Province of Aragon, Spain, 1774
The Huesca stagecoach was three hours late leaving Zaragoza. First, the military guard failed to show up and a boy had to be sent round the taverns to find him, then an elderly passenger decided not to make the journey and his box was damaged while being taken down. By far the most serious delay, however, was caused by the deplorable state of the horses. They were emaciated, knock-kneed nags that inspired little confidence in the passengers. After much deliberation, the driver decided that one was in fact lame and it had to be unharnessed and another procured, which proved no easy task on a Sunday. The lights in the Plaza del Pilar had long been ablaze by the time the carriage finally crossed the wooden bridge over the Ebro.
Once outside the city darkness engulfed the coach, and its lamps proved as ineffectual as candles to light the road ahead. In the night sky, which still retained an eerie luminosity, capes of black cloud made passes over a horned moon. It was mid-November and the roadside trees were skeletal, the ground as hard as iron. The military guard, still hot with drink, rode outside next to the driver and his foul-mouthed rantings were whipped away by the wind before they could reach the ears of the passengers.
There were five paying customers in the carriage – a young doctor on his way to visit a friend from university, a middle-aged glove manufacturer, who, judging by his girth, had spent a large percentage of his profits on fine dining, and two brothers in their early twenties who were going to France to purchase agricultural equipment. The fifth passenger was a French woman by the name of Madame Le Bon. Although there were still traces of her former beauty it had been blighted by some obscure suffering and she looked older than her thirty-five years; there were dark rings under her eyes and she habitually twisted a set of rosary beads in her hands. Before mounting the carriage, Madame Le Bon had approached the military guard in a state of some agitation and asked if they’d anything to fear from the bandit gangs she’d heard operated along their route. The guard, glassy-eyed and red-faced, had brandished his blunderbuss and drawled, ‘My stubby little friend here will look after us, Señora, don’t you worry about that.’
The passengers didn’t converse much together. The younger of the brothers tried, with a twinkle in his eye, to strike up a conversation with Madame Le Bon, but although her responses were civil, they were peppered with references to her husband – a seasoning not very much to the young man’s liking. He eventually fell silent and sat back in his seat, ignoring the smirk on his brother’s face. The merchant tried to talk to the doctor, but he seemed to have taken an instinctive dislike to his jowly companion and rebuffed every conversational gambit. To pre-empt any further attempts, he closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. It could only have been a pretence as the cold, the hardness of the seats, the jolting of the carriage and the rumbling of the wooden wheels made sleep all but impossible.
The coach had been travelling across the Aragon plain for some two hours when it suddenly slewed alarmingly and stopped with a brutal jolt. The doctor was thrown forwards into the merchant, the brothers into Madame Le Bon, who began screaming that they were under attack from bandits. They all listened, but the only voices they could make out were those of the driver and the military guard.
The doctor and the two brothers climbed out to investigate. They saw the driver by the side of the road looking shaken and sullenly rubbing his shoulder.
‘I got thrown out of my seat,’ he said. ‘I could’ve broken my neck.’
‘But what is it, driver?’ the doctor asked. ‘What’s happened?’
‘One of the horses has collapsed.’
‘Collapsed?’ the military guard exclaimed. ‘He’s stone fucking dead!’
The military guard was standing beside the right-hand leader which lay on its side, tangled in the straps of the harness. While the brothers tried to calm the other horses, the doctor joined him and stared silently down at the bulbous black eye of the dead animal.
The merchant and Madame Le Bon descended now and a heated discussion took place.
‘What are we going to do?’ Madame Le Bon asked, glancing at the night around her in panic.
‘We can’t go on with just three horses, lady,’ the driver replied.
‘The carriage won’t pull properly.’
The truth, however, as some of the passengers guessed, was that the nags were on their last legs. Three of them wouldn’t have had the strength to pull the coach on to the staging post at San Jorge.
It was eventually decided that the driver would take the strongest horse, ride on ahead and return with a fresh one.
Madame Le Bon was beside herself. ‘You can’t just leave us out here in the middle of nowhere! We’ll have our throats cut by bandits!’
‘You’ll have the military guard,’ the driver snapped, out of patience with her now.
The younger brother went over to the lady. ‘We’re five able-bodied men here, Señora. My brother and I are in the Zaragoza militia. We know how to use our weapons.’ He opened his coat to show a short sword. ‘There’s a shepherd’s hut,’ he said, pointing to an adjacent field, ‘we can shelter there. My brother and I will make a good fire. The hours until the driver returns will pass pleasantly and without incident, I assure you.’ And Madame Le Bon did seem somewhat reassured by his words.
The men untangled the dead horse and dragged the carcass into the nearest ditch. The driver unharnessed the left-hand leader, attached short reins to the bridle, and taking one of the carriage lamps from its bracket, set off for San Jorge. The military guard took the other lamp, and, by its light, led the passengers across the field to the shepherd’s hut. This turned out to be little more than a ruin with only one wall standing, but it served to protect them from the bitter wind. The brothers showed themselves to be extremely practical; in no time at all they’d prepared a roaring fire and arranged blocks of masonry around it to provide seats out of the mud. They went back and forth to the carriage for the passengers’ boxes and the unlucky travellers shared out the food they’d brought with them for the journey. In spite of the inauspicious circumstances, they enjoyed a tolerable supper, washed down by the glove merchant’s excellent wine, which, to his credit, he showed himself only too happy to pass around.
Although it was a topic they should have avoided, the conversation kept returning to the rapacity of Aragonese bandits. The military guard told a hair-raising story about the rape and murder of four women in the Pyrenees, the merchant recounted the narrow escape an acquaintance of his had had south of Jaca. The doctor, worried about the effect such talk would have on Madame Le Bon, tried several times to change the subject; to his surprise, however, the lady herself kept returning to it, and he could only conclude that she was like one of the many hypochondriacs he’d known, who, perverse as it seemed, enjoyed nothing more than a discussion of grisly and incurable diseases. Eventually, the food and the wine, the lateness of the hour and the fierce heat of the fire began to work on the passengers, the conversation dwindled and soon the only sound was the crackling of the flames. Bundling himself up in his coat, the doctor, convinced that the driver wouldn’t appear before morning, settled down to sleep.
The night was suddenly rent by a sharp cry. It was followed by the sound of something moving rapidly through the undergrowth in their direction.
Madame Le Bon screamed. The military guard jumped up and seized his blunderbuss. The two brothers stood and drew their swords as one.
They peered into the darkness and were gradually able to make out a pale shape. As it came closer they saw it was a man in a white shirt. He was running full pelt towards them.
‘Stop where you are!’ roared the guard. ‘Stop or I’ll shoot!’
But the man came on.
The guard levelled his weapon. The man was close enough now to see his wild eyes and hear his ragged breathing. ‘Help! Help me!’ he cried.
‘It’s a ruse!’ Madame Le Bon exclaimed. ‘He’s a bandit! He’s going to cut our throats!’
‘Stop, I say!’ the guard bellowed again.
The doctor pushed the guard’s arm down. ‘Lower your weapon, man. Can’t you see the poor wretch is half dead with fear?’
The man slumped to his knees before their fire, gasping for breath. The passengers examined him warily in the orange firelight. He was in his late twenties, stockily built, with a mop of dark, curly hair. His white shirt and camel breeches were torn and muddied and he was bleeding from nicks and scratches on his face and hands. His whole body was shaking violently as if he was frozen to the bone.
‘Move nearer the fire,’ the doctor said, and when the man didn’t respond he went to him and helped him onto a pile of stones where he would get the full force of the blaze.
But still the man didn’t stop shaking.
‘He’s not to be trusted,’ Madame Le Bon said, turning beseechingly to the other passengers.
The two brothers, swords still drawn, listened intently for the sound of accomplices sneaking up on them in the dark.
‘What the fuck are you doing out here in the middle of the night?’ the military guard barked, waving his blunderbuss in the man’s face.
He looked at them with eyes that seemed to bulge in his head. ‘I – I – I don’t dare tell you – you’ll think me mad.’
He suddenly looked behind him as if he feared pursuit.
‘He’s looking for his fellows,’ Madame Le Bon cried. ‘It’s a trap, I tell you.’
‘Come now,’ the doctor gently coaxed him. ‘Tell us what has happened to you.’
The man made visible efforts to compose himself before speaking, but it was some time before he could stop his eyes from flying off in all directions and bring his breathing under control.
‘I – I – was working at the monastery of Aula Dei,’ he began.
‘I know it,’ the military guard said. ‘It’s about fifteen miles out of the city on this road.’
‘I got carried away with what I was doing and worked much later than was wise. It was already dark when I set off back to Zaragoza.’
The elder brother sat back down, but the younger remained on his feet, eyeing the darkness warily.
‘I took a short-cut across country that I’ve taken many times before. My horse was so familiar with the way that I barely needed to touch the reins, and my mind, in truth, was still more focused on my work than the road. I’d been travelling for half an hour or so when I heard shrieking and a frantic flapping of wings, and, looking up, I saw a flock of birds above me. They were owls – those birds of ill omen – perhaps as many as fifty of them, and their piercing yellow eyes lit up the night sky like a swarm of giant fireflies.’
‘The owl’s a solitary bird,’ the merchant scoffed. ‘There’s no such thing as a flock of owls. You must take us all for fools.’
The man smiled strangely at the merchant. ‘You think it fantastic that owls should fly in a flock? Then what will you think when you hear the rest of my story?’
‘Go on, please,’ the doctor said, frowning at the merchant.
‘They swooped down on me, knocking off my hat and pecking at my face with their sharp beaks. Fearing injury to my eyes, I struck out furiously at them with my fists, and, although their talons raked my hands, I succeeded in scaring them away. I was just thinking what a choice anecdote this would make for my wife on my return home when I was suddenly pulled from my horse.’
‘Bandits!’ Madame Le Bon cried. ‘Were you attacked by bandits?’
‘If only, Señora. I wish it had been bandits, I wish it had been the blood-thirstiest cut-throats in all of Aragon.’
‘Why would you wish that?’ she said, her eyes once more full of suspicion.
‘Because they couldn’t have terrified me half as much as my true assailants.’ He gave a violent shudder and looked fearfully behind him again.
‘No, no, I wasn’t pulled off my horse by bandits,’ he went on when he’d collected himself. ‘I was pulled up, up into the night sky, and found myself flying through the air at the height of a fully-grown pine tree.’
The military guard gave a loud belly laugh. ‘Carried off by owls was you?’
‘No, I wasn’t carried off by that sinister flock of night birds either.’ The man stared into the fire and his eyes seemed to widen as he remembered. ‘I was plucked from my saddle by three ancient hags and borne aloft as if I weighed as little as the straw man women toss into the air in a blanket at carnival time. Never before have I beheld such repulsive creatures – their faces were chalk-white, their eyes sunken, and the tattered rags they wore stank of grave mould; one, who had barely a white hair left on her scabrous skull, clutched a black sack which twisted and twitched mysteriously in her hands.’
The younger brother, intrigued by the stranger’s story, gave up his watch now and came and sat beside the fire.
‘I wanted to break free of their hideous embrace, but I was terrified of falling to the ground below. We were hurtling through the air at such a great height that to fall would have meant certain death, and even though every part of my nature rebelled against it, I was forced to cling to their mouldering flesh for dear life. I prayed that I might wake to find myself at home in bed and this nothing more than a ghastly nightmare. But even as I prayed I knew it was no dream. I knew that I’d been abducted by witches…’
‘I think someone’s been on the piss, that’s what I think,’ jeered the military guard. ‘I’ve never heard such a load of old bollocks. What have you been drinking, mate? Is there some left over for me?’
‘The man’s mad,’ the merchant declared. ‘I’ve heard about these chaps, these beggars. They live out in the fields like wild animals and rant and rave and do harm to their own bodies to elicit charity from wayfarers.’
But the doctor, perhaps beginning to see in this man an interesting case study, glared the others to silence. ‘What happened next? How did you come to be here?’
‘I began to make out the strains of music – I call it music but it was like no music I’d ever heard before: out of tune violins screeched, a drum thumped dully out of time, and demented voices sang the same phrase over and over again. In a desolate spot below me, I spied blazing torches and a group of dark figures gathered. We stopped – I can scarcely believe myself the words that issue from my mouth – we stopped in mid-air and hovered, then slowly descended amongst them.’
He gave a cry and put his head in his hands. ‘How can I describe what I saw? It’s impossible! You’ll never believe me! No one will ever believe me!’
‘Drink some more grog, you piss-head,’ the military guard growled.
‘I wouldn’t believe it if I were in your shoes. I would never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes!’
‘Be quiet!’ the doctor fumed. ‘I can smell no drink on this man.’
‘It’s as I say,’ the merchant interjected. ‘He’s a lunatic.’
‘What happened next?’
‘The hideous orchestra was made up of – I cannot say, in truth, what they were – I hesitate to call them people. They had hooded eyes, lantern jaws and slack mouths that hung open drooling spittle, and I know not if they were the dregs of the mad house or corpses brought back to life by the Black Arts. In front of them, a score of toothless crones, like the ones who’d abducted me, sat in a circle; in spite of their cadaverous aspects they’d rouged their rotting cheeks and painted their withered lips like pretty majas awaiting a handsome majo. Many of them held black sacks which gave sudden jolts as if something living was trapped inside them. My three abductors took their place amongst their monstrous sisters, and never easing their vice-like grip on my wrists, forced me to sit too. And as I stared in terror about me, I realized that this was a witches’ Sabbath I’d heard old fishwives tell of – the ‘music’ was an incantation to raise a demon and the sacks contained animals to be sacrificed to the Hell sprite. I was confirmed in this opinion by a number of bottles and phials scattered on the ground around me and the unmistakeable stench of sulphur which was growing stronger by the second.’
Madame Le Bon’s attitude to the man seemed to have changed. She’d become serious and attentive, twisting her rosary beads furiously in her hands.
‘And did they succeed in raising a demon?’ she asked.
‘You don’t believe this nonsense, do you?’ laughed the merchant.
The man’s reply was barely audible, his eyes downcast. ‘Yes, Señora. Yes, they did.’
The military guard gave a derisive snort and spat into the fire. ‘Don’t tell me, it was like the magic show in the music hall, there was a puff of smoke and – hey presto! – there stood Satan ready to have his beard trimmed!’
The man’s eyes remained downcast, staring into the fire. ‘No, my friend. There was no puff of smoke. There was a shadow, a black, black shadow which oozed like treacle out of a hole in the ground. As I watched, it slowly seemed to solidify and assumed the shape of a giant He-goat with huge, gnarled horns and a rough hide alive with vermin. It sat cross-legged like a man, pot-bellied like a man, looking around it with a depraved grin on its Satanic face. I made the error of looking into its eyes and had to look away at once, for, in those flaming yellow pits, was imaged every atrocity perpetrated by Man since the beginning of recorded history – every rape, every stabbing, strangling, mutilation and dismembering – and in another second I would have lost my wits for all time. The demon’s manifestation sent the witches into an erotic frenzy. They writhed and moaned, rolling their eyes and rubbing their bony fingers frenziedly between their legs.’
The doctor blushed for Madame Le Bon at this, but the lady herself seemed quite unembarrassed and leaned nearer the speaker so as not to miss a single word of his extraordinary narrative.
‘In a voice that sounded like the strangled gurglings of a thousand hanged men, the demon gave a command and the witches – my abductors included – opened their sacks. To my horror they didn’t contain animals, but children – children of different ages, from newborns to toddlers. The hags held out the mewling babes to the He-goat, begging it to choose their offering. It eyed each in turn then raised a hoof and pointed to a little girl some two or three years old. At this, the witches set up an ear-piercing caterwauling, clucking their tongues and ululating excitedly, and passed the child to their Master with fawning reverence…’
The man suddenly fell silent and put his hand to his mouth as if fighting back a wave of nausea. It was a moment or two before he was able to continue.
‘The creature didn’t hesitate for a second, but seizing the wriggling infant in both its hooves, put the blonde head in its mouth and snapped it off as you would the end of a carrot. It crunched the skull to mummy and swallowed it down with an obscene roll of its eyes. Then it bit into the child’s milky-white shoulder and tore away a long strip of glistening, red flesh…’
Madame Le Bon crossed herself and began to mutter a prayer under her breath.
‘At this I was seized by a panic so wild it gave me the strength of ten men, and breaking the witches’ grip, I ran headlong into the darkness for all I was worth. I couldn’t see my way and fell down, but hurriedly got up and ran again, pursued by owls and bats and such a direful cacophony of distorted voices, insane laughter and lunatic screams that I honestly wished myself deaf. I ran through thorn bushes and ravines, gullies and icy brooks, I ran and ran and I didn’t stop running until I fell upon my knees before your fire.’
‘Now I’ve heard everything!’ laughed the military guard.
‘He’s a madman,’ the merchant said, waving a warning finger. ‘We should fall upon him and subdue him or none of us will be safe tonight.’
‘I believe him,’ Madame Le Bon said in barely more than a whisper. ‘The devil took all four of my children before they were an age to walk.’
‘It’s not the first time I’ve heard stories of witches on the Aragon plain,’ said the younger brother. ‘It is truly a God-forsaken place.’
‘What shite are you talking?’ the military guard bawled. ‘He’s a drunkard! I know a drunkard when I see one. He won’t remember any of this tomorrow morning when he’s slept it off.’
The doctor, deep in thought, contemplated the man. ‘Tell me, what work were you doing at the monastery?’
‘I have a commission to paint a series of murals. I’m an artist.’
‘See?’ crowed the military guard. ‘Tell me he’s not a drunkard now! Artist, drunkard – same thing.’
The doctor became thoughtful. ‘There could be a practical explanation for what you’ve been through. I’ve read that the oil paints you artists use contain certain chemicals that can induce powerful hallucinations if inhaled for a long period of time.’
The man looked at him. ‘It wasn’t an hallucination. It was true. I saw it with my own eyes. With my very own eyes, I tell you. As long as I live I shall never forget what I saw tonight. For as long as I live those images will haunt my every waking moment.’
He ran his hands despairingly back and forth through his dishevelled hair. ‘I fear what I’ve seen tonight will end up driving me insane.’
The passengers exchanged glances which were in turn sceptical, sympathetic and confused.
‘What’s your name?’ the doctor asked.
The man looked up. ‘You wouldn’t have heard of me. I’m not a famous artist. I’m only starting out on my career.’
‘Still, what is your name?’
‘Fransisco Goya de Lucientes. But I usually sign my work just – Goya.’