“Mira, look,” the young man whispered, “It is Jose Maria. Quick quick, get out of my way, stupid, I do not want to look at him.” The young man pushed his compatriot ahead of him in a hurried jumble, spilling some of the roots he had gathered in his arms.
“Ya, look what you have made me do,” he said as he stopped to gather his food. The first man looked back with a quick smirk at his good fortune, and made his getaway.
Tiedra, in Castilla y León, was cold this time of year, nestled as it was between nothing on the plane and another great nothing for as far as the eye could see. The flat barren landscape seemed to tuck up into itself seeking a lower profile. Let the merciless wind find the taller structures to lash, it seemed to say. The land did not stand up. It had never stood up. The land cowered beneath the low stone structures, and the winds sweeping through sent the heat scuttling away over stone floors, skipping and whistling through cracks in the thresholds. Overlooking the pueblo, just a few hundred feet away out on a brown grassy little hill, higher than any other structure, stood a church.
The young man was happy to have avoided talking to Jose Maria. He found him disagreeable. Jose Maria traveled through town every morning and spent time, from sun up to mid day, on his knees in that little church with the wind that blew through it. The young man had been in that church many times for misa, but that was different. The church was tolerable when they were huddled together with the people of the pueblo. He would always find a warm seat by a fat old woman.
He never saw the old man on Sundays, though. The old man must have been pious, one could only suppose. You would have to be to spend so much time on your knees. The young man could hardly stand more than five minutes on that hill in the winter, let alone hours on the hard stone floor. He shuddered, “Cold.” and crossed his arms, pulling his woolen cowl tighter.
“You bastard,” his friend called chuckling, “I almost had to talk to the viejito.” He punched his friend in the arm.
“Forget him. He is old and crazy and does not mean anything to me. He is probably a very bad man, or at least has done something terrible. He goes there for penance. Why else? He has no wife, no children, no sick family to pray for. That I can understand. Surely God would listen to such piety. But this one… no, I would not want to talk to him.”
“But then what? Why doesn’t he go to the priest for absolution? Why doesn’t he buy an indulgence? I have seen that he has some money. He is not a poor man. Wouldn’t it be better to rid himself of this ritual on his knees by paying some money?”
“Who knows such a thing? I do not. He probably just does not want to part with his money. He will wait out his death, perhaps.”
“When? When the bastard is one hundred years old? Would he even remember what he did? The old senile bastard.”
They both chuckled supposing a predicament whereby one would pay penance for sins but have forgotten them. Would not God, they supposed, have to absolve one by default? How could God hold you accountable for sins that you have forgotten. So many childhood sins were never confessed, but they were forgotten. To attempt to confess them now would surely have resulted in another sin, one of speaking falsehoods. Did God have a list? Would he make them guess?
Did the old man remember his sins? Maybe not. Maybe he was just an old miser, clinging to his treasure. He would not pay, but would wring atonement from his bent and withered knees. Had he not suffered enough, though? Surely it was enough, no?
And they arrived where they had begun. Obviously he had not suffered enough, so he must have done something truly terrible, horrible.
They could not forgive him for the thing they could not name.
“Bah, it is all the same to me. I don’t want any of it on me.”
“Forget that old son of a bitch. No one even knows. I will bet even he doesn’t. Just forget it.”
And they continued on their way toward their homes, to feed their pigs, tend to their fowl, and check their stores. The winters were usually hard, but not terribly long, and come spring they would hunt again.