When had Alejandro Canches last read the language on the papyrus before him? It would not come clear to his sleepy mind. In Spain, he thought; no, France, when I was first here.
Ah, yes, he remembered, it was in England. The letter from my father, left behind when we fled.
He struggled to reach back into the memory of that time, to push aside the veil of the years, for nestled dormant beneath the bitter wisdom of manhood was the sweet eagerness of the boy he had once been, the one who had studied these letters by candlelight under the careful scrutiny of his family. He had found pleasure in the task, while other boys his age complained. Of what use is all this studying? they would say. Soon we shall all be forced to speak Spanish anyway.
If we are not killed before then, he recalled thinking at the time.
The first page was done, its symbols unlocked, the words finally revealed. He felt the pride of that small boy, and the hunger for praise that never died. He ached to the depths of his immortal soul to do more, but his mortal body seemed determined to forbid him that joy. Would he awaken later in a cold pool of his own spittle, with the letters smeared to ruin beneath his cheek? Or would the candle burn down while he snored with his chin on his chest, and spread its wax upon the leaves? He could not allow either.
He carefully turned back the papyrus pages and read to himself again what he
had translated. The symbols, applied with aching precision in the purest gold, ran right to left on the page.
abraham the jew, prince, priest, levite, astrologer, and philosopher, to the nation of the jews, by the wrath of god dispersed among the gauls, sendeth health.
In these pages, the apothecary had claimed, there were great secrets. And it
was only because he was in desperate straits, the rogue had further said, that he would consider parting with such a treasure. So the young woman who called Alejandro Canches her pere had reached into the pocket of her skirt on a trip to the apothecary shop and extracted the gold coin he insisted she always carry, should they somehow be separated, and boldly exchanged the coin for the book. Alejandro had sent her out for herbs, and she had returned with leaves of a different sort. She had known what it would mean to him.
He glanced across the small dark cottage in which they made their home of the moment, and smiled at her sleeping form. "I have taught you well, then," he said quietly.
Straw crinkled as the young woman shifted. Her soft voice drifted through the darkness, affectionate but chiding.
"Pere? Are you still awake?"
"Aye, child," he said, "your book will not let me go."
"I am no longer a child, Pere. You must call me by my name, or "daughter,' if that pleases you. But not "child.' And it is your book, but I begin to regret buying it for you. Now you must go to bed and give your eyes some peace."
"My eyes do not lack peace. They have far too much peace. They are hungry for the words on these pages. And you must never regret this acquisition."
She rose up on one elbow and rubbed the sleep from her face. "I shall if you
will not heed your own warning that too much use will ruin the eyes."
He peered through the semidarkness at the young woman who had grown up so fine and lovely under his care, so straight and strong and fair. Only the barest hints of child-flesh remained on her face and fingers, and soon, he knew, that too would melt away, along with her innocence. But the rosy blush of girlhood still lingered on her cheeks, and Alejandro wished silently that it would remain just a little longer.
She has become a woman, he admitted to himself. This notion was accompanied by a familiar twinge that he had yet to define to his own satisfaction, though he often thought "helpless joy" to be as close a description of it as he would ever find. It had lurked in his heart since the day, a decade before, when he'd suddenly found himself with this child to raise, and had grown as he discovered that despite his considerable learning, he was no better prepared than an unlettered man for the task. Although some
men seemed to know just what to do and when to do it, he himself was not a man who did the work of mothering with natural grace. He thought it God's cruel trick that the Black Death had claimed so many mothers--it was they who had labored alongside the physicians to bring comfort to their dying husbands and children, and then because of their proximity had died themselves in terrible numbers. And though he abhorred the dearth of mothers and physicians, Alejandro wished that more priests had been taken. Those who had survived were the ones who had locked themselves away for the sake of self-preservation while their brothers perished in service. He considered them a thoroughly scurrilous lot.
He had done his solitary best for the girl, without a wife, for he would not
sully the memory of the woman he had loved in England by marrying for mere convenience. And Kate had never complained of her lack of mothering. She had
reached the threshold of womanhood with unusual grace and now stood ready to
cross it. As the motherless ward of a renegade Jew, she had, through some unfathomable miracle, become a creature worthy of awe.
The lovely creature spoke. "Please, Pere, I beg you to heed your own wisdom. Go to sleep. Otherwise I shall have to do your reading for you when you are an old man."
This brought a smile to his lips. "May God in His wisdom grant that I shall live long enough to know such a worry. And that you shall still be with me when I do." He closed the manuscript carefully. "But you are right. I should go to sleep. Suddenly the straw seems terribly inviting."
He moved the tome aside so it would not be splattered with wax, then placed one hand behind the candle flame and drew in a breath to blow it out.
There was a knock on the door.
Their heads turned in tandem toward the unfamiliar sound, and Kate's voice came through the darkness in a frightened whisper. "Pere? Who--?"
"Shhh, child . . . be silent," he whispered back. He sat frozen in the chair, the light of the candle still flickering before him.
The knock came again, then a man's firm, strong voice. "I beg you, I am in need of a healer . . . the apothecary sent me."
Alejandro shot an alarmed glance at Kate, who sat trembling on her straw bed
with the wool cover pulled up protectively around her neck. He leaned closer
and said in an urgent whisper, "How does he know I am a healer?"
"He . . . he thinks that I am the healer!"
"What? What nonsense is this?"
"I had to tell the apothecary something, Pere!" she whispered back, her voice almost desperate. "The man was inordinately curious and would not let the inquiry go! And it is not nonsense. You yourself have trained me in the healing arts. And so to satisfy him I told him that I--"
Excerpted from The Burning Road by Ann Benson. Copyright © 2000 by Ann Benson. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.