THE BLACK KNIGHT
Here again, another city, another museum and Ramiro Sanchez awakened to many faces streaming past. He hummed a tune as they gazed at him and wondered just what it was they thought they were seeing. Day after day his visitors would come and go, no one wise enough to know the black marble Knight did not belong with the relics of Queen Isabella's reign. Ramiro was nearly one hundred years older than her Highness. He stood as a decoration in her Palace for many years and many more after. Until he was discovered in Isabella's private papers, he had no name.
Yet, most of the museum visitors cared little for history. Instead they seemed more awed by the delicate and lifelike details carved into his polished, black marble surface. And that he was made, the brochure explained, from a stone not found in Spain. From the folds around the ankles of his well-worn boots and the bulky weave of his wool trousers, to his linen tunic and the needlework of his doublet, the chain and medallion around his neck, even the whiskers on his chin, the smallest details had been included, as sharp as if they were new. Stranger yet, and unmentioned, the marble seemed not to decay with age as one would expect. In their brochures they read that the artist was "unknown", but Ramiro knew his name.
A shiver of electricity passed through him as a lively group of small children were allowed to touch him. They invested Ramiro with an energy that would echo inside him long into the night. He began to sing impulsively, a song from his own childhood as these little ones pawed at his boots and chattered among themselves. In his voice was the lightness of their spirits, something he craved, but had not felt in a very long time. He breathed in their curiosity, deeply. It nourished him somehow and he laughed, looking at their many faces full of wonder.
Their caretakers stayed in the back, mere shadows until one of them drew near enough and took Ramiro's attention of a sudden. He could just make out her features as she approached and entered the light. She was lovely, but appeared perplexed, her head tilted slightly on her slender neck. Long black hair spilled down over her shoulders, while she held her hands, fingers braided together at arm's length in front. The white silken blouse she wore reminded him of the morning mists on the hills outside Madrid and did not hide the roundness of her breasts. She stared uncommonly long, her eyes wandering over his dark marble surface. Her penetrating gaze made him feel strange and at once, Ramiro was grateful that he had been fully clothed.
"Miss Amy!" cried a wee voice, shattering the moment and startling both Ramiro and the woman. Like a fresh colt, a small girl galloped across the room to the one she had called. He watched the woman bend down to hear the little one's whispered request She took the child's hand and turned toward the long hall that led to the museum foyer. She stole one last glance at Ramiro, then she was gone.
He tried to recall the feel of a warm hand clasped in his own. The memory was dim and he shook himself of it. He had long ago given up all hope of being flesh again. His sin unforgiven, he was cursed to endure the days, the years, the desolate centuries of loneliness with only his voice for company. Imperceptibly, he shrugged off the woman's peculiar regard. As unique as Ramiro knew himself to be, few of his visitors ever returned for a second look and there were many more hands to endure before these children were gathered up and herded away. Most likely he would never see her lovely face again and wasted no more effort thinking about her.
When the day was finally done and the museum closed, Ramiro yawned. He ached to sleep but could not until the excess electricity in the stone dissipated. Until then, he remained wide awake, thinking, singing and shouting insults at the balding, swag-bellied museum guard. He found he could locate the fat fellow by the sound of his shoes on the tile floor, or his snoring from the foyer on nights later than this. So he listened to the guard's footsteps as he walked from one end of the museum to the other making sure there were no stragglers left behind and dimming the lighting further. He sang to their rhythm to use up the energy the children had left in him.
The faraway jangle of keys and the muffled sound of the guard's surprised voice echoed through the hall. Ramiro hushed, straining to hear. A rush of outside air reached his exhibit moments after the door opened. Then, the soft tone of a female voice reached his ears. A new janitor perhaps? Anything new was a welcome gift. The lights on his exhibit came up and she was there. She from the morning.
"You're sure you don't need my help?" the guard asked, leading the woman in.
"Thank you, no," she replied with a glance at the knight. Larry the museum guard seemed anxious to get back to his laptop anyway.
Ramiro was no less than astonished. He could not imagine what had brought the beautiful young woman back. She wore trousers now and a heavy sweater that hid her pleasant figure. He felt her piercing gaze as before and as the guard left to go back to his desk, she turned toward him, no longer perplexed but full of intent.
The Knight's movements had ceased so long before, preserving him in a rather casual pose, unlike the many other sculptures of his era that were posed ready for battle. His weight rested on his left leg, his right knee bent slightly. His left arm hung at his side, his right bent at the elbow, the hand at his belt. And on his face was a contemplative expression that seemed, perhaps, either angry or pained. He had been about to turn and go to dinner. He thought it was a most fortunate circumstance, as the event happened very suddenly.
She began to examine him closely, for what, Ramiro could not guess. Warm hands caressed his marble legs. The sensation stirred thoughts he had not entertained in six centuries. As her palms stroked the smooth of his back, Ramiro thought he would swoon. She felt along his shoulders and traced the creases of his tunic sleeves with her fingertips. Was it a shiver he felt just then? Suddenly, he wanted her to stop or he would be unable to.
She kicked off her shoes, climbed on his narrow platform and tip toed all around holding on to him for balance. She leaned in close to look at his face. Her rose colored lips parted slightly in concentration and the gold flecks in her brown eyes glinted in the light. They were an ancient, familiar shape, exotic and compelling. He could no longer keep silent.
"What is it you seek?" Ramiro whispered.
She stumbled, abruptly losing her hold on him and fell on her rear. At the same time, her eyes grew enormous as if an apparition had appeared before her. She sat on the floor open mouthed. She had lied and said she was looking for a lost earring when she had really only come to take a closer look at the Reconquista Exhibit to find out who or what she thought she had heard singing that morning. It was a stupid idea, she knew, and just now she felt like an idiot. Someone must be playing an awful joke, she just couldn't think who or how.
Could it be? Was it possible after so long? "You can hear me?" he asked in a whisper half to himself. His answer came in her astonished countenance. "You can hear me!" Ramiro exclaimed. Hope flooded his heart. "Por favor, Señorita, tell me you can hear my voice!"
She had wanted to hear the voice again. Her heart raced and she didn't know what to believe. "Yes, I hear you, whoever you are," she answered, not allowing herself to accept it.
Ramiro caught his breath. He was jubilant, his mind a shower of excited thoughts. "It is I," he said, "Ramiro Sisnado Alvar Gonzalo Sanchez. Cousin of King Alfonso and Knight of Castile. What is your name, Senorita?"
She looked up at him, her brows knotting in suspicion. Somewhere she knew a prankster laughed at her foolishness. She certainly wasn't going to give him or them her name. "You can come out now," she shouted to the room.
"I beg you, do not be afraid," Ramiro implored. "In all the ages only one other has heard my voice …"
"Game's over," she said, cutting off his plea and turning round and round. "Show yourself!" She scanned the room, committed to finding the scoundrel behind the voice. She noted the security monitor high in the corner. Or was it Candid Camera?
"There is no one else," Ramiro insisted, desperate not to lose her. "I am Ramiro Sanchez, Knight of Castile. Please believe, Señorita!"
She strode angrily to the exhibit description plaque. "This says Ramiro Sanchez was kidnapped and tortured to death in the dungeon of Alhambra," she said, pointing at the words as if to pin down their veracity. "Sisnado Deigo Sanchez commissioned the statue later, out of grief!"
"Poor Uncle Sisnado was terrified of magic. I was in his house when it happened and he ordered me wrapped in sack cloth and kept in the cellar with the vegetables and cured meats." He cringed, thinking about his own terror those first years. Ramiro sighed heavily. "If I am not me, tell me who is speaking? Could it be you are possessed of a demon?"
"Don't be ridiculous!" she asserted. "Someone is hiding nearby with a microphone."
He had seen this device before and it sparked an idea. "Try this," Ramiro offered. "I will sing to you now and you must find my voice. If it comes from someone or somewhere else, I will concede. ¿Comprende?"
The Spanish melody enveloped her. His mellow tenor voice had held her spellbound once already that day. Asmina forced herself to ignore it and focused her mind on the search. She wasted no time beginning behind the draperies and hanging pictures. She looked closely at the walls between for a secret niche where a speaker might be. She found none. On the low stage where the exhibit was displayed she stamped her foot here and there feeling for solidity. It was. Neither the mannequin wearing Isabella's gown, nor the suit of armor standing beside the Queen hid any electronic devices she could find. Her search of the glass cases and the old chest brought from the Alhambra were equally fruitless.
At last she approached Ramiro again and rested her hand on his breast. "You're vibrating!" she said, recoiling in surprise. Tentatively, she touched him again, first with fingers, then finally her palm. "It's very slight, but I can feel it." She felt of his face and his neck. Her hands once again traveled down his arms and across his back and stomach. He could hardly keep singing for the current she sent up his spine.
"Would that you could feel my heart," he whispered. "It lives and is warmed by your touch."
Asmina recoiled then. "You can feel me?"
"I feel you in many ways," Ramiro assured her.
Asmina stood back. As much as she tried to hold on to skepticism, she couldn't stifle the inkling that he was real and that frightened her.
"For many centuries I have been denied the compassion and companionship of others," he explained. "My voice was heard only once before by a soldier who did not live to know me. I am a man cursed to loneliness. I cannot harm you, Señorita. On my honor, I would not. Please, tell me you believe."
Her eyes traveled over the marble statue indecisively. She wanted to say yes, but it was too incredible. Who would believe she had talked with the centuries old statue of a knight? No, it had to be a practical joke, extraordinarily well done. She opened her mouth to say so and another voice startled her from behind.
The Curator's sudden arrival startled both Ramiro and the Señorita. Neither saw him enter, taking long legged strides across the room. He appeared pleased to see the Señorita, as if she were already a friend. Señor Bertrand did not visit often and Ramiro wondered if the Lady had brought him.
"What are you doing here, Amy?" the Curator said with a wide grin on his sharp-featured, ruddy face. He towered above the Lady like a shepherd's staff and in his eyes there was the sly look of a salesman. Ramiro did not trust him and would not speak in his presence.
The Señorita gathered her wits in an instant. "I … I lost an earring." She said matter of factly. "Did the guard call you?" She hopped off the exhibit stage to meet the Senor, retrieving her shoes on the way. It was plain she knew him. Ramiro wondered for how long and how well.
"I called in to check on things and Larry told me you were here," he said. "What did the earring look like? I'll help you find it." He put his arm around her waist and bent his head to kiss her lightly on the lips.
"It was one of the little diamonds you gave me," she said. She broke his embrace to look quickly around the floor. "I couldn't find it in my classroom so I thought I would try here."
"No luck, huh?" he asked. She shook her head. "It's late." He went on. "Why don't I tell the janitor to keep an eye out for it and take you home?"
Regretfully, Ramiro watched her go with Señor Bertrand. The two were hand in hand, yet their relationship was mystifying. They appeared close but she wore no rings and she did not seem happy to see him. Why did she not tell him the truth? Ramiro did not have long to wonder. The energy in the stone had faded and with it his ability to think clearly. As consciousness faded he prayed he would not sleep long and that she would be at his feet when he awakened. "Por favor …" he whispered.
Her mind reeled. What did Donald say just now?
"Come home with me, Amy. Forget about the earrings. I'll buy you a new pair."
He called her Amy. She preferred her given name. He was a selfish man and trying to re-make her. She'd grown tired of that and made a lot of excuses to avoid seeing him lately. She wanted out but breaking up made her nervous. "I'm too tired, Donald," she said, making another excuse. "I just want to go home and sleep." Was it just last week they spoke about her giving up the apartment and moving in?
"You sure?" he said. "I'll pour you some wine. You can put your feet up…"
"No, Donald," she insisted. "Maybe another time." Almost free, she headed for her car. "I'll see you later, okay?"
He looked disappointed. "How about tomorrow?"
"I have plans," she lied. "I'll call you." She got in her car, started the engine and backed out. Donald stood there angry and befuddled at the same time. She drove past him with a smile and a wave. He didn't like losing and next time would be harder to escape.
He was divorced and had custody of his blond little boy who was one of her students at the preschool in the basement of the museum. That was how they met. Little Bobby was such a sweet, intelligent boy; she had expected his father to be the same way. Belief was her first impulse. She had always been just a little too trusting, too open. It was the reason she related so well with children and was hurt so much by her peers. Somewhere inside her there had to be a skeptic, a cold doubter. It could protect her from the traps other people set.
Snuggled into her bed, she yawned and pulled the comforter up around her shoulders. The knight appeared on her mind's eye as she settled herself for sleep. "Whoever did it was good," she thought. Nowhere on the statue's surface was there a single chisel mark that she could see. Stranger still, from the strands of his hair tied back with a thong, to the crest on the medallion he wore around his neck, all the details were as sharp as if frozen in time. And in that brief, indulgent moment between awake and asleep, she envisioned his strong arms around her. Was Ramiro Sanchez a handsome man … or a fine work of art?
She arrived at the preschool earlier than usual and climbed the back stairs to the museum level. The marble knight stood out as a dark shape in the dim light coming from the foyer. Its face was in shadow. Doubt didn't come easily at the knight's feet. No one in her memory had a voice like his, one that moved her so. If she heard his voice now, would she be able to resist? "Ramiro," she whispered tentatively and waited, hearing only the rattle of the air vents above. "Ramiro?" she tried again, a little louder. The marble was cold under her hand. It didn't feel alive as before. "Of course," she chided herself. "How could it?"
The usual dawdling Miss Amy had tolerated in the past, earned the children her scorn today. Felicia's frequent bathroom visits became less so. Tommy did not get a new cookie at snack, though Josh really did steal it this time. And Mary, the last one to sit down for story time, was reminded again to listen to instructions. All the while his voice haunted her mind. It had seemed so real. It seemed to come from inside her mind, resounded in her ears. She felt it when she touched the stone. Or at least she thought she had. Now she did not know.
That afternoon Donald came to pick Bobby up. "Would you have dinner with me and Bobby tonight?" he asked, smiling at her.
She got up and left her desk on his approach. "I have to go home," she said abruptly and went about the room, picking up after the children so not to let him get close.
He pursued her, regardless. "What's wrong, Amy," he said.
"Nothing. I've got some things to do," she said as she turned to erase the blackboard. The chalk dust made her sneeze and her eyes water. She snatched a tissue from the box on her desk, daubed her eyes and blew her nose. "Maybe I'm coming down with a cold." She turned her back to replace the snacks and unused juice cups in the cupboard above the counter.
Suddenly Donald's arms were around her. "What you need is a nice dinner in a quiet restaurant. I'll pick you up at seven. What do you say?"
"Oh, all right," she said. His offer sounded pleasant enough, thought she really did need to be alone. She felt unsettled and confused. Maybe she really was coming down with something.
When the last of the children went home, she locked the preschool door from the inside and went up the stairs. She did not intend to visit the Reconquista exhibit at all, wanting a shortcut to her car instead because it was raining. But as she approached the entrance to the exhibit room, she heard him singing and stopped. Her heart began to race and she turned to walk in. Just for a moment, she told herself. That voice wasn't real.
There was nearly a full house in the exhibit room. Asmina had forgotten the museum stayed open late on Friday. Ten minutes until closing. The visitors were mostly students this evening. She casually walked through and between them, making her way toward the marble statue, listening to the conversations around her for any small slip of the tongue, any confession not meant for her ears that would tell her who had set up the statue to talk.
"Ah, Buenos Dias, Señorita," Ramiro said at the end of his song.
"I'm not falling for your act today," she whispered, standing at his feet. "And when I find out who you are there's going to be trouble. Statues don't talk!"
Ramiro laughed at her assumption. "This one does," he said softly in the chill of her savage glare. "Ask them," he whispered. "Better proof you will not find. Ask if any of them hear me." Ramiro began to sing an opera he had learned long before. He sang as loud and as strong as he could.
The closing announcement had come and the visitors were leaving. Asmina composed herself as best she could and ran to the nearest person. "Pardon me, but do you hear anything coming from the Ramiro Sanchez Marble? Maybe a voice? Singing?" Her voice shook a little. The student she'd asked looked at her wide eyed and said, "nuh uh," then walked away just a little faster than before. The next person, an older adult, actually paused to listen before telling her there was no sound coming from the statue. She asked three more before they were all gone. All said they heard nothing. At last the room was empty and she turned back toward Ramiro.
Her indecision was written clear and Ramiro felt a terrible foreboding creep into his mind. He possessed nothing tangible to offer as proof. She might leave and never return. There had to be a way to keep the answer to his prayers from slipping away.
"You alone can hear me, bella Señorita. You see that now?" There was real distress in her eyes, fear in her expression. "Stay and be my company," he pleaded, softly. "Let me share with you all I have experienced through the centuries. Give me your smile, querida. Ease my loneliness. No more will I ask. For this I would give you my soul."
Asmina's heart beat hard in her chest, drumming the last doubt from her mind. She stared absently at the statue, feeling dazed, her grip on reality becoming feeble. She backed slowly to the room's entrance, then turned and ran to the lobby and outside. She needed to breathe fresh air before she drowned in this too bizarre encounter. She sat in her car for a long while, staring down at her steering wheel, massaging the key between her fingers. She drove home grateful that her car knew the way, or that her guardian angel could drive. Either was possible in a world where marble statues talk.
In the parking lot of her apartment complex sat reality. Donald was waiting for her. "Where have you been?" he said, meeting her at her door.
She knew she was late, but he was early. He wasn't supposed to be there until seven. She still had fifteen minutes. "I had some work to finish up." She said, lifting a tote full of books and papers as proof. Up against Ramiro, Donald was ordinary and a nuisance just now. She wanted to dismiss him. "Just give me a few minutes to get ready, okay?"
"May I come in to wait?"
She stopped her hand closing the door in his face. "Sure. I'm sorry. I'm a little preoccupied, I guess." She left him at the open door, going straight to her bedroom to change.
"You want to tell me about it?" He called from the living room. He sounded perturbed, pouring himself a scotch.
So used to being the superior one, he was not even aware how he sounded to her. "No," she answered. "Just school business, not important." She was staring in her closet, wondering what to wear. "Where are we going for dinner?"
"That new pizza place on Franklin Street," he said.
"You said we'd go someplace quiet!" she complained, knowing she shouldn't be surprised.
"I thought a little fun might be in order."
She pulled on a pair of jeans and found a sweatshirt in another drawer. The tiny paint stain on the sleeve made it look like a hand-me-down, but no matter. For pizza and Donald, she would not trouble herself to find something better. Not tonight. Not anymore. The disappointment on his face was priceless.
There was a big crowd at the Pizza Emporium. Mostly college students, there weren't too many other kinds of people in that town. The only table left was in the corner beneath the video screen. The music was too loud, but that didn't stop Donald. He was excited about something and once they received their beers, he let her know what he was thinking.
"Amy, the museum has a chance to acquire a rare Egyptian mummy. Do you know what that means? I could raise the price of admission and people will pay because it isn't every day they get to see a real, petrified dead guy!"
She couldn't help a giggle. "That's great," she said without much excitement.
"You're my ace in the hole, Amy," he said. "You're going to be my centerpiece when I entertain the Curator of the Cairo Museum Saturday!"
"Tomorrow?" she said, shocked. She couldn't believe her ears. Or maybe she should have expected it. Sooner or later he would get to the point when he thought he could use her openly and she wouldn't fight. She looked over at him, grinning like a snake. "Donald, I have to tell you something," she said. Her heart was pounding. Briefly she wished she could just send him a text. That at least would feel safer. She sipped her beer hoping to swallow the nervous lump in her throat. "I've been thinking, Donald," she began.
"Uh, oh," he said in his usual degrading way, as if a woman having an idea was a bad thing. She hated it.
"I've decided to break up with you."
"What?" he said, surprised.
"I said …"
"I heard you. Is this some kind of joke?"
"I'm serious, Donald. "I don't want to play this game with you anymore!"
"That's a good one, Amy!" he said, angrily. "Maybe you should think it over a little more."
She was glad now that they weren't alone. He wouldn't dare do anything in front of all these people. "I've thought it over all I want to," she said. "I don't love you. I don't know if I ever did. I guess I felt sorry for you and it got out of hand."
His eyes narrowed. "So you've been using me all this time?"
She gritted her teeth. "You're not the victim, Donald. You got what you wanted out of the relationship!" she hissed at him. "I'm tired of being controlled.
"You enjoyed every minute of it!" he argued. "You never said you wanted it any different."
"You weren't listening, Donald. You never listened because you never thought I had anything important to say!"
"I'm listening now, Amy. What do you want?"
She got up from the booth. "I want you to get a dog and leave me alone," she said as she turned toward the entrance. The only thing more she wanted was away from him. She pulled her cell phone and her wallet from her pocket and went outside to call for a cab.
"You can't do this to me, Amy!" said Donald coming up behind her. His jaw was rigid and his face red with anger. He whirled her around and pinned her arms at her sides.
"Don't call me Amy!" she spat at him. "I hate it."
"Okay, okay!" he said, calming himself somewhat and let go of her. "Asmina, I need you!" he insisted. "Give me another chance, will you? Just for tomorrow?"
She slapped his face, furious. "I'm not a table decoration, Donald. I have plans for tomorrow and I don't have time to help you charm your Egyptian friends." She took advantage of his stunned condition to add, "You keep forgetting I'm not Egyptian, I'm Moroccan. I don't speak Arabic and I'm not Muslim. You wouldn't be fooling anyone!" She backed up, putting some distance between herself and his reach.
He was furious. "You selfish bitch!" he shouted and lunged at her.
Asmina ran. She saw the Metro transit bus on the corner and ran to catch it. She didn't care where it was going. She leaped into the bus just as it was leaving. Donald was too far behind to catch her. She grabbed the bar behind the driver and held on as he accelerated through the light. Donald stopped at the corner and shouted something she didn't have to be a lip reader to understand. She wanted to get as far away from him as possible.
She paid her fare at the next stop and rode, her heart still pounding as she glanced fearfully behind to see if Donald would follow. There was still no sign of him when the driver let her off at the entrance to her apartment complex. She saw a maintenance man and said hello. He walked with her to her building. He was going that way, but she had to climb the stairs to her second floor apartment alone.
Maybe he went home. Maybe he would come to terms with their separation and everything would be fine in the morning. Yes, and maybe he would fall into a man-hole and never be seen again. She sighed at the top of the stairs and pulled the key from her pocket. She knew she would have to deal with Donald again and thought about changing jobs, but then she remembered Ramiro.
The phone rang as she let herself into her apartment. "Asmina, I'm sorry," said Donald when she picked it up. "I didn't mean it. Give me another chance?"
"No, Donald," she said simply and hung up the receiver.
The phone rang again. "Asmina, I promise I'll change. I'll do what you want. Please don't leave me like this!" She heard him sob. Donald was not the type who sobbed.
"Don't cry, Donald. You'll hurt yourself," she said and hung up again. The phone rang once more before she took four steps. She yanked the cord out of the wall, planning to have it permanently disconnected in the morning.
"Buenos Dias, Señorita Amy," said Ramiro as she entered his range of view. The sight of her at last, dispelled his worry that he had frightened her away forever. "Your beauty brings light to my darkness!"
Her eyes sparkled as she smiled up at him. "Good morning, Ramiro, and thank you but please don't call me Amy. My name is Asmina."
Ramiro paused, taken aback. "I apologize, Señorita. I meant no disrespect. It was what Señor Bertrand called you. Does he not know your true name?"
"It doesn't matter to me what he knows," she snapped, then thought better of it. "I'm sorry. I'm angry with him, is all."
"It is a beautiful name," said Ramiro, feeling as awkward as a youth.
"It's Moroccan," she offered. "My mother named me Asmina Janaan, which means beautiful heart." She curtseyed and added, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Sir Knight."
"I, too am delighted to know you," he said, feeling as if she had hit him in the stomach. Now he knew why she had seemed so familiar when he first saw her. Her features were Moorish indeed, all but her light skin. Of all the people in the world, why God should send him a Moor, he could not fathom. "How strange that a Moor should be the one to hear me!"
"A Moor?" she said, taken aback, then quickly understood. "Oh, I'm not a Moor the way you think," she said. "My father was white. I was born here in America. Does it bother you? I mean, I wasn't trying to hide it."
What could he say that would not send her away in tears? He needed her, Moorish or not. "Do you know much of my time, Asmina?" he asked. "Do you understand the Reconquista? The Moors were forced to convert or leave España. Perhaps even your kin?"
"I don't know," she said, wondering what he was getting at. Family history from that far back was forgotten long ago. Even her grandparents never told stories much older than they. "My mother's name was Al Salahyah. Ever hear of it?"
His mind reeled with painful recognition. It had to be a mistake, an unaccountable coincidence. "No … no, my lady. I have not" he said. The lie hurt nearly as much as the reason for it. "I was born near the end of the Moorish wars. The battles I fought in Iberia were difficult and bloody. Much death. Is there no contempt in your Moorish heart for that? I fear I must be your enemy." As he was to her blood ancestors centuries before. The concept shook him to his core.
"Oh, no, Ramiro," she said, shaking her head. Those battles were more than six hundred years ago. You did what you had to do then. I can accept that and if I am no longer your enemy, perhaps the way is open for friendship, right?"
"You are most kind, lady Asmina." But Ramiro was unsure whether God had been merciful and answered his prayers for a listener, or had sent him a new torment. There had been no known survivors of the Al Salahyah family. He would say nothing of his part until he was sure of her open mind and heart. Or until he knew she was not a descendant of Benezir Al Salahyah.
"How did it happen, Ramiro?" She asked him of a sudden. "How did you turn to stone?"
A shudder ran up his spine and he paused to think. She had taken him back in time and he could not escape reliving the guilt. It was part of the curse, to relive the day over and over again, though he had learned to keep it from the front of his thoughts. "On my Uncle's orders I led my compañía to capture a Moorish alchemist in the village of Al Bahdja." He began. "He was rumored to have much gold hidden away. We took him back to his village and executed him as a sorcerer. His last words were spoken in a language I had never heard before. I believed it to be nonsense and I ignored it. On the same day, I returned to my Uncle Sisnado's house to report and rest. The curse took hold of me at sunset. Alone in my room, watching the last light fade into night though my window, I realized what the Moor had done. "It was quick and painless." There was so much more that he could not tell her.
"These days no one believes in magic anymore," she said. "But honestly, I can't think of another rational explanation for your predicament. Have you any idea how the curse might be broken?"
"No es uno, I am resigned to this existence. There is no Priest who can hear my confession. My soul is without absolution. I have come to accept my punishment."
It had not been easy. Long centuries of anger and grief, first pleading with God for forgiveness, then cursing Him when it did not come. He had denied his existence as a bad dream and raged at the stone that encased him so securely with the only weapon he had, his voice. He had shouted at every living being that came near enough to hear. None did and suddenly only madness or resignation was left to him. Finally weary of fighting and terrified of madness, he chose to accept and keep his sanity as much as he could and hope of reprieve, no matter long it took. He sighed.
"I'm sorry," she said, beginning to imagine just how terrified he must have been. "How old were you when it happened?"
"I was twenty and eight."
She sat quietly next to his feet for a time. Her company felt warm and enlivened his soul. It mattered not that she was a Moor. He had grown out of his hatred for them and was truly, deeply sorry for what he had done. She was a beautiful woman with a compassionate heart and he wanted her all for himself. "What is the Curator to you," he asked, wondering if he would have to compete for her.
"What? Oh. Nothing," she said shaking her head. "We dated for a while, but it's over now."
At times, the English spoken in America was difficult to understand. Now and again he would hear a word or a phrase that troubled him. "Ah, you were promised to him and now you are not. I see. Is it because he did not know your name?"
Asmina giggled and nodded. "That, and he's an ass," she whispered. "Don't tell him I said so."
"It is our secret," he said, a little surprised by her language. Part of him was still stuck in the fourteenth century. It was difficult to follow changing customs from the inside of a museum. "How is it you are able to come here so often?" he asked.
"I teach the preschool in the basement." She looked at her watch. "The children will be arriving soon. I have to go."
Their time together had passed much too quickly and although the children found her much more tolerant, it was difficult for Asmina to concentrate on teaching when she would rather be learning history from Ramiro's unique perspective. At lunch she escorted little Felicia from the playground to the women's restroom in the museum. It was closer than going back to the basement, she told herself as she led the child purposefully through Ramiro's exhibit to steal another minute with him.
Along the way she watched for Donald. She didn't know how angry he might still be or what he might do. They walked behind the visitors gathered before Ramiro, whose clear tenor voice arose in a soft melody only she could hear. He sang in Spanish and wove her name into the words as if it were meant to be there. If not for the child, she would have lingered, but she smiled at him instead to let him know she heard. No one was the wiser. And Donald was not around to wonder why she passed the statue so slowly.
When Donald's housekeeper came to pick Bobby up after school, Asmina reckoned he had decided to leave her alone. She locked the preschool door and climbed the back stairs imagining she was finally free of him. As she passed by the guard's desk she quietly asked him if he had seen the curator. Larry told her Mister Bertrand had left early that day for an appointment and wouldn't be back until tomorrow.
Asmina entered Ramiro's exhibit light hearted as the last of the public visitors was leaving. "I loved your song this afternoon," she whispered as she pretended to look at the sword in the case next to him. The last couple was taking their time in leaving. "Where did you learn it?"
"In Barcelona, mi Asmina," Ramiro softly replied. "In a park full of pigeons."
"When? What year was it?" She turned to him eagerly.
He laughed at her infectious enthusiasm. "I do not know the year, but there was a war. The city was a shambles and the park neglected, not to mention myself." He chuckled, thinking of the coating of pigeon dung he endured in those days. "Carriages moved without horses to pull them. Women dressed as you are. Perhaps you can tell me the year?"
She looked down at the hem of her skirt lying just below her knees and thought. "The Spanish Civil War? That would be in the 1930's, I think." It had been a long time since she studied world history in high school.
"I spoke to everyone in those days. I sang with the minstrels and learned many new songs. There were always many people in the square, young and old. I prayed every day that one of them might hear my voice, but no."
None but the pigeons could hear his voice and flew away in fright when he barked like a dog. As undignified as it was, scaring the feathers off them made him feel somewhat human again. And remembering the terrified howling his barks evoked among the local mongrels made him laugh while the people nearby wondered what evil had frightened the animals so.
She stared at his polished marble surface in awe, thinking, "Why are you in there? Why am I hearing you?" Of him she asked, "Was there ever a woman in your life, Ramiro? Were you married?"
"Many women, Señorita. Never married. I loved the adventure my life was and could not give it up. Once married, King Alphonso would have granted me a title and land and forgotten about me. No. The time to be a husband and an Earl would come when I was old and unable to fight any longer. I was a selfish, arrogant, young fool."
"Are you still?" she asked.
"All of my former life is lost. I have learned much in six hundred years, Señorita," he humbly replied.
Asmina saw Ramiro every morning and evening, careful to make sure Donald was not around. He had not bothered her since she ran from him that night. She hoped it was because he accepted the breakup. Bobby seemed perfectly fine in preschool. But she couldn't shake the feeling it wasn't over yet. She could relax with Ramiro. He was comfortable, easy, like visiting someone she'd known her whole life.
He spoke of distant times long forgotten, sharing the wonder and the pain. He had been hidden away in the cellar of his Uncle's house for several years already when the Black Plague struck Europe. He had spent those years screaming in terror. It was not until Sisnado died and the land passed to another of the King's relatives, that Ramiro saw the light of day again. By that time, Ramiro was unrecognized, just a random piece of art.
It was then that he finally realized no one could hear him. The screams stopped and the prayers began while he searched desperately, not only in his own mind and memories, but within his range of hearing and sight, which were no better than any mans', for a cure, a way to freedom. Even death would be better than a prison with no human interaction and no possible escape.
Ramiro's life as a talisman began with Isabella. He was rolled in on a wagon bedecked in gold and ribbons as a gift upon her wedding to Ferdinand. She was enthralled by him and kept him in her study where she often, secretly asked him what he thought of this or that question. She never heard his answers. If she had, Tomás de Torquemada would have remained a lowly Dominican Friar in San Pablo. As it was, Isabella was forced to hide Ramiro from the ferocious obsessions of a man who used evil to destroy the innocent.
He was once a General's coat rack. Another time, a decoration in the bedroom of a high born Lady with questionable sexual tastes. Ramiro swore he had made himself sleep then, his nap lasting roughly thirty years. Asmina grew fonder of him with each story. He learned English after he was sold to the British Museum in the mid-1900s, by listening carefully to his visitors for more than five years. And again Asmina drove home smiling, swept off her feet by the handsome, mediaeval Knight.
She climbed the stairs to her apartment finding a vase of roses at her door. The card read; "I love you. I'll call you tonight. Love, Don." She went inside, leaving the gift and the card on her doorstep. She wasn't afraid of Donald any more. At any rate, her land line was disconnected days before.
With the tub full and steaming, she was unbuttoning her blouse when the doorbell rang. Her body stiffened. She held her breath and waited, hoping they would give up and go away. The bell rang again, followed with a knock. Somehow she knew it was Donald and that he wasn't going to go away. She rebuttoned, crossing from her bedroom to the front door. "Who is it?"
"Asmina, open up," came Donald's voice. "I want to talk to you."
"There's nothing to talk about, Donald. Go away." She paused, waiting for him to argue.
"I was a jerk and I know it, Asmina," he said. "Let me come in and apologize, please?"
He didn't sound angry. She could spot when he was pretending and he didn't sound like that now. She unlocked the dead bolt, but left the door chain engaged and looked out at him through the narrow opening. He had a sad, sorry look on his face and carried an armful of flowers. He also had Bobby with him. "Hi, Miss Amy," he said and waved a small hand while his father grinned sheepishly.
"Damn," she whispered under her breath as she removed the chain and opened the door. It was a low, dirty trick bringing his son along.
"Bobby wanted to ask you along to the carnival with us tonight," Donald said as they entered.
"I'm really tired," Asmina countered. "I was just going to have a hot bath and go to bed." She glared at Donald and whispered, "Why did you bring Bobby?"
"Come back, Asmina," Donald pleaded. "Bobby needs you."
The boy was sitting quietly on the sofa. He needed a father with better sense, Asmina thought. One that was above using him to coerce her. "I think you better go," she said. She didn't want Bobby to witness the argument she feared would erupt.
Donald shoved the flowers at her. "What's it going to take, huh?" he said. "You didn't have it so bad with me. What's your problem, Asmina?"
She was surprised that a man of his education could be so stupid. "The problem is you, Donald," she said, refusing the flowers. "Your temper and your need to control. I can't spend the rest of my life being afraid of you!"
"You're not thinking straight. You don't have to be afraid of me."
"It's too late. I've made up my mind." She held the door open for him. "I'm not interested in the carnival, I'm afraid." She leaned close to him. "Nor you," she said pointing a finger at his chest. The way he glared at her she was grateful Bobby was along.
"Come on, Bobby," Donald ordered. "Miss Amy doesn't want us anymore."
Bobby slid off the couch, looking sad. "Aren't you going to be my mommy, Miss Amy?" he asked.
"I'll see you at school tomorrow," she said leaning down to ruffle his hair.
"Go on out to the car," Donald told him. "I'll be there in a minute." He turned back to Asmina and said, "Just tell me one thing." He was trying hard to hide his frustration. "Is there someone else?"
The question startled her for a moment. She wondered if Ramiro would qualify as the other man. "Yes," she said hoping Donald would have second thoughts about bothering her again. Instead, it made him angry.
"Shit! I knew it. You've been sneaking around behind my back!"
"I have done no such thing!" she said. "It just happened after I decided to break it off with you." It was the truth. Before Ramiro, she had not thought about looking for another man. After Donald was out of her life, she meant to take a break from men. A nice long break.
"It just happened," he repeated, mockingly. "Are you in love with him?"
"Maybe," she said to spite him. She gave him a gentle shove out the door. "Have fun at the carnival. Try not to eat anything poisonous."
He snatched her arm above the wrist and dug his fingers into her flesh. "I'll be watching you, Asmina," he hissed, then released her and backed away to the stairs until she slammed and locked her door.
As she settled into her warm bath she recalled the security camera in the exhibit room. Is that what Donald meant? She thought briefly about not going back to see Ramiro at all. But she would feel like a heel. She was his only company, and important to him. There was no way she would leave him to suffer alone again. The camera be damned, she was going to see her Black Knight as much and for as long as possible.
"When we first met, Ramiro, you said someone else had heard you a long time ago. A soldier, I think."
"Si, mi Asmina," he said. "I stood in an alcove of the royal palace in Madrid."
She sat down on the stage beside him as he paused to gather his thoughts. The memory of the soldier came to her unbidden that morning. She didn't know why except perhaps she was looking for some possibility of another listener when she couldn't any more. The sad thought crowded into her mind and would not leave.
"It was some weeks before the false King, Joseph Bonaparte, captured the throne of Spain," said the Knight. "I heard the battle raging outside and felt the bombs shake the floor beneath my feet. The palace gallery where I stood for many years was made a hospital and soon filled with the wounded and dying. They lay all about me, their cries echoing like the howls of tormented ghosts.
"A boy, beardless yet in his youth, collapsed at my feet, a crimson stain growing ever wider on the front of his tunic. It seemed no one noticed this dying lad, counting the Rosary at my feet. I beseeched God for the young man's sake for he had little time left and there was no Priest nearby to attend him.