Rico shook his head and shouted, “I can’t hear you!” He pointed up at the bridge. The drumbeat of footsteps and angry cries of the crowd echoed around them and drowned his words.
“I can’t breathe!” she shouted back.
Rico nodded. “Won’t be long!” He grinned.
He had told her once, halfway through a case of cheap beer, that she loved him for his confidence. She hadn’t corrected him, but the truth was that she loved him because he broke the unceasing drudgery of life on the streets. That, and he needed her.
She tightened her grip on the bag that lay between them and tried to breathe deeply.
The head belonged to the Blessed Virgin of Montoro. Four times a year, she floated through the streets of the city, an elegant golden goddess borne on the shoulders of the young men who had lingered through the economic drought, the good sons who had not fled to the capital for work, but had remained with their families to face the lean times together. The two curas always led the procession surrounded by children. A group of elderly worshipers walked behind, arm in arm, chattering and laughing. The same three men always followed on horseback.
As a child, Nuria had loved the Virgin. Like every girl in town at one time or another, she would visit the chapel and, when the priest was not in sight—though now Nuria realized he must have known and chosen to indulge their young fascination—she would climb up and hold her palms against the Virgin’s raised hands. She would marvel at the Virgin’s narrow, nearly translucent fingers. She would heft the thick cloth of the Virgin’s brilliant gown. She would measure her height against the Virgin’s, and she still remembered the day that she slid her hand along the top of her head towards that of the Virgin and realized she was now taller. She could not bring herself to visit again after that. What had once seemed intricate and overpowering in its beauty began to look delicate and vulnerable.
“They’re all so stupid,” Rico had said after the spring procession passed them. “Everyone’s out of work, and they’ve got a pile of gold walking through the city every three months.”
Nuria had said nothing, had focused on recounting the few coins they had collected that day.
“They should melt her down,” Rico said. “They could feed the whole neighborhood for a year.”
“And after that year?” Nuria had shot back. “No food and no one to hear our prayers?”
Rico had looked at her for several minutes without responding. She looked away.
“Yeah, well,” he said, “It’s not like she’s answering anyways.”
So she should have seen it coming, she realized. Or something like it. She should have understood when Rico insisted on watching the late-summer procession, and she should have caught on when he climbed halfway up a lamppost as if to get a better view. But she hadn’t.
Along with the rest of the spectators, she had cried out in shock when he leapt from the lamppost onto the float. Even now, under the bridge, she could still feel the anguish that exploded in screams from the women next to her, from even her own throat she later realized, when Rico grabbed ahold of the statue and with one severe twist, separated the head from where it joined the narrow neck. When he jumped down and grabbed her hand, she surprised herself by fleeing with him.
As soon as the crowd had passed over the bridge and spread throughout the southern quarter, Rico grabbed her hand again and led her out from under the bridge. They ran west along the river until they reached the last of the city’s buildings and then out into the desolate campos that spread around the city.
The moon lit the wasted land, and Nuria’s skin tingled with the sense that they were on display for the entire world, that in seconds they would hear a shout and the whole angry crowd would see them and they would have no escape.
“Stop!” she gasped at Rico. “I can’t.”
“Just a little further,” he said, but he stopped and they sat down.
After several minutes, she looked at him, “Why did you do that?”
“It’s nothing,” he said, but he wouldn’t look her in the eye.
She cursed and lay back in the soil, one arm stretched across her forehead.
He reached over and pulled the bag away from her. “It’s just a stupid statue,” he said. He lifted the golden head out of the bag and turned it over in his hands. He looked into the neck and scoffed.
“And it’s worthless.” He held it towards her.
She sat up and looked. A thin layer of gold covered a block of rotting wood.
“But there’s still some gold?” she asked.
“Sure,” Rico said. “About enough for an earring.”
“We can’t go back,” she said.
He shook his head.
They found a half-collapsed, abandoned field house and Rico built a small fire in the corner. While she warmed her hands, he set the head in the middle of the flames, and they watched as the ancient wood caught and burned. Later she would dream of the flames flickering out from the lifeless, golden eyes, of the head turning towards her in a silent protest.
By the time they woke the next morning, the fire had died and the empty golden head lay among the cold ashes, deformed and smoke-blackened. Rico tucked it back into the bag, and they walked away from the city and towards the next.
—Daniel R. Julian lives and works in Spain, where he writes during the siestas. He has not yet run with the bulls.