Of Saints and Miracles By Manuel Astur
Translated from Spanish by Claire Wadie
This week we sent the next book in the Peirene novella subscription, Of Saints and Miracles, to the printers. And to celebrate we’ve selected an extract from the opening of the book to share with you. Reading it, you may feel that we’ve given away a spoiler. But the crime that opens this book is just the beginning of a kaleidoscopic chase, as our protagonist Marcelino flees into the wild countryside, becoming a cult hero as he evades the authorities.
Of Saints and Miracles is set in the mountains, forests and villages of rural Asturias, in northern Spain. Marcelino is an outsider who lives alone on his parents’ farm. It’s the place where he grew up, the place where he doted on his beloved baby brother and protected his mother from his father’s drunken rages. But when his brother tricks him out of his home, a moment of uncontrolled anger sparks a chain of events that can’t be reversed.
And that’s where we kick off…
First Song: The Killing
Just as a sun-soaked stone radiates heat for a while after nightfall, there is a point on still summer evenings when objects appear to shine, as if to give back part of the generous daylight they’ve received. In such moments, Marcelino would stop what he was doing – clod of earth on the hoe, spade sunk deep in the hay, scythe dripping with fresh green blood – to stand up straight, wipe his brow with the back of his hand and contemplate the valley below. Everything would be gleaming, chiming like a bell of golden light. He would let his eyes fill with sky.
And so, as the sun set on that July evening, Marcelino stopped and contemplated. The house, the stilt granary, the cart with its shaft reaching skyward, the dry straw, the ears of corn, the cows in a single spine coming home along the track, the dog’s bowl, the rusty drum among the nettles, the axe in the tree stump, the woodchips and the logs, the sawdust on the ground, even the moss that hugged the stones in the walls of the small vegetable plot, even the trees in the nearby woods and the mountain peaks: everything shimmered, silhouetted against the deep-blue sky, in which a single bright star heralded the coming of a new age. Everything, that is, except the large bloodstain in the sawdust, and his brother’s body, both so dark they seemed to trap the light, as if the black ink that was slowly flooding the valley was seeping directly from them, saturating the sky and drawing the shapes of bats, which began to dance around the yellowish light of Cobre’s lone street lamp.
The truth is, he never meant to hurt him.
It had happened once before, when he was a boy at the school in Villar where everyone used to call him stupid and cowshagger. They would screw up their faces and open their mouths wide in strange expressions that reminded him of horses and that look they have. At the same time, they would point at him and make grunting noises. Until one day he grabbed hold of one of them to make him stop, and it turned out that the boy’s bones were as fragile as a sparrow’s. Even though he never meant to hurt him – afterwards, his father hurt him a lot more – on that occasion it worked out for the best, because he got expelled and never had to go there again.
This time, however, it would turn out for the worse. For sure.
He’d spent several days chopping up a plum tree that had fallen in the last storm. His brother arrived, red-faced and sweating from his climb up the path that led from the road to the house, and sat down on a tree stump. He was wearing a hideous polyester suit and carrying a battered briefcase. The wax in his hair had melted, he was sweating so much, and the long strands he had as usual combed over his bald patch had flopped sideways, forming a strange tonsure and making him look like some kind of medieval monk who got off on holding a burning candle to his balls. Without bothering to say hello, and still breathing heavily from the massive effort of dragging all that weight up the hill, he opened the briefcase, took out several papers with wine-glass stains on them, and handed them to Marcelino, who looked at them like a little child staring blankly at a dictionary.
‘Yes, yes, you’re an animal, you can’t read, I know. It doesn’t matter,’ his brother said, getting to his feet. He looked in the briefcase again and took out a pen, which he also passed to him. ‘Just sign here and here and I’ll leave you in peace.’
Marcelino stood there, papers in one hand, pen in the other, utterly bewildered.
‘All right, just scribble down four of your shitty letters and job done. Or put a cross. Do whatever the fuck you want. But do it now, because I haven’t got all day,’ he said, sitting back down on the stump.
Marcelino drew some shaky forms more akin to prehistoric hand paintings on a cave wall than writing.
‘There you go, good boy, that’s the spirit.’ He put the documents in the briefcase, got up, swept his hair across and turned to leave. But then he stopped abruptly, as if something had occurred to him.
‘How can I put it, Lino… These papers, the ones you’ve just signed, they state that you agree to settle the mortgage.’ He hesitated. ‘No, hold on. It’s more like these papers state that everything you own, everything that used to be ours, inherited from Mother and Father – the house, the meadows, the granary, the vegetable plot, the cows, the lot – no longer belongs to either of us, but to some nice gentlemen who will come to claim it in the next few days. Do you understand what I’m saying?’
But Marcelino didn’t understand. His brother took a hip flask out of his inside pocket and took a swig, as if feeling a slight pang of shame or guilt. The stench of alcohol on his breath smothered the scent of earth and fresh grass. He seemed to battle with himself, before making up his mind:
‘Listen, shit for brains. You’ve got no house, no meadows, no cows, no vegetable plot, nothing. It’s all gone. So start packing up your crap, and when they come, get the hell out, because they won’t tell you twice and I don’t want any trouble. Do you understand?’ He took another swig.
And that’s when Marcelino punches him.