On a morning like any other, sometime around Christmas, amidst a lot of sun and seagulls, a ship arrived carrying passengers and cargo. The usual tangled uproar took place, the little tugboat blowing smoke while it towed in the chatas, which were carrying all sorts of things on board: scared, crying children; extravagant consignments — including one upright piano; men who would not let go of their bags and demanded to be carried to dry land along with them; women coming to make the impossible possible in this male territory of oil-workers and shepherds.
Manuel Varela carried a young girl ashore in his arms. She spoke Castilian but, judging by her accent, must have been a fellow Galician or, at the very least, an Asturian. With her eyes fixed on the ground, she thanked him demurely when he stood her on the sand; and once again when he deposited her trunk at her feet, up on the roadside.
Her pretty face had drawn his attention. She had dark hair and eyes, and white skin with cheeks flushed red that reminded him of the goatherd Farruquiña do Penedo, up in the hills of San Fiz.
To-ing and fro-ing from the barge to dry land, he looked up a number of times at the girl standing at the roadside, her eyes anxiously searching through the dust.
People were setting off into town, disappearing between the buildings. Coaches, cars, trucks, gigs, came and went. Vehicles and people set up a continual din; a world of people and things moved by. But the girl just stood there.
When the work was done, Manuel set off for an eating place where he banished his hunger most days with a meal of roast mutton. He saw the girl standing there but he went by without saying anything to her. After all, he thought to himself, you never can tell whether someone may get cross at you even if you have the best intentions. Or, to put it another way, she might have a man who would object to someone else poking his nose into their affairs.
He had a very late lunch with some of the other porters and finished with a satisfied burp. Then he opened a carton of cigarettes, lit up and made for his lodgings to clean up for his daily lesson that was becoming more and more like a paid conversation as time went by. Yesterday he’d learned that those called Turks in the Americas came from different countries, and had different religions; but all had been subjects of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
Thinking of this, and comparing it to the stubborn, stupid way that all Spaniards at this side of the Atlantic get called “Galicians” — which really only means people from Galicia —, he turned his head away from the wind and dust and again saw the young woman who even his lessons couldn’t shake from his mind. She was in the same spot but should have long since slumped down onto her trunk.
It might be that she was enduring what was a perfectly common occurrence in a place like this. She probably had family on a farm far inland who had agreed to meet her on such day and such time but had been held up by an unexpected mishap on the way; or maybe her ship had arrived a day ahead of schedule… What was certain was that the poor thing would have no idea what to do and she’d surely be grateful for some help.
He approached her and bid her good-evening. Her speech proved her to be Galician and so he carried on in their language:
“I don’t mean to pry, but who are you waiting for? I’ve lived here for three years so I know almost everybody. Maybe I even know the person you’re expecting.”
The name she gave him was Modesto, which caused Manuel some consternation. But he preferred to think that there might be more than one man with that name in the town: there were such a lot of people coming and going.
He asked her what this Modesto did for a living and she answered that he was in the transport business. Alarm grew deep inside Varela.
“And might I know what relation he is to you?”
“He’s my husband.”
Varela was determined not to lose hope, and he continued.
“Do you know where he lives?”
“In a boarding-house, I think.”
“The one called Brain’s: that’s the name they read me from his letters…”
Now Manuel’s heart skipped a beat. That Modesto was a young man whose things were at the boarding-house, and Ibrahim was taking care of his money. But he hadn’t often spent much time there. And he never stayed there anymore.
Because he was dead.
Modesto López — it had to be him — worked in the covered-wagon trains, transporting goods to the interior and returning with bales of wool. He and another had died of cold out there during the last snowstorm, caught unawares up high in the pampas.
That poor young woman. And how slow the mail service was… When Varela composed himself, he decided that he should take her with him and find her a place in the boarding-house. Once she was there, she could be told about her misfortune.
“Look, Miss,” he said, “I live at Ibrahim’s and I think that the best thing would be to go there and ask him about your husband; there are a lot of people living in that guesthouse so we don’t all know each other.”
Before the young widow could change her mind, he picked up her trunk, balanced it on his shoulder and set off towards the Hotel Damasco. She followed him. Now and again, Manuel would look back to see her struggling against the wind and the grit; she had to make an effort to keep her balance; her body swayed and her dress, discrete though it was, could not hide the imprint of a well-proportioned female.
Who still didn’t know that she was a widow…
When they got to the “hotel”, Varela made the girl wait in the lobby — which she did obediently, looking about her with widened, terrified eyes. He went to the room where Ibrahim kept his papers and slept his siestas and told him what had happened. Ibrahim let him talk and, finally, asked whether López’ wife was “a looker.”
Manuel pretended not to hear and told him how they should proceed:
“She must be given a good room and left to rest. We’ll tell her that her husband is out on a trip. Then we can pick up López’s documents at the Judge’s office and tell her what happened; let her cry for a while and show her his grave in the cemetery… You hand her the man’s money,” Manuel looked the Arab straight in those shifty eyes that seemed to retreat even further into his head, “and buy her a passage home.”
Ibrahim never opened his mouth. He went out into the lobby, stopped in front of the woman and looked her over, slowly, up and down and back again. She flushed.
Ibrahim asked her name.
“Paulina Mouzo Veiga…”
“Then you’re not López’s wife,” said the Moor in his ugly accent; and Varela had to explain to him that Spanish women don’t change their surnames (“They have two: father’s and mother’s”) when they get married.
Papers. The Moor wanted to see papers.
Paulina turned away from them, searched in her bosom and faced them once more holding her documents and some letters from the unfortunate man.
On seeing her marriage certificate, the owner of the boarding-house called the maid and ordered her to escort “Mrs. López” to her room.