Jesus Speaks Galicianbyolivias©
So that's why she didn't come to the funeral—didn't even acknowledge my letter—Penny thought. She put her forehead to the cold glass in the window overlooking the village street, gazing with a detached vision at the blanket of early December snow, which was covering the street and narrow front garden with a lovely covering of white.
But Penny wasn't fooled. She knew the ugliness and neglect that was hidden below the snow. She knew this would be a bleak Christmas for her, like so many of the others she had gritted her teeth through over the years while others basked in the glow of the season within the bosoms of their families. She let her shoulders sag and loosened her finger hold on the typed letter, letting it flutter to the floor.
She had thought that it was because Millie still carried the resentment of their parents—their father an ever-complaining tyrant and their mother a whiny alcoholic. The estrangement had sent Millie spinning out of England to Spain, where she'd been this last decade and more, answering Penny's letters with only terse responses—not answering their father's few, complaining and judgmental letters at all. Not that Penny would have answered the letters from her father to Millie that she'd gotten a glimpse of either—full of bitterness and judgment for Millie having gone off with a foreigner and not, to anyone's knowledge, having ever married him.
Penny knew why Millie hadn't married Rodrigo. He already was married, and, being Catholic, there would be no divorce even if there was no love. He'd been older than Millie. Millie had let Penny know when Rodrigo had died, but her father had been so bitter about it that neither one had bothered to tell him.
Now this letter—from a hospital in Lugo, Spain, from some sort of patient representative, a sister someone or other. Penny's father buried not more than a week and Penny, who had taken full care of him at his village house during his last two months, only now beginning to wrap up his affairs and go back to her job in the book store. It was the Christmas season. The bookstore would need all of its employees pulling overtime. They hadn't been kind about holding her job for her while she cared for her father in his last days—certainly not considering how much time and effort she'd given them for over a decade. The bookstore was her total life now, but it didn't seem like she meant that much to the bookstore.
The problem was that now the hospital in Spain wanted to send Millie back to her house. There wasn't anything they could do for her; the cancer was too far advanced. She was insisting on going home to die. But there had to be someone there to receive Millie and take care of her. Penny was the only relative of hers that Millie had identified on her admittance forms, and she claimed there was no one in Spain to take care of her. Penny knew, though, that her job wouldn't be held for her to allow her to attend another relative through a terminal illness—certainly not during the Christmas season.
With a sigh, Penny reached down and picked the letter up off the floor. Family was family, no matter how estranged. She sank down into the chair at the old secretary, read the address at the top of the letter and the sister's name, and began to write her return letter.
* * * *
Penny hadn't expected to be met by anyone at the airport in Santiago. She'd sent her flight number and arrival time in the letter telling Sister Noela at the Lugo hospital she was coming, but she hadn't received an answer. But there was a younger man—at least young in Penny's mind, as she was a bit past thirty herself—standing in the reception hall, waving a sign with her name on it. How many Penelope Stanleys could there be coming off the same flight in northwestern Spain?
"Senora Stanley?" he asked rather hesitatingly when she came and stood in front of him and pointed to his sign. She had never thought of herself as tall, but she was a couple of inches taller than he was. Other than that he seemed normal and was supporting an engaging smile. He was dark haired and a bit swarthy but quite presentable. Looking at him now, she could see that he probably was older than she was, maybe even ten years. If so, the years had treated him well.
"Yes, I am Penny Stanley," she answered, trying to give him a smile that equaled his, but she'd just come off a long day catching her flight without knowing where she was going from here other than the address of her sister's house somewhere in the region, somewhere on a mountain slope above the Minho River, if she remembered rightly what her sister had once written to her. She had no idea how far it was from the Santiago airport, though. She could tell from the map that there was a good distance between Santiago and Lugo, where the hospital was.
"I am Xesús," the man said in halting and heavily accented, but easily understood, English. "Xesús has come to take you to your home. I know you didn't expect anyone from the family to meet you—the hospital didn't know that your sister had family here until it was too late to inform you." Penny was quick to adjust to the man's way of referring to himself by name, although it made her smile each time she heard it. She also was greatly relieved to know that there was someone here with connections to Millie, and that she didn't have to figure out everything for herself.
My home? Penny thought. Hardly, although she couldn't say where her home was at the moment. Her own flat in Reading was just a rental and she'd put her father's house close to Oxford up for sale—and already had offers on that, as housing was tight in the university town. It had also been uplifting to discover that houses, even a modest one like her father had lived in, went for a good price in the Oxford area. If she could find a far cheaper economy to live in, she could squeak by on the interest from what she'd get for the house without having to continue working herself. As she was afraid, the bookstore had let her go, and she didn't have a specific job to go back to. She wasn't that fond of her flat in Reading, either, so "home" was something to be negotiated at this point when the time came. It certainly wasn't in a remote area of hot and dusty Spain, though.
"Did you say Jesus? Is your name really Jesus?" she asked, trying, unsuccessfully to keep the tone of disbelief and challenge out of her voice. That couldn't be right.
He just beamed back at her. "Yes. We don't spell it as you would, but it's the same name. We use that name in Spain. Spanish Catholics believe in instilling the attributes of the Holy Family in our families. My father's name was Xesús and his father's name was Xesús. So, my name is Xesús. My brother is Joseph and my mother is Maria. So . . ."
"Oh, well, that's interesting," Penny said. And strange, she thought, but she didn't want to start off on the wrong foot with anyone here—especially someone who had met her at the airport to take her to Millie's house.
As they drove east from Santiago, she appreciated even more that someone had come to pick her up, as the journey was long and the route convoluted. But she also was surprised to find that her impression of Spain as hot and dusty didn't hold for this Galician region. The hills were rolling and still lush with vegetation. It was been a crazy year in weather across Europe, and winter had not reached northern Spain yet. It was as green as England was in summer—even more green if that was possible—while being wilder and more lush in foliage and with steeper slopes running down to the faster-flowing waterways. The villages they passed on the way were even smaller and less-ordered than those in the Reading area and as old, if not older, most being made out of stone, many unoccupied and falling down—but in a picturesque way.
She wouldn't have known that Christmas was approaching if many of the houses didn't already have colored lights and a smattering of outdoor Christmas ornaments on display.
It was nearly dark when they arrived at a hodge-podge of stone cottages set at angles and closely abutting a small, winding road high above a meandering river, with a checkerboard of garden plots, many planted to grapevines, tumbling down the slope to the water. Nothing was in flower or full leaf now, of course, but it didn't take much to envision how vital this countryside would look in full bloom.
"Fincas," Xesús explained as he maneuvered along a road hugging the side of the mountain and observed Penny looking down at the pattern of small plots.
"Yes, through the centuries family holdings of the fields became divided and subdivided and families intermarried to the point that everything is divided into small plots—fincas—and a family now could have a series of the plots located separately so that they have to do more walking than tending of the plots to cover them all in a day. Senora de Peres has several of the fincas down there."
"Senora de Peres?"
"Yes, your sister." Xesús gave her a quizzical look.
"Ah, yes," Penny said. So, Millie was going by the name Peres here rather than Stanley. That must have been Rodrigo's surname. They will think the two of them were married here; it's likely they didn't know Rodrigo had a wife elsewhere. That was natural enough, she supposed. If the villagers knew of their living arrangements, they likely would be unwelcoming, and Millie wasn't one to take an effort to make friends herself.
Xesús pulled up in front of a stone cottage that looked like a ruin and that was so close to the road that the small Fiat Xesús was driving barely had room to park between the road and the rock wall. A door opened, and light spilled out onto the Fiat before it was stifled by the figure of a heavyset, elderly woman.
"Dores. From the village. She has been sitting with Senora de Peres," Xesús explained.
And so it began. Millie had already been sent home from the hospital to die. Yet another ordeal of vigilance to the end for Penny—her last living relative, and yet another one who she had not been close to in life. She hauled herself out of the Fiat and reached for her suitcase, but Xesús was faster than she was at hefting it. The village woman, Dores, gave her a stiff, "Hola. Buenas," and an "it's about time you got here" look as she stood aside for Penny to enter the cottage.
The two women had barely acknowledged each other at the door before Dores had turned to return to the sick room and Penny's attention had been arrested by seeing a decorated Christmas tree beside a fireplace in which a fire had been laid. She almost cried. She hadn't had time to even think about decorating a tree before she'd left England.
Seeing where her gaze was turned, Xesús gently said, "Christmas trees are important back in England. We thought—"
"Yes, yes, thank you, Xesús. It's lovely." And indeed it was. Already the heaviness that had been weighing her down for what it seemed like years was lifting. "Now, maybe I should see my sister," she said, pulling herself back into reality.
* * * *
Millie had settled down at last, the effects of the morphine finally having taken hold. Penny had held and rocked her just as she'd seen the village woman, Dores, doing while Xesús was showing her around the cottage. There hadn't been much to see inside the house, and it was a work in progress, although the "progress" part of the work was well done. There was the main room that served as living room, dining room, and kitchen. This room, as well as Millie's, off to the left as the cottage was entered, had been tastefully renovated with some sections of the wall being stone and some white plasterboard. The plasterboard sections were hung with abstract landscapes that obviously were from the village area and were masterfully done. Lights hung over these, the only lighting in the room other than the glowing Christmas tree, to which Penny's eyes frequently wandered in appreciation. Millie's bedroom was large, with a similar wall treatment. A modernized bath and large walk-in closet were on the street side of this wing, and the bedroom opened up onto a stone terrace that ran the full length of the house on the back, with a view down the slope to the Minho River and up the mountainside on the other side of the narrow river valley.
The room to which Xesús had taken Penny's suitcase was on the other side of the house. Her bedroom was small, but also opened out onto the terrace in back. The walls were just stone and the room obviously hadn't been renovated yet. A primitive bath, entered from both sides, separated it from a room, also not renovated, on the front of the house, which obviously was an office and catchall room. From the art supplies strewn about, it also had once been used as an art studio. The unfinished paintings were by the same hand as those on the walls in the renovated part of the house. Rodrigo? Penny wondered. She couldn't think of Millie as having artistic talent. But she was having difficulty remembering anything about Millie, who was nearly ten years Penny's senior and had left England and, as she put it, "the clutches of her family," when Penny was too young and alienated from the family herself to pay much attention.
She didn't know any more about Rodrigo—other than that Millie said, whcn she'd left, that she'd follow him to the ends of the earth if she had too. As Penny remembered it, her father's major objection—her mother was too deep into the bottle to voice much of an opinion one way or other—was that Rodrigo had been a good ten years older than Millie was—and was a foreigner and a dreamer.
Being a dreamer obviously was a sin in Penny's parents' eyes.
Dores, in a language Penny couldn't fathom and that didn't seem like Spanish, which Penny had some familiarity with, attempted to convey Millie's pain killer injection schedule to Penny. Xesús, who said Dores was speaking Galician—more like Portuguese than Spanish—interpreted as best he could. Penny managed to get across that she knew all about applying the drugs, as she had just been through that with her father and only needed to know the schedule. When that had been dispensed with, she suddenly found herself alone.
All alone, sitting beside a lowly moaning woman who was a mere bag of bones version of the sister she had known so little and so long ago. All alone in a stone cottage, perched on a mountainside who knew where. All alone. Penny had to make frequent trips out to the living room to look at the Christmas tree to keep from sinking into depression.
When Millie's breathing became regular, Penny rose from beside the bed and started to wander more purposely around the small house. The light was dim in the main room other than around the Christmas tree. She went to the refrigerator, which was almost bare. What would they do for food, she wondered. Where could she get some? How could she get some? There was a jug in the refrigerator and she quickly ascertained that it had wine in it. She found a wine glass—there didn't seem to be any dearth of wine glasses in the kitchen. Millie quite likely was her mother's daughter. But Penny wouldn't be catty about that at this moment. She couldn't think of anything more that she wanted—no, needed—at this moment, than wine.
She poured herself a glass, pulled a throw blanket off the back of a sofa to wrap around herself, wandered out onto the terrace, and sat in a patio chair there. The moon was full and picked out the checkerboard pattern of fields—what Xesús had said were fincas—cascading like folds in a blanket down to the ribbon of water below, reflecting the light of the moon. She sighed. The view was divine. The wine was delicious. After a few minutes, though, she shook her head. She wasn't anywhere close to be in the mood to be seduced by this wild and primitive country. She was still in the mood to feel sorry for herself and at a loss of how she could be expected to carry on here.
She rose and walked back into the house, letting her feet carry her to what had been the studio at the front of the house, with its intriguing mysteries. It wasn't just the stacks of paintings, many unfinished, to explore. When Xesús had breezed her through the room before, she'd seen that there was an old secretary desk there with papers strewn across the top. She'd even seen the envelope with her name on it propped up on the base of the desk lamp.
She sat at the desk and fingered the envelope. She returned it to its resting place and took a swig of her wine. She wasn't ready to face whatever that said yet. Her eye went to a couple of folded pages that looked like documents. The thicker of the two seemed to be a will. Ah, good, progress, she thought. Whether there was one and where it could be found had been a worry in the back of her mind all the time she was flying here. She had no idea what, if anything, Millie had to leave behind—let alone who she'd leave it to. She only knew that she'd be left doing something about it. She had kept forcing those worries into the background as being ghoulish to be thinking about yet.
She folded the official-looking document open now. It was in Spanish and hard to decipher, but she saw Millie's name—with the surname "Peres"—and her own on the first sheet. There were three sheets of paper, the other two with Millie's name but someone else's—a different name on each sheet. There were lists of bequests—probably of property—under the names on each sheet. The light was too dim to make it all out, but the listings weren't identical. They seemed to be for different property.
Just then, the other legal-looking document was disturbed and fell open. This too was in Spanish, but this was more identifiable. It was a marriage certificate. The names on it were Rodrigo Peres Varela and Millicent Stanley de Peres. It was dated some six years earlier. So, they were married. But Millie had never thought to notify either their father or Penny. Why would Millie keep this from Penny? Millie had communicated rarely and then only tersely, but Penny had regularly . . . but then, no, she hadn't. She'd followed Millie's lead more than eight years ago. She'd stopped writing too because little was coming back. And that was before the marriage. Still . . .
Penny reached back for the will to more closely examine that, but just then the lights went out.
Her first thought was what sort of backwater place was this that cut the power at night. That was her second thought too, but then she thought, oh, well, she was exhausted anyway and had experienced too much today already. She downed the last of the wine in her glass and felt her way through the connecting bathroom to what would be her bedroom, just barely tolerable in its unrenovated condition.
Groping around, she found that there was a candle in a holder on her bed stand, with matches beside it. She took this as further evidence that the power was routinely cut at night in the village. The candle gave her enough light to pull nightclothes out of her suitcase, use the primitive bathroom facilities, and climb into bed.
She was awakened sometime after dawn by the cries of pain coming from across the house. Damn, she thought, looking at her clock and springing out of bed. She'd missed the injection schedule by an hour. Her first testing with taking care of her sister, and she'd bungled the time by an hour. Millie must be in deep pain.
Injecting the morphine and getting under Millie and rocking her body until the cries and sobbing subsided took longer than Penny had imagined it would. Dores had been so good about it the previous night and Penny was so clumsy. Penny would give anything to have the old village woman here now, and she was sure that Millie thought the same, to the extent that Millie could think anything.
Millie was lucid, though, for a brief moment or two between the pain killer deadening the pain took effect and put her into a merciful painless dreamland. It was just a moment of recognition. Her eyes turned to Penny and a voice Penny recognized across the years weakly said, "Penny? You've come?"