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The Inside Name

OUTSIDE, I AM called FelipeAlonso. But inside, I have a secret name. 

Randi Sonenshine

In the late afternoon, when the red clay tiles of our roof have been baked warm by the Lisbon sun, I scramble to the top and pretend I am king of Portugal. I survey my land to the south. From the rooftop, the Tagus River gleams like a blue satin ribbon dotted with the white sails of merchant ships.

If I were king, I would not sit fat and happy in my palace on the hill. I would have my pick of the great caravels that crowd the port of Lisbon, and their tall masts would carry my banner of gold and red. Like Henry the navigator prince, I would explore distant lands, where birds of every color roost in the trees and greeneyed tigers crouch in the tall grass.

Suddenly, Mama’s secret whistle brings me back from faraway lands. It is her way of calling me without having to use my outside name.

If I were king, I wouldn’t need an outside name. I would be called by my Jewish name all the time. On Friday evenings, Mama could place the Sabbath candle lights in the window for all to see, instead of hiding them in the big clay jar by the hearth.

Papa could write his beautiful Hebrew poetry by the light of day. He wouldn’t have to wait until the moon paints the church spires silver, and then hide each slender scroll under the loose floorboard in his study. 

I think of my best friend Solomon. 

If I were king, I would free his parents from jail and send away the hooded men who took them there. And Solomon would be next to me on the warm roof right now, instead of locked away in a cold monastery.

Mama whistles again, louder this time. I scoot to the edge of the roof and shimmy down the sturdy branches of our olive tree into the courtyard where she is waiting with a basket of lemons. I breathe in their sweet smell.

“Take these to Father Tomas,” she says. She tries to smile, but I can feel the worry behind her words. Kissing me on the top of the head, she walks me to the iron gate. I know her dark eyes will follow me until she can see me no more.

The walk to St. Vincent’s is not far, but the cobblestone streets are narrow, and the tall, whitewashed buildings throw shadow monsters across my path. Merchants Street is crowded with craftsmen’s stalls, workshops, and studios. A hundred pairs of eyes seem to watch me.

As I walk by Diego the knife grinder, he stops his squeaky spinning wheel and glares at me with yellowed eyes. “Marrano,” he grunts and spits at my feet.

It is a hateful word—pig. I quicken my steps and turn my eyes to the pebbled ground. Shame burns on my cheeks, and fear sits like a rotten melon in my stomach. Then I remember what Papa told me. “Words may sting, but they won’t kill us.” I lift my head and walk on.

Inside St. Vincent’s chapel, it is dark and quiet. Finding myself alone, I whisper the prayer Papa taught me the day I learned my inside name. “I enter this house, but I worship not sticks and stones, only the God of Israel.” Papa said it meant that God’s form is a mystery and we cannot contain it in a statue or object, no matter how precious the material.

I find Father Tomas in the vestry, where the sacred objects for Mass are kept. Smiling, he puts down the silver chalice he has been polishing and greets me with a hug that smells of incense and oranges. He places his hands on my head and blesses me in Hebrew. Father Tomas is a Converso, too.

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April 2017

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