Pulp.net - Mi Tierra

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Cassandra Passarelli
The first time Eugenio saw José he waved. ‘Buenas tardes.’

Buenas... I’m José Mariá Amado Alvarez. I moved here a couple of weeks ago.’

‘You’re Pablo’s grandson.’

‘Yes... You remember him?’

‘He was a good man. I grew up with your father and his three brothers.

‘We visited Abuelo Pablo just before he died. All I remember of him is the sting of his cane, a punishment for eating his strawberries.’

‘He was hard man. That’s why his sons left early. Your father was the last to go...’

‘The uncles made their fortunes in Málaga, building houses. Father was a builder too, but he stayed poor in Lanjarón...’

Eugenio came up to José’s shoulder. He was as skinny as a young boy, but his limbs were as tight as wire. He wore cotton shirts and trousers which, though soiled, made him look smart. But it was his face that was striking, alert as a small child’s. Though his hair was thin and grey, his eyebrows were as black as coal, lending him a mischievous air. His brown eyes glittered as he spoke and he smiled easily, pushing his straw hat back on his head to raise the brim and meet José’s eyes.

Though a head taller, José was still a short fellow. Balding, with finely cropped light hair, he had pale skin and a deferential hunch. He reminded Eugenio of Pablo: the similarity of their build, something about the eyes. Once or twice Eugenio had seen José from a distance and thought it was Pablo. It was uncanny.

‘Nothing left now.’

‘No. The house is comfortable. But...’

‘It needs hard work. The trees are still good.’

‘They seem to be...’

‘The drought’s been hard on them, but their roots are deep. Let them drink. Have you family here?’

‘No, I’m alone.’

‘So am I. If you need eggs or milk... or to share a glass of wine, stop by.’

• • •

José liked to read. And to sleep. Reading and sleeping were his two obsessions. In a novel, he let the author unravel the plot; in his dreams, his subconscious did the untangling. He tried to avoid the future, not because such an unknotting was intellectually beyond him, but simply because he had no ambition. Paco was going to work in a bank. Manuel would take over his father’s restaurant. Enrique would make his fortune in Málaga. José just wanted to read or sleep. When he finished school, however, he couldn’t put off his future any longer; it had arrived.

Eugenio removed the suction cups from his cow and straightened his back. About sixteen litres of milk — she’d done well. She’d dry up soon though; her last birth had been difficult and she wouldn’t have another. He thought back to the herd of thirty he’d had: they’d produced six hundred litres. He’d supplied Capilerilla and all the villages close by. And his wasn’t the only dairy back then. And these days? His was the only cow he knew of. He patted her back fondly, before rinsing the milking machine.

To complicate matters, Rosa was in love with José. She insisted they marry the summer they finish school. He had no job, he protested. Not to worry, she reassured him, her father would give them a small loan to start something. José had no entrepreneurial inclinations. But being a shopkeeper might allow him more time to read and sleep than, say, labouring.

Eugenio carried the stainless steel pail upstairs to his orderly kitchen and placed it on the fire. Then he went back downstairs, and filling a bucket with maize, sifted some into the pigs’ trough. Five snorting swine lifted up their damp snouts, and squinting at Eugenio, scrambled into position. Their hairy pink backs momentarily shook free the swarming flies. The smallest mounted its neighbour in desperation to get a place. Eugenio ducked under the stairwell and into the barn next door. He pulled a third of a hay bail to give to the mule and, stooping down, climbed into the coop. The rust-feathered hens fussed a moment and then ignored him. Finding four warm brown eggs, he folded them into his sweater and climbed upstairs for breakfast.

By the time José and Rosa were wed in May, only Manuel remained in Lanjarón; Paco and Enrique had long since left for the city and, with them, most of their friends. Rosa prevaricated over how to use her father’s loan. What could they do in their small village celebrated for its pure waters and wind-dried ham? There were already a dozen shops hung with pigs’ legs like stalactites. And a massive resounding hall housing curative baths. Hotels every step of their way and more cafés than they could shake a jamon at. Rosa favoured a baby shop. Against her counsel, José followed his dreams; he opened a bookshop.

Eugenio cracked the eggs into a pan, and, removing the pail of simmering milk, put some coffee on to boil. Lunch might be the mainstay, but it was a long time till two. When Diana was alive, she made almond biscuits and good bread. But there were only so many hours in the day. Still, eggs did him nicely. In the parlour, he folded back the lace tablecloth and set his plate carefully on the wooden table. The four framed photographs that occupied most of it smiled at him as he ate.

Libros Libertad was a triumph of ethics over business sense. It remained untainted by customers, attracting neither tourist nor local. The one was unable to read Spanish, the other preferred not to. José sat doggedly for two dusty years amongst his bookshelves waiting for someone to step over the threshold. Instead, Rosa walked out, in the opposite direction. She preferred her old life to the dullness of José’s.

They were young faces; those of sons and grandsons taken before they were men. They’d grown up. His eldest lived in Barcelona. He used to visit Eugenio... but it had been a while now. His second lived in Bubión, below, and ran a construction business. The grandchildren wouldn’t be there much longer; they wanted to study in Granada. Well and good, Eugenio thought, swallowing the last morsel of egg. Farming was impossible these days; no one could make their living this way.

So José closed the bookshop. He could have gone home to his mother’s but it would have felt wrong. He had just one other option. He moved to the piece of land he’d inherited from his father. The land his grandfather had inherited from his grandfather. The villagers of Lanjarón considered this to be a great misfortune. In the face of their disapproval José declared the change suited him. In Lanjarón he’d been perpetually disappointed. Up in Capilerilla existence would unfold like a dream with only nature itself to contend with. Secretly, he was terrified.

Pablo’s grandson had come back to his land. When Eugenio was a boy, Pablo had been the village elder. Two things marked him out from the rest of the village: he’d married a girl from Bubión late in life and he kept books in his house. If there were disagreements between neighbours, Pablo was consulted. During the Civil War when the mountains were overrun with Communists only three families remained in Capilerilla. Pablo’s was one.

José drove up to Capilerilla, taking the hairpins slowly. Herders pastured their goats on what were once orchards. Wild rosemary, thistle and mallow had overtaken tilled fields. The almond and olive trees dropped their unwanted fruit on the ground. Farmhouses had fallen into ruin, the old roads had crumbled and boulders blocked them.

Back when Eugenio was a child, every house was filled with a family. Today, there were just twenty-three old folk in Capilerilla and only four were men. There had been a primary school, a church, a weekly market, a butcher and the dairy. Nowadays, the few that remained went down to Pitres and bought things sheathed in plastic at Covirán. The UHT milk came in tetrapacks, salchichón arrived shrink-wrapped, fruit was delivered in cartons from Almería. Even the wine came in bottles.

José had just a few boxes of books; the furniture was with Rosa. Carrying them to the house, he felt dizzy. Perhaps it was the altitude. He sat on his back wall overlooking the valley. The wildflowers were alive with grasshoppers as long as his little finger that jumped and then spread their tawny wings. Shiny black dung beetles rolled balls of mule shit. Rust ants marched up and down his wall. Huge black beetles with enamelled blue wings zoomed clumsily. In the trees, he spotted hoopoes and jays and an eagle circling for prey. These all belonged to this place, of course, but José... ?

He unpacked a little, built a fire and made an omelette. Throwing a blanket on the couch he settled down for the night. For the first time in his life he couldn’t sleep. There was an insect outside that sounded like his mother’s sewing machine. José got up and went in search of it. The closer he got, the stronger the vibrations grew, till the earth shuddered under his feet. But though he parted the grass with his torch, he never found it.

They wanted better lives. That’s why the others left. Eugenio had left twice; as a child to Granada during the Civil War and in sixty-one when his second-born was sixteen days old. He went on a holiday visa, with two others, to Düsseldorf and got work in a car factory. After three months, they were given papers. Every month they sent money home. Home, where the clouds never sat still. Where work changed according to the season. Where his brothers and sisters were... and Diana. Eugenio had come home when she fell ill. He bought the house, the garden, the fields and the cows with what he’d earned abroad. But he couldn’t buy her health. His brothers had moved on, like the clouds. And Diana lifted like mountain fog.

• • •

The house was built of stone, with ceilings of log and cane, and a roof of launa, the spongy local soil that glittered like fool’s gold. The sculpted cone chimney was capped with a disc of slate and a basket. The front door opened to a parlour and kitchen. José’s father had kept it well. Now it smelt of lichen and ghosts. José plastered the walls with limestone. He built shelves and filled them with the books he’d never sold. He pruned the wisteria that hung over the front door and the vines on the veranda’s pergola. And he filled the pots on the porch with geraniums. Decorating served him as funerals serve others, helping him close a chapter in his life.

Behind the casita was an old orchard; with apricot, cherry, níspero and fig. Below were two terraces of unkempt land. To survive, José needed to be self sufficient. It could be done, he told himself, his great grandfather had fed his entire family. But José had to start from scratch. He spent some weeks just walking about. The highest tier of land would make a fine garden; it was close to the house and an alberca full of water.

José was a gardener, not a farmer. He created concentric semicircular beds on the crescent step of land. First he laid down tarps to smother the wild grass and weeds. Then he broke up the soil with a hoe and fork. Each bed was carpeted with Hessian, anchored with stones. The tiny paths, just wide enough to walk along, he laid with small grey pebbles, sifted from the soil. The whole thing was watered by a network of skinny black pipes that snaked from one bed to another. Tiny holes, at the turn of a single tap leaked droplets of water, every six inches or so. The seasons turned and Eugenio watched and bit his lip. With no fence the boars would dig it up. The Hessian would rot away. The curved rows were whimsical.

• • •

A year later, on a parched autumn evening, Eugenio sat down to his supper of salchichón and wine. There was a knock on his door.

Buenas, Eugenio.’

‘Buenas tardes, Pablo,’ José looked hard at the old man, but he hadn’t noticed his slip. ‘Come in and share my supper.’

He brought another plate to the table and sliced some salchichón onto it, and then a glass and poured José some syrupy wine.

‘This is from the pigs I slaughtered last Christmas,’ he held the salchichón up for José to admire. ‘And this wine is from my grapes.’

José nodded his head in appreciation and chewed at the sausage.

‘Did I show you my Spanish/German dictionary? Look it’s still in the newspaper I wrapped it in... here’s the date; June 5th, 1961!’

‘It’s an antique, Eugenio!’

‘I’m an antique, joven. Living history... the things I’ve seen up here in the mountains. The stories I’ve heard. My grandfather used to tell me how he slaughtered Moors in Morocco. Never been there myself...’

José tried to smile, but instead his shoulders shook. Eugenio realised he was weeping.

‘Why, what is it Pablo?’

‘More than a year of working all the hours God gives me and I’ve got nowhere. In spring the wind blew down all my frames. The frost killed my tomatoes. It’s been the driest summer ever. This morning... the boar...’

His voice was choked by sobs.

‘Poor Pablo. But this is nature, no? We are not God who can make paradise in six days. Ours takes a lifetime, or several. I’ll stop by.’

José took the old man’s bony hand in his and squeezed it.

• • •

Eugenio showed José how to dig a patch of unbroken earth and put down potatoes. It was backbreaking work. The ten foot furrows were just a spade’s width, and perhaps ten inches deep... but half a dozen had him breathless. Eugenio buried the potatoes in the earth, their gnarled shoots up and covered them with a layer of soil. He showed him how to use dried weeds as mulch, packing thick sheaves around along the furrows to stop more springing up. He might confuse José for Pablo, but Eugenio always knew what to plant when and how. As José worked he began to think. In a roundabout, casual way, that settled into something like meditation.

At first José thought he was learning how to farm, but slowly he realised he was unearthing other things. It takes patience to uncover a buried soul.

‘Time to pull up those dead ones.’

José reflected on his past.

‘Today we’ll sow the cabbage and cauliflower, a few lettuce and onions.’

He considered life in Capilerilla.

‘Tomorrow, asparagus and, between the apricot trees, garlic.’

And speculated on the seasons ahead.

This unraveling of nature was better than any dream or book. It gave rise to real beauty. It wasn’t the fancy sort that could be bought in stores, it emanated from the Pico Veleta itself. It whispered in the leaves of the white elms, the sour cherry trees and the figs. It cascaded in the water that poured from the falls and was reflected in the reservoirs. It gathered, on hot afternoons, with the flies and shadows, under whitewashed rooms suspended over the village paths. And bloomed with the geraniums in the countless earthenware pots lined up on front steps and balconies. It was a radiance that came from the earth itself and the water that ran from the tap and filled the capillaries of the maize. That fed Eugenio’s pigs. That he slaughtered each year on the twenty-seventh of December. And made into salchichón. It emanated from the tough gold stalks of hay he harvested and tied into neat oblong bales to feed the mule. And the beets he fed the white and black spotted cow that gave milk. And the grapes he crushed into sweet wine. It shone in Eugenio’s eyes, shaped his words and mellowed his speech. And little by little it seeped into José. The spirit of mi tierra, his home land.

José had never met anyone like Eugenio before. He bore no grudges. He was at peace. He neither fretted over draught, nor over the quitting of the land. He expressed no bitterness over losing Diana. He never groaned when he left his bed at dawn, nor grumbled when he returned long after sunset. He wished for nothing other than he had. But increasingly he grew befuddled. Names, bottles, packets of seeds swapped identities. The few remaining old folk in the village, who kept themselves to themselves, were scant help — most were senile themselves. This was what awaited José, but he grew to fear it less and understood it as a preparation.

The trees bore ochre, red and wine-coloured fruits, till José was sated. The onions, sweet as apples, sat on the earth waiting to be pulled. The habas were weighed down by their beans that José fried in ajete and olive oil. The ruddy lettuce leaves, strong and crisp, filled their salad bowls. The tiny white and yellow flowers of the strawberries fell and the hard green fruits appeared and slowly turned pink until they glistened like rubies. Later came tomatoes, cucumber and peppers.

• • •

One clear August afternoon, two years later, there was no sign of Eugenio. After dinner, José filled a pail with ripe figs and climbed up to his place by the light of the waxing moon. The front door was ajar, and a chat show was rumbling loudly on the TV in the parlour. Eugenio’s balding pate rested on the arm of the wooden couch. José called softly, too polite at first to intrude, and then with vigour. When he failed to stir, José understood. The old man had taken his last siesta.

© Cassandra Passarelli 2007