“And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born onto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose”
“…when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown”
“So you’ve come to save my soul.” Whispered the impassive voice of the woman who lay in the cot; she remained pensive, her cold, blue eyes fixed on the ceiling.
Apprehensive and indecisive, Father DiCaprio walked the distance between the door of the cell and the pallet where the woman rested, pale and detached like a wax statue. As he heard the loud noise of the door closing violently behind him, he jumped and briefly turned his head with the frightened expression of a trapped animal. The woman was undisturbed; her hardened expression seemed incapable of showing emotion.
“Surely you want to make peace with God,” he managed to say.
A strange, ironic laugh escaped the woman.
“You’ve hit the nail on the head, Father,” she said without looking at him.
The priest’s hands fell lax and crossed over a small Bible. His dark hair and eyes stood out against his white, youthful skin. His distinguished and handsome features were clenched into a constant alert expression.
“Well then, would you like me to hear your confession?” he asked.
The woman slowly directed her callous and empty gaze toward him.
“Why?” she asked angered. “Doesn’t God see everything? Why would I have to confess what he has already seen?”
She rose slowly and without, even for an instant, taking her enticing blue eyes off him, positioned herself as closely as possible to him. She was tall, so tall they stood eye to eye. Her voice was just a whisper. He could feel her breath on his face when she spoke to him again.
“Couldn’t it be that your morbid curiosity just wants to enjoy the horrendous vision of those youthful bodies stabbed to pieces? Do you want me to describe how I killed them in detail? Would that be enough for you to absolve me!”
Suddenly enraged, the priest felt a chill run through his body.
“Enough!” he exclaimed. “You’re…!”
“What?” she asked leaning in closer, causing him to back away. “Tell me Father. What am I? A demon, perhaps?”
The priest, clinging onto the Bible, which was now clutched against his chest, looked at the floor avoiding her gaze at all cost.
“I wasn’t going to say that,” he whispered awkwardly.
“Liar!” she yelled and violently flung him onto the hard old cot.
For a moment, he was terrified by the furious expression of the murderess whom he had asked to interview alone. He tried to scream. He felt his mouth open and felt the rigid movement of his tongue. ‘Help’ said his lips but not even a choked sound escaped them.
She remained standing and watched him lie there with an expression so indifferent and calm as if nothing had upset her. Then, turning around slowly, she walked toward the small narrow window from which the prison’s courtyard could be seen. Just like any other day, the apathetic sun flooded the window as if it weren’t disturbing the dwelling of someone condemned to death. A pool of light illuminated the simple circular table and the two chairs, which along with the cot and a sink, constituted all the furnishings.
Father DiCaprio stood up unsteadily, put his hand over his accelerated heart, and observed the woman’s slender silhouette. Her blond, wavy hair fell down her back, beautifully illuminated by the sun. Absorbed in her own thoughts, her gaze roamed the courtyard.
“Do you want to know when I last confessed?” she asked while contemplating the few, cottony clouds that adorned the bright, clear blue sky.
Cautiously, the priest walked a few silent steps and was now close to the door. Just as he was about to open his mouth to answer, the woman continued talking.
“I was 15 years-old,” she calmly explained. “I had just committed a terrible sin: I had kissed Geniez.”
She turned to face the priest. Her gaze, filled with irony, met his and they remained silent for some moments unable to take their eyes off each other.
“That surprises you, doesn’t it?” she continued. “It’s not what you would call a sin, but back then it was. A sin that would have sent me to hell. I was young, naive, and ignorant. It was easy to fill my head with false promises and eternal damnation. I had to confess; I needed it.”
Father DiCaprio listened to her attentively. However, he was astounded by and suspicious of her words, and shortened the distance that separated him from the door. Her eyes, which were now a sea of soft and beautiful velvet, albeit cold and piercing blue velvet, scrutinized him.
“Do you have a strong stomach, Father?” she asked. “You must if you truly want to hear my confession. And I would like for you to hear it. I would really like for you to hear it.”
“I want to hear it,” the priest answered. He hastily took a few steps toward her until suddenly, as if warned by his carelessness, he stopped.
“It will take us a long time. I’ll have to start from the beginning, almost at the beginning of my life, so that you understand everything and, therefore, will be able to absolve all of my sins.”
Once again, her smile became sinister and wry. “Do you think you’ll be able to, Father? Will I deserve forgiveness of my sins?”
The priest appeared to put himself on guard.
“You will be,” he answered, “if you are truly repentant of committing them.”
The woman drifted around the room and caressed the small circular table with her delicate fingers. Although he couldn’t see her face, the priest watched her.
“Oh! If it were only that simple!” she exclaimed. “If only my crimes could be measured on a human scale! Here’s the irony Father. You have come to save my soul from a small crime I didn’t commit. You don’t know about the real atrocities I’ve committed, atrocities which have no possible pardon, those which will make you despise my company.”
Suddenly, she turned to face the priest, a pained expression on her face.
“I deserve death,” she murmured. “That is certain.”
He remained still, overwhelmed by her forceful words.
“You still insist on hearing my sins?” she asked him.
The priest nodded but felt lightheaded as if he were immersed in an asphyxiating atmosphere.
“You promise me no matter what you hear, you’ll pray for me? I don’t believe a mortal’s prayers have much importance. However, at the very least, I’ll give you this task. After all, many would pay to hear what I’m going to tell you.”
“I’ll do it,” he agreed. “I promise you.”
“Well then, please…” She elegantly extended her hand toward one of the two chairs beside the table, urging him to take a seat.
While he did as she asked, she moved toward the window again, fixed her gaze on some point, and became immersed in her thoughts. Soon he heard her soft and reserved voice.
“Everything began in the year 1212. We lived in Languedoc, France, a place between Narbonne and Beziers.”
“I beg your pardon.” The priest timidly interrupted but used a voice loud enough to get her attention. “What date did you say?”
She turned to look at him inquisitively, bothered by the interruption.
“I thought I understood 1212.” He said with a little smile on his face, as though making fun of his own foolishness.
“That is exactly what I said,” she responded bluntly. “Take me for someone crazy or a liar, but please, don’t interrupt me again.” She stared at him until she saw him slowly nod.
Then she turned her face toward the window and continued her story.
“Although no one would have called us anything but peasants, my father, to our advantage, had known how to profit from the introduction of money into the country. Others in our position, including great men, hadn’t been able to adapt to this. We depended on the help of Monsieur de Saint-Ange, a great vassal and distant relative of Philip II. He was my father’s childhood friend who had not only provided my father with ownership of the lands he worked, but also had guided him with his knowledge and instinctive business wisdom during the recent changing years. At his insistence, my father became a moneylender to peasants with few resources. He gave them the money necessary for the purchase of seeds, animals, and farming tools. They, in return, gave him their land as a loan guaranty, which they would never be able to repay. This was, in actuality, a very frequent practice.
“In this way, in a short time we became proprietors of extensive plots of land. We were spurred on by the inability of others to adapt to new times, as well as the kindness of Monsieur de Saint-Ange, who, on numerous occasions, loaned us money to do business at no charge.
“That year, Geniez, Monsieur de Saint-Ange’s son, had just finished his studies in the Reims Cathedral School. He was fifteen years-old, the same age as I, and was my best friend. His father intended to send him to Montpellier the following academic year. He said Geniez, from the time he was a young boy, had shown aptitude in science and that the best medicine schools in the Western world were centered there.
“When he returned from Reims, I barely recognized him. His world seemed to be limited to a mystical obsessive fervor, which had been instilled in him at the Cathedral School, and also to a sick admiration of his brother Paul, who had become a famous hero in the crusade against Constantinople.
“He would often lecture me for hours, showing off the wonderful dialectic which he had had the opportunity to learn and now dominated. He tried to convince me we must continue fighting heresy before we were all smothered to death under its weight.
“Although many different reform movements existed in the heart of the church, it was Catharism which had created heresy par excellence in Albi, a town close to us. Thanks to its promises of equality and tolerance regarding the fulfillment of precepts, it became deeply rooted among the lower classes in Languedoc.
“In spite of the little enthusiasm I showed for religion, the vision of a world in which there was eternal conflict between two equally powerful principles, good and evil, mystified and attracted me. Geniez constantly spoke to me about it. His father was not only tolerant of religious invocation, but also, and more than once, turned the Saint-Ange castle into a place where the Cathars could preach.
“My father feared for him. Rome had already taken up arms, alarmed by the expansion of heresy. An international army of crusaders fell upon Languedoc. After burning Beziers, the situation turned into an actual war. We all knew it wouldn’t be long before they took Provence.
“However, Monsieur de Saint-Ange was obstinate. Not because he actually gave a damn about defending the Albigensian doctrine, but rather because he wasn’t ready to give in to any attack against his own freedom, nor against his right to express ideas and share them with peasants. The peasants with whom you would frequently see him exchanging opinions as equals, after having listened to a prefect or some professor who had come from Paris to teach us about new scientific advances or new philosophical trends. Maybe he thought that since he was related to Philip II, he would be given protection, a certain immunity against the catholic hordes. In a way, it’s possible he had been given protection since three years had passed since Bezier was burned. That is, a certain amount of protection until that tragic night.
“I remember it perfectly. Geniez had begged me to attend an anti-heresy sermon. These sermons had become a celebrated weekly custom and took place in the cemetery or in the atrium of the church. Although it didn’t interest me at all and since I had already attended the obligatory Mass that morning, I went for the pleasure of being in his company.
“That night the sermon was in the cemetery. I can still see the skinny preacher forcefully trying to corral his straying sheep with his passionate and terrifying sermon: the dragon falling upon us, the brimstone lake of fire opening to devour us, demons tearing us into pieces of flesh with their enormous claws… all this just for reading the Sacred Scriptures in Provençal or for not venerating the Saints!
“It was cold as we returned to the castle. My family and I had been invited to eat dinner with Monsieur de Saint-Ange and we were already running late. I walked quickly and in silence, still shocked by the horrible images implied by the sermon. Geniez, on the other hand, didn’t stop talking excitedly about how much he admired the preacher and about his own desire to one day climb the pulpit and harangue the believers.
“Once we left the cemetery, it took us more than twenty minutes until the faint lights of the castle became visible. In the distance, we heard strange noises and voices coming from the castle. The closer we got, the louder the noises became and the lights within the castle began to flicker as if shaking nervously. Geniez followed me, lost in his own world, absorbed in his cumbersome lecture, which at that moment deafened and disgusted me. I tried to tell him I was afraid but he didn’t listen. When we were close enough, the sounds became recognizable, objects were being thrown violently and were crashing against the floor or walls; men were screaming in a fit of frenzied anger. We stopped short, trying to make out any movements inside the castle.
“Neither the guards nor the sentries were at their posts. A group of ten or twelve unfamiliar horses waited at the door. Without stopping to think about our own safety, we ran inside frightened, certain that something terrible was happening.
“We arrived just in time to see Monsieur de Saint-Ange being thrown onto the dining room floor by a man with a red beard and enormous stomach. Geniez screamed and ran to help his father.
“ ‘Father! Who are these men? What do they want?’ he yelled while helping him stand.
“There were at least five men in the room. They carried weapons and were clad in uniforms and insignia of the Roman crusaders. There were noises and voices coming from upper levels indicating the presence of more men. Their swords were drawn and they wore enraged expressions on their faces. One of them held my mother with her back against his chest, clutching her by the neck and waist as my father looked on desperately while seated in a chair and feeling the sharp point of a sword against his throat, which was sinking deeper with every breath he took.
“I was shaking, petrified, standing on the other side of the threshold looking at the bloody and stiff bodies of the castle’s two servants at the foot of the stairs. No one realized I was there. I wanted to hide behind one of the enormous columns a few steps away but my muscles refused to obey. I remained standing, horrified, listening to my mother’s anguished moans and to Geniez’s protests until they were suddenly silenced by a blow to the back of his neck. I felt my heart beating and the blood racing through my head, which was now dulled with terror. I held back a scream as I heard the other men come down the stairs. If I stayed where I was, they would see me. I managed to throw myself toward the column and leaned against it with all of my strength. I wanted to melt into that column and disappear from the horrible agony.
“The men came down the stairs carrying some large sacks that made metallic sounds as they bounded off the stairs. The man with the red beard, the one that had fought with Monsieur de Saint-Ange, was impatiently waiting for them in the dining room. ‘What have you found?’ he asked them, his voice rough and unpleasant. ‘Only silver,’ one of them responded in anger, allowing everyone to see the two black teeth in his mouth. ‘Candelabras, small bottles of perfume, combs, brushes… but not a sign of jewelry.’
“ ‘I see,’ said the man with the paunch as he stroked his beard. Nonchalantly, he looked at the enormous oak table that had been prepared for us. Food still remained on three of the plates. My parents and Monsieur de Saint-Ange had undoubtedly started to eat without us. He took a silver goblet and slowly poured until the wine spilled over the edges. He then calmly sat down in one of the massive oak chairs and reached for the platter of lamb. Tearing it with his bare hands, he served himself a giant portion and began chewing noisily knowing no one could take their eyes off him. His men laughed when they heard him belch as loud as he could. He drank and the wine dribbled from his lips and fell into the crevices of his red beard, which seemed to absorb it like a sponge.
“I can’t say how long the misery and terror of that menacing silence lasted. The seconds dragged on like caliginous snow whose thickness increases as night advances.
“ ‘Excellent food, chevalier.’ He joked while he used his sleeve to wipe the space where his lips were hidden beneath his beard. ‘Worthy of a king.’ His men roared with laughter.
“Then he picked up the enormous carving knife and looked at my mother who was still restrained and motionless. He stood up and approached her, brandishing the knife as if he were about to partake in some sinister game. My mother, terrified, began to twist and scream. At the same time a stream of blood began to gush from my father’s throat.
“ ‘Shut that damned dog up!’ the leader suddenly bellowed. As he turned around, the pale light of the candles made the lamb grease shine on his beard. It was then that I realized Deacon, my dog, was barking from one of the rooms behind me. ‘I’ll go,’ said one of the crude looking men while drawing his sword.
“It wasn’t long before I heard Deacon’s barks amplify and then his whimpers of pain. I imagined him tied up, defenseless, fighting to free himself. I had no doubt he also suffered because of his helplessness at not being able to save our lives and, at that moment, his own life. No one noticed as I breathlessly tiptoed the few feet that separated me from the door. When I reached the room, I saw Deacon barking ferociously. He was tied to one of the columns by the chimney. Foaming at the mouth, eyes gleaming and bearing his fangs, he uselessly tried to free himself. The man kept a careful distance and while laughing wholeheartedly, threatened Deacon with the fire poker. ‘Game over,’ he said. After throwing down the poker, he drew his sword and raised it over his head.
“I looked around desperately for something to attack him with but couldn’t find anything. Not thinking, I extended my arms and threw myself at him pushing with all of my strength. He lost his balance, tripped over Deacon, and he and his sword both fell. Feeling Deacon’s snout between his legs, he stood up startled and quickly moved away frightened. He righted himself and stared at me with his vulgar eyes. The panic I felt before was gone. Anger, hate, and repugnance took its place.
“ ‘Well look what we have here!’ he exclaimed. ‘Looks like I’m going to have a little private party!’ He managed to reach me before I could free Deacon, who at that moment barked incessantly and guarded the sword. He grabbed me, leaving me no possible way to move. I felt his repulsive beard against my neck and cheek. Awkward and excited, his fat hands tried to raise my long skirt and then I felt them on my thighs. I trapped his lower lip between my teeth and bit until he cursed and frantically threw me away from him by my hair.
“I ran to Deacon, picked up the sword, and struck the chain he was tied to. What pleasure I felt seeing his sharp fangs sink into his enemy’s neck! My heart pounded as I said to myself, ‘Don’t let him go Deacon, don’t let him go.’ Already exhausted, the man fought uselessly to get away. The more he fought, the more his throat was torn and the more pain he felt. Then the fury I felt spoke through me and I begged ‘Kill him, kill him, kill him!’ I bared my teeth viciously as if they were also clenched to his throat. A crazed fervor took over as I encouraged Deacon to kill him, to destroy him, to twist his fangs even deeper into that repulsive flesh. I was so proud of him! He knew the exact location of the jugular and, ignoring the pain the man tried to inflict, seized it and didn’t let go until he knew that the defenseless body had lost all breath of life.
“I saw the blood gushing from the man’s wound, how it soaked Deacon’s fur and became terrified all over again. I wanted to run away from that nightmare. I wanted to disappear. I wished the earth would swallow me whole before I was forced to confront the death of my loved ones, and then my own rape and death. Filled with panic, I ran toward the trapdoor where Geniez and I had played as children. I raised the tapestry which hid the small door, opened it, doubled over, and was about to go inside the narrow opening. However, I didn’t enter it and I didn’t ask myself why. I think deep down I was always brave. Yes, I’m sure I was. Or perhaps, at that moment, it was only anger that caused me to lose judgment. I picked the sword up off the floor. During those moments, I didn’t know what my intentions were and I ignored all thoughts that were running through my mind. What could I possibly do to help them? Maybe I wanted to die with them and not suffer the anguish of their death and the consciousness of my cowardice.
“Supporting the enormous weight of the sword with both hands, I walked trembling and uncertain toward the door of the dining room, all the while begging God to save us. I hid behind a column and held Deacon by the chain that was still around his neck. I ordered him to be silent and observed the bloody scene.
“My father and Monsieur de Saint-Ange were seated with their foreheads against the table. Men stood behind both of them with their swords raised, threatening to cut off their heads. I couldn’t see my mother. Geniez was standing close to the pig with the red beard. The others had left the room. ‘Scum!’ Geniez yelled. ‘Damned murderers! You’ll pay for this!’ The men mocked him as they drank from their constantly full wine goblets.
“ ‘Murderous usurpers!’ he continued screaming. ‘You stole the sacred name of the crusaders! You wear their clothes and carry their banner but not their honor! You’re nothing but ordinary thieves, raptors hiding behind the name of Christ! He’ll make you pay for this!’
“ ‘Let’s end this,’ said one of the men and approached Geniez. ‘Not yet,’ the leader calmly stated. His subordinate, obviously bothered and anxious, stopped and looked at him. Then the leader addressed Geniez, ‘Well youngster, do you want to see your father die? I’ll ask you one more time and, this time, I know you’ll answer. You know what I’m capable of, right?’
“Then with his boot he turned over a body I had not noticed because it was half hidden from my view by the table. I saw my mother’s body and felt myself die. But the horror continued, leaving me not even a second to think or cry. My trembling hand fell lax and Deacon escaped my side, barking insanely with rage.
“After that, everything happened quickly. Suddenly, Deacon flung himself at the man who was about to kill my father, making his sword fall to the ground.
“ ‘Stop the dog! Stop the dog or I’ll kill him!’ screamed the man who was behind Monsieur de Saint-Ange.
“The valiant Monsieur tried to turn around and confront him but the sword immediately fell and decapitated him. Meanwhile, Geniez, who had waited for an opportunity, grabbed a heavy silver candelabra and, taking advantage of the confusion, he hit the man with it over and over until Monsieur de Saint-Ange’s assassin fell dead to the floor.
“In the meantime, my father had picked up the sword from the floor and was fighting the leader. Although strong and brave, he was no swordsman. He soon lost his sword and saw his enemy’s cruel smile as he swung his sword like a mortal pendulum. The sword met my father’s neck and severed his head. When his head fell into the chimney, the fire kindled and sizzled, blue and red flames burst forth like small fireworks. My father’s decapitated body stood for a few seconds. His arms lifted toward his neck as if amazed and wanting to be assured that his head was truly gone. The lion on the Saint-Ange coat of arms he wore on his chest, cried tears of blood.
“Are you okay, Father?” the woman asked upon seeing the priest wiping his forehead with a handkerchief.
“Yes, yes,” he weakly whispered. “It’s just that it’s hot in here, don’t you think?”
“Actually it’s not that hot,” she answered with a thin sweet smile and sat down in front of him. “But don’t worry. We’re almost done. Soon we’ll leave the Saint-Ange castle forever. Hold on a few more seconds. Geniez let out a heart breaking scream,” she continues narrating. “You can imagine how I felt during those moments. Panic, anguish, pain, fury… I saw the man’s detestable face, his threatening and despicable smile, as he began following Geniez around the table with Geniez wielding a bloody candelabra as his only defense.
“Finally, he managed to trap Geniez in the corner of the room and held his sword horizontally against his neck. One of the candles on the candelabra Geniez held was still lit and ignited the assassin’s red beard. His eyes saw the glow of the flame and he smelled the burning hair. Dropping the sword, he madly tried to extinguish the flames with his bare hands. Over and over, he struck at his beard with his burned hands as if in some sort of frenzied dance. Blinded by fear, he turned away from Geniez and that’s when his stomach met the sharp point of the sword I held in my hands. It’s edge slid firmly into his entrails.
“During our escape, I stopped at the threshold to call Deacon who still grasped his victim by the neck. I saw the dismal way in which the assassin’s head had turned into a torch. Its trembling and steaming flames illuminated the bodies of our loved ones. Suddenly, I felt Geniez grab my arm; he pulled and made me run. Men’s drunken voices were coming from the cellar.
“ ‘The trapdoor,’ he whispered.
“Unable to see nor rest, we painfully crawled through the passage for more than an hour, always worried the men were following us although we had covered the trapdoor behind us.
“We reached the end of the tunnel and thanked God for the cold clarity of night. We ran, silent and shedding unending tears, until we reached the peak of one of the mountains in our valley. From there we looked upon Saint-Ange.
“There were barely any stars out on that cold, full moon night. However, in the sky a brilliant purple glowed as if heaven had ignited a fire on earth to warm itself. All of Saint-Ange burned in flames. The sturdy, solid castle, the fragile wood houses, the vineyards that climbed the hills, the farm fields… everything. I don’t know if the fire in the castle had spread or if it was the work of those pigs. I don’t know.
“We fell, exhausted, consumed by pain and fatigue. Two anguished orphans, watching, beneath a full moon, how everything we loved turned to ash. I remember thinking about the wraths of hell with which the preacher had threatened us. In no way did it seem worse than the torment we were living here on Earth. I remember the soothing smell of the rockroses, the yellow elders, and the thyme, wrapping us with their invisible cloak as they did on any other given night. Unable withstand any longer, I lost consciousness.
“Geniez’s gentle caress against my cheek and the soft light of dawn awoke me. He told me we should leave Languedoc and go to Montpellier where his aunt and uncle lived. I listened to him in a haze, immersed in a slumber that I wished were eternal. In spite of it all, I should have thanked God. Thanked Him for not leaving me completely alone in the world, for having kept Geniez and Deacon at my side.
“We took the road toward Montpellier in silence, immersed in our own thoughts. I was crying and reliving the vivid scenes from the previous night. With every second that they passed through my mind, they became more succinct, concentrated, and concise, as though they were bounded by some limit so as to occupy the minimum amount of space without omitting any detail of pain. I thought nothing could ever stop the agony.
“After walking five or six hours, my body began to feel its persistent and untimely necessities. I was hungry, thirsty, physically and emotionally exhausted. At its peak, the sun shown, nonchalant and resplendent, and provoked a scorching heat that we had never felt before. Perhaps you know how pleasant the benign Mediterranean climate is. Even in the interior of the country where we were, summers, although dry, were usually mild and gentle, never suffering the abrupt changes like those in Paris. But that year the heat seemed to solidify itself around us. We breathed in a heavy mixture of gaseous fumes and dust from the road, which insufferably worsened our fatigue. Our veins seemed to be on fire. Our eyes, which were already swollen from crying, burned and became red, unable to bear the intensity of the sun.
“We managed to reach a small town called La Fleche. The people there were moved to pity and gave us food and shelter. They told us about Stephen of Cloyes and the children’s crusade he had started.
“Geniez’s eyes gleamed. He became excited and was anxious to learn more as he listened to the story of the new Moses. However, my heart began to race due to, as I found out later, a fatal premonition.”
While she watched Father DiCaprio’s attentive expression, she stopped and said,
“I’m sure you know the history of this crusade, Father.”
“Yes, of course. I’ve read about it,” he answered.
“Then you know how it ended and why my apparently irrational fears were justified.”
“Yes, I know. I remember what happened. It was… dramatic, frightful.”
“It was. A tragedy which history reduces to a couple of unimportant lines in a text. Nevertheless, I can’t skip it. My story must be told step by step although you can predict its end. On one hand, it soothes me to unburden my memories, to turn these memories into words that I have never shared with anyone else. And on the other hand… well, I won’t tell you. If you found out ahead of time, my story would be less interesting, less exciting. You would stop looking at me with that astonished expression you’ve kept up to this point.”
The woman gave him a little smile. Her smiles held a hint of magical ambiguity, a certain veil of ironic melancholy mixed with a halo of superiority.
Father DiCaprio looked at her, bewildered and, in turn, sketching his own vague effort of a smile.
“The life and miracles of Stephen of Cloyes was rippling through the lips of laborers,” she continued, seated and relaxed in front of the priest. “He was born in Cloyes, Orleans and was a humble shepherd who was no more than twelve years-old. He professed that one day, as he was tending to his sheep in the mountains, Christ appeared before him and gave him divine instructions. ‘My child,’ Christ said. ‘You have been chosen for the greatest venture ever seen by men in the past and which will ever be seen by their successors. This is what I order you to do: Go to Paris and request to see King Philip Augustus and give him this letter. If he won’t listen to you, you will have to spread the word to every village in France until you form an army of children. You will all go to Marseille, without any weapons or possessions other than the words with which I instruct you. I tell you, just as the waters of the Red Sea parted to permit the passage of the chosen people, so will the waters of the Mediterranean part for you; so that you will reach the Holy Land, where a miracle will turn wolves into lambs and you render at your feat my Holy Sepulcher. By doing this, my beloved children will attain the innocence that the weapons of warriors haven’t been able to.’
“Envy surfaced in Geniez’s eyes as he heard the unending homage and words of praise the peasants bestowed on Stephen of Cloyes. When they stopped talking, I knew Geniez’s thoughts were elsewhere. In his mind he was already in Jerusalem, recovering from the journey and feverish at the foot of the Sacred Tomb. Geniez, the hero of the crusade and his brother Paul’s rival. He couldn’t wait to leave for Marseille.
“The prophet obeyed Christ’s orders. He travelled through all of France preaching his message in such a way that his popularity and story spread quickly which made it easy for him to speak with King Philip Augustus and give him the letter he had been entrusted. However, neither his words nor the divine message managed to convince the King. Stephen left the court undaunted, and continued preaching like Christ had ordered. He was determined to reach Vendome on the twenty-fifth of June. The twenty-fifth had passed five days before, and according to the latest information, he had managed to recruit no less than thirty thousand children. From Vendome they would travel through Tours and Lyon until they reached Marseille, the place the miracle would occur.
“Geniez told me that very night, his eyes blazing with desire, ‘This gives us just enough time. Our stop in La Fleche was heaven sent. Don’t you see? If we leave right away, we’ll get there the same day they do. Maybe we’ll get there a little earlier,’ I protested with all my might and told him I would never go. I said, with no intention of carrying out my threat, that I would leave him and join a convent.
“ ‘What do we have to lose?’ He insisted while hovering over me in an anxious and fierce manner that I found detestable. I imagined him as a grotesque caricature being carried away by a crazed religious frenzy.
“ ‘If the waters part it will be a miracle and we won’t be in any danger. If they don’t part, nothing bad will happen and we’ll turn around and head toward Montpellier. Anyway, it will be nice to see how many boys and girls go to Marseille. It’s worth it just to see the environment. I’m sure it’s going to be a party. Don’t you understand? It’ll be a historic event! ‘
“It wasn’t that he convinced me, it was impossible for me to convince him. I didn’t care if the waters parted or not. I thought it was a horrible idea and didn’t want to surround myself with the delirious bodies of thirty thousand religious fanatics with whom I had nothing in common, except, perhaps, a subconscious desire to find death. Yes, I wanted to die and as more time passed, the desire became greater, more genuine and tangible. I had been wrong to think I wasn’t alone: of course, I was. If I only had one relative in the world, someone I could run to for comfort… Where did this madness for wanting to leave France come from? At least we weren’t destitute. I knew that my father’s and Monsieur de Saint-Ange’s lawyer lived in Montpellier. We had lost the castle and my house, but not our land. Even though the crops were ruined, the land would always be valuable. I was certain I wouldn’t have to rely on anyone for money and would suffer less for it. Geniez’s uncle in Montpellier, a good person I had met, had been named my guardian in case of my family’s death. Why should we travel ten more days under the torturous sun? I didn’t want to go anywhere. In fact, not even to Montpellier. All I wanted was to fall to the ground and die. And as I thought about all the problems, and as more time passed making my situation even more apparent, the more I wanted to die.
“But, two days later, I grabbed the large bag they had prepared for us, which contained enough food for at least a week and crying, I hugged our kind hosts and told them good-bye forever. My agony was such that I acted as if I weren’t alive. I just let myself be led like a being in a trance, I let Geniez drag me away.
“I can’t even begin to thoroughly describe how much we suffered during that trip. It was a summer heaven chose for tragedy. No one had ever experienced such heat. Maybe God was trying to discourage the young French children from their crazy adventure and thus avoid their fatal destiny. Only when we reached the coast did the heat become more bearable, or rather, less cruel. When we felt weak and couldn’t go on, we slept out in the open. When we were lucky and were able to reach a town or village, we asked for shelter from one of the residents.
“Geniez kept bothering me with his dismal lectures. He was being stupid and demanding. I would have liked to get away from him. But where could a young girl with no money go? I couldn’t imagine myself alone, begging all the way to Montpellier. Therefore, I just walked beside him and without even knowing what he was talking about, I said something ever so often.
“We walked so much that we reached Marseille in nine days. We had travelled more than 300 kilometers. I could barely stand, my skin was burned, my stomach too empty, my body exhausted, and my mind absent.
“However, Geniez was right. Marseille was decked out and impatiently awaited the young crusaders arrival. It was a very old and pleasant city that I thought might be able to awaken my numb senses. Two large streets divided the city into four sections which were lined with wide roads and avenues. Each avenue and road was devoted to only one specific type of merchandise. Merchants and artisans lined the streets and vocally advertised their products. On one avenue, you could find cloth, colored cotton, fine silks and fabrics; on another furniture made from expensive wood. Another avenue offered exquisite wine from all parts of the world and still on others, you could find beautiful jewelry, salt and rich spices, perfume made from the highly valued ambergris, and oriental ornaments. Everything seemed large and spacious, as if the city were waiting to receive an unusually large number of people. It made sense. Marseille was a very important commercial port. The bustle of people made me feel better, less alone.
“Stephen of Cloyes had not yet arrived. However, there were many young people, who, like us, had travelled directly to Marseille to wait for him. They looked as exhausted as we were. You could see them sprawled and dozing, sometimes in large groups, in any given corner of the streets. It didn’t take long for Geniez to approach a group of five or six very young and ragged boys who sat chatting cheerfully by the docks. Geniez was out-going. I wasn’t in the least bit and didn’t want to initiate a conversation with any one of those religious fanatics. I didn’t have anything to say to them.
“I stayed a safe distance away so as to avoid being bothered by them and pretended to be interested in the knickknacks on one of the street stands. The sea breeze provided a pleasant reprieve from the heat. I walked along the port aimlessly and watched the immense blue sea burst into white foam upon crashing against the pier. Different little stands sold trinkets for children and other various knickknacks. Other stands sold food and I was starving to death. I hadn’t eaten anything since the day before and I didn’t have a single coin in my pocket. As I walked by the stands, my eyes turned glassy and filled with longing; my legs began to tremble.
“The port was full of people. A multitude of curious people of varying ages waiting for the big event. I heard someone say he would arrive the next day. Everything would end tomorrow, I thought. From afar, I heard Geniez’s voice shouting for me. I didn’t pay any attention and continued walking, captivated and dazed, feeling how my body made way for the crowd which approached me from the opposite direction, feeling how I was jostled by people’s swift strides as though they were in a hurry to get somewhere. As they hurried along, I felt like they were pushing me toward the place from where they came. I simply let myself be swept along. Deacon walked closely beside me, frightened by the people. I turned toward the least crowded pier so he wouldn’t be bothered by them. There I sat down to think and enjoyed the silence and solitude.
“From the time I was a young girl, I was always painfully aware of how isolated and alone I felt because of my differences. I was always much too bright, too introspective, and now, too beautiful. None of this earned me any friends but neither did I look for any. I thought people were insincere and hateful, indifferent and ignorant, crude and egotistical. I didn’t understand wars, man’s inability to coexist, the imposition of ideals, servitude, blind obedience, slavery, poverty, envy, hate, crime… Excluding my immediate family and the Saint-Ange family, I was never fond of my own race. Now my moral solitude took on a new meaning. Geniez was the only person I had left and I needed to cling to him in order to endure my existence.
“My stomach was empty and I began to feel some internal sensations that I’d never felt before: grumbling, pain, discomfort, weakness… I was faint and wasted. Wasted and emotionless like an alcoholic who drinks to forget. Nothing was important; not today nor tomorrow. Not even the hunger I suffered urged me to act or think. The pier seemed like a nice place to die and be buried. But dying isn’t that easy, however pure and constant the desire. I wasn’t going to die. I knew this and that certainty filled me with dread.
“Suddenly, I realized Deacon was not with me. I couldn’t see him anywhere and given my state of distress, I was terrified. I abruptly stood and yelled for him as I frantically looked around. Right away I saw him running toward me wagging his long tail. I breathed a sigh of relief and felt tears clouding my eyes. He reached me and I fell to my knees to hug him. He seemed very happy, so much so that I looked toward the other side of the pier from where he had ran.
“That’s when I saw him for the first time. I was paralyzed, speechless and fascinated. His face invaded my senses and expelled all other thoughts. The entire world disappeared, there was no sorrow, no pain, no abandonment. I was no longer alone. Not now.
“He was looking at me. From the distance, I saw his gorgeous dark hair that fell a little below his shoulders and which was slightly swaying in the soft, humid breeze. He had masculine but delicate features and was tall, very tall in comparison with men of that era. He wore lavish but simple clothes: a white shirt made from fine fabric covered by a long and ample fustian coat. His green silk pants fell to his knees and his gray tights fit his claves perfectly. But it wasn’t his elegance that instantly captivated me after the sudden impact of his unexpected appearance. It was something different. Something deep, abstract, and metaphysical. A spiritual awakening which, in some way, I instantly understood.
“Facing each other, we both stood still. I could see his puzzled expression clearly. He seemed somber, guarded, and at the same time, profoundly tormented, as if he suffered from some internal conflict he would never be able to resolve. I felt an intense sadness. I ached to go to him, to tell him I knew him, I loved him, and I needed him. However, those were my last thoughts before, worn-out by hunger and fatigue, I fainted and fell beneath the blazing Mediterranean sun.”
“When I woke up I was not at the harbor, but rather, in a warm and comfortable bed. A bed that I hadn’t enjoyed in so many days. Even before I opened my eyes or regained full consciousness, the sight of that splendid creature returned to my mind. My heart pounded with excitement. I asked myself, ‘Where could he be? Did he bring me here?’ I heard the sound of a chair scrapping heavily against the wooden floor. I was still dizzy and exhausted. My head hurt when I moved, even when I moved ever so slowly. Suddenly, I felt a cold wet cloth against my forehead so quickly opened my eyes. Some dark tendrils of hair covered my eyes and as I nervously brushed them aside, the person holding the cloth stepped back.
“It was Celine, a young girl in the group which Geniez had befriended. She explained we were in an inn and that Geniez was downstairs eating with her brothers.
“I immediately asked her if she had seen my gentlemen. She was surprised by my description and seemed to think the sun had affected me; she simply shook her head no. Seconds later, Geniez and Celine’s three young brothers walked through the door. Geniez carried a tray containing bread and fish for me to eat.
“Having ate, a couple of hours later I felt much better and wanted to go look for him. I was dying to see him again. It was as if everything had suddenly changed. I felt it would be worthwhile to stay alive just for the chance to meet him. However, in my fantasies, I didn’t limit myself to so little.
“I left Geniez enthusiastically telling Celine and her brothers all the facts, places, and characters related to past crusades and ventured into the streets of Marseille. I searched the port from top to bottom. I went into shops and taverns. When night fell and I hadn’t seen a trace of him, I returned to the inn exhausted and disappointed. Maybe he set sail on one of the boats I had seen that afternoon. He might be a rich Venetian merchant, or maybe a prince…
“That night Celine and I slept in the same room. She told me that she and her brothers had embarked on the crusade with their parent’s full consent. They believed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Stephen was the new Moses and that he would lead them on an unforgettable and historic adventure through the dry lands of the Mediterranean.
“At noon the next day, Stephen of Cloyes arrived leading around fifteen or twenty thousand young followers. Almost all of them were in a terrible state. The other thirty thousand who had met in Vendome, weren’t able to withstand the rigors of that scorching summer. Hunger, thirst, and exhaustion had made many of them give up and go home halfway through the trip. How intelligent and fortunate they were.
“Marseille joyfully received the extremely young crusaders that had managed to arrive. They were a mixed group and had one thing in common: age. Many of them weren’t over ten years-old and the oldest, of which there weren’t many, were eighteen years-old. Some were of noble birth, others were the sons and daughters of merchants, lawyers, and doctors and some were simple peasants. Many of them had their parent’s blessing to embark on such an important mission, and those less fortunate, had opted to leave without it. The oldest crusaders wanted glory and the youngest wanted adventure. The children of noble birth led the march on horseback and carried the crusade’s insignia, the oriflamme. Jovial, proud, and dressed for the occasion, they flanked the outrageously lavish carriage from where Stephen, the experienced twelve-year-old leader, waved to the enthusiastic crowd. His intentness and exaggerated stateliness with which he carried himself, like Cesar returning from a victorious campaign, aroused much laughter and comments.
“As I watched the show in all of its historical importance, I poked my head over the balcony in our room at the inn and never stopped looking down upon the heads in the crowd searching for the man who I couldn’t, not even for one second, stop thinking about. From that high up, I was almost able to see the entire port. With his good looks making him stand out in the crowd, I was certain I would’ve seen if he had been there. My search was futile.
“I didn’t let myself get discouraged and continued looking around among the boys and girls who, in spite of their exhaustion, cheerfully poured into the port. All activity had stopped in the city. Merchants, visitors, churchgoers, or mere busybodies from nearby towns or distant cities came just to witness the grand event. A great number or priests, reporters from Rome and young boys from any given place in France, that had run away from home at the last minute, gathered in the harbor to cheer and applaud the crusaders and presented them with bread, cheese, cured meat, salted fish and water. All was quickly distributed and consumed.
“Stephen of Cloyes spoke with Cicero’s eloquence. It’s no surprise he had been able to dazzle so many children and adults during his moving speeches across the country. I had the opportunity to hear his eloquence when the carriage stopped approximately in the center of the port. He stood up without exiting the carriage and with the tranquil serenity of a seasoned general and with all the strength in his already strong, deep voice, he gave thanks for the warm welcome and for their faith, which, he promised, would soon be rewarded. The cheering and applauding drowned out his voice so he stopped speaking until a new and respectful silence was imposed. Stephen was a firm believer. He never questioned his sanity or if he had been deceived by some unscrupulous trickster, or if heaven would forget its prophecy or simply wanted to make fun of him and his followers. There wasn’t a hint of doubt in his face, nor a lack of conviction in his persuasive speech. He said the miracle was about to happen and that we should get ready for the trip. The word of God would be his sword and shield. Food? Don’t worry, God will provide throughout the voyage.
“The silence and anticipation became intense when Stephen descended from the carriage. He must have thought a staff was a vital element in such a biblical scene that he was about to undertake. He had a staff that was almost taller than he was and with it, he struck the ground forcefully with each step he took. He walked quickly, intently, and confidently along the pier toward a dike. He walked along the pier until he became a distant blond head. He was followed by the advance party of noble children on horseback and behind them, those who during those times were called the commoners, in short, the poor.
“It was impossible not to be carried away by the excitement of the moment. I grabbed the handrail with such strength that I suddenly realized my hands hurt and had turned purple. I had to loosen my grip. I was astounded. ‘What if it really happened?’, I thought and for the first time got carried away by the crowd’s excitement. If it happened, perhaps life would have meaning. So many people were gathered there, so many excited people… If God existed, he must make it happen, he must not disappoint them. Even if Stephen was nothing more than a nutcase.
“And what a nutcase he was! He got to the end of the dike and then lifted his face and his arms, including his shepherds’ staff, toward the sky. The silence and stillness were absolute, only the ocean dared to stay in motion, insolent and indifferent to the divine miracle that would never occur.
“Prayers erupted from the crowd and broke the silence. Thousands upon thousands of people joined in a soft harmonic prayer, sure they had been chosen to witness the miracle. But minutes passed and nature didn’t make any unnatural movements. The prayers became louder as if the faithful, surprised by the lack of an answer, were trying to get the attention of a God who was too far away or too busy to hear them. It’s impossible to know how much time passed but it must have been more than an hour. There were many Hail Marys and Our Fathers. The more impatient people abandoned the collective prayer and strained their eyes to see above people’s heads. They wanted to see Stephen’s movements, or rather, his stillness and any changes in the water that would suggest they were ready to part.
“The sun, reflecting on the impassive ocean’s steel blue waters, fell fully upon them and turned the wait into an inferno. You began hearing impatient, weary remarks above the unanswered prayers, which ended up becoming a dissonant murmur abandoned by the majority. Sometime later, even the most persistent and loyal believers quieted their prayers in favor of a painful and somber silence. Then, angry voices erupted, scattered here and there along the harbor. They called Stephen a phony, a liar, an infidel, a heretic, and other worse insults. He was now kneeling in the same spot, with his head bowed and hands crossed as though he would continue praying. I remember that after a few minutes of enduring the insults, he suddenly stood, turned around, and began screaming with a broken expression on his face. He seemed to be verbally attacking the rebellious crowd but had raised his voice to such a frantic uproar, I doubt he could even hear his own words. The nobles who had ridden with him were the only ones that remained utterly silent but their faces showed their disappointment. However, it seemed they were unwilling to admit defeat and give up.
“The children, disheartened due to their disappointment and exhaustion, slowly began to leave. It was a sad and unfortunate, albeit expected sight. Celine was with me on the balcony and seemed extremely devastated so I tried to console her. Even I was disappointed and in the end had wished the miracle had taken place. The sad scene was unsettling.
“Little by little, children and adults began leaving the port. Like ghosts, they walked into the city. It didn’t take long for Celine’s brothers to come to our room. They acted as if they were returning from a funeral. I could imagine their frustration, the pain of unfulfilled dreams. They sat down on the chairs and the bed without saying a word. I thought they were acting silly but I also thought God was unjust. If I were God, it would have been easier to perform the miracle than bear the pain of disappointing my children.
“We would all leave the next day. Our friends would take us on horseback to Montpellier and then they would go on to Paris. This is what we had decided before we set out that night to say good-bye to Marseille.
“As we walked the streets, we heard Stephen start to perform again. We heard his voice roaring in the port, tirelessly calling for his followers to return. He told us God had changed his plans so that we wouldn’t have to walk such a great distance as exhausted as we were. ‘Praise the Lord! Even in these circumstances he had thought of his children’s well-being. How great is God and his helpers who have provided seven sail boats so that his servants could travel safely to the Holy Land! God wills it!’, the crusader’s leader shouted, ‘God wills it!’
“The mere mention of those “divine helper’s” names immediately provoked fear. One was named Hugo, or rather, the Iron, for reasons I’ll leave to your imagination and the other was Guillaume, whose nickname was the Pig. These two generous merchants unselfishly offered to charter seven boats that the visionary and his followers would take to Jerusalem.
“The overall excitement terrified me. Without a miracle of such magnitude, like the parting of the Mediterranean for our passage, what would stop the merchants from killing us? The boats would set sail the following morning carrying as many young people as they could hold. I became frightened when I noticed Geniez’s happiness and knew that once again I would be dragged along behind him.
“So it was and, sure enough, the next morning the sail boats started to depart with me on one of them. And then, when it was already too late, and as the ship set sail while I said good-bye to the inn’s owners and to Deacon who I had left in their care, I saw him again.
“My heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t some sort of illusion. He was staring right at me. I saw him take a few steps toward the edge of the pier and then he held his hand out to me. He was asking me to jump, to go to him. I was certain of it and there was no time for doubt. I raised my right foot, placed it on the side of the ship and got ready to jump. But then I heard screams behind me and suddenly felt hands pulling me back, stopping me from jumping into the water. Helpless, I screamed with all my might. I was completely frantic as I watched the sudden swiftness with which the boat set sail and how, with each second that passed, it separated me further from him. I begged for them to let me go, that I must jump or I would die. But they didn’t understand. ‘What’s wrong with you?’, they asked. ‘Do you want to kill yourself?’ And just like that, the port became distant and, once again, I lost him.
“The captain, angered by the scene, ordered all of us to be locked in the boat’s hull. But being locked in the hull was what saved our lives. As we reached San Pietro Island, which was close to Sardinia, we sailed through a storm of such magnitude that two of the boats travelling with us sank. The remaining five were completely destroyed and were missing half of their crews. During the rest of the journey we had to work together to repair the damages; we also performed all the duties on the boat which included rowing. They treated us like the slaves we were soon to become.
“I lost all sense of time. After all, why would I care to count the days? Some days later, we were peacefully approached by a Saracen squadron of boats. It appeared that they were anxiously awaiting the merchandise that Hugo, the Iron, and Guillaume, the Pig, had brought for them. Exactly at that moment, three of our ships departed. ‘A military strategy,’ they lied. I didn’t know what happened to the ships until I read about it later in history books. Guillaume, the Pig, accompanied those three ships to their final destination: Bagdad. Hugo, the Iron, who was on the other boat that travelled with us, led us to ours: Alexandria.
“Our ship docked on Alexandria’s eastern port and we were lashed with whips and forced into carriages that had awaited our arrival.
“The lighthouse stood tall in the harbor, oblivious to our suffering and anguished pleas, just like the thousands of people who flooded the dirty Egyptian streets who barely seemed to notice our arrival.
“One after another, the carriages arrived at the slave market and by the time ours arrived, selling had already begun. It wasn’t until precisely that instant that we understood, with absolute certainty, that our fate was much more worse than death. They made us exit the carriages and then various men took us, striking us with whips, to a quiet corner in the market where they divided their merchandise into different groups. All the priests were put to one side. Geniez and I screamed with fright and pain as they separated us. They placed me with the women and him with the rest of the boys. Then Hugo, the Iron, dismounted the carriage he had ridden and after helping unload the remaining children, began to divide us more specifically.
“ ‘How many of you have studied?’ he asked. ‘Who knows how to read and write?’
“No one responded so he lashed one of the boys with the whip and grabbed him by the ear.
“ ‘How about you rich sissy? Didn’t your dad take you to one of those good schools?’ he asked while shaking him as violently as he could. The boy howled with pain and answered that he had studied in Paris.
“ ‘Then he’s for governor Al-Kamil,’ the Iron said, and threw the boy into the group of priests and then he screamed, ‘Let’s go! All of you who know how to write or count, get beside him!’ He cracked the whip several times above us. ‘The governor manages many businesses and needs secretaries and interpreters. Those of you who go with him will be more fortunate than the rest, I promise you.’
“Celine and her brothers looked at each other and then, along with many others, began running toward the group that would belong to the governor. Geniez approached me, grabbed my hand and took me to the group.
“ ‘No!’ the Iron screamed while grabbing my arm. ‘You’re worth a lot more than a common secretary. All women stay put! The governor already has his share and I’ll get a lot more for you in the market.’
“Our cries must have deeply moved heaven’s heart. But if they did, we never found out. Ignoring the whip that fell upon our bodies, we fought, kicked and screamed to no avail. I lost sight of Geniez forever as I was tied to the leg of a platform awaiting my turn to be sold. The customers shielded themselves from the relentless sun under some canopies that covered the platform where their victims would be displayed.
“Celine was there but she was far away and the men kept us from getting close to each other. It was her turn before it was mine. It was horrific. They lifted her onto the platform and stripped her of the few, dirty, and ruined clothes that still covered her body. She tried to grab onto her clothes, screaming like mad, while neither the public nor the auctioneers could contain their roars of laughter. She doubled over, covered her body with her arms, and screamed all the insults she knew.
“The scorching air was permeated with a foul, penetrating odor. Blood pounded in my head with such force that I became dizzy. I thought I was going to faint from the stench, the suffocating heat, the pure terror I felt and the lurid cheering of those bastards. The market was very busy and the men started to bid higher and higher, greatly entertained by their victim’s suffering. The auctioneer unscrupulously pointed out Celine’s appealing features. He grabbed her by the arms making her show herself and not for one moment did she stop fighting or insulting them, which didn’t do anything but raise her price. Finally, someone took her.
“I was going to suffer through many more auctions before it would be my turn. During that time, as I was looking at the buyer’s faces and thinking about my future, I made a decision: I would commit suicide the first chance I got. The decision made me happy. Suddenly nothing mattered. I felt calm and at peace. Soon I would be safe and would never suffer again. I promised myself that I wouldn’t cause a scene, that I wouldn’t say a word, and that I would let him take off my clothes without making any moves to stop him.
“However, it wasn’t that simple. I wanted to climb the stairs up to the platform on my own but I felt hands brutally pushing me from behind so I stumbled up the stairs. Up on the stage, the auctioneer savagely pushed me toward the center. You can’t even imagine how I felt with those strange Arabians staring at me with their hungry eyes. I thought they were the most despicable humans on earth, dressed in tunics that fell to their feet and wearing fezzes or turbans and speaking their maddening, unintelligible language. I knew I could end up in anyone one of their beds. When I felt the auctioneer’s hands displaying my blond hair to the public, I couldn’t even remember the promises I had made myself. I twisted around and jabbed him in the face with my elbow. He was so surprised, for a few seconds, he didn’t do anything but touch his nose and listen to the crowd laugh. He grabbed the whip right away and starting lashing me. Outraged, the buyers started yelling phrases at him I couldn’t understand. Some of the slave traders climbed onto the platform ready to take the weapon out of his hands. They didn’t want him to damage me, you understand, so they threw him off the platform and they took over. While two of them held me, the third one tore my clothes off and I was completely naked.
“It was precisely during this terrible moment that I saw him for the third time. I was paralyzed, lifeless, as though they had taken away my strength along with my clothes. They let me go and I didn’t make the slightest movement, not even to cover myself. He was there! He stood a few steps behind the now speechless crowd. He had that same grave look on his face, as if he harbored a deep hatred for life. I was looking at him as dumbfounded as if he himself were standing naked before me on the platform. I thought, ‘I’m saved!’ After a second, I noticed the slave traders and buyers had become completely silent and that their greedy eyes were looking at any part of my body except my face. I also noticed my own lack of decency. Suddenly, I felt humiliated and ashamed because he had seen me like that, not only nude but also in that situation. That was something stupid I can’t explain. I suppose being helpless and defenseless makes us more ashamed than anything else does.
“Without taking my eyes off him, I began to hear the buyers yelling their offers for my body. The auctioneers seemed to wake up and started pointing to different parts of my body. I assume they started to praise my beauty to raise the final price. His eyes were so focused on mine that it truly seemed like he didn’t even see me. For some moments, I felt as nonexistent as if I had disappeared. Suddenly, I felt hands pulling me and I awoke from my daydream. One of the men that had held me said, ‘Let’s go, get down. Go to your master.’
“They sold me and he didn’t even bid! Impossible! Maybe he had sent someone to do it for him?
“A brutishly repulsive creature waited for me as I descended the platform. He mumbled some words in French that I didn’t understand. Drooling, he tried to kiss me through his unkempt beard. I was disgusted and tried to defend myself but he just laughed. Other buyers seemed to be congratulating him and my hopes vanished with the wind. That man had bought me for himself. Everything seemed to imply this. Confused, I looked back searching for his face again, searching for an answer.
“ ‘Don’t leave me!’ I screamed with all my might. ‘Don’t leave me!’ But he was gone.
“ ‘How is that possible?’, I asked myself over and over. He wasn’t there by chance. I had seen him at the port before the ships departed. He must have taken a ship that departed later and had followed us. If not, how did he know where we were going? Unless he knew beforehand… maybe he’s a slave trader like all the others… but that didn’t make sense. There had been seven other ships to choose from, so why did he take one later? Also, he was alone. As alone as I had been when I had seen him in Marseille for the first time. No, he wasn’t one of them. That’s impossible. How could I even think that? Well then, why? Why didn’t he help me? Why did he leave to my own fate?
“The fat bearded man lifted me into an elegant carriage and appeared to urge the driver to quickly depart.
“Again, I turned around to look for him. From the height of the carriage, I had an excellent view of the market. At that moment, a boy I recognized was being sold and there was still a long line of frightened children awaiting their turn. But he wasn’t there, he had already left. It was impossible to figure out where he had gone since the market was a closed off square with only one large entrance which we were passing through at that very moment.
“The fat man spent the trip drooling on me with half of his body lying on top of mine. He wouldn’t stop speaking, as if I could or wanted to understand him. His house was enormous; a luxurious palace, you could say. I assumed he was a merchant or perhaps a government official. I never found out. However, in any case, there was no doubt he was a very rich man. The inside of the palace was lavish and featured a mixture of Greek and Arabic architecture, marble floors, and ivory and gold decorations.
“He was so excited and satisfied with his purchase that he didn’t stop laughing like an inebriated drunk as he grabbed me by the hand and proudly led me around the house. We went through a beautiful garden that had a fountain in its center. Different doors opened to the garden and we stopped at one of them. He let go of me so he could look for keys, which were in a bag hidden beneath his tunic. He unlocked the door and motioned for me to go inside.
“Two Arabic women were embroidering a tapestry when we stepped inside. They respectively stood when they saw us come in. They bowed in front of him and stayed in that position while they received instructions regarding what they were to do with me.
“I clearly remember the words he spoke to me in his poor French before he left the room.
“ ‘Beautiful for me. Tonight, great night.’ That was what he said.
“The women took me into another room and gave me a good bath with lots of soap and scented salts. I thought it was wonderful. I hadn’t bathed since that tragic day in Saint-Ange, can you imagine… I was so accustomed to my smell and that of the others I had travelled with that I didn’t even notice it. But the fat man, yes, he had noticed how I smelled and of course let me know this with the gestures he had made, as did the two women who gave off a delicate fragrance of roses.
“After my bath, they brushed my hair, put perfume on me, dressed me in a beautiful, luxurious tunic of gold embroidered fabric, and then adorned me with some jewelry. Now, all I had left to do was wait for the dreadful encounter. Unless I found a solution…
“The women took me back to the room where I first saw them and continued their embroidering. I desperately looked all over the room, searching for a knife or anything I could use to end my life. There wasn’t anything in that room capable of causing me the slightest bit of harm, and just as the door to the garden was locked, so was the one that led into the house. That door had been locked by one of the women when we entered the room so as to prevent my escape.
“Through the lattice I could see the garden. I was horrified and knew that as the night approached, so did my dreadful fate. I can’t be certain about the amount of time that went by until we heard someone knock on the door. After hearing the voice of the person behind it, one of the women stood and opened it. They spoke some words and then the woman urged me to go with her. I think we must have gone through the palace from one end to the other before we reached the empty room where the scene of my romantic soiree would take place. I walked in. The woman shut the door behind me and I heard the key turn in the lock.
“The room was large and well lit with many floor candelabras.
“I had another opportunity to find a weapon which I would desperately put to good use. I quickly looked at the few pieces of furniture in the room but didn’t find anything that could be of use. I sat on the bed and started crying. Then, I looked up and realized that all the walls in the room were entirely covered in mirrors. I could break anyone of them and use a shard to slice my wrist. Good, I found a solution. When I realized that my abstract idea was about to become a real possibility, which I would have to carry out without the slightest delay, my heart felt like it was going to burst. It was during that sublime moment of awareness when I had to admit what I had always known: I didn’t have the courage to kill myself.
“I stood and walked to the wall in which I saw my reflection infinitely multiplied. Standing in front of the mirror, I tore off the hideous dress I was made to wear to arouse the man that was going to rape me. I tried to destroy it as best as I could, then I furiously took off the jewels and the tiara that held my hair in a ridiculous bun. I was completely naked and the mirrors reflected my image wherever I looked.
“ ‘No!’, I screamed. ‘No! God damn it! God damn humanity! God damn humanity! God damn humanity!’
“The room filled with my uncontrollable screams which reverberated from the mirrors just like my image. I kept swearing incessantly, ‘God damn! Pigs! Scum! I hate you! I curse you! Damned race! Wretched race!’
“Screaming those words, I grabbed a stool and threw it at a mirror screaming. I wanted to erase my misfortune, the suffering for having lost my family, the loss of my past life. But it was only my reflection that disappeared. ‘Help me God! Help me!’, I begged and fell at the foot of the bed.
“A few moments later the Egyptian entered the room and found me like that. He became confused once he saw how his erotic den had been destroyed. He closed the door behind him and I saw his smug face redden with rage as he approached me. Terrified, I quickly stood. For the first time, filled with rage, it occurred to me to fight instead of committing suicide. I began looking around for a piece of glass I could use to stab him.
“He came to a halt when he realized I was naked. Dumbfounded, he looked me up and down with no other intention than to rape me. I watched him suspiciously and now the only thought running through my mind was finding a shard of glass to kill him with. I thought it would be simple since there were fragments all over the floor. However, he was a strong man and I needed to act quickly so as not to worsen my situation.
“The man didn’t even give me time to try. Before I knew it, he threw himself at me like a hungry beast and made me fall onto the bed, his body on top of mine. He was excited and awkwardly managed to take his clothes off. I could feel his hardness and knew he was ready to enter me.
“I was filled with terror when I felt him between my naked legs. I was so innocent, much more so, certainly, than girls of that age today. My only experience with a man had been a secret and brief kiss. I tried to keep my legs closed as tightly as possible when I realized what was about to happen. But he, breathing heavily, didn’t find it difficult to force them open. I opened my mouth and screamed in terror and prayed to God, but it only made things worse since he took advantage of my screams to stick his tongue into my mouth.
“I bit his tongue and he moved away, but only to slap me. I let the tears escape from my closed eyes and, with a last and vain attempt to defend myself, sunk my long nails into his back. He screamed and hit me in the head but he didn’t move away.
“It was then that I opened my eyes and saw him in front of me again.
“I couldn’t believe it. How had he managed to get in? Why was he there? He looked at me with that same guarded expression. In the flickering candle light, he looked like a ghost. He held a knife in his hand and extended the hilt toward me. All I had to do was hold out my hand and the knife would be mine. This is what he wanted? But why didn’t he do it himself? Why didn’t he himself save me from that torture?
“I didn’t have time for questions or doubts. As soon as I took the knife, I felt the man penetrate me. With both my hands, I plunged the knife into the left side of his back and pressed and pressed until the hilt hit his skin. I assumed the knife went through his heart because as soon as he felt the blade enter him, he let out a choked scream, spasmodically shuddered and then stopped moving.
“I kept crying and tried to get the dead body, which had me penned beneath its weight, off me. But at that moment, I felt so weak and distressed that my efforts were useless; it was like my muscles or my body or my soul refused to keep living without help. Then, he pushed the body effortlessly onto the other side of the bed.
“Confused and distressed, I stood and looked at him. A million thoughts burned through my mind, all of which questioned his miraculous appearance. He leaned over and as he did so his dark hair slid in front of my eyes and, just for a fraction of a second, I felt his warm cheek next to mine. He put his arms under my waist and legs and lifted me.
“As soon as I was in his arms, mine instinctively wrapped around his neck. I was spellbound and couldn’t stop staring into his eyes. It was the first time I had seen them up close and it felt like I could lose myself within them, escape the world and lose myself to an endless array of emotions.
“I wondered why he looked so somber and why he was so quiet. Through his anguished eyes, I sensed his sorrow, his silent plea for help. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the sweetest drowsiness I had ever felt in my life. All my worries disappeared. At last, I was with him. I was in his arms. I ran the back of my hand down his cheek and felt the incredible heat emanating from him. He watched me suspiciously, seemingly bothered by my boldness, to such a degree that I became confused and took my hand off his cheek. I studied his face carefully. In spite of his peculiar sternness, I had never seen such a mixture of sweetness and beauty. Soon my eyelids became so heavy I could no longer keep them open. As I slipped into a dream where nothing mattered, I gazed at his lips and imagined mine softly on them. For a few fleeting seconds, I felt my conscious being wrapped in a warm dark haze which restrained all of my senses. It was a pleasant, delightful intoxication whose arrival submerged me into a state of sensual peace. From this state, I vaguely felt my cheek carelessly caress his hair. My arms, afraid of losing him, tightened around his neck in one last conscious act.”