THE FIELD OF PEPPERS
First published in
The Nashwaak Review 3 (Winter) 1996: 112-23.
I took the guide book from my shoulder bag and read it again. The directions seemed very clear: "Leave the town by the South Gate. Follow the main road to the Recreation Centre. Turn left towards the Convent of Santa Clara. At the convent, turn right, ascend the slope, and the remains of the Roman nevera are just below the crest of the hill." There was only one problem: I had followed the directions exactly, yet I still couldn't find the remains of the Roman nevera. As I looked around, I could see no Roman ruins at all. And they should have been big enough to see.
The Roman nevera! The townsfolk still talk about it as though it were built only yesterday. According to what they have told me, the nevera is a vast hole in the hillside, like an inverted cathedral dome, lined with stone. Dug into the north -facing side of the hill, it is protected from the spring and summer sun. Snow and ice thrown into it during the winter months stay frozen throughout the long, dog days of summer. It has been in existence now for nearly two thousand years. It is, apparently, the only one to survive, certainly in Spain. It dates from the Silver Age of the Roman Empire. It must be here somewhere.
I looked around again, but all I could see was this field of peppers basking in sunlight almost at the summit of the hill. I sat on the drystone wall and relaxed. The sun was climbing to its high point in the sky and soon it would be time to return to the hotel for lunch. Meanwhile, larks were singing in the bright blue vaults high above me. Swallows dipped and wheeled, scudded low, soared high; gradually I felt them unstitching life's tensions with their scissor-slash of streamlined wing. In the distance, thin spirals of smoke rose above a farm chimney. 'The smoke," I thought to myself, "is a thin, grey pencil sketching fleeting clouds on the summer breeze."
Close by, white blossoms, delicate, nodded above dark green leaves and stems. An occasional green button, a button that would bell into a full green pepper, shone brightly at the end of its stalk. Bees buzzed among the flowers and, from somewhere in the middle-distance, close to the ancient Roman fountain which still graced the valley below me, a young girl sang a traditional washday song.
I decided to abandon my search. There would be ample time to study the matter after lunch. Then the next morning, after an afternoon in the tourist office or the local museum, armed with fresh information, I would be able to return.
Back in the hotel, at the bar, meal time behind me, I made enquiries.
"Mateo," someone said. "Old Mateo will know."
There was a chorus of agreement.
"Old Mateo knows everything that happens round here."
"Ah!" said a grizzled old man, "But will he tell?" And he shrugged his shoulders and turned up the palms of his hands.
"Mateo? "Where can I find him?"
The first speaker also shrugged.
"Who knows nowadays? But I remember he used to have a shop, almost at the top of the hill by the ruins. All the tourists used to go there."
"Now that," I thought to myself, "sounds promising. A little shop, by the ruins, at the top of the hill, much frequented by tourists. Perfect."
It was clear to me that Mateo merited a visit. I offered drinks to the speakers at the bar, some accepted; others declined. we raised our glasses in a communal toast, and then when I had finished my café quemado, I said farewell and headed upstairs, to my room, for my daily siesta.
Next morning, I got up early, had breakfast, and read through the instructions in the guidebook once more. Then, after breakfast, I left the hotel and headed out towards the recreation centre and the convent. I followed the guide book word for word, line for line, step for step, turning right at the convent wall, ascending the hill and arriving, once again, at the field of peppers.
An old man is sitting on the wall, and I ask him hopefully if he knows where I can find Mateo and the local shop. He points to a row of white-washed cottages half-way up the hill.
"I can't tell you more than that," he says, "We've just moved in. It's a new housing estate, you know."
I tell him that no, I didn't know; then I bid him farewell and descend the hill a little way. There, opposite the cottages where the old man says he lives, is a solid building with an ancient walled courtyard. Balanced on a step-ladder in front of the building is a middle-aged man holding a paint-brush in one hand while with the other he steadies himself against a white-washed wall. He is half-bent as he dips his brush into the pot of paint which perches on the topmost step of his ladder. As I approach, he straightens up, grasps an antique hand-carved sign above his head, and continues to paint. I can see that his work is almost done: sun-faded blacks, cracked golds and vermilions are nearly covered beneath a shining layer of fresh green paint. I call out to the man on the ladder:
"Excuse me: can you tell me where to find Mateo?"
"I am Mateo."
"Then you are the man I am lokking for. They told me in town that you would know where to find the old Roman ruins."
Mateo stops painting and looks down at me. He is not as old as I expect him to be and he shakes his head slowly.
"Old Roman ruins?" He shakes his head. "There aren't any. Not any more. Not around here, anyaway."
"You are Mateo?"
"Old Mateo, the shop-keeper?"
"Mateo, yes. Old Mateo, no! At least, I wouldn't claim to be that old. But I'm still Mateo the shop-keeper."
He points to the door of the building; inside, in spite of the gloom, I can make out shelves, a counter, benches and chairs, some tables...
"I'm looking for someone they call Old Mateo. Can you tell me where to find him?"
Young Mateo looks at me and points with his paintbrush. There, at the end of the path, is the rough stone wall of an ancient cemetery. I can see white crosses, winged marble angels, a statue of Mary... The whole place has an air of forgetfulness and decay, heightened by two bouquets of fresh flowers on a recent grave.
"You needn't be; he had a good life, God rest his soul."
I ask Mateo if he can think of anyone who might be able to tell me about the Roman nevera, but he shakes his head.
"Roman ruins? Rumours. Old gossip. There certainly aren't any now and personally I don't believe there ever were any."
He resumes his painting, and, as he turns his back on me, I thank him, and continue my journey uphill to the field of peppers. It seems I have wasted another day, but who can talk of loss or waste, here, on a drystone wall, bathed in sunlight, surrounded by flowers, serenaded by a skyfull of birds? I take out my sketchbook and pencil the roughness of the stone, its tiny whirls and loops, the texture of its fern and moss. Such things are easy: for a moment I dream of catching for posterity the scent of growing peppers, the tinkle of their tiny white flowers, the busy drone of bees, the silence of woodsmoke.
Next morning, I got up early, followed the guidebook line by line, word by word, and arrived once again at the field of peppers. I descended the hill to Mateo's shop. His new white sign with the green tree on it was shining bright against the white-washed wall. There was no sign of anyone, but the shop-door was open and I stepped right in. It was very dark inside. At first, I could only make out dim shapes but bit by bit my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. There were several tables and benches scattered round the walls. To my left there was a wooden bar, and behind it, a woman about my own age, no longer a girl, but some ten years younger than yesterday's man on the ladder. She was busy washing, drying, and arranging glasses and coffee cups; she became aware of my presence and looked up.
"Good morning." I greeted her.
"Good morning. Can I get you something?"
"I am looking for Young Mateo."
"He is not here today. He has gone to town. On business."
When I express my sorrow at having missed him, the woman tells me that Mateo is her elder brother. Her own name, she says, is Matea and she and her brother are both named after Old Mateo. "May he rest in peace!" She makes a rapid sign of the cross and kisses her thumbnail.
I tell her that I think Matea is a most unusual name and she replies that Old Mateo had been a strong-willed old man. He had wanted to maintain everything just as it was. Everything. Even his name. Her words trail away into silence.
"I'm sorry." I say. "I don't mean to intrude."
She asks if she can get me a cup of coffee. I shake my head. A glass of white wine, then, from their own private barrel, her solera, laid down by Old Mateo many, many years ago, and still the best glass of white wine in the region? This time I nod my head:
"Yes, please. A glass of white wine. That would be nice."
She washes a glass in the old stone sink, dries it on the towel draped across her shoulder, and moves to a dust-covered, iron-bound barrel, on a shelf at the back of the bar. Taking infinite care not to disturb the sediment in the cask, she angles the glass as thick, translucent liquid gold trickles stickily from its polished brass tap.
I choose a table in one of the lighter corners of the shop which has become a tavern and sit staring straight ahead till she brings me the wine. Then I look around. It's a quaint old shop, absolutely typical of a past generation. It seems to sell everything and I can make out bundles of blue faded rope-soled sandals (alpargatas, the old men call them locally); old-fashioned straw bags with double, reinforced handles; hand-woven hats of straw which labourers (and when the hats get old, donkeys) still wear in the fields; little brass lanterns that run off olive oil and never go out in rain or storm; bright yellow salt-petre sailors' lighters with yards and yards of coiled up wick that remind me of so much pyjama cord; Spanish clasp-knives with wooden handles and single, all-purpose blades...
"Take a good look around," says Matea, "Examine what you want. There's no obligation to buy."
I walk over to the shelf and pick up a straw hat. Just the other day I had sketched a donkey in a field: it was wearing a headpiece just like this one with two neat holes punched in the crown to make room for the donkey's ears! The farmer told me, with great pride, that the hat had been his for a decade before he lent it to his ass.
"Do you know where the old Roman ruins are?" I call out to Matea.
Silence follows my question and I wonder whether Matea has heard. I think of asking again, but as I am about to do so, she looks up from her work and I can see as she frowns and her eyebrows draw together that she is troubled by my question.
"Old Mateo," she talks in a quiet voice, "lived to a great age. I don't know how old he was. Not exactly. He wasn't my father. He was my mother's uncle. She was much younger than my father, and when father was killed at the end of our war, during the purge, mother just disappeared and Old Mateo adopted my brother and I. He brought us up as his children and, on condition we changed our names, he left my brother this shop."
"You don't have to tell me all this."
"Sometimes I have to tell someone."
"It's a wonderful old shop," I say. "It's like living in a museum. Some of this old stuff must be worth a fortune."
"My brother doesn't think so."
"Then he's a fool."
"Look over here."
She takes me by the arm and leads me towards the darkest corner.
"On the wall, behind those baskets."
I look where she points. Spread over the wall, scarcely visible in the obscurity, is an immense fresco. It shows the local countryside during the harvest season. Labourers are out in the fields gathering the crops, filling the immense wooden carts with hay for the winter. In the picture, the sun shines brightly and I can almost feel its late-August, harvest warmth; I can almost hear the jingle of harness, the stamping of the horses' feet, the creaking of the hay-wain with its vivid scent of fresh cut hay; the harvest songs are there too, you can feel their harmonies just beyond the range of human hearing.
In the lower right hand corner I can make out the artist's scribbled signature: P. Ruiz.
"This is a beautiful painting," I say. "It must be worth a fortune."
"Old Mateo always told me that this one work was worth more than the rest of his belongings put together."
"And your brother?"
"Who knows?" She shrugs her shoulders and turns away.
"P. Ruiz? I don't know the name. Is he a local painter? Was he famous around here?"
"I don't know who he is either. Some wandering student, I think. Old Mateo used to tell us some story about how, one afternoon, when he was serving behind the bar, this boy, no older than himself (and he wasn't more than fifteen or sixteen at the time), wandered in. He was friendless. Penniless. Hungry. Looking to work for food. When he said he was a painter, Old Mateo's father said he could probably whitewash the outside walls, but the kid got very angry. Said he was a real painter, and if they wanted him to do the walls, really do the walls, then he'd do them something they would never forget. Old Mateo's father told him they would feed him and give him a bed if he painted something decent on this wall. He hung a sheet in this corner, borrowed a lamp, and wouldn't let anyone near it till it was done."
I study the painting with interest. There are some clever touches. The artist has achieved a classical chiaro-oscuro technique for the main figures, but the background is a series of experiments, pointillisme here, a touch of impressionism there. In spite of the contrasting styles, the painting is a living, vibrant thing which emits an unmistakable energy.
"Can you remember anything about the artist?" I ask. "Did Mateo say where he came from? What did he look like? Did he paint anything else round here?"
"Only the sign outside. And no, I don't know anything else about him, except what Old Mateo told us."
"And that was...?"
"That he was young, starving, friendless. He stayed here for a while; painted this; fell in love with a local girl; but when her parents became annoyed at the thought of her marrying a landless artist, he just vanished. Went away and never came back."
"Do you remember his first name?"
"P? Pedro? Pablo? Pepe?"
"I don't know. Pablo sounds about right. He told Old Mateo he'd be famous one day. And Old Mateo believed him. Nobody was ever allowed to touch this wall."
I tell her I think the painting is very good, and might even be very valuable. Then I ask if I can sketch it. She says I may, turns on a light, and I sit at the table measuring with my thumb and drawing outlines into my notebook. I even copy the artist's signature. Then, when I look up, a couple of hours have gone by and I have to rush away. I'll be back soon, I say, if it won't be any trouble.
"Not at all. I am sure Old Mateo would have been ever so pleased to have a foreigner sketch his painting."
I leave her then and return to the hotel.
Next morning, early, I travel to the provincial capital and go to the provincial art gallery where I look (unsuccessfully) for more paintings by Pablo Ruiz. There are old-fashioned, turn of the century landscapes, yellowed with a glaze of varnish. There are clumsy, false perspectives signed by famous local men. None of the museum attendants though has ever heard of a local painter called Pablo Ruiz who experimented with pointillisme and impressionism at the turn of the century.
"Pablo Ruiz?" One of the curators gives me a questioning look. "You can't mean Pablo Ruiz Picasso? He was never in this part of the country. Picasso never came here."
I ask if I can see the curator; but he is away on holiday and won't be back until the beginning of next week. I hesitate about making an appointment, but then ask the secretary if I can see the curator the following Monday, on his return.
"Of course." she says. And writes my name against the time on Monday when the curator can see me.
I return on the bus to my town and my hotel. The next morning, it is raining heavily. I decide to spend the day in my room writing, selecting from my sketches, planning the rest of my trip. I keep the drawing of the fresco on the desk before me and look again and again at the signature P. Ruiz, adding the missing Picasso with a flourish of my pen.
Eventually, after a very wet weekend, I take the Monday morning bus to the provincial capital once more. The curator of the gallery meets me, speaks with me, and, at his request, I show him my own drawings and paintings. When we arrive at the sketch of the fresco he shows great interest.
"Are you sure his name is Pablo?"
"Nobody seemed absolutely sure of his name. The signature has only a P. but the family remember him as Pablo. I can't say even now that I am certain. But look at these brushstrokes. I have copied them as best I can."
"Picasso: P for Pablo; Pablo Ruiz; Pablo Ruiz Picasso. Picasso! PICASSO!!!" The curator hugs himself, laughs and walks to his bookshelves. He takes down a volume and shows me some early works: signed P. Ruiz. It is the signature I have copied from the fresco. "Now: tell me exactly where you saw this treasure. I am assuming that this isn't a hoax!"
I tell him about the cafe, and the fresco, and the Roman nevera and the field of peppers, and he frowns. "I'm tied up today and tomorrow.... the annual budget, you know how it is?"
I nod; he sighs.
"But I'll pick you up at your hotel early on Wednesday morning. 8:30 am let's say?"
"Sure." I nod my head in agreement.
The next morning, Tuesday, I get up, have breakfast, take my trusty guide-book, and head for the field of peppers.
I can hear the noise long before I get there. Small kids are running up and down the hill between the new houses and Old Mateo's place. They carry bright yellow, red, and blue balloons, but the predominant colour is green. Some of the balloons announce the "Grand Gala Opening" and I wonder what it is all about. As I draw closer, American and European rock music is blaring and there are people everywhere. I turn onto the path that leads to the shop and I can see that the courtyard is packed with tables, chairs, and smart patio umbrellas with gaily coloured panels. Not a vacant seat remains. People mill round in great surging throbs. Rope-sandals, straw baskets and hats, lighters, oil lamps, the whole contents of Mateo's shop seem to be scattered around the courtyard on wooden trestle tables that announce giveaways and bargains.
Mateo is standing in the doorway and I ask him where his sister is.
"Gone." He says. "Cleared out."
"I am sorry to hear that. May I come in and look around?"
"Of course. That's the purpose of this gala opening party: to attract people; to bring them here; to let them see what the new generation is doing." Mateo looks me up and down. He seems very pleased with himself; blown up, like one of his own balloons, with an inner delight.
"Come inside!" he says. "Look around! Buy what you like at our special low prices. On a day like this, everything is on sale. Take your chance while you have it! Everything must go!" He moves to one side and permits me to enter the shop.
The interior is lit up by bright neon lights that bounce illumination off clean white-washed walls. New wooden shelves hold cans and packets of soup, loaves of bread, tins of sea-food, boxes of biscuits, bottles of wine and spirits. A large poster, over the counter where the bar had been, announces Grand Gala Opening. It shows today's date. I walk towards the back wall. The fresco is no longer there. It has disappeared beneath fresh fields of whitewash. Pablo Ruiz Picasso; a classic work of art and worth several million dollars; it is as if it had never existed.
"Where's the painting? What have you done with the painting? Your sister said I could make copies of the painting."
Mateo laughs hoarsely:
"Matea? Matea said that? She didn't know what she was talking about. Ruddy nuisance, Matea. Her and the old man, they were both the same. Hanging on to things that had no worth, no meaning. Take this place: a week ago it was cluttered up; the walls were filthy; nobody in their right minds would come here, let alone buy or eat food. But now it's clean; it's fresh! Look at the gleam on those walls! The picture? Pah! Scrubbed clean and what's left buried now beneath layers of whitewash! It was worthless anyway: the ravings of a wandering lunatic!"
He takes me by the arm and leads me to the door.
"Look at the crowds outside: we've never had that many people here before! This is life! This is money! Look at them! Listen to them! They're all buying! Do you understand? They're buying! BUYING! Giving me their money! The painting! The ruins! Matea! Old Mateo! Anachronisms, that's what they were! Worn out, tired, useless! Modernize! Modernize! I kept on telling them. It's the only way. We've got to change with the times. Or change the times. We can't keep on living in the past. Fighting that same old war. Generation after generation. You want to see art? Now this is ART!"
And he points to the green tree on the white background, symbol of the international chain of supermarkets to which he has sold out.
"That's me now. I've bought the franchise. The only franchise for this part of the province. Cattlefood, grains, cereals, wines, olive oil: they do the lot. And every farmer for miles around will have to come here and do business with me. That's what the patio's for: so they can spend money at my bar and restaurant while I keep them waiting. It's not all ready yet. But it will be. Oh yes, it will be."
He pauses for a moment then looks at me, grinning, showing yellowed, tobacco-stained teeth.
"You want to know how I bought the franchise? I sold the field of peppers. And do you know how I sold the field of peppers?"
He licks his lips, looks around him; for a moment, he and I are alone in the shop.
"There's a Roman ruin buried beneath that field. The icebox, the nivela, or something, Old Mateo called it. All those useless Roman stones lying round in a large hole where nothing grew and the sun never came. I couldn't sell the land. Nobody wanted it. National patrimony, they said. People kept telling me it belonged to the nation. Nation be damned! It was mine: and I couldn't sell it. It wasn't making any money for me, or for anyone else round here. So, I decided to do something about it. I found an estate agent, told him I'd fix the ruins if he would give me a good price for the land..."
He wipes his lips with the back of his hand and lowers his voice.
"I spoke to one of the farmers who thought like I did. I told him to come at night and bring his tractor. Matea found out about it somehow. Told me she'd go to the National Historical Society. They went to the Ministry of Public Works or something. Anyway, the farmer came round with the tractor one night; next day, when I woke up, the ruin was as flat as a pancake. A lawyer arrived the same day with papers signed by the Minister. He told me to leave the ruins alone. Ha! I showed him! 'What ruins?' I said. I took him out and walked him round the field. 'Aren't no ruins round here that I know of.'"
He takes a large cigar from his top pocket, breaks open the cellophane, and sticks the Canary Island product between his teeth. "Much better than Cuban!" he says; "And at half the price! Give the people what they want at a price they can afford."
He coughs, then he spits on the shiny linoleum floor, and walks to the door.
"Modernization! You've got to keep up with the times. Or get ahead of them."
He laughs and pulling another cigar from his pocket he offers it to me.
"Here," he says, "The painting has gone; and the ruins; forget about them. Have a cigar on me. Free. To celebrate the birth of the franchise. Come on. Take it. Don't be afraid. It won't bite."
"No thanks," I say turning away, "I don't smoke. I don't want to catch cancer."
He puffs a cloud of cigar smoke in the general direction of my face, and, as I walk towards the door he shouts:
"Before Matea left she told me some guy would be here soon to preserve the painting! I beat you to it! Now you know how the workers spend a wet weekend! Painting!"
As I walk slowly away, head down, thinking, his laughter is gradually lost among the sounds of the crowd's murmur, the rock music's beat, the strident voices of buyers and sellers. At the end of the alley, I turn right, ascend the hill, and arrive at the field of peppers. Two men in yellow hats armed with theodolites are surveying the field. I sit on the wall and watch them. Swallows criss-cross the heavens, smoke rises steadily from cottage and farm, golden bees delicately sip nectar from pepper blossoms.
The curator from the museum is due to pick me up tomorrow morning at 8:30 am. I wonder how I am going to explain away my "hoax".
Far away, in the distance, I can hear the empty echo of a chained dog barking at shadows in the morning sun.
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