Excerpt

[From my historical novel, So This Is How It Ends]

October 1936

The pealing bells issued their summons, calling the residents of Valdourizo to Sunday mass. Slowly, they streamed in, like runoff during a storm—a trickle at first, and then a steady flow. As Agustín entered the church, the dark wooden pews were filling up before him. Walking down the central aisle with Teresa by his side, he peered through the circular black frames of his eyeglasses, scanning the rows for a spot that was not too close to the pulpit, but not too far back either.

Perched on the tip of his long, narrow nose, his glasses functioned as the fulcrum around which the rest of his features were arrayed. This was no accident; he’d chosen these frames in the hope that they would confer upon him a professorial air—something his age and youthful appearance could not yet supply on their own—though the effect was a bit like a child playing dress-up.

Outside, the sun shone brightly, but little of its radiance reached the church’s interior. Carved high up into the façade above the main doors, a small window allowed a few rays to brighten the backs of the parishioners in the last few rows, while through the other window, which faced the first from behind the altar, a narrow plank of daylight shone on the spot where Padre Ignacio stood to perform the rituals of the mass. In between the two apertures, the darkness was dispelled only by the candles that flickered in front of the statuary along the side aisles.

Taking a seat alongside his wife, Agustín noticed that a shadowy gray tinge was beginning to obscure the interior walls, though despite the church’s somewhat faded appearance, it was impeccably clean. He removed his glasses and began to wipe them with a handkerchief, his long, elegant fingers clearing away the dust. Though his myopia blurred the view, he knew exactly what was happening around him; he’d have known it with his eyes closed. As they waited for mass to begin, his neighbors would be glancing furtively at one another, silently cataloguing what the rest were wearing and how they were behaving—information that would be used to calibrate their future interactions.

Agustín also knew that he and Teresa were first among those to be observed. Despite the fact that they’d lived in Valdourizo for several years already, the husband-and-wife schoolteachers were the town’s newest residents, and still the object of much interest and speculation.

With his glasses back on, Agustín quickly spotted his friend Benigno sitting across the aisle alongside his family, worrying the band on the inside of his cap as he shifted about on the hard wooden pew. The young man was not built for inactivity, his compact body a mass of volatile energy that he had difficulty containing. Though only a few years separated the two, the teacher fancied himself a mentor to Benigno, and used his erudition as a sander, smoothing down the farmer’s rougher edges. Truth be told, Agustín genuinely liked Benigno and was grateful for his forthright manner, a quality not often encountered in the area. He saw a great deal of potential and something of a kindred spirit in the bright, though largely uneducated, young man.

As mass got underway, Agustín’s gaze drifted back to the altar and Padre Ignacio. Tall and fit, the priest’s full head of black hair was neatly trimmed and slicked back, not a strand out of place. Since the archdiocese had assigned Padre Ignacio to take over the parish five years ago, his widow’s peak had become more pronounced, the two pale arcs framing it growing deeper each year. In his mid-30s, the priest was a handsome man, but one whose agreeable appearance was undercut by a stiff, unforgiving manner.

Approaching the pulpit, Padre Ignacio moved with calculated purpose, heedful to avoid startling his prey until it was time to pounce. This one loves to put on a show, thought Agustín, as the priest smoothed out the notes for his homily on the wooden surface in front of him. I wonder what admonishment he has in store for us today.

“My dear brothers and sisters,” he began, in his most soothing tone. “Our great and powerful Lord has brought us together on this glorious day. Let us rejoice and be glad. Each morning is a blessing, a gift from our Creator, like a precious flower rising from the dark soil. It is that same soil that nourishes us all.”

Yes, though it nourishes some of us a bit more generously than others, thought Agustín. Like his neighbors, he struggled to make ends meet, though he knew he was considerably more fortunate than his predecessors had been. Back in Ourense, where he and Teresa first met, they’d heard the stories of how hard it was to eke out a living in the days before the democratically elected Republic had instituted its educational reform. “Pasas mas hambre que un maestro de escuela,” went the proverb. You’re hungrier than a teacher. He knew they’d never strike it rich in this line of work, but the new government’s policies had meant that teachers were no longer forced to rely on their students’ parents to provide the most meager of wages, or food in lieu of a salary.

To Agustín, the Republic had represented hope, the possibility of meaningful change, or at least a slight leveling of the playing field. That is until General Franco and his Fascist coalition staged their military coup this past summer, an act that put all of those dreams on hold, replacing them with the nightmare of civil war. The situation left Agustín and his wife with no choice but to watch and wait, their future resting atop a wobbly scale that was still deciding which way it would tip.

“As we speak,” the priest continued, “all of God’s beautiful flowers are in danger of being trampled by the forces of wickedness. In fact, just a few days ago, the anarchists once again declared their brutal resolve against all that is holy and right. The revolution must go on, they shriek! Throughout this great country of ours, Catholics are under siege, hunted by the Red Terror—communists and anarchists, the godless hordes burning the Lord’s houses, defiling His altars and the images of our Holy Mother, the blessed immaculate Virgin.”

The priest gestured toward the statue of Mary on his right.

“This is happening all over our precious land.”

He pounded the pulpit for emphasis, and as the words poured out of him, his manner became less stilted. Fire and brimstone suited the man, thought Agustín.

“We’ve heard of the horrors unfolding in Aragón and Cataluña.” His voice spat out the names in disgust. “The few churches that have yet to be singed by the flames are being commandeered by the Republican army—converted into barracks for these killers. Or else these houses of worship sit empty, abandoned by our fellow Catholics who stay away out of fear for their lives. And this fear is just-i-fied!” He thundered the final word. “The soil of Spain runs red with a torrent of blood. The blood of priests and nuns. Of innocents! Their dead bodies displayed and paraded around as a warning to all who believe. The blood of God-fearing Christians like you!” He pointed his finger at the congregation. “Murdered,” he hissed.

When he next spoke, it was in a softer, more conspiratorial tone, as if confiding in a friend who was certain to grasp his every nuance.

“Not only have they stormed our convents and churches, and stolen the alms for the poor, but these heathens have taken something far more precious, robbing our holy sisters of their purity.”

The priest crossed himself and paused for dramatic effect, allowing the meaning of his words to sink in, and Agustín lowered his head in defeat. He despised the Catholic Church’s indifference to the suffering of the poor, the way it manipulated the faithful through fear and indoctrination, and he was proud to work within the public education system—though even that domain was no longer free from Church interference anymore. Over the past few months, Padre Ignacio seemed to visit him and Teresa almost weekly to offer “guidance” on what they should teach, gradually crowding out their secular curriculum with dogma.

Though Agustín still believed in the things he’d been taught as a child—in Jesus, the Immaculate Virgin, the saints, and the values they stood for—he felt that the Church’s leaders had lost their true north. With so many of their countrymen struggling to survive abject poverty, these holy men were worse than indifferent, for they sided instead with the landed gentry, the privileged few who had no qualms about using their power and money as bludgeons, hammering the peasants in place.

Whatever happened to “the meek shall inherit the Earth,” he wondered. The situation disgusted him, and the only reason he still went to mass every Sunday was because he had no other choice; to be absent from services in a community as small as this one would be the equivalent of marching through town waving a red flag adorned with hammer and sickle. His principles were a luxury that he and Teresa could ill afford.

He hadn’t always seen things this way. When the war first erupted in July, he’d dismissed the notion of needing to put on appearances, believing it absurd, but as the stories he heard from his colleagues began to pile up, he realized that the situation was becoming more dangerous by the day. And if the latest rumors proved to be true—if a man as internationally esteemed as the great poet and playwright García Lorca could be shot and dumped in an unmarked grave simply for voicing his political opinions—then who among them was safe?

Still, despite it all, it pained Agustín to know that a much smaller but nonetheless terrifying contingent on the Left was perpetrating the kinds of atrocities that Padre Ignacio described eagerly each week—the torching of churches, the priests that were murdered, their corpses publicly desecrated. He’d heard the reports on the radio, and he could not defend the acts being committed by some on his side in the name of vengeance and the Republic.

But it was the thought of nuns being raped that bothered him most of all, for his youngest sister, Olivia, belonged to a Carmelite order based in the Galician city of A Coruña. Though Agustín cringed whenever he encountered the Guardia Civil patrolling Valdourizo’s paths, he knew that General Franco’s almost immediate control of Galicia shielded the region from open combat and made it the safest place for Olivia and the rest of her order to be, though he had his doubts about whether the same could be said for Teresa or himself. Staring at his wife’s profile, his mind raced through the frightening possibilities. Sensing his gaze, she turned to meet it, and offered him a smile so bright it seemed to illuminate his soul. If anything were to happen to her, he would surely go mad.

“It is our sacred duty to protect our women and children from these savages,” Padre Ignacio continued in earnest. “We must pray for the souls of these victims. For all of our good Christian brothers and sisters who have been slaughtered—butchered by demons who have nothing in their hearts but hatred…”

As the priest droned on, Agustín’s discomfort began to shift to irritation. What about the miners’ strike in neighboring Asturias that General Franco and his men had quelled with maximum brutality just a few years ago? What about the thousands killed, and the miners’ wives and daughters raped during that encounter? Neither side had a monopoly on violence, and the Fascists were proving extraordinarily adept at wielding the darkest tools of war. He stared coldly at the priest, and wondered why this man of the cloth had never once asked his congregation to pray for those other victims.

“We must defend our faith at all costs,” continued Padre Ignacio, hurtling toward his inevitable conclusion. “Do not give a moment’s thought to the personal price we must all pay. Each and every Sunday, we gather to commemorate the Eucharist. We celebrate the fact that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, sacrificed his very body so that we might all have eternal life.” Torqueing his own frame around, he pointed at the figure displayed on the crucifix behind the altar. “Look at him. Look!” he howled. “Hanging on the cross, in agony and pain. Wearing a crown of thorns. Do we mere mortals deign to ask for better treatment than that which was endured by the Son of God himself?”

Turning back toward his captive audience, Padre Ignacio’s eyes scanned the congregation. “The answer is clear: We must follow our Lord’s example and safeguard our precious land from those innnnn-fidels who wish to wipe our faith from this earth.”

Perhaps it was paranoia, but as the priest drew out the word “infidels,” Agustín could’ve sworn that Padre Ignacio’s gaze had lingered on him for a few extra seconds. He shifted about in the pew.

“Like our good Christian ancestors who battled the Moors centuries ago, the time has come for us to embark on our own reconquista. God calls us to this modern-day crusade. To reclaim that which is rightfully ours, in His name and that of our country. General Franco understands what is at stake. He knows that this evil must be rooted out and expelled, like the venom of a snake, before it spreads through the body and kills its unwitting host. My beloved brothers and sisters, it is the Lord’s work we are doing when we support the Generalísimo. A sacred duty to help him in every possible way.”

Taking a deep breath, Padre Ignacio patted back a strand of rebellious hair that had escaped onto his forehead. “And now let us all take a moment to bow our heads and pray for God’s blessing.”

While the rest of the parishioners gazed at their feet, Agustín watched as the priest wiped a small drop of spit that had landed on his chin. He was struck by the transformation in front of him. During the homily, Padre Ignacio had appeared almost possessed by his incendiary words, but once the tirade had ended, he reverted to his usual awkward manner. It was as if the sermon had been issued by a being that was no longer in the room—a collective awakening from the darkest of dreams.

The rest of the mass proceeded uneventfully, and after Holy Communion, Padre Ignacio took his place behind the altar one last time. Lifting his arms in front of him, palms turned up toward the heavens, he recited the closing prayers. “In the name of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever, world without end. Amen.” The members of the congregation followed along, moving their arms to make the sign of the cross in unison. “The mass has ended. Let us go in peace, my brethren, to love and serve the Lord.”

Peace? Love? Agustín might’ve laughed, had he not felt such a strong desire to scream. Irony is lost on this man, he thought. Either that, or his soul is black.

***

Stepping out into the bright sunlight, Jorge held his daughter, Luz, by the hand as the two filed past the graves that encircled the church like a moat. A tall, sinewy man, he was still blessed with a full head of black hair, though it was beginning to cede some territory around the edges to a contingent of wiry white interlopers.

A few feet ahead, Jorge’s cousin Benigno put on his cap and was sauntering past other members of the family who’d stopped to pay their respects at a relative’s grave. When Luz spied him, the six-year-old released her father’s grip and rushed up behind the young man, pressing her small fists against the backs of his thighs. Pulling up short, Benigno bent forward and peered at the girl upside down, through his open legs.
“Who’s that?” he declared, in mock anger, “I must know who’s responsible!”

“Gelasio,” she said, making her voice as deep as she could, in imitation of her older brother. She shifted from side to side in a futile attempt to hide.

“That doesn’t sound like Gelasio to me,” said Benigno, standing up and spinning around to face her. “A-ha! ¡Eres tú!” His eyebrows, thick as caterpillars, darted upward. “You tried to fool me.” He tapped the tip of her nose with his index finger.

Coming to a stop alongside the two, Jorge watched as his daughter swatted away his cousin’s finger, her high-pitched giggles punctuating her movements.

Circling behind her, Benigno bent forward and hoisted Luz onto his shoulders. “Now, my dear Lucita, you’ve got the best view in town.” Slowly, he began to ferry her toward the iron gate, the only opening in the six-foot-high stone enclosure that girded the cemetery grounds. “And don’t even think about pulling my hair.”

Vale,” she nodded, as she took off his cap and began tugging gently on his unruly black mane, rolling the short strands between her fingers. “Now you’ve got little bull horns!”

Benigno stopped in place and began scraping his right foot against the ground, pantomiming a bull about to attack.

“¡Toro, toro!” she squealed loudly.

“Young lady, keep your voice down,” said Jorge. “Remember where you are.”

From atop Benigno’s shoulders, Luz stared down at her father with contrition and nodded. “Perdón, Papá.”

Her solemn look nearly caused him to crack a smile, but he managed to maintain his cool expression—and parental authority.

“Hey! What’s that you’re doing?” asked Benigno, drawing Luz’s attention back to him. “I told you not to pull on my ears.”

Following Benigno’s lead, Luz grabbed the young man’s ears. An easy enough task, thought Jorge, given how much they protruded. The two had played this game many times before, and Luz knew her cues by heart. As he observed them, Jorge couldn’t help but admire his cousin’s easy rapport with children. Probably because Benigno was still like a child himself in so many ways.

“That tickles!” he said, as Luz tugged on his earlobes. She laughed in delight.

Once the two had cleared the iron gate, Benigno deposited her back on the ground, and Jorge watched as his daughter darted off to join the other children playing nearby. He and Benigno began to chat, and soon they were joined by Jorge’s wife, and other family and friends, all eager to catch up on the latest news and gossip.

Though they’d just spent an hour listening to Padre Ignacio’s somber vision of the world, their talk remained light, insignificant. When it came right down to it, today’s homily had not been very different from any of the priest’s sermons of the past few months. In their garishness, they described horrors that seemed distant and unreal, making them much easier to dismiss.

As the group exchanged pleasantries, Jorge noticed two people emerging from the church alongside Padre Ignacio. Laughing loudly, Abelardo and Digna were eager to be seen socializing with the priest. After bidding the cleric an ostentatious farewell, the husband and wife exited through the iron gate and paraded down the path, stopping to greet the various groups of townspeople along the way, as if they were the hosts of a party acknowledging their invited guests.

“Steel yourselves,” whispered Benigno to the others. “Here they come.”

Abelardo’s stout body was topped by a round full head, almost entirely devoid of hair, and the man rarely went out in public without sporting one of his navy-blue berets. Though his wife Digna was a few inches taller, she was no slimmer for the added height. In conversation, she had a tendency to flutter her right hand in front of her and rest it on her sternum, as if she were continually shocked by whatever was being related. To Jorge, the gesture was irritating, linked as it was to her habit of fiddling with the gold cross around her neck—an anniversary present from Abelardo. The charm wasn’t extravagant, but it was more than anything the other men in town could’ve afforded to give their wives, and Digna displayed it like a crown jewel.

Bos días,” boomed Abelardo, addressing Jorge’s group in galego, the local dialect. Though greetings and smiles were exchanged, these were soon followed by an awkward pause, which did not deter the man or his wife in the least.

“What a glorious morning the Lord has given us,” said Digna. “Wouldn’t you all agree?” She smiled in the direction of Jorge’s wife.

“Yes. Yes, it is,” replied Carmen.

“It most certainly is,” said Abelardo. “Indeed, we have truly been blessed. Why this fine weather puts me in a reflective state of mind…”

The sound of Abelardo clearing his throat prompted a fearful silence for it signaled that the man was preparing to deliver another one of his lengthy monologues—a thought that made Jorge cringe. Apparently, Benigno shared his sentiment because he quickly entered the breach.

“And speaking of this fine weather,” said Benigno, “let’s hope it holds up this month, as we all begin sowing our fields.” As he spoke, he shot at glance at Jorge, who immediately looked down and bit his lip to keep from laughing.

Luis, Jorge’s brother, soon followed Benigno’s lead. “Yes, the temperature’s been ideal. I hear that over by the banks of Miño, it’s been raining quite—”

“Well, regardless of the weather,” said Abelardo, cutting him off, “all of Galicia is blessed to be spared the disruptions of war. Thanks to General Franco and his troops, we are not on the front lines, and our most serious concern is merely the threat of rain. Why I was saying the very same thing to my nephew just the other day. Have I mentioned that Juan is an officer in the Guardia Civil?”

Only every single chance you get, thought Jorge. The others nodded politely, but the weariness was evident in their faces had Abelardo bothered to look.

Bueno, pues,” he continued, “as I told Juan, the only reason we’re safe here is thanks to the work of upstanding young men like him. In fact…” He slapped Benigno hard on the back. “Juan was just promoted, and I bet it won’t be long before he moves up the ranks again. Such an honor for our family. It’s clear that Galicia—indeed, our entire country—is blessed to have such fine patriots leading us toward a brighter future.”

As Jorge watched the man speak, he knew that it had taken Abelardo every last ounce of self-control to sit through the entire mass, as he waited for the first possible opportunity to share the news of his nephew’s promotion with anyone who’d listen.

Beaming at her husband, Digna picked up where her husband had left off. “Why just the other day,” she said, “my brother Emilio—that’s Juan’s father—had us over for dinner to celebrate the good news. Oh, they served the best of everything: wine, chorizo, even a roast. Can you imagine such luxury? A roast in wartime! And the bica.” She rolled her eyes in a show of ecstasy. “It was the moistest cake I’ve ever eaten.” Turning to Carmen, she added, “My sister-in-law traveled all the way to Trives to buy it from the finest bakery in town. Everyone knows that’s where the best bica is made.”

As Digna spoke, Jorge glanced at his wife and noticed the muscles of Carmen’s jaw clenching.

“Nothing’s too good for Juan,” said Digna. “In fact, just the day before—”

“And speaking of food,” said Benigno, smiling beatifically as he interrupted her, “you’ve done such a wonderful job of describing your nephew’s celebration that you’re making our mouths water.” He addressed the group. “I think it’s time we all follow your example, and head home to eat, don’t you agree?”

Before he’d even finished the question, everyone but Abelardo and Digna had replied with a nod, and a “Pues, sí,” or some other murmur of assent.

“It has truly been a blessing,” said Benigno, drawing out his words, in imitation of Abelardo’s preferred verbal tic. “A blessing to see you both.”

As Benigno gave Abelardo and Digna each a small, ceremonial bow, it was clear to Jorge that his cousin’s sarcasm had not been concealed beneath the thin veil of his exaggerated sincerity. Before departing, the young man tipped his cap one last time.

“May you all have a glorious Sunday. And now I’m off to corral the children.”

The entire performance left Abelardo and Digna speechless—an occurrence almost as rare as that roast in wartime. Though Carmen did her best to hide her relief, Jorge spotted the small shift in his wife’s expression—a lightening of her spirit, if you will—and it filled him with gladness. His joy was short-lived, though, for soon after he noticed the look on Abelardo’s face, which betrayed an entirely different emotion.