Sunday, 11 April 2010

A Cup of Water and a Rose

A Cup of Water on a Silver Plate with a Rose by
Francisco de Zurbaran, (b. 1598, Fuente de Cantos, d. 1664, Madrid)

This manuscript was found at the bottom of an old box I bought at auction. The pages had been used to line the box and to protect a fine porcelain vase of the Sung Dynasty. I had bought the box for it's own beauty, not realising that it had no key but, like the auctioneers that it had something within. The vase that had once been extremely valuable when porcelain was the property of royalty was now not so valuable, though it's age gave it some value. The box, of a fine dark exquisitely carved rosewood also had a certain value. I was happy to part with a goodly sum for it. But the manuscript within, written in a fine hand in Spanish was beyond price to me, even after it was translated. It had been written by a man who called himself Don Miguel Saavedra and was dated 1573. Could it be too much to hope that it was by that great Spaniard, the author of Don Quixote?

I did not know, but I liked to think it might have been. He would have been 26 at the time and with his keen eye would have enjoyed a great deal. In any case, seeing the manuscript, I typed it up and handed it to a good friend of mine, a lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a nearby university. I had omitted the author's name and the date, but told him that what I had given him was a transcription from an original handwritten manuscript. The translation was a considerable fascination to me and to my good friend. Here then, I offer my friend's translation as it is.

" I have never forgotten it and in the expectation that none will believe me or say that Don Miguel is a little too fond of his wine, I have written it down sober. For while I do not deny a love of good food and better wine, (what person in their right mind is not?) I swear on my honour and on my good name that I was not at all drunk, nor dreaming, but that all that befell me was true.

I was riding to Zaragoza from Valencia on a good horse and calculating my directions, I admit that I left the path and rode across the countryside through spinneys and grassy meadows in the hope of cutting down the time I should be on the road. After a while evening was beginning it's arrival and I began to look for a place where I might rest for the night and harbour my good horse. I did not find anywhere for a while, but as I climbed a ridge I looked down over fields to a farmhouse and hoped that I might find a place to rest. As I rode down the hillside I felt a vague uneasiness. For a moment my heart shuddered and then I realised that this was the quietest farmhouse I had ever come across. No dog barked to herald my approach, no horses stirred and I heard no children at all.

Still, I was in need of somewhere to sleep for the night and I was in no position to choose, for there was nowhere else in sight. To the left the valley was open grassland for miles. To the right, bushes and scrubland led up the side of the hill and in among those I would not sleep for wolves would find me and neither my horse nor myself should then survive. One man with but a musket and a sword should only last for a little while against a pack of wolves. Still, I began to wonder if I should fare much better in this farmhouse.

The fields themselves seemed well cultivated and not lacking in attention and yet while there was nobody present I felt my sense of dread rising in me. I called out, but nobody answered me. I told myself I was being foolish and my horse continued down the hill towards the farmhouse. I dismounted in the yard before the house and led my horse to the stable. The utter silence was unnerving and as I opened the stable door it occurred to me that I had not heard a single bird singing. There were no chickens either, though I had yet to come across a farm without them. I stabled my horse and fetched him water and oats before drawing my sword and approaching the front of the house, I tried the door. It opened smoothly and easily and I stepped within cautiously. The house was furnished simply but efficiently. There was a kitchen table with a feast set there. I went through the house calling out for someone - anyone. But nobody answered me, nobody at all. It was as if the occupants had suddenly vanished, with all their livestock.

When I glanced out of the window, I could see over the ridge the sun setting bloodily. Night was coming. I gathered firewood and made a fire. Then I made myself a simple meal of bread, sausage, olives and sweet peppers. I took one glass - only one mark you, of the wine on the table and sat by the fire, my sword beside me. I had eaten and was mulling over what could possibly have happened to the people whose farm I was in. I could not understand and after I had finished the wine and cleaned my plate and the simple cup, I went into the bedchamber and having washed the dirt of my travels from my body, I went to bed. The silver crucifix that my mother had given me was warm about my neck and I felt a strong unknown desire to remove it. I took it off and placed it beside me, hanging from the hand guard of my sword. Then I turned myself to sleep.

I do not know if I dreamed or I was awake, but the young woman who entered the room made me sit up and speak, but she hushed my words with a smile and kissed me. She lay down beside me and kissed my brow and my face with tender light kisses. Her body felt cold and I, young fool that I was, began to let my hands roam about her to warm her when it was I who became inflamed. She licked her pallid lips then and called me 'love' and 'darling' before kissing my chin and opening her soft mouth to kiss my throat and chest. I began to feel tired, my blood throbbed thick and slow in my temples. Still she kissed me and the more she did so the more I felt myself ageing and dying. I cried out and she laughed, a wild cruel laugh that had nothing of pity in it. A laugh of triumph and exultation. I reached out for my sword and my hand caught the silver crucifix. She shrieked then, suddenly as if in pain and rolled off my body recoiling from me. I put the crucifix back about my neck and felt life flood into me. I staggered from the bed and took up my sword but she whispered a word and I staggered and collapsed over the bed. I struggled to rise, grabbed my clothes and fled to the stables, sobbing with fear.

My horse seemed to be in a deep sleep and I pulled on my clothes and threw my cloak over us both and sobbed for fear. The young woman entered the stable but while I wore that silver crucifix she dare not come too close. She began to sing and in terror I recited my Paternoster and held up the crucifix before me. She hissed and vanished. Exhausted, I fell asleep. When I awoke my horse was standing and we were both in the ruins of what appeared to once have been a farm. On an old and battered table lay a silver dish. Upon it was a cup of water and beside it, a rose. I dared not touch them for the fear that was in me. Instead, I gathered up wood and in every room I put up a crucifix. I said a prayer for the dead and then tore down the walls of the farm until there was only a field of crosses. Then I mounted up and rode away from there as fast as I could. At the first sound of people you can be sure I stopped and paid for good food in their company. When I asked them about the ruined farmhouse, they crossed themselves and answered that a family had died there from evil spirits. I did not mention that I almost had died there myself. I thanked them and rode on. At Zaragoza I asked the abbot what he knew of evil spirits and told him my story. He did not laugh, but showed me an old book in which I read of the succubus a spirit that feeds on the souls of people in the guise of love. I had from my encounter, a grey lock of hair and I have it still to remind me. Nowadays, I do not stray from the path looking for a quicker route. I had almost taken a quick route to my grave.

I do not know if Don Miguel Saavedra actually met a succubus, or even if they exist. But he was right about the suspicions of others at hearing about it. When I told friends the story they laughed and said that he must have forgotten exactly how much wine he had drunk that night. Perhaps, they suggested it had been closer to one bottle rather than one cup. I know only that when I told a priest about it, he smiled and told me that the Catholics were always a strange lot. As an atheist I was not inclined to believe that a Protestant would have fared any better than Don Miguel, but I said nothing and came away. I keep the manuscript still and every winter around a warm fire with friends, I tell them this tale now and then. They enjoy it, even if they do not believe it.


bad penny said...

I believe it.....

Rosemary in Utah said...

I liked this very much, Griffin. The Spanish painting (do you think that rose is thirsty for that water?)inspired you, I think.

Farmhouses make me think of American themes too--Bonnie and Clyde doing rural robberies in the 1930s.

Griffin said...

Rosemary, this is a detail from a Still Life, which does make a lovely image all it's own. I've used this image on a postcard from the National Gallery in London for stories before. I do find it very inspiring and I love the cup.

Rosemary in Utah said...

Oh--I didn't know it was a detail--and just looked at the whole thing with the oranges and lemons. It's breathtaking, isn't it! Though the basket seems too...perfect or modern somehow. When I first saw just the cup and flower I thought it was nice of the artist to pay attention to such a simple display--I was fooled :)
Thanks for this!

Griffin said...

You're welcome, there is something peculiar to Spanish still lifes of the 17th century, you're right, a sense of trying to get things almost photographically correct - but also showing their skills too.