The Red Butterfly, Part Fourteen – Friend of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion
On the back of the photograph, written in pencil, were the words Robert J, 1937, Escorial España. I took the photograph and left the study. I went to my room and laid in bed and stared at the image. The more I examined the young man in the picture, the more that I saw that he looked like me. His eyes were obscured by shadow but if I looked closely, I could make out their shape. I could see that they were large and deep set and that there was a small fold of skin that covered the upper eyelids, just like mine. I also noticed a small two-toned button pinned over his breast pocket with a crude illustration of Abraham Lincoln in profile and the words Friend of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. I got up from the bed and went to my library where I kept an old yellowed, highly detailed map of Spain my mother had given me with the words Mapa de la República de España on the upper left hand corner. I went back to my bed and spread open the map. I found Madrid, then I went south along the map, to Getafe, then Toledo, then Aranjuez. I made my way northwest-to Avila, Segovia, where was Escorial? I went south from Segovia to Galapagar. These were strange names to me. My mother spoke of Spain often; what a beautiful country it was, how great the people were friendly, not like here, but really friendly. She spoke about how in the old days, before the war, farmers left wineskins on fence posts by the road so that travelers could stop and have a drink. I hardly ever listened. “If it’s so great,” I said,” why don’t you go back?”
“It’s more complicated than that,” she replied, “I can never go back.”
Just as I was about to give up on the map, there it was! Escorial! Just east from Galapagar. San Lorenzo de Escorial, that must be it! I looked closely, as if by deep examination the rocky landscape could appear on the stiff vinyl paper before me. But all I could see were tiny swirling lines which meant nothing to me.
My mother came home from teaching her Spanish class and went directly to her study. I could hear her frantically searching for something on her desk – the photograph. The unmistakable sound of papers being thrashed about, crumpling and tearing, drawers opened, closed, opened again, then slammed shut, the contents rattling. I slowly and quietly tip-toed to the edge of the door and looked inside. My mother was bent over her desk, desperate, looking underneath the papers, on her chair, she stood erect and paused, concentrating, then looked under the papers again, in the trash bin, the pencil holder. She opened the drawers once again. “Dónde está?” she said, “Joder, Dónde está?”
“Are you looking for this?” I said. I was standing by the doorway and held the photograph extended toward her like some sort of crucifix meant to ward of evil, my arm trembling. She rushed at me like a charging lion and snatched it from my hand so violently, I feared that she might rip it apart. She stood there in front of me and held the photo cupped in both hands and stared at it.
“Who is it?” I said, “Who is that man?”
“This is the only one I have, where did you find this!” She said. She was breathing hard and seemed to not recognize me. She looked at me as if I were a stranger, an intruder. I feared that she might strike me.
“It was on your desk, who is it?” I insisted.
All at once, she seemed to deflate and a sadness washed over her face like a cloud. I was taller than her now, we had passed that inevitable threshold where the child is closer to manhood than the mother is to childhood. She seemed to grow old before me.
“Who is it? He looks like me. His name is Robert, like me! But I know that it can’t be me. The picture’s too old, and I’ve never been to Escorial. It’s in Spain, I’ve never been there. I read it on the back,“ I said, all at once. I realized that I was crying. I heard Chip shifting his bulk on the easy-chair downstairs in the living room, the sound of the television, the voice of Harry Caray on KMOX, the Cardinals were playing the Dodgers, A rookie named Sandy Koufax was on the mound.
My mother looked at me for a long time. Finally, she said, “He is your father.”
more by SERGIO REMON ALVAREZ