Father Antonio had turned his chair around to face Maria Dolores. They were still seated in front of the altar in the church of San Salvador de La Marina. He wasn’t sure how to proceed, which was out of character for him. He had a good rapport with his parishioners, as most priests do. He considered himself somewhat of an expert in enabling people to open up, interjecting if needed, recognising when they needed prompting. An accomplished facilitator. The old lady sitting in front of him however, was a different story. Visual clues were scant, no eye contact, no pleading look for help or approval. Maria Dolores was a closed book. So he decided just to wait. She had, after all, sought him out. When the time was right she would continue. So they sat in silence. Outside traffic passed by, people continued their daily routines, unaware of the drama being narrated only a few metres away. A motor starting or the occasional raised voice broke into the church amplifying the silence. Then Maria Dolores took an audible breath and started her story.
“I remember it was a Wednesday. I remember which day it was because later we had to go back to the church. Classes all day with Father Alberto then listening to Franco’s broadcast to the nation at night. The church had one of the two radios in the village. It was 1946. In those days nobody had anything. 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 closed by the snows most of the winter, the church hall was the only place we could have lessons.”
“When class finished all us kids ran outside. It was a 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 it 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 unspoilt snow that we hadn’t already stood in and jumped on them. Every time she broke the crisp snow she squealed. She loved it. She was such a contented girl, my little sister. It wasn’t a long walk from the village to our house. I could see Mami up the hill standing in our doorway, lit up by the sunshine like an angel, letting the sun warm her, as I had done. 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.” Maria Dolores took several pauses whilst talking but as usual emotions stayed buried. Her voice grew in strength but her tone was prosaic and unwavering. She avoided talking directly to Father Antonio. She occasionally glanced at him but seemed unconcerned if he was listening or not.
“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 the warmth in in the winter and was 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 was just white. Close to the house was a pen for the animals, it was bigger than the house but only had three stone walls, the south-facing wall was held up 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 and barn. Poor Señor Jimenez had been killed in the fighting the summer before. I didn’t even know the men were still fighting. Ha! What did I know? A week or so later Father Alberto announced after mass that Señora Jimenez and her daughter had gone to live in Seville with her cousin. Rocio, that was her name. We were the same age and I was so sad that they disappeared one day. We were best friends and even sat next to each other at school. Papi said 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 mostly in one big room which had a stove and a fireplace. We moved the table and benches around depending on which was burning, we never had them both lit at the same time. We didn’t have enough wood. There was one big armchair; Papi sat there. One bedroom for us with the bed we shared and the one next door for Mami and Papi. They were the only 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 at the other end of the house away from the fires stored what food we had. At the end of the winter, it was usually pretty bare but there were always dried beans, lentils, almonds and nuts, some rice and home pressed olive oil. Every now and then Papi would kill a chicken or even 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. Mami used to put a plate down to catch the fat and we spread it on bread. The sheep were too valuable to butcher for food; Papi needed them for lambs to sell on in the spring.”
“‘How was Father Alberto today?’ Every day Mami 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 and beautiful smell. 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 it. And when Pepe got up his knee was bleeding, then Pepe peed himself and Father Alberto slapped him on the head for making a mess on the floor.’
‘Conchi, don’t laugh.’ Mami scolded her.
‘It’s true.’ Conchi giggled again, excited to be telling Mami the gossip. ‘All us kids were laughing at him.’”
“I saw Mami wince, I wasn’t sure if she really liked Father Alberto, everyone knew him and how cruel he could be, but she respected him too much, he was our priest. He was only our teacher because señora Alavá left suddenly and they didn’t send us another one. But Mami was very religious and she said we had to respect him. ‘Conchi, Those who make fun of others will be judged,’ Mami warned. ‘Poor Pepe.’ Conchi stopped jumping around and came to sit with me at the table. We sat in silence for a while, Mami by the stove, lost in her thoughts, the only sounds coming from the simmering pot and Conchi scratching at something on the table.”
“The calmness was broken when Papi opened the door and our dog, Pirri, rushed into the house. The freezing 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, Pirri. Where have you been all day? Did you catch any rabbits?’ I bent down towards him and rubbed him roughly behind his ears, it was our little ritual. He loved it. I could see it in his eyes, his tail wouldn’t stop. Behind me, Papi said something to Mami then he came over to say hello to us. He kissed Conchi on the head and messed her hair. She wriggled and squealed; their little ritual. He walked around the table, telling Pirri to go to his basket. Pirri ignored him, he was digging his teeth into my forearm; we both knew he would never bite me. Then without any warning, Papi’s huge hand reached across me and grabbed Pirri by his nape and threw him across the room.
‘Basket’ Papi yelled. Poor Pirri landed on his side, rolled once, scrambled to recover himself and cowered into his basket, ears pinned back, head bowed. Conchi jumped in her seat, catching her breath, her eyes wide like plates.
‘PAPI!’ I shouted and I stood to face him. He turned to me and raised his hand, raised his hand like he was going to hit me. ‘Papi,’ I repeated but the look in his eyes warned me not to say anything else. I still remember the smell of brandy coming off him. Papi could get angry really quickly, but he had never beaten us. Then the house was still again, the only noise the crackle from the stove and the four of us standing there. Papi hesitated, I looked around to Mami, but she was staring at the floor, refusing to witness what was about to happen. Then I looked back to him. Without lowering his stare, without breaking the silence he put that massive hand around the back of my neck and pulled me towards him. He kissed me on the forehead, and still without saying anything, turned and went to sit in his armchair.”
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 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. There were few that had lights but the church had enough to light up the outside, even back in those days. 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 for Franco’s speech but we didn’t walk as one group. Papi strode ahead of us, then Conchi holding hands with Mami and I followed a bit 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. It was the only noise to break the night. My hands were clenched in tight fists, deep in my coat pockets. Papi was known for his quick temper, but that 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. It ran up past the bar and the village plaza to the church. Señor Miguel 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 not even 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 of Andalucian men. 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 was smaller than that of the exiled King leaving a white border where the smoke had yet to stain the paint yellow.”
“The women sat behind the men and us children at the back, furthest from the radio. This was 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 though, 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 when Father Alberto made the announcement. I heard Mami gasp as she realised what had actually happened.
‘Manolo was shot? He was,’ she paused, ‘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.’
‘No. I don’t believe it.’ 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 until Miguel Guerrero came and 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 thinking about what could have happened to my friend and her mother. Miguel Guerrero had taken them away. 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 my friend Rocio and her mother, 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? Did he save them like he saved me? 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 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.