Poetry | ‘Witherstone’ & ‘Aspen’ | By Sudeep Sen

       for Fiona & Peter

The deaf don’t believe in silence.
Silence is the invention of the hearing.
— Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic


In bucolic,       translucent silence, I overhear:
stone-slates aligning themselves
                                    in tiered mosaics —
floor’s varying heights competing
                        with rural mud-grass gradient —
sheep excitedly running downslope
            to greet their master, seeking salmon —
a quartet of chickens in an open shed
   pursing their rear, revealing pink eggshells —
and Wye waters creating an unintentional arc,
                                    verge of an immaculate oxbow.


Sam[p]son and Delilah, Church and State
           jostle, trying to carve their own space —
a map whose coordinates appear flawed —
                       fragmented like old Balkan fissures,
like Brexit’s comedic miscalculations,
           like pandemic’s political mismanagement.
Tudor stone’s past — like a misleading folly —
    gradually withers away history and time
           as erosion’s song-cycle prepares for a coda.
A perfectly-pitched aria or cantata
    calibrates its modulation in this wet heavy air —
the frequencies unsure,
            like a directionless weather vane.


Magnolia’s magnificence in the front garden,
           its regalia in temporary full glory —
before the snow-smitten air bites through its tree-bones.
In the large glass-paned sunroom,
           a long red cylindrical punching bag hangs listlessly
                       waiting for an uppercut to deflect
a dangling modifier — a poet’s primal prerogative.


A red metal kettle in the kitchen, excited by heat,
whistles like an old steam engine on a disused rail track —
           brewing rose, green and white infusions.
As I set aside the coffee story,
the large black cooking range
           mirrors an age-blackened timber lintel.
Therein lie unrevealed, unsaid stories —
           stored within chamfered beam’s wood cracks.           


Wireless signal, desperately elusive here —
the valley’s rough music
                  rearranging the air-waves’ diatonic notes —
its common prayer bridging
                        the geographical distance between us
                                    in this limestone country.


How topography fine tunes our sensibility,
                       landscape reshapes our psyche —
how everyday banalities of potatoes, animal farm,
    persistent rain can soothe our senses to calm —
how simplest of neighbourly gestures
                       cements communal intimacies,
                                                reorienting our dna.


Morse code conveyed in silence —
           skyscape, ever changing,
                       planktons floating on unreliable waves —
their dramatic formulations,
           shape-shifting cumuli,
                                   thermal up-draughts
matching         a local brook’s innocent eddies.


At an abandoned countryside churchyard,
           I pause at each gravestone
to decipher their ornate genealogical etchings —
their looped serifs hold still the heartbeat of many lifetimes.

It’s the kind of clock I want to measure time by —
           time that depends
    on the company of those who care —
                       time minutely layered
on this open windblown Herefordshire terrain —
                                               an expansive canvas roll.


Traversing a four-acre fenced land in borrowed Wellies,
           my pugmarks leave a foreign imprint on this soil.
I find among the muddy squelch,
           a piece of dead bark. Its smooth weatherworn
seductive shape reminds me of an ancient whale,
           its striated sanded-down skin bearing a script
           left undeciphered until now.
I am tempted to decode enjambment’s mystery,
                                                but I resist.


Inside Witherstone,
the well-worn kettle-nozzle tweets again,
           a trio of iPhones peal their pedestrian pings —
I choose not hear this uncoordinated medley.

                                   In my imagined silence,
ceramic cup-stains graph every minute detail,
           letterform’s each ascender and descender ||
                                   as I drink my infinite cups
of bergamot oil infused tea       without haste —
                        slow-staring at the sky’s ash-rose stories.

  for Simi

Gold-orange patina
  imprinted serrated leaves

glow silk — incarnadine
  like russet sunsets.

Foliage slow-shivers —
  every breath, heaving.

Winter-white barks
  studiously slow-burn.

Even forest fires
  cannot conflagrate

the incandescent love
  for my beloved.


Wave after wave,
  the Northern lights’

luminously pirouette
  in polar-cooled wind-

chill — redolent colours
  sculpting translucent

letters in this frozen air —
  a sacrament of faith,

brightly lit. Decoding
  hieroglyph’s lost

lyrics — an exquisitely
  sung ghazal unfolds.


Sudeep Sen’s [www.sudeepsen.org] prize-winning books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Rain, Aria (A. K. Ramanujan Translation Award), Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015 (London Magazine Editions), EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House), and Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms (Bloomsbury). He has edited influential anthologies, including: The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor), World English Poetry, and Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi). Blue Nude: Anthropocene, Ekphrasis & New Poems (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) and The Whispering Anklets are forthcoming. Sen’s works have been translated into over 25 languages. His words have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Newsweek, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Telegraph, Financial Times, Herald, Poetry Review, Literary Review, Harvard Review, Hindu, Hindustan Times, Times of India, Indian Express, Outlook, India Today, and broadcast on bbc, pbs, cnn ibn, ndtv, air & Doordarshan. Sen’s newer work appears in New Writing 15 (Granta), Language for a New Century (Norton), Leela: An Erotic Play of Verse and Art (Collins), Indian Love Poems (Knopf/Random House/Everyman), Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe), Initiate: Oxford New Writing (Blackwell), and Name me a Word (Yale). He is the editorial director of AARK ARTS and the editor of Atlas. Sen is the first Asian honoured to deliver the Derek Walcott Lecture and read at the Nobel Laureate Festival. The Government of India awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture/literature.”

Short Fiction | ‘Mariquita the Bald’ by Juan Eugenio Hartzenbusch | Classical Archives

The notions of vanity, beauty, and self-acceptance are explored and challenged by Juan Eugenio Hartzenbusch in ‘Mariquita the Bald’.

It is as sorry a matter to use words of whose meaning one is ignorant as it is a blemish for a man of sense to speak of what he knows nothing about. I say this to those of you who may have the present story in your hands, however often you may have happened to have heard Mariquita the Bald mentioned, and I swear by my doublet that you shall soon know who Mariquita the Bald was, as well as I know who ate the Christmas turkey, setting aside the surmise that it certainly must have been a mouth.

I desire, therefore, to enlighten your ignorance of this subject, and beg to inform you that the said noted Maria (Mariquita is a diminutive of Maria) was born in the District of Segovia, and in the town of San Garcia, the which town is famed for the beauty of the maidens reared within its walls, who for the most part have such gentle and lovely faces that may I behold such around me at the hour of my death. Maria’s father was an honest farmer, by name Juan Lanas, a Christian old man and much beloved, who had inherited no mean estate from his forefathers, though with but little wit in his crown,—a lack which was the cause of much calamity to both the father and the daughter, for in the times to which we have attained, God forgive me if it is not necessary to have more of the knave than of the fool in one’s composition.

Now it came to pass that Juan Lanas, for the castigation of his sins, must needs commit himself to a lawsuit with one of his neighbors about a vine stock which was worth about fifty maravedis; and Juan was in the right, and the judges gave the verdict in his favor, so that he won his case, excepting that the suit lasted no less than ten years and the costs amounted to nothing less than fifty thousand maravedis, not to speak of a disease of the eyes which, after all was over, left him blind. When he found himself with diminished property and without his eyesight, in sorrow and disgust he turned into money such part of his patrimony as sufficed to rid him of the hungry herd of scriveners and lawyers, and took his way to Toledo with his daughter, who was already entering upon her sixteenth year, and had matured into one of the most beautiful, graceful, and lovable damsels to be found throughout all Castile and the kingdoms beyond.

For she was white as the lily and red like the rose, straight and tall of stature, and slender in the waist, with fair, shapely hips; and again her foot and hand were plump and small to a marvel, and she possessed a head of hair which reached to her knees. For I knew the widow Sarmiento who was their housekeeper, and she told me how she could scarcely clasp Mariquita’s hair with both hands, and that she could not comb the hair unless Maria stood up and the housekeeper mounted on a footstool, for if Maria sat down the long tresses swept the ground, and therefore became all entangled.

And do not imagine, her beauty and grace being such, that she sinned greatly in pride and levity, as is the wont of girls in this age. She was as humble as a cloistered lay-sister, and as silent as if she were not a woman, and patient as the sucking lamb, and industrious as the ant, clean as the ermine, and pure as a saint of those times in which, by the grace of the Most High, saintly women were born into the world. But I must confide to you in friendship that our Mariquita was not a little vain about her hair, and loved to display it, and for this reason, now in the streets, now when on a visit, now when at mass, it is said she used to subtilely loosen her mantilla so that her tresses streamed down her back, the while feigning forgetfulness and carelessness. She never wore a hood, for she said it annoyed her and choked her; and every time that her father reproached her for some deed deserving of punishment and threatened to cut off her hair, I warrant you she suffered three times more than after a lash from the whip, and would then be good for three weeks successively; so much so that Juan Lanas, perceiving her amendment, would laugh under his cloak, and when saying his say to his gossips would tell them that his daughter, like the other saint of Sicily, would reach heaven by her hair.

Having read so far, you must now know that Juan Lanas, the blind man, with the change of district and dwelling did not change his judgment and if he was crack-brained at San Garcia, he remained crack-brained at Toledo, consuming in this resort his money upon worthless drugs and quacks which did not cure his blindness and impoverished him more and more every day, so that if his daughter had not been so dexterous with her fingers in making and broidering garments of linen, wool, and silk, I promise you that this miserable Juan would have had to go for more than four Sundays without a clean shirt to put on or a mouthful to eat, unless he had begged it from door to door.

The years passed by to find Maria every day more beautiful, and her father every day more blind and more desirous to see, until his affliction and trouble took such forcible possession of his breast and mind, that Maria saw as clear as daylight that if her father did not recover his sight, he would die of grief. Maria thereupon straightway took her father and led him to the house of an Arabian physician of great learning who dwelt at Toledo, and told the Moor to see if there were any cure for the old man’s sight. The Arabian examined and touched Juan, and made this and that experiment with him, and everything prospered, in that the physician swore great oaths by the heel-bone of Mohammed that there was a complete certainty of curing Juan and making him to see his daughter again, if only he, the physician, were paid for the cure with five hundred maravedis all in gold. A sad termination for such a welcome beginning, for the two unhappy creatures, Juan and Maria, had neither maravedi nor cuarto in the money box! So they went thence all downcast, and Maria never ceased praying to his Holiness Saint John and his Holiness Saint James (the patron saint of Spain) to repair to their assistance in this sad predicament.

“In what way,” conjectured she inwardly, “in what way can I raise five hundred maravedis to be quits with the Moor who will give back his sight to my poor old father? All! I have it. I am a pretty maid, and suitors innumerable, commoners and nobles, pay their addresses and compliments to me. But all are trifling youths who only care for love-making and who seek light o’ loves rather than spouses according to the law of the Lord Jesus Christ. I remember, notwithstanding, that opposite our house lives the sword-cutler, Master Palomo, who is always looking at me and never speaks to me, and the Virgin assist me, he appears a man of very good condition for a husband; but what maiden, unless she were cross-eyed, or hunch-backed, could like a man with such a flat nose, with that skin the color of a ripe date, with those eyes like a dead calf’s, and with those huge hands, which are more like the paws of a wild beast that the belongings of a person who with them should softly caress the woman whom Destiny bestows upon him for a companion? ‘Tis said that he is no drunkard, nor cudgeler, nor dallier with women, nor a liar, and that he is besides possessed of much property and very rich. Pity ’tis that one who is so ugly and stiff-necked should unite such parts.”

Thus turning the matter over and over in her mind, Maria together with Juan reached their home, where was awaiting them an esquire in a long mourning robe, who told Maria that the aunt of the mayor of the city had died in an honest estate and in the flower of her age, for she had not yet completed her seventy years, and that the obsequies of this sexagenarian damsel were to be performed the following day, on which occasion her coffin would be carried to the church by maidens, and he was come to ask Maria if she would please to be one of the bearers of the dead woman, for which she would receive a white robe, and to eat, and ducat, and thanks into the bargain.

Maria, since she was a well-brought-up maid, replied that if it seemed well to her father, it would also seem well to her.

Juan accepted, and Maria was rejoiced to be able to make a display of her hair, for it is well known that the maidens who bear one another to the grave walk with disheveled locks. And when on the morrow the tiring-women of the mayoress arrayed Maria in a robe white as the driven snow and fine as the skin of an onion; and when they girt her slender waist with a sash of crimson silk, the ends of which hung down to the broad hem of the skirt; and when they crowned her smooth and white forehead with a wreath of white flowers, I warrant you that, what with the robe and the sash and the wreath, and the beautiful streaming hair and her lovely countenance and gracious mien, she seemed no female formed of flesh and blood, but a superhuman creature or blessed resident of those shining circles in which dwell the celestial hierarchies. The mayor and the other mourners stepped forth to see her, and all unceasingly praised God, who was pleased to perform such miracles for the consolation and solace of those living in this world.

And there in a corner of the hall, motionless like a heap of broken stones, stood one of the mutes with the hood of his long cloak covering his head, so that nothing could be seen but his eyes, the which he kept fixed on the fair damsel. The latter modestly lowered her eyes to the ground with her head a little bent and her cheeks red for bashfulness, although it pleased her no little to hear the praises of her beauty. At this moment a screen was pushed aside, and there began to appear a huge bulk of petticoats, which was nothing less than the person of the mayoress, for she was with child and drawing near to her time. And when she saw Maria, she started, opened her eyes a hand’s-breadth wide, bit her lips, and called hurriedly for her husband. They stepped aside for a good while, and then hied them thence, and when they returned the mutes and maidens had all gone.

While they were burying the defunct lady I must tell you, curious readers, that the mayor and mayoress had been married for many years without having any children, and they longed for them like the countryman for rain in the month of May, and at last her hour of bliss came to the mayoress, to the great content of her husband. Now, it was whispered that the said lady had always been somewhat capricious; judge for yourselves what she would be now in the time of her pregnancy! And as she was already on the way to fifty, she was more than mediocrely bald and hairless, and on these very same days had commissioned a woman barber, who lived in the odor of witchcraft, to prepare for her some false hair, but it was not to be that of a dead woman, for the mayoress said very sensibly that if the hair belonged to a dead woman who rejoiced in supreme glory, or was suffering for her sins in purgatory, it would be profanation to wear any pledge of theirs, and if they were in hell, it was a terrible thing to wear on one’s person relics of one of the damned. And when the mayoress saw the abundant locks of Maria, she coveted them for herself, and it was for this reason that she called to the mayor to speak to her in private and besought him eagerly to persuade Mario to allow herself to be shorn upon the return from the burial.

“I warn you,” said the mayor, “that you are desirous of entering upon a very knotty bargain, for the disheveled girl idolizes her hair in such wise that she would sooner lose a finger than suffer one of her tresses to be cut off.”

“I warn you,” replied the mayoress, “that if on this very day the head of this young girl is not shorn smooth beneath my hand as a melon, the child to which I am about to give birth will have a head of hair on its face, and if it happens to be a female, look you, a pretty daughter is in store for you!”

“But bethink yourself that Maria will ask, who knows, a good few crowns for this shaving.”

“Bethink yourself that if not, your heir or heiress, begotten after many years’ marriage, will come amiss; and bear in mind, by the way, that we are not so young as to hope to replace this by another.”

Upon this she turned her back to the mayor, and went to her apartment crying out: “I want the hair, I must have the hair, and if I do not get the hair, by my halidom I shall never become a mother.”

In the meantime the funeral had taken place without any novelty to mention, excepting that if in the streets any loose fellow in the crowd assayed to annoy the fair Maria, the hooded mute, of whom we made mention before, quickly drew from beneath his cloak a strap, with which he gave a lash to the insolent rogue without addressing one word to him, and then walked straight on as if nothing had happened. When all the mourners returned, the mayor seized hold of Maria’s hand and said to her:

“And now, fair maid, let us withdraw for a little while into this other apartment,” and thus talking whilst in motion he brought her into his wife’s private tiring-room, and sat himself down in a chair and bent his head and stroked his beard with the mien of one who is studying what beginning to give his speech. Maria, a little foolish and confused, remained standing in front of the mayor, and she also humbly lowered before him her eyes, black as the sloe; and to occupy herself with something, gently fingered the ends of the sash, which girded her waist and hung down over her skirt, not knowing what to expect from the grave mien and long silence of the mayor, who, raising his eyes and looking up at Maria, when he beheld her in so modest a posture, devised thence a motive with which to begin, saying:

“Forsooth, Maria, so modest and sanctimonious is thy bearing, that it is easy to see thou art preparing thyself to become a black-wimpled nun. And if it be so, as I presume it to be, I now offer of my own accord to dispose of thy entry into the cloisters without any dowry, on the condition that thou dost give me something that thou hast on thy head, and which then will not be necessary for thee.”

“Nay, beshrew me, Sir Mayor,” replied Maria, “for I durst not think that the Lord calls upon me to take that step, for then my poor father would remain in the world without the staff of his old age.”

“Then, now, I desire to give thee some wise counsel, maid Maria. Thou dost gain thy bread with great fatigue. Thou shouldst make use of thy time as much as is possible. Now one of thy neighbors hath told me that in the dressing of thy hair thou dost waste every day more than an hour. It would be better far if thou didst spend this hour on thy work rather than in the dressing and braiding which thou dost to thy hair.”

“That is true, Sir Mayor,” replied Maria, turning as red as a carnation, “but, look you, it is not my fault if I have a wealth of tresses, the combing and plaiting of which necessitate so long a time every morning.”

“I tell thee it is thy fault,” retorted the mayor, “for if thou didst cut off this mane, thou wouldst save thyself all this combing and plaiting, and thus wouldst have more time for work, and so gain more money, and wouldst also give no occasion to people to call thee vain. They even say that the devil will some day carry thee off by thy hair. Nay, do not be distressed, for I already perceive the tears gathering in thine eyes, for thou hast them indeed very ready at hand; I admonish thee for thine own good without any self-interest. Cut thy hair off, shear thyself, shave thyself, good Maria, and to allay the bitterness of the shearing, I will give fifty maravedis, always on condition that thou dost hand me over the hair.”

When Maria at first heard this offer of so reasonable a sum for this her hair, it seemed to her a jest of the mayor’s, and she smiled right sweetly while she dried her tears, repeating:

“You will give me fifty maravedis if I shave myself?”

Now it appeared to the mayor (who, it is said, was not gifted with all the prudence of Ulysses) that the smile signified that the maid was not satisfied with so small a price, and he added:

“If thou wilt not be content with fifty maravedis, I will give thee a hundred.”

Then Maria saw some hangings of the apartment moving in front of her, and perceiving a bulky protuberance, she immediately divined that the mayoress was hiding behind there, and that the protuberance was caused by her portly form. Now she discovered the mayor’s design, and that it was probably a caprice of his spouse, and she made a vow not to suffer herself to be shorn unless she acquired by these means the five hundred maravedis needful to pay the Arabian physician who would give her father back his eyesight.

Then the mayor raised his price from a hundred maravedis to a hundred and fifty, and afterwards to two hundred, and Maria continued her sweet smiling, shaking of the head, and gestures, and every time that the mayor bid higher and Maria feigned to be reluctant, she almost hoped that the mayor would withdraw from his proposition, for the great grief it caused her to despoil herself of that precious ornament, notwithstanding that my means of it she might gain her father’s health. Finally the mayor, anxious to conclude the treaty, for he saw the stirring of the curtains, and knew by them the anxiety and state of mind of the listener, closed by saying:

“Go to, hussy, I will give thee five hundred maravedis. See, once and for all, if thou canst agree on these terms.”

“Be it so,” replied Maria, sighing as if her soul would flee from her flesh with these words—”be it so, so long that nobody doth know that I remain bald.”

“I will give my word for it,” said the mayoress, stepping from behind the curtains with a pair of sharp shears in her hands and a wrapper over her arm.

When Maria saw the scissors she turned as yellow as wax, and when they told her to sit down on the sacrificial chair, she felt herself grow faint and had to ask for a drink of water; and when they tied the wrapper round her throat it is related that she would have immediately torn it asunder if her courage had not failed her. And when at the first movement of the shears she felt the cold iron against her skull, I tell you it seemed to her as if they were piercing her heart with a bright dagger. It is possible that she did not keep her head still for a moment while this tonsuring was taking place; she moved it in spite of herself, now to one side, now to another, to flee from the clipping scissors, of which the rude cuts and the creaking axis wounded her ears. Her posture and movements, however, were of no avail to the poor shorn maiden, and the pertinacious shearer, with the anxiety and covetousness of a pregnant woman satisfying a caprice, seized the hair well, or ill, by handfuls, and went on bravely clipping, and the locks fell on to the white wrapper, slipping down thence till they reached the ground.

At last the business came to an end, and the mayoress, who was beside herself with joy, caressingly passed the palm of her hand again and again over the maid’s bald head from the front to the back, saying:

“By my mother’s soul, I have shorn you so regularly and close to the root that the most skilful barber could not have shorn you better. Get up and braid the hair while my husband goes to get the money and I your clothes, so that you can leave the house without anyone perceiving it.”

The mayor and mayoress went out of the room, and Maria, as soon as she found herself alone, went to look at herself in a mirror that hung there; and when she saw herself bald she lost the patience she had had until then, and groaned with rage and struck herself, and even tried to wrench off her ears, which appeared to her now outrageously large, although they were not so in reality. She stamped upon her hair and cursed herself for having ever consented to lose it, without remembering her father, and just as if she had no father at all. But as it is a quality of human nature to accept what cannot be altered, poor angry Maria calmed down little by little, and she picked up the hair from the ground and bound it together and braided it into great ropes, not without kissing it and lamenting over it many times.

The mayor and the mayoress returned, he with the money and she with the every-day clothes of Maria, who undressed and folded her white robe in a kerchief, put on her old gown, hid herself with her shawl to the eyes, and walked, moaning, to the house of the Moor, without noticing that the man with the hood over his head was following behind her, and that when she, in a moment of forgetfulness, lowered her shawl through the habit she had of displaying her tresses, her bald head could be plainly seen. The Moor received the five hundred maravedis with that good-will with which money is always received, and told Maria to bring Juan Lanas to his house to stay there so long as there was any risk in the cure. Maria went to fetch the old man, and kept silence as to her shorn head so as not to grieve him, and whilst Juan remained the physician’s guest, Maria durst not leave her home except after nightfall, and then well enveloped. This, however, did not hinder her being followed by the muffled-up man.

One evening the Moor told her in secret that the next morning he would remove the bandages from Juan’s eyes. Maria went to bed that night with great rejoicing, but thought to herself that when her father saw her (which would be with no little pleasure) he would be pleased three or four times more if he could see her with the pretty head-dress which she used to wear in her native town. Amidst such cavillation she donned the next day her best petticoat and ribbons to his to the Arabian’s house; and while she was sitting down to shoe herself she of a sudden felt something like a hood closing over her head, and, turning round, she saw behind her the muffled-up man of before, who, throwing aside his cloak, discovered himself to be the sword-cutler, Master Palomo, who, without speaking, presented Maria with a little Venetian mirror, in which she looked and saw herself with her own hair and garb in such wise that she wondered for a good time if it were not a dream that the mayoress had shorn her.

The fact was that Master Palomo was a great crony of the old woman barber, and had seen in her house Maria’s tresses on the very same afternoon of the morning in which he saw Maria was bald, and keeping silence upon the matter, had wheedled the old woman into keeping Maria’s hair for him, and dressing for the mayoress some other hair of the same hue which the crone had from a dead woman—a bargain by which the crafty old dame acquired many a bright crown. And the story relates that as soon as Maria regained her much lamented and sighed-for hair by the hands of the gallant sword-cutler, the master appeared to her much less ugly than before. I do not know if it tells that from that moment she began to look on him with more favorable eyes, but i’ sooth it is a fact that upon his asking her to accept his escort to the Moor’s house, she gave her assent, and the two set out hand in hand, the maiden holding her head up free from mufflers. As they both entered the physician’s apartment her father threw himself into Maria’s arms, crying:

“Glory to God, I see thee now, my beloved daughter. How tall and beautiful thou art grown! Verily, it is worth while to become blind for five years to see one’s daughter matured thus! Now that I see daylight again, it is only right that I should no longer be a burden to thee. I shall work for myself, for as for thee it is already time for thee to marry.”

“For this very purpose am I come,” broke in at this opportune moment the silent sword-cutler; “I, as you will have already recognized by my voice, am your neighbor, Master Palomo. I love Maria, and ask you for her hand.”

“Lack-a-day, master, but your exterior is not very prepossessing. Howbeit, if Maria doth accept you, I am content.”

“I,” replied Maria, wholly abashed, and smoothing the false hair (which then weighed upon her head and heart like a burden of five hundred weight)—”I, so may God enlighten me, for I durst not venture to reply.”

Palomo took her right hand without saying anything, and as he did so Maria looked at the master’s wrists, and observed the wristbands of his shirt, neatly embroidered, and with some suspicion and beating of her heart said to him:

“If you wish to please me, good neighbor, tell me by what seamstress is this work?”

“It is the work,” replied the master, jocularly, “the work of a pretty maiden who for five years has toiled for my person, albeit she hath not known it till now.”

“Now I perceive,” said Maria, “how that all the women who have come to give me linen to sew and embroider were sent by you, and that is why they paid me more than is customary.”

The master did not reply, but he smiled and held out his arms to Maria. Maria threw herself into them, embracing him very caressingly; and Juan himself said to the two:

“In good sooth, you are made one for the other.”

“By my troth, my beloved one,” continued the sword-cutler after a while, “if my countenance had only been more pleasing, I should not have been silent towards you for so many long days, nor would I have been content with, gazing at you from afar. I should have spoken to you, you would have made me the confidant of your troubles, and I would have given you the five hundred maravedis for the cure of your good father.”

And whispering softly into her ear, he added: “And then you would not have passed that evil moment under the hands of the mayoress. But if you fear that she may break the promise she made to you to keep silence as to your cropped head, let us, if it please you, set out for Seville, where nobody knows you, and thus—”

“No more,” exclaimed Maria, resolutely throwing on the ground the hair, which Juan picked up all astonished. “Send this hair to the mayoress, since it was for this and not for that of the dead woman that she paid so dearly. For I, to cure myself of my vanity, now make a vow, with your good permission, to go shorn all my life. Such artificial adornments are little befitting to the wives of honest burghers.”

“But rely upon it,” replied the master-cutler, “that as soon as it is known that you have no hair, the girls of the city, envious of your beauty, will give you the nickname of Mariquita the Bald!”

“They may do so,” replied Maria, “and that they may see that I do not care a fig for this or any other nickname, I swear to you that from this day forth I will not suffer anybody to call me by another name than Mariquita the Bald.”

This was the event that rendered so famous throughout all Castile the beautiful daughter of good Juan Lanas, who in effect married Master Palomo, and became one of the most honorable and prolific women of the most illustrious city of Toledo.

Short fiction | ‘First Love’ by Emilia Pardo-Bazan | Classical Archives

Emilia Pardo-Bazan tells a compelling and unique story of a child in love. “First Love” explores the themes of young romance, coming-of-age and self-discovery. With a tinge of humour, it is a playful piece of fiction sure to leave you reminiscing of your first love.

How old was I then? Eleven or twelve years? More probably thirteen, for before then is too early to be seriously in love; but I won’t venture to be certain, considering that in Southern countries the heart matures early, if that organ is to blame for such perturbations.

If I do not remember well when, I can at least say exactly how my first love revealed itself. I was very fond—as soon as my aunt had gone to church to perform her evening devotions—of slipping into her bedroom and rummaging her chest of drawers, which she kept in admirable order. Those drawers were to me a museum; in them I always came across something rare or antique, which exhaled an archaic and mysterious scent, the aroma of the sandalwood fans which perfumed her white linen. Pin-cushions of satin now faded; knitted mittens, carefully wrapped in tissue paper; prints of saints; sewing materials; a reticule of blue velvet embroidered with bugles, an amber and silver rosary would appear from the corners: I used to ponder over them, and return them to their place. But one day—I remember as well as if it were today—in the corner of the top drawer, and lying on some collars of old lace, I saw something gold glittering—I put in my hand, unwittingly crumpled the lace, and drew out a portrait, an ivory miniature, about three inches long, in a frame of gold.

I was struck at first sight. A sunbeam streamed through the window and fell upon the alluring form, which seemed to wish to step out of its dark background and come towards me. It was the most lovely creature, such as I had never seen except in the dreams of my adolescence. The lady of the portrait must have been some twenty odd years; she was no simple maiden, no half-opened rosebud, but a woman in the full resplendency of her beauty. Her face was oval, but not too long, her lips full, half-open and smiling, her eyes cast a languishing side-glance, and she had a dimple on her chin as if formed by the tip of Cupid’s playful finger. Her head-dress was strange but elegant; a compact group of curls plastered conewise one over the other covered her temples, and a basket of braided hair rose on the top of her head. This old-fashioned head-dress, which was trussed up from the nape of her neck, disclosed all the softness of her fresh young throat, on which the dimple of her chin was reduplicated more vaguely and delicately.

As for the dress—I do not venture to consider whether our grandmothers were less modest than our wives are, or if the confessors of past times were more indulgent than those of the present; I am inclined to think the latter, for seventy years ago women prided themselves upon being Christianlike and devout, and would not have disobeyed the director of their conscience in so grave and important a matter. What is undeniable is, that if in the present day any lady were to present herself in the garb of the lady of the portrait, there would be a scandal; for from her waist (which began at her armpits) upwards, she was only veiled by light folds of diaphanous gauze, which marked out, rather than covered, two mountains of snow, between which meandered a thread of pearls. With further lack of modesty she stretched out two rounded arms worthy of Juno, ending in finely molded hands—when I say hands I am not exact, for, strictly speaking, only one hand could be seen, and that held a richly embroidered handkerchief.

Even today I am astonished at the startling effect which the contemplation of that miniature produced upon me, and how I remained in ecstasy, scarcely breathing, devouring the portrait with my eyes. I had already seen here and there prints representing beautiful women. It often happened that in the illustrated papers, in the mythological engravings of our dining-room, or in a shop-window, that a beautiful face, or a harmonious and graceful figure attracted my precociously artistic gaze. But the miniature encountered in my aunt’s drawer, apart from its great beauty, appeared to me as if animated by a subtle and vital breath; you could see it was not the caprice of a painter, but the image of a real and actual person of flesh and blood. The warm and rich tone of the tints made you surmise that the blood was tepid beneath that mother-of-pearl skin. The lips were slightly parted to disclose the enameled teeth; and to complete the illusion there ran round the frame a border of natural hair, chestnut in color, wavy and silky, which had grown on the temples of the original.

As I have said, it was more than a copy, it was the reflection of a living person from whom I was only separated by a wall of glass.—I seized it, breathed upon it, and it seemed to me that the warmth of the mysterious deity communicated itself to my lips and circulated through my veins. At this moment I heard footsteps in the corridor. It was my aunt returning from her prayers. I heard her asthmatic cough, and the dragging of her gouty feet. I had only just time to put the miniature into the drawer, shut it, and approach the window, adopting an innocent and indifferent attitude.

My aunt entered noisily, for the cold of the church had exasperated her catarrh, now chronic. Upon seeing me, her wrinkled eyes brightened, and giving me a friendly tap with her withered hand, she asked me if I had been turning over her drawers as usual.

Then, with a chuckle:

“Wait a bit, wait a bit,” she added, “I have something for you, something you will like.”

And she pulled out of her vast pocket a paper bag, and out of the bag three or four gum lozenges, sticking together in a cake, which gave me a feeling of nausea.

My aunt’s appearance did not invite one to open one’s mouth and devour these sweets: the course of years, her loss of teeth, her eyes dimmed to an unusual degree, the sprouting of a mustache or bristles on her sunken-in mouth, which was three inches wide, dull gray locks fluttering above her sallow temples, a neck flaccid and livid as the crest of the turkey when in a good temper.—In short, I did not take the lozenges. Ugh! A feeling of indignation, a manly protest rose in me, and I said forcibly:

“I do not want it, I don’t want it.”

“You don’t want it? What a wonder! You who are greedier than a cat!”

“I am not a little boy,” I exclaimed, drawing myself up, and standing on tiptoes; “I don’t care for sweets.”

My aunt looked at me half good-humoredly and half ironically, and at last, giving way to the feeling of amusement I caused her, burst out laughing, by which she disfigured herself, and exposed the horrible anatomy of her jaws. She laughed so heartily that her chin and nose met, hiding her lips, and emphasizing two wrinkles, or rather two deep furrows, and more than a dozen lines on her cheeks and eyelids; at the same time her head and body shook with the laughter, until at last her cough began to interrupt the bursts, and between laughing and coughing the old lady involuntarily spluttered all over my face. Humiliated, and full of disgust, I escaped rapidly thence to my mother’s room, where I washed myself with soap and water, and began to muse on the lady of the portrait.

And from that day and hour I could not keep my thoughts from her. As soon as my aunt went out, to slip into her room, open the drawer, bring out the miniature, and lose myself in contemplation, was the work of a minute. By dint of looking at it, I fancied that her languishing eyes, through the voluptuous veiling, of her eyelashes, were fixed in mine, and that her white bosom heaved. I became ashamed to kiss her, imagining she would be annoyed at my audacity, and only pressed her to my heart or held her against my cheek. All my actions and thoughts referred to the lady; I behaved towards her with the most extraordinary refinement and super-delicacy. Before entering my aunt’s room and opening the longed-for drawer, I washed, combed my hair, and tidied myself, as I have seen since is usually done before repairing to a love appointment.

I often happened to meet in the street other boys of my age, very proud of their slip of a sweetheart, who would exultingly show me love-letters, photographs, and flowers, and who asked me if I hadn’t a sweetheart with whom to correspond. A feeling of inexplicable bashfulness tied my tongue, and I only replied with an enigmatic and haughty smile. And when they questioned me as to what I thought of the beauty of their little maidens, I would shrug my shoulders and disdainfully call them ugly mugs.

One Sunday I went to play in the house of some little girl-cousins, really very pretty, the eldest of whom was not yet fifteen. We were amusing ourselves looking into a stereoscope, when suddenly one of the little girls, the youngest, who counted twelve summers at most, secretly seized my hand, and in some confusion and blushing as red as a brazier, whispered in my ear:

“Take this.”

At the same time I felt in the palm of my hand something soft and fresh, and saw that it was a rosebud with its green foliage. The little girl ran away smiling and casting a side-glance at me; but I, with a Puritanism worthy of Joseph, cried out in my turn:

“Take this!”

And I threw the rosebud at her nose, a rebuff which made her tearful and pettish with me the whole afternoon, and for which she has not pardoned me even now, though she is married and has three children.

The two or three hours which my aunt spent morning and evening together at church being too short for my admiration of the entrancing portrait, I resolved at last to keep the miniature in my pocket, and went about all day hiding myself from people just as if I had committed some crime. I fancied that the portrait from the depth of its prison of cloth could see all my actions, and I arrived at such a ridiculous extremity, that if I wanted to scratch myself, pull up my sock, or do anything else not in keeping with the idealism of my chaste love, I first drew out the miniature, put it in a safe place, and then considered myself free to do whatever I wanted. In fact, since I had accomplished the theft, there was no limit to my vagaries. At night I hid it under the pillow, and slept in an attitude of defense; the portrait remained near the wall, I outside, and I awoke a thousand times, fearing somebody would come to bereave me of my treasure. At last I drew it from beneath the pillow and slipped it between my nightshirt and left breast, on which the following day could be seen the imprint of the chasing of the frame.

The contact of the dear miniature gave me delicious dreams. The lady of the portrait, not in effigy, but in her natural size and proportions, alive, graceful, affable, beautiful, would come towards me to conduct me to her palace by a rapid and flying train. With sweet authority she would make me sit on a stool at her feet, and would pass her beautifully molded hand over my head, caressing my brow, my eyes, and loose curls. I read to her out of a big missal, or played the lute, and she deigned to smile, thanking me for the pleasure which my reading and songs gave her. At last romantic reminiscences overflowed in my brain, and sometimes I was a page, and sometimes a troubadour.

With all these fanciful ideas, the fact is that I began to grow thin quite perceptibly, which was observed with great disquietude in my parents and my aunt.

“In this dangerous and critical age of development, everything is alarming,” said my father, who used to read books of medicine, and anxiously studied my dark eyelids, my dull eyes, my contracted and pale lips, and above all, the complete lack of appetite which had taken possession of me.

“Play, boy; eat, boy,” he would say to me, and I replied to him, dejectedly:

“I don’t feel inclined.”

They began to talk of distractions, offered to take me to the theatre; stopped my studies, and gave me foaming new milk to drink. Afterwards they poured cold water over my head and back to fortify my nerves; and I noticed that my father at table or in the morning when I went to his bedroom to bid him good morning, would gaze at me fixedly for some little time, and would sometimes pass his hand down my spine, feeling the vertebrae. I hypocritically lowered my eyes, resolved to die rather than confess my crime. As soon as I was free from the affectionate solicitude of my family, I found myself alone with my lady of the portrait. At last, to get nearer to her, I thought I would do away with the cold crystal. I trembled upon putting this into execution; but at last my love prevailed over the vague fear with which such a profanation filled me, and with skilful cunning I succeeded in pulling away the glass and exposing the ivory plate. As I pressed my lips to the painting I could scent the slight fragrance of the border of hair, I imagined to myself even more realistically that it was a living person whom I was grasping with my trembling hands. A feeling of faintness overpowered me, and I fell unconscious on the sofa, tightly holding the miniature.

When I came to my senses I saw my father, my mother, and my aunt, all bending anxiously over me; I read their terror and alarm in their faces; my father was feeling my pulse, shaking his head, and murmuring:

“His pulse is nothing but a flutter, you can scarcely feel it.”

My aunt, with her claw-like fingers, was trying to take the portrait from me, and I was mechanically hiding it and grasping it more firmly.

“But, my dear boy—let go, you are spoiling it!” she exclaimed. “Don’t you see you are smudging it? I am not scolding you, my dear.—I will show it to you as often as you like, but don’t destroy it; let go, you are injuring it.”

“Let him have it,” begged my mother, “the boy is not well.”

“Of all things to ask!” replied the old maid. “Let him have it! And who will paint another like this—or make me as I was then? Today nobody paints miniatures—it is a thing of the past, and I also am a thing of the past, and I am not what is represented there!”

My eyes dilated with horror; my fingers released their hold on the picture. I don’t know how I was able to articulate:

“You—the portrait—is you?”

“Don’t you think I am as pretty now, boy? Bah! one is better looking at twenty-three than at—than at—I don’t know what, for I have forgotten how old I am!”

My head drooped and I almost fainted again; anyway, my father lifted me in his arms on to the bed, and made me swallow some tablespoonfuls of port.

I recovered very quickly, and never wished to enter my aunt’s room again.