I really wanted to sit down and continue writing my never-ending novel, rather than begin some tale based on Spanish village life; but one in particular comes to mind, about an old blind woman, ugly as sin, who lived all alone and became a miser. She was the first and only miser I ever came to observe. I was going to say 'know', but now I realize that I never really knew her, and I suppose that no-one else in the village did. To all of us she was just Aurorita la Ciega, little blind Aurora, a hunched-up, black-garbed crone who had for many years hobbled up and down the narrow cobbled streets on the arm of her younger sister. She too was dressed in dusty, sunbleached black, and was almost indistinguishable from Aurora, but she could see. Aurora always carried a little esparto-grass basket over her free arm. It was filled with bruised tomatoes, three or four unfresh eggs, and perhaps a few potatoes or some oranges already marred with greenish white mould; all donated by fellow villagers to whom the sisters would try to sell them back. Rather than buy their own leftovers, the pestered housewives preferred to deposit small coins directly into Aurora's outstretched hand.
The two sisters ate little and had few expenses, spending almost the entire day walking up and down the dusty streets of the village. Then Juana had a heart attack and died, and people wondered vaguely what would become of Aurora. No one wished to be responsible for her, she had no known family, and above all, she was blind.
The old woman had not been born blind. She had not been born ugly either. In her youth she had been a slim, attractive girl with wide blue eyes, dark chestnut hair and a fine straight nose. However she was not an educated person and could barely read or write. This was common to many of her generation and yet they managed to get along in life without ever reading a book or newspaper. Aurora had other interests. She did not have many friends, but on hot summer evenings she would sit on the low wall outside her home and watch the young men go by on their way up to the bar in the Glorieta. She wished she lived in the village and could wear pretty shoes and clothes instead of having to work in the fields with the rest of her family. Her father was an aparcero, someone who looked after a richer man's farm property or cortijo, and without investing more than his own labour, which was often hard enough, at the end of the season he would reap in half the profit, or more if he were clever. Those were good years for agriculture. Some who remember the times say it rained quite frequently, and although water was not really abundant, the wells were full and the crops never lacked what is now known as the 'precious liquid'. There was also less wind and the now bare, eroded mountainside was cultivated in steep little terraces. Men ploughed the land with the help of their well-fed mules and worked from dawn till dusk.
The house where Aurora lived did not belong to her father, but he had been born there, son of the previous aparcero who had died in the same old wooden bed where both Aurora and her sister Juana had been born. The pine frame was still sturdy and free of worm, and the wool-stuffed mattress was occasionally washed and bleached dry in the white heat of the mediterranean sun. The two young girls would help their father in the fields and their mother in the kitchen. When a pig was killed each October and put on the well-scrubbed, heavy wooden table, Aurora would watch fascinated as the boiling water was poured over the taut new-dead skin, and her father took out his dagger-like knife and carefully shaved off all those golden bristles which glistened wet in the evening sun. All winter the family would eat the meat of that pig, transformed into black morcilla blood sausage, white longaniza and red chorizo, while the hams would be cured and hung from the beams of the coolest, darkest room in the old farmhouse.
Aurora was secretly dissatisfied with this simple country life and would spend hours in the room she shared with Juana. There hung a long, cracked and blackened mirror in its carved mahogany frame, a leftover from the real owner of the cortijo who now lived in a townhouse on the tree-shaded square known as the Glorieta. Aurora would stand in front of the mirror and raise her cheap cotton skirt well above her knees, raising a shapely leg and pointing her toe. She spent minutes looking critically at her face; at those long-lashed blue eyes accented by finely curved brows. She brushed her shiny chestnut hair and admired her chin in profile. She approved of her image and wished others to admire her too.
On Sunday mornings Aurora and Juana would put on their best dresses and walk briskly up the dusty cart track which led to the village. They would arrive at the Glorieta before the church doors opened for mass, and spend fifteen minutes sitting beneath the pepper trees on the low bench-like wall which enclosed the village square. This wall separated the Glorieta and the church from the café and adjoining inn, and from the tall, elegant if somewhat shabby townhouses with their intricately-wrought iron balconies and peeling stucco façades. The Church of the Assumption, an attractive ochre-coloured building with a mudéjar tower and slate-tiled roof, looked out on to the far end of the Glorieta, its wide doors facing those of the Town Hall. The villagers, all dressed up in their finest clothes, would pass the Town Hall and mount the three stone steps leading to the square, which they had to cross in order to enter the church.
On one such Sunday, when the two sisters were waiting for high-arched doors to open,and watching the villagers walking slowly across the Glorieta, Aurora noticed Enrique López for the first time. He was not going to mass, but to the café. Aurora knew that may of the young men in the village only attended church at Christmas and Easter or for a wedding or funeral, and she envied them. Although she liked watching those who did spend an hour in the dim candle-lit nave, she would far rather have been out enjoying herself with those who did not go in. Enrique López, she thought, was going to the café in order to spend time with Mari-Trini, the proprietor's pretty daughter who served at the bar on Sundays, helping her parents cope with the extra customers. Aurora knew that that Enrique had become very taken with the girl: Mari-Trini was agreeably plump with dark flashing eyes and very black, somewhat coarse hair, swept up in a chignon where she often wore a red carnation or a sprig of jasmine, gypsy style. Enrique was a cut above most of the village boys. He had studied at the seminary in the provincial capital of Almería, and now he worked at the local pharmacy dispensing medicines with a knowledgeable air. He had never intended to be ordained as a priest, but had willingly entered the seminary knowing that it was the only place where he could be both instructed and educated. It had been easy to convince the learned brothers that he had no vocation after all, and now, thought Aurora, he was looking for a rich wife to further his ambitions. Mari-Trini was rich by village standards. She was the inkeeper's only child, and apart from the inn and café, her father owned a fine cortijo with several hectares of fertile land. This was well-situated half way up the mountain track which led to the hamlet of Vélez, where fresh cool springwater flowed in abundance and filled the reservoirs below. It was where Paco García would spend his Sundays while his wife and daughter tended the bar.
As Enrique López passed Aurora, she looked up and managed to catch his eye. He smiled slightly but that was all. His pace quickened and he disappeared into the café. Juana nudged her sister and giggled. "Do you fancy him?" she asked. "¿Te gusta, verdad?" Juana was only sixteen and very silly.
"¡Cállate niña! Shut up!" said Aurora in a low, angry voice. "Come on, they are already going into church. We'll be late if we don't move now."
"Enrique López doesn't go to mass. Nor does Mari-Trini García!" retorted Juana as she smoothed her full skirt and go up from the wall. "I bet you'd like to skip mass too."
Aurora said nothing as she followed her sister into the Church of the Assumption, but secretly she thought that Juana was somewhat stupid and far too plump. Juana would never attract the attention of someone like Enrique López.
A year passed by. Aurora was now nearly twenty and Enrique López had been married one fine Saturday to Mari-Trini at the Church on the Glorieta. The courtship had been rapid, following the local custom: Enrique had simply 'carried away' Mari-Trini for a weekend in Almería, and to save the girl's good name, her irate father had sternly insisted on an immediate marriage.
The two sisters did not attend the wedding. They stood in the square with many other villagers and waited for the newly-weds to come out into the sunlight where a professional photographer from the city was standing, a black cloth draped over the bellows and lens of his large plate camera. Aurora stared at the young couple as they posed for posterity on the steps. She thought maliciously that Mari-Trini would soon become fat and blowzy; her already rounded figure would rapidly turn heavy and sag with repeated pregnancies, a fate that even the richest village girls could not escape. She almost managed to convince herself that she would not have liked to be in the young bride's shoes, however attractive she found Enrique López. Then she realized that she had been staring in such a blatantmanner that Enrique was smiling cynically at her, before turning towards his wife for the ritual photographic kiss.
"For the love of God, don't stare like that," pleaded Juana. "People will think all sorts of things."
"And what do I care how people think?" said Aurora, now defiant as she tossed back her long dark hair, its reddish highlights gleaming in the sun.
"Mama says you should pin up your hair now you are grown up. You look just like a gypsy girl," remarked her sister.
Aurora thought about the local gitanillas with their black tresses tied in thick pony tails. Their skins were often coarse and marked by continuous exposure to the sun. Their lustrous dark eyes were so often dimmed by the blight of trachoma, said to be caused by the dry esparto grass which they gathered on the ochre hills and wove into baskets and intricate mats.
"I'm not at all like one of those gypsies," she said as she coiled her hair round her fingers. "And I'm sure Enrique López doesn't care for them at all."
"Why can't you stop thinking about Enrique López? He's married now so you can't have him."
Aurora's eyes narrowed as she looked at her younger sister."And why not?" she said in a low whisper, "¿Pórque no?"
Enrique did not continue working at the pharmacy after his marriage. His father-in-law decided to spend more time at his cortijo on the mountainside and let his daughter and her husband run the inn and café on the square. Mari-Trini's mother left the kitchen for most of the week and joined Paco García in the old farmhouse, where they lived in semi-retirement.
Summer came and business in the café was brisk. Mari-Trini, already heavy with her first child, no longer worked behind the bar, but out of sight in the kitchen. Word had it that Enrique was looking for a girl to help him out: a pretty local wench who could attract the villagers away from the new bar which had opened on the other side of the Glorieta. Aurora dressed herself in her Sunday finery and went to ask if it were true that they were needing help. Enrique and Mari-Trini agreed to employ her, and the new barmaid's peasant parents were only too pleased to receive almost all their elder daughter's monthly wage.
When Aurora was twenty-three, she still worked in the café. Mari-Trini was already the mother of two baby boys and no longer prepared the tapas in the kitchen, but looked after the inn next door. As predicted by Aurora, Enrique's wife had rapidly become fat and her dark eyes had lost their lustre. Her days were fully occupied by her children, and in the afternoon she would often receive the visit of her mother, supposedly to help her out at the inn. The two women would sit out on the balcony and gossip about each and every village scandal. From time to
time, as she dug her crochet hook in and out of endless lacy mats, Enrique's mother-in-law would make a symbolic stab at Aurora. "I don't think that girl is working as well as she used to. He doesn't even keep the place as clean as you did in your day, and that's not saying much! When I looked in this afternoon, there was old Narciso Hernández complaining about his tapa. He said his sardine was almost raw. That's just the way to lose clients and Narciso is a regular. You should get Enrique to be more strict with the girl."
Mari-Trini looked at her mother, "Do you think there's anything between them?" she asked.
"Between Aurora and your husband? Well, you should know better than I. But be careful, Mari-Trini, keep your eye on that Enrique or you might just be in for an unpleasant surprise. You know, I remember seeing young Aurora staring at him on your wedding day, just as you came out of the church. How can I say it, hija mía? She was little more than a child, yet there was lust in her eyes. And he smiled back at her."
Yes, Enrique had smiled at Aurora, and now, four years later, he continued to do so as he watched her gliding through the kitchen into the bar with the hot tapas, or pouring out coarse red wine to the local farmers who dropped in of an evening for a game of cards or dominoes. At first he had taken little notice of her, an illiterate peasant's daughter dressed in a cheap, gaudy cotton skirt, she was just another local girl who happened to be taking his wife's place in the bar. Then gradually he found himself comparing her neat figure and small rounded breasts with Mari-Trini's fat flabby body. Her glossy hair swung loose on her shoulders, whereas his wife seemed to be perpetually walking around the inn with her head covered in curling papers. Aurora spoke softly, never raising her voice. Mari-Trini, on the other hand, was always shouting and scolding their eldest son, now a toddler, while Juanito the baby clung to her swollen, blue-veined breast. Sometimes he longed to be free again, just to get away, go to Barcelona or Madrid and see the bright city lights. Here in the village he could only foresee a life of drab, day-to-day routine with more and more mouths to feed as he got older, and Mari-Trini becoming more and more like her mother as each day passed. Occasionally he wished that he had stayed on at the pharmacy, where he had been able to save money. That way he could have gone north to the big cities or he could have crossed the ocean and gone to America, to Argentina where people made their fortunes and returned to Andalucía really rich to end their days in style. He felt that all he had learned in his years at the seminary was being wasted away behind Paco García's bar, where he spent hours chatting inanely to the locals or watching Aurora as she poured out the wine. Those blue eyes were really magnificent, he thought, and unusual in this part of the world. He wondered whether someone in her family had come from the north in far-off times. Mari-Trini was so different: she almost looked like a gypsy woman or an Arab from across the water. But Aurora never made any obvious advances. She never insinuated that her feelings towards Enrique were not just those of an employee. Her beautiful eyes were impassive when he smiled at her, or asked her what she did in her free time when she returned to the old cortijo and her family.
"Isn't it a long way for you to walk home, Aurora?" he asked her one evening as he was about to close the bar. "You could stay here, you know. There is plenty of room at the inn and I think Mari-Trini would like the company, and perhaps a little help with the children."
Aurora accepted the offer, and shortly after she moved her few possessions into one of the back rooms at the inn. Enrique was surprised to see how little she owned or treasured. She did not even bring the usual cheap plaster statuette of the Holy Virgin which most young girls kept in their bedrooms, or a rosary. Perhaps she did not recite her Ave Marías and Paternosters before going to bed. And he remembered that since working at the bar, Aurora no longer attended mass on Sundays.
At first Mari-Trini eyed Aurora with supicion tinged with jealousy, but when she was able to observe at first hand the girl's indifferent manner towards Enrique, she befriended her, and Aurora seemed to appreciate her new attitude. On Sunday afternoons the bar was closed and Aurora did not go so frequently to visit her family, but remained at the inn and would play with the little boys or sometimes have a game of draughts with Mari-Trini. Enrique usually absented himself on these days and could often be seen playing cards at the new bar across the square,
which remained open on Sundays. He no longer seemed to seek the presence of his wife in his free time, but neither was he known to be in any other female company. His feeling of frustration grew as each month passed. All his ambitions seemed to have come to nothing and his whole life consisted in earning enough money to bring up his two children and any more that would probably arrive. Enough for most mortals, he realized, and probably the most satisfying way of life to many, but something intangible always appeared to be lacking: a craving for another environment, far away from the closed-in atmosphere of the village, for other company over the card table, for a more stimulating kind of life, he knew not what, but the yearning and the dissatisfaction were always present. At the same time he felt that life with Mari-Trini was not all he had expected. She was not the attractive, energetic companion he had wished for, and had sunk into the rut of domesticity without much complaint apart from the occasional nagging of the most trivial kind. She had let herself become the typical Andalusian madre de familia and appeared to have no other interests but tending to her children. She was no longer interested in her own phyical appearance. She slouched around the inn with her hair either greasy or in curlers, her dowdy skirt dusty from the street after her trip to the market place to buy provisions of goat meat, pig liver and lights, chick peas and sardines for the visitors to the inn and her own family. Only Aurora seemed to retain some spark of life about her as she sped efficiently from kitchen to bar, alert and each day more elegantly dressed, her well-combed long chestnut hair always scrupulously clean and sweet-scented, as if she never came in contact with the grease-filled smoke from the cast-iron plancha on the kitchen range. But sometimes Enrique would catch her staring through the large glass-paned door to the patio at the the back of the bar, where the banana tree thrived and somehow managed to produce the only edible village-grown bananas. She would gaze past the tree and over the mountain range which separated the village from the sea, just discernible through the summer heat haze. Her expression seemed to reveal a longing for unfulfilled desires, and Enrique could sense that this simple peasant girl had other ambitions for herself, and that she wanted to escape from the village before it was too late.
From time to time Enrique would imagine himself in some far-off wondrous dream place, and he was not alone there, but with Aurora. So gradually Aurora became part of Enrique's fantasy world and at the same time, the means to an end, a way to free himself forever of his village wife and humdrum existence. He no longer saw her as the uncouth peasant girl she was, but as a mysterious and very desirable woman; intelligent and ambitious in her own right, his perfect companion for the future in that dream-life which no longer seemed impossible.
One late Saturday evening in the bar, he watched her as,sleeves rolled up,she wiped the wooden table tops, her low-cut blouse revealing the little valley between her firm young breasts, unmarred by childbirth. Her narrow hips swayed slightly with each movement of the dampened cloth as it whirled round the surface of the table in her small, fine-boned hand with its neat little fingernails each disclosing a perfect half-moon at the base. As he stared at the hard round buttocks, just visible through the silky material of her skirt, desire welled up in him, and suddenly he found himself standing behind her, leaning over the gentle curve of her back, his strong brown hands caressing first the taut skin of her belly, before rising to the sweet fullness of her breasts. Aurora did not flinch or cry out, but seemed to press closer to him for a moment before turning her head back over her shoulder and looking into his eyes, her own shining with desire. "What do you want, Señorito Enrique? Do you want me?"
Enrique appeared to come to his senses as he pulled back, releasing the girl's breasts as he edged away, but passion was in his voice as he said, "Yes, I want you, Aurora, but not now, here in the bar.
Tomorrow, meet me at midday at Juan Sastre's old cortijo. There has been no one there since he died and his two sons are in Barcelona. Meet me there, Aurora, will you?"
Aurora looked at her employer and nodded in assent. She said nothing more, but untied her white apron and left the bar through the side door which led to the inn and her little room.
"Goodnight," murmured Enrique, but the door had already closed and there was no response.
But at noon on Sunday she was there waiting for him, sitting on the edge of the sunken balsa in the shade of a gnarled fig tree, her smooth brown legs uncovered and her feet bare, as she tried to touch the water below with her toes. The balsa was nearly empty but the frogs were still there, many sunning themselves on an old plank which someone had thrown in. Enrique remembered that Juan Sastre's nearest neighbour was now using the water to irrigate his orchard which lay three hundred metres to the south, and he wondered whether they would be filling the balsa today before it dried up.
Then Aurora noticed his presence beside her and pulled down her skirt over her knees as she raised her legs on to the firm edge of the balsa and laughed up at him.
"I would like to jump in and swim," she said, "but there isn't nearly enough water for that." As she spoke there was a rushing, gurgling, sucking noise in the narrow canal, and then the clear cool water cascaded over the edge, scattering the frogs on the plank beneath.
"Go on then! Let's get in. You can easily climb down on to the ledge at halfwater mark before jumping." He stripped off his cotton trousers and blue shirt, throwing himself into the shallow water just a few metres from the flowing torrent, his feet stirring up the black-green silt from the bottom. The frogs scattered even further afield, seeking refuge in a clump of brown waterweed.
Aurora put her hand to her waist and the long full skirt slid to her feet. Then she unbuttoned her blouse and cast it aside with her shoes. She wore no corset, noticed Enrique, just a fine slip which seemed to mould her lithe body as it rippled silkily in the light summer breeze. She eased herself over the edge and put her feet firmly on the cement ledge. The water was still rushing in and the level was rising rapidly, so that when she jumped nimbly off, it almost reached her waist, and the white slip floated up around her hips. Enrique was now close to her; his arm was outstretched, and laughing, she took his hand as together they approached the transparent curtain of falling water and passed under it, so that they were no longer visible in the balsa, but seemed to have entered another secret world behind the shimmering waterfall.
Aurora's silken slip now clung to her wet body and her nut-brown hair looked dark and bedraggled, enhancing the fine bone structure of her face as her moist eyes gazed up at Enrique. He held her ever closer round the waist until the soft wet material creased and got in his way, so he eased the flimsy garment over the girl's head and cast it into the water. Aurora groped blindly for what he was still wearing round his loins until that too slid down and both were naked under the crystalline waterflow as it rushed down its course from the spring-filled balsa in the mountain village above. Aurora's long hair lightly touched Enrique's olive skin and he could sense her fresh musky odour of arousal as he sought her wondrous secrets and caressed her beneath those other, darker curls, while she giggled and became feline in her wriggling. The two heated bodies became ever more wet and slippery as they broke through the cascading curtain and the sun's rays were absorbed by the tiny water-beads on their skin. Enrique slid down along Aurora's still standing form so that he was almost shoulder-deep and kneeling in the now clear water. Aurora felt weak for the blood had left her head and rushed ever downward as she searched for Enrique, and felt the soft hardness of his maleness in her hand. All the time the water rushed down upon them, and lust engulfed them to the point of blissful exhaustion, until the cascade ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and they needed rest. They climbed weakly to the ledge and then to the dry ochre earth, where they lay down on Aurora's skirt beneath the fig tree, and their naked bodies were fanned dry by the warm summer breeze until they found themselves awake and alive once more. Now Enrique felt even closer to Aurora as she lay on her back, dozing on the yellow grass, oblivious to wandering ants and tallow-coloured scorpions. He sensed her sweet breath on his face as he whispered in her ear, his tongue caressing the lobe, from which he blew away the strands of damp hair. Then he found himself on top of her, but lightly, so that there was still some space between them, his hairless chest barely touching the nipples of her breasts which hardened so that he could feel them against his own, and her moist lips and tongue sought his as the lips between her thighs came pressing against him until he was erect to bursting point. He slid into her, feeling the warmth and her strong legs holding him as they eased up over his shoulders and clasped his neck; and they loved gently and vigourously until it was as both had known it would be, for they were as Adam and Eve, first come together after a million years. They were one at last.
The deep shadows lengthened across the Glorieta and the sparrows chattered amid the yellow-green leaves of the pepper trees. The village was preparing for the Autumn Feria, when horses, mules and other livestock would be admired or criticized, bought and sold during the dancing and drinking and general flurry of festivities. The bars spread out on to the pavement and there were even tables on the street which had been cut off to traffic. The farmers came down from the mountains dressed in their best and the gypsies covered themselves in their finery.