We drive through fields of flowers, blazed meadows
of orange poppies, walk through shaded plazas . . .
Here is a courtyard where we eat salad and paella
where half a bottle of white wine costs little more than soda
The sky, gray-blue above the shattered windows, is stitched
in black threads by swallows whose white-splashed wings flash
in the sun-fire
The light spilling down carries news of the 8th and 13th centuries
when Jews—more than 500 ghettosful of them in Valencia,
Toledo, Granada, Salamanca, Málaga, Cádiz, Córdoba—flourished
briefly, under Islam or Christianity, only to be punished later
simply for being Nowhere in España have I seen the Expulsion
honored or even remembered, though a shadow, at times, passes
above the great cathedrals and a million sudden cries are sounded,
almost like the throb of all the great bells in Christendom
Where are the Jews of Spain who catalogued the stars
and catered to cardinals and caliphs who peddled fruit and leather
and cured the pope's mania? Sufficient unto memory: tears
of the synagogue's ghosts El Greco gave each saint and apostle
his dark canvas and his genius but where are the Jews of Toledo
where is the gold archive of the vanished?
I saw a monstrance in the shape of a small cathedral,
with miniature pillars of gold and a delicate filigree of biblical
personages There were a thousand and one ivory columns, each
with its inset marble its tiers of virgins and inlaid crosses encrusted
with emeralds and rubies and there were rings weighed down
with perfectly cut gems and sparkling necklaces
made to mimic the vaulted crosses
and I asked again, Where are the Spanish Jews, the noble
Sephardim? And I saw the chapel of Isabel and Ferdinand
where they lay in their child-sized cubicles I saw the tunics
of the princes of the Church the gold embroidery ceilings carved
by artisans who had ransacked the tresors of heaven
And there were the insignia of the Knights of Malta and Jerusalem
the cruciform hilts of swords the million-piped organs
in the scented and poorly-lit altar places the great sweep
of Iberian history the armada of artists who sailed on the purpled sea
of the Vatican's cresting power
Five hundred and six years after the Jews of Spain were banished,
after they were branded Marranos after they were tortured
and murdered the light rains down on Toledo Here is where they lived
under the sign of death where they hid their faith in order to preserve
it where the map of their choices turned to ash each of them
a small fragment—Ar Muharram: a forbidden thing Here is where
their secret names are written in the fading history of blood.
Three Records of Survival
I. Thorns: Tjens Kjaer Jensen
A 63-year-old pensioner known as the 'human hedgehog' may be nearing the end of a six-year saga of pain during which doctors say they have removed 32,131 barberry thorns from his body.
—Unsigned News Report
Yet more keep emerging, inch-long barbs that surface
from the underworld of his body. His wife swears
she has personally removed millions, that Tjens himself
pulls out quill after quill. Neither understands
It was April 20, 1971, when Tjens tripped and fell
into that heap of thorns. He'd been pruning the barberry hedges
that put an edge to his property. He had tried to get up
from that bed of spiky branches, but the thorns had insisted he stay:
the thorns had embraced him.
God be thanked, Tjens had managed to keep his head
protected! True, his hands had been badly pierced,
so that they resembled a tailor's pincushions, but his wife
had a face to caress. If only he had not kept falling back, if only
he had not been so welcomed!
On his last visit to the county hospital, doctors tweezed 261 thorns
from his arms and legs . . . If only Tjens had been able to right
himself after his fall! if only he had not fallen on April 20th!
but something had pushed him back, something
had kept nudging him into the glint of the thorns.
And what is it now, each time his doctors trim the hedge
of his pain and attempt to heal him? After that unscheduled
embrace, that unparalleled piercing, what can it be
but a ceaseless and ritualized unstitching? These mysterious thorns—
embedded as they are in every pore and tuft of his body—
what can they mean, as they dive into him and rise?
II. Burial: Sorin Crainic
A teen-age boy, buried by an earthquake in the ruins of an apartment building in Bucharest, Romania, was rescued alive yesterday after surviving 11 days without food or water. . . .
—Unsigned News Report
Could one be rescued unalive, even you, Sorin,
who slept as if dead and survived longer, and with less
assistance, than any other human in recorded history?
Did stubbornness or faith sustain you? early abandonment
toughen you? unconditional love protect you? You went
265 hours without water or food, and in post-War Bucharest,
where you couldn't have been exactly plump with the absence
of thirst and hunger. Sorin, your doctors say they could uncover
no medical explanation for your resistance to premature burial.
What summary clarifications can you offer? Years later,
are you still a tad agitated and parched? have you entirely
returned from the land of narcolepsy and incoherence?
And what would you say to Tjens, after his ten thousandth trip
to the hospital? Would you offer him hope for a full and rapid
recovery? Sorin, we're truly interested in your approach
to these exotic and unexplainable disasters. So much
has gone wrong, a new technique—a telling word from you—
could give us just the boost we need. Sorin, we're not asking
for a book—only a few incisive phrases.
III. The Afterlife: Tesesita Basa and Remibias Chua
In this case, citing the (unsigned) report is probably
unnecessary. The facts, as we know them, are these:
Tesesita Basa, a quiet, middle-aged nurse living in suburban
Chicago, was murdered with a butcher's knife February 21, 1977,
in the sixth year of Tjens Jensen's Calvary—and, quite possibly,
during Sorin Crainic's prolonged but incomplete interment.
Her home had been ransacked pretty thoroughly and,
when the cops tossed it, they came up empty.
The first tip they got came from the grave. Here
is what happened: Remibias Chua fell into a trance.
This was several years after the robbery and murder;
it was in the tranquil season, in soft-edged summer.
Remibias simply went blank, like the screen on a crashed
computer. She fell back and her mouth gaped open . . .
and the voice of Tesesita Basa flowed out, a dark stream of lava.
And this voice named the murderer who, soon enough, confessed.
Thank God for revelations!
So, Tesesita; so, Remibias. When will you speak again
with the clear notes of prophecy? Do you have clues to other
murders? And what of Tjens' unyielding pain? what of the needles
that still stitch up his body? What of the pain of the world?
Have you not heard of the grieving mothers the lost and broken sons
the daughters of terror and humiliation? Surely, these, too, require
your attention. Isn't it time you fainted again, Remibias, that you spoke,
Tesesita, through her unspeaking mouth?
Toledo: 1492 was the year of the edict, signed by Ferdinand and Isabella, that expelled Jews from Spain. The Sephardim, Jews of Spanish culture and history, could remain in Spain only as duly converted Catholics. Marrano was an expression of contempt (literally, swine) used during the Spanish Inquisition to label a Jew who professed Christianity in order to escape death or persecution and who, typically, continued to observe Judaism secretly. Under the Inquisition, which had been reorganized in Spain in 1478, the punishment for reversion or secret adherence varied from humiliation to death by fire.