IN MY life I had known love of many kinds: the constant love of my parents and family, the love and pride I felt for my country, and love for my church and my God. These forms of love were deep, yes, and invaluable. They engendered loyalty, ethics, patriotism… they shaped me as I grew into a man. It was not until adulthood, however, that I discovered the greatest form of love I would ever know. I found it without seeking it, at a time when I was at a great distance from my family and country, and in a place where, I believed, even my God would not accompany me.
I was born in Spain in 1570. My family owned a large quantity of land, some of which was used to raise sheep and some rented to tenants who used it for their own crops and animals. I was named Javier, namesake to my grandfather, who died shortly before I was born. My childhood was spent in a happy and abundant family. My mother and father truly loved each other, and in my early years I thought all marriages were the same. It wasn’t until adolescence that I started to understand how many marriages were arrangements of social or business advantage rather than true affection.
As a loyal subject of King Filipe II, I became a soldier in his army when I was not yet fully grown. Though many of my friends dreamed of sailing in the invincible Spanish Armada, and others to join the arquebusiers, my talent lay with the sword. My father, a great, muscular man, had been a swordsman before my birth and had taught me to wield the long blade as soon as I was able to hoist it. The day I donned a white tunic with a red cross, signifying that I belonged to His Majesty’s Army, was the proudest day of my parents’ lives.
My parents’ happiness meant a great deal to me, and I took pride in my abilities. Nevertheless, I was deeply saddened by the knowledge that serving the King would take me away from España, away from the home and countryside I’d known all my life. I was to go to France, with no idea when I would return. It might be years before I would again see my parents, my brothers and sisters, my friends. I would miss the rising sun throwing sparkles across the Mediterranean. I would even miss the Merino sheep my family raised, providing some of the finest wool on the continent.
As the date of my departure drew near, my mother became melancholy as well. She was the person I loved best in my large family. She had always understood me and listened patiently to the things I wanted to talk about. She knew I would rather have remained on our farm, feeding and caring for the flocks, counting new spring lambs and shearing the ewes, than join the army and head off to war. Mami often told me I was her sensitive boy, but she never shamed me for being quiet or shy. I think it was because I was so much like her, more so than any of my brothers or sisters were.
We’d heard stories of the long and arduous journey north on the Spanish Road. The difficulties I would face, both on the trip and once we were engaged in war, were a source of great worry to Mami. Several nights before I left home I woke to her sitting on the edge of my bed, her work-worn fingers trembling as they smoothed over my hair. She was crying quietly, whispering prayers over me, asking the Holy Virgin to bring me home safely. I pretended to sleep on, letting her murmured supplications wash over me. They comforted me; the hard knot that had been growing in my stomach relaxed a bit, at least for a short time. I had never known anyone to refuse my mother anything—somehow I couldn’t believe even God would dare tell her no.
I believed, too, that we were fighting a holy battle, a war in His name. My tercio, under the command of the Duke of Parma, would travel north to Brussels. We would continue to Dunkirk, France, meeting the Spanish Armada there. Led by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, the Armada would carry us across the English Channel—la Manche, the French called it. We would invade Queen Elizabeth, who had been excommunicated from the true church, who persecuted those who wished to attend Catholic mass, and in a final disgraceful act, had executed faithful Mary, Queen of Scots. The Spanish Armada couldn’t fail, and we, the tercio soldiers, would destroy our Heavenly Father’s enemies.
Assuming we arrived in France alive.
The day I left España, I kissed the soil goodbye, wondering if I would ever see my beloved country again. I will not dwell extensively on the journey, except to say that traveling the Spanish Road was quite as awful as expected. The initial journey by ship from Barcelona to Genoa was nothing compared to the subsequent journey overland. With winter approaching we marched twelve miles every day, through the mountains and into the Low Countries, with little food and very poor sleep. Officers were sometimes able to find lodging along the way, but we soldiers were left to sleep along the roadside, under bushes or any makeshift shelter we could construct ourselves. We were accompanied by camp followers, the women who came along, carrying much of our food and supplies on their backs, tending to the sick, and servicing the healthy. As disgusting as many of them were, I sometimes wonder whether I would have survived the trip without their presence. Many soldiers were struck by the black plague, the subsequent deaths greatly reducing our numbers. Those women and the care they provided, such as it was, saved some who would otherwise have fallen.
After many weeks of travel, in early December my tercio finally joined those who had preceded us on the journey, gathering in a large encampment in the French countryside outside Dunkirk. We went from constant movement to almost none, aside from our daily drills, but we were so exhausted from the trip that the period of rest was most welcome. For months we had very little to do but wait—wait for war, wait to see who would live or die. To stave off boredom, we played rentoy and got to know our fellow soldiers throughout the camp. From time to time some of the men would stage wrestling matches and other contests of strength, with the winner’s only reward being the right to boast, at least until the next match.
For those who weren’t interested in displaying their skills in hand-to-hand combat, the preferred diversion was to travel into Dunkirk, sometimes on a daily basis. The town was busy, always busy, as ships came and went from the port. There were merchants and taverns to serve the citizens, the seamen and soldiers. I often went, accompanied by several friends I’d made in my tercio, Rafael, Antonio, and Cruz. They preferred to visit the taverns. They were a few years older than me and thought of themselves as far more experienced, though they’d never been to war either. When they drank wine or ale, they would become loud and boisterous, and the conversation almost always took a turn toward prurient topics.
On this subject, at least, they certainly seemed to have more experience than I, though I would never confess it to them. Rafael and Cruz, their faces flushed with drink, would try to goad me into admitting it. Antonio, however, always put a stop to their taunts. Antonio and I were in the same tent, and even in the short period of time we’d been in France, we’d become good friends. We talked nearly every night before we fell asleep. He was very kind and seemed to make it his business to ensure I was not ill-treated by some of the older, rougher soldiers. I was often surprised by the power he seemed to have over Rafael and Cruz. They spoke loudly, swaggered, and teased, especially when they’d been drinking, but with one sharp word from Antonio they would become meek and apologetic.
I was grateful to Antonio for diverting their attention from my inexperience. I knew the differences between a man and a woman, of course, the obvious ones and the not as obvious. I had younger brothers and sisters, after all, whom I had occasionally helped care for when they were babies. I knew enough about how young were begotten, at least where sheep were involved. My youthful knowledge of human carnal activities had been gleaned from overhearing loose talk from the coarse men who’d been hired seasonally to help at my family’s farm. Those men didn’t care that I was considered too young for such talk. As they described the sheer delight of congress, I was intrigued… but at the same time I wondered what deficiency I suffered, because I seemed to have no desire for women, not in the way they spoke of them.
It was a shame, for I had ample opportunities to experiment. The camp followers, the tavern-maids, even some of the seemingly innocent women in the town expressed an interest in me. I knew I wasn’t unpleasant to look at. There had been girls in my village in España who hid their faces behind their fans, fluttering their eyelashes at me when I passed. I once overheard one talking to her friend, comparing me to a statue she’d seen of the god Apollo. She claimed the resemblance was striking. After hearing this, I had studied my reflection in the looking glass in my mother’s room. I’d shrugged, doubting the validity of the silly girl’s memory. Let her think what she would—her giggles and coquetry held no interest for me at all.
I was not completely immune to feelings of desire, however. While driving our sheep through the countryside one day, I had come upon my older brother’s friend Armando. He was loading hay onto a wagon, a sheen of sweat glistening as the muscles rippled under his bare, tanned back. That night, when I was sure my brothers were asleep, I closed my eyes and thought of that image. I remembered the summer days when, having spent a hot afternoon watching a flock, I would slip away to a lake with my brothers and a group of their friends to bathe. We would all strip bare without a second thought. I thought of Armando unclothed, the water streaming down his body as he climbed up a rock to jump into the water…. As the memory played before my eyes, my hands roamed the sensitive area between my legs, feeling my phallus become long and hard under my touch. I didn’t understand why touching myself in that way brought me pleasure so intense that my toes curled and my heart beat fast—only that it did happen, each time. And when my pleasure found me, from my throbbing length was released a white fluid—like milk, only thicker.
Once I had admitted to myself the truth—that my carnal desire was for men rather than for women—I made a decision. I would neither live a life that my church told me was an abomination, nor would I agree to a charade of a marriage to a woman. My conscience would never allow me to deceive another human that way, to tie them to a life with one who didn’t truly desire them. Despite my family’s expectations, therefore, I would simply spend my life in celibacy.
When I was traveling from España to France, I didn’t bring myself pleasure for many weeks. Each night when I lay down I fell asleep almost immediately, completely exhausted, and often I had no shelter in which to sleep, so the privacy I needed was not afforded me.
Once we arrived in Dunkirk, however, I had nothing but time in the encampment. Fortunately the winter was not a particularly harsh one, and by the time spring arrived, the weather had warmed enough so as to be quite pleasant for sleeping. Food was decent and reasonably plentiful, and young men had nothing to do but wait for word that the Armada had arrived to carry us across the Channel.
One night in May, I went with Antonio into Dunkirk. Cruz and Rafael stayed behind to play rentoy with some of the other soldiers. It was a mild night, despite the breeze from the cool water that separated France from England. We went to le Chat Gris, a tavern where Antonio had spent several evenings making eyes at the barmaid. He told me that on previous visits, Cruz and Rafael had been so insufferably loud that he was unable to pursue her properly. Tonight, however, since they were not with us, he was free to unleash his charms upon her.
I sat and watched as he complimented her. Despite having no particular attraction to women, I liked Olivie. She was kind to me, and was undeniably pretty, with long red curls and striking brown eyes. She also had all her teeth, a rarity for barmaids in Dunkirk or anywhere else, for that matter. I had had the opportunity to observe their conversations before. Olivie blushed and giggled when Antonio complimented her. She seemed innocent. I did not think she was the kind of girl who would provide extra services to the patrons. Antonio, however, was persistent, and as he’d predicted, without Rafael and Cruz there to impede him, Olivie was soon responding to his advances. Less than an hour after we’d arrived, the two were slipping away to a room upstairs, leaving me alone.
I had no desire to remain in the tavern by myself and was wholly uninterested in waiting for Antonio to return from his activities. This meant, of course, that I must travel back to the encampment on my own. I did not mind. Opportunities to be truly alone happened seldom, if ever. Sometimes I felt as though I could not hear my own thoughts over the voices of the rough men who surrounded me. I got lost in my thoughts as I made my way back through the city. Not paying attention, I took a wrong turn somewhere along the way. By the time I realized my mistake, I was completely lost amid the side streets. Asking for directions was out of the question. The shops were by that time long closed, and knocking at the door of a home late at night would certainly see me staring down an angry Frenchman’s musket.
I tried to retrace my steps back in the direction I’d come from, but soon I had to admit that it was pointless. It was far too dark to distinguish one street from another. Unsure of what to do and growing weary, I sat down on the uneven cobblestone in front of a shop, leaning back to rest against the wall under the darkened windows. I hoped that if I stayed here until dawn broke, I would at least be able to use the growing light to tell me in which direction I was headed, and hopefully find my way out of the maze of streets. I also hoped that I wouldn’t fall asleep and be woken by a shopkeeper, angry at finding me asleep in front of his store. It had only been thirty years since the Spanish defeated the French in the Battle of Gravelines—not nearly long enough to have softened the bitter memory from the French consciousness. Spanish soldiers were, by most Frenchmen, distrusted at best and despised at worst.
My eyelids grew heavy, despite the sea breeze that had turned the night air chilly. Several times I heard footfalls through the intersection at the end of the street, but no one came near me.
Until he stood before me.
Against my will, I had dozed off. I dreamt that my youngest sister, Maria, was trying to wake me, nudging my feet. Suddenly a sharp voice beside my head startled me into consciousness.
I jumped, reaching automatically for my sword, when a strong hand caught my wrist before I could draw it.
“Arrêtez! Je ne veux pas mourir ce soir,” the voice said… a man’s voice. My bleary eyes finally opened, and I squinted into the darkness, trying to see the face of the man who had found me, but it was much too dark. I could see only outlines.
He, on the other hand, could apparently see enough to know what I was wearing. “L’espagnol,” he said with a hint of disgust. “Parlez-vous français?”
I spoke very little French, having learned the words to ask for ale in a tavern or a bit of mutton at the shops, but could not hope to hold a conversation. I shook my head.
“How about English?” he asked in a heavily accented voice. I nodded slightly. “What are you doing in front of my shop?” he demanded.
“I got lost,” I said weakly.
“If I open my door now, are you going to jump me? Have you any friends lying in wait nearby?”
“My friend left me at the tavern,” I said honestly, realizing I was at this man’s mercy. “I am alone.”
He was silent a moment, looking up and down the street. Apparently deciding I wasn’t a threat, he unlocked the door to the shop and drew my sword from its sheath before nudging me inside. “Go,” he said unceremoniously. I stumbled into the pitch-black shop, bumping into a counter as I did. He closed and bolted the door behind us.
“Wait here,” he said, and I obeyed, as there was nothing else I could do. He left the room, returning a moment later with a lit candle. Walking the length of the counter at which I stood, he stopped opposite me and set the candle between us, giving me my first look at his face.
My mother’s bedroom at home had a painting of the angel Gabriel when he came to tell Mary that she would be blessed to carry God’s son. In the painting, Gabriel had golden hair that fell in ringlets to his shoulders, eyes as blue as the sky, and red lips like the poppies that grew outside our door. I had been fascinated by the painting all my life, but it wasn’t until I became a young man that I realized that what truly drew me to the painting was Gabriel himself. I had never seen a man so beautiful.
The man who stood before me was Gabriel come to life, and the reality was far superior to the art. His blond hair was pulled back, but numerous unruly curls had escaped the tie and were now falling around his face. Even in the candlelight, his eyes were as blue and sparkling as the Mediterranean Sea, and his mouth, delicate and perfect, was as red as the most brilliant ruby. I gasped at the angelic figure before me at the same time that his eyes widened in surprise.
“Mon Dieu,” he swore, “you’re a child!”
“I am not!” I replied immediately, indignant at the affront. “I am a soldier of Spain.”
“How old are you, soldier of Spain?” he asked.
“I was eighteen last month,” I answered gravely.
“And have you a name?”
“I am Javier,” I replied with all the importance I could muster.
“Well, Javier,” he said, “I am Gaspard, and this is my shop.”
“You don’t look old enough to own a shop,” I countered honestly.
“I see I have wounded your pride,” he replied, ignoring my comment. “I couldn’t see you very well when we were outside; I didn’t realize how young—” He stopped short and then said simply, “Please accept my apology for the affront.”
“I accept your apology,” I answered stiffly.
“In return for that, I will admit that this is not my shop,” he continued. “It belongs to my maman. My papa died two years ago, and she was given the right to continue his business. It will be my shop, though, when I become old enough to own it.”
“How old are you?” I asked, because I honestly couldn’t tell. Like the angel in the painting, he had both the cherubic face of an infant and the wise look of an ancient.
“I will be twenty-two when the summer has passed,” he replied. “How is it that I found you, a soldier of Spain, sleeping on the street outside my door?”
“I told you, my friend left me at the tavern,” I answered. “He found a girl, and once he was sure of her, he left me to travel back to the camp myself. I didn’t pay close attention to where I was going, and I got lost.”
He murmured under his breath, “Thank you, Father, that the soldiers of France have better sense.”
I bristled again and muttered an oath at him. I was turning to leave when he reached across the counter to catch my sleeve. “I have offended you again—how clumsy I am. Please, once more, forgive my terrible lack of manners.” I remained facing the door, not looking at him. “I still have your sword,” he reminded me. I sighed and relented, turning back toward him, but I did not miss the opportunity to cast a glare at him.
“Come,” he said, “let us be friends. I know where your camp is. I will take you there.” He extended one hand across the counter to me. I looked at it for a moment before finally deciding that I really did want to get back before my commander awoke. This seemed like my best option, or rather the only one. I reached for his hand, intending a quick, business-like shake, but the moment my palm slid into his, a magnetic pull coursed between us. I was frozen, rooted to the floor, my eyes locked on his. I gasped as though I had accidentally grasped a hot pan. At the same moment, Gaspard’s eyes widened and his mouth opened as if to speak, but no sound emerged.
I do not know how long we stood, staring across the counter, our hands joined. It was seconds, and it was millennia. Finally he blinked and looked down at our hands. Immediately I released my hold, looking away as I felt my face grow hot. “Your sword,” he said quietly, holding it out to me. I took it without meeting his eyes and sheathed it. He stepped to the door and unbolted it, waited for me to step past him, then closed and locked it behind us.
On the streets, we walked mostly in silence. I tried to take note of the route by which we traveled, but in the dark, unfamiliar city it was impossible. “I didn’t ask what you sell,” I eventually remarked as we left the city’s boundaries.
“Textiles,” he replied, and said no more. We continued our journey through the countryside, a massive expanse of stars glittering overhead. He remained silent and I began to worry that I had offended him. He had been so confident and outgoing until I shook his hand. Had I trespassed against a local custom?
Finally he spoke again. “How often do you come into Dunkirk?” he asked quietly.
“Three or four evenings a week,” I replied. “I come in with my friends.”
“Your friends who abandoned you in a tavern?” he asked. In his voice I sensed a hardness, as though he sneered at me. “Which tavern were you at?”
“Le Chat Gris,” I answered, not liking the way he spoke of my friends.
“A fine establishment,” he muttered. “I suppose Olivie was your friend’s conquest. She likes to shake her curls and pretend she knows what virtue is.”
I stopped dead. He continued for a few steps before stopping and turning when he realized I was no longer in step with him. “Olivie is… a woman of ill repute?” I asked.
He threw his head back, his laugh splitting the night. “Did you think she was the Virgin Mary? You must be from the country, child.”
I scowled, finally fed up with his condescension, the way he made fun and then pretended to apologize. My hand balled into a fist at my side, and while he was still laughing, I swung my fist at his face, hitting his jaw.
He staggered backward, and then regaining his balance, he looked incredulously at me for a moment before launching himself into me. His arms wrapped around my waist as he reached me, pulling me to the grass with him. We rolled, tangled in each other, throwing blows, which sometimes hit their mark. The dark made it difficult to inflict much real damage.
Eventually Gaspard pinned me on the ground on my back. He straddled my stomach, holding my arms to the ground. Both of us panted as he said, “Enough, Javier! I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You are French,” I spat. “You don’t care who you hurt.”
“I said enough!” he repeated, ignoring my insult. “I’m going to let you go. Will you try to strike me again?” I didn’t answer, twisting against the hands that held my arms to the ground. “Javier!” he said again. “Please don’t struggle.”
After a few moments, the fire left my spirit; the desire to inflict pain upon him slowly bled away. Heeding his repeated requests, I finally stopped resisting. He kept his hands on my arms, but loosened his grip somewhat. His face was above mine; I could smell his skin and his sweet breath as we both panted. Slowly he let go of one of my arms and brought his free hand to my face. He gently drew his fingertips across my cheekbone. Softly he asked, “Did I hurt your face?”
Not trusting myself to speak, I shook my head. He had landed one sharp blow on my chin, but I would die before I admitted it.
“Good,” he whispered. “A face like this one should be treated with care. Delicate beauty should be treated gently.” Then slowly, painfully slowly, his face drew nearer to mine, his breath quickening although we no longer struggled. “Like this,” he said, and softly pressed his lips to mine. He held them for a long moment, then released me, keeping his face close to mine. “Gently,” he breathed.
For a moment I was frozen, unable to believe what had happened. First the angel Gabriel had come to life from a painting in Spain, then he found me sleeping against his door in Dunkirk, and now he was kissing me in a field. My hand still lay on the ground where Gaspard had released it. Now I reached up to run my fingers through those soft-looking golden curls that hung beside his face, beckoning me. As I did, Gaspard closed his eyes and sighed with a soft hum.
It was at this time, however, that I realized that the sky to the east was starting to lighten from black to dark blue. I knew that if I didn’t return to camp soon, I would be missed. And Antonio would be wondering—
His face flashed before my eyes, and I sat up quickly, throwing the unsuspecting Gaspard to the side. What would Antonio say if he knew I was kissing a man? What would Cruz and Rafael say? Surely I would find myself the recipient of a sound flogging—or worse—if my superior officers were to find out that I had engaged in such behavior.
Suddenly terrified, I jumped to my feet. Gaspard, appearing stunned by my sudden change, remained on the ground. “I have to go!” I said, panicking.
My words spurred him into action. “Javier, wait!” he cried, scrambling to stand. I had already started to run in the direction of the camp, but he easily caught me and grabbed my hand, tugging on it to slow me down. “I’m sorry I hit you!”
“I don’t care that you hit me,” I hissed. “At least hitting is something a man does to another man!”
He slowed to a stop, taking my left hand in both of his. He was taller and heavier than I, and I could do little to resist his physical strength—I was slowed as well, to all but a stop. “Please, Javier,” he begged as I tried to tug my hand free. “I don’t know what I was thinking….”
“I don’t care,” I replied coldly. “Just let me go, Gaspard. I must return to the camp. Either let me go, or I will pull you with me the entire way.”
“Wait,” he pleaded again, “please, just wait a moment. Let me speak, and then I promise I will let you go.”
I stopped resisting him, but he held his double-fisted grasp on my hand, afraid I would bolt again. “I’m listening,” I said.
“Will you…,” he started and then stopped. In the faint light, I saw him bite his lip and look to the ground.
“Is that all?” I asked. I knew I was being unkind; I didn’t care.
“Javier,” he said, “will you come back? Will you come to Dunkirk again and see me?”
“I will come to Dunkirk,” I answered. “I will come with my friends, and we will go to le Chat Gris where we will drink ale and make love to French women. And then we will go to England to slay the enemies of our Heavenly Father. And I will not think of you again. I will not come to see you, Gaspard.”
His face, which at the beginning of my speech had been full of hope, was now a picture of misery. I had the slightest twinge of conscience for being cruel to him, but it was all but lost in the mortification I felt at what had happened.
True to his word, he quietly said, “God bless you, Javier,” and released my hand. Without a word, I turned and fled.
Antonio was awake when I slipped into our tent. Very quietly, he asked me where I’d been. I didn’t answer him directly, instead hissing at him for abandoning me in the bar. It was his fault I’d become lost in Dunkirk and been discovered by… him.
That day, after only a few hours of sleep, I trudged through the drills like a man dead on his feet. I went to bed early that night. I had little energy to let my mind wander to unwholesome things that day.
In the morning I was completely rested, performing our drills with a dedication unparalleled in all of His Majesty’s army. I reminded myself that I was a soldier of España, preparing to fight against the enemies of my country, my king, and my God. I had no trouble keeping my mind focused.
That night I had a vivid dream. I dreamt I was in my mother’s room back home in España, looking at the painting, when suddenly Gabriel whispered, “God bless you, Javier.” But it was not the angel Gabriel who spoke. The voice belonged to Gaspard.