Translated from the Spanish by John Rutherford.
It was always cold in church. Even in summer. Dampness creeping up your body from the flags spread a sensation of moss and lichen over your skin, and turned your insides to stone. Only the occasional furtive cough, a mouth excavating the air, broke the monotony. In this part of the world the people of God lived in an amphibious land. Perhaps this is why they came to life and the church grew as animated as a cinema whenever the parish priest read out the part of Genesis that tells the story of the universal flood and Noah’s ark.
The priest’s cavernous voice placed a hydrographic emphasis on the catastrophe, which sounded very familiar to the parishioners because here, too, from time to time, ‘the fountains of the great deep’ broke up and ‘the windows of heaven’ were opened. Then the priest would open his arms and proclaim: ‘And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights’.
People glanced at each other out of the corners of their eyes, knowingly.
‘That’s nothing! A shower!’ my mother commented as she left church. In this part of the world it could rain from the fifteenth of September until the fifteenth of May. No problem.
My mother was very religious, but in her own way. One day she told us a story from her childhood, about a lad called André. He was what in rural Galicia people called a toliZo, a loony. He had a nickname: O Inocente. Most people treated him kindly, doors were opened to him, and he was given food and a glass of wine. André was a cheerful lad. Even when some bully hit him, he laughed. The more they hit him the more he laughed.
One day in church the priest explained the mystery of the Holy Trinity. ‘The central mystery of faith, those were his words,’ my mother said, with a sad echo in her voice. Three different persons and only one true God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And when the priest came to the third person, the Holy Spirit, André jumped to his feet and waved his arms as if they were wings:
‘That’s me! That’s me!’
There were murmurs and a few laughs that were soon suppressed when the priest’s voice thundered down from the pulpit:
‘Silence! No, André, you are not the Holy Spirit! Sit down, keep quiet and keep still.’
The following Sunday, the priest resumed the interrupted business of the Holy Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit…
‘That’s me! That’s me!’
André was flapping his arms, with elevation in mind. People were watching him, with hopes that he might take off. The priest called the sexton and ordered him to eject the mad boy.
‘And he never returned,’ said my mother. ‘Whenever the priest mentioned the Holy Spirit, all looks would be directed towards the empty space where O Inocente once sat.’
I still shudder when I remember another story that my mother used to tell us when we were children. The event that the story recounts disturbs and astonishes me to this day. I listen to it in my memory as a kind of early training, a secret lesson, to release us from the rack that is the history of Spain.
The parish priest lived in a parsonage with a large garden and some arable land. A niece of his called DoZa Isabel lived there, too. A beautiful unmarried woman who rejected all suitors. One of them, a rich ship-owner whose business was based in the port of Corunna, gave her an eye-catching parrot, with blue-green wings and a long purple tail, and educated in Latin. It would repeat: ‘Ora pro nobis, ora pro nobis.’ This was during the Republic, which had toppled the Spanish monarchy in 1931; and DoZa Isabel, a die-hard conservative, decided to call the parrot Pius IX. It was summer, and the parrot took possession of the parsonage’s great balcony. From it the voices of people on the road could be heard. One morning a group of lads from Altamira passed by. They were going to the hills to collect firewood and pine cones for kindling, which they sold in town. They stopped to listen to the parrot. They said funny things to it, and it always replied: ‘Ora pro nobis.’ The next day they came back. And the day after that. Until one morning one of the lads yelled:
‘Long live the Republic!’
There was an intense silence. Then the parrot said: ‘Long live the Republic!’
My mother said: ‘We never saw Pius IX again.’
To return to the history of the Flood, the priest explained that Noah first freed a raven and then a dove, to see if the waters had abated. The dove returned with some information, like a good journalist: an olive branch. And the raven? The priest said nothing about the raven. What had happened to it?
It was up there, in the turbulent sky, when they left church. It hadn’t gone back to the ark. Flying, in tatters, like a wandering poet, towards the unknown.