In which I set out to seek my fortune
The sheep had been brought down from the mountains, because the year was dwindling; winter would soon be here. That’s how I know it must have been around September, my saint’s month, when Pedro came and rattled my door at black of night.
You could hear the sheep a-crying and a-calling, near and far; the dark night was riddled by their thin, peevish voices, even louder than the wind—and that was loud enough. The sound kept me wakeful. Also my bed was cold as a marsh, for there had been weeks of rain before the weather turned wintry. I had not even thrust my feet down to the bottom yet, so I had no particular objection to getting up again. But I did wonder what brought Pedro to this part of the house. He was the cook’s great-nephew, and he slept on a shelf in the kitchen, which was a good ten minutes’ run from my quarters on the upper floor.
I had a whole room of my own—lucky Felix!—with two windows that pierced clean through the city wall, and looked southward toward the mountains, the Sierra de Picos de Ancares. For sure I was lucky: I had a room, and a mule to ride, and learned Latin and the Lives of the Saints from Father Tomás, and was Don Francisco’s grandson. But, no question, Pedro had the snuggest crib. He was fourteen, two years older than I, and six inches taller.
But I was heavier, and could throw him on the floor, three times out of five.
“What’s the row?” says I, pulling on my jacket—I hadn’t taken off my shirt, it was too cold to go to bed naked.
I padded across the massive, creaking boards in my stocking feet to open the door. Always sleep with your door locked—if you’re fortunate enough to have a door—was one of the things Bob had taught me. Bob had been dead four years and the French had been gone for eight, but you never knew; maybe the French had invaded and come back, burning and snatching. If not the French, there was always a chance of armed brigands or guerilleros, on the scavenge for anything they could pick up. There were plenty of queer culls in the mountains.
“It’s me—P-Pedro,” he called, shivering. “Santa María, am I glad I’m not you. Fancy having to sleep in this icehouse!”
“Why the devil did you come, then? Doña Isadora would have your skin off.”
I had thought my bed cold, but the air was much colder.
“Great-aunt’s dying. She wants you.”
“Dying? How do you know?”
Bernardina, his great-aunt, had been cook in my grandfather’s house ever since I was born. And long before. She was a huge woman, quick on her feet as a bull, with a bull’s little red eyes and neat ankles. She could rage like a bull, too, when she was drunk, but, most of the time, she was laughing, roaring out songs, cursing, hoisting huge trays in and out of her oven, giving a stir to all her pots: I found it hard to believe that she had even been taken sick. And as for dying, that seemed impossible. Could she have run her head against a stone doorpost, while chasing one of the maids with a skillet?
“I wouldn’t tell a lie. It’s true enough,” whimpered Pedro, pulling at me to hurry me. His hands were shaking, and all he did was unbalance me as I tried to stamp into a shoe, so that I put my foot down heavily, and a splinter from the floorboard ran into my toe.
“Estúpido!” I snapped, but instead of taking offense, he said,
“Father Tomás is with her, hearing her confession.”
That settled it. Bernardina would never confess before she had to. No point in upsetting God, she said. And shovel-faced Father Tomás was not to be hoisted from his bed for a simple case of colic; she must be dying.
But she had been in good health the evening before; had thrown a pan of onions clean across the kitchen because, she said, they were not hot enough to serve to Don Francisco for his supper. And she had also threatened to tell my grandfather what she thought of Doña Isadora’s tale-bearing ways. I do not know if she would really have done that, though. Perhaps it was having to keep a rein on her indignation that polished her off at last.
A great cold fright took me. What’ll I do when she’s gone? In all this freezing barracks of a house, big enough to hold an army, filled with richness and silence, Bernardina was the only one who ever laughed or sang, the only one who ever gave me a friendly word, who looked as if it mattered to her whether I walked into a room or left it.
No, that is not quite true. My great-aunt Isadora’s nostrils twitched whenever she saw me, as if she smelled bad fish. And the kitchen brats muttered rude words under their breath when I came in to talk to Bernie—not aloud, any more, since I had knocked out three of Pedro’s teeth.
If Bernardina goes, I might as well go too.
Down the stairs we crept. Not much need to worry about making a noise—the stairs were solid stone, wide enough to take a horse and carriage. Besides, all the old people, my grandparents and great-aunts, slept on the far side of the courtyard. Still, I went quietly. For three days I had been confined to my room as a punishment. I had tied the cord of Father Agustín’s habit to a lamp stand in the chapel, so that he pulled the lamp over when he tried to stand up. Beaten by Father Tomás and no food until Saturday. It hadn’t been worth it, really. But you have to do something to keep your spirits up.
Pedro had brought a candle with him but it wasn’t wanted now. Bright moonshine scalloped the cloistered side of the courtyard, where we stayed under the arches, for the wind was like a dagger; then alongside the chapel entrance, where a lamp always burned in a red glass shade; through a black-dark passage, then round the cloisters of another court, for the house was built around two, like a double-four domino.
Pedro did not stop at the door of Bernardina’s clammy little room, which always smelled of the goose grease she rubbed on her chilblains and the raw onions she ate for her complexion. I said, “Where is she?”
“She took a fancy to die on the tairs.”
“On the stairs? Why there?”
Bernie had always maintained that she was too fat to walk up and down stairs; which was why she chose to sleep on the ground floor; if the Conde or the Condesa or any of the señoras wished to speak to her, let them come down to her level, she said.
“She thought she’d be nearer to God; or it would be easier for Him to find her; I don’t know,” Pedro said, sniffing.
So we went up again. Quite a steep little flight, this was; we were now in another section of the town wall (my grandfather’s house took up one corner of the town of Villaverde); and you could climb right up onto a walkway that led along the wall, or into a turret which looked out to where the French or the English might be coming to carry off all the poultry and mules, and drink all the wine.
Bernie was not as far as the top, though. She had got herself perched about ten steps up, like a whale beached by a big wave at Finisterra. She was wrapped in a cloak and her feet, in felt slippers, stuck out like an untrussed pullet’s.
Father Tomás was there with his sacred things, and the place, besides the usual drafty smell of cold wet stone, breathed strangely of incense and holy oil.
Bernie shone like one of her own chickens she&rsqu...