Feast of the Virgin
By Anita Haas
“Try it on, Soli. You’re so saintly, it’ll look perfect on you.”
Soli looked at her cousin with misgivings, then at the garment with longing. “We’ll get in trouble.”
“They’re all over at your house. They won’t be back for ages.” Pati argued, lighting a cigarette.
“Oh no, Pati. The cigarette. My mother will kill us.” Soli was stroking the blue and white embroidered cloak dreamily.
“I don’t care. My mother let’s me smoke. God, it’s hard to believe they’re sisters!
Soli lifted the gleaming cloak up in front of her chest and turned to see her reflection in the mirror. “And it seems … kind of sacrilegious.”
Pati rolled her eyes “Don’t tell me you still believe in that crap?”
“All that hocus pocus they made us learn in school. All those stories about saints and …” she turned around and took another drag from her cigarette.
“I don’t know. I always liked those stories about saints.”
“Ah! All that suffering! Hair shirts and self flagellation! I mean, why would anyone want to whip himself?”
Soli hugged the garment closer. “Haven’t you ever felt that you were really bad and that maybe by suffering, by doing penance, you could be … cleansed … of your sins …” her voice trailed off. She had never put these feelings into words before.
“Buah! So a good beating will cleanse you? What does that word sinful mean anyway? What do any of us have to repent for? What have you ever done that was bad?”
Soli cringed as if from a blow, but Pati was admiring her own reflection in the mirror. She ironed her chestnut brown hair now, and she wore bangs cut straight across. Her eyes were heavily made up and today she wore white knee socks with her green sequin mini-dress. Ever since that frightening and uncertain time of General Franco’s death the winter before, Pati and the other girls at school began rolling up their skirts, wearing make-up, smoking, and listening to British and American pop music. Pati even had a boyfriend, although she didn’t pay much attention to him. Soli started feeling out of place with Pati and her other friends. Before long they were talking about politics. By January Soli wasn’t able to follow, let alone participate in any of the heated political discussions between Pati and her older brother, Fernando. Soon, their parents started speaking to them like adults, and the four of them, Pati, Fernando, and their parents, Soli’s aunt and uncle, would debate together, predicting the future of the nation.
There was also talk about traveling, about leaving Spain and visiting other countries. People wanted to learn English, a language which had been looked down upon during the dictatorship. There was experimenting with sex, a lot of alcohol, some drugs, and basically talk of freedom. Soli drew back, spending more time with her grandmother and younger cousins, who were also starting to feel left out.
Fernando would be the first in the family to attend university, and Pati was a bundle of nerves. “Can’t wait to get out of this hick town too.” She took another deep drag on her cigarette, and threw her head back. Lately she was always imitating Faye Dunaway, that is when she wasn’t imitating Jane Fonda. “Fernan had better be ready, ‘cause I’m going to stay with him in Madrid every weekend.” She tossed her cigarette butt on the floor and stomped on it.
She turned to her cousin. Her gaze travelled up and down, then she shook her head. “Why do you wear that crap?” Soli felt frumpy around Pati. She was wearing a home-made brown skirt that hung crookedly, a cast-off white blouse her mother had been given in one of the houses she had cleaned, and a green sweater that Abuela had grown too wide for. Her lifeless black hair was tied in a long ponytail behind her back.
“You should rebel. Dress more modern. I certainly wouldn’t put up with the shit you put up with.” But then she broke the mood. “Come on, I say. Try it on.” She took the cloak, hand-embroidered by their mothers and grandmother for the Feast of the Assumption in August, and draped it over Soli’s shoulders. “Now, with pride. Raise your head and throw your shoulders back.”
Soli obeyed and they both gasped at the transformation. “Oh, the crown. Where is it?”
“Abuela was polishing it this morning. Over there, on the bench.” Pati ran to get it, and placed it on her cousin’s head. All Soli’s frumpiness disappeared. Pati was right, she looked like the Virgin Mary herself. Soli admired herself dreamily, and began turning left and right, enjoying the soft rustle of the fabric, and trying to look like the statue in the church. Soli imagined herself a princess, a queen!
Soli froze in mid swirl, the cape flapping against her, and cowered as her mother raced through the door and began showering her with blows to the head. Dressed in her usual black mourning, she was an angry, flapping, squawking crow. “Tramp! Soiling the Virgin’s clothes!” She yanked the cape and crown off her daughter, and slapped her face for good measure.
“Oh, come on, Dolores. They were just having fun. Don’t beat her for that.”
Dolores whirled around to face her highly pregnant sister, who had just come through the door. “You can spoil your children as much as you like, Esperanza,” she shot a look at Pati in the corner, “but don’t tell me how to raise mine.”
Espe shook her head. Abuela and little Manu, another of Espe’s five children, came through the door.
Manu turned to Soli, still cowering from her blows. “I saw him.”
“The bad man. In the castle!”
“Don’t listen to him, Soli.” Pati pulled him away. “He’s been talking about that for a week now. Just making up stories. And anyway, you have nothing to worry about, Manu. Remember the bad man only punished girls.” Pati chortled at this, but Soli never thought that story was funny.
“No, they are not stories,” Dolores informed them coldly from the table where she was carefully folding the rescued cape. “Don Ramón, a rich man from Madrid, has bought the castle from the old count, and is going to restore it.”
Abuela snorted, “Rich and crazy I’d say. Anyone has the money to buy and restore that old thing has the money to live in style in the city.”
Pati, and Soli were speechless. Not long ago, they would climb up the hill, dive under the broken fences, and enter the overgrown grounds. Soli used to climb up the crumbling steps of the towers and imagine herself a princess. Young lovers snuck up there to be alone, and sometimes gypsies or vagrants used the place to call home.
Legend had it that long ago, a very nasty man lived there who kidnapped bad girls and locked them up in the tower. There, he would subject them to all sorts of tortures which, because of their wickedness, they deserved. The worst that could happen to bad boys was that they would receive a piece of coal from the three kings at Christmas. When Soli was very small her mother threatened to send her to that “bad man”.
Manu tried to reclaim the attention of the others. “You should see it! The whole property has a new strong fence around it. But I got through!”
Dolores interrupted him again. “Yes, and he has hired me as his housekeeper.”
This was happy news. Mother and Abuela took in washing, but not many people in town could afford to send out their laundry. Sometimes Dolores cleaned houses for ladies in town, but she never lasted long. There was always some confusion as to who the boss was.
“Me, and Soli too.”
“Yes, you are sixteen now, and can learn to work. God knows you aren’t much good at school, or anything else.”
Esperanza was a match for her sister. “Really, Dolores. You might let her at least finish the year. Be with kids her age. She’s all alone, poor thing.”
Soli flinched. Dolores had no sons and her husband was estranged. For her, it was like Esperanza had called her half a woman.
“I can’t afford to have a lazy daughter loafing around the house like a princess. If you want her you can have her. Otherwise, I’ll send her to her father in Germany once and for all.”
Pati smirked at Soli. This had been Dolores’s ongoing threat ever since she stopped threatening her with the bad man. Moreover, unbeknownst to the adults, the children had discovered the truth, that Soli’s father had returned long ago and was living in Madrid.
As a child Soli imagined her father a knight, like El Cid. She told herself he really was in Germany, making a fortune and would come home one day and buy them a big friendly house, like Esperanza’s, and Mother would finally smile. But loyalty to her mother banished those thoughts. She knew he was no El Cid.
It was already light that May morning when Soli and Dolores made their way to the castle grounds. Soli’s first morning consisted of obeying her mother’s orders. “Take this there! Bring that here!” Dolores was in her glory.
But after a week they fell into a more amicable working relationship. Soli worked on things in one area of the grounds, and her mother in another. Soon, even Dolores had to admit that there were some things Soli didn’t do all that badly. They were mostly outdoors now, preparing the gardens, clearing walkways. The señor had left Dolores explicit instructions in his absence. She even gave orders to the workmen hired to restore the castle.
“Don Ramón is a very practical man,” Dolores explained to Soli one day as they were bent over, weeding. “He told me ‘No silly flowers! Only vegetables!’” Soli could hear the admiration in her mother’s voice.
“Where is he now?” she asked.
“In Madrid. On business. He is a busy man. Doesn’t have time to waste in this silly village.”
“Then why is he spending all this money on fixing an old castle?” It was something she found terribly romantic, but it was not something Dolores would admire.
Her mother paused and Soli could see her thoughts in conflict. Then she bent down again. “Get back to work.”
It was already June when the señor arrived. Dolores was particularly tense that day. Soli decided to stay out of her way.
Her mother was inside the groundkeeper’s cottage cooking and cleaning for Don Ramon’s stay, and the workmen were busy replacing stones in the inner courtyard. Soli wandered off behind the south wall, where some ugly weeds were growing between the cracks of the stones. The south wall looked over a tree-lined slope and tiny river. It was quiet and peaceful there. The tower on her left was partly-crumbled, while the tower on the right, was still quite intact. She remembered coming here with her cousins, play-acting the story of the bad man. Fernan would be the ogre, chasing Soli and Pati around screaming, like in the movies.
Soli moved her bushel a bit to the right as she spied another handful of stubborn greenery to be pulled, then straightened up to stretch her back and wipe some sweat off her forehead. From the corner of her eye, she saw a man watching her from the tower window. Embarrassed, she gathered up the bushel and scurried off to the front of the castle where the little cottage and vegetable garden were. She had hardly reached the low stone wall, when she heard her mother. “Where have you been? Dawdling somewhere? Do I have to tell you what to do every minute of the day?”
Soli saw the man from the tower, tall and tanned, stride through the castle gate behind her mother. “Dolores, don’t you ever get tired of your own voice?”
Dolores turned. She whirled around again to look at her daughter, who was standing with her head bowed, and the bushel held tight in front of her.
“Well, I … it’s just that she …” she looked from one to the other.
To Soli’s relief, he said no more. She didn’t look up, but she sensed him turn to her, look her over, make his conclusions, then walk away.
Soli put the bushel down, physically preparing herself for her mother’s verbal abuse, but none came.
“Oh, you were pulling weeds,” Dolores began, her voice thick. “That’s good.” Soli looked up as her mother walked away, and felt a sudden overwhelming pity for her.
Don Ramón came and went, but more and more of his time was spent in the little cottage. Parts of the castle would always remain in ruins as it was too costly to restore them, but enough was being repaired to give one a good idea of its former glory. One of many built along the rivers during the wars between the Moors and the Christians, it was compact and consisted of four round towers joined by four walls, creating a courtyard in the middle. No one knew what Don Ramón planned to do with the place. Sell it? Rent it out for weddings, films, concerts? Convert it into a museum? He had already amassed quite a collection of medieval objects, tools and instruments for farming, cooking, even war.
One day when her mother was busy and when the señor was nowhere to be seen, Soli started exploring. She started in the main hall, which she remembered as being full of rubble. Now it was cleared out and full of light. The furnishings consisted of a few dark, rustic chairs and a table, and there were metal objects hanging from the walls.
She looked over at the door that led to the south tower. It wasn’t locked. It had recently been oiled and swung open easily. She looked up, expecting to see the crumbling stone steps she used to climb. But when she looked up, she saw that new wooden stairs had been installed. She started up them gingerly. As she reached the top, she saw the floor was of new, shiny, dark wood. Light filtered in through the window.
As her eyes adjusted, she saw Don Ramón seated in the shadows. She started for the stairs.
“Don’t go,” he said softly. He stood up, and held his hand out toward her, “I don’t mind. Please come.” She turned, and stepped towards him. “Look,” he said, taking her lightly by the shoulders and directing her toward the window.
She could see the slope of trees and the silvery thread of river below them. Beyond it there were meadows and beyond them in the distance she could see the remains of a structure. “Here,” he said reaching behind him for something. “Use these.” They were a pair of binoculars. She was leaning against the window now, holding onto the binoculars. He was standing behind her, his hands on the walls on either side of her, encircling her. He smelled of leather and tobacco.
His words tingled through her. “That’s an old monastery. The lord of this castle built it hundreds of years ago to thank God for helping them win back the land across the river. In those days, on the Feast of the Assumption, they would carry the statue of the Virgin over to that monastery. In the evening they would return, dark monks riding white horses, singing Gregorian chants and carrying colourful lanterns. They would float the Virgin across the river, her crown and robes glistening in the moonlight …” his voice was wistful. Then he turned to face her.
She stood frozen.
“Do you like the view?”
He stepped back, gently pulling her by the shoulders, and taking the binoculars from her. He steered her around to face the walls. “Do you know what those instruments are for?”
She looked up at them. There were hooks and bars, and ropes and whips. There were rings and clasps and screws and knobs and pulleys.
“Yes,” she lied. She started to feel faint. She looked up at his face in the shadows for the first time. He was not looking at her. He seemed to be struggling against something inside. He stepped back, and said icily to the wall, “You had better go.”
She ran for the stairs and didn’t stop until she had reached the edge of the grounds. She sat against the trunk of a tree, her arms wrapped tightly around herself.
Soli and her mother had been white-washing walls in the castle for weeks. Crates and boxes kept arriving from Madrid and Barcelona, even some from Paris.
“I don’t know what the rush is,” Dolores complained one day. “I asked him and he just told me ‘for the Feast of the Virgin of course, Dolores’, and then he burst out laughing.”
Dolores shook her head indulgently, and smiled. In the past few weeks she had been in an almost good mood. She had been arranging her hair nicely, and Soli had even heard her humming to herself. “Ah! Who can understand these men!”
Every August 15th, the towns celebrated the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary with a grand procession led by the float with the statue of the Virgin dressed in the opulent robes made by the ladies of the parish. After the religious proceedings there were fireworks, eating, drinking, singing and dancing well into the night and next morning. Fairgrounds were set up, and the festivities continued for several days. Young people would travel around the region, visiting friends and cousins in different towns, and helping them celebrate.
That year of 1976 was an exceptional one, as it was the first in which the festivities would be held without a dictatorship. As the fiestas drew nearer, there was a general bustling. Families came from the big cities. The population tripled. Young people like Fernan and Pati were ecstatic to see the young madrileños, but tried hard not to act like country bumpkins around them. Pati had a new romantic interest from Madrid. “I’ll get to see him a lot in the fall when Fernan goes to university!” she confided to Soli one evening when they were washing dishes at Espe’s house. “Maybe you can find a boyfriend too! I have the perfect boy for you! He’s a friend of Paco’s.”
Soli let her cousin prattle on. She could not imagine any of these boys awakening the same confusing sensations that Don Ramón had that strange afternoon in the tower.
On the Monday before the fiesta, Dolores and Soli arrived at the castle amazed. Don Ramón and his workmen had spent the entire weekend putting the finishing touches to the decorations. The courtyard was spectacular, with colourful lanterns hanging all along the walls, and every few meters there was a large clay pot filled with red and white flowers. Flags and fixtures adorned the walls. When they entered the bright, white-washed rooms, they noticed a bedroom was being assembled. There was a large canopied bed, covered with a dazzling red embroidered bedspread. The curtains around the bed matched the spread, and shimmered in the morning light.
“Is he planning to move in here after all the work we did getting the cottage in order? He never mentioned a thing to me!” Dolores sounded hurt.
“Maybe he’s expecting guests,” Soli offered.
Dolores turned to her daughter. She was no longer wearing the happy expression of these past few weeks. Soli wondered in panic what she had done wrong this time.
“Hmmm.” Her mother gave her a sharp look. “Do you remember that story about the bad man Abuela and I used to tell you?”
Soli bowed her head, “Yes,” she whispered.
“What do you remember about that story?” Her mother crossed her arms in front of her chest.
“The bad man kidnapped bad girls to … to punish them.”
“Yes, well there is one thing Abuela never wanted you to know.” Dolores’s voice turned to ice. “The other version of the story is that those girls were not kidnapped.”
Soli looked up.
“How do you think they got here?” Dolores interrogated her.
“I … I don’t know.”
“Well, I’ll tell you. They came by choice. All on their own. Of their own accord. That’s the kind of girls they were.”
Dolores left Soli trembling in the room.
When Soli was six, she and her mother went to visit her father and uncle in Frankfurt. They were both working in construction, and bartending on weekends, like many Spaniards in the sixties. They lived in an apartment with several other men. Since her father shared his room with his brother, Pablo, in order for her parents to have some privacy, Pablo went off to stay with his girlfriend, Ursula, a woman Soli’s mother referred to as la guarra alemana (the German slut). One of the roommates, whom Soli was instructed to call Onkel Volker, spent his evenings in the darkened living room listening to the radio and drinking beer, while the others went out or played sports. Volker was pleasant to the little girl, bringing her little presents like chewing gum, or a little plastic doll, and playing games.
One evening, Dolores shooed her daughter out of the bedroom, saying “Sit with your Onkel Volker. He likes little girls,” A challenge rang in her voice, which at the age of six, both frightened and intrigued her.
Slut was what Dolores called Soli then. Guarra. When she came out of the room and saw what Onkel Volker was doing to her. She grabbed her daughter’s arm and slapped her. She said nothing to the man. Soli’s father stood in the doorway of the bedroom, confused, his eyes adjusting to the dark. Dolores turned to him and screamed, “You prefer to live with perverts than with your own family!” She yanked Soli’s arm again. “We’re getting out of here.”
Soli’s father bought their tickets for an overnight train home. They had to wait a long time in the draughty, deserted station. He tried awkwardly to make conversation while Soli pretended to sleep on a bench. Dolores’s attitude had softened slightly. As she tucked a coat around the little girl, Soli heard her mother whisper “pobrecita,” but Soli knew she had done something terribly wrong and that was why they were leaving her father, and turning Dolores into a single mother. That was the last time Soli saw him.
The 15th finally arrived. The statue of the Virgin looked glorious in her magnificent robes high up on her float. The procession was said to be grander than any other in living memory. Even Pati had nothing cynical to say.
The fairgrounds were set up at the foot of the hill just below the castle road. When it got cooler the bandstand was set up and everyone headed to the area. Soli, with Abuela, Esperanza and her little cousins, met an irate group of ladies, accompanied by the parish priest, hurrying from the direction of the church. Someone had stolen the Virgin’s crown and beautiful robes.
“That’s what happens with so much liberty!” shouted one of the women. “Yes!” added another. “Una cosa es la democracia, y otra la desvergüenza!”
“Probably some of those young sinvergüenzas from Madrid,” said the priest.
The angry little group continued on their way in search of the Virgin’s clothes, while Soli’s group approached the fairgrounds and the music. Pati had lent Soli a blue and white flowered summer dress, and Espe had helped her put her hair up and even put on make-up. “You look like a princess,” her aunt said, surprised and proud of her work. “This is a great opportunity. You never know who you could meet today.”
The atmosphere was euphoric. Word had gotten out to the young people about the Virgin’s clothes and they had already invented a song about it. Everyone was laughing, shouting, and crashing drunkenly into one another, singing “Quién ha robado la ropa de la Virgen? La pobre se ha quedado en pelotas y le da mucha vergüenza! Jajaja.”
Soli was feeling pretty. People were smiling at her. Pati and her friends included her in their activities. Shortly before midnight Pati and some of her new friends decided they would go for a drive in one of the city kids’s cars to the nearby pantano to go swimming. Skinny dipping, she said, like they do in other countries. Topless, like the Swedish girls, famous for coming to the coast and introducing young Spanish men to sex.
As they danced shrieking and laughing toward the entrance of the fairgrounds where the car was parked, Soli instinctively looked up toward the castle road. She saw Don Ramón standing there watching her.
Soli let go of Pati’s hand and drifed towards him. He turned, and she followed.
“Where are you going, Soli?” Pati called after her. “We have to celebrate!”
But Soli no longer heard and, as they approached the castle, she saw the lanterns aglow within the courtyard. As they entered the castle gate, the fireworks began exploding in the fairgrounds down below. Ramón stopped and picked something up. “Put this on.” He said. It was the magnificent cloak which had been stolen from the Virgin that afternoon, and which Soli had tried on before. He adjusted it around her shoulders, placed the heavy crown on her head, and commanded. “Now is the time. Walk, like my Virgin Queen.” They crossed the courtyard to the south tower.
When they got to the top of the tower stairs, he guided her to the window, removed the cloak gently, opened the back of her dress and asked her in a hoarse whisper, “Have you been bad?”
Soli bowed her head and with a great sense of relief admitted “Yes.”
“I will cleanse you,” he said sternly, taking her right hand and looping a rope around it. “Then you will sin with me.”
“Yes,” she said, as he tugged the knot tight.
“But never worry,” he whispered in her left ear, as he took the other wrist, “I will always be here to cleanse you.”
“Yes,” she said, imagining the ecstatic merry-go-round of sin and penance.
“Again and again and again.”
And with the first bite of the whip, she could see the monks on their white horses chanting and riding towards her.