Home > Remember Me : A Spanish Civil War Novel

Remember Me : A Spanish Civil War Novel
Author: Mario Escobar

Prologue

 

 

Madrid

June 20, 1975

 

My hands shook with the letter I had just received, postmarked from Mexico. The memories of the sad, exciting journey of my childhood returned to remind me that, at the end of the day, I belonged nowhere. I wiped my tears with my shirttail and studied the sender’s name: María Soledad de la Cruz. That girl had stolen my heart nearly forty years earlier. For a long time I had tried to convince myself I was a Spaniard, that my time in Mexico had been a kind of daydream. I had awoken from that dream as abruptly as the bombs had started falling over Madrid in the summer of 1937. I had gotten used to the black-and-white city Franco’s followers ran like military barracks for nearly forty years—so used to it all that the memories of life in Veracruz, Mexico City, and Morelia were no more than distant, imagined ghosts. They were Don Quixote’s loquacious deathbed visions after the entrance to his library had been sealed shut. I had spent the intervening years remaking my life, and I had a job I loved. I had inherited my father’s printing press. For so many of us, the civil war had taken health, property, and existence itself. For me, it had also ripped away the future.

I thought about María Soledad de la Cruz’s eyes, which still shone out bright from those eclipsed years. They were so black the light disappeared in her pupils but came back out through her thick lips in the first stolen kiss there in Cointzio.

I opened the envelope and read the short letter with a lump in my throat. Then I looked at the small black-and-white photo hidden in the mustard-yellow envelope. It was the same girl with black braids and pearls for teeth, the one who had taken up shop in my heart and who reminded me yet again that, being fully Spaniard and fully Mexican, I could lay claim to no homeland. I still could not forget it. It was my bounden duty to remember, like my mother told me that day in Bordeaux, the last day of my old life and the first of a journey I never could have imagined.

 

 

Part 1

Bombs All Around

 

 

Chapter 1

The Search

 

 

Madrid

November 14, 1934

 

For children, war feels like a game at first. They have no idea that behind the gunshots and uniforms, the marches and rallying songs, death clings like mud to shoes and leaves footprints of blood and flesh, forever marking the lives of whoever falls into its infernal clutch.

The Spanish Civil War began long before soldiers took up arms on July 17, 1936. At least it had begun for us, the children of poverty and misery.

First thing that morning, I heard someone beating on the door of our house in the La Latina neighborhood. We were still in bed: my two sisters and I, my parents, and the girl who watched us while my mother worked in the theater. Instinctively, my sisters and I ran to our parents’ room. Isabel, with her white cotton nightgown, trembled and shrieked as she clung to our mother. Ana sobbed in my arms while our father masked his fear behind a smile and told us nothing was wrong.

María Zapata, the girl who helped around the house, also started to cry as she followed my father like a scared puppy to the door. The rest of us hunkered down in the main bedroom, but when I heard the shouting and skirmish in the hallway, I left my little sister in our mother’s lap and headed for the door without a second thought. While not particularly brave, I wanted to help my father. I was still young enough that my dad was the invincible, mythic hero I longed to become. I stood trembling at the doorway of the small room we called the study, which was just a six-by-nine-foot room stuffed with books and papers. The walls were caving in and the shelves bowed, but to me that room was the hallowed halls of wisdom. However, right then it felt like the entrance to hell itself. Papers flew about as the gloved hands of the Social Brigade tore brightly colored spines from books yanked off the shelves. Nearly all the books were from Editorial Cervantes, a publishing house in Barcelona for which my father’s printing press sometimes did work. My father raised his hands in despair, each ripped spine and crumpled page falling like the lash of a whip on his back.

“We don’t have any banned books here!” My father’s strangled shout interrupted the chaos of military boots and police barking. The sergeant turned and punched him square in the mouth. Blood gushed from my father’s busted lip, and I, horrified, saw a terrified look on the face of the man I had always believed to be the bravest soul on earth.

“You piece of red trash! We know you’re one of the leaders of the printers’ union! On October fifth your people attacked the State Department, and you’re part of the Revolutionary Socialist Committee. Where are the books? We want the union’s papers and the names of everyone on the committee!”

The sergeant was shaking my father, who, in his silly striped pajamas, looked like a marionette in the man’s hands. I knew the books they were talking about were not in the study. A few days before I had helped my father hide them in the dovecote on the roof of our building.

“I’m an honest worker and loyal to the Republic,” my father answered, more calmly than I expected. His collar and the front part of his shirt were red with his blood, but his eyes had recovered the courage that always guided his steps.

Yet he doubled over when the sergeant punched him hard in the stomach. The officer shoved him, and the guards fell upon him with their nightsticks. My dad sank to the floor, screaming and flailing his arms like a drowning man grasping for oxygen at the bottom of the ocean.

“Boy, come here!” the sergeant barked at me, and for the first time, I looked him full in the face. He was like a rabid dog with spittle flying from his mouth. His thick, black mustache made him look even wilder. He grabbed my shirt and yanked me out of the study to the living room and threw me into a chair. I landed abruptly, and the man crouched down to get his face right in front of mine.

“Look, kid, your daddy is a red, a communist, an enemy of peace and order. If you tell us where the papers are, nothing bad will happen. But if you lie to us, you and your sisters will end up in the Sacred Heart Orphanage. Do you want them to shave your mother’s hair and lock her up in the prison of Ventas?”

“No, sir,” I answered. My voice shook, and I nearly wet myself from fright.

“Then come out with it before my patience runs out,” he spluttered, more foam gathering at the corners of his mouth.

“These are all the books my dad has. He’s a printer, you know . . . That’s why we have so many.”

The sergeant lifted me up by the folds of my shirt and shook me with violence. My feet flailed aimlessly in the air until he dropped me onto the floor. Then he turned and raged back to the study with great strides.

“Let’s go! We’re taking the adults with us!” he snarled.

“What do we do with the kids?” one of the guards asked.

“The orphanage. Let them rot with the lice and bedbugs.”

I ran to the door of the living room. One of the police officers was dragging my mother out of the bedroom, and I threw myself upon him, grabbed his neck, and bit one of his ears. Bellowing, the officer let go of my mother and tried to shake me off.

“Marco, please!” my mother yelled, terrified at seeing me on the police officer. The officer wrestled me off and threw me against the wall. He pulled out his nightstick and raised it to strike, but my mother grabbed his arm. “Please, he’s just a child. Don’t hurt him,” she begged through her tears.

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