Interviewer: Who would you say are your literary forebears—those you have learned the most from?
Hemingway: Mark Twain, Flaubert . . . Chekhov . . . Van Gogh, Gauguin, San Juan de la Cruz . . .
A year after the war began, I found myself in Madrid, where I took a room at the Hotel Florida. In those lean months, breakfast usually consisted of little more than a few bits of dry bread from the night before, but one morning in the lobby, as I was nursing a cup of weak tea and some stale crusts, I noticed the smell of fresh coffee and fried ham drifting down from somewhere overhead.
I set my notes aside. Although I knew very well where the smells were coming from, I had a hunch it would mean trouble. In the end, though, I gathered up my things and took the elevator to the fourth floor. The two stories above had been shelled not long ago, and this was the highest level that was still occupied.
In his room, the door of which was open, Ernesto was seated by the window, a newspaper spread before him on the table. Looking around the cramped space, I took in the typewriter, the gramophone, and the cooking ring with its traces of breakfast. When my eyes reached the chair by the bed, I paused. Seated there, instead of the woman I had expected, was a friar in a cassock and glasses.
“Excuse me,” I said, taking a step backwards. “I didn’t know you had company—”
Ernesto set down his newspaper, eyeing me through the steel rims of his spectacles. He was in his thirties then, his hair and mustache still black, the prow of his chest barely restrained by its dressing gown.
“No, have coffee with us,” Ernesto said. “You might find this interesting. The padre and I were speaking of miracles. I believe we had just reached the subject of the stigmata—”
Going over to the windowsill to get a cup of coffee, I studied the visitor more closely. At that point, a year into the civil war, several thousand clergymen had already died at the hands of the Loyalists, so I was impressed by any man brave enough to wear a cassock in Madrid. Taking my cup, I sank into the chair by the electric heater. “What about the stigmata?”
“Your American friend is a skeptic of the modern school,” the friar said, speaking in surprisingly good English. “He is willing to embrace any evidence that supports his political beliefs, but not if it contradicts them, not even something so compelling as the five wounds of Christ—”
Ernesto lit a cigarette. “I’m only saying that no miracle is required. Even if we discount the possibility of fraud, the mind can do strange things to the body. What you call divine intervention might be nothing but hysteria.”
“But what if other factors are present?” the friar asked. “Consider the case that brings me here today. Yesterday, I arrived from Segovia, where I was asked to provide safe conduct for a woman who had been staying at our convent. Only four weeks ago, her body was racked with carcinoma. The doctors gave her, at most, a few months to live. Instead of resigning herself to death, she came to us, wanting nothing more than to pray to St. John—”
“St. John of the Cross,” Ernesto said for my benefit. “He is buried in Segovia.”
“—to pray for his intervention,” the friar said, continuing without a pause. “For days on end, she prostrated herself in his chapel, taking only a little food and water. After two weeks, she began to tremble. The marks of the holy nails appeared on her hands and feet. In time, the stigmata went away. And when the wounds faded, her cancer, too, was gone.”
“A good story,” Ernesto said. “But again, no miracle is required. Any doctor can tell you tales of spontaneous remission. Most of the time, the patient never really had cancer at all.”
“But I have spoken to her doctor myself. There is no medical explanation. She was dying, but has recovered completely. And—”
The friar paused, as if wondering if he should speak further, then lowered his voice. “And she is not the only one. We know of at least four other cases in Madrid alone. All were men and women who visited the tomb of St. John in the past year. All were dying of cancer. And after they prayed for the saint’s intervention, all were cured. What is this, then, if not a miracle?”
Ernesto shot me a glance. I could tell that he didn’t believe a word, but he only turned back politely to the friar. “You say that this woman is in Madrid. Would it be possible for me to see her?”
“I was hoping you would ask,” the friar said. “She lives nearby, off the Gran Via.”
“Good.” Ernesto rose, brushing the crumbs from his dressing down. “If you’d like to wait downstairs, I’ll join you in a minute.”
The friar bowed and left the room. As soon as he was gone, Ernesto went into the bathroom, leaving the door open so we could continue to talk. He had arrived in the city not long before, working for a syndicate as a war correspondent, and we had already become fast friends. “So what do you think?”
I finished my coffee and put the cup on the sill. “It’s hard to believe that such a shrine could go unreported for so long. Lourdes doesn’t have so many cures in a century. If it were real, we would have heard about it by now.”
“That isn’t necessarily true,” Ernesto said, reappearing in a fresh shirt, his hair wet. “It’s dangerous to believe in miracles these days. Too many Catholics have died already. No, what I find more interesting is the timing. You’ve heard the talk of a Segovia offensive?”
“Only a few rumors,” I said, watching as Ernesto went to the armoire in the corner. Segovia, which lay across the mountains to the north, had been taken by the Nationalists in the early days of the war. It was widely assumed that the Loyalists would soon try to recapture the town from the fascists.
Ernesto opened the armoire. “Well, this shrine is just outside Segovia. The town has already been bombed once. Churches have been burned to the ground. If I were this friar and wanted to save my monastery, I might try to convince our side that a miracle was taking place.”
Inside the armoire, I saw row after row of contraband chocolate bars, canned foods, whiskey. “But why did he come to you?”
“He must want me to write about it. Maybe he thinks I’ll influence opinion overseas, or hopes I’ll spread word to the Loyalist command. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been asked to do something like this.”
Ernesto took a can of bully beef and a tin of milk from the nearest shelf, then closed the armoire. “Come on. We’ll see this woman together. Maybe you’ll get a story out of it, too—”
Going downstairs, we found the friar waiting for us in the lobby. Outside, the ground was strewn with broken glass, and fresh craters had been left by last night’s bombardment. After walking for some time along the Gran Via, we found ourselves in an area that was relatively untouched by bombs. On the porch of the nearest house, in the shade of the overhang, sat a woman in black.
Removing our hats, we mounted the steps together. The woman watched us curiously. She looked to be in her late fifties, her features wrinkled and kind. The friar greeted her warmly, then introduced us, saying that we wanted to ask her some questions. Ernesto hung back, leaving the friar to do the talking, although his eyes studied the woman’s face with what struck me as a predatory attentiveness.
As the friar questioned her, the woman replied softly. Yes, the doctors had told her that she was going to die. Yes, she had gone to pray at the tomb of the blessed saint, even though it meant going into Nationalist territory. And, yes, she had felt the Holy Spirit take hold of her body, leaving its marks on her flesh.
At the friar’s urging, she showed us her hands. On the center of each palm, I saw a faint welt, no larger than a peseta piece. Each formed a neat circle, its edges cleanly demarcated. The welts had faded since their first appearance, she told us, but they still bothered her from time to time.
“You mentioned a doctor,” Ernesto said. “You’ve seen him since you got back?”
The woman glanced at the friar, who nodded. Yes, she said, she had seen the doctor, who had been amazed to find that her sickness was gone. Ernesto asked for the doctor’s name, then took out the tins of food, which the woman, after a show of protestation, was persuaded to accept.
After exchanging a few words with the friar, who remained at the house, we headed off. I turned to Ernesto. “So what do you think?”
“I think she’s telling the truth,” Ernesto said. “Or at least as much as she understands. In any case, I know her doctor. Maybe I’ll see him today. It’s probably nothing, but you never know.”
At the hotel, we parted ways. I spent the rest of the day writing up my dispatch, then cabled it to my paper. That night, when I went out for dinner at the Gran Via, the restaurant was already packed. Looking for a place to sit, I saw Ernesto at a table in the corner. He seemed tired, but signaled for me to come over.
“I can’t make head or tail of the damned thing,” Ernesto said. “The doctor confirmed it. Not only is this woman’s story true, but he’s seen three spontaneous remissions in the past six months, all patients with terminal cancer. They don’t always say where they’ve been, but it’s clear that they’ve all gone to Segovia.”
I picked at my plate of horsemeat with rice. “And he’s sure that the cancer is gone?”
Ernesto poured himself another glass of wine. “As sure as anyone can be. He’s got his hands full with the wounded, so he can’t track each patient’s progress. Except for this most recent case, he can’t testify to the stigmata. But he showed me the records himself. These are all patients who were given only a few months to live. Now they’re in the best of health.”
Pushing the plate aside, I reached for my wineglass. “So what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to Segovia. The padre needs a ride back anyway, so I’m driving up there tomorrow.” Raising his glass, he fixed me with those penetrating eyes. “I was hoping you might join me.”
I didn’t reply at once. Over the past year, I had taken my share of risks, but it was one thing to wind up in danger by accident, and quite another to drive on purpose into fascist territory.
I had already opened my mouth to decline when the bomb exploded. The sound began as a whine, like a plucked guitar string, then deepened into the roar of an approaching train. When the shell went off, it was very close by, and the entire restaurant trembled. The conversation died out for a second, then returned to its customary din. But we were all a little shaken.
It struck me then that one might die as easily in Madrid as anywhere else, and at least the front offered the prospect of movement and fresh air. “All right,” I said at last. “I’ll come.”
“Good,” Ernesto said, draining his glass with a gulp. “We’ll make an adventure of it.”
The next morning, before dawn, I found Ernesto waiting for me outside our hotel. Behind the wheel of his car sat Hipolito, the latest and most reliable of his drivers. After making a detour to pick up the friar, who slid beside me into the back seat, we headed out of the city.
It was a cold morning on the meseta, the wind bearing wave after wave of dust from the mountains. As the sun rose to our right, it gradually illuminated the landscape outside Madrid. Raw military roads had been cut across the plain, and at the edges of the paths, I saw abandoned equipment and holes from recent bombardments. In the distance, I could make out a line of troops, their cars and tanks covered with freshly cut branches, the soldiers like ants in their steel helmets.
Ahead of us ran a line of mountains, the foothills clad with pine forest. The higher we climbed, the closer the sound of artillery became. To ease the tension, Ernesto handed back a wineskin, its contents resinous but welcome. Warmed by the wine, the friar began to speak of the saint whose shrine we were going to see: “When St. John tried to reform the Carmelites, his superiors threw him into prison, in a room barely large enough for his body. He was taken out only to be lashed once a week, but one day, no one knows how, he miraculously escaped—”
Ernesto laughed. “Not much of a miracle. He arranged to remove the hinges from the door of his cell. Now that’s the kind of saint I can admire.” He looked out at the trees. “If John deserves sainthood, it’s because he understood the dark night of the soul. You can look for God all your life and find nothing in the end. And for a true believer, that nothingness is enough. Nada y nada y nada.”
We rounded a hairpin turn, bringing us into view of the northern plain. As we began our winding descent, the town of Segovia appeared in the distance, a few dark specks in a sea of orange. Overhead, we heard the sound of aircraft, and saw three monoplanes flying in a Nationalist patrol. We watched, uneasy, until the planes had gone, then continued on our way.
As we approached Segovia, my first impression was that of a long tongue of crumbling stone. It was an ancient village girded by a vast aqueduct, with gray fortifications surrounding the town itself. Instead of driving under the main arch, which would have brought us into the plaza, we skirted the walls to the monastery, which lay to the northwest.
We parked beneath a clump of trees a hundred yards from the entrance. Climbing out, Ernesto told Hipolito to stay with the car, then followed the friar up the road, which led past a stone wall. A footpath lined with pines brought us to the monastery. Leading us through the heavy doors, the friar pointed us toward the church, saying that he would join us in a moment.
He disappeared down the corridor. Taking off our hats, Ernesto and I passed into the church, moving along the aisle toward the altar. A door to the left led to the chapel, which we entered.
Inside, it was darker than I had expected, the windows piled high with sandbags, the only light coming from a few guttering candles. The atmosphere was warm and damp, with an odor of moist stone.
Beyond the altar rails stood the tomb of St. John of the Cross, a massive reliquary of marble and bronze. On the floor before the altar lay what appeared, at first, to be two heaps of rags. A second later, one of the heaps moved, and I realized that they were a pair of visitants lying in front of the tomb. Looking more closely, I saw that they were a man and woman, their ages unclear. Something in their silent prostration gave me the feeling that they had been here for hours, if not days.
Glancing over at Ernesto, I saw that he was looking around the chapel with the same intent air that I had observed before. When I followed his eyes, I noticed fresh cracks in the floor and walls, and recalled that this area had been bombed by the Loyalists in the early days of the war.
We stood there in silence, looking around the chapel’s dim interior. After a moment, the friar rejoined us. “We have a number of guests with us,” the friar said in a whisper, indicating the prone figures at the altar. “Another is staying upstairs. I have arranged for you to see him.”
Ernesto turned back to the reliquary. “What can you tell me about the tomb?”
“St. John of the Cross died in Ubeda, and his body was brought here soon afterward,” the friar said. “At first, he was interred below the floor. The tomb that you see here was installed ten years ago.”
Ernesto ran his gaze across the marble monument. “And how did St. John die?”
“A disease of the legs, I believe.” The friar headed for the door. “Come. I’ll bring you to our other guest.”
We followed him out of the chapel. Leaving the church, we ascended a flight of stone steps to a corridor lined with cells. The friar knocked softly at the nearest door, then pushed it open. Inside, a man was seated at the edge of a pallet, a rosary in his hands. As we entered, the visitant looked up, and I thought I saw something like holy fever in his eyes.
“God be with you, my son,” the friar said politely. “And how are you feeling?”
“Better,” the man said. As he looked between us with a mild, peering expression, the friar explained that the visitant had recently arrived from Burgos, having been diagnosed some time before with an incurable carcinoma.
In response to our request, the visitant extended his scrawny arms for us to examine. On the palms of his hands, which were trembling slightly, I observed the same markings that I had seen on the woman in Madrid.
Without being asked, the visitant raised the hem of his robe, allowing us to look at his feet. Here, too, were marks that might have been those of stigmata, although they seemed larger than the wounds that nails would have made. On his legs, I saw what looked like a number of welts or bruises. “The marks of the flail,” the friar said helpfully, “where Our Lord was beaten by the soldiers.”
“Of course,” Ernesto said. From his jacket pocket, he took a few sunflower seeds, which the visitant accepted gladly. As we filed out of the room, I saw that he had already turned back to his rosary.
Going downstairs, we left the monastery, heading back to where we had left the car. When we arrived, Hipolito was leaning against the hood, his arms folded. As we drew close enough to see him in the shade, the driver gestured with a nod of his head. “Watch out. We have a guest.”
I turned. Fifty yards away, leaning against the wall that encircled the monastery, there stood a slender figure in a beret and overcoat. He was watching us. Ernesto frowned, then spoke to the friar. “You know this man?”
“Yes,” the friar said, the color draining from his face. “He is one of the Falangists.”
“I was afraid of that.” Ernesto signaled to Hipolito. “Come on. Let’s leave this fascist bastard behind.”
As I got into the car, I glanced back at the figure by the wall, who had begun to watch us more openly. Ernesto climbed into the front seat, then glanced at the friar. “You’ll be all right on your own?”
“Yes, I’ll take care of it,” the friar said. “But you should go now. God be with you.”
“And also with you, padre,” Ernesto said. As we drove away from the monastery, a cloud of dust rose behind the car. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the friar approaching the man in the beret, who was tracking us with his eyes. Then we rounded the corner and lost sight of them both.
The drive back to the city was a long one. On our approach to Madrid, we passed within sight of a formation of reserve troops, perhaps the same ones we had seen on our way to Segovia. At some point in the past few hours, they had been bombarded. Bodies lay on the ground, no more than lumps in the dirt, with medical crews and burial squads moving among the fallen.
When we returned to the city, Hipolito dropped us off at the hotel. As we approached the entrance, the granite dust caking on our boots, Ernesto spoke at last. “The padre was braver than he looked. The fascists won’t be pleased that he met with us, even if it turns out to have been for nothing.”
We entered the hotel, passing between the two guards at the door. “So you still don’t believe in miracles?”
“I’m not sure,” Ernesto said, heading for the concierge’s desk. “Give me a few days.”
As it turned out, I didn’t talk to him again for the better part of a week. From time to time, I would see him in the lobby, a few books under one arm, or speaking to the medical officer of the Eleventh International Brigade, a German national with the eyes of a monk.
One evening, however, as I was returning to the hotel, I found a note from Ernesto waiting for me at the front desk, asking if I would be kind enough to meet him at Chicote’s. When I pushed through the revolving door that night, the bar was fairly quiet. Ernesto was seated at his favorite table, under a window piled with sandbags, drinking a gin and tonic.
Next to his glass, instead of the usual newspapers or political tracts, there was a stack of leather-bound books. Pulling up a chair, I saw that two were medical textbooks, one was a life of St. John of the Cross, and the last, unexpectedly, was an edition of the letters of Anton Chekhov.
“Don’t be so surprised,” Ernesto said, clearing a space for me to sit. “My father was a doctor, you know. I even drove an ambulance during the war. So I know a few things about how the body works.”
I ordered a whiskey. “But I assume your current interest was inspired by our trip.”
“I suppose you might say that,” Ernesto said. “In fact, I have solved the mystery.”
My incredulity must have shown on my face, for Ernesto laughed and assured me that he was perfectly serious. “First off, I hope you’ll agree to exclude the possibility of miracles. My own feelings side, the supernatural should be invoked only after all other possibilities have been excluded.”
“Agreed,” I said, taking a sip of the whiskey. “So how do you propose to begin?”
“With the facts. Take away the stigmata and the air of the supernatural, and what do we have? A case of spontaneous remission. So I consulted the literature on the subject. These recoveries do happen, if rarely. According to one source, they occur in fewer than one in a hundred thousand cases.”
Ernesto picked up a volume from the pile. “This is an account of the work of William Coley, a surgeon who made the first systematic study of spontaneous remission. As a young man, he was asked to consult on the case of a girl of seventeen, who complained of pain and swelling in her right hand. The biopsy revealed that she was suffering from a severe sarcoma. They amputated her arm below the elbow, but it was too late. A few months later, she died.”
He opened the book, gently turning over the leaves. “Another man might have moved on, but Coley was a gifted surgeon and still very young. He became obsessed with investigating cases of sarcoma, trying to discover how to treat such a terrible disease. During his research, he uncovered many instances of spontaneous remission. And he found that most of these cases had one thing in common.”
I sensed that he was intentionally milking the drama, but I was willing to play along. “What did he find?”
“He found cases, some dating back a century or more, of cancer patients who experienced spontaneous remission after surviving a serious infection. When the immune system rallies to fend off a bacterial invasion, it seems, it can eliminate cancer as well. The body has wonderful defenses, but it doesn’t always recognize cancer as a threat. An infection serves to mobilize the body against one enemy, while also taking care of a more insidious foe. Chekhov mentions this. He was a doctor, you know, and in one of his letters, he notes that when a patient develops erysipelas, a severe skin infection caused by streptococcus, the growth of tumors is also checked. So these observations go back a long time.”
He closed the book. “It’s even possible, if you’re so inclined, to draw an analogy to the present war. I’m not a communist. I have nothing against the church. But I want to destroy fascism. And the only way to do this is to align that struggle with the movements that want to do away with capitalists and clergymen. In the short term, it leads to atrocities on both sides. But we can’t stop fascism unless we connect the fight to an impulse that the people can understand.”
“We’re straying from the point, I think,” I said. “What about William Coley?”
“Well, after reviewing the literature, he began looking for instances of spontaneous remission that were closer to home. In particular, he heard about the case of a German immigrant who had been diagnosed with terminal sarcoma. Later, the patient came down with erysipelas, the kind of infection that Chekhov mentions, but eventually recovered. Coley went looking for this patient, knocking on tenement doors until he finally tracked him down. And what he found was that the patient was alive and free of cancer, apparently because of the infection he’d survived.”
I began to see where Ernesto was going. “So we’re talking about a cure for cancer.”
“Coley certainly seemed to think so. He began to investigate the possibility of deliberately infecting cancer patients to trigger their natural immune defenses. He even developed an antitumor vaccine, a brew of microbes, including erysipelas bacteria, that could be injected directly into the body. The results, not surprisingly, were mixed. Some patients recovered, but others died. After all, there’s always a chance that erysipelas itself might kill the patient. It can be a brutal disease. There’s one famous case, in particular, that might be relevant here—”
I found that I knew exactly what he was going to say. “St. John of the Cross.”
Ernesto nodded, pleased, as if I had passed a test. “I’ve looked into the details. St. John came down with a fever, then an inflammation of the leg. It ulcerated and spread to his lower back, where it killed him. His biographers agree it was erysipelas. But let’s file that fact away for now.”
Signaling to the waiter for another round, Ernesto picked up a handbook of infectious diseases. “So what are the symptoms of erysipelas? It begins as a fever with tremors. A red, swollen, hardened rash appears, usually on the extremities, particularly the hands, feet, and legs. The rashes tend to be raised, with sharply defined edges. In some cases, they take the form of elevated vesicles or blisters. Not unlike, shall we say, the marks of a nail—”
The waiter arrived with our drinks, although I barely noticed this. “So you think these cases of stigmata were really erysipelas?”
“It isn’t so hard to believe. Imagine that round, hardened welts appear on a supplicant’s hands and feet after a visit to the shrine. Someone else at the monastery takes them for stigmata. Then, as word gets around, later cases show the marks even more clearly. Why? Because everyone knows what stigmata are supposed to look like. The mind influences the size and location of the markings. The cycle feeds on itself. All it takes is a certain degree of credulity.”
“Hold on,” I said. “So you’re saying that these miracles are due to visitors to the shrine being infected by erysipelas. Their symptoms are mistaken for stigmata. Because the war has reduced their access to medical care, they don’t receive the usual diagnosis or treatment, but if they survive the infection on their own, it drives off their cancer. But are you really implying that they’ve been infected by the body of a saint who died over three centuries ago?”
“That’s something I found hard to accept, too,” Ernesto said. “But look at the circumstances. A reliquary is an ideal place for bacteria to grow. Staphylococcus, for instance, has been found thriving in newly opened tombs. And you’ve seen that chapel. Visitors lie on the floor for hours at a time. They’re near death, undernourished, vulnerable to infection, in a dark, damp place that has been recently disturbed by bombing. And any battlefield doctor can tell you that bombardment releases microbes that have been dormant in the landscape for a long time.”
I remembered Ernesto’s conversation with the doctor at the International Brigade. “Is that why you spoke to Dr. Heilbrun?”
“Yes. And he reminded me of a case I might otherwise have forgotten. I imagine that you’ve heard of it. A tomb was reopened after thousands of years. Soon after the excavation, a number of those involved died, including the man who financed the dig, which led to certain fantastic theories. Well, the tomb was that of Tutankhamen. The man was Lord Carnarvon. And he died of erysipelas.”
We fell silent. I became aware that I had drunk too much. “So what are you going to do about it?”
Ernesto contemplated his glass for a moment, then took a careful swig. “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” My head was throbbing, and I had trouble understanding what he meant. “What are you talking about?”
He did not respond right away. Around us, the bar had grown packed with journalists, soldiers, and girls, and when he spoke again, I had to listen carefully to hear him over the crowd:
“The Segovia offensive needs to take place,” Ernesto said slowly. “If we don’t recapture Segovia, Franco will push north until he reaches Bilbao, which will cut the Loyalists in half. If that happens, the war is lost. And if I write about this shrine, it will only complicate the situation.”
He looked into his glass, which was nearly empty. “That’s the strange thing, you see. The friar came to me because he thought word of a miracle might discourage the attack. He was wrong, of course. The last thing the Loyalists want is to give legitimacy to the church. But when you cast things in scientific terms—”
Ernesto paused. “That’s a different story. The socialists have made a fetish of science. They’ll want to look into it. Even to postpone the offensive until they have more information. And I can’t allow that to happen.”
“But what if you’re right?” I asked. “If the chapel contains a cure for cancer, are you willing to throw that away?”
“I’m willing to make the hard choice. Perhaps a handful of men and women will die without this cure. On the other hand, we have the future of a nation, even the world, to consider. You’ve seen the forces at play here. Sarcoma is nothing compared to the cancer of fascism. If you don’t believe me, imagine how Europe will look in a few years, if that cancer isn’t snuffed out now.”
I weighed this in silence. Deep down, I knew that there was nothing I could do. I was neither famous nor expert enough to make the case for the shrine on my own. And there was always the possibility that Ernesto was right.
“Well, hell,” I said at last. “If that’s what you’ve decided, I’m not going to stop you.”
Ernesto only finished his drink, without meeting my eyes. It was too loud to talk any further, so we paid the bill and left. Outside, the city was very quiet. We headed back to the Hotel Florida, moving in silence through the ruined streets, and parted ways at the elevator. I don’t think we even said goodbye.
• • • •
Ernesto left the city soon afterward. I stayed for another few months, writing and working on my own, long enough to see the failure of the Segovia offensive, which began three weeks after his departure. Even after it became clear that the assault had fallen short, it was difficult to understand how things had gone so wrong. After suffering more than a thousand casualties, the offensive faltered, then fell back. In the end, it succeeded in delaying the capture of Bilbao by less than two weeks.
After that, I only saw Ernesto once more. A year after the war ended, I wound up in Havana, where I learned that he was staying at an estate fifteen miles from the city. On an impulse, I gave him a call. Rather to my surprise, he agreed to see me that day, if I’d be willing to drive up to the house.
When I arrived at the estate, which the locals called the Finca Vigía, it was lunchtime. I rang the bell, and Martha let me inside. She looked as beautiful as always, a tall, elegant blonde, and she seemed glad to see me. Showing me into the study, she left us alone, saying that she would bring some refreshments.
Ernesto was seated at his desk, wearing a soft red robe. Beside the typewriter lay a heap of manuscript pages. I had heard that he was working on a novel inspired by the Segovia offensive, and asked if he had a title yet. He said he was thinking of calling it The Undiscovered Country.
Waving me into a seat, Ernesto leaned back in his chair. “Any news of the padre?”
“Yes,” I said, accepting a glass of scotch from Martha, who set down a tray of sandwiches and left the room. “He was shot by the Falangists a month after our visit. For all I know, it was because they saw him with us.”
“Damn them,” Ernesto said mildly. “But it’s hard to be sure about these things. What about the chapel?”
“As far as I can tell, the cures have ceased. Visitants kept coming, but after a while, there were no more recoveries. Nobody knows why. Although I hear that the monastery was disinfected from top to bottom after a typhus scare.”
Ernesto straightened the papers on his desk. “It isn’t surprising. Microbes change character quickly. Like men. So perhaps the factors that made the cure possible simply ceased to exist.”
He took a sip of his drink. “In any case, it’s for the best. The last thing we need is for Franco to lay claim to a shrine. You can imagine how he would treat it. It would become a fascist Lourdes. Proof that his regime had been blessed by heaven. Better for it to disappear altogether.”
We lapsed into a rather melancholy silence. After a moment, the alcohol spreading through my body prompted me to speak more philosophically than usual. Finishing my glass, I said, “You know, the Loyalist republic never would have lasted. A government that is utterly opposed to the church can’t survive for long. The need for faith runs too deep.” I paused. “Perhaps in time, if things had been different, the Loyalists would have realized this.”
Ernesto, in his red robe, looked out the window at the sea. On the surface of the water, the sun was beating down in a long white line.
“Yes,” Ernesto said at last, draining his glass of scotch. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”