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Ídolo

They were up in the mountains when the storm broke, under a clear blue sky.

“So what the fuck happened in New York?” Renzo asked him, thumping the steering wheel. “All this dancing around. Why don’t you just come out and say it?”

He flicked his eyes, dark and full of Iberian fire, at Drew where he slumped in the passenger seat, his trainers up on the dash. They’d been driving for hours, west of Madrid and up into the Sierra de Francia, the massif that bordered the region of Extremadura and descended into Portugal. Low brown hills were giving way to the mountains proper, the road twisting, walls on either side. Since leaving the last remote, market-and-bar pueblo on their route, Drew had been sitting in silence, watching the miles slide by into the wilderness. The arid scrub. The bent trees. The occasional man with a mule. It was hot, even by Spain’s standards. Irritation buzzed in the air like flies. Drew was trying to hide his pout. It was supposed to be a holiday.

“I’ve told you a hundred times,” he said over the wind through the window. “Michael is a friend. The only reason we shared a hotel room was down to budget. If you have a problem with that, speak to my agent.”

Renzo, his fiancé, glared at the road. In the passing shutter of shadow and sun, he looked as fierce as Drew had ever seen him. My bull. Mi toro. Annoyingly, his strong jaw, brown locks and crooked nose still held the appeal they had the night that Drew had met the photographer. In Soho, at a shoot two years ago. Viral, if he remembered correctly. Hadn’t Renzo told him he shone brighter than his reflector kit, better in real life? English, blond, with the bleached smile that had seen him pose for several leading magazines, Drew could well believe it. His looks had never been in question. His behaviour, well . . .

“Oh, Renz. Drop it.” He swallowed sarcasm, softening his tone. Best to get away from talk of Michael, the underwear model currently on trial—and that night. “You’re going home. It’s summer. You should be happy.”

And I’m here, he thought, but didn’t say. Drew rubbed the diamond on his finger as if to cast a spell. All he conjured was a snort.

“Mama is sick. Hardly time for a fiesta. It could be the last time I . . . ” But Renzo wasn’t ready to go there, biting back tears and glaring harder at the road. “I haven’t been back since I left fifteen years ago.”

Worms squirmed in Drew’s guts. They’d been in Madrid when Renzo got the call, some relative or other passing on the news (Calaveras, the village where they were heading, didn’t have any reception, apparently. Shit, it’d never had a phone line according to Renzo). Meanwhile, Drew had been enjoying the bars of Chueca, revelling in cheap cocktails, cocaine and flirtation sans a punishing schedule for a change. He’d been drunk and building up to threatening Renzo to set a bloody date when his lover had burst into the hotel bathroom, tearful and shaking. Stood in his jockstrap and looking forward to another night on the tiles, Drew had done his best to calm him down, making all the right noises, holding him. Shaking, Renzo had told him they had to make this trip into the mountains. Across fields of bony cattle, along a road that led nowhere. Who could live out here, he wondered? Who could stand the emptiness? Jesus, Renzo had done well to escape.

Drew reached over, rubbed the back of Renzo’s neck.

“I’m here for you, tío,” he said. At least he’d picked up some Spanish in their time together. He’d even managed a smile when Renzo said he’d booked a flight to Madrid, not Mykonos. “It’s going to be all right.”

Drama. He should never have slept with Michael.

Renzo gripped the wheel and didn’t smile.

An hour later, high above the speck of Calaveras, Renzo pulled over to take in the view. The valley marched off into the sunset, a vista wreathed in a haze of distance, dotted by lakes and darting swallows. The smell of dust, peonies and pine was on the air. It was cooler up here. Drew suppressed a shiver of vertigo. No chance of a Mai Tai though. He went to pose on a rock, lizards skittering, but ended up cursing his phone. No reception meant no Instagram. How was he supposed to flex about his relationship sans social media? Their romantic-as-fuck road trip?

Gah. His stomach growled, but he didn’t hope for much judging by the hovels below. Stew maybe. Sangria. Renzo was bored of him already, staring out into nothing. Nostalgic, probably. He’s such a dork. Drew was about to bitch at him when he noticed the shrine.

“What the fuck is that?”

At the edge of the curve of dirt that passed for a layby, rose a pile of rocks. On each, someone had painted a skull, adorning the mound with flowers, little wooden crucifixes, empty tumblers and coins. Atop the cairn was an effigy. Dusty and squat, the thing resembled the torso of a man, a scarecrow with sticks for arms. Faded ribbons fluttered in the breeze, its only attire. Photos and money too, like trapped moths. Travellers must’ve left them here, paying their respects. Were the offerings for the lacquered face that crowned the figure? Under a wide-brimmed hat, a skull grinned, a cigar between its teeth. Candles, burnt down to stubs, peppered the figure’s shoulders and the top of its hat. In the deepening dusk, it was far from a pleasant sight.

“Ha,” Renzo said, but he wasn’t laughing. “Meet San Simón. The conquistadors brought him back from Guatemala or so the villagers say. He’s the patron saint of lovers. The guardian of marital virtue.”

Drew half expected a look at that. Instead, Renzo crossed himself and kissed his fingers, then held them out to the idol.

“Yeah, he looks like he really cares.”

“Hola, abuelo. I’m home.”

Drew pulled a face. Flies were buzzing around the thing. It looked like living death.

Renzo was starting the engine.

In the last purple minutes of dusk, they drove into Calaveras. The rental car was like an elderly chain-smoker, close to giving out. The road down to the crumbling rock shelf to which the village clung was a ladder of earth, stones like tiddlywinks under the wheels. There can’t be more than twenty houses. Drew tried to count them, his nose wrinkling. Where are we going to stay? A banner with painted symbols, dried sheafs of wheat and small dangling objects hung over the main street—the only street—sun-bleached and tattered in the waning light. Elsewhere, Drew noticed ribbons on every balcony, pictures of nameless saints, the flat-roofed casas dark on all sides. Flowers lay strewn across the street, a party in the dust. There was no music. No chatter. Only the roosting birds.

“Four Seasons,” Drew muttered.

Worst comes to worst, I can get Renz to get his camera out. He smoothed a sneer behind his hand. Take some shots for National Geographic with me bare-chested and straddling a log.

Renzo said nothing, his face unreadable.

Caught up in his homecoming. Personally, I’d be pulling a U-turn and screaming.

A mangy goat staggered across the street, a bell around its neck. That was the only other living thing in sight until they reached the plaza in the middle of the village. In the dying light, Drew made out the glow of candles in the doorway of a large, gabled white building. A bent iron cross loomed from its lintel. Ah, a church. There were figures around the edge of the plaza, vaguely human sized, robed, stiff and unmoving. More effigies. Great.

They distracted him from the crowd before the building. Once he’d noticed them, he could see thirty odd people in the square. They were talking in low voices, shuffling in reverence. Had a service ended or was one beginning? He picked out rustic clothes and weatherworn faces, shadowed and inscrutable. Any chatter fell silent as the car rolled into view. A palpable whisper, or maybe the wind, carried across the plaza. Also the smell of incense or attar, sweet on the air.

Drew sensed every eye turn towards them. In the gloom, he saw that some in the crowd held instruments, bells and tambourines. A girl with a trumpet. An elder with a guitar. Others were fussing around the feet of the idols, decorating the skirts of the resting paso, the large floats he’d seen carried like a litter through other Spanish streets in the past. Saint days in the country were far from rare. The preparations he was looking at could mean anything.

“What’s with all the glitz?” The window was down and the villagers weren’t far off. He spoke out the corner of his mouth.

“It’s the Fiesta de San Simón,” Renzo told him matter-of-factly. Funny he hadn’t mentioned it up in the layby when Drew had seen the horror in rags. “We honour him at midnight.”

We?

Renzo honked the horn, scattering birds and the chance of enquiry. He shouted something in Spanish, loud and warm, a greeting that Drew didn’t know.

“Hola,” Drew said out the window. He gave a little wave.

The villagers stared back and said nothing.

In a room full of feathers and bones, Drew stood with his back to the wall and watched the old woman dying. And she was dying. Obvs. The room stank of it. The reek of smoke and herbs, remedies you wouldn’t find in a chemist, was one thing. The stench of unwashed bedsheets and days’ old vomit tested his gag reflex. It wasn’t just the gewgaws dangling from the ceiling, the skeletal birds and the beads, a New Ager’s wet dream in the candlelight. It was dim and there were too many people in the room, the atmosphere thick with anxiety and sweat. Who are these visitors? he wondered. Family? Renzo had never mentioned any siblings. Come to think of it, he’d barely mentioned Calaveras until he’d got the call in Madrid.

Some holiday.

Most in the vigil were weeping. Nobody spoke. The woman in the bed looked as parched as the effigy above the town, sticklike and small. Her eyes rolled behind spiderweb lids, the only animation in a husk of leather and bone. Spittle dotted the corners of her mouth. Drew was finding it hard to look at her. Christ, he wanted a cigarette. It was his turn to glare at Renzo, or at least at the back of his head. He was kneeling on the floor beside the bed. He held his mother’s hand in his, enfolding fingers that looked as brittle as the things on the ceiling. He bowed his head as she mustered the strength to gasp something out, too faint for Drew to hear. Not that he’d understand it anyway.

Renzo was suddenly a man he barely knew, not the hombre who’d pursued him from New York to London with phone calls, hotel sex and eventually a diamond ring. Strong, handsome, brooding Renzo, who struck him now as stubborn and selfish, uncaring of his husband-to-be who he’d torn away from all his fun to this dump. Why had Renzo insisted he come? He could’ve easily made the drive alone, reuniting with him later in Madrid. He sighed, restless. They both knew the answer to that.

The woman, Mama, coughed—long enough to make Drew fear that she was going to fall to pieces. When Renzo turned to look at him, with his sad, brown eyes, it took him a moment to realise she’d said his name.

“Come. She wants to give you her blessing.”

Drew returned a pained smile. At the sight of the corpse-in-waiting, her twig of an arm stretching towards him, he gulped in a lungful of smoke.

“It’s fine.” I’m good. “Please don’t go to any trouble.”

Venga!

Smile etched on his face, Drew obliged. Renzo took his hand and pulled him down—gently, though his expression suggested he wanted to wrench. Then he stood, leaving Drew perched on the edge on the bed. The old woman, Mama, took his hands. They were clammy in his, fish on a sun-warmed rock. Rotten.

Mi hijo,” she said, with the same struggling breaths. “Dígame. ¿Crees que Dios favorece a los fieles?

Drew turned his face up to Renzo. He didn’t know what she asked of him. Didn’t know what to say. Renzo made a sharp, encouraging gesture. But it was Mama who drew his attention back to her, her nails digging into his flesh. Her grip was remarkably strong.

“Ow,” he said, his head turning.

That’s when she spat in his face. Most of it went in his mouth.

“It was a blessing, Drew. A bendición.

The two of them were in the bedroom at the back of the casa, no more than a cell with a slit of a window. Some dead flowers in a jug. A rusting double bed. The Ritz Paris.

“Ew!” Drew, who’d been crying, pretended to retch. Then he threw the towel he was holding at Renzo’s chest. “Why did you bring me here? It’s hellish.

“Keep your voice down. Mama will hear you.”

“Fuck you.” It was unlikely that Mama would hear anything except her own splutters and croaks. “You’ve been acting weird since we left Madrid. What’s up with you? Is this some kind of punishment?”

Renzo folded his arms. “Now why would you think that?”

Drew hesitated. Colour burned in his cheeks. He felt as transparent as glass.

“I told you -”

“I don’t believe you. I’ve looked at your phone. You haven’t answered any of his calls or replied to his texts. Why not?”

“Oh, so you’re spying on me now.”

“You cheated on me. Didn’t you?”

“¡No más preguntas, por favor!”

No more questions. Drew shrieked it, childish to his own ears. Then he was crying again—real tears this time—unable to bear it out. The lie. There was only a need for escape. For a fucking cigarette. The hole in which he found himself was full of anger and death, sucking him down.

When Renzo spoke next, his voice was a flat, cold knife.

“Drew, I’m not going to marry you.”

Drew reeled. The words were like a slap. Renzo had become a blur, his eyes sombre, unblinking.

He means it. He means it.

“You brought me here to tell me this? At your mother’s deathbed?” It was a low blow, but it thrilled him, rage spiking through his shock. “Fine. Go fuck yourself. Tell me the next bus out of this shithole and yours truly will be on it. You’ll never have to see me again.”

“There is no bus.”

Renzo looked so calm, so unmoved by the ultimatum, that it spurred Drew to recklessness. Though he regretted it as he was doing it, he wrenched off his ring and threw it at the man before him.

“Keep it, cabrón.” His venom bounced off the peeling walls. “I’ll walk home.”

The ring sparkled on the tiled floor. Drew headed for the door.

“Maybe Michael will come pick you up,” Renzo said as he left.

Bastard! Paying no mind to where he was going, Drew stormed out of the casa and into Calaveras. Alleys ran between the low, cramped houses and the moon had risen, lighting cracked sections of walls and weeds. It wasn’t a big place; he soon found himself on the edge of the village looking out at the mountains through his tears. A hawk called in the darkness. The air was heavy with earth and the heat of the day, fading like his sobs. Miles away, he made out the twinkle of lights. Probably another pueblo as remote and shitty as this one. His shoulders slumped as he accepted it; he was stuck here, at the mercy of Renzo and the hire car.

Shit.

“This is all your fault,” he told himself. “You stupid bitch.” He slapped his cheek for good measure, a habit carried over from his youth when he’d lock himself in a cupboard and swear he’d get out, get away, become a star and shit on all of them . . . He was already thinking about damage control. A break up wouldn’t be good for his image, not now when so many had bought into the fairy tale. 20K followers! Plus all those modelling contracts that Renz had promised him, a foot in the door with several top studios . . . As for love—

He was thinking of turning back, giving Renzo his best remorseful, blue-eyed look (and perhaps a reconciliatory blow job) when he heard the scream. At first, he thought it was a cat, some flea-bitten stray among the cacti and dust. But there was a tone to it, almost a lament, that pinged in his bones, making him taut. It was unmistakably human. A prayer? Some religious entreaty? The echoes seemed to come from the direction of the church.

Despite himself, his trainers swivelled in that direction. There’d still be people in the plaza, surely, and warmth. He was getting thirsty too, his mouth full of dust and unspoken recriminations. Where better to calm down than in the large white building? He might even take in the midnight parade, pay his respects to San Simón with a glass of vino or six. Forget about Renzo for the night . . .

Drew was heading between the houses, the windows dark apart from the occasional candle, when he heard a scuffling behind him. Not too close, but close enough for him to stop and wonder. Some animal, rooting through the trash? He huffed and moved onwards, drawing to a halt at a crossroads between the huddled buildings. This time, he caught the sound of footsteps, echoes fading behind him. He’d have thought nothing of it except they seemed to stop whenever he did. Where the fuck was the main street? He could navigate from there. The closely packed casas were a labyrinth with no streetlights to guide him. The moon didn’t reach down here and suddenly the shadows seemed thick, unfriendly. He took out his phone, but he’d forgotten to charge it. Suddenly, he seemed a million miles from anywhere. Even Renzo didn’t know where he was.

Is he chasing after me? He shivered in triumph at the thought. Yes, poor Renzo, heartbroken and looking for me in the dark, an apology on his lips . . .

To test his theory, Drew moved on, slower this time. His heart was a techno beat in his chest and he found himself thinking of other things, things he didn’t want to. The grin of the effigy up in the layby. The coughing old lady. The items dangling from the ceiling in the room. Feathers. Bones. He realised they’d been dangling over the street when they drove into Calaveras too, adorning the banner of the backwater fiesta. Yes, little bones. From birds or God knows what . . .

Something instinctual chimed within him, his guts twisting. Dashing sweat from his eyes, he flicked a glance over his shoulder. Again, he heard footsteps, the scuttling of someone in the alleyway behind him, stumbling in his direction. When he saw the silhouette pass between the houses, vague in the gloom, his heart leapt into his throat. What the -? Whoever it was, it wasn’t Renzo. Not unless he’d shrunk by a foot and was sporting a wide-brimmed hat.

“Hello? Who’s there?” He realised he should probably try Spanish; his nerves were making a fool of him. “What the fuck do you want?”

Did a place this small have street crime? In the dark, he heard a croak like an answer. A greeting? A laugh? The figure had stopped a few feet away. Stopped when he’d stopped, rigid in the dark. The tang of sweat carried on the breeze, along with something sweeter, that same incense or attar. Then Drew caught the scent of tobacco a moment before the end of a cigarette blazed in the darkness, a crimson eye much closer than he’d thought.

The figure said nothing. There was a man. A dark little man, watching him in the alley.

It was all Drew needed to turn and run.

By the time he was jogging down main street, Drew was giving serious thought to calling Michael, after all. He didn’t hold out much hope that an underwear model who’d graced the pages of Esquire was going to jump on a plane and then drive hours to save him. When he looked at his phone, the black screen, he remembered that there was no reception up here for him to find out either way. Fabulous. Reaching the edge of the plaza, Drew chanced a glance behind him. All he saw was an empty street. The wind blew scrub and dirt across it. Hands on knees, he was recovering his breath, relieved without knowing why. So a villager had approached him in the alley? Big deal. Probably nothing else to do out here except bum cigarettes and cruise . . .

The moon was risen and full. Drew wasn’t the outdoorsy type, but he judged the hour around nine. Where were all the people? The plaza was a cracked and empty expanse. It looked larger than it was in relation to the buildings around it. They looked no more attractive than boxes. The flagstones and tiles gleamed like milk. The night was warm, the heat in the air, but his blood cooled when he remembered the effigies lining the square. In tattered rows, they looked down on him from their pasos, the wooden platforms on which the villagers bore them wound around with ribbons and flowers. There must’ve been twenty of them or more, the semblance of saints he didn’t know in crinkled robes with paper crowns, veils and halos on their heads. Jewels hung around their necks along with crucifixes and beads, the knickknacks of some obscure Catholic ritual.

Drew fought an impulse to hide. It was their faces he didn’t want to look at. Each one seemed lifelike under the moon, glazed in that brown lacquer or resin, granting the semblance of flesh. Some of the effigies looked fresher than others. Some looked old indeed, painted over many times, their hands like sticks and their cheeks peeling. Eyes like marbles stared unseeing. Teeth shone with the lustre of pearls. In rustling silence, the idols of the midnight parade waited for the hour of their worship.

Christ, I don’t want to be here. He wondered if he could find his way back to Mama’s house, though he acknowledged he didn’t want to be there either, among the sickness and the bones. Might as well click your heels three times. It was dark and he was spooking himself. These people ate late and were probably at some dinner or other, marking their holy day. No one was going to hurt him out here, not in the Spanish wilderness. The country was famous for its kindness and hospitality—not that he’d seen much of it in Calaveras.

This’ll make a good update. The idea made him snort. The male model lost in the mountains, his Prada shirt snagged on a cactus.

He could play it for sympathy, granted. Whatever happened, Renzo was getting flamed, and on all his social media. Sure, people went all funny in grief, he knew that, but right in the middle of his holiday? Dragging him into this hole? Bitch, please.

Light from the church caught his attention. The glow was so faint he hadn’t noticed it before. Now, with swelling relief, he made his way to it, skipping over the flagstones under the blank eyes of the saints. With a creak, he pushed the door inward. The first thing that hit him was the smell, the attar or incense much thicker than before. In quick succession, he took in the source of it. A little old man was working in the nave, the pews pushed back to give him room. Next to him, a large vat bubbled over a fire, flames rising from a small, tiled pit under it. The liquid in the vat was thick and brown, and the man was applying it with a brush to the figure before him, a naked, life-sized mannequin clearly meant to join the ranks of the ones outside.

It was an odd sight, but what wasn’t in this dump? The old man hadn’t heard Drew by the door. Pinching his nose, he meant to call out, ask for directions, a way back to the casa and Renzo. This was dumb. He should probably say sorry. But something prevented him from entering, something off about the scene. He was trying to place what when his guts twisted, a gasp escaping his throat.

No.

Drew stumbled back from the doorway, the sight imprinted on his shock. The flutter of an eyelid, the twitch of a finger—both had been unmistakable, tipping the idol in the nave on its head. A hundred awful thoughts crowded his mind, the source of the scream he’d heard earlier pushing to the forefront. Jesus. Taking in the rictus of the effigy, the hardness of its stare, Drew knew there was nothing it could tell him. He heard its terror all the same.

He spun on his heel. He had to get out of here. Someone barred his way, a shadow in a striped shirt. It was the little man from the alleyway, he saw, a cigar in his mouth.

In the gloom, his grin seemed as wide as the brim of his hat.

“Noches,” he said.

High above the crowd, Drew led the parade. For hours, he’d stood in the nave, drugged, naked and strapped to a frame. The herbs they’d given him swirled in his blood. He hadn’t felt much pain as they’d scrubbed and painted him, the resin hot on his skin. He’d slipped in and out of consciousness, fading and waking to prayers, smoke and smells. There was more than sweetness in the incense. More than attar. Now, robed and jewelled, he was borne through Calaveras under the stars. It was midnight. The Fiesta de San Simón was underway.

On either side of the street, the faithful flocked, throwing coins and flowers. Tambourines shook. Trumpets blared. Music echoed off stone and the sky.

“Vaya con Dios!” they cried. And, “Para los Muertos!”

For the dead. His limited Spanish was still with him. San Simón had come to protect all in the village from false lovers and vice, just like Renzo had told him. In fact, it was a parade of the lovers that Drew headed up, he realised. Some had been sublimed years ago. Others judged more recently. Hadn’t the old man told him so in among his chants? Yes, Drew had heard him when his voice had given out, when he’d finally stopped screaming. Screaming was pointless, anyway. Who was there to hear him?

Dried flowers rustled on his head. Arms stiff and spread, the procession carried Drew towards the mountains. He’d close his eyes if he could, offer a prayer of his own, not that he was religious. It would’ve spared him the sight of Renzo. His former fiancé stood under the banner on the edge of town, looking up at him in the crowd and smiling. Those dark, Iberian eyes . . . Reverence lit his face like a lamp. Mi toro. Reverence at his offering, the sacrifice he’d brought to the village. His anger, smouldering for days, finally had an answer. Drenched in sin and lacquer, Drew guessed he would be free of it now.

A tear trickled from the corner of his eye. Would his rictus pass for a smile, he wondered? A glimpse of farewell or forgiveness? It was too late for anything else. No one knew he was here. Where would they start looking? Up in the hills, he’d watch the days pass. At least until the birds pecked out his eyes. Until lack of water shrivelled him, made of him a husk like the other idols. Would the numbness wear out before that? He thought so. It made sense. Even then, he’d remain, something for the faithful to stop and look at. Kiss their fingers and pray. Beg blessings of San Simón.

Drew was for the dead now.

Still, he was adored.

About the Author

James Bennett is a British writer raised in Sussex and South Africa. His travels have furnished him with an abiding love of different cultures, history and mythology. His short fiction has appeared internationally and his debut novel Chasing Embers was shortlisted for Best Newcomer at the British Fantasy Awards 2017. James lives in Spain where he’s currently at work on a new novel. Feel free to follow him on Twitter: @Benjurigan.