The Devils of Cardona

Matthew Carr

June 14, 2016 
The following is from Matthew Carr’s debut novel, The Devils of Cardona. Carr is a writer, journalist, blogger and author of several books of nonfiction, including Blood and Faith:The Purging of Muslim Spain. He has written for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Observer, The Guardian and others. He lives in the United Kingdom with his family.

In the early hours of March 20, 1584, Padre Juan Panalles awoke from a drunken stupor to find his servant girl Inés lying naked beside him. It was the morning after the Day of the Beast, and the skinny little body that had briefly aroused him during the previous night’s festivities now took up so much room that he prodded her awake with his elbow, nearly pushing her out of the narrow bed. Inés knew what was expected of her. She crawled sleepily out from under the blankets and slipped on her dress and tied back her hair in the murky half-light before padding from the room to prepare his breakfast.

The priest rolled over and squeezed his eyes shut in a vain attempt to ignore his parched tongue and throbbing temples. Finally he abandoned the effort and hoisted his heavy body upright. He sat on the edge of the bed in his nightshirt with his large feet resting on the cold tiled floor and grimaced at the acrid smell of sex, wine and stale beer and the sight of the sagging purse on the bedside table. He could not remember how much he had lost, or whether he had lost it on cards or dice, but he knew that it had been a bad night.

He told himself that there would be other games and better nights as he went out into the privy to piss and curse the shriveled cock that had led him again to stray from the path of virtue. He rinsed it clean and sponged his face and body before eating the bread, egg and ham that Inés had left him. After washing the food down with a glass of brandy, he changed into his vestments, first the white alb, then the amice draped over his shoulders, followed by the long black cape. Even when he had acquired at least the appearance of piety, the voice of his conscience told him that he was not fit to serve God or administer the holiest of sacraments. But in all his years in these mountains, he had never failed to celebrate the Eucharist no matter what he had done the night before.

Outside, the first red slats of light were spreading above the high peaks and the towering massif that separated God’s chosen people from their enemies. He heard the stream flowing down into the side of the ravine, louder than usual as a result of the melting snows, and the first morning birds that he neither could name nor cared to name. Even though it was late March, his panting breath still gave off a cloud of steam as he stepped out into the courtyard adjoining the church, his sandals squeaking on the hard, stony ground with a heavy tread that anyone in the village could have recognized and which many of them had reason to fear and detest.

Father Panalles knew that his parishioners did not love him, but he had long since ceased to feel any remorse for the fact that a man of the cloth should be the object of fear and loathing. In another place he might have felt different, but not here, in Belamar de la Sierra. Its inhabitants were people from another world and time, savages and heretics who showed more affection for the black-faced performer dressed up as a bear that they dragged through the streets on the same day every year than they would ever feel for the sufferings of Jesus Christ. Even now, in the penultimate decade of the sixteenth century, they continued to believe that this pagan superstition could expunge all the year’s accumulated evil from the town. But as he had told them often enough, the evil was inside them. It was something they carried in their blood, that was passed down through their mothers’ milk and handed down from one generation to the next.

Such people could never be saved, not even by the holy apostles themselves, and since they could never willingly embrace the faith, then even the fact that they feared him was a kind of achievement. On this particular morning, however, he took no satisfaction from the power he held over them, but only bitterness, resentment and self-pity at the seven years he had wasted in these mountains when so many others who were just like him, and certainly no better, had obtained high positions in cathedral chapters in Segovia and Salamanca, or rich parishes and fat benefices in Castile, Valencia, and Andalusia and other places where those who served God and his Church could receive their just reward on earth as it is in heaven.

After all the years he had spent in these dismal mountains, he deserved similar reward, and yet there was no prospect of any change in his situation despite the many letters he had written to the bishop and the archbishop, pleading for a transfer to another parish and reminding them of his selfless and unrelenting attempts to plant the seeds of the one true faith in such barren soil. No one understood or cared, and as he glanced up at the white bell tower with its horseshoe arches, the possibility of escape seemed more remote than ever, and as he stared at the dark, silent houses all around him, he began to run through the names of the congregants from whom he might extract something to compensate for his losses when the service was over. He thought he heard a noise nearby and paused to look around him, but the village was dark and silent and the population was still recovering from the previous day’s revelries. The church door was unlocked, as it usually was, because the doors to God’s house were always open, and whatever else you could say about these heretics, they did not steal from churches.

He pushed the heavy wooden door open and stepped inside. In the same moment, he saw the dark shape sitting on the first row of benches, wearing a cloak and a wide-brimmed hat.

“What are you doing here?” he snapped. “I’m not ready yet.”

The man did not answer or even turn around, and it was only then that he realized that there were others standing in the shadows behind him, and he felt afraid. He took a step away, but one of the men now shut the heavy door, and a gloved hand grasped him over the mouth and jerked his head back. Before he was able to make a sound, the blade cut into his throat and slid across it with a swift, effortless movement, penetrating deep into his flesh and cutting the trachea just below the Adam’s apple.

All this was accomplished so quickly that the priest felt no pain, but only boundless shock as the grip released him and he stumbled forward, one hand clutching at his perforated throat in a vain attempt to stem the flow of the warm blood that sluiced irresistibly through his fingers. Directly in front of him, he saw the pallid shoulders of the Prince of Peace hovering in the darkness just above the altar with his arms outstretched, his dear crowned head illuminated by shafts of light coming through the stained-glass window at the beginning of a day that the priest knew he would not see. For the first time in many years, he sincerely wanted to kiss those nailed feet and beg forgiveness, because he knew now that his soul would not be saved and that there would be no resurrection for him.

The priest reached one hand out toward the altar and was still desperately trying to suck in air when one of the dark shapes stabbed him in the lower back with a sword, driving it so deep that the point protruded through his stomach. Even then he remained standing, shuffling his feet like a heavy dancer and trying to remain upright. Now the seated man finally stood up and came toward him, and disbelief and incomprehension compounded the terror as Father Panalles saw the silver mace hanging by the man’s side, with its spiked ball and the handle with the leather grip. Beyond him the Black Virgin of Belamar was looking down on him with an expression of infinite compassion, and he wished that he had done more to live up to her expectations. In te, Domine, speravi, he thought as the mace came swinging up and around and smashed into the side of his skull.

He was dead before he hit the floor.

* * * *

The night before the execution, Licenciado Bernardo Mendoza dreamed about the first auto-da-fé he had ever witnessed. It was the great burning of the Lutherans on October 8, 1559, and his uncle had insisted on taking him, even though he was only nine years old, because the new king was present and it was important, he said, for the child of conversos to know from a very early age what would happen to those who defied the laws of God and his Church. He saw once again the Plaza Mayor packed with people, at least two hundred thousand, it was said, many of whom had come from all over Castile and slept out in the streets and fields in anticipation of the great event. He saw the dignitaries seated on the scaffold, the judges and letrados, the archbishop and priests, the tonsured friars in their white-and-black robes, the lords and ladies in their finest clothes looking down from every window and balcony.

In his dream he heard the murmur of anticipation as King Philip climbed onto the scaffolding with his family, sitting beneath Inquisitor-General Valdés, because the power of the Inquisition, his uncle said, was even greater than the power of the Crown itself. He remembered how the square fell silent as the king and his family swore to support and uphold the Inquisition. He heard the great roar of affirmation when the vast crowd was called on to do the same, as though all the people in the square had now a single body with one voice, from the king and his grandees to the lowliest beggar, all of them united against the heretic enemies of God, Spain and the Holy Inquisition. He was so moved that he wanted to weep and kiss the hands of those wise men in their scarlet robes who watched over Spain day and night.

In his dream Mendoza recalled once again the anger and fascination that he had felt as the thirty-one Lutherans were led barefoot into the square, accompanied by the Inquisition commissioners and officers bearing the silk-fringed Inquisition standard with the green cross and olive branch; the jailers, priests and monks; and the green-clad familiares who assisted the Holy Office in its ceaseless war against the enemies of God and the king. He flinched at the sight of the yellow-and-black sanbenitos—the tunics of shame that reached down to the bare knees of the Lutheran heretics, painted with devils, monsters, skulls and flames, some pointed upward and some down. He heard his uncle say, “Remember this, boy—this is what hell looks like,” and he sensed even then that he would always remember the rage of the crowd as it jeered and screamed furiously at the prisoners, some of whom were carrying candles and wearing ropes around their necks and conical hats on their heads that were also painted with devils and beasts. Others were in chains, which jangled against the paved square and mingled with the urgent prayers and imprecations of priests and Jesuits pleading desperately with the condemned to repent and save their souls before their bodies were burned.

But what drew his attention most was the young woman in the black sanbenito that hung halfway down her calves. Her head was crowned with the conical hat known as the coroza, and her soft, sweet expression was so strikingly at odds with the yellow devils dancing around the ragged sackcloth tunic and the pointed hat that he could not imagine what she had done to deserve the rage, revulsion and condemnation that accompanied her passage through the packed square. He heard someone say in a tone of outrage and disgust that she had been a nun, but she looked so much like an angel or the Virgin Mary that he could not help feeling an urge to rescue her. And even though he knew that it was wrong to feel pity toward these minions of Satan, her sad face continued to haunt him as a succession of priests, bishops and Inquisition officials delivered interminable homilies and sermons and proclaimed the dreadful crimes of the penitents. Most of these offenses were incomprehensible to him, and the inquisitorial recitations were sprinkled with Latin words and phrases that he did not know. But again and again the word “heresy” was passed down from the scaffolding and back and forth through the crowd, reverberating through his mind with a sibilant, menacing hiss, conjuring up vague possibilities of unimaginable depravity, obscenity and horror that he could not even define.

In his dream he accompanied his uncle once again to the burning place in the Campo Grande and saw the stakes protruding from the pyres. He watched the prisoners ascend the platforms, accompanied by the priests who were still nagging agitatedly at the unreconciled to repent. He saw the executioner fasten them to the poles one by one, and then he witnessed what was at that point the single most shocking event in his life, as those who recanted were strangled with ropes wrapped around the stakes and attached to a small stick that the executioner slowly tightened, while the spectators variously applauded and prayed aloud, before the torches were applied to the piles of gorse and branches.

In total, thirteen men and women were burned that day, in addition to the effigy of the Lutheran who had not been caught, a vile creation of wax, straw and a skull that was briefly contorted into an even more hideous shape at the first touch of the fire, before it melted away altogether. The beautiful nun who looked like Mother Mary was also consigned to the flames, and even as the flames were rising around her feet, he saw her terrified face and could not help wanting to save her as she moved her lips in prayer and shouted, “Let each one live in his own sect!” He had no idea what these words meant, but some members of the crowd were so infuriated by them that they shouted, “Burn, witch!” and “Go back to Satan!” and began to throw blazing branches closer to her so that she burned more quickly. It was then, as the flames finally reached her, that she began screaming, a long, desolate series of shrieks that cut right through to the core of him, till he fell to the ground and passed out.

Now the Licentiate Mendoza heard himself shouting, and he woke up with relief to find himself in his own bedroom. In the darkness he could make out the familiar objects: the vihuela leaning by the window next to the music stand, the colored tapestry on one wall and his friend Antonio’s copy of Titian’s Salomé and a selection of his own drawings on another; Vasari’s Lives of the Artists in Italian and Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica on the bedside table next to the oil lamp. He got up and peered through the curtains at the sereno. The nightwatchman was sitting by the charcoal burner that provided the only light, his chin slumped on his chest with his cloak wrapped around his head and body like a mourning shroud, his helmet and sword on the ground beside him. Mendoza could not sleep now, and he returned to bed and lay awake, trying to dispel the agitation and melancholy that the dream always aroused as the daylight slowly filtered through the crack in the velvet curtains.

In the days and weeks that followed the great burning, he had had many nightmares like that one, so many that his aunt had taken him to the apothecary to find something to soothe his nerves. He could not remember what she had given him, though he did recall her arguing with his uncle and telling him that the boy was too young to have seen such things. Since then he had seen more horrors than he could count. He had seen men die in battle, on land and sea, gutted with pikes and halberds, shot with cannon or harquebus balls. Even in peacetime he had seen men and women stabbed, strangled and drowned, or beaten to death with stones and planks of wood. But in all that time, the face of the burning nun had continued to haunt his dreams, and he had never attended an auto since, not even the one in which his own uncle had also worn the sanbenito.

The boy who had fainted that day in Valladolid could never have imagined that he himself would one day be sending men and women to the Campo Grande for execution. And today another man would die on his orders in the same execution ground: a student who had killed his best friend out of jealousy over a woman. There was no doubt about his guilt. The murder had taken place in a crowded tavern, and Mendoza’s case file contained identical statements from all the eyewitnesses present. The student was not a noble, and he had confessed without torture, and the law demanded the death penalty and must take its course. Mendoza’s three colleagues had agreed on the sentence, and even though he had voted against it, it was his duty as the investigating judge to preside over the execution. None of this gave him any satisfaction. Some murders were premeditated and planned a long time in advance, and those who planned them had ample time to consider the morality of their actions.

Such murderers deserved to lose their lives. But this case was different. Even when pronouncing sentence, he remembered the fights from his own university days and thought how easily he could have been in the student’s place. It was luck, not judgment, that had saved him, because when men were drunk and brandished daggers at each other, the outcome was never predictable. The previous evening he had visited the student in his cell according to the usual custom, together with the priest, the prosecutor and the alguacil—the constable—who had made the arrest, and he brought the condemned man the customary biscuit, sweets and wine. A more unlikely murderer would be hard to find. The student had been studying philosophy and law, just as Mendoza once had done, and his parents had hoped for great things from him. The young man spoke in a soft, squeaky voice, and his eyes were red from sleeplessness and tears, as he expressed his regret at having broken his parents’ hearts and thrown away his friend’s life and his own through a combination of hot blood and too much wine. With more money and connections or a title, he might have been able to procure a lighter punishment by going above the heads of Mendoza and his colleagues, but the student’s family had not even been able to gain an appeal, and now the time for a reprieve had passed.

At seven o’clock, Gabriel brought him a bowl of maize porridge, accompanied by raisins, dates and a glass of almond milk, and drew back the curtains. “A good day for a hanging, sir,” he observed, looking out at the cloudless sky.

Mendoza clicked his tongue in disapproval. “An execution isn’t something to joke about, boy.”

“Sorry, sir, I wasn’t thinking.” Gabriel laid the tray on the bed. “May I ask a question, sir?”

Mendoza drained the almond milk in a single gulp. “Go ahead.”

“Have you ever sentenced someone to death and found out afterward that he was innocent?”

“I never sentenced anyone who hadn’t confessed first.”

“But didn’t some of them confess under torture?”

“Yes. But the confession isn’t valid unless they confirm it afterward. And I have never sentenced anyone who I didn’t believe was guilty.”

But isn’t it possible that a suspect could confess under torture and then ratify his confession afterward—not because he was guilty but because he didn’t want to be tortured again?”

Mendoza agreed that this was a possibility.

“And it’s also possible that the witnesses who testified against that person might be lying?”

“Of course. The law is an imperfect instrument.”

“But if that happened and the man you arrested was executed, would that also be God’s will?”

“If God allowed it to happen, it must be,” Mendoza conceded warily.

“Because otherwise it would mean that God had made a mistake, wouldn’t it?”

“Be careful, boy.” Mendoza looked severely but affectionately at the tousled black hair and the dark, intelligent eyes. “Saying something like that in this house is one thing, but outside these walls it’s quite a different matter. Some thoughts are best left inside your head. Go and get dressed now—and dress well. A man will die today.”

Gabriel bowed and left the room. Mendoza finished his breakfast and dressed with special care, entirely in black apart from the white ruff and cuffs protruding from the silk-lined doublet and slashed-velvet jerkin that he wore over it, its collar left open in the Flemish style, with his sword and felt cap and long judge’s robe reaching down to his buckled shoes. Outside in the hallway, Gabriel was already waiting, looking suitably somber in brown and dark green, as Magdalena emerged from the kitchen in her apron to inspect him.

“Very distinguished,” she said approvingly. “Like a young judge. Señor, if I may.” She reached up and straightened Mendoza’s ruff. “You need a wife to do these things.”

“And why would I need a wife when I already have you?”

“Ay, Don Bernardo.” Magda sighed and shook her head. “A judge can’t marry his maid!”

“And why not?” he teased her.

Por Dios, stop. I’m old enough to be your mother. Now, go.” She looked at Gabriel and shook her head. “Though why you want to see something like this . . .”

“If Gabriel wants to work as a scrivener, he needs to know what the law requires,” Mendoza said firmly.

“But he’s just a boy!”

“He’s old enough.” Mendoza took his stick from its resting place near the door and went downstairs. Outside, the sereno had gone and the sunlight was spreading across the fine red roofs, illuminating the white window frames and black iron balconies on the upper floors as they walked along the cobbled street, past sprawled bodies that might have been drunken revelers or dead and sleeping beggars, past carriages that emanated a fleeting whiff of perfume that mingled with the smell of horse dung and excrement from the chamber pots emptied during the night, past pedestrians in their best clothes heading for the execution ground and members of the Penitential Confraternity of Valladolid in their long gray cassocks and black hoods, already collecting alms for the student’s soul.

The execution was due to take place at ten o’clock, and by the time they reached the prison, a considerable crowd had already gathered that included judges, magistrates and constables, the bishop of Valladolid, members of the clergy, relatives of the accused and the deceased and the usual morbid onlookers who were always attracted to such spectacles for reasons Mendoza had never understood.

At nine o’clock they brought out the prisoner, dressed in a white opennecked smock and black hose and the blue cap that would secure him indulgences in his passage through eternity. At ten minutes past, he was mounted on the waiting donkey and the halter was placed around his neck, while the crucifix was bound to his hands. Two members of the fraternity began to beat on their tambours, and the somber procession set off in a slow, stately rhythm toward the Campo Grande, fronted by a hooded brother hoisting a large crucifix. Mendoza’s face was impassive, his stick tapping the ground as he limped along beside Gabriel and Constable Johannes Necker, the arresting officer, while the two monks accompanying the donkey urged the condemned man to accept his death with Christian courage and due penitence.

The student was clearly struggling to do this, and he began half moaning, half praying when some passersby made the sign of the cross at his approach. More spectators joined the procession as they drew closer to the park, where a large crowd was already waiting. At the sight of the scaffold and the executioner, the student’s legs buckled, and he had to be dragged up onto the platform, crying and protesting, still holding the crucifix bound to his hands. At ten o’clock precisely, the executioner released the trap upon the sound of the first church bell. Mendoza saw Gabriel flinch as the student plummeted downward, twitching and jerking before hanging limply from the rope, where he would remain until the Penitential Brothers were allowed to take the body down and prepare it for burial the following day.


From THE DEVILS OF CARDONA by Matthew Carr. Used with permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Carr.

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