Raul awoke weeping. He put his hands to his face and found his cheeks wet with tears. Startled, he sat up, wiped his eyes and tried to collect his thoughts. He had been having a nightmare, but he had no idea why. Exhausted, the priest glanced at his watch on the bedside table and saw that it was five o’clock. There was still half an hour before Matins and he laid his head back on the pillow and sighed miserably.
In the quiet of early morning, Raul listened to the finches chirping in the cloisters below and tried to piece together the fragments of his dream. A young man had been brutally tortured, his tongue cut out before he was drowned in a fountain by a mob of brutes and grotesques. The priest had tried to stop it, but the crowd either did not see him or did not care. Raul was certain he knew the youth, although he was unable to picture his face clearly. It was as though the priest had known the man as a child, but had not seen him for many years.
Raul sat up, threw aside the covers and swung his legs out of bed. He placed his bony feet upon the bare wooden boards, making them creak as he stood up.
A knock came from the other side of his cell door. ‘Benedicamus Domino,’ came the voice of the morning caller. ‘Deo gratias,’ came the response.
The priest listened to the novice’s footsteps recede down the corridor, as the monk continued to knock on the doors of his brethren. Raul then went to the washstand by the window and unfastened the shutters. A thin grey light edged stealthily into the room, keeping its back to the wall. He opened the window fully and the dew-soaked air pressed pleasantly against his face like a pair of cool hands. The priest looked at the cloisters below and saw pools of water on the paving stones; he realised it must have rained during the night although he had heard nothing. A low mist covered thesurrounding countryside and the monastery assumed an ethereal presence, as though it were a sunken kingdom. Usually it was Raul’s favourite part of the day, when the world was as hushed and innocent as a sleeping child. But this morning he felt only sadness as he gazed out of his window at the snowy horizon of the cordillera rising from the blue distance. The terror of his nightmare refused to leave the priest and in his heart he felt a dull and constant pain.
Raul turned away from the window and, raising the ewer, poured some water into an enamel bowl. He began to wash. He shook the drops from his chin, picked up a bar of shaving soap together with a brush and lathered his face. He took up his razor and started to shave, looking into the small square of mirror which hung upon the wall. The dream so disturbed the priest that, for the first time in years and probably not since the vanity of youth, he carefully studied his face. He remembered an old Arab proverb: a man resembles the times in which he lives more closely than he does his own father. What story did his face tell?
When Raul was a boy his mother said his dark eyes blazed like two burning coals. Now they had lost their lustre and a milky ring circled the black irises. The priest rinsed his razor, tapped it on the bowl and began to shave another line down his cheek. Beneath his eyes the skin bulged like a pair of pigeons’ eggs; the result of a lifetime of rising at dawn. They were dark, distant, melancholy eyes – the eyes of a man who had seen too much.
Raul observed his nose. It was too big for his face, and shapeless. Certainly he had never been handsome. Perhaps it was just as well, since he had taken solemn vows. Pious women always loved a man in black and he smiled briefly at the thought. He did not really look like a priest at all, more like a provincial schoolmaster who should have rubbed the chalk dust from his hands years ago. There was a dispirited, overburdened air about Raul, as though he had held onto some terrible secret for too long, the guilt of which now tormented him.
In his reverie the priest let his razor slip and gasped as he felt an icy stab of pain on his upper lip. At first no blood appeared, but soon it welled from the cut. He dabbed at the nick with a towel, leaving a cluster of tiny red jewels scattered across the cloth. He quickly staunched the wound, but saw it as a bad omen. First the nightmare, and now this. What did it all mean? Raul looked at his reflection in the mirror. Truth stared him in the face. Ecce homo. The priest understood. He was a fraud. He did not believe in God at all.
A great toll echoed solemnly through Raul’s soul like a funeral bell. He almost fainted with shock, gripping the washstand for support. Not only was he faithless, he was also a hypocrite. He preached about love and forgiveness to a people governed by a military junta, who knew of neither. The church was their only refuge and yet he was too cowardly to speak out. Inwardly, the priest made excuses that God worked in mysterious ways and that man had a choice between good and evil. But he knew this was all Manichean nonsense. God was dead.
So, his dream had a purpose after all. Raul not only questioned the validity of his vocation, he had also lost his faith. He knew he must tell the abbot at once. He put down his razor, rinsed his face and dried it with the blood spotted towel. The priest then quickly put on his habit, did up the buckles on his leather sandals and hurried downstairs to Matins.
In the house by the oil-slow oyster sea the old woman was dying. She knew she was dying and she did not care. She had been sick for so long that when death finally came for her it would be a welcome release. The old woman watched the light-filled waves swell and curl and fall across the broad beach. She knew that she would never see her son, Santiago, again. She had so wanted to see him one last time – to touch his beautiful face and see his smile. It was all she had been living for.
Maria de la Pilar Garcia Sanchez, to give the old woman her full name, although she was known simply as Pancha, understood her wish would never be granted. She knew that her son, if he was not dead already, would die soon.
Pancha gasped and turned her gaze away from the creeping silver sea. But her face reflected its ghostly glimmer as she remained on her bed by the window, listening to the endless susurration of the waves. The old woman
lay there and, in her misery, recalled what had happened the previous night.
Outside a storm had raged. The wind howled like some mad fiend and threatened to tear the corrugated sheets from the roof. It shook the little house with all its might and … the rain! The rain lashed the windows with such fury. Despite the storm Pancha had been asleep and was woken by an incessant banging; but it was not the irregular beating of the wind against the tin roof. It was a steady thump-thump-thump and it came from the other side of the front door.
Pancha was a widow who lived alone in an isolated house and was rightly frightened. She was not going to open her door to a stranger, even if they were only seeking shelter from the elements.
But the pounding on the door would not stop and instead grew louder.
‘Who’s there?’ the old woman cried, without moving from her bed.
She was answered only by the storm’s lament and the wind moaning wretchedly in the chimney. Pancha sat up, reached for a box of matches on her bedside table and lit the wick of a paraffin lamp. The lamp smoked blackly and cast a pungent odour, the walls of the room trembling in its amber light. The incessant banging continued and the old woman wrapped her shawl around her skinny shoulders and called out again.
‘Go away blast you! I don’t have anything; I’m just a poor widow! … If you don’t go right now, I’ll call the police!’
The last part was not actually true. Firstly, she did not have a telephone and secondly she loathed the carabineros more than anything.
But there was no answer, just the frantic thump-thump-thump upon the wooden door.
Slowly, because of her illness, Pancha got out of bed and went to the kitchen. She opened the dresser and took out the sharpest knife she had, the one she used for scaling fish. The steel blade shone coldly in the light as she held it in front of her. The old woman gathered the shawl around her shoulders and, clutching the knife, advanced cautiously towards the door. Suddenly the banging ceased and all she could hear was the howling wind.
Poor, frightened Pancha was at a complete loss and stood there, the fish knife trembling in her grip. She decided to open the door, just to see if anyone was there. The old woman turned the key, unlocked the door and opened it with unease. Immediately the wind leapt in, blowing out the lamp and plunging the room into darkness. Pictures, crockery and ornaments were lifted up as if by an invisible hand and dashed to pieces on the floor.
Outside there was nothing – just the sound of the wind and the great booming of the waves as they crashed white upon the rain-lashed beach. Pancha used all her strength to shut the door against the frigid blast and returned to bed, the knife clutched to her breast. Her heart beat quickly and the weapon shook in her hand. She sat down on the brass frame and tried to calm herself. The widow wondered if she had imagined it all and had actually woken from a dream.
‘Yes,’ she concluded. That was what had happened and although the storm frightened her, she gained a little comfort by wrapping the woollen shawl more tightly around her. Pancha decided she might as well go back to bed and try and sleep out what was left of the night.
But the old woman had barely got under the covers when the knocking began again. This time Pancha knew she was not dreaming and was terrified. She sat upright and trembled with fear, praying the unwanted visitor depart.
‘Leave me alone! I don’t have anything!’ she wailed, hoping this would be enough to send whoever it was on their way.
Instead the reply amazed her.
‘Mama, Mama let me in! … It’s me, Santiago!’
The widow recognised the voice immediately. It was indeed her son. But what was he doing on a night like this and pounding on her door? She was so astounded at first, she made no reply.
‘Mama, please! Let me in!’
The voice had risen to a desperate plea and Pancha knew she must unlock the door. The young man sounded as if he were in trouble, which was hardly surprising since his mug shot was plastered on the notice board of every police station in the country.
‘Don’t worry, I’m coming!’ and the widow leapt from the bed. In a few hobbling steps, she crossed the room.
Pancha eagerly flung open the door, fully expecting to see her bedraggled son standing before her, his thick, dark hair plastered to his forehead by the rain, his broad smile showing his fine teeth.
But the old woman was greeted with the same desolate sight as before: the swaying curtain of rain and the marram grass shivering in black streams along the dunes. There was no one out there.
The widow despaired and constantly called out her son’s name, the downpour soaking her nightdress.
‘Santiago, Santiago where are you?’
Still there was no reply, just the sound and fury of the storm. The old woman began to cry, her sobs snatched away by the shrieking wind. She waited vainly on the porch, but her son did not appear. Finally, the widow closed the door and, weeping quietly, went back to bed.
Pancha was confused. She just did not understand. She lay down and tried to think. Had she or had she not imagined it all, or was she turning into some mad crone, whom people would cross the street to avoid? It was possible. The widow wondered if she was going crazy. She had lived on her own for so long, perhaps her illness had affected her mind. She closed her eyes and tried to go back to sleep. It would be dawn soon.
Then, just as Pancha was drifting off, she heard her son’s voice again, now coming from the seaward side of the house.
‘Mama, please help me! Oh Jesus, Mary help!’
The old woman sprang out of bed and rushed to the door, as fast as age and infirmity would allow, and threw it open. Again she was greeted by the storm, but this time the voice continued. It seemed to come from the pale rise of dunes ahead. Pancha hurried across the cold, damp sand, her feet slipping as she ran, the sharp blades of marram grass pricking her bare calves, as she scrambled up the mound. Out of breath she stood upon the crest and looked around her, but all she could see was an endless, undulating desert. She turned towards the shore and peered through the veils of rain, which blew across the dark sea, the waves detonating like thunder across the beach. There was nobody there.
Pancha stood alone upon the rise of dunes and called out her son’s name one last time. But her cry was swallowed up by the wind and, sobbing uncontrollably, she staggered back to her house, blind with grief. For the rest of the night the old woman lay curled up on her bed like a small child. She rocked gently back and forth, unable to stop crying and unable to sleep.
As dawn approached the storm blew itself out and the wind hung its head. A hush fell like a benediction over the ocean. Morning came and the day gradually broadened into a haze. In the sky a pale sun shone and polished the gunmetal sea.
The motorcade sped along the dusty highway, sirens wailing and blue lights flashing. Inside his bulletproof Mercedes, General Hernan Strauch reached into his tunic for his silver cigarette case. He took out a Lucky Strike and lit it, exhaled a plume of smoke and put the case back. The general sighed, looked out of the window and watched the advertising hoardings flash past. A beautiful woman in a yellow bikini smiled a dazzling smile, urging him to use a certain brand of suntan lotion. The advert suggested that if only he bought a bottle, he might get a chance to slap it all over her lithesome body. Next, a happily waving farmer on a tractor told him that Ford’s were the best and where he could find the nearest dealer. Then a cowboy, squinting at the sun like some actor in a Spaghetti Western, assured him that another brand of cigarettes would improve his image and, presumably, like the suntan lotion, his sex life.
The general idly flicked the end his of cigarette into an ashtray. He took a final drag before stubbing it out and snapping the ashtray lid shut. He exhaled a last whip of smoke into the cool, air-conditioned car and was happy.
‘Shouldn’t be long ’til Valdivia general,’ said the corporal in the front
passenger seat, smiling as he turned around.
Strauch nodded but did not answer and continued to gaze out of the window.
The road ascended a hill and, below, the city of Valdivia held back a vast and glittering sea. The limousines made their way towards the port, the motorcycle escorts clearing a route through the traffic. Soon, they turned off the highway and swept through the outskirts, driving past manicured roundabouts emblazoned with palm trees and heroic statues.
The general observed the city through the Mercedes’ tinted windows, its conquistador architecture merging with that built by prosperous European merchants, and contemporary glass and steel office blocks. As the motorcade approached the old Town Hall, crowds of people filled the streets. Today was a public holiday, the Feast of All Souls, when people visited the graves of the dead, lit votive candles, sang dirges and got blind drunk.
The limousines squeezed through the throng like a pair of giant, shiny beetles. The city was choked and noisy and a smell of cooked food rose in the warm, spring air. Children ran and played in the sunlit streets; vendors shouted their wares, and the maimed and destitute sat in the shade and begged.
The sirens wailed mournfully to a stop as the motorcade pulled up outside the Town Hall. The corporal got out and opened the vehicle door and Strauch, braided cap and sunglasses in place, alighted from the air- conditioned car into the heat and dust of midday. A crowd of mostly women and children cheered, a line of carabineros holding them back, their white- gloved hands clutching FAL machine guns. The general smiled and waved at his supporters, who responded with cries of joy and shouted his name.
‘Viva Strauch! Salvador de Valdivia!’
Although in his sixties, the silver-haired cavalry officer was still handsome and received piles of post from women, most desiring marriage or at least sex. The general went to great lengths to answer these constituents. The prettier ones usually got invited to tea in his office. It was said the army chief had made more conquests than Cortez.
Strauch found such adulation irresistible. Smiling his matinee idol smile, he strolled over to the crowd behind the barriers, his bodyguards flanking him. Some women actually fainted; others threw roses or passed babies over their heads for him to kiss. The general grinned and took the roses and babies equally, happily basking in their devotion like a shark in the shallows. His appetite sated, Strauch left, leaving the women moist-eyed and calling out despairingly after him. It would not do to be late for lunch with the mayor, especially as he was the guest of honour. Besides, the general was looking forward to seducing his host’s glamorous daughter.
Time stood still for Santiago as he waited on the Pio Nono Bridge. His two comrades were positioned on the other side of the road and, like their leader, mingled innocently with the crowd. The hefty, bearded Miguel was the Catholic University shot putt champion and bomb thrower and young Conejo, who was only seventeen, the sharp shooter. The guerrillas had decided that three was the best number for the attack. More people would have made them conspicuous and any fewer would have compromised the operation. None of them expected to survive. It did not matter. What mattered was Strauch.
Santiago put a hand inside his leather jacket for what seemed like the thousandth time. In one pocket was a Browning 9mm automatic and in the other were two grenades. He had already loosened the pins of the grenades and intended to finish off the general with the pistol. After that it was over the bridge and into the river. There was a storm water outlet a hundred metres away, which led into the city’s labyrinthine sewers, and safety.
The limousines crawled along the tree-lined boulevards, coloured streamers and flowers falling across the vehicles. Finally, the motorcade turned into the Plaza de Armas and made its way towards the Pio Nono Bridge. As it approached, the people around Santiago let out a great cheer, like football supporters whose team had scored a goal. The motorcade was close now. The guerrilla leader could see the whiteness of Strauch’s smile flashing beneath his peaked cap as he stood in the back of the Mercedes and waved.
Santiago reached into a pocket, drew the pin from a grenade and lobbed it at the car. The explosion was followed by two much louder retorts as Miguel hurled his bombs. The grenade fell between the leading motorcycle outriders, the blast knocking them to the ground. The front pair were killed and the others behind were thrown off their bikes. The first bomb exploded on the bonnet of Strauch’s Mercedes, killing the driver and corporal instantly and halting the vehicle on the spot. The second struck the car behind. Conejo then stepped out into the road and cut down the bodyguards with his machine gun as they leapt from the shattered limousine. The air was filled with the clatter of automatic weapons, acrid smoke and screams.
Santiago drew the pistol from his jacket and ran towards the general. Disoriented by the explosions and gunfire, Strauch looked dazed. It felt as though he was in a movie, except that the sound was distorted and everything seemed to be in slow motion. The badly wounded mayor beside him tried to rise, but could only flap his hands hopelessly. The general’s sash and uniform were smeared with blood. It was not so much his own as his companion’s. Strauch had shrapnel wounds to his face and hands and perforated eardrums, but otherwise was unharmed.
The general knew that he must escape, but the blast had confused him and he did not know which way to turn. Then he saw his attacker approach, the gun pointing at his chest. The guerrilla leader fired three quick rounds, which missed his target but blew the top off the mayor’s head, exposing his pink and scrambled brains. As his assassin closed in for the kill, Strauch raised his hands in a vain bid to ward off the next six shots, which all struck him. He fell back into the car.
Barely a breath of wind stirred the surface of the slow and slippery sea. An occasional long, low wave slid across the bay, before rising and falling onto the beach. The house stood there alone among the pale desert of dunes, its tin roof gleaming hotly in the bright day. The place was deserted. There was nothing except the sounds of the shore and the cry of gulls. The air was thick with salt and sand flies danced above the black clumps of seaweed which lay rotting along the tidemark.
One of the windows of the house was open, its panes broken. A muslin curtain swayed to and fro. The house looked deserted, uncared for and unnoticed, like some forgotten memory. In the wind that idled across the dunes, the marram grass scarcely wavered. A curtain flapped against the shattered window and a ray of sun streamed into the empty room. The house must have been empty, because there was no noise, nor any sign of life. On the floor pieces of crockery and ornaments lay broken and scattered and, in a square of light, shadows played.
Yet there was someone there. On the bed a small body, like that of a child, lay quite still, daring not even to breathe. It was not a child, but a frail old woman holding a photograph of a smiling young man tightly in her arms, her vacant, grey eyes staring out to sea. Pancha Garcia was dead.
At precisely three o’clock in the afternoon General Hernan Strauch had his testicles shot off. Normally he would have been able to hear the Town Hall clock’s chimes from the Pio Nono Bridge, but there was so much commotion that, what with all the screams and gunfire, the sound was drowned out. Even so, it should be noted that the general had other things to worry about than as to why he was unable to hear the bell’s venerable chimes.
Inside the operating theatre in Valdivia’s Central Hospital all was hushed concentration. Only the gentle hum of machinery and the occasional murmur of lowered voices broke the silence. The surgeons cut away the general’s blood-soaked uniform. When they opened his tunic a damaged silver cigarette case fell out onto the operating table.
‘Luck of the devil!’ said one as he picked it up and inspected two small holes punched into the metal.
The bullets had penetrated the case, but, being of 9mm calibre, had only had sufficient force to lodge in Strauch’s ribcage.
One of the doctors was not so sure.
‘That’s a matter of opinion,’ and he indicated the bloody mess of the army chief’s genitals.
‘Well, he’s alive at least,’ said the anaesthetist, who attached a pair of electronic pads to the patient’s chest and watched as the luminous green dot of Strauch’s heartbeat jumped along the small, dark screen of the monitor, making a plaintive bleep… bleep… bleep.
An evening sun burnished the sky as two military vehicles drew up outside the monastery gates and a stream of soldiers disembarked. The first platoon fanned out into the courtyard, the other went past the high wall to the back. Soon the building was surrounded.
A fat carabinero lieutenant got out from one of the vehicles and waddled through the gates into the courtyard, where he saw his men rounding up the monks. Black, frightened figures with pallid faces, they raised their hands in the air. The officer signalled to a private to go and fetch one.
The lieutenant was furious. He stood and fumed in the middle of the courtyard, his hands on his hips, knowing that but for the timely phone call, their quarry would have got away. He realised the guerrilla must have been one of the two men dressed as monks in the white Fiat 500, which had passed through his checkpoint just a couple of hours before. Men of the cloth indeed! He did not know who the old fellow was and he did not care. But they had been looking for the younger man for months.
The private shoved one of the monks towards his officer, prodding the terrified man with the barrel of his gun. The cleric cowered beneath the glare of the portly carabinero, certain he would strike him. The lieutenant was quite prepared to beat him to a pulp, but knew the man was scared enough and he would not have to.
‘Where is the son-of-a-bitch?’ the officer demanded, glowering at the hapless cleric, who had no idea what he was talking about.
‘If … if you come with me,’ the monk replied as he stared up at the policeman’s black, flaring nostrils. ‘I’ll bring the abbot and you can ask him.’
‘Fine. Go and fetch your head girl,’ said the lieutenant. ‘But no pissing about. Because I’ve had it up to here with you lot,’ and he raised a hand to his fat neck.
The monk nodded and led the carabinero towards the refectory. They stepped inside and the man turned and faced the officer.
‘I’m afraid you cannot enter the monastery itself. It is out of bounds for laity. Wait here and I’ll get the abbot.’
The lieutenant, not prepared to break this rule, at least not yet, agreed – but on one condition.
‘You have precisely two minutes. After that my men turn the place over.’
The monk did not hesitate and ran off to find his superior, leaving the carabinero alone in the large and empty refectory. The officer rocked back and forth on his heels, making his leather boots creak as he sniffed the air disdainfully. It smelt of apples and monks. He looked around the walls at the various portraits of the abbots. Each man had an air of benign resignation, an acceptance of his lot in the world. The lieutenant snorted.
‘What a bunch of fairies!’
The carabinero continued to rock on his heels as he waited, cracking his knuckles in the silence. He checked his watch and saw there was a minute to go. He hoped the monk had been unable to find his abbot. He had never sacked a monastery before and thought he might enjoy it. Just as the lieutenant was thinking what fun it would be to douse the building in petrol and set it alight, the abbot arrived.
The carabinero looked disappointed. His pyromania would have to wait another day.
‘Officer, how can we be of assistance?’
‘Cut the crap, Father. Either you take me to him or we search the place, and when I find the bastard it will only be the worse for you.’
But the elderly monk had more resolve than the carabinero gave him credit for.
‘I’m afraid there must be some mistake. There’s no one here but ourselves…’
Before he could finish, the lieutenant whipped out his pistol from its holster and put it to the other monk’s head. The man’s eyes widened in terror, his mouth fell open and a clucking noise came from the back of his throat, as if he was choking on a piece of gristle.
‘Never shot a priest … yet! So don’t tempt me!’
The carabinero’s mouth was tightly drawn and his dark eyes narrowed into slits. The abbot had no doubt he would pull the trigger.
‘Put the gun down. There is no need for violence. We treated a civilian with a bullet wound; that is all. He’s in the infirmary.’
The lieutenant’s chubby face lit up and he replaced his pistol in its holster. ‘Then you’d better take me to your little lamb.’
The abbot led the way out into the courtyard. As he walked across to the infirmary he saw the community lined up against the wall and he began to pray.
Santiago had been woken by the sound of voices and knew the soldiers had come. He wondered who could have betrayed him; then he remembered he had left a grenade inside his habit pocket. He cursed his own stupidity. It must have been one of the monks who had helped dress his wound. It was a pity Miguel and Conejo had been killed in the attack. Together, the three of them might have been able to shoot their way out.
The guerrilla went to the window and undid the bolts of the shutter. It looked out onto a low tiled roof, with a short drop to the road. Beyond it a vineyard fell away down the hill towards the river. A pair of lorries was parked at the main gates, but the soldiers faced the other away, observing what was going on inside the courtyard.
Santiago tried to open the window. The latch was stiff and he could only use one arm, the other being heavily bandaged. He tried again, but it would not budge. Then he reached up and took the iron crucifix from the wall and attempted to force it.
At that moment the door of the infirmary burst open. The guerrilla turned and faced the soldiers, the crucifix in his hand.
‘Get him!’ said the lieutenant.
The squad ran towards Santiago, their hobnailed boots clattering across the tiles, and grabbed the guerrilla. The crucifix fell to the floor as they struck him with the butts of their weapons. After a flurry of blows, the lieutenant called out.
‘That’s enough!’ said the officer. ‘He’s wanted alive. Get him out of here!’
The soldiers picked up their semi-conscious victim and dragged him away, as the lieutenant turned to the abbot.
‘Lucky for you he was here,’ he said, and followed his men outside.
Santiago was shoved half-naked and barefoot across the courtyard, his arms pinned to his sides, his face battered and bloody. Among the monks watching the spectacle was Raul, who stood and stared. He could hardly believe what he saw. It was exactly the same face of the man in his dream. The priest broke through the cordon of soldiers and ran after the prisoner.
‘Santiago! Santiago!’ he shouted.
The guerrilla turned his head and saw his old friend running towards him – the monk who had married his parents and whom he had served as an altar boy. The soldiers pushed the prisoner on, while others tried to hold the impassioned priest back. But Raul would not give up. He kept calling out the young man’s name, as the soldiers cursed and kicked at him. ‘Santiago! Santiago!’
This time the guerrilla did not turn around, and let the soldiers lead him away.
At the monastery gates Raul was held back by a conscript and could only watch helplessly as the soldiers prepared to throw their prisoner into the back of a truck. The lieutenant wandered up with a smug look on his face. One of the soldiers holding the prisoner saw his officer approach and saluted. Santiago seized his chance and twisted free. He ran across the road, vaulted the irrigation channel in a single bound and stumbled on into the vineyard.
‘You damn fool!’ snapped the lieutenant. ‘Don’t let him escape!’
The conscript put his rifle to his shoulder and took careful aim at the figure tumbling through the vines. Horrified, Raul stepped forward and grabbed the soldier’s gun. But the officer struck him in the face with his pistol and the priest collapsed onto the ground, blood pouring from the wound.
‘Take your time,’ said the lieutenant, as the soldier kept the jinking prey in his sights.
It was just like shooting rabbits on his uncle’s property, the conscript thought, as the quarry tripped and crashed through the vineyard. He took a breath, exhaled and gently squeezed the trigger. There was a sharp retort and a hundred yards away the stricken man flung up his arms, staggered and collapsed in a heap on the ground.
‘Good shot!’ said the officer and he walked across the road.
The rotund carabinero managed to negotiate the waterway and trotted flat- footedly down the slope towards the body. He walked up to the guerrilla, who lay face down in the dirt and turned him over with his boot. A patch of blood spread thickly across the man’s chest where the high calibre round had exited. His glassy, half-closed eyes stared at the deepening sky. The lieutenant would have preferred him alive, but it could not have been helped and anyway these birds never sang.
The officer raised his pistol and fired a single shot at the victim’s heart. The body jumped and lay still. The carabinero then replaced the gun in its holster and walked back up the hill, whistling a tuneful air, the vine leaves brushing against his uniform.
A gathering of monks watched silently from behind a line of rifles, as some soldiers helped the chubby officer across the ditch. The lieutenant dusted down his khaki jacket and walked up to Raul.
‘Better go and get your stole Father,’ he said to the priest, who had a bloody gash on his cheekbone.
Instead, Raul broke through the ranks of conscripts and, pushing past the officer, leapt over the waterway and ran down the hill to the body. The soldiers decided to leave him and climbed back into the lorries, laughing and lighting cigarettes. As the vehicles moved off, the priest reached Santiago and cradled him closely to his chest. He looked at his friend’s face against the fading light of the dying sun and, for the second time that day, Raul wept.