Friday, August 13, 2010

El Amante de Sevilla

In Seville, when I was young, the scent of orange trees in permanent bloom attenuated the sweet reek of bodies buried under rose beds, or at the foot of trees. Sevillanos believed that the loveliest and most fragrant roses and sweetest oranges were those fertilized by the flesh of Nubian slaves. This tang of human decay and fruit trees in bloom was the first thing a visitor noticed upon nearing Seville.

The Guadalquivir was barely more than a sandy stream as it ran past Córdoba; but as it got close to Seville, it swelled into a wide olive-colored river. At dawn, the river bustled with barges, swift sloops, feluccas, shallots, tartans, and piraguas. The smaller vessels carried merchandise destined for the bellies of big ships that sailed to the West Indies and beyond. These small boats were like soldier bees that fed the insatiable belly of their Queen.

The river fed my wanderlust, making me hunger for the world beyond the confines of the Iberian Peninsula. The river was the road that led to the Mediterranean and the west, to the Atlantic Ocean and the Canary Islands, halfway to the wondrous New World. Young sevillanos who became sailors—often for the rest of their lives—were referred to as those who had been "swallowed by the sea."

There was no more thrilling sight than the fleets of cargo ships, accompanied by powerful galleons to protect them from English corsairs and privateers, sailing off twice a year for the world Columbus had discovered. The ships sailed away with the hopes of the sevillanos, who would send off their men with festive songs of farewell. If fortune smiled on these adventurers, they would return from the Indies laden with gold and glory.

My imagination was set afire, my eyes bulged, as I watched the ox-drawn carts on their way to the Royal Chambers, carrying open trunks that brimmed with glowing emeralds, pearls, and stacks of blinding bars of silver and gold. Other carts transported bales of tobacco, furs of animals unknown in Europe, spices, coconuts, cocoa, sugar, indigo, and cochineal. For weeks after the arrival of the ships, I remained intoxicated by these sights. A great desire awakened in me to visit New Spain and Peru.

In the heart of the city, buildings faced each other so closely that I could run down the cobblestone passageways with arms outspread to touch the walls on either side. These were the streets that schooled me in the customs and costumes, religions and superstitions, foods, smells and sounds of other nations. Merchants arrived in Seville with white, black, and brown slaves from Africa, the Arab countries, the New World. The names of the countries they came from—Mozambique, Dominica, Niger—were as exotic as their looks. I would get dizzy from hearing so many languages that I didn't understand, whose origins I couldn't pinpoint. What stories did they tell? What was I missing? Would I ever get the chance to learn a few of them and visit the places where they were spoken?

During those years, I felt as though I were living in the future, in a city that had nothing to do with the rest of Spain. Pícaros from every corner of the world—false clerics, false scholars, impostors of every imaginable and unimaginable kind, pickpockets, swindlers, counterfeiters, sword swallowers, gamblers, assassins for hire, soldiers of fortune, murderers of every sort, whores, Don Juans (whose profession was to ruin the most beautiful and chaste maidens), Gypsies, fortune-tellers, fire-eaters, forgerers, puppeteers, ruffians, bon vivants, and snake charmers—came to Seville and made the city their stage. Life there was dangerous and thrilling, as festive and bloody as a bullfight. Successful gamblers were as admired as the bullfighters or famous military heroes. It was common to hear a child say that when he grew up he wanted to be a gambler like Manolo Amor, who on one occasion had gambled away an entire fleet of galleons that was not his.

Seville was the place where I belonged. It was created for me and I wanted to be its historian. Seville was mine and it owned me.

Most Sevillanos stayed inside during the hottest hours, and went out only at night, when the evening breezes, sweeping up the Guadalquivir from the Mediterranean, cooled the city by a few degrees. Then it was as if a curtain rose, and the proscenium that was Seville became a magical stage for the theatre of life. I can still hear in the recesses of my brain the clacking sounds of castanets, coming from every street and plaza. The clacking was a reminder to strut with the arrogant elegance of a peacock displaying all his colors. People rushed out of their homes to sing on the plazas and dance the salacious zarabandas, which were forbidden by the Church. In the plazas, illuminated by torches, beautiful and lascivious women dancers (young and old alike) wiggled their behinds with impudence and rapped their castanets with fury, turning the instruments into weapons that could seduce and then snuff the life out of you.

The dancers' looks were an invitation to dream about the countless pleasures of the body; and the movements of their hands spoke intricate languages and summoned the spectators with seductive signs to caress the dancers' amber-flushed cheeks. It was thrilling to see the male dancers leap high in the air, spinning in circles, as though to exorcise demons that were eating them from the inside out. Mid-air, these men seemed half-human, half-bird. From midnight until dawn, the loveliest señoritas were serenaded by their inflamed wooers. Brawls often broke out during these serenatas, and the corpses of unfortunate lovers were found in the mornings, beneath the balconies of their inamoratas, glued to puddles of coagulated blood.

Seville was a city of witches and enchanters. You had to be careful not to cross a woman, because any female, aristocratic or peasant, married or unmarried, old or young, beautiful or ugly, Christian or Moor, slave or free, could have satanic powers. Witches made red roses bloom in their homes in December. They could make or break marriages, could make grooms hang themselves or evaporate on the eve of the wedding, could make pregnant women give birth to litters of puppies.

Unlucky men who crossed the enchantresses were turned into donkeys. As husbands and lovers disappeared, new donkeys materialized and the women who owned these donkeys took delight in making them carry heavy loads. It was common to see a woman whose husband had vanished go around the city addressing every donkey she saw by her husband's name. When an ass brayed in response, the woman would drop on her knees, cross herself and give thanks to God that she had found her husband. If she wanted her man back, she had to buy the donkey from its owner. Then she would go back home, happy to have found her spouse, and spend the rest of her life trying to undo the enchantment. Or she might be just as happy to keep her husband in donkey form. It was said that some of the happiest marriages in Seville were between a woman and her ass.

The Holy Office whipped many women in the public plazas for the extraordinary pleasures they boasted of receiving from their equine lovers. Debauched cries and crescendos of lust traveled to remote villages in the mountains where herds of wild asses brayed with envy. Gypsies took to bringing donkeys that brayed anytime a desperate woman addressed them. If a donkey became erect and tried to mount a young wife who called him by her husband's name, or a donkey tried to kick an old, withered harpy who claimed him as her husband, or scurried away when an ugly one threw her arms around his neck, that, too, was considered proof of having found her husband. When a sevillano allowed inflated notions to swell his head, he was reminded, "Remember, today you are a man, but tomorrow you may well be a donkey."

During Holy Week people did penance for all the sins they indulged the rest of the year. Then alone would sevillanos fast and drag themselves on their knees to the cathedral. But Seville's cathedral was not oppressive. Instead, it was filled with light, color, ostentatious displays of gold and jewels, illuminated as much by its oil lamps and its candles as by the iridescent light that poured in through its stained-glass windows. It was a place where we went to experience the splendors of the world, not a glum building where we expiated our sins. It seemed to me, as a young man, that God had to be more receptive to our prayers in a place like this, where everybody knew that hope, joy, and beauty were also a part of his covenant with us. I used to walk out of Seville's cathedral content, as if I had just eaten a mariscada and washed it down with wine.

Often, in those days, I escorted my mother on her visits to the cathedral. Our enjoyment of the place was a secret between the two of us that excluded the rest of the family and gave us respite from our dingy house, with its worn-out, second-hand furnishings and leaks in the ceiling of every room. The cathedral's sumptuous altars seemed to relieve Mother, momentarily, of the pain caused by Father's impecuniousness. She loved music above all things. It's true Father played the vihuela at home, but nothing he did gratified her. Only in the cathedral could she listen to music. Her face glowed, her eyes gleamed as the sounds of the clavichord or spinet swelled. Singing made Mother happy. Her untrained voice was clear, and it could hit many of the high notes. I'd only heard it when she sang romances in the kitchen, as she went about her chores, on those occasions when my father left to visit relatives in Córdoba. In the cathedral she would let her voice spill out and rise, with the same abandon and ecstasy I heard in the lament of the flamenco singers.

After church, she would hook my arm in hers, and we would stroll along the banks of the Guadalquivir and stop to gaze at the foreign ships and glorious Armada galleons. One evening, grabbing my hand by the wrist, she implored me, "Don't stay in Spain, Miguel. Go far away from here to some place where you can a make a fortune for yourself. In the Indies you will have a brilliant future awaiting you, my son."

She did not mention my father's name, yet I sensed she was pushing me to look for a life completely different from his. Because I was a dreamer, like my father, she feared that, like him, I would become a ne'er-do-well. She had begun to see me as another unrealistic Cervantes male: I would live surrounded by criminals, constantly borrowing reales from my friends and relatives, incapable of understanding how to put food on the table. But If I let my imagination flow, the wide waters of the Guadalquivir would eventually lead me to the Indies in the West, or to Italy in the East, or to burning Africa in the South, or to the Orient, beyond Constantinople, to the splendors and mysteries of Arabia, and perhaps even to the fabled court of the Emperor of China.

Jaime Manrique
Published in PEN America Issue 11
Fall 2009