The Castilian town smelled of gunpowder, of partridge and rabbit blood, of smoke curling up from the chimneys. Dressed heavily for autumn, the hunters flaunted their catch at dusk, amid the first gusts of wind. Old women in black shawls sat in doorways whispering about each passerby, their voices as dry as the rustling leaves, weathered by a life of chilblains, peasant stews, and Sunday Mass. In contrast, the younger women hid behind lace curtains to watch the hunters unseen, gossiping at a safe distance from all that death.
In twilight, packs of hounds filled the town square after a day skinning their snouts tracking game through the hills. They peed on the stone fountain with its three spouts, on the doors of the church with its steeple so high you could see the Duero valley from inside it, on houses proudly bearing the family coat of arms over the door. Their barking frightened donkeys, children, and the cats that hid among bundles of wood stacked in the courtyards. Indifferent to the commotion, the hunters soaked up the warmth of the tavern, where red wine and roast goat helped them unwind after a day in the woods. Stumbling out later, they awakened their sleeping dogs lying pierced by starlight.
They all came to this town hoping to hunt not only partridge and rabbit but wild boar and deer. It was this that brought a young Andalusian landowner in the fall of 1897. He arrived on the afternoon coach with two servants and a cart of cinnamon-colored Andalusian hounds, hauled through the Despeñaperros gorge to the Castilian plateau. He took three rooms at the best inn and an entire pen for his dogs. But his goal of mounting a rack of stag antlers was erased from his mind early the next morning when he went for a walk and came upon a pair of amber eyes, the eyes of Clara Laguna.
“Your eyes are like gold. What a beauty you are.” He took her by the arm.
Clara jerked away, spilling water from the jug resting on her hip. Water snaked between the cobblestones.
“Let me refill that for you at the fountain.”
“I can do it myself.” Clara strode away toward the town square.
Laughing, the landowner followed her.
As it always did at this time of year, a metal-gray fog blanketed the early morning, and the landowner watched as the young woman’s silhouette slowly vanished into it. He stopped. An icy wind buffeted his face and tangled the curls on his neck. The world had suddenly grown impenetrable, blinding him so he could not follow the girl. He wanted to call out to her, but the air was a frozen gag. His mind filled with warm thoughts of his country estate, orange trees bursting into blossom, until the first church bells rang and his memories slipped away with the fog. By the time the ghostly pealing ended, there was Clara Laguna at the fountain, filling her jug.
“You’re pale,” she said as he approached. “Serves you right for pestering me.”
“This Castilian weather takes some getting used to.”
“Return to where you came from if you don’t like it.”
He leaned against the fountain and smiled as the last of dawn’s light glinted off his riding boots.
“Such a beautiful girl, and yet so brusque.”
“Concern yourself with other things. Like why such heavy fog fills the square before All Souls’ Day.”
“I’m concerned with having a name to put with those eyes.”
“Your comments are bold, but a few minutes ago you were white with fear.”
“All right, I admit I was afraid, but not of the fog or the sad chiming of bells. I was afraid when suddenly you were gone. I thought I’d lost you, just like that, so soon after finding you. I was afraid you’d disappeared like that devilish mist. I don’t care where it came from or where it went. All I care about is seeing you.”
Clara studied the light in his eyes.
“No one should venture into the square at dawn on the last few days of October — not until the bells have tolled. The souls of gentlemen buried in the church come out of their tombs, through the big doors, to create that fog and that wind. They’re condemned to fight with their phantom swords and armor until they expiate their sins. Once the bells ring, they return to their graves and the town prays for their souls. Do you understand? Until the bells ring, this town square belongs to the dead. Every hunter is told this — and will pay the price if he refuses to respect tradition.”
“What about you? You went into the square and vanished.”
“In this town, I prefer the dead. We get along much better.”
“You’re a clever one, aren’t you?”
“Why don’t you leave me be and go on your hunt?”
“I came here hoping to bag a trophy stag, but think I’ve found something much more beautiful.”
Clara passed a hand over her hair.
“I am not an animal, señor.”
“You’re right. Let me carry that jug by way of apology. I don’t want that lovely waist of yours to break under the weight.”
“This waist carries water from the fountain every day, then bends in the garden tending to my tomatoes. There’s no need for concern. Besides, it’s best if you stay away from my house. You should know my mother’s a witch. She made this amulet to protect me from men like you.” Clara held out a feathered rabbit’s foot she wore on a string around her neck.
“I’m just a gentleman offering to help.”
“The only gentlemen around here are in tombs in the church . . . what’s left of them, anyhow.”
“But I’m no Castilian. I come from Andalusia.”
“And where is that?”
“In the south, where the sun toasts the afternoon the color of your eyes.”
“My eyes, I’ll have you know, are my father’s eyes — he came from a place called La Mancha. That’s what my mother says.”
Clara shifted the jug into the curve of her waist and headed down one of the narrow streets leading away from the square. Wisps of gray clouds were starting to gather. The scent of bacon and fresh bread wafted her way as she walked. Doors opened onto courtyards, piles of wood sparkled with dew, donkeys were loaded with saddlebags already filled with crockery and sheepskins, and guard dogs stood with ears perked. Clara turned her head and saw the young man not far behind.
“Tell me your name.”
“Clara. Clara Laguna. And proud of it.”
Two middle-aged women in thick wool coats, fur stoles, and morning hats crowned with a pheasant plume appeared at the end of the street. Clara handed the young man her jug. As the women approached, she smoothed her dress over her waist and, for the first time, flashed her companion a smile. At that, one woman took the other’s arm, whispering something in her ear. The Andalusian stepped aside to let them pass, and they acknowledged him with a slight nod of their heads.