Adapted and translated by Mike Smith
from an original text by Bernat Capó
It was the kind of darkness that would seep into your soul. However, their shift was almost over. They’d walked a lot further than usual for it was a good night for smugglers. But they knew the coast like the back of their hands, they’d walked this route for many years. It was always the same, watching the sea for signs of illegal activity, poor souls hoping to make a quick buck by importing a few trinkets which the two customs guards would have to confiscate. Sometimes they felt sorry for them, but the law is the law.
This dark night had been quiet though. They’d even managed to smoke a few cigarettes, although they had to light them in one of the many hiding places along the cliffs, just in case. They had to stay alert, even though they were tired. Sometimes a call from a night bird could be a password. Was that really a feathered animal or was it someone imitating them to pass a message? But this night was silent, broken only by the noise of the sea crashing against the rocks below them. At the end of the world, the lighthouse lantern provided a bit of confidence in the darkness.
The first light of the day lifted the spirits. The inky black sea was restored to blue as the sun rose slowly to the east, the mountain’s profile could be seen, and the tracks could be walked without danger. Now the birds sang hymns of joy, knowing that they were alive as a new day dawned, that they would be able to eat and search for food to feed their offspring. It was the best time of day.
However, the two custom guards had seen it all before, this wonderful spectacle that nature offers at the break of dawn. They had seen it many times and such repetition made things lose interest. Instead, their thoughts turned to their relief who must be on their way, and of return home soon.
Soon, they were walking together towards the town, two old friends whose bond had been strengthened during many nights of danger, living together, and helping each other when necessary. They say sometimes it is more important to have a good friend than a brother. This was the case with Vicente and Modesto.
Vicente lived in the town, so the walk was short for him. But Modesto Sendra still had a good chunk of road ahead of him. He lived in Portitxol, in a house rented by his father-in-law who was a retired police officer, and it was the last day of June. The heat was pressing, and his thoughts turned to the cold water in the well, a refreshing wash, and, above all, the bed where he would rest until his body said enough. That would be if the baby allowed him to sleep.
It had only been a few days since his wife Úrsula had given birth and the little one, from time to time, roared like tuna in the sea. This was his third child. Modesto had been married before, to Leanor, and they had welcomed two lives into the world. But she had died giving birth to the second, a boy who would be named Bartolomé. His mother took the girl to Gata de Gorgos whilst his first wife’s mother took the boy to Teulada.
Three years after, he thought of marrying again. A man needs a woman because loneliness is never good. He met Úrsula through her father, who was a member of the Guardia Civil. Everything happened so quickly and the newly married couple went to live with the woman’s parents and, after a few months, Modesto brought his son Bartolomé to live with them, not only for the joy of having him by his side but also to ease the burden on his former mother-in-law who had become a widow and had many mouths to feed.
Now, as he walked home in the morning sunshine, the memory of Leanor came to him. He remembered the day they first met, the courtship, that first stolen kiss, their wedding day and, of course, the birth of their children. There were four years of complete happiness and, whilst he didn’t want to make comparisons, he often thought of Leanor, even at the least appropriate moments. The passage of time would heal his wounds, but nothing would ever be the same again. When he looked into his son’s eyes, he saw her, and it was a source of satisfaction for him. But Úrsula could never know, since she would find that look, always sweet, as a permanent reminder of having taken the place of someone else.
Since she had fallen pregnant, Úrsula had changed and this worried Modesto. Her eyes, small and dark, looked lost into the distance, and when she returned from wherever her mind had wandered, they looked like two smouldering embers that could burn everything around her. Little Bartolomé took the brunt of this incipient madness. When the fruit of her marriage came into the world, her persecution of the boy was forgotten for a few days, before it returned with even greater intensity as she grew convinced that the older brother would give the younger one the evil eye. And she told Modesto constantly, to the extent that he made the decision to take the child back into the care of his former mother-in-law, who had moved to Benissa and with whom he still had a good relationship. He resolved to do so once the summer was over.
He was almost home. The house was just a few more steps away. One more curve, pass the carob tree and then the ruirau and his journey was finished. He would wash and then sleep. Like always. But then, as he approached the house, his mother-in-law approached him, took him by the arm, and encouraged him to take a seat on the wall of the entrance. She was nervous, rubbing her hands incessantly, rolling up and then unrolling her apron, taking out her handkerchief. Modesto look at her puzzled.
“What has happened?” he asked.
She hesitated and then replied.
“Your son has had an accident.”
Modesto had two sons now. Bartolomé, who was five, and Francisco, who was just a few days old. He asked which one. It was Bartolomé.
“What has happened?” he asked again.
It was like he had received a savage blow to the head. He looked at his mother-in-law, but he couldn’t see her. He got up and looked around, but he couldn’t see anything. He lifted the rifle from his shoulder and allowed it to drop to the floor with a clatter. He reached for his peaked cap and threw it from his head. And then he ran madly towards the house. At the doorway, his father-in-law tried to stop him, but Modesto pushed him aside and rushed to his son’s bedroom.
The door was open, and he could see a blanket on the floor. The mattress was dislodged from the bed, hanging over the side, and there were burnt ears of corn all around the blanket. The room smelt of smoke. He leant down slowly to pick it up; he staggered momentarily, Inside was the body of his son, his eyes wide open. After what seemed like an age, he grabbed the poor boy and carried him out to the ruirau. He didn’t know what to do, what to say, or even where to go. His stomach churned. His in-laws were nearby, the woman holding a cup in her hands and the main sitting with his arms crossed over his knees. He tightly embraced his son, and then closed the boy’s eyes, just as he had done so to Leanor.
He looked around and didn’t see his wife.
“Where’s Úrsula?” he asked.
The in-laws didn’t answer for they didn’t know what to say.
“Where is Úrsula?” he asked again, this time more forcefully.
But still, nobody answered.
His father-in-law got up from his chair and walked towards Modesto, putting his arms on his son-in-law’s shoulders and making him sit down. The woman offered him her cup, but he slapped it away for he doesn’t want to let of his son. And then started to cry. He forgot about Úrsula, his thoughts turning once again to Leanor, the mother of that poor boy. And he called on her silently, sadly, as if asking for forgiveness. I’m sorry.
Later, his old friend Vicente and a couple of officers from the Guardia Civil arrived at the house, persuaded Modesto to let go of his child and gently covered him in a new blanket. Once the body was loaded onto the wagon that had brought them to Portitxol, Vicente took his friend by the arm and lead him to the vehicle. They get on and head towards Xàbia. Modesto, a little calmer now, asked his friend about his wife and baby.
“Tomorrow.” Vicente replied.
It was at four that morning when Modesto’s father-in-law noticed a smell of smoke in the house. He leapt out of bed but was too late. Bartolomé was dead. He gave an experienced old man’s look around the room, like someone who knows what they are doing, shook his head and went to fetch some water. He put out the remaining embers and then woke his wife. She also knew what had happened and tears filled her eyes as she shook her head.
The old policeman, running like the wind, went to the barracks to inform the sergeant of the Guardia Civil of what had happened in his house and he returned home accompanied by two officers. When they reached the bedroom, they covered the boy’s body with a blanket, and then asked that Úrsula be woken – if she was sleeping – and, after asking some questions which were not answered by those present – took her back to the barracks. Her baby went with her, he needed his mother to feed him. Not a single word was exchanged along the way. They walked seriously and worried, the woman with her head lowered.
The next day, the forensic doctor’s report was clear, Bartolomé had not been burned to death, nor had he been suffocated by the smoke. He had died from strangulation. Even worse, the child’s inner ears showed unmistakable signs of having been pierced by a sharp and hard object such as a knitting needle. The autopsy found remains of glass in his stomach as well as a flammable mixture that might have been used to make matches. The report concluded that the boy must have died violently and in terrible pain.
His stepmother had cut off a life of just five years, destroyed a family, and lost her own child Francisco who ended up in the hands of a nurse.
Úrsula was a bit strange when she was young. She had few friends because of her bad temper, and she was lonely. But she was also domineering, often feeling hurt when someone laughed next to her. Her parents coped as well as they could and when they managed to marry her, they breathed a sigh of relief for they truly believed it would solve the problem.
Good old Modesto thought that Úrsula, a woman full of life and one who was hard-working, would help him to raise his children as well as those which they would bring into the world together. However, his hopes were short-lived. It is true that she gave birth to a child, but she also made another disappear in a brutal way. And thank goodness that the girl was never at her stepmother’s house, because who knows what would have happened if she had fallen into those murderous hands.
Ever since Bartolomé arrived at the little house of Portitxol, he had experienced problems with his father’s wife. But he was too young to understand what was happening. He just asked for a little attention, a smile, an embrace, the same as any other five-year-old. But, since his father was almost always absent, he never found what he needed. Just hate and scorn, slaps and pushes. Even if he asked for food, he got slapped. The child would look at his stepmother with his big eyes as if asking for an explanation for the blow he had just received. And that made her mad.
Sometimes Úrsula’s mother would take pity on the child and give him some attention. That was until her daughter would scream angrily at her. Stay out of it, she would scream.
When Modesto got home, he would have to listen to a long list of grievances that his wife had prepared. The man would look at the boy and then tears would form in his eyes and he would make his way to the terrace, leaving the woman open-mouthed with astonishment. And the attitude of her husband made her madder still. And so, since her husband never challenged his son, she determined to get rid of the brat using all means at her disposal.
She changed tactics. She became more approachable to the child to win his trust. And it worked. Thus, the youngster, unaware of what was happening, fell into the web woven by that evil spider.
Her first attempt came almost as soon as she had decided to destroy the innocent creature. With her husband at work, she took the child by the hand and played with him, laughed with him. It was as if they were two good friends. They headed towards the vicinity of Cabo de la Nao where the pine forest and undergrowth was so thick that they made their way with great difficulty. They started looking for herbs, searching the ground between the trees and bushes. Then, Úrsula asked the boy if he wanted to play hide and seek. He clapped in approval and ran off to hide some distance away from where they had been to hide, crouched, behind a bush. The woman paused. For a moment it seemed she would not go through with her dastardly idea. But then she turned about and headed with some speed back for the house, leaving the young boy alone in the undergrowth.
When she reached home, her mother saw that her daughter was alone, without dear Bartolomé by her side.
“And the child?” she asked.
This infuriated Úrsula.
“Why do you care!” she screamed at her mother, before heading to her bedroom to lie on her bed. Her stomach was quite inflated and full of life. She rubbed it lovingly.
“You will be unique, my son. You will be the only one.”
At dawn, Bartolomé returned home. Somehow, he had found his way through the thick undergrowth and tall pine trees in the darkness, but he was a mess. His clothes were tattered, and his arms and legs were bloodied. But he didn’t cry. He stood as proud as he could, like a man. He washed off the blood as well as he could in the kitchen sink before going alone to his room where he crawled into his bed and fell asleep.
Modesto arrived home after work, and he too headed straight for bed, unaware of his son’s ordeal. It seemed Úrsula had weaved a little spell on her parents. No-one thought to wake the child since he had not returned, they knew that.
At lunchtime, Bartolomé woke. He was still tired, but he was also hungry. He walked to the table where Úrsula was sitting with her parents. His father was still in bed, but the young boy asked for him and began to cry. On seeing the child walk into the room, the stepmother dropped the spoon from her hands and her pupils grew large and dark. Hearing the cries, her husband appeared, rubbing his eyes half foggy with sleep. His son ran to him and grabbed him by the legs, still crying. At the table, Úrsula’s hands were shaking whilst her parents continued to eat with the heads bowed.
“What happened to you?” asked Modesto.
The boy looked up to him.
“I fell into a bush,” he said, still crying and refusing to let go of his father.
“You have to be more careful,” the man said.
Modesto leant down and gave his son a kiss on the head. They both sat down to eat as if nothing has happened. But Úrsula, she had seen a ghost. And, in her tormented mind, she resolved to persecute Bartolomé even further.
He was just five years old, but Bartolomé seemed to be made of iron, or maybe rubber, for he endured all the pulls and pushes, bouncing like a ball against them. Nothing seemed to affect him, he shrugged off difficulties as they arose, and it was as if he truly had a Guardian Angel watching over him. It had been just three months since he had arrived at the house and, in such a short space of time, he had endured every trial that the wicked women had thrown his way. And now she was even more determined to erase the boy from this world, such a sweet creature who had lost his mother and would never find someone who would replace her.
Just before she gave birth, she asked the little boy to help her fetch some water from the well. The house was empty. She saw her chance. She had an opportunity to get rid of the child once and for all. All it took was a push and the boy would fall into the well. That was it. A shove and down he went. All she had to do was flee and seek help hoping that in the meantime Bartolomé would drown. But the boy’s good luck remained with him. The rope had caught on the pulley and the bucket was half out of the water. He was able to climb onto it and cling on. There he remained until a man, alerted by the boy’s screams, arrived at the top of the well and carefully pulled him out.
As Bartolomé was lifted to the surface, his stepmother, who had been wailing and crying out to heaven, suddenly changed her tune and exploded with rage, accusing that little soaked boy of being a rebel, a brawling mischievous devil who would end up breaking her nerves, and his antics would surely make her lose the child she carried in her womb. Once again, Bartolomé looked at her with those big eyes, alive and accusing, so much so that she couldn’t bear the gaze anymore and fell to the ground.
That night she waited for her husband to return home and brought him up to date on what had happened. Since the best defence is a good attack, she threatened the man and told him that she could not bear so many scares. The boy must be treated with a very heavy hand or taken away where she could never see him again, otherwise she would lose the fruit that ripened within her body. Modesto, in the heat of the moment, took a belt and went into the bedroom of the innocent boy. Bartolomé slept like an angel and when his father shook him and woke him, he opened his eyes and a sweet smile appeared on his lips at the same time that his little arms reached out to hug his father’s neck. Modesto couldn’t do it. He dropped the belt.
Days later, Úrsula gave birth to a baby boy, who they named Francisco, and it seemed that motherhood placated her for a short while, but it was a momentary sweetness that heralded a storm that would be unleashed with much more virulence, fierceness, fury, and cruelty.
Yet, she allowed Bartolomé to see his little brother but not touch him.
“Will you love him very much?” she asked.
Why, yes, of course, he responded to her.
But he was not to come too close whilst the baby was so small, for he could accidentally hurt him.
“I will defend him and play with him,” announced the big brother.
Úrsula looked at him with scorn.
“You’re too small to defend anyone.”
Bartolomé announced that he could, he was a man. But that five-year-old would never grow up to be so. He was a soul without a future and without hope. A martyr to a jealous and crazy woman.
Already Úrsula was planning her next move. As she suckled her son, she saw that the young boy watched her carefully. That innocence triggered new ideas in the sick brain of the devil. She thought of new misdeeds and set up a new trap for the child. She set about to make some soup with a fragrant broth and into it she crumbled a large piece of glass and some match heads. Bartolomé didn’t know that babies don’t eat soup, he fell for the deception.
“Do you want Francisco’s soup?” asked his stepmother.
He took the poisoned boil and began to eat, watch by her eyes which blazed with a murderous fever.
“Do you find it good?” she asked.
“Well, yes,” he replied. “But it seems to be a bit gritty.”
“Pah! If you don’t eat it all, I’ll never give it you again!”
Bartolomé finished the plate and went to play on his bed, then out in the garden where he climbed the carob tree and made clay figures. All the time, the stepmother kept close attention to him. And for the next few days. But nothing happened. She gave the boy more tainted soup, and nothing happened. It seemed that the boy had a strong stomach and was digesting everything that was given to him.
Úrsula’s despair and rage were of such a degree that she engineered the next and final test for the boy. For some time, she had been telling her husband that his son smoked in secret, using a piece of paper and dried leaves as tobacco. Her next trap was set. One night, as Bartolomé slept in his bed, she approached him and with all the strength of madness, she squeezed the poor boy’s neck until he was strangled. Then, and coming to show what flowed in her veins, instead of blood, was a kind of poisonous liquid that brought her to the peak of madness, she took out a knitting needle from her apron and pierced the child’s eardrums. He was already dead, his eyes still open. Finally, she perfected what she believed to be her alibi, making a cigarette, lighting it then dropping it onto the mattress which caught fire. She placed the box of matches on the shelf where the boy had a few toys and calmly left the room. In her bedroom, she took her baby out of the crib and held him tightly.
“You are unique, my son. You are the only one.”
Úrsula was convicted in a trial in Dénia and transferred to women’s prison in Alicante. Modesto, his heart broken, was no longer the man he had been before. Keen to remove himself from the scene of the crime so that he could forget the tragedy as quickly as possible, he requested a transfer to Dénia. He was suffering, his eyes giving away a tragic sadness that he was forced to carry. His walk became tired and the joy, which disappeared that night on the last day of June of the saddest and most painful year of his life, would return only when he had his little daughter by his side. As for little Francisco, he was left in the care of a nurse for a while before being taken in by his paternal grandmother where he grew up alongside Bartolomé’s little sister.
At aged 20, Francisco joined the Guardia Civil. He had not seen his mother since she was taken away for her crimes, but he received occasional news and he became more aware of her murderous misdeed. It seemed to sit on his shoulders like an unwanted demon who whispered the sorry tale into his ear. As he grew older, he had few friends and easy conversation often eluded him. Things didn’t improve at the Corps and one day he was discharged for no apparent reason.
Úrsula served just four years in prison. In the summer of 1924, she was lucky enough to be included in the benefits of a pardon granted by General Primo de Rivera shortly after the establishment of the dictatorship under his name. But she didn’t return to Xàbia for another twenty years. And when she did – after the Spanish Civil War – she returned as a great lady with plenty of money in her pocket. It seems that after her release, she started working as a maid to a rich gentleman who apparently left his fortune to her on his death.
On return to Xàbia, she bought a new house and took a couple called José and Remedios into her charge as housekeepers. She also began the construction of a new villa near the sea at a time when it was an unusual luxury. That house would be known throughout the region as the house of “La Criminala”, a grand building which offered the appearance of a stately mansion.
Shortly after returning, she spread the net with the intention and hope of catching her son’s bird and there, at the back of the mind, grew the idea of catching her husband as well. In the first case, she was successful, but the second objective failed, because Modesto never wanted to see that woman again. She was no longer part of his family.
He said as much to his son during a conversation about the return of the wife and the mother.
“I would like to visit my mother,” announced Francisco.
“You go whenever you want,” his father replied.
Francisco asked why they couldm’t go together but Modesto refused, admitted that he never wanted to see that woman again. Francisco implored further.
“She is your wife.”
“She is your mother and that’s all.”
Francisco also spoke with his paternal grandmother who warned him to be careful, for that woman had made them suffer too much. Not me, replied the son, to which his grandmother replied that he was marked for life. Finally, he spoke with his sister, telling her that he was going to live in Úrsula’s house. And she warned him that he would regret it because she was a bad woman.
“But she is my mother!”
“Very true. But she is also the woman who killed our little brother …”
As it turned out, mother and son never managed to get on with each other. Her genius and his sloppiness collided too often. Francisco was quite unstable and, since his mother held him at bay in the matter of money, he ended up leaving home and returning to his grandmother. He made return trips to visit his mother. And then his father passed away.
The Guardia Civil had an aid system which provided a contribution from all the members of the Corps to help the widow or orphans. Since Úrsula had been convicted and sentenced, it would be Modesto’s children who would receive the help. With the money, Francisco bought a horse and cart so that he could become independent and start a new life. But bad fortune was his most faithful companion and a few days later he suffered a terrible accident. On the way to a construction site, his cart, which was loaded with beams, lost a wheel button cap and began shaking uncontrollably. The load struck the young man on the back, he fell to the ground dazed, and then the other wheel passed over his neck causing death by strangulation. It is not know if Úrsula cried that night.
The tragedy did not break the mental or physical resistance of that woman. She had reached the age of 50 having murdered an innocent child, been imprisoned, disowned by her husband and her family, and now her only son had been the victim of a fatal accident. But she felt nothing.
What kind of heart was nestling inside that body? Worn like a diamond, but without the light that reflected its beauty, for it was as black as a chimney flue that had never had the soot removed. As silent, without a heartbeat to show that it worked and could drain blood.
What kind of brain was inside that head? A forest of ideas that were lost in the labyrinth and if any of them were able to find the way out would appear through the eyes giving the woman a maddened expression, with a distant and terrible look.
What kind of woman was this? She had been young, of course she had, but she never enjoyed her youth, possibly she was in love, although she could not enjoy love either because hatred and resentment were the engines that started that machine dominated by her instincts and not her feelings.
After the death of her son, Úrsula’s selfish nature became more apparent. The housekeepers decided that they couldn’t stay. Wherever they went in the town, it was known that tragic history of their mistress, and neighbours turned their heads without offering a greeting. José and Remei needed to go to a place where they could go out without shame.
José approached the subject with his mistress. He told her that they wanted to leave. She asked if they were not happy and he replied that they were not bad but had to think about tomorrow.
“We’ve been here with you almost a couple of years now, and we’ve only eaten and drank,” he told her. “We can never save a peseta because we don’t receive any.”
In response, Úrsula said that she had decided to make the two housekeepers her heirs, but that didn’t wash with José.
“Madam, go and ensnare another. You have a family and you are still quite a young woman. Could you not give us some money once in a while?”
Úrsula promised that she could, from today on, but José admitted that he wasn’t sure if he could trust her. Still, the woman had convinced him and he decided with Remei to let some time pass until they saw how events unfolded. In any case, they had nowhere to go.
Their mistress never let go of her purse, taking out coins only when necessary to buy things. She always had an answer to all questions and she always dragged things out, putting a bit of hopelessness inside the hearts of those poor people. Nothing changed.
So José approached his mistress once again. Be patient, she told him. Everything will be yours. But all he could see were many promises but not one single peseta. She turned on him. He was becoming very insolent, she told him. He shouldn’t talk to him in that way. Frustrated, he replied that he always spoke to the lady with great respect, but she did nothing in return, only teased him. Be careful what you say, she warned him. It could cost you dearly. But José was long past caring. He told her not to raise her voice to him. But she was in her own home and she could do what she wanted, she replied. We’ll see, he said. What do you mean? she asked. Nothing, he said. So Úrsula resolved to take a siesta.
She closed her eyes and never opened them again. José, hurt by his helplessness and blinded by anger, took hold of a club used for chopping esparto grass that was lying next to the fireplace, and without thinking, and not really realising what he was doing, struck Úrsula with such a tremendous blow on the back of the neck, with such force and range, that her neck was broken, and the criminal’s heart stopped.