For fifteen years, Gregorio Aruña worked among us, building his museum of miniatures here in our village of Monterojo, high in the Sierras de las Marinas, and in all that time, no one was allowed in the door of his museum. Fifteen years is a long time to work at something that no one is allowed to see, you will admit. Not even his mother and father had been inside the building, and naturally over the years there had grown up a suspicion that Gregorio's strange museum was destined to be a failure. It is difficult, after all, to believe in something you have never seen that presents you all the time with a locked door, and paper over the windows, and a secretive host.
Still, for all those years, he worked more or less peacefully among us, and then at last the time came when there was to be an unveiling. One night in the café, Gregorio announced that his work was nearly finished, and he ordered several pitchers of tinto de verano. This was proof of his intentions, at least, because Gregorio was very close about money, wearing the shabbiest of clothes and always asking for yesterday's bread and the scraps off your plate. But that night, glasses in hand, we forgot his foolishness for an evening and raised a toast to him and his museum. Soon he would open the doors at last, and we would see what all his years of toil amounted to.
The next afternoon, I was taking my customary siesta on the examining table in my office when I was awakened from my dreams. Gregorio was standing beside me, and his face was dreadfully white. "Dr. Xavia," he whispered, "help me."
He held out his hands. They had been crushed as if an anvil had been dropped on them.
I sat him down right away and turned the fan on him and poured a brandy down his throat and then another. And then I checked to see that I had film for an X-ray and enough gas to keep him comfortable. While I got things ready, he talked. It had happened, he explained, like this: a marble lintel over a window in his museum had split inexplicably and fallen across the backs of his hands while he was installing the glass in the frame below.
"Don't move," I said, and took a picture of one of his hands and then the other.
While I developed the film, he kept talking. He told me that in the second it took for the rock to crack and fall, he looked up and ascertained, first, that he had done a poor job of plastering around the marble, and second, that his reflexes were inadequate to the task of removing his hands in time.
I did not say so, because only a cruel man would have pointed it out, but I guessed that he had been reckoning the cost of the glass he held in his hands, too. Gregorio is like thatwe accuse him of foolishness, but it is true that only an idiot would refuse to let go of a piece of glass and allow his fingers to be crushed instead.
"What happened to the glass?" I asked him, beginning to scrub.
"I dropped it when the rock hit my hands. It sounded like a lot of money when it fell, too."
It was a terrible job to fix him up. I extracted shards of bone no bigger than fish scales from the backs of his hands. A good number of the metacarpals had been broken, and in one or two places they had been crushed like pieces of chalk. I could not offer him much hope that he would ever regain full use of his hands. This news, to a man who has made it his life's work to re-create on a tiny scale a complete village and nativity, enough to fill the rooms of a small three-story house, could not be anything but devastating. So I chose to make no prognostications.
"Be quiet," I told him when I began working. "I need to concentrate." I nodded to Natalia, the silly girl who is my assistant; she had come back from her siesta and gagged at the sight of Gregorio's hands and was now doing the gas for me.
"They look like empty gloves," she whispered over the top of his head.
"Go to sleep for a little, Gregorio," I said. "It will be easier on all of us."
But later, after he was awakened, he had to ask me, our Gregorio. I took his hands, two blunt white cudgels bandaged up like boxer's gloves, and held them gently in my own. Natalia had opened the blinds and gone to wash her face; the sun had moved around the mountain by then, and there was a marvelous breeze. We expect them here around this time of day, coming from the east in the late afternoon. Everybody starts to wake up again, with that breeze stealing over their faces as they lie on their beds.
"Don't talk to me about signs, Dr. Xavia," Gregorio said. "Just tell me the truth."
But I would not punish him with that kind of talk. There would be enough people to say it was bound to happen anyway, and what could you expect from such a crazy endeavor?
"There will always be some stiffness," I said, taking care with my words. "Maybe some pain."
He pulled his hands away and shook them in my face. "Finish your thought."
I put my hands in my pockets. No fighting for me. I am a doctor, and I need my hands, much, I suppose, as Gregorio needs hisfor careful work. Gregorio is a thin man, small and wiry, with black hair like a monkey's, which falls over his forehead in a childish way. I think he is thirty-five, maybe thirty-six. I helped deliver him, but I cannot recall the year exactly.
He screwed up his face at me. "I know what you are thinking," he said, but I wonder if that was true.
What I thought was this: why would a lucky boy go away to England to study, win a miraculous if modest lottery settlement while on a single three-day holiday with his relations there, and come home to this mountaintop village in Spain, even if it is the most beautiful place on earth, to spend the best years of his life building this museum, as he calls it, of tiny houses like dolls' houses?
I did not pass judgment on it, you see. I had never been inside his museum. For all I knew, it might have been splendid, or ridiculous, or it might have explained itself perfectly, though it was hard to imagine. He had told me about it when we met in the café from time to time, and he talked like a man who cannot help himself from spilling a delightful but probably untrue secret. He described the tiny churches and houses built from stone, and the electric lights that winked in the windows, and the lakes and rivers with real fish swimming in them, and the train that curled around the mountain, blowing clouds of steam. He told me about a bucket that fell into a well and came up brimming with water, and about a forge from which real sparks flew, and about the tiny fires burning in the orange groves against an imaginary frost. He explained how all these scenesthe mountains and the valleys and the forests and the creatures therewere built upon platforms in the rooms of his museum, how you could walk around them from any angle and see something new every time.
His parents, good people, both of them, despaired over Gregorio. I have known him since he was a baby and can say, with less emotion than his parents, that he is a mysterious person, as all people who are obsessed must be.
But I did not criticize him, though there were many who did. I only asked, in the quiet and thankfully private room that is my own mind, why.
"Do you want to call your mother?" I asked him. "I'll dial it for you."
I saw the shock on his face. He could not even dial the telephone.
"I'll manage," he said, but his face was white again, and he stood up unsteadily.
"Let me walk with you, then," I said.
He waved me off, and I thought he looked even more like a monkey, or maybe like a starving, tormented bear, swinging at invisible bees.
I watched him step outside into the bright street. We have no vehicular traffic on these high streets in Monterojo. The roads were built by the Moors in the Middle Ages and they are wide enough for a cart, but not much elsetwo men standing at either side of the street in their doorways can spit into each other's face without taking a step.
So I did not have to worry about Gregorio being hit by a car.
But I had many other things to worry about, and so did he, only he hadn't discovered them all yet.
He told his mother the same thing when we walked up the hill to see him a few hours later, when I judged the full effects of the gas would have worn off and he would be in considerable pain.
Gregorio had bought both houses when he came back from England, one for his museum and also the house next door, where he planned to live. I'd been in that house, at least, and it looks like all the others herebuilt of stone, with small windows and cool interior rooms hidden from the sun. Some of us have tiled floors and some of us wood, and some of us have a little stone courtyard or even a fountain to the side, but we are all more or less the same otherwise, as far as our living arrangements go. The houses run next to one another, side by side like pearls on a string, on several terraces carved out of the side of the mountain and linked by narrow alleys with steep flights of steps. At the very top is the castle. From the door of Gregorio's house, you can look down a dizzying slide over the rooftops of Monterojo and down the slopes of the Sierras de las Marinas, etched with the thin, curving crescents of terraces built by the Moors so many centuries ago. The terraces are planted with olive and almond and lemon trees, and níspero trees under enormous billowing tents of gray gauze, which protect the fruit against the thieving of the birds and give the mountainside, from far above, the look of a patchwork quilt.
We are used to thinking of this place where we live as beautiful. People come from all over the world and climb to the top of the mountain, to the castle's highest tower, and take photographs of the view. I myself have been asked to pose for some of these pictures, as if I, too, am part of Monterojo's charm. Still, I have learned that if you have lived in a place all your life, it is possible to become blind to it, both its good and bad sides.
It is even possible to stop seeing it entirely.
Gregorio stood in his doorway, blocking our way. "I'll manage," he said to us, but I could see how much his hands hurt him.
"Are you out of your mind? How will you even wipe your bottom?" Celeste stared at his bandaged hands. "Look at you! You can't do anything. Come home. Come home, Gregorio."
"No. I'll manage."
"Dr. Xavia says you should come home," Celeste said, though I had offered no such advice.
I stepped forward. "I've brought you something for the pain," I said. "Let us come inside and get you something to take them with, at least."
I found a glass in his kitchen and some bottled water. "Open your mouth and I'll put them on your tongue. You might drop them trying to hold them."
I put the pills on Gregorio's tongue and held the glass to his lips. Celeste watched. It is terrible to see your children suffer, I am sure. I could see what she was feeling. And they have never known how to talk to Gregorio. None of us has.
He would have a very bad time of it here alone, I thought, looking around. He might possibly turn on the tap by using a wooden spoon or something as a wedge and manipulating it with his elbows, but it would be very hard to turn it off again. He could not cut open one of the oranges from the bag on the table, nor break off a hunk of bread. He could lap at a dish of olives like a dog, and he could finish off some beans by putting his face into the bowl, also like a dog. But he could not unzip himself to take a piss, and his mother was righthow was he to wipe his ass? I could see how this night would go for him.
"Come," I said to Celeste, and led her away weeping. "Come, come. Shhh. He is upset, you can understand that. Give him time."
I stopped her, though, at the corner. "Wait here a minute." I went back to the house, knocked on the door, and let myself in without waiting. Gregorio was standing in the kitchen, looking dazed. I went up to him quickly and unzipped his fly. He gave out a cry as if he were a child and I had hit him, a cry of outrage and disbelief and pain.
"You'll thank me later," I said.
That night, as I lay in my own bed, I thought about Gregorio and tried to imagine what he must be feeling. I was not worried about him so much for that one nighthe knew where to find me if he wanted something more for the pain, and he knew I was used to being woken in the middle of the night by someone calling my name from outside in the street. It was the question of his future that troubled methat, and the sorry condition of his hands. Surely, with the museum set to open, he must be almost finished with his work there, I argued to myself. Perhaps someone else could finish up whatever details were still left. Yet these thoughts did not comfort me. I felt restless and worried, and when I fell at last into sleep, it was fitful. I dreamed of Gregorio's museum, and I seemed to see it all as though I were a child passing slowly before the displaysevery black eye in every motionless painted face, every terra-cotta tile on every roof, every humble creature waiting endlessly at the manger, the miniature garden of cactus rosettes, bristling with eternal dew . . . even the miraculous baby's tiny toes and nails.
When I woke in the morning, I said my prayers, as always, kneeling beside my bed on the hard floor and thanking God for giving me one more day. And then I added a question. Why are you punishing him, Padre? I asked. I never thought you had such a mean streak.
I was at breakfast with Celeste and Carlos, Gregorio's parents, when he appeared later that morning at the back door. The bright light behind him made him appear almost translucent. He'd had a very bad night after all, I thought.
Celeste greeted him with a cry of joy, but I caught her pinching him on the back of the neck when she pushed him into a chair. He winced under her fingers. "You smell," she said, bending close.
He sat down hard, his hands held before him like a begging dog's paws.
I looked at his face, which was drawn and pale. "How
is the pain?" I asked him.
"I can give you more pills. I'd be surprised if you didn't need them."
He nodded his head. I found the pills in my pocket, leaned near to him, and put them on his tongue, which this time he stuck out obediently. I held my coffee cup to his lips.
"It's very bad luck." Celeste sat down across from us at the table and shook her head at Gregorio. Her face was shining with sympathy and rage. I thought it had looked like that, so far as Gregorio was concerned, ever since he'd been a little boy, but it had been worse since he had come home from England with all that money and announced his plans to build his museum. This morning her face had a special brightness as if vindication, now that it had come, was aflame inside her, burning up her heart on a fat pyre. Had none of them wanted him to succeed?
Carlos growled at her. "Don't talk about bad luck. It's bad luck to talk about bad luck."
For a moment there was silence. Carlos picked up his knife and began spreading honey on his bread.
"Give that to him." Celeste gestured toward Gregorio.
Carlos hesitated, looking back and forth between his wife and son.
She half rose out of her seat, threatening. "Can't you see he's starving?"
"I'm not," Gregorio said. But I watched his eyes follow the dark honey melting into his father's bread, falling onto the plate in thick, slow, black drops. I come for meals with the Aruñas several times a weekCeleste is my cousin, and I have no wife to cook for me anymoreand it is established that we all have our favorites among the honey Carlos makes. Celeste likes the lemon, Carlos prefers the oleander, but Gregorio and I ask for the lavender, which has a mysterious, complex flavor. Carlos harvests each batch separately, removing the hives from one location to another under cover of darkness while the bees are sleeping, a practice that beekeepers in these mountains have observed for centuries. It is the only way to keep the flavors of the honey pure. Every summer, the Aruñas send a mixed case to England to their daughter, Mercedes. She is eleven years older than Gregorio and married an Englishman she met while working as a waitress at the tourist beaches in Benidorm. The EnglishmanNick, as they must call him nowbrought her back with him to England. A beautiful girl, Mercedes.
Carlos reached out and offered his bread to Gregorio.
"Idiot!" Celeste snatched it away and came to sit by Gregorio, the bread cradled in her palm. "Can't you see he can't do a thing for himself?" But she was looking at Gregorio, not at Carlos, and her voice had become gentle and full of tears.
Gregorio opened his mouth, poor boy. He couldn't help it.
"He's like a baby again," Celeste said, and she sounded almost satisfied with this terrible turn of events, her grown son eating from her fingers.
Carlos stood up as if he'd had enough, and I, too, felt eager to go. This was not a place I wanted to be, I thought to myself.
"He may be a baby, but he's getting bald," Carlos said. He towered over his son, looking down at the crown of his head, the thinning hair there. "You have less hair than anyone in the family now, except Dr. Xavia," he said. But then he stooped down and kissed Gregorio quickly, once on each narrow cheek.
"Don't let her kill you with the kindness," he said quietly, and brushed at what was left of Gregorio's hair with his fist before leaving the room.
At noon, Celeste came to find me at my office, where I was examining a wound on the head of Vicente Delgado's cat. If I am not busy, I agree to look at the animals of my friends. I am not proud about such things. May I be of use, is all I ask. And when that day comes when I can no longer be useful, may I suffer a massive myocardial infarction and pass from this world to the next in my sleep, in the midst of a happy dream. I have seen too many other kinds of death, and I should prefer this one.
"I want you to come with me," Celeste said. "You can make him see reason."
I did not reply to Celeste right away. She is a woman who will take a mile if you give her an inch. It is best not to jump too quickly to obey Celeste, lest she think she has you in her grip. I gave Vicente back his cat, rubbing the animal's ears under my thumbs. "Bathe the wound three times a day with warm water," I told him. I found in a drawer some ointment against infection. I put the ointment in a paper bag and gave that to him, too. "How many has she left now, Vicente?"
"Only two lives," he said proudly.
"That is a very fortunate cat," I told Celeste as I got my hat.
"Don't talk to me about cats. Please. I'm in no mood."
We climbed the hill to Gregorio's house.
"He insisted on coming back here after breakfast," Celeste said as we walked. She put her hand to her side as we slowly began to climb the steps. "It's a tragedy, what has happened to his hands, no doubt. But there is a way to see it as a blessing. Maybe it will be the end of his crazy museum. Maybe he will grow up now."
"But he was so close to finishing." I gave her my arm.
"Yes? And then what? Every day he could sit there with a roll of tickets and wait for the king to come so he could give him free admission? Tell me, Tomas. Who is going to come and see this thing Gregorio has made? Who is going to pay money to see it? No one, is who." She made a noise of disgust.
We arrived at the door to the museum. Gregorio had painted a sign for it several days before. MUSEO DE MINIATURAS. VISITAS: TODOS LOS DÍAS DEL AÑO. Open every day of the year.
"Tell me the truth," Celeste said quietly. "He will never work on his miniatures again, am I right? It is only a matter of time before he sees this for himself."
I hesitated. The man's injuries were very bad. Certainly he would lose significant dexterity and mobility. I would be surprised if he could write his name well, when all was said and done. But I did not make this pronouncement to Celeste. "It is early yet. We will see."
We had stopped at the museum door. Paper was still tacked up over the windows so that no one could see inside.
"What do you suppose it looks like in there, really?" Celeste stared at the door.
I thought of my dream. "Both familiar and strange," I said after a minute.
Celeste seemed struck by this. "That describes Gregorio himself."
We found Gregorio at his long worktable on the shaded terrace next to his museum, a tiny paintbrush clenched between his teeth.
"Look at him!" Celeste stopped up short and put her hands to her cheeks. "Dios mío! You're like a saint!" She threw herself over his neck, weeping.
When his mother collided with his back, Gregorio's brush left a large, disfiguring smear on the tiny tile he was painting. I winced; the man had been painting with his teeth, after all. It was not hard to imagine how difficult it had been.
He shrugged her off with a violent motion and looked down angrily at his ruined tile. "See what you made me do?"
"Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry." Celeste sat down beside him, wiping her eyes with the backs of her hands, like a child. She did not sound very contrite. "Mama's sorry."
Gregorio moved his work away from her with his elbow.
"We've brought you lunch, your good friend Dr. Xavia and I," she said.
"I'm not hungry." He sat morosely at the table, his bandaged hands resting on his thighs. A fly landed on his forehead; when he raised his arm to brush it away, I saw him grimace with pain.
Now he is learning, I thought. Now he is learning that without his hands it is as if he is a prisoner in his own body. It is strange how we cannot help moving our hands. A person moves his hands a thousand times a day. No, more, a million times, all in response to the world around him and according to his own humorlittle twitches and twinges and sweeping gestures and rude flicks of the fingers and caresses and blows and gestures of prayer or benediction. Our hands are the dancers at the end of our arms, and we employ them when we cannot find the words and when we can, as if our hands perform an accompaniment to the voice.
When Gregorio spoke now, I knew he had discovered that he had to be conscious of not moving his hands at all, for the pain would be very bad. "You can go away," he said. His hands lay like deadwood on his thighs.
She ignored him. "You need to pee-pee?"
He jerked his chin in the direction of his fly. He was unzipped, of course, for no one had done him up since I'd assisted him with that problem the day before.
"Oh!" Celeste made a noise of impatience. She leaned over swiftly and zipped him up. "People will talk if they see you this way!"
"Let them talk. If they thought about my predicament for even an instant, they would see that it is kinder to me just to let me stay unzipped." He frowned down at himself. "Now what will I do?"
"Let us eat," I proposed, "and then we will see."
Celeste got up with a sigh, as if none of this were to her liking, but she opened her bag and brought out bread and grapes and a tin of mussels. She and I took turns tearing off bits of bread and wrapping them around mussels and feeding them to Gregorio. Soon our fingers were soaked with the orange oil of the mussels. I went inside and found a bottle of wine, uncorked it, and brought it out to the terrace with three glasses.
Too late, I remembered that Gregorio could not raise his glass. My own glass halfway to my mouth, I stopped. I caught Celeste's eyes, and she stopped, too. There was a moment of silence between the three of us, and I thought that we were, each of us, calculating not simply the change to Gregorio's life, but also the terrible familiarity of accidents, as if trouble has a way of seeing exactly what will not only disarm us but ruin us entirely. After all, he could have lost both feet, and it would not have been such a catastrophe, in a way.
But I was also thinking about Gregorio's museum. For many years I had sided, at least privately, with his parentsGregorio was a bit of a fool.
Here is how it happened. Fifteen years earlier, Mercedes, the older sister, had called her parents from England. I happened to have been there that evening, because it was my birthday and we were celebrating.
"Send Gregorio," Mercedes had said. "Nick and I are going to have a baby. We will help with an education for Gregorio and he can help with the baby and then he can go into business."
At the time it seemed a fine plan, and we were ready to celebrate again. But Gregorio had left the room and did not come back for a long time. Finally, about midnight, he appeared in the doorway. He was very agitated, as if he had been thinking over his words carefully but was afraid to speak them aloud. "Please, Papa," he said quietly, "I am no good at business."
Carlos is not a violent man, you must understand. But he has his limits, like all of us. He stood up. "You will go to England, to your sister's," he shouted.
Gregorio trembled, but he stood his ground. "I want to be an artist," he said.
That was the wrong thing to have said. Carlos sputtered his disdain. "You are an artist inside a matchbox," he thundered. "That is not the work of a man. That is a mouse's business."
Gregorio flushed violently and then he turned and left the room. Carlos was referring to the little scenes of rural life that Gregorio built inside matchboxes, tiny houses and roads and trees, and the tiny paintings he executed on the tin circles that were the tops and bottoms of cans. Once, Celeste had confided to me that he had embroidered three little canvases, about two inches by two inches, with threads unwound from his socks.
"Are they any good?"
She looked shocked. "They are made from socks," she repeated, as if I had misunderstood.
I was not successful at persuading Gregorio to return home to his parents' house that night. In truth, I did not really try, even though Celeste kept unsuccessfully trying to elicit my support. I listened to them going back and forth about it. Sooner or later, I thought, he would have to ask for their help. It was best for me not to become too involved.
But that night, I had another dream. Again I was in Gregorio's museum, but this time I was moving around inside it with a torch, stealthily, as if I were a thief, my light shining over the surfaces. And yet it was not exactly as if I were a thief; it was more as if I were discovering this place after many, many years during which it had been abandoned, for here and there I could see that something was awry: The tiny senora who stirred her pot over the fire held no spoon, and her face was cracked down the center. A flock of white plaster geese with red eyes were upended in the sand by a small pond. A wagon listed in a plaza, one wheel missing. When I bent close to the stable that housed the Holy Family, I seemed to see a tear in the dull eye of the Madonna, and an expression of pain on the faces of the Magi. Everyone in this world of Gregorio's seemed to be growing older and more weary as I examined themthe man bent over his forge with an aching back, the farmers' wives exhausted under their baskets of fruit, the grandmother sleeping in the four-poster bed, the mask of death across her face. Dust had settled in the valleys like the fine, silken hairs that web the cactus when it is nearing bloom. It was as if the smooth and infinitely loving hand that hesitates over the world had withdrawn itself and gone away to other business.
And who knew if it would ever come back?
When I woke that morning, I felt a chill, and when I stepped outside to examine the sky, I paused in a way I had not in a long time to look at the view. For the first time, it struck me that one day I would not be here anymore to take in this sight. And yet, how I would miss it. That was the first time I had felt that: that I would be sorry to die.
When Gregorio had returned home from England fifteen years before, his lottery winnings in his pocket, his dreams of his museum filling up his head, his sister, Mercedes, had accompanied him and brought the baby, Patrick, with her so that his grandparents could see him, presumably, and so that she and her mother could share their outrage.
Gregorio was in disgrace, of course. He had not offered to share his lottery winnings with Mercedes and Nick, though I don't think they needed the money; Nick is a restaurant supplier and quite successful. And though Gregorio did eventually help his parentshe bought Carlos a new truck, and he paid to have his parents' kitchen modernized (now Celeste has a microwave oven)his apparent selfishness, and the reports of his silly impracticality over this dream of a museum of miniatures, earned him no love among his neighbors and relatives.
During her visit, Mercedes closeted herself with her mother so that the two of them could discuss Gregorio's stupidity at length, and they sent Gregorio and the baby out to walk. Sometimes they tried to enlist me in these discussions, but it is easy for a man to tire of such conversations, and I kept my distance, pleading the needs of my patients, though even then there was not much business beyond the usual digestive discomforts and skin ailments and emotional maladies of our villagers. Instead, I used to watch Gregorio from the window of my surgery. Patrick was a fat, red-haired infant, a little over a year old, the sort who writhes with fury and discomfort most of the time, and it was easy to see that Gregorio was miserable looking after him. He bounced this furious, pale-skinned British relation of his up and down the steps of the alleys in Monterojo in his baby carriage, girls looking sympathetically after them from shop doors. Still, no one ever came over and smiled and said what a pretty baby Patrick was, or how good it was to see Gregorio again, or that they were happy he had come home, or asked what he would do with himself now. Word had gotten around already, you see, and no one was supposed to encourage him.
For the month of Mercedes' visit, Gregorio had nearly full charge of Patrick. I suppose this was his mother and sister's way of punishing him, giving a grown man a baby to see after. (In any case I have always distrusted Mercedes, as one instinctively distrusts women who are so beautiful. I suspected that she had found the determined Patrick rather a shock.) Over the weeks, I watched Gregorio and Patrick go up and down the streets of Monterojo, in and out of the café, where I suspected that Gregorio consoled himself, and perhaps Patrick, too, with an occasional grappa, and I closed my shutters so as not to hear Patrick wailing outside my window. Gregorio sometimes parked him there deliberately, I thought, perhaps hoping that I would lean out and offer a sedative.
But after a while I realized that I heard the sound of Patrick's wailing less often. Whole days would go by, and apart from one glimpse of them heading up the steps by my office in the morning, there would be no sign of them for the rest of the day. Late one afternoon when I had neither heard nor seen them all day, I closed the door to my surgery and went looking for them to satisfy my curiosity.
Gregorio had not bought his buildings yet, of course, and his museum was then a thing made only of air and dreams, but I had a feeling that Gregorio would not be at his parents' house under the disapproving noses of his mother and sister, who in any case had little tolerance for the unhappiness of the male of the species at that time.
And now you will be waiting for me to relate that I came upon something terrible when I went to find themGregorio drowning his difficult nephew in a well, or pitching him over the ramparts of the castle, or smothering him with a sheet. Tensions were running extremely high at that point, after all. Or perhaps you will expect the reverse, something sentimental to make your heart swellPatrick and Gregorio sitting under the shade of a tree, the baby gurgling with pleasure on his uncle's knee, the still-boyish Gregorio suddenly charmed by his little relation. But I found nothing like any of those scenarios. Indeed, it was not an ending at all that I witnessed, neither tragic nor heroic, but a beginning of sorts, a beginning that was aborted by Mercedes' departure for England a few days later.
If I had to say exactly what they were doing when I found them, I would have to say that they were working.
Of course, not many people would use that word to describe what I saw, but I had the feeling nonetheless that that's what they were doing, each in his own way. I found them up at the castlemy own worst instincts had led me there, I confess, for enough people had been pitched off those walls, or had jumped from them of their own volition, for me to consider the castle a dangerous place, its height rather tempting, I suppose, for the weak of heart who imagine death to be both a thrill and a comfort.
I found them in one of the half-ruined open rooms near the top. Most of the top of the castle is open now to the sky, having been worn away by centuries of wind and rain, and the rooms are mostly shallow depressions in the rock. Still, it is a safe-enough place, really, with railings and supports and signs and binoculars mounted on steel posts from which one can look down into the valley below. There is a good deal of small, loose rubble, pretty white stones you can hold comfortably in the palm of your hand, and piles of sand, and soft, smooth, low steps worn from years upon years of pacing. If you are the sort of person who can entertain himself, it is a fine outpost, really, with the shapes of clouds rushing overhead, and the wind making music in your ears, and plenty to occupy your hands, if you are accustomed to making something of nothing.
And that is child's play, is it not, making something out of nothing? For there they were, Patrick freed from his carriage and tethered to Gregorio's ankle by means of a long rope, happily crawling about or playing with the stones or the sand, filthy, of course, but completely occupied. I imagine no one had ever let him get so dirty or have so much self-determination. And there was Gregorio, paper on his knee, charcoal in his hand, drawing his baby nephew in various attitudes, drawing the castle, drawing the clouds, drawing the rooftops of the village below.
I called it child's play then, but I think differently now. There is a genius to the human being, and not just in the form of man, though that is astonishing enough. Any fool could have seen that they were working. They were working, each in his own way, to discover the world.
I crept away before they could see me.
Three days after Gregorio's accident, I went to take my dinner with Celeste and Carlos. Celeste had made a tortilla de patatas, potato omelette, one of my favorites, though it is a simple thing, and cochifrito, lamb with lemon and spices.
Celeste had a sly look in her eye when I arrived. Gregorio came in just after me, as if he might have been waiting around outside for reinforcements before entering the house. I can't say I blamed him, but of course it only contributed to his air of doom and hesitancy. I was rather sorry I had come. We sat down at the table.
"You haven't heard our news," Celeste said. "Patrick is coming for a visit."
With Celeste's news that Patrick would be returning to Monterojo, I saw Gregorio look up warily from his place at the table. Celeste was watching him. When he raised his head, she gestured for him to open his mouth. He leaned forward and she put a swift forkful of tortilla into his mouth. "Yes, our Patrick is coming for a visit," she said. "He is seventeen now. Not a baby anymore."
Gregorio swallowed. Celeste beckoned for him to lean forward again and take another mouthful. I thought to myself that when Gregorio's pain was better, I would try to arrange some kind of clamp or hook for the bandage on his hand so that he could spear his own food somehow. It made me lose my appetite to watch Celeste feeding him.
"So, Patrick will stay with us for a little while. Mercedes says he thinks he is a great big boy now and will go off and travel by himself, but we are not to let him do that. She says he is a good boy but not completely to be trusted. So we must find him something to do while he is here. Tomas"
I raised my head.
"He can watch you?"
"What?" I had a sudden, unpleasant image of myself asleep on my examining table, mouth open in a snore.
"Being a doctor! You know. Teach him about medicine."
I paused a moment. "Certainly, if he is interested." But I thought it was a very odd thing to propose.
"And Gregorio" She paused. "Gregorio will be his tour guide."
Gregorio's head shot up.
"You can take him all over. He can drive"she made a dismissive motion at Gregorio's bandaged hands"and you can tell him where to go. Take him to Seville. Take him to Madrid. Show him Spain."
Gregorio held up his hands and shook them at her. "Have you no eyes? No brain at all?" he shouted at her. "What are you thinking? What about my museum?"
"Oh." She waved airily and began to eat again. "It will be a nice distraction for you." Then she slammed down her fork. "You're always mad at me! I try to help you, and look how you treat me!"
Gregorio stood up suddenly, knocking his chair over. "You think I am going to give up," he said fiercely. "I need your help, but instead you are going to use this to try and kill me." He was white-faced. I had never seen him so upset. He left the room.
Carlos had not lifted his head during all this, and I confess that I did not know where to put my eyes. I am not a family man, after all. I am ill-equipped for disputes such as this. Celeste took another bite of her tortilla, but her face was twisted as if she was trying not to cry. "I wanted to open his eyes," she said after a minute, speaking bitterly to the table. "I want him to see that there is more to the world than Monterojo and his museumhis museum, which he will never touch again anyway, because now he is a cripple."
"Celeste," I began.
"What?" she said angrily, interrupting me. "What can a man with no hands do with his life? What will he do when we are all, even you, dead and gone? Tell me what will happen to him then, Tomas. Tell me."
"Perhaps . . . it will not be so bad," I said gently.
"We should never have encouraged him." She wept now, her head down on her arms on the table.
I stood up from my place. "This is a family matter," I said awkwardly.
You can see what a coward I was.
For almost two weeks, I stayed away from Celeste and Carlos. This was the extent of my discomfort and temerity. I told Celeste, when she came to see me one morning, that I was purchasing some new things for my office and would be spending my evenings in Alicante for a little while, inspecting X-ray machines and other kinds of equipment to see what I liked best.
I do not think for a moment that she believed me.
After all, I am seventy-seven years old; how much longer did I think I
would be practicing medicine, anyway?
I did not go back to Gregorio's for several days after that, arguing with myself that I had done what I could. Gregorio would have to find a different way to live in the world, I thought. He would not be much good for fine work, of course, but there was no reason that he could not turn to a sort of labor that would require less exacting skillsdriving a farm vehicle, he could probably manage, or even packing fruit.
This is what I told myself, but at night I did not sleep well. I was troubled by images of Gregorio's museum or of Gregorio himself. One night, I dreamed that I was a giant, walking through the village of Monterojo, stooping over to peer in the windows. In the last house, I had to reach in with my finger to pull aside a curtain, but as I did so, I clumsily caused the wall to break, and when I attempted to withdraw my hand, the stone and plaster of the wall fell away entirely into the street as if a bomb had gone off, exposing the interior of the house. Inside, Gregorio was lying on a little bed, curled up, his back to me. Suddenly I was filled with a terrible dread. When I reached for him, meaning to hold him in my palm and bear him away to safety, he was cold and stiff, and at my touch he fell apart like a dry leaf.
After two weeks, Celeste came to me at my house early one morning.
"Patrick arrives tomorrow," she said, sitting down when I pulled out a chair for her. "I hoped you would come and eat with us."
I made her coffee, but she did not lift the cup to drink. I could see she was embarrassed. I passed her the sugar. "How is Gregorio?" I asked instead, sitting down across from her.
She did not say anything for a moment. I looked up from stirring my coffee. Celeste's face looked very old and tired, and for a moment she reminded me of somebody, though I could not think who it was. Then I saw ithers was one of the faces I had seen in my dream of Gregorio's museum, an old woman sitting alone in a plaza beside a church, a flock of pigeons at her feet. In my dream, the woman's face had been terribly sad.
"I feed him," she said after a minute or two. "I bathe him. How he is inside, in his heart . . . I don't know." She paused. "It is just like always."
She looked up at me. "I will be ashamed in front of Patrick," she said then. "He is my only grandchild, and I do not know him. No one speaks at the house. Not Carlos, not Gregorio. Please, Tomas."
I was overcome with confusion. I did not want to find myself there in the middle of that trouble again. And I was ashamed of something else, too, though I could not have said then precisely what it was. Sometimes, I now understand, it takes a dangerously long time before we see clearly how things stand with us.
That night, I walked up to Gregorio's house again. No one answered the door, so I walked around to the side of the house, where he kept his worktable on the terrace. A utility light had been strung up in the branches of the almond tree that overhung the marble flooring. Gregorio sat at his table, fast asleep, his head resting on one arm. The bandages on his hands were filthy and torn. But his face was the face of the child I suddenly remembered, the boy Gregorio at six, perhaps, with soft black curls and shy eyes.
Quietly I backed away, down into the street. I stood before the door to his museum for a moment. ThenI don't know what made me do itI reached out my hand and tried the door. It swung open easily, noiselessly, under my fingertips, as if the hinges were oiled. I stood there, shocked. It was completely dark inside the museum. I could not see anything. And then I realized that it had always been this way, unlocked all this time, all these years. Any one of us could have opened the door and gone inside and seen what there was to see.
Maybe you will be surprised to know what I did next.
I closed the door and walked away, back down the street to my surgery, where I poured myself a grappa, and then another, and then one more, before lying down on my examining table. You see, I was not ready yet to go inside. I was not yet ready.
Patrick arrived the next afternoon. When I went by the Aruñas' house, he was standing in the kitchen, a pair of headphones hooked around his neck. He was as pale as he had been as an infant, like a piece of wood stripped of its bark, but he was no longer fat, nor red-haired. He had the emaciated look of some teenage boys who are so impossibly thin that it hurts to look at them, and his hair had turned an unexceptional brown. He had not inherited Mercedes' excellent good looks.
Carlos, who had come home from work to welcome his grandson to Spain, had changed out of his work clothes and poured everyone a glass of muscatel in the kitchen. Carlos speaks no English at all, but he held out a glass to his grandson, smiling and making smacking noises by way of encouragement.
"Thanks," Patrick said. "Cool."
"What is all this you have brought with you?" I asked Patrick, gesturing to the bewildering array of electronic equipment on the floor by the door, along with a suitcase.
"Can you believe it?" cried Celeste. "He is so clever!"
Patrick was happy to explain to us how all these many devices worked. He had a laptop computer, and a CD player, and some handheld device that he said was a game, and a huge video camera that was also a projector, he informed us. "I can show movies anywhere," he said, "on an old sheet or a wall or wherever you like. That's what I want to do. Make films."
Celeste brought her hands together. "I love the movies," she said, enchanted.
At that moment, Gregorio made his entrance.
He looked pretty awful, I must say. It was easy to see the shock on Patrick's face that this unkempt and angry-looking man was his uncle.
Introductions were made, after which Gregorio sank into a chair as if exhausted.
Celeste threw me a look of desperation.
"Would you like a little tour of Monterojo?" I asked Patrick. "Though I can't say it has changed at all since you were here before. Come on," I said, pulling on the back of Gregorio's shirt as I ushered Patrick out of the kitchen. "I need to attend to your uncle's bandages, too, so we can do both at once.
"First, we have a stop to make," I said, and a few minutes later I pushed both boys ahead of me into the cool interior of the café. "You must drink a great deal here in Spain," I told Patrick. "You are not used to the sun or the heat, and you will become dehydrated easily." I brought three gin and tonics to the table.
"Cool," Patrick said.
"Drink up," I told the two of them. "Salud."
After three gin and tonics, I thought Gregorio was ready to face his hands.
On the way to my office, Patrick asked Gregorio, "Is it true what Mum says? That you won the lotto when I was a baby?"
Patrick looked impressed, but it may have been the alcohol. I put a hand under his arm to steady him as we went down the steps.
"And you've built a museum?"
"But you've never let anyone inside?"
Gregorio didn't say anything.
"That's crazy," Patrick said gravely after a moment.
"Here we are," I said quickly, reaching for my keys.
But Gregorio stopped and turned to face Patrick. "Didn't they tell you?"
Patrick looked blankly at him.
"Didn't they tell you I was an idiot?"
Patrick's mouth opened.
"You were a disgusting baby," Gregorio said then suddenly. "Always crying. I remember you."
Patrick took a step backward, as if Gregorio had hit him.
I made a noise of remonstrance and glared at Gregorio, but Patrick put up his hand. "It's ok. Really." He reached up and carefully took his headphones from around his neck and hooked them over his ears. Glancing down at his waist and frowning, he adjusted the dials of his cd player. His face took on a slightly foolish, dignified look, as though he were listening to something important about which he had been asked to give his considered opinion.
"Go ahead," he said to me after a minute, his voice unnecessarily loud. "I'll wait here."
In my office, I turned on the gooseneck lamp by the examining table, as it was almost dark by now, and pulled up a stool for Gregorio. "Sit here," I told him, pushing down hard on his shoulder, because I was angry. "Put your hands on the table."
It took me a few minutes to gather the things I needed and put them on a traysterile scissors, tweezers, fresh gauze, alcoholand then I sat down across from him.
"I know," he said. "You don't have to say it."
But still I did not move.
"I don't mind," he said. "About the pain. Just go ahead."
Somewhere over our heads in the night sky I heard the distant report of firecrackers, their dull, thudding fusillade. I am old enough to remember the Spanish civil war, you see. The sound of fireworkseven a truck backfiringcan still make my hands tremble. In the square of the window, a phosphorescent light bulged for an instant and then went out. I removed my glasses and cleaned them, but my hands were shaking. It seemed to me that it was I who was drunk, and not Gregorio, though I'd had only one gin and tonic to his and Patrick's three. I should never have let Patrick drink so much, it occurred to me. He was only a boy.
I thought I knew what we would see when I unwrapped the bandages, but it had been a long time, years, in fact, since I had treated an injury as severe as Gregorio's. Most of my cases were rather insignificant, things that probably would have taken care of themselves if simply left alone.
Gregorio closed his eyes when I picked up the scissors and began cutting through the gauze, which was stiff with grime and blood. At last his hands appeared, the flesh greenish and swollen unrecognizably and in places nearly black with bruising, like spoiled fruit. In truth, they looked no worse than I expected, but when I heard a gagging sound and looked up quickly to see Patrick standing by my shoulder, I saw Gregorio's hands, lying there on the table under the circle of white light, as Patrick must have seen them: they did not look like hands exactly, but were strangely, sorrowfully familiar, something we might once have called our own but could no longer recognize as part of who we once were.
The boy was dreadfully sick.
I held his head over the basin while he spat and heaved into it.
"What happened?" he said at last, taking a shuddering breath. "What happened to him?"
I helped him to the chair at my desk, handed him a cloth to wipe his face. I glanced over at Gregorio, who was staring straight ahead into the dark corner of the room.
"He has suffered a great loss," I said, as quietly as I could. "Life is unfortunate."
Between us, we got Gregorio back to his parents' house an hour or so later that evening. I'd had to sedate him finally while I resplinted his hands and changed the dressing, and it was all we could do to get him upstairs and tumble him into his bed. Before I turned off the light, I stopped in the doorway. Gregorio's childhood bedroom had been stripped of everything but the bed itself and a small chest of drawersI was reminded of the cells of monks, where earthly love has been put away. And yet I would not have called Gregorio either a penitent or a martyr. It was more as if Celeste and Carlos had banished him, scrubbing his old room free of any traces of the boy who had lingered there over his tiny paintings. In that way, at least, he was an outcast among us.
When Patrick and I came back downstairs, Celeste and Carlos were sitting together at the cleared kitchen table, the clock ticking over their heads in its place against the wall. They looked up at me with stricken faces.
"He will feel better after he sleeps," I said.
After a minute, Celeste nodded. Carlos looked down at his hands.
I put a hand on Patrick's shoulder. "I am borrowing Patrick for a little while," I said. Patrick looked up at me, surprised. "Can you bring your movie camera?" I asked him. "There is something we need to see."
It was a risk, of course, and at first I thought it was my own. But now I understand that it was all Gregorio's risk, not mine. And not just fifteen years of risk, which would be enough for any man, but a whole lifetime, in fact.
The next evening, I arranged with Celeste for Gregorio to go with Carlos when he went to move some of his hives. This task he performed often in the summer, moving his bees from one location to the next after darkness had fallen. In his condition, Gregorio could not be of much assistance, but it was an activity that he had helped with in the past, and I thought he would not refuse if Carlos asked for his company.
After they left, Patrick removed the pictures from one white wall in the living rooma large framed photograph of Mercedes and Nick and the baby Patrick taken at a portrait studio, a rather contrived landscape painting of a long sweep of mountains, some holy pictures. Patrick moved the items with care, stacking them neatly against the wall, I noticed with approval, and then he set up his equipment. After a while, Celeste came into the room. Patrick was fiddling with his camera and the lights. She sat down quietly on the sofa, her hands folded in her lap. I put my hand on her shoulder, to comfort her. She put one hand up to cover mine briefly, and then Patrick turned off the lights.
"Now we wait," I said into the darkness.
We three sat in silence for a long time, but it was a restful silence, I think, as if peace had come at last after a long war. It seemed to me that we were like figures in Gregorio's museum of marvels, three small people sitting there, still as stones. After perhaps a half hour, we heard the sound of Carlos's truck returning. I felt Celeste stir in a frightened way beside me. The headlights raked once across the empty wall. We heard the doors of the truck slam shut and then the sound of two sets of footsteps approaching the house.
"Now?" Patrick was standing at his camera.
"Now," I said.
And then the wall flickered to life before us. The camera's eye, coming in close to the little scenes, had the effect of removing all scale from the images. I had not expected that. Suddenly, it was all amazingly lifelike, the whiskers on the donkey's chin when the camera tilted close and then flew away, the ruffled bunting on the gypsy caravan stirring under the bright, false light; I almost expected the lifeless figure at the reins to raise the whip held in his hands and shout a command. The camera panned over the mountains, over the small train with its plume of smoke and startling whistle, mounting a hillside and disappearing; it moved over rooftops and lakes and waterfalls and forests of palm trees. It hovered close beside the windows of the houses; inside, a woman bent over a baby in her lap before the glow of a fire, and a man sat at a desk, lost in thought, a scroll of paper before him. There was a man on a hillside, his hands on a white beehive, fields of lavender flowing away beyond. There was a stout woman, the exact shape of Celeste herself, even to the tilt of her head, standing in a kitchen, her hands on her hips, her mouth open wide in laughter. The camera found us all. I recognized many people from the village, even myself, the stiff figure of an old doctor in a white coat, looking out the window of his surgery, a tiny stethoscope in his hands. There was no sound except that of Patrick's and my distant breathing, a faint cough, someone's feet scraping against stone. Someone whispered something in the backgroundit was my own voice, I recognized. "Over here," I had said. "Over here. Look. It's him."
I knew that Carlos and Gregorio had come into the room then, though I did not turn my head. Beside me on the couch, Celeste's fingers found my own for a moment and held tight. I saw the shape of Carlos sidle in quietly against the wall nearest the door. Gregorio slid in beside him and then stopped suddenly. I held my breath.
"Fantastic. It's absolutely fantastic." That was Patrick's voice, loud but a little distant, the way voices captured on tape sound. But you could hear the awe in it. "He's amazing, isn't he? I can't believe no one's seen this except us."
The camera bounced wildly. "Ooops. Sorry." Patrick's voice again, tinny and unnatural.
"Over here." That was me again, though I sounded like a ghost of myself, someone who had once known the world and loved it dearly, more dearly than he had known at the time.
And then the picture settled. The camera had stopped moving and hesitated at the door of a tiny white three-story building backed up against a mountain, a miniature model of the very house we had been standing in. I noticedfor the second time now, for I had noticed it the night before, of course, as Patrick and I had wound our way through the museumthat in the window on the second floor above the door, the little square of glass no bigger than a postage stamp was safely in place. The camera waited there a moment, as if lingering in sorrow"That's the window?" Patrick had whisperedand then began to move slowly along the face of the building to the house next door and the screen of tiny cypress trees. The hand holding the camera was tired now, perhaps, and the image bounced, wavered, tilted, held, and then moved up swiftly with a jerk to reveal the hidden place behind the trees, Gregorio's secret place in his museum of miniaturesthe marble-floored terrace, the littered worktable, the almond tree with a lantern caught in its branches, the tiny, bent, balding figure of Gregorio himself, sitting at the bench, his hand holding a paintbrush.
Beside me, Celeste gave a cry of surprise and recognition.
But Carlos had moved into the center of the room, blocking the ray of light from the projector for an instant.
"Bravo!" he cried, and I saw the shine of wetness on his face and knew he had been brought to tears. He began to clap wildly. Patrick, grinning, brought his fingers to his lips and whistled. And then Celeste, too, began to clap, and rose to her feet to face her son. She lifted the hem of her dress to climb up onto a chair and brought her hands together, and between her and her husband there was no pause in the sound of their hands meeting.
I looked at the wall behind them, at the image there. The night before, I had noticed the marvelous details of the small figure that was Gregorio's self-portraitthe trousers and the white shirt, presumably made out of fabric snipped from Gregorio's own clothes; the wisp of hair cut from his own head. The likeness was remarkable. But what had impressed me most was not this ability to capture us all so exactly. It was that despite everything, all along we had been his inspiration.
Carlos and Celeste remained on their feet, bringing their hands together again and again. Patrick came forward to join them, whistling and clapping and whooping. And on the wall behind them, the tiny man at the worktable, fashioned out of clay, remained bent over his task, intent only on the work before him.