No longer a person …

In this short extract from The Undeparted Dead, Mariana, who has just had all her hair cut off and her head shaved (scraped!) by the local hangman, and spent the last few hours locked in the pillory (like the girl in the picture above, only as I say Mariana had had her head shaved first) reflects that people in a cage-coffin or on a scaffold or even in her position, in the pillory, become invisible once the excitement is over.

A pillory such as the one Mariana was locked into.

More time passed. Another hour? I had no idea.
Lady Helen and Barbara and the two men came out. They mounted their horses, Barbara deep in conversation with Lionel, and rode off the way they had come.
Not even a glance in my direction.
Without my hair, I was no longer a person, just a thing, like part of the pillory. When a person was in the process of being hanged or caged, that was interesting. But when you passed by a silent scaffold or cage on the roadside, did you notice whether it was bare and empty or bore a shrivelled, blackened thing that once had been a person?
At least I hadn’t been shut in a cage high up in the air and left to die. Though I could easily have been hanged for stealing that gold anklet. I was lucky there, and had Barbara to thank. How many times now had she saved my life? And how would I ever repay her?
Ah! Here came Blanche!
But she walked straight past just like the others had. And her men followed her.

The kind of coffin-cage Mariana had in mind

What such a cage looked like after a few weeks


From the beginning of THE ROSE OF SHARON

Prologue 1

Childhood’s End

Al Cazar, Los Alcazares, a village in
the south east of Spain, during the 1360s

 Sulking, and wanting to worry them, I spent all day in the sea.

And all night.

But when I came home next day, no one cared where I’d been, only that I was back. For Papa was dying and had been calling for me.

What was it he wanted to tell me? I shall never know. He tried desperately to speak and I tried as desperately to help him, to say it for him, but this produced no response except that it obviously was not that and I was wasting his strength, wasting the precious moments.

And then he was dead.

I didn’t start screaming and wailing.

Should I have done?

I sat there with him for an hour, two hours, three, holding his hand still as I had been holding it when he died, when he was still trying to speak.

The afternoon went by.

Khadija came and went, reluctant for once to disturb me, but when it began to grow dark, she took me by the shoulders, turned me towards her.

‘You must leave him now, Maryam. You must come with me, have something to eat, something to drink.’


‘If you do not, you too will get ill, will die.’


I could have spent so much more time with him [I wrote that night], I could have made him happier both from day to day and from year to year. He was so lonely, so sad. And watching me all the time, knowing that I preferred the company of Yacoub, of Pedro even.

And there the paper is smudged, splashed with tears. I remember it happening. I cried all night.


Next morning, it was terribly hot, one of those days you get in Spain when the hot weather gets hotter, hotter than hot. The sky is like white-hot metal and the sun molten gold polishing it. Yet, despite the heat, Don Lope came, with two of his men. He had not come for me, he said – that could wait. He had come to rifle through Papa’s papers and effects.

When he had the papers he wanted, though, and was ready to leave, he suddenly said ‘Are you ready?’ Then to Khadija, ‘Get the muchacha ready.’

He had come for me! He meant to take me with him, now!

Khadija started wailing.

He gave up on her, said it didn’t matter, he would take me as I was.

Unprotesting – I had been in a daze all day – I was hustled out of the door.

Khadija’s wailing turned to screaming.

Don Lope signalled to one of his men, a big brute with sloping shoulders, who stepped over and hit her hard on the face to silence her.

That woke me up.

I broke free and ran towards her, intending only to comfort her, to see how badly she’d been hurt, but the man raised his fist again and instantly my dagger was out, the handle smooth and tempting in my hand, the stiletto point poised at his back. ‘You hit her again, you die!’ I screamed.

Laughing, and without even bothering to turn round, he hit her again, full in the face as she looked up, looked at me in horror.

The stiletto slid between the ribs exactly as it had that other time on the road back from Córdoba.

It took him minutes to die.

He tried at first to shout, to threaten, then lay there bubbling and gurgling, and neither of them went to help him.

All through the long minutes, I held Khadija protectively, glaring around like a lynx from the high sierras cornered in a farmyard, and she sobbed in my arms.

They kept back, Don Lope and the other man, a younger man I was going to come to know much better in the next few days. Well, they would: I was still holding the blood-smeared knife in my right hand. Mariana la Loca.

But when the man was dead, and Don Lope had promised, ‘No one will lay another finger on your slave, Mariana – only she cannot come with us,’ all the fight went out of me. We left her there, protesting from the doorway that I needed a duenna with me, a chaperone, that I could not travel alone with two strange men.

‘I’m not a strange man!’ roared Don Lope. ‘I’m her father’s business partner, and now I’m responsible for her!’ He waved the sheaf of papers at her then put them away in his saddle-bag. ‘And get that body buried before anyone else sees it – unless you want the muchacha accused of murder.’



From now on, I had to be the fire.

A quotation from The Rose of Sharon (Mariana de la Mar 1) 

I let my mind drift where it would. Found myself with Pedro, but looking down at him this time, out of the air instead of out of the water. He glanced up at me, looked away again.

I alighted on the prow, sat there as I always had – teasing him in my innocence, I realised suddenly, now that my childhood world had vanished like flames over a fire when the fire goes out. The fire had been Sebah and Grandpapa, and Papa.

Now, all at once, I was a woman.

He looked at me. Looked away again.

He couldn’t see me, but he knew I was there.

His eyes filled with tears.

I went to him and kissed him on the cheek, then drew back, watched him put his fingers to his cheek in wonder.

I stretched backwards, raising my knees out of the pool of piss, resting only on my toes and ribs and taking most of my weight on my wrists.

How long would they leave me like that? And what would they do to me when they came?

I was frightened. Frightened of being raped. Frightened of dying.

But if I lived, I must remember the insight my visit to Pedro had given me. I was no longer a flame, dancing, free, irresponsible. From now on, I had to be the fire.