Chapter 1: Capture
Simon Mendez awoke to the sounds of horses’ hooves that came to an abrupt halt in the little alley that passed directly beneath his bedroom window. Lying motionless on his bed, he gazed briefly around his room. Wide rays of moonlight provided the only illumination. It took several moments for him to return to the waking world from his latest haunting and bizarre dream.
The dreams had been occurring more often lately. On far too many nights, Simon found his sleep disturbed by images of an elderly, bearded, humble-looking man clothed in a slightly tattered white shroud and wearing an expression of deep concern. Simon had never seen the man in real life before, yet tonight was different. In tonight’s vision, the old man identified himself as Simon’s great-great-grandfather, José Mendez, who had perished at the stake over one hundred fifty years earlier. Great-Great-Grandpa José also told Simon that he must be brave, that he must care for his mother and younger sisters, and - above all - that he must remain in full control of his emotions.
“What do you mean?” Simon asked.
“Be the rider in control of your animal self, my child,” answered José, “not the horse. There are important battles to be won, very soon.” Simon’s ancestor spoke in a very refined Spanish, in a dignified manner rarely heard among the common folk.
Tonight’s dream was the most puzzling and discomforting of all, and Simon had no idea what to make of it. At seventeen, Simon was used to mastery; he was tall, muscular and conversant in several languages.
“Be the rider in control of your animal self, my child, not the horse.” Simon prided himself on his sharp mind, yet still found his ancestor’s statement rather cryptic.
Now, José’s words reminded Simon that there were actual horses standing right outside his home. What were they doing there at this hour? Simon sat up and peered out the second-floor window behind him. Two dark-colored stallions stood in the alley, both attached to an ornate carriage. Simon wondered who its passengers could have been. Were they weary travelers in need of a place to stay for the night? Why would they choose to stop in Simon’s out-of-the-way hometown, Arboles, and why the Mendez home?
Simon rose from his bed and instinctively reached for the candlestick that typically stood atop a little nearby table. He sharply withdrew his hand before touching the object. The Mendezes were a family of conversos, or anusim (“forced ones”), as they often referred to themselves in private and veiled conversations. José Mendez and his righteous wife, Dina, had chosen to perish in the Inquisition’s flames back in 1492, rather than to renounce their Jewish faith, the faith for which so many of their own forebears had already fought and died. Yet, José and Dina’s children had lacked their parents’ degree of inner strength, and had chosen a feigned conversion to Catholicism over death.
Four generations later, the Mendez family lived outwardly like all of their Catholic neighbors, yet secretly practiced a number of ancient Jewish rituals when the neighbors were not around to see them. Every Friday, late in the afternoon, Simon’s mother, Sonia, lit a candle and placed it deeply inside a wooden cabinet in the kitchen, to mark the beginning of the twenty-five-hour-long Jewish Sabbath. The Mendezes privately referred to the day by its Hebrew name, Shabbat. Since Jewish law prohibited kindling fires, or even moving candles, on the Sabbath, the Mendez family made it a point to leave their candles alone for one day a week. Avoidance of fire on the Sabbath was one of a select few time-honored Jewish traditions that the Mendezes tried their best to uphold. Mr. Alejandro Ortiz, the well-liked local baker, was another secret Jew. He hosted an annual seder in honor of the first night of Passover, in his basement. And, every year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Mendezes attempted to fulfill the Biblical commandment to fast, while going about their daily business.
Simon found it hard to be a converso, yet his parents’ secret stories - told in hushed tones, behind closed doors and drawn window shades - of Biblical figures like the Matriarchs, the Patriarchs, Moses, David, and Samson, inspired him to carry on, anyway. The mighty Samson, who smashed a Philistine temple and ended the lives of its oppressive occupants, was Simon’s favorite. Although Simon generally followed the Catholic crowds at church and school, he privately harbored a resentment that was growing more difficult to suppress with each passing day.
Marranos was the term that his classmates called Jewish converts to their religion. Oh, you think of us as pigs? Insincere brats, never to be trusted? How special. Let me kneel before you, my superior, Catholic-all-the-way-through-going-back-to-Saint-Augustine brethren. I’ll try not to let too much of my inferior Jewish shadow darken your royal countenance.
Few people even knew Simon by his real name. Biblical names from the Old Testament were considered a clear sign - literally, a dead giveaway - that a family practiced Judaism at home. So, seventeen-year-old Salvador Mendez lived as an upright, loyal, believing Catholic in all obvious respects. He obediently attended Mass every Sunday, along with his family, and Confession every Saturday night. He washed his hands in holy water (sometimes sorely tempted to spit in it), behaved himself around the girls, prayed with his classmates at Saint Ignacio’s, the local Catholic school, and tacitly went along with their behavior and remarks. Despite the occasional enraged outburst, Simon (as Salvador) generally made a clean-cut impression on the adults in his life. He studied well enough to convince his teachers of his sincerity and intelligence, but his real preference was to play with the exotic goodies that his mercantile father, Diego, often brought home as gifts for Simon and his younger sisters, Esperanza and Alma.
Esperanza’s name meant “hope.” She was born shortly after Portugal’s separation from the Spanish Empire. In 1640, Portugal’s King John IV ended that country’s sixty-year union with Spain. Portugal was now an independent kingdom once again. King John entered a peace treaty with Holland, and the two countries formed an alliance against their former master, Spain. For the Mendez family, this proverbial “chink in the armor” of the Spanish Empire was a positive omen. Spain was still an oppressive force in the world, but no longer the invincible juggernaut that it had once been. The Portuguese had a different set of rules for conversos; they were less restrictive, and allowed conversos to travel to their New World colonies. There was hope that the wicked Spanish Empire was on the road to collapse, and that its cold, powerful grip on Jewish existence would soon come to an end.
Diego and Sonia Mendez had invested their dreams into their baby daughter. Simon remembered the night on which his parents had chosen his new little sister’s name. Their greatest hope was that, someday, their children would be able to thrive as practicing Jews, committed to their highest ideals, rather than hiding their true selves and living in constant fear of persecution. From her birth, Esperanza’s parents and brother viewed her as a sign of a bright and hopeful future.
Now, at twelve, Esperanza did seem to shine as a beacon of hope to others. She was a thoughtful girl, an introspective young lady with a kind and benevolent nature. She had many friends, whom she always seemed to greet with a smile, a good word and a generous spirit. Esperanza was known to uplift other children when they were down, to break up fights and to get along with everybody. She also stood up fiercely for other kids when bullies insulted or picked on them. Indeed, where Esperanza Mendez went, there was both peace and hope.
Alma’s name meant “soul.” She was an impassioned eight-year-old girl who certainly did appear to put her heart and soul into everything that she did. When it was time to help her mother in the kitchen, she ran there and focused intently until the job was done. When she played with her siblings or friends, she shut out the rest of the world and concentrated fully on doing her very best. And when she didn’t get her way, there was no mistaking that she had been wronged. No place had a fury like Alma Mendez scorned.
Under the Spanish Inquisition, conversion to Catholicism generally saved a Jew and his or her family from immediate torture and death; however, it was far from a guarantee of equality or tolerance. The conversos’ second-class status involved more than the jeers and taunts of a society that viewed them with constant suspicion of becoming relapsos; there were legal restrictions, as well. Conversos could not travel to Spain’s conquered lands in the New World; those colonies were off limits to anybody who could not produce documentation of limpieza de sangre, “purity of blood.” It took four generations to cleanse the impure Jewish blood from the veins of the marrano; thus spoke the Church’s prevailing religious prejudice. Simon and his sisters technically qualified to travel to the New World, as their great-grandfather, José’s son, had converted to Catholicism; however, splitting up the family would not have been a good idea. Most of the inhabited Earth was not much more hospitable to Jews than was the Spanish Empire. Nevertheless, Diego Mendez had managed to build a fairly vigorous trade with merchants in other countries. Many of his trading partners were other secret Jews, who maintained an extensive commercial network amongst themselves. Thus, numerous objects from various remote corners of the globe adorned the Mendez family home.
Of all the international gifts from his father, Simon most enjoyed to amuse himself with authentic weapons, especially those from the Orient. He was very protective of those playthings; he dared not risk showing them off to his friends, or even revealing their locations to his family. Simon imagined that his shuriken conferred a competitive advantage; few, if any, potential attackers in Spain - and certainly in his little hometown - even knew of such weapons or were prepared to defend against them. Shuriken were Japanese throwing stars, little roundish pieces of metal with protruding sharp blades. Ninja warriors in faraway Japan used them against their enemies, so Simon liked to refer to them as “Ninja stars.” Simon’s nunchakus were additional gems. They consisted of two short sticks tied together with a chain. Simon had spent many hours secretly practicing the art of spinning them; by now, he was quite proficient at holding onto one stick and spinning the other into a twirling cloud of rage that could easily repel any opponent.
Walking across his room, Simon had trouble taking his mind off of tonight’s dream. José Mendez had called him “Shimon,” the original Hebrew form of “Simon,” rather than “Salvador.” Virtually nobody else, beyond his immediate family, even knew him by that name in the first place. Even Simon had only learned of his Jewish name at his Bar Mitzvah ceremony, a brief and secret affair that had occurred early one Saturday morning, four years earlier, in the Ortiz family’s basement. There, with his sandy-brown hair covered by a small black cap, he had been called “Shimon ben (the son of) David,” and had then hunched over and recited some ancient blessings while gazing into a tiny Torah scroll (contraband these days). The adults, also all conversos, had smiled at him and congratulated him on officially becoming a man. If the elderly gentleman in his dream knew Simon’s Jewish name, then the dream itself must have been some kind of Divine vision. That thought made him shudder momentarily when he grasped the doorknob.
As he left his bedroom, Simon heard several loud knocks emanating from the front door of the house. The sequence of four or five knocks repeated itself a few seconds later, this time with greater urgency. Simon dashed downstairs, leaping over the bottom few steps and landing on the stone floor of the front room. There, in the dim glow of the several candles that still burned, he noticed that his parents and sisters had also been aroused from their slumbers. All of them now gathered in the front room, standing in their bedclothes, Alma and Esperanza murmuring to each other about what was going on and how tired they were. On reaching the front door, Simon put his hand on the knob, turned it and pulled the door open, expecting to find a weary traveler who would request a place to stay for the night and, perhaps, a cup of fresh water.
He wasn’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition. There, on the Mendez family doorstep, stood Father Alonso Garcia, the priest who headed the local branch of the Holy Office. Father Garcia was a man of slight build, with a powerful voice and a diabolical-looking goatee that complemented his constantly stern expression. Simon had never seen the man smile. He didn’t speak much, either; his grouchy manner said a lot, though. Most people talked about him with reverence, and children generally seemed afraid of him. Simon, though, regarded Father Garcia as a little joke, a short man overcompensating for his small size with his cocky “holier-than-thou” mannerisms. I could take him in a fight any day, Simon often thought, when Alonso Garcia was in view. Tonight, the moonlight gave the priest, dressed in black robes and boots, a somewhat supernatural appearance. Father Garcia stood by the doorway for a brief moment before letting himself in, wordlessly pushing Simon out of the way as he marched imperiously into the Mendez family’s living room.
Sonia was the first to speak. “Why, good evening, Father Garcia! It’s so late…is everything all right? I mean…to what do we owe this honor? Can I get you anything?”
He gave Mrs. Mendez a severe look. “I am not here to make a social call, ma’am,” he uttered, in a gravelly voice. “I have come to see Diego Mendez.”
Diego stepped forward and addressed the visitor. “Father Garcia, here I am. Is everything all right?”
“I’m not so sure,” answered the priest. “We have a rather urgent matter to discuss. Your presence is requested immediately at the Holy Office of the Inquisition.”
Diego took a step backward, in obvious surprise. “The Inquisition? Why? What’s going on?”
Alonso Garcia counteracted Diego’s retreat by taking another couple of steps forward and then speaking directly into Diego’s face. “Your name came up during a recent inquiry.”
Inquiry? thought Simon. I’m not fooled. I know what goes on at your “inquiries.”
Father Garcia continued: “It seems that there’s been a matter of Judaizing.”
“Judaizing? What?” asked Diego, sounding shocked. Simon heard a loud gasp from his mother and Esperanza.
“Mama, what does ‘Judaizing’ mean?” asked Alma, innocently.
“I’ll tell you later, dear,” whispered Sonia.
Father Garcia’s voice became ice, cold and sharp as a razor. As he continued speaking, contempt spilled out of him like blood from an open wound. He forgot any genteel manners that his parents or the Church might have instilled in him during some distant past life; spit sprayed and hate flew from his cruel mouth. “It seems that some lessons in the Jewish Torah have been taught in various homes throughout the neighborhood. This clandestine - and illegal - activity has been going on for over a year.”
My club, thought Simon. If only I had my club. That guy would be on the floor in a second and out cold. But I’ve lost the element of surprise. Still, maybe I can regain it…
Simon surreptitiously took several steps backward, toward the staircase, while Alonso Garcia continued his rant: “We have been investigating the nature of these criminal offenses, and your name arose. You, Mr. Mendez, were identified among the teachers of the Hebrew Bible lessons that have been given at odd hours, and in various private closets and basements throughout this city.”
Sonia let out another gasp. “There must be some mistake, Father,” she said, her voice exuding worry. “Diego w-w-would never be involved in illegal activities!”
Simon did not like the direction of this conversation. If that little sluggard thinks he can just burst in here and start pushing us around, he’s got another thing coming. He’s about to make a social call with one of my most trusted buddies. He had been gradually inching his way toward the staircase, and had felt the back of his left foot bump against the bottom step right at the moment that his mother had uttered the word “activities.”
“Make no mistake about it, señora,” replied Father Garcia, ceremoniously lifting his right hand into the air, index finger extended. He wagged his finger in the air several times, and then said, “We cannot have our beloved and holy town of Arboles polluted with this filth.”
“Polluted with this filth?” Please. Simon rolled his eyes, grateful for the nighttime darkness that hid his scornful gesture. An instant later, he was walking up the staircase at a brisk pace. His bedroom door was still ajar, and the moonlight emanating from that room provided a decent view of the stairs as he ascended them. While he climbed, he heard Alonso Garcia’s grim voice exclaiming the bone-chilling proclamation that would alter the course of Mendez family history.
“Diego Mendez, you have been named in a criminal matter of Judaizing, and are hereby ordered to the Holy Office of the Inquisition at once, to answer to the charges that have been brought against you.”
As soon as he had finished speaking, Alonso Garcia loudly snapped his fingers, summoning two overgrown thugs to step into the home through the front doorway. They were soldiers, both dressed in uniforms and carrying long, sharp pointed rapiers - the finest in modern, seventeenth-century military gear. Simon had not a second to spare. His club might be no match against those ruffians, but what about his morning star?
While his mother shrieked, Simon ran into his bedroom, quickly entered the closet, and squatted in front of the most important item that it contained. It was a large wooden chest that stored some of Simon’s smaller articles of clothing, boots and valuables. The chest was one of Simon’s several secret locations in which he liked to keep his special playthings.
Miraculously, the box’s lid did not creak this time when Simon threw it open. He needed no light to guide him as he rapidly rummaged through the chest. His fingers were already very well acquainted with its contents, and at the bottom, he soon found the item that he wanted. He closed his right hand around the weapon’s shaft, pulled it out of the chest, and rushed out of his room. Yes, the morning star, a massive club whose attached ball was studded with sharp spikes, would be tonight’s weapon of choice.
At the bottom of the staircase, he found pandemonium. Alonso Garcia’s hoods held Diego in a tight grip, one solder grasping each of the man’s arms. Sonia and the girls busily assaulted them with vases and cutlery, but their furious attacks seemed to have little effect. Clearly, these men were hardened fighters, trained to withstand fiercer assaults than anything that Sonia and her daughters could do to them. Diego, for his part, resisted his arrest as fiercely as possible. He was generally a calm, quiet, calculating man, not accustomed to combat of any sort. Still, he opposed his captors with a surprising ferocity, shouting epithets and kicking madly; within half a minute after their grabbing him, he had reduced the pair of soldiers to dragging him across the floor.
Simon rushed at the pair of soldiers with his mace and began swinging. The thug on Diego’s right responded by unsheathing his sword and taking a couple of swings of his own, somehow still maintaining a lock on Mr. Mendez’s left arm. The sword slightly nicked Simon’s left elbow, but in his rage, he barely felt a thing.
Father Garcia, who had disappeared, began screaming orders from outside the house. “The darbies, you dolts!” he called from the comfort of his carriage’s back seat. “Use the darbies! And hurry it up already! We still have another couple of victims to pick up before tomorrow morning!”
Darbies were metal restraints that the authorities clasped around the wrists of arrestees, to restrain their movements.
Both soldiers paused briefly at the threshold of the house. Using his left hand, the taller soldier dutifully pulled a long chain from his belt. Smirking, he handed one end of it to the shorter one, who took it and clasped the metal loop at its end around Diego’s right wrist. Then, the two brutes silently lifted Diego and started carrying him outside, toward the carriage. Garcia continued to bark meaningless orders at them, and Simon figured that the whole neighborhood could hear his shouts. Naturally, nobody did anything to shut him up; everybody was either too intimidated, too indifferent or both. From the corner of his eye, Simon spotted a neighbor opening his front door and just standing there, staring. Newly lighted candles appeared in a couple of windows; those who sat by them and watched the scene unfold apparently needed some entertainment in their otherwise busy, humdrum lives. Not a single individual bothered to offer help, or even stepped outside to question the players in this twisted event. Even a small number of courageous people could have easily ganged up on Diego’s captors and stopped the horror that now unfolded; their silence and complicity spoke volumes. How many more families had been destroyed, how many other innocent victims mercilessly robbed of their lives and dreams, over the past century and a half of madness? How many fingers had been lifted to put a stop to the evil that was the Spanish Inquisition?
If anybody in the surrounding homes managed to sleep through Alonso’s rude shouts, Sonia and her daughters’ shrill wails would have awoken them. Alma’s repeated, panicked cries of “No! Don’t take away my Papaaaaaa!!” pierced Simon like daggers stabbing into his heart. Yet, her desperate screams were to no avail. She gripped her arms tightly around Diego’s legs, and her eyes sprayed mad tears while her infuriated mouth screamed fierce cries of despair and protest.
On reaching the carriage, the shorter soldier clinically pried Alma away from her father and callously tossed her several meters away. When the vehicle’s door was open and Alonso’s pathetic, impatient figure became visible, Sonia Mendez gave up her fight. She collapsed into a heap on the ground and sobbed, her spirit smothered.
Esperanza and Alma, however, refused to quit. “I’ll burn down your carriage!” screeched Esperanza. She turned and ran back into the house.
Not to be outdone, Alma shouted, “I’ll kill your horses!” The young girl dashed back into the house and emerged an instant later, wielding a steak knife. She rushed at the nearest horse with the knife and tried to stab it. Over their screams, Simon heard the cruel, arrogant laughter of his father’s three abductors. They had clearly won this round, and were now flaunting their victory.
Esperanza emerged from the house, stridently carrying a candle and trying hard to stop the rushing air from blowing it out. It was too late to make good on her threat, though; the horses were already on their way.
Simon stared at the receding carriage, hatred radiating from him in waves. His outraged voice stabbed the cool spring air: “I’ll get you for this, Alonso Garcia!” He then threw his morning star in wild frustration, and watched as it embedded itself into the trunk of a nearby tree. His mother’s and sisters’ blood-curdling screams and wails continued to disrupt the calm of that fateful Friday night, belying the notion that the Jewish Sabbath served as a day of rest.
Simon knew that he had to get past his despair if there was any hope of saving his father. Saving Diego was now the only thing on Simon’s mind. The capture of Simon’s father was the very last straw. Simon despised the Inquisition, and burned for vengeance. You’ll never get away with this, Alonso, you pompous little creep. I’ll find a way to make you pay - in blood.
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