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The Girl He Left Behind Him

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— I brought you some flowers, Mama.

— I can still think of you as ‘Mama’, can’t I? Even now since they... now that José is... even now that it’s just me here alone? I know it can’t ever be the way you wanted, not now, but you were so good to me always. Always so kind to little Micaela, and all you ever asked was for me to love José just as you did.

Perhaps I didn’t love him quite as much as you did, Mama, but you know I cared for him as I would for a brother... and then I learned to blush, and to feel something more.

— I always understood from when I was very little that you meant me for him some day. And I would have been glad, Mama, you know I would. Not just because you made me welcome in your home, and not just because he seemed so strong and tall and splendid when he smiled. I knew he never really saw me, just little Micaela underfoot when he was already a man, but I saw how in all his strength he needed you — and how one day the time might come when my faith could be his refuge, even as yours had always been.

I knew from the start, Mama. Oh, not about her — here in the village, how could we know of such things? But I knew he was afraid, beneath the bright shining honour. I knew he fled from even the tiny sins because he feared to fail. To fall.

He was upright, always, and honest and truthful and proud. He wanted everything to be right, and feared to be less than perfect. It was weakness, Mama, though even in those last days you could not say it, not to him, not to me. You believed in him, and that was his shield when he could not believe in himself.

I knew, you see. Men are such children, are they not? In need of a woman’s tenderness to pick them up when they fall, to give them comfort when they break and to tell them what dear, swaggering brave boys they are in the moment when they feel the most unsure. I knew he clutched to virtue like a flagon of finest glass that he dared not let slip, but I did not love him less for it. I only loved him more.

Carlos the Ox is a fine figure of a man in our village, and the young girls giggle over him behind closed shutters. But he has not a nerve in his body or a thought in his head; he could sin a dozen times in a week and confess before Mass and breathe easy. My José — no, he was not mine, I may not call him mine — your José was his equal in all things save that. He was no placid ox. He was a toro, a nervy, high-strung fighting bull who sweats and glares beneath the pricks, poor José, but I could have sung him back to peace and soothed the wounds away.

I would have taken such joy in doing it, Mama. I have no book-learning and no beauty, but this one thing was in my gift. I could have set the circle of my arms between him and the world, and softened its blows.

— Oh, I had brought you flowers. I almost forgot.

— See, I shall set them here and take these old ones away. They are only field flowers, Mama, that is why they never last, but I shall bring some more when I come again.

Last week I scattered flowers for José. Down in Seville they would not show me the place where he lies, all among the poisoners and the robbers, and he would not have wanted me there. The prison walls are scarred and bare, Mama, and you cannot see the sky.

I went up above the valley — not all the way to the pass, just a little — and strewed flowers upon the mountain for the breeze to take, and the kind earth. And I knelt down between two rocks in that wild place and prayed for all the saints to intercede for him in his time of suffering, and bring him at last to peace... and I said a prayer for her, Mama. Was that so very wrong?

We tried to keep all word of her from you, but surely now you must know everything. And she was not a wicked woman, I am sure. She sent him home to you. She did not mean to cause any of us any harm.

— Oh, she was a bad, loose woman as Father Pablo would have it — like Rosario down at the taverna. I know.

I have shocked you now, have I not, Mama? You would put your finger across my lips sooner than hear me speak of such things. But I am not a village innocent. I have been to the mountains, and to Seville three times.

Once to take your letter. Once to the trial. And once... after.

They let me into the cell to see him in your place, because you could not be there. It was hard — hard for both of us.

— He did not want to live, Mama. He wanted it over, wanted justice done. Wanted to lose his life in payment... to her.

— No, I cannot curse her, Mama, though he did: as many curses as he heaped upon himself in that last hour we had together. If he was damned for her it was not by sorcery. Or only such sorcery as any woman may use, even Micaela.

I met her, you see. I saw her dart unafraid between the blades of two angry men. She was dangerous and she was beautiful, but she was brave. I was a poor cowering thing in the wilderness, but she— she was fierce and proud like a lynx in the rocks. The gypsy. Carmen.

I don’t think she ever cared for him, Mama, not in the way that José told himself she did. She did not understand a man of his kind — and he did not understand a woman of hers. That was the tragedy.

José was not of the sort that gives himself to one woman and then to another, not like the soldiers she knew. For Carmen, a night of love was payment for a debt, a generous gift abundantly paid. But for José to fall, it must needs be forever.

He begged her and begged her to promise, he told me. He chose to believe she had. His honour could not bend, Mama. It could only break... and once broken, he was lost.

Carmen was too strong for him — too wild, too powerful. Beside her he was nothing: a poor figure of a soldier, a clumsy lover, a laughable bandit. He could offer her nothing from the start... save the fatal challenge of a man who would not look her way.

You offered him my hand, Mama, to ward off the perils of the world with a sweet memory of home. But she had only to lift her finger to steal him from both of us with never a second thought. Freedom for the gypsy, two months in jail for José, and I— I came back for his answer, still fresh from the trembling memory of his kiss, and found only a jeering crowd upon the bridge to send me home in shame.

— I told you it was duty that kept him in Seville and hid my red eyes from you each morning for a week, and did penance with Father Pablo for the lie. José cursed her name in his cell and dreamed of her scent, and spared not a thought for Micaela or for home.

And Carmen? She was not all bad, Mama. She did not forget... and besides, he was handsome then.

— Not as he was when he came back to us, so bitter and so wild, with his face gaunt and hardened with knowledge. No, he was fresh-faced and fair as a boy from the farm, with a set to his shoulders and a light in his eye to make any mother proud, and for a moment he touched her fancy and her gratitude alike.

She had taken him for sport. But she came back to make repayment in her own way, and when he spurned her offers in the name of duty she was as angry as any jilted maid.

It was temptation, wicked temptation, but to her it was honesty, Mama. She sought to lead him to the bandit life, but she never believed she truly could. She had given her word, that was all, to try.

And she could not: José swore it to me on Our Lady’s blessed name! He was mad for her, but not so mad as to turn thief and murderer for the sake of a gypsy’s smile. He would have broken with her and gone back, he meant to do it. But that officer, her lover, came swaggering in, flirting his claim, throwing his gold braid in José’s face... and a black demon of jealousy came over José and swept away all knowledge of rank or discipline or duty.

— Mama, he drew his sabre on the man. He could not go back after that. He explained it all to me: by then, it was mutiny, whether he meant it or not.

That was how he came to go with her, you see. He had no choice. And that jealous demon rode with them on his shoulder, and poisoned every breath he drew into a misery for them both.

— She never made him happy. Is it wicked of me to be so glad of that? I... forgive me, I... I didn’t mean to cry...

— He wouldn’t have been happy with me, Mama. Content, maybe. Comfortable. We would have married to please you and been fond of each other, and maybe it would have been enough. But all his life there would have been something out there waiting, calling.

He never loved me, you know. Not as a woman. Not like that. And some day there would have been someone, and I— I would have pretended not to see: little Micaela, so simple, so quiet, so good. Just as you taught me, Mama.

And now we are shamed, and José is gone, and I have nothing and nowhere left. Despair is a sin, but I am afraid... and alone, so alone. When Father Pablo comes, I pretend I’m saying a prayer, and he lets me stay here with you a little longer. This is no place for the young and the healthy, I know that, but there is no-one I can speak to about José and among our neighbours no welcoming hearth.

They call him deserter, criminal, robber. They point the finger and say they knew from the start: you know how a village can be. They say he was wild and disrespectful, born for the bandit life... if only they knew, Mama, how wretched he was in that mountain trade, how little trusted, how much jeered at and held in contempt.

There is no place for conscience in that life, and scruples are for the cowardly and the weak. For those who deal in deceit, lies are a precious craft and an honest face is cause for shame. José was thrust to the rear, left to mount guard or kept in camp when there was danger to be faced or trickery set afoot. He lived beneath the lash of Carmen’s mockery and scorn.

They quarrelled and quarrelled again, and yet he clung to her, desperately afraid she would turn her favours elsewhere. It was a bitter love without pleasure and without hope, but it twisted in his belly like the pangs of a starving man and drove him to madness and to jealous rage.

— He could not get free of her toils. He did not want to, Mama. He cared nothing for happiness or for honour in those months. All he needed was to be with her, to see her, fill his senses with her, whether she smiled on him or thrust him aside. He no longer awaited anything from her but pain, but it was a sickness he would not have cured if he could. He had given up everything for this. If she would not love him, still he had his love for her — and to wish that away was to fling away the one bright thing to which he remained constant, the one meaning in a life that had fallen apart.

If you had cared nothing for José, Mama, in those months when he sent no word and I kept the rumours from you as best I could, you too would have suffered so much less. And yet you would never have wished to tear up your love by the roots to heal the pain... or even as a kindness to him.

For if there was no joy in it for José, there was less for Carmen. A love that served no purpose was no love at all to her. She could have teased and laughed with a bold dragoon, or traded curses and kisses with a gypsy rom — but gloomy passion from José was pointless suffering for them both. He was unhappy? Very well! Then let him go where he was wanted, and not cling on where he was of no use. She would find another lover, and one more to her taste.

She did not see such a life as wrong, Mama. To her it was natural; it was common sense. It was José’s barren claim that was wicked folly when love should come with a smile and slip as easily aside as an outworn cloak. She never meant to be his forever, and she never promised that she would. And Escamillo? Escamillo was a man of her own sort, who understood the game.

I saw him again in Seville, on that— that last day. There was a new girl on his arm, with dark flashing eyes and laughter on her lips and a sinful bold swing to her step... and Carmen would have applauded from her pauper’s grave and blown him a kiss and wished them well. I could only try not to hate him for all the misery he caused José, Mama. And yet Father Pablo calls her wicked, and pardons me the sin.

— When she sent José back with me it was for his own sake, and for yours: I do believe that. If then she took Escamillo in his place, it was according to her nature and not some deep-laid scheme. She had no more thought of being tied to him than to José, but then neither did he. They were of the same careless kind.

I wish — oh, I know it is useless, I know it is folly! — but oh, Mama, how can I help but wish that she had found Escamillo first, and left us alone with José? I wish...

No. No, I do not. See, I am not weeping, not at all. Married or not, he would have gone to her, and I could not have borne it if he had left me so: I must not pretend, not even here, not even to you.

She would not lie. She was not ashamed to speak her heart. At the end, she would not lie to him to save his pride. Nor yet to save herself.

How could he do it, Mama? How could he strike down a woman — a woman he loved? I heard him swear to be with her though it cost him his life, and I trembled. And yet it was her life he stole away, and I could not forgive him or understand.

They called you the mother of a murderer, and scorned us in the street. But I cared nothing for that. I cared nothing for her in that moment when I heard, struck down though she was in her sin and unrepentant, to the terror of her immortal soul. I cared only for José, José as we had known him, alone in that cell which leads to the garota, with the stain of that crime upon his hands and her blood upon his heart.

— He went back to her, you see. He went back to forgive their quarrels and start afresh. In those weeks when they were apart he had thought it over, seen his own madness and how it could not go on. He had planned it all out: an honest life by the sweat of his brow, her past forgotten in a new world across the sea with none to point the finger.

He saw it as salvation, a second chance that would atone for them both. She saw it as an ugly prison from a dead past.

José meant nothing to her now. His tenderness and pity she flung back into his face. He was a chapter that was over, a fool who could not see when he had lost; she was frank, brutally frank, and still he would not hear.

Mama, he shook as he spoke to me of those final pleas, and despite myself I shrank back. He begged her, he said. He swore to damn himself all over again if only it would please her, to become the worst of bandits — anything she asked, any abasement she could devise.

But she spoke only of death. Of love for another, and of death — death at his hand, death ordained, death implacable and defiant like a final taunt.

He had thrown away his life for her; honour, duty, marriage, soul and hope. He had burned everything he cared for on the pyre of his passion and watched her quench it to ashes in another man’s arms, and laugh. She didn’t love him. Had she ever loved him, ever at all? Or had it just been her stock in trade, another manipulation in a life of lies and casual promise — one more besotted fool forgotten when the goods had crossed the border? Had his whole world been nothing but this cold-blooded transaction of deceit? I saw his face then as she must have seen it, in its horror and despair, and felt the ghost of that blade unbidden in my hand.

I understand now how it was, Mama, for I too would have used the weapon in that hour to a mortal sin. Only I am a woman, and would have struck home to silence my own heart. He was a man in agony, and struck first for hers.

Forgive him, Mama, for what he did, and speak for him now— you, who were as innocent as any saint. You trusted him to me, and I failed you; you set his hand in mine at your bedside, and we clasped fingers in that final comforting lie.

I could not keep him safe for you. I never could. And now I have nothing at all.

— I can stay no longer, Mama. I see Father Pablo coming again to tell me so, and this will be the third time. He has been very patient and kind since... since José paid the price, but I know he thinks I am here too often, and depend on this too much. He says it is my duty to go out into the world and take up my burden, or else to take the veil and shut myself away to serve God.

And I could not bear the cloister — not now. It is too close to the memory of that final cell. God will hear my prayers as well in the high meadows as in the nuns’ dark chapel, and in His mercy He will take heed.

Manuelito the goat-herd has asked for my hand, Mama. His wife died this winter past; he understands. He is a good man and gentle, and together perhaps we can be contented. Comforted, at least.

José has his freedom now, and so does she — Carmen, who could never be bound by any man. And I must seek mine in my own way... so lie here in peace until I come again, and may God give you rest.

~o~

— See, Father, how golden the evening light falls across the flowers for her grave...