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An “exuberant” (El Mundo) debut novel of a family bound by searing passions, an earthy magic, and a very unusual curse
The Laguna women suffer from an odd affliction: each generation is condemned to tragic love affairs and to give birth only to girls who are unable to escape the cruel fate of their mothers. One fateful hunting season in their small Castilian town, a young landowner arrives and begins a passionate affair with Clara Laguna, the latest in the family line, daughter ...
An “exuberant” (El Mundo) debut novel of a family bound by searing passions, an earthy magic, and a very unusual curse
The Laguna women suffer from an odd affliction: each generation is condemned to tragic love affairs and to give birth only to girls who are unable to escape the cruel fate of their mothers. One fateful hunting season in their small Castilian town, a young landowner arrives and begins a passionate affair with Clara Laguna, the latest in the family line, daughter of a one-eyed woman known as “the Laguna witch.” He leaves her pregnant with yet another daughter, but the seeds of change are sown. Eventually the long-awaited son—Santiago, the great-great grandson of Clara—is born. A window of hope is opened, but is the curse truly over?
Introducing a cast of memorable, eccentric characters from a bearded, mute female cook to the local do-gooding priest and the indelible Laguna women themselves, The House of Impossible Loves is a feat of imaginative storytelling that marks the arrival of a talented new novelist.
Verdict This multigenerational saga by López Barrio, a lawyer who has written fiction for young adults, is an imaginative page-turner for those who appreciate magic realism.—Jack Shreve, Chicago
(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
The Castilian town smelled of gunpowder, of partridge and rabbit blood, of smoke curling up from the chimneys. Dressed heavily for autumn, the hunters flaunted their catch at dusk, amid the first gusts of wind. Old women in black shawls sat in doorways whispering about each passerby, their voices as dry as the rustling leaves, weathered by a life of chilblains, peasant stews, and Sunday Mass. In contrast, the younger women hid behind lace curtains to watch the hunters unseen, gossiping at a safe distance from all that death.
In twilight, packs of hounds filled the town square after a day skinning their snouts tracking game through the hills. They peed on the stone fountain with its three spouts, on the doors of the church with its steeple so high you could see the Duero valley from inside it, on houses proudly bearing the family coat of arms over the door. Their barking frightened donkeys, children, and the cats that hid among bundles of wood stacked in the courtyards. Indifferent to the commotion, the hunters soaked up the warmth of the tavern, where red wine and roast goat helped them unwind after a day in the woods. Stumbling out later, they awakened their sleeping dogs lying pierced by starlight.
They all came to this town hoping to hunt not only partridge and rabbit but wild boar and deer. It was this that brought a young Andalusian landowner in the fall of 1897. He arrived on the afternoon coach with two servants and a cart of cinnamon-colored Andalusian hounds, hauled through the Despeñaperros gorge to the Castilian plateau. He took three rooms at the best inn and an entire pen for his dogs. But his goal of mounting a rack of stag antlers was erased from his mind early the next morning when he went for a walk and came upon a pair of amber eyes, the eyes of Clara Laguna.
“Your eyes are like gold. What a beauty you are.” He took her by the arm.
Clara jerked away, spilling water from the jug resting on her hip. Water snaked between the cobblestones.
“Let me refill that for you at the fountain.”
“I can do it myself.” Clara strode away toward the town square.
Laughing, the landowner followed her.
As it always did at this time of year, a metal-gray fog blanketed the early morning, and the landowner watched as the young woman’s silhouette slowly vanished into it. He stopped. An icy wind buffeted his face and tangled the curls on his neck. The world had suddenly grown impenetrable, blinding him so he could not follow the girl. He wanted to call out to her, but the air was a frozen gag. His mind filled with warm thoughts of his country estate, orange trees bursting into blossom, until the first church bells rang and his memories slipped away with the fog. By the time the ghostly pealing ended, there was Clara Laguna at the fountain, filling her jug.
“You’re pale,” she said as he approached. “Serves you right for pestering me.”
“This Castilian weather takes some getting used to.”
“Return to where you came from if you don’t like it.”
He leaned against the fountain and smiled as the last of dawn’s light glinted off his riding boots.
“Such a beautiful girl, and yet so brusque.”
“Concern yourself with other things. Like why such heavy fog fills the square before All Souls’ Day.”
“I’m concerned with having a name to put with those eyes.”
“Your comments are bold, but a few minutes ago you were white with fear.”
“All right, I admit I was afraid, but not of the fog or the sad chiming of bells. I was afraid when suddenly you were gone. I thought I’d lost you, just like that, so soon after finding you. I was afraid you’d disappeared like that devilish mist. I don’t care where it came from or where it went. All I care about is seeing you.”
Clara studied the light in his eyes.
“No one should venture into the square at dawn on the last few days of October — not until the bells have tolled. The souls of gentlemen buried in the church come out of their tombs, through the big doors, to create that fog and that wind. They’re condemned to fight with their phantom swords and armor until they expiate their sins. Once the bells ring, they return to their graves and the town prays for their souls. Do you understand? Until the bells ring, this town square belongs to the dead. Every hunter is told this — and will pay the price if he refuses to respect tradition.”
“What about you? You went into the square and vanished.”
“In this town, I prefer the dead. We get along much better.”
“You’re a clever one, aren’t you?”
“Why don’t you leave me be and go on your hunt?”
“I came here hoping to bag a trophy stag, but think I’ve found something much more beautiful.”
Clara passed a hand over her hair.
“I am not an animal, señor.”
“You’re right. Let me carry that jug by way of apology. I don’t want that lovely waist of yours to break under the weight.”
“This waist carries water from the fountain every day, then bends in the garden tending to my tomatoes. There’s no need for concern. Besides, it’s best if you stay away from my house. You should know my mother’s a witch. She made this amulet to protect me from men like you.” Clara held out a feathered rabbit’s foot she wore on a string around her neck.
“I’m just a gentleman offering to help.”
“The only gentlemen around here are in tombs in the church . . . what’s left of them, anyhow.”
“But I’m no Castilian. I come from Andalusia.”
“And where is that?”
“In the south, where the sun toasts the afternoon the color of your eyes.”
“My eyes, I’ll have you know, are my father’s eyes — he came from a place called La Mancha. That’s what my mother says.”
Clara shifted the jug into the curve of her waist and headed down one of the narrow streets leading away from the square. Wisps of gray clouds were starting to gather. The scent of bacon and fresh bread wafted her way as she walked. Doors opened onto courtyards, piles of wood sparkled with dew, donkeys were loaded with saddlebags already filled with crockery and sheepskins, and guard dogs stood with ears perked. Clara turned her head and saw the young man not far behind.
“Tell me your name.”
“Clara. Clara Laguna. And proud of it.”
Two middle-aged women in thick wool coats, fur stoles, and morning hats crowned with a pheasant plume appeared at the end of the street. Clara handed the young man her jug. As the women approached, she smoothed her dress over her waist and, for the first time, flashed her companion a smile. At that, one woman took the other’s arm, whispering something in her ear. The Andalusian stepped aside to let them pass, and they acknowledged him with a slight nod of their heads.
“You do have a lovely smile, even if it was directed at those ladies and not me.”
“Go hunt now and leave me in peace.” Clara snatched the jug back and settled it on her hip.
Still, she did not stop the young man from accompanying her home, to the outskirts of town, where cobblestones gave way to mud and poverty distanced one house from another. The roof tiles were discolored by damp and neglect, the façades speckled with moss. Hungry dogs skittered, their tails between their legs, as dry leaves whirled. The house perched on the edge of a dry streambed, where Clara had planted tomatoes. Out behind was a pen holding four chickens and a goat. Farther back was a pine forest crossed by a gravel road leading to the next town. The girl lived with her mother, an old woman who cast spells to ward off or cure evil eye. She made amulets that ensured a good hunt, repaired hymens, and read the future in the treasured bones of a cat she kept in a rigid sack anointed with resin and lily sap.
Clara stopped at the door. The cool autumn perfume of soft pines and mushroom-carpeted earth enveloped her. Her mother’s snoring could be heard from inside; she had spent the night reading the fortunes of the apothecary’s wife and daughters.
“Tomorrow, at this time, I’ll come take you for a ride.”
“Do whatever you like.”
Clara went inside and closed the door, then hurried to peer out the window. She watched the young man walk away, his hands beneath his cloak.
Maybe he won’t come back, she thought as she washed the pots her mother had used for her potions; maybe he won’t come back, as she fed the chickens in the pen; maybe he won’t come back, she thought as she milked the goat; maybe he won’t come back, she thought as she woke her mother and they lunched on crumbs of bread and chorizo; maybe he won’t come back, she thought as she harvested tomatoes from the garden; maybe he won’t come back, as she gathered the thread and floral anesthesia her mother needed to restore a girl’s hymen; maybe he won’t come back, she thought as the sun fell behind red treetops; maybe he won’t come back, as they dined on garlicky vegetable stew; maybe he won’t come back, she thought as she dreamed of his eyes. But the next morning, when she returned from the square with her jug of water, wearing her Sunday shawl, the Andalusian landowner was there, on the back of a dapple-gray horse, waiting for her at the bottom of the streambed.
“I’ve come for you,” he said, dismounting.
“You’ve wasted your time.” Her heart pounding against the earthen jug, Clara slipped into the house and shut the door.
It was a misty morning, the last day of October. The young man walked over to the window, rested his elbow on the dusty sill, and began to sing a song. He loved folk songs as much as hunting.
“Are you trying to rile up the hens?” Clara asked as she opened the door.
Behind her, the landowner saw a woman with a knot of gray hair, her left eye dry and gray with blindness.
“Good morning, señora. I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“Good morning,” the old woman replied in a raspy voice. “What brings you here so early with a song?”
“Would you kindly tell me whether you are Clara’s mother?” The landowner tried not to stare at her blind eye.
“I am. Though it might be hard to believe, I was once as beautiful.”
“I would like to ask your permission — or her father’s — to take Clara for a ride.”
The woman laughed out loud.
“You’d have to go a long way to ask her father! I’m the one to give permission in this house — me and only me, and my mother before that, may she be rotting in peace.” The dark pupil of her right eye flickered. “You’re a hunter.”
“Then you should buy an amulet from me.”
The woman turned back inside, returning with a boar’s tusk covered in partridge feathers.
“I assure you, young man, that with this, the animals will come to you. All your shots will find their mark.”
The young man handed her a few coins.
“You can take Clara out. My daughter does what she likes, but judging by the dress and shawl she’s wearing, I believe she’ll accept.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Madre. I put these on to go to the square. But since you’re here, let’s go for a ride.”
The landowner mounted his horse and helped Clara on behind.
“There’s an oak grove not far from here. I could show it to you if you like.”
Following her directions, the Andalusian led the horse into the pine forest, away from the road with its carts and coaches. The wind was cold that morning, and gunshots could be heard far off in the hills.
“It’s too dangerous among the pines.”
“Coward,” Clara declared, her face damp.
The young man shook the reins, and the horse began to gallop. The animal’s hooves pounded against the mossy, fern-covered ground. She held on to the Andalusian’s waist, felt his strong back. He had never ridden like he did that day and would remember it always: his arms tense as he steered around trees and over the rocks that rose up between them, eagles soaring in the mist, his horse whinnying whenever it slipped on a bed of needles, his own perspiration. A soft drizzle blanketed them, his thighs firm against the horse’s flanks and Clara’s against his. When they reached the last few pines scattered at the foot of a hill, a storm erupted.
“The horse needs to rest.”
“It’s not much farther to the grove.”
As the horse climbed the hill, Clara let go of the landowner’s waist, her arms aching. From the highest point, they could see the outline of the valley below, the tops of enormous oaks. It was pouring rain. Lightning lit up the ground, now a muddy red. The Andalusian shivered under his cloak, and Clara pressed against his back to warm him.
By the time they reached the grove, the fog had dissipated, the thunder and lightning had ceased, the wind had died down, and the clouds had parted, giving way to a translucent light rain. Before dismounting, Clara Laguna pulled off her amulet and put it in the pocket of her dress.
A river ran through the grove, its waters forming eddies and pools. Clara found shelter under a worn old oak at the river’s edge; she leaned against the trunk and waited for the young landowner. He was soon by her side, running his fingers down her neck to the soft depression where the amulet had lain; it was now filling with rain. Clara took his hand; his palms had been cut by the reins.
He gave no reply but lifted her chin.
The Andalusian landowner returned to his inn for lunch. A young boy led his exhausted, puffing horse to the stable. One of his servants helped him remove his boots and wet clothing and lit a fire. He sat next to it eating garlic soup and stewed partridge and drinking red wine, then he fell asleep in the armchair until late afternoon. As soon as he woke, he went to check on his hounds. They nuzzled him with their snouts, relieved to finally be out of their pen.
“Soon. We’ll head to the woods very soon.”
The sky had cleared after the storm, twilight slowly giving way to darkness peppered with a thousand stars. The streets filled with the aroma of stew, and there was no sign of the old women who sat and watched the hunters. The Andalusian headed to the tavern in the square. The burbling fountain with its three spouts reminded him of Clara Laguna. His yearning for her had not abated even during siesta. He had promised to take her for another ride the next morning and could not wait for dawn to come.
The tavern was thick with tobacco smoke. Mounted stag heads hung from the rough whitewashed walls. An enormous rack over the stone fireplace caught the landowner’s eye. Before meeting Clara Laguna, he had dreamed of such a trophy. He walked over to the bar to wait for a table. Two locals finishing their wine saw him and called to the barmaid. The woman, a redhead they affectionately called La Colorá, was drying glasses with a rag.
“If possible, a nice roast goat.”
“The tavern is very full, but if you like, you could sit with those gentlemen from Madrid.” She pointed to three young men at a table by the fire. “They’re a nice group of hunters.”
“As long as they don’t mind.”
The barmaid was right. The Andalusian spent a pleasant evening; they ate roast goat, drank four bottles of red wine, and swapped hunting stories. As the landowner bade his companions good night, the barmaid, clearing tables, intercepted him.
“Did you have a good time?”
“Excellent. You’ve been most kind. Thank you.”
“Then let me offer a warning, señor, and please don’t think me insolent. I’m just a goodhearted woman who sees danger ahead. It seems you’ve been spotted with the witch’s daughter. You know who I mean, the girl with the flaxen eyes.”
Desire flooded his heart like poison. She placed a hand on his forearm.
“Clara is cursed, beautiful though she may be. Cursed, and good and cursed, like all of the women in her family. I swear.” She kissed her thumb and index finger, an oath promising a secret kept.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Don’t they have curses where you’re from?”
“We have our superstitions, señora.”
“Well, what you call a superstition, here is a curse as big as a pile of dung — especially when it comes to the Lagunas, and to Clara, who is the last of her line. As far back as the town can remember, every single one of the Laguna women has been cursed.”
“So the men in the family are not.”
“Men!” She slapped her thigh. “What men? The belly of a Laguna has never carried a male. Not one of them has ever married, either. They’re doomed to a life of disgrace, to bear only girls who will suffer the same fate.”
“And no man — ”
“Not one,” the barmaid interrupted. “Not one man has dared break the spell. Keep in mind that only misfortune will come to any who tries.”
“What sort of misfortune?”
“No one knows for sure. They say that years ago the Laguna witch, as she’s called, tried to cast a spell on one but failed, and was left with a blind eye.”
The next morning, the moment he woke, the Andalusian landowner recalled his conversation with a burly man who had walked him back to the inn in his inebriated state.
“Oh, I understand,” he said. “Me and every other man in this town. If only the Laguna with the flaxen eyes weren’t cursed . . .”
It was the morning of All Souls’ Day. After the first church bells rang, the fog dispersed and the townspeople came into the streets in their Sunday best to honor their dead. Flower stalls had been set up on every corner of the town square. Women dressed in mourning attire sold red and white carnations, daisies, even a few roses to the rich. On one side of the church, a cobblestone path led up a hill. Beyond the last of the houses, a dirt track continued on. Shrubs along one side bordered the cemetery. Tucked in to a portico on this hill, the Laguna witch was selling lilies sprinkled with a potion to ensure the spirits stayed buried in their graves. Women in whispering skirts and veiled hats, men in corduroy pants and berets passed. Many stopped, avoiding their neighbors’ eyes, to buy one of those lilies, sparing them a visit from a relative’s soul.
The cemetery was bordered on three sides by cypress trees. Half a dozen family vaults bore the same coat of arms as the noblemen’s homes, and the rest was a jumble of graves. As the crowd filed in, magpies greeted them with caws and bright shiny wings. Every headstone was scrubbed clean before prayers and flowers were offered. Women scoured the gold-lettered epitaphs and oval portraits, while men pulled weeds. Those whose dead lay in a vault brought their servants to clean with hands already chafed and red. By noon, the cemetery smelled like a freshly mopped floor.
The Andalusian spent the morning recovering in his room, drinking coffee and recalling the barmaid’s warning about the Laguna curse. Meanwhile, Clara sat at home waiting for him to take her for a ride.