BLACK NIGHTSHADE

BLACK NIGHTSHADE by Teresa Moure

Einés Andrade is a doctoral student whose studies center on the figure of the French philosopher René Descartes. But when she is only seven or eight, she is sent to the attic for calling her great-grandmother a monkey, and there she discovers a hutch, a large chest, from which emanate the scents of various herbs and fruits. She also discovers private papers belonging to Queen Christina of Sweden and a certain Hélène Jans, a herbalist and healer of Amsterdam. Digging deeper, she discovers that the two women shared a common passion. In 1649, Christina of Sweden invited Descartes to her court to give her lessons in philosophy, but he was reputed to have caught pneumonia and died in February, 1650. Before that, he had an affair—only once, as he claimed—with the maid of the bookseller in whose house he was staying in Amsterdam, Hélène Jans. She became pregnant and gave birth to their daughter, Francine, who died at the age of five in 1640. Fifteen years later, Queen Christina and Hélène meet to exchange impressions and ease their nostalgia. They strike up a correspondence in which Christina urges Hélène to continue her work on an artificial language. Hélène also puts together a recipe book, called Book of Women, in which she gives various remedies that can be used to alleviate pain in childbirth, to improve one’s appearance, to attract a lover… Before she dies, she hands down her knowledge, the recipe book and her private papers, to her adopted daughter, Agnes, a distant ancestor of Einés’s. Einés decides to abandon all research on rationalism and to devote her time to writing an account of these women whom Time has forgotten.

This spring Stockholm seems not to have awakened from its winter’s lethargy. The birds have not shown up yet, much less the flowers or the butterflies. The trees continue gleaming naked: one might even say these days it’s too much of an effort for them to bud out after a raw winter like the one that descended on these blessed northern lands. Night is falling on Stortorget Square, right in the middle of the city. Although it is no more than five in the afternoon, the yellowish ocher color of the whole neighborhood is already fading in intensity; in a few minutes, it will look as washed out as the water that eddies under the bridges, as gray as the water that has just passed by, as cold as the water that at this very second is flowing towards the sea and in a moment will be swallowed up in it. With a stage consisting of such a dreary landscape, and with the cold air lashing the faces of the passersby, thoughts are inevitably going to be on the sad side. “Never again will we see the waters of the same river passing by.” For Stortorget is a square between bridges, and moreover a sad square, linked to the violence of life. Even if there is no monument to bear witness to the event, in another time Stortorget was the scene of a crime, which the people of Stockholm called “The Bloodbath.” In November 1520 the Danish king Christian II besieged the Swedish ruler Sten Sture the Younger, until he made him surrender and the Swedes had to accept Christian as king. The latter promised amnesty and organized an incredible three-day celebration in the fortress of Tre Kronor. After laughing and drinking, dancing, moaning, toasting, swearing; after loving and falling asleep, and drinking and eating again, and hugging each other, after enjoying, in short, the good fortune of being alive, on the third day, when the end of the festivities was drawing near, all the participants were arrested, accused of heresy. On the following morning, more than eighty citizens, the majority of them nobles, were decapitated in this square, now and forever a square of pain and wounded pride. But today blood does not run in the canals of Stockholm, even though the incident has left its mark in the suspicion with which the Swedes regard foreigners. “We will never bathe in these same waters again, because they have passed us by, once and for all.” The thoughts are not in the landscape; they come from a human head that projects an elongated shadow over the water. No, to tell the truth, it is the whole body, tall, slender, that projects that elongated silhouette; the head is a small part of that shadow-figure, the least representative part of it, perhaps, because just as the light strikes it right now, it is the lower part of the body that is outlined and widened by the effect of the twilight. It is a human figure, resting its hands on the railing of one of the bridges, it does not matter which one now. The hands, slender, with extremely long fingers, cannot be seen, for they are encased in gloves. Without the clues that the hands could offer, it turns out to be hard to tell whether it is a man or a woman. It is wearing loose-fitting outer clothing, rich and well-cut although not ostentatious. There are no hems or ruffles on the lower edge of the outfit that would reveal a lady. Nor is there a moustache or beard, nor breeches over boots, nor a hat with a feather, to give away a gentleman. It could be a young man or a young woman, not an old woman, nor a face from another country, with a different skin color. The person who is leaning on the bridge and looking at the water thinks: “Why is it that we do not realize that the water is passing until we see it murmuring on the rocks, one step below the level where we are standing, when we are no longer able to grasp it?” With such thoughts, one would say that it is a man, for the head of a woman, as is well known, is better suited to adornments than to thoughts, especially if they are serious and profound like these. The human figure that leans on the railing of the bridge is a sad person. Or, if you like, it is a person and, in addition, it is sad. This is as much as can be said about it. Besides, of course, that it is wearing a black cape down to its feet with a hood pulled over its head. Like a friar, exactly. And, at the same time, any observer who looked at it would know that it is not a friar: the clothing does not suggest poverty, the look is too rebellious to accept obedience, and… well, regarding chastity it is better not to speak, in these times when there are so many naughty people with outwardly exemplary lives… and chaste people who have been hoodwinked, of course. In any case, those lips, the ones belonging to this human figure leaning on the railing of the bridge in Stortorget, are quite arrogant, and seem not to be made for the worms to devour without first having been a storm, a nest, a grave, without having sought and received. In other respects the face is balanced, not exactly beautiful or ugly: either adjective could be applied to it without going too far wrong, pure conflict, with strong cheekbones and a rather long nose. There is no way to judge the eyes, because the hood of the cape, without actually covering them, does not allow them to be seen clearly and gives them a mysterious appearance. This human figure, alone like this on the bridge, could be that of a Knight Templar just returned from Jerusalem and in possession of the most precious of secrets. It could also be a convict just escaped from prison. Or, why not?, an artist who was seeking inspiration in these waters that circulate and pursue each other without ever catching up. It could be, this human figure on the bridge, many different characters, and it is precisely that difficulty in assigning it attributes that would perturb an observer. For whoever sees, for example, a young woman with two children clinging to her skirts knows at once that she is a mother who is crossing the square quickly so as to get to shelter in her house before she catches cold. But a figure like this one that is to be seen today in Stortorget is indefinable, independent, and that makes it disturbing. This figure, as if it felt that it was not well accepted by the passersby, scarce at this hour, turns and begins to walk. The movement lends authority to its bearing. The elegant and stylized figure is not going to leave Stadsholmen, the largest island of Gamla Stan, and after a short walk through its narrow streets, suddenly, as though pulled by a spring, it turns on its heel and heads with a confident stride towards the castle of Tre Kronor, currently the residence of the Swedish monarchs. For the figure that was watching the sad ebbing of the water was not a man, but a woman; not old, but young; not merely a human figure, but the genuine queen of Sweden. What could she have been doing there on her own? And at this hour? Could she be mad? She could. Her name is Christina.

 

Translated from Galician by Philip Krummrich

Additional Info

  • purchase text:

    BLACK NIGHTSHADE by Teresa Moure, the thirteenth title in the series Small Stations Fiction devoted to the best of contemporary fiction in English, is available for purchase through your local or online bookshop

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    ISBN: 978-954-384-085-4

    Publication Date: 26 June 2018

    Language: English

    Paperback: 416 pages

    Dimensions: 203 x 133 mm