A Ripper of Yesteryear
(Un destripador de antaño)
by Emilia Pardo Bazán
The legend of “The Ripper,” the half-sage, half-sorcerer assassin, is a very old one in my homeland. I heard it at a tender age, whispered or chanted in frightful refrains, perhaps by my old nursemaid at the edge of my cradle, perhaps in the rustic kitchen, in the gathering of the farmhands, who told it with shudders of fear or dark laughter. It appeared to me again, like one of Hoffman’s phantasmagoric creations, in the dark and twisted alleys of a town that until recently remained tinged with medieval colors, as if there were still pilgrims in the world, and the hymn of Ultreja still resounded below the vaults of the cathedral. Later, the clamor of the newspapers, the vile panic of the ignorant multitude, made the story spring forth again in my imagination, tragic and ridiculous as Quasimodo, hunchbacked with all the humps that disfigure blind Terror and infamous Superstition. I will tell it to you. Enter valiantly with me into the shadowy regions of the soul.
– I –
A landscape painter would be enchanted by the sight of that mill in the village of Tornelos. Draped upon the slope of a low mountain, fed by a dam that formed a lovely natural pond, bordered with cane and meadow-grass, it was set, like a hand mirror on a green skirt, atop the velvet of a meadow where golden buttercups grew, and in autumn the irises opened their elegant purple corollas. On the other side of the millpond was a path, well-trodden by the feet and hooves of the men and donkeys who came and went loaded with sacks: arriving with corn, wheat, and rye grain, leaving with dark, white, or yellow flour.
And such a well composed arrangement! The great chestnut tree crowned the rustic mill and the poor miller’s humble cottage with its outspread branches and lush canopy, which was covered in spring with pale and disordered flowers, in October with spiny, bulging burrs. How graceful and majestic was its outline against the bluish crest of the mountain, half veiled in the gray curtain of smoke that emanated, not from the chimney—for the miller’s house had no chimney, nor do many of the villagers’ houses in Galicia, even today—but from everywhere: doors, windows, chinks in the roof, and cracks in the dilapidated walls!
To complement the scene—gentle, full of poetry, worthy to be captured by a gifted artist in some idyllic painting—a girl of about thirteen or fourteen, who would take a cow out to graze on those slopes, always so flowery and fresh, at least until the harshness of summer, when livestock languish for lack of grass. Minia embodied the ideal of a shepherdess: she harmonized with the scenery. In the village they called her roxa, but in the sense of blond, because she had hair the color of the flax that she sometimes spun, straight hair of a pale blond, which, like a vague, luminous reflection, surrounded her small oval face, wan but somewhat sunburnt, where only her eyes shone with a touch of azure, like the blue that can sometimes be glimpsed through the mists of a mountain cloudscape.
Minia covered her limbs with a red flannel skirt, already faded from use; a sturdy burlap shirt concealed her breasts, still poorly developed; she went barefoot, and she wore her short hair tangled, disheveled, and at times matted—without a hint of Ophelian affectation—with stalks of hay, or the stems of whatever she had reaped for the cow on the edges of the croplands. And even so, she was pretty, as pretty as an angel—or, to put it better, as the patron saint of the nearby Shrine, to whom she bore—so people say—a singular resemblance.
This celebrated saint, the object of a fervent devotion among the villagers of the region, was a cuerpo santo, a “holy body” brought from Rome by a certain resourceful Galician, a sort of Gil Blas, who became, through the vagaries of fortune, the servant of a Roman cardinal. After ten years of good and loyal service came to an end upon his master’s death, he asked for no other renumeration beyond the display case and effigy that graced the cardinal’s oratory. These they gave to him, and he brought them to his village, not without ceremony. With his small savings and with the help of the archbishop, he erected a modest chapel. Within a few years of his death, the alms of the faithful, and the sudden devotion awoken for many leagues around, transformed it into a rich Shrine, with its grand baroque church and its good living for the caretaker, a post that of course the parish priest assumed, thus converting that forgotten mountain parish into a lucrative sinecure.
It was not easy to ascertain with exact historical rigor, nor to verify with reliable and incontrovertible documentation, to whom would have belonged the fragment of human skull embedded in the wax head of the saint. Only a yellowing paper, written in a firm meticulous hand and pasted to the bottom of the display case, declared these to be the relics of the blessed Herminia, a noble virgin who suffered martyrdom under Diocletian. It seems useless to search the Acts of the Martyrs for the blessed Herminia’s family name and manner of death. The villagers neither asked, nor desired to go to such depths. For them, the Saint was not a wax figure, but the uncorrupted body itself; from the martyr’s Germanic name they created the cute diminutive Minia, and in order to take better possession of her, they added to this the name of the parish, calling her Saint Minia of Tornelos. The mountain devotees cared little about the how and when of their Saint; in her, they venerated Innocence and Martyrdom, the heroism of weakness; a thing sublime.
The miller’s child had been christened Minia at the baptismal font, and every year on the feast of her patron saint, the girl would kneel before the display case so enraptured in contemplation of the saint that she could hardly move her lips to pray. She was fascinated by the effigy, which for her was also a real body, a genuine cadaver. The saint was beautiful; beautiful and terrible at the same time. The wax figure depicted a young girl of about fifteen, with perfect, pale features. Beneath her lids, closed in death, but slightly ajar from the contraction of her final death throes, crystal eyes shone with a mysterious luster. Her pale lips, also parted, revealed the enamel of her teeth. Her head rested upon a pillow of crimson silk covered by now-tarnished gold lace, and she boasted a crown of silver roses on her blond hair. The pose gave a perfect view of the wound on her throat, rendered with clinical exactitude: the severed arteries, the larynx, a few drops of blood blackening on her neck. She wore a green brocade vestment over a caramel-colored taffeta tunic, an outfit more theatrical than Roman, which was ornamented liberally with sequins and gold threads. Her bloodless, finely sculpted hands were crossed over the palm leaf of her triumph. Though the glass of the display case, in the reflection of the candles, the dusty effigy and its clothing, faded by the passage of time, took on a supernatural life. One felt that the wound was about to shed fresh blood.
The girl would return from the church absorbed and distracted. She was always of few words; but for a month after her saint’s day, she rarely emerged from her silence, nor be seen to smile, unless the neighbors told her “how much she looked like the Saint.”
Country people aren’t soft-hearted; on the contrary, they’re usually as hard and silent as the palms of their hands. But, when their own interest isn’t at stake, they possess a certain instinct for justice that induces them to take the part of the weak against the strong. And so they regarded Minia with profound pity. The young girl, having lost father and mother, lived with her aunt and uncle. Minia’s father was a miller, and had died of an intermittent malaria, sadly common in those of his trade. Her mother followed him to the grave, not snatched away by grief, which in a country woman would be a strange kind of death, but due to a pain in her side that she got when she emerged, sweaty, from cooking a batch of corn. Minia was left alone at the age of one and a half, newly weaned.
Her uncle, Juan Ramón—who earned a hard living as a bricklayer, since he had no love for farming—entered the mill as if it were his own home, and, finding the industry already in place, the clientele established, the business pleasant and comfortable, promoted himself to miller, which in the village is a rise in status. Before long, he took as consort the woman he was seeing, and with whom he already possessed two fruits of sin: one male and one female. Minia and these two offspring grew up together, without much apparent difference, except that the little ones called the miller and milleress papai y mamai, while Minia, though no one had taught her, never called them anything but “uncle, sir”, and “auntie, ma’am”.
If one were to study the family situation in depth, more serious differences would be seen. Minia lived relegated to the status of a maid or kitchen wench. This isn’t to say that her cousins did no work, because no one is excused from work in a peasant household; but the vilest labor, the hardest chores were kept for Minia. Her cousin Melia, destined by her mother to be a seamstress, an aristocratic profession among country women, plied her needle on a little chair, and amused herself listening to the crude flattery and mischievous pranks of the young men and women that came to the mill and passed the night there, wakeful and bantering, to the obvious benefit of the devil, and not without frequent and illegal increasing of the species.
Minia was the one who helped to load the gorse cart; she who, with her little hands, kneaded the bread; she who fed the calf, the pig, and the chickens; she who took the cow out to graze, and, stooped and exhausted, brought back a bundle of firewood from the mountain, or a sack of chestnuts from the grove, or a basket of grass from the meadow. Andrés, Melia’s young brother, didn’t help her at all; he passed his life in the mill, assisting with the milling and measuring, and on strolls or at parties, singing and beating the tambourine with the other lads and lassies. From this early education in corruption the boy learned insults, expressions, and shenanigans that at times bothered Minia, without her knowing, nor trying to understand, why.
The mill for many years produced enough to provide the family a certain ease. Juan Ramón took the business seriously: he was always ready for the clientele, he was active, vigilant, and exact. Little by little, with the decadence of a life that runs effortlessly and pleasantly, his affinity for indolence and comfort revived, and the negligence, so near a relative to ruin, began. Well-being! For a peasant, well-being rests in little: not much more than bacon and fat in the pot, occasional meat and plentiful bread, fresh milk or buttermilk; this distinguishes the well-to-do farmer from the destitute one. Then comes the fine apparel: the good bouclé suit, gaiters with meticulous topstitching, the embroidered shirt, the sash decorated with silk flowers, the fancy kerchief and the silver buttons on the red waistcoat.
Juan Ramón had all these necessities, and perhaps it was neither the food nor the suit that unbalanced his budget, but the wicked habit he was developing of “taking a drop” at the tavern in Canelo: first, every Sunday; later, on Holy Days of Obligation; and finally on many days when the Holy Mother Church does not impose the requirement of Mass on the faithful.
After the libations, the miller returned to his mill, now as merry as a cricket, now gloomy, cursing his luck and itching to give someone a smack. Melia, upon seeing him return in this state, would hide. Andrés, the first time his father unleashed a blow on him with the bar of the door, turned on him like a wild beast, subdued him and left him with no desire for further aggressions. Pepona, the milleress, stronger, bigger-boned and tougher than her husband, likewise could repay the slaps in good currency; this left only Minia, long-suffering and constant victim.
The girl received the blows with stoicism, blanching at times when she felt intense pain—when, for example the edge of a wooden clog struck her on the shin or the hip—but she never cried. The parish was not unaware of this treatment, and some of the women took much pity on Minia. In the conversations in the vestibule after Mass; at the corn huskings, in the pilgrimages to the Shrine, in the markets, the rumors began that the miller was falling into debt, that the mill was failing, that in measuring out their toll-corn they robbed customers without fear of God, that it would not be long before the millwheel stopped and the bailiffs would come in and seize everything down to the shirts on their backs.
One person fought against the growing disorganization of that humble industry and that poor household. That was Pepona, the milleress, an avaricious, greedy woman, holding tight to every penny, tenacious, forceful and harsh. Up before the break of day, working tirelessly, she was always seen, now bent over tilling the earth, now in the mill haggling over the toll-corn, now rushing barefoot down the road to Santiago with a basket of eggs, poultry, and greens on her head, going to sell them at the market. But what good is the care and the zeal, the sordid economies of one woman, against the vice and the laziness of two men? A single morning of Juan Ramón’s drinking, a single night of Andrés’ carousing, squandered the fruit of a week of Pepona’s labor.
The household business was going badly, and the mood of the milleress was getting worse, when to complicate the situation came a fatal year, a year of misery and drought, in which, having lost the harvests of corn and wheat, the people lived off spoiled green beans and dried grain, off meagre and wilted vegetables, off some rye from the previous harvest, already eaten away by ergot and weevils. The most shrunken, shriveled thing imaginable would not even begin to describe the depleted state of a Galician peasant’s belly, nor the emptiness of their elastic stomaches in such years. Cabbage thickened with flour, flavored with a rind of rancid bacon; and this day after day, without the sustenance of meat, without a drop of wine to give a little strength to the vital spirits and restore vigor to the body. Potatoes, the bread of the poor, was largely unknown then; because I don’t know if I mentioned that what I am recounting to you happened in the first five or ten years of the nineteenth century.
Consider how it would go with Juan Ramón’s mill in such a year: Once there’s no crop, the millstone must stop. The wheel, standing and silent, inspired sadness; it resembled the arm of a paralytic. The mice, furious at not finding grain to gnaw on, and starving as well, scampered around the millstone, emitting sharp squeaks. Andrés, bored from the lack of the usual gatherings, got more involved in messy affairs and amorous adventures, returning home like his father, worn-out and angry, with his hands itching to thrash something. He beat Minia with a mixture of rustic gallantry and brutality, and showed his teeth at his mother because the daily rations were scanty and tasteless. A slacker by profession, he went from fair to fair, looking for quarrels, fights, and booze. Luckily, in the spring he became a soldier and left with his gun for the city. The hard truth forces us to confess that the greatest satisfaction he could give his mother was to get out of her sight: he never brought a crust of bread home, and when he was there he only knew how to waste money and grumble, confirming the saying: “poverty breeds discontent.”
The scapegoat, the one who atoned for all Pepona’s sorrows and disappointments was … who else would it be? Pepona had always treated Minia with hostile indifference; now she treated her with the vicious hatred of a wicked stepmother. For Minia, rags; for Melia, bright red petticoats; for Minia a pallet on the hard floor; for Melia a bed as good as that of her parents; to Minia they threw a crust of moldy millet bread, while the rest of the family finished off the piping hot soup and a second course of pork. Minia never complained. She was a little paler, and perpetually preoccupied, and her head sometimes leaned languidly against her shoulder, increasing her resemblance to the Saint. Silent, outwardly indifferent, the girl secretly suffered a mortal anguish, unexplainable nausea, depression, pain in the deepest and most delicate parts of her body, mysterious shame, and above all, a constant yearning to die, to rest and go to heaven….
And the landscape painter or the poet who passed by the mill and saw the leafy chestnut tree, the millpond with its sleeping water and its border of cane, the little pensive blond shepherdess who let the cow satiate itself freely on the flower-lined border, would dream of idylls and would compose a gentle, enchanting description of the unhappy, beaten, hungry girl, already half imbecilic from lovelessness and cruelty.
Ultreja… The term Ultreja (“Beyond”) is a greeting among pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago. It seems to have also been a hymn or song: “The Song of Ultreia,” as mentioned in the 12th century Codex Calixtinus. ↩
cuerpo santo… “In a Catholic context, the term ‘cuerpo santo’ refers to those bodies that were exhumed from various ancient cemeteries and catacombs and later exported as relics of Holy Martyrs to different locations inside and outside of Italy.” — https://kripkit.com/cuerpo-santo/ (My translation) ↩
Once there’s no crop… The original expression: Perdida la cosecha, descansaba forzosamente la muela — When the crop is lost, the millstone is forced to rest. ↩
Poverty breeds discontent. The original expression: Donde no hay harina, todo es mohína — Where there’s no flour, everything is misery. ↩
Collected in Un destripador de antaño: (historias y cuentos regionales), 1900.
First published in La España Moderna, January 1890.
Translated by Nina Zumel