Ghosts

Peter Grandbois is the author of The Gravedigger (Chronicle Books) and Nahoonkara (forthcoming from Etruscan Press).

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The truth lives on the surface

High in the Sierra de la Contraviesa, southeast of the gypsy caves of Granada, a small, whitewashed village, indistinguishable from any other in Andalucia, hangs precipitously from a cliff, overlooking on one side the valley below and the Rio Yátor that waters the valley, and on the other the wild olive and poplars, which cover the hills rolling gently down to the sea. The house of el enterrador, the gravedigger, lies a short distance along the cliffs away from the town. Tradition in the Alpujarras says that a gravedigger must live outside a town's walls so that the ghosts who visit him will not bother the town, and the ghosts who visited Juan Rodrigo were many.

Juan Rodrigo was a poor man, his possessions few. The roof of his house leaked when it rained, and though his fence badly needed repair, his burro was too old to try to escape. He lived alone with his daughter, his wife having died shortly after Esperanza's birth thirteen years earlier.

"Bueno, Viejo," Juan Rodrigo said to his burro, "we have work to do today." His callused hand, the fingernails broken and dirty, caressed the mule's head. "It is the last grave I'm going to dig." And with that, he looked at the many graves about him, most of them people he knew, people he'd had to bury.

As he walked, his burro followed. The sun beat down heavily upon them both. He wiped the sweat away from his eyes, not stopping long enough to let the flies gather. "Qué calor," he said to his burro, as if the burro didn't already know.

The cemetery spread out along the spine of the cliffs overlooking both the valley and the sea, while across the ridge, on the other side of the village, the church stood on a rock outcrop with a view only of the valley. The villagers joked that it was the dead who had the better view. Juan Rodrigo's house leaned into the wind, below the cemetery, below the entire village in fact, so that it seemed as if he was always tired from climbing the pathway through the cliffs to one spot or another.

The burro snorted and brayed when Juan Rodrigo spoke, nuzzling his head against his master's palm. Ursula, the little girl in white, sat in the dirt, waiting for them. Her presence unsettled the mule, and the man's hand once again reassured him. Juan Rodrigo had often wondered if El Viejo was able to see the four-year-old, or at the very least, smell her. Esperanza had never been able to and she'd grown jealous.

"Tiene celos tambien, Viejo," Juan Rodrigo said. "Well, don't. You at least have life. That child brings nothing but sadness." Then he squinted at the sun. "Not an easy day to dig a grave, not even a small one."

The girl in white took his hand, and all three continued on. "Qué raro," the gravedigger said. "All these years and never before did I ask who buried you."

The girl looked at him with round, dark eyes, eyes that until that moment had appeared unnatural. Now they seemed simply the eyes of a child. "Your father," she said.

"Well, it must have been before I was born," the gravedigger replied. "I don't remember it."

He rubbed his crooked nose between his thumb and forefinger. The mule had heard the story of his crooked nose as often as the old man's daughter, maybe more.

"You know how my nose became crooked?" he would say, a mischievous smile upon his lips. Esperanza would giggle and ask, "How?" Then Juan Rodrigo pushed his nose to the side with his finger, exaggerating the bend. "I stuck it in your mother's ass, and she farted to teach me a lesson!" They erupted in laughter, Esperanza saying, "That's not true!" And he swearing on the grave of his mother that it was. Being in the profession, he was normally not a man to swear upon a grave, but he knew his mother would appreciate the joke. She'd had the dirtiest mind in the village.

They stopped beneath an olive tree whose limbs gave much shade. From the limbs of the tree one could gaze upon both the sea before them and the river running through the valley behind. "She's not going in the stew pot with the rest of the poor," he said to his burro. "I'll tell you that! I'm putting my Esperanza by her mother and me cago en la leche of anyone who complains!" With that, he turned to the headstone that marked his wife, Carlota's, grave and said, "I'm glad now that your sister had you buried here with the dandies and the snobs."

With those words he gazed out over the distant sea, attempting to gather his strength for the job ahead. The burro waited patiently, as he had always done. The flies gathered, but the old man no longer cared. Finally he turned, placed his foot upon the shovel and pressed it to the earth, then paused. "Tengo que decirle algo. Un cuento muy triste, I have to tell you something. A sad story." He always addressed his mule in the formal way. It was a sign of respect for one so old. And then breathing a heavy sigh, he pushed the shovel into the earth. He'd grown used to the change that came over him upon first breaking the ground, but this time he seemed to choke on the warm shock of air.

"On the night she was born, the gypsies came out of their caves, smelling jasmine. They followed the scent all the way to our village, and when they saw her beautiful face, they threw a party that lasted seven days and seven nights. Throughout her life, people remarked on the smell of jasmine that surrounded her wherever she went." Juan Rodrigo paused. The mule brayed, as if attempting to coax him to continue with his tale.

"That's not what happened, Papá," a voice from behind him said. He looked at the four-year-old girl, who sat before him, but she only smiled. Afraid to turn around, he began digging again. The mule kicked at the dirt, and Juan Rodrigo patted his head. Still, he would not turn. It was only when he caught the scent of jasmine that he could no longer help himself, and he turned with tears in his eyes to see his Esperanza standing behind him in her green dress, the one he'd bought for her nearly nine months before.

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