Unerring Mercy and Pure Grace
Madrid, Spring, 1466
Above the plains of Castile's civil war
fourteen-year old Princess Isabel,
half-sister to King Henry, drew apart
from the royal household's lawless core,
existing as a pearl within the shell
of court corruption, intrigue and black art.
Virtually an orphan, with father dead
and mother sent away, she found a source
of solace in Catholicism's rites
consuming in Christ's consecrated bread
an uncorrupted father-mother force
of God and Church, a sanctuary-flight.
She spent long hours in silent prayer, removed
from courtly idleness. Her pious mien
was mocked by those who saw her come and go
and gossips snickered that her actions proved
she was insane, true daughter of the Queen
besieged by madness, raving at Arevelo.
As blood relation to the feckless king
(said not to be the father of his daughter Joan)
Isabel was valuable, a pawn to trade
for arms and coin to fight the rebel wing
which sought to sever Henry from his throne.
And so a pact was signed, a deal was made.
Three thousand lancers and a chest of gold
(some sixty thousand doblas) was the price
that Don Girón, an aging warrior-priest
paid for Isabel. He'd weighed her worth with cold,
reptilian intention—the precise
calculation of a predatory beast.
He'd left the church—his consecrated hands
now violated young girls splayed
beneath his loins. And should his manhood wilt
he blamed the child with bloody reprimands
and raped her with his dagger, jamming in the blade
of polished, sharpened steel up to the hilt.
Unanswered screams. A monk kept muttering
his breviary words while in another room
a fleet of quarreling doctors diagnosed
a case of clap, and outside, ladies fluttering,
passed through the scent of orange trees in bloom
stumbling as hounds bayed, bells tolled, doors closed.
And in the evening's course, should death occur—
small death not held as murder since Girón had tossed
the young girl's father hunks of meat and bread
and bought her outright, like an ass or cur
for personal use—he had recouped her cost
with measured satisfaction in his bed.
Hearing his name, Isabel grew sick—
remembering black eyes which openly appraised
her childhood form, tongue flicking in the nest
of moistened beard as yellow nails thick
with filth caressed his paunch and a raised
spear of flesh confirmed his wantonness.
In three days' time the marriage would take place—
a Sacrament exalting sacrilege
since Don Girón with all a husband's gain
would strip her of her purity, debase
the secret chambers of her body, bridge
his fetid soul to hers through violent pain.
In desolation Isabel took flight
to her chapel, where alone, she wept.
Girón was odious, his smell, his name,
his hands—but it was Henry's God-made right
to sign the marriage pact—her duty to accept
humiliation's sting, corruption's flame.
She paced the chapel floor pursued by grief.
The books she'd read—The Perfect Wife; The Book
of Goodly Love—prepared her to receive
a man she would revere—whose pure belief
in God would match her own—who'd choose to look
at her with high regard—whose child she would conceive.
The western sky bled. Bats began to dart
through dusk—one day gone. Night pulled a moonless shroud
around the chapel walls and something rasped
against the shadowed floor and Isabel's heart
struck like a stone, thrashing her ribs in loud
hard beats, forcing breath to come in ragged gasps.
Two days. In a burst of angry grief she tore
her auburn hair, ripped her gown and scratched
her face and forearms raw. Then lethargy
set in. Despondent, tired, she listened for
the watchman's call of hours—each count dispatched
in increments, her hold on sanity.
Strange thoughts of suicide—far yet near—
as though belonging to some other mind—
flitted over her like butterflies in sun—
a peaceful dreaming—to be gone from here—
never suffering his touch—never consigned
to his ownership—just...oblivion.
In her belt her eating-knife—she a white
sacrificial lamb—a gift to God—reached—
pulled out—lifted—reflection struck the wide
blade—surprised, she turned to catch the source of light—
a sanctuary lamp which limned her Savior's bleached
and twisted body, hanging crucified.
Christ who bowed beneath His Father's will—
Christ who suffered in all innocence—
Christ who in the garden knew His destiny
and prayed for merciful escape, yet still
accepted death. The knife dropped, its dense
steel clanks charging her with apostasy.
In clumsy haste she unclasped pins, unlaced
her velvet bodice, cast off her outer dress,
then verdugado, and lay in her chemise
shivering on the ragged floor. She placed
her life in Christ's pierced hands, confessed
her sin and prayed for clemency.
Beloved Christ, take one of us. Take me
or him. O, gentle Jesus, let one die.
Day and night she lay face pressed against the floor
murmuring her litany relentlessly,
refusing food or drink, to amplify
the somber cloth of penance that she wore.
On the third dawn, as sunlight bronzed bare ground
she rose to chants of Lauds and stood, austere
in sour chemise, her damped rope of hair
clinging to her neck, one hand clasped around
its mate, face streaked with blood and dirt, eyes clear,
listening for the click of boots upon the stair.
Alfonso de Carrillo, her confessor, stepped
through the door. I bring you news of Don Girón.
Isabel drew breath, gathered fortitude.
Yesterday he died of plague. The words swept
over her—she gasped, sobbed, laughed, fell on
her knees with prayers of praise and gratitude.
And in that moment—a vision and a vow.
She would spend her life defending God
declaring war on those who would debase
His holy word and Church. She would allow
no slander in her presence—all would laud
her God's unerring mercy and pure grace.
Seville, Winter, 1481
It was a night of whispers, of bold
and fearful secrets. Susanna de Susán,
Don Diego's daughter, shivered in the warm
arms of her lover, shaking not from winter cold,
but from her knowledge of a treasonous plan,
a dangerous, impending firestorm.
Susanna wore the well-known sobriquet
La Hermosa—Beautiful—but most Christian men
whose bodies tightened at the sight of rosebud
lips, full breasts and onyx eyes did not forget
her Jewish roots. She was not a citizen
possessing sangre limpia, clean blood.
She was descended from conversos—
forced converts from a century ago
whose present wealth engendered jealousy
revealed in the epithet, marranos—
swine—spat out behind their backs—a show
of fulminating scorn and bigotry.
And deep distrust. Jews who now professed
a Christian faith were watched. The secretly relapsed
revealed their heresy in telling ways—
keeping Sabbath as a day of rest,
consuming meat in Lent, or eating scraps
of flattened bread on ritual holidays.
All dangerous practices in Catholic Spain.
Heresy was treason against God and crown
and Isabel and Ferdinand, Spain's Queen and King
made double vows to God and Rome—their reign
would drive the Moors from Christendom and drown
all false belief in fiery christening.
La Santa Inquisición. Dominicans,
the "Hounds of God," charged by Isabel to hunt
out sacrilege, found in Torquemáda, her
confessor, a relentless and untiring man,
a leader who used special methods to confront
the trembling sinful as Inquisitor.
The "water cure" divided true from false.
A naked man was strapped across a board,
his nostrils stuffed with cloth and jawbones wrest
apart by iron prongs. A linen pall
was draped across his mouth and water poured
slowly, fully, until he at last confessed.
A guilty verdict brought harsh penalties—
stiff fines, a public flogging, perpetual
imprisonment or death—quick strangulation
or slow fire. Lands and wealth were seized
to subsidize Spain's war against the infidel—
two problems solved with one adjudication.
And on a night of secrets, of warning
passed in gloved hands by messengers aware
of shadows at their backs—a volatile
assembly of conversos, suborning
insurrection, gathered to forswear
the Inquisition's actions in Seville.
These were gentlemen, city patriarchs,
knights familiar with the art of war
with access to a hoard of weaponry.
Rabbi Don Diego lit white sparks
of fury in this cadre, calling for
the murder of their Papist enemy.
Susanna overheard her father's strategy.
Full of fear, she hurried to her lover,
a Christian man who dared to cleave
to her despite his family—oh if he
should die, caught unaware by massacre...
She hurried to him begging him to leave.
But why? His velvet tongue embroidered eyes
and cheeks and lips and neck, kiss by kiss
while his fingers with a silken touch, hemmed
the nipples of her breasts. Tell me. Between her thighs
he searched and found her woman's seam of bliss
and as he entered her, she answered him.
Don Diego was arrested, tried, found guilty.
The morning of the auto de fe, crowds
assembled early in the plaza's square.
Nervous murmurs ceased when a threnody
announced the ritual's beginning. A shroud-
draped cross of olive green appeared midair.
Brothers, priests and nuns walked two abreast,
holding lighted tapers, exhorting citizens
who stood nearby to pray for the condemned.
Next came the city's bureaucrats, men dressed
in sumptuous velvets, followed by musicians
of the Holy Office chanting somber hymns.
Susanna watched her father pass, his eyes flat,
feet bare, wearing a yellow sanbenito,
the Inquisition's garb of reprimand.
On his head a painted cone-shaped hat
depicted demons dancing in inferno.
An amber candle flickered in his hand.
The procession halted at a black-draped stage.
A Dominican whose white-robed sleeves
caught the wind like sails against a tinware
sky, assailed the crowd about sin's wage,
raised a crucifix and asked for fealty.
As one they answered—sí, juramos—we swear.
And then each prisoner's sentence was pronounced.
The bells of La Giralda—a minaret
converted when the Moors were overthrown—
disturbed a flock of ravens when the clangs announced
that duty had been passed from church to state.
Executions would begin as wide bronze bells groaned.
Don Diego held his dignity as he was tied,
not even shivering in February chill.
Susanna stood within the throng, watched the first
fagots blaze, saw orange flames skitter along dried
wood, rise and lick his naked legs until
debased by agony, he howled and cursed.
His body twisted, dancing in the fire
as skin darkened, bubbled, burst, curled back.
Fingers peeled off his hands and hair she'd brushed
became a flaming halo circling higher
around his head, his features melting like black wax
and his screaming pierced her heart. Then he hushed.
The stench—she retched and slipped on vomit-slick stones
fleeing from the quemadero, but the smell was rooted
in her body and would not yield to falling rain.
She ran—his glassy stare stayed with her, his moans
that rose to screams, to curses that imputed
her betrayal, again, again, again.
Night. Susanna's anguish spilled inside
the darkest layers of her soul where horn
and hoof reside, creeping past the sentinel
that kept her rational, whispering that suicide
would still the howls, the stench, the scorn.
But she could not face her father's eyes in hell.
At dawn she gathered his charred bones, wrapped
them in her cloak, and held them close, seeking
consolation. Turned out of home, her wits
corrupted by self-loathing, she crawled the unmapped
streets, cradling her festering bag, shrieking
when a pack of wild dogs captured it.
The rest of her life she begged for bread, relieved
of beauty's burden by her dirty, inflamed skin,
and lice-infected hair. Taken to a nunnery
she did not stay. Her nightly screams aggrieved
the sisters' sleep. A grocer took her in
with pity for her abject poverty.
She died in his arms, asking that her skull
be nailed above her former home's carved door
that all might take a warning from her base,
unnatural, filial betrayal,
and pray her tortured soul be heaven's visitor
through God's unerring mercy and pure grace.
Please enjoy this dramatic presentation by the author.