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The Last Jew
By Noah Gordon
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Lise Gordon, Jamie Beth Gordon, and Michael Seay
All rights reserved.
THE SILVERSMITH'S SON
The bad time began for Bernardo Espina on a day when the air hung heavy as iron and the arrogant sunshine was a curse. That morning his crowded dispensary had been almost emptied when a pregnant woman's water burst, and he banished from the room the two patients who remained. The woman was not even a patient but a daughter who had brought her old father to see the physician about a cough that wouldn't go away. The babe was her fifth and emerged into the world without delay. Espina caught the slick, rose-colored boy child in his hands, and when he patted the tiny nates the thin yowling of the lusty little peón brought cheers and laughter from those who waited outside.
The delivery lifted Espina's spirits, a false promise of a fortunate day. He wasn't committed for the afternoon, and he was thinking he would pack a basket with sweetmeats and a bottle of tinto and go with his family to the river, where the children could splash while he and Estrella sat in the shade of a tree and sipped and nibbled and talked quietly.
He was finishing with his last patient when a man wearing the brown robe of a novice bobbed into the courtyard on a donkey that had been ridden too hard in a day of such heat.
Full of contained excitement and importance, the man stammered that the señor physician's presence was requested at the Priory of the Assumption by Padre Sebastián Alvarez.
"The prior wishes you to come promptly."
The physician could tell the man knew he was a converso. The demeanor contained the deference due his profession, yet there was insolence in the tone, almost but not quite how the man would have addressed any Jew.
Espina nodded. He made certain the donkey would be given small amounts of water, and the man, food and drink. He himself took a cautionary piss, bathed his face and hands, swallowed a piece of bread. The novice was still eating when Espina rode out to answer the summons.
* * *
It had been eleven years since his conversion. Since that time he had been fervent in his chosen faith, a man who observed every saint's day, attended Mass with his wife daily, and was ever eager to serve his Church. Now he traveled without delay to answer the priest's demand, but at a pace that would protect his animal under the copper sun.
He arrived at the Hieronymite priory in time to hear the molten sound of bells calling the faithful to the Angelus of the Incarnation, and to see four sweaty lay brothers bearing the basket of hard bread and the cauldron of sopa boba, the thin friar's broth that would add little flesh this day to the bones of the hungry paupers gathered at the priory gate.
He found Padre Sebastián pacing the cloister, deep in conversation with Fray Julio Pérez, the sacristan of the chapel. The gravity in their faces reached out to Espina.
Stunned was the word that flickered into the physician's mind as the prior sent the sacristan away and greeted Bernardo Espina somberly in Christ's name.
"The body of a dead youth has been found among our olive trees. The youth was slain," the priest said. He was a middle-aged priest with a chronically anxious look, as if he worried that God wasn't satisfied with his work. He had always been decent in his relationship to conversos.
Espina nodded slowly, but his mind already was heeding a warning signal. It was a violent world. With unfortunate frequency someone was found dead, but after life has fled there is no reason to call a physician.
The padre prior led the way into a friar's cell where the body was laid out. Already the heat had brought flies and the sweetish stench of human mortality. He tried breathing shallowly against the odor, but it did no good. Under the blanket that offered a final modesty the husky young corpus wore only a shirt. With a pang Bernardo Espina recognized the face and crossed himself, not knowing whether the reflex was for the slain Jewish boy or for himself or due to the presence of this cleric.
"We would learn about this death." The priest looked at him. "Everything. As much as it is possible to know," Padre Sebastián said, and Bernardo nodded, still mystified.
Some things both of them were privy to from the start. "He is Meir, son of Helkias Toledano," Bernardo said, and the priest nodded. The murdered boy's father was one of the leading silversmiths in all of Castille.
"This boy had scarce fifteen years, if my memory is correct," Espina said. "At any rate, his life barely went beyond boyhood. This is the way he was found?"
"Yes. By Fray Angelo, picking olives in the early coolness after Matins."
"May I examine him, Padre Prior?" Espina asked, and the prior waved his hand impatiently.
The boy's face was unmarked and innocent. There were livid bruises on his arms and chest, a mottling on the thigh muscles, three superficial stabs on his back, and a cut in his left side, over the third rib. The anus was torn and there was semen between his buttocks. And bright beads of blood across a slit throat.
Bernardo knew his family, devout and stubborn Jews who loathed those, such as he, who had volunteered to abandon the religion of their fathers.
After the examination, Padre Sebastián bade the physician to follow him into the sacellum, where they dropped to their knees on the hard flagstones before the altar and recited the Paternoster. From a cabinet behind the altar Padre Sebastián lifted out a small sandalwood box. Opening it, he removed a square of scarlet silk, heavily perfumed. When he unfolded the silk, Bernardo Espina saw a dry and bleached fragment, less than half a span in length.
"Do you know what this is?"
The priest seemed to surrender the object with reluctance. Espina drew close to the dancing light of the votive candles and studied it. "A piece of a human bone, Padre Prior."
"Yes, my son."
Bernardo was on a narrow and tenuous bridge, teetering over the treacherous abyss of knowledge gained in long secret hours at the dissection table. Dissection was forbidden by the Church as sin, but Espina had still been a Jew when he apprenticed to Samuel Provo, a Jewish physician of renown who was a secret dissecter. Now he looked directly into the prior's eyes. "A fragment of a femur, the largest bone of the body. This, from close to the knee."
He studied the raddled bone, taking note of its mass, the angulation, the landmarks and the fossae. "It is from the right leg of a woman."
"You can tell all this simply by looking?"
The candlelight turned the prior's eyes yellow. "It is the most sacred of links to the Savior."
Bernardo Espina regarded the bone with interest. He had never expected to stand so close to a sacred relic. "Is it the bone of a martyr?"
"It is the bone of Santa Ana," the prior said quietly.
It took a moment for Espina to comprehend. The mother of La Virgen María? Surely not, he thought, and was horrified to realize he had stupidly spoken aloud.
"Oh, it is, my son. Certified so by those who deal with such things in Rome and sent to us by His Eminence Rodrigo Cardinal Lancol."
Espina's hand holding the object trembled in a way strange to one who had been a good surgeon for years. He returned the bone to the priest carefully, then he sank to his knees again. Blessing himself quickly, he joined Padre Prior Sebastián in renewed prayer.
* * *
Afterward, outside again in the hot light, Espina noted that armed men who didn't appear to be friars were on the grounds of the priory.
"You didn't see the boy last night while yet he was alive, Padre Prior?"
"I didn't see him," Padre Sebastián said, and told him, finally, why he had been summoned.
"This priory commissioned the silversmith Helkias to fashion a reliquary of chased silver and gold. It was to be a remarkable reliquary in the shape of a ciborium, to house our sacred relic during the years it will take us to finance and build a suitable shrine in Santa Ana's honor.
"The artisan's drawings were magnificent, showing every promise that the finished work would be worthy of its task.
"The boy was to have delivered the reliquary last night. When his body was found, near it there was an empty leather bag.
"Possibly those who killed the boy are Jews or perhaps they are Christians. You are a physician with entry in many places and many lives, a Christian yet also a Jew. I wish you to discover their identity."
Bernardo Espina struggled with resentment at the insensitive ignorance of this cleric, to think that a converso was welcome everywhere. "I am perhaps the last person you should entrust with such a charge, Reverend Padre."
"Nevertheless." The priest gazed at him stubbornly, and with the implacable bitterness of one who has given up earthly comfort to wager everything on the world to come. "You are to find these thieving murderers, my son. You must point out our devils that we may gird ourselves against them. You must do God's work."CHAPTER 2
THE GIFT FROM GOD
Padre Sebastián knew Fray Julio Peréz was a man of unimpeachable faith, someone who doubtless would be elected to lead the Priory of the Assumption should he himself have to leave it through death or opportunity. Yet the sacristan of the chapel was flawed by an innocence that was too trusting. Padre Sebastián found it disquieting that of the six men-at-arms Fray Julio had hired to walk the perimeter of the priory, only three of the hard-eyed guards were known personally by either Fray Julio or himself.
The priest was achingly aware that the priory's future, to say nothing of his own, rested in the small wooden box hidden in the chapel. The presence of the relic filled him with gratitude and renewed wonder, yet it increased his anxiety, for having it in his charge was both high honor and terrible responsibility.
As a boy of scarce twelve years in Valencia, Sebastián Alvarez had seen something in the polished surface of a black ceramic ewer. The vision — because this is what he knew it to be — came to him in the mid of the frightening night, when he awoke in the sleeping chamber he shared with his brothers, Augustin and Juan Antonio. Staring at the black ceramic in the moonlit room, he saw our own Lord Jesus on the rood. Both the Lord's figure and the cross were amorphous and without detail. After seeing the vision he drifted back into a warm and pleasant sleep; when he awoke in the morning, the vision was gone, but the memory of it remained clear and perfect in his mind.
He never revealed to anyone that he had been chosen by God to receive a vision. His older brothers would have jeered and told him he had seen the hunter's moon reflected in the ewer. His father, a baron who felt that his lineage and lands gave him license to be a sodden brute, would have beaten him for being a fool, and his mother was a chastened figure who lived in fear of her husband and seldom talked to her children.
But ever after the night of the vision Sebastián's role in life was clear to him, and he had demonstrated a piety that made it easy for his family to shunt him into the service of the Church.
After ordination he had been content to serve humbly in several undistinguished roles. It was in the sixth year following ordination that he was helped by the growing prominence of his brother Juan Antonio. Their brother Augustin had inherited the title and the land in Valencia, but Juan Antonio had made an excellent marriage in Toledo, and his wife's family, the powerful Borgias, had arranged for Sebastián to be assigned to the Toledo See.
Sebastián was named chaplain to a new Hieronymite priory and assistant to its prior, Padre Jerónimo Degas. The Priory of the Assumption was exceedingly poor. It had no land of its own save for the tiny piece on which the priory stood, but it rented an olive grove, and as an act of charity Juan Antonio allowed the friars to plant grapes in the corners and on the thin edges of his land. The priory attracted little money in donations from Juan Antonio or anyone else, and it called no wealthy novices into lives of holy service.
Still, after Padre Jerónimo Degas died, Sebastián Alvarez had succumbed to the sin of pride when the friars had elected him prior, although he suspected the honor came because he was Juan Antonio's brother.
The first five years of directing the priory had diminished him, sapping his spirit. Yet, despite the grinding pettiness, the priest dared to dream. The giant Cistercian order had been started by a handful of zealous men, fewer and poorer than his own friars. Whenever a community had sixty white-robed Cistercian monks, twelve of them were sent out to start a new monastery, and thus they had spread throughout Europe for Jesus. Padre Sebastián told himself that his modest priory could do the same if only God would show the route.
* * *
In the year of the Lord 1488 Padre Sebastián was excited — and the religious community of Castille was invigorated — by a visitor from Rome. Rodrigo Cardinal Lancol had Spanish roots, having been born Rodrigo Borgia near Seville. As a youth he had been adopted by his uncle, Pope Calixtus III, and he had grown to be a man to fear, a man of tremendous churchly power.
The Alvarez family had long ago proven itself friends and allies of the Borgias, and the close ties between the families had been strengthened by the marriage of Elienor Borgia to Juan Antonio. Already, because of the Borgia connection, Juan Antonio had become a popular figure at court functions and was said to be a favorite of the queen.
Elienor was first cousin to Cardinal Lancol.
"A relic," Sebastián had said to Elienor.
He hated to plead to his sister-in-law, whom he could not abide for her vanity, insincerity, and spitefulness when irked. "A relic of a martyr, perhaps of a minor saint. If His Eminence could help the prior obtain such a relic, it would be the making of us. I am certain he will come to our aid if you but ask it of him."
"Oh, I could not," Elienor protested.
Nevertheless, Sebastián became more abject and more insistent as the time of Lancol's visit approached, and she softened. Finally, to rid herself of a nuisance and for the sake of her husband only, she promised Juan Antonio's brother she would do whatever was humanly possible to benefit his cause. It was known that the cardinal would be entertained in Cuenca, at the estate of her father's brother, Garci Borgia Junez.
"I shall talk to Uncle and ask that he do it," she promised Sebastián.
* * *
Before Cardinal Lancol departed from Spain, in the cathedral of Toledo he officiated at a Mass attended by every friar, priest, and prelate in the region. After the service Lancol stood surrounded by well-wishers, the cardinal's miter on his head, his great shepherd's crook of a crosier in his hand, and about his neck the pallium given him by the pope. Sebastián saw him from afar, as if experiencing another vision. He made no attempt to approach Lancol. Elienor had reported that Garci Borgia Junez had indeed made the request. Uncle had pointed out that knights and soldiers from every country in Europe had passed through Spain after each of the great Crusades. Before they returned home they had stripped the country of its holy relics, digging up the bones of martyr and saint, and pillaging relics almost at will from any church or cathedral along their route. Uncle had told Lancol ever so gently that if he could but send a relic to the Spanish priest who was their relative by marriage, it would earn the cardinal the adulation of all of Castille.
Sebastián knew that now the matter would be decided by God and by his appointed servants in Rome.
* * *
The days passed slowly for him. At first he dared to imagine receiving a relic that would have the power to answer Christian prayer and the tender mercy to heal the afflicted. Such a relic would draw worshipers and donations from afar. The small priory would become a great and thriving monastery, and the prior would become ...
As the days turned to weeks and months, he forced himself to put the dream aside. He had almost given up all hope when he was summoned to the offices of the Toledo See. The pouch from Rome, which was sent to Toledo twice a year, had just arrived. Among other things it contained a sealed message for Padre Sebastián Alvarez of the Priory of the Assumption.
Excerpted from The Last Jew by Noah Gordon. Copyright © 2000 Lise Gordon, Jamie Beth Gordon, and Michael Seay. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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