Ever since I was introduced to Pimpo in the plaza of bars the locals here call Las Llanas, by one of the college students I tutored in English, I’ve had this knee-jerk impulse to impress him. That more than anything is why, when he rang the doorbell of the house I stayed in to ask me a terrible favor, I said yes. By saying yes in spite of the dangers, I felt I made myself vital and trusted. And was this not what a good American was supposed to do when making friends abroad? To open themselves up to new experiences, to say yes as much as possible, even when the proposition was frightening? Add to that the fact that Pimpo was a popular guy who people generally loved, with the charisma to sway anyone he might’ve asked. Yet he called on me. So when he asked me for a favor, when he asked for my help moving a body, how could I refuse?
There was no radio in Pimpo’s car, a compact stripped of most amenities, but he slapped out an uneven rhythm on the steering wheel as he drove. It was unseasonably warm for September. Still, I thought Pimpo sweated too much. His face seemed paler in the daylight, the flesh on his cheeks loose and worried. Though the stubble was thick on his cheeks, the spicy astringent of his aftershave filled the car. It was the same scent that accompanied his breath hot on my ear when he’d lean in close to be heard over the music of a bar. He didn’t talk now though, and even as his eyes flicked in my direction he seemed to be making a conscious effort not to be caught looking at me. Holding the thrill of being singled out for this illicit, and very likely illegal, task wasn’t easy; the longer we drove the more nervous I became. I tried instead to watch the land move by out the passenger window.
We drove past where the rise of buildings abruptly ended and hills and scrubby plains took over. With the tall buildings gone I could see a long way in the distance to where land and sky met. The midday sun high above us made the blue seem washed out and distressed. The drive past open fields with their distant tree line was almost like driving in the American Midwest. This stretch of Spanish highway shared a monotony of emptiness with the picked-clean fields of my home, the same purgatorial inflection that hung over every family road trip. Familiar as the landscape seemed, I couldn’t forget my foreignness—the distant edge of far away mountains pushing up like new teeth made the comparison to home wrong.
Eventually we turned off the road and onto a gravel path that brought us to a dilapidated stone farmhouse. The path curved behind the old structure, and we came to a stop behind a rusted pickup truck—American, forty years old or more. He hadn’t told me we were meeting anyone. Pimpo took a deep breath, said to me “Espera,” and got out of the car. With an anxious buzz in my chest, I waited.
Through the dusty windshield I watched him meet an old man at the tailgate of the truck, the bed covered with a green tarp secured with rope. He smoked a hand-rolled cigarette and wore a floppy, wide-brimmed hat and a plain shirt tucked loosely into jeans. His lined face was beardless and tan like someone who worked often in the sun. He walked with an obvious limp that gave him a lurching step.
They conferred quietly with one another, and only once did the old man gesture to me, though the wave of his hand could have taken in the car in general. Pimpo shook his head, and the old man resumed speaking too quietly for me to make out the words. Pimpo looked at the dirt as he listened.
In the quiet, with the engine ticking as it cooled, the extreme circumstances of the situation I was in started to overwhelm me. I didn’t honestly believe that Pimpo had driven me out to the country to do me harm, but the secrecy of whatever the old man was telling Pimpo brought me back to the fact that what we were about here was far from normal and certainly not legal. Otherwise why come in secret to the middle of nowhere, why call on the foreigner who knows nothing and practically no one here? I realized that from a certain perspective I could be seen as a liability. I wanted to get out of the car and flee, but there was no where to go. The city was far behind us. I had no choice but to stay, do the thing, and hope to walk away when it was done.
The old man finished speaking, and Pimpo’s head bobbed up and down a couple of times. Then he looked at me through the windshield and motioned me out to him. Pimpo and the old man untied the tarp. Each performed his task without needing to watch the other. I stepped up on Pimpo’s side of the truck, and they threw the tarp back to reveal what was underneath.
In the truck bed was a pair of shovels and a white sheet-wrapped body. If I hadn’t known in advance that a body was involved, I might not have guessed that was what I was seeing. The shape of it was tapered like a large fan blade, the whole bundle bound tightly in thin silk rope.
“El cádaver?” Pimpo asked.
He gestured at the bundle. We all stood around looking at the thing. I had never seen a dead body before and I suppose I still haven’t. Here was the source of my nervousness, and though I felt uneasy in the presence of the body, it was a kind of far away feeling. It was as if I was imagining what I would feel if I could see the body’s face, the covering making the fact of what it was less real to me. The old man ignored Pimpo’s question and instead drew his lips back from clenched teeth, and spit through them. Pimpo toed the gravel a little, looking away.
“Listas, chicas?” he said.
His upper lip on one side rose but it wasn’t a smile. He threw his cigarette at the ground like he was trying to spear the dirt with it and looked us up and down. I felt my worth being appraised and looked away. He stared at my shoes for a long time. He was wearing rubber boots that came up over his calves. Mine were the first pair of Converse All-Stars I owned and were so full of holes that my toes poked through. I was proud of those shoes. In them I walked all around San Sebastian, Barcelona, Segovia and other cities. Those shoes were evidence that I had been somewhere, that I had done something, that I always found my way.
The old man dropped the tailgate and took up the shovels. Pimpo grabbed the body where it tapered by what I guessed were the feet. He pulled it to the edge of the tailgate until only the top half rested on the lip. I hesitated briefly but then got my hands under its shoulders and hoisted it up onto my own. The old man was already making his way into the muddy field, which was dried and rippled, like a brown sea on pause, tufts of grass sticking up here and there. His back was bent and his limp gave him some trouble, causing him to step hard, making little splashes as he went. The day’s sun had only dried the surface of the field.
Pimpo led the way and didn’t pause for even a moment before plunging into the field. My feet broke the dull brown crust and found the warm, wet, sticky muck underneath. It oozed its way into the tears in the canvas, invading my shoes immediately. The weight of it inside made it difficult to draw my feet out of the mud, and there was an obscene sucking sound every time I pulled them free.
The corpse was heavy. My legs and neck and back were tired after only a few minutes walking. The sheet wrapped around it kept the body more or less rigid. I had expected it to be stiff, but, as we moved and jostled the body, the bindings loosened. It bent at the waist, dipping slightly downward. I felt the unresisting slack in its shoulders, the head lulling to the rhythm of our steps. The head turned on its neck and brushed my ear and cheek, and through the wrapping I could feel the definition of its nose and the division of its lips. The susurrus of the fabric against my face sounded like words whispered too quick and quiet for me to make sense of them. It was so like a human gesture yet no gesture at all because there was no will behind it. Only gravity. A shiver came over me riding on the back of an intense revulsion. It was the sort of touch that might have been arousing coming from a living person, the thought of which made burning bile rise in my throat.
I had a vision of its mouth opening––the sound of dry lips parting––and a gray and wormy tongue sliding out to probe my ear through the sheet. I tried my best to ignore it, to think of something else. The nose of the corpse grazed the outer edge of my ear every time I took a step, and the moist filth we trudged through had entered my socks, was between my toes, and began to itch. I worried about all the many-legged and biting things that might be burrowing beneath the opaque surface of manure and mud, the eyeless, legless creatures that might be writhing around my feet unseen.
I stopped, my revulsion suddenly too much, and let go of the body. Bearing all of the weight Pimpo turned faster than I thought possible. He caught the body awkwardly before the sheet could touch the mud falling to one knee with a muted plop. The reek that it raised came up under both our noses and stopped my breath, making my stomach heave.
“Qué es eso?” he said. He seemed angry, serious.
“I can’t,” I choked.
“You had your chance,” he said.
Pimpo glanced back over his shoulder to where the old man plodded ahead. He wasn’t aware we had stopped. Pimpo’s face grew red in uneven blotches, his neck tense with effort.
“Joder,” he said and blew out some air. “Ayudáme.”
I waivered, wanting desperately to run. The car and truck were far out of sight by then. Even if I made it back to them, I didn’t have the keys to either. There was no where for me to go.
I just blurted it out. “Are you going to kill me?”
He was shocked into silence.
“I don’t care if you killed this man, or if he did. I just don’t want to die out here.”
“Eso es una locura. No one killed this man.”
His leg trembled, and he listed forward. A look of desperation came over his face.
“Please, don’t let this body touch the mud,” he said.
It was not easy to maneuver the body. I moved forward and got my shoulder under the knees. Pimpo moved carefully out from the middle to get under it’s back. Very slowly we stood.
“Lo siento,” I said.
Pimpo made a frustrated sound but said nothing.
To our left, just beyond the edge of a massive watering hole partly concealed by tall grass, the ground sloped upward and was covered in trees. The old man was nearly to the other side despite his limping.
“We go there,” Pimpo said.
For the rest of our trudging I tried to distract myself by concentrating on Pimpo. Where the sweat made his shirt cling to his back his muscles spasmed. Each quiver flickered as quick as distant lightning, there and gone so you might doubt it ever happened at all. Despite his obvious fatigue, he was steady in a way that didn’t quite match the man I knew.
To me he was a carouser, a jokester, and a bit of a hothead. Once, he was asked to leave a bar where he kept falling down at the counter trying to order another drink. The bartender shook his head and said something I couldn’t hear over the music and pointed at the door. I half-carried Pimpo out to the crowded plaza while a wide-shouldered doorman followed us out. The cool air hit Pimpo like a bucket of water, and he was momentarily revived. He snatched an empty glass off a patio table and threw it high into the night. It went arcing toward the spires of the cathedral, so tall they could be seen high above the surrounding buildings, until it seemed to drop straight into the crowd. He turned and laughed, bent at the knees, his face aimed at the doorman like a cannon. He laughed with so much force it must have hurt. That was the Pimpo I had come to know. The thing I didn’t know was what could unnerve a man like that.
The old man was waiting for us at the foot of the hill. He coughed and spat into the mud. The hill was all green with long grass, and the trees at its top gave the impression of a solid curtain of wood. I could see though that they began to thin a few paces in. We had sweated through our shirts completely, and I could smell Pimpo more strongly. I was grateful for it. He wiped his free hand over his face to clear the sweat and I heard it rasp against his stubble.
“Cómo son los zapatos?” the old man said. His face split like a wound and he barked a laugh. I felt an obscure pang of shame. Somehow, standing at the foot of this hill in muddy ruined shoes I felt for the first time there would always be places in this country I wasn’t welcome, that I would always be foreign to some people. The weight of the corpse on my shoulder was driving my feet deeper into the muck as we stood there.
“Arriba,” the old man said. He gestured to the line of trees, his arm an outstretched blade, and began to climb. Pimpo and I had to readjust our grip on the body, each carrying our own end in both hands to make it up the hill, him walking up backwards.
At the top of the hill, the old man waited for us impatiently but not angrily just outside the crown of trees. They were tall skinny things that resembled the jack pines back home, but the bark was smooth and mottled, the gray bark open in spots to reveal yellow-green wood beneath. They gathered so close together that we couldn’t walk straight in but had to turn and weave our way between the trunks. For that same reason it was impossible to see inside to the clearing the old man had said was there. The deeper in we moved, the darker it became, an unnatural dusk looming over us. The trees towered overhead and bent slightly as if to examine us. The old man stayed ahead always disappearing around a turn before we caught up. Only his huffing cough let us know he was still there.
Then there was silence. Pimpo stopped and looked in every direction around us, but there was no sign of him, there was no sound of anything but our own labored breathing. The fatigue I had felt in the field was stronger than ever.
The space within the trees was as a place apart from everything else, and to step through was the same as letting a heavy curtain fall between yourself and the rest of the human world. The trees kept their own air, which no person had breathed in recent memory. It was heavy and taking it in made me slightly dizzy, while the sun through the canopy made a sleepy shifting shadow over us all. I started to think that this had been the plan all along, to bring me out here, physically exhaust me so I couldn’t fight back, but to what purpose I didn’t know.
“What did the old man say to you before?” I asked Pimpo, speaking to his back.
“This again?” He was agitated, searching the trees for the way forward.
At the high tone in my voice Pimpo turned his head and looked me in the eyes. I saw fear in them.
“He was praying,” Pimpo said. “We prayed, that is all.” He looked embarrassed, like it was a thing he hadn’t wanted to admit. “This is a bad place.”
“Ven aca, idiotas,” the old man said through the trees.
The old man’s voice came from behind us. Somehow we had turned ourselves around. We rotated our bodies rather than turn the corpse around more trees, which put me in front. I looked back at Pimpo, but he only nodded me forward. Tensed, I stepped in the direction of the voice, part of me still expecting a blow from a shovel.
The old man stood in a lopsided oval clearing, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. The ground here was uneven with the dozen or so humble graves laid out immediately before us. Most were merely deflated mounds of old black dirt occasionally ringed in stones to mark a place. Only a handful sported moldering crosses crudely made from thin planks of wood. The old man gave each one a wary glare.
“Aquí,” the old man said. He pointed to an empty patch of ground, and with exaggerated care we set the body down. I smoothed out a loose fold in the sheet, and Pimpo took up one of the shovels. I started for the other, but the old man snatched it and bent to stabbing the earth with its blade like he was trying to hurt it..
The scrape and shush of metal in the dirt echoed back dully off the trees. In this tense and hallowed silence their grunts of exertion and the scuff of our feet seemed rude, too loud for such a meditative space. Neither one spoke as they scooped their way into the ground. Before long they made a rectangular depression and were standing knee deep in it. A fine gray powder collected on the parts where Pimpo’s shirt clung wetly to his chest, and I thought about pressing my ear there to hear his large animal heart beating.
I paced around to fight the heaviness of my eyelids. The shadows pressed in on me, urging me to lie down on that grass and sleep. A little way off from the digging there were more graves, more markers pushing up where the trees grew thick again. There was no plan to their placement. They stuck up haphazardly, as if whoever buried the bodies carried them only as far as they cared or dared. This was no family plot, no visitors would come here to speak with the dead. Here was a place to lose and forget the buried forever.
Clearing the grave took time, and soon exhaustion pulled at me like a weight tied to each of my limbs. Among the earliest graves, a large shade tree had grown up out of the dark rich earth. The trunk was more than twice as wide as my body, and its bark was smooth but segmented like plates of armor. Strong branches stuck out almost perpendicular from the trunk. Moss grew soft and green around the thick gnarled roots. I bent down to touch it, pressing with just my fingers, feeling the spongy surface give and then bounce back. Before I knew what I was doing, I laid myself down on the forest carpet. I told myself I would only rest for a moment.
The rhythmic sound of the shovels lulled me. The smooth, even strokes I knew to be Pimpo’s acted as a counter-rhythm to the quick violent thrusts of the old man. Though he seemed to want to be done quickly, even he couldn’t resist being drawn in by Pimpo’s steadiness. Together they created a kind of music, each beat pulling me down deeper into darkness. I felt as if I was sinking into the earth, and, though I didn’t want to sleep, there was something quieting about being covered completely by cool, freshly turned soil. The dangers of succumbing to this feeling of interment occurred to me only distantly like a thought you carry with you into sleep. And besides I was too weak to fight it. I fell fully into that darkness and did not have the wherewithal to panic as it became harder and harder to breathe. In the darkness the roots of the tree reached for me, bone white and grasping, pulling me into a cradling embrace.
With sudden force something jerked me up from the darkness and the roots into a sitting position. The bitter taste of soil was in my mouth, and the sound of shovels had stopped. Pimpo knelt beside me, supporting my body with his, holding me by the back of my head and saying my name. It sounded quiet and urgent like a beating heart. I was utterly sapped of strength, and Pimpo’s mouth shaping his breath into the sound of my name was, at that moment, like the source of all life. I touched his face with a feeble hand then tried to grip the back of his head and pull myself up to his lips.
“Qué haces?” he said.
He sounded alarmed and pulled away from me. I was too weak to hold on to him. I opened my eyes fully and was finally awake to the overpowering need to breathe. My arms shook when I attempted to prop myself up. Pimpo was pale and looked startled. He glanced back at the old man who had his back to us as he climbed slowly out of the hole. When Pimpo looked back at me he seemed relieved. He brushed black dirt away from around my nose and face. The grit of it was between my teeth and under my tongue and even at the back of my throat. He stood and helped me to my feet.
“No te duermes allí,” the old man said. “Es un arból de cuelgas, crecido en sangre.”
I didn’t know the word. Pimpo looked at me and made a hanging gesture, and I felt cold all over. He put his arm around my waist to keep me from falling over. I still felt the inviting pull of the roots calling me to sleep. The more I trembled and sagged, the more tightly Pimpo pulled me to him. With my arm around his neck, he walked me back to the newly dug grave.
While I stood by, Pimpo dropped into the hole, and the old man dragged the body over to him. The old man began tossing shovelfuls of the stony earth in before Pimpo was all the way out. When the grave was filled, Pimpo stabbed his shovel in the ground and wiped the sweat from his face. It left a streak of dirt on his cheek, which I brushed away with my clean hand. I felt the rasp of stubble underneath the grit.
“Gracias,” he said. He cocked his chin in the air and turned his head from side to side. Grinning, he squeezed my shoulder.
I looked away at the fresh grave. “Decimos algunas palabras?” I asked.
“No,” the old man said. He was already collecting the shovels from the other side of the mound. “No hay palabras para ateos.”
“No es cierto que él era uno,” Pimpo said.
The muscles of his jaw flexed against the skin, and his face grew dark. In a moment it passed, and he turned to me. “The man is a suicidio. He jumped from a bridge and died.”
“Eso es,” the old man said.
I ignored the old man. “Do you know why?” I asked.
“For love, some say.”
The old man spat in the dirt, turned, and was stepped into the line of trees.
“Did you know him?” I asked.
Pimpo only shook his head and followed after the old man.
It should have put me at ease to know the man had taken his own life, but it didn’t. There was still the black tree with the bone white roots and the peculiar call to sleep, like a voice, or many voices, muffled on the other side of a door. I wanted to ask what this place was and why so many were buried in it, to hear them say what I already knew: that these graves belonged to those the Church had deemed unworthy of heaven. How many and for how long was impossible for me to say, but in my gut I knew some of those people had been condemned to die there.
We rode back in silence, Pimpo and I, having left the old man at his truck. It was well past midday when we made it back to town. Most of the shops and cafés were closed for siesta, the streets deserted. Tall buildings rose around us like obelisks driven into the ground by God’s own hand.
We walked the Espolón along the Rio Arlanzón toward the plaza mayor in hopes of finding one open café to have a beer. The plantanero trees covered our way with the gloomy cool of their canopy, their branches thick and knuckled like interlacing fingers. The fountains were murky and still and green where still water rested in them. My shoes were caked in dry and crumbling mud and walking in them was uncomfortable.
Without announcing it, I went through a gap in the low stone wall down to the bank of the river. Pimpo followed me. I took off my shoes and waded in. The current was deceptively strong, and the water was bitingly cold. Still weak, it was difficult to keep my feet. I nearly went down, but Pimpo was there to catch me. He held on to me with his arms around my waist until I was steady. I plunged my shoes in the rushing water to try and clean off the caked mud, but the canvas ripped apart in my hands. There was nothing for me to do but let the remnants be carried away by the rushing water around the bend.
Above us the Arco de Santa Maria was gleaming white, full in the sun against an open sky. From their niches ancient knights and their king watched pilgrims and citizens pass under the arch from the Virgin’s Bridge that crossed the river I was standing in. With them the folk hero El Cid stood a stony vigil, sword in hand. The Virgin Mary stood above them all.
Pimpo’s arms still hovered around my waist. I turned toward him, and he touched my face with just his finger tips, brushing my cheek with his thumb. A moment passed wherein nothing happened and then another, and then he squeezed the back of my neck with a nervous grin as if everything was normal.
I kissed him then, fighting against the current to bring my body closer to his. He was unyielding as stone in my arms, lips tight, and the smell I had come to think of as purely him was covered by the scent of deep, cold soil. I wanted to dip him into the river and bring him up clean again. When we released, he said nothing but took my hand and led me back to the bank and helped me up out of the water.
Later, walking home in a pair of shoes borrowed from Pimpo, I felt a distant kind of sadness that was slow to fade.