Authors: Jaime Manrique
Tags: #General Fiction, #ebook, #book
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published by Akashic Books
©2012 Jaime Manrique
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-61775-107-3
Paperback ISBN-13: 978-1-61775-126-4
Library of Congress Control Number: 2012939261
All rights reserved
Table of Contents
Bill Sullivan, painter,
partner of thirty-three years,
to whom this book owes so much,
with love forever.
I do not want to be who I am. Petty luck
Has offered me the seventeenth century,
The dust and constitution of Castile,
The things that come and come again, the morning
That, promising today, gives us the evening . . .
—from “I Am Not Even Dust” by Jorge Luis Borges
(translated by Eric McHenry)
Glory is perhaps the worst incomprehension.
—from “Pierre Menard, Author of
” by Jorge Luis Borges
What follows is a work of fiction about Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda’s appropriation of Cervantes’s
Don Quixote Part I
. In that spirit, my own novel appropriates four passages from
, two scenes from the play
The Bagnios of Algiers
and one from the short play
The Judge of Divorces
, and paraphrases from the prologue of
The Exemplary Novels
. The readers of
Don Quixote de la Mancha
and the other works will be able to identify these passages without any difficulty; if I have succeeded in my attempt, the rest of the hypothetical readers of my novel will not be able to distinguish them from my own writing. My “borrowings” were chosen to emphasize different autobiographical aspects of Cervantes’s
. There are also nods to the great poets of Spain’s Golden Age, and an homage to Shakespeare.
Sheltered by the moonless sky, I rode on a narrow little-trodden path of La Mancha with the stars as my only guide. As I galloped on the dark plain, anguish raged in my chest like a sail flapping in a storm. I clapped spurs to the horse and whipped its flanks. My mount snorted; the pounding of its hooves on the pebbly ground pierced the quiet of the Manchegan countryside and echoed with painful intensity in my head. Crying “
,” I incited my stallion to exert greater speed, hoping to outrun the bailiff and his men.
The night before, I had been playing a game of cards in the Andalusian’s Tavern. Antonio de Sigura, an engineer who had arrived in Madrid to build roads for the court, lost a large sum of money quickly. I was feeling the effects of too much wine and not enough food in my stomach and decided to quit playing while I was still ahead. The engineer insisted that I keep playing. When I refused, he said, “Why is it I’m not surprised, Miguel Cervantes? I wouldn’t expect honorable conduct from those who come from dishonorable stock.”
The men nearby snickered. I got up from my chair, kicked one leg of the table, and demanded an explanation.
Antonio de Sigura shouted, “I mean that your father is a stinking Jew and an ex-convict and your sister a whore!”
I grabbed a carafe, smashed it on de Sigura’s head, and overturned the table. When I saw the engineer’s face awash in wine and blood I felt I was going to evacuate my bowels down the legs of my pants. I stood in front of him, shaking, waiting for de Sigura to make his next move. He wiped the liquid from his eyes with a handkerchief and then pulled out his pistol. Because I was a commoner, I was not allowed to carry a sword. My friend Luis Lara drew his sword in a flash and offered it to me. As de Sigura aimed at me, I jumped toward him and plunged the tip of Luis’s sword into the engineer’s right shoulder. He dropped to his knees, with the tip of the sword still jutting out from his back shoulder dripping scarlet. He opened his mouth in the shape of a huge O. As he pitched forward, I pulled out the sword and flung it on the floor. The swiftness of the violence left me stunned. Next, I heard commotion in the room as many customers scrambled out of the tavern yelling, “Run, run, before the bailiff arrives!”
In the confusion, the wine racing in my brain, I quit the tavern and bolted down Madrid’s shadowy streets as if a pack of hungry hounds trailed after me. I realized that the rash act had irrevocably changed my life forever: my dream of becoming Court Poet had become a chimera.
* * *
The following morning, in the friend’s house where I was hiding, the news reached me of the sentence meted out by the authorities: I would lose my right hand and be banished from the kingdom for ten years. Both forms of punishment were unacceptable to me. But if I stayed in Madrid, it was just a matter of time before I was denounced, arrested, and then crippled forever. I sent word to my best friend, Luis Lara, about my predicament and asked for a loan so I could escape from Spain. Later that afternoon, his personal servant delivered a hefty leather pouch. “My master says this is a gift, Don Miguel,” the servant told me, as I counted sixty gold escudos. “He says you should leave Spain and not come back for a long time.”
So later that night, I slipped out of Madrid by a back way. Fleeing in disgrace, the worst punishment of all was that I would not see my beloved Mercedes for a long time. It was unimaginable I would recover from this cruel parting with my first love. I was sure love would never again be as pure, as idealistic, and that I would mourn the loss of Mercedes for the rest of my life. I was certain that no matter how far from home I wandered, or how long I lived, I would not find another woman like Mercedes who united beauty, modesty, and intelligence in one body. The next time I saw her—if there were a next time—I was sure she would be a married woman.
My plan was to join Maese Pedro’s troupe of actors and magicians in the outskirts of Tembleque, in La Mancha, and ride south with them to Sevilla, where I would hide until I could board a ship bound for foreign lands. From abroad, I would appeal the sentence and wait in safety until I was pardoned, or the incident forgotten. I had met Maese Pedro when I was seven and living in Córdoba. Every year in late spring, his troupe would arrive and set up camp outside the city walls.
From the time I was a boy I had longed to go abroad, but this precipitous flight was not the way I had envisioned the start of my travels. Yet the thought of losing my right hand to the sharp-edged blade of the law—the same hand that I used to write my verses, the hand with which I wielded a sword and caressed Mercedes’s face—was insupportable. One-handed, forced to beg, I saw myself as an exile dying on foreign soil—like the old, skeletal slaves who roamed the roads of Spain, the ones who were granted their freedom when they could no longer do hard work. This thought made me desperate to quit Spanish soil.
I’d rather cut my throat than live as a useless man
, I said to myself as I fled Madrid.
I had been on the road practically all my life. My father’s poor head for business had forced our family to forever be on the move, dragging our pathetic possessions, running from his creditors and the imminent threat of his incarceration. Early on, I had learned that it was only a matter of time before I had to say goodbye to my favorite teachers, my new friends, the streets and plazas I grew accustomed to, the houses I called home, all too briefly. The mule-drawn cart on which we Cervanteses traveled from splendid cities to dismal towns was my most permanent home. We had lived in so many places I could barely remember their names: Alcalá de Henares, my birthplace; Valladolid, which we left when I was six; the next ten years in Córdoba; then a few glorious years in Sevilla, which my family left in disgrace to return to Castile, to Madrid.
That first night as a fugitive, I remembered my mother grumbling, in those moments when she could no longer contain her frustration at father’s peripatetic ways, “We are no better than those bands of Gypsies traveling the roads of Spain. My children are being educated like thieves and loose women. Your father will only stop chasing rainbows when his bones are dust in the ground.”
I consoled myself by thinking that to be a poet in Spain often meant to be an outlaw. I had turned out similar to so many Spanish poets: an exile, like my beloved Garcilaso de la Vega. Looking back, I wonder if my fate would have resembled that of Gutiérre de Cetina—who had died violently in Mexico; or maybe I would be like Fray Luis de León, who languished in jail for many years in Valladolid. Or would I follow in the footsteps of Francisco de Aldana, who died in Africa fighting for the Portuguese king Don Sebastian? Perhaps in another, less unjust country, in a place where a poor but talented young man had real chances of advancing himself, things might be different for me. Away from Spain’s rigid society, and hollow, pompous, and hypocritical conventions, I might amount to something. I believed there was greatness in me. And this belief was something that nobody—not even Spain’s almighty king—could kill.
If I wanted to be master of my own destiny, and choose my path to manhood, my only two options were fame as a poet or glory as a soldier. To become the most famous poet and warrior of my time—now that was a worthy goal. Another cherished dream was to become a celebrated playwright like Lope de Rueda. First, though, I had to make sure I left Spain with my right hand still attached to my arm, so that I could return covered in riches and honor—because a glorious destiny awaited me, I was sure.
* * *
I rode into Tembleque at dawn where Maese Pedro’s troupe, gathered in the town’s main square, was getting ready to start their journey south.
“I throw myself at your mercy, Maese Pedro,” I said, when I was taken to him. Then I explained to my old friend why I was in danger of losing my right hand unless I fled Castile.
“Say no more, Miguel,” he responded. “You’re almost a member of our family.” He paused, looked me up and down, and added, “But you cannot travel with us like this. We must find a disguise for you.”
So it was that dressed in women’s clothes and wearing a wig, I rode in the same wagon with my thespian friend and his wife, Doña Matilde, pretending to be their daughter Nicolasa.
That first day on the road, I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure the bailiff and his men were not running after my scared behind. But as the hours passed, and I began to think that I might be able to evade the law, I fell into reminiscing about the first time I saw Maese Pedro’s troupe in the Plaza del Potro. I was on my way home from the Colegio de Córdoba, the Jesuit school where I learned the little Latin I know. The actors were performing a show about doomed lovers who died dancing and singing and looking beautiful. After the show was over, the colorfully dressed thespians, pretending to be great and low personages of the world (the men dressed as women), came from behind the makeshift stage and mingled with the audience to announce the theatrical production of the night. I became mesmerized. Who were these people? How did they achieve this kind of magical metamorphosis?
I ran all the way home and entered the kitchen where my mother and sister Andreita were making a cocido, and screamed, “Mamá, mamá, can I go see the play the actors are putting on tonight?”
My mother gave me a scolding look. “So that’s where you’ve been, instead of coming home after school to do your homework?”
“Oh Mother,” I continued, still breathless. “It’s a play about a Moorish princess who converts and elopes with her Christian lover. I have to see it.”
“Enough of that, Miguel. Where would I find a maravedí to send you to see actors? Go and do your homework.” She went back to chopping vegetables.
“Mother,” I pleaded.
“Basta, Miguel.” She stabbed the green head of cabbage destined for the soup. “Go study your lessons.”
In the windowless cubicle in which I slept with Rodrigo, I crouched in the darkest corner against the damp walls. Andrea found me there, biting my fingernails, shaking with anger. She sat next to me, roped an arm around my shoulders, and said, “I’ve saved a few reales”—she earned them knitting and embroidering—“and I, too, would love to see this play. We’ll go together tonight. Now, Miguelucho, make Mother happy and study your lessons.”