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The Spanish Castle

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Because Barney was suffering from a cold, and determined to suffer alone, Valancy was eating breakfast alone that morning in October. October! she thought, enjoying the Spanish morning breeze, the clear sky, the promise of warmth in the brightness of the sun, even so early in the morning. From the hotel's terrace, the view stretched away into a distant blue forever of steep, dry hills and neat rows of olive trees.

At home, it would be colder this time of year, though of course no less beautiful, Valancy thought loyally. But the sun felt lovely on her skin as she nibbled away at one last soft roll and considered whether she ought to ask the waiter for something substantial to take up to Barney or whether she should just tuck the remaining rolls into a napkin and sneak away.

"But you promised." a child whined from somewhere behind Valancy, and something about the particular tone of that complaint -- a plaintive hopelessness -- made Valancy pause and listen.

"Eat your porridge, Helen," a woman said, completely ignoring the child's complaint.

"But mother," the child said quietly. "You promised we could visit the castle." Valancy knew that tone. She had heard it in her voice many time during her childhood. It was the tone that said I know it won't do any good, but I'm saying it anyway because the truth is the truth.

Valancy was instantly on the side of the child, and the woman's next words only placed her sympathies more firmly.

"I don't have time to take you to the castle today, Helen," the woman said. Valancy knew that tone of old as well. It was long-suffering -- what did I do to deserve such a child? It was surely calculated to induce guilt, but Valancy knew exactly how often it led to resentment. "You may stay behind at the hotel instead of coming with me, if you would prefer."

In the sulky silence that followed, Valancy risked a glance over her shoulder. The woman didn't appear to be one of the chattering group of Americans that Valancy had come down early in order to avoid. Valancy could recognize them from near or far by the cut of their clothes and the distinctive, identical shapes of their hats. This woman was dressed more like a Spanish woman. Still, her accent when speaking English had nothing Spanish about it.

The girl -- perhaps twelve, no older -- was dressed in a ruffled pink dress that made her look like a princess. And for a moment Valancy's sympathy slipped. To have a dress like that! At that age, Valancy would have died for that dress.

She turned back to the remains of her breakfast, a bit of laughter bubbling inside her. She had all the dresses she could ever want, now, and the little girl inside of her had nothing left to long for.

"Well?" the woman behind Valancy said severely.

"I'll stay here," the girl said sulkily.

This did not appear to please the woman. "Are you quite sure, Helen," she asked, and Valancy could stand it no longer.

She turned and said, quite firmly, "Excuse me. I couldn't help but overhear, and since I'm going up to the castle today myself, I would be happy for the company if Helen would be willing to come with me."

The woman did not approve of Valancy's manners, that much was obvious, and for a moment it hung in the balance -- but the sight of Valancy's pearl necklace seemed to settle the issue on the side of forgiveness. "Hmm," she said. "You are Mrs. Redfern? Mrs. Birdwell pointed you out to me yesterday, and I had been hoping to make your acquaintance."

She was now doubting that impulse, perhaps, so Valancy put on all the properness she had learned at years of Stirling gatherings to make the right kind of small talk. Slowly, Mrs. Worthington -- Valancy didn't even dare think about the appropriateness of that name -- thawed.

"It's very kind of you to offer, Mrs. Redfern," she said eventually. "But wouldn't you rather come to see the cathedral? There's a group of us going, and I assure you, we wouldn't find it a hardship at all to make room for you. The castle, I'm told, is hardly worth seeing. They make a big deal about it, but there are far better castles in Spain."

"It's not how big or important something is, it's how much you can find to love about it," Valancy said firmly. "I like the smaller places, because they have their own mysteries, their own beauty. I'm sure Helen and I will find...much to admire." How easy it was to fall back on old ways of speaking, old arguments that had never persuaded her mother.

"Well..." Mrs. Worthington was about to press the cathedral again, Valancy could tell -- but something in Valancy's expression must have dissuaded her. She closed her mouth, pursed her lips.

Helen, Valancy saw, was holding her breath, and it was all Valancy could manage not to do the same. "Very well," Mrs. Worthington said. "But do not let Helen be a bother."

Helen let her breath out in a whoosh, and Valancy gave her a friendly smile. "I'm sure we'll get along splendidly," she said, which earned her a suspicious look.

 

When Valancy checked in on Barney, he grumbled at her.

"I can see you're feeling better," she said, unruffled. His eyes and nose were red, and he looked miserable, but it was easy to tell that the worst of it had passed.

"I'm sorry, Moonlight," Barney said. "I'm in a rotten mood, but there's no need to take it out on you. Go see your Spanish castle. I'll wager you'll catch another glimpse of your dream, maybe something you didn't see in the Alhambra--"

Valancy had wandered through the Alhambra in a daze of enjoyment, but her childhood dream castle had lived on, unmatched by the fountains and courtyards, the tiled walls and stucco designs that she'd never known to dream of.

"The only Blue Castle I really need is back in Mistawis," Valancy said, as she'd said before. Though Barney did have a way of showing Valancy Europe that brought out the home in it.

But with him, Valancy always saw through his eyes. Valancy suddenly realized that she had a lively desire to see what she would see for herself.

"But I'll let you know if I do," she said cheerfully. "Now if you need anything, I told them downstairs to be very kind to you, and they assured me--"

"Go," Barney groaned.

 

On the walk through the little town and up the hill to the castle, Valancy complimented Helen's dress, tried to start a conversation about castles, and told Helen a story about a woman she'd met in Italy, but not one of these ploys broke through Helen's reserve. Valancy resorted to silence and observation.

Helen walked stoutly up the dusty path, no airs about her at all. Her white boots were soon a bit less white, and she seemed to take pleasure in dirtying the hem of the princess dress. Occasionally, when she thought Valancy wasn't watching, she skipped. And once she bent down by the side of the road and reached out toward -- something. Valancy didn't see anything when she got there, although she looked carefully.

But when Helen looked at Valancy, her expression closed off. She seemed to be waiting for something more.

Valancy tried to imagine a stranger whisking her away, back when she'd been young and resentful of the great injustices of life. If someone had given her a dust pile, or a pretty hat, or a chance not to eat oatmeal for breakfast -- would she have loved them forever? Or would she have been shy, uncertain...

The path curved back and forth along the hillside, and Valancy was distracted from Helen by a butterfly, and then a scattering of purple flowers that Valancy thought might be saffron, growing wild.

Occasionally, Valancy dropped a few words into the silence. "Careful, it's steep here."

Or, "Let's stop a moment and enjoy the breeze here."

And when they got to the top of the hill and Valancy turned around to look back the way they'd come -- "Oh my, just look at the view! Isn't it splendid?"

That got a reaction. "No, it's not," Helen said.

"Why not?" Valancy asked, startled.

"It looks like one of my dad's paintings," Helen said. "It's so ugly, how could anyone want to spend their life painting it?"

"If I could paint, I'd paint it," Valancy said. "If I could paint...I'd paint a lot of things. Maybe I wouldn't paint this first, but someday when I was old and I'd painted everything I love at home a million times, I'd come back here..." She was quite taken with this vision of herself as a happy old woman with a paintbox and a canvas.

She'd thought she'd discovered all the possibilities she needed when she left the Stirling clan behind, but the world just kept expanding around her, and she was content to let it. She didn't have to want to be a painter -- not really -- to enjoy the possibilities in it. "You can see so far from here, and it's so clear. It would be amazing to be able to capture the beauty and set it down for other people to see..."

"Don't tell my mother that," Helen interrupted. "She thinks I'm going to be a painter, just like my dad used to be before he died, but I'm not."

She looked at Valancy, her chin jutting out stubbornly.

"I wouldn't dream of telling her," Valancy said. "I'm sorry about your father. Mine died too, when I was very young, and...I always wonder if he would have disagreed with my mother."

"Me too!" Helen burst out.

They shared a complicit look, but it was only a temporary victory. Valancy tried to draw Helen out on other subjects, and Helen quickly returned to monosyllables and staring at the side of the road.

 

The castle was old. Valancy had never really understood old until she saw buildings in Europe, with stones worn half way through by generations of people stepping on the same steps.

Helen wandered through, looking bored. Apparently, she wasn't as interested in the castle as she'd seemed; there was so much to see, but Helen looked at none of it. Just a little bit spoiled, Valancy thought critically. It was a hard thought to have, because she'd wanted to find a kindred spirit, to free a girl caught as she'd been caught in her own childhood.

"Why did you want to see the castle so much?" Valancy asked.

"I thought it would be more interesting," Helen said. "At least it's not landscape. White villages, brown hills. I wanted to see...something more."

Valancy dragged Helen over to a window. "What do you see?" she asked.

"Hills," Helen said. Her lip curled. "Pretty as a picture."

Helen was caught by herself, Valancy decided. So determined not to be what her mother wanted...she didn't want a dust pile of her own, she'd walled herself off from wanting for herself.

"Look more closely," Valancy suggested. "Maybe you'll see something...there's a sorcery in every landscape, you know. But even if that's not the kind of thing you care about... don't ever stop looking. That is the ultimate sin."

Valancy herself was enchanted by visions of knights and ladies riding through the dry hilly landscape, by expeditions to picnic in the shade of a giant cork tree by the side of a trickling stream...

She was about to point out the cork tree to Helen, thinking maybe Helen would be moved by it, but Helen spoke first. "Let's go down to the courtyard," Helen suggested. "I want to look at the fountain."

"I'll be down in a second," Valancy said. She leaned against the window sill and dreamed for a few minutes.

 

When Valancy entered the courtyard, she didn't see Helen at first. The fountain caught her attention, and she advanced past another group of tourists.

"Oh, Mrs. Redfern--" That was another tone that Valancy could recognize, though it had been rare in her childhood. Obsequiousness. She'd found that group of Americans she'd been avoiding, the ones that were so impressed by the Redfern fortune. Wasn't it typical that they'd choose today of all days to visit the castle?

"Oh, Mrs. Redfern, I'm so glad you're here," the woman -- Valancy couldn't remember her name, but she was the worst of them -- hurried up, abandoning her own group without a thought. "I can tell you understand these thing much better than me, and I was wondering about the architecture..."

It wasn't that Valancy minded explaining -- after a dozen or so castles in Barney's company, she had a pretty good idea what was for defense and what was for pomp and circumstance, another great motive for castle-building. But this woman didn't want to know about castles -- she wanted to go back to her giggling group of friends with Valancy in tow, or at least a few choice quotes to repeat, words of wisdom from the rich Mrs. Redfern...

Valancy looked around, but when she found Helen, she staring at some tiles over on the other side of the courtyard as if she found them fascinating, ignoring the group forming around Valancy. Valancy couldn't blame her.

Valancy had only one advantage. She was good at saying what she thought.

"If the people who designed this castle had known that it would one day be filled by people in hats like yours, they would have despaired."

This would have put Valancy's family at a loss for anything to say, but this woman was made of sterner stuff. "Do you think so?" she asked with a titter. "Goodness, I'm sure things are very different now, this hat is all the rage, I'm sure...but do tell me more. I'm sure you know where the nobles lived..."

They were heading toward the larger group, Valancy had taken a few steps without even noticing. This woman was good. "They lived inside the defenses," Valancy said with an impish smile, stopping where she was and pointing upward. "Do you see those arrow slits up there in the inner keep? They would shoot at you from there, and skewer your hat like a a chicken." She smiled in a friendly manner and retreated toward the wall, pretending to be interested in examining the stone of the arched colonnade.

A minute later, just when she was starting to relax and really take in the courtyard, the woman's voice interrupted from behind her.

"Oh, Mrs. Redfern, I hate to interrupt, but had you heard that there's a bullfight tomorrow?"

"No, but I would never go to such a thing," Valancy said, turning in exasperation. "Animals should not be treated like dangerous amusements. They should be--"

She stopped, disconcerted by the wide-eyed look the woman was giving her. It was almost like she was trying to memorize what Valancy was saying. She quickly filled the silence that Valancy left with a sycophantic sort of laugh. Valancy hadn't been joking, not in the least, but she wasn't sure the woman had even been listening.

"Quite right, but all the same, you should go," the woman said comfortably. "It's part of the experience. Why, what will you tell them when you get home? Now, I have a pair of tickets, you don't worry about a thing."

"Oh, I won't," Valancy said truthfully. She pretended to examine a plaque explaining the architecture. It was all in Spanish, but it was more interesting than plans she would have no part of.

"Look!" Helen said, appearing suddenly beside Valancy and pointing to the wall behind them, brimming with mischievous excitement. There was a lizard there; it was about a foot long, with slowly blinking eyes and patterned scales that let it blend in with the wall.

"Eeek!" the annoying woman screamed. Valancy giggled.

The woman retreated rapidly. "Oh my! It's staring at me! Is it poisonous? I really must tell them not to let such creatures..."

Valancy looked at Helen. She had a dirty streak across the front of her dress. "Where did you find it?" she asked.

"It was out in the garden. But I thought you wouldn't run away," Helen said with great satisfaction. "And I thought she would."

"But I will run away!" Valancy said. "Quick, before she comes back!"

She dragged a gleeful Helen through the courtyard toward an interesting looking gate, through a tunnel into the castle garden. "But how did you know I didn't want to talk to her?" Valancy asked.

"I don't know," Helen mumbled. Valancy was going to leave it at that, but a few minutes later, Helen added, "I guess because you're all right, really."

Valancy took that as a great compliment.

 

The castle garden was all lines and symmetries, but they pushed past it quickly and out on a trail that wound along the tops of the hills, following a sign that Valancy was almost certain would translate as "The Old Fort" in English.

"Oh, yes, I'm sure you're right," Helen said blithely when Valancy asked, which failed to reassure her. But every time Valancy looked back, she got another angle on the castle, nestled into the curve of the hills, as natural as Valancy's own Blue Castle back home.

Helen never looked back, but she seemed happy, skipping from one side of the path to the other. A few times, with a sidelong look at Valancy, she skipped right off the path, through the stiff grass. When she climb up on a large rock, Valancy followed her for the view, and found Helen watching a line of ants crossing the rock.

Valancy continued on, but now she watched the ground as much as she watched the sky and the landscape, and she was eventually rewarded.

"Shh," she said, putting a finger to her lips as Helen dashed to catch up. She then pointed to a little brown bird blending into a clump of dry grass.

"It's a common quail," Helen said, after gazing her fill. As they continued along the trail, Valancy encouraged Helen, and she eventually opened up, telling Valancy all about its habits.

When they reached the old fort, there was very little there. A few stones, one full wall, and a plaque in Spanish that Valancy could make no sense of. But Helen found a mouse and a couple of birds and a discarded snake skin, which Valancy might just as soon have left alone.

On the way back down, Valancy pointed to various parts of the landscape -- a crumbling hole in the steepest part of the hill, an ant mound, a nest, a feather. Helen told her what lived there, or what kind of creature had made it. Valancy only stumped Helen a few times, and pretty soon Helen was making a game of finding other things to show Valancy as well.

It was like reading a John Foster book; it was nothing like reading a John Foster book, because Valancy knew exactly what John Foster would be looking at here, and it had more to do with the shapes of the groves and the flights of birds overhead. Helen looked at things differently, and noticed things differently. She was expanding Valancy's viewpoint, and Valancy thought that it was mutual. She pointed out to Helen all the things that she loved, and Helen showed her even more, things she might have missed if she were alone.

She almost felt like skipping; the world was so large and so full of things she'd never dreamed of.

And as they passed back through the castle and down into the village, their words trailed off to only the occasional pointing finger, and Valancy thought about what John Foster had said about silence and friendship, and was happy to think that she and Helen might be that kind of friends.

 

"How was your day?" Valancy asked Barney that evening.

"Terrible," Barney said. "But I think I'm starting to feel better. How was yours? Did you get a glimpse of your blue castle?

Valancy smiled. "Actually, I forgot to look. I was far too involved in catching a glimpse of someone else's castle."