A Miracle in Villablanco
It was the talk of the pueblo. From the cramped bars near the fairground to the Plaza in front of the Church of the Sacred Heart, the whispers, chatter and shouts repeated the strange news. The strangest birth since Pepe’s two headed goat just after the Guerra Civil, which the farmer had had stuffed and sold to El Corcho to hang from the ceiling from one of those cramped bars. The retired bullfighter collected oddities. He had a display of antique prosthetics in a case in his bar. They called him El Corcho because he could no more be kept down than a cork in water. At least until he lost his leg to his last bull. One solitary poster from la corrida adorned the walls of his business, the one promoting his last bullfight. The letters were smaller than they had been on other posters. That was life.
El Corcho pressed the button on the coffee machine and the volume of chatter increased to that of the bellows customary when the men on the high stools wanted to finish a conversation or a joke, whatever discouragement the ancient machine offered. The bar owner hopped to the kitchen hatch and gave Inmaculada an order for pork chops with patatas pobre. Who ate that at 11 a.m.? The stranger had pointed at a photograph behind some grimy transparent plastic. Perhaps he was foreign, or from Malaga. El Corcho shook his head, a hard-earned skill for someone who hopped everywhere, still it was good to try to live up to one’s name. The stranger was staring about him; recording every detail. The tobacco-stained walls, the peanut shells and paper napkins littering the floor; his eye passed rapidly over the case of wooden, tin and plastic legs and arms, El Corcho noticed. Ha, foreign then, definitely not from Malaga. He might have come down from Madrid, he supposed. Those people weren’t really Spanish up there. Too many Mercedes cars - and American fashions on the women - in the capital. Besides, no-one from nearby would wear a suit that fit so well. Inmaculada shouted from her less than immaculate kitchen and clattered the plate of potatoes and pork chops on the counter of her hatchway. Her husband placed it down in front of the stranger with only slightly more delicacy. El Corcho watched the man raise his eyebrows and then shrugged. He fetched the vinegar and olive oil and placed it gently next to the man’s elbow. The man in the suit ate slowly, like someone trying something for the first time: like someone not sure whether they would try it again. The men on the stools either side of him had somehow managed to edge away from the stranger and found something extremely interesting to read in the local papers from several days ago. El Corcho poured himself a chupito and knocked the cheap brandy back as though it were some foul medicine. When the man finished his lunch, he dropped too many coins on the bar and El Corcho swept them into the old cash-register under no sale. Caveat Emptor, didn’t they say? The one-legged bar owner watched the man disappear out of the door. Stools edged closer together and old news was returned to the bar top. The buzz of conversation returned and the ex-bullfighter breathed out.
El Corcho and the Martinez brothers agreed that the man probably hadn’t come about the big news. It was just coincidence. Juan Martinez said he’d drink to that and El Corcho stood them their first drinks on the house since De Stefano had stopped by Villablanco when he’d got lost on the way to Seville.
Sister Dolores De La Virgen Madre clicked her rosary. She sat alone on the bench outside the Ermita, not far from the Church of the Sacred Heart. It was warm for December, but there were few people out although it was past noon on a market day. A smartly dressed man was admiring the church’s gothic spire, whilst avoiding the broken flags and holes in the plaza. There was elegance in his movements. This was a man who had never dragged a plough through autumn mud. The country tired a man. What was such a man doing here? She hoped it had nothing to do with the new postulant at the convent. Sister Dolores suspected that the man might have come from a city. His shoes certainly had. The nun crossed herself; a venial sin only, to look so closely at a man that you noticed his shoes. She looked down at her own feet. Comfortable, black, worn and the polish only slightly dulled by the dust of the pueblo streets; how she missed the click-clack of her tacones. Only yesterday she saw La Viuda Garcia wearing heels as high as those Italian women in the Yanqui films. A woman with a husband only two years dead ought not to wear such things - and at fifty years old too! Sister Dolores made the sign of the cross once again and pondered the sin of envy. It was more comfortable than contemplating why she watched the man’s back as he disappeared down Calle Ilusión. Sister Dolores waved at the Widow Garcia as she entered the Plaza. A woman should greet her own sister, however she behaved.
Guardia Civil de Primera Jose-Antonio Guerrero La Paz scratched a buttock through the olive-green serge. Warm for December, and the winter uniform itched. He looked down at his boot. Dusty, the left. He rubbed the toe on his trouser leg behind his right calf. Better. Might take a walk to the Post Office. Chato polished shoes there most days; buzzing around the customers’ feet on his little tray with wheels. He liked to say he didn’t make such a bad living for half-a-man. Guardia Primera La Paz thought that was a bit rich. Chato had legs. At least as far as just above the knee. That made him three-quarters of a man, stood to reason. People were so inexact. How would it be if the Guardia Civil were so slapdash? Why, the wrong people might end up in jail! The policeman caught sight of a figure coming down Ilusión. A stranger, in his town, in Villablanco. Fede Ramirez had not called from the Hostel Bella Horizonte about any new guests. La Paz eyed the man’s suit, it looked more comfortable than his own uniform. The material shone. A flashy suit meant the wrong kind of people for his town, for sure. A confident looking fellow, mind you, the kind some might call handsome. The Policeman held up a hand palm out, to keep the man at the optimum distance for asking to see his papers. That is, within reach of La Paz’s baton, whilst out of range of the stranger’s fist.
But the man said, ‘Guardia Primera Guerrero La Paz, isn’t it? Congratulations!’
La Paz felt his mouth opening and closing like that of a fish won at the hoop-la. The promotion had only come through yesterday. The thanks the policeman offered sounded graceless even to his own ears, but in any case the man was still talking. Oh yes, they knew about him, La Paz, where knowing things was important. Could La Paz tell him whether anything unusual had happened recently? Only if it weren’t confidential, that was. The torrent of words kept the young policeman from thinking. His outstretched palm slowly dropped, beaten down by the man’s bonhomie. The man was looking at him, waiting. It occurred to La Paz that he was expected to say something. The one thing that the man wanted to hear was not, however, going to come from him. No, not at all. So he gave the man directions to the abandoned farm at the edge of town. He watched the man walk away, still confident, too good-looking for the town. Enrique Benitez stumbled out of the Widow Garcia’s front door. He looked a little drunk. Guardia Primera La Paz strolled off to do some real police work.
The girl looked down at her feet. Chipped nails and both grubby with dust. Her father had gone into town to buy her a new pair of shoes, before… Well, just before. She sat down on the bench outside the doorway of the farmhouse. Just a moment, a moment of peace, whilst there were no cries coming from inside. Far down the track leading to the road to town, María Magdalena could see a tiny figure approaching. Even at that distance she could see it was not her father. He would not come back now, in any case. The girl put a hand to her hair for a moment and then she remembered her bare feet. She crept inside and put on an old pair of her father’s boots. When she still went to the village school the children had delighted in remarking on the size of her feet. The boots were still too large so she rummaged in her father’s trunk until she found some old woollen stockings that had belonged to her mother. There, better than a stranger seeing her feet. She looked into the cot. Still quiet, thank goodness.
It was a man; he walked, mindful of the ruts, but with steady progress. Straight-backed, he looked as though he’d never shouldered the burden of living in the country. He was passing the entrance to their neighbour’s olive grove. The harvest was long past and the pruned branches lay in piles of ash between the rows of the skeletal trees themselves. He looked tall. Not from the South, then, she thought. Her father had told her that Madrid and the northern cities were built on manure and that was why people from the North were so tall. Maria Magdalena did not know if this were true in any way at all. That northern people were tall was just something that people said.
She hoped there would be no interruptions from indoors. It was bad enough that there was no sleep to be had throughout the nights. The very least she could hope for was an hour of peace during the day. The Northerner had reached the limits of their (her?) property. Two wooden posts joined by a rusted chain across the track marked the entrance, but of course you could just step off the track and walk around one or other of the posts. ‘Who could afford fences?’ her father used to say. The girl waved and the man raised a hand. She stood up and said the words of welcome. The man stared at her for a few moments.
‘There is water, it is all I have,’ she said.
‘The earth was formed of water, and by water.’ the man smiled.
Maria Magdalena looked down at the man’s shoes. They shone; as though he had floated over the dust between the town and the farm.
The stranger looked at the girl, standing with a ceramic tumbler of water held out toward him. About 15, probably. Large boned, a peasant. Attractive eyes, if you didn't mind being reminded of the dairy cows of Asturias. Her accent was as thick as mud. He took the water, almost dropping it in his attempt to avoid touching her dirty-finger-nailed hands. Really, quite why His Eminence had sent him here was beyond comprehension. They hadn't bothered with the Galician Fisherman's stigmata of last summer, nor with the crippled Catalan's remarkable recovery on winning El Gordo the Christmas before. Why this? Why now? The answer was the same as it always was. Orders from Rome. He’d never been so far from Madrid. It was all very well for the Nuncio with his feet up. How kind of Monsignor Ildebrando Antoniutti to send him down here where you'd as likely find a taxi as an 18 year old virgin. He straightened his tie. The girl had not moved, her bovine docility irked him. She gave him her name, when he asked for it.
'Tell me Maria Magdalena, tell me all of it.'
Father Ignacio Alvares de Santiago de Compostela Ruiz, the Apostolic Nuncio's Special Roving Representative for the Authentication of Miracles listened. He wished he'd worn the soutane, or at least the clerical collar. It was a scarcely credible tale of shared linen and nocturnal emissions. She finished her story saying, 'I have it on paper, a what-you-call-it – an affidavit from Dr. Dominguez. Era virgen.' Well, well, he thought, it had possibilities. It was, after all, a virgin birth of sorts. With the father out of the way, who knew? He asked to see the child.
The girl did not escort him to the door of the shack. He let the door slam behind him. It had been touch-and-go whether he would vomit in front of the girl. He sincerely hoped the thing in the crib would not live too long, and promised himself the celice when he got back to Madrid. Better to let matters take their course with this Malaga Miracle and never come back. These backward villages were no place for Opus Dei, it was a fact. Father Alvarez de Santiago de Compostela Ruiz looked down at his shoes; dust and dirt. Well, it was time he had a new pair made; a man with insufficient shoes to change them every day was not to be taken seriously, after all.