Historical fiction short story
By Susan Browne © Susan Browne 2017/2019
Arius, a prosperous Spanish merchant returns to Galway to marry the love of his life. But when he arrives he finds she is in grave danger.
1588, Galway, Ireland.
Arius Emelio walked into the Claddagh from the sea, a little older than he had hoped. Across the white sand his sea legs took him. The market was there just as before, over the dunes. He bought oranges from fellow countrymen and ate them in front of the stall, catching his breath. Calming himself.
Past the sellers of fish, wine, fruits, wool and leather he strode. His heart overflowed with a mixture of anxiety and love. The streets of Galway opened up and embraced him as an old friend. The music he heard in his dreams played on. Past the sullen grey horse and its one-eyed owner and into the narrow street that took him finally to the wood shop of Nola. The last time he was there she worked for her father, but he was ill at the time and likely dead now. Now it would be hers.
He paused in the doorway and inhaled the scent of cut timber. He had waited so long for that smell again. It was the sweetest he knew – the happiest of days were furled up inside it. This time the shop boasted the most ornate of carvings. Furniture fit for lords, with intricate Celtic designs on them. He gasped when he saw the detail in them and ran his fingers over animals, trees, crosses, and spirals. The work of a supremely talented artist.
‘Arius,’ she rushed towards him. She was covered in sawdust. Her face, her blonde hair piled atop her head, her overalls. They held one another. Then gently he kissed her, and she kissed him back fiercely and pulled him to her.
He leaned back and looked at her. ‘You taste like.. trees.’
They laughed and wept. Her fingers traced around his face, like a blind woman they explored his contours. She kissed the parts of her fingers that had touched him and then his face over and over.
‘For good this time I am staying. I have handed over my crew, so that I can be with you,’ he looked at her, for any trace of regret or torment. Any sign that she was not still fully his. He had been gone four years. Most women her age were married. ‘One hundred and thirty ships sail to England under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia to invade England. I know it was such a long time and for that, I am so sorry to you. Now, we have all the fortune we could ever need.’
She placed her hands on his heart and then on his waist. ‘Thank God you are safe and not going. Aruna… are you wearing money or jewels around your belly?’ she asked, feeling around his waist and stomach.
‘No, I am just fat from all the big feasts we have out at sea.’
‘I don’t think so, my love,’ and she pulled his clothes over his head to reveal his wrappings.
He flushed, ‘let’s lock the door. I don’t think a naked Spaniard in your shop will be looking so good with the neighbours, no?’
‘Always so sensible,’ and she closed the shop and pulled him through to her home behind it. ‘It’s not so safe for Spaniards here now. And there is something else I must tell you.’
‘I am not afraid, and I am not the only Spaniard here in Galway. Still, they are at the market, trading here. What must you tell me?’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘They are coming for me.’
‘Who is coming?’
‘There is a rumour started that I am a witch. The Mayor has a hatred of women, especially those who trade. I am told he does not think that it is natural for women to carve in this way. Black magic they say.’
‘No! We have to leave right away. They will kill you.’
‘They will weigh me, to see if I weigh little enough to ride on a broomstick,’ her eyes glistened with tears ‘and if that is the case then they will kill me. I do not weigh little, so then I have nothing to fear.’
‘Insanity. I have heard of another woman tried in this way. In Amsterdam. Are you light enough to ride on a broomstick, sweet Nola?’
‘When I am with you Arius, I am light enough to fly right into the clouds.’ They both laughed, wiping away tears. ‘Come with me, let me bathe you and wash your clothes. You must be hungry.’
‘No. We must disappear, Nola, if they think you are a witch, they will make you weigh whatever they want, you don’t understand. I’ve heard about it in other places. Ven a España.’
‘I cannot leave Arius. I’m being watched. If they see me try to leave, I look guilty. Spies are everywhere.’
In the early hours, soldiers broke into the house.
‘A filthy witch lying with a foreigner. Faigh di.’
One tall man with wiry hands roughly threw Nola’s cloak around her before tying her with rope. Arius got stabbed in the arm as he attempted to obstruct their exit.
They were led to Gort weighing house. There too was the mayor, who looked at her with contempt, even though her father was a well-liked man. Her mother and brothers were killed by consumption five years earlier, and so now Arius was all she had.
A crowd gathered. The large weighing scales, normally used for weighing cattle and goods was what they pushed her onto. A large circle of onlookers was ever widening. Some were already crying ‘cailleach, cailleach, cailleach,’ like wolves, baying for blood.
Her eyes met his and she gained strength as she awaited the verdict. The weighmaster announced, ‘this must be a witch, she only weighs five pounds.’
‘Estafa!’ Arius cried. ‘You lie!’
The crowd jeered in delight as she was dragged away to Blake Castle dungeon for death by burning that evening. Arius smacked his head over and over, he was trying to conjure up a memory from years before. A memory of a raid on the castle and an underground tunnel.
The acrid smell of death filled their nostrils in the pitch blackness of the souterrain running from underneath Blake Castle to the sea. ‘Be careful here, you’ll have to step over,’ Arius told her.
Nola gagged as her foot touched the liquid mass of a rotting corpse. In the dead of night, the blackness of the tunnel seemed never-ending. At last on the beach, the lights of the ship glinted, and they rowed over to it.
Out at sea, he held her close and they watched a fleet, ghostlike, aking their way from the North to Ireland’s west coast. Nola thought of her wood shop, her carvings, and tools. She conjured up a dream of starting it all anew. In a place where the sun shone that Aruna had told her all about. His home town of A Coruña.