La Contesa


Nicolas Grimalt opened his eyes.

It was not the sun that awakened him: too early for that.

A gineta in the chickens?  If so, the weasel had done its work and gone, for they were silent now.

In her bed beside his, Maria breathed evenly.  But Nicolas was no longer inclined to sleep.  He rose and closed the shutters on the window, then left the bedroom in bare feet, rope soled shoes in one hand, pantalones and shirt in the other.

In the kitchen he switched on the single bulb hanging from a beam in the center of the room.  He filled the cafetera with water from the pitcher by the sink, put coffee in the basket, screwed it together and set it on the  stove. His thumbed opened the valve of the orange butano bottle, turned on the gas, and scratched a match to light it.  Then he opened the heavy wood doors and crossed the still dark terrace to the well.  As he drew water, he hoped the rattle of the chain and pulley would not wake his wife or their child, asleep in the small room.  He filled the earthen bowl with cold water, and splashed his face and chest, using his shirt to dry himself.  Only then did he pull on his shapeless trousers and slip his feet into his alpargatas. Wide awake now, he went back inside to lift off the cafetera, heat milk in a saucepan and fill large porcelain cup with cafe con leche.

He carried the cup to the terrace and sat facing the east.  An eggshell grayness began to wash the last stars from the western sky. With dawn the heat would bear down on the plateau which was the ancestral farm.  Here on the mola there was little relief from the burning sun during the day. The villagers in Canaan down below had the mountains to afford them shade at least in the afternoon.

Here was extremely hot and dry in summer, and in winter much colder and damper than in the village.  The wind swept down from the puig with such fury you could be swept off your feet, and often the house and land was smothered in low cloud.

Nicolas stared at the point where the sun would soon rise above the sea of mountains below him.

His thoughts turned bitterly toward his brother. Guillém had moved with his ailing wife down into the village six years ago now, abandoning their stone house across the meadows to mice and spiders, leaving Nicolas to tend the land and flock alone.  It was hard enough for the two of them to keep the place from ruin, but alone was all but impossible. Most of the surrounding farms had been deserted  poco a poco by this generation.  The young people had migrated to the capital of the island to work in the tourist trades, where they often earned more in gratuities in one month than he and Guillém earned in a year with olives, almonds,  and the occasional sacrifice of a lamb. But Nicolas.  He loved the ancient groves of olive, plums, and almonds, even the stones that hampered plowing, adding year after year to the walls keeping in the sheep.  Moreover felt he owed it to their father’s memory to preserve the land.

Few of his remaining neighbors nowadays bothered to pick their fruit.  It was intensive work to harvest in this terrain, and the recompense was little.  City folks bought olives imported from Italy. Artichokes came from South Africa or South America, while here they passed from maturity to brilliant blue flowers, their roots slowly hollowed out by ants. 

At least Guillém had remained in town; so many of their contemporaries left for the city.  Each year brought yet another foreign family to the village.  They bought houses left in the general exodus, and his brother Guillém had become a stonemason renovating their properties.  He earned a good living, though Nicolas, to tell the truth, envied neither him nor the others working in the capital; in fact he felt a mild contempt for them all. 

When they returned Sundays or days of festivities to the village, dressed in their city shoes – alpargatas were no longer good enough for them – he felt pity for what they had lost.

His own happiness was well provided for.  He had Maria and their daughter, Paquita, a precious five year old munyeca.  Maria seemed content also; only half a dozen times had she taken the bus to the capital, early in their marriage, and she had seldom asked to go again.  If they truly needed something from the city, either Francesc of the colmado would bring it up on his truck with groceries for his shop, or Nicolas himself would take the bus down the mountain on Saturday, perhaps to trade a ham for herbicide or fencing wire.

As for physical needs, the farm supplied them with goat milk, cheese, eggs, meat, cabbage – nearly all but coffee, sugar and flour.  True, it was heavy toil, but a man could take it.

In the dim  early light a black and white crested bird, a hoopoe, flew along the furrows on the terrace below him.  He watched it settle on the stone retaining wall.  Hesitant birdsong had begun in the oak wood beyond.  In the sky, swifts fed on insects invisible to his eye.  The sun’s rays emerged from behind the rounded flanks of Mount Bech.  His thoughts ceased, he watched the colors bleed into the landscape, the familiar shapes of his world appeared out of the twilight. 

Then the sun was blazing into his face and he turned away, stepping back onto flagstones leading under the vine.  He had not had time to place netting over the grapes this year and the wasps were ruining them — there were just too many chores for one man.   He made his way down the path, toward the outside toilet, thirty meters away by the cactus patch.  That, too, would soon have to be dipped clean, the waste spread among the grove.

Like seeking soreness in a  hollow tooth with his tongue, he replayed his last confrontation with Guillém. Their angry shouts and gesticulations had sent Maria fleeing into the oak thicket with Paquita, to spare her ears.

Guillém had arranged for a foreigner to buy another of the houses left behind by  Antoni Gispert to his sons, young men of little shame and no respect for their mothers, grandmothers, fathers, and grandfathers, those who had held onto the land since the reconquista.

-Soon there will be no one here but the giris!  – cried Nicolas.  As a husbandman of the earth, he had little to gain from the arrival of foreigners, who bought their vegetables, cheese and meat in the capital, twelve kilometers away.  They all had automobiles, and once or twice a week wound down the mountain roads to visit the new supermarkets.

Y qué! So what!  Why should I break my back for a pittance, sweat in the summer, freeze in the winter, just because you think I owe it to our father’s bones?  And Mama would have lived much longer if she had moved from that miserable finca into the village.

Al contrario!  She would have been sooner in the grave.  You remember how the shop keepers laughed at the way she dressed.  Out of respect for Father, she swore to wear black until death, headscarf included, as God meant her to do.

-You, Nicolas, also live in the past.  I intend for my children the chance live in the twentieth century – should God give me and poor Margalida a child.  He crossed himself and kissed his thumb.

Margalida had always been somewhat sickly, though she danced like a fury in the fiestas patronales back when she and Gillém were courting.  She curved thin arms above her covered head,  castanyas clattering in her fingers and ximbombas groaning in the background, the women twirling their full skirts and aprons in the traditional dances commemorating the picking of almonds, bringing snow and ice down from the mountains, tending charcoal fires in the forest, while the men circled them in macho twists and leaps – in short, all the activities of a rural life which until recently was normal for all in the villages, but seldom for the merchants in the towns and cities.

Now, ten years after his marriage to Margalida, Guillém still was not a father, another sore point between the brothers; Guillem felt his manhood was called into question.

-You will see, hermano.  The land is forever, the olives outlived the Romans and the Moors, and will outlive the Germans and the Americans.  And when you sell your inheritance,  as you surely will do when nothing else is left in this village to sell, you will be damning yourself and yours to poverty when the boom is over.

Guillém finally came to the point of his visit.

-But Nicolas! The Contessa is offering us two million pesetas for the farm. That is more than you can earn in a lifetime.

-That´s it!  Out of my house! 

-All right, all right.  If you want to go on wearing rope shoes and clothes worn thin from washing, that’s your business.  But why should your wife and daughter suffer from your stupidity?

Maria would love to have some pretty dresses for herself and new shoes for Paquita, don’t you…

BastaBasta! Do not even speak Maria’s name.  It is enough that your Contessa puts Maria to work in her house.  I’m against it, but the miserable few pesetas that she receives gives her pleasure.  And as long as she does not neglect me, nor Paquita, nor the house, I say nothing more on the subject. But I warn you, do not interfere again in our lives, or you will regret it.  Believe me, hermano, you will regret it, he repeated, shaking his fist.

 The woman nicknamed La Contessa was so called for her superior attitude to the remaining locals, who for their part where happy to treat her as royalty. She was one who brought work and a little money into the village economy. She had already reconstructed several houses in Canaan.  The first was for herself, a rambling stone house at the very edge of the village, where the land fell away to a deep valley beyond which, ten kilometers away, the Mediterranean reflected the afternoon sun.  The house had previously belonged to the most prominent family, the Bauzàs.  Their flocks, fields of wheat and innumerable olive trees, planted centuries before all over the wild uneven terraces, had kept whole families in work as far back as the ancianos could remember.  But this last generation of sons had gone off to study on the peninsula or to work in the tourist hotels appearing along the beaches on the southern coast of the island.

The eldest Bauzà was now a lawyer in the capital, owner of the whole building where his grandparents once had only an apartment for winter residence. The younger son was a director for a Catalan bank now established in various towns around the island. 

As for the two Bauzà daughters, both were married and formed part of the active social life of young well-to-do families who had always been part of the Circulo Isleño, a club for the middle class, those who could not join either of the exclusive clubs: one for the noblessa, the other for the xuetas, the self-proclaimed descendants of the eleven families of converted Jews who had survived pogroms in the past.

The Contessa herself had a daughter, a fashion model who landed a Hollywood star for a husband.  Anticipating an eventual visit from the couple, she fitted the Bauzà home with all the modern conveniences. She had Guillém build a swimming pool overlooking the distant sea in such a way that when you sat on the terrace it seemed the water of the pool blended straight into the sea itself.  Several successive summers she expected her daughter to visit with her famous husband, their beautiful people in tow. Finally she showed up, maneuvering a blue convertible Cadillac down the narrow road, but she came alone, mainly to announce that she was divorced.  Soon afterwards, the Contessa sold the place to a retired television actress.

Then she bought a house from her maid Esperanza, gutted it and remodeled it, only to sell it almost immediately to an American couple.  They converted the water deposit into a swimming pool and now bought drinking water by the truckload for the old cistern beneath the house.

Fifty years ago the population was over a thousand souls; now fewer than two hundred and fifty lived here, mainly old folks and the two town fools. Traditionally, the houses had been passed from father to son, from widows to sons or daughters, if there were no sons. When the mass tourism began in earnest, in the ‘fifties, the younger generations migrated to the capital and the satellite towns of tall hotels, bars and restaurants.  Artificial beaches were dredged from the seabed and delivered in great barges to the shore.  No matter that winter storms would wash the beaches back into the sea.  Little by little builders learned how to make breakwaters, great walls of enormous sandstone blocks cut from the quarries once used for constructing the mesons of the landowners, the churches, the cathedral.

This continuous migration to the city left many of those who stayed behind with three or even four houses.  It was not uncommon for the woman of the house to have inherited her grandmothers’ and grandfathers’ houses, her husband having brought to their marriage similar properties scattered through the village and out on the terraced hillsides.  With no young people to work the land or inhabit the houses with their offspring, more and more homes fell into ruin.  Weather, woodworm and neglect brought roofs crashing down into houses built two hundred years ago, crushing the bread tables made from pino del norte, the beds with inlaid headboards, mattresses stuffed now not with cotton or horsehair, but with mice. 

Antique dealers from the capital appeared on Sundays, ostensibly to enjoy a paella in the tiny restaurant which opened only on weekends, but Mateu and his wife, while serving the plates of yellow rice, chicken, pork and seafood also passed the information of who was selling what.  Mateu had always been a sort of unofficial justice of the peace in Canaan, a man trusted for his fairness.  For spiritual problems, the natives went to Padre Dominic; for civil disputes, they went to Mateu.  Now he was a go-between for property and antiguëdades.  It was not a question of commissions, though certain considerations sometimes passed hands, it is true.

And so continued the boom of Canaan.  The Contessa spread the word to her German friends. Then came friends of  her daughter the actress, a gay couple who had retired wealthy from an interior decorating business serving Beverly Hills.  They were joined by a couple of Swiss hairdressers who had worked in Hollywood, an author’s agent representing screenwriters, a speech writer for the Kennedys, and a gallery owner from Los Angeles.  In a few years nearly half the  population were extranjeros;many Canaanites who had emigrated to the capital let it be known that their ancestral houses also were available, at high prices which would have been considered ludicrous a decade before.

By this time, Guillém was not only a builder employing former pagessos as peons, but had learned to ask for a commission from his neighbors when property changed hands.  He was now acting mayor of the village, enabling him to authorize the widening of agricultural roads, to give permission for swimming pools, and to license rebuilding or enlarging houses. 

He in effect became partners with La Contessa. Recently she had taken him with her to Paris, ostensibly to show him how things were done there – bathrooms, kitchens, built-in cupboards; but the rumors suggested a romantic liaison, winked at by his crew of workmen, and frowned upon by Don Pedro, the village priest, and of course, by all the wives, widows and virgins in the village. 

 In this and in other matters the village had not kept pace with the urban areas of Spain.  At this moment, there was still no television.  The nearest telephone was seven kilometers away.  There was in fact, very little electricity, though some had refrigerators in their living rooms.  Jorge, the shepherd, for instance, had a refrigerator given to him by his son Jaume, but if it were plugged in, the five amp fuse would blow when the compressor started up.  The interior light did work, however, which was convenient. The shepherd Jorge’s wife Maria still made their requeson on the open fire, then stored it in the fridge, only used as a rebost, good for protecting cheese or bread from flies and cats.  Permission to increase the electrical supply to the new houses was one of the continuing obstacles La Contessa had encountered.  There were bribes to be paid, neighbors had to allow new posts on their land to deliver the wires, and since many houses had never before had a deed, a certificate of habitability had to be issued by Town Hall to allow the electric company to put in a meter.  Margalida, Guillém’s wife, was the secretary of the Ajuntament, putting to good use her eight years of education, and she signed whatever her husband put before her, as a good wife should.

Nor had the underlying morality changed so much as had the outside world. A mere five years ago, Catalina Gispert Renou, widowed at the age of thirty, remarried three years later.  Her new husband  was a distant cousin from Ses Salines, on the other side of the island, where she herself had been born.  They decided to make their life in Canaan, where she had a couple of hectares of land and a well kept house. However, their first night in her home, a group of  bachelors of the village gathered under her window blowing conch shells and shouting their worst epithets until dawn.  Such a scandal was made she was ashamed to shop in the local tienda, where housewives treated her like a fallen woman.  Before long, Catalina and her cousin moved back to Ses Salines, where their families were more accepting. So Guillém arranged the sale of her property, had another commission, and the Contessa another property to develop.

The newcomers, the extranjeros, were not exempt from criticism, but they were judged by different criteria.  Everyone expected them to flaunt custom and defy common rules of decency.  It was well known that immorality was fostered in Hollywood, and was spreading like a plague over the Western world.   But this was their first direct experience with Gomorrah.

In the tienda, Antonia and her mother Augustina exchanged the day to day gossip with  mothers and daughters, many of whom worked for the foreigners.

-In Ca’n Sit there are six couples, and they all swim without clothes, completamente desnudos.  The gardener can’t keep himself away.

-You mean Tomeu?  Tell his wife Maite.  That will put blinders on him.

-Oh, she knows all right.  But she’s afraid he will beat her again.

-Right.  Remember when he put her head in the stove and burnt her hair away?

-Yes.  Anybody could tell from the way he strikes his mule that he is a man who is not right in the head.  Those in C’an Sit had better be prudent.

-Let me tell you – I make the beds there, and it’s not the same people who sleep in them every night.

All shook their heads, mouths clamped shut, now confirmed in what they had all along believed.  These Protestants had no sense of right and wrong.  They changed wives as often as they changed cars.  If they got pregnant, they had an abortion.  If they did have children, they were passed around between households, and when they grew up, they did not take care of their old ones.

-God preserve our children from their influence, Augustina pronounced, crossing herself.

-Antonia laid a plucked chicken on the block, chopped with the cleaver and threw the head into a bag of offal at her feet.

-That’ll teach him, muttered Carme at the back of the queue, and they all murmured their assent to that.


Now Nicolas finished his café con leche and rinsed the cup.  The tranquility of dawn was broken by the sound of an auto, its engine racing in first gear to climb the steep road to the top of the village.  Guillém, on his way to the latest project of the Contessa.  This was to be her own house, her last project. 

It was easy to see why the Contessa wanted to buy the ancestral farm of the two brothers.  Her new house was on land adjacent to theirs, separated only by a clump of oaks above the ruins of another house not lived in since Nicolas was a young man.  The house belonged to his father’s brother Miquel, who had gone to Cuba as a young man.  No one had heard from him since, but Nicolas’s father until he died had paid the property taxes faithfully, a matter of family honor.  In these last years, Nicolas himself had continued that practice.  He couldn’t prevent the roof from falling in, but he could prevent Hacienda from auctioning the place for back taxes. 

In the past the forty hectares of the plateau of the  mola supported four families, all related by marriage or blood.  On the eastern edge of the farm were the remains of three more houses, now not much more than piles of rock and rotting beams.  Where there are ruins, permission for construction is easily granted. Guillém had assumed the property was in arrears, and hoped to get title and sell it to the Contessa.  The more money he earned, the more avaricious he became.  This would have been the opportunity he had been waiting for.  Naturally he was furious when he learned that his own brother had thwarted him.

-That your own brother could deceive you is incomprehensible, indefensible.  The Contessa, although she was aware that Guillém was less than honest in his dealings with her, was even more offended than Guillém could possibly know.  For her too this would have been the grand stroke she needed to gracefully retire from her activities as a developer.  Her sixtieth birthday had come and gone, maybe it was time.  She already had sketched out with an architect how to convert the ruins into a clubhouse, and the land into an 18 hole golf course.  And with every square meter of golf course, she would be granted a certain amount of new construction.  It did not concern her that water was scarce at this altitude.  She would solve that problem later.

-As brothers we are not the best example, he replied. I will find a solution.

With the help of a corrupt Notario in the next village she searched for a way to discourage Nicolas.  She soon discovered that every spring at planting time, but before  income from shearing could be obtained, Nicolas habitually borrowed a small sum from the Caja Rural, a bank which made loans at low interest to small farmers. With a few well-placed bribes, she could turn this to her advantage.  No need to tell Guillém, of course. 

Aware that it was only a matter of time till his protector and employer would need him no longer.  Guillém began cutting corners here and there. Mixing Portland and sand at six to one instead of four to one, for instance.  Soft pine instead of pino del norte which would swell and twist in windows and shutters.  Fewer rebars, of smaller diameter than recommended by architects, in the foundations, pouring the concrete before inspection.  He had of course been guilty of these things before,  but now even his masons raised their brows at his  instructions.  They knew better, however, than to speak out.  Work was hard to find.

The interior of the new house was finished except for drying out and the cleanup.  When Guillém’s workmen finished the arch over the driveway entrance, the Contessa asked Maria to organize a few women to help her make a thorough job of whitewashing the walls, oiling the beams and other woodwork. Her cousin Miquel was brought in to make the garden.  Miquel had insisted upon the need to prevent any more heavy trucks from inside the walls. So until the ironmonger could finish the gates to swing under the archway, a heavy chain was strung between the uprights. 


Nicolas took his broad hoe and a sack with other tools he might need in the field and set foot on the path to the east where the sheep had scaled the wall pulling loose stones away.  He would lift the stones back into place and top the wall with some brambles from the mora patch to dissuade them from escaping that way.  A high pitched whistle brought Negro, his ca de bestia to heel, tossing his head in joy, tail like propeller moving him along.  Before he closed the gate so the sheep would not get into the kitchen garden, he heard a squeal and Paquita ran barefoot over the flagstones and leapt into his arms.

-Papá! Papá.  I will go to play with Concha today. Tío Miquel will bring her.  Her mamá will come to help.  The Contessa will give us an ensaimada if we are good.  She wrapped her thin arms around his neck and squeezed.  How could he resist her?  He stroked her dark hair, put his strong hands under her arms and lifted her above his head.

-You are a little angel, flying in the sky.  I will come to see you later when I have done some work.  Then we will bring your mother home with us for lunch.

-Do you want to eat something before you go to the field? At the sound of Maria’s voice, he looked up at the bedroom window where she leaned out brushing her hair.

-I have taken coffee, cariño. Perhaps later…

-Then you will find sausage and cheese on the hearth when you come in for your merienda.  Be careful Negro doesn’t discover it before you do.  Come, Paquita, we must dress and go.  Concha will be waiting.

-Na Concha! Na Concha!  I’m going to play with Na Concha!  She ran dancing back into the house. 

Maria’s position with the Contessa she owed to her brother-in-law, Guillém.  Catalina, the disgraced widow who remarried left the Contessa with no regular help, not for her own house, nor those she watched over when the owners were away.  At first Nicolas tried to forbid her – her independence irritated him, but finally gave in to her entreaties.  There had never been much cash in their house, and while barter worked well in former times, now  it was not so easy. 

-Just keep our daughter away from the piscina.  You understand?  She must be in your sight.

-Do not worry, Nicolas.  She has never been permitted on that side of the house. And as yet there is no water there.

-Still more dangerous.  Keep your eye open.

Maria walked hand in hand with Paquita along the beaten path from the finca to the Contessa’s new house.  She saw that Guillém had already arrived and hoped that  Miquel and Antónia would arrive soon.  She had never told her husband how his brother was always insinuating himself into wherever she was working, making flirtatious remarks. He had no sense of shame.  Once he had even tried to embrace her and she had to turn away to avoid him kissing her.

It would not do to complain to her husband.  He might lose his temper. She had seen how the brothers flew at each other verbally over the smallest thing.  It could so easily end in violence.  She knew how Guillém mistreated his wife, especially after he returned from his trip with the Contessa to Paris.  Who could say what had gone between them? Even though she was older, she would still be attractive to many men.  Sometimes she wore such transparent clothes you could see more than should be seen.

Her thoughts wandered as she and Paquita came out of the wood by the house where the widow had been ridiculed for accepting a second husband.  Maria of course had never known any but Nicolas. What could it be like to know another man?  She shook her head.  Even to think it was a sin she should confess to the priest.

Perhaps Guillém had no children through no fault of his own.  Perhaps it was his wife who was barren or did not meet his needs.  Again she shook the thought from her head.  Unconsciously she touched the scarf on her head, letting it fall to her shoulders to reveal the lustrous black hair she brushed till it shone in the sun.

“Can I swing while I wait for Concha, Mamá?”  She put her hand on the heavy chain across the entrance to Ca’n Petit.

“If you want to. But stay right here till they arrive.”

Paquita hoisted herself onto the thick links of iron and began swaying back and forth.  Maria descended stone steps and entered the arched doorway into the house.  There was still a smell of wet plaster and cement.  There would be a lot of scraping to clean the floor tiles.  Passing on through the room and out the French doors onto the terrace overlooking the village below, she heard the gritty sound of boots on sand.  She put her head in the door and saw Guillém dismantling a scaffold in the shower room.

Buenos dias.”  Her voice echoed in the room, and he turned with a broad smile. He brushed his hands on his shirt and came toward her.

This was not the first time. On other occasions she had permitted him him to touch her with his rough hands. Once when they were alone after all the workmen had left the site, he had passed his lips over hers.  She knew it was a pecado, but she told herself that a kiss from her brother-in-law could not be so serious that she would have to confess to Padre Dominic.  His hands were on her shoulders, she could smell tobacco on his breath, she looked not at him but past him, as though offering her cheek.  With one finger on her chin, he turned her face to his.

“Paquita, you had better get down from there,” Miquel shouted as he turned the truck around.  “Concha, you wait until I tell you to get out.”  She was jumping up and down in the seat, so anxious was she.

There was very little space for turning, but after three or four maneuvers he slowly backed up and put on the hand brake.  Stepping out, he pulled the lever to raise the bed and dump topsoil to be spread in the garden.  The hatch swung free to release the load, but the motor quit and caught again, shuddering against the stones of the archway. 

“Papá!” cried Concha.  “Papá!”

Concha saw Paquita climbing down from the chain, and then she was not there.  In her place was a mound of stone and ragged metal. Where there had been an archway, now there were two short columns of hollow cement blocks and a tiny cloud of dust. 

It took a moment for Miquel to register what had happened.  The truck bed still rose skyward, the black earth piling up next to the wall of the house.

Deu meuDios mío!

What means it all?

Maria now ever wears black, inside and out.  Nicolas is bent more than his olive trees, twisted and crippled in mind and heart. Guillém wears a shield from loathing, of self and by other, seeing only inward, as if blind. The Contessa’s Ca’n Petit carries a curse among natives of Canaan; none will enter. The Mola stays a nest of ruins till a generation has seen the sun daily rising and setting.

And yet the nightingale will sing, rain will fall, the wind will blow, the poppies bloom, and the almonds whitewash spring.

I found several versions of this story but they’re all pretty consistent. This one is from a file dated 6 March 2014.