S H O R T S T O R Y
b y t i m w e e d ~ p u t n e y , v e r m o n t
AT A QUARTER TO SEVEN, James locked up the darkroom, grabbed his camera and tripod and hurried out to shoot the procession. There had been a light rain and the air was perfumed with flowers and melting candle wax. A crowd was forming in the Plaza de la Primavera—no good vantage-point for the camera—so he kept walking, tracing the route the celebrants would be coming in along the cobbled street through the Sacromonte. Eventually the crowd began to thin out, and the street dwindled to a footpath winding out through the valley bottom toward the Vírgen de la Esperanza chapel. He found a spot that would have a good view of the procession—atop a masonry wall at the base of a steep hillside planted with evenly spaced rows of olive trees—and set up the tripod.
To his left and right and indeed all along the path onlookers had built small pyres using scraps of cypress and olivewood, and at a precise moment just before dusk, by what pre-arranged signal James could not guess, the pyres were lit, filling the valley with flickering orange light and a haze of fragrant smoke. The onlookers were subdued, only the occasional outcry of a child rising above the low murmur of conversation and the hissing crackle of the fires. A Spaniard standing on the wall next to James tapped him on the shoulder and held out a bota, but James shook his head. The man raised his eyebrows and offered the wineskin again; when James declined he shrugged and pointedly turned his back. The mood was not festive, as a stranger might expect, but solemn, almost grim.
Soon dissonant music could be heard echoing down the valley, the out-of-tune horn march and steady drumbeat familiar from the bullfighting season. The murmur of the onlookers rose in volume, and James stepped behind the tripod to peer through the lens. He felt the tension within his chest dissipate somewhat as the camera filled him with a sense of competence and directedness. He was here for a reason, he reminded himself: to shoot the procession.
The music was louder now and the first of the secret societies rounded into view, men dressed in white robes and high conical hoods. “Cofradía de los chapineros,” intoned the Spaniard who’d offered him the bota. He’d turned back to face James and was staring at him with a curious intensity.
James nodded uncomfortably and adjusted the shutter and aperture to compensate for the celebrants’ white robes, which were surprisingly luminous in the smoky half-light. He already knew about the cofradías, which had their roots in the ancient trade guilds. That the city was home to a network of secret fraternities was a strange and faintly unsettling concept. What did they do for the rest of the year? There were menacing connotations of late night college hazing sessions gone awry and, because of the costumes if nothing else, of the Ku Klux Klan.
Several more cofradías passed by—red robes; black robes; one especially striking combination of royal blue and gold—before the procession’s central float bearing the ancient wooden statue of the Vírgen de la Esperanza appeared. Top-heavy and unbalanced, it had been loaded with an array of tall candles, Easter lilies, silver chalices and reliquaries. It looked as if, at any moment, it might tumble off the suffering shoulders of the bearers and into the tangled ravine below the footpath.
Next came a few more floats, one bearing an enormous gilded reliquary in the shape of an ark that James guessed housed the bones of a martyred saint. It was on this float, perched atop the rocking ark, that a small boy dressed in rags sat and seemed to wave at him. He zoomed in on the urchin, who was thin and extremely pale, and yes, it was James the boy was waving at, or someone beside him on the wall. He turned to look for the Spaniard who’d offered him the bota, but he was gone.
James peered through the lens again, but the boy had fled his perch and was nowhere to be seen. How strange that the urchin had picked him out of the crowd lining the path; normally he was all but invisible in a crowd of Spaniards. And the man with the bota, who had been staring at him just a moment ago—where had he gone?
At the tail of the procession came the marching band, brass section silent now as if vanquished by the mournful beat of the drums: doom, doom, doom. The whole valley shook with the sound, so regular and predictable that it seemed to have been hovering in the air for weeks. As the musicians passed, the crowd swelled and filled in behind them, choking the footpath and pressing up against the wall where James stood. Fearing that the human river would soon overflow the wall, he collapsed the tripod and dropped into the crowd heading back to the city.
Darkness had settled in. Everything blurred together in the dim flickering firelight: the crowd, the drumbeat, the rococo floats bobbing ahead as if carried downstream on an undulating slow-motion torrent. Nearing the Sacromonte the crowd pressed in closer, and James’ uneasiness became a strange feeling of disembodiment—as if he were watching the procession through someone else’s eyes, or through the lens of the camera now slung over his shoulder. This, too, was a familiar sensation, and a terrifying one. He needed to remember to stay away from crowds.
By the time the procession reached the Plaza de la Primavera, it was impossible to move in any direction not dictated by the press of murmuring bodies. He saw flashbulbs ahead and caught a glimpse of a line of tourists standing on benches at the south end of the plaza by the riverbank—a quick vision of glistening white teeth hinting of the skulls behind the faces. Spurred by panic, he elbowed and shoved his way through the crowd in the opposite direction and ducked into a narrow alley near the north side of the plaza.
The alley was dark and climbed at a steep angle, becoming a cobbled staircase leading up into the heart of the Albaicín—the old Arab quarter. He sat on one of the steps, panting dejectedly. In the plaza the crowd continued to stream by. On a hillside visible through the opening between buildings, the Alhambra loomed in all its glory, high walls and turrets lit by golden floodlights. It was what the tourists came for, and what James himself had originally come to see and to photograph; the largest Moorish palace in the world, a masterpiece of architecture and an eloquent monument to seven centuries of Arab rule in Spain. As always the sight of it made his blood run cold. But how could he live in Granada without ever looking up at it?
He leaned back with his elbows on the stairs and closed his eyes. What was troubling him? Nagging at the edges of his awareness was a simple fact, one that would explain everything if he could only steel himself to the task of remembering what it was.
When he opened his eyes, there was a woman. She was supporting herself against one of the stone buildings at the alley entrance, breathing heavily as if she’d been running or dancing. She wore a black dress gathered tightly at the waist, with billowy multi-flounced skirts like a flamenco dancer.
“Buenas noches,” he said.
“Bue-nas no-ches,” she pronounced, mocking his American accent. He couldn’t see her eyes—her face was hidden, back-lit by the Alhambra and the flickering torchlight from the plaza—but he thought he detected a note of warmth in her voice, perhaps even a hint of affection.
“Do I know you?” he asked in Spanish.
She laughed, took out a cigarette and lit it. The alley filled with the tang of burning cloves.
“May I have one?” he asked.
“May I have one?” she repeated, mocking him. Then she flicked the burning cigarette his way and was gone. He stood up and ran after her into the plaza, but it was no good; she’d disappeared. It would be impossible to find her in the crowd.
Cursing, he climbed back up to his cobbled step. He picked up the smoldering cigarette and examined it for lipstick stains; then put it to his mouth and inhaled deeply. The clove tasted good, cool and numbing, but he was disconsolate. The memory of the woman was fresh in his mind—a cascade of black hair, the impression of piercing eyes watching him from the shadows. And yes, her body: the narrow waist, the old-fashioned dress, the suggestive swell of her breasts as she breathed. There had been something in the way she’d mocked him—an assumption of familiarity, as if she’d known who he was.
But perhaps that was only wishful thinking. What young Spanish woman would want to know him, a solitary foreigner who existed in a state of near invisibility—this strange expatriate half-life in which he was a fully acculturated participant in neither world, not this one and not the one he came from? Was that the simple truth that had been nagging at him? The existential pain of being a foreigner? If so, it was a disappointment, because it clarified nothing.
James lived in a small apartment not far from the Plaza de la Primavera, in the heart of the warren-like Albaicín. He’d made a darkroom out of a converted storage closet on the rooftop terrace, and it was there that he spent most of his time. Early on in his stay he’d made an effort to reach out to the Spaniards in his neighborhood. He still said “buenos días” or “buenas tardes” whenever he passed one of them on the street, but by and large they didn’t bother to acknowledge him.
He had no interest in Granada’s expatriate community, and the feeling was apparently mutual; the Americans had organized a dinner party for Thanksgiving to which he’d pointedly not been invited, and there had been various other functions over the months which he’d done his best to ignore. He had no idea whether the other foreigners even knew his name, although he imagined they probably did. Still, there was no way of knowing for sure, because he’d never spoken to any of them. His solitude was nearly absolute. Perhaps that was a good thing, in that it allowed him to focus intensively on his work. But that too was problematic: he couldn’t seem to get beyond the hackneyed tourist shots. He had no interest in producing postcards, but that was basically what he was doing.
Still, he kept at it. Often shooting a roll of film was the only way he had to prove to himself that he was real—not a figment of someone’s half-remembered dream.
He spent the day after the procession cloistered in the darkroom. First he developed the shots of the floats, a few of which showed promise in a darkly impressionistic way. The skinny boy atop the reliquary appeared in none of them, which was a surprise because James was sure he’d captured him several times—and the float he’d been sitting on was clear enough.
He turned his attention to a series of shots he’d taken several days earlier, three rolls of film on a bas relief church façade. The entire wall was a golden sandstone carved playfully in the plateresque Renaissance style. He’d spent several hours shooting it one morning. The photographs were remarkably clear, conveying the warm texture of the stone, the lyrical curves of the human forms and the whimsically inventive shapes of the grotesques: dragons, mermaids, various beasts and half-human composites.
One of these was especially interesting, a figure with the body of a winged serpent and the face of a man. He’d spent half a roll on that figure—from different angles, adjusting the aperture—and when he hung them up side by side he noticed something off-kilter about them. A closer examination revealed the source of the problem: the expression on the figure’s face appeared to change from frame to frame. It was subtle; each of the changes took place over several shots. But in the end—James had to close his eyes and open them again and again—there was no mistaking it. The expression changed. The face was that of an elderly man with stern brows and an imperious, hawk-like nose, like a Roman emperor. The tight-lipped face gradually went from disapproving to sardonic, then bored, and finally, in the last few shots, began to grin with dawning delight.
James stared at the photographs until they began to blur. Then he put away the chemicals, turned out the crimson overhead light, stepped out of the darkroom and bolted the door behind him. He leaned his back against the door and massaged his eyes with his fingertips. Mystery solved. He was losing his mind.
Strange as it may seem, this new insight into his condition improved his mood. He slept unusually well that night, and the next morning he got up early and ascended the stairs to the rooftop terrace with his camera. The air was warm although it was still early April, and the buds on the caper vines had suddenly burst into flower—little yellow stars cascading down the wall of an adjacent terrace. The sun threw long shadows over the roofed hillsides of the Albaicín, painting them with a charming antique blush only slightly marred by the spiny jumble of television antennae. The Alhambra sprawled along the high ridge across the valley, its massive square towers looking frighteningly medieval in the soft-hued morning light. It was the perfect hour for shooting. James reached for the camera but stopped himself. He couldn’t bear the idea of looking at the fortress for more than a few seconds, especially through the lens of a camera.
A pigeon fluttered down and came to rest on the cracked cement of the terrace floor. It pecked around for awhile and then flapped up to the wall and cooed softly just behind James’ head. He scooted his chair around to keep the bird in view, but it grunted and flew off. He moved his chair back to its original position facing the Alhambra. A light gust of wind came up from behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he noticed a face peering over the terrace wall. He stood up and quickly wheeled, his heart pounding.
The man nodded curtly. He had close-trimmed white hair and alert aquiline features that were familiar from somewhere—the market, James thought, or perhaps the small photography store where he bought his supplies. A neighbor, obviously, though he’d never seen him out on the adjacent terrace before.
“Beautiful day, is it not?” The man spoke English. His accent was elegant: noticeably Spanish but proper, with a hint of Oxbridge. To complete the distinguished picture, his shoulders were draped in a flowing black material, a robe or a cape.
“Yes, it is.” James cleared his throat, struggling to regain his composure. “You spooked me a little. Just showing up like that.”
The older man frowned. “I’m sorry, I should have announced myself earlier. It’s just that you looked so . . . unhappy. I didn’t want to intrude.”
“It’s no intrusion, really. It’s nice to meet you. I’m James Levin.” James thrust his hand over the wall and the man took it. His grip was firm and the skin of his palm was callused like a workman’s—in striking contrast to his patrician, almost lordly face.
“Eusebio de la O Romero. Very pleased.”
They gazed at each other over the wall, James wracking his brain for small talk, feeling more awkward as the seconds passed. The old man appeared content merely to stare.
“So you live here?” James said, finally. “Are we neighbors, I mean?”
“I worry about you, James,” the old man said quietly. “Don’t you know who I am?”
James shook his head, feeling embarrassed and inexplicably frightened. He swallowed and looked down at his feet, then up at the old man, whose gaze was intense and unrelenting.
“I worry about you because you are all alone. There is a larger community that you ought to be a part of. You do know that, really, don’t you?”
“I don’t mind,” James explained sheepishly. “Actually I like it this way. Being alone is part of my work. I’m a photographer.”
“No, my friend.” The white-haired man shook his head slowly, brows knit over the prominent arc of his nose in an expression of grave concern. “You’re not just a photographer. And you shouldn’t be alone, not now. There is an establishment. I’m going there tonight, and I’d like you to come with me. Do you consent?”
James cleared his throat uncomfortably. It would be rude to turn down a direct invitation, but he hated the idea of going out. He usually read a little, studied his Spanish and went to bed early. It had become a soothing routine. And yet, if he thought about it, how could he say no? He’d been feeling guilty for not taking part in the renowned Spanish nightlife. Often his slumber was interrupted at three or four in the morning by singing or drunken carousing under his window. Now, during Holy Week, the nights were alive with noise: guitar music, screams, laughter, young Spaniards roving the streets in gangs, clapping their hands in complex inescapable rhythms that annoyed him and thrilled him and kept him awake until he had to cover his ears with his pillow . . .
“All right,” he said, letting out his breath. “When should we meet?”
“I’ll come by your place at eleven,” Eusebio said. His face broke into a broad grin and James’ stomach dropped. Now he knew why the old man had seemed so familiar. He bore a striking resemblance to the figure from the photographs drying in the darkroom, the one with the expressive and subtly changeable face that had been carved into golden sandstone more than four centuries before.
That evening he went out to witness another procession, this one known as “El Silencio” because it took place in total silence. All the celebrants held single candles, which lit up their faces so that their heads appeared to float freely, unattached to human bodies. The vision filled him with dread, but at least he had an explanation now, reinforced by the strange conversation on the terrace; that is, his growing disconnection from reality caused by his newly discovered insanity. Strange that the contemplation of such a thing could make him feel better, but it did.
He went back to the apartment and tried to read, shivering on the couch under a heavy woolen blanket. He didn’t know if this Eusebio de la O Romero had been a real person, or just some spectral vision concocted by his disturbed brain. He hoped the old man was imaginary, because he truly had no desire to go out tonight.
Nevertheless Eusebio did come by, as promised, at exactly eleven o’clock. Together they walked down to the Plaza de la Primavera, and from there westward on the narrow street that followed the valley between the two hills that made up the old part of town—the Albaicín above and to their right, and the floodlit Alhambra looming up unavoidably on the hillside to the left. The air was cool, and by the time they arrived at the entrance to the establishment—a shadowed doorway several steps below street level in an unlit side alley—James was fully awake. For some reason he had butterflies in his stomach, as if he’d come to a test of some kind, a challenge undertaken at great personal risk.
Eusebio gave James a companionable wink as he pushed open the riveted oak door, and a warm murmur of conversation and clinking glassware drifted out. Bracing himself James followed the old man inside and stood in the doorway. It was an old wine tavern, a vaulted bodega lit by candles and torches hung on the brick walls. There were polished antique mahogany tables and a hewn oak bar. It was crowded with Spaniards of various ages and different styles of dress chatting and laughing, faces gleaming in the yellow light, shadows dancing on the low brick curve of the ceiling.
He turned to Eusebio but the old man had already disappeared into the crowd. James felt a wave of indignation that his neighbor would leave him so unceremoniously after inviting him out. He scanned the crowd for familiar faces from his barrio or the market, but he recognized no one. Unlike at the processions or in the marketplace he could sense that the people in this crowd were acutely aware of him, although no one would meet his eyes directly. The difference was striking: normally he felt invisible in a crowd; here it was just the opposite, as if he were the most visible person in the room. Feeling abandoned and extremely conspicuous he crept through the crowd to the bar, where he sat on an antique-looking metal stool. Suspended from the ceiling behind the bar were a half-dozen sweating ham hocks. Under them was a broad cutting board stacked with baguettes, powdery lengths of dried sausage, and several rounds of hard manchego cheese.
The barman brought him a small tumbler half-filled with a clear yellowish liquid. James rarely drank alcohol, but with a newfound recklessness he decided to take a sip. It was some kind of sherry, an uncommonly good kind: cool and dry, ephemeral, nearly bodiless. The barman watched him with an expectant smile.
“Excelente,” James replied, raising the glass to toast the barman before he took another sip.
The barman winked and turned to the cutting board. He came back moments later with a small tapas plate, which he laid on the bar in front of James. “Buen provecho.”
The plate held a crescent of green figs and several paper-thin slices of jamón serrano. James didn’t normally eat the air-cured ham—it had a chewy consistency and a fleshy odor that he found disconcerting—but to please the barman he rolled one of the figs in a ham slice and popped it in his mouth. It was surprisingly tender, a delicate blend of flavors hinting of smoke and mountain air. He closed his eyes, savoring the taste.
When he opened his eyes, the barman was gone. A woman had taken the next stool; she was facing away from him and he took advantage of the moment to admire her back, exposed by a swooping low-cut black dress. She had a warm olive complexion and hair that fell down over her shoulders in loose raven-black curls. Inside her left shoulder blade was a small diamond-shaped scar. James was gripped by a strong desire to touch it; to spin the woman around by her shoulders and kiss her on the lips.
She turned suddenly and he hoped he’d managed to look away before she noticed he’d been staring at her. In peripheral vision he could see that she was leaning back against the bar, with both elbows resting upon it, gazing out at the crowd. It was the woman from the alley—the one who’d made fun of his American accent. Although he’d never seen her face, he was sure it was the same woman.
He agonized for a moment and then picked up the tapas plate and held it out for her. She shook her head and smiled sardonically, holding him in her gaze. Her eyes were almond-shaped, green-flecked hazel, light as cat eyes but warmer, luminous in their intensity. Say something, he urged himself silently, and he wracked his brain for an intelligent opening. The barman placed a glass of red wine on the bar behind her and she turned to pick it up.
“Are you a friend of Eusebio’s?” he asked in Spanish.
She gave him a measured, scornful look. “Who?”
“Eusebio Romero de la O,” he replied sheepishly. “I came here with him. I think he’s . . . very old.”
“I haven’t a whore’s idea of what you’re talking about, foreigner,” she said, continuing to immobilize him with the hypnotic intensity of her gaze. Her voice was slightly gravelly, simultaneously cultured and crude in the way of the best Spanish women. He caught a whiff of her scent: jasmine and peppery clove.
“So,” he said. “You don’t know who I am?”
She said nothing, which he took to be an encouraging sign. She was perhaps ten years younger than him, in her mid- to late twenties. He felt himself in the grip of a sudden, deep infatuation.
“Will you let me kiss you?” he asked, slurring a little. He was shocked that he would come out with such a thing—the sherry was evidently impairing his judgment—but it was too late to take it back. The speed with which his life was spiraling out of control seemed to ratchet up a notch, and he made up his mind to succumb to it. What did he have to lose?
But there was something dwelling beneath this new sense of abandon, an unspeakable terror which clutched at his throat so that it took all his concentration to stamp it back down into the darkness. Not now, he begged it; not now.
She gazed evenly at him and there was a long, painful silence. Then she picked up the wine glass and walked away into the crowd. After a moment of indecision he got up and tried to follow her, but his passage was blocked by a tight thicket of tavern patrons. Several of them hissed as he tried to shoulder his way through, and twice he was jostled roughly. Finally he made his way to the exit, pulled open the heavy door and climbed the stairs into the street, where he found Eusebio in animated conversation with three other black-robed elders. As James approached, the discussion died out. They all regarded him politely.
“I’m going home,” he said. The genteel old man gave a vaguely sympathetic smile, but he did not urge him to stay.
When Eusebio knocked on his door the next night at eleven, James did not hesitate; in fact he’d been dressed and ready to go for hours. They walked through the dark streets in silence, and when they entered the sunken doorway James was neither surprised nor annoyed that the old man dissolved into the crowd without a backward glance. It was all part of the arrangement, apparently. James had concluded that the events of recent days were scenes in a grand play being put on for his benefit; real-time vignettes in a kind of vast street-theatre experiment of which he couldn’t yet see the larger shape, but in which he was now a most willing participant.
The gypsy woman wasn’t at the bar, so he sat and drank several of the exquisite finos while he waited for her. The barman gave him a tapa of deliciously cured hard sausage, sliced thin.
After half an hour or so she did come: luminous olive skin and glinting black curls; those extraordinary light-hued eyes; the scent of jasmine and cloves. She sat next to him at the bar. They talked. She laughed at his Spanish. Occasionally her knee brushed against his, and once she touched him on the forearm, a surprisingly tender gesture that set his heart racing. After an indeterminate time—James thought it must have been several hours, but it flew by like minutes—she asked him to walk her home. Her name was Soledad. She lived far back in the Sacromonte, on a roughly cobbled street where gypsies had dwelled for centuries in hillside cave-houses their ancestors had carved out of the soft volcanic rock. Conventional wisdom held that it was dangerous for a foreigner to be in the Sacromonte at night, but when he mentioned that to Soledad, she laughed scornfully: “That’s a rumor we spread to keep the tourists out.”
At the door to her cave, she let him kiss her. Her lips were warm and dry. Her breath was cool and smoky, with a hint of clove.
The next night there was a Moroccan band playing at the bar. The music was strange and primal, complex percussion rhythms under high trilling Arabic wails. One could hardly call it music at all in the sense James was accustomed to, but it was oddly seductive. He’d always hated dancing—it made him feel exposed, like being naked in public—but with Soledad there he got caught up in it. At first he danced tentatively, watching his feet to make sure he didn’t step on anyone’s toes, but soon the intricate rhythms began to possess him and he spun loose-limbed and aimless around the floor, a marionette operated by the drums and the trilling voices. Soledad danced in front of him with graceful flamenco-inspired moves. The whole time she watched him with a serious, almost grave expression, and he felt that such a look should make him self-conscious, but every so often the hint of a smile would come over her face and he would wonder if this was the face of true love.
And then a wild feeling overtook him. It was a sensation utterly foreign to his experience—a floating up, a surrendering of self—culminating in a sense of joyous communion with the shadows whirling across the vaulted brick ceiling of the tavern. Soledad and the other dancers blended together and disappeared, while before him a column of pearly white light appeared and pulsated softly in synchronicity with the complex drum rhythms. There was something terrible about it, a fearsome power—but it was also beautiful, like a distillation of the aurora borealis, so lovely that he felt a tightness in his throat and tears welled up in his eyes.
The beat changed and he lost sight of it. Only for a second, but that was enough. He stopped dancing and pressed his eyes shut, trying as hard as he could to summon it back. But it was no good; he’d lost it. When he opened his eyes he realized that Soledad had also disappeared, which filled him with panic. He made a full circuit around the dance floor looking for her, but she’d vanished. He shoved his way through the crowd to the women’s aseo and waited by the door, but several girls and women came and went and it was obvious that she was not inside. Feeling desperate, he found the exit and ascended the stairs to the darkness of the street. She was waiting for him there, her clove cigarette a bright red ember in the black shadows by the wall of the tavern building.
“I was afraid you’d left,” he said breathlessly.
She flicked the cigarette onto the street. “No. I was waiting.”
“Do you want me to walk you home?”
“No,” she said quietly. “Not home.”
James felt his limbs tingle with a surge of adrenaline. “Okay. Where to?”
She answered by striding off into the darkness. He followed her footsteps downhill to the river, across the bridge toward the brutally floodlit Alhambra, then uphill, struggling to keep pace, into the overgrown network of aqueducts and walkways criss-crossing the hillside below the vast Moorish palace. It was a warm night, more summer than spring, with the uneven cobblestones still radiating the heat of the previous day’s sun. The light was better here thanks to the floodlights, and proximity to the palace saved him the trouble of keeping his eyes averted. Gentle breezes blended the distant smoke of burning olivewood with the nearby scent of blossoming caper vines.
They climbed until they came to a narrow stone footbridge, an old Moorish arch draped with vines spanning a deep-cut ravine. The only sound was the whisper of a stream from the shadows under the bridge. Soledad stopped halfway across and sat on the waist-high stone railing, flipping the skirts of her black gypsy skirt so that a fold of it draped playfully over the edge. With ill-advised bravado he mounted the narrow railing wall and tight-rope walked across the bridge toward her, the gaping void of the ravine to his left exerting a strange and unbalancing downward pull. Twice he almost lost his equilibrium; by the time he reached her his heart was pounding, and he thought he felt a cool rivulet of sweat running down his chest.
He dropped to the cobbled walkway and sat beside her on the wall. They kissed. Her lips were soft and yielding, pleasantly spiced with clove, and when he tried to lift up her skirts she did not protest but giggled into his mouth, and eventually she began to moan softly as they made love against the railing.
Afterwards he held her close, one hand around her narrow waist and the other luxuriating among the thick silken curls of the hair behind her neck. “Do you love me?” she whispered hoarsely, the words just audible over the gurgle of the stream under the bridge.
“Of course, I do,” he replied. “I adore you. I worship you.”
She put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him back, then slapped him hard across the face.
“What the hell?” he exclaimed in English.
“What the hell?” she mocked, the accented syllables echoing up and down the ravine.
Then she was gone, and James realized what, at some level, he’d known all along. She was a ghost, or a mirage. A player in a spectral farce that had suddenly been drained of all humor.
In a state of shock and growing anger, he made his way back to the tavern. Eusebio was standing at the bar in conversation with his three robed cronies. James walked up and asked if they’d seen Soledad.
“Who?” Eusebio looked annoyed at the interruption. The other men stared calmly.
“Oh, I think you know. Soledad, the woman I’ve been with for the last few nights.”
“I don’t remember you with a woman. Usually you sit alone at the bar.” Eusebio glanced at one of the other elders, who smiled thinly and inclined his well-groomed white-haired head.
“Come on. You must have noticed her. She has beautiful eyes, like a cat.”
Eusebio shrugged and turned back to his companions. James was infuriated by the old man’s rudeness; he seemed to have thrown aside even the pretense of friendship. He considered whether to pursue it and decided to try the barman instead. He signaled for a sherry, and when the drink was delivered to him he asked if the barman had seen the woman he’d been talking to. The man gave him a funny look. “I don’t remember you with a woman. Usually you sit alone.”
James took a gulp of the sherry. The drink was acrid. “So you’re in on it too. What’s it about? Why me?”
The barman shrugged disingenuously. James slammed the tumbler down on the bar and stalked out angrily, sensing all eyes on his back as he pulled open the heavy door to the street. He wandered alone through the filthy unlit alleyways of the Sacromonte, not returning to his apartment until well after dawn.
After sleeping into the late afternoon, he walked up to the Alhambra to shoot a few rolls. At the towering keyhole entry arch, he hesitated; it seemed important to go in, but he started to feel shaky and nauseated. In the end, he just couldn’t make himself do it. The truth awaited him inside the palace—of that he was sickeningly sure—but maybe he wasn’t prepared to go in after it yet. He walked downhill on the network of cobbled paths and mounted a vain search for the footbridge where Soledad had disappeared.
Back at the apartment he waited until well past midnight for Eusebio, and when he was certain the old man wasn’t coming he walked down to the tavern by himself. At the bottom of the stairwell, he stood in front of the riveted oak door for a moment, breathing deeply. When he pushed open the door he was met with a staggering—but not entirely unexpected—sight: the tastefully lit antique interior was gone, replaced by a shiny modern décor and harsh overhead lighting. Rows of slot machines and video games lined one wall, and a jukebox played American Top Forty music. There were a few customers sitting on the polished chrome barstools. No familiar faces. Even the barman had been replaced by a stranger.
He settled into a numbing haze of despair, and the days ground on in a colorless routine. He carried his camera wherever he went, but it always remained zipped up in its case; the darkroom gathered dust. He went back to the bar a few times, but the old décor never came back. There were no tapas, and the new barman didn’t keep his sherry properly chilled. James came to suspect that the whole thing had been an elaborate fantasy concocted by his tortured imagination, as an only child peoples his nursery with imaginary friends.
Above all he missed Soledad. Every night he walked the narrow streets and steep alleys of the Sacromonte, a dangerous practice he knew—despite what she had said—but he couldn’t help it; his only goal was to catch a glimpse of her. One night in the middle of May, he thought he spotted her ducking into a doorway near where he remembered—but, of course, had been unable to precisely locate—her cave. Following her inside, he found himself in the midst of a boisterous crowd of red-faced German tourists. They were all shouting and clapping at a middle-aged woman in a black flamenco dress who’d just stepped onto a low stage at the back of the cave. Off to one side, a fat gypsy sat on a stool, plucking a twelve-string guitar and crooning in a grating high-pitched quaver. Unnoticed and reeling, James withdrew, cracking his forehead against the lintel as he hurried out the door.
He wandered aimlessly through the maze of cobbled alleyways, relying on the numbing rhythm of his stride to keep at bay the dread that dwelled at the bottom of his confusion. It was an increasing strain. How much longer could he fend it off? If he stopped walking now, he was sure he would have to face it. Eventually—it may have been minutes or hours later—he became conscious of footsteps echoing in the street behind him.
His scalp prickled and he quickened his pace, glancing over his shoulder. As far as he could make out, there were four or five men trailing him in the shadows; they seemed to be hanging back at a constant distance. He thought he caught a flash of white teeth—a quick feline grin. He ducked into a tight-walled side alley. After taking a half-dozen strides, he looked back over his shoulder. Shadowy figures had gathered at the alley entrance. With a surge of panic, he broke into a run; behind him footsteps exploded in an unrestrained clatter and it became a full-fledged chase.
At another alley he cornered right, uphill toward the ancient wall that marked the upper limits of the neighborhood; his heart raced from a strange mix of terror and exhilaration. Beyond the wall, he remembered an open scrub no-man’s-land overgrown with yucca and prickly pear. If he could just make it over the wall he might be able to find a way to lose himself.
Behind him his pursuers were fanning out, hooting and whistling to each other commando style. The cobbled alley narrowed and steepened to a rough staircase. James was amazed that his lungs weren’t bursting with the effort of running so fast, but he wasn’t even tired. Ahead was the broad black mass of the wall. He ran toward it, squinting in the dark for a gap or a chink that would allow him to climb up and over.
Almost there, he stumbled and fell.
The next thing he knew, he was being roughly hoisted and held by his shoulders against the wall. His assailants were panting for breath. There was a long pause before anyone spoke. The stone, pressed against his back, felt cool and oddly soothing. If anything, he felt a sense of relief.
Finally, one of the men—the gypsy with the quick feline grin, which James could now see was due to a drastic harelip—pulled a knife from his belt and held it up to his neck while the others turned his pockets inside out.
“Go ahead,” James said, nodding helpfully. “Take it all. Take everything I have.”
The gypsy scowled. His breath was spiced with clove and, despite the harelip, he could have been Soledad’s brother.
“Do you know Soledad?” James asked.
One of the other gypsies barked out a short laugh, but the harelip narrowed his eyes and pressed the knife harder against the skin of James's throat. He held very still. The blade was a cool bar of pressure against his Adam’s apple. He wondered if they were actually going to murder him. That thought should have filled him with panic, but it did not. The simple fact that had been lurking in the depths of his mind finally burst onto the surface.
“You can’t kill me,” he said. “I’m already dead.”
When the harelip drew the blade across his throat he could tell it was only an illusion, an echo from a previous life that he could only remember in vague flashes, as in a dream or loop of old film footage with the sound turned off.
There had been a trip to Granada, maybe various trips, and the last one had taken place during Holy Week. He had shot a procession and a wall of plateresque Renaissance grotesques. There had been a character that had attracted his attention, features that had appeared again and again—the sculptor himself perhaps— the same face on several dozen fanciful bodies. Other scenes had probably been drawn from life as well. He’d gone to a candlelit tapas bar; he’d lounged on a private terrace on a sunny morning; he’d walked across a footbridge on the vine-covered hillside under the Alhambra. There were flashes of a magical sunset within the palace itself, with a camera, shooting the fountains, the city view, the high airy ceilings. There had been a woman, not Soledad but a blonde stranger; she was laughing at him, then her face became worried as he climbed through a lacy decorative opening out to a narrow balcony, with the city behind and far below him…
But maybe that wasn’t how it had actually happened, because he seemed to remember being pursued in the Sacromonte, being caught and held up against a wall, a quick cool stroke across the throat, and . . . But wait: wasn’t that happening right now?
It was. The view of the late-night streetscape had locked up like a stopped film turned into a still photo. The shadows in the still photo were bleeding toward each other across the frame, gradually darkening to a uniform black nothingness.
But what about Soledad? He shook his head and the shadows froze. He cleared his throat and stamped his feet. The shadows receded and he had a clear view of the night scene at the wall in the Sacromonte. The gypsies were still there, gathered around him in a close semi-circle, but they weren’t gypsies any more. They were wearing black silken robes with high conical hoods, like Holy Week processionaries.
“What do you want from me?” he asked.
One by one, the celebrants pulled off their hoods. There was the boy from the procession, the man with the wineskin, the barman, several other familiar faces from town and, finally, Eusebio, with his close-cropped white hair and long hawk-like nose.
“My dear boy,” he said softly. “We only want you to see the truth.”
James swallowed nervously. “But I do see the truth now. It’s that I’m dead, right? Isn’t that it?”
Eusebio nodded with a sad, saintly smile. “That’s part of the truth, James. But there’s more.”
James shook his head. He didn’t want to know. He craned around to look up at the wall for a handhold, a crack or a protruding stone, anything he might use to get up and over in order to resume his flight. He looked back at the processionaries, only one of whom remained hooded. “What about Soledad?” he asked Eusebio, with a faint stirring of hope. “Isn’t she part of this?”
Eusebio tilted his head toward the hooded one. “See for yourself, James.”
James hesitated, then stepped forward and grasped the top of the hood. The celebrant did not flinch. He tore off the hood, then shrank back in horror. There was no face, only an escaping column of dim flickering light, and the robe collapsed on the ground.
“Damn you!” he yelled. “Hasn’t this gone far enough already?” He turned to Eusebio but he and all the others were gone, their black robes crumpled like shadows on the ground. Bodies of diffuse light flickered around the wall for a few moments and then coalesced in a single bright column that pulsated, hummed and began to close in on him. He backed up against the wall again, but it was no good. There could be no escape. The only thing left was to embrace it.
Tim Weed studied for a semester at the Instituto Internacional in Madrid, then returned to Spain as part of an intensive language immersion program. He later lived for a year in Granada, directing college semester abroad programs for the School of International Training. Though he currently lives in Vermont, he frequently returns to the Iberian peninsula for both work and pleasure and considers himself a dyed-in-the-wool Iberophile.
margin home | contents | links | reading list | marginalia | contributors | staff | guidelines | kudos | subscriptions | contact us
Layout, design & revisions
© Tamara Kaye
Active home URL: http://www.magical-realism.com
(also: https://www.angelfire.com/wa2/margin/index. html)