And as Maria Dolores sat with Father Antonio under the relentless presence of the Christ without a face in San Salvador de la Marina, the last of the snows in the valley around Los Caballeros de la Alta Sierra melted and sank into the yielding ground. Patches of green broke through and expanded, spreading up the hillsides. The first shoots of revitalised life emerged giving optimism to those that endured the meagre existence in the valley. It restored sustenance to the livestock and their unborn young within, and after another severe, unforgiving winter the cycle of life yet again triumphed.
The more temperate weather also allowed the mountain pass to open again. Cars, trucks and the occasional bus passed through the village heading south to Seville and the south Andalusian coast or north to Cuidad Real and Madrid. Occasionally men stopped in the village looking for seasonal farm work. Sometimes in groups, sometimes solitary, wasted figures, malnourished and diseased who were routinely treated suspiciously and encouraged on their way. Physically fragile men had no place on the mountain pastures or tilling the rugged, uneven plots around the farmhouses. They left the village as quickly as they had arrived, on to unknown destinations occasionally dying alone in the cold night by the roadside.
Juan Diego Martos Gutierrez was one young individual who happened to pass through Los Caballeros de la Alta Sierra on a bright sunny day just as Pascual Benitez was gauging the size of the imminent and seemingly immense tasks ahead of him; the lambing season, then the shearing of his 40 or so Segureña sheep as well as springtime maintenance. This year it would be way too much for one man; especially now that Manolo Jimenez wasn’t around to help out.
Pascual’s first encounter with Juan Diego was at the entrance of the local bar. The shadow of the nearby church reached across the road, cold oppression hung in the air in stark contrast to the blue skies and sunlit hillsides surrounding the village. This would soon pass and the bar’s few customers would have midday coffee or aperitif in the sun and forget for a moment daily life in the mountains. The heavy set proprietress, who had just refused the outsider’s assistance in retrieving a few chairs from inside the bar, was explaining that it was unlikely that anyone ‘around here’ would be looking for workers at the moment. Pascual, however, took one look at Juan Diego and knew immediately that this young man was exactly what he needed.
“Buenos días Maria.” Pascual approached the bar door but seemed not to notice the other man standing there. “How is everything today?”
Maria stopped manhandling a small wooden table and brushed down her pinafore. “Buenos días Pascual. Just putting a few tables outside now that we have a sunny day. We should make the most of it.”
“You want a coffee?” Maria enquired. Juan Diego took a step back not wanting to intrude on what seemed to be a private conversation.
“No, no thanks Maria, I just wanted a word with Paco. Is he around?”
“You’ve just missed him. He’ll be back about four he said. Back after lunch. Ha! Just like him” Maria managed an unconvincing smile that didn’t disguise her thinly veiled sarcasm. Her brown mongrel dog approached Pascual and investigated his left leg, sniffing up to the knee but quickly lost interest, his smells too familiar.
“Hmmm. OK, gracias.” Pascual considered the information and turned towards Juan Diego and for the first time acknowledged the younger man, looking him up and down. He saw someone who would certainly cope with the oncoming season; wide shoulders, sturdy body and youthful. A dirty flat cap, sat tipped back revealing his the roots of his black hair, which at the back had been tucked into an equally dirty neck scarf. Clearly, the woollen jacket he was wearing wasn’t originally his, although the shoulders and chest were a tight fit, it was too long and the sleeves were rolled up at the wrist. The chestnut brown trousers, also woollen, were a tone or two darker than the jacket but were a better fit. The worn in black boots had also seen a few seasons field work. A bit unkempt but certainly a class above those that normally passed through the valley looking for work.
“Buenos días señor.” Juan Diego still had his cap in his hand but gave a slight, nervous nod towards Pascual.
“What’s your name son.”
“Juan Diego Martos Gutierrez, señor.” Still not lifting his head completely.
“What you doing around here? Not much work around here, you know.” Pascual took a few steps towards Juan Diego’s left making it obvious he was giving him the once-over. Juan Diego didn’t answer, keeping his head bowed, not wanting to seem disrespectful. “Have you ever worked as a farm-hand?”
“Si señor, my uncle has a farm outside Oviedo. Mainly cattle. Heavy work in the spring. Juan Diego straightened his back, spirited by the interest and at least the possibility of work.
“Hmmm.” Pascual nodded. The two men now stood facing each other. Juan Diego knew he was supposed to be intimidated by the intense stare of the older man but he felt safe. When you smile, when a smile is truly genuine it is seen first in the eyes, not the mouth. Layers of orbital, temporal and zygomatic muscles combined to send the message that both men subconsciously recognised. “Come with me then.” And this was how the first encounter ended, with Pascual leading Juan Diego away from the village and towards his home, towards his family and towards Maria Dolores.
Maria Dolores is part of something bigger.