CAÑADA DE LOS ZAGALES, TERUEL
PROVINCE, ARAGON REGION,
NORTH-WESTERN SPAIN, 13 JULY 1937
The tall canes gave a rustle like rain, but it hadn’t rained in a month, and down the bank the brook ran low. From where he stood, Martin Bora knew death at once. Lately the inertia of death had grown familiar to him, and he recognized it in what he saw at the curve of the mule track, where trees clustered and a bundle of leafy canes swished like rain. He couldn’t make out the shape from the bank
of the brook, where he’d bathed and was now putting his uniform back on. In a time of civil war, these days did not call for inquisitiveness. Yet Bora was curious about life and the point when life ceases. Staring at the slumped dark mass, he finally managed to struggle into his wet clothes, quickly lacing and buttoning his uniform. The stiff riding boots and gun belt were next. Overhead, the air was scented and moist. The summer sky would soon turn white like paper, but at this hour, it had the tender tinge of bruised flesh. Bora started up the incline, steadying his boots on the shifting pebbles, and reached the mule track to take a better look. He could see now that it was a human body. As he took out his gun, his arm and torso adjusted to the heft of steel, hardening immediately, almost
aggressively. Shoulders hunched, he crossed the track, straining for sounds around him, but a lull had fallen over trees, brook and leafy canes. The sierra, its crude face of granite rising above, was silence itself.
The body lay twisted on the edge of the track, face down. Bora drew near, lowering his gun. I shouldn’t be turning my back to the trees, but look, look … A small hole gaped black and round at the base of the man’s head; the dark fleece of the neck appeared sticky, matted. I should not feel safe. Anyone could shoot me right now. Yet the tension slackened in him. Bora’s armed hand sank to his side. Not much blood on the ground, although the man’s white shirt was deeply stained – a dark triangle between his shoulders. No, no. No danger. Bora looked
down. There’s no danger. He stood at the rim of the bloody puddle, a crisp lacy edge that gravelly dirt had absorbed and sunlight would dry soon. It marked a boundary at his feet, curving sharply where a twig had stopped it from flowing.
No danger. Bora glanced up. A young ash tree stood smooth and tall, alone on the curve. How telling that a twig should be born from it and grow and fall to the ground to stop a man’s lifeblood; that a man should live unaware that a bit of ash wood awaits him on a lonely road. Bora holstered the gun, wondering what kind of wood, which road, what sky, what morning waited for his dead body and would grow into the fullness of day without him.
He could smell blood as he crouched down, virtually tasting it when he turned the body to check if the bullet had destroyed the face. But it was intact. Handsome in a southern or gypsy way, with a broad forehead and eyebrows joined at the bridge of the nose, the man’s face appeared serene, the eyelids lowered and the mouth slightly open. The lashes were like a woman’s, dark and long. The body felt cold to the touch, sweaty with dew. Like mashed lilies, Bora thought, an
unfamiliar image to him. This dead man has the crushed pallor of white flowers that have been torn up and stepped on.