S H O R T S T
O R Y
THE MISSING SCROLL
b y c h r i s t o p h e r k r i t w i s e d o y l e ~ i o w a c i t y , i o w a
IN HARPER'S Ferry, West Virginia, during the night of the 16th of October
1859, John Brown, a free man and abolitionist, descended with eighteen armed
conspirators on the national armory housed there, in a bid to ignite a
widespread slave revolt. During the ensuing day, a local army of
townspeople forced these desperate guerillas into a small fire engine
building off the armory. Either by the ferocity of this resistance or by
the absence of a mounting insurgency, Brown was confused. With his options
dwindling, and a family history of insanity, he proceeded to trade gunfire
for the next thirty-two hours. This delay allowed federal authorities in
nearby Washington to deploy a unit of Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee.
In the early chill of the second day of the revolt, the Marines rushed
the engine house. Ten of the conspirators were killed; two of which were
Brown’s sons. Brown himself was cut by a saber and beat unconscious with
the hilt. Amidst the destruction of cobblestone that morning, many historians
claim the Civil War was ignited. What these same historians overlook is
a small apothecary jar unearthed during the siege, a jar now on display
at the Harper’s Ferry Visitors Museum. Inside this clay jar, a jar known
for storing crushed ox bone and lineament oil—a 17th century scroll,
that until then hadn’t seen the light of sun since it crossed the Atlantic
Ocean with a certain Spanish druggist, one Escarcega Nogales—
was discovered. The significance of this scroll cannot be overstated for our
purposes of literary reclamation.
Not much is known about Escarcega Romante Nogales. We do know he
immigrated to America from Tujillo, Spain, a region in Extramadura, toward
the end of his life. He was 78 years old when he died of malaria in the
Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida in 1713. Escarcega’s son,
Leon Hernandez Nogales, intent on establishing his father’s apothecary
business in the more prosperous northern territories, found himself in
Harper’s Ferry by either 1745 or 1747, depending on varying accounts.
Collaborating with Robert Harper, a Philadelphia builder, Nogales quickly became
the main purveyor of pharmaceuticals in the region, and prospered as the
town grew in stature after Harper built his ferry across the Potomac River
in 1761. That Nogales carried with him a particular clay jar housing this
17th century scroll is beyond suspicion. Why he carried it and how his
grandfather Dante Almos Nogales first came into its possession might only be
understood after investigating the following commentary found in the same jar
with the scroll. The original is written in Spanish and replete with romantic
flourishes. This translation, we feel, is literal.
The guards are at it again, beating the desconocidos. Along with the rise and fall of the sun and the rise and fall of the moon, I have become dependent on the beatings of the desconocidos. There is an enthusiasm in the guards during these moments, an enthusiasm frightening to behold. That they could find such pleasure in beating those beneath them, chained to stakes in the yard, is a sickening indictment of this ritual—yet it is a ritual I find myself unable to look away from. Others, prisoners on the higher levels (1), those from Andalusia, Sevilla and La Mancha, often cheer in these moments. That it is not their flesh being lashed surely must add a contagious joy to their admonishments. Though once it is over, I have observed a melancholy accompany their echoing voices, once the other enticements of prison life have recaptured our attentions, and we wander back to our cells.
There is one though, “a man of letters” he is called, a man who does not shout with the rest of them: Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra. I have ascertained his name after accosting him directly, when I thought he had stared long enough at the monthly scroll I purchased from the Santa Hermandad (2), with the profit my wife Alamadeira delivered from my apothecary stall, profits alleviating my boredom during my years’ internment. That I refused to pay tribute to the Vicar on the occasion of his daughter’s fifth birthday is an oversight I shall only briefly discuss. The customs of my region seem to change as dramatically as the leadership in the house of the honorable Josue Garcia Calabra—the Duke of these lands—and others failing to adhere to these ridiculous tributes have met the same fate. Though with the many scrolls I have accumulated, I feel I have insulated myself in a way from the dismal surroundings of this place, and I think Señor Cervantes envied the stunning scrolls at my disposal.
“Sir, I wonder if I could be afforded the distinct pleasure of touching the fine parchment you hold between your fingers. I have not seen its like since I was shown to my cell several months ago, and since the wall in my cell is almost completely covered with my meandering prose, I would hope to purchase some of your fine parchment for a fair price.”
The nerve of him, I thought, this arrogant dandy approaching me across ranks, without an introduction or express word of intent (3). “No you cannot sir,” I spat back at him, tightening my hold on the aforementioned scroll. He slumped back against the common bench we stood beside, his gnarled left hand raised to his creased vest. His internment thus far had not the same soiled effect as the clothes on those surrounding us; he looked as clean and prim as a carnation and I laughed to see him so wounded at my dismissal of his offer. “How much could you offer anyway?” I continued. “My only pleasure here is the scroll you see beneath my arm, and the dozen more like them in my bunk. Words are the only payment I could consider, and as you say so yourself, your cell wall is covered with prose. Well, I do not want your cell wall or any crumbling portion of it. I have my own cell to consider, now don’t I?”
“But I could show you what I’ve written and in that manner make partial payment for the few blank spaces you may not happen to use.” And he bowed to me, during which I watched Rudimeo Machado circle behind him and pluck the fine silk handkerchief from Señor Cervantes’ velvet trousers.
“Ha! You bow so low as to show your colors!” I laughed as he righted himself and felt for his missing silk. “The comic figure you pose may be payment enough. One so seldom laughs inside Argamasilla, even in these relatively light rooms (4). At the very least, I should now entertain the meandering prose of this wall you keep.”
“Lord,” I would plead in those sacred moments. “Lord, it is I, Merced Cesares Jimenez Alfonseca, and I am in need of your munificent guidance.” And here I recited a dozen Ave Marias before continuing. “Lord, I am once again interred not for any sin against Your Kingdom, but due to the greed of Man, and You will excuse me if this circumstance prompts in my demeanor an inclination toward the severe, the vulgar, the cruel. It is also this place Lord, this Argamasilla, with its savage beatings and the crude levels of treatment. So Lord, let me see this Cervantes’ wall, let me not pass judgment too swiftly on this man, for perhaps his words are the words You have always wanted me to see.”
“You see my open horizon looks upon the wooden acreage surrounding Argamasilla to the east. This is important because of one essential factor supporting my sanity: color.”
“Color?” I replied, dumbfounded by the riddles the man spoke with. His crippled left hand was waving as he spoke and it took all my reserve to not ask of its ruined cause, until perhaps, when he finished his discourse on the depth of his "open horizon."
“Color?” I repeated.
“Why yes…the sunlight, man—what other color could I mean?”
“Señor Cervantes, listen, I have come here out of courtesy to your request regarding my scrolls. It does you no service to speak to me in this way. By the Lord Almighty I pray for the patience of Your indomitable will.” This whispered prayer helped steady my hand from lashing back at this incredulous dandy. “So continue please with your comments on the magnificent colors of the sunrise, which must surely give you hope and inspiration in your efforts, but please do not talk down to me in this way again. Or the charity of the scrolls I might find in my favor to grant you will surely distill.”
“Ha! But you must have meant dissolve just now,” he offered, a ridiculous smile on his face. “ ‘Of the scrolls I might find in my favor to grant you will surely dissolve,’ not distill. I think it’s just a matter of finding the appropriate word in that instance, in expressing your intentions.”
“Señor Cervantes, still you persist in mocking me after I have just told you the risk you run in proceeding with this line of discourse.”
“Oh no, no, no Señor Alfonseca," and he crouched on one knee in front of his neatly attended bunk. “Señor Alfonseca, please, hear me out when I say I mean no disrespect to you. It is only my mania I suppose, that makes me correct the misuse of words. Words to me like words to you may be the only soulful payment to which I might ever respond. So you must understand the correct usage of words I find of utmost importance in aspiring to my chosen craft.”
“Of poetics, of pastoral books, of theater, plays, and on the larger project which you see behind me on this Spanish stone.” Still crouched on one knee—his arms stretched across the expanse of the most intricate handwriting I had ever seen. “This is my obsession Señor Alfonseca; this is Don Quixote, a book unlike any before. These are the words I wish to transcribe on the back of your pristine scrolls. And if you permit me the gift of your fine parchment, I am sure some particular payment could be made instead of the monetary abundance I lack, a payment benefiting us both.”
“ ‘A book unlike any before,’ you say.” I was intrigued. To see the intricate design of that script, of his precise hand and how it scrawled across each available inch of the narrow cell, held me in wonderment. I couldn’t breathe. Reaching out to the east wall, with its “open horizon,” it was as if my body had entered a maze of brightened emotion. In the darker corners it was more difficult to see the passages, but when I inched closer it seemed as if in the shadows I read about violent beatings, confused battles, epic jealousies, while on the brighter sections, flourishing speeches of beauty, of love and humor spoke back to me. And I wanted to touch this world; I wanted to know it.
“I can see you are trying to discern the organizing principle of the piece. That my friend, and I may call you my friend can’t I, now that we have crossed the boundary of a still undefined agreement, now that we may freely meditate on the importance of the word? That this organizing principle might still remain unknown to you resides in the description I started earlier, a description that has everything to do with this open horizon and the intensity of the sun’s growing color as it happens to fall on the four corners of my cell.”
It was many minutes later when Señor Cervantes continued with his description. In the interval, I had found myself at a passage detailing an encounter with this delusional Don Quixote, with this Knight of the Sorrowful Face, as he wanted himself to be called throughout the course of the text. He had come upon a gang of galley slaves, prisoners like us but with a much more severe punishment (5). And the freedom of speech Cervantes employed, the easy way he captured the everyday language of these prisoners, the same everyday words I heard in the levels and yard below me, was astounding, a triumph of replication, of art, and it took me another fifteen minutes to regain my composure.
“These voices, these prisoners,” and I pointed to the dark passage I knelt before. “This is the language of Argamasilla; this is the language all around us, and that you mean to include these lowly speeches, this slang and profanity in this book will certainly constitute a design unlike any I have read before.” And I reached out to touch his slender shoulder, to in some way display the empathy I felt for his artistic intentions, but he leaned back from me and turned away. So I continued anyway, in spite of his reluctance to my warmer enthusiasm. “What do you do? Do you stand secretly at the railing when the beatings of the desconocidos begin and take notes? But you have no paper. Is it in your mind then, this vast capacity for mimicry, this vast recitation? Do you question the prisoners around you? Do others write what they say for you? Maybe you point to a spot on the wall and say, ‘Okay, Rudimeo Machado, now I want you to write why you are here in Argamasilla, in your own words, in how you would speak to a friend.’ But this cannot be either. Besides you, I might be the only other soul who could write in this place. This cannot be it at all. You have done all this yourself. You have conjured all these voices. It is you isn’t it Señor Cervantes? It is you.”
“Your intuition serves you well, Señor Alfonseca. Yes, I have written all these voices. I have conjured each word, each impression and dream. And I will tell you how I do it sir, because it is no more a power of divination or augury than you might think. I simply listen to the sounds. I listen as some men must pray, as perhaps even you must pray. I listen to the sufferings and truths of my fellow man as if this whole vast prison were one large confessional. And yes, this Don Quixote is filled with violent beatings and battle scenes, with petty confrontations and vulgar indiscretions, but I have tried to balance the rudest portions of life, the lowest examples, with the highest and most noble pursuits: with love, beauty and honor. And I only wonder sir, if after you have read for a few days the extent of my musings, if you will think I have succeeded.”
For instance, I remember in the early morning, a section of the stone above the narrow doorway, how it passed through a spectrum of orange and blue and how it warmed me reading it. Or the narrow stone ledge above his bunk, the morning light draped it in a warm golden hum, radiating with a luster I could scarcely imagine then, and which I find difficult to fathom now, in recalling its otherworldly radiance. In the afternoon though, at the height of the heat, the upper-corners of each wall were held beneath a hard white pulse. How this piercing whiteness reached across the wall with the “open horizon,” the wall with the window permitting the motion of the sun, I do not know. There were several instances of an illusory nature that I thought impossible, even as I stood there witnessing the phantasmal play of light, my arms outstretched touching both sides of this mysteriously construed chamber. The moonlight was another instance of this shadowy enchantment.
A blue-white moonlight appeared as if spilled from a milky bowl. Its creamy rivulets clung in puddles to the blackened stone and I stood mesmerized beneath its ethereal glow. I cherished reading the almost dreamlike sections outlined by these milky currents, almost as much as I cherished the colors of the vastly swollen evening. And as much as I wanted to absorb each flowing drop of moonlight, to make each my own, to hold them inside me—these ivory rays, which I couldn’t imagine equaled for the purity of their presence—frightened me a bit. Something of the ghost world lingered in their translucence, and I clung more heartily to the evolving twilight. A medley of greens, blues, violets and browns all converged beside Señor Cervantes’ bed then, after dinner. Wisps of an indigo-blue pulsed to the left of a leather chair. A cloud of lavender hung above the gray paper shoes dangling from a nail in the ceiling. Chords of maroon and burgundy fell in diagonal bars across his bunk, and I felt more grounded because of it. I felt I inhabited the colors of a different world, that the cold, steely prison was far away, and the more welcoming sections of travel, of the open road and the mountains with their ardent meadows overwhelmed me. I felt the warmer colors of the earth rise from the evening and this earthly abundance helped fortify me for the ghost-hued night to come.
Señor Cervantes, for his part, couldn’t help but pace in the hallway outside his cell in these moonlit hours. And I thought that perhaps something of the ghost world preyed on him, a demonic mania? He was scribbling on the outside hallway. A milky puddle illuminated the blackened stone where he stood on the third and final night of my reading, and I whispered to him when I was done that he didn’t have to proceed with this futile stone-scribbling anymore:
“The guards will surely scratch your words away if you write outside your cell, so I do not think you should continue.”
“I have bribed them with all the money I had left to let me write on the walls of my cell, and now that I have covered each moist inch with my ink I must continue elsewhere. The words will not wait for me to acquire the correct medium, Señor Alfonseca. The words will not wait!”
And he loomed above me in the milky light, his narrow shoulders tense marble columns. I had never seen him so large, so furiously imposing. His crippled left hand looked like a dagger in the sharp way he carved the air when he screamed about the power of these infinite words that must have been pouring into his skull even then; words borne from moonlight and sunset; words moving on orange and blue waves through his mind and fingertips to the more solid catalogue of stone.
“The words will not wait for me to understand or order them in any way. The words come to me as miracles must come to the faithful—unknown of origin, unbound by law, incomprehensible in their form. It is only the hand that deciphers their shape for me. It is only the hand torn in the Battle of Lepanto, shot across the dark-spreading sea that translates this energy into a more knowable voice, into these scrawled symbols you see surrounding us,” and he wiped his face clear of sweat, whispering now. “The hand is the priest and the pen is the sacrament and the ink is the blood.”
“Lord,” I whispered back, my teeth clenched at the heresy I heard from the pruned white lips in front of me, heresy I understood then as perhaps only another voice of Your greater design. “Lord, he does not know what he speaks, but may only speak with Your voice now, for the divination of Your design. Forgive him for this artistic sensibility, for this impulse to think he is truly the creator of Your words.”
“But I don’t think I’m the creator, Señor Alfonseca. Haven’t you been listening to me?” And he moved closer to me now, the last moist drops wiped from his brow by the dagger of his left hand. “I am only a conduit for a more divine passage of night and day, a more divine annunciation of virtue and pain, of heat and cold, and that is all I could ever be, Señor Alfonseca—a conduit for the duality of life.”
My years’ internment was almost up, and during the last three weeks I saw very little of Señor Cervantes, but the world he created, this Don Quixote, continued to rise before me like a shimmering spell, with wholly real shapes and fears. And I thought that maybe this Don Quixote was really a vast enchantment. Perhaps it was a dark magic Señor Cervantes was involved with, and I had only helped his enchantments by bringing a portable medium to their form, with the scrolls I gave him. Because I must admit, I began to experience a host of hallucinations in those last three weeks, hallucinations I could not ascribe to my continual state of dehydration and exhaustion. Instead, the words of Señor Cervantes seemed to build up a world of recurring illusions in my mind. At first it was only a minor distraction to me, and I thought that I had only caught one of the many viruses circulating a prison of less then adequate cleanliness. My bunk felt like the gentle grass of a green pasture, and upon rolling over one evening I thought I heard the sounds of an epic battle, with the Knight of the Sorrowful Face requesting my assistance in smiting a giant holding the kingdom of the Princess Micomicona for ransom. Each morning when I looked at my gray paper shoes, shoes that all of the prisoners in the higher levels had, I saw them instead as polished leather boots, with the gray paper dissolving into the chainmail of a Knights’ gallant armor. I seemed singly infested with the ideals of chivalry, so that when I watched the guards beat the desconocidos during my last week, I saw instead a mythic clash of armies. I saw their arms full of scimitars and wands; I saw their tears like wells of souls. I saw the stakes they were chained to turn to snakes. I saw the sand and gravel melt with the sun, and found myself screaming for the lowly desconocidos to fight back, to fight back with all their strength, and in this way the guards turned their eyes on me, and I was brought before the warden. My last day of internment was less than a week away and he eyed me with an intoxicated humor. His breath smelled of onion and cognac, and as he leaned closer to me, I saw his face dissolve into the color of moist clay.
“Guards, leave us. Señor Alfonseca is no threat to me, and I must speak to him privately about the odd behavior he has adopted on the point of his release.”
The warden was an obese man and rested his sausage-fingers on a swollen belly. A plate of carnitas was on his desk and with an indistinct gesture from him I was meant to devour the few scraps he was unable to finish.
“Wine?” he asked, his left eye drifting from where his right eye focused.
I nodded greedily and drained my glass before he could return his bottle to the table. He spun his mustache between his greasy fingertips. It was my first real taste of food and drink in a year; the bread and water until then had since dissolved from my conscious mind, their taste useless to me for comprising the whole of my diet. He laughed to see me drain my cup, and refilled it without a word.
“Senor Alfonseca, slower my friend, slower. Calm yourself, man; you are to be released in four days and once again the common taste of pork and wine will meet your lips. You cannot let them affect you this way. You must not be overwhelmed by my generosity either. I only wish to speak to you, nothing more, and then you can return to your cell. I only want to understand why it is you who shouted at the guards this morning. It was all I could do to keep them from lashing you for the desconocidos you wanted to support.”
“Thank you sir, thank you,” and I bowed to the floor before him, not knowing if I thanked him for keeping the guards from beating me or for the generous food and wine, but already I felt giddy with the rush of alcohol. My head was moist and I felt a sound welling up in my throat, one that I hadn’t heard during this long year. I hadn’t sung since I’d been here, but now with my release so close, and with the wine working through the loose layers of my soul, I felt a gaiety I had not experienced before lifting my voice in harmonious waves.
“It is only this other world I now see sir,” I practically sang out to him. “This other Spain occupying my senses with its dark enchantment.” And I was up now, pacing around the room, with the warden urging me to drink more, so I drained my second glass of wine licking the last drops from my lips.
“This other Spain?” he asked, drumming his sausage fingers on his belly. “But my friend, a cigar.” And he lit a cigar handing it to me. I breathed the sweet rich smoke and felt a countless parade of images twirling around me in the air. I saw the blue light in Cervantes’ cell, the march of the guards, rain dripping from the cornice in the yard beyond my window like so many etched words. The room swarmed around me. My tongue knew no limits.
“This other Spain of Cervantes with his Don Quixote. This other Spain is a dream I keep seeing in the stone and in the yard when I thought the guards were an army with scimitars and snakes in the sand. And I shouted for the desconocidos because who else would shout for them now that they were lost to the war of the sun?”
“Cervantes, eh? He writes, no? He has the use of words, it is said. But one so seldom inspects the cells for all the responsibilities of my charge,” and he motioned to his elevated post as if to excuse his removal from our more-immediate activities.
“He writes of dreams and adventures and of an enchanted knight, and I can only hope to see this other Spain cast its spell on those fortunate enough to read its pages. Because it is magic sir, a deep vast magic spun with stone and silk, with pearl and gold.”
“You say there are pages then, pages of gold?” And the warden edged closer to his desk, his round belly resting on a dusty ledger. The deception he had intended all along was now at hand, and had I been a stronger man, Lord, a man more in line with my pharmaceutical profession, I might have divined his darker purpose. But my weakness was made evident by the sweetened pork, by the red wine and easy manner we had established between ourselves, which of course mixed with the vanilla rich smoke of the cigar to craft a heady elixir. My senses were overwhelmed by then, and I reacted as if strings were controlling my tongue and hands, that the well-crafted strings the warden had attached to me were now working against what I should have never done.
“Yes, pages of gold, words of gold on the scrolls I gave him. He must be finished by now, transcribing it all from the walls he keeps. He must be finished with his Don Quixote, and he must be excited as well about the prospect of having it printed with maybe even King Phillip III reading in good favor its meandering tale?”
“The favor of the King you say,” the warden grinned, and poured another glassful. "And all because of your efforts Señor Alfonseca, all because of your efforts, my charity, and our new partnership.”
“Yes, of course, for the benefit of Señor Cervantes, my man, and for the benefit of this Don Quixote.”
“How do you know him again?” he asked. It seemed the only reservation he held was with my somewhat coincidental relationship to this printer.
“Because of the crushed ox bone I give him for his ulcers,” I repeated. “This printer is well known in Extramadura and Madrid; I’m surprised you have not heard of him before.”
“But how will we pay for the printing, and how will we distribute the book to the proper critics and libraries in Madrid?” We were in his cell; the blue light of evening revealed a passage by the doorway and in its dreamy light I read about Dulcinea, the idealized love of Don Quixote, a love who was really just another illusion in the vast simulacrum of his chivalric vision. And Lord, in that moment, had I known then the warden’s true deception, I would have seen I was only crafting another illusory realm for Señor Cervantes, a realm of literary riches, of wealth and ease, a realm impossible to realize. But I proceeded anyway; so eager was I to invest the total value of my apothecary business into the printing costs of Don Quixote, so firmly did I believe in its success.
My wife Alamadeira met me when I was released and we stood for an hour in each others arms outside the prison gates, tears diffusing the wan clouds of an overcast day. And for a moment I felt like I was still in Señor Cervantes’ cell, that I stood in a dreamy blue patch of light moving across his meticulous wall. I felt the satchel slung across my shoulder, the satchel containing the two-dozen scrolls comprising Don Quixote, this monumental work, and I saw the next steps that I would have to take in getting it printed outlined in this same blue light.
At my apothecary stall the neighbor boy Dante Nogales stood distributing herbs to Señora Gaela Domingez Santaurus, and I greeted her as I had a year ago before entering Argamasilla. A pink hue saturated her skin and my hands when we touched, and it was as if the intervening months had fallen into a black nothingness. I only heard her kind words then, and how she smiled at my soiled clothes and the exhausted glow on my lined face, a smile which somehow helped align me in my present endeavor. I spread the scrolls on a table behind a curtain where we kept the clay jars of our supplies. Dried mimosa petals, sassafras root, oleander extract and tortoise shells hung in clusters above my head and I asked Dante to bring an empty jar and the heated wax and glue we kept by the glowing coals. I thought of Senor Cervantes’ parting words, when he watched as I gathered the extent of his book in my arms. A certain energy had left him as he slumped in his cot. The white pulse of noon flashed in the corners of the walls and the strange configuration of his cell disoriented me momentarily, for I thought I heard him thank me for my efforts.
“You will hear from me shortly,” I replied, not acknowledging his apparent gratitude. “But there is still the matter of payment, my friend. It is true I am investing the value of my livelihood into this publishing venture, but I wondered if I might take away something more substantial from the historical and artistic occurrence I feel this Don Quixote might someday represent.”
“Ha!” he scoffed at me, this dandy who had once knelt before me. His warm graciousness from before had collapsed into a fleeting spark. “Señor Alfonseca, is it not enough that you are involved at all, that your scrolls now house the extent of my life, the intrigue of my soul? What you carry in your arms is really me from this place, and isn’t it enough for you to free my soul, to bring me to a more unencumbered state?”
“I was just thinking of my…”
“You were just thinking of yourself,” he spat at me. “Have you not listened to Don Quixote, to this Knight errant you say enchanting you with his humor and purpose? Have you not learned anything from this abandoned code of chivalry, of truth? Because I think the occasion of reading my words before any other is payment enough. And surely this venture, as you have told me, will be financially beneficial for you and for me, and I think only your greed now guides your decisions when before I thought it was your generosity,” and he had turned from me with that, and I hoped this wouldn’t be our last words, our final parting.
Back at my apothecary stall, behind the curtain, I found my favorite scroll, the one reminding me the most of the characters inhabiting Argamasilla for the last year, the one comprising the scene of the theft of Don Quixote’s sword and his squire’s mule. I wanted this scroll for myself and pulled it from its numbered order. The sword of Don Quixote seemed symbolic to me of Spain’s larger power, of an older order lost or in decline. The words were spread out beneath my fingertips with an imaginative power I could touch, leaping from description to description with the swift wit of his piercing mind, and I held the scroll up beneath a burnt-orange sunset. This was the one, my true payment, and I looked into Dante’s eyes as I placed it in the jar.
That this scroll happened to contain a description of the infamous desperado Ginesillio de Pasamonte did not pass my notice either. The descriptions of nefarious legends brought a hefty price on the collector’s market, and in the event this venture and the unseemly partnership I had struck up with the warden proceeded in any way other than I expected, I felt I might need to be compensated. That I was interrupting the story of this Don Quixote by one whole chapter was of little concern to me. The breadth of the chapters before and after this omission, I thought, would surely compensate for the illogical gap this scroll might create. For you see, Lord, I was not thinking clearly, about the aim of art. Instead, I could still taste the warden’s wine on my lips; I could still feel the tight strings he had attached to me. The more honorable decisions I might have been capable of making before my year in Argamasilla, before watching the beating of the desconocidos each day, had left me. A defeating wind accompanied these beatings I tell you, an echoed cruelty I might have internalized. To see that men could hold such power over other men, that their lives could be reduced to chains and stakes in the sand, made me wince when I remembered what a terrific hold it cast on me then, and I feared I might have fallen into that vicious cycle of behavior too. I might have even felt I held some sort of power over Señor Cervantes by taking this scroll, that I stood on some higher step.
For his Don Quixote had released me from my prison life, if only during the three days I was able to read it. I had fallen into that idealized realm so easily, in his brightly configured cell then, and maybe I thought if I had a scroll of my own to turn back to whenever I needed to, the beautiful enchantment of that realm might be mine to experience again and again, whenever the tedium of my daily life became too much, too repetitive to bear. Though now that I am writing this, I am not so sure. My own greedy mania might as well be to blame, and I can only ask now for forgiveness, Lord, with these words I hope You must surely hear, and of how I even enlisted my young apprentice into my dishonesty.
“This jar, Dante,” and I pointed to the jar we both touched now on the table. “I want you to keep this jar for me in your house. Do not tell your parents what it is, only that it is yours to keep for me alone. I will send for it when the mood strikes me. Now go Dante, take it at once and return tomorrow as usual. Tell no one of this scroll, Dante, no one.”
Don Quixote became a national triumph. Everyone in the mountains and on the coasts seemed to have read or heard of this fanatical knight and the madness of his antics. Señor Cervantes, for his part, was much celebrated now in the Spanish countryside and I only saw him once more after the book was first printed. It was in Madrid, three years after we last spoke.
After leaving the day-to-day operations of the business to Dante, I went to Madrid once a month to trade for some of the supplies more difficult to come by: bergamot, agate, hibiscus, sweet marjoram, mercury, elephant tusk. And once, after purchasing what I needed, I saw a notice describing the events of a curious incident. It seemed an esteemed nobleman, Gaspar de Ezpeleta, was mortally wounded on the street in front of Señor Cervantes’ home. Gaspar had been transporting a chest full of taxed monies for King Phillip III, and Cervantes and the woman in his household were jailed on suspicion of having something to do with Gaspar’s unfortunate end.
I went immediately to Argamasilla. He was in the same cell. The vile warden who had cheated me before had been killed in a prison riot the year before and it only took me a few cuartillos (7) to bribe my way in. It was early evening when I found him in his bunk. The same blue light I remembered from before was focused by the doorway on the same dreamy passage concerning Dulcinea—the idealized love. He recognized me immediately but did not stir. A white scroll was stretched before him and in his crippled left hand he held a bit of dark chocolate. He seemed heavier in the face, well fed and tan. His skin was a deep leathery-brown, but I didn’t feel this weight agreed with the more manic man I remembered. If his fame had kept his stomach full it had also garnered him some preferential treatment from the new warden. A new quill, a fresh pail of water, half-a-dozen wine bottles, a wool blanket adorned his cell. Having a celebrated author to look after did wonders for the behavior of the guards as well, but I was shocked to see the same aimless group of desconocidos in the lower yard, their legs in chains.
“They do not beat them as often,” he mumbled. He had watched me approach and placed my sympathies immediately. I had lingered at the railing for a few minutes, and was amazed to see, upon looking down on the same deplorable conditions, that the older mesmerizing power from those years before still captivated me.
“At least some things have improved,” I whispered back to him, eyeing his wool blanket. And by standing in that blue light again I felt like I had entered some darker sanctuary. The world of the prison dissolved behind me. I felt a respectful silence crowd my tongue. I knew I had to speak to him like a man; he would not respect me otherwise. “You seem to have as many scrolls as you’d like,” and he watched me for a moment. Our eyes searched the depths of the other, and by dipping his quill into his inkpot he broke the spell that had been cast between us.
“Señor Cervantes, I apologize for the check, for the royalty check and the abrupt nature of my correspondence before, in the weeks after your book was printed. I knew you wanted to hear more of my words, but I was afraid to write you—to you, who now write for everyone with such power…”
“I know all about the deal with the first warden,” he replied, scribbling on his scroll without looking up. A dozen other scrolls were stacked in a wooden box beneath his bed, and I felt the same strange racing pulse in my heart when I looked at them. And it felt like before, when I had the scrolls of Don Quixote spread before me, and I almost expected him to hand these newer ones over to me, once our dialogue paused awkwardly.
“Not these Señor Alfonseca, not these. I’m afraid experience has taught me how badly free men keep their promises made in captivity.”
I wanted to protest, to tell him of the warden’s duplicity, but the words would have been meaningless to him anyway. Money was meaningless to him; I saw that then. It wasn’t the wealth that I had promised him that he regretted believing in, but the honesty he had accepted from me as a true sign of my friendship, of my honor. That bond I had broken. It could never be regained, no matter how much I wanted to grovel at his feet then and there, no matter how much I wanted to repent for my greed, but his cold scribbling silence kept me from saying anything more. What could I say that might have brought me back into the graces of this already mythic figure?
I edged towards the doorway and raised my hand for a moment. The evening light had shifted a degree and now a warm orange pulse radiated in the doorway. I touched the rosaries in my pocket out of habit. I wanted to whisper to Senor Cervantes about the inexplicable shading, about the rich color absorbing me, about each remembered voice, but he was already looking beyond me. I might have already been a ghost of memory, a fading wisp on the imperceptible edge of his vast repository of need, of use.
“Listen…listen,” he whispered back, balancing on the rim of his bunk. I strained to hear what must have caught his attention, and it was only when his incessant scribbling stopped that I caught the faintest trace of what might have captivated his very being. A lone voice was crying in the darkness. The echo of a rusty chain rattled across a stone walkway. A door was opened and closed in rapid succession; and, in the pulse of an orange light, I thought I heard the chorus of some indecipherable song rise up to us before dying to a trembling silence.
“It’s the desconocidos,” he hesitated, as I strained to hear more. “Even the desconocidos have found it in their place to sing when the orange sunset reaches their depth. Yes, my dear Alfonseca, even the desconocidos can sing about the light of the world beyond these walls.”
John Osawatowie Brown was arrested and
charged with treason on October
18th, 1859. His family begged for his life, openly stating he was insane. To
remove any doubt of this claim, they provided the following information
on his ancestry and the people having reared him:
¤ Nine relatives on Brown’s mother’s side were insane.By December 2nd, 1859, when John Brown was hanged for treason, no records
¤ Six of Brown’s cousins were insane.
¤ Two of his own children were insane.
In the intervening 82 years, from when the
last reasonable possession of
Cervantes’ missing scroll and its rediscovery after John Brown’s capture
and hanging was made, we can only surmise its history. It’s quite conceivable
Robert Harper hoped to conceal its value in the most auspicious structure
he could find—in the cobblestone wall of the newly remodeled armory. How
could he have known that in less than two centuries almost half a million
tourists would visit it a year, touching the same walls he once envisioned
as an anonymous vault? Because for all those 82 years, not a word was
known of the contents hidden therein, where once ox bone and lineament oil
cured the common maladies of the 17th century man. We can only guess the
missing scroll was afforded the patience Cervantes himself seemed solely
consumed with—the patience of waiting, of watching, and of listening
between the walls to the sounds the world offered him.
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