Tuesday, 17 February 2009
At our hotel in La Alberca, Las Villas Abadia de los Templarios, the bell in the clock tower always strikes the hour six minutes early. Recently, while touring the village, which is about a kilometre distant from the hotel, we noticed that the bells in the village church also chimed early. A lady in our party wondered why this was. I told her a much shortened version of this tale:
The story of Maria Esperanza Garcia Garcia.
Maria Esperanza Garcia Garcia was born of dubious parentage in the pueblo of La Alberca, not far from Salamanca in North Western Spain. Why dubious? Well, her mother was an unmarried girl in her mid teens who died while giving birth to the child. Her father was unknown, but as her mother’s brother suddenly disappeared when Maria’s mother began to show signs of the pregnancy, there was speculation that the young child was the result of an incestuous relationship. Hence the repetition of the surname. This would be shocking today, but in the mid eighteen hundreds in rural Spain it caused great revulsion in the small community.
While Maria Esperanza was still a child she was cared for by her widowed grandmother. The supposed scandal of her birth turned the community against the family. Neighbours, previously good friends and even the priest of the parish would have nothing to do with them. The priest even refused to baptise her, but somehow they survived.
Her name, Esperanza, means “Hope”, but what she could hope for in those circumstances was difficult to know. But she was a happy child. In the summer the woods and fields around La Alberca were pleasant places and full of adventures. She would leave home early in the morning and return before dark. Her grandmother had taught her to count and she would always stop to listen when she heard the bells of the Church of our Lady of the Assumption peal the time across the fields. When she heard the bells she never felt afraid.
The area around La Alberca at that time was one of the poorest regions in Spain. A film made within living memory calls it “La Tierra Sin Pan”, or the land without bread. Just a child, Maria Esperanza had no idea of the sacrifices her grandmother had to make to care for her. Often there was just food enough for one, so her grandmother, a woman often in poor health, would none the less make certain the girl’s needs came first.
So it really came as no surprise that shortly after Maria Esperanza´s eleventh birthday, her grandmother died. At a stroke Maria lost her support and home. She moved into a shepherd’s hut just off the mountain track that leads up to the monastery on the Peña de Francia. In summer she lived on apples stolen from neighbouring orchards and in autumn on the chestnuts that grew so plentifully on the mountain slopes. In winter she had very little. She had no friends, no education, and, despite her name, no hope.
When the food was not easily obtainable she would beg in the streets of the town. There were some in who believed in Christian charity and they would secretly slip her the odd peseta. Occasionally someone would pass on a couple of chorizos that were past their best, but most days she would return to her shack hungry and empty handed.
She grew into a pretty young woman, although very thin, and pretty young women have their charms. She soon learned there was money to be made if she waited in the dark narrow streets when the workmen came out of the bars after an evening’s drinking. But in a small town like La Alberca there are no secrets. Now when she came begging in the streets the townsfolk gave her no help. Men treated her like dirt, women spat at her, called her “puta”. On more than one occasion she was bodily carried to the edge of town and told not to come back. The priest condemned her from the pulpit. And one cold, dark night a group of vigilantes set fire to her shack while she was sleeping inside.
She escaped and after spending the cold night trying to keep warm by the heat of her own smouldering home, moved further up the mountain side to a small cold cave.
But her prostitution had brought her more than a few pesetas thrown at her feet by a spent man. At the age of fifteen she was pregnant and in the summer gave birth to a baby girl. Starving and destitute she would sit in the Plaza Mayor, her babe wrapped in a dirty cloth in her arms and beg passers-by for money. People from outside who travelled from Salamanca to buy the jamón that was the town’s main product would throw her a few coins and because not everyone was mean spirited, she managed to survive.
Then one August during the Festival of Our Lady of the Assumption, when the ladies of the town paraded in their finery and there was dancing in the streets, a market and a corrida, a gypsy entered the town looking for work. His hair was lank and dark, his face pitted with smallpox scars, and he had a limp. In the gaiety of the festival he was like an ugly mole on a pretty girl’s face. No one would speak to him.
Except one; A pretty girl with a dirty face and a baby: Maria Esperanza Garcia Garcia. Somehow this odd couple came together against the rejection of the town. She told him of her life and showed him the rotting, charred remains of her burnt shack. Within a month he had rebuilt it and they moved in together.
His hard work on the shack did not go unnoticed. He may have been ugly, and a gitano, but he was strong and soon found labouring work on the surrounding farms. His powerful arms could wield an axe and so, with the end of the year rapidly approaching, he was employed in tree felling and to cart logs into town to fuel winter fires.
His work earned him enough to support himself, Maria and her baby. No longer did she have to beg or sell her body. But memories are long. Her scandalous birth and reputation as a puta still brought her rejection from the townsfolk. But at least now she did not have to face that rejection. While the gypsy worked, she stayed out of the town, kept house and looked after her baby.
Yet the people of La Alberca, rather than rejoice that Maria Esperanza had at last found happiness, now castigated her for living in sin.
For one bright and beautiful year they lived together. The ground around the shack grew vegetables. The gypsy proved to be an artful hunter and so there was rabbit meat on the table, and once an illicit cochinillo. “That sow had so many children”, he told Maria, “she won’t miss one of them”. Maria began to smile more and her baby grew sturdy and fat.
When the autumn leaves began falling from the trees the gypsy was again employed to gather winter fuel for the town. One icy morning his axe slid from the slippery tree bark and the blade severed a foot. Alone in the wood, the gypsy bled to death. Men brought his body to the shack that evening and without a word dug his grave and lowered his body into it. Then they left. The priest did not come to commit the body to the ground and she was left to fill the hole herself. No one came to console Maria. You can’t be a widow if you were not married.
The gypsy had had no money save what he earned. He left Maria nothing except one thing. She was pregnant again.
Following a hard winter and a late spring Maria Esperanza had a baby boy. What crops she had harvested from her garden had long run out. She was hungry and desperate. She could barely produce enough milk for the new born. Forlorn, she returned to her old place in the Plaza Mayor and begged for help.
Now with two illegitimate children and no husband the Christian folk of La Alberca were both repulsed and embarrassed by her presence. They protested to the priest and to the town hall. Many people came to the town to buy the jamón. They did not want a beggar in their midst. It did not present a good image.
Maria Esperanza, belying her name, had run out of hope. Her body was wasting away. Her two children cried with hunger all day. The man she had loved lay buried near his now weed strewn and unkempt vegetable plot. Crying bitter tears she prayed for her children and herself to be released from that hell. But rejected by the church, God did not hear her. And so she decided to take the matter into her own hands.
One evening, just after dark, she bundled her children and walked silently into the town. In the shadows of the Plaza de Iglesia she crossed to the rear door of the church and let herself in. The church was empty and dark. The statue of the virgin high on its mount cast vacant eyes across the gloom. In one corner she could make out the form of the baptismal font that had been denied to both her and her children. Despite it being summer the interior was cold. She shivered and her new son whimpered in the chill air.
Hugging the babies closely to her frail body she silently crossed to the steps that led to the high tower and then climbed the cold stone treads to the top. Through the huge portals that allowed the sound of the bells to carry across the town and the surrounding fields she viewed the rooftops of the village that had rejected her and then glanced down at the hard cobbles of the plaza so far below. She laid a flat palm on the cold metal of the bell and remembered hearing it chime the hours in her childhood. For a fleeting moment a memory of her carefree life as a little girl passed though her mind. It saddened her that her own children would never experience such a time, and for a brief moment emotion battled with reality. She almost turned and left, but a vision of a future as bleak as her past strengthened her resolved. She knew there was no turning back.
She set her oldest child on the floor near the great bell that chimed the hour and removed the wraps from the baby. Despite all the hardships she had suffered, this was the most difficult thing she had ever had to do in her young life. She was still not twenty years old.
She hugged him close, wetted his face with her kisses and then with a cry cast the tiny boy through the arched opening and watched as his fragile body crashed onto the unforgiving stones below. He did not move. Quickly, she turned before her resolve weakened and picked up her beloved daughter. She did not waste time on kisses. If she kissed the child and the child hugged her she knew she could not do it. With one last glance she held the child high – then let her go.
The little girl dropped, slowly turning then smashing against the hard cobbles beside her lifeless brother. Maria Esperanza gazed down in horror at what she had done. She was illegitimate, had been a prostitute, lived with a man out of wedlock and was now a murderess. She would surely go to hell and, she thought, it was no more than she deserved.
It was, of course, her intention to follow her children into the oblivion of the unforgiving stone hard cobbles of the plaza. But the thought of what she had done to her beloved children weakened her. Her legs began to buckle and she leaned against the vast cupola of the great bell for support. She heard voices coming up from the plaza. The bodies of her children had been discovered. She heard the shouts of men, the wails of women, “Oh Dios Mio. Los pobres niños pobres”. Now they worry about my children, she thought. Now it is too late.
Maria straightened, resolved herself for her final act, pushing against the bell for support. It moved. Suddenly there was nothing to push against and Maria began to fall into the void below the bell. Wildly she flailed attempting to grab hold of anything that would stop her fall. The drop inside the tower would kill her just as surely as if she threw herself through the smooth arched portal, but she wanted, in death, to be with her children.
The bell moved first away then swung towards her as it pivoted on its axis. As it rose before her Maria made one last grab when her foot slipped. She fell against the bell, which now swung away, opening a gap wide enough for her to fall through and nothing to hold on to. But as she dropped, a loop in the bell rope appeared before her. She made a wild grab. Held it for a second then slipped, but long enough to pull the loop towards her. Her head went through and the weight of her body pulled the loop tight, like a noose. She fell another two metres before the rope snapped tight. With an audible crack the vertebrae in her neck snapped and mercifully, instantly, Maria Esperanza Garcia Garcia was dead.
The weight of her body pulled on the rope and the bell completed its swing. Sonorously its hammer chimed, then swung back and chimed again and continued to chime until her body was still.
It was six minutes before the hour.
When news of Maria Esperanza’s final act spread beyond the town her treatment by the people of La Alberca was universally condemned. The priest, who had led the persecution against her, was replaced. Those few who had secretly aided the girl now became public to avoid the shame and those who had overtly damned her, roundly castigated. The new priest ordained a Christian burial for Maria, insisting it wasn’t suicide but a terrible accident. And in a spirit of contrition from that time on, the hour was always chimed six minutes early in her memory.
In recent times, to celebrate the new millennium, the church decided to replace the bells. Now a prosperous town and always full of visitors, a new hotel was being built on the outskirts and in a spirit of whimsy the owner decided to include a bell tower in the design. He bought the old bells from the church.
When the new bells were installed in the church the tradition of chiming the hour six minutes early was officially discontinued. An expert from Salamanca reset the mechanism and went home. Yet the next day the bells continued to chime before the hour. And when the old bells were set in the new tower in the hotel, the same thing happened.
And continues to chime six minutes before the hour to this very day. The memory of Maria Esperanza Garcia Garcia lives on. As does her ghost.
© Richard Morley 2009