Home Stories Poems Site Reviews Writing Tips Charlie Fish
FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

San Juan De Ortega
by Chris Speck

View or add comments on this story

The Thin Padre at the small church of San Juan De Ortega would argue nightly with the fat one. They would argue about football, about how to make the best onion soup. They would bicker about what the weather would be like, and squabble about the Saturday bullfights on the TV. Although they did not agree about Calistao's heritage, they did agree on one thing, Calistao was a legend.

Calistao greeted me by barking from the top of a huge yellow rock. It did not sound like a warning bark but more of a welcome. He stood there for a few minutes yapping as we got closer, and wagging his stubby tail. I rubbed the back of his ears and fussed his back and he wriggled around and made a low snorting noise that meant he was happy. By the time we had rounded the corner towards the small church of San Juan De Ortega, Calistao and I were already firm friends. We stepped out of a patch of weeds and looked headlong at the church.

The building drew up from out of nowhere. It had a long barn down one side, connected by a sort of annex to the church. The tower itself was square with a huge bell clearly visible from the top. Outside the long barn was the figure of the Thin Padre, he had been chopping wood but now had his foot up on the block and was smoking a fag. He wore a long black clergyman's frock with a thin white belt. Around his neck was a line of rosaries.

"You are pilgrims?" he shouted.

"Yes," I said, "we have come from Belorado twenty kilometres back."

"You are here to stay the night?"


"Good, I'll get Manolo to make you a bed up. Today is a good day pilgrims," he sucked expertly on his cigarette and we noticed the Rolex around one of his wrinkled wrists. "But you do not speak Castillian well, where are you from?"

"England," my companion Lou Lou said and did a smile. The Thin Padre liked this and he shook us both warmly by the hand.

"I see you have already met Calistao. A fine animal don't you think. Not too fat and not too thin. A good strength and friendly too," he scrubbed the little dog on his head and ran his fingers under his chin. In a play, Calistao rolled onto his back to expose his belly, but the Thin Padre had lost interest by then. He led us inside.

We stood in front of a huge desk in the Thin Padre's office. He had begun another cigarette, and was rooting through his drawers muttering whilst the ash grew longer. The office was a mess with faded curtains drawn across the window. Papers here, an ashtray there, a candlestick on its side and old wax hardened around it. At our legs Calistao had somehow slipped in and bounded onto a chair. He sat up and looked up at us with warm eyes.

"I know they are in here. They were so popular last year," babbled the Thin Padre. He pulled out matches, a faded calendar, stationery, and finally, a cluster of plastic beads impossibly tangled and rolled up into a ball. He began un-picking it after a blast on his smoke.

"They are glow in the dark rosary beads. This way you may say your prayers even when it is dark. For though we may not be able to see in the blackness the lord above certainly can. How often do you make prayers you English?"

"Every day Father," I lied.

"Good," he pulled off a whole necklace and passed it to me over the desk. He passed another to Lou Lou, and she smiled. The Thin Padre saw this, and it greatly pleased him. I put mine round my neck immediately and fiddled at the beads. The Padre nodded in agreement.

"I always know a good catholic," he said. I had never been to a catholic service in my life at that point, and even now I have only taken communion once, and even then I was not supposed to. The Thin Padre looked at his Rolex that jingled against his bony wrist. "Supper is about nine o'clock."

We met the Fat Padre, Manolo, inside the chapel and his high voice travelled in alto across the pews at us.

"There's no service today," he was carrying hymnbooks in his fat arms. Like the other, he wore the long black cloth of the Church. "I said there's no service today, you'll have to come back on Sunday."

He began to shuffle up towards us down the aisle.

"We're pilgrims," I said "we've come from Belorado twenty kilometres away."

"A bit early aren't you?" His voice had a shrill but stern quality, I imagine he would have been a good singer. He came up nearer and looked us up and down. "You are not Spanish."

"We're English."

"Yes, I can hear from your Castillian. Do you understand what I say?" His big flabby face looked into mine. I could see his jowls hanging, the paleness of his skin and the hairs coming out of his nose. I nodded. He turned to Lou Lou. This time he shouted louder. "Do you understand what I say?" She looked wide-eyed into the same rounded features. She nodded too, but with less vigour. In truth she far outshone me in terms of linguistics. She could conjugate correctly, and match the verbs and adjectives. I only knew all the swear words.

"You must translate for her if she does not understand," he said. Calistao had moved just inside the door of the church and was looking in. He had not had visitors for a long time, and disliked them being away. The Fat Padre saw him and roared, so that the little dog quickly scrabbled outside.

"Out!" and the outburst rang round the small church. He returned his glance to us.

"It will be cold in the dormitories, but that is because of the time of year. I shall make up one bed in the girls room and one in the boys." He waggled his finger whilst cradling the books inside his elbow. "There will be no drinking, and you must smoke outside. Dinner will be at nine."

I tried to play stick with Calistao while Lou Lou lay down for an hour. Calistao was far too clever to play stick, and after he tired of having his stomach rubbed we played fighting. He had a powerful bite, but it was never too hard to break my skin. He followed me patiently and lay down under the stubby bench while I had a smoke. The Thin Padre came out and stood in front of me.

"How old is Calistao?" I asked.

"I do not know," he said, "but he came to us many years ago. If you are lucky, he will come with you tomorrow. You are walking to Burgos yes?" I nodded. "Good. If the little one is feeling well, and he likes you, he will go as far as the main road." The Padre pointed out over the plains in front of us. "It's about twenty kilometres away from here, but he will not cross the road. He knows it is too dangerous. He will come back here before noon, back to San Juan De Ortega."

"I hope he comes with us," I said.

"I'm sure he will."

In the bodega dug deep into the side of a hill, we sat down in front of a roaring fire. The Fat Padre had made traditional onion soup, and it was boiling over the fireplace in a worn copper pot. We had shared our secret supply of chocolate and cream cheese. The Fat Padre had delighted in using two squares of chocolate to scoop up the white cream.

"It is a strange mixture," he said, "but it tastes well." I looked up at the Thin Padre standing next to the fire and then back to the fat one sat in front of us on the long bench. "Such discoveries can only be made by accident," he concluded.

After the soup, the Thin Padre took out a poron from next to the wine barrels, it was full of red Navartte red. He expertly poured from the thin point into his mouth. I did the same, and Lou Lou took a tiny mouthful. In front of the fire, he began his story.

"It was a terrible winter. The snow had begun in late November and would carry on till the first week in February. I was younger then, and Father Manolo here was a new priest." The Fat Padre nodded as he listened. "The ground was covered with thick ice and the wind howled through the holes in our barn. The church was as cold as death, and though I had prepared logs for the fire in the autumn, I had not prepared enough. The well outside was frozen, and the telephone wire that connects us to Belorado had not even been put up. We're like an island here. It's twenty kilometres by road to the east back to Belorado where you were this morning, and thirty-three to the west towards Burgos. The only visitors we have are the pilgrims in the summer, and occasionally one in the winter. That has not happened for many years though." He looked at his partner, who nodded.

"During the winter months it is hard here. It was harder then for we had none of the comforts that we have now. We had little food and the roads either way were blocked by heavy snow. We sat down to eat our supper one night in the back of the barn. It was a bitter night, cold like I have never known, and the winter fought with the shutters and made creaks into cracks and bangs. As we were saying grace before we ate, Father Manolo stopped me. He had heard a noise down by this very bodega. I dismissed his ears, the wind and the dark were playing tricks with his head. But as I tried to say grace again, he pulled at my sleeve. He had heard the same noise, from this bodega at the back of the orchard. I argued with him, it was too cold go outside.

"I think it was the Saint himself that made me go out that night. I wrapped my coat around myself and pulled my hat deep over my eyes. The snow was steaming east outside, and I could not see well. I made my way to the back of the orchard to search for the sound. I was not prepared for what I heard. It was a bark. Not a powerful one, but a sad and mournful yelp. There, huddled up against the woodpile covered in snow was a yellow dog. His eyes looked sad and he was terribly thin. It was Calistao.

"The great man San Juan De Ortega was a hermit from Burgos. He had spent his life in the service of others and had built these walls and this church as a refuge for those lost souls. I took Calistao into my arms and brought him inside.

"Great thanks indeed to Father Manolo here. Great thanks indeed."

The story was polished, and the Thin Padre put his foot up on the bench and lit a cigarette.

"How could an animal, especially as thin and weak as Calistao had been, have travelled the great distance from Burgos, or from Belorado?" He shook his head, "We just don't know. Perhaps one day, he will go away again. Perhaps one day he will disappear back to where he came from, and leave us here."

I was honestly a bit drunk, and my eyes were a little moist. There was little Calistao, who had been found from nowhere, sleeping by the fire. The Thin Padre reached his foot across and tickled the dog's chest. The Fat One looked on fondly. It was the closest they could have to a child.

The next morning we left early. The Thin Padre did not get up to see us off, and the Fat One we only saw briefly as he entered the chapel for his morning prayers. In front of us, showing us the way through the trees was the yellow coat of Calistao. Before he left the patch of weeds leading to San Juan De Ortega, he looked back to make sure we were following. We were, and he skipped on ahead.

The Thin Padre had told us he would take us as far as the road. It took a few hours to get there, and we stopped frequently. Lou Lou took some photographs with her big old camera, and I made her take one of the dog and I. The door was open for spring and I could feel the sun coming up. For the first time in two weeks I took off my jacket and let the brightness touch my skin. It was a good day. Somewhere up ahead Lou Lou said she could see dark clouds, but I didn't see them.

When we got to the main road it was noon. We approached the road on a bend and we saw Calistao sitting patiently two metres away from it. It wasn't busy but it was fast and the trail we were walking cut straight across it. He looked back at us, and I knelt down to fuss his ear. I would have loved him to come with us. He licked my hand, and Lou Lou said we should stop. I hate goodbyes, and so I just wanted to get off up the road towards Burgos. I didn't want to look back. She agreed.

We crossed the road and started off up the hill in front of us. We'd been going for two or three minutes and there was the sound of a lorry below. It hooted and skidded a little, or I thought it had done. I looked back and Lou Lou had stopped and was watching the road down the hill. She turned around briefly and I saw that her eyes were squinting.

"What is it?"

"The dog," she said.

I left her standing there and scrabbled back down. Calistao was not where he had been before. The truck was speeding off in the distance, leaving a trail of dust spurting up behind. I couldn't see the dog. Lou Lou pointed backwards, a good five or six metres. There he was. Calistao looked okay from an angle. His head was up, and his two front paws were on the ground. He looked like he was resting, with his tongue out. His eyes seemed to smile as he saw me. His back legs had been hit, and he must have spun round before he hit the floor. He had been sitting there watching us go up the hill. The driver had probably taken the bend too wide and clipped him. Whatever. The whole back half of his body had been twisted round under the skin, and lay there at an unnatural angle smashed and crippled. Lou Lou called down from the hill behind me and I shouted that I'd catch her up. For the next few minutes at least the dog couldn't feel a thing. He looked wide-eyed. I patted his head.

When she was out of sight I walked back down the road and looked for the biggest rock I could find. It was a sandy coloured slab. It was heavy, but by some grace I managed to pick it up. I dropped the rock flat on Calistao's whole body. There was a pop and a crunch like so many tiny sticks of wood cracking and splintering. I spent the next ten minutes gathering bigger stones around him, so that no piece of him could be seen. I kept it flat so that it didn't look like a grave. Maybe a truck lost a load of stones by the side of the road. Maybe a farmer had cleaned the rocks out of his field behind, and had just left them in a heap. Maybe you wouldn't even see it.

I was sweating when I started on up the hill, but I looked back towards San Juan De Ortega. I saw the Thin Padre looking at his Rolex and wondering where Calistao was, and thinking nothing of it till the next day. I saw the Fat Padre on the telephone in the filthy office calling the police in Belorado.

"We haven't seen a dog. Sorry Father." I saw a week go by and The Thin Padre calling his name at the bodega at the back of the orchard. Maybe he'd just disappeared, the same way he'd come.

Lou Lou and I walked on, and sun climbed up and down in the sky. It was the hardest thing I've ever done.

View or add comments on this story

Back to top
Back to list of stories

Web www.fictionontheweb.co.uk


Home Stories Poems Site Reviews Writing Tips Charlie Fish