A Ripper of Yesteryear
(Un destripador de antaño)
by Emilia Pardo Bazán
– II –
One day more dismay than ever fell upon the millers’ shack. The fatal deadline had come: the end of the lease, and either they paid the landlord, or they would see themselves evicted from the property, with neither a roof to shelter them nor land to cultivate the cabbage for their soup. And both the good-for-nothing Juan Ramon and the diligent Pepona alike professed for that parcel of land the mindless affection that they would hardly profess for their son, the fruit of their loins. To leave that place seemed to them worse than going to the grave; for the latter, in the end, must happen to all mortals, while the former doesn’t occur save for the unforeseen hardships of bad luck. Where would they find the money? There probably wasn’t in all the region the two onzas that amounted to the rent for the place. In that year of misery, Pepona calculated, one wouldn’t find two onzas except in the poor box or St. Minia’s collection plate. But the priest surely would have two onzas, and plenty more, sewn into his mattress or buried in the vegetable garden.
This possibility was the theme of the husband and wife’s conversation, lying face to face in the conjugal bed, a sort of crate with an opening to the outside, and inside a padding of corn husks and a threadbare blanket. To honor the truth, it must be said that Juan Ramón, giddy with the four shots that he had taken at nightfall to comfort his nearly empty stomach, didn’t even think of the priest’s onzas until his conjugal partner, that veritable Eve, suggested them; and it’s only fair to observe as well that he replied to that temptation with very discreet words, as if the spirit of the grape weren’t speaking through his lips.
“Listen, Juan Ramón: the priest is sure to have plenty of what we need. The priest will have lots of gold….Are you snoring, do you hear me, or what?”
“Fine, and if he does have it, what do we care? He won’t give it to us.”
“Give it, no; but—a loan….”
“A loan! Yeah, see if he will lend it to you.”
“When I say ‘loan’, I mean by force. Damn it! You’re no man, there’s nothing manly about you except your big talk. If Andresiño were here…. one day, as it gets dark….”
“If you ever say that again, the devil take me if I don’t punch your teeth out.”
“Cowardly pig, even women have more guts.”
“Shut up, you she-wolf! Are you tryng to get rid of me? The priest has a shotgun… and what’s more you want St. Minia to send down a lightning bolt that will actually destroy us.”
“St. Minia is the fear that eats you.”
“Bitch! Take that!”
Minia was huddled on a bundle of straw, a short distance from her aunt and uncle, in that promiscuity of Galician shacks, where the rational and the irrational, parents and children, lie intermixed and intermingled. Stiff with cold beneath her clothing, which was piled up to cover her—-would that God had given her a blanket—she half-heard some confused and suspicious phrases, the muffled exhortations of the woman, the grumbling and wine-fueled mockery of the man. They were speaking about the Saint; but the girl didn’t understand. Nonetheless, it sounded wrong to her, offensive; if she had a notion what the word meant, she would have called it blasphemous. She moved her lips to recite the only prayer she knew, and praying thus, she nodded off.
No sooner had sleep overcome her when it seemed to her that a bluish-gold light filled the interior of the hut. In the heart of that light, or giving off that light, like the “lady of fire” that the fireworks seller displayed during her feast day, was the Saint, not reclining but on her feet, and waving her palm leaf as if she were brandishing a terrible weapon. Minia thought she distinctly heard the words, “Do you see? I’ve killed them.” And looking towards her aunt and uncle’s bed, she saw black, charred cadavers, with contorted mouths and tongues hanging out. At that moment the rooster’s sonorous song rang out; the calf mooed in the stable, clamoring for its mother’s teat. It was daybreak.
If the child could have done as she pleased, she would have stayed curled up in the straw on the morning that followed her vision. She felt great pain in her bones, a general weakness, intense thirst. But they made her get up, pulling her by the hair and calling her lazy; and as usual, she had to take out the livestock. With her habitual passivity she didn’t argue; grabbing the rope, she set out for the little meadow.
Pepona, for her part, having washed first her feet and then her face in the pool nearest to the millpond, and donning the cape and overskirt that she wore on special occasions, as well as—unheard-of luxury—her shoes, gathered in a basket about two dozen apples, a lump of butter wrapped in a cabbage leaf, some eggs and the best laying hen, and with the basket on her head, left the mill and took the road to Compostela with a resolute air. She was going to implore, to ask for installments, an extension, for forgiveness of the rent, something that would let them finish that terrible year without abandoning the beloved homestead, made fertile by their sweat. Because the two onzas for the rent—Ha! The money would remain in St. Minia’s poor box, or under the priest’s mattress, because Juan Ramón was a wimp, and Andresiño wasn’t at home, and she wore the skirts in the family, not her husband’s badly worn breeches.
Pepona didn’t harbor great hopes of obtaining the least concession, the smallest respite. She said so to her neighbor and comadre Jacoba de Alberte, whom she ran into at the crossroad, discovering that they were going on the same journey. Jacoba was going to the city to bring back medicine for her man, who was afflicted with a diabolical asthma that kept him from sleeping, and in the mornings, practically from breathing. The two women decided to travel together, for more protection from wolves, or from apparitions, if they had to return near dark; and setting one foot after the other, praying that it wouldn’t rain, for Pepona was carrying the last of her nest egg, they began the long walk, chatting together.
“What’s killing me,” said Pepona, “is that I won’t be able to speak face to face with the Marquis, and I’ll have to get down on my knees in front of his agent. The noblest aristocrats are always the most sympathetic to the poor. The worst are the little self-made gentlemen like Don Mauricio, the agent; they have hearts as hard as stone and treat you worse than what’s on the bottom of their shoe. I’m telling you, I’m going there like an ox to the slaughter house.”
La Jacoba, who was a tiny little woman with narrow eyes, wrinkled yellow features and two brick-like marks on her cheeks, answered in a plaintive voice:
“Oh comadre! I’ve been a hundred times where you’re going, and I’ve never wanted to go even once where I’m going. Saint Minia, be good to us! The Lord our God in his wisdom brings me health, because health is worth more than riches. If it weren’t for the love of health, who would have the courage to step into Don Custodio’s apothecary shop?
On hearing this name, a lively expression of astonished curiosity washed over Pepona’s face, and her forehead wrinkled, short and flat, where her hair grew almost a finger’s breadth from her bushy eyebrows.
“Ay! You’re right, woman; I’ve never gone there. I don’t even like to pass in front of his shop. There’s been who knows how many rumors that the apothecary does black magic.”
“Let’s hope that’s not true, but when it’s health on the line… To be healthy is worth more than all the treasures of this world; and the poor, who have no other riches except their health, what won’t they do to preserve it? I’m ready to beg the devil in hell for a good cure for my man. A peso and twelve reales we spent this year in the pharmacy, and nothing; it was like water flowing from a fountain. It’s practically a sin to squander our money like that, when we don’t even have a single measly crust to put in our mouths. But then yesterday evening, my husband, who was coughing until he almost burst, said to me, he said:
“‘Hey, Jacoba! Either you go ask Don Custodio for an ointment, or I’m a goner. Forget about the doctor; and about Christ our Lord, too, should it come into his hands. You have to go to Don Custodio; for if he pleases, he can get me out of this predicament with just two teaspoons of those remedies that he knows how to make. And don’t be stingy with the money, woman, unless you want to become a widow.'”
“And that’s why…” Jacoba furtively put her hand to her bodice and took out a tiny little object, wrapped in a bit of paper. “Here I carry our most precious treasure: a four-fold doubloon! I’ve worn myself out earning it; I saved it to buy clothes, because I’m walking around nearly naked. But my man’s life comes first, comadre. So I’m bringing it here for Don Custodio’s taking. May Jesus forgive me.”
Pepona reflected, dazzled by the sight of the great gold coin and feeling in her soul such a surge of avarice that it almost suffocated her.
“But, say, comadre,” she murmured earnestly, gritting her great horse teeth, sparks shooting from her little eyes, “I ask you, how does Don Custodio earn so much money? Do you know what they say around here? That this year he bought a lot of property from the Marquis. The most valuable property. They say that he already has five hundred bushels of wheat in rent.”
“Oh, comadre! Why shouldn’t this man who cures all of the ills Our Lord created earn money? It’s frightening to enter there; but when you leave with health in your hand…. Listen, the pastor of Morlán, who do you think cured his rheumatism? For five years he was bedridden, crippled, disabled—and suddenly one day he got up, hale and hearty, walking around like you or I. And what was it? An ointment that he rubbed on his hips, which cost half a doubloon at Don Custodio’s house. And old Gorio, the innkeeper from Silleda? That was another miracle. They’d already given him last rites, and someone brought him a bottle of white water from Don Custodio—and it was as if he were resurrected.”
“The things that God can do!”
“God?” replied Jacoba. “Who knows if it’s God, or the devil. Comadre, can I ask you a favor? Will you come with me when I go to the apothecary shop?”
“I’ll come with you.”
Chattering away like this made the walk more tolerable for the two friends. They arrived in Compostela as the bells of the cathedral and the many churches were ringing for Mass, which they went to hear at Las Ánimas, a house of prayer favored by the villagers, and therefore extremely nauseating, dirty and malodorous. From there, crossing the square named for bread, which was inundated with vendors selling bread rolls or earthen pots, and crammed with peasants and mules, they went down an arcade supported by columns with Byzantine capitals, and arrived at Don Custodio’s fearful lair.
Two steps descended down into the interior, and between this and the fact that the arcade blocked the light, the apothecary shop was always submerged in a vague penumbra, enhanced by the blue, red and green windowpanes, which back then were a brand-new and rare innovation. The shelves still displayed those picturesque bottles that today are valued as objets d’art, and upon which could be read labels in gothic lettering that seemed to be alchemical formulae: Rad. Polip. Q ; Ra, Su. Eboris; Striac. Cala; and other inscriptions no less sinister.
The apothecary was sitting in a cowhide armchair, shiny from use, before a table where an open lectern supported a voluminous tome. He had been reading when the two village women entered, and arose upon seeing them. He appeared to be a man of some forty or so years, with a gaunt face, sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, a pointed gray beard, a balding and lustrous pate with a halo of long hair beginning to go gray: the tortured but sympathetic head of a penitent saint, or of a German doctor walled away in his laboratory.
As he stood before the two women, a reflection from one of the blue panes fell upon his face; he could truly have been mistaken for a sculpture or statue. Without a word, he gazed steadily at the pair of friends. Jacoba trembled as if she had quicksilver in her veins, and it was Pepona, the bolder of the two, who revealed the whole story of the asthma, the cure, and the doubloon. Don Custodio assented, inclining his head gravely. He disappeared for three minutes through the red serge curtain that hid the door to the back room; then he returned holding a little bottle carefully sealed with wax. After taking the doubloon and depositing it in a box on the table, he returned a silver piece to Jacoba, and merely said:
“Spread this on his chest in the morning and at night,” and without another word returned to his book.
The two women looked at each other, and rushed out of the shop like a soul carried off by the devil. Once outside, Jacoba crossed herself.
It was three in the afternoon when they met again at the tavern at the head of the road, where they ate a light lunch of bread with a piece of hard cheese, and soothed their bodies with two fingers of brandy. Afterwards they began their return journey. Jacoba was as cheerful as could be: she had a cure for her husband; she had sold a good half bushel of beans, and from her precious doubloon she still had a peso left, thanks to Don Custodio’s compassion. Pepona, in contrast, had a hoarse voice and burning eyes, brow furrowed more than ever; her large coarse body hunched over as she walked, as if she had been given a severe beating. As soon as they set out on the road she gave vent to her troubles in bitter lamentations. Don Mauricio’s larceny: it was as if he had been born deaf, or to be a tyrant over the unfortunate.
“‘The rent, or leave the place,’ Comadre! I wept, I shouted, I got down on my knees, I pulled out my hair, I begged him on his mother’s soul, on the souls of his loved ones in the other world. But he was inflexible.
“‘The rent, or leave the place. You’ve been in arrears all year, and a bad harvest isn’t to blame. Your husband drinks, and your son is a wastrel. My Lord says the same; he’s fed up with you. The Marquis doesn’t like drunkards on his properties.’
“I answered him: ‘Sir, we’ll sell the oxen and the cow; and then, how will we work the land? We’ll sell ourselves for slaves…’
“‘The rent, I tell you—and now get out.’ And all the while, pushing, pushing, he threw me out the door. Oh! You do well to take of your husband, Jacoba: a man who doesn’t drink! Me, I have to carry that drunk to the grave. If he is a sick man, there’s no medicine I can buy to cure him.”
With such chitchat the two friends whiled away the road. Since in the winter night comes quickly, they took a shortcut, going into the wilderness, through dense pine forests. The bell for Angelus rang from some distant church tower, and the fog, rising from the river, began to conceal and confuse the surrounding objects. The pine trees and underbrush melted away into that gray vagueness, taking on a spectral appearance. It was some effort for the two peasant women to find the path.
“Comadre,” Jacoba said suddenly and with some anxiety, “for the love of God please don’t say anything in the village about the ointment.”
“Don’t worry, comadre. My lips are sealed.”
“Because if the priest finds out about it, he’s liable to reprimand us in the middle of Mass.”
“And why would he care?”
“Well, they say that this remedy ‘is what it is’.”
“Hail Mary full of grace, comadre!” whispered Jacoba, coming to a halt and lowering her voice, as if the pine trees could hear and betray her. “Do you really not know? I’m amazed. Why, today, in the marketplace, the women won’t talk about anything else, and the young girls would sooner be torn to shreds before walking down the arcade. If I went in there, it’s because I’m well past being a girl; but as old as I am, if you hadn’t come with me, I wouldn’t set foot in that apothecary shop. May the glorious St. Minia protect us!”
“Honestly, comadre, I don’t know any of this. Do tell, comadre, do tell! I’ll stay as silent as the grave.”
“As if there were no more to tell, my lady! Dear Jesus! These miraculous remedies that bring the dead back to life, Don Custodio makes them from the fat of virgins.”
“The fat of virgins!?
“From a young, fair, virgin girl, just at the age to be married. He scoops out the fat with a spoon, and melts it to prepare his concoctions. He had two young housemaids, and no one knows what happened to them, except that they disappeared like the earth had swallowed them up, and no one ever saw them again. It’s said that no human being has entered the back room of his shop; that there’s a trapdoor there, and if a young woman enters and steps on it: splash! she falls in a deep well, so terribly deep that no one can plumb its depths. And there the apothecary rips out her fat.”
It would have been one thing to have asked Jacoba how many fathoms beneath the earth the Ripper of Yesteryear’s laboratory was located; but Pepona’s analytical skills were not as deep as a well, and she only asked with an ill-defined eagerness:
“And only the fat of young virgins will do for this?”
“Only that. We old women aren’t even worth stealing the fat from.”
Pepona kept silent. The mist was damp; in that mountainous place it turned to wet fog, and imperceptibly, little by little, the drizzle soaked the two women, worn out from the cold and frightened by the darkness. As they advanced into the uninhabited wetlands that precede the lovely little valley of Tornelos, and from which one could make out the tower of the Shrine, Jacoba murmured in a subdued voice:
“Comadre. Isn’t that a wolf over there?”
“A wolf?” Pepona said, trembling.
“Over there. Behind those stones. They say that lately the wolves have eaten many people. All that was left of one boy from Morlán was his head and his shoes. Jesus!”
The wolf scare reoccurred two or three times before the two women came in sight of the village. Nothing, however, confirmed their fears; not a single wolf approached them. At the door of Jacoba’s hut they said goodbye, and Pepona went alone into her miserable home.
The first thing she tripped over at the threshold was Juan Ramón, drunk as a wine barrel, and she had to get him up, cursing and swearing, and drag him bodily to bed. About midnight, the drunkard emerged from his stupor, and with slurred speech managed to ask his wife what happened with the rent. To this question, and its disconsolate answer, followed reprimands, threats, blasphemies, a rare whispering, heated, furious. Minia, lying on the straw, listened. Her heart was throbbing; her chest was tight; she hardly breathed. There came a moment when Pepona, leaping out of bed, ordered her to move to the other side of the hut, to the area where the livestock slept.
Minia gathered up an armful of straw, and huddled not far from the cowshed, shivering with cold and fright. She was very tired that day; Pepona’s absence obligated her to take care of everything: to make the stew, to gather grass for the livestock, to wash, to do the countless duties and chores that the household demanded. Worn-out with fatigue, tormented by her usual singular worries, by that feeling of unease, the indescribable oppression that troubled her, sleep would not come to close her eyes, nor would her soul calm itself. She prayed mechanically, she thought of the Saint, and she said to herself, without moving her lips: dearest Saint Minia, take me to Heaven soon; quickly, quickly….
Finally she fell, if not exactly to sleep, at least into a state conducive to visions, psychological revelations and even physical transformations. Then it seemed to her, as on the previous night, that she saw the effigy of the martyr; only—how strange!—it wasn’t the Saint; it was she herself, the poor child deprived of all refuge, who was laid out in the glass display case, surrounded by candles in the church. She wore the crown of roses; the vestment of green brocade covered her shoulders; her pale, cold hands gripped the palm leaf; the bloody wound gaped in her own neck, and from there her life departed, sweetly, insensibly, in gentle little surges of blood that left her calm, ecstatic, blissful…. A sigh escaped the girl’s breast, her eyes rolled up, she shuddered—and went completely still. Her last confused impression was that she had finally reached Heaven, in the company of her patron saint.
comadre… Literally, ‘co-mother’: the godmother of one of Pepona’s children, or the mother of one of her godchildren. ↩
the fat of virgins. The fat (unto) referred to here is specifically abdominal fat, probably the fat around the internal organs. Compare this to the Andean legends of the pishtaco and the Andalucian legend of the sacamanteca (which may have derived from pishtaco legends). ↩
Collected in Un destripador de antaño: (historias y cuentos regionales), 1900.
First published in La España Moderna, January 1890.
Translated by Nina Zumel