Mérida, December 10, 1941
It was cold, and a blanket of hard snow covered the train tracks. Dirty snow, stained with soot. Brandishing his wooden sword in the air, a child contemplated the knot of rails, hypnotized.
The track split into two. One of the branch lines led west, and the other went east. A locomotive was stopped in the middle of the switch junction. It seemed disoriented, unable to choose between the two paths set out before it. The engineer stuck his head out of the narrow window. His gaze met the boy’s, as if he were asking him which direction to take. Or that was how it seemed to the small child, who lifted his sword and pointed to the west. For no real reason. Just because it was one of the possible options. Because it was there.
When the station chief lifted the green flag, the engineer threw the cigarette he was smoking out the window and disappeared into the locomotive. A shrill whistle scared off the crows resting on the posts of the power cable overhead. The locomotive started up, spitting lumps of dirty snow from the rails. It slowly took the western route.
The boy smiled, convinced that his hand had decided its course. At ten years old, he knew, without yet having the words to explain it, that he could achieve anything he set out to do.
“Come on, Andrés. Let’s go.”
It was his mother’s voice. A soft voice, filled with nuances you could only hear if you were paying attention. Her name was Isabel.
“Mamá, when can I get a real sword?”
“You don’t need any sword.”
“A samurai needs a real katana, not a wooden stick,” protested the boy, offended.
“What a samurai needs is to keep warm so he doesn’t catch the flu,” replied his mother, adjusting his scarf around his neck.
Up on impossible heels, Isabel made her way through the bodies and gazes of the passengers on the platform. She moved with the naturalness of a tightrope walker up on the wire. She dodged a small puddle in which two cigarette butts floated, and veered to avoid a dying pigeon that spun around blindly.
A young man with a seminarian’s haircut, who was sitting on a bench in the shelter, made room beside him for mother and son. Isabel sat, crossing her legs naturally, keeping her leather gloves on, marking each gesture with the subtle haughtiness assumed by someone who feels observed and who’s accustomed to being admired.
Even the most common gesture acquired the dimensions of a perfect, discreet dance in that woman with long, lovely legs peeking out from beneath her skirt at the knee. Tilting her hips to the right, she raised her foot just enough to clean off a drop of mud that was marring the tip of her shoe.
Beside his mother, squeezing tightly up against her body to underscore that she was his, Andrés looked defiantly at the rest of the passengers waiting for the train, ready to impale with his sword the first to come near.
“Be very careful with that; you or somebody else is going to get hurt,” said Isabel. She thought it was crazy that Guillermo encouraged their son’s strange fantasy life. Andrés wasn’t like other boys his age; for him there was no distinction between his imagination and the real world, but her husband enjoyed buying him all kinds of dangerous toys. He had even promised to give him a real sword! Before leaving the house she had tried to take away his soldier trading cards, but Andrés had started screaming hysterically. She was frightened that he’d wake everyone up and reveal her hasty escape, so she’d allowed him to bring them along. Anyway, she wasn’t taking her eyes off him. As soon as she had a chance she’d get rid of them, just as she planned to do with everything that had anything to do with her husband and her life until then.
On that postwar morning, a different winter entered through the train station’s large windows. Men walked with their heads bowed, tense, their gazes fixed on the horizon so as to avoid meeting eyes with strangers. The war had ended, but it was hard to get used to the new silence and that sky with no planes, devoid of whistling bombs that fell like streamers. There was still doubt in people’s eyes; they looked at the clouds out of the corners of their eyes, afraid of reliving the horror of the explosions, the racing to take shelter in a basement as an alarm siren sounded, emitting short moos that gave you gooseflesh. Each side slowly adjusted to defeat or victory, to not rushing their steps, to sleeping through the night with few frightened starts. Gradually the dust settled on the streets, the ruins and the rubble disappeared, but another, quieter war had begun, of police sirens, of new fears, in spite of the fact that the bugle no longer sounded on National Radio with war news.
In that war which followed the battle, Isabel had lost everything.
An oily stain that smelled of lice, chicory, ration cards, toothless mouths, and filthy fingernails spread rapidly among the passengers at the edge of the tracks, tinting their existences in weak gray tones. Only a very few were spread out on the platform benches, off to one side, taking in the soft sunlight that filtered through the snow with closed eyes and trusting expressions.
Andrés observed the scene with distrust. He didn’t feel part of the world of children. He felt that he had always belonged to the circle of adults. And within that to the circle of his mother, whose side he never left even when he was dreaming. He squeezed her hand tightly, not understanding why they were in that situation, but perceiving that there was a serious motive behind it. His mother was nervous. He sensed her fear beneath her glove.
A group of young blue shirts burst onto the platform. They were clean shaven and proudly wore the fascist yoke and arrows on their chests, intimidating the others with their chants and their bellicose stares, although most of them looked too young or just too green to have ever fought on any battlefield of that war that still smoldered in countless families.
The young man who shared a bench with Isabel and Andrés sank even further into his contemplation of his own feet, squeezing a wooden suitcase tied with a cord between his knees, avoiding the defiant looks of the Falangists.
The blue suits and high boots, on the other hand, fascinated little Andrés, and he jumped off the bench to salute the familiar uniforms. There was no way Andrés could grasp the anguished atmosphere created by those young men’s presence, nor the trembling in the air amid the people crowded together increasingly closer to the track. The boy had always seen uniforms like that at home. His father wore one proudly, as did his brother, Fernando. They were the winners, said his father. There was nothing to fear. Nothing.
And yet those people on the platform were acting like a herd of sheep pushed toward a precipice by the wolves surrounding them. Some Falangists forced a few passengers to salute with their arms lifted high and sing “Cara al Sol.” Andrés listened to the chorus of Juan de Tellería’s hymn, and his lips were so well trained that they repeated them unconsciously. The impulse had become a reflex.
Volverá a sonreír la primavera
que por cielo, tierra y mar se espera.
Arriba, escuadras, a vencer,
que en España empieza a amanecer …
But his mother’s singing of “Cara al Sol” lacked its previous enthusiasm. The peace she and so many others had been longing for was an illusion.
Just then a train engine whistle was heard, and everyone was set in motion, stirred by an invisible tide.
The train arrived, slowing down with a misty squeal of its brakes and separating the two platforms of the station with its metal body. From the windows emerged heads of every shape—some with caps and hats, others bare—and dozens and dozens of hands rested on the sills. When the station chief raised the red flag and the conductor opened the door, the passengers jumbled together, with their voices and their things, as fathers directed the positioning inside the narrow cars, and mothers pulled on their children so as not to lose them in the crowd. Briefly, the effort of the everyday replaced the nervous calm of a few minutes earlier with the sweat of the necessary. Five minutes later two whistles were heard, a green light lit, and the train coughed and thrust itself forward, gaining momentum. It seemed about to stall as it started up, but finally grabbed hold of the inertia of the forward march, leaving the denuded and silent train platforms behind in a cloud of smoke.
Isabel didn’t get on that train. It wasn’t the one she was waiting for. Mother and son remained on the deserted platform holding hands, their condensed breathing coming from blue lips, beneath the azure daylight behind the dense, white clouds. Isabel’s gaze traveled behind that train’s last car, disappearing into the whiteness.
“Ma’am, are you not feeling well?”
The man’s voice sounded very near. Isabel gave a start. Although the man had moved slightly away from her face, she could tell from his breath that he had a cavity or bad gums. It was the station chief.
“I’m waiting for the twelve o’clock train,” answered Isabel with a voice that seemed like it wanted to hide somewhere.
The man looked up above the brim of his cap and checked the time on an oval clock that hung on the wall.
“That’s the train to Portugal. It won’t arrive for more than an hour and a half,” he informed her, somewhat perplexed.
She began to fear the man’s curiosity, that man whose hands she couldn’t see but which she imagined had stained fingers and greasy nails.
“Yes, I know. But I like it here.”
The station chief looked at Andrés with a blank expression. He wondered what a woman with a young boy was doing there, waiting for a train that wasn’t due for quite some time. He concluded that she must be one more of the crazy ladies the war had unearthed. She must have her story, like everyone else, but he wasn’t in the mood to hear it. Yet it is always easier to console a woman with lovely legs.
“If you’d like a coffee,” he said, this time using the purr of a large cat, “there, in my office, I can offer you a nice dark roast, none of that chicory they serve in the cafeteria.”
Isabel declined the invitation. The station chief headed off, but she had the sensation that he came back a couple of times to observe her. Feigning a tranquillity she was far from truly feeling, she picked up her small travel bag.
“Let’s go inside. You’ll get cold,” she said to her son.
At least inside the terminal her lungs didn’t hurt when she breathed. They looked for a place to sit down. She placed her hat on the bench and lit an English cigarette, fit it into her cigarette holder, and inhaled the rather sweet smoke. Her son was captivated as he watched her smoke. Never again would he see another woman smoke so elegantly.
Isabel opened her suitcase and took out one of her notebooks with lacquered covers. From out of its pages fell the slip of paper where Master Marcelo had written down the address of his house in Lisbon.
She wasn’t planning on hiding out there for very long, just long enough to get passage on a cargo ship that could take her and Andrés to England. She felt sorry for the poor teacher. She knew that if Guillermo or Publio discovered that Marcelo had helped her flee, he would be in for a rough time. In a certain sense she felt guilty: she hadn’t told him the whole truth, only enough to convince him, which, on the other hand, hadn’t been hard to do. Lying was a necessary shortcut at that point. She had always known that Marcelo was in love with her, and it hadn’t been difficult to get his help, even though she’d made it clear that her feelings didn’t go beyond good friendship.
“Having your friendship will always be better than having nothing,” he had said, with that air of a penniless poet that so many rural teachers have.
Isabel put away the address and began to write. But she was nervous. Pressured by time, angry with her senses that failed her just when she most needed them, she wrote without her usual passion and fine penmanship, her index finger leading the writing across the page as it pushed away the cigarette ash that had fallen onto it. She should have written to Fernando the night before, but she feared her older son’s reaction; in certain things he was like his father. She knew that he was not going to understand why she was running away, and fearing that he would try to stop her, she had decided to wait to write to him until there was sufficient distance between them.
Dear son, dear Fernando:
By the time you receive this letter, I will already be far away with your brother. There is no greater sorrow for a mother than leaving behind someone she gave birth to with pain and happiness; you must understand how sad I feel, and that sadness grows when I think of how I am taking Andrés from you when he needs you most. You know, like I do, that he is a special boy who needs our help, and he admires and listens to you. You are the only one able to calm his attacks of rage and force him to take his pills. But I cannot remain in that house, your father’s house, after what happened. I have to flee.
I know that you must hate me now. You will hear horrible things about me. They are all true, I can’t lie to you. Perhaps you don’t understand now why I’ve done this, perhaps you never will. At least not until the day you fall hopelessly in love and are then betrayed by that love. You’ll call me a cynic if I tell you that when I married your father, nineteen years ago, at the age you are now, I loved him as much as I love you and your brother. Yes, Fernando, I loved him with the same intensity with which I later hated him and loved another. That hate blinded me so much that I didn’t realize what was going on around me.
I didn’t run away for love, my son. That emotion has died forever in my heart. I am only still alive because Andrés needs me. I don’t want to justify myself; my stupidity is unforgivable. I’ve put you all in danger, and many people are going to suffer for my naïveté; that is why I cannot let your father and that bloodhound of his, Publio, catch me. You are already a grown man; you can make your own decisions and follow your own path. You no longer need me. I only hope that someday, when time has passed, you can forgive me and understand that the worst atrocities can also be committed out of love. Someday, if you are strong and determined enough, you will discover the truth.
Your mother, who will always love you, no matter what happens,
Someone was watching her. It wasn’t the station chief. She heard footsteps echoing on the floor, drawing closer. Footsteps approaching with a steady rhythm. Heavy footsteps. Isabel lifted her head. A stocky man stopped in front of her, his legs spread wide.
“Hello, Isabel.” The voice was discontinuous, a voice that would soon lose its shell and be reborn.
Isabel looked up. With vast sorrow she examined that face she knew so well, those eyes once filled with promises that now scrutinized her, seemingly bottomless and unknowable. Much to her regret, she still felt deep inside her an echo of the shudders she had experienced in his bed. For a fraction of a second she was held hypnotized by those thick, hardworking hands, which had lifted her to the heavens only to let her fall now to hell.
“So you’re going to be the one, after all that’s happened between us.”
Obviously, the station chief had informed on her. She couldn’t blame him for it. In those days of patriotism stoked by fear, everyone competed to appear the most loyal to the new regime.
She noticed the man’s faltering movements and his smile. It was the smile of Mephistopheles, the bitter, dark, and nevertheless attractive Prince of Darkness.
“Better me than Publio or one of your husband’s other dogs.”
Isabel’s expression twisted. She was so sad that she could barely hold back her tears.
“And what are you, if not the worst of his dogs? The most treacherous.”
“My loyalties are crystal clear, Isabel. They are not to you, not even to your husband. They are to the State.”
Isabel’s chest tightened. It was terribly painful to hear such things from the man she had been sleeping with every night for almost a year, the man to whom she had given everything, absolutely everything, up to and including her own life, because that was the only way she could understand love. And now here he was, turning her over for a word, for something as useless as it was abstract: the State.
She remembered nights together, when his hands sought her out in the darkness and their mouths found each other like water and thirst. Those nights stolen from sleep, fleeting and laced with the fear of being discovered, had been the most intense, and happiest, of her life. Everything was possible; nothing was off limits in the arms of that man who’d promised her a better world. But she could no longer lament her mistake. Many before her had suffered love’s loss, and many others had seen their hopes shattered. What happened to her had happened before and would happen again and again. But the betrayal had been so great, the devastation to her heart so vast, that she had trouble accepting it.
“All this time you were using me to win the others’ trust. You had it all planned; you knew that I was the most approachable, and you used me without remorse.”
The man examined Isabel coldly.
“It’s strange that it is you who talks to me of morality and remorse. You of all people, who has been feeding and protecting those that wanted to murder your husband.”
Unexpectedly, Isabel took the man by the arm in a gesture as violent as it was fragile.
“You were the one who suggested the assassination, and the one who made the preparations. You led those poor boys to the slaughter. You set a trap for us.”
He shook her off with a brusque motion.
“I only sped the events up. Sooner or later they would have tried something similar, and the best part was that I could control the how and the when in order to minimize possible harm.”
Isabel’s face was steadily unraveling, like a wax mask left out in the sun. It was all too much for her, the man’s coldness, his certainty at not having done wrong.
“And the harm you did to me, how are you going to minimize that?”
The man clenched his teeth. He remembered the same nights that Isabel did, but his feelings were not filled with pleasure, but with regret. Every night, after having made love to her he had felt miserable, just as he had when she looked at him with gratitude and admiration. He had heard from her own lips of the brutal and silent way her husband had taken her, as if she weren’t a human being; he had heard from the other conspirators in the group of the atrocities that Publio and his Falangists had committed when they found some red hiding out in the house of a friend or family member. And even though all that had shifted his certainties, even though during the long year he had lived with them he had felt something similar to love and friendship, none of that could be taken into account when what was important was fulfilling the mission entrusted to him: dismantling that group of conspirators backed by Mrs. Mola herself. If it hadn’t been him, someone else would have been assigned the task. Isabel was never very discreet, she didn’t know how to lie, and obviously she was no revolutionary. She was just a bourgeois woman who hated her husband.
He had done what he had to do, but that didn’t mollify the contempt he was now feeling for himself.
“You should have distanced yourself from those schemers when you had the chance, Isabel.”
“You only have me. When I knew who you really were, I warned the others. You and your boss won’t be able to reach them.”
The man lit a condescending smile.
“You’ll tell me where they are.”
“I will not.”
“I can assure you that you will, Isabel,” predicted the man in a dire voice, and, turning toward Andrés, he added, “That is if you ever want to see your son again.”
The boy observed the scene without understanding what was going on. His face was boiling red from the cold.
The rising wind carried on it the music of an incoming train. The train to Lisbon. The gradually lessening noise of the wheels on the rails came through the fog. There was a pause and a whistle, like the deep sigh of a runner stopping after great exertion.
“Let’s go, Mamá, it’s our train,” said Andrés, taking his mother by the hand and pulling. She didn’t move or take her eyes off the man.
Then he leaned down beside the boy. On his face was a broad, beneficent smile that struck at Isabel’s very soul.
“There’s been a change of plans, Andrés. Your mamá has to take a trip, but you are going back home. Your father is waiting for you.”
The boy looked at the stranger with confusion, and then his gaze shifted back to his mother, who was looking at him anxiously.
“I don’t want to go home. I want to go with my mother.”
“That’s not going to be possible. But I think your father has a very big surprise for you … a real Japanese katana!”
Like a sudden clearing in the forest, the boy’s face lit up. He was struck dumb with astonishment.
“You mean it?”
“Absolutely,” assured the man. “I wouldn’t dare lie to a samurai.”
Andrés’s face filled with pride.
They walked toward the car at the station’s entrance. Andrés sank his feet into the snow, leaping in a race to get home before anyone else, shouting with joy. Isabel’s feet dragged, followed closely by the man, who kept his eyes glued on her.
“What is going to happen to my son?” she asked him suddenly, before getting into the car.
“He will be a happy boy who’ll grow up remembering how lovely his mother was … or a poor lunatic locked up for life in a miserable insane asylum. It depends on you.”
The car left the station with a slow, jagged murmur beneath a sky wrapped in cellophane. In the backseat Isabel held Andrés tightly, as if she wanted to stick him back inside her to protect him. But the boy pushed away her embrace with a selfish gesture, asking that man to drive faster … faster. He was finally going to have a real samurai katana of his very own.
Copyright © 2011 by Víctor del Árbol
Translation Copyright © 2012 by Mara Faye Lethem