The story so far: Francisco confronts the captain of the Spanish troops, with a message from God to desist the attacks on the Moroccans or suffer defeat. Instead he is taken as a prisoner. Subsequently the Spanish suffer a crushing defeat.
Accused of being a heretic, Francisco is to be taken by the Spanish to Casablanca to be excommunicated from the church, and thereby executed. Abdul and his men unexpectedly come to his rescue, and the small group begin their journey back to Jerada.
– – –
Nightfall had fallen as Abdul, Francisco, and their company reached Jerada. This time the reception was tumultuous. News of the victory at Meknés had obviously reached the town, for Abdul Aziz and his companions were received as heroes. Loud trills ran through the streets from veiled women who excitedly clapped their hands, accompanied by the pulsating beats of darbooka drums. Dark swarthy horsemen pranced, waved their swords in the air, and fired rifles in celebration.
When they reached Abdul Aziz’s house, however, Francisco immediately sensed that something was amiss. His eyes anxiously scanned the doorway for signs of Fatima, but she was nowhere to be seen. Abdul Aziz’s son Sami met him at the gate wearing a somber expression that was in striking contrast with the joyous celebrations on the streets outside.
Casting a suspicious glance at Francisco he immediately touched his father’s arm and whispered something. Abdul Aziz immediately accompanied Sami inside, with an expression of consternation.
Brushing aside his bewilderment at the less-than-warm reception, Francisco went to his room. Exhausted from the journey he flung himself down on the bunk and tried to rest. He was on the verge of drifting into a sleep when the door suddenly flung open and Abdul Aziz stood there. His eyes flashed and his whole frame seemed to shake with uncontrollable anger.
“Why have you done this thing?” he shouted.
Francisco, surprised and totally taken aback raised himself up from his bunk and managed to stammer,
“My son Sami told me what you have done.”
“What?” said Francisco again.
“He told me that you have seduced my daughter. Was it not enough that I gave you my hospitality, that I extended to you my hand of friendship, and was it not even enough that I would have given you my daughter in marriage, if you had been man enough to ask honorably. But you have come into my house and defiled the honor of my family under my very own roof and all this under the guise of being a holy man?”
Francisco looked Abdul Aziz straight in the eye. “I tell you the truth before God that I never laid a finger on your daughter.”
“And then how do you account for this,” barked Abdul Aziz, holding up a small golden earring.
“What is that?”
“When you pretended to be fasting in the room, my son Sami suspected something. After a day he came into the room and found that you were not here. Shocked and surprised, he searched through the room, looking for signs of why you may have left so suddenly. Underneath the stool in the corner of the room he found this, Fatima’s earring. He remembered that she had complained of losing it somewhere in the house. Then it became obvious that she had come clandestinely to visit you during the night. In the name of Allah, what have you done?”
Francisco looked at the floor for a moment, and then back up at Abdul Aziz. He spoke quietly and clearly.
“I have told you the truth. I will not lie to you. Yes, Fatima did come to my room the night before I left. She came of her own accord. She is but a girl, subject to the desires and passions of youth. She does not fully understand the consequences of such things. I sent her away as gently as I could, for I well know that I am a recipient of your generosity and hospitality. To commit such an act under your own roof would be a betrayal of everything you have done for me.”
“Did you ever touch her, even once?”
Francisco took a deep breath before replying.
“The night I left, when she brought me the horse, we … we kissed once. Once only, and nothing more than a kiss.” Francisco’s head fell into his hands. “I thought I might die, I thought I might never see her again. I am but a man and I was momentarily overwhelmed, but I tell you, I swear to you by all that we both hold sacred that we did nothing more.”
Abdul Aziz shook his head slowly. “I can only take your word for it, and I am not sure that I believe you,” he said, “but even if I do, the matter is out of my hands. Sami has already told the whole matter to the Imam, who returned yesterday from Meknés. This has only confirmed his worst suspicions of you. My only choice is to cleanse the honor of my family, otherwise I will be held up before the entire village as a compromiser, one who tolerates iniquity and lust, one who allows foreigners in to corrupt our morals. Tomorrow morning you must appear before the Imam and the tribunal. The course is already set and I cannot change it. It is too much for me, one man to stand up against centuries of tradition.”
Francisco stared silently at the floor, while Abdul Aziz grappled with his thoughts and emotions. Once more Francisco looked directly at Abdul Aziz with a clear, steely gaze.
“I tell you before God that I am not afraid to die. I came forth on this mission not expecting to claim my own life as a ransom, but only that you and your people may know that God truly cares for you and that there are those among my countrymen who do not condone the oppression foisted upon you. If I die, my only sorrow is that my mission has not been complete.”
“If you are innocent and it is the will of Allah, somehow He shall deliver you.” Abdul Aziz turned to go.
“One more thing,” said Francisco.
“What shall become of Fatima?”
“I do not know,” said Abdul Aziz, shaking his head. “That depends largely on the outcome of your trial. If you are condemned, it is likely that she will be also.”
“Is there no other way?” Francisco pleaded earnestly. “She’s just a silly girl full of dreams and passions. She does not know what she’s doing. Might I die two deaths, that she might be saved?”
Something in Francisco’s manner and sincerity seemed to touch Abdul Aziz, and he looked back at him with a measure of sympathy in his eyes. He shook his head hopelessly. “Let the will of Allah be done,” he said and left the room.
Heavy bolts fell into place on the door outside, and Francisco once again threw himself down on his bunk, pouring out his soul to God in a tormented supplication. It was not until the cold, gray light of dawn began to seep through the cracks in the window that a measure of peace came over him. After only a few hours of sleep the door opened and Abdul Aziz entered the room.
Francisco raised himself on one elbow, immediately discerning that Abdul Aziz’s countenance, although pained, was softer than the night before.
“I have not slept this night,” he muttered.
“Nor have I,” replied Francisco.
Abdul Aziz paced back and forth with clenched fists before exclaiming, “What have you done to me, infidel? How have you bewitched me that my heart should be so bound to yours? Why does your suffering become my suffering?”
“Tell me what will happen,” Francisco asked.
“We will leave now. The men are waiting outside to take you. We will go before the council.”
“How long will it take?”
“The decision,” Abdul Aziz replied, “will take perhaps an hour at the most. The sentence will be carried out very quickly. You will feel no pain.”
“And what of Fatima?”
“There is only one thing,” said Abdul Aziz, “before you die you will be given the opportunity to say the shahada*. If you say it, Fatima may be saved, for it could be argued that through her influence you have come to the true faith and perhaps her youthful excesses may be forgiven her in the light of your conversion.”
Francisco was silent. Abdul Aziz suddenly spoke warmly and passionately, and Francisco was surprised to see tears in his eyes.
“Señor Francisco, I know that you came on your mission with all good intentions. I wish that there was more that I could do to help. It’s a bad time. If I am seen as too soft towards you I will lose much. My authority will be challenged, diminished in the community. Whatever influence I can be for peace and humanity amongst my people will be eroded even further. Those who are extreme will gain more influence. Who knows, I may even be executed too. I have my family to think of, my standing, the influence I can be on this community. I am sorry. I am so, so sorry.”
There was nothing to be said. Abdul Aziz hung his head gravely and turned towards the door.
He opened it and gave a signal. In a moment his men were inside, seizing Francisco’s arms and binding him tightly. He submitted meekly but with a wince of pain. Thoughts raced through his mind like wind-footed stallions across the desert sands as he was led through the sun-bleached streets towards the Imam’s house. This was not as he had expected. He had not believed that his mission would end so abruptly. His death seemed to be like a tiny leaf blown by the wind into oblivion. He had hoped at least one life could have been changed, one soul redeemed through his mission, but now it all seemed terribly lost, and that thought troubled him.
Up until this point there had seemed to be a higher purpose, a Divine logic to even the difficult things that had befallen him, but this turn of events was beyond his comprehension. The nail-pierced hands of his Lord that seemed to have been cupped around him thus far, seemed suddenly strangely distant and invisible. For the first time in his life he understood the depth of his Master’s cry. My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?
The atmosphere at the Imam’s house was cold, in stark contrast to his previous visit. He was pulled roughly into the same room that had once pulsated with the rhythms of the lively folkloric songs. The Imam sat stiffly. He was surrounded by four or five other elders, their countenances as barren and rigid as the stony cliff faces that Francisco had ridden past the day before. Francisco searched their faces anxiously for even a glimmer of mercy or understanding but saw none.
Abdul Aziz took his seat along with the elders. Francisco shuddered slightly as he caught sight of the large curved scimitar hanging from the belt of the white-clad soldier that stood to the right of the seated elders. Abdul Aziz’s three eldest sons, Sami among them, sat over to the left of the council.
With an air of solemn authority the Imam began an incantation of verses from the Koran. Francisco did not understand all of it, but caught some of the meaning about vengeance against the unbelievers and punishment of the wicked.
Not an auspicious* beginning, he thought to himself.
The incantation ended, the Imam looked gravely around the room. “Whoever has testimony against this infidel let him stand now and speak.”
Trembling, Sami rose to his feet. Holding up Fatima’s earring he said, “I found my sister’s earring in the room of the infidel, the day after he left for Meknés. I discovered that my sister had taken one of my father’s horses and given it to the infidel. After this I understood that the infidel had seduced my sister, had lured her to his room in the night and had violated her.”
Abdul Aziz was staring disconsolately at the floor.
“Do you have anything to say, infidel?” barked the Imam.
“I tell you the truth,” replied Francisco, “that I did not violate the honor of Abdul Aziz’s daughter.”
“You are calling me a liar,” shouted Sami angrily. “You are the liar.”
Immediately the room erupted into shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” “Purge us from the infidel!” “Vengeance against the adulterer!” Sternly the Imam commanded all to be silent.
“Let the infidel speak,” he said.
Francisco spoke with restrained, but deep emotion.
“I tell you in truth that I did not defile Fatima. I have no proof of this but my word and her word. But let me say this. I came unto your people because I was incensed at what my countrymen were doing to you. I had hoped that through my work I could somehow undo some of the wrong that was done to you. I see, however, that your hatred for my people and your anger towards me and my countrymen is too deep, and for this I cannot blame you, for the wounds inflicted on you have been grievous. My only request is if I must die that you would, in the name of Allah the merciful and compassionate have mercy upon Fatima, for she is innocent and not worthy to die.”
The Imam looked at him stonily. “Kneel, infidel,” he said. He gestured to the swordsman at his right, who came and stood behind Francisco, pulling his long, glittering scimitar from the sheath in his belt and gripping it firmly with both hands.
“Infidel,” said the Imam sternly, “you claim that you are innocent and Allah will be the judge of that for He is just. If you are guilty and we let you live, then we sin against Allah. If you are innocent and you die, He will be merciful unto you. Now before you die turn to Islam, if so be that Allah may hear and may be merciful towards Fatima, daughter of Abdul Aziz.”
Francisco took a deep breath and looked straight up at the Imam. The swordsman raised his sword high in the air.
“I confess,” said Francisco, “that there is no God but God.” The Imam nodded. “I confess that Mohammed was a true prophet of God.” At these words Abdul Aziz raised his eyes and looked straight at Francisco. Francisco turned to meet his gaze and spoke without flinching. “And I confess also that Jesus Christ, Son of God, is my Savior, Who died for me to atone for my sins. I pray that through my death today He may somehow, in some small way, atone for the sins of my countrymen and that through it some standing here may come to know Him and His loving kindness.”
“Execute vengeance on the infidel!” shouted the Imam. The swordsman pulled back his scimitar, ready to begin the downward swing.
“No!” The entire room turned in amazement to look at Abdul Aziz, who had leaped to his feet.
“No!” he bellowed once more. “Put down your sword!” he commanded the swordsman.
“Execute vengeance on the infidel!” thundered the Imam once more.
The swordsman turned in confusion, unsure of whom to obey.
“Wait!” Abdul Aziz said with undiminished authority. “The Spaniard has been my prisoner these past weeks. “Will you not hear my testimony concerning him?”
The Imam was incensed that his authority was being challenged.
“We have heard the testimony of your son,” he thundered. “The infidel has defiled your daughter. Why do you now hinder us from executing vengeance on him?”
“But let the judgment of Allah be with truth and righteousness,” cried Abdul Aziz, “and not through hearsay and supposition. I have observed this man closely these many weeks. I have had my servant spy upon him day and night and I have found no fault in him. He has not deceived me in any way. Why should I then not believe him when he says that he did not defile my daughter? I saw him walk out alone, trusting only in God, to confront the armies of the infidel. I saw God confound the Spaniards on the field of battle in answer to his prayers. Why should I then not believe that he is a man who walks closely with God, who is righteous before God?”
For a moment the Imam was stunned, unable to speak. The other elders whispered to each other in consternation. This was unprecedented.
“The infidel has defiled the Shahada!” shouted the Imam after having spent a moment gathering his composure. “Did you not see how in the same breath he calls Mohammed a prophet and then invokes Jesus, son of Mary, as the Son of God? Away with him to the depths of Hell, and let Allah deal with him as He sees fit. Swordsman, execute judgment!”
Once again the glittering scimitar was raised, but the swordsman looked anxiously at Abdul Aziz.
One of the other council members spoke up. “Let us give the infidel a chance. He confessed Islam, let him now deny that Jesus, the son of Mary, is the Son of God.”
“Yes,” said another member, “let him deny Christ. Perhaps then he can live.”
All eyes were on the Imam.
“Very well then,” he said. “Infidel, will you deny that Jesus is the Son of God and confess only Islam?”
Francisco took a deep breath, “I can accept Mohammed as a true prophet of God,” he said slowly, “but I cannot deny Jesus as the Son of God and my Savior.”
“Then kill him,” said the Imam quietly, but maliciously.
“Wait.” Abdul Aziz’s tone was more pleading this time. “Do we believe that our religion is the right one, the true one before God?”
Heads nodded in assent.
“Then what have we to fear? Is this truly the way of the prophet, to propagate his teachings by forcing men to believe? Is this what we find written in the Holy Koran, that we cut off the heads of all those who do not confess Islam? Is this doing the work of Allah, the most gracious, merciful, and compassionate? What sort of converts do we hope to make of our religion, those who are cowered into submission by fear of death? How can we expect such converts to love Allah with true hearts and sincere faith? Has not the Holy Koran instructed us to do good to the people of the Book, those who worship the true God? Then why do we not obey its words? La ‘ikraha fid-deen! There is no coercion in religion, as says the Holy Koran.”
Gray beards wagged up and down as their owners recognized the Koranic verse and nodded their heads in assent.
The Imam was staring distractedly at the ground, tapping his fingers nervously on the side of his chair and muttering under his breath. Francisco heard him furiously quoting verses from the Koran. Sami was looking at his father with a mixture of awe and fear. He had never seen him speak this way.
With definite authority Abdul Aziz walked over to the swordsman and took the glittering scimitar out of his hand. Deftly, and a little more quickly than Francisco would have liked, he cut the ropes that bound Francisco’s hands behind him and plunged the sword deep into the floor beside him.
“Bring forth Fatima!” he cried loudly.
Suddenly a curtain, which covered a large arch at the side of the room, was drawn back. Francisco turned in surprise to see Fatima sitting with her mother and sisters and some other women.
“Come forth, my daughter,” said Abdul Aziz gently.
She stood and walked into the midst of the room before the tribunal. Francisco saw that her hands were also bound.
“Tell us,” said Abdul Aziz softly, “did this man ever defile you?”
She shook her head. “Never,” she replied softly.
Once again Abdul Aziz pulled the sword from the floor and much more gently then he had delivered Francisco of his bonds, cut the ropes which bound her wrists.
“Then in the name of Allah, in the name of all that is merciful and compassionate, let us let the Spaniard go free. Let us let him perform his mission of healing to our people.” He turned to the council. “Right now at Meknés many of our soldiers lie dying in need of such a man as this. Let us let him go forth to minister unto them.”
All the council members except the Imam nodded their heads.
“Let him go,” a few of them muttered.
The Imam, however, continued mumbling, angry words spilling from his mouth like bubbles from a seething cauldron. Tenderly Abdul Aziz kissed his daughter on both cheeks, then gently motioned her to go back to her mother, who warmly and tearfully embraced her daughter. Francisco did not risk so much as a glance in Fatima’s direction. Abdul Aziz looked around briefly at the gathering. With all the astuteness of the military commander that he was, he could see that the upper hand was his momentarily, but speedy action needed to be taken. The Imam still muttered and seethed like a volcano about to explode.
“Brothers,” he said boldly, “we must move on to more urgent matters. As you know, by the grace of Allah we repelled the infidels in their attack at Meknés. I am sure they will not give up, but will attack again in greater fury. I must leave today to help them. Let us call again for the able-bodied fighting men, leaving only a small force here to defend our town.” A murmur of assent ran round the room. “We should depart within the hour.”
“And what of the Spaniard?” asked one of the elders. “What will become of him?”
“The Spaniard shall accompany us,” said Abdul Aziz. “His healing skills are needed with our wounded soldiers and his prayers are needed for us in battle against the infidels.” Without waiting for the consent of the elders he called out to his son, “Sami, take Señor Francisco back to our home. Help him prepare to depart. Find him a fine stallion. I will follow shortly, after we have discussed our strategy.”
“It is good, father,” said Sami submissively.
Francisco grasped Abdul Aziz’s hand warmly with gratitude in his eyes.
Unable to respond with more then a peremptory nod for fear of sacrificing his authority, Abdul Aziz squeezed his hand briefly. Understanding his predicament Francisco quietly took his leave, accompanied by Sami. As they walked towards the horses Sami turned to Francisco.
“My father is a good man,” he said, “merciful and righteous. I do not necessarily believe you, but I believe him and for that I must say forgive me for misjudging you.”
“I understand your concern,” replied Francisco. “I, too, have a sister.”
“So you claim that you did not seduce my sister, but tell me honestly. Did something happen between you? I know Fatima and I have seen the way she looks at you.”
“Yes, perhaps something did happen between us, but it is as the shadow of the wind and is passed away from us, and I believe it is gone forever.”
With that the two reached the horses. Sami handed the bridle of one to Francisco and they both mounted and rode off towards home.
Francisco did not have much to do to prepare his meager possessions. He set his room in order and dressed himself in his local robes. All things being ready he sat down to write in his journal, which he had neglected over the preceding days.
True to his word, Abdul Aziz was back within the hour and preparing to ride out. Francisco joined him at the front of the house and briefly inspected the fine Arabian steed that Sami had chosen for him. As they prepared to mount, Abdul Aziz’s wife and daughters entered and passed through the courtyard. For a moment which seemed to freeze into eternity, his gaze locked with Fatima’s tear-filled but grateful eyes. An ocean of longing flowed between them for an instant before the wind’s shadow passed again, leaving an aching sweet memory that burned in Francisco’s soul.
“Yallah,” said Abdul Aziz. “Let’s go.”
Francisco swung himself into the saddle, dug the spurs into the side of the stallion, and fought back the tears that were welling up in his eyes.
“To have died would have been easier,” he whispered to himself as the horsemen rode out into the dusty streets of the town.
A cloud of tension hung over the city of Meknés when they arrived there about midmorning. The rejoicing at the victory of three days earlier had turned to a strained anticipation of further assault. Reports from silent watchers in the olive groves and pine forests above the valley had noted that the Spanish had drawn up their positions, regrouped, and seemed ready for attack.
Abdul Aziz instructed one of his men to take Francisco to a makeshift hospital where many still lay wounded from the conflict. Francisco had requested that after tending to the Moroccans he also be allowed to minister to the wounded of his own countrymen who were being held as prisoners, to which Abdul Aziz had readily agreed.
Francisco successfully drowned his emptiness in the pain and sorrows of others for the rest of the day, as if nail-pierced healing hands were massaging his own aching heart, even as his hands tended to the wounded. Later in the day he was taken to the prison where many Spaniards had languished for days with little care. Some had died of their wounds and others were sorely in need of treatment. They were surprised at the tall, unusual-looking Arab who spoke excellent Spanish, though Francisco attempted to feign an Arabic accent to conceal his identity.
After doing the best with his makeshift supplies for several hours, he came to the bed of one badly wounded man, who was obviously on the point of death. Understanding that Francisco spoke Spanish, he whispered hoarsely to him asking for a priest to say the last rites. Francisco knelt by the man’s bed and busied himself as if pretending to treat his wounds.
“I am a priest,” he whispered. “I will say the last rites for you.”
Thereupon he proceeded to whisper the Latin incantation into the man’s ear. The dying prisoner gripped Francisco’s hand as if suddenly released from a burden of fear, and with a long sigh passed away. Francisco gently folded his hands on his chest and was able to restrain himself just in time from performing the sign of the cross.
Unbeknownst to Francisco, the entire exchange had been observed by a man on the next cot, who stared at him suspiciously.
It was late at night by the time he completed his rounds. One of Abdul Aziz’s men escorted him to a camp just outside the city where Abdul Aziz and his men were preparing to sleep. Francisco, utterly exhausted, managed a weak smile when he saw Abdul Aziz.
“Peace be upon you, my friend,” said Abdul Aziz, sensing that Francisco was quite spent. “If you have the strength, my brother, ride with me early in the morning. We will go up into the hills and observe the enemy’s positions.”
“By the grace of God,” said Francisco with a weak smile.
“God bless your hands and strengthen your health,” said Abdul Aziz.
At dawn the two men left the camp on horseback, and after forty-five minutes they reached a ridge where they could look back over the town. A stiff breeze was blowing out of the west, and as they mounted the ridge it hit them full in the face. Clouds were scattered ominously across the dawn-lit sky. Below in the valley they could see little whirlpools of dust thrust violently into the air by the wind. A few brave birds swooped and tumbled in the sky, soaring up against the wind, then allowing themselves to be thrust like crumpled paper before its mighty force. Francisco stared long and broodingly at the scene before him, sensing an impending storm although there was no scent of rain in the air.
“Señor Francisco,” said Abdul Aziz quietly, “have you prayed to your God? Has He spoken to you?”
Francisco looked long and intently down into the valley where the lines of the Spanish army could be dimly made out in the morning haze.
“Last time,” he mused aloud, “the words were so clear. My instructions were so simple. This time I grope and I feel for His will, for His words, but it’s not clear to me. Last time we defied history. This time, I’m not sure. God’s will is a mysterious thing. Sometimes it is unfathomable as the depths of the oceans.” He looked intently at his Arabian counterpart.
“I know and I believe His promise that in the end, peace, truth, and righteousness shall prevail. I know He sent me to warn those who I still disdain to call my countrymen, to tell them not to attack. Nevertheless, attack they will and today I know not what the result shall be, but I shall pray, my dear brother Abdul Aziz, I shall pray.”
Abdul Aziz lifted his binoculars to his eyes and began to study the awakening Spanish juggernaut*.
“I believe they will attack today,” he said quietly at length. “Let us quickly get back to camp. There are preparations to be made.”
* * *
The attack came swiftly and deadly at ten o’clock. With surprise no longer on their side and the Spaniards guarding their flanks more carefully, the majority of the Moroccan forces were arrayed in front of the city. Although they had captured two cannons from the Spaniards, which they put to some good use, their ammunition soon ran out, while the Spanish availed themselves of plentiful ammunition and artillery. It wasn’t long before the Spanish soldiers were entering the gates of the city and the Arabs were fleeing before them.
Abdul Aziz had been fighting valiantly, but saw that the city was a lost cause. Quickly he rode to the camp to warn Francisco before it should be overwhelmed by the oncoming Spaniards. Francisco had confined himself within a tent and had been praying unceasingly, although the ominous feeling had never left him. He knew as soon as he heard Abdul Aziz’s voice outside his tent what the result of the battle was.
“Quickly,” shouted Abdul Aziz, “mount your horse! We must escape to the hills.”
Within seconds, Francisco had quit the tent and the two men were galloping out through the vineyards and olive groves. A company of Spanish cavalry had meanwhile reached the other side of the camp and saw the two riders fleeing towards the hills.
“After them!” shouted the lieutenant, and he and five horsemen immediately charged in pursuit of the fugitives. At a certain point the two had to cross a hundred yards of open fields before reaching the next groves. The lieutenant ordered his men to fire. A volley of shots rang out. Francisco’s horse was slightly in the lead, and he turned in dismay to see Abdul Aziz’s stallion collapse under him, wounded. Quickly Abdul Aziz managed to disentangle himself from the fallen horse as Francisco reigned in.
“Go on, go on!” shouted Abdul Aziz. “Go on!”
Unheeding, Francisco turned his horse around and galloped back.
“We’ll be too slow, we’ll be too slow!” screamed Abdul Aziz.
The Spaniards were now in hot pursuit, only fifty yards away.
“Take them alive!” barked the commander. “If you can, take them alive.”
“Get up behind me!” shouted Francisco to Abdul Aziz.
“No, go, the horse will be too slow with both of us!” he shouted back angrily.
But Francisco insisted. Abdul Aziz threw himself up behind Francisco and Francisco spurred the horse once again up towards the olive groves ahead of them. The Spaniards were closing fast and once more let loose a volley of shots, this time felling Francisco’s horse. Helplessly the two men pulled themselves from underneath the struggling animal. The Spanish soldiers surrounded them.
“I know this one!” shouted the lieutenant, excitedly pointing towards Abdul Aziz “He’s one of their leaders. We’ve caught one of their commanders!”
“Speak only Arabic,” whispered Abdul Aziz to Francisco, who nodded.
Strong cords bound their hands and the two were marched back towards the Spanish camp. A pall of smoke hung over the city and the sounds of gunshots still rang out as the Spaniards subdued the last pockets of resistance. As they marched past the gates of the city, Francisco’s heart sank as he heard the weeping and shrill wailing of the women.
“Oh God, recompense them as only Thou dost know how,” he whispered.
The two were marched smartly through the smoking remains of the battlefield. Bodies of white-clad Moroccans, a few of whom Francisco recognized, were strewn everywhere, and amongst them some Spanish soldiers, cruelly and grotesquely united in mortality.
Strange how their blood is mingled in death, he thought.
The lieutenant in charge of the company, obviously pleased with his catch, eagerly reported to his commander.
“We have captured one of the ringleaders of the insurrection,” he said, pointing to Abdul Aziz.
The commander acknowledged him with the disdain reserved by commanding officers for lieutenants obviously looking for promotions.
“And what of this one?”
“Another one of their fighters, I suppose,” said the lieutenant officiously.
The commander scrutinized Francisco’s face closely.
“Hmm, this one looks a bit different. Torture them first, then bring them to me for interrogation, one by one. We’ll get all the information we can. Then we will probably execute the ringleader, make him an example. Keep the other one as a prisoner for now.”
Francisco restrained himself from flinching when he heard the words, still believing that feigning lack of knowledge of Spanish could save him some pain and possibly even death.
They were taken to a tent and chained to a stake in the ground while they awaited interrogation. Abdul Aziz breathed deeply.
“It is even as your God showed you,” he said in Arabic. “We cannot always stand against the forces of history.” He paused before continuing gingerly. “What did the commander say?”
“He said they are going to interrogate us, torture us and…”
Francisco swallowed; it was not easy to go on.
“They said they were going to execute you as one of the leaders of the insurrection. I don’t know what they will do with me, but if they discover my true identity, I doubt I shall see tonight’s sunset.”
“Let us die bravely,” said Abdul Aziz quietly.
There was a long silence as the each man examined his own heart to see if that would be possible. Finally it was Abdul Aziz who spoke.
“Señor Francisco, may I ask you something?”
“I have seen you these three or four times look into the face of death and not flinch.”
“I felt fear.” Francisco paused, weighing his words. “But it was not so much fear of death, as perhaps fear of the pain which precedes it.”
“I look at death and I see a dark fearful chasm. I fear … I fear the wrath of Allah. I have done many wrong things, I know. I have killed men who did not truly deserve to die. I have lied. I have stolen. I have not always been faithful in prayers, in fasting, in zakat*. There are so many things for which I deserve punishment. Now I go to face Allah, and though I die in jihad, why do I feel so far from attaining the gardens of Paradise?”
Francisco searched for a suitable answer, but before he could find one, Abdul Aziz continued.
“Yet I have seen you look at death in the eye and greet it like an old friend. Is it because you are without sin?”
Francisco laughed. That was an easier one to answer.
“No, no, my brother-nothing could be further from the truth.”
“Then tell me, is it because of this”-Abdul Aziz seemed to struggle with the word-“atonement? This atonement you believe in?”
“You have answered the question yourself. That is precisely why I do not fear.”
“Then I also need this atonement. Can you help me to attain it?”
“No, I can’t.” Abdul Aziz looked at him in surprise, but Francisco’s tone was warm as he continued, “but only because it cannot be attained, only received.”
“Tell me how to receive it.”
“Confess Jesus as your Savior and Redeemer and receive His Holy Spirit, for His Word says that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Abdul Aziz was quiet for a long moment, as if struggling with some unseen fear. Finally he spoke with grave deliberation.
“On the mountain that morning you asked me whether if you would accept Mohammed as God’s prophet, would I confess Jesus Christ as my Savior. You have kept your end of the bargain, and now I answer you, yes. Now before you and before God I confess Jesus Christ as my Savior and accept His atonement for my sins.”
After a whispered prayer, Francisco looked up and there were tears in his eyes.
“Abdul Aziz, there is one part of my story that I did not tell you. As I waited in Madrid for the ship that would bring me to Casablanca, I heard news from my hometown. I heard that the cruel and selfish husband of the woman that I loved had been killed in a hunting accident. She was now a widow. I knew it would not be beyond expectation for me to return, to claim her as my bride. The thought haunted me that the heartbreak, the reason that I had left everything to follow my Jesus was now gone, and I could return and live the life I had always longed to live: husband of a beautiful woman, father of wonderful children in the happy, peaceful valley that I had always loved and now yearned for. But something spurred me on. Something had grown within me that was stronger even than that desire for love. I felt a sense of destiny, perhaps a sense of mission, perhaps a deeper understanding of the love that caused my beloved Savior to leave the gardens of Paradise and come into this tormented world. I consoled myself that perhaps after my mission was complete I could return, but I knew deep in my heart that would not be the case. Many times since I have thought of that happy valley, that beautiful life I could have lived. Many times I wondered whether the sacrifice was worth it. Only today, my brother, only today do I know it was worth it all.”
At this point the tent flap swung open. The lieutenant, accompanied by two soldiers, entered the tent and roughly undid Abdul Aziz’s chains. Francisco looked up at him. His black eyes shone as they returned Francisco’s penetrating gaze.
“Die bravely, my brother,” said Francisco in Arabic. “Soon we shall be together again.”
The corporal barked a command to his men and they seized Abdul Aziz by the arms and led him out of the tent.
“I’ll be back for you, dog,” said the lieutenant in Spanish to Francisco, not realizing he understood.
Half an hour and an agonizing stream of prayer for his friend’s strength later, Francisco heard a volley of shots and knew they had sent Abdul Aziz to his final resting place. Minutes later the lieutenant was back unlocking his chains. Nervousness ran through Francisco’s stomach, as he was pulled out of the tent into the midday sunlight by the same soldiers. A company of soldiers approached. The lieutenant saluted his counterpart at the head of the column of soldiers and they exchanged greetings.
“I’m taking this one for interrogation,” he said, gesturing in Francisco’s direction.
“We just liberated these men from their prison, poor dogs,” said the other, pointing to about a dozen disheveled, sickly looking men whom the soldiers were escorting. “These were the ones that were well enough to walk, the other ones we’ll have to go back and get with stretchers.”
“Lieutenant,” called out one of the freed prisoners, “do you know who this man is?”
“Come forward, soldier,” ordered the lieutenant.
The soldier approached.
“It’s him, sir. This is the one, the heretic priest,”
“What do you mean?” snapped the lieutenant.
“I was with the commander at the battle where the Arabs defeated us. This is the heretic priest. I was there at the front of the column. I saw him. He’s the one who cast the spell on us and caused us to lose. Then last night I saw him pretending to be an Arab. I wasn’t sure it was him because of the headdress and the clothes. But then I saw him whispering to the man next to me who was dying, and I realized he was speaking in Latin, saying the last rites. I still wasn’t sure so I said nothing, but now I know. It’s him.”
The lieutenant turned towards Francisco with a malicious gleam in his eyes.
“You’re the one! I must inform the commander! Guard him closely,” he commanded the two soldiers. A few minutes later he returned with the commander.
The commander inspected Francisco closely for a minute before pulling the Arabic headdress off his head, “So you’re the one, the heretic who cursed us.”
“Yes, I am the one,” said Francisco, “only I am no heretic, not like the church which condones your butchery of the innocent. Furthermore, it was not I that cursed you that day, but God Himself.”
“Silence, dog,” snarled the lieutenant, slapping Francisco across the face.
“I will not be silent,” replied Francisco steadying himself after the impact, and looking unflinchingly at the commander. “As long as it is not too late for you to repent. Turn away from murder, rape, and pillaging the innocent and turn to the God of your salvation and to Jesus Who died to set you free from your sins.”
“Insolent pig,” snapped the commander. “Take him to the priest. We’ll excommunicate him and send him to hell where he belongs.” With a nod to the lieutenant he turned on his heel and walked back towards his command post.
As one of his first orders after the last debacle, he had sent for a priest to accompany the army to pray for them, sanctify them before the battle, hold communion, and say last rites over the dying. It was only a short walk to his tent. The lieutenant walked pompously in front of Francisco and his two guards.
“Father, we have captured the heretic priest,” he said.
A gaunt, forlorn-looking man in the robes of priesthood emerged from the tent. He looked Francisco up and down for a moment without comment.
The lieutenant chafed with impatience at his time-consuming perusal.
“The commander gave orders to excommunicate him forthwith that we may execute him. Kneel, dog.” The soldiers thrust Francisco into a kneeling position in front of the priest who looked sternly down at him.
“Are you ordained a priest in the Catholic Church?” he asked looking in disdain at Francisco’s Arabic garments.
“I am. In the order of my master, St. Francis,” said Francisco.
“Then why have you defiled yourself, wearing heathen garments?”
“I came forth as the holy apostle Paul, ‘becoming all things to all men,'” replied Francisco. “I came forth as my master Saint Francis did, to try to heal the wounds that those who call themselves Christian inflicted upon Muslim populations.”
“You have been bewitched by these heathen,” snapped the priest sharply. “You are a heretic to the church and a traitor to your country.”
“So be it,” said Francisco. “If in so doing I may be true to my Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.”
“Blasphemy,” snarled the priest. He crossed himself. “In nomine Patris et Fillii et Spiritus Sanctus tu excommunicado. It is finished,” he said to the lieutenant, wiping his hands together in a symbolic gesture of finality. “Take him and do with him as you will.”
The lieutenant led the way as the two soldiers led Francisco through to the edge of the camp. They climbed a slight incline to a grassy knoll and forced him to kneel down.
“May the good Lord Jesus Who I serve forgive you, for you do not know what you are doing,” he said to the lieutenant, who only grimaced in response.
The knoll overlooked a little valley watered by a brook and lined with quaint olive groves. Francisco smiled as he watched the wind dancing playfully through the rippling grass. Suddenly, appearing out of nowhere, he saw a female form clad in a flowing white dress running towards him, barefoot across the soft grass. She was smiling, her arms outstretched, her dark hair blowing in the wind. Her voice laughed as she called out his name, and his heart leapt in anticipation of her embrace. Entranced by the vision, he never heard or felt the final bullet.
* * *
It was two days later that news reached Jerada of the defeat at Meknés and the death of Abdul Aziz and Francisco. Fatima immediately ran, locked herself in her room and wept until tears came no more. When she had composed herself sufficiently, she went quietly and reverently to Francisco’s room. His humble monk’s garment lay folded at the end of his rough cot, and a few pens and books lay on the rough wooden table.
His journal lay open at the last entry. Fatima sat down and carefully deciphered the labored scrawl.
“Like the wind, my life has passed briefly over this earth and passed away, invisible. I have been blown before Thee, O my Lord Jesus, I trust whither Thou hast willed. Show me, O Lord, for if I but know that the shadow of the wind has passed over one desolate life, cooled one aching fever, been a balm for one wounded soul, whispered Thy truth into one searching heart, then may I blow content into eternity.”
Fatima had thought her tears were all spent, but they now flowed more voluminously than before. Carefully she picked up the journal, kissed it and held it close to her heaving bosom.
Turning her eyes heavenward she sobbed convulsively:
“Farewell, my beloved Francisco. Thank you. Thank you for all that you have given me, even for that which you denied me. For through you and your sacrifice I have come to know my true Master. O my Lord Jesus, I give myself to You. Show me the way and I will follow You all the days of my life.”
– – –
After a long struggle the subjugation of the western half of Morocco by the Spanish army was complete. The east was controlled by the French. To his family’s great joy, Abdul Aziz returned after the terms of surrender had been agreed to. He had not died that day, as Francisco had surmised. The volley of shots was a ploy, to make him fear and also to heighten the effect of Francisco’s own interrogation. Abdul Aziz’s relatively merciful treatment of the prisoners as well as his sparing the lives of Francisco’s captors also spoke well for him with the Spanish commander, who decided to spare his life. He returned to Jerada a broken, but gentler, stronger man. Because of the circumstances in the society which surrounded him, he was not open in witnessing of his redemption, but many years later, when persecution threatened local Christians, he was instrumental in protecting them and saving their lives.
As for Fatima, the seed of faith grew within her, and in her quiet way she influenced many lives towards a knowledge of the truth. Her two most prized possessions, which she kept with her for the rest of her earthly life, were Francisco’s Bible and his journal, which she read often. Apart from the last entry, her favorite page was the first one, upon which Francisco had written the words he had heard in his heart one night, words that echoed the famous prayer prayed centuries earlier by another humble follower of the Light.
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P.S. Did you like the story and words written here? Were they an enlightenment to your soul? Would you or a friend or acquaintance be able to translate this page into a language a majority of Muslims speak like Arabic, Farsi, French, Hindi etc.? Would you be able and like to help enlightening the Islamic world and be a tool in this for God to use to His glory and spreading of His Good News? May God bless you and make you a blessing to many!
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