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 session. The wooden church pews 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 threatened to engulf 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 its holy cross rose above all the other buildings. The black wooden cross always looked more sinister at night, 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 Piri? 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.
“In those days, the village of 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 roads of the village, the only road that wasn’t a dirt track was the cobbled street that ran up past the bar to the church. Señor Guerrero and his fat wife ran the bar with their daughter, Ana, she was a year older than me, I knew her well. She had left school the year before, she stayed at home and helped her mother make bread and dulces. She was starting to put on a bit of weight as well. Their bar was also the village shop and post office, and 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 walked past the bar and entered the church hall where we separated as was expected. At mass, we sat 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 they probably saw him earlier in the day and shuffled chairs around to give him a place at the table. Señor Jose Blanco was the loudest of all. How he loved to hear his 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. All the men smoked, those that had, shared and rolled for those that didn’t. A thin blue cloud hung around their tables occasionally dispersed as someone exhaled. 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 are. 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 penetrate the paint.
“The women sat apart, 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 blether 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 in jest. 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 Guererro.” 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 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 guerilla 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 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. Mama 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 more 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. I heard Mama gasp as she realised what had actually happened. “Manolo was shot? He was executed? On the word of that priest?” I could hardly hear her as her croaky voice broke up. Papi didn’t reply but that was answer enough. “And Esther and the girls?” 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 had happened only a month or so before. “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 the girls were fair game, the daughters of rebel scum. “Esther begged on her knees to Father Alberto to save her girls but he turned his back on her.” 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 the girls and I stayed with them all day until Paco Guererro 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 her daughters, and every time Manolo Jimenez’s face filled my head, frightened and bloody. Did Señor Guererro really save Esther and the girls 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 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, 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 the black, official uniform of the church. But he was not a man of God.
Maria Dolores is part of something bigger.