Pilar, as every good Catholic knows (a lot of bad ones know, too, most likely) is a woman’s name derived from Our Lady of the Pillar. At the same time, not many who come from outside Catholicism know that this virgin appeared in the area of Zaragoza in 40 A.D. to encourage Saint James, Santiago, to keep his commitment to Christ and Christianity. That is relevant to this story.
That should mean Pilar should have become the main figure in Spain, and James the second place finisher.
However, that is not what happened, but since it was so long ago, there’s not much documentation, etc. etc., and nobody ever questioned the roles each saint came to have. We’ll leave things at that. We aren’t heretics.
Pilar was a young woman in the prime of life. She had snapping black eyes and a knowing grin that told you things about her you’ll be finding out later. Of average height, she was a very hard worker, strong and muscled. For this reason, both men and women were attracted to her: that grin made everybody feel welcome in her presence. Maybe it was the tilt of one tooth on the left side of her mouth. For a long time Pilar was unaware of the power she had over others, which was probably quite fortunate.
Young Pilar stood her ground sturdily beside the chestnut tree near the old Roman wall of Lugo. Her eyes crinkled angrily at the outer edges while she was denouncing her neighbor’s abuse of his wife. She was describing with utmost care what she had seen and repeated the exact same words the man had used against the woman. It was hard, because that way of talking should never be used with another person. If a relationship got that bad, why not leave? It seemed as if some men needed a sidekick, which literally meant doling out kicks to sides, kidneys, even the head if need be.
The group standing in a circle beside the fortress-like, imposing wall constructed hundreds of years ago, was not large, but if another person joined them, Pilar would be sure to repeat what she had already said. The chestnut’s leaves rustled with a short, quick gust of wind, and a few green burrs with the nuts inside rattled onto the ground. It might rain by evening, but the little group was not thinking about the weather. No, they were thinking about what Pilar was revealing. She didn’t think they were giving enough thought to the situation. However, she couldn’t give up. It felt like she had to make them act, too.
At some points the others who were there had indeed dominated the conversation, while most of the time it was young, strong Pilar who held sway over the small group that had gathered. Her goal wasn’t to incite a revolt - one can hardly term half a dozen angry, shouting people a revolt, although this group was neither angry nor shouting at the moment. Injustice can rub some people the wrong way, while others simply turn their backs. The young woman wanted to make them do something, though. She wanted change. She was willing to act to get what she believed was fair, even if the price might be high.
“I heard them last night again. I heard him yell and heard her scream. Then some noises like pounding and she was screaming louder, and crying!” People nodded, but nothing more.
“It went on for more than an hour. I couldn’t sleep. The woman was in danger. Didn’t anybody else hear it?” She was getting frustrated and her declarations came from her mouth like arrows. Nodding heads are not going to bring about change.
“We have to tell somebody, get the guards to come. Maybe the man’s wife is really hurt. She could even be dead.” Her tone was pleading, agitated. She wanted to have them feel the same sense of urgency.
More nodding. More frustration.
Why do I care?, Pilar thought. Nobody will come with me to report this and I bet they won’t even go check on the woman. After all, it’s not their business, not their family, not their neighbors. She didn’t say this out loud, though. She said something else.
“This is wrong! He can’t keep beating her!”
Never mind. It’s their business. Nodding, assenting, inaction.
Feeling wearier than she wanted to admit, Pilar was ready to step down from the low stump she’d occupied so she could speak and be heard by all. Why did this matter if it was happening behind closed doors?
I remember my grandmother. Her name was María Luisa and she had gray hair tied in a bun like all the older women did. She would never stand out in a crowd, although here in Lugo everybody certainly knew who she was. No, she never stood out, yet people knew she was there, because if something was wrong, she was never one to sit back and let it happen.
Pilar knew she was not the patient type and that the concerned citizens apparently weren’t quite concerned enough to side with her and take action. A revolt was something for peasants, long ago. Or not so long ago. Anyway, it was just one couple and would probably subside. Just a drunken tiff.
The young woman with the quirky but brilliant smile gave up on the small group of listeners and started back to her tiny home again. She would not stop listening, though. She knew that any more cries or bellows would draw her out again, and that was when she would decide. She knew it wasn’t just a matter of too much augardente the other night and that many bottles of that rotgut had rotted out the man’s heart.
That night there was nothing but silence, however. People in the historic, complicated urban area that was Lugo went about their ways, which included going to the market, purchasing thread for sewing countless things, strolling atop or beside the impressive wall that made the city a future candidate for a UNESCO cultural heritage site. (That would happen in the year 2000, but none of the people who lived there were aware of that in Pilar’s time.) The lives of so many people were intertwined by years and language, battles and oppression, that it was hard to blame them for seeking the safety of anonymity. Lucus Augusti had been the focus of Roman plans to annex the whole peninsula to the empire. Ten doors and more than eighty towers were proof that the invaders from Rome meant business. They started that business shortly before the Christian era began, and people from Lugo weren’t sure they could do much to change what happened in their city in the hills of Galicia, far from the Atlantic coast.
This was the mentality the young woman faced. Survival was a skill. Except not everybody was able to survive on his - or her - own.
The man Pilar had been talking about, pleading about, was named Manuel. His wife was Ana, Ana María. Three days after the gathering by the chestnut tree, the guards finally had come and had found her nearly dead on the kitchen floor. Manuel was nowhere to be seen, but he finally showed his face and things went back to normal.
Pilar thought of her grandmother María Luisa and her grandmother’s screams that had sounded like Manuel’s wife’s screams. After that, María Luisa had never screamed again. She had kept talking, though. She had talked and talked and described and described everything. Pilar told herself the woman, Ana María, was doing all she could to survive, but it wasn’t enough; the community had to do its part, too. That hadn’t happened yet with Pilar’s neighbors. Still, she recalled that her grandfather had finally disappeared like Manuel the neighbor had.
It seemed, then, that words could be useful, but the user had to apply them effectively. Just speaking the truth wasn’t enough. Pilar thought long and hard about why people didn’t listen to her like they’d done with María Luisa. I will try something different .
The fourth morning after the modest gathering by the wall of Lugo, bright and early, the oak tree in the main square appeared with a large canvas or sheet or something similar, the two upper corners attached to two of its most horizontal branches and the two lower corners fixed somehow on the ground. The sign, for sign it was, bore a proclamation:
Manuel Fortes beats his wife every night. He might kill her. If she dies, it will be the fault of the people of Lugo. Let’s do something!
The forces of law and order got around to taking it down after lunch. By then all of Lugo had read the sign and gone silently on with its life. Pilar was furious. She knew she had to honor her grandmother, whom she also knew had a third name - also Pilar.
Then the young woman saw that Filipe was starving his wife. That didn’t seem possible, but he ate the little food they could afford to buy and the few grelos plants and potatoes they were able to scratch out of the tiny plot behind their hut. Filipe ate (and drank, like they all did) everything, so Sabela had to forage a few things from elsewhere. She was skin and bones after three years of marriage. Fortunately, there had been no children or they too would have starved to death. Pilar figured nobody would be concerned about Sabela because, after all, nobody was beating her.
The next morning, the oak tree bore another sign, similar to the first:
Filipe Costa is starving his wife. She has nothing to eat. She can’t survive much longer.
That sign was also removed, although the forces of law and order yawned a few more times before they took it down and tossed it in a gutter. Lucus Augusti returned to its usual way of life.
Pilar wanted to stop having to make her public accusations. She thought she was becoming the laughingstock of the city because she now included references to her grandmother in her harangues (which is what some of the more religious people were beginning to call them). The case of Tomé García caught her attention, though, because she often saw how he sent his daughter, who was barely six, to do work he was supposed to be doing.
Poor little Maruxiña! She was afraid not to do as she was ordered because daddy usually had a wicker switch in his hands, resting on his lap. His lap was never for holding his young daughter. Thus the child lugged firewood, dug wobbly trenches for sowing beans and couve (the local cabbage), and brought water from a local fountain. Because she was so tiny, it took a lot of trips to bring the amount of water her father assigned to her. There was never enough for Maruxiña to take a bath, so she had found a little brook for that.
Again up went the large sign with crooked black lettering:
Tomé García is forcing his daughter to do his work during the day while he sleeps off his nights at the tavern. Maruxiña is his slave. Please do something!
It wasn’t clear what actually happened to Maruxiña. Maybe she ran away or maybe something else happened. You never knew with little children. A lot never grew up then. It wasn’t something to meddle in.
Pilar knew her grandmother would have marched up to their place, dragged Tomén out by his ragged, stinking collar, and given him more than one swift kick in the worst place. Then she would have taken the little one home with her to feed and bathe her. Pilar didn’t have that ability, because she barely could manage to feed herself, but she hoped the child had run to safety.
It took one more case to make things happen. Pilar knew that Xoana liked augardente as much as any man and seemed to turn to it so often that her husband Abel had left her. When she was properly soused, the world went away, but her three young children suffered for it. One time two of them had been badly burned when they were running near the lareira and fell into the coals. Another time the smallest, only about three, had slipped and cut himself terribly on a shard of a broken pot near the doorstep. When the oldest sliced his leg seriously trying to cut off a chunk of cured xamón for supper, it was time to act. Everybody knew - or should know - that children deserved better. Still, not everybody was worried. A tough life toughens you up for when you reach adulthood. If you do.
It was the ancient yew’s turn to bear witness to the domestic crime and bear it did. This proclamation read:
Xoana Ramírez drinks all day and night. Her three children could get hurt. They come to market cut, burned, badly hurt. They do the shopping because Xoana can’t stand up straight. She can’t even see the stove, let alone make meals, wash floors, tend the garden. Let her have her bottle, but get the little ones to safety!
This accusation was longer, more detailed. It didn’t ask for clemency because the criminal was a woman, though. Fair was fair and justice was justice. It did have some effect, because a kind soul did take the baby into her home and Xoana got some time in the drunk cell of Lugo’s primitive prison before she took off out of town to find another drunk who would support her as well as any future offspring.
Pilar wasn’t satisfied, of course. She was running out of options and it was hard to find people who were willing to donate old bedclothes for the signs. The sympathetic ones were frightened they’d be seen as collaborators. Awareness of the problems had grown, but nothing more. People knew, but pretended now that they didn’t.
One night, unable to sleep, Pilar felt she heard her grandmother slip into her room and come over beside her small bed in the small room off the small kitchen. María Luisa had some advice, but it wasn’t what the granddaughter expected.
“Words aren’t working here in Lugo. It’s time to use silence.” Then she was gone.
Pilar wasn’t accustomed to remaining silent about the things she was seeing. She also knew that most of the people were good souls who went to mass regularly and many prayed to the Virxe do Pilar, the one so many women were named after because she symbolized strength and was known to have achieved great things in Spain and Galicia.
“Saying nothing will accomplish nothing,” fussed Pilar, but she put the words of her ancestor under her pillow and slept on them. The next morning she awoke knowing what to do. It was a spectacularly sunny day in the Galician hills and Pilar did all her chores with a surge of energy. She finished earlier than usual, then went over to her favorite chestnut tree. She had no intention now of exhorting the populace to see justice was served, but she now had a weapon.
In the following weeks, amid local events, festivities, thunderstorms, and religious celebrations, a few more citizens went missing. Nobody could explain what had happened and nobody wanted to, apparently. Neither did anybody stop to look at the cases, which were mostly men, but not always, and mostly involved augardente, but not always. There are lots of reasons why somebody goes away and doesn’t return. Some emigrate and die from exhaustion in hot Castilian wheat fields. Some go to sea and their ship sinks. Some run from a nagging wife and snotty children. Some take off with another man.
Some, or maybe all, of them, drop into that big hole called silence.