from The Inquisitor’s Tongue

Alan Singer




I was my twin brother’s image of myself. My face is longish, brownish, with a nose that cuts the air snappishly. High cheekbones to offset the appearance of such rapier protuberance. The nose has almost no bridge. The eyes thus deeply set are brown, velveteen. It is a brown that women have praised for its “luxuriousness.” The hair is as jet as the pupils. The brown and the black scintillate in darkling harmony. Lips full and wide and unexpectedly so when they succumb to smiling. An air of seriousness prevails most of the time. It is a gift of the dark hue. 

When I call our family life a mystery I don’t claim to possess its secret. We were deceivers of course. Conversos. We were the converted. We professed ourselves to be other than we were. No longer the Jew, though the name must never be mentioned, not to say breathed in all its tell-tale odor. We appeared otherwise. In dress, in act, in speech. Sanctioned by law to be deceivers. The question in such cases is whom do they deceive more, the world through which they make safe passage by their deception, or their consequently ever more dangerous selves? Vigilance is the pressure behind the knife-blade of that question. They live with it always at their throat.

And now there is a leg. The blade that severed it was sharper and heavier to be sure. But it is also a question. Severed at the hip and crooked at the knee the leg resembles nothing so much as a question mark inscribed upon my doorstep.

It is not the leg of my brother, though it arrived within a day of my news that he was dead. Such wicked punctuation. But what was the question? Was it being asked of me? Or was I being prompted to ask myself? And who would then answer?

What I feared most was its being merely what it was, a token of flesh and bone. No part of the body that might have thought upon how it looked was in evidence. And judging by the elegant turquoise drapery of the single embroidered pantaloon, the radiant show of gilt stocking shimmering between the hem of the pant and the height of the boot, the purplish luster of the boot-leather cuffed above the knee, the exaltedness of its heel, I imagined what intense scrutiny the looking glass that held this body last in its slippery embrace would have inspired for the one who beheld himself there. Thinking: that’s what I look like.

It was clearly up to me to think about what it meant. A severed leg must be a question, even if it were straight as an exclamation!  Was it a warning that I should run while my leg could carry that thought? Was I already falling under the shadow of a blade held aloft by my brother’s enemy, my enemy? A highly placed advisor to the Cardinal of Sevilla has enemies in proportion to what intimacy with power he enjoys. My brother never masked his enjoyment. To be a Converso renders susceptibility to such envy an ever more convulsive twitch of the via nervosa. It is the way of the Converso to understand this.  And I know what every Converso knows, like the release of some luminous gastric juice flaming in the gut without warning: that one is already found out by those whose hatred one has so hideously aped in order to elude it. And so I begin to think that I am finally recognizable to myself as a dead man. Am I not already recognizable as my twin brother? What worse portent must I, clandestine Talmudicist that I am, decipher?

Yes, I am a dabbler in mysterious books, books more forbidden than the name of the god forsworn in their pages by brilliant encodings. How apt that I am the scion of a mysterious family harboring the double-meaning of twin brothers like its own codex. The key to the code is even more elusive. For I am neither the apparition of the Jew nor a believer in the very black magic whose secret I protect with a disciplined mastery. I keep myself secret from myself by this convolution of my faith. Would my brother have sought to understand me if he had lived to discover this, my most perverse private practice? Or would he have sought to correct the angle of the mirror to safeguard our fragile reality?

As I say, the leg is a question mark. 

But there is nothing more to be said of it. Something must be done.  I had decided.

I determined to approach the leg. Hearing my chary step ring as feebly as the tapping of the blind beggar’s stick, I wished for the cloak of an impenetrable darkness as protection against the deed that was before me. Who would want to see it? Who would want to go closer? But I couldn’t escape it. The limb was not even within my queasy reach before the tapping of the blind man’s stick had set up a grisly resonance in my arms. The unflexed muscles, the bicep and the forearm, even the ligaments that made a small harmonium of my whistling rib cage were gruesomely prescient with the ghostly weight of that portion of the body meant to support its whole heaviness. If I took another step I would feel it most in the leg, a nibbling at the kneecap, a lightness to the foot that was the furthest thing from a dance-step. I was already toppling from the precipice of my stomach.

It was by that involuntary motion that I stooped, now close enough to take the leg into my already shivering embrace.

And how can I describe the touch? I stooped even lower. I reached for the jointed section. You might have thought I was about to casually swing it over my shoulder. But lifting it I felt a gentle jaw bite softly upon my hand where the knee joint closed. It was that limber with the life that was so garishly missing. Its breath, so warm upon my grip, told me how recent was its dismemberment. 

So the leg held me as much as I held it.

 I would have to think about this. It was certainly dead. But how was it so alive? I might have been face to face with its phantom personage stammering an introduction of my trembling self. But it was no more meaningful than if I were addressing myself to a dog with the pat of my hand. So I carried it. I would not keep it in my rooms.

I carried it into the street like a sleepwalker. I can barely picture it myself, so I might have been dreaming. But I remember feeling the cool shade of the arcaded courtyard in which I dwelt pushed back from my forehead like a hood by the brusque heat of the sun advancing to the meridian. In broad daylight I was a man fully dressed for the business of the world. Walking. Cradling a severed leg in my arms. Its hinged extension was as awag as a puppy struggling to be free from my grip. And yet no one looked upon me. They averted pale faces. No crowd gathered, not even a gaggle of roistering street urchins arrived to taunt me with rude gestures or hard stones. 

And as I progressed down the narrow street I began to hear my footsteps as if they were following me. Those whom I passed had let their abruptly averted gazes be drawn into the slack shadows hanging curtain-like upon the facades of houses and store fronts where under that cover of shade they then stood stock still. Horses tethered to their posts are more animate. A street of statues. I might have been a noble general upon horseback myself, strutting past the heroes of the nation immortalized in stone on either side, already feeling the bevel of the sculptor’s chisel  at the base of my neck. Weren’t all eyes upon me, even if the cheering chorus of their voices remained choked within the narrow throat of their dark refuge? No. I shuffled through my dream state as one thrown from the horse and only now regaining consciousness.

For most of the street by this hour was awash in blaring sunlight. 

Yes, I should have sought a shred of shadow to cover myself. I should have hastily unburdened myself of my gory armful already warming with the fetor of its carnal reality.  I should have awakened more briskly from the dream state in which I had walked too far already into the glaring reaches of the real world. For the narrow street was just a dusty cobblestone passageway.  A gritty stream of filth followed its desultory trickling course between my feet, straddling as they were the deep groove against which the cobbles of the street were so carefully banked. It was always thus. And the light was just the day growing longer and hotter to be sure. In a few moments there would be not a tatter of shadow left to anyone as the noontide ravished their shameful bodies of the shade and we confronted ourselves once again, this time inescapably creatures of the same world.

At that moment the street became the needle of a steady compass, and my purpose pricked me at the needle’s point. It was the conscious prickling that awakens one in all the limbs of one’s body from a sleep as still as the dead. 

 So, impaled on the compass needle as I was, had I become my own destination? 

I knew where I was of course. The street that was now fairly blazing with the noon sun was but a tributary to the becalmed sea of reflected heat that yawned before me in the Plaza de la Salvacion. 

And because I knew where I was, I knew who I was. I was a pilgrim. Yes, a pilgrim with the leg still dangling from my aching arms, a pilgrim.  I was a pilgrim sojourning to restore a holy relic to the place that made it sacred. I could already see the stones of the Plaza de la Salvacion shining back at me from the end of the street, molten and quavering with the portent of a brazen afternoon. But as I approached I also realized that the Plaza was even more empty and hence even more ominously silent than if it had been swept of its human shadows by the dispersive rays of noontide’s golden straw scratching brusquely across the coarse stones. The stones spread out in concentric rings to make up its circular expanse. 

Every summer afternoon was the same. 

Usually only the vendors remained in repose beneath their striped canopies awaiting the flood tide of shadow into which the crowds would begin to assemble again in the latter reaches of the day, like dry animals come to drink at a muddy bank.

As I stood on the marbled curb of the Plaza de la Salvacion I could see there were no vendors. There was no one. No thing. The heat rising from the beaten copper stones blurred my vision but I could see everything. 

Yes, I could see nothing. I felt a reptilian scaliness harden upon my unblinking eyelid.  I had always felt that my blood runs cold.  My mouth was parched. Not even perspiration seemed possible in such suppurating heat.  But I wanted more sun. I wanted to submerge in glare, so completely that the burden I hefted would at last float free of my arms. And so it would bring a proper end to my procession. 

For it was just so. My walk was a kind of religious procession: a piety, unintended to be so, yet now inescapably holy, holy,holy. Baptismal. As if the light, not the water, harbored the more desirable purification. Only the Converso is spiritually limber enough to conjure such an inversion of the elements..

 But the Converso stands on his head in every situation, does he not?  It is not a special talent.

I simply let the leg fall from my aching arms. Less a thud. More a knock on the door. 

It opened behind me. The hand on my shoulder. The breath hotter than what radiated from the stones beneath my feet. The gurgle of an indecipherable pleading. That’s why I thought I saw everything when I saw nothing. Everything was behind me. Everything converso.  Converse, convert. The words turned in my mind like a burning muscle, until my body was face to face with the hand that had seized me. I was at last looking behind myself where, during the entire procession from my rooms to the Plaza de Salvacion, I had imagined the persecutorial footsteps echoing from the soles of my own boots, were those of another, as if my shadow were my master. To look behind is to be behind yourself, a cowering figure, eternally at the mercy of the light. 

Now fearful of looking up, fearing the blade of light that would be wielded by the Inquisitor’s guard as harrowingly as the blade that severed the leg, fearing the irrefutable eyes of the incriminating witness, fearing an accusatorial wrath more purgatorially flaming than the omnipotent sun, I confronted instead a figure even darker than myself.

Hunched under a woolen shawl, black as a sleepless summer night, and from which I imagined the barbs of gray hair would protrude, an iron crown of thorns, the mouth—no longer the hand—became the supplicant. Toothless it surely was, with the lips bunched and crenellated as if a thread had been pulled. A purse-string meant to keep its modest treasure safe, though the words would out. They fairly whistled through the livid orifice.

“Señor, Señor.” 

Were we really alone? I quickly scanned the perimeter of the Plaza de la Salvacion and saw no one else whom she so strenuously struggled to address. This meant there would be no one to witness my deed but this dwarfish crone whose bones I imagined were already turning to a white powder. But perhaps she possessed more strength than I fancied, as I felt her hand creep upon my arm, the counterweight of her speech, as heavy as a brick that might smash a man’s jaw. At least he would have to remain silent!

“Who are your leg? “Who are your leg? With each repetition a harder tug upon my sleeve. And again: “Who are your leg?” I felt like a bell-pull though I could not ring out an answer to her question.

Nor did I wish to stand any longer at the knee of the dismembered limb in the middle of the Plaza de Salvacion like a bug under a magnifying lens. Waiting to be seen in such circumstance was surely waiting to be incinerated by whatever mysterious scrutiny lurked in any of the darkened windows facing into the sun. Now the awkwardness of the small woman’s plaintive presence became a strain upon my own legs. I needed to move, to shake the stiffness out of my stance. I needed to be gone.

“My legs are sore mother.” I heard myself become a querulous child as I was unexpectedly seized by the iron grip she then closed upon my forearm. 

She persisted in her quizzical inquisition.

“Who are your leg?” And as she extruded the incomprehensible words in a pinched whisper that made me think of the unconscious droppings of a sheep or a goat in mid-stride, the other hand, flapping free from some deep black fold of her skirts, arose and clenched my thigh in its talon.  

The woman was upon me like a scarab upon a velvet drape. But the nimbleness of the muscle that gave her such aggressive purchase on my person excited just enough dishevelment amongst her clothes that I caught sight of a shapely leg, naked and flexed with vigorous youth all the way down to the scalded flush of the naked foot. A marble arch made all the more seductive by the certain knowledge of how it burned. She was walking on coals. Perhaps she was only seeking relief in the physical commotion that now seemed like nothing so much as an attempt to mount me, her knees scuttling about my hips, her own hips riding to the tops of my thighs and sliding down upon what I realized was the silken chemise of her own nakedness squirming within the coarse weave of the black skirt,  viscous wings of the butterfly abrading the chrysalis from within.

Then she clapped her hands over my eyes. Or was that only her struggling to keep her grip on my upper body she was riding me so perilously? The clapping made a crazy musical accompaniment to the blinding sense of her questioning refrain: “Who are your leg? Who are your leg? Who are your leg?”

So out of the fluttering, slapping alternation of light and dark dazzling my eyes, a pattern at last emerged. It was more exquisitely startling than the first unfurling of the butterfly’s wing. For in my embattled blindness I had tripped over the very leg I had borne into such self-mystifying significance here at the very center of the Plaza de Salvacion. It was a significance more frightening now than the specter the leg had presented upon my doorstep at the very start of this ever more purgatorial day. 

I had tripped over the leg and fallen. And, now, lying athwart of the bone of it, so that it made my stomach seem to roll, and with the nubile incubus still so unrelentingly upon me—she had shed the black disguise of her robes so entirely that she was fully naked astride my collapsed form—I finally came to the sense of her question like some poor inebriate, sick to the point of an obligatory regurgitation. 

Call it oblation if you like.

I had two legs, of no use to me now. “Who am I now?” I was forced to ask myself, and equally forced to admit that I was more than one and less than two. I was ready to admit the fact that I could not be what I was. How did she know it was a confession that I could be forced to make? Who was she to be the demon of such knowledge? Or was she set upon me to drive the demons out, an inquisition unto herself?

Now that I knew the meaning of her question however, I had to wonder: what had she to do with this other leg, which was certainly the remainder of quite a different body than my brother’s but was, just as nakedly as herself, an essential prop of her outlandish theatrics?

The deliberativeness of her plot to this point ruled out madness. But the madness of the moment was as insurmountable a reality as the recognition her mounting me had won. Feeling the heat from the stones of the Plaza tattooing my cheek where it was pressed flat at the lowest point of my proneness, I was of course reminded that the provenance of that leg might already be bled into the mortared ground beneath me. The quarterings in the Plaza de la Salvacion were the most notorious in this ciudad for the crowds that could be accommodated.

Hadn’t I known it, the whole time of my pilgrimage, that I was bringing the leg back to the place where it had parted from the company of its brother limbs?

She had to have placed it where I found it upon my doorstep. It was she who had set the stage for this whole ridiculous and ridiculously incriminating spectacle in broad daylight, where both of us would be easily espied as guilty parties. We would be seen as trespassers and transgressors of the official rites of the inquisition and by that guilt, offering ourselves to the Auto da Fe upon our own eminently breakable knees. 

When I turned vehemently upon my back, freeing my hands in order to seize her by the shoulders, I knew that I was strong enough to still everything except the firebrand eyes. Showering such sparks upon my gaze that I shivered with the reflex to protect my own eyes, I realized that she wanted no such protection for herself. She wished to be as exposed as she was, and she wished me to share her fate. 

Another twinning of fates I could not endure. 

So I used my strength. I flipped her onto her own back. This time I held her shoulders against the stones of the Plaza de la Salvacion as if I heaved their weight in the hammer of my torso. 

But she would not be still. I lost my grip. In losing my grip I was gripped again by the fear that had been only a squeamishly sensual thought when I first entered the arena of sunlight. Now, astride the naked girl and naked to the discovering eye of the world, that thought became a lascivious surge of blood in my brain.  

So much violence conducted to the body from the brain convinced me that this was no dream. None of it. 

Here I was with my fists squeezing the life from the slender throat as easily as I might mash a handful of cactus meat to slake my thirst. Here I was for all to see perpetrating a crime more public than even the leg would have confessed.  How many times today had I already imagined the accusatory eyes amassing around me? How many times today had I already imagined what had not come to pass according to the edict of my most persecutorial imagination? How many times had I escaped the fate that I deserved? 

Now I had to wonder: was there anyone who, at this moment, could not see my furious enactment of the very criminality that the ordinary man, shut within the prison bars of his recurring nightmare, shudders to think he will be accused of, because it is only a matter of time? But the witnesses to the crime did not come. They did not summon the authorities. They would not see. Then I would force them out from behind their closed doors with the final pressure of my knuckle against the young girl’s trachea. And still, no shadows moved in the windows looking down upon the Plaza de la Salvacion. No cry went up. No footsteps erupted on the perimeter of the illumination in which I shone. 

So I might confess that I was dazzled by the blindness to my deed. I half believe that I was its perpetrator just to prove to myself the existence of those witnessing eyes to which I had at last clearly become invisible.

Am I exonerated at last?