Not All Witches Fly on Brooms
But they all laugh the same
My year abroad in Spain was just beginning
It was my Junior Year of College, and I was studying abroad in Spain. I’d spent the beginning of the summer of 1989 staying with my high school friend Mike Heinz at his grandmother at her house on the outskirts of Madrid. Mike interned at the American Embassy, as his Mom was Spanish and his dad German, so he spoke three languages fluently. Once we got off the plane, Mike spoke only Spanish to me, and while it was painful at first, it really did help me later.
As Mike put on a suit and tie and went off to work each day, I kept busy just wandering around magnificent, but sweltering Madrid, going to the parks and museums, seeing what mischief I could get into. Sadly, not much exciting happened then, as I was early in the Hero’s Journey of my year aboard in Spain.
Everything changed in July when I headed off to the city of Valencia, just south of Barcelona, to join the program through American University in D.C. In Valencia, the two-month program was my “Real World MTV” experience, with all sorts of partying, drama, and life-changing experiences, all of which I’ll tell you about another time.
Living in Toledo was like like in a real-life Fairytale Kingdom
Toledo is the magical walled Medieval city, forty miles south of Madrid, where the ruling government once resided. A favorite subject of the Spanish master painter, El Greco, who often painted it in a surreal swirling manner, the city levitates over the surrounding countryside. As the sun moves in the sky, like El Greco’s painting, the city elongates and shapeshifts, and the clouds dance above it.
From a distance, the city seems to be made of one single type of brick, like a dribble sandcastle. But up close, it’s a beehive maze of hundreds of narrow alleyways, tunnels, bridges, and archways. The whole city circles around the Cathedral tower, and while it is like something out of a fairytale, like all things classically Spanish, it is austere.
|Pixabay, Toledo Spain looking from North to South (I think)|
My program was through the University of San Diego, and we were a group of half American students and half students from Latin America.
I sat by myself at a café on one of the narrow streets for which Toledo is famous. Most of the alleyways and cobblestone streets are too narrow for a car to fit on. Groups of tourists passed me by, going to the tour busses to take them back to Madrid.
I just read the last page of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and I slammed the book cover with a great flourish. “Wow!” I said, proud of myself, but really just kind of relieved to be done with it. My friend David Rosenberg had taken a class at U.C. Berkeley wholly devoted to Ulysses alone. David gave me the professor’s bound notes, which were supposed to serve as some accompanying guide to the text. Sometimes I looked at it, but sometimes it was just too much, taking away from the experience of just reading the book.
I finished the short glass of beer, and my “Sandwich mixto con huevo” meaning a ham and cheese sandwich with a fried egg in the middle of it, with the yoke popping up through a hole in the bread, made with a shot glass. I asked the waiter for the bill, paid, and started heading back to the University.
Looking up at one of the street names, it read “Callejon de Siete Revueltos.” I had just read a passage in Ulysses which referred to the “something or other of Seven Returns.” I got goosebumps and felt like there was more than a coincidence. Halloween was right around the corner, and that is my favorite holiday. It felt like there was magic in the air.
Every night was a party for the “The Big Spender”
It was a Friday night, which made little difference to me, as I went out to the bars nearly every single night it seemed. There was always a group of students going out, while others stayed in and studied. I became the rotating “Entertainment Director” and went out with each group on different nights, it seemed. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I had a lot more money to burn compared to the other students.
My parents gave me a hefty allowance and wired me money every two weeks. They never seemed too upset, even when I told them I spent a little extra or needed more money.
Only much later in life did my parents reveal that they viewed this year abroad in Spain as being a splurge or reward for me having earned just short of a full-ride scholarship to the college I attended, the University of San Diego
I did not leave home to go to college. I lived in my family home, Freshman, and Sophomore Year. So again, my parents viewed themselves as way ahead of the game compared to the other people they knew who were paying full fare, tax, and tip for their kids’ to go to Notre Dame, Georgetown, or some such other bank-breaking school.
Since I went to college practically for free, my parents gave me a blank check that year in Spain. I did not go crazy, because I did not know I had a blank check at the time. But I never held back from doing anything, and sometimes I even paid for my friends when they said they did not have enough money to go out.
My dorm room was a narrow little monk’s cell, with a desk, a single bed, a bathroom, and a window with a wooden shutter that looked out over the terra cotta tops of buildings toward the River Tajo, which encircles the city.
The sun was going down, and the sky was turning burnt orange and purple. I saw bats fluttering about. One time a bat flew right into my room, and I had to use a towel to trap it and throw it back out the window.
I put on my favorite outfit, a cheap herringbone three-button jacket made of very light material, with a white shirt buttoned all the way collar. I had bell-bottomed jeans made by a company called “Big Star.” I wore shoes that I called the “Bumper Cars,” but could right be called clown shoes. They looked like Doc Martins, but they had these ridiculous soles that had no tread on them.
The shoes really did look like bumper cars with the bumpers on the bottom. Sadly, a chunk of one of the soles came off and looked like it had been bitten off by a dog. I wasn’t ever able to find replacements for them, so I simply wore them with the chunk missing. Since the shoes had no real tread when they hit water, they hydroplaned. I took many a spill both outdoors and indoors.
|The Big Spender, wearing the “Bumper Car” shoe|
My outfit was just a mess of different influences. Certainly, the jeans and the rave shoes were a nod to the “Madchester” house music scene and The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays from England. The Stone Roses album came out in 1989, and I still loved that music. None of the other kids on the program knew what I was talking about. They all dressed in J. Crew, Tommy Hilfiger, and Guess. They stared at me with their mouths agape.
But the real shocking piece of my ensemble. The real piece d resistance was my hair. Copying my best friend Chris back home, I had let my hair grow for all the months I was in Spain, and I was now sporting A Prince Valiant sort of cut. This was two or three years before grunge rock, so it was still very unusual for a guy to have long hair. There’s a person who inspired this long hair look, but it’s so embarrassing to talk about now, I’ll save it for another time.
|The Author, Hair guy|
As if the outfit with the ridiculous baggy jeans, the shoes, the three-button jacket was not enough, the hair put it over the top. I was surprised and gratified that the Spanish guys did not catcall or give me a hard time in the streets or the bars.
Having traveled in Europe on a “grand tour” trip at the end of High School with Chris, I knew that in Italy, France, or especially England- if I had done anything to stick out like this, I would suffer some abuse. Without even trying to be flamboyant at all, Chris and I almost got into fights in each of those countries.
Staring in the mirror, I applied the Loreal Studio gel just so and combed my hair back into a short ponytail. That was for the beginning of the night. Later, when we’re out dancing and getting sweaty, I pull the rubber band out and let the freak flag fly. I looked in the mirror-like the Fonz, and I felt good.
Time to get this party started.
Meeting new people from all around the world
As I entered the dining room, I got a few teasing whistles from my new buddies from schools like the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the Notre Dame kids too.
Finishing dinner, an American student named Kristen came over and said,
“Hey Jack, Juan Pablo and I are going up to the observation tower if you wanna come up there and join us before you go out and go crazy."
“Sure, I’ll meet you guys up there,” I said.
Kristen was a girl who was from Wellesley College, and I have to admit, I’d never met a girl quite like her before.
“Dude, what’s up with that chick Kristen,” I had asked my friend, Chet Carmichael, early in the program, when we were all meeting one another. Chet was from South Carolina, and he was really down to earth and cool.
“What do you mean?” asked Chet in his slow southern drawl.
“Why does she talk like that- with her chin jutting out? Like Thurston Howell the Third from Gilligan’s Island?” I asked.
“Ah, ha, ha,” Chet chuckled. “She’s from Wellesley College,” said Chet. Chet went to Notre Dame.
“Yeah, so what? What’s Wellesley College,” I asked.
I was from Southern California, and I could only name about ten different colleges off the top of my head. My school had no college football either, so I didn’t follow the sport, and I did not get the benefit of knowing every college name in the country that way like all the dumb jock guys did.
“Thanks, dude,” I said.
I really did appreciate Chet warning me about Kristen. I had already put my foot in my mouth so many times over here in Spain, with the East Coast kids on the Valencia program, and even with Mike and his Grandma. It’s amazing how you can become inappropriately “patriotic” and other obnoxious things like “West Coast v. East Coast” when you go to a foreign land and feel insecure. I was learning a lot and becoming much more sensitive to people's perspectives from other parts of the U.S. and the world.
. . .
Life in the Ivory Tower (or as close to it as I ever got to it)
I never got to talk to Kristen until after I met Juan Pablo first. Juan Pablo was from Columbia- the country- and he and Kristen became boyfriend and girlfriend seemingly within the first week of the trip. Kristen looked like the nurse “Hot Lips” Houlihan from M*A*S*H. Juan Pablo looked, dressed, wore round glasses like, and spoke like the Mike Myers character “Dieter” from the SNL skit “Sprockets”- with a Columbian, not German accent, of course.
Juan Pablo was a real live Intellectual with a capital “I.” He was skinny and frail-looking. Again, his trademark was his Jean-Paul Sartre round glasses, with stylish black plastic frames. He smoked very pungent cigarettes, drank coffee and espresso all day, and he wore turtle neck sweaters even when it was very hot. “J.P.” as Kristen called him, would not have looked at all ridiculous wearing a beret.
Juan Pablo was a true bohemian, scholar, and I was intimidated when I spoke to him the first couple of times. But over the first few weeks of the program, we reached a nice friendship.
Chet and I were two of the very few “American Guys” Juan Pablo could tolerate talking to for more than a minute or two. Chet and I were a little lower on the scale of the “Drunken American Idiot Abroad Spectrum” than the rest of the “bros” in their Nike T-Shirts. Chet and I had both read The Stranger by Albert Camus, so we could fake it with J.P. when we needed to sound smart.
I once caught myself during a conversation with J.P. saying something like “That reminds me of that scene Georges Battailes’ “Story of The Eye” . . . And the internal voice in my own head said (to myself)
“God, what a pretentious Dickhead you are . . .”
It was true, I had no idea what I was talking about. I had picked up that book because it was next to The Stranger in the library, and it looked short and had a really cool book cover. The book was gnarly, with all sorts of “transgressive” sex and violence in it. I did not understand the book, but I was glad I read it and could name drop it in situations when I had to talk to people like J.P.
I climbed the stairs to the reading tower, and it was only then that it struck me that I never came up here enough with its 360-degree panoramic view of the city. The sky was still burnt orange, but now with some purple too, with the sun seemingly taking forever to set, and it was almost 10:00 P.M.
J.P was seated on the octagonal bench seat, which ran along with the windows, and Kristen was already curled up against him, with her head on his lap, like a cat.
“Ah, Monsieur Clune, the Existentialist,” said JP. “Have you been contemplating Man’s struggle against the Absurdity of existence? You seem far too cheerful to have been doing that.”
“Only thing I’m contemplating is which bar to I’m goin’ to first,” I said stupidly.
Kristen laughed at my dumb joke. It was all in the delivery.
“Kristen says you are the life of the party,” said JP. “She tells me you’re a great dancer, and you put on a real show for the whole group.”
Kristen had gone out solo with us plebs, the whole party gang of students, last weekend when we went to the bars and danced. She had to come and see what all the fuss was about, I guess.
“Yeah, it’s kinda embarrassing,” I said, feeling ashamed and actually picturing myself all drunk and acting like a fool. I could only imagine what Kristen told Juan Pablo.
“No, no. Kristen says you dance very well. She says you even do . . .”
Juan Pablo’s English was excellent, but he was struggling to find the words, so he used his hand by pointing it down and making two fingers spread wide.
“The splits!” said Kristen, smiling.
“Yes, the splits!” said J.P.
Now I really felt like a jackass. All the students who went out and danced together would form a circle, and we’d all take turns going in the circle and doing ridiculous dance moves. It was true. I would go into the circle and do the splits, trying to imitate Terence Trent D’Arby, who was popular at the time.
“I would love to see that. But I will not embarrass you and ask you to do it now,” said J.P.
“You should come out with us tonight!” I said.
“Ah, thank you, Jack, but I am not a person like that,” said JP. “I prefer to stay home and read or work on my thesis.”
He actually said, ‘I need to work on my thesis.’ On a Friday night. I only said things like that when I was joking.
“C'mon on J.P.,” said Kristen sitting up, and running her hand along J.P’s face. Don’t you want to wear baggy jeans and big bumper car shoes, and do the splits?”
Kristen said it sweetly and jokingly, and we all three laughed. The image of scholarly J.P. acting as foolish as me was just too much. I could tell J.P. was in for a night of passion. Kristen was head over heels in love with him, staring at every move and gesture he made. We were never going to see her out at the bars or dance clubs ever again.
“Look at the orange sky! It’s so cool. I half expect to see some witches flying around on broomsticks!” I said since it was so close to Halloween.
“You like witches Jack?” asked J.P.
“I love Halloween, it’s my favorite holiday. I like scary things and dressing up,” I said.
“Mi abuela era una bruja,” Juan Pablo said to Kristen.
Kirsten sucked in her breath.
“Oooooh, really?” asked Kristen dramatically.
“Si, de veras,” said Juan Pablo.
“My Grandmother was a witch,” said J.P.
. . .
Juan Pablo’s stories from the Columbian countryside
“My grandmother was a ‘Bruja’ — do you know that word, Jack?” asked J.P.
“That means witch, right?” I said.
“More or less, yes,” said J.P.
“What do you mean J.P., was your grandmother a good or bad witch?” asked Kristen.
“I would say . . .” Juan Pablo stopped short. There was an uncomfortable silence.
“What did she do? Did she have magical powers?” I asked.
“It was said she could predict the future. And she cured people who were sick,” said J.P., “They say one time, she put her hands on a child and fixed his broken arm,” said J.P.
“Oh, how interesting,” said Kristen.
“Whoa. Do you believe it?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” J.P. said, distracted, and giving a far off look.
. . .
Then Juan Pablo told us this story. Sometimes he spoke in Spanish, and Kirsten translated as she somehow already spoke perfect Spanish it seemed. She must have been one of those annoying and freakish people who actually learned how to speak the language from the high school classes we took. Most of the time, I could tell what Juan Pablo was saying, but it made it easier to enjoy the story when Kristen translated.
“We lived in a big house in the country, with servants who lived in separate quarters out in the crop fields. My parents left my older sister and me with my grandmother when they went to the city.
Abuela (Grandmother) made us play hide and go seek with her. But she did not hide in the normal places, like a closet or behind a shower curtain.
Instead, she would hide in crawl spaces, or contort herself into cabinets, or climb into . . .
Kirsten had to help him with this one.
“Ventilation shafts?” she confirmed.
“Yes,” said Juan Pablo.
She curled up under mounds of suffocating blankets or went deep into the attic, or down into the dark basement, where she knew I was afraid to look for her.
Sometimes it took me hours to find her. My sister, who was about ten years old, and I, who was about seven years old- we cried, and begged her to come out and end the game.
There were times when I collapsed on the floor, desperate, waking up later, and searching for her again. But she never revealed herself.
And then finally I’d find her in the dark corner of the attic or the basement.
She pretended to be dead.
I tugged on her clothes and cried. I struck her with my fists, begging her to stop. And I fell on her and hugged her.
Still, she would lie silent. Then finally, she started laughing her crone’s laugh.
Laughing at my pain and fear. A horrible, joyless laugh.”
“A witch’s laugh."
. . .
“Oh my God, that’s so terrible, J.P.,” said Kirsten, grabbing his hand and putting her face to the back of it, and temporarily breaking the spell of the story.
“I told my parents, but they said we were exaggerating. Children are to be seen and not heard where I come from. My father got angry at me, telling me it was a sin to speak so badly of mi Abuela.
He shouted, ‘Enough!’ when I told them of her games. My mother was powerless to help- it was my father’s mother.
My sister told my parents I was lying and exaggerating.
“My parents left us with her again, and Abuela made us play the game again. Actually, she just disappeared when we were not looking. The hacienda was so big. Do you know that word, Jack?
“Yeah, like a big farm, a big country house,” I said.
I was just thinking of the Mexican restaurants we had back home in San Diego. Some of them were called Hacienda this, or Hacienda that. There was also the famous dance club in Manchester, England called the Hacienda, where all my favorite bands made their starts.
“Yes,” said Juan Pablo.
At first, I ignored her, and I refused to play. But as the day went on, she never came out of hiding. After a few hours, I went to the places she hid before. I found bedsheets that did not belong where they were, and I knew the sheets were from a chest in the guest’s quarters.
I opened the trunk in the guest room, and my grandmother was curled up inside. She refused to get out. When I touched her face, she was cold. She was pretending to be dead.
I still did not believe her. I did not believe she was dead. There was a smile on her face. When they came and took her body away, I still was not sure she was dead.
To this day, I still expect her to laugh, and come around the corner.”
Juan Pablo lit up one of his rich European cigarettes.
“Oh my God, J.P. What a strange woman, to cause you so much pain as a child,” Kristine said.
“She passed it on to my sister,” said Juan Pablo.
. . .
It was now dusk outside the observation tower. The rims of the hills in the countryside were brimming and outlined with the dying of the light. I thought of the final scenes of Stephen King’s ‘Salems Lot’ where the heroes, the writer, and the teenage boy wind up in a small Mexican village, hunting down the vampires who wiped out their town in Maine.
“Yes, she taught my sister Valentina how to make things appear and disappear,” said Juan Pablo.
When my parents left us alone now, my sister and I played a game. We sat on opposite sides of the large room, and we dared each other not to look at the windows behind each of us. Whoever looked first was the loser.
“There’s someone at the window,” my sister would say.
I refused to look.
“It’s a man. He has a beard and scar on his face.”
I waited as long as I could.
“There’s a devil in the window behind you,” I said to her. “It has fangs and blood dripping from its mouth.”
“It’s a pirate. The man is a pirate,” my sister said.
It was always me who looked first. My sister never looked, even when we made it extra scary, and turned down the lights and lit a solitary candle.
When you play this game, you concentrate so hard that when you look at the window, for an instant, you see the pirate or whoever else she has described. It terrified me. I could never be sure whether the faces were really there or not.
Valentina laughed and laughed when I lost the game.
. . .
“One night, when we were alone again, the moon was full,” Pablo continued.
“She made me play the game before I could have my supper. She turned out all the lights, except for the fireplace, and we faced each other in the moonlight.
“There are three men at all the windows behind you,” she said.
I did not believe her, of course. I wanted to simply look and lose quickly. But before I could turn around, a man’s face appeared in the window behind my sister.
I leaped to my feet, ‘there’s a man, there’s a man!’ I screamed.
My sister did not move. She smiled and giggled at my play-acting.
“Sister, sister, no there is really a man!” I shouted.
Valentina refused to look.
I turned and looked at the windows behind me, and there were three men, two of whose faces were in the windows, and one whose whole silhouette was there in the glass door to the patio. A poor farmer dressed in rags, holding a machete in his hand. He pulled at the door handle, but it was locked.
I screamed in terror.
My sister did not move.
The men turned and disappeared at once. I ran to the window and saw four or more men running towards the cornfields. They disappeared into the tall leaves swaying in the moonlight.
Outside the glass door, the machete lay on the patio.
My sister laughed and laughed. The same horrible laugh as mi Abuela.
. . .
Funny, I never saw much of or spoke to Juan Pablo and Kristen on the program after that. When somebody tells you a story that strange and personal, it kind of colors things. Whatever the case may be, I kept my distance after that.
Unlike Juan Pablo and Kirsten, I had enough being holed up in a room reading books. I sat in my bedroom and read books all through High School and living at home for the first two years of college. Instead, I determined to pack in as much as I could every day and night that I was in Spain, and that’s exactly what I did, and I never looked back.
Years later, when I saw the Blair Witch Project in the theater, I felt like I was having deja vu all over again, remembering Juan Pablo’s harrowing stories.
And whenever I see a story in the news about some cruel act done by an adult to a child, I think back to Juan Pablo’s stories of his Abuela in Columbia.
And I hear the Bruja’s laugh.
© Copyright 2020 Jack Clune