When his processional group reached the square in front of the church, the boy ran to his mother, like all the other children. Dressed in white, they broke ranks and flitted through the crowd, waving the braided palms that they’d carried in procession through the streets of Gijón for almost two hours on that April 10, 1938, a day of timid sun. It wasn’t just an ordinary Palm Sunday procession. It was also a parade celebrating the liberation of the city, which just a few months ago had been in the hands of the Reds, who had outlawed religious observances. The boy’s mother crouched down and kissed his face, took him by the hand, and guided him through the crowd to a place where they could see the rest of the procession arriving in the square. Just then the recently formed Falangista Guard was entering. Marching four abreast, with their splendid shirts and bombacho pants, they made no secret of their eagerness to be done with two hours of marching in front of the statue of Jesus on the donkey, which still bobbed along a little further back. The boy looked with envy at the patent-leather suspenders and multicolored insignias that shone against the deep dark blue of the shirts. Then, without looking back at his mother, he pointed a finger at one of the last lines of Falangistas to enter and said: “Look, that’s one of the men who came to look for Don Esteban.” A shiver, which the child did not see, ran down the woman’s spine at hearing words that brought to mind the things that had happened barely a year ago.
She had been in the makeshift chapel in the basement of her house, putting flowers in front of the statue of St. Christopher holding the child Jesus. It was the only statue they had been able to save when the church burned, a gigantic St. Christopher, a little darkened with smoke. In his left arm he carried a Christ Child at shoulder height. With the right, he held a walking stick topped with a martyr’s palm covered in peeling gold leaf. It wasn’t that she especially liked the statue, but at least she had something. While she put the finishing touches on the flower arrangement, Don Esteban, dressed in layman’s clothes, lit some candles for the mass he was going to celebrate on the dark oak dining room table that would serve as an altar. Then, at the street door, there were two knocks; a silence; then, another three. She opened it, confident that she recognized the secret passcode shared among the few parishioners who knew of the existence of the clandestine chapel, but instead she found two strange men, one of them very tall and carrying a rifle at his shoulder. They pushed her aside and addressed themselves to Don Esteban, whose back was turned as he lit the candles, so that he had not noticed their entrance. The shorter man touched him on the shoulder and said, as if he were reciting something that he had practiced on the way over: “Esteban García Eizaga, you will come with us to be questioned.” Don Esteban, as if he had been expecting it, answered with a hint of a smile: “As you wish,” and followed them to the door. The woman tried to stop them from taking him, but the taller man, the one with the rifle, grabbed her by the wrist and told her, without looking her in the eye, not to worry, that they would bring him back that same night after he made his statement. Don Esteban looked at her and nodded assent as he let himself be led away. Before crossing the threshold, he turned for a moment and smiled toward the altar. Under the table, the little boy had made a toy altar from a cardboard box. Apparently unaware of what was now happening, he proceeded to cover it with a handkerchief. That was the last time she saw Don Esteban.
The woman looked at the group the boy was pointing at and saw a lot of men dressed in uniform, all looking alike. A ferocious anger took hold of her and, if the boy had looked at her face, he would have seen that her fair skin had turned red and a vein in her left temple throbbed almost in time with the rhythm of the processional drums that resonated in the distance. He only felt her tug on his hand and heard a dry “Come along.” The mother and child went around the church and came to some posts stuck in the turf, between which there were some improvised benches and a bar consisting of stacked boxes of bottles, where those who had just finished marching could rest and have a glass of cider. Some of the men stared at the pretty woman who was coming over hand in hand with a child, but, intimidated by the nearness of the church and the formality of the celebration, they held back the compliments their manhood would otherwise have obliged them to offer. The woman asked one of them who was in charge. Without taking his lips from his glass, he pointed at an older man who leaned on the bar a little apart from the rest, sipping a cup of cognac while he shook out tobacco to roll a cigarette. The woman rounded the benches and went up to the man, whose left cheek was slashed with a deep scar. She told him the story of Don Esteban and what the boy, who never lied or made things up, had just told her. The man listened, still rolling the cigarette. She finished speaking just as he was raising it to his mouth. Before answering, he took a lighter from the right pocket of his shirt and lit it, and exhaling the first drag, he said: “It’s possible, ma’am.” The cigarette hadn’t fully lit. He took out the lighter to try again, and this time took a deeper drag: “Lately there have been a lot of guys who’ve joined Falange to cover their own backs, men whose consciences trouble them.” He squatted down and, with the cigarette still in the corner of his mouth, put his face level with the boy’s, who shivered at seeing the scar so close up: “Okay, buddy, go look for that man so I can see who he is, too.” The woman let go of the child’s hand, as if giving permission. The boy wandered among the groups of people and they could only see his palm branch and his little head from time to time among the benches full of uniformed men who drank and spoke animatedly. Then the boy stopped next to a group who were standing with glasses raised, while one of them made a lengthy toast. He drew near to the tallest man, who was looking up at his glass and did not notice the diminutive figure at his feet. To get his attention, the boy stood on tiptoe and raised his palm branch into the man’s face. Surprised, he looked down and saw the boy. In an act of tender instinct, he knelt down and put his face at the boy’s level. From that position he could see the bar, which up till then had been hidden by the paper banners that were hung between the posts. There he saw his captain, who was looking at him through a cloud of cigarette smoke. The scar on his face had reddened, like a ray between clouds. At the captain’s side he recognized the woman who had been the mistress of that priest, the one that another pious lady had denounced for living in sin. The man set his glass on the ground, and with the hint of a smile he gently took the boy’s palm and raised him up effortlessly with strong arms, holding him next to the insignias on his breast. In the little face of the boy, surprised at being suddenly swept into the air, he recognized the features of the priest when they had made him stand against the cemetery wall in the truck’s headlights. The man, with the boy in his arms, slowly walked toward the place where the captain was holding on to the wrist of the woman with burning eyes. From far away she shouted: “Give me back my Esteban!”
Enrique Fernández, Canada, Spain © 2014
Click here to see this story in Spanish
Translation by Christine Neulieb © 2014
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