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All the men are preparing the square for market tomorrow. A small boy helps them, although I think he is really slowing them down. The men don t seem to mind though. They re happy to assign him tasks, and they give him shouts of encouragement and pat his head. I watch as their mascot struggles with a bolt of canvas almost twice his size, and I wonder how long it will be before he gives up.
When the market comes, the musicians come too. The merchants are only too eager to empty their freshly-filled purses on wine and women, and what goes better with these things than a song? A troupe of them is tuning up in the square, and I ve heard tell of several troubadors singing for food and drink in the inns. It is as if the whole town is on heat. All through the night I was kept awake by the amorous howling of the dogs whose lives are not quite miserable enough to make them fight the natural urge to beget more dogs. A couple of men even called up to my window, although I think they could not have had a proper look at me, just a long-haired silhouette they glimpse through the muslin. If they were, father would probably have them bound up and then bound to me. He told me last night of his new plan. He wants to marry me off to the butcher Miguel. Miguel is a fat, preposterous man, and I told my father so. This made him very angry, and I had not even mentioned yet the foulness of Miguel s breath. Aldonza, he said, I am really losing my patience with you. This much is clear from the way you try to marry me off to anyone who will have me. Father looked aggrieved. I m glad your mother is not around to hear you speak like this. She was the most beautiful woman that my gaze had the fortune to fall upon. And you, my daughter, are like a living image of your mother. That you should live out your days as a spinster would be a waste. A terrible waste! As a girl I believed it when my father told me I was beautiful. Perhaps as a child I was. There is an age when all children are beautiful. Even Miguel. And it is true there was a certain time, a brief window of several years, when I could pass for a beautiful girl. I had my admirers then, it s just that I failed to admire any of them myself. Father almost forced one of the suitors upon me, told him that I was his, but I wept for so many days straight that he lacked the heart to see it through. But that was a long time ago. My waist has thickened, my hands have hardened, my hair has grown dull and lifeless. Where once men would steal glances of me, now I can t give them away. I think my father still believes me in his heart to be beautiful. He must. If he did not, then the price he paid for me would simply be too high. Sometimes I wonder whether he doesn t wish that mother had survived the birth and I had not. How many children would she have borne him? And sons, moreover. But as
it is, all he has is me. He says that all he wishes is for someone to love me as he loved my mother. But I think his wish is really that his blood doesn t disappear along with his name.
Tonight there will be dancing, and father has asked if might go along. I told him no, under no circumstances. He looked for a moment like he was going to protest, but fortunately a call came from downstairs and he had to go and deal with a customer. From my window I can see the market in full flow. Even if I tried to ignore it I couldn t. The smell of fish from the lake making their olfactory protest against the day s heat. Dung from the carthorses and bullocks. The voices of farmers and merchants bellowing out the wares, the lowing of cows, clucking hens, the sharp little shrieks of children playing games, and the haggling, the endless haggling. I focus on two of the children, a boy and girl, weaving their way between the stalls. The boy is carrying something I can t quite see, but the girl wants it. Whatever the game is, the smiles on their faces tell me it is not ill-spirited. My hands find their way to my stomach, where I can feel the thickness of my flesh. Could our Lord have in mind for such a thing to one day emerge from me? I cannot see it, somehow. There is a knock at my door and father enters. He is wearing a new shirt, its whiteness still unsullied, and it makes him look younger. Good news, he says, and waits to see the effect on me his tidings will bring. He seems disappointed by my reaction. There s no need for you to go to the dance tonight. I picture the girls still in their window, the flowering of their youth, twirling in the arms of all the swaggering cacafuegos. I was never going to go anyway. Miguel is coming to the house for supper! I groan. Father becomes stern. He even wags a finger at me. Now Aldonza, Miguel may not be exactly what you had in mind for a husband, but he is a good, honest man, and in time you could grow to love him. So please, for me, don t spoil it tonight. ButPlease, father interrupts. Aldonza, listen to me. What happiness is there for you to sit here like this in your room, staring out of your window? There is no point explaining it to him all over again. I turn my back and look out at the square, and after a couple of minutes I feel him leave.
Miguel is punctual. Father urges me to go and answer the door. This is a duty I would perform as a member of this household, so I do not object. Anything beyond the courtesy I would normally
extend to a guest is, however, out of the question. He puts a heavy package in my arms. It s meat, he says. From the weight I would guess it is a good deal more than we could eat in a week. Some of it will have to be salted. Avoiding his eyes, I tell him I must put it where the flies and ants won t get it and take my leave It smells good in here. he says with an when I return, making an exaggerated sniff of his nose He is sweating, and I have to resist the urge to take a cloth and wipe his brow. I never did like dancing. I ve made a stew, I say, then lead him wordlessly into the kitchen. Father greets him like an old friend. As far as I know they had barely spoken to one another before Miguel intimated his interest in me. They sit together at the table while I pour them some wine and make the fin al preparations for dinner. The talk is of business, mainly. Miguel inquires as to the fortunes of father s store, to which father replies that he can t complain. I m not doing too badly myself, Miguel laughs, his hands patting his bulging gut. He sees me looking at him and his smile squares off instantly. Aldonza, Papa says. Why don t you hurry up and serve the food so we can all sit down and eat together? I do as I am asked and soon find myself staring unwillingly at Miguel as he eats. He looks up from time to time, half-smiling in my direction to show how much he is enjoying it. He makes quite a sight. It is almost like he is becoming what he trades in; his lips thick like sausages, forearms like hams, and, unmistakeably, the belly of a pig. Father is listing all my other talents. I mean, yes, she is a fantastic cook, but let us not focus only on this. You see how clean this house is, how orderly? Whose work do you think that is? The maid? The maid is useless, lazy. I would let her go but I haven t the heart. No, it s my daughter s work, Miguel. My beautiful daughter s work. Miguel leers at me approvingly. There is some food stuck in his teeth. I offer him some more bread and fill the wine glasses. Yes, Miguel says. In many ways I feel that is what my life lacks. The womanly touch. I feel like I could provide a good home for wife, and some children too one day. It gets lonely, being on your own all the time. He looks at me as he says this, and I know that if I look down he will think I am playing the part of the humble maiden. I match his eyes to show that I am not afraid of his advances. The conversation dries up, and it is he who looks away first, smiling to my father. This really is a very tasty stew. With some his bread he wipes up last of the juices from his plate and asks me if there is any more.
The town is abuzz. There is talk of who was seen dancing with whom, of course, and who drank too much and got into a fight. But there is bigger news. From the maids chatter around the well, I gather that one troubadour sang last evening the ballad of a knight, only this knight is not from a distant land, but from right here in La Mancha. Don Quixote is his name. Don Quixote de la Mancha. According to the song he is the superior of both Palmeris of England and Amadis of Gaul, and only last week he slayed single-handed an entire horde of giants. But the biggest news is that he is performing all his acts of heroism in the name of his beloved, a lady who he refers to as the Dulcinea Del Toboso. From our town! Toboso! Now everyone is talking about who the Dulcinea could be. Most people believe it has to be Maria, daughter of Don Pedro, the mayor. They say this because, of course, she is the most beautiful girl in the town, and she is also known for her sweet disposition, her kindness to children, and her pleasing manner with her elders. All of these are precisely the sorts of qualities that would appeal to a knight errant such as Don Quixote de la Mancha. There are some who argue that it might be Camila, who is Maria s equal in beauty, but lacks her some of her finer qualities. The menfolk say that the story of such a knight is ridiculous, and that all the women of the town have gone soft in the head for believing it. They say it was just a song by a troubadour, and it is the job of a song to entrance the listener, to tell its story. Do the ladies really believe every story that they hear? Myself, I am undecided. In my life I have barely left Toboso, never mind La Mancha, so I am not really qualified to judge. But you see, the thing about giants is that you never meet someone who actually claims to have seen a giant for himself. Oh sure, plenty of people know someone who knows someone who has absolutely without any question seen a giant, perhaps even slain a giant. Or a dragon. Not even a sorcerer, although Father Raul assures us that the Lord frowns upon any kind of witchcraft, and he smites all those who practice it. And, he adds, if the Lord doesn t, the Inquisition does.
They re in the square, the girls, all gathered around the shepherd boy, who looks like he is enjoying the attention. Maria stands closest to him, hands clasped nervously to her breast. Camila is also near the boy, curling the ends of her hair in her fingers. There are others too, each hoping herself be the lucky one. The shepherd boy laughs. He can t be older than sixteen, and his teeth look very white against his sun-darkened skin. He says something and the girls gasp and clap their approval. He must know something of this knight. Boys like him pass through the town every day and get no attention, and outwardly at least there is nothing so different about him. The shepherd boy folds his arms behind his head and leans back. The girls crowd closer and fire questions at him, one of which he answers by stretching his arms as wide as possible, to more gasps from his audience. Then another
question makes him stop. He looks upwards as if trying to remember, then tentatively he speaks. Maria s hands drop to her sides. Camila tries to keep a straight face but disappointment is written all over it. The girls whisper among themselves, and then in unison they turn towards my window. They do it before I can react. I am sure they have seen me, or at least seen the movement of me ducking down. My breath is shallow and my heart beats fast. I brush away the hair that has fallen across my face. I want to look back out of the window but I dare not risk it. It is foolish, the way I am acting, I can see that clearly. I have done nothing wrong it is not even a secret that I spend much of my time looking from this window, and yet... All the reasons why they looked to my window go through my mind, but they are few. Perhaps the shepherd boy had heard a rumour about me, and he was just passing it on to the girls in the hope of impressing them. If that s the case the shepherd boy had better watch how he goes - I will not suffer being made a fool of lightly. If I did, I would go to the dances. After a couple of minutes I realise that I am being ridiculous. I pick myself up off the floor the floor! and dust myself down. I don t even look out of the window, because it s all a waste of
time. There is plenty to be done today, plenty to be done. I look around my room. My bed is made, the floors are clean, the picture hangs straight. Of course! Father wants to visit a friend in Santa Maria this afternoon, so it the store where I am needed. I go downstairs, and although Papa says he is not planning to leave for another hour, perhaps longer, I almost push him out of the door.
I spend the afternoon dusting the shelves and dealing with customers as and when they appear. It is late in the day, almost time to close, when Maria comes in with a shy smile that many would find charming. She tries to appear casual but her very being here gives her away. The servants do her shopping, and she doesn t know what to pretend to need. She settles on some salt. Everyone needs salt. I fetch it down from the shelf. Will there be anything else? I ask her. That smile again. She blushes too. This deference she treats me with I am surprised that
does not call me mujer. I am not so much older than she. But maybe I read too much into things. Maybe she is simply as sweet as everyone says she is. I was just wondering if, well... if you wouldn t mind me asking you a question. A question never hurt anyone, as far as I know. Where did you meet him? Who? Don Quixote. I do my best to appear unmoved. I don t know what you are talking about.
I mean, you must have met him somewhere, is that not so, if you have managed to make him fall in love with you. She asks the question with such wide-eyed innocence that I am almost tempted to indulge her. I have never met this man in my life. But... but you re the Dulcinea. This stops me where I am. This must be some kind of mistake. It is not a mistake. Maria clutches my hand over the counter. Aldonza, did you not know about this? But this is unbelievable! There is this brave and amazing man doing all these glorious things to honour your name, and here you are, none the wiser! I pull my hand away. Maria, you re making no sense at all. From where did you hear this? I ask, as if I did not already know. From the shepherd boy who was in the square this morning. You saw us there, no? He couldn t stop smiling when he was talking of Don Quixote, who he says is a very great man. He has met him himself, you see. We asked if he was handsome, he said very. We asked if was courageous, and he said of course. We asked if he was passionate, and the shepherd said that Don Quixote s love is second only to the love of the Lord himself. It was Camila who had the courage to finally put the question to the shepherd boy that we had all been longing to ask. She told him that we had all heard tell of his beloved, the Dulcinea del Toboso, but that no was any the wiser as to who this lucky maiden might be. And the shepherd boy said it was none other you, Aldonza Lorenzo. I see. Aldonza, do you mean to tell me that you have never met Don Quixote, but yet he is out there doing all these wonderful things for you, and loving you from afar? But this is so romantic. I snort. I think it s all ridiculous. And it is ridiculous, but I notice a look on Maria s face, and I believe that I know what this look signifies. It is envy. Maria is jealous of me. I wonder if she will confess this sin to Father Raul. I know that I will be needing to confess soon myself, because what goes through my head means I am also guilty of certain sins.
At the well this morning the chatter falls to a whisper as I approach, and then dies completely when I arrive. The girls bid me a good morning, and they regard me with intent. Their eyes roam from my head to me feet, taking in the whole of me, and I see the thought flash through their minds: what does he possibly see in her? Certainly there is nothing in my appearance that would inspire even a modest act of heroism, never mind some of the feats Don Quixote is supposedly performing in my name. I still wonder myself, truth be told. It seems so strange, so unreal, that all this is happening to
me. I could not have dreamed such a thing. Or perhaps that is precisely what I have done, and I can expect soon to awake. There is nothing for it but to keep my own counsel. If nothing else, perhaps they will settle on dignity being the reason why I have found favour with this great knight.
I am lying in bed trying to think of other things. There is much that needs to be done around the house and in the store. I should be sleeping. It is laundry day tomorrow, and my arms tire already at the thought of all the scrubbing. The wheat needs sieving, and there are many candles to be made from all the wax in the cellar. And all of this must be done before I can even think about sitting down and checking the books for father. His eyes must be going, because his head begins to ache every time he has to read the ledger for more than one or two minutes at a time. Not many women have a way with numbers like you, my sweet, he tells me every time he hands over the books. The other day I heard him calling my name across the square. I looked out of my window and saw him waving to a woman who looked not one bit like me. I called down from the window to let him know where I was; he looked up at me in a daze and asked whether I thought him stupid before turning back inside. But Father knows how well I look after him, and has told me many times that he thanks the Lord for me each day. I asked him once then what would become of him should I marry, and the needs of my husband will come before those of my father. He just stroked my head and told me that this was the sort of problem he should like to have. I think of all these things but ultimately my thoughts are like waves. They return again and again to the same shore, and there is nothing that can be done to stop them. Perhaps I must simply let them run their course, and then I will finally be able to get some rest. Staring at the knotted wood of the ceiling boards I submit to wondering what this Don Quixote looks like. It is hard to imagine a man so handsome as they say he is. I close my eyes and picture his broad shoulders, his thick black hair and strong white teeth. I think about how it must feel to be held by such a man, to feel the heat of his breath against my skin, to see my reflection in his eyes. I breathe deeply and take in the deliciously sour scent of sweat and leather and sun, bathe in the happiness of a man has waited days, months, years to finally kneel before his beloved. And then I realise: what if it was years ago that he saw me? What if he loves the girl I was, not the woman I am? Will he come here, take one look at me and declare himself not a knight but a fool? I shake my head free of this dream. I remind myself that this knight cannot be real. Such things do not happen. At least, I think that they do not. But if they do, they certainly do not happen to people like me. People like me have no need for such dreams. It is not dreams we need but sleep, because our days are long and our joys are few.
I found out today that there are travellers staying tonight at the inn who know something of my knight. I wonder if I should go and see what they can tell me. Father has not yet spoken to me of the knight, though it is clear that he has heard the news from somewhere. He keeps smiling in my direction. He even inquired whether I would like a new dress. When I asked him what I could possibly want with a new dress, he told me that I might have someone I wanted to impress. And who would that be? I said. Miguel? He only smiled in reply, and told me that the offer was open should I change my mind.
The shadows lengthen across the square and the air begins to cool. A few crickets start to sing, and old Sanchez lights a pipe filled with the leaves they bring from the New World and leans back against the stuccoed wall. He puffs his cheek and a cloud smoke appears from his mouth as if he were aflame inside. I have decided. I will go to the inn in an hour or two, but the thought of it makes me nervous. I brush down the creases of my dress with my hands. Perhaps I need to change my dress. These travellers will be expecting the Dulcinea del Toboso. They will get me. I ought to bathe before I change. I go to the mirror and pluck the two grey strands of hair I noticed this morning. I pour olive oil on my skin, and rosewater through my hair. And as I brush I sing, and I remember I always had a pleasant voice. I sing the song father tells me was my mother s favourite, the song which he heard her singing the first time he laid eyes on her. It captured his heart, that old song that nobody sings anymore, and from time to time he asks me to sing it for him. But this evening, it seems it has chosen itself.
Through winter I did wait, Through dusk and through the night, With no worry for my fate, For I know who bears the light
And so it rose in me, From the deepest well I know, This love, a melody, Pure as the mountain snow.
Now I feel him coming, Like the birds sense the spring, The guitar already strumming,
When he is here I will sing.
How I long to turn to him, Like a leaf turns to the sun, My heart full to the brim, Its song finally sung.
It feels like I have never really heard the words before. The melody rises and falls as it always did, but when I close my eyes it is not my mother I see, hanging clothes out on the line as father so often describes. Instead the image is of me, myself, in the new dress that I will permit father to buy for me, waiting in the square as a boy comes running to tell me with all the excitement of his tender years that my knight has been spotted on the horizon. Everyone gathered gasps and cheers, and I am propelled forward to meet my love. This is no longer the song of my maiden mother - this is the song of the Dulcinea del Toboso. My mother s song has become mine. Tonight I will wear a flower in my hair.
I have asked father to accompany me. An inn is not a place where a lady should be seen alone. I can hear the sound coming from the inn almost from the moment we leave the door, for it is only just across the square. The lights are bright in the windows, there is bawdy singing, and a man staggers into the street and gropes around as if he were blind. Father sucks in the night air and offers me his arm. I take it. He whispers into my ear that he is proud of me. I smile graciously and concentrate on keeping my steps even and unhurried, my shoulders back and my chin raised. I expect to feel nervous as we approach, but my heart is calm. The first dew has fallen on the square, settling down the dust. I am pleased to see the hem of underskirt as clean as when we left. We pause outside. Papa looks to me. I make sure that the beautiful pomegranate flower in my hair is not about to fall, then I take a deep breath, nod to him, and we enter. There are not as many people inside the inn as I expected from the noise. It is a long, low room where the men are sat on benches drinking wine from earthenware goblets by the light of many lamps and candles. The atmosphere inside is thick with the heat of these collected bodies, sweat and alcohol mingling with smells from the kitchen, and the heat is a physical thing I can feel on my face. The guitarist is drunk, and he plays as if with fat fingers. Miguel is here. He is sat brooding in the corner. The two men he sits with are deep in conversation, but Miguel does not engage. When he notices us his head lifts and a smile parts his lips. Father dips his head cordially in Miguel s direction, but we do not go over. I try not to look, but I can feel his eyes boring into me. I am afraid
that any moment that I look he will be over here, talking to father in hushed tones. Father s grip on my arm tightens. There are two men who look unfamiliar, well-heeled, possibly gentlemen. We approach them, and father asks if we may join them. And to whom do we owe the pleasure? the first traveller says. He seems merry from the wine, and smiling he strokes his neatly cut beard. My name, sir, father says, is Lorenzo. I am a merchant in this town. This is my daughter Aldonza. Please, sit. He waves his hand expansively. There is no sign of recognition when my name is mentioned, although he does look me up and down, his gaze pausing on my pomegranate flower.I touch it, just to make sure it has not fallen out of place. He smiles again. Perhaps he has not heard of Don Quixote and all the great things he has done. Or maybe he s imply does not know of the Dulcinea. Will you have some wine? He calls for more cups before we can answer. His companion finishes his drink in anticipation of the next one arriving. His eyebrows join together as one. The travellers introduce themselves as Don Javier, the one who speaks to us, and his manservant, Iker. They are staying the night in Toboso to conduct certain business, but their ultimate destination is the capital. But do not worry about our differences. I like to talk to all people when I travel. Thank you so much, father says. So, you are a man of the world. This is a very fine thing. He always sounds silly when he speaks to gentlemen. A girl comes with more wine, and father waits until she has poured some out. I wonder, sir, if I may ask you a question. Please, have no fear. We have been hearing in our town stories of a knight. Perhaps you too have heard of him? His name is Don Quixote de la Mancha. Don Javier pauses, his hand going again to his beard. And then his eyes light up and he slams his fist down on the table. Oh! You mean old cheesecake! Excuse me? father says. Trying to look disinterested I adjust my flower, but I have fiddled with it too much. It is starting to come loose. Old cheesecake. Quesada is his name. Calls himself Quixote now, though, if you can believe it. No, whatever you have heard is all a great swindle. He s a hidalgo with some land not far from here, but for whatever reason is mad as a frog reads too many of those ridiculous novels, is what I hear. He s got it into his head that he s some sort of knight errant, saving the world from goodness knows what. He uses kitchenware for a helmet, and his mighty steed is the sort of nag you might reserve for the least favourite of all your bastards. And his squire? Well, he makes Pedro here look like one of the king s own footmen! A fat little man with a cunning face, bobbing along on his little donkey. I tell you, the two of them make quite a pair!
But please, I say. Don Javier is talking very loud, spitting as he speaks. It feels like everyone must be listening. I want to be at home, in my room, with the window closed. I never want to open it again. What of the giants he has slain? Giants? There are no such things as giants! The loon merely charged some windmills in the belief that they were giants! Can you believe that? Mistaking a windmill for a giant? Someone must write this down. It is a story for the whole of Spain to enjoy! As Don Javier speaks, Miguel walks past us, towards the door. He looks tired, heavy on his legs. His shoulders look so very round. He wipes his brow with a handkerchief and doesn t stop to say goodbye, just mumbles his thanks to the landlord and takes his leave. Yes, Don Javier, I think Quesada s case shows the pro blem people have with their imaginations these days. People sit around and nurture their impossible dreams, when what they need to do is focus on real matters. That old coot should be married, raising children and grandchildren on that nice estate of his. That s not such a bad life, is it? I think there are some people who would sacrifice a great deal for such a life as this. But of you, my new friends? For what reason are you dressed so finely? Father stumbles to an excuse. I wonder if he will blame me later for making him look a fool in front of this gentleman. He s probably thinking of a way to make things up to Miguel too. In the corner the drunken guitarist strikes up another tune, and it is sad enough to chime with me heart. Thankfully no one is singing, because if I have learned something, it is that while music is a beautiful truth, every song is just a beautiful lie.
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