Time is free to a poor man and Pablo spent it lavishly. Waiting for his string to stop drinking, he led them over to the other side of the fountain, a bench there offering shade. After tying the rope to its arm, he used his satchel as pillow and settled himself down, laying out full-length. In moments the sweet siren of nothing. The donkeys stood on the uninviting cobbles.
A sound rose in him while eyes still shut, the warm feeling of rich trade ahead. Iron bound barrels re-filled, scraped the cobbled stones as they were being wheeled out from the opening shutters. He sat up quicker than the last time he had lain. There to greet him in the darkened evening a joyous sight. Dominoes of light flickering on as each store opened, illuminating the square in gaudy splendour. To a man who had never seen electric light, the wealth of it caused him to stare in childish wonder. This must be how heaven is, he thought.
A pair of yellow eyes watched him from across the square, fielding the scene of potential profit - an old man bedraggled, and a string of ill-fed donkeys with takings on their backs. It didn’t take much to decide to walk over. As he approached, Pablo saw possibilities. But the merchant, he saw more.
“Senor, what brings you to our fair city”
“I believe it’s market day on Friday”
“It is Senor, but today is Tuesday”
“Indeed it is, I’m also waiting for my son, he’s coming from San Domenico on Thursday”
“The city of San Domenico?”
“Yes, he’s studying there to be a doctor”
Quick as he was not to show desperation, the merchant was well ahead of him. While they may act as friends in commerce, the commerce was only going to go the one way.
San Domenico my foot, thought the merchant while still all friendly nods, giving nothing away.
“You must be very proud”
“We rejoice in his achievements, a testament to his dear mother”
“And what will you do, while you wait?”
“Oh, bide away the time, it’s rare I get moments to myself these days”
Pablo was going to drive the ball as far down the field as he could.
“You must be a busy man”
“It’s not easy, keeping everything running smoothly takes organisation, hard to get the good workers these days. But we manage”
“And what is this?” he said, pointing along the donkey’s backs.
“Just something to do really”
“Do you wish to sell?”
“Perhaps, it would depend on the price”
“Now is not a good time Senior”
“It rarely is, we are all busy”
As they talked, the other merchants on the square gathered. A cabal they looked across at the seemingly warm conversation between the two men. But they, as one, were the only show in town. Pablo’s conversationalist was part of the one. Right now, Pablo, though he might not know it, was just blood in the water. They could wait, would wait. And feast when the moment was right. Let the wonder wear off. Pablo kept up the pretence of prosperity.
“We can’t wait to have him back for the Christmas holidays, it’s been a long time”
“How long?” the merchant’s tone becoming slightly pointed
The dial turned harsher
“Yes, but how long Gringo?”
“I don’t ever recall having seen you here before”
“No, my other sons usually come for him”
“Where are they now?”
“Managing the land, we have much to do”
“I have to be getting back, call over, if you decide to sell Gringo”
It was hopeless, he had driven the ball too far.
Orphans, Pablo and his sea salt sat as still as the donkey stood. The merchants, re-joined by their outlier, laughed amongst themselves. It was only when the more devotional cityfolk returning from evening mass began to populate the square did the merchants break away from each other, returning to their stores. One hour, two hours, three hours. No other merchant approached. And Pablo in turn didn’t show the lesser hand he was holding. As the dominoes clicked back to dark he approached the store of the conversationalist for one final throw.
“Senior, might I ask, do you know of a half decent hotel one might find a good supper, and a bed for the night?”
“I do Gringo, but what would be the point of telling you”, he laughed slapping the shutters closed.
And this Christmas week.
His stay that night on the bench was longer, harder than in the scrub the night before. While hunger gnawed, making him feel even colder, it wasn’t that. At least out there, in the scrub, or up on the mountain, nature surrounded him. It might be hard, and it might be unforgiving, but it wasn’t malicious. Only man could be that. Surrounded now by the darkened buildings, keenly he felt his impoverished loneliness.
When night eventually lifted, broken by cathedral bells calling for early mass, Pablo to his bones felt each one of his sixty three years. Flesh shivering, his soul feeling the hard shadow of shame from the night before, he decided to attend the service the bells called for. Creasing upright from the bench took effort. Real effort. Once up, he felt faint. Slowly he moved to the fountain’s edge. His head hung as much now in sorrow as in soreness. Resting there, he replayed in his mind the conversation of the night before. He should not have lied so basely about himself and his family, lowering himself for common trade. Slowly he turned in to drink from the trough, the tendons on the back of his neck rising like tram tracks. As they did so, a voice from behind.
“What’s good for the beast is good for the man”
He didn’t bother to turn. Enough. He continued his quest for a drink.
Leaning in over the water’s surface he saw reflected on its top, the black of a priest’s garments.
“My son. You look a tired man”
“I am father, and sorry for my journey”
“Why would that be?”
“Padre, we all have our sins”
“Indeed so. Are you coming to join us this morning?”
“It was my very intention”
“Well, come. I know a place you can leave your friends as you pray”
Without getting his drink he followed the priest.
They walked back along the way he had so expectantly come the day before. Then, taking a right, they travelled up a slight incline. Going further, a few hundred yards more, they entered Cathedral Square, an open plaza paved wide with flagstones. On three sides stood thin trees in leaf. On the fourth, the steps up to the cathedral. Those on their way to attend the mass looked at the scene from the other side. Seen walking alongside the Padre in full conversation Pablo’s standing rose amongst the onlookers. A hum of speculation about the stranger began. Was he sent hidden amongst us? Even more acutely, they observed the scene as priest and Pablo walked around to the back of the cathedral. In a place of tired sights this was a new one, something to talk about.
“Here, here, in the shade, tie them up, come in. They’ll be safe there”, said the padre, who waited as the donkeys were tied. Uncomprehending that the invitation could relate to him, Pablo made a start to walk back around to the front. The priest gestured again, to the way he himself was going. Reluctantly, and with great shyness, Pablo entered the sacristy alongside the priest. When they entered, two nuns attending to preparations for the mass looked at the odd sight, but said nothing, staying in the train of their work.
Pablo, never in such a room before, looked around in awe. On the far wall, covering most of it, hung a large gilt framed painting of the crucifixion. At loss of what to do, he did the only thing he could. He kneeled. Right there on the spot. With warmth, the priest encouraged him up with one arm, while directing him towards a small doorway with the other, to the right of the big painting. Again, Pablo walked where he was bid.
Lowering his head to get through the door’s opening, he stilled to marble as he raised it. A forest of gilded columns each fifty feet high spanned the length of the nave as clouds of incense scented the air. The congregation seeing him once again, really got to work. Who was he? What was he? This interlocutor, this priestly alliance. Those donkeys? It mystified them. Some, interspersing their confused thoughts with the bible’s teachings, recalled the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt on the backs of donkeys. He comes this way, of the priest. Is he? Could he? Somehow be connected to the great event. This stranger. It was, after all, soon to be Christmas Eve.
Pablo’s absolute stillness in the doorway unnerved them further. Frozen in shock, not even capable of offending by turning back to the sacristy, he stayed solidly put. Only when the priest, garlanded in full vestments, went to take the mass did also he take Pablo’s arm, leading him down to the very front pew. Pablo knelt. And stayed knelt. Stock-still, right through the whole mass. Not a pip did he move. The congregation, folding and unfolding in motion as prayerful tradition dictates, never once took their eyes off his back. Who was this devout stranger, this kneeling statue of devotion. Mass ended, they filed out in formation, speculation the only thing on their mind.
Rumour got to work. By noon it was fully established that Pablo was actually a Bishop sent from Egypt with his donkeys to save their souls. This knowledge, that they were soon to be the new chosen ones, caused a current of religious fervour to bolt through the lanes. The next level of knowledge needing to be established was, could he have the cure too, this Padre Pio of the Nile.
But that was later. This is now.
As the church emptied, Pablo stayed where he was. It was some time further along when the priest, divested of his regalia, came out to fetch the wandering soul.
“You must be hungry, come, continue your story as we walk”
Leaving nothing out, Pablo treated it as much as a chance for confessional as for a re-telling.
Later entering the open gateway of a convent garden, the priest concluded their walk by saying, “Well, my son, I think you might have a little better luck from now on”. The string of four legged companions behind them eyed hungrily the flower beds. They tugged at the rope as the priest continued, “I know a man who has something they might like. Give me a moment”. He walked along the garden path. A few moments later returning with the gardener, who, taking hold the bridle of Mother donkey, led them away, over to his side of the garden. “Now your turn”, he said to Pablo, leading him into a high-ceilinged convent kitchen.
A well-scrubbed pine table ran the length of it, and here the priest sat him down. This was Pablo’s Christmas Day a week early. A young nun placed before him a bowl of boiled eggs and a plate shining high with butter. A warm loaf then appeared. A pot of coffee too. To finish this unexpected suite of plenty, a knife, a plate, and two big white enamelled mugs. How fast was rude. Staying his hands as much as he could, he reached for one egg. Devoured it. Then another. Then the third. Fourth. And fifth. Each peeled hastily, lustily, eaten whole. For the sixth egg he slowed, and cut the bread. It was without doubt, one of the most satisfying meals of his life.
As he ate, a quiet side conversation took place between priest and nun. It was offered to Pablo, and accepted, that he would rest in the convent after his meal. Could it get any better. Yes. It could. While sleeping the sleep of a man with a newly unburdened soul the nuns silently took away his clothes and washed them. They dried in sunlight on garden bushes outside his room as the nuns, adding to their goodness, stitched and polished his tattered boots, placing them new at the foot of his bed.
After a thorough wash with the soap and water also put out for him, he left that whitewashed room a new man. His spirits rose even higher when informed by the sisters that they would purchase his salt. All of it. For seven hundred pesos. While not a king’s ransom, and only two hundred more more than had he stayed put, it was better than returning to the merchant’s square.
But then Pablo did a terrible thing.
When coming back through the convent gates, his disciples behind newly fed and watered, a small crowd had gathered. The poorest, the most desolate, most devout of the city. His eyes darted from face to face in panic. Had the merchants sent a mob to even the score? He wasn’t five fearful strides out the gates when the first ten peso note was thrust at him. Shocked, he kept his free hand down. The salt was sold.
The crowd closed in.
“Please, Santo, please, pray for my sick father, we have faith”
“My baby, please, touch him, please, he will die”
Unaware of his elevation while he slept, everyone now wanted a cure, a miracle, something from above. Each with alms in eager hands held high as procession candles, appealed to the holy man in hope of attaining grace. A quick learner, Pablo’s free non-penitent hand reached out for the first grab. By the time he had gotten to his tenth step past the gates both his hands were reaching out for the money. And kept reaching, until he had the last of the crowd’s alms.
“Now go, go now, I will pray for you”
His words carried weight. Was this not the saint who was inside the convent all day taking the nuns absolutions. He must be obeyed. The crowd dispersed in communal silence, going back the way they had come. And each just that little bit lighter in the money department.
Not one to count his winnings at the table, Pablo kept walking. When the choice came to turn right for home, or left for the merchant’s square, he settled on left. Parading in front of those bandito merchants would make his return back over the mountain that little bit sweeter. And easier.
The lights didn’t captivate him as before, and neither did the now added Christmas lights - the merchant’s reluctant annual contribution to the festivities. More important things were front and centre in Pablo’s mind. Money, more money. Being Christmas week, for the merchants those festive lights were good for business. So up they went. Only reason. Garlanded building to building, they made the square look something from a dream. And in the center of the square, at townhall expense, the merchants made sure of that, a Christmas tree. Even higher than the stores that surrounded it. And to crown the annual expense, a star lit warm and white. A most beautiful sight, but one wasted on those whose businesses surrounded it.
Pablo slowly walking past each store proud, idly looked at the barrels put out for trade. Each filled with this and that. Some with watermelons, others oranges, another with brushes. And this one, sponges. Sponges? Piqued, he walked closer. Let’s see the price. He looked. His mind whirred erratically, a whirligig caught by a wild gust of wind. Twenty pesos! Twenty pesos! For one Sponge! The profits he had lost, the years he had toiled. For pittance. Twenty times the price for what he had sold them, to those bastardly traders. One peso they would give. One peso. And give it grudgingly. Twenty times my money they made. Twenty Times! Hatred invaded his thoughts, but so too in tandem did greed. Rich. Rich, I’ll get them. Rich! I’ll be the one rich this time. God made the earth, man made the money, and I’ll have it, by God I’ll have it. Stay calm. Calm. Do nothing. Calm. He walked on, the merchant’s eyes as one following him from the square. He didn’t look back.
And nor did he stop. Until safely hidden back in the dark scrub. As each donkey knelt down to rest he sat beside them. Leaning back against Mother donkey he began to count out the crumpled notes of the poor. In all my living days what a day that was, five hundred and sixty pesos it came to. The seven hundred pesos for the salt, that could stay uncounted, he could trust the nuns. Twelve hundred and sixty pesos he had in his pockets. The sponges, the sponges, they will make me rich. He figured twelve hundred and sixty sponges to be bought and sold. Sell at say, undercut the merchants, fifteen pesos. He could take in near nineteen thousand pesos. For that he could buy a smallholding outside the village, be no more a tenant. And with just two more trips, who knows, become a landlord, bleed the others as he had been bled. And with added Interest. Build capital. Be someone. Late in life though it may be, but someone. Someone at last. The word someone in his mind equating solely with the word rich. To be above money you have to have money, but that wasn’t a factor in Pablo’s thoughts. It was just the money. Money, money, money. And money to be made.
This, the new vision, sustained him as he pulled the donkeys up and over the mountain the next day. He resolved to be back in Pintas de Quinas for Christmas Eve morning to take full advantage of any open purses during the festive trade. And perhaps, if luck was on his side, maybe get a few more pesos from the needful gullible.
Greed overtook as soon as he arrived back at Punto del Feugo. Not only did he spend the one thousand two hundred pesos he had accrued, he also bought on credit. This was his big break, he wasn’t going over that mountain again half-cocked. Soon he would be rich. Rich. Very rich. His thoughts those few days he was piling up the sponges. Not wanting to waste any precious buying capital he fed the donkeys thinly the two days they were back.
All told and losing no time, he actually managed to pack the five donkeys with over three thousand tightly pressed sponges. While not the deadweight of sacks of salt, each donkey was loaded fat and high for the return journey, each sack carefully inspected. They’ll eat well enough soon enough, after we sell the first sponges, Pablo said to himself going down the line on the morning of their departure. It was just two days before Christmas Eve, they’d have to go faster this time. Tightening sharp the girdle of each beast, and lose no stock either, he gave each girdle an extra heave.
The journey back up, while less torturous than the salt crossing, was, nonetheless, high altitude climbing. Never easy, and on a lightly fed string not without added struggle. The younger ones stepped more lightly along this time, that is, until they hit the steep slopes of the higher mountain. The thin air and their poorly rested state quickly fatigued. The shale, re-cutting wounds, brought blood trickling to their hoofs. Again he shouted “Hup, hup”, while harshly tugging at the lead bridle, whipping Mother’s rump. This was commerce with a deadline, not being there early on Christmas Eve would be the lost profit of golden opportunity.
As they crossed the top of the mountain Mother Donkey slipped, shunted forward, a loose rock stumbling her. She pulled up. The damage to her front leg severe. Deeply cut and badly sprained, if not fractured, she was badly maimed. Again, thinking more of what could be lost than gained, he cursed. Whipping harder, he pulled at her, keeping her moving. She limped on best she could while her offspring quietened behind. Heads down, they followed in sad acquiescence, aware the man-made cruelty doled to their mother in front could easily follow down the line. Furious at the loss of pace Pablo whipped wantonly behind him, not looking or caring if he was whipping Mother’s face or her neck. The beast of greed prowled his mind. She could go to the butchers once offloaded of stock. Just get me there, get me there. More money more sponges. He would drive that bag of offal up over the mountain if it was the last thing he’d do, “Hup, Hup, you lazy bitch, hup”.
Time made on the way up was now lost on the way down, taking two days instead of the planned one. And a hard second day it was that Christmas Eve. Blood scented the air down along the string as Mother’s leg practically tore from her body. She would, most definitely, be going to the abattoir now. No matter, Christmas Day morning would still be good for trade. He could catch the people on Cathedral Square as they left Christmas Mass. They would buy. Perhaps there’d be a few masses. More masses. More people. More money. This brightened his mood, got him back into the swing of things.
As on the previous trip, it was mid-afternoon when his rock lover came once again into view. Remembered warmth as her lure, she beckoned him. The cool gentle sound of the stream beckoned the youngest on the string too. Rest would be deserving for me, thought Pablo. And cool water for me, thought Baby.
Pablo still had time, he knew he had, the route was known to him now. He whipped Mother for measure, gaining ground to the rock. Come closer to thee my love, a love we thought lost. The rock’s affections regained, and with the confidence of a man knowing he was soon to come to fortune, he tied Mother to the branch as before, and gingerly climbed atop his lover. Warm in her arms he was soon lulled to the deepest waters of sleep, dreaming solely of the riches within his grasp.
The nearby water, meandering in slow form, welcomed Baby back too. His family knelt at once to sleep but he, he crept forward to the bank. Prevented again by the strain of rope tied to his brother, he kept a constant pull. Until eventually, his brother rolled closer. This allowed the slack needed to drink deep the clear mountain water. It felt good. So good. As good as before. He crept forward a little more towards the gentle stream’s bank. Oh heaven, here again am I! He rolled over to his side to feel the water’s coolness, lighten my load gentle stream.
He lay there waiting for the water to roll over neck and flanks. But it did not come. Using his hoofs against the gentle incline of the stream’s bank, he pushed against it, moving out a little more. He waited in pleasure of expectation. But still the water did not come. And he did not move. The gentle water instead, gathered and pushed against him, a strange sensation. And different than before. But not unpleasant. It raised no alarm, no concern. No fear. And why should it. Water only does what water does. Flows. The gentle river was no water spider, no spectre. A little confusion however did begin to seep in at the lack of events. He went to rise up, but oddly couldn’t. Perhaps he was more tired than he knew. Again he lay down, flat to the shallow riverbed, resting some more. How nice it is to be here. He stretched out his legs in contentment, and swished his tail.
Ah, it was better now. The stream began to slowly flow over him. But only intermittently. Tiring of waiting and feeling the chill of water, he went to rise again, get back up on the bank to his family. But it wasn’t happening. This time he could rise up no more than a few inches. This wasn’t right. He kicked his legs. Nothing. The force of the stream against his back had turned him, moving him around, forcing his head down slightly. Panic began. He sucked in air to bawl his distress but the water caused him to choke. The sodden sponges, weighing now at least two hundredweight, pushing him down harder, into deepening water.
Deepening, deepening, it further soaked the sponges compounding the weight. Baby’s hooves scrabbled, scraped against rockbed but gave no purchase. His eyes bulging in terror at his predicament pushed white. Again, again, he tried to force himself up, get his head over the waterline. He might not know what death was, but it was visiting now. And coming in fast if couldn’t raise himself up.
Up, up little donkey, Up, and with all your might. But the water pushed, pushed, it pushed him down, gaining weight every time. Every moment forcing him along, down the river where he didn’t want to go, away from his family. No, No. It held him now. Hard. Widening its jaws around him, pulling him out to the middle deeps of the rushing center. Brave little Baby tried, tried hard, continuing the struggle. Hooves not a year old skittered and scraped, skewed against rock as the river tightened even more, forcing him down to the undertow. Bubbles of air trapped in the water gaily swirled in the current teasing him, the river again spun poor Baby around. Even then he didn’t give up. No, no, he did not. With the force of life still in him, a life wishing to continue, one little hoof somehow hit and held against a jutting rock. A half-chance, and all that he needed. He pushed, and pushed up, pushed, kicked hard, his head slapped to the surface. Thank God. In that brief flash his eyes did not deceive him. Looking back he saw his two brothers sister and mother all being pulled in line behind him. He strained no more, it was no use. The fact of death pulled them now.
Later, waking from sleep, their master waited not for his lover to push him away but jumped clear down from the rock. It was a confusing sight that met him on landing, five laden donkeys vanished into thin air. He rushed down the mountainside calling as he went but it was a pointless endeavour.
That night a single star shone bright and high in the clear sky, as Pablo held loose the rope that once held his dreams.