With the Virgin safely reinstated in her rightful place behind the altar in the church of Los Caballeros de La Sierra, the townspeople celebrated a late afternoon mass under her benign gaze. Under Father Alberto’s ebullient instruction, they shared the Eucharist; the body of Christ, the blood of Christ. The low sun now shone almost horizontally through the stained glass windows, illuminating the length of the small church and all those gathered there. Father Alberto dismissed them with a reminder that mass would continue twice daily for the remainder of the week. Outside the church the congregation separated; the men hung around and smoked whilst the women crossed the small courtyard to Guerrero’s bar to finish the preparations for the village fiesta. They bustled around the tables cutting bread and setting out dishes of marinated olives and homemade ajiaceite, dropping approving comments or raising a scandalised eyebrow at what other women had brought. The dishes were divided amongst the dozen or so differently sized tables spread out on the street in front of the bar. Estofado with beans, migas with garlic and peppers, rabbit with lentils. Their smells mingled in the rising vapours then were quickly dispersed in the last of the afternoon light.
When the tables were finally prepared the men, who had been joined by Father Alberto, were called over. The priest sauntered over, still basking in self-importance. Until he blessed the food the festivities couldn’t start. He stood by his assigned chair with his pompous grin, his hands behind his back exaggerated the size of his already substantial paunch. There he waited there until someone stepped forward and pulled the chair out for him. He sat slowly without even the slightest acknowledgement, full of disproportionate self-regard. The rest of the village followed his lead taking their places amongst friends or family. When the villagers settled and attention again returned to him, Father Alberto rose, and after a pause blessed the food as if it were the sacrament itself, maintaining the sombre ecclesiastical air from the previous mass, then he sat and together they all began to eat. As usual, the proceedings commenced with a subdued atmosphere, most of the villagers hesitant to fully relax under the watchful glare of that man with the church steeple rising into the darkening sky at his back. The religious formality that he insisted upon was almost tangible as it hung over them. It was how the twisted priest liked it, it asserted control over his village.
To begin with, the only one that defied the somewhat solemn mood, and by default Father Alberto, was Pascual whose natural disposition didn’t indulge this cheerless atmosphere. His voice carried across the square as he joked and teased. His laughter was infectious but it provoked contention from the table of self-appointed dignitaries. As afternoon slipped into night the mood slowly changed. Fuelled by consumption of homemade wines and orujos, more of the villagers began to find their voice. The general chatter changed from the perennial topics of crops and livestock, the impending summer and the threat posed by wolves to politics. Falagistas and Republican sympathisers, the concentration camps and the infamous state approved vigilantes were all topics to be discussed. The candour by which their respective virtues could be truly deliberated depended upon the confidence one had with one’s immediate company. Pascual was as cognisant of this as the next man but in the familiar surroundings of the village in which he had spent his entire life, recklessness often got the better of him. During these discussions, Franco’s name was always affirmed proudly regardless whether the sentiment behind it was authentic or not. People had disappeared for less and the memory of Manolo Jimenez still hung like a shroud over the village.
Juan Diego tentatively entered into these conversations, skirting around the edges, knowing he was very much considered an outsider in a suspicious landscape. He treated with equal caution even the most innocent enquiry into his own background. A history that was still to be divulged. His thoughts were focussed more on Maria Dolores, who sat but one away from him with Dora, an unwitting chaperone, in between. Their relationship was cordial, their paths crossed mainly at mealtimes, or late in the evening and always in the presence of her parents. He paid attention to her when she talked, offered his assistance, whether it was required or not, and when she became flustered by his closeness he retired with a smile. Her parents still treated her like a girl but she was not, she was clearly a woman. He could see it, he could feel it. She spoke to him courteously, he in turn replied formally always addressing her by her full name. Conversely, he called Conchi ‘little one,’ adopting almost immediately the family nickname. It was a slow fumbling courtship but they were both young and inexperienced, their naivety a barrier neither knew how to overcome.
When the sun had fully set, the fresh mountain air turned to a cool breeze that crept through the narrow streets and sneaked up on the revellers and slipped inside their skin. They chattered excitedly as Miguel Guerrero announced with Father Alberto’s permission, the bar officially open. The men moved quickly carrying with them the bar’s chairs and took up their usual positions and waited to be served. The beer was served cold, it lacked the froth that normally accompanied draught beer but the men didn’t complain, that they had beer was enough for them. Ana, Miguel’s daughter, served plates of fried churros sprinkled with sugar and mugs of tarry hot chocolate for the children. A genuine extravagance in such impoverished times.
Juan Diego’s initial instinct was to remain outside and help Dora and the other women in the general tidy of the modest little plaza. Maria Dolores, however, dismissed him with a playful smile taking a bottle of olive oil from of his hand, so he wandered into the bar and automatically to Pascual’s side. Pascual welcomed him with a slap on the shoulder, he was turning into the son that he had never had. Juan Diego sipped the flat beer looking around the brightly lit room. Posters with withered edges advertised past bullfights starring Domingo Ortega and Manolete adorned the white painted walls. Although the men had only been in the bar less than half an hour, smoke hung in blue layers across the room occasionally broken into swirls as a body cut through them. The atmosphere was jovial, Estrellita Castro sang along to copla music on the radio and everyone smiled as they talked and raised their voices over the increasing hubbub desperate to be heard. Everyone except José Blanco. He flicked his right pinky nail against an empty beer glass. The hyperkeratinised tool he kept uncut to scoop out the inside of his ear emitted a dull ping, a slow metronomic countdown. His beady-eye glare didn’t deviate from the oblivious Juan Diego. He sat silently as a fervent discussion went on around him. There had been incessant rumours since the end of the Second World War that Monarchic sympathisers and other anti-fascist groups were gathering in south Portugal for an attempted rising against the Nationalist Francoist regime. Such stories were abound in volatile Spain, especially in the mountains where news was slow. It gave the men another opportunity to publicly display their reverence and loyalty to Franco. But traitors could be among their midst. In this manner the conversations continued. Some men cheered, whilst others shook their heads.
José Banco’s stare was broken when Dora and Conchi came into the bar along with some other women. When Maria Dolores didn’t follow after a few minutes, he rose without saying anything and left the bar. A thin conspiratorial smile appeared across the ever observant priest’s face as he watched him leave.
He pulled up the collar of his jacket as he stepped out into the cold and now deserted street. The tables had been cleared and sat huddled in a neat row under the bar window, safe from the strengthening breeze. The coloured bunting, that looked as if it would be despatched at any moment, the only evidence that there had been any festivities in the plaza. The gusting wind, an invisible and unknowing accomplice, carried the slam of the church’s side door. As he rounded the building he saw the lights on in the church hall. Someone moved inside.
Juan Diego had also noticed Maria Dolores’ absence. When he asked Dora about it, she answered, unconcerned, that she hadn’t seen her.
José Blanco stopped at church hall’s window. The lace curtains were closed but he could still see Maria Dolores folding some tablecloths and laying them in a pile on a table. He stood a metre and a half from the building, far enough away to be out of the light and watched her, observing her every movement. She sang a song to herself that was impossible for him to distinguish in the rush of the wind.
Through the noise that surrounded the bar, Juan Diego asked Ana Guerrero if she had seen Maria Dolores, but she had been busy helping her parents. She didn’t know where she was.
Maria Dolores placed the last of the tablecloths into a box on the floor and looked around the room. Satisfied that her work there was finished for the evening she turned to the door.
Juan Diego sought out Conchi who was gossiping with some other younger girls in the corner of the room, but she hadn’t seen Maria Dolores at all, not since they had finished the meal.
As Maria Dolores grasped the door handle she simultaneously flicked the light switch in the little church hall. The darkness totally immersed her. There was an almost imperceptible light off to her left, probably coming from the streetlight outside the bar round the corner. As she pulled on the door, she felt it open with more force than she had expected. At first, she thought it was just the heavy wind, but then something pushed hard against her face, a slap that smothered her mouth, she tried to breathe in but her lungs didn’t fill, she gasped but the air didn’t enter. The force of it made her take a few hurried steps back into the room again.
“Shut up. Not one word.” Maria Dolores still hadn’t fully comprehended what was happening. Instinctively she started to struggle against her aggressor, ineffectively pushing against him, her muffled cries futile against his rough hand. “Maria Dolores,” the voice mocked. “You’re not so special. Not you, not your father. Shut UP,” the voice spat again at her. She felt the beer and cigarettes and the warmth of his breath against her face as she tried to turn away from him. Then a hand grasped at her inner thigh digging a thumb into her flesh, ineffectually pulling at her dress.
His strength forced her back, striking one of the tables and she lost her balance. A chair screeched across the stone floor. As she fell her assailant’s hand slipped from her face allowing her to gasp noisily for air, but before she could call out the blow from the hard floor took that breath away again. Then he was on top of her, as if he had orchestrated her fall, and through her clothes she felt him roughly grope at her vagina. She jerked back in pain as a finger or two partially penetrated her, they tried to force their way into her, his weight pinning her down. His other hand pushed her head against the hard floor, fixing it there. She kicked a table and felt it move as she struggled but he was too heavy, his weight too oppressive. She instinctively grappled at him; one hand floundered at his face, the other, grabbed at the floor, searching for some non-existing weapon or escape route. Then her dress was up around her waist, the cold floor shocked her bare thighs. She sensed him react as her knee hit his flank but the pressure on her remained. Then in a burst of light, he was off her. She heard a throaty groan and turned to see him writhing beside her and for the first time, as her eyes adjusted again to the brightness of the room, Maria Dolores saw that her attacker was José Blanco. She sat upright scuttling backwards across the floor away from him, eyes wide, spitting blood from her mouth, pulling her dress down. In the same instance, someone else threw himself on top of José and began to strike him hard on the head shouting something she didn’t understand. Gallego? Catalan?
She heard a hard crack as José’s head was smacked against the floor again and the shouting continued. And as she recovered she breathed ‘Stop,’ an instinctive reaction against being so close to such violence. She pleaded with them but her voice was broken. She swallowed and tasted blood, tasted tears although she hadn’t realised she had been crying.
“STOP” Now she screamed. “Stop, stop.” With one last blow to José’s head, Juan Diego did as he had been commanded. He stood up and looked down at the excuse of a man that lay before him. The fury in him expelled in his rapid heavy breathing, his energy filled the room. Spittle flew from his mouth with every exhalation. Juan Diego had repelled her attacker with ease and precision, with an experienced hand. José Blanco didn’t fight back, his limited physicality saved for attacking those less able to defend themselves.
“Hijo de puta.” Juan Diego shifted his weight and drew back his leg then released, kicking deep into crumpled man’s chest. “Hijo de puta.” Those last deliberate words hissed through clenched teeth accompanied the sounds of a rib cracking and the would-be rapist’s sharp groan.
As Juan Diego lifted Maria Dolores from the floor, she felt weak, her legs spent but she didn’t want him to carry her. She had to concentrate on walking but everything had happened so quickly. Why had José Blanco done this? Had she done something to offend him? Her mouth stung and her ribs hurt where she had fallen against the table. She was aware that Juan Diego was talking to her but not what he was saying. He had his arm around her waist as they left the small hall, the same room that she had schooled in, the same room where they listened to the dictator’s speeches. The Virgin Mary’s expressionless eyes looked down on the three of them dispassionately, as Juan Diego turned off the light.
Juan Diego felt Maria Dolores tremble as they stumbled into the narrow street and the howling wind. Instinctively he pulled her closer to him and steered her towards the plaza.
“We have to go and tell your father.” Maria Dolores didn’t respond, she placed one foot in front of the other to keep moving. Her face completely hidden by untamed hair that had just been ripped out of its neat braids. The fresh air revived her, pulled her back to the reality of the situation, but she couldn’t reconcile what had happened. He had come out of nowhere. It had all happened so quickly. And Juan Diego, where had he come from?
“Come on, let’s get your father.” Maria Dolores slowly bestirred herself, starting again to comprehend Juan Diego’s words.
“What? No. No, we can’t see Papi.” Maria Dolores’ words bewildered Juan Diego.
“Maria Dolores, what are you saying? Of course, we have to see your father. We have to tell him what happened.”
“No. Papi will kill him.”
“Good, that’s what he…..”
“We can’t tell him.” She interrupted in mid-sentence. “Juan Diego, NO. Papi can’t control himself.”
“You’re not thinking straight Maria Dolores, you’re in shock.” She halted and turned to confront him.
“He’ll kill him, they’ll send Papi away. NO.”
“Maria Dolores.” Juan Diego he pleaded as lifted the hair away from her face. A blemish of dark blood smeared her bottom lip, but he was taken by her beauty even in the dark and blustery night. He saw fragility but he also felt her strength. With his thumb, he touched the cut on her lip, gently wiping away the blood stain. She let him touch her but her stare didn’t waiver. Eyes that dared him to challenge her, tearful eyes but bright with determination and defiance.
“Lola. Listen to me.” It was the first time that he called her by the intimate name reserved only for the family. In that moment it came naturally to him.
“No Juan Diego.” Now it was she that spoke softly. “I know my father. I’m OK. He didn’t hurt me. I’ll go home. Tell Mami I went home but nothing else. Please, Juan Diego.” His instincts told him to return straight to the bar and let his host deal with it. It was Pascual’s right to know and let him exact revenge, for her honour, but Juan Diego wanted nothing more than to please Maria Dolores.
“OK.” He capitulated. “I’ll talk to your mother, tell her I saw you go.” He hung his head, knowing this was against his better judgement. Maria Dolores reached up and lifted his face with both hands and pressed her lips softly against his.
“Thank you, Juan Diego.” Then she turned and walked quickly away from him.