The American stepped off the train and into the warm Spanish afternoon sun. One of the Guardia Civilia stood at attention beside the door of the station. The policeman eyed each of the passengers, measuring them for trouble. The American had other business on his mind than any trouble he might make for Franco and his Fascists.
The station looked run down, paint peeling off its walls. Walking into the bar, he ordered Anis del Toro. When it came, he threw back his head and downed the liqueur with one try. The cold, licorice taste went down fast and filled him with a momentary contentment. It was time to get on with what he had come to do, he reminded himself.
Grabbing a taxi nearby, he asked the driver to take him to the inn where he had booked lodging. Once settled in and after a good meal, he walked back to the station, and then on into the arid landscape behind the building.
The afternoon was now evening and shadows were everywhere, then it was night. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and prodded the hills in the distance, hills that did indeed appear to be elephants. It was too late to know if they were white or some other color. He dropped his knapsack and sat down on a large boulder.
The hills drew his eyes toward them. He found himself peering further and further into the past. It had been one long stretch of time, thirty years of it since the girl. It had been thirty years since the girl spent that afternoon with him in the train station. Thirty years since she had said those hills in the distance reminded her of white elephants. Thirty years since he had convinced her to have an abortion and she died of an infection from the abortion, her head on his lap in a compartment on a train to Paris. It had been thirty years of regret. Each day since, he had relived every moment of that afternoon, detail by detail, one moment after another whittling away at any kind of life he had tried to live.
They met in the Prado. She was a nineteen-year-old English student, sketching Velázquez’s painting, “Las Meninas”, and he, a twenty-five-year-old architect from Chicago, come to Spain to study the architecture. The previous six weeks he studied and sketched the Alhambra, the heart and soul of Moorish Spain. On his way back to Paris, he stopped in Madrid for a few days to get to know that part of Spain better.
While strolling through the galleries, he came up behind her, her long black hair falling from her beret to her waist. She was deep in her work with pencil and sketchbook. He sat down on a wooden bench, unable to take his eyes off that girl. Hours must have passed, but they seemed like only minutes. He took out his own sketchbook and drew the lines of her image, though he knew that there was no way he could put what he felt onto paper.
The girl stood up, straightened her skirt, then turned toward the American. Her smile filled an open face.
“You like Velazquez’?” she asked from across the room.
He walked over to her. “I do. Very much.”
Her eyes looked back at the painting. “How can anyone deny that is perfection? Every artist before and since should bow in his presence.”
“Even Rembrandt,” she said.
He suffered a momentary loss for words. Then she put out her hand. “My name is Lina. I come from Bristol.”
“Do you believe in love at first sight?” He had never believed in it until that afternoon.
“Well, yes. And no,” she answered.
He got up his courage and asked, “Would you like to get a drink?”
“I am thirsty. And hungry too.”
“Good,” he said. “I found a place around the corner that serves a good paella.”
For the next six weeks, they began each day and ended each night together. The days she spent in the Prado, sketching the paintings she loved so much, losing herself in the paintings before her.
Some days he wandered the city, taking in the sights and the sounds. Others he strolled through the halls and sketched the contours of the museum. Mostly he sat and watched the girl, never tiring of this girl he had fallen in love with.
Then one night over drinks and cocido madrileño, she said, “I’m pregnant.” They were hesitant words, and they were words that dropped like a bomb into his lap.
He choked down his food, then drank some water.
“I haven’t had my period.” she said nervously, afraid of his next words.
“It’s okay. I love you, and no matter what, we’ll work this thing out.”
Later he suggested an abortion. It came with the moment of doubt that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a father, that doubt he later regretted. But it seemed the only way to get back to the way it had been those first days in Madrid.
Before they left Madrid, they decided to stop at a little town in the Valley of the Ebro. She wanted to see the hills and the dry valley, measure its colors and its light with her eyes. It was summer and she was working on a painting. “It has good light,” she said of the valley.
A friend told him of the fishing there and the catfish and the wild carp. While she was painting, it would give him some time to be alone so that he could figure things out. There was no better way to be alone than going fishing.
On the train to the valley, they did not talk. In the valley, they talked and their talk was filled with dread. Back on the train, they did not talk again. They knew what they had to do. In Barcelona, they found an abortionist.
In the room, not the cleanest of rooms, he almost backed out of what was about to occur. But he didn’t. As she lay helpless on the bed, he held her hand. He poured all the love he could summon into that small hand of hers. After thirty years, he still felt the grip of her strong fingers grasping his hand. He still heard the screams as the abortionist pulled the baby out of her. When it was done, she looked up at him. Her face was radiant, her eyes shining her love on him.
He knew he had made a mistake. He should have insisted that she have the baby. On the train to Paris, her head became hot. She trembled from the chills running through her small body. Then she was dead, her spirit lifted out of that fragile body he loved so much.
He came back to the present and turned his eyes from the hills. He reached into the knapsack he had with him and pulled out a revolver. Sitting on the rock, he thought about what he had to do. It was the only way for him to find any peace. It would be such a relief.
He reached into the knapsack again and pulled out a box of shells. He took out six and popped one into each of the chambers on the cylinder. Then he tested the gun, aiming and firing one shot at the hills. He placed the warm muzzle against his head, then he stuck it into his mouth. Yes, that was the right way to do this. He pulled the hammer back, cocked the gun and waited. What he was waiting for, he was not sure. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour, and still he waited.
From the hills in the distance he heard a “Don’t”.
“Why not?” he said to the hills.
“Please don’t, Matthew,” the hills said.
He thought about the words for several minutes, mulling them over in his mind. He pulled the barrel out of his mouth. “I can’t go on like this,” he said to the hills.
“But you have to. You just have to.”
“Oh, my God.” He slid off the rock and onto the dirt. He cried for a good long time. He took the gun once again and pushed the barrel into his mouth, then cocked it.
Another “Please” came from the hills,. Then they went silent.
It was the final plea that did it. He dropped the revolver in the dirt, then dejectedly headed back to the town.
The next afternoon he caught the train to Madrid. From his compartment, he watched the hills like white elephants recede into the distance. It was on to the Prado and “Las Meninas”. After that, he didn’t know. He just didn’t know.