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Saturday, 31 October 2015

Saturday fiction – Grave Concerns

Today, (All Hallows Eve) begins the traditional ‘holiday’ – the Day of the Dead – that spans All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. There is a cemetery near our house here in Spain and at this time of year it is inundated with visitors, who tend the graves of their loved ones, taking flowers and food, sometimes having a family picnic, to remember and honour the dead.

Here is a previously published short story that concerns a certain Spanish cemetery. The narrator is Leon Cazador, a half-English half-Spanish private investigator, featured in Leon Cazador, P.I.

Grave Concerns

 “I have no tears left to shed.”

The mass grave by the roadside was not the first in Spain to be unearthed in the last four years, and it wouldn’t be the last. On each side were carobs and bright yellow and blue wild flowers, a tranquil contrast to the macabre sight before us. Men in the trench wore gauze masks over their mouths as they lifted out human bones and strips of clothing and placed them reverently on a length of tarpaulin. Behind them stood an idle mechanical earth-digger, while beyond the fields of rosemary and artichokes rose the rugged mountains, mute witnesses to what had happened about sixty-seven years ago.

I stood and watched while Clara Landera sat beside me on a green plastic chair by the edge of the road. She was in her seventies and wore the traditional black clothing of constant mourning and, despite the heat of the day, a black woollen shawl crossed her chest and was tucked into her black skirt’s waistband. Her thick dark stockings were wrinkled, like her face. Mascara encircled Clara’s old eyes, rouge emphasised her sunken cheeks, and her lips were painted carmine.

As I placed a heavy hand on her shoulder, her rough palm patted my knuckles. “I have no tears left to shed,” she murmured.

I understood. For many years, I’d known her as Clara Marzal until one dark evening she explained her tragic past. She had been sitting on her balcony, smoking a cigarillo, watching the television through her window. The screen showed a news item about the digging up of a Civil War mass grave. As the bottle of white wine emptied, her story gradually poured out.


While a new conflict raged across the world, the old Civil War that ended in Spring 1939 still claimed many lives. The reprisals of el Caudillo and his extreme right-wing followers killed thousands of los rojos—the Communists. Nothing was said about the illegal executions and the abduction of children from their families.

Clara’s pueblo was like so many, riven by fanatics of the left and the right. The Civil War was anything but civil, it was barbaric. Old wounds were reopened and old scores were settled with bloodletting on both sides.

In the dead of night in 1940, five men, three women and two children were taken away in a truck by village Falangists. Clara was one of the children and her mother Jacinta was with her. After a short drive, they stopped and were told to get out. Clara was forced to watch as the men in their blue shirts and leather webbing shot her mother, her grandparents and the others. To this day Clara could not wear anything coloured blue as it brought back the memories. The bodies were dumped unceremoniously into a ditch overgrown with weeds. An arm and hand stuck out, and Clara was convinced it was her mother, waving goodbye.

Nothing was done for over half a century. It was a conspiracy of silence born of fear. Even after the transición to democracy, the questioning voices were stilled.

With the new millennium, however, some individuals began to claim their family’s dead. They wanted them properly laid to rest.

“I cried with pain. And hate.” Clara had most of her own teeth and clenched her jaw tightly. “I may have been only four, but I have remembered all the names of those murderers.” She gripped her rosary beads. “Now, before I go the way of all flesh, I want my mother’s remains put in her final resting place.”

When I drove her to the spot that had figured in her nightmares until she was a teenager, Clara was surprised how little had changed. Inland Spain was timeless, it seemed, compared with the raped overdeveloped coast. Long may that be so.

We laid a wreath and on my return, I kept my promise to Clara and set in motion the paperwork for the disinterment of the bodies she claimed lay there.

Months later, at the reburial, few witnesses attended. Many villagers didn’t want to know. Some had died, never knowing the truth. Others were not interested in raking over the past. “Let it lie,” they said.

Pedro Jarillo was not one of those. He welcomed this solemn closure. He was in his eighty-ninth year and there was a haunted look about him, as if he could already feel the icy finger of his mortality on his shoulder. His bowed shape was slightly aloof, at the side of the small number of mourners.

The hearse made its way into the cementerio, a handful of people in black walking behind.

Instead of gravestones and the solitary Victorian tombs of England, this final resting place resembled a tiny town: the streets of the dead, complete with lamps and paved paths. Instead of doors and windows, there were square stone or marble niches, decorated with flowers, epigrams, religious tableaux, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, or photographs of the deceased. They were five tiers high, like elaborate filing cabinets. Whenever I visited a cemetery, I was reminded of the many mortuaries I’d been in, their cadavers lying in drawers.

As the hearse stopped at the empty vacant niche, second up from the ground, two men in overalls stepped round a corner, puffing on thick cigars. They carried a pail each and deposited them to one side, then removed the coffin from the hearse and eased it into its niche, while the readings from Lorca accompanied the mortal remains of Clara’s mother on her last journey.

Then the two men set to work. They placed the stone slab over the hole and plastered it secure.

Clara strode purposefully up to Pedro and suddenly slapped his face. The sound rebounded off the walls of the surrounding graves. She turned on her heel and walked away, leaving loud whispers and murmurings of displeasure behind her.

I stood on Pedro Jarillo’s doorstep. As he opened the heavy oak door, I said, “You asked to see me.”

He nodded, let me in and closed the door behind me. The room was cool and sombre, furnished with dark wood and leather, and it smelled old, like him.

“I know you are a friend of Clara,” he said, and ruefully stroked his unshaved cheek, making a rasping sound.

“Yes.” I hesitated, but realised there was no other way to say it, except outright: “She told me you and your father were there with the other Falangists that night.”

He sighed deeply, as if letting out in that single action, years of dread and guilt. “Yes, so help me, I was.” He pointed at a timeworn leather sofa, and I lowered myself into it. He sat on a ladder-backed chair, shoulders hunched, forearms resting on his knees as he faced me.

His eyes were pale with age now but probably had been shining bright brown when he was a young man. In years gone by, he must have been handsome, a catch for any girl. He made a helpless gesture. “Many of those men who were with me have died. Whether among the dead or the living, they never had any regrets. They believed that what they did was necessary. They justified themselves, saying los rojos had committed crimes just as bad.”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right, though, do they?”

“No,” he said firmly, “they don’t. Ever.”

I nodded. “But you do have regrets, is that it?”

“Already, you sound like my confessor, Señor Cazador.”

“No, but I am a good listener,” I said. “Tell me, Pedro Jarillo. Tell me why you cannot face speaking to Clara.”

Even though his recall was surprisingly detailed, it took a while in the telling.

Pedro’s father was one of the area’s Falangist leaders, short in stature and temper, with constant stubble on his face and small penetrating dark eyes. He was acting on a recent denunciation that stated their prospective prisoners had been Republican sympathisers during the Civil War. Like many in his position, he never questioned the credibility of the denunciation or the relationship of the people involved. Old enmities and jealousies were not considered relevant. “We have to be seen to be strong,” he told his twenty-two-year-old son.

All the way to the home of the Landera family, Pedro had fretted, his insides like jelly. He knew what they were going to do. His mouth was dry, and his heart ached. No matter how he felt about it, he couldn’t back out and bring shame to his father.

Shame had already cast its bleak shadow on Señor and Señora Landera since their simpleton daughter, Jacinta, had become pregnant. The village castigated them for neglecting poor unmarried Jacinta. “The Landera puta is not worthy of the blessing of a child,” some said. Others declaimed the morals of the young in general. Jacinta gave birth to Clara, and she was a delightful healthy child adored by all, even those critical of her family. No amount of goading, beatings or threats of eternal damnation would convince Jacinta to reveal the name of the little girl’s father.

On that dark night, the Landera family and others who had been denounced were forced into the back of a truck. Tears and pleas fell on deaf ears. Pedro briefly put his hands over his ears, but it made no difference. He tried to turn his heart and mind to stone, but failed. It was not right!

As they drove behind the truck containing Jacinta, Clara, and the others, Pedro finally blurted out, “Father, little Clara, she is my daughter!”

Madre de Dios!” His father nearly crashed their car into the back of the truck. He swore, and his big fist smashed down on the steering wheel. “They were Republicans, Pedro!” He turned to face his son, his eyes fiery, glaring. “Look what they did to the village of Segura del Carmen! They must pay!”

“But, Father, she is only a child.”

Madre de Dios!” growled his father, moving the car forward again. “The shame of it!”

The rest of the journey took about five minutes, but in that time Pedro’s father had resolved what they would do.

It was dark as everyone stepped down from the truck and the cars. Swiftly and unseen, Pedro appeared from behind the truck and grabbed Clara and broke her mother’s grip on the girl’s little hand. Before she could shout out, he covered Clara’s mouth with his palm, almost smothering the poor child.

Jacinta screamed but nobody paid her any attention. They had expected hysterics from her anyway. The men and women and a child were shoved along in single-file further up the road, full in the beam of the truck’s headlights. Then they were told to stop and turn with their backs to the ditch. The priest stepped out of another car and took their confessions.

They were all brave, even Jacinta, who had gone very quiet.

As he had promised his father, Pedro forced little Clara to watch.

When it was all over, he carried her over his shoulder and hid with her in the back of his father’s car.

“We will go to the convent of Santa Teresa,” his father said when he got in. “They can look after her. Though I fear she is damned.”

“Does Clara know you are her father?” I asked.

“My God, no.” Pedro shook his head, his eyes evading mine. “As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t save her mother. I left the village for many years and never spoke to my father until he was on his deathbed. All this time, wherever I travelled, I have been unable to forgive myself.”

I leaned forward and put a hand on his shoulder.

His body trembled, shaking with an old grief, but still he stared down at the tiled floor.

“Look at me, Pedro,” I said.

He raised his head, and I feared that the light of life in his eyes was almost extinguished.

“You know what happened, of course,” I said. “Your daughter became Clara Marzal, the famous actress and singer.”

He nodded. “Yes, despite everything, she made something of her life.”

“It’s more than that, Pedro. She used her pain to inform her acting and songs.”

“Yes, I have heard her sing. More than once she has made me cry. I don’t know if it’s because of the words of her songs or the fact that I never knew her, never watched her grow up.” He shook his head, his fist pressing against his chest. “I ache, knowing what I have missed and what I haven’t been able to give her.”

“You don’t have to forgive yourself. That’s up to her. Give her this chance.”

He raised a hand to the cheek she’d slapped. “But—”

“Remind her that, at great risk to yourself, you saved her life.”

As I watched the two old people standing on the bridge over the dry rio, I could see that their eyes were not dry.

I don’t know what they said, but they shook hands and both seemed reluctant to let go.

It was a beginning.

This is one of 23 short stories related by Leon Cazador, private eye; they can be found in Leon Cazador, P.I. available as a paperback and e-book from Amazon here.

Review by Bobby Underwood of this story and the others can be found on Goodreads:
This one opens at a mass grave, as Leon sits with the elderly Clara Landera. It is about the lingering fallout from a brutal Civil War. The story of Pedro Jarillo and Clara is quietly and sadly moving. Excellent.


Earl Staggs said...

Excellent story, well told. My compliments to the author.

Nik Morton said...

Thanks for the feedback and generous comments, Earl. Appreciated!