Maria Dolores shuffled uncomfortably in her chair and blinked slowly; opening and closing her heavy-lidded eyes like a drunk trying to stay conscious at the end of a hard night. The wooden church pews and chairs of San Salvador de la Marina weren’t built for comfort, a subtle but nonetheless unavoidable penitence before the eyes of God and his emissaries. Father Antonio listened attentively as Maria Dolores recounted her time in her childhood mountain village. He had moved a row and now sat beside her. He placed a cautious hand on her thigh, “Dolores, would you like some water?” She sat seeming to contemplate this for a minute; the feeble current of air from a mounted electric fan rippled her hair. Then she shook her head. She did want water but didn’t want Father Antonio to leave her, not now that she had started to unburden herself.
“The clouds that had earlier looked like they were bringing a long dark day to the valley now clung to the hillsides leaving the sky above us clear and starry. The village looked far away although it was only a 15-minute walk, even in the dark. The few streetlights we had in the village illuminated the church, the bell tower with it’s holy cross rose above all the other buildings. The black wooden cross always looked more sinister lit up, with its shadows projecting up the bell tower. I always felt that God was watching over us, waiting for us to sin so he could send Father Alberto after us.”
“We left the house together, the four of us heading down the slope towards the village but we didn’t walk as one group; Papi strode ahead of us, Conchi behind him holding hands with Mami and I followed a metre or so behind them, still a little unnerved after my confrontation with Papi. Would he really have slapped me? Would he have hit me to the ground like he did Pirri? The cold nipped at my face, the hard snow crunched beneath our feet, the only noise breaking the night. My hands were clenched in tight fists, deep in my coat pockets. We knew Papi had a quick temper, but this was the first time he had scared me.”
“In those days, our village, Los Caballeros de La Sierra was no more than a few streets peeling off the main road that took the traffic through the Sierra Morena Mountains. The asphalt of that main road didn’t stretch to the side streets of the village. The only one that wasn’t a dirt track was the cobbled street that Papi helped build, that ran up past the bar to the village plaza and the church. Señor Paco Guerrero and his fat wife ran the bar with their daughter, Ana. I knew her well. She had left school the year before although we were the same age. She always wanted to be a teacher but her father made her stay at home to help her mother make bread, tarts and other dulces. She was starting to put on a bit of weight as well, she wasn’t happy working there. Like I said, she wanted to leave the village and be a teacher, not work with her parents every day. Their bar was also the village shop and even the post office if anyone ever needed to post anything. And it was the only other place that had a radio and one of the few that was connected to the electricity cable that ran along that main road. All contact from the outside world came through the bar or, of course, from Father Alberto and the Church.”
“We crossed the main road where the streetlight was and as we neared the church I watched as my shadow stretch up street before me, like the church was pulling me in. I remember some things so vividly. We passed Guerrero’s bar and entered the church hall, the same hall where we had our classes. There we separated as was expected. After mass we would sit in family groups but now the men sat together, their arms relaxed and draped over the backs of the chairs, their chests puffed out, each one of them taking up as much space as they could. They enthusiastically greeted Papi although most of them had probably seen him earlier in the day. They shuffled chairs around to give him a place at the table. Señor José Blanco was the loudest of all. How he loved to hear his own voice. He saw me look at him and stopped talking, his eyes followed me as I passed the men’s tables. His creepy smile and yellow teeth broke through his patchy beard. He looked old but he was only about 30 then. He lifted his index finger, the nail was pointed and black with dirt and smoothed away some strands of hair from his long black fringe, his stare never left me.” As attentive as father Antonio was he couldn’t have detected the revulsion Maria Dolores felt at the thought of that man. Still after all these years bile rose in her throat, provoking a strong nauseous sensation. But her hard exterior remained unruffled. She continued.
“All the men smoked, those that had tobacco, shared and rolled for those that didn’t. The thin blue cloud that hung around their tables occasionally dispersed as someone exhaled through it. All the time the men talked, throwing their arms around, occasionally pointing to the portrait of Franco and always loudly in the typical way Andalucian men do. The blackboard and the maps we used for classes had been partially hidden behind a large beige curtain that hung from the ceiling. A few reproduced paintings and printed posters hung on the once white walls; the Virgin Mary and Jesus the shepherd. Another of El Caudillo Franco was mounted in the space where the portrait of King Alfonso XIII used to hang, Franco’s frame smaller than that of the exiled King leaving a white border where the smoke had yet to dye the paint yellow.”
“The women sat behind the men and us children at the back, furthest from the radio. This was the women’s gossip hour. Not that there was much to talk about, especially in the winter, but chatter they did. Most of the village was there, it would be suspicious if any family was absent and missed General Franco’s weekly address: they could be considered an enemy of the State, and no one needed that, not even as a joke. We knew we had to be quiet but until Father Alberto arrived we chatted amongst ourselves. I nudged another girl from the class also called Maria, ‘Look at Señora Guerrero.’ I whispered. ‘All those years making pastries, she’s a fat as a pig ready for the slaughter. She eats more than they sell.’ Maria giggled. ‘When she smiles her eyes disappear inside her head. Her arms and neck are like a bull’s. Ole! Ole!’ I mimicked. ‘One day a matador will get her and cut off her ears and they’ll end up in a pie.’ We leant into each other trying to control our hysterics. When I looked up again I saw Mami watching me. She urged me forward towards her. I gave Maria’s hand a squeeze and cautiously got up. ‘You’re not a child anymore Dolores. Come and sit here with the women.’ And it was as quick as that, one minute I was giggling with the girls, the next I was being promoted to the women’s table. I didn’t realise it then but being accepted as a woman had its consequences.”
“We sat hushed whilst General Franco addressed the nation. Occasionally the men exchanged glances and nods, flicking their cigarette ash on the floor. The General’s voice was distant and occasionally broken by the crackles of poor reception up in the mountains. He celebrated victories over the guerrilla fighters in Albacete, Lérida and Valencia and warned there were many more hiding in the mountains but they would be hunted down. He told the men of the New Republic to be vigilant for the protection of the State. Half an hour later when the General had finished, Father Alberto spoke and shook hands with the men and thanked them for coming and again warned us all to be on the lookout for communists and monarchists alike. There were bandits everywhere. He asked the men to stay behind and dismissed everyone else. ‘Go with the grace of God and the protection of El Generalissimo.’ I often wondered if Father Alberto wore a soldier’s uniform under that cassock of his.”
“Later that night I heard Papi come home, he had been drinking and was making no effort to keep quiet. Mami had also woken. They exchanged a few words but I couldn’t understand what they were saying because of the noise Papi made getting into bed. Once he had settled however I heard them talk about the Jimenez family. Father Alberto had told the men he had received further confirmation that Señor Manolo Jimenez had been a fighter with the Popular Front in Seville at the beginning of the Civil War. His death was unfortunate but was the price paid by traitors against the State. José Blanco had cheered as Father Alberto made the announcement. I heard Mami gasp as she realised what had actually happened.
‘Manolo was shot? He was executed? On the word of whom? I couldn’t be Father Alberto, I don’t believe it, he’s a man of the church.’ I could hardly hear her, her croaky voice broke up with the emotion of it all. Papi didn’t reply but that was answer enough. ‘And Esther and Rocio?’ When Papi didn’t answer she asked again. ‘Pascual, tell me! Tell me what happened to Esther?’ Papi paused again as if trying to remember, although this wasn’t the kind of thing you could forget.
‘They got away OK. They did go to Seville. I watched them go.’ Papi went on to explain that a few of the men and in particular José Blanco, thought they were fair game, the family of rebel scum. ‘Esther begged on her knees to Father Alberto to save her girl but he turned his back on them.’ Mami gasped again fearing the worst. ‘No. No Dora. Nothing happened to them.’ Papi reassured her, ‘I told José no way he or any other man were to touch them and I stayed with them all day until Paco Guerrero took them away in his truck. José knows better than to cross me.’ I lay in bed with Conchi beside me, her breathing faint, I stared up at the ceiling into the blackness. There was no light, all there was, was darkness and Mami’s sobs.”
“Mami hardly said a word for the next few days. We continued our routine but every time I passed the old Jimenez house I thought of Esther and Rocio, and every time Manolo Jimenez’s face filled my head, frightened and bloody. Did Señor Guerrero really save Esther and Rocio and take them to Seville? I had never thought of our valley as a dangerous place before. I was born there, in the village, I knew everyone, we all knew each other. It really scared me. I noticed more now the look on Father Alberto’s face as he bullied the children in class. The contempt he had for us, the delight he took in punishing the boys, always the boys, sometimes he could hardly hide his exhilaration. He caught me once staring at him, watching him enjoy himself, and when he noticed me a big grin spread across his face, standing there all dressed in black, the official uniform of the church. No matter what Mami said, he was not a man of God. He was not a man of God.”
Maria Dolores is part of something bigger.