The International Writers Magazine: Tragedy

The Old Lady of San Pedro
G David Schwartz

ne day God made solemn the old woman’s foolish threat to allow the gypsies to have the boy. She was a woman of few holdings; enough to keep her grandson comfortable, but not enough to keep him from thinking about the brutal way his mother died, nor the revenge his father had intended but failed to deliver.

The old woman had many plans and promises, but on the day an invisible silence made good her disgraceful remarks to sell the boy to the gypsies, she lost immediately the handsome soldier billeted in her memory. She retained only the sense of frailty, which lived, in the face of her grandson.

Heroic men with gaunt faces searched the ravine for hours in the blistering sun and the fearfully cool evening. They returned to her with the challenge of good news and bad news. When asked, they told her, "He was not there." She widened her eyes to command the sequel. They opened their hands and repeated, "He was not there."

So they continued searching. Finally, after a time, which would have been considered respectful from anyone other than a semi-retired grandmother, they slowed their paces. Eyes, fatigued from following the irregular lines of brush and horizon, earned the disdainful and penetrating glare of the old woman when they dared find refreshment in cold beer. The old woman could not understand why the search teams did not look for as long as there was uncovered territory, as long as there was a new place to search, or on old place to search with better eyes. Why did they not look for as long as there was air to breathe.

She glared into their series of molested faces. They sat stiff amid the medicine of fright. "We have searched everywhere." one insisted." Everywhere, And where was that, The old woman thought back to the days when faith moved mountains and the landscape was continually twisting and changing. She imagined the villagers who were truly her friends would have bled their eyes across the terrain until mapmakers were considered an impossibility.

The priest of San Pedro, who had studied St. John of the Cross, Saint Teresa, and not a few works of Kabbalah, was not surprised. Padre Gomez shrugged his shoulders and, reaching for the old woman, spoke for once from the heart of his faith: "Sometimes God takes it to mind to dislike people. This is a trial," the village free-thinker proposed. His remarks piqued her interest and she looked at him expectantly. Unfortunately, he continued: "You must weather the storm. You might fight the tide. You must hold the course." He did not understand. In her world, there was nothing but storm, not even interrupted by tide, or course.

By the end of the month, she had shed so many tears that she was as dry as a cactus. Her eyes were red as a salmon which had fished itself to dry earth. Her throat was vacant and sore. She coughed too much for a woman her age and wheezed towards disappearance.

She was tossed from one sleepless night to another. She dressed in anguish, walked in fatigue, rested in agony. When sleep would not soothe her, she sought the fluidity of faintness. She hoped for blissful mental autumnal twilights. The old woman began believing in the resurrection; not her own, she hastily added, but the resurrection of the hastily departed. The old, she thought, might just as well stay dead. But the young! They deserved more than a face full of earth or, as she feared, the eagle’s talons.

As if overnight, her lusty black hair aged in streaks of gray and her firm breast sagged with the weight of a lost world. She found herself in possession of a stinginess of mind, refusing to give thought to anything or anyone other than the boy. She was tormented by the fear that she would loose his rugged good looks in her mind also. The old woman began looking upon the girls in the village with a sour mistrust. She was certain any one of them might have become her grandson’s lover or wife and, failing that, would try to steal his memory from her.

How long, she begged to know, would the blood of the living rust this iron sky of death,
Her misery was strengthened by the knowledge that, two days before the boy disappeared, her brother had called, frantic because he dreamt about a dead coyote.
"What can it mean," he asked.
"It can mean that coyotes die, and that you dream."

Nevertheless, she was driven by the conviction that dreams represent the insides of a person talking to them. If your gut had a voice, she thought, it would tell you about its vile existence. Until the moment of the call from her brother, the old woman attempted to pay attention to the images, which occurred to her in sleep. But she had no dreams of her own after the disappearance of the boy.

The old woman blamed the child’s disappearance on the sins of her own youth, on the failure of the authorities to have eyes for any but vagrant tax-payers, on a legendary curse placed upon her family generations ago which had somehow, miraculously, skipped her own life till this moment. She even gave credence to the bold notion that beings from another planet would have some use for the boy. The villagers had equally cogent reasons for the child’s disappearance. The earth ate him. The old woman herself had done him in. A giant bird had carried the boy away. The priest was being punished for studying the mysteries. His punishment consisted of a new mystery which neither he nor anyone else in the village could fathom. All were filled with horror tales designed both to relieve and horrify the mind. Each sponsor-less rumor was spread in hushed voices amid personal professions of disbelief. The village became a place where people could only reason with their ears.

When it became apparent that no incantation would help, no charm would bring relief, the old woman took a turn for the worse. The radio, when on, played emptiness to emptiness. Her meals took longer and longer to cook, but it did not matter. When dinner was ready, she refused to eat. Utensils, which she once handled as deftly as a sergeant handles pistols, fell freely from her clasp. Finally, she took to throwing knives into the unoffending wall. Asked by one of the diminishing number of visitors if these actions made sense to her, the old woman responded by flinging a plate from the window. She enjoyed the sound of the plate breaking on the dry clay. Then, immediately despairing of the feel of anything, she broke the rest of her dishes.

Marie quickly closed the cupboards, closed the blinds, and turned out the lights when the old woman demanded silence. One day she hurried from the cottage, strangely sorry for the gallop her sandals tapped across the wooden floor. She never returned, nor did the old woman notice. Nor did she notice that her flesh felt faintly of loose, as if melted worms stretched across banded, leaky bricks. Wings of vacancy spread to soak in the full-bodied abyss. A carousel of memories spun her in a web of tedious heartbreak. She felt as if the end of permanence had touched her.
But, hush! One should not spill another’s emotions with words.

Searching for sympathy, she found a towel, which proved more enduring than the lurid attention span of others. She attempted to clean a spill from her kitchen, but the stain would not be absorbed. Her thoughts were stretched across a bottomless ravine, between the two plateaus of squalor and unintelligibility. Her reaction was quite rational. Inasmuch as she had lost her source of joy, she resolved to treat everyone from the bitterness she felt in her heart. Her pride was ransomed to the continual plea of anger.
The old woman sighed. She swept a bluish mist from her face, annoyed that colors would bother her at a time like this. When the haze departed, she experienced the lavender depths of loss once again. There was a pool within her, a silver tear, but it was drowning in a swirl of purples and magentas. She despised colors, and left her cottage to walk the dusty roads. She sneezed when she was first outdoors. The sun disappeared. The golden sun fell invisible through a haze of scarlet and landed on the earth like pale yellow dust. The woman, who had so recently had ageless features like the earth itself, became wearily cavernous, contemptuously worn with folds in her flesh, like the land.

She wrote the boys name with a hundred twigs broken by the sharp years, which were hidden in the sand. A rose, opening itself, she stepped on. The day wheezed into lavender hues and she decided to endure it. Nevertheless, the gardener opened his hand for the spade to fall to earth as he bowed and saluted the old woman with his thumbs pointing to either side of his rear. She absentmindedly scratched a fresh bruise into a festering clump of pain and, asked about the infection, spoke a rude word of condemnation to the man. Sparrows, once the only proof that heaven and earth were connected, cocked their heads appreciatively to the side and warbled drolly. Their song called forth the precision of her annoyance. She felt as if she were about to rust in time and wilt in space.
"Why me," she shrieked, then offered the names of former and future enemies. "What, not this one, Why not that one," The indecipherable answer was a whistling of the wind.
People who once treated her with genuine respect now began calling her "Ma´am" and "Madame" and "Your ladyship." She once heard someone call her "a great horse’s ass."
It was the first time she smiled in months.

The old woman consulted sorceresses who wrenched open the old woman’s hands. After reading her palms, the sorceress threw up her own hands and bid the old woman to believe in the powers of the unknown. The old woman turned her fingers toward the table and her nails, out of fruitless habit, penetrated callous skin and reburied themselves in her flesh.

The old woman no longer noticed her insomnia. She had grown accustomed to her waking nightmare. Once, she lay on her bed and, shocked by the suddenness of sleep, awoke in tears. Voices, which disturbed her nightly numbness, were recognized as memories. She cursed these voices, cursed any sounds which occurred in her head, for seeking a different way to live. She would allow nothing to use her.
Believing in a potency she herself could not understand, she pulled herself from bed early one morning and buried a bowl and spoon in her yard. She thought this would lure spirits to release her grandson. Before noon, she despaired of the significance of the act, clawed the items from the earth, and spat upon the ground to show her contempt.

As winter approached, the winds blew her hair from her head. Her tears formed sheets of ice. Cows and goats on nearby farms began dying mysteriously. The villagers formed myths and attached blame for all sudden or slow occurrences to her doings. Word of superfluously imagined treats was carried to her by the wind. After hearing what her neighbors were saying of her, she tore her own hair out as a lament for their stupidity and confusion. The animals were another matter entirely.

In an inspired moment of delirium, she wrote an inventory of each of her possessions in a minute, cramped scrawl on two think sheets of paper. The inventory was so detailed and precise that even the two sheets of paper were counted. On a third sheet of paper, she scribbled the heading, "Things I Do Not Have." She immediately lined through the first two notations: a silver clasp given me by my mother, my self-respect. The third line was most legible of all she had written. The whimsy of dizziness tilted her when she noticed she had not mentioned anything, which most people, according to the wind, desired from life.

When the first snows came, the old woman phoned her accountant and demanded he come to her cottage. She cleaned for him by pushing everything on the floor into a corner. He was not surprised to find the tangled mess of "crap," as he was later to call it, "mixed with shit and chicken bones" piled below the window. She instructed him to close bank accounts, sell property here, buy this, write quicker, because she had much to say, and do. She screamed at him a number of times to do everything she said, no questions asked. Nor did he desire to ask questions. He wanted to leave as quickly as possible, to get away from the overwhelming stench. Nor did her requirements make sufficient sense to earn questions and would not until questions were too late. He thought the old woman mad, but did not understand that her madness was fueled by the desire not for gain, but to deprive others of their property or entitlements. He wrote quickly and left hurriedly.

The old woman was so consumed by the desire for denying that she did not even care to possess. One after another, esteemed members of the government succumbed to a servitude for which they had never anticipated except in fine speeches announcing a lack they were prepared to help voters avoid. The old woman closed her eyes, never opening them again except to sign documents or feel her way about the village. As she passed through the streets, she imagined boutiques and factories, an expanded market-place and whorehouses, which would cater to new clientele. She instructed one of her body-guards to write these words on a thin sheet of paper: termites; transients; migrants; citizens.

With calloused hands, she managed the minutest affairs of her expanding empire. She insured she had the first, the last, the only decision about what was to go where, who was to do what, when they were to begin, and when the chore would be completed. She made good use of her insomnia to lose all sense of appreciation, all human feeling. She behaved with the self-righteousness of a plague. Whatever it was she no longer recognized in herself, she refused to hear about in others. Whenever a personal problem caused a delay in transacting her designs, the offender was dispatched in the most unpleasant manner. Ridicule, which was discovered to be an adequate substitute for holiday bonuses, now became the institution of the living death of banishment.

A servant, upon seeing the old woman, spread his hands across his cheeks and allowed his mouth to fall open. "Close your mouth," the old woman warned, "We have the flies to think about!"
As a final insult to the people, the old woman contracted with a circus to come to town. She smiled painfully at the parade of llamas and clowns, a tall, thin man walking on sticks, a ballerina who gracefully moved through the main street with her arms spread to the side, her limp fingers pointing to the dust. When they had gathered to the place they were instructed to pitch their tends, the old woman led a parade of villagers to the encampment and, with a great display and fanfare, announced that this parcel of land was a city in its own right, and these performers and freaks were the citizens. The villagers were intuitively confused, but the circus people had a more worldly confusion.

If this tale had a proper ending, we would expect the grandson to be found among the performers who walked with the mules and flew through the air with the mosquitoes. But this tale has the harsh tones of reality spread about it. The elephants reminded the people of a largess they had once known when they were simple villagers. The clowns regaled the villagers out of consciousness. The dangerously delightful dagger thrower amused them. The lion tamer made them fiercely contemplate better days. The brightly colored wagons distracted them from their dull ideas about what life had once been like. But Juan was nowhere to be found, not even in the memory of the sad faces, which watched the antics of bearded women and well-laundered men. He existed only in the crooked smile of the old woman who, wishing her grandson could see the spectacle of these new citizens, broke down and cried.

The people of our village do not believe in ghosts. If asked, we will verify the howling and terrifying groans, which can be heard from the cliffs, adjudicating the mountains. Visitors to our village, who are few and far between, rarely claim to hear the distressed cries, which wearily wake us nightly. She should have been dead many years ago. Angry animals should have claimed her many times over. Yet, Padre Sanchez tells us through his habitual coughing, some things cannot be explained. Some things never seem to go away.
© G DS September 2006

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