“I remember it was a Wednesday. I remember which day it was because later we had to go back to the chapel. All day classes with Father Alberto then listening to Franco’s broadcast to the nation at night. The Church had one of only two of the radios in the village. It was 1945, nobody had anything in those days. Father Alberto wasn’t much of a teacher, he talked about Jesus mostly and the scriptures just like he did on Sundays. And the war, he talked a lot about the war, all the men did. But with the main road through the mountain pass still closed by the winter snows, the church was the only place we could have lessons. When class finished all the kids ran outside. It was beautifully sunny that day; it was the first day that I’d felt the warmth of the sun all winter. I closed my eyes and let the low sun soak into me, my face glowed and it made me smile. We were in a good mood, the younger ones screamed and shouted as they ran off in different directions towards their homes. Conchi ran ahead of me, seeking out patches of unblemished snow that we hadn’t already stood in and jumped on them. Every time she jumped in the crisp snow she squealed, she loved it. She was such a contented girl, my little sister. When we got to the outskirts of the village I could see Mama up the hill standing in our doorway, lit up by the sunshine like an angel, letting the sun warm her, as I had done as I left the church hall. She waved at us and we hurried on. Grey clouds had started to form over the hilltops around our village, it wouldn’t be long until the sun sank into them and our valley would become dark and wintry again.
“Our house was like most of the others dotted around the valley, it was small and cosy. It had very thick walls and small square windows; which kept it warm in winter and cool in the summer. All the houses were whitewashed with lime paint and some had a small frame of colour around the windows and door. Our house didn’t. Close to our house was a pen for the animals, it was actually bigger than our house but only had three stone walls, the south facing wall was buttressed by two massive tree trunks. The new roof and gates looked more solid than the walls. Papi built them with wooden beams he and some other men salvaged from the old Jimenez house. Señor Jimenez had been recently killed whilst on patrol near Granada. The day after the rest of the family disappeared. Father Alberto later announced at mass that Señora Jimenez and her three daughters had gone to live in Seville with her cousin. Papi told me it wasn’t doing the Jimenez family any good so it might as well keep our animals warm. Like I said no one had anything in those days.
“We lived mainly in one big room which had a wood burning stove and a fireplace. We moved the table and benches around depending on which was lit, we never had them both burning at the same time. There was one big armchair; Papi sat there. One bedroom for us with the bed we shared and the one next door for Mama and Papi were the only other rooms. There was no toilet, no running water and of course no electricity. At night, we peed in a pail and took it outside in the morning. A large dispensa in the corner stored what food we had. At the end of the winter, it was usually pretty bare but there were always dried beans, lentils, almonds other nuts, some rice and home pressed olive oil. Every now and then Papi would kill a goat and we would have some meat and a stew that would last a week. We would make sausages that hung there to dry, dripping fat on the floor of the dispensa. Mama put a plate down to catch it and we spread it on bread. The sheep were too valuable to butcher for food; Papi needed the lambs to sell in the spring.
“How was Father Alberto today?” Every day Mama asked the same questions when we arrived home. She stood by the stove stirring some blood sausage and beans, homemade bread sat on the table but we were never allowed to touch it until Papi got home. I sat with my elbows on the table, looking at the bread, tempted by its freshness. Conchi giggled behind me. “Father Alberto made Pepe Gonzalez kneel on some dried chickpeas because he didn’t know the capital of Extremadura. It’s Merida, I know and when Pepe got up his knee was bleeding. Then Pepe peed himself and Father Alberto hit him on the head for making a mess on the floor.” Conchi giggled again, excited to be telling Mami the gossip. “All of the kids were laughing at him.”
“I saw Mama wince, she knew Father Alberto, everyone knew him and how cruel he could be. “Conchi, don’t laugh.” Mami scolded her. “Poor Pepe.” Conchi stopped jumping around and came to sit with me at the table. We sat in silence for a while, Mama by the stove, lost in her thoughts, the only sounds coming from the simmering pot and Conchi scratching at something on the wooden table. The calmness was broken a when Papi opened the door and our little hound, Piri, rushed into the house. The cold air from outside swirled around the room changing the atmosphere, it gave me goosebumps. Beside me, Conchi shivered. The dog paced around the table a few times sniffing, making sure the room was secure, then jumped up on me, licking my hands. “Hello, Piri. Where have you been all day? Did you catch any rabbits?” I bent down towards him and rubbed him vigorously behind his ears, it was our little ritual, he loved it. Behind me, Papi said something to Mama then he came over to say hello to us. He kissed Conchi on the head and messed her hair. She wriggled and squealed; another little ritual. Then he walked around the table, telling Piri to get down and go to his basket. Piri ignored him, he was playfully digging his teeth into my forearm; we both knew he would never bite me. With no warning, Piri was suddenly knocked from my lap and thrown to the floor, Papi’s huge hand hitting him across the head. “Basket!” he shouted. Piri rolled on the floor, scrambled to recover himself and snuck into his bed cowering, without looking back. Opposite me Conchi jumped in her seat, startled, catching her breath, her eyes wide. “Papi! Don’t. DON’T.” I shouted then screamed in protest. I stood to face him, but the look in his eyes warned me not to say anything else, his arm still outstretched daring me to go one step further. The house was still, Mami and Conchi had stopped, also not daring to move. Papi hesitated, not lowering his stare, not breaking the silence, then he put his massive hand around the back of my neck, pulled me towards him and kissed me on the forehead, and still without saying anything, turned and went to sit in his armchair.
Maria Dolores is part of something bigger.