Los Austrias was dusty and run-down when I first knew it, in the early 1960s. It was an old neighborhood in Madrid near the Plaza Mayor, its granite buildings dulled by soot and crumbling cornices. Stooped women peered over wrought iron balconies or occasionally watered pots of geraniums; small dogs chased delivery boys on rusty bicycles. The smell of diesel exhaust invaded the streets and made me sick. Men smoked Ducados, cigarettes made from black tobacco that lingered in your nostrils; young women wore knee-length skirts and their hair in tight buns. Mothers dressed their children in stiff, frilly clothes, then scolded them when they dirtied themselves in the sandy park across from the church. In tapas bars, people lounged lazily in the heat, leaning against the counters, eating olives and mussels and plates of fried fish, dropping their toothpicks and small paper napkins on the floor.
We used to visit my Spanish grandparents there every summer in the thick heat of August, when most people had left for the beaches in the south. My cheery grandmother, with a heaving bosom and always out of breath, had a boisterous laugh but would burst into tears when she first saw my brother Teo and I, hugging and kissing us, stroking my mother’s face, moaning what a pity it was that her only daughter had moved so far away, to America. She would prepare elaborate meals with fresh vegetables from the market, suffocating us with attention and stuffing us with strange foods that we had never seen the likes of. My mother forbade us to make fun of the boiled octopus and fried squid which my brother compared to rubber bands, and we would sit, squirming and kicking each other under the table for what seemed an eternity, listening to the adults during the sobremesa, the after-dinner table talk. We sweated in formal clothes, not our usual cut-off jeans and t-shirts, dying to kick our shoes off or go somewhere else to play. But my mother would not let us go outside by ourselves, afraid something would happen to us. My American father, broad-shouldered and gregarious, would crack jokes about Spaniards and their old-fashioned ways, offending my mother by comparing the U.S. to Spain. He had grown up in Colorado, where we lived, and complained about the grime and noisy streets of Madrid, the lack of modern appliances like air-conditioners and electric screwdrivers. My mother would listen with increasing irritation and I felt sorry for her because she seemed caught between two worlds. I could see she was uncomfortable bringing my father back to the place where she was born. I myself was both repelled and fascinated by the novelty of it all, and sent my friends postcards, bragging and telling them I didn’t miss them at all. I was a small girl, quiet and bookish and devoured mystery novels, but my brother was the opposite; robust, like my father, he needed action and resented being cooped up when he would have rather been outdoors playing sports.
My favorite relative of all was my grandfather, who was a waiter at Café Luarca. It was a famous bar where writers liked to gather in the afternoons for their tertulias, which as my mother explained in a lofty tone, were chats about art and literature. The waiters there were all men, wearing white shirts with bow ties, black pants and aprons. My grandfather, short and wiry, was serious about his job. He carried the drinks high on a round tray, perched on one hand, but would wink at us as we sat in the corner booth, sipping our cool drinks. He treated my brother and me to granizados, sweet lemonade with crushed ice while my mother would ask for her favorite, un blanco y negro, espresso coffee with a dollop of vanilla ice cream. My father always asked for a beer and drank it directly from the bottle, which my mother claimed was bad manners.
One year, when I was nine and Teo was ten, my father announced that he had had enough of the city. My grandparents’ apartment was too hot, too cramped. He would drive us up to the Sierra Guadarrama, mountains outside Madrid, where it was cooler. My mother’s cousins had a summer house there and my father could go trout fishing and hike. We were all thankful to escape the sweltering heat and finally breathe some fresh air. Even my mother seemed to relax and was less argumentative. She let us change into comfortable clothes, and she herself wore an open-necked white blouse and loose shorts with a bandanna tied around her wavy black hair. My father drove a rented Renault-4; Teo teased me in the back seat, calling me a wimp because the curves made me carsick. But I was happy with the window down, savoring the dizzying freshness as we rose towards the hills, counting the bulls and cows grazing beyond the stone walls, the country dotted with holm oak and cork trees, the parched fields, thirsty for rain.
In the distance we could see a large cross rising out of a rocky promontory looming like a phantom, stark and out of proportion. My mother told us it was called Valle de los Caídos and that Franco, El Caudillo, would be buried there someday. “Not soon enough,” joked my father. My mother quickly shushed him and told him to hold his tongue. She didn’t like to talk about politics and like my grandparents, was afraid that any little slip, however harmless, might get them into trouble. Silence was safer, and the modest economic stability they had now under Franco was preferable to the impoverished war years. She explained that the cross, one hundred fifty meters tall, was a monument on top of a giant crypt and had been inaugurated in 1959. I didn’t know what inaugurated meant, and when I asked her my father continued to joke, “It was a big celebration, to thank all those prisoners who helped build the darn thing!” My mother glared at him and no more was said.
It was that summer when we found out what happened to my mother’s uncle, Tío Emilio.
At first, things were uneventful. We stayed in Cercedilla, a village nestled in a valley framed by Seven Peaks in the north, and towards the east, another mountain called ‘La Maliciosa’—the evil one, which conjured up frightening images in my mind of dangerous precipices and unforgiving steep canyon walls. At the edge of our property there was a stone wall which gave to a vacant lot where sheep sometimes grazed. Beyond that there was a cottage similar to ours with green shutters and a granite chimney. Weeds sprouted from the cracked roof tiles; the yard was full of thistles and scraggly bushes, sage and thyme. Tío Emilio lived there, but we were not allowed to go near under any circumstances, my mother said, because her uncle needed peace and quiet.
So mostly, we played outdoors with other children from the village. In our spare time, we were alert for any details about Tío Emilio; we had heard the family whispering about some terrible ordeal, the words ‘kidnapping’ and ‘prisoner.’ We found out he had been involved in a clandestine group of rebels based in Madrid, that during the war he had ridden his bicycle up into the mountains and back just to secure a loaf of bread for his starving family.
Armed with this titillating information, my brother roped me into his latest scheme even though he doubted my bravery because I was a girl, squeamish about certain things like spiders. Reluctant at first but eager for my brother’s approval, I left my reading aside and soon became an avid participant. We invented a game that involved whips and hiding places, a whole new world complete with hostages and armed thieves, with the hope that somehow, we would vindicate our great uncle. We pretended we were on a crusade hunting murderers with the promise to torture them, deprive them of food and water and bind their hands and feet together. We would tie our victims—children from the village—up to trees and tickle them mercilessly until they wet their pants, or blindfold them and tip them over in a folding chair, flick a lighter in front of their noses. We would fill up burlap bags with objects like chicken bones or moldy fruit, cracked eggs, or worse, cow dung or worms mixed with weeds dug up from the garden. The possibilities were endless. We would make our prisoners put their hands inside the bags and identify the contents or suffer the consequences—a bucket of cold water over their head. Once we found a dead bird, and Alma, one of girls from the village, was so frightened when she touched it, she puked.
One afternoon we were playing in the vacant lot next to Tío Emilio’s house. Exhausted from running and hiding and rolling in the dirt, we all finally capitulated to Teo, who boasted that he had the most prisoners. After making me his lieutenant, he rounded up the boys and girls, making them line up against the wall.
“Stand still,” he commanded. “Hands over your heads.” He had a toy pistol and double holster like the Lone Ranger’s, which my father had bought at a flea market in Madrid. Crouched down on one knee, my brother took aim. At the count of three he would shoot. They were all supposed to fall down dead; anyone who moved would be punished and buried alive in a sand pit nearby—that was my job.
As I began to count “one, two—three” we heard a loud noise coming from inside Tío Emilio’s house like someone hurling furniture, followed by breaking glass. The front door burst open and a shirtless man stood on the front porch screaming at us to go away. “Fuera, imbéciles!” he roared. He swore something about our mother being a whore—me cago en la leche de tu puta madre—which horrified me, even though at the time I didn’t know what it meant. The man was Tío Emilio, but I didn’t recognize the voice, since I’d never heard him speak. It sounded strangled and raspy, as though someone were choking him, or he had destroyed his throat with chewing tobacco. He came towards us at a run, limping over the field, his eyes wild, his black hair sticking up like a madman’s.
“Get out of here,” Tío Emilio said thickly, coming near. His body smelled foul. He grabbed me and my brother by the shoulder and thrust us down in the grass. His hands and fingernails were filthy, and he was trembling. “I know what you are up too,” he said, chillingly. I wondered if he even knew who we were, that we were related to him––we’d never seen him in the flesh, only a photo at my grandparents’ house standing stiffly next to my grandfather right after the war. But now Tío Emilio’s face was much older, creased and inflamed. Our friends scattered and Teo and I got up and bolted towards our house. We ran into the safety of the kitchen where my mother was preparing a large pot of cocido, a typical beef stew with garbanzos.
“Where have you been?” she asked. We lied and told her we were playing down by the railroad tracks, but my mother, who had a sixth sense about things, could see right through us.
“I told you to leave him alone,” she scolded.
The days passed, and we stayed away from Tío Emilio’s house. We moved our games to another place on the hillside underneath a shady pine grove. When we did pass his house, I would hurry by, but Teo would find excuses to loiter, kicking stones and making funny cacophonous whistles with his hands, trying to imitate the birds. He had a perverse desire to roust Tío Emilio into action. I would imagine Tío Emilio spying on us from behind the window curtain, chain-smoking cigarettes or drinking whiskey from a bottle—that was the only explanation for that gravelly tone in his voice. He was probably in there with bloody hands after gutting a rabbit or a partridge; we had heard that he had captured a wild boar and butchered it. With the help of my great aunt, Tía Maite, they had cured the meat in a kiln, made black sausage from the tripe and saved the hocks for stew. I still had red welts on my shoulder where he had dug his fingers in and remembered the vicious way he had grabbed me and thrown me down, knocking the breath out of me. When my mother asked me about the marks, I lied and said I had fallen out of a tree and snagged myself on a branch.
My brother and I shared a bedroom with a bunkbed. I wanted the top one because I was the lightest and felt safer up there. But sometimes when I woke up in the middle of the night hearing unusual noises, I would look out the window that faced Tío Emilio’s house. There was always a light on. I imagined him lurking inside, sleepless like me, plotting something to ensure the peace and quiet that he so craved. I became fixated on the shadows outside in the yard, the darting shapes, every creak in the house. In my childish mind, I was convinced it was him, prowling around, getting ready to snatch me and my brother up, or possibly burn the house down, my parents unaware. But Teo, who slept like a log, said he wasn’t afraid of the old ‘loco.’ The truth was, Teo’s curiosity had gotten the better of him, and he couldn’t stay away from Tío Emilio’s house for long.
“I dare you to go alone,” Teo said, “I’ll give you a special badge of honor.”
“I don’t want to. You go yourself,” I said.
“Scaredy-cat. Come on Tonto–we’ll do it together.” Like the Lone Ranger and his trusty friend, we would go on a difficult mission. He promised he’d buy me some candy the next day. He’d never call me a wimp again. He made me swear to secrecy; our parents must never know. Loyalty prevailed, and one evening we snuck out after my parents had gone to sleep. At the edge of the property, we hoisted ourselves over the wall, and hurled ourselves onto the grass. Sliding on our bellies we reached the edge of his property. From there we ran, startling a flock of pheasants that scuttled away. We hid under Tío Emilio’s window and waited, listening. The moon passed over us and set behind the Seven Peaks; it was now pitch black. I was petrified; my heart pounded, my head prickled.
“Teo, let’s go back,” I begged.
“Quiet,” he hissed. Then we heard a deep groan, a window closing and the bang of a shutter. A ragged voice shot out in the dark, followed by prolonged animal-like howling. “Déjame en paz!” Leave me alone, he said. I jumped up and fled on hands and knees, scraping them as I scrambled back over the stone wall. Teo was right behind me.
A week later, my grandparents came up on the train from Madrid to join us; my grandfather’s café had closed for vacation until September. My kind-hearted mother, oblivious to our furtive nightly escapades but wise to our games—she had found the burlap bag with the remains of the dead bird—told us we had better behave ourselves. She had decided to have a family get-together and invited Tío Emilio and my great aunt, Tía Maite. On the surface, this news didn’t seem to faze Teo—in fact, he seemed to relish it—but I was terrified. Tío Emilio might really hurt us this time, twist my arm or grab me around the neck when no one was looking. I was sure he would tell my parents we had been spying on him, or that he had caught us playing gruesome games in the empty lot next door.
“Don’t they have any other family?” I asked anxiously, hoping there were other relatives that could accommodate them better.
“They never had children—not that Tia Maite didn’t want them,” my mother said, without elaborating.
“But he’s dangerous,” I said.
My mother gave me a hard look.
“Clara, what ever makes you say that?”
I shrugged. “Well you said to stay away—”
“I said he needed peace and quiet, that’s all.”
When they arrived, Tío Emilio, dressed in a drab work shirt, his face unshaven, greeted no one. He had a cruel scar on his lower left cheek which made his mouth droop to one side. When my grandmother hugged him, he turned and wiped away her moist kisses. He sat down at the dining table studying his plate, fiddling with his silverware. He never once looked at Teo or me and never said a word. Tía Maite, rosy-cheeked with jet-black hair, helped my cheery grandmother and mother to serve the food, then took her place next to Tío Emilio. He grunted when he was served. When my mother passed him the bread he took a piece and broke it off angrily with his teeth, filling his mouth full, gulping it down. His Adam’s apple was prominent when he swallowed; his neck was scarred.
Teo and I sat as far away as possible at the other end of the long table; my brother ignored me, listening with narrowed eyes to the men talking, chewing his food. My mother had made a soup for the first course, followed by roast chicken and potato salad. Teo and I ate with forks and knives as we were told, but Tío Emilio picked up his chicken thigh and gnawed on it, then gobbled up the potato salad with a spoon. When we finished eating I was only too eager to hop up and help my mother clear the dishes.
My father, unperturbed by Tío Emilio´s serious demeanor, roared with his usual jokes, stumbling in his poor Spanish while my grandparents trod lightly around any topic having to do with politics. My grandfather mentioned the death of Juan Ramón Jimenez, a famous Spanish author who had written Platero y yo, a children’s book about a furry gray donkey and a little boy. The author’s writer friends had come to the café to pay tribute to him, reading and recounting their friendship with the author. My mother’s eyes shone. She had read the story to us and I remembered it vividly, how the narrator spoke to Platero, his donkey, with such tenderness and love. I wept when Platero died at the end, consoled only by the last image of a butterfly flitting from flower to flower, which as my mother explained, was the narrator’s way of saying that the donkey’s soul was still there, very much alive. I loved hearing her lilting voice in Spanish, the cadence of the words, although there was a certain melancholy which always seemed to envelop her and showed on her face. I think she wanted to make sure my brother and I learned Spanish even though we were growing up as Americans, schooled in the United States, and this was her way. She missed Spain deeply; I would see her reading letters from my grandparents or from her aunt after Tío Emilio died, with tears in her eyes.
As the dinner conversation continued, Tío Emilio looked disoriented, like he might fall asleep at any moment. He leaned to one side, his arms hanging listlessly, his head hung low. Tía Maite talked cheerily with my mother about the people in town and the festivities they were preparing which included bull fights, much to Teo’s fascination and my disgust. My father and grandfather sparred stories about their adventures in the mountains while drinking their carajillo, black espresso with a shot of cognac. My grandfather told about getting lost in the Pyrenees one winter while my father bragged about his hike to the summit of La Maliciosa, which he had done in less than three hours. He showed off his instamatic camera—one of the first ones—and the pictures he had taken, with views from the top.
“You can see all the way to the center of Madrid,” he said, “even Franco’s damn cross!” There was complete silence in the room, except for my grandmother in the kitchen, scraping plates. Tío Emilio muttered under his breath, “idiota.”
My father ignored this and then, ever irreverent, couldn’t resist. He repeated a joke he’d heard in town about eating bulls’ balls, which was considered a delicacy in Spain. It was about a man who ordered them in a restaurant and liked them so much that he ordered them again the next day. After a few bites, and inspecting the contents of his platter, he called to the waiter. “’These are delicious’, he said, ‘but they’re much smaller than the ones you served yesterday!’ The waiter shrugged and replied, ‘Si, señor. Sometimes the bull he wins.’"
“Jack, really,” my mother moaned, while the rest of us tittered, although I was secretly revolted. But there was a look of love in my mother’s eyes; my father’s playful nature pleased her. I think, after all, she had emigrated to the United States, not just to pursue her love of literature and marry my father, but to escape the confines of her family.
My grandfather chimed in. “No es moco de pavo,” he said, winking at Teo and me, which literally meant, ‘it’s not turkey snot’ but really meant that it was quite an accomplishment to eat bulls’ balls and not a mere trifle. I took mental note of this to jot down later; everyone laughed except for Tío Emilio, who scowled. My father guffawed. Tío Emilio closed his eyes and covered his ears, shaking his head.
“Qué diablos sabes tu, yanqui sucio?” Tío Emilio said—what the hell would you know about it, you dirty Yankee? Dirty Yankee. I didn’t know what he meant by that and my father, startled by this outburst and not understanding either, looked at my mother, now with a frown on her face. Then he shrugged and poured my grandfather and himself another glass of cognac.
Tío Emilio said nothing more. He would not look anyone directly in the eye. Instead, he peered out the window and squinted as if he were sensitive to the light. From time to time, Maite would stroke his cheek where he had that ugly scar, or pat his back. Sitting by his side, she would take his hand and play with his fingers, as though he were a small child who needed comforting.
I helped my grandmother to clean up, and when the dishes were washed and dried, my mother brought out an old copy of Platero y yo which she had found on a bookshelf. Excited by her discovery, she passed it around, but to our horror, Tío Emilio began to sob, with great tears rolling down his cheeks. To our relief, my mother called Teo and me into the kitchen.
“A man’s tears are his own business,” she said. But I thought to myself, maybe he loved Platero as much as I did, and that was why.
That evening, after they had gone, she tried to explain to us. Tío Emilio had fallen in love with Maite, who everyone said was very beautiful when she was young. She was from Bilbao, in the Basque country. He had moved up there after the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 and was working at a prison in the outskirts of the city, as an orderly. As repression under Franco became more consolidated, the resistance movement went into hiding. Tío Emilio would tell terrible stories about the prisoners, accused of treason, who were tortured and mutilated by Franco’s police. There were many tragic stories of divided villages and bad feelings between families that lingered after the war. A woman accused of treason had been shot dead in front of her two-year-old son. Another man accused the mayor of stealing and the mayor was lynched. Back then, the Basque separatist movement had only begun to organize, and there were some daring plans to revolt, unseat Franco, and some of Maite’s family members were involved.
The worst part was this: one day, after getting off work, Tío Emilio stopped to buy a loaf of bread—he couldn’t eat a meal without freshly baked bread, my mother said, and was kidnapped at gun point by three men wearing black masks with cut outs for their eyes and mouth. No one heard anything at all about him for a few days. Then it was announced that the kidnappers—Basque separatists—had asked for a huge ransom in exchange for his release by a certain date, or he would be killed. Of course, he hadn’t the money and he wasn’t like the oligarchs or wealthy Spanish nobility. He was just a humble prison worker, forty-three years old. He was held for 385 days. Acting on a tip, Franco’s police discovered the kidnappers’ holdout and killed them all. Emilio was released, but his wife hardly recognized him. He had been kept in a ‘zulo,’ an underground structure measuring four by three with no light, a trap door to the surface, not high enough for him to stand up completely. It was damp and musty, full of cockroaches and rats. He lived on crusts of moldy bread, rotten vegetables and an occasional pork bone. He had been beaten savagely and was a wasted man physically, had lost twenty-three kilos and bone mass. Spiritually and mentally, he was completely broken.
After our mother told us that, I had more sympathy for my great uncle. I had never heard such a shocking story and resolved to be better behaved and not bother Tío Emilio anymore. But Teo insisted privately that we needed to ‘protect’ ourselves and that it was necessary to keep spying on him—just in case. I didn’t know what he meant by this, and thought it was really Tío Emilio who needed protection, still Teo said it was our solemn duty.
The next day Teo went off to hunt lizards and garden snakes, but I was tired. I picked up the worn copy of Platero y yo and went out to the hammock under an old Holm oak that grew near the edge of our property. The branches, teeming with acorns, swayed gently in the breeze, and I could imagine my donkey grazing happily here. I wore a bandanna around my hair like my mother and kicked my sandals off. I began to read aloud about Platero, imitating my mother’s voice; how soft and smooth his fur was, like cotton, how sturdy and steadfast he was. How he nibbled on oranges, muscatel grapes and ripe figs and nuzzled his friend with his bristly snout.
Then I heard a sound of footsteps on pine needles. When I looked around, there was no one. I was sure it was Teo, who had come back to scare me with a spider or something worse; he loved to sneak up on me, especially when I was reading. There was a loud snapping noise and a spooked partridge fluttered out of the brush. Over by the stone wall I thought I saw the top of a straw hat. I heard someone panting, and then there was nothing, just a pair of crows circling in the sky, the wind in the trees.
“Teo?” I called, but there was no answer. I slipped my feet into my sandals and crept over to the stone wall. On tiptoe, I peered over, and there was Tío Emilio, wearing a straw hat, crouched against the wall, drawing in the earth with a stick like a child. I held my breath. He didn’t seem to know I was there. I slipped down and tiptoed back to the hammock.
“Acero y plata de luna, al mismo tiempo,” I heard Tío Emilio say, quoting a phrase from the book which compared Platero to both steel and the silver moon.
Emboldened somehow, forgetting how scary and forbidding he was, feeling the protection of the stone wall, I tiptoed over to the wall again.
“Would you like me to read some more?” I said.
He gazed up at me coldly with red-rimmed eyelids, chewing on a stem of grass. Then he spat on the ground.
“Pobre burrito, jodido animal!” He jumped up and ran away, limping barefoot.
I told Teo and he laughed. “Jodido means fucked up,” he said.
“I know,” I said, even though I didn’t. But I was sorry that Tío Emilio felt that way about my beloved Platero.
The next day I went out to the hammock again. It was afternoon, and the adults were taking a siesta. Teo had gone fishing with my father. The birds were quiet, there was a gentle breeze. I was thinking how good hearted my mother was for inviting Tío Emilio over even though he was so violent and strange, and that maybe I should make an effort too, and that I ought to be brave like my brother wanted me to be. I began to read aloud again from Platero y yo. This time I heard a shuffling, a grunt, something sliding against the wall. For a moment I thought I had been stupid and that my worst fear was about to come true—Tío Emilio was about to hop over and carve me up like a wild boar. I watched as a salamander slithered up the wall, extended his neck to snatch an insect, then scuttled over the side.
Then a voice came wafting from the other side of the wall. Unlike Tío Emilio’s, it was soft and tender like a woman sighing, a lament, faraway and unearthly. It sounded like the bleat of a baby sheep. I waited, listening. I got out of the hammock and crept over to the wall. Nothing. I stuck my toes in a crevice and hoisted myself up. When I peeked over the wall, there was no one, just scrubby fields of lavender and gorse, waving in the wind, dotted with yellow butterflies. On the ground there was a straw hat, and a stick next to a crude drawing of a donkey in the dirt.
“Been reading that stupid book, again?” Teo said, when I came back. In the kitchen, he showed me the bucket of trout he had caught with my father.
“Was he there?”
“Who?” my mother said, coming in with a pail of blackberries she had just picked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
But I lost interest in my reading when Tío Emilio failed to appear again. Also, my brother and I and our friends continued our prisoner game down at the edge of town. There was a rushing creek with white water that tumbled and eddied into pools, a popular place to picnic in the summer. We had raised the stakes and our games became riskier, more dangerous. We divided ourselves into teams. Under Teo’s leadership, the other children no longer needed to be cajoled with promises of candy or sticks of gum; they were enthralled by my brother’s charismatic energy and longed to be part of his group, the strongest. The prisoners were punished by making them balance on a log crossing the river. If they fell off, they would have to repeat it as many times as necessary, bruising their shins and feet on the sharp stones below. Others had to walk barefoot on top of pine cones until their feet were sore. Those who disobeyed or who wouldn’t confess had their heads dunked in the water. The captors would count to ten and then release them as they flailed about, gulping for air. Armed with large sticks, we lobbed rocks into the water, splashed into the pools, hid behind trees and made forts which we called extermination camps. It was much more thrilling to spend our days this way than closeted up at home. I plunged into this activity whole-heartedly. I didn’t want the summer to end and had become close friends with Alma, the girl who had puked over the dead bird. I felt adventurous and freer than ever; I laughed even when Alma took revenge and captured me. She dunked me in the river and held me there until I gasped for air, then tied me to a tree and tickled me with a tree branch.
One day, after having been dunked repeatedly—it was a hot day and I didn’t mind—I was struggling to remove a blindfold around my eyes. My brother had rounded up his prisoners, including me, and made us stand in a grove of pines. He held a whip high and lashed the air, chanting sadistically.
“Kneel down!” Teo commanded. “Your fate awaits you!”
I heard a scream downriver. I saw Tío Emilio, waving his arms, stark naked, hollering at my brother, that he was coming to kill him—“Te voy a matar!” My brother, terrified, splashed out of the water and ran along the banks. The other children ran to hide. Tío Emilio came after Teo; my brother leapt and squirmed out of his grasp, but then tripped over a tree root. Tío Emilio pinned him to the ground on his back and began thrashing him, pounding his face and chest. I screamed for help, then found a heavy stick. I raised it over my head and hit Tío Emilio over the head as hard as I could. Stunned, he grasped his head, yowled, looked at me with horse-eyed fury and ran off downstream. I’d never seen a naked man before and was shocked to see his scarred ribs and hairy body, his cock dangling, the white buttocks. My brother lay motionless with a bloodied face and smashed nose; I threw myself on top of his chest, hugging him, pulling on his limp arms and calling his name.
“Teo,” I whispered in his ear, “tell me you’re okay.”
My aunt and my parents, alerted, came running when they heard our shouts for help.
“What in God’s name happened?” my father roared. He picked up Teo in his arms and carried him to the road. An ambulance came and took my brother to the hospital.
Soon after that, Emilio was taken away. We heard that he was in a psychiatric ward in Burgos. My brother wore a patch over his broken nose and it took him the rest of the summer to heal. I retreated to my own world, writing postcards to my friends back home, tossing in new Spanish phrases I had learned. I put Platero y yo back up on the dusty bookshelf and returned to reading mystery books in the safety of the cool house. At night there was no light on inside Tío Emilio’s house, only a sliver of moon outside our bedroom window. Before my brother gave away his Lone Ranger pistol and holster I knew that something in him had changed forever. We never played the prisoner game again.
ANNE McMILLAN is a writer, opera singer and vocal coach, mountain hiker, nature lover and proud Olympic mom. Anne lives in Spain, where she performed for over a decade in the chorus of the Royal Opera House in Madrid. She recently completed her first novel, The Heart of the Aria and has published in Eastern Iowa Review, Litro, and the Madrid Writers’ Club Anthology. In 2017, her story in Sixfold ranked second in a writer-voted contest.