit is blessed with the virtues of diligence and kindness,” the Abbess says. “And she has a gift with plants,” she adds. “She has transformed the cloister gardens, filled them with herbs, fruits and vegetables.”
The man glances at me, his eyes the colour of cornflowers, but when I catch his gaze, quickly, he looks away.
“Marjit,” he says, his eyes resting on the Bible on the Abbess’s desk, “but that’s not her real name, is it?”
The Abbess stiffens and the air in the room thickens. “She has had a painful past,” she says, “and we try not to dwell on it.”
Something about the way he says my name makes my belly convulse. I inhale their cloying fragrances and seethe. These grovelers to the Monarchy that ordered the murder of your family want to buy you! Like a horse! my black dog snarls.
“So,” says pig-woman, “is she an infidel then? Does she still follow the occult faith of Islam?”
“She has been baptised,” replies the Abbess evenly. “She is a Christian.”
Pig-woman arches her pale eyebrows. “Does that mean she has a soul?”
I bite my tongue and lower my eyes, a storm whips up inside me.
The Abbess gives pig-woman an icy look. “Marjit’s father was a Christian.”
“Well,” pig-woman says grudgingly, “perhaps then she has half a soul.”
I grit my teeth, gaze out the window past the clutter of books and scrolls on the Abbess’s desk and try to calm myself. Outside, beyond the distant cornfields, solemn racks of cloud gather on the horizon and above them a thunderstorm brews. A blue vein of lightning flashes over a cloud, and back inside the Abbess’s office, pig-woman’s eyes light up.
“If her father was a Christian, that makes her a bastard,” she announces. She turns to me as the thunder echoes, her eyes flashing as she examines me. Perhaps in that moment some part of her glimpses the trouble to come. “How old is she?”
Pig-woman snorts as if even my age displeases her. “Well past the age of marriage then.”
My black dog growls. That flame-haired harpy is another Sister Heilwich! Her mind is stuck to Christian Scriptures as stubbornly as shit clings to a shoe!
I glance back at him noticing a brown scar that begins on his cheekbone just below his eye and vanishes into his beard. I feel my back chill.
“Look at me, Moor,” pig-woman says.
When I raise my eyes and gaze at her, I notice her teeth are tiny, white and perfect, as if stolen from a stone saint. Her gaze slides back to Mother Geertruyt. “Her eyes are a strange colour,” she says as if the colour of my eyes is Mother Geertruyt’s fault.
I bite my tongue again. Hard. Somewhere in my ancestry, an Arab fell in love with a Persian and the echo of their union is still alive in the black-rimmed, forest-green of my eyes.
Pig-woman turns to Mother Geertruyt. “Haven’t you got another Moor instead of this one?” she says.
I bristle. Bite my tongue to hold it still. What do you think I am? I want to say. A wheel of cheese?
When I glance at him I catch a faint rise of his shoulders and stiffening of his limbs before his gaze drops to his grey silk shoes.
“Marjit is the only Moor at the Convent of Saint Wilgefortis,” Mother Geertruyt replies tersely.
Pig-woman regards me again. “Then she would do well to understand we are a decent Christian household,” she says crinkling her upturned snout.
If you are decent Christians, then I’m the Holy Virgin, my black dog urges me to reply.
I bite on my tongue to keep it still as pig-woman’s husband draws a long breath and dips a ring-spangled hand into the pocket of his robe.
“Very well then, it’s settled,” he says as he passes Mother Geertruyt a purse of coins. “We’ll expect her tomorrow morning,”
So there you have it, says my black dog. You have been bought. Like a string of sausages.
Instantly I regret that I hadn’t done or said something to make them reject me. As I regard the doughy softness about their faces that comes from lives of comfort and good food, my black dog yelps. It’s not too late! Fall to the ground and have a fit! Froth at the mouth and tear at your clothes! You know you would rather sicken and die than work for these pompous Christian asses! Something however, stops me. Instead, a cold thought seeps past my rage as I watch peacock-man turn. If that man tries to touch me, I’ll kill him.
But my soul is bright with joy, calling me by my Muslim name. It’s Him, my soul says. Soheila, it’s Him.
Later that morning, back in my cell, I watch from my window as those slave-buyers, their Moor-inspection complete, depart in a black-and-gold trimmed carriage drawn by two horses.
My black dog snarls. They came all this way instead of sending a servant because they wanted to make sure you aren’t a witch!
I slump on my bed and gulp back a despairing sob. Outside my window the sun drops behind the trees and for a moment fingers of light reach inside, flutter across the floorboards and trail over my bed, tipping everything in gold. Suddenly assaulted by the memory of the exorcist’s roaming fingers, I gasp and sit upright. My eyes lock on the metal mirror above the little oak dresser that holds my few possessions. I gaze back at the mortal vessel that houses my searching soul, taking in my arched Arab nose, the mole on my cheek that looks like a dried teardrop, the dark bags under eyes red from remorse and too little sleep. Even when my heart is quiet, I’m told I still look angry.
This is unfair! my black dog barks, are you going to accept this injustice? Do something! This is war! Inside me a kernel of disquiet swells. I pick up the Bible on my bedside table and hurl it at my reflection.
Leaving the Bible on the floor where it fell, I sweep out the door, my heart filled with righteous fervour, my legs propelled by a force beyond Heaven and Earth. Once, in another life, I cowered in the face of tyranny and did nothing. But this time, I will show everyone exactly who I am. Right behind me, nipping at my heels, my black dog herds me towards vengeance. Fight for justice! Kill those damned Christian heretics!
I stop with a jolt when I reach the door of Mother Geertruyt’s office. It’s slightly ajar and a knife blade of light cuts across the hallway shadows. From inside, I hear the deep tones of a man’s voice. “…that barren, saintless cult some dare to call a religion…”
My blood heats. I know that voice. Archdeacon Solin is visiting again. Through the partly open door, I can see his red-capped head. The material of his black velvet robe is so fine and thick, its darkness swallows the light. “She is a sorceress,” he continues, “born of occult practices. Her baptism means nothing to her. Her people are expert tricksters.” He releases a low growl. “And now you are exposing a decent Christian household to her devious ways. This can only end badly.”
I see Mother Geertruyt’s face thrown into relief by the light from the window. The bags under her eyes are darker than usual today, her face set.
“And I don’t for one minute believe her father was a Christian,” the Archdeacon continues.
“Marjit has been with us for nine years,” she replies firmly, “studying the Bible.”
“Bah! Studying the Bible doesn’t mean understanding it. A young woman like that can’t change her ways. One doesn’t forget the folly of the dark arts. Wantonness is in her blood. And so is witchcraft. Even a fool can see it. It’s written in the way she walks, the shape of her nose, the colour of her skin and eyes.”
As I listen to his words I clench my fists.
“Holy words should never pass lips like hers,” the Archdeacon continues. “Thick lips like that are a sign of lechery. Any fool can see she is a sensualist. A seductress. She doesn’t belong where she can poison people with her loose morals and blasphemous ideas.”
My skin crawls. Mother Geertruyt’s voice sounds strained. “Marjit is a hard worker. An outstanding gardener.”
The Archdeacon scoffs. “Pah! Hard work and pretty gardens don’t make a woman virtuous! And what about those lies she’s told you about her family? The Soldiers of the Inquisition don’t murder people. They are instructed by the monarchy to give every Muslim and Jewish infidel a free and fair trial. And that madness about refusing to have her hair cut? Saying her long hair is a sign of her devotion to God?”
He pauses to take a noisy breath. “Bah! It’s more than likely her family was practicing sorcery and witchcraft.”
My head spins. I squeeze my eyes shut. Stars appear and vanish in the darkness as I listen to Archdeacon Solin, this man who is Mother Geertruyt’s superior, rage about how Muslims are idolaters because we worship Muhammad as a God, the Sufi Muslim dervishes sodomites who bugger small boys.
“Her soul has been corrupted by the false messages of that epileptic, ignorant charlatan the Muslims call their prophet,” he continues. “You would be wise to let me deal with her.”
I shudder at the threat in his voice and my black dog growls. Who will believe anything you say? It’s your word against this Christian man of rank and power.
Icy chills snake up my back as I peep round the doorway just in time to see Mother Geertruyt, her pale lips taut, shake her head. “It’s too late. I’ve made my decision. The van der Beeck family is expecting her to start work tomorrow.”
“Very well,” the Archdeacon growls. “Your mistake. Sooner rather than later, it will all fall apart.” He pauses as if to give his next words the space they need. “There is only one place for women of her character.”
Gritting my teeth, I flee from Mother Geertruyt’s doorway back into the corridor’s dank shadows. I wish right then that I had the strength to scream so loud that my voice would echo through the corridors of Saint Wilgefortis Convent and shake all the crucifixes from their perches. Instead, feeling like a beetle crushed under a farmer’s boot, I creep back to my cell. Archdeacon Solin, who calls himself the eyes of the Bishop, is the overseer of all things holy in Hertogenbosch. In this world where men make the rules, Archdeacon Solin will eventually get his way. In this world of men, I’m as powerless as a plucked quail.
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