Four Bloody Fingers

The figure of the witch looms conspicuously large in Catalan—in the gardens, on the roof, in the heart of the mountain.

February 26, 2019
Erica X Eisen’s works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Guardian, Slate, The Paris Review Daily, The Baffler, The Threepenny Review, Current...

A Arbúcies,
Dotze dones, tretze bruixes

In Arbúcies,
Twelve women, thirteen witches
—Catalonian saying

When you have walked past the olive orchards and through the forests of scabby barked pines, past where the gentle undulations of the countryside still veiled in early morning mist stop and the unapologetic ascent beneath the risen sun begins, past the point at which the neat gravel path starts to give over increasingly to clambers across skullsmooth stone with footholds worn into it like trepanation scars—then you are well on your way along the pilgrimage to the Black Madonna. And if you should stop at one of the level rises along the route, whether for water or breath or merely to look out across the landscape, then you should not be surprised if the cliff-face there is graffitied with the flag of Catalonia, either the four-stripped senyera or its lone-star variant, the dribbling red and yellow bands making it look as though its painters had vanished just as you rounded the corner.

But if, on the other hand, you were to turn very wrong indeed, were to lose yourself in the woods or the knotted crossroads of the foothills, then your journey might lead not to the top of the mountain but towards its cold, stilled heart: deep into the caverns where centuries ago the men of the surrounding villages mined saltpetre for gunpowder by day and by night, it is said, the women made love to the Devil.

* * *

In the town of El Bruc there lived two witches, old women both under five feet, squat and hunched like tree stumps. It was never made clear to me whether they were sisters or lovers or merely companions but they seemed made for each other, as one’s left hand is made to clasp one’s right. The first witch was called Rosa, the other Montserrat, after those peculiar rock formations that stretched tendril-like to the sky just beyond their village. The witches walked around the gardens of the farmhouse where we stayed, pulling up weeds or making passing attempts at trimming the scraggly doggrass. To survey the grounds, with their patchy, clover-pocked lawns, with wildflowers that sprouted from the roof tiles, you would not know that they were tended not once but twice over; but then, I often thought that the place possessed an untamed beauty I would not trade for any neatness. The witches rarely spoke to us; they kept to themselves, observing, observing. Every so often, Montserrat would pause, raise her clasped hands to her mouth, and hold whispered council with the clutch of stones she carried with her always, as the faces of the dead are carried in the innermost chambers of our hearts.

I had come to El Bruc to work on a novel: a farmhouse there called Can Serrat had been converted into a residency space decades before by a group of artists, two of whom were present during our stay. One was a mild-mannered sculptor on vacation with her granddaughter; the other recited the Edda in Old Norse to anyone who said they wrote poetry, and slept on the roof terrace like a maiden from Peer Gynt. She was also in the habit of disappearing, cat-like, for long stretches of time; returning from one of these periods away, she would explain that she had spent her days on top of a mountain with the witches.

I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that every family in the village supported Catalonian nationhood. All along the cobblestone streets of El Bruc, flags were draped out of windows; yellow bits of plastic were tied around grilles or else hung down from fuse boxes, fluttering in the idle breeze. If an old woman were to walk from one of the houses in our quarter to the grocer or the little vermouth shop on the main street, she might fasten a pro-independence pin to her dress or to her bag before she stepped out the door; and as she walked, she would cross a bridge whose railings were tied with ribbons, each memorializing a Catalan political prisoner currently sitting in a Spanish jail, and the streets she went through would be crisscrossed with yellow streamers, and the walls she passed would be streaked with anti-Spanish sloganeering on posters and in paint. And the buildings themselves, ocher beneath red terracotta roofs, might seem to her like nothing so much as one great band of the senyera—whose design was said to derive from the pattern made by four fingers soaked in blood and drawn across a golden shield—and if she raised her head to look beyond them she would see the great otherworldly peaks of Montserrat, a sight as intimately bound to the village as its sigil, and lying somewhere among those peaks, unseen but surely felt, the holy church of the Black Madonna.

* * *

The figure of the witch looms conspicuously large in the Catalan popular imagination. Across Catalonia, place names bear witness to the covens once said to gather there: Pla de les bruixes, Coll de les bruixes, Cercle de les bruixes. In Centelles, so the saying went, all the women were witches; in some areas, townspeople fixed palm fronds to their balconies or above their chimneys to prevent sorcery from afflicting their homes.

As the hysteria for witch hunts swept through the rest of Europe like a field ablaze, Spain’s inquisitors, otherwise so eager to pull heresy up by the roots and raze Iberia’s centuries-long history of religious coexistence to the ground, tended to regard charges of devil-worship and magic with intense skepticism: trials were rare, with many regarding them as an outgrowth of Protestant lunacy from the north. Yet for royal subjects of strange tongue and suspect race, these normally forbearing inquisitors proved frequently willing to make an exception. After the forces of Isabella and Ferdinand had crushed the last aboriginal resistors in the Canary Islands, reports proliferated of demonic women who would clamber down from the mountains of Tenerife to drink the blood of children and swim naked and cackling in the sea. In Cartagena, slaves were forced to confess to the heinous acts of the witches’ sabbath, their syncretic blending of West African and Catholic religious elements twisted by their accusers into satanic ritual. On mainland Iberia, too, many of the fiercest witch trials occurred in areas on the margins of Castilian control, regions populated by ethnic and linguistic minorities where pre-Christian histories ran deep. In the Basque Country, some 7,000 people were accused of sorcery, the largest witch hunt in history; the episode’s legacy lives on in the modern Spanish word for a witches’ sabbath, aquelarre, which derives ultimately from the Basque word meaning “he-goat,” the form the Devil took to preside over the ceremonies.

In Catalonia, too, witch trials were far more common than in the Spanish heartland. For those accused who were found guilty, events proceeded in an exactingly choreographed public performance of religious righteousness that became, ultimately, its own black-hearted parody: wearing conical hats and smocks bearing the blood-red slashes of St. George’s cross, the heretics were led to a stage in the plaza like actors in a play and forced to sit on designated “benches of infamy.” After the conclusion of the first section of the Mass, the unrepentant were cleared away in preparation for the holy rites. The penitents remaining would be tapped with sticks by clerics to signal their embrace by the merciful love of the Church’s forgiveness; the green cross of the inquisition, hitherto veiled as though in mourning, would be uncovered in celebration before the thronging crowd. Meanwhile, as though in another world entirely, a world in exile from the very concept of mercy, the damned would wind their way through the narrow alleyways and streets of the town, pausing every now and again to kneel on the cobblestones and pray if they encountered a holy image, and out to the execution grounds, where they were bound to a stake and burned until “relaxed,” the official euphemism for the point at which, whether from smoke inhalation, heat stroke, or catastrophic tissue damage, the victims were finally granted the release of death.

* * *

It was during my time at Can Serrat that I met Marval; a performance artist, Marval began many of his days at the residency by trekking up the hill to the abandoned tile factory at the edge of town. The path was littered with jags of sea-blue tiles that winked up at you like the thousand eyes of a monster whose slumber you had interrupted with your steps. In the privacy of the factory, Marval would spend hours crafting a piece that melded queer theory with Catalan bruixeria, or witchcraft.

Family lore held that the woman of Marval’s family had long practiced something not quite aligned with Catholicism’s narrow path to righteousness: stories of an intergenerational curse, of a great-great-grandmother who had run an herb shop outside of Sabadell and ministered to the sick with sprigs and balms and an uncanny power to heal. His grandmother’s house, shadowy and somber even at the height of the afternoon, was filled with hand-hewn cuckoo clocks that chimed—none quite in sync with the others clocks—by day and by night; the small back garden was dominated by carnivorous plants waiting gape-jawed for their prey. Once, Marval told me, he had come upon a curious ivory box while on a visit as a child: opening it, he found a small doll run through with pins, bound with twine, and inscribed all over with words he could not understand. Affixed to the face was a photograph of his uncle.

The witch of Catalonia was therefore a braided thing, the unremarkable reality of folk practices and semi-pagan rights intermingled and augmented by the paranoiac fantasies of the witch hunt days. The Catalan witch was therefore both of and not of this world, a halfling who dwelt both in the imagination and in the realm of the living.

* * *

When Spain’s Charles II—called “el Hechizado,” or “the bewitched”—died at thirty-eight, the doctors who conducted his postmortem opened up his body to find that it “did not contain a single drop of blood; his heart was the size of a peppercorn; his lungs corroded; his intestines rotten and gangrenous; he had a single testicle, black as coal, and his head was full of water.” Shortly thereafter, Spain’s Grand Inquisitor charged the royal confessor, Froilán Díaz, with secretly hexing the king.

The thirteen-year war that roiled across Europe to decide who would succeed Charles left between four hundred thousand to one and a quarter million casualties in its wake; the French dauphin who was eventually installed upon the Spanish throne, Philip V, embarked upon a campaign of centralization aimed at eroding the regional identities of his new kingdom. Catalonia, which had supported the losing side of the war, now incurred Philip’s wrath: the planks of Catalan autonomy were ripped up and replaced with Castilian authority.

The Spanish painter Francisco Goya, working a century later, would turn to images of the unholy in his own studies of war: creatures with monstrous leathery wings, a resurrection from the dead, a man kneeling in the darkness with the outstretched arms of a seer awaiting a vision from a holy or unholy spirit. And at a time of moral disaster and political crisis when the prevailing institutions of faith are at a point of collapse, were there those for whom the legends of the otherworldly seemed now to hold a certain promise? In the long wasting days of war and the years of the difficult peace that followed, what omens did these women see? Yolks twinned in the egg, cow’s milk yellowed and foul at the teat? Did half-mad horses devour each other in the fields? Did the feverish wind called the xaloc blow in from the desert, carrying dust that dyed the rains red? Did the water fall from the sky like blood, did blood flow down the roofs, down the walls, did blood run through the streets as though from the arcane sacrificial rites of a demon wedding? But how to lift this curse, they thought, how to heal the ailments of a land? And in the night, the dark endless nights of a world lit only by fire, what shadows did these women embrace? When they set out for the caves, what cold hand did they feel at their shoulder? And as the guttering flames threw shadows on the wall, what dread visions revealed themselves of events which have since unfolded, and others which have yet to come to pass?

* * *

When the armies of the Nationalists had succeeded in defeating the last guerrillas of the leftist Republican forces, Franco and his Falange imposed upon the nation a spirit of ultra-Catholicism and pro-Castilianism that soon manifest itself in a series of laws intended to stamp out minority identities in Spain. Catalan street signs were crowbarred off the walls; in clerk’s offices and courthouses, government functionaries refused forms submitted under non-Castilian names. At birth registries across Catalonia, Joseps hastily became Josés, Lluïsas dropped the double-l and the diaeresis, Mònicas turned the accent the other way round. But what to do with the Montserrats, the little Serrats and Ratetas and Monses whose very name gestured toward the heart of Catalonia itself?

In schoolyards, children caught speaking local tongues could expect to be taken by the ear and beaten with a length of witch hazel. Minority languages might be spoken at home in hushed whispers, but in public, in the streets, anywhere the Falange could hear you, it was Castilian and Castilian alone. Even today, the period of Franco’s rule is remembered in Catalonia as a time of unique pain and unprecedented cultural loss. At certain moments, Marval told me, the scrim of his grandmother’s dementia would descend over her eyes and she would forget that Franco was no longer in power—and then she would hear people around her speaking Catalan, and then she would cry for them to stop, to stop for their own sake, to stop before the police heard them; and then her relatives would explain that everything was all right and, with difficulty, she would awake to the present.

(An aside: It seems to me that Franco’s language policies share something in common with the notion of the witches spell, that words can act as well as exist, that they shape the world they inhabit, that there is a fundamental danger to them, and that for this reason they should be controlled and contained.)

* * *

As the Fascists’ repression came down increasingly against Spain’s minority ethnic communities, cultic religious practice served as both haven and battleground. With free expression coming increasingly under state surveillance in the cities, artists and activists began decamping to the peaks of Montserrat that jut out from the plain like the devil’s spine. Monistrol de Montserrat, the mountaintop town that houses the Black Madonna, became a haven for political dissidents. Sunday services echoed through the vaulted church not in Castilian but in Catalan, in direct defiance of the government’s language policies. Later, talking about all of this, Marval told me about a legend that the witches who tended the gardens of Can Serrat had confirmed knowledge of but seemed fearful to discuss with him: that the Black Madonna, revered as the holiest image in Catalonia, was in fact no holy image at all but instead imbued with strange satanic powers, and that the child in her lap was not Christ but his female twin. Like a spiderweb linking branch to branch, the witches’ story seemed to bind together the disparate themes of gender, power, and subversive religiosity that so occupied us both.

The potency of alternative spirituality as a medium for political protest has not faded in the post-Francoist era. On a daytrip into Barcelona—the streets of which, like El Bruc in macrocosm, were festooned with yellow ribbons everywhere—with Marval and the other residents, we went to see a show of feminist and queer ephemera held at the library of the Museum of Contemporary Art. In zines, pamphlets, and banners, artists drew on the visual vocabularies of astrological symbols and Malleus Maleficarum-esque woodcuts as a succinct way of simultaneously expressing irreverence, transformation, otherness, and female power. Not far off, the Barcelona Contemporary Culture Center was playing host to a massive exhibition of art inspired by occultism. What would the women who tended the gardens of Can Serrat make of it all, I wondered. Did the pentagrams and the tarot symbols bear even a shadow’s similarity to what they did in their own homes, to how they thought of their own practices? If one were to say to them that for many their way of life was a wellspring of political subversion, would they nod or would they shrug and continue on with their weeding? On the bus ride back to the village, I laid my head against the windowpane and watched the countryside streak past until the peaks of Montserrat came once more into view.

* * *

And when you have reached the crest of the mountain and entered at last the town of Monistrol de Montserrat, what then? Across the stately plaza and past the shops selling tins of jiggling crema catalunya and damp moons of monastery sheep’s milk cheese—there is the place you are seeking, the church of the Black Madonna towards which streams of pilgrims now converge like the rivers of Paradise to light gumdrop-colored candles and genuflect before the holiest figure in this struggling nation. The façade of the basilica is ornate as the work of a silversmith; you enter through a special door and wait and wait some more in a narrow staircase from whose walls mosaics of female saints glint in the halflight. Yet the Madonna, when at last you see her, tiny and dough-faced as she stared out impassively from the cloister of her dusty vitrine, is perhaps inevitably disappointing; the paint adorning the walls of the church itself, when all is said and done, is not so fine. After emerging from the confines of the staircase, the vaulted nave with its gilded ribs and saturated hues is almost overawing, dwarfing the Madonna whose right hand, poking out of the glass, contains the world. There are people waiting in line behind you, clearing their throats and shifting from foot to foot; you touch the Virgin’s hand because you feel you are supposed to and hasten towards the door. How much more alluring, in the end, are those strange towers of rock which loom above the town, closer now and yet, for all the distance you have climbed, somehow still remote, the otherworldly stones of Montserrat that draw your gaze as they reach upwards like fingers ready to gouge out the eye of the sun. Behind you, the great belly-pitching drop to the valley floor, its green quilt of vineyards and tomato fields dotted with clusters of senyera-colored houses; before you, the difficult prospect of the long journey home.

Erica X Eisen’s works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Guardian, Slate, The Paris Review Daily, The Baffler, The Threepenny Review, Current Affairs, The Nation, Electric Literature, Ploughshares Blog, The Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She is currently working on her first novel. Her portfolio can be found at