Chapter 9 of Eva’s Secret
9. Naming Names
The Cat: Monday August 29, 1513
Tabita slipped into the back gate of the Alhambra. She had been watching since yesterday afternoon, waiting for it to open. Her muscles and joints burned at the effort to get in faster than the visitor could shut her out. Why was it that, after getting knocked around, it was always worst two sunrises later?
There were many smaller gates between here and Blanca’s room, but once inside Tabita ran into a stroke of luck in the person of Rosa, a lower-status pride-mate of Blanca’s.
“Tabita-Too! You shouldn’t be running around out here!” Rosa scooped her up. “And how did you get into such a state? Blanca will be worried!”
Tabita let herself be borne off to Blanca’s lair as though she really were her placid look-alike offspring with the confusingly similar name. In truth, she was too sore and hungry to do anything else.
“Señorita, look: I found your cat out by the alcazaba!”
“Oh, Rosa, I’m so glad you found her!” Blanca took Tabita into her arms. “This isn’t my cat, it is her mother—Eva’s cat. Quick, go get me a dish of chopped meat. The very best; this is my feline guardian angel!”
Tabita’s look-alike offspring rose from her silk-lined basket, fur bristling. She did not welcome this intrusion.
Blanca ignored her, stroking Tabita and lavishing praise upon her. Tabita arched under the friendly hand. Why shouldn’t Blanca praise her? They had fought together and vanquished the enemy completely.
“You know, Tabita,” Blanca’s voice was thoughtful, “A cat can go anywhere and not attract attention. You could go right into Casa Cerra—and you would, too, if you only knew Eva was there.”
“Miaow?” Tabita stared at Blanca earnestly. Where was Eva?
“Why, I could use you to send a message!” Blanca began to smell excited. “Fray Pablo will be going there tomorrow, he could take you in his saddle-bag and let you out inside the compound. Yes, and it would be safe if I used our code—but how to keep it on you?”
Casa Cerra: Monday Evening, August 29, 1513
Eva saw Leonor to sleep, but she was in no mood for siesta herself. She plodded back down to the salon to work on the tapestry and think how to fulfill the assignment she had been given.
Although Eva had little interest in clothing—that had always been Blanca’s passion—she had done her best to enthuse over the lovely fabrics, impressing on Leonor how highly she must be valued. There had been no response, but then, the child was still in shock. Maybe after siesta she would be more receptive.
Eva worked on the tapestry, calming herself by going through the usual list of prayer for all the Casa de Pazia people, then each of the five hardworking Little Sisters of Mercy at the Hospice—how she missed helping there! After she ran through that list, she began on the staff of Casa Cerra. Prayer helped Eva memorize the names she already knew: Matron, Josemona, Analina, and even old Jose the cook, the foul-mouthed curmudgeon who delivered meals to the women’s dormitorio. And there was the twenty-something woman with the burn scar on her arm, and the shy girl with a lisp who stirred the laundry cauldron—what was her name?
Eva tried to remember the others she had seen coming and going, when the main door of the dormitorio opened and four of the people she had been praying for entered the salon. Matron was in front, looking worried. And so did old Jose, standing beside her, and Josemona, and behind her a taller man, one of the hostlers Eva had noticed from the window, because he was incongruously named Maria Hussein. He looked troubled, too.
They stood in silence, prodding one another as though each was reluctant to speak.
“What is it?” Eva asked in alarm.
“It is like this,” Matron said. “Wednesday, market day is to end at noon because of the—religious affair—to be held in the Cathedral square. And we are all to attend.”
A public mass! Eva’s heart leaped. She had missed the lovely ritual of mass. “Why is that a problem?”
“Well, this priest has told señor Cerra that he will come tomorrow afternoon, to confess the household so that we may be ready to take communion,” Josemona said.
“And we must act like proper Christians, or señor Cerra will be very displeased,” Matron finished.
Eva was bewildered. “Weren’t you all baptized?”
“Of course we were baptized!” Jose the cook exclaimed. “Back when Cardinal Cisneros ordered it.”
“That’s when we got our front names,” Maria Hussein explained.
“Is that why you are named Maria?” Eva giggled in spite of herself.
Offended by her amusement, Maria Hussein drew himself up with dignity. “Maria is what the priest called me, and so it is written on the paper I must have.”
“Why don’t you just go by the masculine form, Mario?” Eva suggested. “The ‘a’ can be changed to an ‘o’ without anybody being the wiser.”
“That is a good idea. I did not know about this name, Mario. Well then, I will be Mario Hussein.” The re-christened Mario grinned. “And now, tell us what to say when we are in the little booth across from the priest. What it is we are to confess.”
“But didn’t they tell you about confession when you were baptized?” Eva asked. “Before my first communion, I had to take catechism classes for months!”
Matron shook her head. “Cardinal Cisneros gave a public lecture—hours it was, in the hot sun. But it was in Spanish, not Arabic, so we did not know what he said.”
“By time he finished, we were glad of the water on our head!” Josemona laughed nervously. “In that heat, we dry quickly.”
“And after that, we were Christian, and so they let us alone.” Maria Hussein finished. “Until this nosy priest comes and wants us to be shreeven.”
They had gone all these years and never confessed! Eva was amazed.
“So we thought, before the priest comes, we will ask Eva. Eva has been pretending for so much longer than any of us have, she would know how it is done.”
“But I’m not pretending,” Eva protested. “I really do confess.”
“You do not have to put up a front with us, are we not all ‘new’ Christians?” Jose the cook waved her protestation aside. “All we want is for you to tell us what it is we are to do.”
“You just tell your sins to God—all of them since the last confession.” Eva struggled to explain.
“Why does God need us to tell him? The all-knowing was there when we did them.”
“Well, yes, but confession is when you say you are sorry.” Eva racked her brains for bits from catechism classes. “The Bible says we are to confess our sins to one another to show our repentance. Then God will forgive us.”
“Then why do we need a priest?” Mario Hussein asked. “I can just tell Matron here mine, and she will tell me hers, and we say sorry, and so we are confessed.”
“No, it has to be a priest. Only a consecrated priest has the authority to absolve you in God’s name.”
Jose the cook frowned. “This sounds like something the Inquisition made up so they can spy on us!”
“The Inquisition didn’t make it up, it has been going on—oh, since the beginning of the church. And a priest isn’t allowed to ever breathe a word about something that was told him during confession,” Eva said earnestly. “After confession, you feel so clean inside! I will be so glad to confess again.”
“But you aren’t going,” Analina said. “Majordomo Alcazar said the sale stock are not to be shown to the priest.”
“Anyway, what do you want with this confessing?” Mario Hussein asked. “Aren’t you Jewish?”
“I am Christian,” Eva insisted. “The first Christians were Jews. And they were Christian, too.”
“Here, you will be only Jewish.” Matron shook her head in a little warning. “A Jewish slave going to confession would never be allowed.”
“Ay, Alcazar would skin us alive if we let the priest know about you!”
Blanca stayed in the room most of the day. Tabita watched with interest as Blanca spun an unusual yarn: a little sheep’s wool, stinking of lanolin; cat-fur snipped from her fat offspring, who objected loudly; and several of Blanca’s own long sand-colored hairs.
She braided the spun yarns together into a cord. Then she cut the thumb from a glove and turned it fur-side out—rabbit fur, the smell was unmistakable, even though it was quite old. Blanca punched a hole in the thumb tip, doubled the cord and pushed it through until a loop stuck out the open end.
Tabita’s curiosity increased with each step. What could Blanca be making?
She went to the writing desk then, and worked for some time putting tiny black marks—much smaller than Eva’s—on a scrap of paper. This she folded over several times, and stuffed it into the cut-off glove thumb.
So it was a kind of case. But what was it for?
Tabita got the answer when she was picked up. The loop went over her head, and the paper-stuffed glove-thumb under her chest. Tabita did not mind that—but she minded very much when Blanca passed each free end of the cord under a forelimb, fastened them together over Tabita’s spine, and tied the ends to the loop at the back of her neck.
“Look, Tabita, you can’t even see my little message-pouch!” Blanca held out the glass-faced circle. Tabita batted the image a few times, just to please Blanca, although she knew there was nobody there. Apparently humans thought that what was in the glass was real. They did not notice that the reflection was missing essential attributes like scent. But then, they had hardly any sense of smell.
Tabita was tired of the game, now. It was an annoying encumbrance, even though the cords were not really tight. She asked Blanca to take it off.
Blanca only petted her. “There, Tabita, you’ll get used to it.”
Tabita rubbed her shoulder against the cushion so the thick-headed female would understand what was wanted.
Blanca picked Tabita up—but instead of removing the harness, she closed her in the little room where the humans did their business.
Tabita was furious! She set out to get the contraption off. But no matter how she rubbed, her efforts only served to work the cords deep into her thick fur.
Some time later, Blanca opened the door just enough to push in Tabita-too’s silk-lined cat basket and a dish of fresh fish.
Tabita ignored the bed and the food. Throughout the night, she unceasingly voiced her outrage. If she was not able to sleep, neither would Blanca.
Casa Cerra: Tuesday, August 30, 1513
Leonor perched on the wide tiled bench against the hammam wall, arms wrapped around her knees. Eva sat next to her, trying to look nonchalant about her unclothed state while keeping her right foot atop her six-toed left foot.
She pondered once again what, exactly, was included in Baseel’s curt order: “I want you to prepare her so that she knows what to expect. And do not delay.”
Eva had made little progress on that assignment. Leonor bewailed her future and stubbornly ignored Matron when she called her ‘Aliya’. And the warmth of the bath-house was doing nothing to soften her up.
The hammam boiler emitted a burst of fragrant steam. “Smell that, isn’t it lovely?” Eva coaxed. “The stoker must have put in more cardamom pods.”
In the center of the steamy room, all of the Casa Cerra women servants were gathered around the central fountain or seated at the edge of the shallow pool that surrounded it, laughing and chattering while they scrubbed each other with black soap.
“This room is too big to be naked in.” Leonor drew her knees up tighter to her flat chest. “At home, we had a tub brought into our chamber.”
“You’ll come to enjoy it. Group bathing is a central part of Arabic culture.” Eva looked around the crowded room, not really so very big, as hammams went; Casa de Pazia’s hammam was large enough to accommodate twenty bathers, between the warm room and the dressing and massage area. Although she was not about to tell Leonor that she had always used it alone, except for Nurse Veronica and later doña Barbola. Iago de Pazia did not want the women servants to be reminded of his daughter’s defective foot. “Can’t you see how much fun the Casa Cerra women are having? It’s the high point of their week.”
“You’re trying to make me into a submissive little Saracen bride. Well, I won’t cooperate,” Leonor said stubbornly. “And my name isn’t Aliya. If they call me that, I won’t answer.”
“You can use a name without being the name,” Eva coaxed. “Just because people call you something, it doesn’t mean you have to become it. For example, I haven’t stopped believing in Jesu, even though ever since I came here they all insist I’m Jewish.”
“Well, I am Jewish, even though I’ve spent my life pretending to be Christian.”
“So see, you’ve already had a lot of practice.” A sudden flash of inspiration hit Eva, “I know—you can add an Arabic middle name—Noor! It means ‘light’. Lots of Moorish girls in Granada are named Noor.”
“I don’t like Noor any better than Aliya. My name is Leonor.”
“Don’t you see? You would be Aliya Noor. Like it was Ah-Leonor. You could outwit them while seeming to submit!”
“Ah-Leonor? Aliya Noor.” Leonor tested the sounds, and broke into a smile. “I like it!”
Eva heaved a sigh of relief. It was a beginning.
Just then Matron noticed them over by the wall. “Ay, women! Make room for the new merchandise to wash—the little one in particular, for today the seamstress sent by her future husband will be fitting her new clothes!”
A herd of naked women descended on Eva and Leonor. With coarse good humor, they were pushed and pulled to the central fountain. Eva quickly stepped down into the pool, the foam-flecked water covering her feet. For Leonor’s sake, she tried to look as though she did not mind the foreign hands touching her body.
But the women were not fooled. Laughter rang out. “Ah, this one has goose-bumps! She is body-shy.” Eva felt the flush of mortification, soon doused by a bucketful of water down her back.
“She will have to get over that.” The women laughed and called to each other as they soaped Eva’s ample curves. “Now this is the one that should be going as a bride!” Somebody scrubbed beneath her breasts. “Look at what we have here—lots of milk for strong sons!” Other hands slapped her behind. “And buttocks!”
“Ah, the man who gets this one won’t be clutching a bunch of bones in bed!”
Eva felt the familiar nausea that the topic of sex always roused. Fortunately, the attention shifted to Leonor. “Why do you think that buyer wants this one? She’s got the body of a child.”
“Maybe he’s one of those who likes boys.”
“No point in getting a girl-child, then, for she’ll soon grow into a woman!”
“Oh, it’s because of her fair hair.” That voice was Matron’s. “Muammar Walid specifically asked for a blonde.”
“Well, she’s blonde enough on top, but he’ll have to wait for her to grow some down under!” The chaffing, far from abashing Leonor, made her furious. She shoved the women away and rinsed herself.
The Cat: Tuesday August 30 1513
Tabita flexed her muscles. She was still a little sore, even though it had been three days and two nights since she had rescued Elias and later Blanca. The odd body-harness made of yarn and Blanca’s hair was becoming more familiar. It was a nuisance, but a mild one.
This morning, upon releasing her from the little chamber where scat was dropped, Blanca had said many things about Elias and Eva, her tone so earnest that Tabita had allowed herself to be confined in this saddlebag. She peered out the crack where the leather-flap top did not quite meet to see where Fray Pablo was taking her.
First he went up the hill they called the Sacromonte, where the Gypsies lived. Tabita could see the distant peaks of the Sierra Nevada, white even in August. Fray Pablo had some dealings with the people who lived in caves near the top of the hill.
Tabita recognized the voice of Drina, a beneficiary of Eva’s. And there was also an old, sick priest. He must be a priest, for he and Fray Pablo spoke together in priest-language. Elias was fluent in that too—he could make the meowings of all kinds of humans. Tabita wondered where he had gone after he got away from Abbe Matias, and if he was safe.
His business on the Sacromonte complete, Fray Pablo turned his horse downhill. They were on the street that paralleled the east city wall. Tabita’s sense of space was still excellent; she knew that if he kept going downward, and turned west at the Darro River, they would come to the gate of Casa de Pazia. But two-thirds of the way down the hill, Fray Pablo turned his horse in a large arched gate.
A male voice spoke, this time in the language of Granada’s everyday humans. “Good day, Father. We have been expecting you. Wait and I will bring the master.”
The saddle shifted as Fray Pablo dismounted. Tabita peered through the crack. She was looking eastward, across a large, gently sloping paved space with a well nearly centered. At the back of the space was a wall much higher than usual, with familiar stonework. After a moment’s reorientation, Tabita realized that she was looking at the inside of the city rampart. Behind her she heard the sounds of the street, separated by another wall with spikes and a single gate-opening. She wished the horse would move so that she could see what was on either side of the open space.
Sounds and smells filled in what Tabita could not see: immediately to the side of the gate was an indoor cooking-and-eating place for many people. Further uphill and likely behind a barrier, many equines were stabled—mostly mules, some horses and donkeys. The ground there had been put to that purpose for many years. And on the downhill side of the well-courtyard, somebody was cultivating herbs: lavender, mint, basil, rosemary, and dill. There was the distinctive soap-steam-and-wood-smoke scent of a hammam in use—that would be next to the garden, they usually were.
Tabita heard footsteps, and a suave, oily voice. “Fray Pablo! I am honored that one of the Cardinal’s own suite should concern himself with my household’s spiritual well-being.” Tabita heard the undertones: oily-voice was displeased but dared not object.
“Good day, señor Cerra. Cardinal Cisneros concerns himself with the spiritual well-being of all his flock.” Fray Pablo, in his turn, had some other agenda than the one he presented. “Have you prepared a private place to be used as the confessional?”
“Yes, it was kind of you to suggest the solution. I have had the last two stalls thoroughly cleaned and spread with fresh straw. The stall partitions are only five feet high, but we have provided a stool in both, and if you remain seated, everyone will have as much anonymity as if they went to the cathedral itself. Ah, here is my stable-manager, Maria Hussein.”
After the usual greetings, the horse was led forward. Tabita caught a quick glimpse of various two-story buildings surrounding the space with the well. She combined them with the smells to make a mental map, in case she must escape quickly: oily-voice had fancy-quarters on the downhill side of the gate; hammam next to that, with the aromatic herb garden between that and another big building that extended to the city wall. There were more two-story buildings on the far uphill side, but Tabita’s view was blocked as the horse moved through an echoing alley that opened onto the stable-yard.
Now another scent met her: dog! The hackles on her back rose. Dogs killed cats.
And there was the source of the danger: three lean curs, pawing at a heap of used horse-bedding. One lifted its head and sniffed the air, then ears pricked, the canine nose swiveled around to point towards her. She had been discovered!
The horse halted, and a man’s voice spoke. “We figured, the one at the end for who’s confessing, and you in the next. I’ll set up your horse in the stall next you, so’s nobody else can hear. Does he like bran?”
“Yes, thank you. Here, I’ll take the saddle-bags.” Tabita felt herself lifted and carried. A door closed.
Fray Pablo lifted the lid of the saddle-bag.
Tabita climbed out into the deep straw and looked around. There under the edge of the door, was a shifting shadow. Dog paws. Dog noses. Waiting to get at her.
“Go find Elias,” Fray Pablo whispered. That meant Elias was somewhere near here. But Tabita could not go find Elias while the dogs waited to kill her. She crouched in the corner. She was patient.
Fray Pablo, like most of his species, was not patient. He scooped her up and put her on the top edge of the stall door. “Go!” he hissed.
The cur-pack saw her and alerted, silent and deadly. The stable-man was walking toward them with a bucket of bran.
“Find Elias!” Fray Pablo gave her an impatient shove. Tabita went flying off the door and, claws unsheathed in terror, landed right on the back of the biggest dog. Using her momentum, she propelled herself into a great bound and hit the ground running.
The dogs were so startled that for a fraction of a second none of them reacted. Then they exploded in a chorus of barking and charged after her.
Tabita streaked toward the alley that gave onto the central space, the pack at her heels. She knew too well what would happen if they caught her: the pounce, the killing bite at the back of the neck, and then her body torn to scraps, yarn-harness and all.
Out into the main courtyard! People at the well. Women, with long skirts—a haven! Tabita raced for the nearest one, shot between her legs. The curs jumped at her skirt, and the woman shrieked and beat them off.
While the woman berated the dogs, Tabita leaped onto the short, squat wall that surrounded the well. One caught sight of her and barked to his companions.
Tabita cleared the well opening with one leap, bounced off the coping and down onto the baking-hot bricks.
The dogs renewed the pursuit. Tabita bolted for the herb garden. There was a fence, a rickety paling of wooden sticks.
She squirmed under the fence. But the dogs ran around, right through a gate Tabita had not been able to see. One cur was almost on her as she dove into a tall patch of oregano. The pungent scent of the herb filled the air as the dog thrashed after her.
Then with relief Tabita saw the thing she hoped for: on the side of the building that smelled like a hammam gaped the exit-pipe for a drain.
She gained the haven just as the nearest dog’s snapping teeth closed on the tip of her tail. For a terrifying moment they engaged in a life-and-death contest. Tabita’s shoulders braced against the upper wall of the pipe, claws dug into the slimy terracotta; the cur pulling her backwards by his incisors clamped on a half-inch of mostly fur.
And then, with a ripping of hair, Tabita pulled her tail-tip free. She inched forward on her belly, deeper into the pipe.
The hollow tube magnified sounds outside it. She heard snuffling of canine noses, and the soft thud of dogs settling down to wait.
Tabita knew herself to be well and truly stuck. How was she supposed to find Elias now?