Writers’ Bloc member Willem Hancock explores family and life under a dictatorship in 1900s Spain

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Content warning: descriptions of domestic abuse, violence, and death which might be disturbing for some readers

Mother was sitting on the balcony when they shot her through the heart. And Father stared at her body, silently shaking, as she sat there dying. She dipped her head, slumped over the armrest, and fell on the ground and Maria Carmen howled. My brothers stood by the sink, clutching dishes soaking in water. Father dragged Mother inside while Maria Carmen curled into a ball and sobbed. Father slipped on the trail of blood and battered his shoulder against the floor, gripping Mother’s arms. He brushed her lips with his fingers. And he gripped her figure, pressing her chest against his, and smothered his nose in her neck. He bundled her hair into his hand, and wept, kissing her forehead. I didn’t know whether I should cry. I couldn’t but perhaps I didn’t know how only Father hugged her, and uttered words of lament I never knew he could find so clearly. I cried then.

The fighting was from far away. Where the bullet was fired and entered our door. Father went to work the next day. He took the car to Bilbao and the radio proclaimed victory for España, for Franco, and peace. I went to school while my brothers went to town. And the teachers pressed how Franco would bring about change in reformation, unity in chaos, and grant freedom from tyranny. Sounded good to me. I didn’t understand, thinking promises amounted to doctrine. But the day was over, and I rushed home through the school gates and stared at the chapel surrounded in graves and shapely trees. They said they formed that way in order to lead souls to heaven’s door. I hoped Mother found her way. Her funeral was tomorrow. I walked the streets and found my way home and stormed the staircase spiraling towards our door, but Father was there as I pranced into the dining room. He sat at the table, smoking and drinking, and exposed his cragged, sweaty chest through open buttons. My brothers were still in town. Maria Carmen always stayed with Oriol. Apart from yesterday, when she came for coffee with Mother. Father buried his cigarette in the ashtray. He plucked the chair from the table and stamped the pegs into the middle of the room. He pointed, unbuckling his belt. I placed my bookbag by the door before stepping on the chair. He asked me to count. But I could only ever make my way to nineteen. He hit me, and it was harder this time. I felt the strap whip my cheek and tasted the blood lathering my tongue. I twisted my jaw, clamping my throat, and scrambled my head to find the words necessary to shout twenty. I knew but could not say. Stuttering and tears escaped me and he thrashed my face while I sobbed. He bundled my hair, yanking my scalp, and tossed me on the floor. He beat me then. He thrashed my back, my arms, face, and legs. They said it would be sunny, so I had worn shorts. I couldn’t move when he left through the door. Only groaning escaped me, and I choked on tears I wished I could hide. But I felt the breeze comfort my cheek, drifting through the open doors bearing the balcony, dusted and clean. The curtains flapped and coiled in the wind, and I could see Irun, hearing the shouting and laughter littering the street. Her funeral was tomorrow. 

I stopped wetting the bed at thirteen when Father sent me to board with the Jesuits in Pamplona. All boys and no girls, and they blocked the projector during picture shows whenever the sight of a female figure touched the minds of flustered adolescents. There was an uproar every-time, and I was asked to leave and head to bed one night upon vocalizing the frustration of getting so close to the sight of something pleasant. But I laid in bed, thinking about what they said. How we were the leaders of a new world, architects for a generation desiring to be led. I thought of Guernika, and the bodies lost beneath rubble and ash. Father had cried over the tree. I don’t know why they don’t like us but I guess it’s the same with the Catalonians. Oriol was born there, and had taught Maria Carmen in secret, while she had done the same with words of Basque. ‘Agur,’ she had said, before they tried to leave through the Bidasoa. They told no-one but me and my brothers. They didn’t come back, and sent no letters. My oldest brother joined the army shortly afterwards and Father didn’t speak of him again, but bought me music lessons, and I learned, thinking it would end at some point before I grew up and left. I didn’t know where I’d go, for there was nowhere to be. I wanted to be a priest. I’d fulfil my purpose in the eyes of God and cry with happiness for singing praises to the father, Maria, and learn all I could to incase the potential I knew I had. I enjoyed school. I was clever, sharp, and found my place among the top of the class. It never meant much. Father had a photographic memory, serving the government. And he’d listened to me play the trumpet on the weekends I came to visit, and would only ever groan and laugh before sitting me down to read the notes. He’d slam the door at night to keep me away. I heard his crying, sleeping in the opposite room. It was only me and him now. My second brother bunked with friends. I enjoyed school.

During the summer, Father drove into the heart of the country, where the fields glinted in valleys of gold. Cows grazed the hills beside the railway tracks. He parked the car and stepped on the grass and gestured for me to follow. We trailed the tracks. His father had died here, hit by a train working on the line. We stopped and stared. Father sighed, nodded, and marched on towards the place of his birth. Families welcomed him with open arms, shouting his name, and danced along the street where children played pelota with calloused palms. Their herds lined the valley. Father smiled, and strolled down the street, where he swept the dust from the brick cementing his childhood home at the end of the path. His mother had passed giving birth. He wiped his eyes, and strode towards the hill, raising his head to the church overlooking the valley. Birds roosted atop the rafters. Father opened the wooden door and stepped inside. A nun dusted the floor beside the altar of Maria. We knelt and prayed, lowering our heads, and muttered our devotion. Father swept his cheek, standing to his feet. He stared at the ceiling and huffed, turning his shoulder, and walked down the aisle. I stared at the golden figure of Maria. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I swore to it. Father shouted my name. And we trudged through the baking sun and walked the splintered streets where we followed the railway tracks back to our car. He opened the door, and stirred the engine. We drove home.

I turned eighteen and nothing had changed. I felt I thrived in hell, that my feet crackled on cinders. Everything I touched lost feeling and beauty. For death I’d seen and known, and nothing enchants the mystery of life more than the promise of living freely, without pain. Without the onslaught of demons that enraged my dreams. I fled Irun. No-one seemed to mind so I wandered carelessly, carrying a degree in my pocket, and believed myself to be a pilgrim. My rags grew torn and I tied my hair behind my head. My second brother wrote letters in French from Paris after finding passage through the Bidasoa, owing to favors he’d done, here and there. He’d never amount to much, and eventually the letters ended, and the language soon left me without his words to remind me. But I made my home in La Ventosa De Fuentepinilla, farming, shepherding, doing the best I could in offering love to the companion I had found in Lolita. It was true, what we shared, and I never believed in anything more as the evening drew near. We’d watch the sun glaze valleys and fields that daunted me so. For I had travelled far from what I had known, and fear gripped me at night in bed, tighter than she could ever hope to hold me. Everything had been lost and nothing had been gained. Franco was God and I was a slave. We suffered and carried, hoping to find peace at the end of an era. It never came. And my uncle, Rodrigo, came by car to the home me and Lolita had built. One we believed might house the laughter of our children and grandchildren. Where singing and dancing and endless music would chase away the hours of night into morning light, and we’d hold hands walking through our valley of plenty. I never came back to see what happened to our home. For Rodrigo took me aside, and said Father had been taken. He had spoken out of order, given in. Weak as he was, he wanted to let go. Rodrigo was chief of police, and he couldn’t do a thing. They asked for money, money that we had borrowed, and I came home to stay. I couldn’t face Lolita, and left without a word. I saw her face when I closed my eyes. But I walked the streets of Irun, hearing the music of living and breathing, toil and labor. I saw the docks filled at the harbor, and smiled, listening to the guitar playing by the bay. I joined a group of men smoking and drinking late into the evening, and watched the sun ripple along the water’s surface. I followed the street as the night closed in and looked at the balcony above. I listened to the nothingness seeping through open doors, whirling in a current created by the swaying curtains. Rodrigo gave me money to live, kept me fed, and allowed me to stay while we waited for word. We had sent the money. And they came by during the day. They delivered the body in a bag. He was already dead.

Rodrigo gave me passage by ship, and told me to learn English, and I did. And after a while, I was satisfied with being away. I waded through city filth and country mud and ran through coastal sands, finding a home near this land’s end. I fished and drank and lived the best I could. I built a life to dream, to comfort and nurture, after leeching what I could from my blood. The waters of my life pool at my feet, as I sit in this sand laden with soil I’d never think to call my own. That I’d never think to savor touching. Only, I think of the when and where, and what could have been. Had I stayed as the boy was, not knowing the man I could. My wife and children sit beside me. I never taught them Español. They’ll never know the words. I lost my mother tongue long ago. But I sit here in content and kiss the cross I carry around my neck. I hug my son, telling him we’ll watch the sun fall beneath the lighthouse.

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