We're delighted to present an extract from In The Dark, the new novel by Anamaría Crowe Serrano, published by Turas Press.
Teruel, north-east Spain, winter, 1937. The civil war is raging, pitting neighbour against neighbour, tearing families apart. Franco's Nationalist rebels have surrounded the devastated, Republican-held city. The people are struggling to survive in a battle zone, enduring the coldest winter in decades. This is the story of a house, of the people who take refuge there – and a dangerous secret within.
Bar Joselito. The bustle and Joselito's widow, Encarna, are one and the same thing. Encarna is tables and chairs. She is indoors, outdoors, shutters open, sawdust, chalkboard. She is tinkling glasses, barrels and rolling laughter. She is the centre of the village square, Plaza del Torico, fulcrum of joy and sorrow. Fabric well woven. Encarna holds everything and everyone together. Which is a problem if one thread snags.
María helps out. In Joselito’s day, the clientele changed slowly, following the pace of natural lives. But with war, familiarity goes. People disappear, like María’s husband, Ramón, and her sister’s husband, Antonio. Bar stools are filled by Republican troops whose town this is not, but whose uniform gives licence to belong. From behind the bar María observes them and in each one’s paunch, shoulders, face, she sees a father, brother, son.
A smile can convey solidarity. Sometimes politeness. Often when these men smile at her, it is desperation, even arrogance. Mostly she wishes they wouldn’t smile. She thinks of Ramón, his parting kiss as he left for the front, his squeeze so tight she couldn’t breathe. Breathing is hard even now when she thinks of him. He is on the other side—with the military. Not entirely by choice, but the situation had become chaotic. They came for him, the men some call rebels, fascists, and who knows what they’d have done if he had refused.
The things she cannot say about him, she rubs and rubs into the glasses in the sink. There are so many things now that people mustn’t say. Every task she performs in the bar is meticulous—chairs, floor, counter, shelves, food, drink. The more meticulous her work the better it hides her fear.
Puzzling, the postman’s news. He says the rebels have turned things around and gained some ground on the Republicans. What to make of that. In only a matter of weeks.
Fascist troops now sit in the bar. And these, María observes, are the same as the others. Fathers, sons, brothers.
They drink the same. Laugh the same. At the enemy pushed into the hills.
She wonders about Ramón. She could ask them, but best not engage with any of these men.
They mention Franco. He will send reinforcements, they say confidently. If the Republicans on the hills haven’t frozen to death in the meantime.
Joselito’s has a clear view of everything that goes on in Plaza del Torico. María and Encarna could turn away but the attraction of death is inexplicable. Maybe watching is an act of defiance. Maybe it’s solidarity with the dead. Besides, they don’t know this is the beginning, before everything else, and no one imagines death on their doorstep.
People are gathering. Moments before the slaughter they see the Hunchback and the prisoner coming from the direction of the seminary, where Franco’s military are now holding prisoners. Those who couldn’t retreat fast enough to the hills.
Crowds give events an air of fanfare. You’d think there was going to be a party but silence spreads as the Hunchback and the prisoner arrive. María and Encarna hardly have time to blink before they realise what’s happening. By the fountain six shots to the legs and he falls to the ground. The Hunchback stands over him. He won’t, they gasp, incredulous. This is the village square. Decent people. But his agenda is not theirs. He puts his pistol to the man’s head. Purposefully. Is it a mercy. Out of his agony then, and the Hunchback walks away.
From the shock of bullets to the reflex of habit. María blesses herself. Que en paz descanse. May he rest in peace. The village swarms around the dead man. Why does no one remove him. What are they waiting for. Behind the window, María and Encarna cling to each other.
The Hunchback returns, this time with a line of men. Now the professor tied to the mayor of Mora and now the mayor of Mora tied to the insurance salesman and now the insurance salesman tied to the civil engineer and now the civil engineer tied to.
The legs. The head. One of them, who, writhing on the ground, cries out Viva la República. They hear it and a thick carpet of blood creeps across the square. To the door.
Encarna has to sit. María too. Cautiously they ease themselves onto chairs as if it is the first time they have ever sat on a chair. They watch people in the square search for loved ones among the dead. Hours pass and suddenly darkness descends.
For Julita it boils down to this: Brunete, July 1937. The river is flowing. Spray and mud and marching in mud. They are retreating from the rebel attack.
Hastily, scrambling for safety. Six months of no respite from Franco’s advances, and every manoeuvre is harder, every route longer. The slaughter more swift, although that is much debated.
At home she imagines the taste of minerals in the river, the taste of forests and mountains feeding into it. She imagines him, Antonio, getting ready to cross. One of many. Where were the others. Was there no one to grab hold of him.
Holding the pack high, rifle higher, Antonio pushes towards the far bank in the chain of men. Was there no bridge, she wants to ask. Could they not... The force of the river easily washes the questions from her tongue. Not that she would ask. To question might be considered disloyal to the Republic, and that is something she is not.
One after the other the men wade, calibrating body weight this way, that, as feet fumble for purchase under the water. And then his next step. The one that plays endlessly in Julita’s mind. Did a rock shift underfoot. Was it his balance. He must have summoned sight, sound, everything he had until there was nothing left. He would fight to the end, wouldn’t he. For her. For the boys.
She imagines his comrades making futile attempts to hold on to him. Slippery. Another attempt, grabbing at a stap, a hand. He never learnt to swim. Surely, someone. Round and round in her head until the shouting settles into disbelief.
A river smells no fear. Hears no plea. A river just is. Indiscriminately, it will take a man.
In The Dark by Anamaría Crowe Serrano (published by Turas Press) is out now.