My memories go back to the first days of April 1931, when “with the first leaves of the poplars and the last flowers of the almond trees”, as our immortal Antonio Machado sang, Inés climbed as usual on the way to town while I was trying to take care of two dozen stubborn sheep and a goat impossible to control. She had been playing with her writing pad, scrawled for every space available, and tossed it into the air like a kite, picking it up again as if it trained her. When he came to my side, she was laughing, perhaps at my stubbornness as an illiterate teenager, while looking at me provocatively, rehearsing those woman’s arts that arise naturally in all teenagers with no one teaching them. As she got closer, it seemed as if the wind was shaking harder, the rough rockrose seemed to bloom, like honeysuckle, and the song of the monotonous hurray seemed to be goldfinches or nightingales.
When she was around, she blushed or made me figure out she blushes, because Inés was never ashamed of me, which made me lose my integrity, as if she was twenty years older than me and knew everything there is to know about life, while I, a fifteen-year-old, almost sixteen-year-old, hardly knew where the children came from.
Close already, on the bank, at a certain height from where I was, Inés was arranging her rough dress stretching here and there, putting on the shoulder pads and adjusting her apron, as if preparing for a performance:
“Ea, Andrés doesn’t look at me so much that you will wear me down!”
She said it knowing that I was glancing at her when apparently I was attentive to several lambs that went up the slope in search of fresh grass, but I didn’t even see them.
“Can’t you see it unravels the goat?”
It was true, that damn goat, that not all creatures must be from God, always went to the slopes and there was nothing to do. For a little milk cube that gave us the day the work of having it next to the sheep it did not compensate, but my father insisted on having it, more out of nostalgia than out of utility. Ever since my poor mother died, we had that wayward and unruly goat as if it were her soul was still in the world, and that only she respected. She bought it herself at the cattle market in Sigüenza, in the fall of the 27th, because she wanted me not to be short of milk, even if it was from the goat. “If you want to be a good man, and you will be, even if you have to beat yourself up, drink a lot of goat’s milk.” She said it as if that milk were the ointment to confirm from the Bishop.
“You are a foolish shepherd who doesn’t even know how to keep an old goat firm!” Inés reproached me.
But I knew that since my mother died, she had an affection for me, but not only out of feminine compassion, but for other reasons that I don’t want to mention yet. But she enjoyed martyring me as if she believed he had an obligation to do so. It was as if she wanted to replace my late mother and set out on a mission to wake up and make me a man of “good” based on reprimands and recriminations, as my poor mother left it. She stopped, put the notebook in the large pocket of the apron, and reprimanded me.
“Can’t you see the goat is going to the hill?”
I would whistle at her, yell at her, throw a pebble at her, and uselessly try to get her back into the herd because I didn’t want to go looking for her and get away from Inés. She was my only joy in the world and I was waiting for that moment when I returned from school like we expect the sun after a cold frosty night. Everything around me was silence and despair. My father did not smile again after my mother died; My aunts seemed to wait for the moment to enter our cold and soulless house to remove any sign of joy from their faces, and they seemed to believe in the obligation to sympathize with me at every moment. Poor son of mine! Without a mother to take care of him, how can he become a man!”. I was for all the “poor Andresito”, the child without a mother, almost orphaned, because my father already looked like a corpse. The other children in the town, cruel and ruthless like all children, showed me everything that only a mother can do, such as her well-patched shirts and pants, the succulent snacks, and they smiled maliciously at me when their mothers called them to come in after dark. “Well, I’m leaving because my mother is calling me. Sure, as you don’t have you can stay until you feel like it. What luck!”
Their cruelty was as immense as their ignorance.
“I’m sick of that goat, so sick of it one day … well, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it!”
“Don’t even think about it, Andrés!” Your mother bought that goat and you have to respect her!”
Like everyone else, when mentioning my mother also Inés believed in the obligation to sympathize with me, but she barely allowed to see a moment of melancholy and immediately her face glowed again, her cheeks lit up and her lips smiled again, as if trying to push away any sad thoughts about someone who seemed to have been born to advertise joy. In addition, I felt the death of my mother with the naturalness of a priest who gives extreme dying to a dying man, because I think whoever loves life also loves death, in the same way, that whoever lends himself to be a martyr can become an executioner.
I did what she expected me to do: I gathered the flock, reduced the revolutionary aspirations of the damn goat, and once everything was in order, I returned and sat next to her, like a child waiting for her mother’s kiss for her good behavior. But she followed her methodical system of provoking my dignity.
“I would never marry such a foolish shepherd; Wow, that I won’t even marry a shepherd, with that hustler!”
“Don’t talk nonsense, Ines, talk about weddings now!”
“When I grow up, I’ll be like those young ladies from Sigüenza. I will wear beautiful organdy dresses, with a good neckline for the boys to rage. Because I don’t plan to marry anyone. That’s why I go to school, I don’t earn for shoe soles!
When she mentioned the school, her expression became solemn, her gaze was lost somewhere in the valley, she remained for a few moments in absolute silence, rare in her, as if she understood that only with the four doodles that were emerging from his lined notebook his dignity as a person could live up to her dreams. Then she became even more aggressive, took out her worn notebook from her apron pocket, there would be any page showing me rows of repeated sentences, more or less adjusted to the lines, and almost arrogantly reprimanded me:
“How does an ignorant shepherd who can’t do it, or with a joint, can you understand how important it is to go to school? A lady needs to know how to read and write, because… ” and she halted as if she knew that those letters scrawled in a charity notebook were not enough to make her a lady. However, those signs intimidated me, because I had not learned to read and write, and she seemed to be an important person with a future. I had the feeling that they contained meanings that were denied to me because of my ignorance. They may have told stories, they spoke of life, of nature, of everything necessary to know to understand all the mysteries that the world holds. Just looking at those signs that hid their meaning bothered me “for whatever! Hey, I’ve already said enough nonsense!”
She almost always ended her reflections in such a bewildering way, but almost immediately regained his joviality. It was as if he had returned from an imaginary journey through his future, after having strolled wearing his desired dresses by the mall, provoked the boys for his brazen neckline and he had not found the expected satisfaction. Therefore, she returned to town; on the dusty road to school; to the bank of the stream covered with reeds where the frogs croaked; to the distant sound of the church bell, the shearing of the sheep and the whistling of the larks among the fields. As if in reality that dream of his city lady was not really his, but they had tried her to instill those poorly written doodles in her rickety notebook.
Suddenly Ines became maternal again, she lost her attractiveness as a young marriageable woman, and she scolded me harshly:
“Why don’t you go to school too?”
“Me to school? And who does all the work in my house?!”
“What will become of you being illiterate? Do you not see that a man does not have to come if he does not know how to read and write and the four rules?
“Having land and sheep, why do we need to know about accounts?”
“But what if you lose them; if a bad year is coming or the sheep get a bad one and they die? What are you going to do?”
“I will not be short of work while I have two arms!”
“A pawn in the field and dying of misery?”
Outraged by my stubbornness, she got up angrily and rubbed her worn notebook over my face, as if trying to get the letters to hit my head by hitting me with them.
“If you don’t learn to read and write I won’t accept you as my husband, even if you asked me to do it on my knees! Just so you know!”
She believed that this was the best way to stimulate my unconsciousness and my small-town stubbornness because for Inés life was reduced to living happily until the inevitable day when she had to get married. Then life would stop being a game and become something serious; a kind of natural mission that every woman must fulfill, such as taking care of a husband, running a house and raising children. Therefore, everything she did before this momentous undertaking was nothing but a minor game, which had to be used to the best of her ability.
“I’m not good at making letters like that!” I defended myself, but inside I knew it was not like that also, I thought I understood them even without knowing what they meant.
“You don’t serve as a pastor either, nor do I want you to be a sheepherder! I want you to be someone important, because I will only marry someone who is important, like those gentlemen who come by car from Madrid to spend the summer in Sigüenza.
“But what silly ideas get into your head? What’s wrong with the town, huh? Also, where do you get those ideas from being a brat who, total, has not been in school for half a year? What do you think, that with knowing how to read and write and the four rules you can already aspire to all that nonsense of summer ladies and gentlemen? Come on, come down from the fig tree, Inés, that things are not as you dream them! We are but two peasants as are all peasants. You will be like your mother, you will be married to one people, you will take care of sheep, you will scalp the chives, you will dig the beans, you will fatten a pig for the slaughter of San Martín, you will reap and thresh the harvest every summer, and God forbid that you give you even four or five children and you can raise them with health so they take care of you in your old age. What is all this nonsense about men and women? For that, you would be better off not going to school!”
It was as if I had slapped her. Pressing her lips together violently, she got up angrily; she crucified me with her gaze, that if it had been a sword, it would have nailed me in the heart, and, putting herself on her hips, she told me everything that she undoubtedly deserved and still for her good natural She fell silent:
“Do you see it? You are just a silly illiterate who knows nothing about life! Just so you know, at school they not only teach us how to read and write and the four rules, but how to be people … Well, I don’t mean that it is bad to be a peasant, but you have to aspire to be more than just illiterates, starving and destitute. You think this is good because you know nothing else. Why? What can you learn from life if you are in the bush all day, or driving the mule in the fields or digging the garden? Do you think it all ends here? That the poor do not may eat something finer than stale bacon, or sausages and blood sausages? Which is not that I don’t like them, but there are other things: cakes, sweets and things to drink that are not just water and wine? Do you think we have no right to dress in anything other than these patched rags? Look at your pants, they are more patched than the roof of my house! Why do you think stores are full of beautiful things? For decoration, huh, so silly? And how are we going to buy those things if we don’t see the money more than when there is a baptism and they throw four bitches of Christmas bonuses at us!”
I was silent because I did not understand very well what she wanted to tell me. For me, life was fine as it was. I liked the intense smell of thyme, lavender, rosemary, sage or marjoram, even the acidity of the broom flower; I breathed with satisfaction that clean mountain air; I enjoyed watching the hare scamper around the fields or the procession of the chicks behind the mother; I liked to imitate the song of the scary cuckoo, with its image cut out in the distance above the oak tree. I was happy to see the sun go down at twilight when the clouds turned vermilion as if they burned. All this had for me the solemnity of the divine and I would not know how to live without it.
Suddenly Ines cried, and I knew it because two thick tears were streaming from her big green eyes, sliding down her flushed cheeks.
“And now what happens to you?”
“I don’t know, I want to cry, that’s all!”
“Wow, just like that!”
“Yes, just like that! Women cry just because we do!”
“Then what nonsense!” She always spoke of herself as a woman, despite not being fourteen yet.
“I cry because something, I don’t know what it is, presses my chest, and if I don’t cry I burst!”
“But does it to have an explanation?”
“It has an explanation! Does it seem little explanation to you we are poor, living here in this half-ruined village, abandoned by God, without a bad light bulb in the town square, lighting us with lamps? Does it seem little explanation to you that your mother got the flu, that doctors already know how to cure with four pills?”
“Leave my mother, who rests in peace, and if she’s gone, God will know why!”
“That, always the same; good or bad, God wants everything! Well, what God is that of yours who does not know how to distinguish between what is just and what is not? Go, God forgives me if it exists, but there is no justice in the world and He must know why, but I do not know!”
“Do not blaspheme, Inés, that God will punish you with some evil!”
“Leave me alone! You go to a priest, and if not the time!”
Angrily she walked away, storing her notebook in her apron, until I lost her, without even turning to see the stupid face with which she had left me.
That was a premonition because Ines knew more about my character than I did. I felt it as a curse from heaven and not as a blessing. Being a priest was turning away from her, giving her up, when somehow we lived with the naïve conviction that we were made us for each other, but that it was only a matter of letting time fix our differences. This would happen as soon as I stopped being a teenager and became a man, but I didn’t know when or how I would know that I already was. I was just sure it still wasn’t. However, she had been a woman for a long time; she thought as a woman and behaved like a woman. She even cried like a woman!
That new discussion did not cool our friendship and even I would say that our mutual affection could already be loved. On my return from the field, I found her sitting at the fountain, with a jug that had been overflowing for quite some time because she was undoubtedly waiting for me. I passed by her confused, afraid that after our discussion she would not speak to me again, and I gave a severe blow of the stick to a poor sheep that stopped to nibble on herbs that grew next to the pylon, right where she was sitting. The animal, frightened, jumped on its hind legs and was about to crash against the stone of the fountain had it not been because she stopped it.
“Do you want to kill the poor animal? Look you’re a beast, Andrés!” Inés reproached me.
I said nothing, but I was sorry. I grabbed the poor sheep by the shearing collar and tried to calm her as if she wanted to apologize for my misbehavior, but the animal wanted nothing more than to get rid of me. Ines picked up the jug, carried it on her hip, and walked beside me in silence.
“What I told you about being a priest I have not felt …” she said after walking together and a few meters from his house. I don’t want you to be a priest … Priests are not real men; They know nothing about life because they don’t get married. “Suddenly she stopped, changed the heavy pitcher on her other hip, and laughing she screamed at me. “But if you go to a priest, I become a nun!”
I, once again, was confused and bewildered, because something inside me told me I could never enjoy the love of that girl, who, however, already saw herself as a woman.