Snarled Thickets of the Wildwood

Snarled Thickets of the Wildwood

by Ricardo Azevedo translated by Lucy Greaves

For my insolence and sins, God ordained that my life in this world should be marred by disorder, disconsolation and disaster.

There I slept in the stillness of my cot.

Lying beside me, also in her bed, my mother read with two oil lamps alight on the chest next to her.

It was a night of bitter cold.

Suddenly the front door near shattered in a great din of blows and shouts:

“Joana Machada!”

Wrapped in blankets, my mother ran to unbolt the door.

Bundles of cloaks and hoods came into view, accompanied by soldiers bearing torches.

They introduced themselves as commissaries of the Holy Office. They cited hurtful accusations and denunciations. They bore orders to imprison my mother.

“But of what am I accused?”

She and I lived in the house alone.

After long exchanges of words and conversation, the religious men decided that because I was near fifteen years old I should go with them.

Even now, from time to time, the memory of that darkest of nights rises again to encumber my thoughts.

My mother surrounded by hooded priests and men of arms, the snarling chill striking my face, the fear, the keen sound of footsteps falling on the stones of the narrow streets.

Oh, my mother, my mother, so glad, so beautiful and so unfortunate!

Already I foresaw such great inquietude.

I guessed at shadowy intentions and malevolence, above all because my mother had a strong temperament but also from the voracious gossiping of neighbours and the slander of meddlers that I heard at the market and the harbour, as well as in Joaquim Faleiro’s tavern.

Many people appreciated Joana Machada. Many did not.

My mother was a handsome woman. She knew how to read, write and count. Taken by the priests, she disappeared into the secret prison hidden in the dungeons of the court of the Holy Office.

There was a legal process in motion, the clerics said, and then she would be taken for interrogation in the Inquisition court.

They sent me provisionally to a home run by the nuns of the Irmandade de Misericórdia, a place where people were wont to leave foundling children without fathers or mothers.

Days later, by order of the bailiff of the Holy Office, I was interned at an orphanage in Lisbon, the Colégio do Jesus dos Meninos Órfãos, and there I stayed for some time. Finally, as a cabin-boy, and against my will, I left on the journey that marked and continues to mark my life – and which has, at the same time, offered me such curses and blessings.

But all that came later.

Much of my knowledge about the unfortunate destiny of Joana Machada I gained from father Agostinho, a pious friend who used to say mass at the small church of São Jerônimo, near to where we lived. And also from what I learned from Manuel Pinhão, barber-surgeon, relation of dona Felícia, the wife of our neighbour the sardine-fisher. With bloodlettings and family remedies he cared for my mother’s health during her short and dreadful stay in prison.

After two weeks in the cells and already weak with cold and hunger, Joana Machada was finally taken before the court’s bench.

According to the record of indictment, the denunciations came from two anonymous witnesses, who the inquisitors stated were Christian, pious and honest and who, just as I imagined, lived in the lower part of the city, near to our house.

My mother was accused of practicing witchcraft and sorcery, of having knowledge of magic and ill will, and more: of maintaining illicit dealings with the devil. They said that Joana Machada had learnt to read, write and count thanks to lessons she took from Satan himself. That she was in the habit of conversing with the dead and that, for nefarious witchwork, she sacrificed animals, opened their bellies with a large knife and, armed with a wooden spoon, examined their entrails. Thanks to this, they said, she was able to read fortunes, destinies, curses, loves, enmities and even gain knowledge of things that had not yet existed.

That once, by howling, blowing and spitting into the air she had unleashed winds so hugely unfavourable that they sank a ship that was about to anchor in the harbour.

Many, many were the treacheries and slanders.

They said that in exchange for coins and presents my mother wrote, on commission, letters to the devil with prayers, demands and petitions for help.

They swore that she knew the art of training she-devils and demons and that she was able to trap them in bottles and flasks.

That Joana Machada herself, my mother, was in the habit of courting and fornicating with Satan in order to thus, through illicit agreements with the damned dog, obtain protection, favours and blessings.

Finally they said that she denied God and Jesus Christ and, in secret, was wont to piss on crucifixes and images of saints.

God save my soul!

It was not my mother who made such great and ruinous affronts!

For all they said, related and described, somebody else was certainly meant, the witch named Jacinta, a harlot, unmarried woman of worldly pleasures, also known as Weak-Piss, a criminal, necromantic enchantress who lived on the opposite side of the river, two harquebus shots from the house where we lived.

It was Jacinta Weak-Piss, yes, may God forgive and keep me, she who was truly well known for her evil ways, a perverted woman steeped in poison and malevolence, a twisted old woman forever overcome with wickedness, vileness and filthiness.

But Joana Machada?

It so happens that, besides the clothes she washed for others and the preserves she painstakingly prepared and sold, my mother also did bits of work as a healer and witch-doctor. In addition to that she delivered babies, prepared ointments and household remedies, and saved a good number of sick neighbours with her bloodlettings and purgative herbs.

I do not deny that Joana Machada sometimes prepared and distributed small cloth bags that she sewed and filled with pieces of roots, amulets and magic seeds. But she did this to occasion luck, to protect, to conjure away evil, to ward off bad humours, fluids and putrid vapours. She always thought to do good and to this end counted not on the powers of the filthy devil, as God is my witness, but São Brandão and Santo Amaro, saints of her devotion, and above all on the blessings of Our Lord Jesus Christ!

Witches bewitch, they bring bad luck to people’s lives and weave curses.

Witch-doctors unbewitch, they bring good luck to people’s lives and weave blessings.

Who does not know that, dear Lord above?!

In truth, all that smelt of gross and awful treachery. They were slanders infected with betrayal, cloaked and caustic knavery, and I knew very well from whom.

Two houses below ours, almost at the corner of the quayside road, lived a certain Antão Pires,  a merchant of wool and wood. He was father to eight children, husband of dona Antonia, a customer who used to order preserves and remedies from my mother.

So this Antão Pires had stubbornly set his mind on gaining the love of Joana Machada. Whenever he passed our house he called through the window to ask if she would want and consent to lie with him. He went as far as offering a tea made from mint, pine seeds, gunpowder, black pepper, quail’s eggs and a certain powder made from the testicles of dogs. This decoction would incite, so it was said, wild desires and sinful stirrings of the flesh.

My mother refused. Antão Pires insisted. My mother protested. Antão Pires proffered. And tempted. And signed. And promised.

One afternoon, once more, the merchant leant on the window, his looks and lips deceitful and his antics improper:

“Darling Joana Machaa, come with me to the woods, hurry now for I need to show you something!”

“You have a wife, Sir!” replied my mother.

“You are more shapely and softer than she.”

I was at home and witnessed all this.

Weary, after a day overflowing full with orders, jobs and battles, Joana Machada was that afternoon lacking in patience, she seized the chamber pot from the house, ran to the window and hurled piss and shit in the face of the lewd man.

It was Antão Pires, it could be no other, who then shamefully and cunningly, out of vengeance, spite and rancour, accused my poor mother.

He and certainly some of our neighbours disliked the fact that my mother knew how to read and write, something that few around there could do. Or because he coveted her beauty and her gifts as a good-looking woman, she who, thanks to her many efforts, moreover managed to earn a greater and better income than many people in all the parish.

But, to my displeasure and worst augury, the tales of the priest and barber-surgeon did not end with such accusations and slander.

According to Manuel Pinhão, my mother’s health waned at each meeting with the priests due to the dampness of the prison, the filth of rats and the food riddled with mould and rot.

My mother always denied, in said interrogations, according to father Agostinho, all the accusations placed upon her. She said that they were no more than hurtful villainy, she argued, she reaffirmed her faith in God, but unfortunately she seemed increasingly weak and lacking in hope.

Then came the fourth, the ruinous interrogation.

Exhausted, Joana Machada summoned ill-advised and fearful strength from her weakness. Choking, shouting and coughing, she unlocked her strong temperament before the inquisitors, she said what she thought, what she wanted and what she ought not to have said.

It was what I truly feared and dreaded most greatly.

In that last session my mother once more affirmed her faith in God and Our Lord Jesus Christ.

She said that on the face of the Earth there did not exist a creature bestowed with reason so blind and wanton as to not see that, in the order that reigns the heavens, the Earth, the Sun the Moon, the stars, the sea and other events of this world, there was something that went beyond the actions of men, and that this thing was governed and commanded by an All-powerful God.

Again she told the priests that she had learnt to read not from the devil, but from a certain Menocchio, miller and carpenter who, fugitive from Italy, came to live in the village where she was born.

She cried. She said that, even if it was not well accepted, it was not prohibited, it was not sin, nor did it violate the laws of God that a woman should read, write and count.

She swore that she had no dealings or business with Satan or other devils, whatsoever they be, incubi or succubi.

It was then that, according to the priest, Joana Machada unburdened her soul and her rebellion.

My mother declared to the clerics that she was a woman advanced in her years, she was thirty-one and, for that reason, it was impossible for her to believe that Our Lady had given birth and remained virgin.

Good father Agostinho hid his head in his arms.

“It seems your poor mother went mad once and for all!” he cried out in amazement, looking at me.

And he told me that, in the middle of the court, Joana Machada shouted that she did not know where the pope and the priests has come by such authority.

That in her opinion, if all men and women were created by God, they came into the world baptised by Him and, thus, baptism was a lamentable and meaningless ill turn.

She criticised the sale of indulgences. She said the whole business was nothing but friar’s falsehoods to obtain funds.

“Would Our Lord God want it,” she asked the priests in the court, “that the rich and powerful, for they have more money for indulgences, should be able to commit more and worse sins than the poor?”

Not satisfied, she declared that purgatory did not exist.

And that she knew of the existence of very good priests, faithful to the true teachings of God, but that there abounded villains, clowns and rogues suckled by the church.

With his voice tight with fear father Agostinho told me that the inquisitor clerics reacted with immense fury and cries.

Pointing their fingers, they accused my mother of being a blasphemer, witch, and contumacious heretic.

They said that the words she pronounced were in direct contravention of the Holy Mother Church, the divine teachings and the laws of God and could only be lessons, subtleties and tricks blown by the damned angel of darkness. They affirmed moreover that to prepare and distribute little cloth bags containing roots, amulets and magic seeds could be nothing but sin and heresy.

Then my mother gave her reply, also pointing her finger. She shouted her confirmation that she did in fact prepare such little bags. But she swore nought was as the priests said. She made potions and sewed the little bags to combat the evil eye, curses and the devil’s perfidy. She explained that illnesses were nothing more than obstructions caused by the forces of evil sent by uncouth Satan. She said that in her philtres and sewn cloths, always with the help of Our Lady, she placed herbs and seeds that she herself carefully planted in cemeteries, and only near to assiduously chosen graves or tombs.

The inquisitor priests were truly taken aback.

And yet more so when Joana Machada inquired of those members of the court if they would expect that the wheat that gave the flour used to make the sacred host was harvested from beside the tombs of sinners, murderers and wrongdoers.

Or if they would prefer that said wheat be cultivated and harvested from beside the tombs of men without sin, followers of the ten commandments, people who in life knew to practice good, pray, love their neighbours as themselves and, most of all, praise All-powerful God, creator of heaven and Earth, above all things.

Joana Machada also revealed that, having read many books, she knew that on the extraordinary expanse of the Earth there existed different peoples, different beliefs and different customs and laws. And she stated that, if men were the creations of God, each people had the right to their own god, their own thought and their own customs.

“The gods of each people,” my mother declared, “are different faces of a one true God, and do no more than represent the different beliefs and customs of the different faces of man created by Him!”

Before the revolted cries of the priests, Joana Machada finally shouted and wept that in the time of Adam and Eve there were no churches, no popes, no kings, no nobles, no priests, no rich, no poor, no men of arms, no lords, no servants, no slaves.

Father Agostinho cried as he told of the repulsion and opposition of the court of the Holy Inquisition faced with my mother’s truly offensive notions.

Although accused of practicing witchcraft and condemned to death by the court of the Holy Inquisition, my mother escaped being hung in the public square.

By the will of Our Lord God, around five months after her imprisonment and before the date set for her execution, Joana Machada died in the dungeon prison of the Holy Office destroyed by open wounds, poisoned by pain and corroded by disenchantment and discouragement.

Henceforth a shadowy desire to cease living came over me.