One more afternoon, Rodrigo Calderón walked silently through the arcades of the Plaza Mayor. One after another he stopped reluctantly in front of the colorful shop windows of the different bazaars, contemplating them with his eyes lost, as if he did not want to reach his inexorable destination.
Finally, his feet stopped at the corner of the square in front of the Arch of Cutlers. Standing there, he stared almost hypnotized at the worn stone steps descending from the square. A perverse force was drawing him irresistibly. He knew they were waiting for him down there. He put his hand on the cold iron railing attached to the wall and felt its icy effect all over his body. It was as if his heart suddenly stopped and, only an instant later, began to beat furiously as if it were the gallop of a runaway horse.
He descended slowly under the watchful eye of the tin bandit announcing the entrance to the Caves of Luis Candelas. But his destination was not there, but at the bottom of the stairs, just down to the left, in The Hangman’s Tavern. That gloomy wooden door with its narrow window and its small canopy had seized his soul with relentless frenzy.
Without even thinking about it, he stepped over the threshold. The change of light was instantaneous. From the sunny and cold late October dusk he passed to the almost gloomy atmosphere of that dingy tavern, with its long and narrow counter and its smell of old wine. He tried not to turn around, for he knew that behind him, painted on the tiles of the wall, was the insidious gaze that made him so uneasy.
“A wine,” he ordered the bartender, feeling his heart leap out of his mouth.
The waiter was a bald man wearing a wrinkled white shirt with a narrow black tie and a faded maroon jacket. Without a word he placed a low, wide glass before him and poured the wine. Rodrigo stood watching in rapt attention as he poured the red broth. Then he took the glass with trembling hand and looked inside as if he wanted to find the essence of his own soul. At last, he raised his arm with a quick gesture and drained its contents in one gulp. The liquid descended rough and burning down his throat.
When he raised his head, he saw that he was not alone. There were two other patrons leaning on the bar who, like him, also had empty glasses. They were habitual, as regulars as he was himself. Their faces were even familiar to him. Feeling their glances and with his will strengthened by the warm effect of the red wine, he found the strength to turn around and face the dark look that frightened him so much and that, at the same time, attracted him implacably with its powerful influence.
In front of the bar was a large ceramic tile mural painted in shades of ochre, vermilion and blue, recreating one of the public executions that had taken place in the adjacent Plaza Mayor during the seventeenth century.
First, he noticed the large detachment of bailiffs and soldiers, painted in the foreground, who had led the condemned man to the scaffold. Then he glanced at the crowd gazing raptly at the gallows. He could almost feel their hearts beating with trepidation at the imminent presence of blood. Then he fixed his gaze on the authorities’ box, all of them maliciously smiling as if they were enjoying the death of the prisoner. He must have made many enemies in life, he thought, to conjure up so much hatred against his person. Finally, his attention was focused on the two main actors in the macabre scene, the ones who disturbed him most, the prisoner himself and the executioner.
Hidden under his black hood, the small eyes of that executioner instilled in him an irrational panic. He seemed to be looking not at the poor wretch he was about to execute, but away from the mural, right towards the bar where he was standing, as if with those bright eyes full of lust, he was telling him that he was going to be the next to occupy the scaffold. He couldn’t see it, but from the wicked gleam in his eyes he was sure the executioner was smiling. The wine had not clouded his mind, he told himself. He had only drunk that solitary glass. It was the plain truth. That petty executioner was eager to end his life, and that gave him goose bumps.
“Another wine,” he ordered almost with a shout, impatient to quench his fears. He gulped it down again with astonishing speed as if he needed the strength that the unpalatable red broth could impart to him.
He found it hard to look back at the mural. Again, he felt a pang of panic when he saw that once more the eyes of the gloomy executioner were fixed on him. But now he made an enormous effort to look, not at the hangman but at the prisoner. He wanted to see what kind of man he was. He wore only a white shirt of fine cloth and his hands were tied behind his back. Still, he held his head high. He shivered when he realized that his eyes were also directed away from the scene. They were looking directly at him, who was clinging tightly to the counter feeling his legs failing him. But, unlike those of his tormentor, they were sad, pain-filled eyes that seemed to have been struck by all the sorrows of this world.
Their mutual gazes were fixed on each other. Then he saw that the convict’s eyes were as red as hell itself. He understood that the crimson color was the prelude to blood and that the condemned man’s maroon eyes were actually his own, and that filled him with horror. Restless, he hurriedly looked for the blurred inscription at the foot of the mural, but it was peeling and dirty and his eyesight was clouded, so he was unable to read it.
When he looked back at the prisoner he was struck by the fire in his gaze. Then his whole body began to convulse, he felt that his legs could not support him and he fell into a bottomless abyss in which he lost consciousness.
Everything was dark for a few moments as if the world had gone out.
When he came to his senses and opened his eyes again, to his surprise, there was the hooded executioner at his side, looking at him with a malevolent smile and with his axe ready to sever his fragile neck. His feet rested on some wooden planks that were part of a scaffold that, as he could see, had been erected in the middle of the Plaza Mayor, right in front of the Royal Bakery House.
Puzzled, he realized that he was surrounded by a restless rabble that crowded the square and the balconies and whispered excitedly at the smell of blood. When he looked up at the authorities’ box, he saw the faces of the two patrons, who a moment ago had been leaning beside him at the bar and who now, dressed in ruffs and silk garments, were laughing at him with mocking irony.
In some way that he could not explain, he was now inside the mural and occupied the place of the wretched prisoner. If he looked closely, he could still see in front of him through a closing tunnel the bald tavern keeper in his maroon jacket behind the bar wearing a perfidious grin. At a stroke he had been transported to the past, just as he was about to be executed. Maybe he was just dreaming, he said to himself, or maybe he was really, really drunk. Or maybe that Hangman’s Tavern, with its blood-colored red wine, was a door hidden in time that led men to their own scaffold.
Panic-stricken, he stood stiff as a stick with his neck raised in defiance. The crowd took it for haughtiness and as a reflection of an insolent personality. So, they began to shout drunkenly calling for his death.
Without being able to see it, at that precise moment he knew exactly what the rickety inscription at the foot of the mural he was now part of said. It read: “Rodrigo Calderon, Marquis of the Seven Churches, favorite of the Duke of Lerma, accused of murder and witchcraft, was condemned to death and, given his noble status, beheaded in the Plaza Mayor of Madrid on October 21, 1621 in front of a large crowd.”
Now he, trembling with fear, had taken the place of his namesake ancestor. He also knew that the waiter who had served him in the tavern was now his executioner, only that day the red wine would be his blood.
David Verdugo is a Spanish writer trying to break into the English language market under the pseudonym Dave Hangman. In English, he has already published a short story in Bright Flash Literary Review and has received two honorable mentions in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contests for the 4Q 2021 and 1Q 2022. In Spanish, he has collected four books of short stories in which very different genres intermingle, magical realism, detective, horror, epic fantasy and science fiction. He has also written half a dozen short novels and has been a finalist in more than a dozen literary contests.