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by Pioden 

Posted: 14 January 2007
Word Count: 1491
Summary: A story about a 16th century outcast.

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This May afternoon in1593, Zaldua squats in the dust of a woodland track drawing track lines with a broken stick. He is six years old, a thin, large-boned child. His wide forehead and small chin set him apart from the Basque people he lives among, as do his pale skin and light grey eyes. He has tied earlobes, a genetic curiosity exaggerated by inbreeding. Although his clothes consist entirely of grimy rags, his feet are enclosed in slippers which reach above his ankles. Should he be caught barefoot, the soles of his feet will be branded with white-hot metal to teach him his duty, because his neighbours believe that the grass will shrivel and die if touched by his naked foot. Zaldua may be kicked, cursed or spat upon with impunity, for he is an Agote, and his race is cursed.
Zaldua and his people live in hovels, banished to the outskirts of this village which they call home though they are not permitted to enter its public areas. They may not worship with others, nor enter the church by the main door, and when they are suffered to clebrate Mass, the Host is extended to them to them on a stick. Sick, or dying, no priest will attend them, and they may marry none but their own people.
Zaldua has already had a glimpse of the Transcendent. One silent harvest afternoon, his sister Dolore hoisted him up to peer into silent purity of the interior of the forbidden church. She hitched him up on her hip and pointed to the altar.
‘That is Our Lord Jesus,’ she told him, ‘who died to save us.’
He had stared at the collapsed figure hung from the cross. Our Lord Jesus seemed an unlikely defender, quite different from his majestic Uncle Aitor, who raged like a bull and could blow smoke from his nostrils. Zaldua’s eyes had strayed to the side of the altar and he gasped and pointed. There they met with a revelation. Raised up until her head was almost level with that of the Saviour himself, waist high in flowers, her head aureoled by golden clouds, her robe, the deepest blue of the sky, embroidered with gold, her lips and her cheeks crimson, and a tiny baby beneath her chin like a rosebud, was the Madonna, smiling, radiating light, and with her arms stretched out in loving welcome.
‘She is the Mother of God,’ his sister said, ‘she watches over children. Her name is Mary. Look, she is so beautiful.’
Will she watch over me? he had asked, and his sister Dolore, who was dead in childbirth before a year had passed, was so ignorant as to promise Yes, though there was little sign of it in her own case, considering the attentions of Uncle Aitor and the sad consequences thereof. But the glamour of Mary has fixed itself indelibly on Zaldua’s mind, especially as he has no mother, and now no Dolore; Zaldua will never in his life gather together enough of the threads of his genealogy to discover who his real parents were and so he chooses his own spiritual mother, the enchantedO, figure of the mother of God herself, who is dedicated to his protection. Mary guides his steps and takes his hand in the dark; she is his comfort and his friend; he would do anything for her.
It is the Madonna he now inexpertly traces with his stick in the dust. Absorbed in his work, he does not at first notice a distant roaring and the thunder of cartwheels until he looks up to see that fifty yards down the track, the Hermanderos are pursuing a family of gitanos. Among this race of nomads, whose fecklessness and criminality are an established fact, lives a number of Moslem people who would be honest citizens if they were permitted to follow their faith in peace; but since the Spanish Inquisition has been set up to ensure that they do not, they have submerged themselves in this deep pool of the exotic and travel with them as camouflage.
No stranger to cruel and random violence, Zaldua recedes into the trees. He sees a wooden wagon lurching between the ruts and potholes. A youth whips the angular horse into exertion and two young women, flying bundles of gaudy rags, run gasping alongside. An older man, bearded and dark, tugs at the bridle. He curses the horse in Roma; Zaldua eyes him apprehensively. This man would give him a thrashing just for the fun of it. The wooden axles groan and the girls weep with exhaustion; the thin brown horse throws its head up in despair, and as the Hermanderos gallop into view, the wagon hits a stone and, with a tearing crash, collapses onto the dusty path. A wheel rolls into the undergrowth.
The Hermadneros are surprised into a disorderly halt, and in the dust and confusion, the girls and their brother dart into the forest and disappear. The older man, however, attempting to do the same, finds his way barred by a solid wall of horseflesh. Its rider takes his ear.
‘So, gypsy,’ he inquires, giving the ear a twist, ‘what have we got in the wagon?’
The gypsy glowers and turns his body. His face is lined and scarred; he has the high arched nose of a hawk. He spits noisily on the ground.
‘Morisco,’ says one of the brotherhood.. He drives his fist into the man’s stomach, and for good measure, puts a knee into his groin. The gypsy doubles up silently. Zaldua can see the blood coming from his mouth as they chain him to the wagon. There’s nothing in the wagon but the trash of destitution, which the riders are now tossing onto the dusty path, where it lies in pathetic heaps; ragged blankets, patched cooking pans and tawdry garments. Then a shout of triumph, and one of them drags out a girl, slender, olive-skinned, about nine years old.
‘You filthy, theiving, gypsy bastard!’ says the man triumphantly. The girl now joins him in protest, accusing the gypsy in high, excited Castilian. Her hands are tied behind her. She was taken from her uncle’s house, she says, she is Isabella de Castres Gonzales, third daughter of Guillen de Castres who died in the wars, died for the King, she says; she is not crying, but shrieking. They believe her; her speech is cultivated and her soiled dress was once fine. Her screech, though, rising to hysteria, is beginning to annoy them. Nobody has bothered to untie her hands.
‘That’s enough, now,’ one of them says shortly.
The child is too far gone; she can’t stop. A month’s anger and terror stream out of her. One of the Hermaneros is obliged to strike her. From his hiding place, Zaldua gasps. The girl subsides, a red weal on her cheek. She sobs silently.
‘Bastard gypsy,’ says the man as if a new idea was dawning on him. ‘Bastard gypsy kidnapped a little girl. Bastard gypsy beat her to keep her quiet.’
All the men stare at him.
‘Beat her and God knows what else,’ he says. He draws his forearm across his mouth.
Their shouts, from a distant clearing, are louder than her screams. Zaldua smells the waggon burning. The gypsy man is shouting himself hoarse. He looks up to see a silent, grey-eyed child standing before him. Hope revives as the smoke billows and flames roar.
‘Help me!’ he pleads, his mouth ringed with blood.
Zaldua shakes his head.
‘I won’t hurt you.’
Zaldua knows this is a lie. Everybody hurts him.
‘I’ll give you something. Get my knife, look, cut me free and you can keep it.’
Some chance, thinks Zaldua. The man’s pleas grow more desperate. The flames are beginning to warm him. The child remains motionless.
‘I’ve got something for you,’ shouts the gypsy, ‘round my neck. A gift from the Queen of Spain. You can sell it for a lot of money. Take it and set me free.’
The smoke and stench of the fire, the man’s red face, his cries of terror all frighten Zaldua more than he has ever been frightened before. Still, a sudden impulse of curiosity makes him approach. It is a fearsome novelty to go so near a grown man without fear of a beating or a stoning. He sees, astonished, the face of his protectress, the Virgin herself, looking up from the gypsy’s throat.
‘Help me!’ the man cries, despairing. ‘Take the locket from round my neck! It’s yours, but set me free!’
Overcoming his fear, Zaldua stretches his arm to the utmost to grasp the chain around the man’s neck. He can feel the heat of the flames on his cheeks. His hand closes on the chain and he pulls. The man howls for release. But there is no other human near, and the boy’s retreating footsteps are silent on the mossy woodland path.

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Comments by other Members

apcharman at 22:37 on 14 January 2007  Report this post
Hi Jackie,

Since it looks like I'm first to this piece, let me the first to say welcome! It's been a busy site the past few days, so it may be a while ‘til you get much response, but you are very definitely welcome!

Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, was Hobbes view of the commoners life wasn't it? And it certainly seems to me that you have captured that, and in taking us into the past you have taken us (with admirable erudition) to a very particular part of it that is exemplary in its 'foreignness'.

Your story is as simple as it is short: a boy, sitting near a track sees a cart overturned as the family of gypsies pushing it are caught by a band of riders. The riders find a captive girl in the wagon, take her into the woods and rape her while the wagon driver is left to burn with his cart. The boy approaches the man as the flames threaten to engulf him. He ignores the man’s pleas for help but takes a locket and chain from around his neck and leaves him to die.

Woven into this there is a lot of background information about the obscure racial heritage of the boy and the extreme prejudice meted out to his kind, along with the treatment reserved for gypsies. There is a little back-story in which it is related that the boy’s sister was abused or raped and died in childbirth and that the boy has fixated on the image of the Madonna; this back-story comes to fruition with the gypsy’s locket.

There is very clear authority about the writing and it has the wholly cliché-free tone of a professional. This means that it is very believable and the authority with which the facts are presented lends itself to the narrative so the story has authority too.

But I think there is too much in the way of explanatory background. It unbalances the story. And it is confusing for the reader because the scratching of the stick in the sand is too light an event to hold up such a weighty parenthesis of information between its first mention and its second. You have to have almost three narrative tones to get this much information on board; firstly the narrative of drawing with the stick, secondly the explanatory material, which reads like a text book, thirdly the recounting of past events which is half way between the other two in tone. I think something has to go and it is probably the historical detail.

Then I think you need to do something with the foreignness/brutality. You take us into the past and demonstrate how different and how brutal life was (and you rightly have a point because it is often found to be shockingly different), but then I think you need to take that somewhere. It means something to you, a 21st Century playwright, that the past was so brutal or so foreign. So what does it mean to you? What should it mean to us? Otherwise, as things stands, you run considerable risk of hitting the ‘so what’ factor. You may not want to ‘sanitise’ this view of the past by redeeming Zaldua with a demonstration of his ‘essential humanity’ or anything of that sort, and I can understand why not, but the problem with presenting ugliness in all its glory is that it is… well, ugly. And having gritted my teeth while you told me all about it, I will, when you reach the end, whisper the SW phrase if you have not made it relevant to me in some manner. Obviously it is relevant to you. You went to the lengths of writing the story. My (very idiosyncratic) reaction is to want to know more about that reaction. Your reaction.

I hope that is useful, very broad commentary. Since you only have a toe in the communal water it is tempting to offer you only the most flattering review, luring you aboard with platitudes, but since you are already an accomplished professional I imagine that’s not of much interest to you.

I did also note some detailed points;

“Thin, large-boned child” read awkwardly because it seems contradictory.

“Sad consequences thereof” reads a little awkwardly too. Is thereof a bit archaic?

Given there is so much obscure in this story, I don’t think it helps much to refer to the gypsies as Gitanos in the first instance. Since you revert to ‘gypsies’ later you might as well use it throughout. There’s also a couple of typos, one with Hermanditos (just kidding) Hermandaros becoming Hermaneros at one point and Hermadneros another, and the other with ‘waggons’.

Finally, on narrative flow, it all gets a bit congested when the brotherhood disappear stage left with the girl. You give us Zaldua's sensory system with the smell of burning, then the gypsy is shouting, so it seems like it is Zaldua who hears him, but then 'he' looks up to see a silent grey-eyed child. i had to re-read twice to realise it was the gypsy looking on Zaldua. I think it would be much better to keep the narrative perspective that of Zaldua all the time.

Is that helpful? I do hope so.


Nessie at 11:31 on 19 January 2007  Report this post

Sorry it's taken me a while to get to your story... and welcome to the site.

I enjoyed this story, and the world it transports me to. Zaldua is an interesting character, and the way you decribe him is powerful. He feels very 'real, as does his world.

But as a story? Im not sure...

I question whether this is a 'story', technically. I would argue that it isn't.. its more of an anecdote, a single 'scene' as there is no change - no progression from one state to another - for any central character. The boy is the same at the end as he was at the beginning. I took a look at yout profile, and assume this is an excerpt from your novel.

That having been said, it is an interesting sequence of events, indeed... like a film.

However... there were also places where the prose became confusing. Places where authorial intrusion pulled Zaldua so far away that I lost his voice. Switches in point of view, at one point, dragged me completely out of the story, and I had to restart.

A quick look through each element then:

Title fine, as it is an unusual name. Holds intrigue.
Unfortunate repetition of 'track' within three words in the opening line. Unnecessary. However, very good description of the boy, and the hook that comes at the end of the para makes me want to carry on.

Zaldua is a flesh and blood character. As is his sister, thanks to the scene in the church.

The others, (and there are a lot) are 'extras' and as such don't need to be utterly solid... except for the girl in the wagon. she is two dimensional at present.

She could be far stronger. We don't hear her voice speaking, as everything is reported.

The first line sets this up as Zaldua's story, seen through his eyes, albeit in third person. However, the writer intrudes all over the place, I'm afraid, and for me, breaks the fictive dream completely, over and over.

The cartwheels thunder down on the boy.he looks up... sees a pursuit coming straight for him.
(at this point, the reader is intrigued... the reader is with the boy, tension is building...)
then the author arrives, sits down, breaks the tension completely, and gives me a lecture. Viz:

Among this race of nomads, whose fecklessness and criminality are an established fact, lives a number of Moslem people who would be honest citizens if they were permitted to follow their faith in peace; but since the Spanish Inquisition has been set up to ensure that they do not, they have submerged themselves in this deep pool of the exotic and travel with them as camouflage.

This isnt an ill-educated village outcast speaking. he wouldn't even know what The Spanish Inquisition was. Its a historic observation from a distance. And the effect on the reader is, sadly, to alienate, and create a gulf between the action and him/her.

There are many instances of this intrusion.

Actual dialogue: what's there is fine, but I'd say there wasn't enough. The voice of the captive child needs to be heard, for example.

Point of view issies:

Theres a real point of view issue too: here particularly...

Zaldua smells the waggon burning. The gypsy man is shouting himself hoarse. He looks up to see a silent, grey-eyed child standing before him. Hope revives as the smoke billows and flames roar.
‘Help me!’ he pleads, his mouth ringed with blood.
Zaldua shakes his head.
‘I won’t hurt you.’
Zaldua knows this is a lie. Everybody hurts him.

Its Zaldua's story, as set up in the opening. Zaldua smells the burning, hears the shouts. 'He' looks up then refers to Zaldua, grammatically... and it is Zaldua who sees a child in front of him.
this whole passage threw me completely. And I had to break, reread, twice before realising what had happened with the prose.

Young outcast boy who has a penchant for the Madonna seesa gypsy waggon being pursued. They scatter apart from one who is beaten and tied to his waggon. A kidnapped girl is found therein. Having set the waggon on fire, the pursuers drag her away, to, (we assume) rape her. The boy could help the gypsy, but in the end just takes a medallion of the Virgin Mary from his neck.

It makes sense that this is probably part of a novel It isn't, I dont think, a short story in the technical sense.

There could be a lot of themes running here... and I'd be fascinated to read more. particularly, the view that opression and cruelt lead to more of the same.

Its very viaual, and at present the drama is in the visuals. Not in the prose. It's far too even and there is, as detailed about, far too much author intrusion to let the reader sink into any fictive dream... and thats where any drama or tension would lie.


Obviously articulate... but some oddities. "The rider takes his ear" for example. Mabe 'takes hold of his ear' might work better?

typos "the host is extended to them to them on a stick"

repetition of 'track' in the first line... feels a bit lazy.

'waggon' becomes 'wagon'

Tenses in the paragraph beginning "Will she watch over me"...muddled.

Pace: please see 'drama' above. same comments apply.


Fine... the boy walks off. but here, for me, is the proof that it isnt a story... theres no movement in the character.


Probably most of the above is totally irrelevant, as this is a single scene from a novel, I suppose.

But some of the elements might apply, and I hope some of the thoughts are useful.

Its always tough to critique the work of someone with a strong CV. Thats why I prefer to critique anonymous work... but thats not often possible.

best wishes


Becca at 07:26 on 21 January 2007  Report this post
Hi Jackie,
This is a highly visual story. But I would say that there's so much rich background material here, that as reader, I wanted to know a lot more about all the characters and their situations. So for me it read a lot more like an extract from a novel in which we get to know what happens to Zaldua next. My impulse is to want to see him safe or prospering later on in the 'novel.' It was good to read being so surely written, and I was particularly interested in the MC's reaction to the crumpled figure of Christ in comparison to the heavenly Madonna, and what lies behind that. And does Zaldua, who seems like a primitive soul, ever take control of his own life? That, for me would make sense of the violent beginning, otherwise, what is it for?
At one point I did get confused about the location of the characters in relationship to each other at 'Their shouts, from a distant clearing, are louder than her screams.' And then I got it, they've taken her away, but because it runs on from the scene before, I did miss it at first. I thought a para. break just before that line would sort it out.

Heckyspice at 16:33 on 30 January 2007  Report this post
Hi Jackie,

This does not work for me. Everything is static and IMO with historical fiction, the narrative had to be active. I found this all clumsy and confusing. For a third person narrative it tells far too much rather than showing.

We never really get into Zaldua's head and know his thoughts. You tell us but I do not feel we experience them, or see the world as he sees it. I make no connection with Zaldua and that is a crucial element for any opening.

The background detail is very good albeit too much here for an opening chapter.

I am sure you are already thinking of ways to improve this story and I would like to see more.

Best wishes,


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