Stephen Berer
the Eternal Jew's biographer

The Eternal Jew’s Tale, #139, Masked Man

Father Enrique; image colorized and modified by the author, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, Saint Damiano, by Bartolomé Bermejo, 1490, in the public domain.
Father Enrique; image colorized and modified by the author, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, Saint Damiano, by Bartolomé Bermejo, 1490, in the public domain.

In this episode: the secret passages of Palma.

The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Nineteenth Era, Part 2, ~1432 C.E., Palma
An Impressionistic Masque, 2

We must have looked like country dolts, eyes wide, jaws dropped, dull and simple plaintive stares. Why else would the lot of them — at each others throats just now — suddenly start giggling and then break into roaring howls?

A teacher stands before his class. He turns and wipes the cluttered slate full of geometric proofs, and draws a simple triangle.
“Tell me, at least, what shape this is.”
He asks his class, which blankly stares.

Just like them students, Batkol and me, lost in thought, starin’ at clouds, seein’ monsters, imps, and beasts. Oh, how they slowly billow and bulge, elephants become elves, sharks grow wings and start to fly, books stretch out into long swords.

Now Father Enrique kneels before us to shake us out of our daydream world.
“King and church and local folks all agree on just one thing: satan spawned the evil Jew to undermine all faith and law. And so, the chosen ones of God and their supreme, Eternal ways, are outlawed on Mallorca’s shores.
Now look at me. I am a priest. Now look again. I am a Jew.”

A painter stands on a high bluff looking out on the Middle Sea. Her panel is sized and gessoed well. She has sketched horizon, shoreline, trees. Yet, how to capture the sea and sky? Not for a moment do they stand still. Now the sea is glossy as glass, now a-sparkle in choppy waves, now dulled by hazy clouds, now well burnished in sunset gold, clouds ignited in fiery lace. And the closer she looks, the more they change.

Priest be rabbi, puppies be sages, maps be bludgeons to break from a cages. For a cup of tea, merchant ships explore the seas and conquer the world.
In wonderment Batkol stammers:
“So how can we possibly be of help?”

Lone wolf prowling the hills, searches out rabbit, squirrel, or mouse. Two hungry wolves prowling the streets of a village searching for easy prey, chicken or goose, lamb or dog, even a taste for child meat.

A sage and his students bend to their books, searching out secrets, urged on by fear, to find a way to escape the torch of a doctrinaire church or its hungry mobs.

Lone prophet at a city gate. Night comes on; he sits in the dust. Voices inside him urge him on. Dogs in the streets snarl and growl.

An orphan slinks thru the market place begging for scraps of yesterday’s bread or with sleight of hand snitching a plum. Scars on his back are reminders of all the times he was caught.

A great cathedral faces a square. Behind, a nunnery has been added on. Added to that a scriptorium, but the building is sinking, its walls cracked, and the rains have rotted its rafters and beams, and termites gnaw at floor and joist, and rats befoul the refectory, and lecherous monks are leading prayers.

And the church declares it is the one and true and only path to God. It is shepherd and the world is flock, and pope and cardinals must protect their flock from corruption and heresy.
“Be it known, declared, enforced: Jewish law perverts the Truth, and Jewish blood perverts the folk. Thus, the Holy Office is strip the Jew of respect, his faith, his gold, his life.”

Now Father Enrique comes to his point:
“And here we be in the shadow of this church, foretold, forsworn, forbidden, forsaken. Now where is the place where the church’s eyes can’t see, the church’s hand won’t grasp? How can we thwart this unholy see?”

“To answer your question, I want your help to run a secret Jewish school. The nunnery and scriptorium will be your front. At the same time you must continue your map-making work to serve Aragon’s ambitious goal to find new and better routes to lands and markets, and capture trade from Venice, Florence, and Mamluk hands. Serving Alphonso* will divert eyes, and allow us to use merchant ships to help those folk pursued by the church to escape and flee to more tolerant lands.
* king of Aragon, Mallorca, et al.

“But that one sees no future here, so for him, creating a secret school is like filling your larder with carrion til every jackel, vulture, and rat follows their nose to your back door. For him, we keep on making maps and navigation tools for the king, while we spirit every secret Jew out of Palma’s and Aragon’s jaws.

“But either way, the danger is great, and you will be wearing layers of masks. And if you display the wrong one, your freedom, your life will be at risk. And if the church incarcerates you, you will be tortured until you reveal the names of every hiding Jew.”

“Hmm. I see. I think that’s clear. You ain’t askin’ much, only everything.”

“Did you hear that? Who came into the kitchen? I hear footsteps there.”
Vallseca, already on his feet, brusquely opens the kitchen door. A crash, a cry, as we all sit frozen in our places. And then unfroze, all jump up and rush to the door. There, that Hagar is on her knees cleanin’ a bag of beans she spilled, declarin’ how frighted she were just then when Master Juan flew thru the door.

So here we be, livin’ in the paw of Mother Church, that inscrutable sphinx who tenderly feeds her beloved young, then devours them once they begin to think for themselves and question her truths.

Elul, 5192. August, 1432.

Batkol be teachin’ the gilders and scribes, but in private sessions with them that are Jews, it’s Jewish law and text and prayer. And me, wearin’ my map-makin’ face, talkin’ to agents of doge and king, of Portugal, Castile, and Aragon, of faster and better trading routes, and the unique mappin’ tools they’ll need, them as only we can provide. Meanwhile, I’m movin’ prayerbooks and scrolls and many a Jew in Christian garb from house to house, town to town, country to country, to keep them safe or help them escape that mother, church.


In the next episode, a lost soul or an agent of the church?

About the Author
I am a writer, educator, artist, and artisan. My poetry is devoted to composing long narrative poems that explore the clash between the real and the ideal, in the lives of historical figures and people I have known. Some of the titles of my books are: The Song uv Elmallahz Kumming A Pilgimmage tu Jerusalem The Pardaes Dokkumen The Atternen Juez Talen You can listen to podcasts of my Eternal Jew posts on my personal blog, Textures and Shadows, which can be found on my website, or directly, at: I live just outside Washington, DC with my bashert, and we have two remarkable sons. Those three light my life.
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