During those first few dry summer months in Salamanca, Maria liked to sit on one of the many verandas of the old yellow villa and look down on the city. When her father, Count Rodendo permitted, Maria ventured outside the walls of the estate under the supervision of Pilar, the governess. When she was forbidden to leave and had completed all her lessons for the day, Maria roamed the rooms of her new home, studying the paintings that hung on their walls in lonely solitude.
Maria did her best to give each painting equal attention, never dwelling too long in front of one, lest the others became jealous. She was particularly afraid of offending a painting in one of the dining rooms. The general was dressed in a black waistcoat adorned with silver buttons, a tri-corner hat peeking out from under his forearm. A polished saber protruded from the dark earth at his feet. The general frightened Maria, but she appeased him by including him in all her tours of the villa.
Some paintings depicted hunting scenes full of galloping horses and barking dogs. Portraits of men dressed in velvet laced overcoats with round glowing faces gazed down upon Maria as she walked in their midst, brushing the dust from their neglected frames. Others were of more common things – butchers and their cleavers – ashen faced men huddled over glowing metal rods.
The painting Maria cherished above all others hung in her father’s study. The room was lined with bookshelves covered by colored glass panes cut in intricate designs. Some were leather-bound with gold lettering – others, naked – their spines exposing cracked bindings and crusted yellow paper. There was a ladder on tracks that ran from one end of the bookshelf to the other. When the Count was not home and Pilar was outside watering the flowers, Maria pushed the ladder and hung on the wooden steps as it whipped down the metal tracks. The tremendous clack, clack, clack of the wheels rang in the air and hung in the stillness of the room. It was here– surrounded by the smell of books and aging paper that Maria sat on the Persian rug, and watched the painting.
The frame held two young women. One was seated on the grass, wearing a pale blue corset and yellow dress. The other stood smiling behind her, holding a green parasol against the cloud filled sky. In the background, a stone wall protected them from the blustering winds. Maria liked to think the two women were having a picnic. They had run-off together, stopping only when they had found the perfect place to spread their blanket. They ate sweet meats on crackers and drank refreshing horchata. Later, they would run to the woods and splash in the cool clear water of a slow moving stream with moss-covered banks. On their way home the sun would begin its descent and the sky would turn purple and gold and the women would stop and watch the colors melt from the sky.
Maria stood in front of the mirror while Pilar fussed with her white dress. She lifted up the dress and let it fall. She turned from side to side and watched it curl around her legs.
“It’s too hot for shoes,” Maria said.
“Don’t cause trouble. Take them off when your father leaves,” Pilar said, seating the girl on the edge of her bed and pulling each stocking on.
Maria heard the Count in the hallway, the hard heels of his boots shouting like palillos as they struck the marble floor. He was coming down the hallway now, singing loudly. His feet kept a furious tempo and Maria knew he was dancing towards her. He was dancing his way to her room.
Maria sat very still in Pilar’s rough hands and watched the door. The Count burst in and picked up his daughter, swinging her high in the air. Maria’s small hands gripped her father’s wrists as she was lifted higher and higher. Her feet dangled freely and Maria was afraid to look down.
“Look at my beautiful daughter,” he said, putting her down in front of the mirror.
“And my handsome Papa,” she said, clinging to her father’s leg.
Giving her a kiss on the forehead, the Count took a white ribbon from his coat pocket and tied it into her hair. “Leave us,” he said to Pilar, kneeling next to his daughter and looking at their reflection in the large oval mirror. The Count rubbed the finer edges of his mustache between his thumb and forefinger as he spoke. “I have arranged for you to meet someone today. Her name is Cecilia. Her father is an acquaintance of mine, so let us be good today and make friends,” he said, gently patting Maria on the head. “We cannot have you spending all this time alone. It will not do.”
Maria watched her reflection nod as the Count left her side and opened the door of the bedroom. Maria buckled the straps of her black shoes and spread her toes against the stiff leather. Pilar seemed pleased to see Maria’s shoes on when she returned. Properly dressed, Maria was allowed out on the veranda to wait for her new friend’s arrival.
It was warm outside and Maria stood in the sun, looking out over the city. The tops of buildings shivered in the heat. Hills like lumps of brown sugar rose in the distance, disappearing into the sky and clouds. The larks were singing in the beech trees and Maria sang with them, trying to imitate their short shrill calls that dipped and floated in the dry air. Maria stepped closer to the hot iron railing and leaned against it. She felt the warm metal against her dress and in her belly. She lifted up her hands and moved them through the air. With her eyes closed she was one of them – weightless – singing in the air. She opened her eyes when Pilar called to her. Cecilia had arrived.
Pilar opened the oak door and both girls blinked in the sunlit doorway. Cecilia was wearing a blue dress adorned with stains and smudges. Her hair was tousled and messy from the hot summer air. She stepped into the shadows of the house, tugging at the waistline of her dress.
“But where are your shoes, Cecilia?” the governess scolded, rubbing the girl’s soot black feet with a rag from her pocket.
“It’s too hot for shoes,” Cecilia announced, stepping over Pilar’s hands and looking around the house.
“And what does your mother say about this.”
Maria had always been forbidden to be seen in such a manner. Her mother used to stand for hours in front of the bedroom mirror, matching her jewelry and painting her face before going anywhere. Maria would let herself sink into the soft pillows on the bed and watch as she moved around the room, her feet moving silently under her delicate gown.
The tawny hue of Cecilia’s skin made Maria’s legs itch in their silk stockings. Her starched dress was suffocating. Sucking in her stomach, she readjusted the bow in her hair and stepped forward to greet this new friend.
“Would you like to see my paintings?” Maria said, rocking back and forth in her unforgiving shoes.
“How delightful,” Cecilia said.
Pilar closed the front door and turned the lock. When she had gone, Maria unstrapped her shoes and wriggled her toes on the damp cool floor.
“Nasty things,” Cecilia said.
The tour began with the scary general. Cecilia agreed that he looked very unhappy and even menacing from some angles. After some argument, both decided he had just lost a very large battle and was thinking about the terrible truth he must tell to the wives and children of the dead soldiers when he returned home. They moved to the kitchen where Maria showed Cecilia the painting of a wooden bowl overflowing with freckled pears and black wrinkled figs. Cecilia took a liking to a collection of hunting paintings in one hallway, due to her fondness for the hounds and their oversized ears that hung off their sloping heads like cuts of meat at a market.
Maria dwelled on a painting of three blacksmiths bent over an anvil. Prior to Cecilia’s arrival the painting had saddened Maria; the men seemed starved for warmth. But with Cecilia, there, next to her, Maria was comforted by the workers’ ruddy faces and hard hands.
Maria stood outside the study doors and held the golden knobs. She turned the round knobs inward and pushed, beckoning Cecilia to sit next to her on the rug. Maria bunched the folds of her dress in her fists and waited for Cecilia to say something. Cecilia looked at the painting for a long time that seemed to stretch like warm toffee candy. She inched closer to the canvas, rocking on her bare knees. She cocked her head to the side, the way a sparrow might.
“Beautiful,” she said, looking at Maria.
Maria’s face went flush and her ears began to itch. She was smiling, and the smile spread
from the corners of her lips to her cheeks and down her back where it tingled and shuddered.
“They look as if they are in love,” Cecilia said, walking further away from the painting, hands on rounded hips.
The room was dim and Maria drew back the heavy curtain. Sunlight fell through the large paned window and filled the study.
“They are having a picnic,” Maria said, pushing her foot in and out of the light. “And soon the clouds will blow away and the sun will shine,” Cecilia added. “And later they will play in the stream.”
“Which one will you be?”
Maria stopped playing with the sunlight.
“You are the girl in the dress,” Cecilia said, after looking back and forth between Maria and the painting.
“And I hold the parasol.”
A strange sense was pushing up inside of Maria. She sat down on the floor abruptly. The sun was growing hot on her back and there was something pressing against the bottom of her stomach. The painting was rich in color and the two women were beautiful. Maria crossed her legs tightly. Maria’s eyes were closed and she saw stars – bursting stars, pumping with light and energy. And then the feeling was gone. It was floating away on a cloud, like the ones in the painting. Maria opened her eyes. Cecilia was looking at her, and her face was glowing deep with orange and amber. Her dark hair rolled down over her radiant skin and the house was quiet.
That evening the Count held a gathering at the Villa. The house bustled with servants and even Pilar was too preoccupied to pay much attention to Maria, as she plucked wild flowers from the arrangement in the foyer and sneaked helpings of soup from the kitchen. The halls were lit with fresh candles and Maria flicked a finger through flames that broke and merged in blue and orange teardrops.
In the kitchen, Pilar had prepared a small dinner for Maria of the previously sampled gazpacho and lechazo. There were helpings of ivory-yellow manchego and fatty Jamón ibérico with toasted bread. Pilar sat with her and plucked at the plate of meats and cheeses.
“Who is coming this evening?” Maria said, looking up from her bowl of soup.
Pilar cut a slice of manchego. Her mouth wrinkled at the corners of her lips and she chewed very slowly, as if the answer was somewhere in the food. “I cannot keep track of all your father’s acquaintances, Maria,” she said, brushing her hands together. “It is none of our concern.”
Maria frowned and returned to her dinner. The Count’s loud bravado signaled the arrival of the first guests. Silver scrapped against porcelain as Maria cut her lamb, but she slowed her eating with a disapproving glance from the governess. More guests were arriving as a cacophony of pleasantries mingled with the shuffle of servants and the swinging of doors.
“You will have plenty of opportunities to attend such dinner parties when you are older,” Pilar said, pushing back her chair and stacking plates and bowls. “But for now you must go along to bed.”
Before Maria could protest, the Count came striding into the dining room. He was magnificent. His hair looked like the slick pelt of an otter emerging from the water. His long black dinner jacket flowed out from either side of his vested chest, silver buttons catching whatever light was in the room. His boots were shined to a perfect black sheen.
“How is my Maruja,” the Count said, sitting down at the table. His face was red and his eyes rolled in his head as he looked around the room. Taking a piece of cheese he popped it in his mouth and winked. “How would you like to come and meet the guests?”
Pilar put the dishes down on the table. “Maria was just going to bed.”
The Count turned to the governess. His mustache was more waxed than usual and his lips trembled. Maria watched the muscles of his jaw working back and forth underneath his smooth skin. “Certainly a few moments won’t be of any harm,” he said. “Now come Maruja, let us meet the guests.”
Pilar collected the remaining plates as Maria struggled to keep up with her father’s long and speedy gait. His hands were warm and a dampness formed amongst their fingers and their palms as the Count led her to the drawing room.
Maria’s nostrils stung and her eyes grew wet around the lids when they walked through the open doors of the drawing room. Men stood in the smoke-filled room, talking and gesturing with fat cigars. They stopped and acknowledged Maria with a salute of their glasses and returned to their conversations. The din lifted into the thick air and clung to Maria like a cloud of sweat thirsty gnats. Glasses were knocking together and a heavy haze of cologne passed amongst the partygoers. She wanted to run. She wanted to run and open the doors to the veranda and let in the fresh evening air. The Count led her around the room and introduced her to his guests. She met a very fat man named Alberdado, who pinched her cheeks and kissed her hands. She met a very slender man with blonde hair who had the coldest eyes she had ever seen. The guests told her how pretty she was, and how she looked just like her father.
After the third toast, Maria slipped out of the drawing room and into the corridor where it was cooler. She knelt down and pressed her burning cheeks against the stone floor. Using the candles as her guide, Maria snuck down the narrow hall, stopping every few steps to listen for Pilar or any of the help.
The doors to the study dragged across the floor and Maria held her breath. The room was full of shadows and Maria felt the walls close in around her. Taking a step, she was comforted by the thick warm rug under her feet. White light from the moon shone through the window and illuminated the painting. Maria took her seat in front of it, pulling her bare ankles underneath herself.
It was a warm summer night and the women were lying on their backs staring up at the dark blue sky encircling them in a cloth of burning stars. There was a slow and steady breeze that came up from the valley and carried the notes of guitars from courtyards of old manors. The women stood, and they danced barefoot underneath the sky. The smell of dampened wool lingered in the air, left by herds of grazing sheep. The two silhouettes rose and dipped against the pale yellow moon. Then they stopped abruptly and stood very still, as if frightened, and they fled from the hillside into the shapeless woods.
There was someone in the hallway and Maria tried to get up, but her legs were stuck to the rug. Her toes tingled. She couldn’t feel anything below her knees. She pulled herself along the floor with her elbows until she was behind the desk where she lay and waited.
A man staggered into the study and stood in the doorway. He took a few steps forward and then back. There was a strange odor and the dragging of a heavy chair across the carpeted floor. Maria closed her eyes very tightly and pressed her hands over her ears but could still feel the chair’s legs as they slid across the ground. When the noise stopped she peered around the corner of the desk and saw the man standing in front of the painting. There was a flare of light and the smell of burnt tobacco leaves. Maria pushed a cough deep down into her chest where it scratched at her lungs with bone-dry claws. Peeking out from her hiding place, Maria looked at the painting, but there was nothing to see. It was empty. The canvas was blank, save for the stonewall running along a bare hillside. There were no women, no forest, even the stars had disappeared.
The man took a long drink and swayed in front of the painting. His feet caught the light of the moon and Maria recognized the boots of the Count. He turned slowly away from the painting and sat down in the chair. He sat for a long time and Maria watched the orange tip of his cigar move in the darkness of the room until her eyes ached. She finally turned away and closed her eyes and prayed for the women to return to the painting. She prayed for them to come back to the hill and dance for her father under the stars.
Then there were loud and steady snores. He was asleep.
That night Maria slept in her dress under light linen sheets and Pilar sat at the edge of the bed, humming a bedtime song Maria had not heard in a long time. And for the second time since coming to the old yellow villa on the hill she remembered her mother and missed her.
When the governess announced Cecilia’s arrival next the day, Maria bounced down the stairs, her cotton dress lifting with each step of descent. Cecilia waited at the bottom of the stairs with the same dirtied feet. The sun had left her hair a lighter shade of brown and her skin was dark. They ran to each other and embraced amid the protestations of Pilar about footprints.
The two moved through the villa looking at all paintings. They held hands and swung their arms towards the ceiling. They skipped barefoot over cracks in the floor. Approaching the doors to the study they grew quiet. Cecilia took one bold step towards the doors and pushed them open. The painting hung on the wall, just as she had left it.
The room was hot and the air was stale. Maria’s hair felt heavy, as if soaked with water and her neck ached from the weight. The skin behind her knees stuck together with cold sweat as she sat with Cecilia on the Persian rug once more and examined the bright colors of their canvas. The tones and hues of the oils lulled Maria and gently rocked her shoulders and her hips. There was no breeze but her dress moved ever so slightly across her knees. Cecilia’s hand lay on her thigh. The two women were happy inside this world that shone with colors and brush strokes. Cecilia was very close. A sweet perfume spread like a mist of purple and white lilacs, blurring Cecilia’s face into blots of brown and white. Maria closed her eyes and thought about the painted women.
There were a few clouds passing over them, and the sun was pushing through. The grass was itchy against her ankles and she could hear the stream as it rolled between rotted logs and over loose pebbles. Under the parasol it was dark and cool. She looked up at the woman. She made out the dark outline of her face against the sun. From her shade, Maria looked out at the rolling green hills, dotted with sheep that moved slowly in the distance. The faceless woman knelt next to her, holding the parasol aloft. She could hear her breathing – slow – rhythmic. The clouds had all blown away, and the skies were clear. And she kissed the woman and she felt the quivering of her damp lips, and the shade of the parasol swayed back and forth above their heads. The sound of water grew louder in her ears as she pushed her soft nose into the forgiving face of her shade-giver. There was a heat in her lips and Maria felt the wave of violent warmth spread from her lips to her neck and to her chest where it burned and burned.
Soon Wiley is a native of Nyack, New York. He received a BA in English and Philosophy from Connecticut College. He currently attends the MFA program at Wichita State University, where he is the assistant editor of MOJO.