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IN A YEAR OF AMPLE RAIN, ONE HECTARE, carefully tended, would sustain enough mulberry trees to feed about one hundred and forty-four thousand silkworms. The trees’ first buds appeared just after Palm Sunday. They unfurled by Whitsun and were in full summer leaf by the time we celebrated the feast of Our Lady. In autumn we pruned the bare branches and with the wood we collected we made more bonfires for Saint John the Baptizer than any other family in Quintanapalla.
Our lives followed those of our trees and our worms. Each year we carried almost seven thousand pounds of leaves to the silk house. Leaves bundled in baskets and bags and yoked to tired shoulders or pushed in the old barrow. Leaves wrapped in a linen and balanced on an upright head, or dragged in a sack along the dry ground so that they got dusty and had to be washed.
I was a child of five years, smaller than other girls my age, small enough that I could walk under my grandfather’s table without ducking my head, but I was not so small that I could not carry my share of the mulberry leaves; and, like my father and mother, my grandfather and my sister, I carried leaves from our trees to our worms, bearing them on my head in a basket that was broad and flat like my mother’s, except that it was half the size.
The silkworms ate without cease. Day into night into day, we forced them to feed; they paused only to split their skins. After the fourth and final molt, each worm as long and as thick as my grandfather’s thumb, they were ready to spin. One hundred and forty-four thousand worms of good quality, vigorous and industrious, could spin almost ninety pounds of silk cocoons, that total including the weight of the worms inside, which we killed by steaming the trays of sleeping cocoons over stones heated by fire and doused with water, smothering the worms in rising clouds of hot vapor. We had to kill them. If we did not, they would turn into silk moths; they would escape by chewing through the silk they had spun.
Each year, just before All Souls’ Day, we took our ninety pounds, more or less, of raw silk cocoons from our one hectare to market. There we sold them; and from the market they were carried with the harvests of other silk farmers on a great tumbrel pulled by oxen to the cisterns in Soria, where they were soaked and soaked and soaked again, and then unraveled. The unraveling required the labor of comb girls, who clawed the silk apart with the nails of their middle fingers notched in one, two, three places—notched to the detriment of their lovers’ backs, or the flesh of anyone else they might care to touch, themselves included.
After the labor of the worms was thus undone, the silk was ready to be twisted into thread at the throwing mills, also in the city of Soria. In the mill yards the crated unraveled silk was unloaded by the men who worked there, the shining work of our worms thus passing from the hands of maidens to those of swains: from one to the other, like a secret, like a greeting, like a whispered promise of more and better gifts to come. Or so I liked to dream as I fed the worms, for, though I had never seen a twisting mill myself, I knew that its clacking, groaning machines were tended by young men who labored long days for little money, not even a hundred maravedis, a scant handful of coins—barely enough to buy them their suppers and an occasional trinket for a sweetheart, my papa said.
Twisted into hanks of fine, strong thread, the silk was crated again and carried from the mill to the wash works nearby, where it was tied in bags and boiled in soapy water, then rinsed and dried and bleached in fumes of burning sulfur.
From the wash works, the silk was crated one last time and then carried to the dye artists in Epila, whose hands were permanently stained black from endless immersion in pigments; their ears and noses, too, if they were like me and in the habit of absentmindedly scratching an itch. The dye artists made our silk purple, perhaps, or red or green, dropping each white hank into a cauldron of color. I could picture the nearly naked vat boys as they slowly stirred the strands with a pole, sweat running down their thin chests and into their loincloths. For in the dye works with its boiling cauldrons they could wear nothing more, and naked they carried the dripping hanks out to the factory yard’s great racks and hung them there to dry.
Woven, then, by the weavers in that same city: each lustrous colored thread held tight by a loom’s jumping heddle until it was battened fast to another, made to lie forever between its neighbors—one slender stroke of color after another, placed so as to create a pattern, a shining, dreamlike scene of ever-leaping deer and wheeling birds, of imagined animals following one another, caught in the fabric for all eternity. Or an endless, meditative weave of repeating geometric symmetries: squares inside squares, stripes and circles and crescents, trapezoids and triangles and pyramids of silk.
A year of ample rain. In truth, I cannot remember a year of ample rain, other than the one in which it all arrived between one Sabbath and the next and coursed down the mountain and through our house. But by the end of a tolerably wet season, our worms produced silk sufficient for about forty pairs of hose—a modest accomplishment given the work it took, the efforts of our whole family, though one that grew in my imagination, and in my dreams. Grew until it was enough silk to clothe the grandest assembly the land had ever seen.
Enough silk for a state wedding, or funeral. Hundreds of dresses, thousands of doublets. Collars and cloaks and cuffs and ruffs of silk.
Enough silk for tapestries to drape every inch of cold stone wall in the king’s palace in Madrid. Enough to carpet each stone stair and to lay a shining path for the king to tread to his queen’s bedchamber.
Enough for his forces, too, his armies and his navies. Enough to rig an entire armada—sails, shrouds, and yards of silk: red and green, white, blue, gold, all shimmering on the surface of the ocean, like light broken by the water into every conceivable color.
Enough for a thousand silk dancing slippers.
Picture it like this. Picture it as I have countless times: unfurled, one endless, slender, shining strand. Once I took a cocoon and soaked it and unraveled it myself, and though I broke the silk repeatedly, still the one cocoon, undone, unspun, took me around and around and around our house more times than I could count. Mama went in and out of the door; her skirts tore through the strand I’d stretched across the threshold. When I went to catch it from the breeze it eluded my fingers. But away from the perils of clumsy hands and busy skirts, in the care of comb girls and mill boys, our silk would not break.
Even without the magnification of my desire, our worms—our ninety pounds of cocoons—would yield about fourteen thousand leagues of spun silk. I asked Papa to do the arithmetic for me, and as he figured, squinting, I squinted, too, and saw a filament so fine that in the wrong light it might be invisible, and yet so magically strong that it could withstand the wind of any maritime storm.
Enough to take me back and forth to the New World seven times.
If I were to follow the route of Cortés, embarking from La Coruña, as he did one hundred and seventy-one years ago, in 1518—that is to say, if I were to sail more or less straight into the sunset, west, that same compass point which the poets employ to evoke death, Helios’ burning chariot sinking into the waves with a hiss of steam—the length of raw silk required for the manufacture of, say, a dozen dancing slippers would take me far past the Azores and past the dreadful glass-flat calm of the Sargasso Sea, past Hispaniola and Cuba and over the Nares Deep (into which ships sank as far down, they say, as Mount Ararat was high) and on past the tip of that distant land of flowers, La Florida, where Ponce de Léon died seeking a cure for death.
Another few slippers’ worth and I would be across the warm gulf and into the Bay of Campeche, docking in the port of that city named for the true cross of Christ, Vera Cruz, the city that is the entry to the new, unspoiled world: the land of another chance, the land of hope. And what better name for hope than that of the cross? For isn’t hope what flowed from Christ’s side? From his heart and hands and feet? Isn’t it hope that makes one don slippers and dance? Either that or despair. Yes, despair does quite as well for dancing.
As if those silk-slippered feet, like some mischievous crusade transported into the air, would trip and skip and pirouette across oceans and past islands. Gliding and dancing over waves and past storms and on to the gold and silver of New Spain.
Seven times across the oceans.
Seven. A magic number. And an odd one, which would not bring me home but leave me on the green shore of a land of savages who wore no clothes at all, silk or otherwise.
Reading Group Guide
About this Guide:
The questions, author biography and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Kathryn Harrison's POISON. We hope they will provide you with fresh ways of looking at this "fascinating, gorgeously written and hauntingly told" novel (Los Angeles Times Book Review).
About this Book:
Set in 17th-century Spain and narrated with hypnotic intensity, POISON is the story of two women, born on the same day, whose lives run a parallel, tragic course. The terror of Spain's Inquisition, the tyranny of superstition, the rapture of religious fervor and the intrigue of the king's court form the backdrop of this rich, mesmerizing novel.
Francisca de Luarca is the daughter of a poor Castilian silk farmer and shares his passionate determination and imagination. Forbidden by Spanish law to wear the silk her family makes, she dreams of the splendid silk garments woven for kings and queens, even as she fantasizes of learning to read the writing of the saints and becoming like the angels. At the same time, the lovely, naive Marie Louise de Bourbon dances in silk slippers in the Parisian palace of her uncle, King Louis XIV, and imagines her own enchanted future.
It is in Madrid that the lives of these two young women unfold in tandem, almost touching. Each hoards the memory of her adored lost mother like an amulet. Forced to marry the impotent King Carlos II of Spain, Marie Louise pays dearly for her failure to produce an heir to the throne. And in the tunnels below the city streets, where the hooded torturers of the Grand Inquisitor exact confessions from suspected witches and heretics, Francisca learns theterrible consequences of her obsession with a Catholic priest, the man who teaches her to read and to love.
Praise for this book
"Intelligent and impassioned...a hothouse of a novel...[with scenes of] blinding and superbly written lust."--The New York Times
"POISON is a wonderful novel, rich and wild and sweet." --The Washington Post World
"Vivid...remarkable...crystalline prose perfumed (but not too much) with musky eroticism, bigger enough than life to carry you away."--Chicago Tribune
l. Sexuality, religion and literacy are linked strongly throughout POISON. Francisca says, "Venite ad me. Alvaro spoke to me in Latin, the language of the Church and all her saints, and when he called me to him with those words our union existed not only out of time but beyond ordinary and profane human conversation as well. We became sacred together." (p. 179) Why do Alvaro's words have such power to seduce Francisca? What does she mean by saying, "I was never sure which Alvaro I wanted, angel or mortal?" (p. 183) In what ways does her obsession with the lives of Saint Teresa of Avila and the martyrs make her so vulnerable to Alvaro? How is she able to maintain the belief that their love is sacred despite its clear defiance of social propriety and Church law?
2. The connection between literacy and witchcraft also pervades the novel. Why are the citizens in Francisca's region so superstitious and fearful of those who can read? Why do the Inquisitors seek to punish the literate even when they read books written by the holy people of the Church? Why is Francisca's affair with Alvaro considered so dangerous to the social order?
3. The countries of Spain and France are continually compared and contrasted in the text. Francisca says, "I am my father's daughter. I am a daughter of the Castile," (p. 26) land of Don Quixote, "a somber, guilty kingdom." (p. 236) Marie Louise is a child of Parisian splendor, accustomed to a life filled with fragrant flowers and "endless dizzy balls." (p. 47) How do the geographic backgrounds of these women help shape their characters? How do they lead to their downfalls?
4. The name "Francisca" means "the free one." (p. 185) In what ways is this true? In what ways ironic?
5. Francisca says at the novel's opening that her mother represents "a taste of something of which I never have my fill." (p. 27) Both Francisca and Marie Louise share extraordinarily strong bonds with their mothers. How do these relationships sustain them throughout their lives? How do they contribute to and, early in the novel, foreshadow the disastrous events that befall them? How does Alvaro's presence at-Concepcion's death act as a catalyst to his relationship with Francisca?
6. The relationship between Francisca and her sister Dolores is portrayed as deeply disturbed. To what extent is this attributable to their personality differences? To their attachments to their parents? Which is the stronger motivation for Dolores's treacherous act of betraying Francisca: jealousy or fear? Of the two sisters, who has the unhappier life, in your estimation?
7. At the wedding of Marie Louise to Carlos, both she and Francisca wear distinctive clothing: a smock of shame for Francisca and a "gown of misery" covering Marie Louise's bridal splendor. (pp. 50-51) What does the imposition of these garments upon the two women reveal about society's expectations for and fear of them? How do they foreshadow what each woman will wear at the novel's conclusion?
8. Silk production is a leitmotif of the novel that illuminates the characters and becomes a metaphor for the transformations each major character undergoes. What does Francisca mean when she says, "I am a silkworm," as she is being tortured in the tunnels? (pp. 115-117) How is her expected "martyrdom" and transcendence symbolized by the lives of silkworms? In what ways does the course of Francisca's questioning by the Inquisition, "the wash works," (p. 114) parallel the centuries old enslavement of the silkworm? What is the significance of Francisca meeting her lover in the silk house?
9. The color white appears as a frequent symbol. It is both the color of Francisca's torturers' hoods and the color, at Marie Louise's death, of "innocence restored." (p. 312) How does it play a part in and link the experiences of birth? Marriage? Torture? Death? Angels and martyrdom? And what is the significance of the presence of other colors: the purple of Alvaro's hose? The red cloth that hangs in the confessional? The crimson of Marie Louise's monthly flow and the blood lanced from her veins?
10. Carlos is portrayed as nauseatingly weak and ineffectual. How, then, is he able to so thoroughly destroy Marie Louise? How does his weakness motivate the people of Spain? His mother? His court?
11. What is the significance of the title POISON? The king s mother is responsible for murdering Marie Louise, but who else is responsible, metaphorically, for her poisoning? For Francisca's? In what ways are the heroines of the novel considered poison by their society?
12. Francisca says, "Barrenness is a burden that a woman bears alone." (p. 303) Why does she feel this state is even sadder than losing a beloved child? What does she mean when she describes giving birth to Mateo as like giving birth to herself? (p. 264) To God? (p. 265)
13. The Catholic sacrament of confession is a recurring symbol. What is the significance of the fever that befalls Francisca after lying to Alvaro in the confessional? How does falling in love with a priest transform Francisca herself into a confessor by the novel's conclusion? Francisca confesses over and over to the White Hoods, despite her determination to refuse. What is the meaning of her disturbing explanation: "You want to love your torturer, too. Yes, that is easier than hating him, it requires much less strength to make him your final passion, to die of love for him?" (p. 177)
14. At the end of the book, Francisca says, "What do I believe? In nothing, and in everything." (p. 312) How do the events of her life lead her to this paradoxical description of her faith? In her circumstances, wouldyou believe in "everything" or in "nothing"?
About the Author:
KATHRYN HARRISON's controversiel memoir, Kiss is a New York Times best-seller. She is a graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her first novel, Thicker Than Water, was a New York Times Notable Book of 1991. Her second novel, Exposure was also a New York Times Notable Book and a national bestseller. The Los Angeles Times has called her "one of the most promising new writers of her generation." She lives in New York City with her husband, the writer Colin Harrison.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the most beautiful book I have ever read! It is the only book I have read by Harrison, but I intend to read every book she has written. She writes in such a way that all you have to do is close your eyes, and you can see the characters and the plot come to life. I can read this book over and over again and never get tired of it. The story is absolutly beautiful in it's honesty, it pulls you into it and you feel like you are acutally watching Francesca and Maria Luisa with your own eyes. Some of the sexual scenes are a little graphic, so I would recommend this book to anyone with a more open mind. I have totally fallen in love with this story.
I can't think of a single thing that disappointed me about this novel. If anything, I wish I had read it sooner. The language was beautiful, rhythmic, and so descriptive that I was transported to 17th century Spain and France. It was filled with so much information about the era, more than many other historical novels I've read. Yet the characters were fully developed and quite likeable. I liked the way Francisca and Maria Luisa's stories were told parallel to each other, carefully woven together. It made for a quick, urgent pace. This is a novel that has it all--romance, violence, death, intrigue, mystery, history.... I think there is something in it for everyone.
POISON, the explosive period novel by Kathryn Harrison, tells in elegant prose the intertwined stories of Francisca de Luarca and Queen Marie Louise of Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Francisca, a young woman and a daring dreamer, describes her passionate love affair with the village priest, Father Alvaro, who teaches her both to read and to love. The novel also explores Francisca's tumultuous relationship with the sister who ultimately betrays her, and the girls' bond with their deceased mother. Queen Marie Louise is wed to an impotent king, in a time when strong women are suspect and those in power highly vulnerable. The novel seamlessly weaves through time and place to tell the stories of remarkable women and those who touch their lives and shape their destinies. Highly recommended.Jenna Kim
This is a beautifully written, evocative story of two women in 17th century Spain. I really enjoyed this book, up until the end. The book ends with the completion of one of the woman's story, but doesn't wrap up the other's story. The reader is simply left hanging, expecting a final chapter that isn't there. I was left feeling very unsatisfied and disappointed. I had been thinking that I wanted to read some of this author's other books, but now I doubt that I will.
Very boring.....could not even finish it!
Ms. Harrison is an excellent writer, with a style and vocublary that is rare. The story itself was very well researched and therefore educational as well as thought provoking. When reading this book I often found myself captivated and when I stopped I thought I was in 17th century Spain. It truly transports you into it. This is a dark tale about hopelessness, and reminds us of the dangers of intolerance and extremities. The author is very bold in that she tells this story without care for the reader's sensitivities, so honesty is not sacrificed.