(If you were able to speak with your sword, you wouldn’t treat me this way).
-Benito Pérez Galdós
from El 19 de Marzo y el 2 de Mayo
The tap of her heels reverberated through the parking lot, her black hip-length wool cape swaying in the stale chill of the wee morning. Manuela’s silhouette was like a bell floating over the pavement, and she felt the weight of the metal in her vinyl purse rap against her leg with each step. Such nights were perfect meditation, a good hour walking home from a party that she’d barely said a word at. Manuela loved the dark, barren paradise of solitude, each loud footstep declaring her presence like the pulse of life itself.
A whistle sounded just a little behind her under a low arching bridge. Her heart jumped. She slowed.
“What’s a sexy woman like you doing all alone at this hour?”
Manuela stopped in her tracks. It felt as if the man had spat on her face, an impudent stranger daring to disturb her peace. She twisted around, and the man simpered, triumphant but insecure.
“That’s right,” he said, walking towards her, looking her from head to toe.
She glared at him, not saying a word. The unusually bold gaze caused him to slow his steps. Just then, the memory came back to her. The humiliating words of the soldier near her doorstep, his breath reeking of vermouth. The impulse to reveal her only lame defense. The barrel aiming at her most vital part, and the body going numb in surreal anticipation.
“What man dare, I dare,” she recited musically. “Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear, the armed rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger…”
The man relaxed, and chuckled at her poetic nonsense. She swooped her arms under her cape, and unsnapped her purse beneath the shroud of the black wool.
“Life’s but a walking shadow,” she continued, swaggering playfully with her hand clutching the metal object in her handbag. “A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage…”
Clearly he was too stupid to know the lines of the great Shakespeare, in its equally archaic Spanish translation. She’d already known that.
The stranger widened his grin, moving closer to her, taking her inseparable eye contact as an invite. “Sexy.” His breath stank of rum.
“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” She stepped towards him. From beneath the black wool, the splitting and reunion of two fresh scissor blades echoed under the bridge.
“And is heard no more.”
Manuela reached across the coffee table and seized the remote control, flipping on the television. She habitually kept it on the same channel, airing the afternoon TeleDiario that was always dominated by the same broadcaster whose face hadn’t changed in twenty years thanks to effective cosmetic treatment. An advertisement for laundry detergent buzzed in the background, as Manuela carefully poured herself a glass of Coca Cola.
“This morning at approximately five thirty a.m.…” the newscaster began. That was Manuela’s cue. She hurried to the sofa with her beverage and jamon y queso croissant sandwich in hand.
“…a taxi driver, taking a break from his shift, spotted the man lying under the bridge. Police were immediately called to the scene, finding the victim, some forty-five years of age, with a series of stab wounds across his chest…”
Manuela blinked, and sunk her teeth into the warm, buttery bread and salty meat.
“…The weapon has not been recovered and authorities are yet to identify the victim. Police suspect it to be a wave of drug-related murders showing up around the southern outskirts of Madrid, following a couple of similar homicides in the past decade that have been committed in these areas.”
She suckled a clump of mayonnaise from her finger, and then washed it all down with the cold, sweet liquid.
The program immediately shifted to coverage of the country’s latest corruption case, and Manuela let the jabbering hover in the background as she finished off her lunch and set the plates in the foamy bath of water filling her kitchen sink.
Manuela lowered the surgical mask over her nose and mouth, and pushed the key into the keyhole. Opening the door took a few attempts, the lock having become increasingly rusty and in need of replacement, but she knew that hiring a locksmith was too risky.
She closed the door behind her, and breathed shallowly through the dense stench of lavender and naphthalene. Her fashion room filled her with a rare frisson, the precious collection of the delicacies that her hands had concocted throughout so many dark moments in history. In the furthest corner of the room, an ivory Regency ball gown, based on a Parisian design, and across from it, the red corset, swirling skirt, and lace veil of a maja. In the opposite corner, a black silk bustled Victorian mourning gown and adjacent to it, an Edwardian tailcoat and white brocade vest.
In the middle were two uniforms, one of the Spanish army and one of the French. The mannequin of the Spaniard fashioned a red tailcoat and shoulder cuffs, and narrow black slacks. She hadn’t managed to keep one of the lofty black hats they wore, nor the white sash that held their knapsacks, so instead she decorated the outfit with cuffs, pins, watches, and belts she’d seized from the unlucky fellows who’d dared to humiliate her on the street.
Manuela turned to the Frenchman’s regalia. She traced the seams of his uniform with her fingers, the blue wool tailcoat, brass-buttoned vest and white breeches, and ran into two tiny nibbles at the coat cuff. Damn it! Was there another infestation of the little buggers? She’d have to change the naphthalene sachets and maybe even up the dose, lest she take it to the dry cleaners again. They already could hardly believe it was just a theater costume.
Like the Spaniard, the Frenchman remained hatless and sashless, and was gradually acquiring a collection of decorative offerings. Manuela slipped off the brass-plated watch from her wrist and latched it onto his. An image which should make her feel hate in fact filled her with melancholy, and each time she entered that room, she wished she could feel the numbness she felt every time she served justice to what was left unjust. So little they knew of her, this neighborhood that had finally bestowed her due honor. Now young people from far and near drank into the early hours of the morning in the party district that bore her family name.
Manuela Malasaña locked the door behind her and pulled off her mask, huffing the clean air. She could do whatever she wanted, she reminded herself. All that should have been done long ago. Again and again.
The door shutter screeched as Manuela rolled it open, and she turned the boutique sign to “abierta.” It was the ground floor at the bottom of her apartment building, at the same Calle San Andrés number 10 where she’d lived her entire existence. The glass doors of each apartment balcony led to filigree railings, where she’d once habitually leaned to oversee the multitudinous soldiers passing through by horse beneath her. Nowadays, from time to time she drank her afternoon coffee there, watching the giddy dogs, chatty young people, and lost tourists meander through Plaza Dos de Mayo.
Manuela gave the floor of her shop a brief sweep, and dusted the hangers that displayed her latest creations – open-back go-go dresses, off-shoulder peasant blouses, even scarlet vinyl skirts or men’s skull print Hawaiian-style shirts. She loved to create whatever told a story: a moment of delight or gloom, or perhaps a man she’d conquered – whether by the stain of her lipstick, or the frigid blade of scissors.
She perched on the cushioned stool behind the cash register, opening her laptop. In the reflection of the screen, Manuela glimpsed her girlish face, complexion taut and smooth except for the massive scar in the middle of her forehead. She slipped out her handheld mirror and took a closer look at it, at the skin that had grown over the tiny stitches of thread, bearing an inch-long grainy trail that she habitually covered with concealer. The few times she’d been asked about it, she simply said she’d had a cyst removed.
Satisfied, Manuela popped the compact mirror back into her purse, and turned her attention back to the computer, going through the daily routine of shop emails, online orders, and Facebook feed, the latter which bore her real name and had been shut down two times already on accusation of using a fake historical personage. Seeing it was a slow morning for brick-and-mortar clients, she opened OkCupid to entertain herself with another dozen “Hola guapas” and “Que tals?” She could click through the messages in a matter of minutes, and only responded if an attractive, sensible guy seemed to fancy a night of her fibs documenting the last twenty-five years, the age she claimed to be, and to share blissful oblivion despite what lay embedded in the depths of her memory.
The selection seemed dry, until she reached a message that caught her attention.
Call me strange or mystical, but I couldn’t help but write to you upon coming across your profile. There is something about your pictures that makes me believe we’ve once met. Look at mine, and perhaps you’ll feel the same. I hope to hear from you so we can talk more.
Strange, indeed, she thought to herself. And perhaps it meant he could offer some wild conversation to entertain her. Manuela clicked on his profile and skimmed it. Age: 28. Location: London, UK. Languages: English, French and Spanish. Occupation: Graphic artist. She browsed the pictures. A good-looking, brawny guy with dark brown hair, brown eyes and a stubbled face. A photo with his computer and tortoiseshell Persian cat. Another at a Halloween party, dressed as a skeleton monk. Another at the beach. Something about his shirtless body lounging, one knee bent, on the coast of Thailand made her double take. It wasn’t sex appeal, nor the location’s exoticism, but rather the unusual tattoos and their peculiar placement over his chest. She enlarged the picture, studying the amateurish indigo stripes and dots patterned across his shoulder, over his peck, and diagonal on the opposite of his abdomen. Mystical? Maybe. Manuela couldn’t figure out why the photograph made her uncomfortable and wistful at the same time.
She quickly closed the picture, and hovered her mouse pointer over the “reply” button, reluctant to click it. The bell of the shop door rang as it opened and she scrambled to close the browser. For the better. Why bother answering this superstitious nut?
André looked up at the candy cane cursive letters that whimsically wove the boutique name, Miss Malasaña. It was right below the balcony where he’d once locked eyes with that perspicacious seamstress. He gazed up at the six storeys of bricks that contrasted the delicate black filigree balcony rails, most decorated with the neon pinks, oranges, and greens of potted flowers. Only now the scents of plants, gunpowder and horse manure in the front yard plaza had been replaced by car exhaust, stale piss and cigarettes.
André turned around to behold the monumental arch that was the remnant of the artillery park from two centuries ago. Towering high, lonely in the midst of four minimalistic, urban playgrounds at each corner of the square, where a few children played and even more homeless men dwelt, downing cartons of cheap Don Simon. The arch was a brick red which framed two white statues in the middle, commemorating the valiant Luis Daoíz y Torres and Pedro Velarde, who had died fighting the invading French forces. André’s concentration was broken by the sound of a fluffy white bichon frise looking up to him and yelping with all its lungs, while a young woman blabbering on her cell phone restrained her pet with a thin nylon leash.
Did the dog recognize him?
One afternoon, he traversed the artillery park by foot, transporting messages to a few sergeants. It was a dangerous feat, given that the Spanish army heavily guarded the area, but running the everyday errands for the Grand Armée was the only way he could evade fighting. Passing by Calle San Andrés, the street that ironically bore his name, he looked up to find the curly-haired seamstress watching him from her balcony. Just then, a fluffy white bichon frise ran up to him, clawing to get the food scraps he was carrying in his knapsack. An aristocratic maja quickly snatched the pooch, her chauffeur pulling her back up to the carriage. She dared not even lower herself to glancing at the young French soldier. André heard a tittering in the background, lifting his head to the balcony to find it was the seamstress. Her mockery quickly melted to an amicable smile.
André shook his head, throwing off the memory. He pulled out his phone, waiting for the light to adjust across the arch and visitors to clear, and snapped a few lopsided pictures. He couldn’t believe that it had taken him so long to have the courage to come back to the barrio Maravillas, which wasn’t even called Maravillas anymore, but was finally named after the bold woman who had lost her life to Napoleon’s army. And for all this time, he’d had no idea that she, like him, still existed, until by some happenstance, on a suggested match through OkCupid, he’d come across those unmistakable amber eyes and layers of walnut-colored curls. Yet, something about her once-innocuous aspect had turned to fierceness, even intimidation, her youthful lips stained with a deep cherry red that made her look ten years older than he remembered her.
What would she say to him? Did she even remember who he was? Or had the binding that kept her being intact fogged her sentience, as it had his?
André adjusted his black-rim glasses, and nervously pushed open the boutique door, startling Manuela with its strike of the bell.
“Dios mio,” she sighed, even more irritated to see that it was one of those clueless hipster-playboy types who came to buy their girlfriends birthday presents, all which ended up in a return because these men knew nothing about their partner’s style or size.
André pretended to sift through the racks of dresses, all the while Aretha Franklin’s voice sounding in the background. What he once remembered as bodices, blouses, breaches, and full skirts had transitioned to hand-painted leggings, halter mini-dresses and pin-up style bikinis. Manuela tapped her nails on her keyboard to the rhythm of the music, impatiently shifting her eyes from the screen to the young man in sneakers and jeans, with messy dark brown hair.
“Uh, te puedo ayudar?” she finally said, passive-aggressively polite, stretching her cherry red lips into a forced smile.
“Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish that well,” he replied. “Anymore, at least.”
Good, she thought to herself. That was the cue that exempted her from any further effort. He thumbed through the clothes at the other side of the shop, until he exhaled and looked over to her.
“Manuela,” he said, riveted on her, as if begging her to reciprocate. So shockingly intense was his gaze, that only then did she get a thorough view of his face. The costume party. The white sand beach. Next to a motley Persian cat at his computer desk. Blood oozing from his chest as she dragged him back from the square to her tailor shop.
“I know who you are. Do you remember me?” he asked, letting his arms fall down his sides vulnerably.
“Where did you come from?” she muttered, slowly freeing herself from the barrier of the counter, approaching him in her high heels and skinny jeans. She threw her arms out to feel the contours of his chest, his shoulders, his arms – the soft, warm flesh framing the firm muscle and bone. Was he real? Was this real? She pulled the knit of his shirt in her fist, twisting it, and then slowly let it drape again.
The bell above the door chimed, breaking Manuela’s concentration on the stitch she was sewing. She sank the needle upright into the fabric, and pushed herself up from the table in the backroom workshop to tend the front counter. The midnight blue of the young man’s uniform set her aback.
“What do you want?” she snapped, a mix of apprehension and spite, swallowing as his earnest brown eyes caught hers.
He pulled off the sack that hung from his shoulder and slid it onto the counter. “How much is it to repair these?”
“And why would I do that?” she asked, seeing the blue, red, and white of uniforms peeking out from the fastening of the sack.
“I beg you,” the young man replied, in his heavily-accented, broken Spanish. He looked around to make sure none of his comrades were eavesdropping. “I have to get out of here,” he whispered. “I don’t belong here. I’m one of you.”
“What do you mean you’re one of me?”
“They killed my best friend. Just like that.” His voice quivered. “And they’ll kill me next if I don’t get these uniforms repaired.”
Manuela tried to maintain her poise, but could see the fellow wasn’t as impudent as she’d heard the other French soldiers were, debauching in taverns, forcing themselves upon the barmaids, and like a pastime sport, shooting down a few rowdy rebels on their way home for the night. Manuela pulled open the bag and poured out the filthy jackets, shirts, and trousers on the counter, pawing through to see what work needed to be done. In the midst, her fingertips hit the patchwork of crusted blood stains. When she looked up, the young man’s face tensed with fear.
“A hundred fifty reales,” she said solemnly. “I’ll do my best to clean them. But these kinds of stains don’t usually depart. Come back at the end of the week, ok?”
The young man nodded, and jadedly pushed the sack towards her, leaving it all in her hands. Manuela heard shouting from the street outside, as she usually did around noontime, and a few townspeople were parading Spanish flags around. The soldier disappeared out the door. Her eyes followed his steps through the window as he wended past the protestors and vanished behind them at the end of the square. She wondered if she’d see him again.
Manuela stepped away, still staring at André’s form, which, once upon a time, donned the same uniform that took center stage of her secret textile room.
“I have to ask something of you, Manuela,” André finally declared.
“What?” she gasped, swallowing, her shiny lips falling open.
He looked around, and then pushed his black rim glasses further up the bridge of his nose. “It won’t be quick. I think we should meet somewhere else.”
“Yeah,” she rasped, sinking back into her stool. “Yeah. We have a lot of catching up to do. A lot. That’s for sure.”
Manuela slammed the roller shutter closed over the glass windows of Miss Malasaña, which, like most other metal shutters in Madrid, had been vandalized by graffiti-unextraordinary signatures and doodles in red, black, yellow and blue. She locked the cover, and set out down the street. The dim sun peeked through the thick grey clouds on that early spring night, in the seemingly endless cold that was winter’s vestige. She could hear the squeaky shouts of children running and climbing throughout the playgrounds, and in the background, a street musician in the corner of the square, strumming his guitar and singing pop flamenco. People walked about with their tiny dogs on leashes or freely strutting by their sides, exploring the vendors that sold artisanal jewelry, scarves, figurines, and antiques along Calle San Andrés. As was usual on Saturday evenings, Plaza Dos de Mayo buzzed with gritty liveliness.
Instead of approaching the door to her apartment building, Manuela continued down the street, turning corners and shivering under her mini-cape until she reached the tattered upholstered chairs and scent of honey-lemon tea that marked her final destination. She entered the cozy café-bar, seeing André’s dark, spectacled eyes peak up from his laptop, behind a steamy espresso.
“Hi,” she murmured humbly, sliding onto the chair and waving over the waitress.
“Hi,” he replied back, pulling an affectionate smile. André’s face was like a warm fire for a vagabond on that unusually chilly night; one that came to her in dreams in so many manifestations, and one that she’d accepted as irrevocably gone.
“Hola,” he greeted, the bell ringing as he pushed open the shop door.
“Hola,” the woman replied, her wrinkles showing that she was likely the maestra of the tailor shop, her ashen curls pulled back by a black crocheted hair net.
“L-last week I dropped off some uniforms,” he stuttered in his best Spanish. “I’m here to retrieve them.”
Tia Francisca scanned the uniformed young man from head to toe. Without offering him a word, she snatched a jar of salt from behind the counter, poured a tiny heap of grains into her palm, and sprinkled it in a line in front of his black leather shoes. André looked up at her in bemusement, and she simply raised her eyebrows as a reminder that he shouldn’t make himself at home too quickly there.
“Manuela!” Francisca called, disappearing into the backroom. After a brief conversation too colloquial for André to understand, the girl came out from the workshop in the same burgundy bodice and yellow skirt that she’d worn before, and with a neatly folded pile of blue wool and white broadcloth in her hands. She placed them on the counter, whipped the sack through the air to open it, and then slid them inside.
André peered over to the side, seeing a crumbling, half-eaten madeleine on an embroidered handkerchief. He stepped over the line of salt in front of him, subconsciously hoping he hadn’t had a spell cast on him. “It’s from the bakery up the street, isn’t it?” he nervously chuckled.
“Hmmm,” Manuela replied, her unenthusiastic, dignified accordance. “My father owns it.”
“Your father? But the baker is French.”
“That he is,” she replied.
He flashed a look of curiosity, and she knew what he was asking.
“He left during the French Revolution.”
André pursed his lips and nodded. He pulled out the money he owed her, and poured the coins into her palm. She shuddered, realizing that it was what Napoleon paid his puppets to take over her city, and the rest of Europe for that matter. Moreover, France had turned on Spain after their alliance, or so her father told her. It was a betrayal. Her impulse was to throw the coins to the floor and the uniforms out the door into the mud. Restraining herself, she gritted her teeth and looked back up at him.
“I am one of you,” he said again, seeming to read her mind, desperately fixating her. “You don’t know me, but I am. I’m collecting my salary to leave. By next month, I’ll be in Cadiz, taking the boat to God knows where, wherever Bonaparte and his army aren’t.”
Manuela bowed her head, unsure what to say to him. Did he seek her advice? Or tomorrow would he come with his comrades and shoot down the entire neighborhood? She dumped the money into the pocket of her apron. What would be, would be. Tensions were building, and she was ready to defend her city when the time would come.
“My mother was Spanish,” the young man continued. Manuela couldn’t help but double take upon hearing this fact. “I never knew my father. He left her when she followed him to Paris. I thought I’d find my identity serving the Grande Armée, but instead, I’ve lost it. I’ve lost everything, except for my life.”
“Well.” She sighed. “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”
“Perhaps,” he replied. Even she couldn’t rescue him. Yet. He slung the sack over his shoulder and set out back to the barrack.
André folded down his computer screen and finished off the grainy remnants of his coffee.
“Working at 9 o’clock at night? You must have become really British,” Manuela commented with a chortle, trying to keep the conversation light after bearing the weight of her recollection.
“I’m saying good-bye to my friends.” His tone was dry, and his eyelids languished in a hint of sorrow that he then shook off.
Manuela said nothing, taking the glass of red wine in her slender fingers, her carmine nails twining up the spine of the goblet like a spiral staircase. She stared at him, waiting to see if he would expound on his remark. She wasn’t quite convinced it was the same André.
“So you’re staying in Madrid, right?” she asked, wishing it were merely so.
“I’m leaving for good,” he replied bitterly, then softening his voice. “I’m sure you know what I mean.”
Manuela looked down to the sanguine pool, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure it had worked.”
“Hmm,” he said, a mixture of agreement and contemplation. “Well, look at you. You…you look incredible.”
She stretched her shiny lips into a flattered smile worthy of a pin-up portrait. “Well,” she contested, touching the bumpy scar in the middle of her forehead.
He was about to raise his hand to reach out to her face, but stopped himself. As if the faint pressure of his fingerprint would crumble the antique thread to dust, and her substance would spill out before him. Or, as if, just that mere tactile gesture would make him second guess his absolution.
The blue, red and white flags mounted to balconies had been replaced by those of yellow and red. Upon their daily procession through the city, the horse-mounted French army was met by boos and stones as they crossed the central Plaza Mayor and the Puerta de Sol. Manuela took her spare time to sew two strips of red cotton to a yellow rectangle. One afternoon, she could hear the townspeople grow especially raucous, and thought it was the right ceremony to drape it from her shop sign. She placed a wooden stool outside the shop door, and her concentration was broken by a frantic panting approach her.
“Get inside!” the deep voice shouted, and she was thrown over the man’s shoulder like an army sack. Before she knew it, she was carried back inside her shop and the man bent forward to put her back on her feet. Manuela’s aunt regarded the spectacle with stone lips.
Manuela lifted her head and her hand simultaneously, preparing to slap whatever dirty creep had committed such an act. Just as her eyes met those unmistakable eyebrows and mahogany irises, the two cowered at a series of gunshots that rumbled through the square, followed by a chorus of cries and shouts. The crowd dispersed.
Manuela heaved a few times, speechless. She realized André had quite possibly saved her life, but the manner in which he’d done so felt violating. She hastened behind the counter, embarrassedly beginning to fold and smooth a pile of embroidered tablecloths.
“I’ve told you to forget this nationalism. We have no business with it,” her aunt grumbled. “If you don’t stop this, Manuela, you’re going to lose your life.” Seeing her indignant niece refuse to look at her, she disappeared into the workshop.
Manuela continued her work in silence. She could feel André watching her. She looked up and saw, as the last of the townspeople and French army dispersed, two corpses left in the square, tended by a few hysterical townspeople who eventually carried them away. A tear trickled down her cheek, nesting itself in the cushion of folded tablecloths.
“I knew they were coming to scare the crowd, and when I saw you…”
“Why do you care about me?” she snapped, throwing down the cloth she was holding.
“I – I didn’t expect to see you outside. I came to ask something of you. For your professional help.”
“More blood-stained uniforms, eh?” she scowled. “I create, and you destroy. I’ve had it with this. Just get your army out of my city.”
Her words stung him. André drooped his head, and started to turn to go out the door, once and for all. Manuela could feel it in his dilatory pace, and knew that this time, she really wouldn’t see him again. He would fight, or flee, or could he even be… executed for saving her?
“Where was your mother from?” she sorrowfully asked, stopping him in his tracks.
“The Basque Country,” he replied, speaking over his shoulder, as if it were an afterthought.
“Why did she go to Paris? With the Revolution there?”
“It was before the Revolution started,” he replied, shifting in place, his body still a shield to his vulnerability. “My father was a writer. A romantic. An idealist. Traveling throughout southern Europe. I never met him.”
“He left when you were born?”
“Yes,” André faltered. “And – and your father?”
Manuela raised her eyebrow, waiting for him to elaborate his question.
“That is, why did he go to Spain?”
“The sunshine, he told me.” André curled up the corners of his lips at her reply, finally turning towards her. “And, of course, the war. He was stuck in the middle of the bloodshed and didn’t want to fight.”
“So why are you fighting?”
“And why are you fighting?”
The two locked eyes like arch enemies at chess anticipating their opponent’s next move.
“I’m not fighting anymore,” he asserted. “I’m leaving next week. That’s why I’m here. I need your help.”
“I need your help.”
“Maybe this isn’t the right place to talk. Somewhere quieter. Shall we walk?”
The two descended through the arch of the immense Plaza Mayor, taking a right down Calle Mayor, passing the eclectic boutiques and bookshops that lined the street. The city center by nightfall felt like a swarm of mice in a maze.
“So,” Manuela began. “I can’t believe it, really. What have you done all this time?”
André blinked. The taste of his mother’s soup was a sparse figment now. Yet, the sensation of stumbling, his skin crusted around the stitches beneath his tattered uniform would never escape him. He fast forwarded. A lazy sailboat in the still sea, as he set aside his fishing rod to strum his guitar. Fast forward. Scooping spicy rice with his fingers in the moist, tropical heat, cross-legged in front of a lofty, stone-layered temple. Fast forward. A hand slipping into his pocket, the other slicing his neck in the damp, gaslit alleyway. Fast forward. A row of men in helmets and gas masks aiming their rifles at protestors in polyester and bell bottoms who were parading the sign, “End the war in Vietnam.”
“Nothing much, really,” he replied. “I suppose you’ve had more fun than I have.”
“Ha!” Manuela guffawed. “You already know a thing or two about Spanish history. I died twenty times during the Civil War, and I’m still here. You call that fun?”
“Yeah,” he said, casting his eyes downwards in reflection. “I guess not.”
“Where did you go, André? You never wrote to me. You promised you would.”
Manuela pushed up the cotton sleeve of her blouse, and poured a mug of creamy liquid, pushing it towards André.
“What is it?”
“Leche merengada. My aunt has her own secret recipe.”
He took a whiff of the sweet, earthy aroma and cautiously sipped it. The blend of cinnamon, lemon, milk, and egg nauseated his empty stomach.
“Hmm?” she said, gulping mouthfuls, and then wiping the milk off her lips with a satisfied smile. He politely followed her lead and downed the rest, too thirsty to refuse the offer.
“Thank you,” he said softly.
“So. You’re going to ask if you can stay with us? Become Spanish? Or work in my father’s bakery?”
He shook his head. “I wish it were that simple. The rest of my comrades would find and execute me for treason.”
“Do they really care?”
“They shot my best friend just because he had a fever. He was lying in bed for days and they decided he was permanently useless. He was a Mamluk.”
“But you’re not a Mamluk.”
“It doesn’t matter. If you have a musket and fight for his vision, everyone is equal in Bonaparte’s eyes.”
Manuela divided the rest of the leche merengada between their two mugs. André didn’t touch his. He’d seemed to have suddenly lost his appetite.
“I’m going to run away, like I told you. Next week. We both know what things are leading to here. I volunteered to be the messenger and assistant to the troops, because I didn’t want to hold a weapon anymore. But soon enough they’re going to put me back as a soldier, I’m sure of that. Every year Bonaparte has fewer and fewer men, and they need everyone they can they get.”
“Hmm.” Manuela listened attentively, and then took up the rest of her beverage. “Does Bonaparte know that the town will do everything they can to drive him out? You can see the protests here every day. Madrileños are very proud people, you know.”
“As are the French,” André replied, tapping his fingernails on the mug.
Manuela took a hearty gulp of the sweetened milk. “I grew up in front of the artillery. I breathed gun smoke. I used to drink coffee to the sound of horse hooves as they paraded in front of my balcony. I suppose that’s why my father feels so Spanish these days. I know he’s willing to fight. Really, it doesn’t make much sense. He left France twenty years ago because of the Revolution. Or maybe he’s enraged that his bakery’s lost business since Bonaparte arrived.”
“Huh. Whatever it is, fight if he will. I won’t. I’ve heard I can take a ship to Venezuela from Cadiz. But I need your help. I can’t run away like this.” He pointed to his blue and white uniform. “So, my idea is that I’ll have to dress like a friar. That way nobody will disturb me. Even if I’m French.”
“That’s right. And what I need to ask you is if you can sew this disguise for me. Name your price.”
“Name the price? Give me a moment to think about this.”
Manuela stood up and peered out the workshop, listening if her aunt had returned. She put aside the two mugs and empty jug.
“You never told me your name,” she remarked.
“André. And you?”
“André DuBois. Your turn already.”
“Manuela. Manuela Malasaña Oñoro. My father’s original name was Malesange.”
André nodded, and then leaned forward in the chair, too tense at the prospect of his plan to pursue small talk. He watched her walk from side to side of the workshop, as if her powerful presence would be the good omen that would lead him across the sea in one piece. She opened a drawer, and pulled out a small wooden box, sliding open the top in front of him. It was a deck of cards, the top etched with the drawing of the capricious troubadour, the Fool.
“Do you believe in Tarot?” she asked.
“Should I?” he replied, for lack of another answer.
“I don’t know. My aunt does. She’s a remarkably superstitious woman.”
“I’ve noticed,” André replied, remembering her befuddling salt ritual.
Manuela pushed the box back into the drawer, then pulling out a spool of thick, silvery thread twined around an hourglass-shaped spool.
“This is antique Alpujarran silk thread, from Andalusia. A thousand years old, my aunt claims. Legend says that it can weld together any two textiles seamlessly. Leather. Fur. Even human skin.” She pulled out a flask. “And dipped in this, water from the Fountain of Youth, it can heal any wound, no matter the severity. So they say.”
André raised his eyebrow dubiously. Manuela tittered, herself also unconvinced. She closed the drawer filled with her aunt’s stash of magical trinkets, and sat down next to her work table.
“So,” André began, his voice wavering. “Will you do it?”
Manuela paused. “The friar’s robe? Of course I will. It’s my job. But what I need in return is not money.”
André squinted in confusion, but then raised his finger, suddenly struck with an idea. He rummaged through the leather pouch slung across his shoulder, and pulled out a tattered book, extending it out to Manuela.
“Hamlet?” she read on the cover, bewildered. “What’s this?”
“Fortunate for me that you’re not asking money, because I used what I had left of my wage to buy this, just across the square at the bookshop. I meant to practice my Spanish with it, but little did I know that Shakespeare is no easier translated to your language than it is in mine.”
“An English playwright.”
Manuela thumbed through the pages, skimming the lines of poetry that were far beyond the basic literacy she’d acquired to run the shop.
“Keep it,” he insisted. “If the sergeant saw me reading the works of a national enemy, that would be treachery in itself. You’ll get more use from it than I will.”
Manuela chuckled – not because treason was a laughing matter, but because it occurred to her that this was the first gift she’d ever received from an individual of the opposite sex who wasn’t her kin.
“Well, thank you. I suppose.” Manuela slipped the present into her apron. “But there is still one important thing I need to ask of you.”
Manuela swallowed, overcome with a tinge of guilt in breaking the playful mood. “Can you bring me gunpowder?”
“My father said he needs it. We have to be armed. You never know if and when we’ll have to defend ourselves.”
What could he say? Even if he couldn’t do it, he’d take a few days to devise another plan. “I’ll try.”
“Is it easy for you to get?
“Well, I don’t see why not.”
She approached him and held out her hand. “Deal.”
He hesitantly reciprocated and wrapped his weather-beaten fingers around hers, feeling her hand gently sink into his. Without a clear objective in mind, he lifted her hand and bent down to press his dry lips to it, relieved that she didn’t strike him for the deed. As he raised his head again, he flashed a disheartened glance, a visceral gusto for her touch that could be torn away at any minute. With that, his arm dropped, letting her hand slide from his, and he was out the door.
“I went to Venezuela, like I told you I would.”
“But you never wrote to me,” Manuela contested. “Remember how you said we’d be there together someday?”
“I did write you. The letter was returned to me, with a note that you were deceased.”
Manuela said nothing, peering up to the crescent moon above the clock tower in front of the Puerta de Sol, the city’s main square. “Yeah. I guess we’re the closest the world gets to a zombie apocalypse, aren’t we?”
The shop bell chimed. Manuela peeped out from the workshop to see who it was, and motioned for her aunt to stay at the sewing table. Francisca caught sight of the familiar blue and white uniform, scruffy dark hair and stubbled chin, shaking her head in a passive disapproval. She seized the jar of salt from atop the adjacent table, and hurriedly sprinkled a row of the white grains at the shop doorstep, clinking her shoes back into the workshop to return to sewing buttons on a cotton blouse.
Trying to ignore the interruption, Manuela greeted André with wave, jubilant that he had come back only a day after she’d last seen him. Probably just for small talk, she told herself, and looked behind her in the workshop to make sure her aunt wasn’t muttering black magic to herself in seeing them.
He lifted a wooden keg from his shoulder, the bottom rim tapping against the floor as he carefully set it down. “Where should I put it?”
It then struck Manuela what he was carrying. A thin line of black powder wound behind the keg and out the door.
“Is there a crack in it?”
He looked down and shook his head frustratedly. André yanked open the door and folded the gunpowder into the dust to obscure at least part of the trail he’d created. He sloughed the sweat off his forehead.
“You brought it so quickly. I didn’t expect it. I haven’t even begun the friar’s robe…”
“It’s ok. Where should I bring this? To the-”
“No, no, no. Don’t worry. I’ll do it. I’ll tell my father to pick it up.”
André shifted nervously, looking around him to make sure no other soldiers had noticed his entrance. He adjusted his hat, and nodded good-bye, preparing to go out again. Manuela watched his every move in admiration, but was weighed with an unshakable melancholy. She couldn’t believe it. For the first time, she realized how much he was willing to sacrifice for his rebellion, his freedom, and for her. He was a traitor. Courageous, and loyal to nothing and nobody but himself. And for the first time, she realized that he had been right. She was one of him, and he was one of her. They were two distinct forms, but one.
“Come back tomorrow, will you? I’ll have more leche merengada. Even better than the one you had.”
He pulled a weak smile. “I’ll try.”
“Or the day after. I’ll be here. And the robe will be done by then.”
Before his hand could reach the doorknob, André turned back around.
“Manuela,” he addressed, softly, as if uncertain of his own intention. “Will you visit me in Venezuela? I’ll write to you. I promise that. That is, if I…” He cut his words.
Unsure what to say, she held out her hand to his, a gesture of faith in him. He let her hand slip from his, and turned his determined gaze ahead of him, disappearing out the door.
The two approached the fountain, encircled by clusters of leaves from which lone flowers sprouted in desperate claim of sustenance above the dry soil. In the middle was a vicious cascade of cold water that, here and there, a few pigeons dared to dip their wings into. André slowed, staring pensively at the centuries-old monument, the cement pedestal: his headstone, and the incarnadine buds: the embers of his being.
He scanned the enormous ballroom of the Puerta de Sol, thronging with pedestrians who braved the chilly evening. For a moment, miniskirts grew into ankle-long petticoats, leather jackets to the blues, whites, and reds of patriotism. One by one they toppled, exuding red like tainted raindrops gliding across ice.
Manuela touched the top of André’s arm, tilting her head to query what he was thinking.
“There’s so much blood on these stones,” he finally murmured, staring towards yonder.
“Yeah,” Manuela replied. “There was. And I’ve seen all of it. Now it’s been replaced by the jovial spill of sangria in neighborhood festivals. You should see the Dos de Mayo party in front of my house. It’s like a giant rave.”
André turned to her, his face mysteriously lighting up, but he couldn’t get himself to laugh. “Clever, as you’ve always been.” He added under his breath, “No matter what you’ve done.”
Manuela drew back her neck, waiting for him to explain. He forced his mouth shut, and watched the ferocious outpour of the fountain reflect the dark blue above.
“That’s as long as I’m going to stay on a Sunday,” Tia Francisca sighed, winding the end of her white thread back on the spool. “It’s blasphemy, I say. The army will have to wait on the uniforms. And the San Isidro orders pay more, too. I think the aristocrats feel like they have nothing to lose anymore.”
“Ah, you’re leaving already?” Manuela asked, mid-stitch on a red overcoat. “I’ll stay here an hour or two longer. To finish this.”
Her aunt clicked her tongue. “Manuela, so motivated to work this hard all the sudden? Is that French fellow scheduled to come back?”
“Of course not,” Manuela muttered, shrugging.
“I’m not going to leave you alone here. Your father won’t be happy. It’s almost sun down.”
“I need some time alone.” Manuela glared up at the forgiving woman, who was sure her niece was falling into a forbidden love story, like most girls her age tended to do if their family let them.
“Be back by dinner time then, will you?” Tia Francisca pulled out the sharp fabric scissors from her apron. “Lock up while you’re in here and when you leave. And take these. Even if the fellow escorts you. You never know.”
She laid the scissors on the table, and poured the cluster of heavy keys into Manuela’s hand. As her aunt neared the front door, she glanced at the wooden keg at the corner of the shop, gunpowder still seeping out of the crack at the bottom.
“That thing’s still here? Move it out, will you?” she insisted. “This isn’t a military base. At least I hope it isn’t.”
“My other task for the evening, auntie,” Manuela replied, saying whatever she must to shut her up.
Her aunt sprinkled a fresh layer of salt at the doorstep, and gathered her skirt in her palm to step over it, out towards the enormous square. Dusk on Sundays was typically calm in the city center, when families gathered in their houses after morning mass for a long, hearty lunch, followed by siesta, evening coffee, and a late, light supper. But this Sunday was even more eerily still, the frequently bustling Puerta de Sol as deserted as a forbidden alleyway, like a mute volcano waiting to erupt its final bloody wrath.
Manuela returned to her meditative blanket stitch, humming to herself. After some ten minutes, she glanced over to the clock on the adjacent table, questioning her faith that André would in fact visit her again. She rethreaded her needle, about to knot it, when she faintly heard shouting from the square outside. Manuela paused, listening carefully, making out that they were speaking in French. She crept towards the shop entrance, peeking through the side of the window, and double took at a group of figures slowly making their way towards the fountain in the center of the square, parading like a solemn military march. Squinting her eyes, she could see that one in the center, surrounded by the others, had his hands tied behind his back as they forced him to stumble forward in the grasp of their fists.
Their hats and the dusk obscured their faces, all except for the prisoner. They set him to his knees, and it was only then that Manuela’s heart raced at the sight of his disheveled dark brown hair and his anguished countenance, cringing in defeat. He would die a rebel. But was that worse than dying for a cause he no longer was convinced of?
Manuela unlocked the door, tearing it open, preparing to run out to stop them. Two armed soldiers impatiently glared at the young Spanish woman standing at the doorstep of the shop. She instinctually opened her mouth to shriek and drive them away, until the barrel of a musket turned towards her neck, gesturing for her to shut the door. Manuela’s heart thumped. She obeyed.
What have I done?
Open the door again. Roar.
Throw myself there.
Sacrifice my life. Die. Die for him.
We’ll die together.
Manuela looked at the keg of gunpowder. She sped into the backroom, ripping open one of the floorboards to reveal her grandfather’s old hunting blunderbuss that had been hidden there in case of emergency. Moments like this, when desperation left no other choice, Manuela knew. She pulled it out, and took a handful of the gunpowder that was seeping from the crack in the keg, smothering the black grains down the barrel of the weapon. She pushed aside the curtain, peering discreetly through the window. The soldier finished the last lines of their official accusation: treason and planned desertion, dual convictions that sentenced André to death according to Napoleonic law. He rolled up the document, after which André was blindfolded and stripped of his emblematic blue jacket and brass-buttoned vest. Behind the group of men, the menacing church bell of the nearby Iglesia del Buen Suceso rumbled eight consecutive chimes.
Manuela took out a cluster of lead pellets from the leather sack that had accompanied the blunderbuss, and tumbled them down the metal cylinder. She then pulled back the handle to full cock. Would it even work? She’d long observed, from the refuge of her house balcony, Spanish soldiers loading their firearms, though she paid little attention to the precise steps. The sergeant ordered the trio of armed soldiers to raise their muskets to their shoulders. Manuela quietly unlatched the window and opened the glass a crack, obscuring her weapon behind the thick curtains that kept out the piercing sunlight from fading their delicate textiles. She maneuvered the gun to aim it at the closest of three men who were preparing to shoot.
All she had to do was scare them away, right?
Manuela swallowed. She gently compressed the trigger with her finger.
Her heart jumped.
A deafening blast. An earthquake.
Am I still alive?
They had shot.
Before she had.
Her trigger clicked, but nothing more than a few stray grains of gunpowder escaped the barrel. As she lowered the gun, the lead pellets rolled out and dropped to the wooden floor like onyx beads fallen from a broken necklace.
Crimson mixed with the cascade of water gushing from the peak of the fountain. André’s body slid to the ground beside the stone barrier, blindfold still sparing him from the misery of knowing that the woman he loved had beheld his death. And that she had hopelessly failed to save him from it.
The men lowered their muskets. A couple of them approached the fountain to drag away the body.
“Let him rot,” the third one shouted. “In front of that wench.”
The two looked up at the sergeant. “Leave him,” he instructed the soldiers. “The hospital up there can take him, if they’ll bother.” He nodded towards the church at the periphery of the square. “This is a lesson to the rest of you. Marshal Murat and the great Bonaparte have no place for traitors.”
The sergeant glared at the young executioners one by one, ensuring that they had absorbed his words. He then led the men to march off, all but one of them resisting the temptation to look back at the gruesome sight of his unfortunate comrade. Manuela choked on her breath, aghast. Why hadn’t they taken her too? Had they no idea that she was the ‘enemy’ receiving the gunpowder he’d stolen?
Manuela slowly creaked open the front door of the shop, scrutinizing the vicinity to make sure the soldiers had cleared away. The indigo sky left little more than the faint illumination of the clouds from the setting sun, and the moon had emerged to be the sole witness of her madness. Manuela broke out in sobs, running towards the body of André, a rag fastened around his eyes, and bloody wounds soaking his cotton shirt. She scooped her hands under his arms, the red streaming across her white blouse, and she dragged him back towards the shop, as his limp head rested on her bosom. She brought him to the backroom workshop, and locked the front door with three turns of the key.
Manuela threw five pinches of salt into a jug of water and swished it around. She pulled open what was left of his torn undershirt. Sifting through a drawer of tools, she came across the plyers that they used to remove rusty grommets. Manuela plucked each of the tiny spherical bullets from the perforations of his skin. She dipped a handkerchief into the salt water, dabbing it on André’s hollow wounds scattered around his chest and shoulders, the liquid foaming at the peripheries. She lowered her head to his chest; no heartbeat. She pressed her thumb to his wrist; no pulse. Manuela continued to gently dab away the claret globs of blood, repeatedly submerging the handkerchief back into the cloudy, sanguine water. The remnants of sweat from André’s skin filled her nostrils, the very human essence that made her believe somehow that he was still alive.
She knew there was only one possibility left. Her aunt had told her rumors of witches throughout the Iberian Peninsula resurrecting victims of village quarrels with the Alpujarran silk thread dipped in water from the Fountain of Youth, both of which a wise woman from the Grenadine mountains had given her. Manuela never believed it, but a voice inside of her told her that the silk thread had come her way for a reason. André was not meant to die, and she had been spared for some happenstance that nobody could explain, but it would all come together someday.
Manuela searched for the biggest, most durable needle she could find in their supply box. It was for leather, and was the length of her pinkie. She unwound an arm’s length of the clear silk thread, and snipped it from the spool. Swiping the tip of the thread between her lips, she then navigated it through the eye of the needle. With a pop, she pulled out the cork from the tiny flask and carefully dipped the silk thread into the ancient water. Manuela hovered over Andre’s body, examining his chest as if it were the outlay of a patchwork quilt. She sunk the point of the needle into his skin, meticulously binding one side of the wound to the other, wiping away the blood after every few stitches like a tattoo artist cleaning the excess ink. She securely tied up the ends, repeating the procedure twice more, until all three gunshot holes were nothing more than criss-cross repairs of a hitherto ripped textile.
Manuela exhaled, and sat back on top her chair, watching. She waited for his lips to flinch, for an arm to tremble, for his chest to lift with a strained inhale, like a scientist sending electricity through an expired body. She watched, and watched, and watched, sure that focusing her healing energy on him was the way to resurrection. She waited. Nothing happened. Manuela was about to despondently burst again into tears, but replenished her faith, and decided to wait twenty minutes more. She slid up the tie cushion from her chair and rested her head on it, closing her eyes.
It was her who jolted up, and she didn’t know how much time had lapsed since she’d drifted into a light sleep. Below her, André’s body still lay, in the same position, blindfolded, shirt framing his chest and wounds bound closed. If nothing else, she would sleep across from him, she decided. Perhaps he had just fallen into a deep slumber. He’d rest up, and awaken fresh and new in the morning.
Manuela pulled off the cushions from hers and her aunts’ chairs, lounging over them in the corner of the workshop. The clock ticked like a metronome measuring the seconds. She anxiously wadded up a couple of lumps of cotton and pushed them into her ears. Manuela rolled from side to back, and then to the other side, adjusting herself to find a comfortable position. That was the last she recalled of the night.
“What is this!” Tia Francisca’s voiced gasped, come six o’clock in the morning. She peeked into the jar of sanguine water planted on the table, the handkerchief still floating in it.
“Huh?” Manuela grunted, pushing herself upright, her heart pounding from the abrupt wake.
“What happened to you?” Francisca wailed, frowning upon noticing the spots of dried blood scattered across the empty wooden floor. “Your mother told me this morning that you never came home. She was in a fright all night!”
Manuela feebly rose to her feet.
“Are you alive, Manuela?” her aunt spouted, hurrying over to her. “Did someone hurt you?”
Manuela’s mouth dropped open, and she wove around her aunt to study the empty floor. “Where did you put him?” she suddenly shrieked.
“André? Where is he?”
“André?” Puzzled, her aunt lifted Manuela’s arms to examine them. “Did he hurt you? Is this blood yours?”
“It’s his,” Manuela shouted, defensively ripping away her arms. She picked up the spool of silk thread and waved it in front of her aunt’s eyes. “I sewed him up with this. Where is he?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you are talking about, Manuela,” her aunt replied earnestly, cowering a bit at her niece’s sudden hysteria.
Manuela’s eyes followed the large, bloody boot prints that led to the door. “How did you get in?”
“Y-you left the door unlocked. Which I told you not to do, didn’t I?”
Manuela knew what André was remembering as they strolled quietly through the plaza. Well, half of it, at least.
“Where did you go?” she finally asked. “I never saw you again. Until today.”
A drunk youngster, accompanying two girls in towering heels, butted shoulders with André. Caught off guard, he shook his head in frustration, focusing his imagination back on the past.
“There’s not many things I remember from that long ago,” André replied. “But the day of my execution is something I will never forget. I was supposed to die, but instead I felt as if I’d just come out of the womb, all over again. I was completely naïve, and completely confused. I remember opening my eyes, and asking myself if I was dead, because I saw nothing but darkness. It took me a while to realize my eyes were covered, and then I remembered why… because I’d been brought to be executed. I pulled off the blindfold, and found myself in a place I couldn’t recognize. All I remember was a lantern at the entrance, and a door. So I unlocked the door, and I left. I must have started running. I don’t remember how I picked the direction, or how long I ran, but I reached the outskirts of Madrid and slept in an olive grove one night, and then headed south where some Jesuits took me in, and later helped me escape Europe. They saw my wounds that had been sewn and healed. I told them what happened – or the fragments of what I remembered, at least – and they were sure it was a miracle from God.”
“Do you know what happened?” Manuela inquired.
“Now I do. I found the scars all over my chest, and remembered the thread you’d showed me. I pieced it together, even if I didn’t really believe it. And the history books say you were executed too. But you’re not dead either.”
In April, Madrid would always come to life again after the stagnant death of a dreary winter amidst the enclave of grey stone buildings. The blooming magnolia trees of spring attested that the sadness and sickness of prior months had come to an end, leaving the living untouched. The year 1808 was unlike any other, though. Days passed, and the final rains of April transitioned to a warm but morbid May. Francisca had mopped up the last remnants of André’s blood from the floor, and as superstitious as she was, she didn’t really believe Manuela’s testimony. Seeing the blunderbuss propped against the wall beside the gunpowder, she instead considered that Manuela had killed this very fellow she referred to as André, but she never dared to ask what she’d done with the body. Perhaps her niece had a secret, a violent rage that reticence best left dormant.
Manuela’s father had finally retrieved the cracked keg of gunpowder, informing them that the town was headed towards a major revolt, one that would rid Madrid of the French once and for all. When the time came, it would come. He kissed his daughter’s forehead, but Manuela simply bowed her head, dejected. She was no longer interested in fighting. Instead, she and her aunt Francisca busied themselves with the many stitches of the rest of the uniforms and San Isidro festival dresses, going about their lives as normally as possible.
Many evenings, Manuela exploded into irritable fits or baths of tears, or a combination of the two. Francisca knew something grave had occurred that night she’d left her alone in the workshop. Should she ever leave her alone there again?
Well, she did.
One day mid-morning, the bell above the door rang and Francisca burst in, short of breath, her arm trembling as she held the jug of water she’d gone to fetch.
“They’re taking the Infante to France,” she stammered between breaths, the water spilling out as it hit the wooden table. “There’s a crowd outside of the palace to stop it and there’s thousands of French there. They’re shooting the protestors one by one. Your father told me so.”
“What?” Manuela exclaimed, throwing down her sewing project on the table.
Francisca turned the key of the front door three times. She took a deep breath to compose herself, retrieving the jar of salt to sprinkle a fresh row of grains across the threshold.
“What are you doing?” Manuela protested. “We have to get papa. Where is he?”
“We’re not going to get anyone,” her aunt contested bitterly. “I told him to stay where he is. He said he’s heading home.”
“Heading home? That’s where the gunpowder is! Auntie, he’s going home to fight! You know it!”
“If he wants to fight, let him fight. I don’t want to be a part of this, and neither do you.”
Manuela’s shoes clanked in a frenzy across the parquet floor as she jostled past her aunt to the frontroom. She pulled aside the curtain to find pedestrians trickling into the plaza holding crowbars, butcher’s knives, pistols, and blunderbusses.
“So what are we supposed to do?” she demanded. “Stay here and watch our city burn as if it were a Greek tragedy?”
“Haven’t you fought enough, Manuela?” he aunt snapped back. “I don’t want to know what happened last Sunday. I just hope it’s only a mouse you slaughtered.”
“I didn’t slaughter anyone. You don’t believe your own witchcraft.”
Remembering how she’d lost André made her body go limp. Manuela backed up, hearing the clamor of a dozen horses gallop into the square. She winced at the explosions of muskets firing, her body folding as she heard irate shouts followed by agonizing cries resounding through the immense square. Manuela dragged herself to the backroom and collapsed onto the chair, covering her ears with her hands, trying to convince herself that it was all just a nightmare she would awaken from any minute.
Yes, she would wake up; the war never would have existed.
The French would be out of Madrid, peacefully and without protest.
And tomorrow André would come for another visit to drink leche merengada with her.
The two women sat plastered to their seats, their palms sweating as they tried to block out the death around them through sparse small talk and the stitches of sleeves, skirts, and embroidery. From time to time, Manuela would throw down her work and take to pacing around the workshop. It repeatedly occurred to her that when they did return home, it would be an empty house.
Come nightfall, the sounds of warfare had dissipated. Once again, Puerta de Sol returned to its eerie quietude, this time undeniably the silence of a cemetery. Manuela didn’t dare look out the window. Their stomachs growled, and they sipped up what was left of the souring leche merengada that Francisca had prepared in the morning.
“I’ve had enough of imprisoning ourselves here. I’m going home,” Manuela finally declared, pacing again. “Are you coming, Tia?”
“Wait a while,” her aunt advised. “You never know what’s going on out there.”
Manuela shook her head impatiently. She swallowed her apprehension and approached the window. Bodies in trousers and skirts were sprawled on the ground throughout the entire square. She numbed at the realization that she was a survivor in this apocalypse.
“But if we wait, we’ll trip over the bodies in the dark,” Manuela droned.
Francisca’s face contorted to a mix of dismay and grief. “Let’s stay here the night, Manuela. We’ll go back in the morning.”
Manuela clunked back towards her chair with a frown, morose and weary-eyed.
“I’m going to look for my parents.”
She stood up again, sifting through the drawer to find the flask of water and giant spool of Alpujarran silk thread.
“What are you doing?” her aunt howled. “That’s for emergencies-”
“And what is this? The whole town’s been massacred, and it’s not an emergency? Then what is?”
“It’s just a myth, real witches don’t believe-”
“Is that so?” Manuela retorted. She paused a moment, and then tossed the spool on the table. “You’re right. I’m not a real witch. It’s a wasted labor and I’ll lose them too. I give up. The French can take me too, for all I care.”
Her aunt bowed her head, defeated. She’d given up too, on this stubborn girl who would all but listen to her, and the most she could do was make the best of the situation. “Take this at least,” she softly said, offering her niece the handle of her fabric scissors whose blades had been newly sharpened days ago.
“To defend yourself. You never know.”
The two simultaneously turned their heads to the front door as a chorus of shouts sounded from outside.
“Grab their weapons,” one of the men commanded in French outside.
As the voices neared the shop, Manuela shuffled to the window and pushed aside the curtain. A group of French soldiers sifted through the bodies of fallen comrades and townspeople, collecting whatever firearms they could find. Disgusted, Manuela quickly let the heavy curtain swing back to its place.
She dragged herself back to the chair, her aunt watching her every movement without saying a word. On the workshop table, the two buried their heads into their folded arms, and with what little life was left inside of them, they drifted into a melancholy sleep.
Hours later, Manuela jolted up, her lower back aching from the awkward position. She jumped to her feet in a certainty that she had to leave the confines of that place as soon as possible. Her aunt grumbled and rotated her head to the other side in the cradle of her arms, still half asleep.
Manuela slid the shiny metal scissors off the table, and placed it in her leather pouch. She unhooked her black wool cape from the wooden coat hanger, and swung it around her shoulders, fastening the clasp at the neck. Quietly, she turned the key three times, and was out the door.
By the silvery glow of the sky and the dank chill outside, she felt it must be the wee hours of the morning. Manuela kept her lantern low, carefully stepping over the forms that were sprawled across the ground, horrified at the realization that these were neighbors and acquaintances who had fallen. Respiring deeply to maintain her courage, she turned the corner and veered northbound up the desolate street, its vacuity amplifying the knocks of her shoe soles against the cobblestones.
Manuela’s heart jumped upon hearing a bellow from a side street. She peered over to find a bawling woman clinging to the arm of a man who was being taken away by a group of French soldiers.
“It’s the martial law,” they pitilessly said in French to the woman who didn’t understand a word of it, shoving her aside. “Anyone bearing arms is under arrest and will be executed.”
Sorrow prickled Manuela like a bitter wind. She inhaled a gulp of air and hurried on as quickly as possible, hoping the soldiers hadn’t noticed her pass by. She hiked up the dim street, between the stone buildings with balconies that would be lifeless until the townspeople dared come out to behold the graveyard beneath them. By day, merchants, travelers, and soldiers regularly passed by horse-drawn carriage between the northern gates opening Madrid to its outskirts and the bustling Plaza Mayor. She couldn’t remember once seeing it like this, a murky, silent river with a disturbing calm that convinced her some hooligan would appear from an alley at any moment.
Manuela continued to ascend the shallow hill, vigilantly moving her lantern towards all directions. Finally reaching Calle Miguel y San Joseph, she turned left and cautiously crept down the dark street.
She slowed upon reaching the vacant balconies towards the end of the block. Ahead of her, she could see the silhouette of bodies piled like toppled trees in a demolished forest. Behind them stood the colossal archway leading to the Monteleon Artillery, like a sacred temple that the townspeople had sacrificed their lives to defend. Manuela suddenly heard the outpour of water near a building ahead of her. Only then, in the midst of the stillness, a man burst out laughing from the sideline of the battlefield.
“I can’t hold it in,” the voice grumbled in French. Manuela then realized he was urinating at the corner where her house stood. “How many more hours are we supposed to be here?
“Sergeant Durant gave us orders to stay here until he says otherwise,” another voice replied.
“He said they’re coming to clean up in the morning,” a third added.
“Yeah? It’s morning already,” the first soldier slurred, letting out his last few drops before he shifted around, rebuttoning his pants.
“It’s not morning yet, you drunkard,” another soldier replied, and a couple of them exploded into laughter again.
Manuela took a deep breath. She swiftly marched out into the artillery park, her long black cape swinging from side to side like the cloak of the Grim Reaper. She could feel the French soldiers’ watch on her as she appeared. Making an effort to ignore them, she flung off her hood and crouched down to examine the faces of the victims with her lantern.
“Get yourself together Lefèvre,” one of the soldier’s scolded his comrade, who was viewing himself tuck in his shirt in the reflection of the house window. “You were supposed to stop her at the gate. We’re on patrol, you know?”
“I didn’t see her,” Lefèvre slurred.
“I know you didn’t. Hey, you got any of that vermouth left in your flask?”
Lefèvre pulled out a tiny canteen from his shoulder strap and shook it around. “Not much.”
“Gimme what’s left then,” the other said. Michel Chevalier took a sip and the soldiers looked towards the artillery park again to descry the dark figure sifting through the bodies.
“Anyone gonna ask her what she’s doing?” the third soldier asked in his subtle Italian accent.
“She’s looking for someone, just like everyone else is.”
“At this hour? Man, I’m tired.” Lefèvre whined.
“Sergeant Durant told us to stay awake until he gets here,” Chevalier instructed. “And we should go check if she’s armed. She’s got that cape on. Anything could be under it.”
“I’ll find out,” the intoxicated Lefèvre gibed, grabbing his crotch and licking his lips in mockery. He stumbled aside. The other two snickered.
“You fucking drunkard,” Chevalier again sneered, taking the final gulp of what was left of vermouth. “Pure luck you can shoot a gun, the way you are.”
Lefèvre raised his arm to punch his comrade, but the other ducked just in time.
“Calm down, calm down. Just kidding. I swear.”
Lefèvre stood panting in anger for some time before he eventually relaxed again.
From time to time, Manuela glanced up at their chatter, hoping they’d continue to not pay attention to her. She stepped in the small spaces between the bodies, lowering her lantern at each. Señor Herrero, the pharmacist who was their neighbor. And Doña Immaculada, his wife? She couldn’t believe it. Next to them, Benito, only a year older than her, still a teenager. Manuela didn’t know if she could bear to continue her search. Perhaps her parents hadn’t perished and were waiting inside the house for her?
She proceeded deeper into the artillery park, scanning as many faces as she could one by one. Well, maybe it was useless. She’d hear the names at the funeral the next day, the proper burial that each and every martyr would be given at the nearby churches.
Manuela made her way back towards her apartment building, finally being forced to exchange eye contact with Lefèvre, whose lids were exhaustedly sagging over his blue irises. Chevalier was standing next to him, studying her with his stern countenance. They lingered at the front door, as if they were guarding her house itself. She stepped forward, and looked at each one of the soldiers with her bloodshot brown eyes.
“Perdona,” she said prosaically in Spanish. “Vivo aqui.”
“S’il vous plait,” Lefèvre replied, as if he were correcting her, his breath impregnated with the smell of vermouth.
But neither of them moved aside.
“Is this your house?” Chevalier questioned in French.
“Yes, that’s what I said,” she replied, still speaking in Spanish.
“What were you looking for?” he demanded.
“Why at this hour?”
Manuela clenched her jaw, growing anxious with the interrogation. She looked at Lefèvre to see if he would be more lenient. It was only at that moment that she vaguely recognized him. With his dirty flaxen hair and tall, slender form, he seemed to be one the soldiers who had executed André.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Lefèvre said, pointing his limp finger at her, turning to his comrade. “C’est la pute de DuBois, n’est ce pas?”
DuBois’ whore? Did he assume she didn’t understand him? Or more likely, he simply didn’t care. Manuela’s pupils dilated, like a beast of prey ready to pounce at its victim. She dropped her lantern, the tin clattering as it hit the cobblestones. As she unlatched the flap of her purse, Chevalier lifted his musket, preparing for what she had in store. Her two hands extended forward to reveal the shiny metal of the sharp scissors. Chevalier swung his musket towards her fingers, catapulting the scissors to the ground before she could lunge to stab his comrade. Manuela screeched, as impact fractured her knuckle bones.
Lefèvre looked at Chevalier in astonishment, shuffling for his own musket but stumbling aside when he tried to pull the sling over his neck.
“Idiot!” his colleague yelled at him, then pointing the gun at Manuela. “Hands up, you. Now.”
Manuela remained poker-faced, not inching her arms. The pain in her hand still throbbed.
“Hands up! Do you understand me? You’re under arrest.”
“Hands up? You broke my hand!” she spat back in Spanish. “Murderers.”
But it wasn’t her broken knuckles that kept her still. Something wouldn’t let her raise her arms. A force. Her dignity. Her spite. She stared at the snarling man. The barrel rose to aim straight at her skull. She blinked. Then.
“So that was how I died,” Manuela concluded matter-of-factly, as they climbed up Calle San Andrés, emerging into Plaza Dos de Mayo. A frisky white dog jumped up to André’s leg, yapping as they passed a bar, and he wondered if it was the same one he’d seen before. A group of Madrileños were drinking cañas in the patio on the periphery of the square, heedless of the nippy weather. “I didn’t expect it. But I should have. I’d been accused of carrying a weapon. Those bastards never got punished for what they did to me. Nor my family. Nor you.”
The two strolled along. André was unsure how to respond. He hated the three soldiers who had snitched on him, and mercilessly executed both him and her, but what use was it in hating individuals he had well outlived? André had had the fortune of traveling, adventuring, and enjoying life far longer than he was meant to. It was impossible to carry such resentment anymore.
They reached the doorstep leading to Manuela’s sixth floor apartment, and André looked up at its balcony with a fresh sense of awe that she still lived there after all this time. Turning to Manuela, he finally raised his fingertips to the bumpy scar on her forehead, lamenting what she had been through. His gentle touch set her aback.
“Who sewed you up, then?” he asked, releasing his touch to ease her.
“My aunt found me that morning, just outside of the building. For all she said about that thread, she knew very well its power. And she’d carried it with her, dragging me up the stairs to the empty apartment to resurrect me.”
“Empty,” he repeated, somberly.
A part of him wanted to embrace her, but he refrained.
“But, that was a long time ago. I’ve since come to peace,” she reassured him. “Life isn’t so bad now. Let’s just say I’m more famous than I ever thought I’d be.” Manuela chuckled, shifting a bit. “So, do you want to come up? You told me you wanted a more private place to chat. And I can show you my costume collection.”
André shrugged his shoulders and nodded, following her into the rickety elevator that had been installed sixty years ago. When they reached the sixth floor, Manuela squinted one eye as she struggled to unlock the apartment door, moving the key back and forth several times before it clicked and swung open. André looked around the white-washed space, the old parquet floor creaking beneath him. Beside the front door was a hallway, three bedroom doors on each side. In her living room were rows and rows of bookshelves holding cheap paperbacks sandwiched between elegant leather-bound classics and in front of them, kitschy souvenirs. Next to the stack of shelves was a sofa upholstered in a bright red with white polka dots.
“Wow,” he remarked.
“I change the upholstery twice a year,” Manuela explained. “Lately I’ve been into retro. I guess we’re all dreaming of the past.” She stepped into the kitchen just beside the living room. “Do you want to drink something? Wine? Beer?”
André carefully sat down on the sofa, setting his backpack next to his feet.
“Whatever can make this easier,” he replied.
Manuela raised her eyebrows at his cryptic remark, and turned to the fridge to pull out a couple of Mahous from the stash she had in the side shelf. The contents whooshed as she unlatched the caps. She sat opposite him on the couch, allowing respectful space between them, and handed him the dewy bottle.
Manuela crossed her leg, her red patent leather shoes shining under the ceiling lights. “This is one of the happiest days of my life,” she pronounced, smiling.
“Really?” he asked.
“Of course, isn’t it for you? For 200 years I hadn’t the slightest idea where you were, or if you were still alive. At last I’ve found someone who can understand me and what I’ve been through.”
“Yeah,” he said, bowing his head with an air of regret.
“You don’t look very happy. You must have been through a lot too. I’m sorry.”
“I have,” he affirmed. “But I’ve lived it to the fullest. Did you see the pictures I posted?”
“Yeah, I did. What kinds of places have you been to?”
“Almost everywhere. Panama, Argentina, Iceland…Egypt, Yemen, Russia, China, Cambodia…New Zealand, Polynesia. To name only a few. I made an effort to step on each continent of the world at least once.”
“I want to hear more about it,” she begged.
André shrugged his shoulders again, but didn’t offer anything more. He’d always been enigmatic, she recognized, but he seemed unusually reserved for such an exciting event in life as this. There was so much to catch up on. But maybe he’d just been heartbroken, or was tired of watching everyone around him age and pass away. It took strength and purpose to keep going for so long, she had to admit.
“I want to show you something,” she proposed, trying to lift the mood.
Manuela stood up, and waved her hand for André to come with her. He looked at her dubiously, but then complied. André followed her to one of the closed doors, and she handed him a paper surgical mask. He flipped it around a few times, studying it in confusion.
“My collection room reeks of naphthalene,” she justified. “Moths love old clothes. The older, the more they chew. It’s the only way I can keep the little buggers away. But the chemical gives me asthma attacks if I don’t wear this.”
The two pulled the masks over their faces, and Manuela unlocked the door, switching on the light to reveal her personal museum. Amazed, he cautiously followed her lead, winding through the mannequins dressed in antique dresses and suits, glimpsing one after the other like a cat eyeing a spider on the wall. André slowed in front of the French military uniform.
“I hope you don’t mind it,” she said, her voice muffled under the semi-dome covering her mouth. “I’d forgotten to give you back one and so I kept it. To remember you.”
André quietly touched the blue wool coat hanging over white broadcloth breeches, as if he were looking in the mirror at an image of himself from the past. “It’s strange to see one of these again,” he finally replied, lifting his mask to speak, causing him to hack a cough. Re-adjusting the mask back over his mouth, he soon noticed the anachronistic watches at the wrists, and chain necklaces hidden beneath the collar of the jacket. André swallowed.
“Oh, I like to mix things,” Manuela explained. “Styles, eras, everything. I guess you’ve seen that about me today.”
André said nothing, working his way back to the room entrance.
“I put them on everything,” she insisted, proudly placing her hand on the shoulder of the black silk dress as if it were her daughter wearing it, the two stainless steel watches gleaming against the dark contrast. “Don’t ask me why.”
Manuela began to jitter as she left the room behind the cold, taciturn André. He sat back on the sofa, hesitating before he could utter a sound.
“I may as well say it,” he finally choked out. “How do I end this curse?”
“This curse?” she asked, flabbergasted.
“This bloody curse of not dying. I don’t want it anymore.”
“But you said you were happy,” she replied in chagrin, sitting down to calm herself. “That you’ve lived life to the fullest.”
“I have.” He paused. “And now I’m ready to go.”
Manuela retreated her head, trying to digest what she was hearing. “But you just came back,” she stammered. “And now you’re going to leave me already? We are two of a kind in this world – nobody else will ever understand me the way you do.”
André fiddled with the straps of his backpack. He’d already predicted this wouldn’t go well. Finally, he unzipped the front compartment and pulled out a newspaper article, haphazardly unfolding it before her eyes.
Manuela shrank back in the sofa, agape.
Uncanny similarities in recent murders, police narrow down suspect, the headline read.
“Slashes and stab wounds in the chest. Fabric scissors found beside victims. Neighbors reporting a caped woman with curly brown hair. For decades, the same thing, and now there’s suspicions it’s a cult. But they’ve identified a suspect and are tracking down her hideout. Maybe I’m the only one who can connect the dots… I knew it was you when I read this. There is only one Manuela Malasaña. And she has become a psychopath.”
Manuela jumped up from the sofa. “So is this all you’ve come back for, André? And what exactly are you trying to say to me? It’s not my fault – can’t you see it? I’m fighting for all the women in the world. I’m fighting for our respect, and our dignity.”
“There are infinite ways to defend your respect and dignity without killing people,” he reasoned. “I’m saying they’re after you, Manuela. It’s only a matter of days. You can’t stay here.”
“Then come with me. We’ll leave together.”
“I’m not going to flee again, like I already did. My time is over, Manuela. I’ve decided this. Our time is over in this world. So I’m asking you to come with me.”
Manuela’s eyes widened. Did he really mean what she thought he did?
“Over? After nothing more than a few hours together and two centuries apart, our time is over?”
André said nothing. His adamant stare attested his sincerity.
Manuela took a savage gulp of her beer, stumbling towards the kitchen. Suddenly, she slammed her beer bottle against the tiled wall. It rang as it shattered into pieces, the last of the foamy brown liquid creeping over the floor. Disregarding the mess, Manuela took to pacing back and forth a few times, the broken glass crunching beneath her and embedding into the bottoms of her heels. “We’ve been together less than a day, and already you are proposing we end our lives? Our lives have only begun! Naïve I was, once upon a time. And naïve I still was, today, when you showed up in my life again. There was a moment long ago that I thought you loved me, but now I see that I was wrong.”
“That will never change, Manuela,” André assured, standing up, trying to keep his composure in the hope that it would rub off onto her. “I did love you. I came to see you one last time.”
“Aren’t you tired? Tired of taking lives to achieve justice – justice that will never come? Haven’t you had enough of this blood on your hands after all this time?”
Manuela’s face glowered from betrayal.
“What’s done cannot be undone,” she droned.
“No, it can’t,” he acquiesced. “And we can’t go back in history, either. But this curse can be undone. Both mine and yours.”
For the first time in as long as she could remember, Manuela felt powerless. There was no greater failure that she could succumb to; long ago she had led him to a death that she’d miraculously saved him from, and had lost him for two hundred years, only to find him again on his chosen last day. The brightest of hopes and the darkest of abandonment all converged in a matter of hours.
Vanquished, she dragged herself over to her desk in the living room, sliding open the drawer in a lethargy that made her seem like she’d collapse over the wooden surface any second.
“I think this is what you’re looking for,” she mumbled in a weak voice, lifting up the tiny brass thread scissors. “As sharp as a razor. Dig in, André. Dig into the stitches holding your life together. I can’t do anything to stop you.”
André beheld them glistening under the living room lights, but didn’t reach for them. If there was one thing that could penetrate him deeper than the blade, it was seeing her brooding countenance.
He cupped has hand around her cheek. Before she knew it, his dry lips met hers, bedaubing her red lipstick with wet, ravenous caresses. Manuela’s fingers loosened their grip, the scissors rattling as they tumbled onto the floor. Her body sank into André’s, and they took each other into a long, seemingly-inseparable embrace.
That is, until he pulled away from her, leaving her bare arms to fall down at her sides. She studied his face, watching what he would do next. She hoped he had changed his mind.
“Forgive me,” was all he muttered, hesitantly picking up the brass blades. Faster than she could stop him, he disappeared into the bathroom and shut the door. Manuela froze in place. Forgive him? For momentarily whetting her desire out of some incoherent sadism? Or for terminating their reunion even before it had begun?
It struck her that no matter what she did, she would lose him soon enough. He was resolute, and she had no choice but to respect his wishes, as hard as it was to accept. Holding onto him longer would only intensify the suffering – and what would happen to them when the police showed up at her doorstep?
André slid off his black rim glasses, carefully folding them and setting them in the corner of the ceramic sink. He leaned forward and stared himself in the eye in the cabinet mirror, taking a long, deep breath. He lifted off his shirt, revealing his patchwork of tattoos that masked the stitches. When he stretched the skin taut, he could make out the tiny crests where his flesh had grown over the thread. Bracing himself, he jabbed the scissors into the healed wound beneath his collar bone, grimacing and groaning in agony. He dug to find the silk stitching that still remained. Tiny drops of black bile dribbled onto the metal. He snipped.
Hearing his animalistic wail, Manuela doubled over, catching herself with the back of the sofa. She knew the pain would be unlike any pain that the two of them had ever felt in their existence, because it was like an eruption of all that which was not meant to be contained for that long. Her aunt later told her that what they had was a false immortality, one which preserved the shell but in which everything internal melded and dissolved. And when the binding was open, so were all of the multitudinous sentiments that the silk thread had numbed.
Manuela convulsed, shocked by another of his ferocious cries, followed by the thump of him catch himself collapsing to the sink. He ripped again. And again. And again. She curled into a ball on the sofa, enfolding her arms around her knees. She heard the hollow thud of him throw himself into the ceramic bathtub, even more tormented in knowing that this time there was nothing she could do to resurrect him.
“Manuela,” he finally gasped, the ceramic banging as he twisted about. “Manuela.”
Manuela unwound herself. She turned the knob of the bathroom door, her heart thumping as it creaked open. She crept towards the bathtub and held her breath as she knelt down beside him. The black liquid of his interior dripped around him as if he’d drowned in an oil spill.
André blinked. Manuela beamed beneath the bright light of springtime, her burgundy bodice tied loosely around her airy white blouse. She laughed gleefully, as he remembered his dream of sharing a lazy sailboat with her on the coast of Venezuela. The youthful Spanish seamstress touched his cheek, her clever brown eyes concocting a playful remark.
He blinked again.
She was still there.
André pulled Manuela’s hand to his soaked chest, and held it there with what little life he had left.
“I will miss you,” he uttered, before his eyes wearily shut and his palm went limp above hers. His head fell aside.
For some time, Manuela remained there, caressing his hand that was saturated with the juices escaping his open wounds. It occurred to her that she knew close to nothing about him. She was left with his computer, and his sparse last words. Left to endure the remorse of what she had created, and what he had none more than destroyed upon seeing her again. If she ever had had one purpose remaining, it was reconciliation with him. And that was lost, slipping through her fingers before she could catch it, irrevocably. Or was it?
Manuela did not weep. Her body did not permit that. She stood up, feeling total and complete emptiness inside of her, an emptiness that she had never felt before. She thought about André’s words. It was inevitable the police would piece the evidence together, and although they wouldn’t understand, she’d be put in prison until they could. Or worse, sent to science laboratories for examination, a puzzle that only magic knew the laws of, and those laws were long forgotten.
Perhaps he was right. It occurred to her, no matter how many street harassers she slew, it would never bring back those of whom she’d been bereaved. It would never bring back her family and her neighbors. It would never restore her city to what it was before the uprising and massacre of May 2, 1808. Madrid had never been the same again, and she was the last person to know that.
And it would never bring back André.
After she’d been mercilessly shot, nobody would humiliate her again, she’d promised herself. Ever.
But these insolent men on the street weren’t the French soldiers that had killed her, and André, and her family.
Those soldiers were long gone. She would never know what happened to them. Many had suffered a death in Napoleon’s wars that was no better than their enemy’s. That she was certain.
Manuela gently let André’s hand fall to his chest. She stood up and walked over to the mirror, glancing at the tiny scissors sprawled in the sink that was splashed with pitch black liquid. Manuela creaked on the faucet and dabbed water over her face, pumping a glob of hand soap into her palm and massaging the suds across her forehead, nose, and chin. Her heavy eyeliner and mascara streaked black down her cheeks as she rinsed it off, like a Virgin Mary crying tainted blood.
She smoothed a hand towel over her skin, looking herself deep in the eyes. Manuela felt nothing for herself, neither pride nor love, nor fear. Maybe she’d never felt any of this again since she’d been sewn up. Yes. That she was sure of.
Manuela studied the crests of skin on her forehead. She raised the scissors, and pierced the sharp blade into the scar.
Like a brain zap, she was set aback. She neared the mirror again to study her progress, sliding the blade under the crest. She snipped.
Manuela fell to the floor, her head hitting the tiled surface. She heaved, a dizzying pressure weighing upon her chest. Gradually a series of images flashed before her, glowing under a daylight that wasn’t there. Running around the workshop as a toddler, her aunt scooping her up into her arms. Mischievously snatching a few freshly baked cookies from the kitchen of her father’s pastelería, her mother beaming at her daughter’s childish giggles as she hid them under her sleeves. And her arguments with her aunt in the shop as a teenager, mixed with the intrigue of her incantations.
Every powerful emotion she had ever felt came back to her. Joy, affection, fury, angst. Manuela pulled herself up to the sink again, blinking to focus on the last of her efforts.
It was the end of her aunt’s greatest masterpiece.
And that day was the end of hers.
The yellow bile of her interior spilled out like lava. Manuela stumbled over to the bathtub, supporting herself on whatever she could grasp- the sink, the wall, the toilet cover, the shower curtain. She dumped herself next to André’s stationary body.
A surge of memories rushed to her. The briny scent of his sweat, the prickly texture of his wool jacket, and the leathery touch of his weathered hands: the feel of another human being who, days later, no longer existed.
Sewing him back together, as if he were but a torn doll.
It was the last she felt of organic human touch.
The last she loved. The last she was aware of anything outside of herself.
“André.” Manuela rested her head sideways on his shoulder, whispering in his ear. “Do you remember?”
She slid her hand under his limp fingers, lowering her head to try to hear his heartbeat.
“Do you remember the words you could barely read, and neither could I? The book you gave me, a long, long time ago?”
She nuzzled her head like a cat over his saturated chest.
“I never forgot his name. I wish you could have come to the theatre with me,” she murmured in a thread of a voice.
Tears trickled from the ducts of her eyes in the disappointment that she heard no pulse under his broken skin.
“My grave is like to be my wedding bed. My only love sprung from my only hate… Too early seen unknown, and known too late.”
His pale lips hung open, motionless.
“André, me escuchas?”
He didn’t reply.
“Look not so pale,” her voice trembled. “Acuéstate, acuéstate. There’s knocking at the gate…”
Manuela clasped his heavy palm as tightly as her feeble fingers could.
“Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone…”
Her head sunk heavier in the cradle of his neck. “Acuéstate, acuéstate, acuésta-”
The final syllable of the word trickled from her mouth in a mere gasp. Manuela’s eyelids fell shut. The last pixels of her imagination drifted to the thought of the police finding the two bodies intertwined in her centuries-old apartment, engulfed in their black and yellow biles that coalesced to a muddy bog. A mystery that would be theirs to keep, for eternity.
The lively neighborhood, bearing her name, would thrive, oblivious to her tale. Pedestrians would continue to laugh, and revel, and spill their towering drinks throughout the Plaza Dos de Mayo.
And Calle Manuela Malasaña and Calle San Andrés would continue to cross paths, the last vestige of their memory.
Bethany van Sterling is a translator, performing artist, and writer of fantasy, horror, and historical fiction. Her works have appeared in webzines such as Wild Musette, Sub-Saharan Magazine, and T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog. For news and musings, follow her on Twitter at @BethVanSterling, or to read more, check out her blog: bethanyvansterling.blogspot.com.es/p/blog-page.html