Conversos: Spanish or Portuguese Jews and their descendants who converted outwardly to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition to avoid persecution or expulsion, though often continuing to practice Judaism in secret. Also known as crypto-Jews.
Valencia, Spain, April 1785
“How could you be so foolish?” he roared at her, his dark eyes blazing with rage. Turning his wrath on the nearest object, Efren swept a vase from a walnut side table, scattering rose petals and shards of porcelain across the marble floor of the sitting room.
“For centuries the Amselem name has been respected in the royal court and the church. My father is a physician in King Charles’ court! Now there are whispers that you were observed refusing a cut of pork in the marketplace yesterday when no other meat was left. My God, Anica, what were you thinking? My family has denied its Jewish blood for generations and prospered. Any suspicion that we are secret Jews puts our lives in danger. One person,” he said, slicing the air with his finger. “It only takes one person to accuse us, and we will be brought before an Inquisition tribunal. We’ll lose everything, and Isabel will be an orphan.”
His chest heaving, Efren sank into a chair and buried his lean face in his hands. When he looked up, his mouth was set in a grim line, the dark lashes that rimmed his lids wet with tears. He stared past his young wife and the crying infant in her arms, ashamed of his outburst. When he finally spoke, his voice betrayed his fear. “They are still torturing suspected conversos and burning them at the stake.”
Anica clutched her daughter and sobbed at the realization that one moment of distracted carelessness had placed them in so much danger. “Mariana was ill, and I sent her home. I wanted to have a nice supper waiting for you, so I went to the marketplace. Isabel was crying, and I couldn’t soothe her. People were giving me hard looks, and I was embarrassed. I could feel my breasts filling with milk, and I just wanted to get away. Oh, God, what have I done?” she cried, falling to her knees before him.
His anger was no match for the hold she had on his heart. The muscles in his jaw loosened and his face softened. Pulling his wife and child into his arms, Efren nestled his face into the nape of her neck, inhaling her sweet smell. “Anica,” he murmured, repeating her name until her sobbing ceased.
“I am so sorry, Efren,” she said, breaking from his embrace, her eyes shining with tears. “Are we really in danger?”
“I only know that there is gossip, and that cannot be good. I have business enemies who would be eager to seize on this and do me harm. We must be vigilant to any indications that we are under suspicion.”
The whimpering baby in Anica’s arms began to suck furiously on her fingers. “Isabel is hungry,” said Efren, kissing his daughter’s dark curls.
Watching Anica take Isabel to her breast, Efren was still stunned by his young wife’s beauty. Raven-haired with dark, almond-shaped eyes the color of obsidian, her body sensuous and soft, she had beguiled him the first time he saw her at his family’s Christmas ball. Accompanied by her widowed father, sixteen-year-old Anica Rezio had captivated him—and made him feel foolish for even thinking she would favor him. Why, he thought, as he observed the gaggle of handsome young men who swarmed around her vying for her attention, would such a beautiful young girl be interested in a thirty-five-year-old man? Efren smiled in spite of himself when he remembered how ardently he had pursued her, making up business excuses to appear at her father’s home, ensuring invitations to parties he knew she would attend, seeming to appear by accident at the courtiers’ salons she frequented.
He won her heart with patience and persistence, and they married the next year on Anica’s seventeenth birthday. Happily giving up his former life of gambling dens and women eager to share his bed, Efren spent his days expanding his import-export business, and his nights in the arms of his beautiful wife. When Isabel was born a year later, he could not believe his good fortune.
Now, he feared it had run out.
Her head resting in his chest, Efren ran his fingers through Anica’s fine, silky hair, and whispered into the night. “I’ve always known that you practiced your Judaism in secret. Did you think I wasn’t aware that you slipped away to the cellar before it turned dark to light the Sabbath candles. Or your aversion to eating pork, and that Friday night was the servants’ night off?”
Anica could feel the hot flush of shame creep up her neck to her face. “I am sorry I kept that part of my life from you. My father’s family converted long ago, and we lived as practicing Catholics. But my mother’s ancestors were secret Jews, and she continued to follow as many of the Jewish laws and rituals as she could in secret. Not even my father knew. I was ten years old when she died, and all I have to remember her by are the candlesticks she used to light the Shabbat candles, and the observances she taught me. I would watch as she lit the candles and prayed over them, her hands covering her eyes, and I thought she was the most beautiful woman in all of Valencia. On Friday nights when my father was away on business, we would eat the Shabbat meal in the cellar so we wouldn’t be discovered if someone came to the house unexpectedly. Mama always left out a special prayer book that had a cross embellished on its cover so that it appeared to be a volume of Christian blessings. She told me never to forget that I was Jewish. After she died, I was afraid I’d get caught lighting the candles, but I prayed every Friday night, holding her prayer book and my rosary in case I was discovered.” Anica hesitated and took Efren’s hand. “If you knew, why didn’t you stop me?”
Efren let out a long breath. “Because I love you, and I kept telling myself there was no harm as long as you confined your praying and practices to the house when the servants were gone.”
Anica sat up and circled her arms around her knees. “And now I have brought danger upon us. What are we going to do?”
“I’ll go to the wharf first thing in the morning as I always do. Gossip and rumors travel fast among the merchants, and we’ll know soon enough if we are in danger. I don’t want you to leave the house tomorrow. If you need anything send Mariana.”
Efren reached for Anica and pulled her into his arms. “You need to sleep. Isabel will be hungry again in a few hours.”
Anica curled her body around his, and finally fell into a fitful sleep. Slipping quietly out of bed, Efren padded across the cold stone floor and peered down at his sleeping daughter. Overwhelmed by emotions so strong they took his breath away, he sat by Isabel’s cradle, watching the rise and fall of her tiny chest, waiting for the first pink rays of dawn to light the sky.