Al Cazar, Los Alcazares, a village in the south east of Spain, during the 1360s
Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (Gen 2:17)
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. (Gen 3:4-5)
Battles and bloodshed between Moors and Christians have racked Andalucía for as long as anyone can remember; armies of butchers sweeping back and forth, north and south, east and west.
All they ever brought the ordinary people was misery.
But al Cazar, the village where I was born, is tucked away beside the Mar Menor, the Little Sea. There are boats. There are donkeys (more donkeys than people) but donkeys, being neither Christians nor Moors, persecute no one. And the people? Well, people who live by the sea are more charitable than those who live in anonymity in great cities, and more tolerant than those who grow up in inland villages enclosed by hills.
We were happy still. And open-minded.
My mama, who died when I was a toddler, was Doña María de la Manga, the daughter of Don Joaquín de la Manga and of Sebah of Cordoba. Sebah herself, my grandmama, was the daughter of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother, Rebekkah of Salé in Morocco, so I have both Spanish and Moorish blood; but also, in a sense, I am Jewish, for among Jews descent is always reckoned through the mother.
And that’s just on my mother’s side.
My papa was Sir Andrew MacElpin of the Black Isle, a Scot in exile.
Papa was a tall, handsome man, far taller than any other man in the village, and kind and tender, too, in his way.
I worshipped him; but he was not cut out to be mama to a little girl.
A slave, Khadija, who had looked after my mama when she was a child, now cared for me. But it was from my grandmama, Sebah, that I learnt how to be a dancer: how to be a woman.
‘When you dance,’ she said, ‘you become one with all women, one with all life.’
I understood later, dancing for strangers in another world, that the movements of belly-dancing are more even than that: they are one with the movements of the universe, the dance of the stars.
Rabbi Yacoub ben Amar (Uncle Yacoub) would not have agreed. He considered belly-dancing “erotic” – which of course it is, when performed before a man. To him, the Song of the Stars is what is heard by the pure in heart as they sit or kneel in silent contemplation. And by heart he meant soul and body
Yacoub was a cousin of Sebah’s (the Jewish strand) and had a place in Don Joaquín’s commodious, but now mostly empty, home. I am not quite sure what that place was, but I do know that when my papa came to Los Alcazares and found time heavy on his hands, he took full advantage of Yacoub’s presence. They had conversations that went on for months, years even, on philosophy and theology, history and alchemy, and they both revelled in the chance to speak other tongues – other than Spanish, that is – for both spoke French, and my papa taught Yacoub English (he would not teach him the Gaelic; that was just for Papa and me) while Yacoub taught him literary Arabic.
I sat at their feet and lapped it all up.
On our own, Papa and I read stories from the Bible. I was interested because he and Grandpapa used to take me to the local church at Easter and sometimes on Saints’ Days, and I liked it, the darkness, the mysteriousness, the silence, the chanting in Latin. At home, Papa would read the stories aloud (he was proud of his Latin), then, together, we would put them into Gaelic, interpreting, embroidering, sometimes amusing ourselves, as when we decided that Jesus was being sarcastic when he said “Not one jot or tittle of the Law shall pass away” (jot and tittle meaning such things as accents and commas), for was not this same Jesus the one who broke the Sabbath by plucking grains of corn and healing people of their infirmities, and who forgave the adulteress when the Law said she should be stoned? ‘Ah, my little thinker!’ Papa murmured, cupping my chin in his hand, turning my face up to his, pushing my long hair back out of my eyes and gazing at me as though he wanted this moment never to end.
‘My little lady’, Papa had always called me – he would never let me forget I was the daughter of “a landed knight” – and occasionally ‘my little dancer’. Now he stroked my head as I knelt there by his left leg – always his left leg, for he drank with his right hand – and smiled and murmured, ‘My little thinker’, and I loved that.
I must have been eight, maybe nine.
Or (back to the Bible) we would get upset, as when David usurps the throne of Saul – for that, of course, was how Papa saw it. After all, hadn’t he had to flee Scotland with his friend Ferchard, badly injured, when David Bruce usurped the throne of Edward Balliol, rightful King of Scotland and actual King from 1332 to 1338?
He would tell me old tales from his homeland in the far north, tales of the hill and the forest, of hunting the wild deer – usually with Ferchard – and fishing the streams. ‘A fish from the pool and a deer from the mountain are thefts no man need be ashamed of,’ he would say. And he was there.
Other times, it would be tales of the sea and the islands. It was he who first told me of mermaids. Of their good deeds and their bad deeds. One called Lin –
‘Lin?’ I cried. ‘Like Linda?’ For Linda in Spanish means pretty.
‘Like Linda, yes. Lin, who died trying to get back the skin of a seal from the fishermen who had stripped it off the poor creature.’ Or the one – he didn’t remember her name – who loaded a fisherboy from Durness with gold and jewels. But when she discovered that he gave them away to human girls, she enticed him down to her cave beneath the sea with promises of untold wealth, and there she lulled him to sleep and while he slept she bound him with golden chains, and there he lies, her captive, until this day.
‘Was that so bad?’ I asked.
He gazed at me.
He was on the side of the fisherboy.
Me, I identified with the mermaid, for in the mornings, early, when everyone was busy with other things, I too went down to the sea and swam.
I had discovered swimming all by myself.
The Mar Menor is sheltered and calm compared to the open sea, and the back of our house was almost on the beach. It was inevitable that I should play at the water’s edge, and that one day (a very hot day? I don’t remember) I should get right into the sea and start swimming.
All I remember is that I swam. I no longer played on the beach at all, I simply took off my clothes, ran straight in, and swam away from the land, under water.
No one knew. Not that I thought about it, then. I didn’t realise I was doing anything wrong.
Except the old fisherman. He knew, of course. How could he not know? He caught me one day.
I could have avoided his net – I had before, and believed he hadn’t seen me – but later, looking down into the sea from his boat, I understood that he could see everything when the sea was flat and calm, had probably seen me every time I had seen the hull of his boat pass overhead.
The day he caught me, I was tired. I had swum too long perhaps, swum out too far for one so young, and was resting on the surface. It was a dazzlingly bright, hot morning. I heard nothing. Perhaps I was sleeping. Suddenly, this net was all over me and I was screaming and struggling – then was in the boat and fighting as he fought to disentangle me. And as soon as he had freed me, I slipped out of his hands – he was reluctant to touch me, hold me – he was shy, but I didn’t realise that then – and over the side and was gone.
Another day, I crept up on him, curious. He had lines out all round the boat. All was silent. The sea was like glass. No sight or sound of him. He’s sleeping, I thought. Suddenly, he looked over the side, straight at me. No wonder he was such a good fisherman!
We gazed at each other, me ready to dive at the first hint of a move from the man, him … wondering about me, of course. But I knew nothing about men then, good men like Pedro, for that was his name, or bad men, like so many I have known since.
‘You’re disturbing the fish,’ he said.
What did he mean? That the fish wouldn’t come near while I was near? Nonsense. (A word I had learnt from my grandmama.) ‘The fish follow me,’ I said. ‘At least, some of them do.’
He smiled. He knew that, really.
‘Why did you catch me?’
‘I’d never seen you resting on the surface that way before. I thought you might be tired.’
He’d been trying to help? But then why the net?
‘I thought if I spoke – or touched you – you would slip down into the water and be gone.’
A fisherman. A natural hunter.
I smiled back up at him.
But I didn’t get into his boat. Not then. That happened for the first time more than a year later – and it happened in the dark. For by then, they had begun to succeed in making me ashamed to be seen.
It was my grandmama who found out first about my swimming. Khadija was always busy in the early part of the day, and I knew I was safe from her, but when Sebah came looking for me on the beach one morning and found only my smock, she guessed where I must be. She sat by it and waited. Although she didn’t swim herself, it wasn’t the water that worried her. She remembered her brothers, who had swum in the Oued el Kebir when they were all small children, and this Mar Menor seemed very safe compared to the Great River as it swirled through Córdoba. She waited. And watched as I swam right to the very edge of the sea and stood up, glistening in the sunlight as the water dripped off me.
I hastened to put on the smock, but she said, ‘No, leave that till you are dry. Anyone who is going to see you has already done so … Sit down.’
I sat beside her on the sand, clasping my knees to my chin.
I grinned up at her.
‘When I was a little girl in Córdoba, my brothers used to go swimming in the river. I did not. Can you imagine why?’
I had no idea. ‘You didn’t like swimming?’ I asked, incredulous. ‘No, it can’t have been that. You preferred dancing. But swimming’s like dancing! It’s dancing in the water. You can – ‘
‘No. Not for any of those reasons. Because I was a little girl.’
What difference could that make? Oh! ‘You mean you had to help in the house? Do housework? That’s not fair!’
‘No, not because I had to do chores in the house. I was very spoilt. I still am – and so is a certain young lady sitting not a hundred miles from me.’
‘Because I was a girl.’
‘You said that, but – ‘
‘Girls do not interrupt when their elders and betters are talking. Nor do they take their clothes off in public.’
‘In public?’ I gazed up at her.
‘In front of … strangers.’
‘There is no one here but us.’
‘There might be. There could be.’
Like a fisherman.
‘Then let us say, instead, out in the open air.’ She met my eyes. and added: ‘Not in daylight, anyway.’
So I have to go to the beach early, while it is still dark, and come up out of the sea as dawn breaks [I wrote in what I called mi diario, my diary]. Or risk what? Some terrible enchantment? Like being turned into a fish? No, not with that grandmother. With my other, my Scottish, grandmother, anything might have happened! My father hadn’t told me about her yet, though.
Nobody knows what time I come out of the sea. Nobody cares. What Sebah said is nonsense really. No one ever sees me. And I am far away from where the boats come ashore, even old Pedro’s, and from where the village people ever walk.
The village was actually quite a long way from the sea, and my grandfather, Don Joaquín, owned most of the land in between. It was all ragged groves of ancient olive-trees, sun-baked and loud with the chatter and shriek of crickets in summer and, in winter, occasionally the temporary home of flocks of sheep and goats brought down from the hills by itinerant shepherds. I love – still love – those olive groves more than anything anywhere I have ever been apart from the sea itself. It was among those gnarled silver-and-black trees that I used to hide when I wanted to be alone and there were people from the village about on the beach.
No one cared for them any longer, the olive groves. In fact, not much real farming at all went on when I was a child, though it had, they told me, when the world was young and my mother and brothers were alive. Perhaps if my mother had married a farmer …
If my mother had married a farmer, this story would have been very different!
Don Joaquín still got up early, as did Khadija, but they were busy.
Papa got up even later than Sebah, and by the time he came down to the beach to sit and stare out at the sea, as he so frequently did, I was always dressed and ready. And though he sometimes observed that my hair was wet, I didn’t think he realised I’d been swimming.
Until the day he almost “rescued” me.
I knew the weather, the way the sea began to move, the way the wind began to flick spray off the waves before a storm. Oh yes, our little sea was not so calm and flat, it could turn on you in sudden fury. Even fishermen who had failed to heed the signs and dallied at their nets or their cane enclosures had drowned.
But dawn was a good time, and I was careful.
That day, bad weather was coming, the surface was choppy and winds were gusting, but I wanted to see what it was like below the surface during a storm. Surely I would be out of harm’s way?
I was, to a certain extent.
It wasn’t that the sea was too shallow. I could not have gone deeper, stayed down longer, even had I been out in the Great Sea itself. I swam down, and out, as far as I could. I noticed some panicking up near the surface among the smaller fish – even among the sea-horses, our own little hippocampos. The jelly-fish, though, were sinking slowly down into the depths, aware obviously, but unconcerned. I followed them – and a couple of larger fish that seemed equally unconcerned – but I had to keep coming up for air! And each time I came up the weather was worse, the storm made it harder to breathe, it was harder to dive down again. I thought I heard a voice calling me, then realised it was my father’s voice: realised he must be far-calling me, unconsciously, as for some reason he searched for me in the house. I would have to get out. I tried to swim right up to the beach as I usually did but was caught up and twisted sideways in a great roller – great by my standards then. It literally threw me onto the beach and dropped me at my father’s feet.
He had not been far-calling me – or not only far-calling me – he had been shouting at me and I had heard his voice through the wind and the waves and the water. And he was half-undressed! He had been about to plunge in and rescue me!
‘Oh, Papa,’ I said, and fetched my smock and we went and sat behind a dune, out of the wind, and watched the wind blowing sand into the foam, and in the distance the sands of La Manga swirling out over the open sea. La Manga is the arm of land that almost closes off the Mar Menor. It is not land, I don’t think, but sand, a great sandbank, where birds wheel and soar in the wind when it is windy and, when it is not, go walking at dawn along the water’s edge searching for worms, and when the sun shines millions of lizards and beetles scurry around and tiny crabs hide in the drifts of seaweed. I have been there on horseback with Papa, and with Grandpapa. One day I mean to swim there [I wrote].
‘I knew you went swimming, lass. I’ve always known, of course I have. And whenever the weather turns stormy, I always come down to make sure you’re safe.’