HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

ARCHANGEL

It wasn’t hard to get her there. The roads were empty and dusk had settled early that night, the sun at its winter low. Here and there, rising from the flatness of the plain, windmills bit into the sky. They travelled slowly; the usual steady speed.
Enrique had set out third in line, tucked at the centre of the convoy with his precious cargo, though each time they made a stop he contrived to drop back a place. He did not know then why he did this. He was not planning the abduction. He could not have done, he did not know which route they’d take. What he did just came with instinct as, all the while, her black eyes flashed against snow-laden clouds and heady scents of thyme and pinks and olives swirled within his head.
They were under orders not to stop unnecessarily, not to go too fast, too slow, with no acceleration, no sudden deceleration, they were not to shake their passengers but wind around the potholes and the bumps, not do anything that might attract attention. As if six military lorries, demobbed and painted brown in an attempt to look civilian, each bearing wooden crates which stuck up high as sails, were anything other than an everyday occurrence on the rough tracks and byways of the Meseta. It was best to keep convoys small, they knew they were sitting ducks, and for this reason each truck carried a mixed load. Enrique, Archangel to his fellow drivers, had worked the runs for three months now. Forty round trips – always wary, ever on the look-out, twenty legs fully laden, twenty empty – and he was weary to the core. That grey winter dawn, inching from the scarred, scared streets behind the depot of San Francisco el Grande, his heart sat heavy. All he had to do was steer the rib lines of his country, but he knew, on this occasion, he should have asked for leave to miss the trip.
Enrique was responsible for Vehicle 3, Unit D. Although he’d lived most of his adult life in a hollow of the eastern region, the roads through which they’d passed had not, until this Thursday, seemed familiar. Convoys did not take obvious routes and each group had its own instructions. For Unit D, El Jefe and Pedro El Capitan in Vehicles 1 and 6 knew when, how, and where they were to travel, and Vehicles 2 to 5 followed between. It was three hundred kilometres, top speed fifteen kilometres an hour, before the steep descent towards the gothic fortress. Of course the Junta varied routes, depending on intelligence. No one carried papers any more and drivers memorised passwords in case they met their own forces, and for use at road blocks (though not all the troops who manned these knew the codes, and Enrique and his colleagues were not supposed to reveal their cargo unless they had to, for fear of dampening morale). They carried nothing to identify themselves with one side or the other. If they met nationalists they were to insist upon their own neutrality, claim their work was for the high art of humanity.
‘Fat lot of good that’ll do,’ El Jefe scoffed, ‘but worth a try.’ As Enrique, he was under no illusion about the risks. Shoot first, question later – that’s what happened. ‘We should carry guns.’
‘But we’re not soldiers.’ Enrique did not join in often with the drivers’ chat but he spoke up then. ‘We’re more like guardian angels.’
‘Thus spake!’ El Jefe had laughed so much tears skimmed along the creases in his cheeks and it was a while before he could continue. ‘Archangel, be sure to watch over us.’ And that was how Enrique got as his nickname. Ironic, he reflected now, given how this trip turned out.
The whole thing was coincidence. If she had been packed, if he had not passed by, nothing would have happened. But Enrique Parez had chanced to hobble to the Junta’s office just as she’d been set down in the corridor, naked, delicate and so unbearably at risk, he knew he had to offer his protection. For several hours he had lingered in the crypt, when he should have been catching up on sleep, to watch as she was safely wrapped and slipped into his truck. Then he hurried to his quarters, removed the box he kept beneath his bed and, with due solemnity, withdrew the pistol and rolled it in his blanket. No one checked. Archangel was a trusted man. His legs bore witness to this fact.
Margarita made him take the pistol. It had been her brother’s and her father’s. Of course he should have left it with her and often cursed himself that he had not. When he was flung from the viaduct and more bones in his body shattered than he knew had existed, the pistol had not helped him; when he returned to consciousness and dragged his useless legs away from crumpled corpses, he hauled it with him in his pocket. Was its moment yet to come he wondered as the drivers of Unit D congregated round their trucks.
‘What’s the worst a man can do?’ His words then came sharp and unexpected; he leaned into El Capitan as he spoke.
Pedro started, caught off guard. He coughed as if he hadn’t heard and did not make to answer. ‘All set, Archangel?’ Enrique nodded and tucked the blanket with the pistol in behind his seat. Enrique Parez walked with sticks. His body had healed only partially; neither of his legs had mended straight, nor his left arm. He was deaf in one ear. He could have managed now without the crutches, but liked to keep them close for reassurance, as well as proof of why he had not gone back to the front. He had no taste for killing, he’d explained this to the officer, yet had requested to go back nonetheless. ‘It’s not the worst a man can do.’ This was his explanation. His plea, however, was disregarded and inexplicably, despite the need for troops, Enrique found himself transferred to the Junta del Tesoro Artístico.
It proved a tussle to get La Maja in, and all the while he pondered how he could have found the strength to pull himself from the ravine. Coaxing, prising her from the truck onto the trolley, was harder than he had anticipated; he was not as strong as he had been once and, though glad of the chain and the ropes, he went through several tricky moments, the worst being the dog-legged passage. She did not want to come. Eventually, he left the crate and dragged her to the daybed. He was as gentle as he could be, waiting patiently, feeling for the moment, before undressing her. It was her eyes that caught him. The liquidity of them, the depths, their blackness; not many have true jet eyes. Hers gleamed in contrast with her moon-pale skin. Her complexion had always been like that, his Margarita’s. It was what he’d glimpsed as they passed first in the crowded alley. Market day. She did not notice him, a traveller with his knapsack and his mandolin, moving south on his way home. It was a Thursday. An auspicious day for Enrique, the day of the week on which he was born; the day things always happened to him. Back then, young and dream-inspired, he wrote pamphlets, manifestos; he was a painter. His head was full of Paris. He was going to change the world; he would take all he’d learned from El Maestro Pablo and move it in a new direction. But then Margarita brushed by in the street, and put into perspective everything he’d ever seen – this girl was more alive than Demoiselles, closer to perfection than Murillo’s virgins in his own Seville. Art was cold, art was dead beside this woman; she was someone he had only ever thought could walk in dreams. That morning she slid by, her forearm briefly skimming his, he pulled up sharp, turned and stared, he couldn’t help himself. She passed so close he could have reached to catch her there. But he did not. Instead, he watched her slide towards the square, weaving in and out of market folk, from shadow to light, and tried to hold her in his sight – a scene he’d recreated in his paintings many times since then.
He found her at the stall, framed by grapes and oranges, herbs, fresh-cut pinks, roses, and red and white carnations. Perched against the fountain trough, he brought out sketchbooks and began to draw. She smiled often, but dipped her head to avert her eyes. All that Thursday Enrique drew as the sun wheeled overhead and slipped behind the gables and the town’s thick medieval walls. He worked to catch the smile, her eyes, thick swirling curls of hair that fell around her face, within the heady scent of orange blossom and slips of water trickling in the fountain. It took him until their shadows stretched to sticks and traders packed their wares to pluck up courage and approach. Then he was lost. Drawn into the pools that were her eyes. He seized a bunch of rosemary and held it out. His change fell among green olives. She did not look away.
As, now, La Maja does not look away. All the while he unwraps her beside the couch where their Marita started life, peeling layer after layer, she holds his gaze. He’d like to talk, whisper thoughts, as they used to. Why ever did he imagine they would be safe up north?
‘What’s the worst?’ he mutters in the half-light, gazing on La Maja’s wide, clear brow. The air he speaks into hangs undisturbed and stale.
It had been easy. By twilight, Vehicle 3 was at the tail end of Convoy D, and El Jefe and Pedro El Capitan had not appeared to notice. The drivers were tired and edgy. Rumours had been whirling thick and fast at every checkpoint: Nationalists headed east; bombardments from the air expected. Perhaps Enrique had always known it could only ever end back here, long before he experienced the sudden jolt of recognition and understood exactly where he was. Once they’d crossed the river, each fork, each bend, each tree brought stirrings. He began to anticipate landmarks – rocks and copses, windmills – although he stuck still with the convoy, trailing the truck ahead.
He had not meant to do this wrong, but little by little, as if something were amiss, Enrique the Archangel fell back further until, for several moments, he lost sight of the truck in front. When he hustled to catch up, not quite believing what was forming in his head, he told himself repeatedly he was not going to act, that it would be grievous wrong, but at the last moment possible he relaxed his foot from the accelerator, dropped back one final time and swung the lorry to the right as the track forked into the valley where he had spent his married life.
The village was in ruins. Enrique had expected this. Troops had passed through, though it was not clear which – there were no obvious clues, no flags or graffiti propaganda, no unburied bodies, no abandoned uniform. The truck ground between charred and deserted houses, past the shattered fountain, down the hill until, as he steered into the hairpin bend which wound back to their hollow, he couldn’t help but cry out loud. Had he not known otherwise, he could believe they were still there, that she would rush, Marita in her arms, to hold him. For the house stood exactly as they had left it, shutters neatly closed as if it were asleep. Enrique curled the lorry in as close as he was able before lowering himself from the cab and limping to the well.
‘See!’ he called in what he hoped was a soothing voice. Snow was falling now and seemed to muffle up his words. ‘We’re home.’
Enrique pushed aside the wooden lid, stopped his breath against the stench that rose up from the depths, slipped a hand inside and let his fingers skim chill, damp stone until, tucked into the crevice on the inside of the well, he found their key.
It was dark in the kitchen. He struck a match. Cold ashes in the hearth, three plates set upon the table, the leaves that had blown in when they were leaving, dried now to skeletal spectres, whispered at him underfoot. He hobbled down the passage, fingers tracing whitewashed walls. The lamp was in its cubby-hole, trimmed as usual, and once lit its glow trickled through the gloom, settled shadows into pools, and Enrique’s fingers fluttered round as if they had acquired wings, touching brushes, frames, his canvases, a palette with dried-out paint. No one had been here. Nothing was disturbed. Everything seemed possible.
Yet La Maja stares at him. She gives no concession. She is not going to make this easy. He lifts the lamp and peers, runs his fingers, just as he would with Margarita, down the dark line on her stomach. Marita would be five years and twenty-nine days old he calculates. ‘What’s the worst?’ Enrique leans hard on his sticks. Silence bristles.
‘Say something!’ he cries out. ‘I thought you would be safer.’
La Maja glares, eyes the colour of jet stones in fresh water, darker even than the oiled-gloss of her hair. Her lips stay supercilious, giving nothing, they are not about to speak. These lips are an impostor’s, cold and dead. Enrique punches the canvas. His sticks slip to the floor. The blanket and his pistol fall. Bullets spill. Art is cold. Art is dead.
‘Speak, for God’s sake!’ And Enrique stretches tall. Lips may be changed, he’s a painter after all, he could bring these lips to life, he could make them speak. He did for Margarita. Crutchless, he snatches pigment – flesh tones: burnt sienna, ochre, cadmium, titanium white – oil, brushes, begins to grind and mix.
‘Is the worst to leave your wife, your baby, for the front?’ he screams to the empty house, and, palette as a shield before him, dips a brush into the live-flesh tone and stumbles forward to bring it to her lips.