Hands Stained with Flour

Award Category
At the end of the brutal Spanish civil war, when a determined activist unveils Mother Superior’s plan to deport children from her convent-cum-prison, she is torn between saving her own daughter and her commitment to the mothers left behind.

Chapter One

“¡Vamos! ¡Vamos!” called out the guard, just as he did every morning whilst unlocking and opening the door. An intrusive wave of light inundated the cell floor, causing bodies to wriggle and moan. “Come on! Time to get up.” Isabel covered her eyes.

“¿Ya? Already?” she murmured, lifting her head off Eva’s shoulder. She looked around her. The women were not getting up. No wonder! They had all slept in the same position throughout the night. Pangs of stiffness shot through her limbs.

“¿Qué os pasa hoy? What’s the matter with you today?” shouted the guard, clapping his big dirty hands, “¡Vamos! You know Madre Bernarda doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

The women began to pull themselves reluctantly off the hard floor; mothers scooping up their groaning children into aching arms. Isabel sat motionless on her knees against the wall, between Eva and another prisoner, with Josefina, still fast asleep, straddled across their laps. She watched the women trail after each other in a weary line, out of the cell.

Mari was also watching, locked in a huddle behind the prison door, with no intention of leaving the cell to attend the morning count. Cradling her sick son, she was saving all her energy to care for Miguelito.

The guard peered round the door at Isabel.

“You of all people! Are you looking for more trouble?”

Isabel, head bowed, ignored him. Josefina showed little sign of waking.

“Sit her up,” whispered Eva.

An order from Eva was something else. Isabel placed her hands under Josefina’s armpits and gently pulled her into an upright position, freeing Eva and the other prisoner to stand. Eva then took hold of Josefina, who was too sleepy to protest, allowing Isabel to get up. The guard gave a grunt of satisfaction as he watched the three women file slowly past him out of the cell, with Eva holding on tightly to Josefina. They walked along the gallery, through one of the arches past the other guard on duty, into the patio where women from other cells were also assembling around the fountain. Some of them had small children clinging to their sides, others were cradling babies or toddlers in their arms and many of the prisoners were blinking in the brightness of the morning light.

Mother Superior stood, as she always did, on the top step of the fountain, wearing a spotless white tunic and a snowy virgin veil that framed a hard face of furrowed brows. Bringing her black hornet eyes close together, she scrutinized the women. Row upon row of emaciated faces and shaved heads, perched on top of bodies standing limply inside sagging, faded clothes. She did not have to count the prisoners herself; the guards were there for that, but Mother Superior liked to supervise their work. Each prisoner was a lost sheep, and she was their faithful shepherd. If only they could see, if only they could understand how lost they were. But alas! These women had gone so far astray that they had become a liability to the nation. Redemption? For their children, perhaps; although each day that passed, they became more and more contaminated by their mothers’ poverty and immorality. Look at them! Madre Bernarda turned to focus on the dirty stain in the far corner of the patio. She liked to keep the unshaven heads of these women of the night apart from everybody else, but their cells were bursting at the seams. Such a pitiful sight!

A guard walked gingerly up the stairs towards her and muttered something. Mother Superior cast a military gaze across the patio and ordered him to check the cells. Eva whispered in Isabel’s ear. Isabel looked around her and bit her lip. No sign of Mari and Miguelito. How could she have forgotten to look out for them when she left the cell? The guard walked back down the steps and disappeared. Mother Superior stood tall and sure; a pristine figure towering above rows of waiting, aching, itching, hungry bodies that filled the patio with an eerie silence punctuated with the sniffles and cries of restless children.

Minutes stretched impatiently, no sign of the guard. Children whined louder, hushed by their mothers. Mother Superior shook her head, straightened her back and bellowed “Cara al sol!” A mute stillness swept through the patio. Facing the sun! Refusing to sing Franco’s fascist Falange anthem brought unpredictable punishments. But to be the first person to open your mouth and sing? Who was prepared to hear her voice echo across the patio on its own? “Cara al sol!” came the order again. A few more moments of eternal hesitation lingered in the air. Then, a faint trickling murmur began to emerge from the left corner of the patio. More women cautiously opened their mouths. The murmur gathered strength and grew into the quiet rumbling of a distant train. “¿Qué es esto? What is this?” asked Madre Bernarda. “You can do better than this!” It was the same thing every morning. The train had no choice but to follow her signal. It forked into multiple branches that sent ripples of reluctant sound across the patio. The prioress adjusted her angle to catch Isabel’s eye.

“…death will find me…” sang Eva emphatically, pulling Josefina closer to her chest, whilst nudging her skinny friend in the ribs. But no sound emerged from Isabel’s lips. They were tightly shut.

“And I won’t see you again,” roared Isabel suddenly, belligerently holding Mother Superior’s gaze. The idea that death would spare her from ever having to look at that woman in the face again had suddenly ignited a spark of triumph inside her. Heads turned to look wide-eyed at how the spark had burst into flame.

The last time Isabel had refused to sing the anthem the guards had thrown her into solitary confinement for three long days. The choice of punishment was telling. The end of the Second Spanish Republic had thrown women back into the domestic sphere, robbing them of their newly gained rights to suffrage, education and oh, to that sinful thing called divorce! Eva had taken care of Josefina as usual; but it wasn’t fair on the child. Isabel knew she would have to find more subtle forms of resistance. So, she had given up on the hunger strike and apologized, as requested, to Mother Superior. It was humiliating, but Isabel had taken solace in the knowledge that Mother Superior knew her words were empty and that their battles would continue. Was that why she had looked away now, to avoid confrontation? Isabel had a split second to decide. Continue to sing loudly or put out the flame? Keep aiming at those hornet eyes or should she avert her gaze now too? The singing rattled grudgingly forward. Suddenly, Isabel was soaring above it with gusto and force, looking at her adversary - who had turned towards her once more - squarely in the eye. Her message of ironic defiance was not lost on Madre Bernarda whose frown deepened into a trench. Nor was it lost on the women closer to Isabel who suddenly raised their voices in unison.

“…my companions who stand on guard.” Words had been let free to unexpectedly change sides. They weren’t singing about the Nationalists; they were singing about themselves. Not about loving mothers and submissive wives. About how they stood on guard and cared for each other inside this putrid prison and there was nothing that Mother Superior could do about it. Hadn’t she demanded that they sing more loudly? And what could she punish them for? They were singing the Nationalist anthem, weren’t they?

The anthem was coming to an end and the guard reappeared. He began to make his way through rows of singing voices towards Mother Superior. She signalled solemnly from the top of the fountain with her hand for him to stand still. Silence descended upon the patio once more.

Isabel waited. It had been a small conquest. She knew retaliation would not take long in coming. But at least the fierce singing had boosted the women’s morale. Madre Bernarda had been forced to watch whilst they snatched Franco’s victorious flags from under her nose and waved the Republican flag back in her face.

“Cara al sol!” yelled the prioress. Again? Heads turned to look at each other in disbelief.

“Ya que os gusta tanto cantarlo. Since you like singing it so much. I want to hear it again.” Isabel clenched her teeth to prevent the leopard inside her from pouncing. She could not look at Mother Superior now. But how should she respond? Isabel knew the women would take their cue from her.

“Perdone, Madre,” came a deep male voice from the middle of the patio, “hay un niño…I’m sorry, Mother…there’s a child in one of the cells.” Again, the nun raised her hand. The guard fell silent.

Miguelito! Isabel cleared her throat. There was no time to lose. They must sing. Only then would Miguelito be taken to the infirmary. Words fell out of her mouth and tumbled into the cold morning air, courageously leading the way. But no voices followed suite. Isabel paused and turned to look at Eva. She was still holding on tightly to Josefina who had buried her face in Eva’s chest. Her friend’s expressionless face told Isabel all she needed to know. Madre Bernarda had signalled for everybody else to remain silent. There was no choice but to roll up the Republican flag and sing Cara al sol all over again, on her own.

The patio was waiting…

Childhood memories of solo rehearsals in the church choir invaded Isabel’s body. Her eyes began to smile. Isabel had secretly enjoyed singing in the choir, under the protective wing of her mother who was left to deal with father’s political protestations. “You can separate beauty from religion and politics you know!” she had once heard her mother shout after her father while he stormed out through the kitchen door.

Mother Superior frowned. Eva nudged Isabel with her elbow. Miguelito! Isabel took a deep breath, opened her mouth, and began to sing. She pressed on as fast as she could, moderating her prestissimo at the start of each line to conceal her hurry. She chose the volume and pitch carefully; not too low, nor too high, not too dark nor too shrill. She did not pronounce the words clearly and she did not slur them either. But sing she did. Certainly not for the Generalísimo. But not even for the Republic. She sang for her mother and father, for Miguelito; she sang for Josefina and for all the children forced to hibernate in this God forsaken monastery-cum-prison of a nation.

Chapter Two

She could not take her eyes off the woman: crouching behind the door in the corner, scratching her shaven head, rocking to and fro, muttering into an empty lap, oblivious to her surroundings.

“Stop staring at her.” Angustias turned around. A pack of wolves was glaring back through the shadows.

“I’m sorry,” she stuttered, grimacing involuntarily. “Is she alright?”

“Why have they thrown you in here?” asked a gruff voice, ignoring her question.

“I couldn’t pay the fine,” she replied flatly, eyes downcast, hand absentmindedly caressing her long black hair.

“Count yourself lucky then! You’ll be out of here within a few weeks.” Angustias lifted her head to meet a pair of green eyes, illuminated by light that shone through the slit at the top of the cell door. “I’m Isabel. What’s your name?”

“How about whore? They’re supposed to have separate cells for the likes of you!”

“Shut up!” snapped Isabel, raising her arm dismissively. “Don’t you listen to her.” It was only then that Angustias noticed a small child clinging to Isabel’s body. Angustias closed her eyes. For how much longer would all of this go on for? Here she was, in prison again, when all she was doing was trying to keep her own children alive.

A loud sobbing erupted from behind Angustias. She turned to look.

“Here we go again! This is how we spend our days and nights,” complained the gruff voice. “They keep her in here on purpose, to add to our torment.” Isabel shook her head.

“Ignore her.”

“We’ll all end up like her,” fired back the voice.

“Vamos,” said Isabel boldly as she stepped forward, holding her child’s hand. Four more bodies emerged from the shadows, each of them with a child by its side. Angustias turned sideways to give them space to squeeze past her. They approached Mari and formed a semi-circle around her in the corner. She was shaking now.

“Her son died last week,” whispered a voice in Angustia’s ear.

“Mari,” said Isabel very softly, “Mari. Listen to me.” Mari carried on sobbing. It was becoming uncontrollable.

“You’re wasting your time,” protested the voice. One of the children in the semi-circle began to snivel.

“Mari, Mari, listen to me.” The sobbing became louder. Another child started to whimper. Her mother picked her up in her arms.

“No llores, hija.” But telling her not to cry made the child cry even louder.

“Mari?” squeaked a meek little voice. The sobbing and crying stopped. Mari lifted her head.

“Miguelito?” Two scorching flames scoured the tightly packed cell.

“Mari,” said Isabel, patting her little daughter gratefully on the head. “Miguelito’s asleep now, isn’t he? Shall we sing a lullaby for him?” Mari turned her head towards the cell door.

“¡Mi hijo!” she yelled. “¡Han matado a mi hijo! They’ve killed my son!” The children burst into tears. Their mothers pulled them closer.

“Mari!” Isabel raised her voice - cold and stern. “Look at me!” Mari turned to face her. “Miguelito’s sleeping,” continued Isabel in a gentler tone. “We’re going to sing with you to keep him company, like we did last night, remember? Isn’t that right?” she said turning towards the other women who nodded in agreement. Isabel cleared her throat and began to sing. “Duérmete mi niño, duérmete mi sol.” Her voice wafted softly through the air, caressing the women’s bodies with memories of long-lost tenderness. A few voices began to join in the singing. “Sleep my child, sleep my sunshine.” Angustias edged closer to the singers. “Duérmete pedazo de mi corazón.” Isabel noticed and made space for her. “Sleep, my sweetheart.” Angustias took hold of the hand of a little body, closed her eyes, and began to hum quietly to her own children. The sound of crying began to die down. Mari raised her face upwards and opened her mouth. “¡Canta, Mari! Sing, Mari, Sing!” exclaimed Isabel. More voices began to rise in unison from behind the semi-circle, filling the cell with sprays of hope and determination.

“This isn’t a lullaby,” exclaimed an old croaky voice. “This is an anthem for Miguelito!”

“¡Silencio!” A fist began to bang frantically on the door. The singing stopped. “Some people want to sleep!” shouted an angry male voice.

A moment of tense stillness. The sound of retreating footsteps. Mari resumed her rocking, humming the lullaby quietly into her lap.

“What did I tell you?”

“¡Cállate!” hissed back a voice. “Shut up, Vicenta! It did the trick didn’t it? Can’t you see how her wailing unsettles the children? I suppose that doesn’t bother you, does it?” Vicenta shrugged her shoulders.

“Come over here with me,” said Isabel, taking hold of Angustias’s hand. She signalled towards the women who were crouching up against the wall to make space. “¿Cómo te llamas?”


“Be careful. She’ll get you into trouble,” growled Vicenta.

“What’s the matter with her?” thought Angustias, eyes frowning, while she sat down on the floor next to Isabel who, without even seeing Angustias’s facial expression, responded by raising her eyebrows. There was no point replying to Vicenta and there was no space for private conversation.

Ay! The floor was wet and cold. Angustias lifted herself back up and adopted a kneeling position like Isabel who nodded with approval.

“I forgot to warn you about the pools of water. It’s drier at the other end where we sleep.”

“¡Mamá!” protested a squeaky voice amidst the row of women on the other side of the cell.

“Pass me the can,” said a weary voice. Moments later, the sound of trickling water was followed by an explosive burst of breaking wind.

“¡Mamá, mamá!” The child doubled forward clutching its belly.

“Pass me the other can!” called out the mother urgently.

“It’s full,” came a dull voice from the opposite corner.

“Ay, Jorge!” The putrid smell of defecation was inundating the cell. Angustias instinctively covered her nose and bowed her head.

“You’ll get used to it,” whispered Isabel in her ear.

“They’ve already emptied the cans today,” stated Vicenta sullenly.

“Can you just pass the can back down?” asked the mother, pulling her whimpering child towards her chest.

“I’m not touching it,” stated her neighbour. “We shouldn’t be moving this thing around. It should have stayed in the corner.”

“Can’t you see there was no time for that?” exclaimed Eva in exasperation. She stood up, took hold of the can and tiptoeing carefully through a maze of legs, reached the corner where she placed the can back down on the floor in its allocated place.

“Gracias Eva,” said Jorge’s mother.

“How come they didn’t shave your hair?” asked a young woman crouching next to Angustias who raised a hesitant hand to touch her thick black locks, as if she feared they may have already been separated from her scalp.

“It’s night time,” came the offer of a response.

“It’s a population control measure, very important for women like her!” interjected a sarcastic voice near the cell door.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Isabel.

“She’s just referring to the lice,” said Eva and kneeling back down next to Isabel, turned to look at Angustias. “Do you have any children?” Angustias’s eyes watered. “How old are they?”

“Carlos is twelve, Angel's nine, and Antonia’s just turned three.”