After the War

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 Andalucia, Francisco Franco, Moorish kings, climbing hydrangea, Casa Musica, cherries, Morocco, café con leche, bullets, American painters & wild foxglove.


It was after the war, I tell Eve. We are thirteen at the time, eating cherries plucked from the Abuelo’s garden. The red juice stains our fingers. The blue bucket is still half full. She was a prisoner of war, I say. She fled to Morocco. From Eve’s balcony, on a clear day, you can see Morocco, that golden-brown landmass, situated between the Mediterranean Sea and sky. We spend nights and days talking there, looking out over Las Alpujarras, the snow-capped region of mountain villages in Andalucia where Eve’s village is located. That night, we sleep on the cold stone floor, the night air still blazing hot.

“Are you sisters?” people ask. Eve and I walk through the village’s streets, collect raspberries together and travel a mountain path layered in wild foxglove and oregano to the next village. There, we gather our pesetas to buy ceramic vases, the ones painted with cherries at Antonio’s shop, and set them on Eve’s mantelpiece. It is along this mountainside that Moorish kings once rode to drink the world’s sweetest waters and breathe the world’s clearest air. It is here that the Moors took refuge when Granada was conquered in 1492 and all the city’s inhabitants were forced to convert to Christianity. These are the same remote mountain villages that the dictator Francisco Franco severed from the rest of Spain for thirty years, where farmers walked for hours to the coast just to sell a basket of eggs.

From Eve’s balcony, on a clear day, you can see Morocco, that golden-brown landmass, situated between the Mediterranean Sea and sky.

Eve’s childhood friend, Incarnita, remembers. She sometimes cries as she tells the story. In those days, she says, the land sustained them. Oh, Las Alpujarras, she sings, mountain terraces covered with pink almond blossoms, water rushing from emerald glaciers and pooling in fountains, water that the Moors declared al-ikseer. There is no land more beautiful. One day, Eve says to me, you will come here to live.

I did. It is here in these mountain villages that I bought a tiny house, Casa Musica, perched on the side of the mountain, the southern flank of the Sierra Nevada, with water rolling over ancient stones, picking up sticks and bits of mountain as it passes along the acequia, the narrow channels transporting water to the village. From this house and this mountain, on a clear day, I can see North Africa. I can see the entry point of my mother, Maryna, who traveled from England to Morocco after the war.

Summers spread into years and birthday celebrations for each other became birthday cakes for our children. The same hot roof where we sunbathed and stayed up all night became a roof full of toys where my children lived for one year, floating paper boats in a wash bucket and walking along the same path to the next village—always looking for a vase with cherries among Antonio’s shelves. In the mornings, on a clear day, I stand at the balcony and show my children how to search. There, I say, and I point across the sky to Morocco, our eyes scanning the horizon as if we might still see a boat, as if we could picture of their grandmother, arriving.

It was around Eve’s kitchen table one summer that everything changed. Dark and cool in the kitchen, the fly curtain hangs in strips across the back door as the sun reaches across the sky, climbing indefinitely, overconfident, covering every inch of the earth’s surface. Outside Eve’s house, a tiny van stuffed with shelves of hot bread blares its horn. The driver repeatedly cries Pan! as a thin line of village women curls up the narrow street, plastic baskets strapped to their wrists. The men gather in the shade, sitting on a single stone bench, hats propped on their balding heads, canes in hand, the daily paper open.

As day lengthens into afternoon, flies battle bravely against the curtain. Dark cherries from the campo cover a table, along with flowers and fluorescent green plums from Incarnita’s garden. From inside the kitchen, I can see vertical strips of the garden. There is climbing hydrangea, planted twenty-one years ago, on the occasion of Alexandra’s birth. The bush moves toward the sky, white lace blossoms pouring from its dark green leaves. Below, her pet turtle crawls toward a ceramic basin filled with water. The water runs through channels built by Moors. There is water for tourists, water for villagers, water for thirsty horses on mountain paths, water to plunge your hands into, water to listen to and watch in the evenings when the same old men move to an evening bench across from the fuente. There the men sit with their canes near perfumed roses, thick vines of flowers planted by Isabel Puga, whose mother has developed dementia and wanders the narrow path from one side of the street to the other.

There the men sit with their canes near perfumed roses, thick vines of flowers planted by Isabel Puga, whose mother has developed dementia and wanders the narrow path from one side of the street to the other.

That day, the house was packed with visitors for lunch. The table was overflowing with food, homemade lasagna and garlic bread with fresh oregano, picked that afternoon from the high mountains. The fly curtain flapped in the breeze and stripes of yellow light crossed the floor. A man named Timmy had recently returned from Czechoslovakia and told the story of collecting his father’s birth certificate, going to the municipality to find his father’s wedding license and locating the town where his father was from. He recounted finding relatives who spoke no common language but in whose faces he could see his own father, of finding musicians who played his father’s songs. Broad-faced with high cheekbones and a narrowing chin, we could have been relatives, Timmy and I. His dimple, visible on one side of his cheek, matched mine. His eyes, buried beneath a large forehead, were familiar.

Timmy had grown up in Eve’s village, the son of an American painter. He knew the secrets of the village through Incarnita, who had been hired to look after Timmy when he was a boy. Dark-eyed Incarnita watched over him, feeding him grapes from the thick vine covering the balcony. She brought yellow gladiola and buckets of green plums to Timmy’s mother from her father’s land. She fed him eggs from the coastal road. Incarnita made Timmy one of her own, filling him with stories of the civil war and starvation, of her father tilling the land. She had shown Timmy the gaping holes in the chestnut trees down below, where people hid during the war. Timmy stepped into one and disappeared, his little tanned body encased inside the tree’s deep, dark hole.

Incarnita laughed, calling out to make sure he was not frightened. “Estoy aqui,” she reassured him. Then she stepped inside next to him, the two of them standing in the dark, holding their breath. Shhhh… she cautioned, pushing her fingers to her lips as if the fascistas might appear any second. She showed Timmy old bullets and metal from the fighting still caught in the earth. Here and there, against the edges of the villages, you can still see the trenches.

Perhaps it was because of Incarnita that I trusted Timmy and took his story to heart. Perhaps it was because each of us had adopted this land and its history in search of our own story. What I heard over lunch as we sat with our café con leche, as the conversation switched from English to Spanish, as the strips of yellow sunlight on the kitchen floor began to fade and the jasmine next to Eve’s house released its scent, was a story of finding a father and locating a past. Looking back, perhaps it was the dizzying smell of jasmine that made me decide to trace my mother’s journey, to unlock the secrets from her past. Fifty years later, that is how I found my way here.

Alexandra Anastasia Viets is a screenwriter and journalist who received her MFA from Columbia University. Her first feature-length screenplay, Cotton Mary, won a New York Foundation for the Arts award and was produced by Merchant Ivory. Viets is a board member of Groundswell Media, an organization devoted to social transformation through film. She is currently working on a memoir titled, Maryna, After the War, about her mother’s role in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C.

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