The girls were a flare of flashing eyes and exotic colours, flouncing in their spotted skirts, shoes tapping and long dangling earrings catching the moonlight as they danced to the sound of El Rubio's passionate notes on the guitar. They listened to El Nono who sang half-drunk in deep hoarse tones and needed no accompaniment because he was almost totally deaf, only appreciating the sound of his own voice.
In the café-bar on the Glorieta, little had changed. However, Aurora no longer served at the tables or carried hot tapas from the kitchen, and Enrique was also absent, his place taken once more by his ageing father-in-law, while Mari-Trini, fat and sleazy, bustled around between the clients, forever wiping down the wooden table tops with a damp and dirty dishcloth, often with two little boys in her wake. Two years had passed since her husband had suddenly disappeared with Aurora, and she had heard no word from him since that hot, heavy Autumn evening when she had found a scribbled not on the dresser, announcing his departure for a new and better life. He had promised to send money for the children as soon as he found work, but month after month there was no news and no money and Mari-Trini gave up all hope of hearing from him again. She had swallowed her pride and visited the old cortijo where Juana had received her not unkindly. But she too had no news. Aurora had sent no word to her family since her disappearance and no one knew her whereabouts. Perhaps the couple had really gone to South America, to Buenos Aires or Comodoro de Rivadía, where they would make their fortune before returning to the mother country. America was so far away and letters took so long or never arrived, so that many families eventually lost all contact with relations on the other side of the ocean. And then Juana became angry and told of the scandal that Enrique and Aurora had brought upon her family. How people no longer smiled at her in the street or when she went to the market place. And how difficult it was for her to work in the fields or in the kitchen until her hands were rough and calloused, her face prematurely lined from over-exposure to the sun. Juana was only twenty-three but she had lost the bloom of youth and was a many Andalusian women who shared her lot. She looked no particular age, and unlike most, she boasted of no novio, no betrothed with whom whe could eventually hope to settle down and raise a family. But she did not envy her sister-in-law who had little to look forward to apart from watching her two boys grow until they were of an age to work in the café or on their grandfather's land. One day a letter arrived from Barcelona: Enrique López was dead. He had caught the dreaded smallpox and already debilitated by drink and poverty, his organism had been unable to resist the fatal course of the disease. There was no mention of Aurora and the letter came from Enrique's ex-landlord in a Barcelona suburb where the unfortunate victim had been unceremoniously buried in a pauper's grave without having paid the rent. An official communication followed, and then Mari-Trini, after some discreet tears on her mother's shoulder, dressed herself in eternal dusty black and settled down to the life of a respectable Andalusian widow, or so it seemed. The sun still shone whitely over the ochre hills and the red desert dust blew over the stony fields until it reached the sea.
The village was timeless: nothing had really changed. One morning Aurora awoke from her state of lethargy in the epidemic ward of the Provincial Hospital. She could hear the sound of birds chirping in the trees on the avenue, and for the first time in weeks she felt almost pleased to be alive. She tried to open her eyes as she raised her thin body in the narrow bed. She wished to see beyond the window opposite and into the world outside the limitations of the sterile room. She had been taken there after Enrique's death in the sordid rented lodgings near the docks, where the couple had lived since leaving Andalucía. At first they had been full of ideas and ambition. The world was theirs for the taking: a job, money quickly earned, the passage to America... but all had proved to be no more than a dream. Enrique had found work unloading crates at the dock, and Aurora had spent hours toiling behind the bar in a sleazy portside café, but the money had not rolled in. Enrique had taken to drinking and playing cards after his day of work. Aurora saw their savings waste away to nothing, and their earnings too. They seemed to live from day to day in an endless grey rut of routine, heightened only by Enrique's drunken scenes when he lost more than usual at cards. Instead of putting money aside for the passage to Buenos Aires, he found himself in debt. And yet, on those rare occasions when he was not drunk, he would once again see Aurora as before; the beautiful nymph of his dreams veiled by a shimmering curtain of cascading water. And she would respond to him as on the first day, her thirst unquenched despite the months of toil and privation, aching legs and rough-skinned hands, and the flame of passion would rise again in both, illuminating their faces with the light of desire so that they forgot the squalid lodging-rooms and found themselves transported into an erotic world of illusion.
Aurora raised herself higher on her elbow. She could just make out the shape of the window opposite and see the greying light. Was it dawn? Or dusk? Was her sight impaired? Was she going blind? She had a sudden desire to be up and out of the dreary hospital; to pack her few belongings in her suitcase and return to Andalusia and the sunlit streets of her village. She was still only twenty-six, young enough to start afresh. Her ambitions had not left her. They had not seen fruition because of Enrique, but now Enrique was gone and she was no longer chained to him by that passionate lust which had become the most important part of their relationship. She was free to go home and do as she wished with her life. She had even managed to save a little money, despite Enrique's gambling. She could stay a while with her parents and Juana at the cortijo, and when she regained her strength, she would make more plans for the future, her future, and surely one day her dreams of a new world would be fulfilled. She would be rich and beautiful and the streets of Buenos Aires appeared before her half-closed eyes. Those streets were paved with gold. Aurora returned to the village. No one noticed the arrival of the ageless little woman dressed in mourning weeds, black-stockinged legs in black, low-heeled shoes, a black veil hiding her hair and face. Just one more nondescript peasant stepping down from the coach at the venta and stumbling off into the yellowing countryside, weighed down by a cheap grey suitcase as she disappeared down the dusty lane to the house where she had been born. She wore the veil not only to protect herself from the critical stares of those who had known her in the village, but also to shield her eyes from the bright southern sunlight. They still hurt and she had difficulty in seeing any detail. All seemed to appear through a thick grey haze without definition or contrast. In Barcelona, the doctor had told her that she would see again as before, that all was a matter of time. The scars around her eyes would heal and her vision would be unimpaired. She would be the real Aurora once again, her face unmarred, her soul unscarred. Time... And time passesd. Her family took her in without recrimination, with kindness even, or was it pity? Aurora wondered why. Then she saw her waist thicken and her breasts swell and morning sickness overcame her daily. Something she had only vaguely contemplated earlier now became reality. She was pregnant. Enrique had not freed her after all, but still had a hold on her through his posthumous child. She willed the life within her not to exist, almost praying to that stern but allegedly compassionate god of her childhood that it might not be born. But her half-prayers were to no avail. As each week passed, her belly swelled up and she could feel the fluttering kicks against its walls as the foetus within quickened and fought to live inside her womb. One evening her father died. He just toppled over suddenly at supper, victim of a massive stroke. He had never suspected his daughter's pregnancy, for after five months she was still far slimmer than her sister Juana. Nor had her mother, who, after the funeral service and the walling-up of the veneered coffin with its gilded crucifix in the whitewashed family niche, sank into a state of semi-idiocy, scarcely abandoning her wooden rocking-chair from morning to night. Now only Juana could observe her sister's condition, and Aurora no longer ventured forth into the village as she had at first, when she braved the gossip of the villagers, taking refuge behind her black veil. She realized that some even seemed to pity her because of her blindness, but she also knew that her sight was slowly returning: that she would not always have to make her way through life in a grey haze.
The two sisters worked harder than ever before on the land, scraping a living from between the stones, for their father was dead and their mother almost useless, although still physically fit. They both tried to ignore the fact of Aurora's coming motherhood as they toiled together in the fields. They did not call the midwife when her pains began one afternoon in late autumn. The days had shortened. It was almost dark and their mother slept soundly in the old double bed where she had lain for so many years beside her husband.
Juana, with instinctive peasant knowledge, helped deliver the child. It was a puny, wrinkled little girl, who screamed but weakly when turned upside down and slapped by her aunt. Aurora took the baby in her arms and stared at the wizened little face. So this was Enrique's daughter, she thought bitterly. How ugly she was! And upon reflection, Aurora realized that for the first time in so many months she could really see! She laid the infant on the bed and got up slowly, walking towards the old mirror in its mahogany frame. At last she could really look at herself and examine her face for imperfections. Surely she could not have changed much in less than a year. She opened her eyes as wide as possible and stared into the glass. Then she screamed, a short harsh animal cry. The pock-marked ruin of her face stared back at her, prematurely lined and irreversibly scarred; what she saw bore no resemblance to the fair Aurora who had stolen Mari-Trini García's husband and disappeared with him. It was the face of an old woman, pitted and twisted with screwed-up, bloodshot eyes. It was the ugliest human face that Aurora had ever seen or been able to imagine, grotesquely framed in a cloud of lustrous dark chestnut hair.
She turned away from the mirror and went back to the bed where her tiny daughter now lay peacefully asleep. Her decision was immediate. She took the heavily-stuffed pillow and pressed it firmly over the baby's head. She held it there remorselessly for seemed eternity, despite the ever-weakening movements and almost inaudible cries. Aurora closed her eyes and thought of the scores of newborn kittens whose lives she had snuffed out in a bucket of cold water. This was not so very different. At last all was still and she removed the pillow, carefully placing it beneath her dead child's head. She went down to the kitchen to find Juana and tell her of the baby's sudden, unexpected death. Did Juana believe that it had been a natural occurrence? She said nothing, but accompanied her sister with the tiny bundle to the disused well-shaft not far from the house.
The moon was already up, illuminating the eery landscape and the two sisters as they walked slowly along the well-trodden goat-track between the stunted carob trees. Juana was a step or two behind Aurora, who carried the dead child wrapped loosely in a towel, the tiny red feet visible between its folds. They said nothing to each other as they made their way across the arid stony ground towards the well which had been coverec with an old door and some heavy limestone boulders. Aurora put down the bundle and removed a medium-sized rock before pushing aside one corner of the door and staring down into the depths of the shaft. She took a small piece of stone from the ground and dropped it into the black void. She could hear it spinning down, bouncing against the circular brick wall, before finally, far, far below, she perceived a tiny echoing splash. Then she picked up the bundle and dropped it after the stone, whispering into the night, "Adios, Enrique. Estoy libre. I'm free." And all the while Juana looked on as she stood behind her elder sister, as impassive as the fig tree against whose trunk she leaned. The pale moonlight lit up both her expressionless face and the twisted silver branches of the tree, outlined against the dark, starless Andalusian sky.
For some ten years I had been living in the little white village which was now awakening to the boom of tourism and beginning to thrive on the sale of local woven fabrics, handmade on large wooden looms from narrow strips of remnant cotton, and from the heavy earthenware plates and pots, lead-glazed over primitive hues: blue-green copper, deep cobalt blue, rich yellow-brown iron oxide and purple-tinted manganese, thrown and fired in the traditional style dating back to Moorish times.
I first noticed Aurora la Ciega one spring morning shortly after my arrival, as I came up the steep hill which led to the bank. She was standing on the kerb, alone. Of course I must have seen her a few times previously, but always in the company of her sister, whose arm she never left, so it appeared that the two old women formed one black entity. I remembered that Juana had died some weeks previously. As I approached the hunched-up figure, head covered with a black woollen knitted square which shaded her eyes, she stretched out her arm towards me and touched mine with bony fingers.
"Please, Señora, help me across the street. I am blind and cannot go alone. ¡Que Dios se lo pague!"
I took her basket-free arm and led her across, noticing that her head barely reached my shoulder. Once on the opposite kerb, she gave me what might have been a smile on any other face, and I realized just how ugly the old woman was; pock-marked and wrinkled with twisted features and a great hairy wart on the bridge of her nose. Her eyes were closed as she murmured in a high-pitched, cracked voice, "Una limosna, por favor. I have no food and I'm alone in the world. ¡Que el Señor se lo pague!"
I quickly removed a five-peseta coin, a duro, from my purse, and slipped it into the outstretched palm. Did she open her eyes as she grasped it, or was it my imagination? No, they had been steely blue and she had looked at me with disdain as though she had received too little. And then, to my surprise, I saw her nimbly climb the flight of narrow stone steps which led to the bank, and go through the swing doors while I was still behind her. She made her way straight to the senior cashier who had just finished attending to a client, and once again stretched out her hand without saying a word. When she could feel the hard heaviness of a five-duro coin against her palm, she did not even mumble "¡Que Dios se lo pague!", but turned briskly around and shuffled out through the glass doors, head bowed low and eyes tightly closed.
I approached the cashier with my cheque. He was pleasant enough, and had not been born in the village.
"Does Aurora la Ciega visit you often, Manuel? Do you always give her money?" "Yes indeed. It's quite a toll because she won't even accept less than five duros any longer. Everyone gives her something because she's blind and lives all alone."
"Does she ever open her eyes?" I asked casually.
"What? Open her eyes? Never! She can't. She has no eyes, they say. They were pitted out by the pox when she was still a young woman."
I made no comment, but wondered to myself about those cold steel-blue eyes which I had seen so clearly just a few minutes earlier.
The following week I saw Aurora again. She was on her rounds, tapping her white cane on every door and collecting her five-duro piece or more from each household. Some doors did not open to her knock, and I could see the silhouette of the occupant peering out from behind lacy curtains until the blind woman continued down the street to her next victim. She not only visited private houses and banks, but the Post Office, the little shops, the stalls at the market place and the village's only real hotel, apart from the fonda or inn on the square. Even the Town Hall was not out of bounds to her, and all gave her money. The only place I never saw her enter was the old café-bar on the Glorieta, now run by Enrique López García, a middle-aged man who had worked for many years in Germany before returning to run his grandfather's business with his plump German wife. His mother, María Trinidad García, had committed suicide many years ago, I had heard. She had hanged herself from an old fig tree near the balsa which now belonged to the grandchildren of one Juan Sastre. It had been after this woman's death that Aurora and her sister Juana had moved from the cortijo where they had been born, to a small derelict house up near the Atalaya, as the old ruined Moorish watchtower was called. They had each had a small pension from the state; Aurora as a handicapped person and her sister for her years of agricultural labour. It must have been hard for them to survive at the time when Aurora did not overtly beg, but limited herself to selling fruit and eggs from her esparto-grass basket. Then Juana had died unexpectedly and Aurora was left on her own in the little house near the Atalaya with only one occasional visitor: Martirio.
Martirio Gómez Benavides worked at the Telephone Exchange where she ran the manually operated switchboard and listened in on the conversations of all and sundry. She lived in an elegant old townhouse on the Glorieta, inherited from her parents. It was not entirely her own property because Martirio had a married sister who live alone in Almería, long-abandoned by her husband, and an alcoholic brother who had disappeared up north. But for the present she lived there in style amid antique furniture and gloomy oil painting. Her late father had been an upright man of puritan beliefs despite his fervent catholicism. It was said that on the rare occasions when he made love to his wife, he would first turn all the religious painting to face the wall, so that the Holy Virgin and the saints would not be offended by the act of carnal love. Outwardly at least, Martirio had inherited many of her father's traits. She was always to be seen at mass on Sundays and feast days, her tight black curls cut short and brushed severely back over her somewhat long-lobed ears, accentuating the over-thick sensuous lips and typical North-African features, reminiscent of the Moorish tribes who inhabited the region centuries ago. Martirio, now well into middle age, had never married, in fact she despised the opposite sex and preferred the company of her separated sister in whose house she often spent the weekend.
At first people could not fathom why Martirio should visit Aurora la Ciega and help her around the house. She was not a person given to charitable actions, rather to the contrary. Despite this, she was known to be a beata a woman who attended many masses and never missed a funeral or memorial service for the dead. This included the annual service for the eternal rest of the soul of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, martyr to the Falangist cause, which had for many years been obligatory to all public servants. Martirio did not consider herself to be a servant of the public. From her seat at the switchboard, dialling long-distance numbers only if she felt so inclined - "Sorry, all the outside lines are blocked this morning," she felt in control of many destinies. She was a goddess in her own little world of wires and plugs, free to listen to all that passed through her headphones and free to pass on all relevant information to those it might or might not concern.
Aurora la Ciega had no telephone, but now she too attended Sunday mass, and it was Martirio Gómez who would lead her into the old Church of the Assumption. There she would sit out the hour-long service, mumbling in her high-pitched whine as shefingered her rosary beads, eyes tightly closed and head covered with a black shawl.
Many years previously, Martirio had been friendly not with Aurora, but with her sister Juana. Martirio had been little more than a child at the time. Her stern father, Don Ricardo Gómez, who owned the cortijo where the two sisters still lived and worked well after their parents' death. On weekends she often accompanied him to the peeling whitewashed farmhouse. Juana always served them a glass of sweet sticky anis with coconut cream-filled wafers, or rough homemade wine with red chorizo sausage and over-salty home-cured ham.
Juana had never married and sometimes her eyes expressed a yearning for a different kind of life. She started to pet and spoil young Martirio. She whispered little secrets in her ear, while Aurora sat silently beside the fireplace, her eyes tightly shut as she munched on the coconut wafers and sipped her glass of anis. Then one afternoon while Don Ricardo was out inspecting the tomato plants, Aurora suddenly looked up, and her eyes, no longer firmly closed, seemed to stare straight at her sister's face.
"What are you telling that girl? Can't you see she already knows too much about every person in this village? The child thrives on gossip. Why lead her on? Why don't you go out and play in the fields, Martirio, instead of hanging around here bothering two unfortunate hard-working women who do nothing but toil for your family?"
Martirio did not reply, but her expression was scornful. She unruffled her skirt and disappeared from the room, humming to herself as she went. But she had seen those piercing blue eyes. She had seen them wide open and accusing. She knew that the story of the empty eyesockets, their globes picked out by the pox, was a mere fable. Aurorita la Ciega could see as well as her sister Juana! So now, instead of limiting her visits to the cortijo to weekends, Martirio would often slip out after school and run down the narrow lane to meet Juana. She was always pleased to greet the child with open arms and make palomitas - sweet popcorn - in the blackened cast-iron frying-pan, not realizing that every time her back was turned, Martirio's innocent expression would change. Her dark Moorish eyes would harden as she taunted Aurora, once again mute and blind, telling her beads in the old rocking-chair. One afternoon she said, quite out of the blue, "I know all about you, Señorita Aurora. You and Juana weren't alone that night so long ago." The look on the girl's face was one of pure malice as she continued in a low voice, "There was someone watching you when you walked to the well. It was full moon, remember. Someone saw what you did. Can you guess who it was? No? Then I shall tell you, Señorita Aurora." Martirio lowered her voice after a dramatic pause. "María-Trinidad García saw you. She often used to walk that way by night. Mourning her husband, people said. Then they found her hanging from the fig tree. You know who found her there? It was my mother. And she found the note."
"What note?" whispered Aurora from the depths of the rocking-chair, where she sat motionless as though in a trance, the rosary beads lying like a curled-up serpent on her lap.
"The note where she said what you'd done to Enrique López's baby."
"And who told you about it, you fibbing little slut?" Aurora seemed suddenly more alert, her mouth spitting out the words like venom from beneath the black cowl of her shawl. Martirio stared at the bobbing head and was reminded of the rattlesnake whose portrait she had seen in her school books.
"No one. I overheard my mother telling Papa one night in the kitchen. Mama was crying. She said that she had always wanted to tell the Guardia Civil or the priest, but that she had never dared and it was still on her conscience. It all happened such a long time ago, before I was born, before she married Papa, but she could never forget what she seen and read. Then Papa told her there was nothing she could do now but ask forgiveness of the Blessed Virgin. I never heard them talk about it again, but you see, Señorita Aurora, now I know too!" Martirio suddenly looked a great deal older than her fourteen years. Her face wrinkled in the shadows, for the sun was already going down on the bare horizon. She screwed up her eyes and tried to imitate Aurora's expression, at the same time picking up the white-painted stick from the corner of the fireplace.
"¡Soy Aurorita la Ciega!" she chanted as she danced grotesquely around the room, a malicious child once more, "I'm little blind Aurora, but I can see everything!"
At that moment the door opened and Juana came in with a plate of hot popcorn. She stared in astonishment at the prancing girl.
Martirio put down the white stick.
"I was only playing," she said. "After all, poor Señorita Aurora can't see me, so what difference does it make? You do make good palomitas, Señorita Juana."
I had lived in the village for almost fifteen years when Aurora la Ciega eventually died. No one knew her age, or exactly how she met her death. Martirio was away in Almería at the time, visiting her sister, so the old woman died alone, amidst the accumulated filth of her dark and grimy kitchen. She was found some three days later, when people began to miss her on her daily round. Three tomatoes rotted, fungus-covered in a cracked brown bowl. Remains of a broken egg stained the rough cement floor, and Aurora la Ciega lay beside it, her head in a small pool of dried-up blood, some of which had soaked into the dusty black shawl. She had fallen and hit the back of her skull against the edge of the stone fireplace and a cast-iron frying-pan was upside down beside her outstretched hand which seemed to beg even in death. Accidental death, according to the autopsy, which took place just before her last journey to the Church of the Assumption. After the service, Aurora, lying in her cheap pinewood coffin, was driven in state to her last resting place; the niche where her sister Juana awaited her.
Martirio had hurriedly returned to Almería. She had paid for the funeral which was well-attended by all the local businessmen, shopkeepers and housewives. What seemed like relief showed on many faces and after the short service at the church, the men crossed the Glorieta and entered the old café Enrique López García and his still plumply pretty blonde German wife served them beer, brandy and wine.
"Whose funeral was that?" Marilies asked her husband. She and Enrique never attended mass or even bothered much with local gossip. They had saved money in Germany and were now making even more than they had hoped from the busy bar.
"Oh, just that old blind beggarwoman. She must have been near ninety years old. Funny, she never came to bother us, I don't know why. People say she died rich and that she kept her hoardings at a bank in Almería in Martirio's name, but that's only gossip. I mean, why should she leave her money to Martirio Gómez? She didn't really look after her except for taking her to mass. Anyway, darling, it's none of our business, is it? Just get back to grilling those tapas. Look how many customers we have this morning and soon the the tourists will be here too, German ones as well. It's a good thing you speak their language and have such a sweet engaging manner!" He pinched his wife's rounded buttock, "Go on, Marlies, get cracking, or we'll never be as rich as Aurorita la Ciega!"
Copyright F. Melville 1994