Only men were sitting in the one café opened for business in the little town. They stared out onto the street, watched the drowsy traffic as it moved through the tiny square in front of the church. Behind them, the sea furiously lashed against the concrete wall at the bottom of the cliff, but they didn’t even look out of the smudged windows: the panorama was of no interest to the local residents, nor was the Mediterranean sunset, as it arrived with its tepid yellow light. When I had stepped into the café, a quarter of an hour before, every face had turned towards me. I slowly sipped the strong, thick, grainy coffee, and stared at the artificial stone of the floor, the haggard bony feet shoved into slippers, the thickened nails on toes like dried figs. Fishermen. I thought about the chipped black high heels of the woman from the pension, while the men presumably began to talk about me, and as I raised my gaze, it was met by a gap-toothed grin.
One man with a moustache sat astride his chair at the table opposite mine and let out a laugh, swaying his head rhythmically to and fro, as I quickly paid for the coffee and hurried out. As I was leaving, one of the straps on my canvas bag got caught on the door handle.
The sun shone low, lighting up the little square in front of the church. I sat down, slid my feet out of their sandals, and began to read my travel guide. Two women sat on the bench next to me. At first glance, they both appeared about the same age; judging from their deeply tanned, bitterly engraved skin they could have been around fifty or so. From the black headscarf of one, a thick lock of graying hair dangled; dark yet somehow colourless curls came twisting out from the headscarf of the other. They did not look at each other: with their hands resting on their knees, they stared at a point somewhere in front of their black-stockinged feet, clad in felt shoes.
In the door of the café, the man with the moustache suddenly appeared and, with the same impish grin just observed on his face, began to shout. The two women did not react; it was, however, clear that the one or two sentences rattled off were intended for them. Then, flurried, they exchanged a few words with each other: I was surprised at the voice of the woman sitting on the right; how young, almost girlish it sounded. I looked at them again, with greater attention, and realized that they might be relatives. The features of the walnut-stained creases resembled each other, although all the women here tended to look the same to me, as if the very same headscarf-wearing female form invariably sat in front of every shuttered house, enclosed in grim motionlessness.
In the meantime, a few pigeons flew in front of the two women, and began expectantly pecking at the stone pavement. I took my sunglasses and my writing folder out of the canvas bag; I put down the travel guide and then swept the crumbs from yesterday’s snack out of the bag turned inside out. As I was putting my things back, the pigeons were already heading over to my bench, to peck and scratch about. One of them waddled in a strange rhythm, with rapid steps, as if it somehow couldn’t properly coordinate the rhythm of head-bobbing and tottering at the same time. As it approached, I saw a whitish, barely visible band between its legs: it looked as if the pigeon were jumping about with a full load in its undies. Then, when it flew upwards, a glimmering little patch came into view below its legs, almost as if it were flying around while standing up on a tiny cloud.
I couldn’t inspect it more thoroughly, because my attention was distracted by the moustached man, who, setting off unexpectedly down the steps, cut across the square and stopped at the benches with the flower-basins across the way.
A rose-coloured plant of some kind proliferated in the flowerbeds, its growth tumbling far down the sides of the stone container. The ends of the stalks bending down were funnel-shaped, opening into huge chalices; the leaves of the earlier flowers, however, had withdrawn, clinging to the stalks like rose-pink papery petals. The man in slippers looked at the two women, and when they had finally lifted their gaze, bent down and raised the hanging curtain of vegetation as if it were a skirt; then, with impish rapture, took a deep breath from one of the chalices.
He added a few garbled words to the spectacle, laughed at me in complicity through his gap-toothed mouth, then shuffled back to the others who were watching everything clustered on the café steps. Idiot, the word crossed my mind as I gazed at the squinting eyes. There was, as I noticed now, only from behind, a kind of restrained frenzy even in his walk.
The men all went back in, the women continued to sit motionless, the afternoon sun shone without respite, and the flustered pigeons once again encircled the benches.
As the pigeon-in-underwear – which is what I had called him – came closer, I stooped down to get a better look. And indeed, between its legs there really was some kind of filmy material, which, when the bird was in flight, hung down from the chafed leg. I waited motionless for the pigeon to come closer: the material was a hairnet. I hadn’t seen such a thing since my childhood, when my grandmother would, after combing out her hair, tie the limp braid that had turned grey early into a tight bun and then stretching the hairnet between thumb and pinkie, raise up the veil-thin covering.
The bird might have been carrying its strange burden for years now, as it was completely entangled into the foot, and in places the winding threads disappeared beneath the feathers, as if it had always grown there. Stained with piss, the lower part fluttered like a veil when the bird arose: this was the little cloud that I had noticed at first. I would have looked for a few more crumbs to throw to it, but there wasn’t anything left at the bottom of the bag.
Suddenly, the flock took flight; from the right side of the square, a tall bony man approached with vigourous steps. The two women didn’t look up, didn’t move. The man reached them, stopping by the same flower-basin where the man with the moustache had just stood, and began to speak to them in subdued but firm undertones. He was almost mumbling. The two didn’t move, didn’t answer, but from their silence, or perhaps from the cadences of the man’s speech, it was still possible to deduce, faintly, what was coming next.
The man stepped up to the woman that looked younger: he grabbed her by the shoulder and with a firm movement, made her stand up. They stood there face to face when suddenly, without any preliminaries, he struck her in the face with all of his strength. He appeared to be neither angry nor impatient; he simply had something he needed to discuss. The woman responded with more silence, while the older one continued to stare at the stones before her felt-slippered feet. The man looked away, said something to her, then struck the woman from the other side; she was now beginning to lose her balance but still did not fall. She took the next two of the blows standing as well, but then began to sway, and like someone misjudging a distance, slid down onto the ground in front of the bench. The black headscarf, which reached down to her shoulders, spread out beside her like a giant wing; from underneath her winding skirt, a surprisingly scrawny body appeared. The man began to kick her in the abdomen, rhythmically, then thought again and kicked her in the face. The blood spread, trickling capriciously in crimson veins onto the stones; the woman coiled up onto herself, but said not one word. She did not cry, she did not scream. The other woman sat mute, not even as much as turning her head to the other one, taking no notice of me whatsoever; the man not glancing my way even once. Not, that is, until I had precariously risen from the bench and began to make my way towards them.
He looked straight into my eyes. The whites of his eyes were yellowed; his dark gaze seemed clear and resolved, rather than threatening. His conduct revealed no great passion; he simply did not want to be hindered in his work, which demanded a certain rhythm.
In the meantime, the woman leaned on her elbow and, it appeared, would have liked to get up. The man kicked her in the face, with exceptional skill this time, so that her lower lip burst open. She pressed against her wound with her free hand, with the other supporting herself behind her back, but as the man now located her elbow joint, she plunged again to the ground. The headscarf slipped off, the dark colourless hair came undone and fanned out into the splotches of blood. Now, the man leaned over her, turning her around a little as if he were adjusting the body to his own idea, and began to kick her chest; then for a change kicked her from below in the chin, so that her head suddenly jackknifed back and remained that way.
He still wasn’t finished: he looked dissatisfied. Side-stepping the mound of black rags, standing between her back and the bench, he shoved her forward as he began vigourously kicking her in the waist. This made the woman slightly come to herself: she half-rose and released two streams of thick bloody vomit onto the stones; then, exhausted, lay on her outreaching arm, assuming the classic female pose of a contented lover hugging her knees to herself as she dozes off.
Contemplatively, the man gazed down, walked around the small pools of blood now surfaced with yellow, and insouciantly shook his head. The older woman sat, knees pressed together, arms extended, resting her hands on her knees. She was completely enclosed by the black scarf, making her statue-like rigidity and the oleaginous eyes seeping into her face all the more striking.
The man looked up at the steps of the café: only now did I notice that everyone was sitting outside. He spit onto the stone pavement, made the sign of the cross in the direction of the church, and hurried away in the same direction from which he had come.
The older woman got up, knelt by the body lying on the ground, and spoke. It was impossible to tell to whom this sputtering, rosary-bead-like murmur that she reeled off was addressed – the younger woman, or someone else on the other side of the square; the body, in any event, did not respond, but merely lay there in resignation, and when the older woman gently began to shake it, its face rolled into the vomit. I stood next to them, I held out my mobile phone to the kneeling woman, I looked around the square puzzled, as if expecting help. The woman paid no attention to me, looking up only once to shake her head, and then, deeply absorbed in her task, she began to wipe the swollen face with the edge of the scarf.
I began walking towards the church, feeling on my back the gazes of all the men flocked on the café steps. The lengthy shadows still reached sharply across the stones; the low sun penetrated the walls of the tiny alley that led up to the entrance of the church. In my nostrils, the smell of vomit and blood mixed with the gaping musty breath coming from inside. I sat down in the last pew, and for a while, my pulse still racing, listened to hear if the wooden door was opening behind me.
It did not open. There was silence. In front of me, placed on the altar, a very blue-eyed and ruddy-cheeked Jesus displayed his lubricious orange-red heart, wrapped about with thread-like winding veins, like some mysterious blood-soaked gift package. Above it, the pigeon was flying about.
The net was no longer entangled around its leg; it had come undone and fluttered below like a little flat grey cloud. Mechanically, I scraped at the bottom of my bag: there were still a few crumbs wedged into the corners. It seemed I had not shaken it out thoroughly enough.
Translation © Ottilie Mulzet