Utopia was postponed.
The retreat was cut out from and built on top of a cliff at the head of a high gorge. It looked across to an old town a few kilometres away that rested beside and grew up from the narrow river that ran through the valley’s centre.
Our room was on the lower level of the retreat, the part of the building that had been excavated from the rock. All the rooms were named after Spanish artists. We were given Lorca, our neighbours Dalí and Buñuel.
The back wall of the room was the original smoothed down rock of the mountain. It swelled out like a pregnant woman, creating a natural border between the two single beds. The door opened onto a deep, sun-filled patio. At the patio’s edge there was a steep incline down to parched, jagged rock, lurid green bushes, and an unobstructed view of the vast winding valley.
“You like?” Maya asked.
“I like. It’s beautiful, but it’s not the place we spoke about.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She outstretched her arms and propped herself against the low wall at the patio’s edge.
“Sam, why is nothing ever good enough for you? Why do you always want more?”
“I don’t always want more, but what is the point of all this, of all our words, if after you wake up and leave in the morning, everything has gone back to zero when you decide to come back?”
“I told you to be patient. I do want the things we talked of, but maybe you want too much.”
“Too much? I just want you and I to start together again somewhere.”
“You want to run away from everything. Maybe we need to fight instead.”
We took a silent walk down through the valley to the town. The sun that was beginning to fall behind us cast our long shadows over the blanched, lifeless sand of the narrow path we followed. The spindly grey branches of flowerless trees cut at our skin and snagged at our clothes as we passed.
We stopped at the first restaurant we came to in town. It was late for lunch but we were served on the condition that we ate quickly and took what we were given.
The large dining hall resembled a service station canteen rather than a restaurant. The room was submerged under an after lunch mushroom cloud of cigarette smoke. The majority of the smokers wore a lot of Lycra and spoke too loudly, as though taking part in a disorganised shouting competition.
“These people are crazy. How can they ride up and down hills on a hot day like this and then come in here and smoke and drink so much?” I said.
“There is nothing to understand. They are just normal, Sam. This is what normal people do.”
“You say that like it’s something to aspire to. Is that what you want today, to be one of the normal people?”
“Maybe, Sam. Yes. I want normal. No more drama.”
The waitress dropped a plate of wet lettuce, tomato, and white asparagus onto the table between us.
“For fuck’s sake,” I replied.
Maya chopped off the end of the asparagus with her fork and dipped it into a small side plate of mayonnaise. I bobbed my head side to side like a boxer, offering her a crumbled, conciliatory smile. She reluctantly met my eyes with a short, empty look before going back to the salad.
I’d learnt to understand her eyes, to be able to decipher the needs and intentions within them that she was often incapable of putting into words. The long silences that we often shared spoke of the distances history and circumstance had put between us, but her eyes had always drawn me closer and sought to assure me that somehow we were working our way out of that silence towards a place where we would really be together.
In that restaurant, in that look, we had never been further apart.
“Why are you so angry with me today?” I asked.
She dropped her fork to her plate, concentrated on the table, and scratched her painted black nail along and through the red and white checks of the paper table cloth.
I left her alone and went through to the bar.
Espectacular y pintoresco were the words the local government information leaflet used to describe the town. I learnt that the name of the town came from the Arabic word for castle. The Moors were long gone, but the castle they had built stood strong over nine centuries later.
My attention was drawn to a red flyer with black lettering. In its centre there was the grainy image of a man with a handle bar moustache. The man was the 'Devil' and the flyer advertised his 'world famous' caves, Las Cuevas del Diablo.
Back at the table, Maya was picking at a dry piece of fish. Three squeezed out lemons rested in a collage around the plate. I showed her the flyer. She just shrugged and let it drop down to the table, one corner landed in the half empty dish of mayonnaise.
“I don’t care,” she said.
The Devil’s Caves burrowed through the upper part of the hill upon which the town had been built. The corridors were adorned with rusty bicycles, sewing machines, barrels and large wooden wheels. The individual chambers contained junk and the walls were bedecked in myriad photos of the moustachioed Devil with Spanish B and C list celebrities, and stills from what appeared to be his numerous appearances on daytime television shows.
“Maya, look at the devil with all of these 'normal' people. I’ve changed my mind, I want to be one too; they all look so happy and healthy.”
From across the darkened room, I caught her reflection in the centre of a gilded mirror. The top and bottom of her face were warped in the glass, her eyes clear and bright in its centre, their darkness shining in the dull light of the gold. She arched her right eye brow into its familiar V of contempt and walked outside to the terrace and the bar where the Devil was serving lemonade to two small children.
Out on the terrace the castle’s ancient tower watched over us, useless but proud. The lights were coming on in the retreat on the opposite side of the valley. The sapphire sky of the fading day was dwindling to dusk as it chased the sun to the west. The slither of what must at times have been a gushing river smeared a still black trail through the centre of the valley’s floor.
Across the cobbled road from the caves, an old cinema had been converted into a museum. In a large hall where the villagers of times past had sat and watched films, tables were covered in old postcards and Franco era stamps and coins. There were copies of the local newspaper from the Civil War, and on one wall the huge stuffed head of a black bull.
At the rear of the hall we climbed up a set of rickety ladders to reach the room that housed the old cinema projector, which rested dormant and magnificent, long empty of film and collecting cobwebs.
In the floor space before and around the projector, ancient farming tools were incongruously spread about. A long bladed scythe. A hand drawn plough. Pitchforks and spades.
“Feel how heavy these things are,” I said to Maya. “Imagine the power and determination you would need to make them work.”
“So what?” she replied.
“Do you not think it’s impressive how people used to suffer and fight just in order to survive?”
“No. I don’t give a shit about that. I’m happy we don’t live like peasants.”
“But life must have been more honest when it relied on these things. Now we don’t know shit. We have no idea where the things we use come from, or how they work. We just get fed things and accept them without question. Our lives are a blind leap of faith into science and technology that nobody understands but that we have all agreed to believe in without understanding why.”
“Sam, what’s wrong with you? You smoke too much. Why is it so hard for you to accept life? Why do you think you can get something different or special? You are not. I am not. Nothing is.”
“I don’t care about being special,” I told her. “But I’m not afraid to try and get something different; to want something better. I thought that was who you were too. And don’t talk to me about 'this shit life', Maya. A general’s grand-daughter has no right to be spitting out that line.”
“Fuck you, Sam.”
“Fuck me? You’re the one who needs to get your shit together. Tell me what the problem is, or what it is I’ve done to upset you, and I’ll try to make it right, but this has got to stop.”
“You didn’t do anything, Sam. The world is bigger than you.”
A goat was slaughtered for dinner.
There were not many guests staying at the retreat. A Swedish couple smiled a lot, but spoke no Spanish and excused themselves quickly after eating. Another couple sat directly across from Maya and I. The girl was dark haired and very petite. Her hair fell forward and covered most of her face, but not enough so as to hide her prettiness. Something about her face made me think I had seen her somewhere before, but she looked uncomfortable and jumpy, which made me hold back from asking her where it could be. The guy with her was tall and dark, broad shouldered with his hair pulled back tightly into a short ponytail. He was loud and made unfunny jokes that the Argentinians who ran the place pretended to laugh along with. On a couple of occasions I caught his bright green eyes looking at me a little longer than was necessary, encouraging me to join him in his good spirits. I flicked him a half-smile and took some bread and another tomato from the plate in the middle of the table.
Maya spoke to nobody and kept her eyes fixed on the plate in front of her. After another unnecessary roar of laughter from the guy opposite, she stood up without comment and left the table.
When I got back to our room, the lights were out and our single beds remained separated. Maya was sleeping with her face to the wall.
I sat out on the patio. The night sky was a black ocean of celestial light. It had shooting stars within it that through the dark like the dying embers of fireworks. Lower in the sky, beyond the castle and the town, whispers of cloud unfurled themselves into nothingness around the faded lustre of a red crescent moon.
I didn't know shit about the things that existed up there. The diagrams and designs up in this sky were not symbols I had ever known or been taught. The night lights of my past had been street lamps, tower blocks, the buzz of a television screen from behind thin curtains, car headlights, the red numbers as they counted down on somebody else’s alarm clock.
There had never been the time, or the inclination, to look up at what there was above when the constant need was to see what was coming round the next corner, and to be aware of what might have been creeping up from behind.
I had always suspected the enormity of this place, but it was something that could be avoided, something that we had conquered. It was a looming presence that could be ignored safe in the knowledge that sleep would banish it and that in the morning the sun would have always risen.
In the darkest part of that night I recalled a recurring dream. This dream was a nightmare because there was something unknowable about the man who appeared in it. I had seen him many times and I knew we shared important history. I didn’t know his name or where he came from. The full realisation of who he was and what he represented was always just out of my reach, like a word or phrase impossible to grasp when needed the most. And the man was friendly, there was no malice in him, but he was always going and never able to give me the answer I needed. Perhaps that was because it was I who could never form the question. His face was full of compassion, pain even, but he could not fill in the blank. He left and in his absence there was the most profound emptiness. My bones would chill and I would be left paralysed with terror. Gradually the emptiness would fade and a new idea would take hold. A worse one. The idea that the man wasn’t important at all.
I stood up from my chair and opened the door to our room. A shallow strafe of light from the red moon trickled across the floor. Inma had pulled the two single beds away from the wall and together.
I was woken by Maya kneeling at the side of my bed.
“I’m so sorry, Sam.”
I reached out my right arm to find her face in the darkness. Her hair stuck damp down against her cheek. Her face was warm with tears.
“Sam, would you fight for me?”
“You know I would.”
“Would you kill?”
“Yes, but why are you talking like this? Calm down. What’s going on?”
“I don’t know what to do. I feel so alone. I am afraid and I want everything to stop.”
“I don’t understand. Please, Maya, tell me what is going on.”
“You be strong, Crocodile. I’m so sorry. I let you down. You don’t deserve it. I didn’t know. I was too afraid and confused. I’m so sorry. You fight so hard, ok? Promise.”
“I promise, but I don’t understand anything. I can’t see you like this. Tell me what it is that you are afraid of. You never need to apologise. I’ll fight whoever you need me to.”
“I really do love you, Sam. I didn’t know this would happen. I’m so sorry for everything.”
She got into my single bed and we lay squashed together just like we had on the night we first met. She lay on her side and buried her head in the crook of my neck, her right hand resting over my heart. I held her tightly and pulled the wet hair back from her face. Her body shivered and jolted under the pressure of stemming her tears.
“Don’t let me go, Sam. Please don’t let me go.”
In the morning I found her out on the patio, talking quietly with the couple who had sat across from us at dinner the night before. The girl looked down as she saw me approach. The guy stood up and offered me his hand.
“Sam,” said Maya. “This is Iván and Maria, they were telling me about a walk we can take down to the river.”
“Encantada, Sam,” Ivan said.
Iván was less excitable than at dinner and barely fixed me with his eyes as he offered me his hand. His handshake was surprisingly weak given his athletic build and his palm was clammy.
Maria remained seated and offered only a little wave in my direction.
They left to pick up some things and lock their room. Maya smiled at me. She took my hand and pulled me down towards her. I sat down on the stool beside her.
It was a beautiful day. The sky was a soft, cloudless blue that shimmered with an intensity that verged to white above the town where the sun slowly rose into view.
Maya squeezed the end of my nose and playfully rubbed her palm over my face.
“Everything is going to be ok.”
“We need to talk about last night. I’m worried about you,” I told her.
“No need to worry, Crocodile. We will talk a lot later. Everything is going to be okay. I am sure.”
We set off up the road and came to a small village set around a pretty square. A few children stopped their ball game and waved as we passed. An old lady continued beating dust from a rug hanging across a line.
At the edge of the village we came to an unmarked fork in the road. Iván motioned for us to follow the road to the left. He then hung back as we passed while he lit up a joint.
He was an attractive man and looked good with the joint between his fingers, the sun reflecting in the sheen of his black hair. He looked like the part he was so obviously intent on playing but I wasn’t surprised to see that he failed to inhale the smoke that he brought to his mouth.
His weed had a tangy chemical kick to it as it burnt down. Still something inside me tingled at the thought of a taste and my eyes were drawn to the glowing red spark.
“Usted quiere?” He asked. “Sorry, Sam. Do you want?”
“That’s ok, I understand Spanish. Sí, quiero, gracias.”
I held out my hand to take the joint from him.
“Sam, no,” Maya shouted from a little way up the road. Iván stepped forward, blocking her path as she moved towards me. Maria put out her hand and caught Maya by the elbow.
“Tranquila, baby,” I said. “Just a little to balance things out. I need it after yesterday.”
Iván turned back to me, smiling. He rested his hand on my shoulder.
“Good, Sam. Enjoy yourself.”
The strip of asphalt road that we had been following came to an abrupt end. We stood at the edge of a dusty path that stretched out into a vast golden plain. In the far distance the horizon was an undulating blur of heat that split the endless blue of the sheltering sky from the baking earth of the world. We all exchanged glances and then turned to retrace the route we had followed.
Back at the fork we veered left. The path was a natural dusty one, uneven and dotted with rocks and stones of varying sizes, with trees guarding it on both sides. Two hundred metres in, the valley came back into view and the path opened up to our right into a wide plateau that reached out from behind the trees and then ended suddenly in a sheer drop. After the drop, the ground flattened out again before falling off and down as the valley’s edge.
In the rounded alcove between the drop and the edge of the valley, an old car stood perfectly upright on its nose. The paint had faded from red to a sun-bleached ochre. The windows were all missing, but the wheels were intact and the bodywork was undamaged, save for a slight indentation in the centre of the bonnet.
The sun got higher in the sky. There were no clouds. The path was steep and increasingly difficult to navigate. On our left was the rock face and a sharp incline to the valley’s peak. To our right a sheer drop of protruding rocks, vicious looking green brush and broken grey tree roots hanging at oblique angles.
My mouth was dry and I felt the need to concentrate hard on each step. My feet slipped out of my flip-flops. A red, clean line of skin showed where the plastic thongs chaffed and kept out the misty dust that covered the rest of my feet. Sweat ran into my eyes and down my back.
Something was wrong. I felt drowsy. I had been walking in a daze, my body moving forward only on autopilot. I needed water.
I looked back to see if Iván had anything. In his hand there was only a large object my eyes failed to focus properly on. He flashed me a smile and fixed me with his green eyes.
“Are you ok, amigo?”
I looked ahead to find Maria, who was carrying a back-pack, but the path had turned up ahead and they had both walked out of view.
We had reached the highest point of the valley, a broad strip of land that opened out to the void of its centre. To the left and right the world slalomed into the distance in thick brushstrokes of green. On the opposite side, a white building, a hermitage or small monastery, sat glistening under the sun. We were completely alone in a brutally sculpted nature.
“Vamos, Sam. Go a little more.”
The words came out like an order. His eyes narrowed and the hint of a smile distorted his face. He carried a rock in his hand.
I rubbed my eyes and stepped forwards. My foot stubbed against the floor and my flip-flop fell off. Blood seeped from beneath the broken skin of my toe, congealing in a shallow ruby pool as it mixed in with the dusty ground.
I shouted something out to Maya. The words sounded garbled and not like my own. She moved towards me. Maria reached out to hold her back. They were both in tears and for a split second I was unable to tell them apart. I understood why I thought I had seen Maria before.
“Where are we going?” I mumbled.
“Do you still not know?” Ivan replied behind me.
Maya reached out her hand to touch my face.
“I’m so sorry, Cocodrilo. Please fight.”
I touched the tips of her fingers with my own and slowly turned my head to Iván. He was staring at the floor, pacing backwards and forwards across the open ground.
I understood what was happening. I understood and then the realisation of it disappeared immediately. I was incapable of connecting one thought to the next.
“I just need to drink some water and rest a little second,” I laughed to myself.
I walked forward to where the land jutted out into a peninsula that hung across colourless sky. I slapped my face hard and found solace in the lapis coloured ribbon the river cut though the valley floor a long way below.
I took a long breath and bent down to pick up a large stone from the floor. I brushed my fingers over its surface but didn’t have the strength to take it from the ground. It was hot to the touch and as smooth as skin.
I closed my eyes and fell forward onto my knees.
There was not a single sound. With wonder I savoured the emptiness around me. The light from the sun was incandescent and merciless. Everything equally and perfectly illuminated. Beyond the white building on the opposite, safe side of the valley, the sky was an infinite sphere of the purest blue.
“Sam, you have to fight. Please,” Maya shouted.
Iván flew at me. His right arm tore towards my head with the heavy rock as its extension. Maya’s scream had dragged me up from my reverie. I ducked to avoid his blow, my body instinctively giving way and falling down to the right. The edge of the rock clipped me above the left eye. I hurled myself up and at him before he had a chance to turn and come at me again. My body was too slow and weak. He stepped back, kicking me in the face as I fell down to the spot where he had been.
He punched and kicked at my body as I lay on the floor, struggling to get on my hands and knees to face him. He kicked me hard in the side and pushed me onto my back.
My eyes were drowned and blinded in the light of the blue sky. I felt him stalking around my prone body. There was an almost imperceptible scratch as the earth was broken close by and I knew he had taken a new weapon from the ground.
He stood over me. I could not see his face, but his shadow covered me in a soothing shade.
“It’s time, Sam.”
There was a snap of light. And in the new darkness he brought the rock down hard onto my face.
The world thundered and was blitzed in a shrieking burst of opal light. My head collapsed down to the ground. My left eye remained open, looking out across the valley to the white building and the blue void that framed it.
Iván’s shadow receded once more. I was kissed again by the brutal horror of the sun.
“Iván, no,” Maya shrieked.
She fell across my body, sobbing. I felt the warmth of her hands reaching out for but too afraid to touch my face.
“No, no, no” she cried softly as she lay across me.
“Hija de puta,” Ivan roared, as he dragged her up and away.