No One Here is Going to Save You

Julian Zabalbeascoa
        For Paul Preston

The prisoners met with the priest one by one in the cell’s far corner. A chipped, colorless paint covered the stone wall behind them. They remained patient, kneeling with him when their time came and bowing their heads to his as they offered their final confessions. I was supposed to keep them from speaking in Basque but pretended not to hear those who did. Antonio dug something from under a fingernail. He held it to his nose then flicked it to the ground. The priest was making the sign of the cross on the second-to-last prisoner’s brow. The man thanked him and returned to the bench along the wall, turning his hands as though he had just begun to understand something very important about them.
    The priest waited on his knees, but the final prisoner continued gripping the bars. “This floor is hard, Father.” He spoke in Spanish to the expectant silence. “You might as well try to be comfortable with the little time we have left.”
    “I will stay here regardless,” the priest said. “You can come to me if you wish.”
    The prisoner glanced over his shoulder in the priest’s direction. Turning back, he took me in with his eyes, beginning at my worn boots, the brown pants with off-color patches at the knees from the fighting in Soria, up to the other patch at my side where a bullet along the Duero barely missed me. He stopped at the embroidered design of the Falangist’s yoke and arrows on my left shirt pocket. My uniform hadn’t received a tear since I started here. He glared at the design. “No, Father,” the prisoner said, “I don’t have a thing to confess, but if you want to kneel there then so be it. Unlike these hijo de putas, I’ve never told anybody how they should live, so if it’s souls you’re out to save, maybe these two fascist shits will give you their confessions while you can still take them.”
    Antonio smirked at this.
    “When their time comes,” the priest said, “they too will have to account for their actions, but this moment belongs to you.”
    The prisoner faced the priest. Dark hairs curled over his soiled collar. His neck was red, the skin agitated. “I don’t need forgiveness, Father. Not from you, not from God, and,” he said, eyeing us once again, “not from these cabrones who will soon have the blood of at least two innocent men on their hands.” He grasped the prison bars and spat at me but missed. “I see you don’t believe me. Don’t. Sleep easier that way. But you know this priest is innocent. His blood won’t wash off so easily.”
    The priest had surprised me. Others were moved by his gesture, but, like them, I suspected it was only that. While I didn’t know the numbers, I assumed we had executed dozens if not hundreds of men who had families. Surely, the priest was aware of this. Yet when he learned last night that the Communist from Navarra who received his death sentence—the one who had failed in his escape the night before—was married with five children, he asked to be shot in his place. Major Luna oversaw the executions at San Pedro de Cardeña, the monastery that the Carlists had converted into this prison before unifying with the Movimiento Nacional, and I felt as he did on the matter: the priest didn’t interfere when the Navarran tried to escape, so he had no right to now. Antonio had been by my side when the priest made this request, and he winked at me. “It appears,” he whispered, “this place is accomplishing its goal. The prisoners are beginning to envy the dead.” And though twice I’d stood guard while they scrubbed clean the mess one of their own had caused by jumping from a high window, I knew that the priest wasn’t looking for a way out. Despite the executions, he continued to perform Mass in the square and, I wasn’t sure how, managed to find a way to shave. Even this morning he accomplished it. The others had several days’ growth, graying hair that covered sores and scaly skin.
    Our placement in the room at the time of the priest’s request—Major Luna at his desk, the priest before it, Antonio and I near the door—returned me to the days when the nuns would cart me to Father Muñoz’s study. Sitting at his desk, Muñoz would read a Bible passage, something unmemorable that washed over me. From a drawer in his desk, he’d pull a well-worn pine paddle, and I’d have to put my hands on the desk as he walked behind me, where he planted his feet. Always at that moment I closed my eyes tight and wished for the sound of the door opening and my father’s voice—though all I could remember of it by then was its low register—calling out, stopping Muñoz and carrying me away, but the air moved quickly around the paddle again and again and wouldn’t stop until my backside was torn.
    One morning, when I was fourteen, Father Muñoz awoke with half his face paralyzed, hanging loose from bone. That put an end to the beatings. A heart attack finished the job a year later. We had to sing at his service, but the words meant nothing to me. I didn’t even bother mouthing them.
    By then I no longer expected my father to come for me, or for my mother to appear as suddenly as she had vanished from our lives. Others did for their parents, but I understood how foolish this was, how adults could feel no obligation to their responsibilities, to their word.
    So, earlier this morning, I wasn’t surprised when Major Luna reversed his decision and accepted the priest’s request to stand in for the execution. I watched the priest now. He didn’t relieve himself of the irritation the boils on his neck no doubt caused him but knelt perfectly still in the corner of the cell, waiting.
    “Do you hear me?” the prisoner at the bars told Antonio and me. “You will be stained by this.”
    “Callate,” I shouted.
    “Yeah,” Antonio said. He folded his arms, pressing his rifle to his chest, and rested his head against the wall behind him. He closed his eyes. “You’re starting to give me a headache.”
    My outburst didn’t startle the prisoner. Instead, he tried shaking the bars, but they wouldn’t even rattle. “I won’t keep quiet,” he said, preparing to continue but stopping. His eyes shifted. The skin at the corners crinkled in a way I often saw here among those who clung desperately to some misguided hope. “I won’t say another word,” he told me. “I promise. Just please do me this favor: call for Javier Molina. He will—”
    I turned away. Molina was a major general. I couldn’t have secured an appointment to speak with his horse.
    “Hijo de puta,” the prisoner shouted, and this time his spit hit the mark. Antonio watched me. I breathed out slowly, wiped the saliva from my neck and onto my pant leg and resumed my position, rifle crooked in my arm. Antonio leaned once more against the wall. “Call on him,” the prisoner yelled. I tried to bury my sigh. Blood drained from his fingers as he squeezed the rusting bars. This cell had been built less than a year ago, but already the iron showed signs of corrosion. There was another like it on the eastern end of the monastery. Otherwise, the prisoners were kept in what had been tool closets or wine cellars or pantries or any other space that could be locked. Often, there were dozens to a room. Less than half could lie down at any given time. It was impossible to avoid the warm reek of human filth. We used to hold Mass every Sunday in the chapel but three months ago partitioned it and pushed in schoolteachers, former mayors, leftists, card-carrying union members, those who had been denounced by their neighbors, anybody who waved a flag other than ours. And if they had run off, their parents or grown children were arrested in their place.
    “He will vouch for me,” the prisoner yelled, trying again. The saliva was thick and white around his lips, the lines in his forehead darkened with grime. He raised his voice, but it was still reedy, weak, and cracked from dehydration. “I’ll keep shouting until somebody listens to me.”
    But only a few of the prisoners paid him any attention. Most sat in their own worlds a great distance from this one. They stared into their laps or at the opposite wall and scratched themselves. The priest, meanwhile, remained on his knees.
    “Call on him!”
    “Chaval,” an older man on the bench told his fellow prisoner at the bars. The threads of his sweater were heavily frayed and torn to show bare skin underneath. “You went too high. Why not ask for El Generalíssimo himself?” Several of the prisoners smiled. “Or Mola’s ghost?”
    Antonio opened his eyes to add, “You should’ve gone with someone who’s gotten shit on their boots recently. Then perhaps one of us would have believed you.”
    The prisoner checked to see if he had me convinced. I didn’t want him at those bars. I switched my rifle to my other arm and said, “You’d have bought yourself a few days.”
    He curled his upper lip. “Dejaste tus cojones endentro de tu madre.”
    Normally, of the duties here, I preferred this one. Elsewhere in the prison, I watched while my fellow guards made sport of the spiritless and pitiful. I’d feel time passing for us and think this isn’t why I fought. I had volunteered to escape the orphanage walls. Another two months would pass before the church aligned itself squarely with the coup and used who it had to help fortify the military’s ranks. But by then I was fighting not for God or country but for my fellow soldiers, the man to the right of me, to my left, for those who, unlike all I’d known before, offered their lives so the rest of us could live. They were my brothers. And despite how they now disparaged the prisoners, I’d been certain that in the neighboring village where the fight would resume, there were soldiers—be they Republicans, Marxists, Socialists, or anarchists—who knew they too had to be worthy of those they’d lost.
    And here, before the prisoners were to be marched out to the wall, we returned to that same contract of the battlefield. Faced with their final moments, the prisoners, no matter the severity of their crimes, became exemplary Spaniards. They didn’t bargain but sat resigned with what remained, just as I would have, and this helped us forget, for a time, those bars that separated us. Occasionally, I’d share my cigarettes with them and promise to deliver any final letters they may have written, and they thanked me for this. However, the prisoner at the bars soured my compassion.
    Down where the hallway intersected with another, three women on their hands and knees scrubbed the concrete tiles with soapy rags while two guards I didn’t recognize stood near them. One of the women had large breasts that moved from side to side under her shirt as she scrubbed. Stooped over, her shirt was open at the neck, and I squinted to see if the Falangist brand of the yoke and arrows had been seared onto her chest above her heart, knowing what it meant if it had. One of the guards tapped her backside with his foot and instructed her to put more soap on her rag. When she sat up to soak it in the bucket, two large wet circles on her shirt spread from her nipples. The fabric clung to her. She looked in my direction, not at me but past me, and I wondered if the infant that had been taken from her—surely it was with the nuns now—would keep her from sitting on a window’s ledge or ultimately push her off of it. I saw the hard corner of Father Muñoz’s desk. I wished I could tell her the child would be fine, sensed that she needed this assurance from someone, but I couldn’t provide it.
    A door closed and from the shadows emerged the large frame of another guard I didn’t recognize. Against his bulk, his rifle seemed a toy replica. Father del Valle, the prison’s chaplain, shuffled a few steps behind, never taking his feet completely off the ground. His arms were folded atop his balloon of a belly. Approaching the women, the guard eyed their backsides and gave the others a knowing smile, but Father del Valle didn’t acknowledge the scene as he walked through the soapy water they tried to work into the concrete.
    “Good day, soldados,” Father del Valle said to Antonio and me. We both nodded. “How many of these men,” he asked us, as he did before each execution, “seek absolution and wish for the Lord’s forgiveness?”
    “They’ve already confessed, Father,” I said.
    “To whom?”
    I motioned with my chin to the priest kneeling in the cell’s far corner, certain that Father del Valle knew of the priest’s arrangement with Major Luna, but if he did, it didn’t impress him.
    “Soldado, a Rojo priest is first and foremost a Rojo,” Father del Valle said. “A stain on the Spanish cloth.” He spoke slowly, chewing on each word as though it were tucked into his cheeks. “Did these condemned admit to their sins, their allegiance to Marxism, to fighting against those defenders of religion, property, and the family? Have they finally acknowledged that it was we and not they who fought for all that is good?”
    “Forgive me, Father,” I said, “but from where I stood I couldn’t hear them.”
    “I can assure you,” he said, “that if you did you would not have heard a word of this sort of talk. Augustine speaks of the opposed forces of good and evil. And through the Lord’s mercy, we can say with unwavering certainty which force we have preserved.” He addressed the prisoners. “But you men are not Spaniards. You are hardly even men, and so that we can purify and redeem Spain’s soul, it has been decreed that you must be put to death.” He cleared his throat. “However, though you may die today, you still have an opportunity to live forever by His side if, that is, you confess to your crimes against His Spanish state, if you plead for absolution.”
    None of the prisoners lifted their eyes. A few went for the lice troubling their scalps. Only the priest and the soldier at the bars gave any indication they’d been listening.
    “This is your last chance,” he said. “Seek the Lord’s forgiveness and unburden yourselves of the sins you committed so that tonight you may sit at His side.” He waited. A prisoner coughed. “Do not make me put your names in my book. I will visit the family of each man whose name ends up there.” This line used to work, but somehow word must have spread that it was just talk. “Very well,” he said, “your names have been written.”
    The prisoner at the bars glanced back at the others before stepping in front of Father del Valle.
    “Are you prepared to repent?”
    “I will, Father, for anything you wish me to, but you must help get me out. Please. I don’t belong here.”
    “How can you receive the Lord’s forgiveness if you don’t admit to your guilt?” Father del Valle laughed and opened his arms. “I’ve never heard such a thing. How could I forgive you?”
    “But I didn’t commit any crime, Father. I am innocent. I never fought against the Falangists. I have been wrongfully—”
    Father del Valle brushed away the rest of the prisoner’s speech. “I’m not concerned why you’re in here. I don’t know why, specifically, anyone is in here, nor am I interested in learning why. What I know is that you are behind these bars because you are guilty. If you were not, the courts that are guided by the grace of the word would not have sentenced you to death. But the nature of your specific crime I don’t know, nor do I care. I ask though, if you did not take up arms against the Movimiento Nacional, did you do so against those liberals who resisted us? I am sure that you did not. Your lack of participation aided those determined to demolish the moral order. Yet you tell me you are innocent?” He snorted and joined his hands together. “So,” he breathed heavily, “as far as you and the others are concerned, I represent the Lord’s grace. You may seek it from me if you wish.”
    At this, something broke within the prisoner. He lowered his head. His shoulders shook quietly, and he began to hiccup and sob openly. “I just want to go home,” he said.
    This disgusted me, as it did Father del Valle. If you level your rifle at another, you must accept with the same resolve the bullet that comes for you.
    “Pull yourself together, chico,” Father del Valle told the prisoner. “The pig goes to the knife wailing, but we are supposed to be better than that. At the very least, you were born in Spain. Prove that now by showing some cojones.”
    Despite the prisoner’s dehydration, his nose began to run. Finally, he wiped at it with the back of his hand. “Please. I have a family.” He didn’t wear a wedding band, but this could have been taken from him.
    “You should have thought of them before this moment.” Father del Valle glanced around the cell.
    “But I didn’t do anything wrong.”
    “Venga, you coward,” he yelled. “You and I both know that is not true.” Finished with the prisoner, he studied the priest on his knees. At first he only watched him, but soon his eyes narrowed. I had expected he would address him with an obligatory respect, but instead he seemed contemptuous. “You put on airs, but I know,” he said. “I know.”
    Antonio winked at me. He was often smug like this, now that we had won, but I felt tempted to remind him of Soria, when a bullet snapped the air between us, and Juan’s head shattered as though it were made of something thinner than bone. The gore was thrown across both of us, but Antonio fell to the ground as if he’d been the one shot. He rocked with his knees to his chest like a child, spitting repeatedly, while the rest of us pushed forward.
    It requires little motivation to stand across from someone with a rifle to defend your land. The real struggle those days, the test of who you were, was risking your life to take away what belonged to someone else.
    “I know,” Father del Valle continued, “because your actions have exposed you. The fact that you have survived this long is evidence of the liberalism that infects you. You’d sacrifice yourself for a Communist and yet you did nothing to stop those in nearby Palencia who dragged the priest into the street and nailed him to an electricity pole.”
    This was an exaggeration. I was in Palencia when we passed the town hall and stopped at the odd shadow on the ground. Above the door someone had fastened, upside down, a disfigured statue of the crucified Christ, no doubt taken from the town’s pillaged church. The priest who’d once ministered there had run off long before the people had their way with it. The inverted statue produced a disturbing effect, as though, with his open arms, Christ was reaching out to grab me and take me away from the war. I wasn’t the only one bothered by it. At camp, the others found ways to bring it up throughout the night. But the next day the details had changed. The statue had been pegged to an electricity pole at the town’s entrance, a warning to all who might enter. Not long afterward, the statue became an unidentified priest, and this was how the papers later explained our day in Palencia.
    “What’s happened to the churches and our clergy is an unfortunate excess, I admit,” the priest said. The prisoners watched him. “But worse yet is that the people feel they are finishing what you and the others began.”
    “No wonder you’re in there with them,” Father del Valle scoffed. Then, to the others, “God help you all if you’re following this one.” Father del Valle feigned little interest in continuing with the priest. He twisted slightly to speak to the large guard. “A Rojo if you ever lay your eyes upon one. Get a good look while he’s still around. He manages to qualify the violence our clergy suffered and refuses to recognize our struggle as the loftiest of crusades. A crusade in which divine intervention on our side is evident.”
    “And yet,” the priest said, waving his arm out before him to account for this prison, the motion meant, as well, to attract Father del Valle’s attention, “you must do all this. To prove that you are right, you must kill.”
    “Kill?” Father del Valle asked as though he had not heard him. “Kill? Yes, but not men, Rojo. No, not men. We are killing a social system, and national regeneration can only come about by offing those who,” he said, bouncing his eyebrows in the direction of the prisoner at the bars, “make a pact with evil.”
    “Were your vows so different from mine?” the priest asked. “Can you be so certain? I fear you’ve gotten lost somewhere between mystery and doubt.”
    Father del Valle chuckled. “When you are charged with orders from God, there can be no doubt.” He took in the prisoners. “Your families will be disappointed with all of you. Though you do not repent, may the Lord in his immeasurable compassion and grace, find something within you of value.” He met my eyes and shook his head.
    “Padre,” I said. Antonio did the same. The guard led the way, and I moved to peer over his wide shoulders, but the women were no longer there.
    The priests’ exchange charged the prisoner at the bars. I tightened my grip on my rifle. He shouted behind me, his voice pinched. “A guilty man gets pardoned so a priest can be shot in his place, and I, an innocent, someone who has never harmed another, must die. Is this justice?” But Father del Valle kept walking. The prisoner wiped his nose again, breathing in quickly. It was an ugly noise. “Why is the guilty man free and I’m in here?” The guard and Father del Valle turned a corner and were gone. “Answer me you maricón piece of shit.”
    I made a quick motion with the butt of my rifle and felt the crunch of bone as he grunted and fell back. His hands were at his face, and blood rushed between his fingers. I pulled my rifle through the bars. “That’s not for the priest’s sake,” I said, looking down at him. “I’m just tired of listening to you.” Antonio stepped closer, and I immediately regretted my action. He wouldn’t leave him alone now.
    He squatted so he was near eyelevel with the prisoner. “Look at me. Look at me, you fucking coward.” With the tip of his rifle he tapped the prisoner’s foot. The priest hung his head and sighed. I had ruined his work. He had such little time left, and I’d fucked it up. “Hombre,” Antonio said, “look at me.” Over his hands the prisoner met Antonio’s eyes. “When the moment comes—and it will, let me assure you of that—when the moment comes I will be the one across from you, and it will be this rifle, this one that should have broken your nose long ago, that will put a bullet into you. Get used to the idea. There’s no one here that’s going to save you. Once you understand that, the rest will be much easier to swallow.”
    The priest put one foot on the ground, rose, and went to the fallen prisoner. He laid his hands on the prisoner’s shoulders, but the prisoner jerked from under the priest’s touch. Still holding his nose, he got to his feet and walked to the corner, standing like a sulking child. I opened the cell door, and the others tensed. I held out my pack of cigarettes to the priest, but he kept his head down. My chest felt hollow. His lips were dry and cracked. “I know the men will appreciate it,” he said. I avoided the prisoner in the corner, but the others each pulled a cigarette from the pack, and as I lit a match for the last man, Major Luna and three guards entered the hallway. The soles of their boots smacked against the wet tiles. “Ha llegado el momento,” Major Luna called. He walked with a slight limp and was as scarred and dimpled as the moon whose name he shared.
    The match burned to my fingers, and I waved it out. The prisoner put the cigarette behind his scabbed ear to save for later, but I lit another match and held it in front of his mouth. “Venga,” I said. He pulled on the cigarette until the tip caught fire. With his eyes he thanked me. I nodded and stepped outside.
    “Single file, caballeros,” Major Luna said. “Yours isn’t the only business I have to attend to today.”
    The prisoners smoked deeply and began to form a line, some looking ahead, others down at their feet. The priest held his hands at his front as though he were about to receive Communion. I was struck by his repose, the certainty in his eyes. The man behind him seemed to receive some strength from this for he ground out his cigarette and stood with his hands at his front as well, his chest expanding with air, and the next did the same. I feared that the prisoner in the corner would resist, that he would remain there defiantly, bringing some censure upon Antonio and myself, but just when I thought we would have to force him out, he wiped his hands on his pants, breathed in deeply, and turned and walked to the line’s end without acknowledging us. Major Luna grinned, noting the blood that leaked from the prisoner’s nose. He studied the others but stopped at the priest. “This is your last chance, Father. You have acted commendably, and you have earned our respect, but there are many days beyond this one for you. Many prisoners will die who are more deserving than the Navarran Communist. Say the word, and I will call for him.”
    “If I cannot give my life for those I am meant to lead,” the priest said, “then I cannot give them anything. I am at complete peace, Major. I thank you for obliging me.”
    “Very well,” Major Luna said. “Like Pontius, I wash my hands of this affair.” He said to the ceiling, “I tried,” and began down the hallway. One soldier followed him, and the others fell into step. The prisoner with the bleeding nose snarled at us, “I should have killed more of you when I had the chance.”
    “Yes,” Antonio said, “you should have.”
    We brought up the rear, and Antonio pantomimed sticking the bleeding soldier in the ass with his rifle’s tip. I did nothing to encourage him but continued to admire the priest, his composure. Even in battle I am not sure I saw such resolve. Entering the intersection of hallways, the tiles were bone white.
    “Did you know they were supposed to be that color?” I asked Antonio.
    “What?” He rested the rifle on his shoulder.
    “Forget it.” Our boots smeared faint prints onto them. We banked left toward the doors that opened to the courtyard. The gray light of day filtered through the windows. A man too old to be wearing the uniform of a private held the door open for us while he offered the Fascist salute with his free hand. Above him, cobwebs netted the bust of Saint Sphinx, so named because the statue’s nose had been chipped off and none of us knew who he was.
    Outside, hundreds of male prisoners were in rows that reached to the southern wall. Gray clouds rolled over us, just above the spires. Some of the prisoners stood on their toes to see if they recognized any of the sentenced men, but most avoided looking at the eight trudging to the pockmarked northern end. Beige bricks framed the windows around the courtyard. I scanned the women’s wing, though I’d yet to spot a silhouette present when we conducted this business. The prisoner who bled from his nose set his feet and glared at the prisoners before him. We used to tie their hands together, and I wondered if we should have done so for this one. Off to the side, Father del Valle ignored the condemned, making a comment to the large guard who nodded out of obligation.
    “These prisoners,” Major Luna shouted, “are standing here for their crimes against the Spanish state, for rebelling and resisting our noble vision, for supporting the Bolshevik cause, for being puppets to those who wish to return us to the dark ages of our national history. This is why they will now die. And this is why many of you will be standing here soon. However, there is one among them whose only crime, serving as your chaplain, does not merit such a severe punishment, so I ask one of you to show the courage you’ve been lacking these last several years by taking his place.” The men lowered their heads, some squinting at the dull bellies of the clouds. I was ashamed for them. “I assure you,” Major Luna said, “many of you will soon find yourselves against this wall. Take control of fate so that this priest can live. Make your death worth something.” He waited. Nobody came forward. “Cowards,” he chuckled. “I knew it would go this way. Not a single one of you surprised me. I hope you are all fed to our firing squad.” He scanned the lowered faces of the imprisoned. “Very well, let us end this.” The large guard left Father del Valle, and Antonio and I organized ourselves with the others. “I want the one with the bloody nose,” Antonio said to Terejo, a Madrileño with a sharp aim for Adam’s apples. The prisoner did not acknowledge this exchange. In the day’s bleak light, the blood was black around his mouth. Only he and the priest had one of us before them.
    “Manuelito,” Major Luna said to me, “venga aqui.”
    “Yes, señor,” I said, clicking my heels. He eyed the rifle in my hand.
    “How does that shoot?”
    “Straight, sir. It’s never failed me.”
    “I don’t like the look of it.”
    “I’m sorry, sir.”
    “Don’t be, soldado. We are the ones at fault for issuing it to you.” The soldier at his side, a skinny boy who couldn’t have been any older than fifteen and was likely a relation of the major’s, handed him a rifle as though he anticipated the exchange.
    “Use this one from here on out,” Major Luna said. “I don’t want anything to go wrong. Take Garcia’s place before the priest. Have him join Ignacio and Santi in front of the one that resembles a rat.”
    I tried not to show any emotion but knew I failed. “Yes, sir.”
    “Courage, Manuelito.” He clapped me on the shoulder. The mangled skin that was his left ear moved as his lips pulled back. Returning to the line, I cursed him under my breath. The courtyard tiles were sticky with the grime of human matter.
    “He wants you to take the rat with the others,” I told Garcia, nodding at the soldier with the odd mustache. Something passed over Garcia, the muscles in his face relaxed. I focused on my boots, on the soot that covered them. I tried not to, but I was drawn to meet the priest’s eyes. He smiled softly and nodded, and I knew what he expected of me, that I must do this, that he forgave me, but I had to blink furiously to keep myself composed.
    “Ready!” Major Luna shouted. I peered down to my barrel’s end. The priest’s hands remained folded at the front of his waist. “Aim!” His chest rose and fell. I was breathing in time with him. I aimed for the crucifix that I imagined under his shirt. “Fire!” I pulled my trigger with the others, but thunder roared as if I had fired in a custodian’s closet. Smoke erupted from my rifle’s chamber and at once clouded my vision. The shock made me cower. I knew I held onto the rifle but was certain that something irrevocable had happened to my hands. Under a highpitched whistle, there was a distant commotion. The smoke stung my eyes, and I pressed a forearm to them. I lifted my head, my sight blurred, and saw the priest standing before me looking first at his body, patting his torso, then at the men on the ground. To his right, one writhed and clutched his stomach and screamed while his guts seeped out. Another at the far edge was hunched over on his hands and knees, hacking, choking on something deep within him when suddenly bile and blood gushed from his mouth. He fell flat and went still. A chalky ribbon continued to stream from my rifle, and I understood that it had only been packed with gunpowder. The boy must have done it and loaded too much. I was lucky it hadn’t exploded in my hands. Major Luna began to snicker, but soon he couldn’t control his laughter, and the skinny boy by his side joined him. Father del Valle smiled in a satisfied way, some wrong having been righted. Antonio was as confused as I had been. The prisoner before him lay crumpled on the ground, his left arm twisted awkwardly underneath him.
    Major Luna bent forward with laughter. We waited for him. “What did—” he started but had to gather himself, wiping at his eyes. “What did you take us for, Father? Did you really think we’d kill a priest so a Navarran Communist could live out the rest of his days?” His voice sounded tinny and far away. The laughter reduced him to a fit of coughs. When it finally ended, he cleared his throat and tugged on the bottom of his jacket. He signaled, and from the doors several guards led the Navarran, who was pale and dazed in the gray light.
    Major Luna turned to the prisoners. “Let this be a lesson to you,” he shouted. “There is no hope here. Nothing can save you from the justice that awaits.” He thumbed open the holster on his belt and passed his Mauser pistol to the skinny boy. Those in the front stepped back, but the boy walked to the one tearing at the ground with his feet, his intestines in his hands. He was crying in anguish and did not see the boy approach. Antonio was at my side. “That priest would be there too had they given you a bullet,” he said, trying to assure me. The words were rimmed with echoes.
    I pretended not to hear him and looked up again at the windows along the women’s wing and at the low sky over us all. The sound of the Mauser seized Antonio’s shoulders, but it was a faint thud for me.
    “Antonio, Manuel,” Luna said, flicking two fingers in the priest’s direction. “He has served his sentence. Escort the good priest to the gate.” To our far left a group of our men guarded the heavy steel door while two pushed it open. There was a square of gray light. Should the prisoners have rushed it, we would not have been able to stop them all. Yet no one made a motion. Their army had lost. Outside was the same as in here.
    Antonio had a hand on the priest’s arm. He chuckled. “What luck, no, padre?” The blood was bright red and watery as we stepped through it. “A minute ago you wouldn’t have thought you’d still be here, but, mira, here we are.” The priest didn’t seem to understand the bodies on the ground or the Navarran who was pushed now against the wall. I couldn’t bring myself to put a hand on him while we guided him out.
    The week before, Antonio and I led a man to the wall in this manner. He was a Socialist, but despite these beliefs he had owned a silver mine. He inherited the mine and the Socialist Party card from his father. His politics and his business ran side-by-side and, like the wheels of a funeral hearse, never touched. We knew he hadn’t done anybody any harm. It was all just bad luck, and he seemed, in a way, not to be bothered by it, as if it were a business transaction that didn’t favor him. But upon seeing the wall, he bent his knees and tried to dig his heels into the encrusted tiles, and only then did I have to grab him to pull him forward. I remembered my father squeezing my arm, tugging me as I resisted, his jaw clenched, vision set far ahead as the orphanage walls grew large before us. After the Socialist, I felt like hell. The following morning I approached Luna’s door to put in a request for transfer but, standing before it, sensed that this would only place me on the other side of the prison bars and so turned away before knocking.
    As with the Socialist, the weight of the others’ eyes was on me while we crossed the courtyard with the priest. I worried my composure would break. There was a single shot. The Navarran. Antonio kept chuckling. “Coño, que suerte.” In my periphery I saw him shaking his head. “No, padre?” But the priest didn’t respond. What was there to say? They would just be words.
    My boots peeled from the ground with each step. I raised my head as we approached the open door. In the distance and through the mist, a grove.
    “What was that?” Antonio asked, but neither the priest nor I had said anything.

Julian Zabalbeascoa lives in Boston and is a visiting assistant professor in the Honors College at University of Massachusetts Lowell. “No One Here Is Going to Save You” is the seventh in a collection of linked stories. The first six have recently appeared in American Short Fiction, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Post Road, Shenandoah, and Southern Indiana Review. He dedicates this story to the historian Paul Preston, whose masterful work, The Spanish Holocaust, contained a three-sentence anecdote of an authentic priest in inauthentic times, which became the impetus for this story.

No One Here is Going to Save You appears in our Winter 2016 issue.