Flora’s body was lumpy, like dough that had been pounded but not yet formed into a loaf of bread. Black hair that was between curly and frizzy barely brushed her shoulders. Her eyes were black too, and as silent as her voice. No one in Don Francisco Diaz’s house had ever heard her speak.
She hardly remembered the first 17 years of her life, though they were not that long ago, and she knew nothing at all of Santo Domingo or the Indies, her home these past months. Some memories were lost through Flora’s choice, others because… well.. .she never could remember things for very long.
She was born in Spain, in the village of Los Reyes, during the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella—not that she knew or cared who sat on her country’s throne. She was a peasant, the slow-witted daughter of a widowed sheep-herder.
Flora didn’t know she was a Jewess. What business was it of hers that Los Reyes Catolicos had ordered the Holy Office of the Inquisition to stamp out all traces of the religion her people had practiced since the world was new?
A heavy sadness filled the big house that was Flora’s home now. Don Francisco’s sobs disturbed the edges of her darkness. Flora knew the sound of a soul in pain as well as she knew cleaning and scrubbing. Don Francisco Diaz had rescued her from…
No. She would not remember that.
She raised herself from the straw pallet on which she slept in front of the kitchen hearth. Don Francisco and his wife. Dona Iliana, had offered her a bed, but she preferred to sleep here. A bowl of fresh pears and goat cheese sat on the kitchen table, left for her by Esmeralda, the cook, but Flora was not hungry.
Following the sound of Don Francisco’s sadness, she climbed the stairs to Dona Iliana’s room.
Her mistress lay still and white on her bed. Flora remembered what death looked like. Don Francisco sat, his shoulders bent, as the physician pulled the sheet over Dona Iliana’s face. Esmeralda stood beside the bed, her eyes filled with tears, a newly delivered girl child in her arms.
Flora didn’t want any memories, but sometimes they came anyway. There was a lamb once—its mother had died, and Flora had collected milk from a she-goat so the lamb wouldn’t die too.
This infant barely moved, barely whimpered as the cook washed and wrapped her in the soft, white blanket Dona Iliana had embroidered for her coming child. Flora had spent many hours in this room, watching Dona Iliana work her needle in and out of that cloth.
Curiosity wrestled with the familiar blackness, and Flora moved next to Esmeralda. She had never been this close to a human baby before. The children of the count on whose land Flora’s father, Refugio Rodriguez, had tended his sheep and goats, had all been Flora’s age or older.
The flutter of this baby’s thin eyelashes brushed some hidden memory. Flora tried to shut it away, but the baby wouldn’t let her. Her soft whimper was like the sound made by one of Father’s newborn lambs.
She still remembered her father, sometimes, and the pastures where she used to run when she was a child. Day after day she would listen to him croon his songs to the sheep and lambs that were in his care, and when a sick animal was entrusted to her, she would croon too, the only lines she could remember:
“Up there on the mountain, there goes a shepherd weeping. . .If I die of this pain, bury me out in the meadow, where no flocks go past.”
When the animals got well. Flora ran and played with them, and when they died, she grieved, but only for a little while. She was quickly distracted by Father, or by the other animals.
When they were out in the pasture, Refugio would take his shepherd’s stick and draw in the dirt the holy alphabet. Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Dalet. All her father knew of the old religion, he had told Flora, the one the King and Queen had forbidden, were the sacred marks his father had taught him, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Patiently, over and over, he would help her draw them until she could draw and name each one herself Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Dalet.
“When you want to pray,” he had told her, “and you don’t remember the words, make the letters. They’ll fly straight up to God, and He’ll arrange them in the right order.”
These letters and the few lines from his songs were all the inheritance Refugio had to pass on to his only child. Every time she drew a letter and named it correctly, he’d get a grin so big Flora was afraid his face would break. Then he’d stretch out his arms and give her his biggest embrace. Fie warned her, too, that the letters must be their own special secret, and that she must never speak of them to anyone else. Every time she said the name of a letter, she would add, “Secret. Don’t tell.”
Sometimes Flora was sent to the home of the count to help the old housekeeper with the cleaning and laundry. The old woman was always called, simply. Old Woman. Old Woman taught Flora how to clean and, because she was very strong, Flora could scrub the linens until they were snowy white and the floors until they shone. Once when Flora was walking across the yard carrying a bucket of dirty water from the scrubbing, the count’s children began to throw stones at her, to see if she could dodge them. She tripped, spilling the water, then fell down, sitting in a puddle of mud. Old Woman heard her cry out in pain and humiliation, and the other children laughing, and she came running out of the kitchen waving her broom in the air.
“Dirty animals!” she cried at them. “Don’t you hurt this girl.” Then she took Flora back inside and washed the mud off and comforted her.
From her father, from his animals, and from Old Woman, Flora learned what love was, and she gave love freely to whoever would receive it. On days when the sun shone warm on the hills, she would stretch her arms out wide, just like Father did for her, and bring them in around herself in an embrace that felt as warm as the sun’s rays. When she walked, she held her head high, so the sun could kiss her face.
One morning when Flora was in her fifteenth year, she went looking for Refugio in the hills. She found him lying on the ground, his face turned to the side. His eyes were wide open, but Flora could tell he wasn’t looking at her. She had seen Father’s sheep and goats looking like that sometimes after they had been sick. Flora went running for Old Woman.
“His poor heart just gave out, I suppose,” the old housekeeper said tearfully. “He’s gone to be with God.”
Flora only wished Father would smile at her again, and put his arms around her.
For two years after Refiagio died, Flora lived with Old Woman, sleeping on a straw pallet in front of the kitchen hearth. At first she thought often about Father, and was sad, but her memory of him gradually faded, and she didn’t think of him so often.
When the old housekeeper became ill. Flora nursed her and crooned her father’s song.
“Up there on the mountain, there goes a shepherd weeping.” She brewed a tea of the special grasses that helped the sheep when they were sick, and did all of the housekeeper’s chores. When Old Woman’s fever went higher, Flora bathed her face in cool water and sang to her more loudly and with greater urgency. She remembered that, when Father’s sheep got sick, if they didn’t get better, they died. Then she remembered that Father, too, had died.
“Please don’t die. Old Woman,” she had begged. If Old Woman went away, Flora would be alone.
The infant shuddered in Esmeralda’s arms, and her tiny body went rigid.
“Oh, no, little one, you mustn’t die, too,” the cook cried. The physician placed a drop of clear liquid from a glass vial on the baby’s lips. She coughed once, then gasped. Her skin took on a bluish tinge. Dr. Morales put his mouth over the child’s tiny one, blowing air into her lungs, but the little girl did not respond.
Flora remembered, then, that Father used to trace one of their secret letters on the foreheads of the really sick animals. She wrinkled her forehead, and remembered that it was the letter Pe, all curled up on itself like the petals of a rosebud.
“God lives in the empty space inside this letter,” Father had told her, “and He can heal the sick.”
Flora’s finger moved toward the child’s forehead, then drew back. The letters could make something terrible happen— something Flora didn’t want to remember.
She had drawn a Pe with her finger on Old Woman’s forehead, and when her fever broke, Flora wept with relief When she began to get stronger, Flora wanted to give her a present. The only present she could think of was the special letters Father had taught her. She found a piece of paper and a charcoal pencil and began painstakingly to write down the letters. She made them as perfect as she could, then showed them to Old Woman.
“Look,” she said, “Aleph. Bet. GimmeK’ Too late, she remembered Father’s warning.
“They’re secret,” she said urgently. “Please, don’t tell. Old Woman.”
“What are you doing?” the old housekeeper asked, horrified. She didn’t know how to read, but she had seen letters before, and they didn’t look like these strange markings Flora had made. And the words she used! “This is witchcraft,” she said in a low voice that frightened Flora as much as Old Woman herself was frightened.
Old Woman had heard the warnings in Church about witchcraft, and other things that were against the Holy Catholic Faith. I must report her to the Inquisition, she thought. Then she looked at Flora’s face and thought of the gentle soul inside. I can’t do it, she resolved, even if it means my soul will burn in hell. She threw the letters into the hearth fire. But what if someone else saw the letters? If Flora forgot once, she could forget again. Then she and Flora would both be burned!
There was only one thing, she decided. For Flora’s own protection, she must be sent out of Spain. As far as she knew, Flora had no family except Refugio, but she, Juana Cruz Garcia, had a cousin who lived somewhere in North Africa. And, she had a son. He should be out of jail by now. He would arrange Flora’s passage.
Baptiste was a good boy, she reminded herself It was only the jealousy of others that got him in trouble. He was too handsome, too successful with the women. That was why someone had planted those stolen gold pieces in his room.
Indignation rose in Old Woman every time she thought about it. Well, he would come to visit his mother soon. She was due to be paid her poor wages in a few days. Baptiste would need that money to start his life again. He would help Flora.
You will go with the girl to my cousin, Juan Garcia,” said Old Woman as she handed the only thing she had of any value besides her wages, a gold Crucifix, over to her son. “He works for a family named Vanegas, in Alexandria. There, you will be safe from the ones who get you into trouble.”
There was a gleam in Baptiste Garcia’s eye as he slipped the Crucifix into the folds of his shirt. It would get him to where he wanted to go, but it wasn’t Alexandria. The girl would make him a nice profit, too.
“You are a good son,” his mother said. “I see how it gives you pleasure to be of service to this poor, unfortunate one.”
“Yes, Mama,” the young man agreed.
Old Woman kissed Flora on both cheeks and told her, “You will go with my son to a place where you will be safe. Do you understand?”
Flora nodded, but she did not understand—not then, and not during the silent, day-long walk to the port of Barcelona.
At the first galley he saw, Baptiste pulled down Flora’s blouse, exposing her breasts for the benefit of the pot-bellied Turkish captain.
“No!” Flora cried, and pulled up her blouse.
Baptiste yanked her hand away and bared the girl’s chest again.
“I can let you have her for, say, 300 pesos,” Baptiste told the captain.
“You think Ahmet is a fool?” said the captain. “One hundred, and not a single peso more.”
“You rob me, but, all right.” Baptiste took the bills from the Turk’s hand and stuffed them inside his boot. He pinched Flora’s cheek and smiled.
“Good-bye, my little flower,” he whispered. “You have brought Baptiste a good profit.”
Flora felt alone and confused. Why had Old Woman sent her to this strange place? Why was she left in the charge of this evil-smelling man whose eyebrows shot up like the devils she heard about in Church?
The captain gave Flora a shove in the direction of his overseer, and she was taken below deck and moved onto a rough wooden bench between some other men. An oar was put into her hands.
She said her name once, the way Father had taught her. “I am Flora.” Then she felt the sting of a whip on her arm, and heard the order to “Pull oars!” She cried out once, and felt the whip again. This time there was blood on her sleeve. A man next to her showed her how to pull the heavy wooden pole.
Flora had never been whipped before.
Never in her life had she felt so frightened. She had known only the blue skies and fresh air of Los Reyes, and the warm sun on her face. She had never imagined a place as dark and foul smelling as this. The ship kept rolling from side to side and front to back, so she couldn’t sit still on the bench. Some of the men were sick, and then Flora got sick, and noone could clean up the vomit because the overseer’s whip made them keep rowing.
Why had Old Woman sent her here? to this place? Was it because of the letters? Was she supposed to go to another place? Garcia? Alexandria? She couldn’t remember.
She couldn’t tell if it was day or night, because it was always dark. When her arms got too tired to row any more, she slept sitting up on the bench. Then some men came and pulled her away from the oars and dragged her up the stairs to the deck of the galley.
For just a minute she saw the blue sky, and she wanted to run over the hills with Father’s sheep and goats, but a heavy arm was around her chest, pinning her arms to her sides. She tried to struggle free, but some other men were holding her legs. She could hear them laughing and shouting, but she couldn’t see their faces because her head was bent back.
The men were shouting words she didn’t understand, and laughing and fighting to get near her. One of them tore her blouse off and grabbed and pulled at her breast, like Father pulled at the teats of his old she-goats to get the last drops of milk. She cried out in pain. Then he began rubbing something else against her breast, something she couldn’t see, but was hard and long. She struggled to raise her head, and for just a moment before one of them pushed her down again, she saw. He was like a goat in rut. They were all goat-men! She felt something wet and sticky spill all over her. They were making her dirty.
She yelled “NO!” and one of the men yelled, and the others laughed even harder, and then the men started pulling off her clothes. She tried to fight, but one of them hit her in the mouth, and when she tried to kick, another grabbed her foot and twisted it. Then they pulled off her underclothes.
“NO!” she screamed again. This time the scream came up from her belly and reverberated all over the ship. But the men kept coming at her, rubbing their goat things and spilling their sticky wetness inside of her and all over her. And she hurt—she hurt so horribly!
The screams kept coming, terrible, animal screams, up from the bottom of her soul. Then one of them blocked the sound by putting his hard goat thing into her mouth and down her throat. And then the blackness came.
Somewhere in a hidden corner of her mind was a memory of a lamb that wouldn’t get well, no matter how much Flora cared for it. And when it lay unmoving, its eyes unblinking, its flesh unresponding to Flora’s touch. Father had said, “The lamb doesn’t feel anything now. Nothing can hurt it.”
In that same corner of Flora’s mind, a decision was made. She would be like that lamb.
Francisco Diaz was a prosperous merchant in Santo Domingo. He also worked for an organization of secret Jews that ransomed captives who were sold into slavery while escaping the Spanish Inquisition. He first saw the strange, silent girl bare-breasted on the auction block in Madeira. He purchased her freedom, and gently laid his own coat over her to cover her nakedness. Another of the newly freed galley wretches told him the girl’s name was Flora.
Alight breeze blew in and lifted a corner of the blanket in which the child was wrapped. Flora saw the white rosebud Dona Iliana had embroidered there, and when she saw the Hebrew Pe that the mistress had enfolded in its petals, her body grew stiff. More memories came creeping back. A kid she had watched being born, taking its first steps on shaking legs, too close to the edge of a cliff. Flora had run after the kid, had fallen down to grasp its feet and pull it back where the ground was flat. This little one needed to be pulled back, too.
Flora shook her head, wanting to stay in her darkness, but then she heard her father’s voice.
“God lives in the empty space inside the letter. He can heal the sick.”
A little bit of the child’s blue-tinged forehead showed beneath that corner of the blanket. Flora reached toward her and slowly, fearfully, traced the letter on her forehead.
The child gave a soft cry. Don Francisco turned toward the sound, and the hope that was in that cry. The blue color left the baby’s skin, and she began to turn pink.
Dr. Morales put his ear to the baby’s chest. “She has a small chance,” he said, “with the right care.”
Don Francisco held out his arms, and Esmeralda placed the baby in them. With tears of joy, he held the infant to his face and kissed her fragile cheek.
“Welcome, my daughter,” he said softly. Then, smiling, he placed the baby in Flora’s outstretched arms. “You have a gift,” he said.
Flora smiled too, for the first time since she had been in this house. She lifted the frail creature to her lips and, in a voice low enough to be heard only inches away, began to croon, “Up there on the mountain, there goes a shepherd weeping.”
Ann Shaftel retired after a 31-year career teaching English, social studies and parenting in a school for pregnant teens in Los Angeles. She has completed one novel and is at work on several others.