FICTION | Rosa
Missionaries came to our village, El Saúco, in the summer of 1936, just before the Spanish civil war began. I was six years old and had recently become engaged to be married. The engagement began as a joke—my fiancé, Pepe, was my second cousin, nineteen like my brother, Eliseo.
Pepe’s parents (many children, a narrow, rocky sliver of land) had sent him twenty miles over the mountains to work on my family’s farm in exchange for meals. My parents were rich for peasants: they had two blond cows for cheese, a dozen chickens, a pig, and a burro. Pepe said that our village (a stone church, two shops, a whitewashed municipal building) was exactly what he imagined Madrid was like. At this, my brother burst out laughing.
Pepe laughed too, though his ears reddened. So many things about our family amazed him: that the animals didn’t spend the night on the ground floor of our house but had their own shed in the corral. That he could have a whole egg for himself at supper. And that our parents didn’t beat us—though my mother often threatened Eliseo. Then he’d grab her scarf and run away with it; the more she shouted after him, the merrier he became. At meals, Pepe would look around the table expectantly, as if a puppet show were about to begin.
He was the first person I ever saw whom I hadn’t known all my life. The peddlers who came to El Saúco were always the same grizzled men who’d memorized the twists and turns of the mountain roads as well as the names of the housewives most likely to be tempted by a shiny aluminum basin. A circus came annually, too, with a drowsy bear on a chain and a moth-eaten, angry monkey. Could they have been the same bear and monkey, year after year? Probably not, considering their exhausting, itinerant lives. But the scat they left behind in the plaza—the monkey’s hard little droppings, the bear’s great, soft piles—was always the same.
Bear shit! Monkey shit! the village children shouted, tearing from one end of town to the other. I wasn’t allowed to run with them. I was my mother’s little treasure; when we walked in the street she held me tight by the hand. I didn’t mind. I enjoyed the way the other women in the village admired the berets and cardigans my mother had knitted for me, kissing my plump cheeks. Meanwhile, their own kids were scrawny and ragged—they weren’t unloved, but it was impossible, with so many children and such backbreaking work, to dote.
My mother had lost four babies between Eliseo and me, and the summer Pepe came she must have been nearly forty. Her face was lined; she was losing her teeth, and her bosom sloped down to her waist, like foothills. She didn’t know her exact age and she couldn't read, but she was proud that I was learning.
Five years earlier, the Republic had got rid of the king and declared that a free, secular education must be offered to all the children of Spain. The only woman in town who could read was the priest’s sister, Miss Encarnación, who lived with him and kept house for him. Classes were held in an old shed where there was still the strong ammonia smell of cow piss and where we couldn’t have candles on rainy days because of the straw on the floor.
Miss Enca had a disease that made her fall asleep suddenly; even before she began teaching, she’d sometimes fall to the ground with her baskets and have to be carried back to the priest’s house. So between the dark, smelly classroom and her frequent siestas, our learning went slowly. Still—Madrid was aware of us and thinking about us, and this was new, for El Saúco. The Ministry of Education sent us pencils, and packets of notebooks with snowy white pages. Such extravagance, thundered Father Ramon, who in his Sunday homily continued to warn the village about the road to communism we were on. For example, slates could have been made by the villagers themselves.
I already had a slate that my father had made for me, and with which I was kept quiet drawing little pictures. Now I began filling up the pages of my notebook with drawings. When my mother saw them and asked why I was wasting paper, I told her that Miss Enca had told me to make the pictures, that they helped remind me what the letters said.
I thought she wouldn’t find out the truth because she rarely spoke to Miss Enca, who was widely disliked in the town. People said she didn’t resemble her brother at all, though that seemed lucky for her, as Father Ramon had a small, ugly head like a wizened apple.
My parents did look similar. Being both from El Saúco, they’d known each other always, but they liked each other still. My father would sneak up behind my mother and slap her bottom, then she’d whirl around and throw an onion at him. The first time Pepe saw this, he didn’t realize it was a game and rushed to put himself between them before anyone got hurt.
Then one night, as everyone was preparing to climb the ladder to the sleeping-loft (Pepe slept in one bed with Eliseo, and I with my parents in the other), he burst into tears—a great man of nineteen.
I don’t ever want to go home, he sobbed.
Why don’t you marry my sister? Eliseo said. Then they’d have to let you stay.
My cousin’s round face brightened. He turned and asked my father for my hand.
I was joking, you bumpkin, Eliseo said, but it was too late. I was hopping around like a flea, tugging on my father’s sleeve. Of course I had no idea about marriage, but I liked Pepe, who didn’t pinch or laugh at me.
My father said he might as well have asked to marry one of our chickens, it was that silly. But I kept up my noise and my jumping until at last he said, For now, yes, but not now.
He said this to calm a six-year-old so she’d settle down and go to sleep. But Pepe always said that was the moment he saw the future: our own tienda, with scrubbed counters, neat rows of canned goods, and me with my hair in a ribbon, attending customers.
It turned out that he hadn’t been so wrong to compare El Saúco to the national capital. In early July, a truck from Madrid arrived in the village, loaded down with a film projector, a windup phonograph player and recordings of opera, framed copies of paintings from the Prado Museum, a trunk of theatrical costumes and another of books. All this was part of the Spanish government’s Pedagogical Mission, a plan that sent university graduates out to the provinces to bring culture to forgotten corners of Spain.
I was in the street with my mother when the truck pulled into the plaza. Our new young mayor was there—waiting for the Mission, it turned out. He’d received an official letter announcing it, but had said nothing because he hadn’t known how to explain it. It didn’t sound quite like a circus.
Out of the truck’s cab climbed three young ladies with short hair and short print dresses. A breeze blew their skirts and raised goose pimples on their arms.
Such lovely, clean mountain air, one of them said.
I asked my mother how air could ever be dirty, because if you threw dirt into the air, it fell back on the ground.
One of the señoritas bent down, so close that her curls brushed my face. Her hair smelled of soap and flowers.
Aren’t you a clever little thing! What’s your name, my love?
No one had ever asked me that question before. Rosa sounded strange coming out of my own mouth, as if I were suddenly not myself.
Oh, she’s trembling—she’s timid! the señoritas laughed.
This wasn’t true, and my face grew hot with frustration. I already had an idea that they were teachers, and strokes from Miss Enca’s ruler had taught me that a teacher must never be contradicted.
A few minutes later, plodding over the final ridge of the mountain, came half a dozen mules carrying city gentlemen wearing dark suits, neckties and soft leather shoes. The mayor shook their hands, and instructed the villagers who’d gathered around the truck to to unload the cargo and carry everything into the municipal building.
That night, everyone in town was invited to the movies, which were projected onto a sheet hung from the rafters. The only villagers who didn’t attend were Father Ramon and old folks too weak to leave their beds.
Nobody had any other evening plans. At night, when the light left the sky along the western rim of the mountains and the wind picked up, the people of El Saúco stayed inside. There were no street lights; no reason to leave the house except to attend to a birthing cow or a neighbor who was having a baby or dying. I do remember going out in the dark to greet the new moon, and counting the tiny yellow blooms of candlelight from the other houses, gleaming through gaps in the shutters. There were more houses in our village than I could count on my fingers.
And beyond El Saúco there are more villages, and more, my father told me.
Think of that.
I think of it often now, looking out my window at city lights that stay on all night long.
The first film we saw was a newsreel from Madrid, showing cars, omnibuses, paved streets, splashing fountains, people swarming like insects in and out of the buildings. At one moment there appeared a woman walking among trees, leading a small dog with a strap around its neck, exactly as a family pig would be led to market. This made several people laugh nervously.
Then the room went dark, and unsure of the etiquette, the villagers rose and began to depart silently, like after Mass. The young gentleman who’d been operating the projector ran after us.
Please, stay for the feature, he urged. You’ll surely enjoy it more. It’s Charlie Chaplin.
The words “feature” and “Charlie Chaplin” meant nothing, but everyone filed back inside. Later, we understood that Charlie’s mishaps were supposed to be funny, but on that first night, some of the women began to weep at all his suffering, his dreadful loneliness.
It’s not real, Eliseo called out. It’s just circus people behind that cloth, making shadows.
He lifted a corner of the sheet. Behind it was the bare, whitewashed wall of the municipal building. The light of the projector cast the pictures onto Eliseo’s face.
This broke the spell of grief in the room, and people jeered and shouted.
Who’s the bumpkin, eh?
Eliseo scowled and sat down. He probably wasn’t the only person there who figured the movies were some kind of trick, but he became the laughing-stock, the town sacrifice. I believe he turned against the Republic in that moment.
To be thought a fool is a great fear of country people. The villagers knew there were many things in the world of which we were ignorant. But this is different from stupidity—not understanding your own life. So we were wary until we saw that the missionaries didn’t know everything, either. They were very tall, with tender, smooth skin, and the señoritas were constantly washing themselves, like cats. This my mother heard from the women at whose houses they stayed—a rule of the Mission was that they couldn’t lodge in homes with grown sons. The gentlemen pitched tents and camped in a meadow, and early one morning the movie-projector gentleman went out to take a piss and a bullock that had got loose became curious and followed him as he ran all the way into town.
Movie-Projector believed he was being chased by a bull! everyone laughed, but that incident broke the ice. The idea that the missionaries had come such a long way in order to share what they liked best: films and paintings and music and theatre and books—and not charge us one centavo—well, it was impossible to maintain a cold heart.
Every night for the next week, we cried with laughter at Mickey Mouse and shrieked in terror as Frankenstein came to horrible life. The villagers declared that the Italian opera sounded like livestock bellowing, and that Goya’s naked Maja looked like a sprawled, grinning farm girl. The missionaries didn’t make fun of us: Art is for the people, and all criticism is valid, they said.
On Saturday, they constructed a stage in the plaza and put on a play, Lazarillo de Tormes. We’d become bolder by then, and cheered the unlucky Lazarillo, whistling at and insulting his tormentors, who included a priest and an archbishop. Finally, the players gathered onstage to sing hymns to the democracy. All week they’d urged us to address them informally, insisting that we were all equals, Spaniards together. None of the villagers could get their tongues around calling these city people tu, but we did hum along with the songs, which lovingly praised La Republica, as if she were a woman.
Father Ramon didn’t attend the play, but he heard about it from Miss Enca, who’d sat in the front row next to the mayor. On Sunday, the priest scolded us for jeering at holy fathers, even in a make-believe show.
We are reminded, he said, why the Church teaches that books in the wrong hands are dangerous.
But the next day, the mayor granted permission for a library to be set up in the municipal building. The señoritas came to school to explain how the library would work. Anyone in the village could take a book home if he or she washed hands first and then left a signed card in its place on the shelf. I described the book-lending process to my family when I came home for lunch.
I can do that, Eliseo said.
What size book would you ask Miss Beatriz for, with your clean hands? Pepe laughed, a big one or a small one?
Miss Beatriz was the curly-haired señorita who’d spoken to me on that first day.
I only said I can write my name, Eliseo said, cuffing Pepe on the shoulder.
They have books for children, I said.
Then we’ll get one for you, Eliseo said, and after the meal was over he walked with me to the municipal building.
The library was the Mission’s last project; as soon as it was finished, the missionaries would leave. Eliseo and I stood in the doorway, watching the young gentlemen inexpertly hammering together a shelf while the señoritas knelt on the floor, sorting books into piles. They were too busy to eat a proper meal, but were passing around sausage sandwiches and a bota of wine. They called out cheerfully for us (they were always cheerful, and they drank a lot of wine) to come inspect the library.
Eliseo shook his head and said that he would wait outside.
You’re timid, I said.
Shut up. I’m not.
I hesitated, but when Miss Beatriz said, It’s Rosa! Come, Rosa! I rushed forward. She held me on her lap while we looked at the children’s books. I nestled against her soft body, breathing in her flowery smell, and when I pulled one of the books close to sniff the ink of its pages, she laughed.
You’re like a beagle puppy! Don’t you own a handkerchief? Never mind, you can borrow mine.
I chose a book about a fairy queen that had blue cloth covers. In addition to washing hands, Miss Beatriz said, I was to blow my nose before reading.
This book has a lot of big words, she said, but your brother could help you.
He can’t read, I said.
How shameful for our country, in the twentieth century! Miss Beatriz cried.
That will change, Movie-Projector said. Adult literacy is a priority for the Republic.
As we walked home, Eliseo asked me if he could see the book.
You have to wash hands first, I said.
They’re plenty clean, he said.
Now blow your nose, I said, and gave him Miss Beatriz’ handkerchief. She said that you could read it to me, but I told her that you didn’t know how. And she said that was shameful.
Something struck the back of my head, and I flew forward to the ground. Dirt was in my mouth, and tiny red drops beaded out of scrapes on my hands. My big toenail was torn and bleeding. When I saw this, I began to shriek.
Doors and and windows opened along the street. Siesta-rumpled heads popped out.
Everything’s fine, Eliseo assured them. My sister fell and is making the greatest possible noise about it. He knelt on the dirt and gently brushed me off.
The book hit me, I said. You hit me.
No, Rosy. You tripped over this stone, he said. See? Luckily I caught the book before it fell. Otherwise it might have gotten dirty.
Miss Beatriz’ lace-trimmed hanky had disappeared.
The wind must have blown it away, Eliseo said.
I began to cry over that, too, so he hoisted me onto his shoulders, making silly noises so I’d laugh. By the time we reached our house, it seemed that everything Eliseo said was true. My mother clicked her tongue:
Luckily the book isn’t damaged. We’ll give Miss Beatriz my wedding handkerchief to replace the lost one.
The missionaries had already packed the truck, so that night there were no movies or music or art exhibitions. Our house felt small and cramped. Eliseo didn’t want to see my book or hear one word about Miss Beatriz and her lovely smell.
When darkness fell, there was nothing to do but go to bed, as in the days before the Mission arrived. Everyone else began snoring immediately, but my head was still full of the pictures of the fairy queen, who seemed to move and speak as if in a film. I wanted to see her again, so I climbed over my sleeping parents and down the ladder.
The book lay in the middle of the table, the pictures barely visible in the last shreds of daylight. As the moon rose, they brightened, washed in silvery light. I bent closer. On the last page, where the queen rode a bear’s back into the forest, I saw that the picture was moving, the bear’s hind legs taking slow, lumbering steps. The trees in the distance parted to reveal snow-capped mountains, and then I was in the picture, soaring over the treetops. I fetched my pencil box from the cupboard and began to copy what I saw onto the blank page opposite.
I worked for what seemed like hours, and finally climbed back up to bed. Even pressing my cold feet against my mother’s body didn’t wake her. Then suddenly she standing over me, shouting. The book was ruined. It belonged to the Republic, and who knew what would become of us now? Maybe we’d all be arrested and taken to prison.
I don’t know if my mother believed every word she was shouting, but I do think that the sight of the defaced book made her realize that she’d spoiled me. She’d neglected to teach her little treasure how to be a peasant: humble, obedient, fearful of authority. Now I must learn.
The sleeping-ladder trembled as she descended.
You must beat her, she said to my father.
I got out of bed and stood at the top of the ladder. My father was eating his breakfast of cheese and bread. The library book was propped open with my pencil, and even at this distance, I could see that my copy of the illustration was an ugly mess. And it had looked so perfect in the night, in the moonlight.
My father gazed up at me. Well? he said.
Eliseo has Miss Beatriz’ handkerchief, I said.
My mother stormed back up the ladder, and sure enough, there was the handkerchief, crumpled beneath Eliseo’s pillow.
Theft was a serious crime in El Saúco—maybe the worst. In a village, a murder is the end result of a quarrel between two people, but a thief will steal again and again if not stopped. In a place where there were no police, and where faraway magistrates had no patience for listening to what one peasant has filched from another, thieves ended up falling off mountainsides, drowning in creeks, or accidentally setting themselves on fire. Even children knew this, though I’d never been allowed to go with the others to look at a corpse, left where it had died for the buzzards to eat.
So Eliseo would be beaten, too.
He and Pepe were out, herding the just-milked cows into the high meadow, and when my father called him into the cheese shed, Eliseo went without any fear. My mother and I waited in the corral. When Eliseo screamed, I crouched down, blocking my ears with my fingers. Then the pig and the burro and the chickens began squealing and braying and squawking, and Pepe came running. When he reached the fence, my mother held up her hand for him to come no further.
I saw Pepe take in the whole scene—the yelling and the crack of the strap, my mother’s grim expression and me with my fingers in my ears. I saw his face change as he realized that our family was no different from any other.
Eliseo tore out of the cheese shed, followed by my father. Both had red, tear-stained faces. But Eliseo kept going, running out the gate of the corral and up into the hills.
Let him go, my father said. Let him cool down.
Even when Eliseo hadn’t returned at nightfall, my father said we mustn’t worry. The summer nights were warm, and Eliseo knew how to snare a fish or a rabbit and cook himself a fine supper under the stars while he got over being mad. It was what he himself had done years ago, my father said, after his father had beaten him.
What nobody in El Saúco knew was that on the previous day, General Franco’s rebel troops had sailed from North Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar to Andalusia, starting a three-year war which would kill half a million Spanish people. Eliseo, walking home by the main road, boarded a recruiting truck filled with men who were enlisting in Franco’s rebel army.
He probably didn’t have a choice. Lumbering behind that truck was the Mission truck, driven now by rebel soldiers. The missionaries were all jammed into the back, along with the movies and paintings and costumes, evidence that they were agents of the Republic that was about to fall. On the way south, Movie-Projector would be shot trying to escape. Miss Beatriz and the others were imprisoned at Salamanca. She’ll have to survive without lace handkerchiefs and perfume, my brother wrote, in a letter. If she survives.
Before he died in the war, Eliseo wrote me several letters. He learned to read and write in the army, in the desert of Morocco, where he had long stretches of hot, empty time between battles. He’d killed lots of Moors, he wrote, and stuck their severed heads into the sand outside their villages as a warning to the others.
Eventually, I received letters from Pepe, too. He went to Madrid to fight for the Republic, was taken prisoner, and wasn’t released from the work camp at Burgos until 1947. By then I was seventeen, skinny and ugly from the food shortages, with dark rings under my eyes. Still, Pepe wanted us to marry. What had kept him alive, he told me, was his dream of our grocery store. He’d met two American soldiers during the war, Mike and Joey, who’d encouraged him to move to New York City if we lost the war. Pepe’s sunny optimism was strange and foreign in that grim time, and in the end I agreed to emigrate with him.
Now Rosy, your turn, my father said, after Eliseo had disappeared into the woods. He took me by the hand and led me into the cheese shed. And I, who all my life had made the greatest possible noise about the smallest thing, resolved not to make one sound.
The first strike across my calves wasn’t bad, like accidentally brushing against a nettle bush. I counted the rows of curing tetilla cheeses lined up along the wall. The strap whistled through the air and this time hit the bench.
Scream, my father said, and I did. Again it slapped the bench. Again I screamed, as my father cried.
Such a fuss you’ve made, and it’s hardly anything, my mother said afterward, rubbing honey into the faint pink marks on my legs. You should have seen what my father once did to me.
She washed Miss Beatriz’ handkerchief and starched the lace crisp as paper.
She’s your responsibility now, she told Pepe. You make her confess to spoiling the book.
Pepe grasped my hand firmly as we set out for the plaza, but when I pulled away from him, he let me be. In that moment, I believe, I decided he would be a good husband.
The plaza was full of people. The villagers had left their fields and animals in the middle of the morning in order to see the missionaries off. Miss Beatriz, wearing loose trousers and espadrilles like a peasant man, was rushing this way and that. After a week in El Saúco, her face was brown from the mountain sun. At last I got close enough to pull on her sleeve.
My hankie, thank you, lovey, she said, and crushed it into her trouser pocket.
I held up the ruined page for her to see.
Why, you’ve drawn in the book, that’s very naughty, Miss Beatriz said. She paused to examine the picture. I admit it’s pretty good, she said. Give me a kiss, Rosa, and don’t forget me.
I kissed her, but my heart and lips were of stone. Miss Beatriz was leaving us forever. In her mind, she was already over the mountain, on to the next village, and the condition of El Saúco’s library books was no longer her concern (A month later, the mayor would be arrested and sent to prison at Salamanca. Miss Enca, accused of being his secret lover, would be fed cod-liver oil and marched naked through the street, her shit leaving watery trails on the cobblestones. Father Ramon would then instruct the villagers to take the library to the center of the plaza and burn it. My mother, who’d come to believe that the books were the cause of the war, was an enthusiastic volunteer, marching towards the flames with her arms full).
Miss Beatriz climbed into the driver’s seat of the cab and shifted the truck into gear. She waved to us, her man’s shirtsleeve sliding down her brown arm. Behind her rode the gentlemen on the mules, and after them walked the people of El Saúco.
We followed the missionaries as far as the crest of the first hill. The sun climbed higher, and Pepe took my hand again, swinging it in time to our steps. A simple thing like a cloudless sky made him happy, and in this way he never stopped being a bumpkin, not after forty years in New York. Of course we never found Mike and Joey—how foolish we were, to not even know those were common names in America! We opened our shop, with its canned goods and tidy shelves. I remember my husband whenever the bell over the door rings, like now, when you came in. I am very old yet still make change in my head, can do the crédito if you prefer.
But my brother is who I dream of. Night after night, I’m looking up into the hills where he ran after the beating I’d caused. I’m moving fast, nearly flying, hoping to glimpse him walking among the trees.
Kathleen Wheaton is the author of Aliens and Other Stories, which received the 2013 Washington Writers Publishing House fiction prize. Her short stories have appeared in various journals including Narrative, The Baltimore Review, Potomac Review, Bethesda Magazine, and in the anthologies Flash Fiction Forward, Amazing Graces, and Furious Grace. This story is based on a true event—the Pedagogical Mission was a Spanish Peace Corps-like organization that operated for a couple of years before the Spanish Civil War. After Franco's victory, many Mission volunteers were arrested and executed.
Photograph by Finn-E