The Three Isabellas
Love filled Isabel’s heart as she gazed at her little son. She knew Salvador would grow to make her proud. If only her cursed, weak heart did not stop her from seeing her wish come true! Baltasar, the physician, had warned her that her heart would give out unless she took to her bed. She laughed in his face and told him that her parents and grandparents had lived into their seventies. Why wouldn’t she follow in their footsteps? Everyone knew that only hardy people came from Sintra, the only town in Portugal that had centenarians. She was from Sintra. Nevertheless, Baltasar cautioned her to ease off. Ease off? She smiled at the thought. How could she slow down?
With the extra laundry she took in each day and her cleaning work for Dona Elvira, no time was left to slow down or rest. No. She had to continue working hard so that Salvador could have all the things she dreamed for him: an apprenticeship with the nearest blacksmith, then an education at the best maritime school. His father, Fernando, duke of Beja and Viseu, would approve, and so would his grandfather, the famed navigator João Gonçalves Zarco.
She looked up at the castle on the hill and sighed. Fernando hadn’t visited her lately. Nor had he brought her the allowance she was waiting for. The last time he came to her with rent money was last spring. She recalled the days before Salvador had been born, and how wonderful their love had been for each other. From the start, they both had kept their relationship secret so that Fernando’s father, King Dom Duarte, would not find out. Summer had long passed and her rent was overdue. She had been able to forestall her landlord by paying meagerly with vegetables from her small garden and daily fresh eggs from her hen. Sooner or later, her landlord was bound to throw her out. She shuddered. What would she do to shelter Salvador?
“Mãe, Mãe, look!” Salvador called from the water’s edge. Standing near the water on the wet sand, he was dwarfed by the landscape of the wide and empty beach. Isabel felt fear in her heart to see how vulnerable her son was. She watched with apprehension the seagulls flying above his head, but they swooped down into the water to catch fish, and flew back up to the cliffs above the beach, where nests dwelled among the lichens in the rock. Isabel looked up at those cliffs to see her little house near the places where thistle grew in abundance, and thought it was high time to go home.
She ran to Salvador, who held a starfish struggling to free itself from his hands. She smiled at him. “It’s a beautiful starfish, my son. It is like the star in the heavens you will be someday.”
Salvador returned her smile, then threw the starfish onto the sandy beach.
“No, no, Salvador, meu filho. You must return him to the ocean, where he came from. You see,”—she picked up the starfish and kneeled down beside Salvador—“you have to love the starfish because he loves the ocean. And if you love the ocean, then the ocean will love you and be good to you.” She picked up one end of her billowing long dress and tied it to her waist, and then she and the boy stepped into the gently lapping waves. She guided his hand as they both threw the starfish into the oncoming waves. She grabbed his hand, then turned away from the ocean while Salvador trotted after her on his small legs.
“Do you love the chickens and sheep, Mãe?”
“Of course I do!” Isabel exclaimed.
“But why do we kill them?” Salvador asked.
Isabel was surprised by her son’s astuteness. “Because we have to eat,” she replied. “We still have to be good to animals the way we have to be good to people. Don’t you ever forget it.”
Salvador nodded with his full head of reddish curly hair, and his light-blue eyes smiled at his mother. Isabel’s heart warmed at the sight of her son’s beautiful features. She sighed again at the thought of his father’s prolonged absence. When she had inquired at the castle, one of the servants told her that Fernando had traveled to Cadiz and would be gone for a long time. Then the servant looked at her suspiciously. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh . . .” Isabel had said. “It was the farmers who were curious about the Rendeiros tax collectors . . . he wasn’t doing his rounds to check the land and collect the rents.”
“When the young master is gone, the master of collections is in charge. You shouldn’t worry,” the servant had told her. “He will soon be knocking at your door.”
Isabel sighed again at the recollection, picked up her son, and returned to her small thatched house.
A funerary procession made its way through the cold December rain on the path leading to the town cemetery. At the head of the procession an old man held the hand of a protesting boy. The man wore black clothing, and his sagging face bore a pained expression. He leaned heavily on a cane with his right hand while his left hand held the hand of the young boy.
“But I want her!” cried Salvador. “She promised to take me to the ocean. She promised!” He wiped his tears on his sleeve.
“I know, Salvador. I know she promised you.” He nodded at the boy. “I will take you to the ocean, and when you grow up you can sail the ocean all by yourself to the end of the horizon.” He made a sweeping gesture with his hand. Salvador’s eyes followed the gesture. He raised his wet eyes to the old man and said, “You promise, Tiyo Abilio?”
“Yes, I promise. Now wipe your face.”
Salvador wiped his eyes again with the palm of his hand, sniffled, and bowed his head.
The procession stopped at an open grave that had been dug in the early morning hours. A man wearing a white gown and a skullcap advanced to the grave’s opening and recited a short prayer. “Yit gadal ve yit kadash shmeh raba . . . Exalted and sanctified be His great name. Amen. Isabel Gonçalves Zarco. A woman of valor who can find? Her value is far above jewels . . .”
“Is Mãe in there?” The boy pointed to the coffin.
Salvadore started to cry again and screamed, “Come out! I want meu Mãe!”
“Shuu, shuu,” Abilio said as he patted Salvador’s shoulders.
The pinewood casket was lowered into the grave, and handfuls of soil were thrown down by each one attending the funeral. Salvadore refused to grab a handful of soil. Instead, he kicked it and spread the soil with his shoes.
After the last shovelful of dirt filled the grave, Abilio slipped his hand into his overcoat pocket and brought out small pebbles. He put them at the head of the grave and gave some to Salvador. The old man wept silently as he watched the boy lay the small stones onto his mother’s grave. Isabel had been like a daughter to Abilio since she moved next door to him in Sintra. She had filled his cupboard with food, brought woodchips to keep his house warm during cold winters, and entertained him with Salvador’s exuberant clowning and contagious laughter. Abilio promised Isabel, while she lay on her deathbed, that he would find a good family to care for her son, and to make sure that Salvador grew up to become a Navy sailor. She confided in him before the end that Salvador’s father, Dom Fernando, would honor the paternity and see to the boy’s well-being and future. It was up to him now to fulfill Isabel’s wish. In time he would do just that.
His thoughts were interrupted by Salvador’s sobs. The boy was pounding at the wet clay with his small fists. Abilio pulled a handkerchief from his own pocket and wiped his muddy hands.
“Let’s go, Salvador. We will visit Mãe tomorrow.” He pulled Salvador away from the grave.
The gravediggers, who had finished their work, watched the reluctant small figure of the three-year-old following the bent old man with his cane slowly walk away from the cemetery ground overlooking the port.
On the following morning, when the sky was delicately lit in shades of pink and blue, and the air had a deep chill, Salvador, dwarfed by the figure of Abilio, his protector, boarded a carrack ship bounded for Genoa.
Source: The Alhambra Decree