“There are hundreds, perhaps a thousand empty villages in Spain like your Valdaves: abandoned, then forgotten. I find them new owners...”
Illustration by Katie Fricas.
16th-c. / 200.000€
The mayor of Traguerres and Valdaves is seated at the far end of a long, lonely table in the tavern. He and two other men, hunched like vultures, and one formidable old woman are playing cards—a local variation on truco. In my travels, I find a different truco in every village, with its own grizzled dialect of calls and counters, which I try to capture on the backs of tickets, or hotel receipts, or my business cards, although I end up somehow losing all of these.
I settle next to the mayor, who, surprised, hides his cards against his chest.
“Gentlemen, señora, if you don’t mind, I’ll join you,” I say. I take up the bulky American vowels I left behind years ago: locals in these small towns tend to get spooked when an outsider doesn’t show himself immediately as one. And maybe they’re right to be—when, after all, has a stranger ever come to town with perfect benevolence?
The Spanish deck uses cups, coins, clubs, and swords, representing four medieval castes, clergy, merchants, peasants, and soldiers—the mayor shows me his hand, once he trusts I won’t blurt out some silly question over the cards. But my questions are for his friends. Do you work in Traguerres? Do you play music? Do you ever go to Madrid, or Zamora? The wine seller has an office in town but lives on the road, traveling between the central meseta’s vineyards, and the left half of his face is sunburned and over-aged for his troubles; the dentist, with his striking feathery fingers, does play the piano; the priest’s sister visited Madrid for Corpus Christi, but didn’t enjoy it because she saw a man die of a heart attack on a pavement, swarmed by unfeeling paramedics.
The mayor notices my shoes salted in the meseta’s blond airy dust and asks if my car has broken down. When I say I parked at the pass and walked, the table looks baffled, even defeated by this answer.
I walk whenever I have the chance—I hate sitting. It’s one of the reasons I left the Paris firm, in fact. And I like the dry air burning in my lungs, the feeling of getting somewhere.
“Forgive me if I’m wrong,” I say to the mayor, offering my warmest smile, “but you’re also the mayor of Valdaves, aren’t you?”
His furry gray brows contract. “Traguerres,” he says, “you’re in Traguerres.”
“But there’s a village ten and a half kilometers west of here, called Valdaves. Five stone houses and one barn—all abandoned. Under the Traguerres charter, your municipal jurisdiction includes Valdaves, doesn’t it?”
“Valdaves…” he repeats with distaste. “Hm.”
“It’s in the parish,” the priest’s sister says. “Families from Valdaves used to drive here in a wagon every Sunday, forty years ago. There’s a note in the parish rolls. Truco.”
I pull my business cards out of my suit jacket pocket and hand them around. “Señora, I would appreciate a look at those parish rolls when you have a free morning.”
The mayor reads. “What exactly do you ‘broker,’ Mr. Sobanet?” he asks, in a precise and pointed English.
“Histories,” I answer blandly. “There are hundreds, perhaps a thousand empty villages in Spain like your Valdaves: abandoned, then forgotten. I find them new owners, people to care for them and even restore them.”
The wine seller goggles at me. “Is there money in that?”
“Not a lot, but there is value.” I’m winding into my standard pitch and, though I believe every word, I find it a little boring to be in it again. “Valdaves was continuously inhabited since the sixteenth century—how many generations poured their lives into that community? How can we let that fade into the desert?”
Christ, I think. The lines sound so fake, so practiced. Time to tweak the wind-up again.
The mayor waves his hands. “No, no, we’re not interested.” He looks at me like I’m some grim reaper, come to harvest his dead.
Most careers, most countries I’ve left within three years; this is my fourth brokering these lost hamlets and although I’m good at it, when I tally my savings accounts, they tell me it’s time to take up something more lucrative again—or commit to flipping more towns this season.
The mayor waves his hands. “No, no, we’re not interested.” He looks at me like I’m some grim reaper, come to harvest his dead. But I’m just the opposite, and I wonder if the dentist finds himself similarly avoided by the very teeth he wants to preserve.
I’m not interested in mortality, I want to tell them. I don’t even go to funerals: my father died at the beginning of summer and true to principle, I stayed in Madrid, aloof, cynical, reading The Silmarillion. It would have cost me fifteen hundred dollars to fly stateside—fifteen hundred dollars I didn’t and still do not have, just to sadly address recollections to a gumdrop urn painted to look like marble. No: my business is futures.
“You really sell whole villages!” The wine seller has not moved off of this.
“Six to eight each year,” I say, watching the mayor, whose expression hasn’t returned to friendliness. “I have a Norwegian businessman very interested in the meseta. I have a Kashmiri hoping to establish a small tourist site”—a yoga retreat, but I don’t lead with this—“Traguerres would benefit. Off the top of my head? I could sell for 200,000 euros, easy.”
The dentist has stopped listening and is watching for the mayor to call the next trick.
“But señores, señora, I’m keeping you from your game,” I say. “Please, excuse me, and I hope you’ll call the number on that card, Your Honor, when you’ve given the idea some thought. Buenas tardes.”
I won’t make more progress today, I think. But the idea has staying power.
As I leave the tavern, I’m looking forward to the walk up the grade. I vent my suit jacket with a flap and smell bright, deodored sweat. The jacket is a size too large: I find potential sellers respond well to that, it makes me look goodhearted and generous. I sneak a finger into the breast pocket and count seven cards left.
BROKER & ATTORNEY, HISTORICAL COMMUNITIES
MADRID / PRAGUE / NEW YORK
PATA DE LUPO
14th-c. / 475.000€
The Coopers are reluctant to step out of their air-conditioned rental and into La Mancha’s desert brilliance. They’re a detail-anxious white couple from Greenwich, Connecticut, who bring their two confident children, Tanner and Redland, to Spain every summer. The kids are greased with sunscreen, their handshakes clammy and cold. I’m dressed in an olive silk suit one size too small; it gives buyers the idea they’re taking advantage of me.
“Well, you did sign a contract,” I say. My voice never raises; it’s even as honey. “This is a closing. And there’s a penalty for breach.”
We duck into the small, peeling church. There are still missals and lesson books in the pew slots from the early Franco days; Pata de Lupo didn’t truly empty until the late 1970s, when liberal industrialization drew the last young men to Zaragoza, Barcelona, Valencia. The Coopers aren’t religious and have no scruples laying out the closing documents across the wooden altar. I don’t care about that stuff either, but I feel a sympathetic twinge for any pious ghosts watching.
“Actually, could we hit ‘pause’ for a sec,” says Mr. Cooper, looking to his wife, who is nodding vigorously. “We want to give Redland a look around, first.”
“We don’t sign anything we haven’t read all the way through,” Mrs. Cooper adds.
I bristle. Mrs. Cooper has that puckered look of a mother who makes the doctor read her the ingredients in her child’s vaccine.
“Well, you did sign a contract,” I say. My voice never raises; it’s even as honey. “This is a closing. And there’s a penalty for breach.”
“Oh, hey, no argument here,” Mr. Cooper says, raising his hands in mock surrender. “But this is for her,” he says, indicating Redland, “and it doesn’t feel right to do this sight unseen.”
It’s not like there’s a standard protocol for buying your eight-year-old daughter an empty Spanish town, so I relent. I need my commission, anyway; in Spain, it’s only 3 percent. Mrs. Cooper has already taken up the affidavit of title. She is a short, athletic woman whose leanness has done nothing to sharpen the round out of her face. My mother’s face never lost its sharpness, on the other hand, the broad, angular bones of West African and Creek beauty—not even at the end, when she got fat and tired.
“We were thinking you could tour her round,” Mr. Cooper says to me.
Americans don’t usually leave their kids with near-total strangers, but then, technically, I’m the help.
“Oh, sure.” I look for Redland’s brother, curious what the plan for him is, but he’s laid out in a pew watching Planet Earth on his tablet.
I feel the girl’s squishy hand fold into mine. I look down, and I’m caught off guard by the trust in her blue eyes.
We walk down Camino Santa María de Loreto, which meets the other road in Pata, Camino Nuestra Señora del Pilar. The two Marian roads form a dusty cross around which thirty structures cluster: family homes, warehouses, the church and schoolhouse, the inn, the threshing barn, and the civic building. I point all this out to Redland, who is shading her eyes and staring at the rusty mountains on the horizon. They are the only sight for miles. We both stop, as if by agreement. The sky is cloudless, the washed-out blue of a faded tablecloth. I have a powerful memory of Colorado in winter, of stopping in the dead middle of a plowed crosswalk on my way to school and gazing forever at the mighty, gray San Juans. Or Ute Mountain, against the million desert stars. Wind bowls over the gritty white plain in a thick, empty drumming.
“What’s your happiest memory?” I ask the girl.
She doesn’t need a moment’s consideration; she’s fluent and decisive with her thoughts, like me. “When I got my Lego Disney Princess Castle for Christmas.”
“This was this past Christmas, I’m guessing.”
“How’d you know, Mister Sobanet?” Her moony, pink-and-white face has all the subtlety of expression of a cartoon theme song. She’s tubby and squat, like children should be, I suppose.
“You can call me Calvin.” I drop her hand and run mine through my hot and brittle curls. “What’s your mother’s happiest memory?”
“When she had me.”
I’m tall enough that I can roll my eyes without her catching me. “I mean,” I say, “besides you,”—she starts up again—“or your brother, or your dad.”
Her little forehead wrinkles; she turns sullen on me. “I dunno.”
“I don’t know my mother’s happiest memory, either.”
I know my happiest memory of her: I’m sixteen and scrawny, sitting at her vanity mirror as she combs relaxer into my hair. The result is wavy, black, matinee-idol hair in a part as white as lice. She’s not asking why I need straight hair for prom, she’s not schooling me on how a hairdo won’t bridge that weird gap I feel with my all-white friends: she’s just smiling, enjoying her secret thoughts. Only my dad ever had access to those thoughts.
“My parents were in love all their lives,” I say, “and if I had to guess, my mom’s happiest memory was from early in their relationship. But she’s gone, so I can’t ask her. My dad died last month and we weren’t all that close, but he took all these stories of my mother with him.”
I look down and Redland’s taking this in pretty well for an eight-year-old; but she is eight and it’s starting to weigh on her.
“I’m telling you this because when you look at this town—“and it’s going to be all yours, soon, so you’ll have to look at it a lot—“I want you to think of the lost stories here. For hundreds of years, people’s best memories have been forgotten and forgotten, because no one wrote them down and no one is left to remember them. That’s sad, isn’t it.”
Redland is turning purple. I may have overstepped.
“It’s not your fault,” I say quickly. “And it’s okay to feel sad about things that are gone, even when it isn’t your fault… It even feels good, in a funny way.”
Once, on a field trip to the Ute Mountain Utes’ reservation, I’d gotten so absorbed in daydreaming about how they’d lived in those burnt, bloodied valleys, how they dragged their tipi poles with horses and scraped stretched-out buck hide with stones, the teacher actually forgot me there. There was a copy of the Ute treaty in a library, and toward the bottom is a name—“Juan Martine Martines, interpreter and friend of the Indians,” the man who translated and nominally negotiated the treaty for the forty-seven Ute chiefs ceding their timeless homelands in defeat. How friendly did the forty-seven chiefs find Juan Martine Martines? He probably thought he was saving them.
“What are you going to be when you grow up?” I ask Redland.
She shrugs, still sulky and shaken by the thought of her town’s dead. “President, I guess.” She grabs my hand again and hangs from it a little. “You’re scary, Calvin.”
“I know,” I say. “Don’t tell your parents until they sign those papers, though—promise?”
“Yeah, I promise.”
Our footsteps chew the dirt road in lonely, satisfying crunches. The wind blows dust against the bleached walls of the old Oliveres house. Redland is thoughtful, conflicted. I have no business with kids, myself; but I like to watch them think about their place in the world.
When we reach the church, the Coopers are nearly done reading. Mr. Cooper asks how to go about making Redland the mayor.
“That’s something for a college app, isn’t it!” he says, chuckling, but not because it’s a joke. “‘Redland Cooper, youngest mayor in the world.’ Right? That spells Y-A-L-E, Yale.”
Eh, maybe it’ll do her good, I think as he signs.
I pack up the papers and drive the two hours back to Madrid. My apartment is dusky and climate-controlled; it feels like another hotel room. I phone the escrow agent, change into jeans, go to my favorite paella place and stuff myself silly, like I’ll go hungry for weeks.
Whenever I leave for a town, it’s like starting out on pilgrimage. I’m excited, impressed with myself and bountiful, I give change to every beggar; but I return contemptuous, I pass these crumpled wadded-up men under storefront awnings coldly shaking my head, though we can both hear the coins clinking in my silk pockets.
18th-c. / 380.000€
My train to Galicia leaves without me and I won’t make it to Inquedo tonight; actually, I’ll have to skip it altogether. That stings: I love visiting there. Inquedo is a misty, hidden garden of a town wedged in a mountain pass, lush and ancient with forests, dwarfed by walls of exposed limestone that turn blue at dusk. But you don’t want to be driving those roads at dusk.
Her favorite butcher was in Barcelona; she’d been buying from him since the dictatorship. Their connection had lasted longer than her marriage.
I’d spent a good hour in the concourse at Barcelona Sants talking to a tiny old Catalán widow with a wild iron bouffant and a voice deeper than mine. She was traveling with a ham leg wrapped in reams of rosy butcher paper; it was almost as big as her. The old flip-letter departures board chittered over us and I asked about her ham. She said she lived in Girona forty minutes out but her favorite butcher was in Barcelona; she’d been buying from him since the dictatorship. Their connection had lasted longer than her marriage and was intimate in its own way. When I stood to catch my train, I realized my pocket had been picked.
It happens, but it feels like an insult, like the gypsy kids should know not to treat me like some fucking tourist. The ham lady clucks her tongue but looks away so that I won’t ask her for money.
I circle the station and shove every gypsy boy I find into the wall, catching fistfuls of little t-shirt and demanding my wallet back like I saw him take it. Each one’s wearing the same ratty trainers that shriek against the linoleum as they flail back. But it’s racist of me and I know better, I really do, so my heart isn’t in it. They glare at me with big injured brown eyes as if I’m the cruelest person they could even imagine but one looks me over like he knows that soon enough everything I have will be his for the taking anyway.
Outside, the sun beats down on the milling foot traffic. Midday Barcelona crowds project such powerful indifference, they make you feel homeless—as though everyone on earth but you is where they belong.
Where I belong is on my goddamn way to Inquedo.
I’m sitting at a nearby bar, drinking tap water and feeling sorry for myself, when Roger Blount strolls in and is resiliently unsurprised to see me. Roger is one of my few competitors, an English expat with a snazzier website who tries to sell every village to a corporation. They pay better, sure, but don’t agree to development restrictions or restoration. And God knows what the Coca-Cola Company wants with an eighteenth-century village next to a royal road.
I tell him what happened and he buys me a beer and a ham panini. He smiles like he’s on a brochure. It’s irritating because I was a brochure kid in college—that photogenic biracial one, peddling diversity. I think every one of us on that brochure ended up in real estate. Roger is red and big, no longer printable, and goes around in dark t-shirts and pastel shorts. “Where were you headed today?”
Roger’s eyes twinkle. “Wonderful place… But you already sold it last year.”
“Yeah, I did,” I say, not without venom. Roger has swiped plenty of communities from me so I don’t feel bad about swiping back. “The heirs wanted someone who would take good care of it. I found them that someone.”
“An addicts’ retreat center, as I recall.”
Actually, the buyer was a Madrid billionaire—holds 8.1 percent of Banco Santander equity and technically half a Real Madrid midfielder. He lost his son to heroin in 2007. In his memory, he built a high-rise on the Gold Coast somewhere and had an eternal flame installed in neon along the entire east façade—huge, scrawling tubes flicking light and dark, buzzing forever, scoring the nighttime shoreline. Even in mourning, he couldn’t escape his own capitalist savvy: to build a monument, he had to build a condominium.
So, the billionaire endowed an addiction recovery non-profit called Funda Cristóbal, and bought Inquedo. It’s an ideal setting: isolated, serene, and crisp, with clean air and no temptation. Still, they have a runaway problem; their guests just disappear into the oaks.
“I like to check in on old clients every so often,” I say. “They like being remembered.”
Roger buys me a small plate of chorizo and then some fried plantains. He runs his finger down the tapas menu and his icy eyes search over my shoulder for the girl tending bar.
“You’re too much an idealist, Calvin. I half-expect your next buyer to set up a commune of stray cats. You’ll keep getting your pocket picked, you know.”
Roger’s cynicism flatters my sense of integrity by contrast, as my supposed naïveté must flatter his sense of shrewdness. “Yeah, okay, and you’ll die alone, you ugly fart.” Roger bows into a wolfish, ugly laughter.
Despite the uneaten chorizo, Roger orders us prawns. Finally, I realize he’s just trying to talk to the bargirl—Christ, she’s half his age—and he doesn’t know how.
Our bargirl has the name “Michael” tattooed in a script smile over her collarbone and I ask her who Michael is. Or was. Ex-boyfriend? In Catalunya, you’d expect “Miquel.” After some embarrassment, she admits it’s Michael Jackson: she loved him, no matter how ghostly and chemical he got, and she believes his music will last forever.
Roger mugs at me when she turns away. “You’re the most exasperating conversationalist I know,” he says, “you’re like a dog with a bone. Why’d you badger people like that?”
I frown—I didn’t badger her, I just wanted to know her story.
The girl is washing glasses in the sink; her black, downy mullet catches the gold lamps in its oils and her freckled shoulders pedal furiously. What am I after, when I ask about her tattoo? Sex? A double? What am I after when I hang about a town I’ve sold? A smart broker doesn’t ask for more than his 3 percent.
I box up the panini, chorizo, plantains, and prawns. Roger pays for my taxi and I check into a hotel that knows me enough to extend credit until I get new cards. I spend the afternoon in their business center on online banking sites reporting the theft and when I’m done I check Don’t Remember Me and clear the cache.
I go to bed still sore about missing Inquedo, but maybe it’s for the best.
c. 850 / 70.000€
The moon’s been climbing for an hour when I eat the bag of mushrooms I picked up in Madrid. They’re bitter, spongy, and dark, like scooping a gob of soil into your mouth. I mean to take only a handful, but I’m hungry. It’s all right, though: I don’t hallucinate, never have. Don’t remember my dreams, either. Everything I see is real.
My sleeping bag’s rolled open in the kitchen of what used to be an inn. It’s staked at the edge of town, it has a meager stable and a vault with long, rotted tables and benches. The latrine is lost under bowers of holly trees and blackberry brambles but is still pungent. I couldn’t afford a hotel even if there were one for miles. Despite having no credit cards, I’m bleeding euros; but I can afford this lost place. I look up through a collapsed roof: three stars.
I wander out into the street. The dirt is chalky and fine, gray in the moonlight. The houses live apart from each other in groves of overhanging oak or chestnut, which rustle in the shadows. Faint, whitewashed walls peek out between the branches and ripple like the skin of a swallowing throat, gulping down night. The branches writhe; the cockled, corrugated barks of the great oaks stream into the sky, like heat off a long, empty road.
You can’t sell what no one owns: so O Baixo won’t pass on, it’ll just die into the land. The trees are eating the walls. Bats in the barns.
I like O Baixo, a lot, but the town is long dead. I’ve found no heirs and I don’t expect I ever will. You can’t sell what no one owns: so O Baixo won’t pass on, it’ll just die into the land. The trees are eating the walls. Bats in the barns. Reeds clotting up the watermill. This is death—I just can’t buy that nice circle of life stuff, it’s kitschy and dishonest and alarming, I can’t go in for planting mom’s coffin under a sapling and saying now she’s alive again, in the tree, mothertree rustling in the fall winds. No, O Baixo is dead. It makes you want to cry, but I’m lacking that last push of feeling.
I’ve tried, I’ve tried to find the heirs. I’ve spent days in Galicia’s archives and parish rolls and that sensation of moving briskly between shelves to replace one volume and take up the next feels like my most important work: Here I am. Here I am.
My feet are lead, my calves and knees lead. The mushrooms are pulling me down into a lightless, peaty place. I want to saw off my fingers. I want to skin my hide, and stitch clothes out of it, like I do to my empty villages. I turn around, looking for the chestnut that’s grown over the inn.
When the three of us were together in the hospital and dad would leave her line of sight, even for a moment, to grab a candy bar from his parka for her, her eyes would go wide with loss, and even though she and I would be talking like normal, she searched for him until he lifted into view again. That’s where she found her belonging, hard as it is to understand. I’ve never, never felt belonging in someone like that. And I’m not going to find it in another person, I think, but in the unbroken continuity of a place.
The moonlight spills over the crown canopies, it skates over the clay roofs. There are faraway mountains against stars and wild fields gliding with owls. I’m going to settle here, one day when I’m ready, and I bet it’ll still be unclaimed. I’ll fix the roofs and cut back the hedges, furnish the inn, repaint the houses. I’ll slap some life back into this village, really make the place move again… It’s mine, now, this is mine.
13th-c. / 4.500.000€
Every year, at the end of summer, the descendants of Cantalejo return to the city of their grandparents for a week-long festival. It’s their private carnival, with street music, costume dances, spinning roman candles tied to rakes, lots of cheap wine and strong cologne. The town claims 3,700 current inhabitants, whom I don’t really buy—I’ve seen Cantalejo in May and the streets are empty, the shops dark, the people rare as rain. But compared to the hamlets I’ve been visiting, Cantalejo is a city, with drug stores and telephone lines, a fine old church, even a small bull arena. It’s time certainly hasn’t come; but it will.
Tonight, everything is firecrackers and racy trombone music. Boys dash by me in dark alleys, swatting sparks off their clothes and laughing deliriously. Young men wear the red-star caps and olive fatigues of civil war republicans, couples are dressed in peasant jackets and green and red aprons. Women trade stories told by their great-grandmothers of how life in this town used to be before electricity and divorce. The church towers blanch in the spotlights, their crowns obscure, while scarce, stray sparks, lasting impossibly, climb up to the stars before blinking out.
I’m welcomed, or at least ignored, as I pass through the crowd; someone hands me a plastic cup of sangria. The cantalejanos are doing their own preservation work fine. They don’t need me to save their city and it’s still too populated to sell. They don’t need me for anything, but I need them. I’ve been told you can love someone so painfully you look at them and want to eat them: that’s the hunger I feel for a place like Cantalejo. I pull a chair up to a table of square-faced codgers playing ombre under a string of party lights. The brass music jumbles apart as the musicians lose their places. “Gentlemen,” I say, reaching in my jacket pocket for my business cards, “may I join you?”
Theodore McCombs is a writer and attorney in Denver and a member of the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop there. His fiction, essays, and legal writing have appeared in Shenandoah, Electric Literature, and the Hastings Race & Poverty Law Journal, among others. He is a regular contributor to the literary blog Fiction Unbound and he tweets @mrbruff.