Spain, 1940: Lieutenant Carlos Tejada has been transferred to Salamanca, where he studied law before the Civil War. His new duties include monitoring parolees—former professors who were fired for protesting a Franco decree. Elena Fernandez, having lost her job because of her political leanings, has returned home to Salamanca from Madrid, where she and Tejada were first romantically involved. Her father, one of the parolees, was a distinguished professor of Classics. He has just received a letter from a Jewish friend, Professor Joseph Meyer, begging for help to cross into Spain from France before he is forcibly repatriated to Germany. Professor Fernandez cannot violate his parole by traveling to the border town of San Sebastian, so Elena goes in his stead. Tejada, tracing a missing parolee, also finds himself there, and their paths fatefully cross again.
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The landscape was already parched, even though it was only June. The fields were the color of cornhusk dolls, not a healthy golden yellow, but a pale, anemic reminder of green. If the train had been moving, it would have looked like a flash of pure light. As it was, the glitter of sun on siding was enough to blind an unwary observer. It recalled a giant, freshly scrubbed oven, with firelight glancing off its sides.
Inside, the train felt like that oven. The sun had been beating down on the stalled railroad cars for over three hours, and the cracks in the windows did little to let in a non-existent breeze. The passengers in second and third class were probably miserable, but at least in first class there was room to stretch out. Very few wealthy people took the Madrid-Salamanca line in the middle of the day in the summertime in this year of 1940. The first-class car was empty, except for two men, and they, too, should have been in third class. The Guardia Civil did not waste money buying first-class tickets for its junior officers. But the more senior of the pair had automatically headed for the first-class car, his subordinate had unthinkingly followed him, and the conductor, taking in the rifles and three-cornered hats that proclaimed them members of the elite police force, did not think it was wise to press the issue.
The pair had stowed their rifles on the empty luggage rack above, and their three-cornered hats were now resting on the seats beside them. Each had taken off his jacket, and rolled up his sleeves in deference to the heat. The older man was sitting with his legs stretched out in front of him, apparently absorbed in a book. The younger had slid downward in his seat onto his spine, and was glancing desultorily at a newspaper spread out beside him. He straightened suddenly, with an exclamation of disgust. "In this heat, I swear you stick to the seat!"
His companion glanced up, nodded, and returned to his book. The younger man pushed himself to his feet, and peered out a window. "It doesn't look as if they're doing anything!"
"Leave the shades down," the officer advised, without lifting his eyes. "It keeps it cooler."
The youth gave a snort of disgust, and returned to his seat. "We should have been there two hours ago!"
The reader checked his watch, and then nodded, although in fact the guardias civiles were supposed to have arrived two and a quarter hours ago by his calculations. After a little while, he turned a page.
The youth drummed his hands on his knees. "What's that you're reading, Lieutenant?" he asked finally.
"Linde." The lieutenant did not look up.
"Is that by Carmen Iscaza, sir?" the boy asked, incredulous. He was unable to hide a disrespectful grin at the idea of Lieutenant Tejada reading romance novels.
The lieutenant snorted. "Not Linda. Linde. Otto Dietrich zur Linde."
"Oh." The youth was abashed. He glanced at his wilted newspaper, filled with similarly unpronounceable names. "Is that a German name?"
"Yes." Tejada sighed and surrendered to his companion's desire for conversation. "He's a philosopher, somewhat in the line of Nietszche, although they disagree on certain crucial points."
"Oh." The younger man hesitated. "Why?"
"Why do they disagree?"
"No, I meant ... why are you reading his book?"
Tejada's mouth twisted. "Because, Corporal, we are on our way to Salamanca, which is — in case you didn't know — a town famed for its university, and I have no wish to appear an ignoramus when we arrive."
Corporal Jiménez flushed, and rubbed sweat from his face. The lieutenant normally didn't snap at him like that. But what he said made a certain amount of sense. The two guardias had officially started a tour of duty in Salamanca two and a quarter hours ago, and it made sense to learn the lay of the land. But there was no way that Jiménez was going to start frying what remained of his brain with German philosophers. "Is this Linde famous, sir?" he asked diffidently, trying to gauge the necessity of learning about the new name.
"Not yet." Tejada folded down one page, and closed the book. "But I suspect he will be. He's the first German I've read who can write a simple declarative sentence. Although maybe it's just a good translation."
"A Spaniard might have a natural affinity for it," the young man suggested. "I mean, if he's one of us."
The lieutenant glanced at the title page, and smiled. "This was published in Buenos Aires."
"Oh." Jiménez flushed again. "Well, what's the book about?" "The place of intellectuals in the Movement." Tejada watched his subordinate's brow wrinkle in puzzlement, trapping little rivulets of sweat.
"Intellectuals?" Jiménez pronounced the word as if it were the name of a particularly dangerous type of insect. "I thought ... I mean aren't they mostly subversives, sir?"
"Linde classes himself as an intellectual." It was difficult to tell if the lieutenant's voice was sarcastic.
"Oh." Jiménez wrinkled his nose. "Is he ... you know, all right, sir?"
Tejada opened the book and read the flyleaf silently for a moment. "How old were you in 1927, Jiménez?" he asked finally.
"Well, Linde has been part of the Movement since 1927. He's had a distinguished military career, cut short last year by a tragic accident. He's currently a ranking officer at a prison camp in Poland. So yes, he's all right."
"Shame he was wounded," Jiménez said sympathetically, wisely sticking to topics he understood.
There was a sound like a giant sigh, and then the train jolted forward again. "Thank God!" Tejada said. "We're moving." He opened the book again, and left Jiménez to his own devices.
The corporal leafed through the newspapers again. They were all filled with news from Paris: photographs of German troops on parade in the Champ du Mars; excerpts from Hitler's speeches; a statement from the German embassy in Madrid; a statement from the Italian embassy; a statement from the British embassy. It was still hot. He returned to his thoughts about Otto Dietrich zur Linde. "I'd think it must be very frustrating to go from being a soldier to just dealing with prisoners," he said aloud. "I mean, sort of a comedown."
Seeing that his junior would have to be entertained for the rest of the ride, Tejada abandoned any hope of finishing the chapter. "May I remind you, Corporal, that one of the duties of the Guardia Civil is the transport of prisoners," he commented dryly.
"Well, yes, of course, but I mean ..." Jiménez had the grace to look sheepish. "I mean, if you're used to combat, and all, it must be rather dull."
Tejada, who had considerably more combat experience than the corporal, reflected that dull was not necessarily a bad thing. Aloud, he said, "Germany's only been at war since September. So he couldn't have been that used to it."
"Still," said the younger guardia civil. "A prison camp seems like sort of a dead end."
"Those camps are dead ends." The speaker could not have been more different from Corporal Jiménez. Jiménez was barely twenty, and looked young for his age. This man was in his early sixties, and his stooped shoulders and halo of white hair made him seem older. Where the guardia civil had the bouncy energy of good health, this man leaned heavily on a table as he spoke, as if even supporting his own weight were an effort.
But the greatest difference between the two speakers was their tones of voice. Jiménez spoke casually, dismissing a minor misfortune. Guillermo Fernández Ochóa, speaking the same words a few days later in Salamanca, was frighteningly intense. "A dead end," he repeated heavily, tapping one finger on the table for emphasis, in a gesture that any of his students would have recognized. "The foggy realm of Hades."
"All right, Guillermo," his wife interrupted, hoping that her impatience would mask her unease. Professor Fernández only quoted Homer when deeply upset. "I get the point. So what?"
Guillermo abandoned his rhetorical stance. "This is from Joseph Meyer." He tossed an open letter onto the table.
His wife went pale. "He's been imprisoned?"
"Read it for yourself."
The professor's wife silently leaned forward, and pulled the letter toward her. A forest of indecipherable gothic letters met her gaze. "It's in German," she pointed out gently.
"He really isn't as comfortable in French," Guillermo replied absently.
María Pilar Ríos de Fernández bit back her irritation. Her husband had been abstracted and nervous since the arrival of the morning mail. He had waited until they were alone in the house, and then had pulled her into the dark, unused parlor to discuss "something important." María had not objected to his cryptic manner. She had not objected when he began to lecture, without even pulling up the blinds in the dim and musty room. But now it was necessary to object. "What does he say?" she asked.
Guillermo picked up the letter, and read silently for a moment, translating in disjointed phrases. "My Dear Dr. Fernández, you must for the time without a letter forgive me ... As for your trouble ... I am sorry to hear of it, but ... glad it is finished. Your last letter ... did not reach me quickly because it was sent to Leipzig ... but ..." Guillermo Fernández broke off. "I don't exactly understand this part. I think it's something like a friend is getting my mail, and sending it on to me. And he says to please write to him care of a Monsieur Rosenberg at an address in Toulouse."
"In Toulouse?" the professor's wife interjected sharply.
"Yes. It goes on a bit, about what he's been doing lately, and he finally says, 'Perhaps, if you are still interested in the Odyssey, we might meet to work together on it. Finding myself in the position of Theoklymenos, I must ask if you hold an interest in Telemachus.' Something like that."
There was a short silence. The entire Fernández family was soaked in the epic poems that were Professor Fernández's passion and life's work. María frowned for a moment, trying to remember. "Theoklymenos? The diviner?"
The professor nodded briefly, awarding partial credit to an alert student. "Telemachus picks him up in Sparta, remember, and he explains that he's killed someone in Argos. 'Death stalks me through foreign lands. Give me refuge in your ship I beg. / Don't let them kill me for I know I am pursued.'"
Señora de Fernández considered. Two quotes in as many minutes suggested that her husband was seriously worried. She did not know what words he would find comforting, so she spoke her thoughts, making her voice as gentle as possible. "We can't, Guillermo. You're still under surveillance by the Guardia Civil. You could go to prison again. And then what would become of Elena and me?"
The room, lit only by the golden sunlight that leaked around the edges of the blinds, seemed to rearrange itself around the letter on the table. The innocuous-looking piece of paper bled fear. "I won't reply if you think it's impossible," Guillermo said slowly. "But ... we've been friends for twenty-five years."
"Colleagues," his wife corrected firmly.
"Colleagues, then. And his work on the Homeric Hymns ..."
"Is it worth your life?" The woman's voice was shaking.
"Is it worth his?"
"Don't be melodramatic."
"He's the greatest living editor of Aeschylus," the professor said pleadingly.
María de Fernández sighed. Guillermo was so fragile. This was the first time she had seen him with anything like his old passion. But to risk everything for a foreign refugee ... "What about his family?" she asked, without much hope.
Guillermo shook his head. "He says here his nephews are still in Germany. And that he hasn't had any news of them since '38."
María bit her lip. "I thought they were close."
"So did I," the professor replied, a little grimly. "He always said they were like sons to him. And you remember how he was with Elena and Hipólito."
"How who was?" A new voice broke in on the conversation.
Husband and wife both started, and turned to regard the young woman outlined in the doorway with a mixture of anxiety and affection. Her arms were full of packages, and she blinked slightly, trying to see in the dim light after having been out in the sunshine. María was the first to speak to her. "Do you remember Professor Meyer, Elenita?"
"Of course!" Elena Fernández had been worried by her parents' tone of voice as she passed the parlor, and had paused on the threshold. Now she came forward, smiling, and set her packages down on the table. "He gave me brown-eyed Penelope."
Smiles flashed across her parents' faces as well. Some twenty years earlier, Herr Professor Meyer had attended a conference in Salamanca, and had stayed with the Fernández family. The fair-haired guest had been much amused by Elena's loudly voiced disgust with blue-eyed dolls, and the dark child's insistence that "Dolls should have brown eyes, like regular people." Several months after his visit, a package had arrived from Germany, addressed in copperplate script to Fräulein Helenka Fernández. It contained a magnificent doll, with chestnut hair and chocolate-hued eyes, and a brief note in French, carefully written so that a child who had only studied the language for a few years would be able to read it without help.
Elena had never seen Professor Meyer again, but she retained a warm memory of the man with the comic accent and the quick smile, who had soberly taken notes as she taught him Spanish, and had patiently answered her older brother's endless questions about German aircraft. That was when German planes were models in toy store windows, she thought, as the smile died out of her eyes, toys that no one could be frightened of. She gazed at her parents. They were not smiling either. They looked as they always looked now: tired, and frightened, and old. "What's happened to him?" Elena asked, bracing herself for bad news.
Her parents exchanged wary glances. "Did we mention that he moved to France?" her father said cautiously. "A few years ago, now. When you were in Madrid."
Elena was lively only when she was happy. The more unhappy the situation, the quieter she became. She was still as a statue now. "Paris?" She hardly moved her lips.
Her father nodded. "Initially, yes. But he's in Toulouse now."
Elena gave a little sigh of relief. "He's safe, then."
"For now," her father agreed. Her parents exchanged another glance, and Elena had the impression that they were considering whether to tell her something. "He's just written to me." Professor Fernández added slowly, "He asks us to play Telemachus to his Theoklymenos."
Elena heard her mother's indrawn breath, and put a hand on her shoulder. The older woman reached up to grasp at the proffered comfort. Elena shared her father's love of the Odyssey, and identified the characters without difficulty. There was a long silence. "Why did he leave Germany?" the young woman asked.
"He's a Jew, Elenita," her mother explained.
"He lost his post at the university," her father said bitterly at the same moment.
Elena took the third seat at the table, and the scraping of the chair as it moved covered the silence that followed the professor's statement. His wife and daughter avoided his eyes. The University of Salamanca had been Guillermo Fernández's life and love. His daughter had been living in Madrid at the time of his forced resignation, four years earlier. She had not been present when the Falangists who had ruled Salamanca since the beginning of the Civil War had ransacked the professor's library. Nor had she been present for his arrest as a subversive, or his release six months later. She had returned to her parents' home at the end of the war and found a frightened and embittered old man, who sometimes looked like her father, except for his white hair and stooped shoulders. Most of the time he was simply frightened. It was only mention of the university that made him vitriolic nowadays. "Could he visit us again, maybe?" Elena asked carefully. "I mean ... would it be legal?"
Her father frowned. "I don't know. If he has a German passport, maybe. If he's become a naturalized French citizen, I don't know."
"What if it isn't legal?" Elena's mother spoke quietly, looking down at her hands.
The only sound in the room was the ticking of the clock. Elena rubbed her finger along the grain of the wooden tabletop. Her father drummed his fingers. Her mother sat absolutely still. "We've known each other twenty-five years," Guillermo said, after nearly fifty ticks. His wife and daughter nodded in unison. "So I guess, if you don't have any objections ...?" Mother and daughter looked at each other, and then shook their heads in response to his question. "I'll go upstairs and write to him," Guillermo finished slowly.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Law of Return"
Copyright © 2004 Rebecca Pawel.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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