Xosé Luís Méndez Ferrín

Them mendez ferrin1Order this book here
The short story Them is taken from the collection Them and other stories by Xosé Luís Méndez Ferrín, translated by John Rutherford, Xelís de Toro and Benigno Fernández Salgado.

Them and other stories was published by Planet Books (1996) with whose kind permission the text is republished here.

The Porter turned the crank and Fernando, who was seated at the wheel, adjusted the choke until the engine fired. We pulled away through a thick fog, which appeared milky in the cold light of dawn. The heavy crowing of birds sounded out from the moors as we chugged along in Fernando Salgueiro's cream Ford, the four of us sliding around along the sharply winding track down from the Alto do Furriolo to Veiga and Verea. We were resting our rifles between our legs except for Fernando, who had left his sub-machine gun on one of the spare seats in the back, as if it were a box of chocolates to be presented to some distinguished lady. e always used todrink brandy before and after this kind of business. The Porter pulled out a bottle of 'Tres Cepas' from inside his greatcoat. Fernando shook his head and fingered his thin black moustache. The rest of us drank. The Porter belched.
'That made you feel better!' said the Caballero.
The Porter's eyes were puffy and their lids were heavy and drooping, with bright red lower rims. Whenever he looked sideways it seemed to me that the effort must have hurt him. The Caballero was looking at the Porter, sitting next to him.
'We'll take the Porter home now,' snarled Fernando distantly. I had always thought that Fernando Salgueiro must have Filipino blood in him. At that moment his skin glowed brown, as if he were sweating; there were pimples on his narrow forehead.
'We'll take the Porter home so that he can screw his wife tonight,'
Fernando added, stroking his cheek as if to assure himself that hardly any hair grew there.

The Porter had a huge head, dark stubble and a triangular moustache which made him look like a radical or a Moroccan. He opened his mouth wide to laugh, showing his gums, and teeth which seemed to be covered in some sort of green lichen. But, almost at once, he bowed
his pig-head, resting his brow on the barrel of his Mauser. I was in the front seat and, as I looked back at him, the Porter seemed the very
picture of desolation. He said:
'She'll need some persuading to let me have my way!'
I'd known Fernando since we were kids.
'Well, well, well,' he said, and I knew at once that he was sniffing around, nosing out some way of ridiculing the Porter.

We had been brought up together, Fernando Salgueiro and I. One day we went for a picnic by the river, in Vilazo, and he put earth and a dead blackbird into the paella that the Toubes girls had lovingly made for the group. And they'd just finished convent school in Chaves and were so excited about getting together with the old gang again, because
we were like family, we were, back in Verin!
We were all scared of Fernando Salgueiro. He always had his own way; always ordered us around.
'We could stop off for breakfast in Bande,' the Caballero suggested suddenly.
Fernando smirked. The Caballero was known for his greediness and I thought of the rolls of fat beneath his combat jacket, bursting out over his belt and the badge with the Spanish emblem on it. The lardy rolls, squeezed by the strap that girthed his chest. The red cross of
those old-guard Fascists, the Caballeros of Santiago, was so rumpled up it had almost disappeared beneath his sagging left breast. He was older than the rest of us, was the Caballero.
'Go on, we always do,' I meekly begged Fernando Salgueiro.
The tarmac road was broken in a hundred places, and had a number of deep potholes. A cloud of clay dust surrounded the car as we drove along. We climbed up to the Alto do Vieiro and the fog faded away.
I looked to the right and saw the endless wasteland, the barren desert that, by Egoas Hill, extends to the marshes that stretch as far as Portugal and that the herdsmen use as pastureland. The hill that could be seen in the distance must have been Penagache.

Fernando stopped the car and put the handbrake on. He gravely opened his leather jacket and took a packet of cigarettes from the breast pocket of his blue shirt. He mechanically flicked out a fan of cigarettes. He offered them to us and I was the only one to accept. Fernando
Salgueiro always smokes Chesterfield. We lit them with his gold Ronson. Then we got out of the Ford, making as much noise as we could, slamming the doors, shouting, joking and spitting. We tucked our pistols into our belts. Adjusting our caps, first to one side and then to
the front, we felt the merry dance of the pompom, so deeply and so dearly Spanish. We slung our rifles over our shoulders. We looked at each other and wanted to be seen and admired by the people of Bande, who seemed not to be out on the streets at half past nine in the morning.
The Caballero de Santiago was a sorry sight in his khaki uniform and his jodhpurs,tight around his fat calves. The Caballero looked like one of the old faithfuls of Primo de Rivera's time, even though he was a doctor in Cualedro. The Porter had squeezed into a boiler suit, complete with strap and ammunition pouches, open at the front to
show his blue shirt. Over his shoulders he sported a greatcoat. I myself left my top-coat in the car so as to show off the yoke and arrows on the breast pocket of my combat jacket, and using my middle and forefingers I flicked the cigarette end into the air with the clean trajectory of a mortar shell. In his gleaming riding boots, breeches and black leather jacket, his sub-machine gun over one shoulder, our beloved Fernando Salgueiro seemed far taller than he really was.

A few windows closed; and various figures which we had glimpsed hanging out clothes on the balconies of Bande disappeared. Turning a corner, our squad came across a man of about forty wearing a orduroy jacket and trousers, the black button of mourning on his striped shirt, and a small beret, cocked to one side. He paled - I saw
in his eyes a boundless look of fear - and moved off to the middle of the road, showing, by the speed of his steps, total submission before us. He thrust up an arm to hail:
'Arriba España!' with hoarse humility.
'We didn't hear that! Louder!' Fernando Salgueiro barked, with the most savage look in his repertoire.
'Arriba España! Arriba Espania!' the man shouted immediately, in a husky voice deformed by terror. We exchanged glances and burst out laughing, as we continued on our way towards the inn. Of course, we comrades always used to have a bite to eat after the dawn purges.

A small group of us from Verin had gone out that day in Fernando's cream Ford, up to the Funiolo. The Caballero, who lived in Cualedro, had wanted to come with us. Before sunrise, the squad from Celanova had marched six men out of the monastery and taken them up to the Furriolo, in a van that had been requisitioned from Celso de Poulo's
family, after he had been killed in the first few days. We rubbed out all six of them there, in a ditch. The owner of the inn was happy to see us.
'Long live the Camisas Viejas!' he exclaimed, laughing.
Fernando cut him short. 'Shut up, you fool!'
'Shall I go and let the others know?'
'Not a word! We're travelling incognito today...'
The Falange from Verin had got it in for the worst elements who were working on the railway. Wherever there was work, the poison was there too. That morning our comrades from Celanova had brought us a nice present. Four trade unionists from Vilar de Barrio, one of the
heads of the Sociedade de Corrichouso and the cross-eyed Sevillian who had been the right-hand man of the Marxist mayor of A Gudiña (the Devil take him!)

We had a round of coffee liqueurs while we were waiting for
breakfast. Because those of us who formed the squad from Verin - Fernando, Otero, Pazos, Pepe Taboada - had been together before the Alzamiento. When the innkeeper called us Camisas Viejas I thought my heart would burst. That's what we were, except for the Caballero. And our families had been ridiculed and suffered outrages in Verin. All of
them had paid or would pay with their lives, those Marxists. Fernando especially hated the contract workers on the Zamora-Corunna railway; those affiliated to the union.
'That trash!' Fernando said, his mouth curling as, taking a swig of the coffee liqueur, he remembered the shootings of that morning.
'The one from Conichouso cried like a little queer. The others tried to look brave but I could see the fear in their eyes.'
'And in their mouths,' said the Porter. 'Surely you can see the fear in the mouths of those Reds, Don Fernando? Can't you, sir? I can spot it immediately.' Fernando was beginning to enjoy himself.
'It would seem your wife doesn't want any fun and games with you, Porter.'
Fernando was a demon for prising information out of such peasants.
'What's up, eh? Do tell - you're among experts. Go on.'
'She's out of sorts, Don Fernando. She's in a terrible state with the worry.'
The yellow-check oilskin tablecloth was riddled with holes from the cheap cigars and cigarettes smoked there by thousands of smokers on the 13th and 28th of every month, which were market days. Upon it our host placed our plates and glasses, a carafe of red wine and a loaf of white bread.
'I want a mug!' the Caballero insisted.
The innkeeper dutifully changed his unbreakable glass for a small white mug.
'Look at the Porter!' Fernando said, as if to himself, while turning his glass in his hand.

Fernando tapped his diamond ring against the thick rim of his wine glass, breaking the sudden moment of silence. And then the Porter spoke. His wife was sad. Everyone at home was, over there in Gustimeaus. Great sorrow had come upon them. Their seven-year-old son was poorly, as white as sperm. His face was burning up. A plague of lice was consuming him and nobody could cure it: not with potions, nor with constant changes of clothes, nor by shaving his head.
'Lice? Lice?'
'Lice, Don Fernando, I swear it. By the respect that I have for you and that my father had for your father, as a servant who served him well. Headlice and those other bigger ones that infest clothes. He's not got any crabs, though, because he's still only a lad, my little one.'
The innkeeper told his wife to bring the cooked breakfast. Two big round serving plates; one with boiled potatoes, the other with eggs and fried sausages, covered in oil; and all of it sprinkled with paprika. Another smaller plate arrived with chunks of ham. We served ourselves. The Caballero first, by courtesy of Fernando.
Then me. We had to insist to make the Porter eat.

On the smoke-stained wall of the dining room there were prints of lakes and snow-covered mountains. On one side there was a screen with blue and red glass at the top, separating us from the kitchen. The Porter's eyes roamed absently from the pictures to the glass panels and from the glass panels to the pictures, whilst he mashed the potato and egg together with a fork. Since it was morning, the place smelt of bleach. The Caballero said, his mouth red from the spicy pork sausage:
'If you like, Porter, I could have a look at your boy.'
'Doctors can't do anything, sir. We've already taken him to Don Ildefonso Santalices, here in Bande. Don Pepe Barros came to see him at home. Thanks for offering though, sir. God bless you for it.'
We ordered more wine.
'Look here, Porter.'
I knew Fernando well. When I heard him say 'Look here' in that tone of voice I knew that he was up to something, and I started to tremble. I know all about my friend's tricks. He's incredible.
'Look here.'
And Fernando continued in a low voice, showing his tiny teeth in the cunning smile which announced mockery.
'And it wouldn't be that someone in the village resents you and your woman, would it?'

The Porter stood up and pushed back the chair. He spoke, running his eyes over everyone; but not as before, for now he was speaking only for Fernando.
'I didn't want to say anything but I am sure one of our neighbours envies us. I am sure of it, sirs. One day she came to ask my wife for some wine because her son, who was working on the railway, was due home and she hadn't a thing to give him for lunch.'
I noticed Fernando tense up like the band on a catapult before the stone is fired.
'On the railway? A son on the railway? You say she's got a son working down on the tracks?' he burst out at last.
'Yes, sir, she has. At the moment he's in hiding, he's run away. He was one of the CNT crowd. Son of a witch, and herself the daughter of a witch!'
'Blimey!' the Caballero shouted jokingly, laughing his head off, his double chin trembling like an earthquake. 'Burn the witches!'
Fernando Salgueiro can leave you cold with no more than a gesture of his hand, with just a frown, with just a look. He doesn't need to get angry and put the barrel of his gun to your belly to give an order - though he knows how to do that, too. With the Caballero a mere smile, one finger poised in ambivalent reprimand, was quite enough.
The Porter continued, nervously wringing his hands:
'She already resented us, that witch, because of my job in the spa down in the valley. When she came to ask my wife for the jug of wine, she didn't give her one. She was sick of helping her out all the time.
'Some other day. God bless you!' she said coldly. As for our neighbour, she had hardly got out of the front door when my little boy started to moan and throw up (begging your pardon!). It wasn't long before the lice came. She'd put the evil eye on him.'
We asked for more wine, in Bande.
A circular clock, with mother of pearl around the face, struck eleven o'clock. The Caballero's eyes looked even more bloodshot than usual. Fernando bowed his head as if meditating, and the morning light made exactly the same reflections on his boots as on his brylcremed hair, which was parted down the middle. The Porter closed his eyes and a fly landed on his triangular moustache. I stroked my cheek. All of us had grown stubble. The ham was from Coriscadas, a village in Castro Laboreiro that produces ham all year round.
'Let's go and see that witch,' Fernando ordered when the car started, after three energetic turns of the crank from the Porter.
'She's a poor woman,' the Porter kept telling us en route.
'That's why she's jealous of us and gave us the evil eye.'
This time, the Caballero prudently limited himself to screwing his face into some sort of smile.
Fernando suddenly became very high-spirited. He took several cigarettes from his packet, with one hand, in the time it took us to get to Gustimeaus. He puffed smoke through his nose and smiled a half smile, as film stars do. I knew he was getting ready for a party.
We followed a winding road up a steep ravine. My ears were buzzing. As we started to descend we could see, in permanent shadow, an ugly little valley scattered with small water-meadows, their outlines defined by low rough-stone walls, and a stream without a single tree along its banks. Here and there stood houses, cowsheds and thatched maize-garners.
'Gustimeaus,' announced the Porter.
The woman's house was the most isolated and stood nearest to the tarmac road. Smoke was filtering through the roof. The car could get as far as a wretched yard in front of the house.

Fernando looked back at us and showed his ferret teeth.
'Go and tell her to free the boy from the evil eye,' he commanded the Porter, with a touch of arrogance.
'Bring your tools,' Fernando ordered everyone.
We got out of the car.
'Come on, Porter,' Fernando insisted. 'Come on, move yourself.'
I then saw how the Porter became as pale as wax. He opened his mouth a little and his triangular moustache trembled. I can spot the fear in the mouths of those Reds, he had said earlier. Suddenly he got out and staggered towards the house. He kicked the door open and went inside. I heard a woman scream and indistinct shouts from the Porter.
The three of us went in, and there he was beating, with the palm and the back of his hand, a tangle of rags huddled near the hearth, by a rock that formed the back wall of the house.
'Neighbours, neighbours, help me!' the black thing screamed, merging with the wisps of dense smoke that the wind had blown around the kitchen.
When he saw us coming in, the Porter moved to one side, awaiting orders from Fernando. The Caballero started coughing and rushed out of the house. The woman straightened up and the light from the doorway fell on her face. I swear by Christ on the cross I thought that clean

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