author bio


Félix Calvino


he village lay at the end of a long valley, surrounded by woods and hills, and watched over by a great mountain to the south. Twenty-seven families lived there, although there had been more in the past. Abandoned houses still stood, their solid front doors locked, their upstairs windows rotting, leaving dark gaps like the toothless mouths of the old.


The schoolteacher was a short woman with a pretty face, gentle brown eyes and a soft voice. Her husband was tall and angular, with close-set eyes and thin lips. They met soon after her posting to the village. He went to the schoolhouse to do some repairs, a job he did on behalf of the village in exchange for a measure of corn or potatoes or rye to supplement the living he scraped from his small farm. He called during the school lunch break. She took him upstairs and showed him where the leak was by pointing to a bucket half-full of rainwater. When he came down from the attic he was covered in black dust. She laughed, then offered him coffee. They stood around the dining room table talking about one thing and another while the little cup sitting on its matching saucer rattled in his big hand.
      Three months later, a Saturday afternoon, he returned to mend the shelves in the schoolroom. Afterwards, she again invited him upstairs for coffee, but this time they drank it in the kitchen, at a table by the window that looked out on the river and the mountain beyond.
       Their courtship lasted three years. The first year, they concealed their feelings. The second, they sought opportunities to talk a while with each other. In the third year, they went to the market and attended summer dances. They danced together, but not too close and always in company.
      Then, at the end of Mass one Sunday, Father Manuel read the wedding banns. A few weeks later they were married. It was a simple ceremony with the husband’s brother and sister-in law as witnesses. After, they invited the priest to lunch in the schoolteacher’s residence above the classroom. They were in their early thirties.
      The following year, they bought a large parcel of land next to the husband’s old dwelling, from the descendants of a long-dead neighbour now living in Cuba. The year after, they built a three-bedroom, two-storey house of grey granite and polished hardwood floors.
      A number of villagers were disappointed when, after a decent length of time, no child arrived. Rumours spread. Perhaps the husband was poorly equipped. Some women exchanged looks when hearing this. ‘Envy,’ they said. Envy from those mothers whose sons had knocked on the schoolteacher’s door once, twice and a third time, with little presents of cheese and salami, an eye on her monthly salary and her long summer holiday when an extra farmhand was most welcome.


The schoolteacher’s housekeeper, Nieves, arrived at the end of winter, at nightfall. Felipe, the village midwife’s ten-year-old son, remembered the day because Lola, the shoemaker’s wife, had been frightened when the newcomer asked her for directions to the schoolteacher’s house; the pail of water that she was carrying on her head went crashing to the ground. By dinner time, the stranger was the topic of conversation at every table.
      The following day, Nieves remained indoors. But the schoolteacher, returning from the schoolhouse, met the carpenter’s wife and casually mentioned that she had engaged home help. She had not been well lately and the daily chores were too much for her husband, José.
      Nieves settled in well. She was in her late twenties, pale-white skin, big brown eyes and a beautiful mouth. Her laughter was spontaneous and musical. Her body was graceful and strong. She was good-natured and an excellent worker. Soon the schoolteacher’s pots and pans shone brightly on the kitchen wall behind the fuel stove.
      When the fields needed ploughing, and José’s labourer, Ramon, took to bed with lumbago, Nieves replaced him, helping with the yoking of the cows and the spring planting, as well as doing the cooking and washing and cleaning.
      At the harvest of the rye, and at the haymaking, she swung the sickle like any man, and the scythe better than many. In autumn she dug potatoes, helped bring the winter wood and corn. When the nights grew long and the weather cold, she busied herself knitting a red jumper, as well as fattening up two young pigs whose skin shone like freshly washed hair.
      Her social life was no different from that of the other single women in the village. On market day, the first Monday of each month, she went shopping. The shopping list was not extensive; the schoolteacher was not given to luxuries and the village and surrounds produced most of the foodstuffs they needed. But the town where the market was held was about ten kilometres away and could be reached only by walking along the banks of the river that ran through the valley, then by climbing up a steep hill. When the marketing was done, the men disappeared into the taverns and the women walked up and down the main street, window-shopping. On special occasions the young ones went to the cinema and afterwards walked home in the moonlight while recalling among themselves the details of the film. In the months to come, they would tell them again and again to their families and friends, many of whom would die without ever sitting in a cinema.
      Nieves was given time off on Sunday afternoons. She enjoyed the evening dances held in nearby villages on St Juan, St Pedro and other saint days. She attended them in the company of other young people. Unusual for a woman of servant status, her invitations to dance did not come from those short of a partner or from those in search of easy adventure, but from those who appreciated a fine dancer.


Felipe thought of Nieves as his friend, his only female friend. They often met while bringing the cows home late in the afternoon. He taught her how to ride his mare bareback, first sitting like the women did and then like the men. One day she gave him a pocketknife she had found by the river. It had two blades. It made a big impression at school when he showed it to his friends. Afterwards, she asked him how it was going. He said it was going fine. She told him not to sharpen it too much, not to cut himself. He made her a flute out of soft wood. It had only three notes but she said it was lovely and that the carving was very good. Another time he made her a goad and she gave him a big hug, pressing his face against her warm breasts, which smelled like mimosa.


It was late in the afternoon. It had rained earlier and now it was snowing. Felipe had come from school and was sitting in the kitchen by the fire, eating bread with chocolate. His mother was peeling potatoes for dinner.
      ‘Mamá, is Nieves in trouble?’
      ‘Why do you say that?’
      ‘The men said she was.’
      ‘Which men?’
      ‘The neighbours, you know. By the fountain, after dinner, when they smoke and talk about things.’
      ‘I don’t want you to listen to those men. I thought I had made it clear. Now go and bring in the firewood and see that the hens are in for the night. There are foxes about. The dogs were going crazy last night.’
      ‘Yes, Mamá.’
      Felipe put on his corduroy jacket and brought in the firewood. He chased the last hens into their mezzanine henhouse in the corner of the stable and fastened the door. Big snowflakes were now falling and thoughts of Nieves and the fox were replaced by the thrill of the first snow.
      The next morning it was raining and Felipe’s excitement was washed away. But at least the monotony of school was broken: Remedios, a neighbour, called to say that the schoolteacher was not well and that the class would be at her residence, and only for half the day.
      Nieves was standing at the front door. She took care of their coats and made sure that their shoes were clean before leading them to the kitchen, which was at the back of the house. There they stood by the fire waiting for the schoolteacher to call them to the big dining-room table for their half-day class. Nieves was her usual self. She asked if the snow being washed away disappointed them, and tended the fire, or she simply stood, her hands under her blue apron. Felipe felt relieved.
      One Saturday morning when he went to the orchard to dig for worms for Arturo, a neighbour who had promised to take him fishing as soon as he grew a little, Felipe received confirmation that Nieves was in trouble. His mother had been talking quietly to Leonor, a neighbour, over the back wall. When she spotted him she wasted no time in sending him away, but he had heard enough to know that they were talking about Nieves. Then, after lunch, on the way to Jesus’ house to collect the mended soccer ball for the afternoon game, he saw more women quietly murmuring to each other, and he knew that things were not as they should be.
      The word spread fast from house to house. It spread even faster once it reached the grocer’s shop in a nearby village. Julia, the shopkeeper, was known to be mean with weights and measures but generous with her gossip.
       The following day, Sunday, the church was almost full, but Felipe thought that it was more sombre than normal, and Father Manuel glared fiercely at the men at the back of the church. Nieves did not attend.
      He did not see her for nearly two months.
      ‘She is big now,’ Carlos said. She had been big for a long time, but it had been a severe winter and she had managed to hide herself beneath her clothes. Carlos was a reliable informer. His house was in the middle of the village, opposite the fountain. He listened to his mother talking to the other women fetching water or doing the washing, and he listened to the men talking and smoking in the evening. Carlos was lucky, he could come and go as he pleased and never got into trouble.
      Felipe felt sorry for Nieves.
      ‘She walks with her head down and stays indoors most of the time,’ Carlos said. According to his mother, Nieves’ time was coming.
      Carlos and Felipe talked about her all the time. They knew all about cats and horses and pigs and cows, and of course the dogs they threw stones at while waiting for them to disentangle after their mating. Each of them had at one time or other instructed their visiting city cousins in animal husbandry. But with baby making, since there had been no recent births in the village to spark their interest, they were a little in the dark. The duration of the act, the position, and, above all, the why of it, was the subject of intense discussion.
      One Saturday afternoon, when the soccer game was interrupted by thunder and rain, Carlos suggested they hold a meeting, as the adults did when something had to be done collectively.
      They met after Mass the following day, in a secluded spot where the river split in two around a small island heavily covered with trees, ferns and wild celery. It was the hiding spot of the moment and, in a way, related to the business at hand, since it was from there that they had secretly watched the girls swimming in the river the previous summer. ‘Only six of us can come. Only the more intelligent,’ Carlos had insisted.
      They sat in a circle and took turns to speak. Soon, amid much laughter, the sounds of moaning and squealing filled the banks of the river. Each demonstration being followed by an opinion of what went on in parents’ bedrooms. No one had seen anything.
      Meanwhile in the adult world, gossip raged unchecked. Who was the father? Rumours spread like summer wasps. Nieves was supposed to be a housemaid, and still was, but she had become a farmhand also. She had often taken the cows to and from remote pastures. She had been to the fields to weed out the corn and spray the potatoes against beetles. There had been ample opportunity for any man, single or married.
      Days passed. The men either said nothing or joked about it. Anxiety grew among others, wives and girlfriends. Gossip of this nature could last a generation. A three-woman delegation led by the carpenter’s wife went to see the schoolteacher, demanding that she extract from Nieves the culprit’s identity. ‘I will do nothing of the kind,’ replied the schoolteacher. It was no one’s business what went on between adults. And Nieves had assured her she had not been forced.
      Sunday after Sunday, Father Manuel thundered from the pulpit, his face red, his neck swollen, his trembling finger pointing at everyone, now blasting, now coaxing the offender to come forward and restore the honour of his neighbours. Then, and only then, could he ask God Almighty for leniency.

      The poisonous tongues of gossipers respected no one. And, in due course, suspicion reached the household of the Lord’s representative. The priest’s nephew had danced with Nieves on the night of St Alfonso and had chatted to her on the way home. On another occasion he had been seen handing her a hatful of cherries as she passed the priest’s orchard on the way to the river with the schoolteacher’s washing. And the nephew was not known for his generosity. These minor occurrences must have made a disturbing picture in Father Manuel’s mind because, on the fourth Sunday, he preached mildly on Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem.


One Sunday evening towards the end of March, Felipe’s mother placed a large casserole of meat and potatoes on the table, looked at her husband and asked him to serve dinner. She then hurried to her room, changed clothes and left for the schoolteacher’s house carrying a bag with a few of their good towels in it. She was away until past Felipe’s bedtime, but at breakfast the next day she said that there was now another mouth to feed in the village.
      ‘My mother went too,’ Carlos said during school recess. Marina, the woman who lived alone in the stone cottage and owned two glass syringes, was there as well as others. Carlos, crouching alongside the woodshed, had watched the bright-lit house. He had had a good view of the kitchen where the women boiled lots of water, with herbs supplied by Julia (whom he, Carlos, hated because of the herb juice she had recommended to get rid of his tapeworms). They drank anisette from little glasses, and talked, and went upstairs to where Nieves lay in the schoolteacher’s spare room, then came down again to talk and drink some more. Nothing seemed to happen for a long time. Then Nieves screamed once, the women stopped talking and, soon after, a baby was crying upstairs, and the women were drinking more anisette downstairs.
      The baby was baptised the following Sunday. Nieves looked lovely dressed in a long black skirt and a white shirt with fine pale-blue flowers embroidered on the left breast pocket. Her dark-brown eyes sparkled and her black hair glistened in the sun. The baby was wrapped in a white lace shawl, a present from the schoolteacher and her husband, who also acted as godparents. They christened the child Rosalia. Those who lingered outside the church to admire the beautiful baby enjoyed themselves. Others who stayed to look at her physical features for clues to the father’s identity were disappointed. The children went away with pockets full of sweets.
      Nieves and the baby were given a room in the main house. The schoolteacher said she was not to work in the fields or to mind the cows. ‘She has enough on her plate,’ she told her husband.


One spring morning when Rosalia was about three months old, the schoolteacher awoke to her crying. Thinking that Nieves might be busy at the stable milking the cows, she got up, fetched the baby from her cot, and took her into bed with her. Despite her soothing efforts, the baby continued to cry, so, after a while, she got up again, put on her dressing gown and went downstairs carrying the baby in her arms.
      Nieves was not in the kitchen, and the fuel stove, usually lit by now to boil the milk for breakfast, was dark and cold. The schoolteacher wrapped the baby in a shawl and walked across the yard. In the barn she found her husband forking hay for the cows. No, he had not seen Nieves.
      The schoolteacher returned to the house and went straight to Nieves’ room. Lying on the pillow was a note, written in a child-like hand.
      Hugging the baby to her breast, the schoolteacher opened the window and called to her husband.

Author Bio

Felix Calvino photoFélix Calvino was born in Galicia on the northwest coast of Spain and grew up on a farm.  To avoid military service under General Franco, he went to England where he worked and studied English, his third language.  He migrated to Australia in the late sixties, settled in Sydney and worked in the travel, restaurant and wine industries.  In 1996 he moved to Melbourne and a year later, a long-held ambition for a tertiary education was fulfilled when he was admitted to the University of Melbourne. There he studied English and Spanish as components of his Bachelor of Arts degree.

See book review and another story, Detour, in this issue of TBR