Every Day She Walks
written by: Scott Pieschel
Each morning she walks among them, a photograph in her hand and a name on her lips. She asks every person who passes. Have you seen this boy? Have you seen my son? The clouds of dust churned up by the endless procession of shuffling feet have drained all color from the world. The refugees are like specters, their clothes and faces covered in dust. Even the olive and pine trees along the roadside are grey. If she looks hard enough, she can find spots of color among the mass of haunted souls. The pink thumb of a child, sucked clean, the other hand clutching their mother’s dress. The red flash of a handkerchief, removed from a pocket to blow the nose of an old man leaning precariously on a cane. It does not take long for the color to fade, consumed by the grey sucking the life from all who pass.
Every morning she journeys from her home to the road, where the refugees stumble their way towards Barcelona and France beyond. Many have only the clothes on their back. Some have suitcases. The lucky ones have a horse or mule to pull a wagon – a place to put their possessions, or a reprieve for tired feet. Families mourn the loss of their homes, soldiers mourn the death of the republic. They have thrown away their guns, discarded them in the hills and on the roadsides like their dreams of freedom.
The faces of the downtrodden, disheartened refugees, so unlike her husband’s. She cannot forget the pride on his face all those years ago. Returning from the polls, casting his vote for the Second Republic. Nor can she forget his anger when word spread over the radio waves. Military coup, fascists, war. He left them soon after, taking up arms in defense of his government, home, and ideals. His freedom. He never returned. Perhaps, in some small, terrible way, it was good he died before seeing these faces.
Has vist aquest noi? Have you seen this boy? Has vist el meu fill? Have you seen my son?
She pushes the photograph into their faces. Most don’t even lift their heads. They haven’t the energy to swat away the flies, let alone look at a photograph. Others wave a dismissive hand and continue their journey. Some look up. Their eyes absorb the photograph, then meet her stare. The almost imperceptible headshake and expression of pity stab her with hopelessness, threatening to rip her heart out.
“Gracies.” The murmur barely escapes her lips, and she goes to the next person. She cannot let it consume her. If she succumbs to the fear of never finding out what happened to her son, she will become a shadow, an apparition like the refugees. She tries to bury her fear, but it’s visible in the corners of her face, like clothing sticking out of an overfilled suitcase.
The rumors grew as the war dragged on, and the fascists slowly advanced towards Barcelona. Whispers faint on the breeze floated down the coast, lifting like swells on the Mediterranean before a storm. More soldiers were needed, but as the supply of able-bodied men vanished like a wave receding from shore, the Republic came for their sons.
She was preparing dinner that night, rubbing garlic and tomato over slices of stale bread. As twilight descended, the chattering voices and rumbling cartwheels on the narrow street outside grew silent. That’s when she heard them. The repetitive thudding of boots, the pounding on doors, the pleading cries in the growing darkness. The tomato juice dripped from her fingertips as she clenched her fists, praying for them to pass by her home. The banging on her door came soon after, reverberating through the walls, the floors, her bones.
She wiped the tomato juice onto her apron, crimson like blood, and stepped towards the door. From his seat at the table, her son’s eyes lifted from his book. In the flickering candlelight, she watched his rosy cheeks drain to white.
She recognized the voice. She took a deep breath, trying to stop her hands from shaking.
The long, familiar face of Senyor Moya greeted her on the other side of the door. He was a member of their congregation, a trusted friend of her husband’s.
“Bona tarda, senyor Moya. How may I help you?” She forced a meek smile, but his steely expression didn’t flinch.
“The fascists are advancing. The Republic requires every able-bodied man to stop them.”
“Please, he’s only a boy.”
Moya shifted his weight, adjusting the rifle strap on his shoulder, as if that was the only response he needed. Behind him, the sons of families down the street stood between men with rifles.
“Please, senyor, not my son as well.” She grasped at his coat, trying to keep herself from falling to her knees, from losing her dignity. Her pleas went unanswered. Before she knew it, her sixteen-year-old son was gone, his life put on the line for an all but lost cause.
Days become weeks. Still the refugees pass. Still she asks for him. She targets the soldiers, boys around her son’s age.
Have you seen this boy? Have you seen my son?
Through the dried blood on the side of his face, the soldier flicks his eyes briefly at the photo, then shakes his head and continues.
She walks at his side. “You barely looked.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Please, I’m begging you, just look at the photograph.”
“How can I remember one face?”
“He was a soldier, like you. Maybe you fought together.”
“Everyone I fought with is dead.”
“Please.” She moves in front of him. He steps to the side. She blocks him.
“Get out of my way.”
His arms shoot towards her furiously. The shove launches her backwards. She stumbles and crashes to the ground.
“We have all lost someone, senyora. Move on with your life.” He spits on the ground and moves away.
She sits up. The photograph lies a short distance away. She scrambles towards it, snatching it from the dirt before it can be trampled. She blows away the dust.
“How can I move on? My son is missing.”
The soldier ignores her. The other refugees pretend not to notice. She sits on the roadside, looking down at the dust covering her dress. The photo rests in her lap. Her son’s face is smiling back at her. He is standing on the dock beside her husband’s boat, the first day he took him fishing. Crates full of fish lay at his feet, as he prepares to take them to market.
It had been a hot summer day before the town’s annual festival. They left home early. The sun was already warm on the back of their necks as she walked with them down to the marina. She took shade on a bench beneath the wide emerald leaves of a palm tree swaying in the breeze. She watched her son at the helm, navigating the boat out of the harbor and into the open Mediterranean, beneath a sunrise splattering the sky with every color of the rainbow. It thrilled her to watch him guide the boat towards the horizon, his future as bright and unlimited as the expanse of the sea stretched before him. That night he brought home one of the fish he had caught, which she cleaned and cooked for dinner. The proud smile never left his face as he ate the fruits of his labors.
She pulls herself back to her feet, brushes the dust from her dress, and holds the photograph up to the next person. Have you seen this boy? Have you seen my son?
Weeks become months.
At night, she dreams he has returned. She is walking along the beach towards the marina, the sun warming her face. A hand across her brow shields her eyes, and there it is – his boat floating into the harbor across a calm, turquoise sea. She runs to the dock, every ounce of restraint stopping her from leaping into the water. He steps onto the dock, tying the bow line to the cleat at her feet.
She wraps her arms around him, inhaling the salty scent of the sea and his sweat, just like his father used to smell. She can’t control the tears streaming down her face, nor can she control the kisses she plants on his cheek.
“Of course,” he leans away from her bombardment of kisses. “I always come in before sunset.”
She wakes in her bed before dawn. She takes a deep breath. The soothing weightlessness in her chest spreads through her body as she exhales. The first light on the horizon usually snaps her back to reality, but not today. She rises and shuffles downstairs to the kitchen. She is a mother. He will need sustenance. She prepares the coffee and slices the bread. She grabs the dried sausage hanging from the side of the cupboard and places it on the cutting board. His favorite. As she slices, a familiar rumbling echoes outside. She pushes the curtains aside and stares at the red morning sky. A storm is coming. She returns to her preparations, but the droll does not cease like rolling thunder. It grows, overpowering all other noise. The plates in the cupboard begin to vibrate. She looks outside again, and sees the fascist planes dotting the sky. Reality comes sweeping back to her. She is alone. The sudden weight of her burden returns in a crushing blow. She collapses to the floor.
The cold of the carmine tiles seeps through her dress, spreading across her skin. Tears slide down her cheek and drop to the floor, forming perfect circles. The tension returns in heavy knots across her chest and shoulders, weighing her down. Beneath the roar of the airplanes, there is frantic shouting in the street as people dash to the air raid shelters. She does not have the strength. She would prefer to lie there, waiting for a bomb to crash through the roof and destroy everything – her house, her memories, her dreams.
She awakes on the floor. The planes have gone. Rain pelts the window, the shutters creak in the wind. She wipes the dried tears from her face and rolls onto her back. Her son’s photograph smiles down at her from the mantle above the fireplace. She rises and brushes off her dress. She lifts the photograph from the mantle and gently wipes away a speck of dust. It is becoming withered under the constant grasp of strained fingers. The corners have frayed. A crack streaks across the middle. It is the only photograph of him she has. She cannot let it fade away like the dust hanging over the road. She places it in her dress pocket, replaces her apron with her shawl, and heads for the road.
The storm continues as she returns home. The wind whips down the vacant street. Rain lashes against her face as she stumbles into the fury of the storm. One hand keeps her shawl from blowing away, the other presses the pocket of her dress firmly against her body, protecting the photograph from the rain.
Darkness has already descended upon the quiet street when she reaches her front door. Her clothes are soaked, her knees ache. She crosses the threshold and falls to the same spot on the floor, no energy to build a fire or climb the stairs to her bedroom.
Months become years. Thoughts locked away in regions of her mind she dared not visit are slowly escaping, creeping across the contours of her face, turning her hair from ebony to grey. She no longer visits the road. The refugees have gone. The war is over. The victors speak nothing of those who never returned. There are no graves for the dead or word on the missing. They have disappeared. She attends funerals where families bury empty caskets. They light candles in the cathedral. They have lost hope, decided to move on with their lives. From her chair by the fireplace, the photograph watches her from its final resting place on the mantle. The edges are torn and tattered. It has become so faded it no longer looks like a person. More like a specter, sapped of all color like the procession of refugees that once endlessly walked the road.
What had once been impossible now stares at her with stark clarity. She might never know what happened to him. Perhaps deep down she always knew. What led her to believe she was any different than the others? That her son would return when theirs didn’t? He is gone, it is time she accepts it.
He now lives only in her dreams. They come from the depths of her mind she cannot see, like embers glowing beneath the ash of a dying fire. Warm mornings strolling down to the sea, her son holding the hand of a beautiful young woman – tall and slender with raven hair. His other hand grasps a little girl’s, her steps awkward and uncontrolled. He guides her onto the rocks along the shore, holding her as she explores the crevices and ridges once known to him like an old friend.
There is a knock at the door. She pulls herself onto tired feet and takes slow, deliberate steps. When she finally reaches the door and opens it, a man is standing there with a sunken face and baggy clothes. His back is hunched, but youthful defiance still glimmers in his eyes. It takes her a moment to recognize him. She leaps into his arms, gasping for breath. He slumps under her weight. He is weaker than he used to be. As she holds him, she wonders if this is another dream.
- Every Day She Walks - March 28, 2023