Photo: Wendy Madar
The Secret Music
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Marjorie Sandor
Inside one note, many more are hidden.
I learned this from my father, who played the oud, that antiquated “lute” of the Moors, as did his father before him, and so on, all the way back to the time of Alfonso the Wise. I hereby state that my name is Juan de Granada. I was baptized in that city in the spring of 1492, when I was ten years old. Since then, I have been as good a Christian as any.
I am seventy-two years old, and the last leaf of my father’s tree. I am ready to fall and be done with it.
Of my family, I have only a few things to tell. We lived in Granada’s dwindling Jewish quarter until, in the days following Fernando’s triumph, our neighborhood was branded a nest of criminals and the sadly misguided. But well before this, my parents had made sure my brother and I were circumcised, and bestowed upon each of us two names: one to carry into the world, and one to keep hidden in the heart.
Naïve, defiant, or simply exhausted—it is not for us to judge. After all, for ten years, rumors of Christian conquest had come and gone every day; who could keep up with them? To be on the safe side, our mother had taught us the Castilian of her own northern childhood, while our father taught us to play the oud and sing in the Arabic of our native place. He still held out hope that one of us would succeed him in his playing, both at the caliph’s palace inside the Alhambra, and at the many zambras in the city below.
Suffice it to say that our father was an innocent: a quiet, slender, brown-eyed man, and after he vanished one night in March of that momentous year, our mother told us that his only crime was to have carried his talent so openly in the world.
“Are you listening to me?” she asked.
We said we were.
No matter. The thing to remember is that until he disappeared, our father played. His fingers moved swiftly up and down the neck of his oud, and when he came home, he wore like a badge the scent of whatever place he had performed. Sometimes his good shirt gave off little breaths of jasmine and myrtle, which our mother could not scrub out. He liked to joke that he could never hide anything from her: she could tell from sniffing his clothes precisely how near a court-lady had drawn.
He played late most nights, but when he was home, he told us stories about the age of peace and music both, when the greatest oud player of all time escaped his enemies in Baghdad and arrived in Spain with ten thousand songs held safely in his ears. This man’s skin was so dark and his voice so clear that he was given the nickname Ziryab: blackbird. It was Ziryab who raised the number of courses on the oud from four to five, thereby giving it a soul, and who taught the caliph and his courtiers to eat elegantly and to love poetry. There were stories of Granada as it had been in our great-grandfather’s time, the heyday of the Moors, its Jewish quarter still pulsing with life, of the silk markets, the importers of myrrh and calamus, the great baskets of saffron, of pomegranate and peach. Its songs, which carried at least three languages with ease.
If we weren’t sleepy yet, our father went still further back in time, to the tale of the Jewish musicians called to the court to play for the Sultan on the Ninth of Av. This was the anniversary of the destruction of the two Temples and the Great Dispersion, when the rabbis forbade the playing of any music at all. But the ruler was so hungry for their music that he ordered these musicians, on pain of death, to play. When at last the musicians complied, their song came out as a lamentation so deep that even the Sultan wept to hear it.
From that day forward, they were called the Singers of Affliction.
And so it is, our father said, that to this day, a musician who carries even a little bit of our ancestors’ blood will find that in the last days of summer, it hurts to put one’s fingers to the strings. They stiffen at the knuckles, as if God holds them fast, and no matter what you do, the melody comes out as a lament.
In the final days of the old kingdom, our father told all his stories in a hushed voice, as if he were afraid that Christian soldiers or envious musicians already waited just beyond our front door. His voice was as steady and low as a pipe’s drone: I could never keep my eyes open, but fell asleep a full century before the riots and bloodshed began in earnest, and in the morning, it seemed I had only dreamed the old Granada of the Jews with its bright noisy streets. There was nothing now in our city to suggest such a place, nothing except a few stars cut in the synagogue walls, where our father sometimes took us to sit among the last handful of worshippers and hear the old chants.
On the second day of January, 1492, I woke early. It had snowed the night before, and the streets were still quiet. Then someone started beating a tin pot—or so it seemed—far away on the Vega. A dog began to bark.
I sat up beside my sleeping brother, and at that moment, from the hill above, came a dark iron clanging, fat and sour. Birds burst from their eaves and swung through the sky; every small creature began to howl.
The bells rang all that day and into the night. They rang to proclaim many things, but most of all the entrance of the Catholic Kings Fernando and Isabel, their children and courtiers, their priests and armies, from their encampment on the plain below. A city entering a city. A procession that would make its way past our own house later that morning, the royal parents and their five children dressed in the robes of the caliph they had conquered, winding up the hill on which the houses of the last Jews of Granada crouched. Up they went, into the Alhambra and deeper still, into its royal gardens and palace. Later it would be said that all the alarm-bells of Granada had been melted down and recast as church bells, purely to oppress the ear of the conquered Moor.
That winter a saying arose in those bruised streets: The kings can ring their cowbells, but they have no cows. I was ten years old, and did not understand. I only knew that no muezzin’s call could be heard under all that iron howling.
Then it was March, and the tight pale buds of myrtle and olive unclenched, until one day it wasn’t snow but almond blossoms that lay on the shoulders of those who stumbled, weak and exhausted, into the streets, their faces carved into new shapes by famine and sickness, by so much impossible news. Town criers sang out: It had been decreed by the Catholic kings that the Moors might stay and practice their religion, but the Jews had until the end of July to depart Spain, or convert to the One True Faith.
One night, as my brother and I lay down to sleep, our father came and knelt beside us. He put a hand on each of our heads and let his fingers drift down our faces in the old way of blessing, soon to be forbidden.
“Life is not so terrible,” he said, “if I can still do this.”
I must have fallen asleep, because I remember waking later, to see the moon shining through the high window. I heard the comforting rustle of my father’s robe, the crunch of his slippers on packed earth as he stepped outside, as he always did at that hour, to make water under the fig tree. Then I dropped back to sleep.
In the morning he was gone, and our mother could not lift her hands from her face. “If only it had been half a moon.”
“Why half a moon?” I asked, but she only shook her head.
“There is a time to shine your light,” she said, “and a time to hide it.”
What did she mean? Our father had only gone outside to relieve himself, not to perform in some musical competition. His oud was still in the house, leaning against the wall. Beside it lay his little coin-pouch, tipped heavily to one side.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “He’ll make his way back. We’ll wait.”
What she couldn’t tell me was that she was afraid for me, too, not only because I had my father’s ear for music, but because I was beginning to resemble him. When my brother and I stood side by side, all eyes came to rest on me. I felt it, and wished they wouldn’t; all those eyes, hungering. But what even my mother didn’t realize—and what I was only beginning to grasp—was that the greater danger lay between myself and my brother.
She didn’t see it. She was too busy watching as her neighbors packed, as every other husband but her own locked his front door and put the house key in his pocket.
“Maybe they’re leaving because the bells hurt their ears,” I told her one morning not long after, and this, at least, made her smile.
“Truly, you have your father’s gift,” she said, and held my shoulder firmly, as if the merest breeze could take me, not knowing that in the house, her elder son was awake and waiting for her to proclaim his talent, too. Together we watched as a neighbor boy rushed down the street in his nightshirt, only to be caught by his father and pinned under the arm like a goat bound for the butcher. A grandmother squatted in the dust and dung of the road, forcing donkeys and carts and all those on foot to part around her, so much water around a rock. And through all of this, the bells kept ringing, as if to push the people all the way to the port at Cadiz, and into the sea itself.
Cadiz, Cadiz, it sounded fine to me. There would be talking birds and platters heaped with fish, and a sea captain who asked me to climb to the top of the rigging and help him watch for pirates.
“Shouldn’t we be leaving, too?” I asked my mother.
She didn’t answer, but her hand tightened on my shoulder as if I’d already leaned too far out into the street.
But a mother’s fear only makes a child restless, and it’s worse when she has lately lost the husband who used to balance her endless list of terrors with his reasonable hopes, stroke her forehead with his callused thumb, and ask her to sing. And it’s worse still if that husband arose one moonlit night in March to visit the fig tree, and never came back. From then on, even the hour before dawn brought her no rest. She stayed up all night, consulting a piece of oak carved in the shape of a child holding a staff. “Put this in your frying pan,” a neighbor had explained to her. “It will tell you if your love is safe, and on the road home.” But how to read the piece of oak? Which way should the child face for good news? This the neighbor had failed to say.
So each morning in our doorway she held me close. “God knows what will become of you. You could be stolen from me like a loaf of bread.”
And she pulled me back inside the house.
By May our father had not yet returned. The kings’ soldiers paid a visit to the quarter with catapults and stones. A hospital goes here, they said. A tournament field there. The old synagogue will be the Church of St. Cecilia—the patron saint of music and the blind. Was this what convinced my mother it was time to leave? Because one night shortly after, she began to fuss around the house in a different way, rolling all our clothes into bundles and singing her old Castilian songs. I lay awake listening.
“Go to sleep,” she said. “Some things are hard to pack, but we carry them anyway.” Then she started singing again.
Nani, Nani, sleep, my sweetheart,
Sleep, sleep, apple of my eye.
Your father is coming and his spirits are high.
“Open the door, wife.
Open the door because I’m coming
And I’m tired from plowing the fields.”
I must have drifted off, because now the mother in the song wouldn’t let the father back into the house. You have a new love, she sang.
“What’s new love?” I asked my mother.
“Never mind,” she replied. “Just pay attention to the melody. Give it a home inside your ears.” And she sang it again, this time without the words. Her voice leaped once, rose a little higher, then began to fall in the smallest of steps. She squinted as she sang, as if trying to hear a deeper secret tucked inside the notes, until I saw a little scene: I saw my father, dragged off by other musicians jealous of his gift, away from the fig tree and up into a fine palace. There he was sold to a rich Christian lady who kept him captive and made him learn to play other instruments, never his own. He lived in her chamber, never out of her sight.
So a mother is driven to fill her child’s heart to the brim with love ballads and other fanciful tales, leaving no room for a darker, simpler truth: that an ordinary man can be dragged off in the dark for humming an old prayer in his own street.
And so I lay abed, willing my father to slip out of the pudgy fingers of a bejeweled Christian lady.
“What should we do with his oud?” I asked my mother that May night as she bundled our clothes and sang.
“You’ll carry it. Keep it safe for him. Think how proud he’ll be when he sees you again.”
“But if we leave, how will he find us?”
“By the manner of your playing,” she said.
“But you said it shouldn’t stand out.”
She nodded. “Modesty above all,” she said. “Don’t worry, it will stand out to him.”
The next morning I woke early and went out to play a balancing game on our doorstep. I rolled my bare soles to and fro on the threshold, catching the beat of two tuneless bells that sounded like a pair of fools—one fat, one thin. How I loved the thin bell, so sad and funny and left behind.
A moment later my mother stood beside me. Her warm hand rested on my shoulder. It felt so heavy, I felt stifled, high in my chest, and could not get my breath. I began to squirm.
“Stay here,” she said. And as if to anchor me there, she put two things into my hands: my father’s oud and the key to our front door. She couldn’t find the plectrum, the eagle’s quill for plucking. It had a habit of disappearing, even in good times.
She gave me one last thing: a small cloth bag on a string. This she tied around my neck, tucking the bag well down inside my shirt. “An amulet,” she said. “Good words are hidden inside, with your name, to protect you from the evil eye. Your father wears one all the time, sewn inside his sleeve.”
“Where are you going?”
“Only up to Ana’s for bread.”
Still she stood there, balancing between the lintels with me, rocking to and fro, watching the forlorn parade trickle down our street. Three girls sang a Moorish dance tune as they walked; a grown man beat a tiny drum.
“We’ll leave, too,” she said. “As soon as I get back.”
My father’s coin-pouch dangled from my mother’s wrist. She held her wedding band up between thumb and forefinger. “A loaf of bread for a ring of gold,” she said. Then she kissed her fingers and pressed them to the mezuzah on the wall beside the door. “Your brother’s awake. Don’t fight. What’s out there is much worse.” Then she said, “If soldiers come, you don’t know what they’re saying.”
If only she hadn’t given me the oud to hold. If only she hadn’t said, “Don’t fight,” and had gone off like that, up the street toward that mass of trees that ended, according to my father’s stories, in the gardens of the Nasrids, tucked inside the red fortress itself.
No sooner was she gone than my brother’s warm breath lifted the small hairs of my neck.
“When we are on our way,” said he, “a fat bishop all in red will ask, ‘How much for the pretty little Jew?’ and Mother will let him have you for a second loaf of bread.”
Nani, nani, I sang in my head. One small leap up, and then another, then a little series of half-waterfalls, down and down. The song was a green vine twining up, then down again. The sort of vine you wouldn’t be able to safely sing in the days to come; every eye would narrow, every tongue wag with the old accusations: Aren’t you singing that song in the manner of the Jews?
But not yet. Not in Granada, anyway.
That morning I learned the song by heart, and wove it through my brother’s iron voice like a thread of gold.
But what was taking our mother so long? Ana’s was uphill, and the whole world appeared to be moving down it in a clatter of hoof and wheel. I understood that her errand might take longer than usual, but time seemed to have stopped. I was trapped in the doorway with my brother, while our mother might be in trouble, fighting to get down the street again with her loaf of bread.
“Let me look,” said my brother, nudging me aside. “Which way did she go?”
That’s how it started. I lowered the oud to my side to make it smaller in my brother’s eyes, but with that little shove, its round back struck the doorframe and gave out a hollow boom. Its strings sang out.
“Give it here,” cried my brother. “You’re going to break it.” He narrowed his eyes. “And what’s that around your neck?”
“Nothing,” I said, holding the oud tight—and then I made my mistake. “Besides,” I added. “She asked me.”
He held very still, his face a perfect mask. Then he spoke. “Nothing,” he whined.
“Besides, she asked me.” And he reached for my neck.
I flushed hot and twisted away.
“You’re going to break it,” he cried. And gave me a second push.
I confess it now: As my brother’s hand came off my shoulder, I was filled with pride and rage. Let all the world see how it is with us! I sprang out so hard that the amulet flew out ahead of me on its little string. Let my brother pull me back inside the house, I told myself. Let him beg my forgiveness. And if he doesn’t, let our mother blame him, and hate him forever.
But something was wrong with the street. It had disappeared, turned into an ocean of angry brothers, of too many voices and stinging dust. At the edges of this ocean were other voices, singing and clapping a lively tune. “Hey Jews, pack up your things,” they sang, “for the kings are sending you across the sea!” I craned my neck to see these singers, but a bundle of clothes smacked me in the face, and I only knew I couldn’t let go of my father’s oud, even as I felt my feet lift off the ground, felt myself float up and out on a tide of rough cloth. Higher and higher I rose, until at last I found myself perched on a pair of bony shoulders. A low, gruff voice said, “Only as far as the river.”
When at last I was set down, there was, in fact, a small river. No houses. Just a low stone wall, a few scrubby trees, and a place where clutches of people crossed very slowly on clattering stones, then waded into the stream, holding their children on their shoulders. On the other side, a cloud of dust stretched away across the Vega.
Later I would understand: this was the road to the port at Cadiz. Later I would hear stories of that late spring and summer, my country’s own endless Ninth of Av, though I never knew who or what to believe. The Christian tales were full of mercy, offering baptism to deluded parents, saving children from certain death at the docks. And those who left Spain, surviving the dark rewards prepared for them in other lands only to return and take the sacrament, would speak only of the horrors of the places they’d gone, never of what happened before they left. Once in a while someone whispered a tale of a young man, his head shoved into a basin and smeared with chrism, then in a great act of mercy stabbed to death on the spot so he might go out of this life a Christian. Or of a girl squatting in the weeds, then handing her newborn, smeared in filth and blood, to a passing stranger, so that she herself could lie down and go to sleep in the birth-matter. Old men and old women curled up, too. They put their faces to any wall, or lacking that, the trunk of a tree. There were stories of Cadiz, too. Stories of a fever that cut children down where they stood, their feet already touching the pier. Stories of men who shrugged, grabbed your food and bundle, and pointed you overboard with their swords.
Al this is long past, of course. All the Jews are gone, and our good scribe here is probably too young to have known a single one; a little history will not harm him.
As I waited by the river, a strange girl walked toward me. Her brown arms and legs were dusted white as flour at elbow and knee and she leaned on a staff, patting the air with one hand. I was afraid her hand would find me, and she would beg my help, and I would never get away, so I stepped to one side, and watched her grope in the empty air, watched as she crouched and crawled to the river’s edge, where she began to drink the muddy water. Still I didn’t move. I noticed how the creases in her neck glistened, silver on the dark, and here is a thing I have told no man until now. I imagined putting my tongue there to taste the salt. My skin tingled and I felt a sweet dark thrill.
Then the girl crawled backward, away from the stream. She felt along the bank for her staff, stood and turned to face me. I felt as if she knew everything about me: my cowardly hiding and my urge to touch—oh, even that I had run away from my family in a foolish rage.
That’s when I remembered what my mother had said about the evil eye. Surely this was it. Should I touch the little bag at my neck, or was I supposed to know its words by heart, and recite them now? My mother hadn’t told me what was written there beside my name. So I simply looked down into the river and listened to its gurgling voice. I waited until I heard the soft scrape of her feet on the gravelly bank. The soft pelting. Fading. Gone.
I stayed a while longer, watching the passing groups for any face that would soften when it saw mine. But no one more than glanced. It seemed as if no one would ever look my way again; that in the moment of hiding from the girl I had cursed myself, hidden myself forever from all eyes.
As the people passed by, some sang, and others played on pipes and drums. Other groups went past in silence, and it was in one of these that a man stopped. Surely this man knew my family’s name and would point the way home. But the man only shook his finger, and frowned at my father’s oud. “By the waters of Babylon, we hanged up our harps,” he said. “Silence is the only just reply.”
There was nothing to do but walk back uphill, against the tide, back the way I’d been carried. Yet I recognized nothing I passed. I felt the house key in my pocket. Maybe my mother and brother were still at home, waiting. I pictured my mother standing by the door, holding her frying pan with its child carved from oak—the child with its staff—asking it to tell her not only where her husband had gone, but now her younger son, too.
I saw again, in my mind’s eye, the girl by the river. Was she not all brown with a staff of wood? Heat flooded me, a sudden dizziness. What if she was the child in my mother’s frying pan, come to life to point the way? What if it was I who should have held out my hands to her, led her to drink, and asked the way home?
I stumbled on. Soon there were more houses, with only a few lamps lit in the windows. It was like the evening of a market day, with rotted vegetables and straw scattered everywhere, but other things, too, that didn’t belong: a delicate birdcage, its door standing open, a white tablecloth for Shabbat, a tiny casket full of silver forks. People were in the streets, carrying torches and shouting.
Once that evening I was asked to play my father’s oud—by a group of Christians and their ladies in a mood to dance. The men wore crimson hose and the softest boots; they had clean-shaven faces and slaves to bear their lights. Their women were not properly covered; their shoulders gleamed under those small circles of light, and one of them winked at me, then kept on looking. I chose quickly, the tune I knew best, though it came out slowly without the plectrum, and I was sure, the whole time, the lady would see my fingers trembling and pull me to her breast. But my father had said that this tune, “Calvi vi Calvi,” came from the times of Alfonso the Wise, a Christian king from long ago who loved music no matter who made it. The gentlemen and ladies swayed a little to it, and smiled, and as they left, one of them gave me an orange. This, the winking lady said, will do you more good than coin.
After they were gone I kept walking uphill. Sometimes my legs turned to jelly and I stumbled over nothing at all, but by dusk I found myself in a ravine, with trees rising up on either side, a good place to wait for morning. A moment later my fingers brushed against the trunk of a tree so small I felt its saddle just at shoulder height. I leaned the oud against the trunk, settled myself in the saddle, and reached down for the oud. Once its belly was snug against my own, I peeled and ate my orange, down to the bitter pith. I promised myself that in the morning I would ask the first passerby to point the way home, even if I had to be baptized first.
That’s when I remembered that my mother had only gone up the street to Ana’s for bread. Was it still the same day?
Tomorrow, I told myself, you will hold that sharp crust in your mouth until it melts clear away, crumb after tiny crumb. But child, that’s yesterday’s bread, my mother would say, still angry, and rightly so. She’d be in a terrible hurry, too. But I wouldn’t fight or squirm. If she insisted, I would even let her hold me, very tightly as she used to do, when I was a little child.
I touched the amulet on the string around my neck.
I touched the amulet on the string around my neck.
The sky was black and there were no bells. No wind or human voices or even birds. Only a silence so immense that I heard the faint ringing we carry in our own ears, as we carry the stars beneath the lids of our eyes.