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Ronda completes dialing the first number and a woman answers and mumbles something that Ronda doesn't understand.
"Buenos días, señora," Ronda begins slowly. "Conoce usted Jesús Becerra?" The woman cannot speak a word of English.
"Lo siento, lo siento," the woman says over and over.
"Yo soy Ronda Cari," Ronda says, trying another tack. "Señor Julio Galvarez en Sevilla es...es mi...mi amigo."
"Oh sí, sí," the woman says, recognizing the name Galvarez. "Pero no conozco el otro..."
"Jesús. Jesús Becerra? El toca la guitarra?"
"No, no se. Lo siento mucho." The woman hangs up before Ronda can ask another question.
"Thanks for nothing," Ronda says, setting the phone into its cradle. She studies the phone for a moment.
She dials the second number. It rings ten times with no answer. The third number doesn't even produce a ring, but instead, a recording that Ronda doesn't understand.
Slamming the phone down, she drops onto the bed and covers her eyes with a pillow. "What now?" she says out loud, her throat closing tight over the words.
She is sniffling and beginning to wonder if maybe she didn't in fact make a terrible mistake coming. Just then, there is a knock at the door.
"Oh please God don't let it be Jerez bearing more gifts," Ronda says, sitting up and reaching for her purse. She pulls out a tissue and blows her nose and the knock comes again at the door, harder. "Just a minute, please," she calls, easing herself off the bed.
As she crosses the room, she has this fantasy: that when she opens the door Jesús himself will be standing there, bandaged, but still as handsome as ever. He will take her in his arms and push her hair off her forehead, covering her face with kisses. He will crush her with his strong arms and suffocate her in the kind of embrace they used to share so often on her bed.
He will whisper in his familiar voice, "Oh Ronda, Ronda, I'll never ever leave you again."
When she opens the door, however, she faces the same bellboy who carried her bag up to her room. He holds out a pale blue envelope, on which is written her first and last names. The envelope is marked "Urgent."
She tips him and hurries inside to open the envelope. Inside is a fax: "Fabricas Jerez, de Sevilla, Granada, Cadiz, Madrid." Shuddering, she reads:
"My dearest Ronda, I have just received new information regarding your friend. I can safely say that he is not in Lanjarón. Discard those three phone numbers Galvarez gave you.
Instead, please allow my driver to take you to another location. Remain there until I arrive later this evening. Enrique."
Ronda drops onto the bed, her hands trembling. Fury chokes her. Her head begins pounding again. How dare Jerez make a fool of her like this. How dare he play with her, leading her on a wild goose chase from one location to another. Tempted to tear the fax to shred, she realizes she has no choice does but to cooperate with Jerez.
Hernán is waiting in the lobby, standing with his hands crossed over his abdomen, exactly the way he was earlier in the day. Ronda nods in his direction and he takes her bag. Weaving through the streets of Granada in the sleek black Mercedes, they arrive quickly at the autovia.
Out the window, Ronda can just see the peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, dusted with snow.
Twenty minutes go by before Ronda inches forward. "Excuse me, please, Hernán, but could you tell me where we are headed?"
The driver keeps his eyes focused steadily on the three-lane superhighway. He shrugs. "I'm sorry, señora. I was instructed not to say a word to anyone about our destination."
"But that can't possibly include me."
He shrugs again. "I'm very sorry. But he said no one was to know where we are going. No one."
"But Hernán, I deserve to know where we're going. I'm not a prisoner in this car, I'm your passenger."
The driver nods apologetically. "Yes, señora. That is more or less true, but señor Jerez was emphatic. I do exactly what he says. Always. In this case, I tell no one."
"Not even me?" she shrieks. "Not even me?"
Hernán remains silent, his eyes riveted forward.
"Oh this is just absurd," she cries. Her face is flushed and hot and she's got a sore throat.
Her eyes ache and she has pain in both glands of her neck and her stomach is queasy once more. Maybe I'll just get the flu, she says to herself. And then I'll go to bed and stop this foolish wandering across Spain.
She collapses back into the seat and inhales, pressing two fingers tight around the bridge of her nose, and turns to look out the window. More olive groves growing on rolling hills. More burnt red soil. And in the distance, she notices a large blue and white highway sign:
"Antequera, 63 kilometros."
"Aha," she says, slipping forward on her seat again. "Hernán, I know we came through
Antequera on our way into Granada this morning. That much I'm sure. So we're retracing our route, is that right?"
Hernán shrugs and when he speaks, he, too, sounds weary. "We'll see, señora. We'll see when get there, won't we?"
At the sign for Antequera they leave the super highway. Hernán takes a small windy road that mounts steadily through a high plateau. Ronda closes her eyes and cradles her stomach as the car begins swinging from one abrupt turn into another. When finally she looks out the window, she is staring into a craggy limestone cliff. The car whips around the turn and then she is peering off a steep drop into a flat plain.
"I can't take much more of this, Hernán," Ronda says weakly.
"Repeat, señora?" Hernán says kindly.
"Never mind," she says. "It's my stomach. Me duele el estómago."
"Sí," he replies. "Lo siento."
"Please...how much longer?"
"Not long now," he says.
What he calls not long is plenty long enough for Ronda. The road rises swiftly, swinging between hairpin curves into balded silver mountains. The surface of the road is bumpy. The ride is so rough that Ronda finally has to stop looking out the window altogether. So when Hernán calls out loudly from the front seat, "Alora," Ronda thinks he is saying "ahora" -"now."
She is delighted.
"Ahora?" she says, looking up weakly. "We're here now?"
"No, no. Alora." Hernán says again. And when she looks out the window she sees the name of the town, Alora, carved into a wooden sign.
"Oh, Hernán, can't we stop now?"
"No, no. We are not quite there yet, señora. I'm sorry. We have still a distance go." He turns off on an even smaller and steeper and bumpier road. They pass through a tiny village of stark white houses. The main street is barely wide enough for the Mercedes.
A small truck comes forward and Hernán brakes and then backs the Mercedes up to let the truck pass.
By the time they have left the village, Ronda is pressing her face into her hands and praying for the trip to end. But still the Mercedes bumps along, heading deeper and deeper into the countryside, winding between olives and oranges and patches of red soil as pink as sunburn.
At one point, he stops to let a wide herd of goats go by. Ronda closes her eyes, listening to the bray of the goats, trying to imagine what it must be like to have to watch animals night and day.
When he resumes again, Ronda looks up, and that's when her jaw drops. The car is now skating around a sharp curve and on the right side, the drop off is sheer and hundreds of feet deep. Ronda has the sensation that she is going over the cliff.
"OH MY GOD," she screams, grabbing her face with both hands. Her stomach flips and saliva comes rushing into her mouth. "Please, Hernán, please pull over!"
The Mercedes screeches to a halt in the middle of the tiny road and Ronda jumps out the door.
Hernán races to Ronda's side of the car, but she has already turned her face away from the cliff. She vomits, spilling her insides until nothing more comes up.
Wiping her lips, she turns back to Hernán. He hands her a handkerchief and she mops her wet face. That's when she sees the view. She is only a few feet from an astonishing chasm, hundreds of feet deep, a gash carved into mammoth limestone cliffs. At the bottom of the cliff, far below the road, a river thunders through the gorge.
"Oh my God," Ronda sputters, steadying herself against Hernán's outstretched arm. "Where are we?"
"I must say, señora Cari, you picked one of the prettiest spots in Spain to become sick." He points down into the gorge, where railroad tracks tunnel in and out of the cliff side. "If you ever take the train from Madrid to Malaga, you pass through this gorge. We call it Garganta del Chorro."
"Chorro?" Ronda repeats. "What is 'chorro'?"
"I don't know it in English," he replies. "But the river is the Guadalhorce. And it has immense force."
Hernán helps her back to the car. "We are practically there now," he says, and closes the door. "And I promise, I will go slowly on the way back."
"Hernán, I think your driving is superb, but on these roads, I don't think it's possible to drive slowly enough." He bows, and closes the door, and she sees him smile through the window.
Around the bend there is a small-whitewashed house built partly into the cliff. The house has a thick grape arbor and bright red geraniums growing in window boxes and pink bougainvillea spilling over the tile roof. Wrought iron grills cover the windows. A tiny woman who looks to be at least eighty is sweeping the porch.
Inhaling, Ronda gets out of the car. Her legs are wobbly and her stomach sore.
The woman eyes Ronda carefully. She is so tiny that she barely reaches Ronda's shoulder.
"Buenos días," Ronda says. She extends one hand. "Soy Ronda."
The woman nods. She faces Hernán, now outside the car. He speaks to her in rapid Spanish and the woman answers. Hernán turns to Ronda and translates.
"She wonders if you've been to the town of Ronda, just a few kilometers from here. Or if you've seen El Tajo, the huge ravine there, with the river below."
"No. No, tell her I haven't," Ronda says, staring at the woman. "Tell her though that I'd like to go. Someday. Maybe. When I'm not so...so worn out." She sighs.
Hernán translates. The woman motions for them to enter the cottage.
Inside, the ceiling is so low that Ronda has to bend over. The room is small and it has a damp earthy odor. On a small wooden table are four glasses and a green bottle half-filled with red wine. Something is cooking in a small room beyond. Garlic, maybe. The smell is so strong it makes Ronda's stomach quiver.
The woman leaves the room. Ronda turns to face Hernán. "Hernán, please. I'm feeling so very ill. Please, there can be no reason now to keep any secrets. Please, will you tell me what I'm doing here? And who this woman is?"
Hernán clears his throat and studies the floor. "I am...I am to wait here with you until señor Jerez arrives a little later. I know he said he would finish up at the factory in Cadiz as soon as he possibly could."
"But Hernán you must know something more about this situation. If you would, just explain, it would help me so much to know why I..."
"I'm sorry, señora. I know nothing more than what I've said."
Ronda presses her fingers against her forehead and closes her eyes. She looks up. "And this woman? Does she know why I'm here?"
Hernán shakes his head. "I don't know." The old woman returns, carrying a tray of thickly sliced bread and thin pieces of cured ham. There is also a small bowl of capers and another of wrinkled black olives. She sets the tray on the table and invites Ronda, in Spanish, to sit down.
Suddenly Ronda finds the closeness of the small cottage, the smell of the garlic, the damp walls, the low ceilings, all too much. "I'm sorry," she says, refusing the older woman's offer.
She hurries out the door, calling over her shoulder to Hernán. "Please explain for me. Please tell her I'm sorry but that I'm afraid I might be sick again."
Ronda settles on a small black iron bench in front of the cottage. She closes her eyes and leans back. She rubs the back of her neck and then bends over, lowering her head between her knees.
Hernán emerges from the cottage, followed by the old woman. "Please, señora Cari. There is a bed inside. A room for you. She has prepared it without my asking..."
"Oh, no, I couldn't. I don't want to put her out. Really. Tell her for me."
Hernán crouches down. "You would be insulting her if you didn't come in," he whispers. "I am certain of this. Please. Don't hurt her feelings."
Ronda looks up at the old woman, who is babbling away in Spanish.
"OK," she says. "I'll go."
Ronda gets up and, with Hernán carrying her bag, follows the woman inside, through the front room, past the table with wine and olives and capers and ham. To the right is a small hallway leading to two bedrooms. The woman points to the one on the left. "Este cuarto," the woman says softly. She nods but avoids Ronda's eyes.
"Gracias," Ronda says. "Muchas gracias, señora."
The door closes. The room feels like a small box. The walls are pure white plaster; if Ronda stands on tiptoe, her head grazes the ceiling. There is room for only a bed and a small dresser with some framed photos.
She drops to the bed, and sinks deep into the soft mattress. Kicking off her shoes, she settles her head into the thin pillow. Yawning, she turns to face the wall and all of a sudden she sees it on the dresser. The face. The guitar. The smoky eyes. The single lock of chocolate hair falling across the familiar forehead.
"Oh God!" She lifts herself off the bed as if in a trance. Trembling, she stumbles toward the photo. There, within the small confines of the frame, is a younger Jesús. In a black suit. A bow tie. He is smiling, cradling his guitar, looking starry-eyed.
Ronda is reeling. Dying. Feeling sick inside. Because next to Jesús in the photo is a strikingly beautiful young woman. Her face is a rich caramel brown, and she has mysterious-looking green eyes. They glitter. She is draped over Jesús' shoulder and he is clutching her arm. And that's not all of it. Ronda picks up a second, smaller photo, right beside the first.
In it is the same dark woman, holding a baby about a year old. A little girl with jet black curls. And a sweet face. A face, Ronda sees with horror, that looks exactly like Jesús.
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