Dirty Gemstones

(Excerpt from the novel in progress)


      In 1556, the gout-crippled ruler of the Spanish Monarchy abdicated in favor of his son and retired to a monastery. Five years later, in fulfillment of a wish of his then-deceased father, Felipe II moved his court to Madrid and declared it the capital of his global empire. Construction to give the city a royal residence had been underway for decades, and in 1598 the conversion of a ninth-century, Muslim alcázar (fortress) into a palace was finished.
      The Real Alcázar, which had kept its title despite the royal transformation, stood until 1734, when it was razed by a fire that raged for four days. The intense heat melted silver and ruined countless treasures. More than 500 paintings were lost to the flames, including works by Ribera, Rubens, Tintoretto, Titian, and Velázquez. What remained of the building was demolished. The present-day Palacio Real stands on the site.
      Some 4,000 miles from that location, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, lies Franklin, North Carolina. The area is rich in minerals with gemstone varieties, including corundum (ruby, sapphire) and quartz (amethyst, citrine). In 1974, the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum opened in the old Macon County jail. The refurbished cells and jailor’s living quarters house thousands of specimens. The walls of the “Slammer” are scratched with historic graffiti.


Part One: Valle de la Fuenfría, Spain

3 January 1840

“There’s no flour without bran.”
Spanish proverb

      Alfonso Martín was the kind of rich that a man keeps to himself, and the measure of his wealth had afforded him an abundance of everything but miracles. Silver Spanish reales and New World gold and gemstones held sway over the Church, but only the Almighty could contravene the laws of nature. God had written them; God could break them, and in an ancestral cottage tucked into the bleakness of winter, for the second time in three despairing days, Alfonso was asking Him to do just that.
      “Please, Lord,” he begged, “cure her of this childbirth fever.”
      The midwife dipped a cloth into the bowl of melted snow beside the bed and dabbed his wife’s forehead. The water ran down her cheeks like the tears of stillbirth.
      “She is now all I have. Heavenly Father, I implore You to bring down her fever.” Alfonso sank to his knees and recited the Act of Contrition: “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven, and the pains of Hell; but most of all because I love Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”
      Her uterus and bloodstream infected with sepsis, Alfonso’s wife clutched her abdomen and began to scream for their dead son, and then for herself.
      “I do not question Your wisdom, my Lord, but do not take her from me, too. Save her, ease her pain, and I will also make restitution for the sins of my predecessors, which have given me these fifty years of comfort. I promise, as You are my witness.”
      But God refused Alfonso’s selfish prayer barter.

24 April 1840

      High pressure sat over central Spain: the skies were clear, the winds were light, the air was cool. The sun was warming the eastern horizon but had yet to show itself. The snowcapped summits of the Sierra de Guadarrama blushed with alpenglow.
      Awake and unrested, Alfonso lay in bed; it had been months since he had slept tight. His bedmates, two woodstove-warmed bags of cherrystones, had given off their heat throughout the night and were now barely lukewarm. The tepidness was as reliable as the cock in Alfonso’s chicken coop.
      He turned over to stare outside. The view was veiled by a delicately fringed pair of curtains. The woman who had sewn them was dead, but she lived in his dreams, as did their son, when Alfonso managed to sleep. His bleary eyes focused on the window.
      The rectangle was the dark brownish-gray of smoky quartz, but as the robins his wife had loved so began to warble in the Scotch pines, it lightened through the various tones of amethyst—purple to bluish red to pale red-violet.
      Alfonso threw back the covers, pushed his stocking feet into a pair of red fox slippers, and slogged to the window.
      The Sierra’s most unmistakable mountain, Siete Picos, was in silhouette, its seven peaks lost in the upper limb of the rising sun like the plates on a dragon’s back in the arm of the gold-plated knight who had come to slay it.
      Alfonso parted the curtains. The linen was cool, unlike his wife’s touch. He unlocked the sashes and opened them. The smell of the morning air was familiar and lonely. The light wind billowed the curtains and winnowed Alfonso’s quickly graying hair.
      Morning had come to the floor of the small, forested valley and to Fuenteovejuna, the ancestral homestead settled by Alfonso’s paternal grandfather. The name had two very different meanings.
      To locals and those oblivious to Martín Family politics, the name meant “sheep spring,” an obvious, literal reference to the natural fountain at the head of the valley from which feral sheep often drank. To immediate family and confidants, of whom Alfonso now had none, the name was an allusion lauding the residents of the so-named village who centuries ago had risen against the abuses of nobility.
      Given the actions of Alfonso’s paternal great-grandfather during the 1734 fire that razed Madrid’s Real Alcázar (palace home of Felipe V and seat of his court), allusion was by far the more accurate message. But literalness was the more prudent explanation.
      Alfonso locked the sashes and changed clothes, dressing not for the morning but for midday, when the valley would be quickly warming under cloudless skies. When he was done, he tramped into the well-appointed living room, tossed a log into the woodstove, and promptly fell asleep in his favorite chair.
      An hour later he woke to beams of sunlight striking the ibex rug in the middle of the wide-plank floor. He had blood trailed the wild goat for nearly a mile along a rocky slope, and none of the animal had gone to waste, including its long, recurved horns, which had become cups and scoops. Alfonso was a responsible hunter. The chestnut brown rug was a warm addition to a once cheerful room that now, despite the lingering smell of smoldering oak, had the persistent chill of melancholy.
      Alfonso eyed the rug, picturing the chest hidden under the floorboard beneath it, and recited a prayer of thanks. In spite of his faith, which was unwavering, he was thin and reclusive, almost paranoid. He grabbed the loaded rifle beside the chair and rose to his feet, which carried his feeble frame onto the porch before his sadness could object.
      The only voices he heard were the whispers of the windblown wild pines, rockroses, and junipers that dotted the homestead. He picked up a pair of binoculars and glassed the valley. A Spanish imperial eagle snatched a rabbit from the mouth of its burrow and flew northward. Alfonso glanced at his barn and pigeon and chicken coops, and returned to glassing.
      Just below the retreating snowpack, he could see that the ibex, which had wintered in mixed groups, were breaking up into female-juvenile and male bands. Alfonso’s stomach growled, stirring the hunter in him. He locked the door.
      Marching along the stone wall, he sighed at a thicket of oaks that habitually retained their dead leaves. As it did every spring, the wind was stripping the trees of last year’s foliage, and the brittle organs littered the underbrush of ferns—a usual sight following an unusually cruel winter. Alfonso trudged toward two unmarked, settling mounds of soil. Fern runners were creeping across them, condemning the graves to necessary obscurity. He kneeled at their feet. “I love neither of you less, but I must now start living…and hunting, or I shall starve. The ibexes are waiting.”
      Two days later, as low pressure washed away the memory of clear skies and the blood trail of a rifle-shot goat, Alfonso fell on an eroded slope and broke his left leg just below the knee.