The Baker of El Mujandar
The knocking grew louder, breaking through the silence in the small village of El Mujandar in the southern Spanish province of Cordoba. Unlike her much larger cousin, the great city of Cordoba, nothing ever happened in this small pueblo in the north of a region covered in wall-to-wall olive groves. The village did not get the holidaymakers of the Costa del Sol on the Mediterranean, and most young people had fled years ago. Like thousands in Spain, it was a village - slowly dying. In the early morning, the only sound was a dog barking in the distance—no more crying babies in a place where the average age was north of retirement. Much had changed in the past fifty years.
At the sound of the pounding on the door, Loli tensed, nearly spilling the coffee she was quietly drinking. Old habits die hard, she thought. But Franco’s fascists were long gone. There were no secret police anymore. Loli was already awake and sitting at the old kitchen table before the pounding began. And not because she and her husband of more than 50 years, Xoan, had to get up before the sun rose to start the ovens for their bakery downstairs. Long ago, they had turned the business over to the new baker, who lived in a flat lived across the road. But Loli knew why she couldn’t sleep. Ghosts.
How Xoan had slept through the racket outside, she could not imagine. Securing her old chenille robe, she checked her grey hair in the mirror in the hall. But it was just before sunrise, and there was scant demand for 75-year-old, five-foot-tall supermodels in El Mujandar at any hour.
‘Tranquila. I am coming.’ She assured whoever was pounding their house down. ‘I’m an old woman.’
With swollen knuckles on her brown freckled hands, she turned the key in the new door their son, Diego, had arranged for them on one of the few visits he made from Valencia the year before. They rarely saw him or his children. It broke her heart and was something of which husband and wife rarely spoke. The rift between her son, Diego, and his father cut too deep.
On the other side of the door stood three men in the green uniforms of the Guardia Civil. Loli’s first thought was for Diego. Had there been an accident? Is that what these men had come to tell them? Searching their faces, she clutched her heart and held her breath. It was a moment before the men spoke. One of them took off his hat in deference to her age. And she supposed the time of day. The sky was just beginning to brighten. Loli stepped aside to allow the men to enter the small sitting room.
‘Buenos días, Señora. ¿Are you Doña Dolores Maria Molino Castro?’
Loli frowned and nodded. But it was not yet light. Perhaps he should have wished her Buenas Noches. ‘Sì. Is this about my son?’ she asked, searching their faces for some clue while clutching her old robe.
The one doing the talking shook his head.
‘No, Señora. We need to see your husband. Don Xoan Manuel Diaz Álvarez. Is he at home?’
Loli looked up at these three men towering over her. What would they want with Xoan after all these years?
‘At five o’clock in the morning?’ She asked them. ‘Where else would he be?’
‘Please, Señora.’ Said the leader.
‘My husband is asleep.’ She told them, turning towards the bedroom. ‘I will get him.’
‘No need.’ A voice came from the darkness. A fully dressed Xoan emerged from the bedroom, buttoning the last button on his worn plaid shirt. ‘I know why you are here.’ He said, turning to his wife. ‘It’s OK.’ Reaching out and squeezing her hand.
The three police officers looked down at the small older man who stood before them. One of them cleared his throat. The men appeared ashamed as they saw their fathers and grandfathers in the elderly baker. It had been unnecessary for three strong men to collect this dangerous criminal in the early morning hours. Any one of them could have picked up the shrunken man and carried him to the car by himself.
‘Don Xoan.’ Said the officer in charge, coughing nervously before continuing. ‘I am arresting you for murder. You have the right to legal representation. And you have the right to be silent so as not to incriminate yourself. Do you understand?’
‘No!’ shouted Loli
Xoan nodded, putting his hands in front of him so the police could place the handcuffs on his wrists. Like he had seen on tv. The youngest officer pulled out the bracelets, but his older partner shook his head.
Loli began to shake, and one of the men pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and helped her sit down before she fell. Another got her a glass of water as she shook her head in disbelief.
‘No! You can’t take him now after all these years. Just leave him alone. He has done nothing wrong.’ She pleaded. ‘He is an old man.’
Xoan crossed the room and held her hand before kissing her on the cheek.
‘It’s all right. We knew this time would come, eventually.’
The young officer took Xoan by the arm and led him towards the door. He looked back at his wife, still sitting in the chair with tears pouring down her cheeks. There was nothing left to say as they led him down the stairs and onto the street.
With their blue lights flashing, the police commotion awakened the entire village, who stood outside their homes in their pajamas and robes, watching their friend, Xoan, placed in the Guardia Civil car. The gawkers included the old butcher, Hector, who watched as his oldest rival disappeared inside the vehicle. Satisfied that they were taking him away, Hector turned his cane and, with a smile, limped back across the plaza towards home.
Diego sat in his office in Valencia, on the Mediterranean coast, overlooking the Gran Via Boulevard. It was a busy day ahead, and he directed his assistant not to disturb him for any reason. As a civil rights lawyer, Diego had a significant case coming up before Spain’s Supreme Court. He needed as much time to prepare as possible. Nevertheless, the office phone buzzed.
‘Please, Pilar.’ He called out while typing away. ‘I don’t have time to talk to anyone today.’
‘I understand. But it sounds important. Your mother’s on the phone. She is crying.’
Important? Had the old man died? That did not seem possible. His father was fine the last time he had visited. When was that? He could not precisely remember. He had gone alone without his wife, Karen, and their twin sons. Karen was British. She didn’t love Andalusia. And she liked village life even less. He always went alone when he visited, even if he took the kids.
Diego took a deep breath and pushed the light for line one.
‘Bueno Dias, Mama. I was just thinking about you.’ He lied. ‘Is everything OK?’
He already knew the answer. His mother had stopped calling him for every little thing long ago. Begging him to visit was not her style. Besides, she knew why he rarely made the time.
‘Your father has been arrested. We need you to come. Today.’
Diego stopped typing and took off his glasses. He could barely process the words she was speaking. Arrested? His father? Then his legal training kicked in like muscle memory.
‘What is the charge?’ He asked his mother. ‘When did this happen?’
‘At five o’clock this morning. The police are holding your father in Cordoba on the charge of murder. You know I cannot drive, and under the circumstances, I will not debase myself asking a neighbor to take me. You are his son. And you are a lawyer. We need you, Diego. He needs you.’
Searching the cerulean sky over the large Mexican palms lining the wide boulevard of the Gran Via, Diego was at a loss. He and his father had their big blowout many years back, and they had never resolved their relationship. He only visited El Mujandar – where he was born - because of his mother. Now she wanted him to help the old man. Diego could think of nothing he would prefer to do less.
‘Mama. Any other time and I would be happy to come. Right now, in fact. But I am in the midst of a big case. And besides, I am not a lawyer who handles murder or criminal law.’
He heard her sharp intake of breath.
‘Your father is not a murderer. Nor a criminal.’ She coolly reminded her son. ‘It’s a mistake.’
Diego knew what his father was capable of, but he needed his mother to calm down.
‘A criminal lawyer in Cordoba would be much more adept at lodging a defense.’ Diego assured her.
‘I don’t think there will be any lodging of a defense. Your father plans to plead guilty. You need to come and talk to him, Diego.’ Loli begged her only child. ‘You are the one person he will listen to.’
Diego scoffed at that. He was the last person his father would listen to and the last person who wanted to speak with the old man.
‘Mama. I am about to go before the Supreme Court to argue an important case. Today is Wednesday. I wouldn’t be able to get there before Monday, at the earliest.’
‘Not even for your father.’ It was not a question.
Diego took a deep breath. ‘Let me see what I can do. But I will talk to the lawyer the court assigns him in Cordoba. To keep him from doing something stupid, like confessing, before I get there.’
He said goodbye, then returned to the brief he was preparing, trying to put the problem of Xoan out of his mind. Diego had learned a long time ago that his father was not all he appeared to be. Perhaps, this was the moment Don Xoan would have to pay for his choices all those years ago.
Loli sat in the visitor’s room at the city jail in Cordoba, waiting for them to bring out her husband so that she could see his face for the first time since his arrest. The lawyer assigned to him had driven her, and she hoped they could talk Xoan into waiting until Diego arrived before deciding on his defense.
After what seemed like hours, Xoan appeared, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, assisted by a guard who helped her husband settle into a chair. It was just like a scene from their favorite crime shows they watched every week. At that moment, Loli vowed never to watch them again.
‘How are you, my love?’ Xoan asked her. As if they were meeting over coffee and would leave together to enjoy the lunch she had already prepared.
‘I am not well, Xoan. You are in jail.’ She reminded him.
‘I am aware of that.’ Turning to the second person at the table. ‘Perdona, Señora. And you are?’ He asked the woman sitting next to his wife.
‘This is the lawyer from the court. Señora Martinez.’ Loli told him. ‘She is going to help you.’
‘Buenos Dias.’ Xoan shook the woman’s hand. ‘Thank you for coming.’
‘Buenos Dias, Señor Don Xoan. It’s my pleasure. Now we need to discuss the charges and how we will plead during the arraignment.’ Señora Martinez explained. ‘Then we can develop the strategy around a vigorous defense.’
But Xoan just waved his hand. ‘I do not plan to launch a vigorous defense. I plan to plead guilty.’
Loli threw up her hands.
‘Ay Ay Ay. You cannot plead guilty!’ Loli shouted; looking over at the guard, she lowered her voice. ‘You are not guilty. You didn’t kill anyone!’
‘On that, we will have to disagree, my dear.’
Señora Martinez stepped in. ‘We need to see the evidence they have and discover the details behind the charges. I do not want you to plead guilty for something when we are not sure what they have on you.’
‘I know what they have.’ Said Xoan. ‘I know my own history, my life, better than anyone.’
‘Not better than me.’ whispered Loli.
Xoan reached over and squeezed her hand.
‘They are arraigning you on Friday. We just need to enter the plea, and then we will go through the discovery process and prepare for trial. I can walk you through it.’ offered the lawyer.
‘I don’t need to prepare. I am pleading guilty. That is my decision.’
Tears fell on Loli’s wrinkled cheeks as Xoan called for the guard. The session with the lawyer was over.
Diego’s phone rang as he was sitting down for dinner. His wife, Karen, made a face. She did not allow phones at the table. But he was arguing before the Supreme Court, something for which she was extremely proud and bragged about incessantly to all her friends. Sometimes exceptions had to be made. Taking his phone from his pocket, he excused himself to his study before answering the call.
‘Buenos Tardes, Señor Diaz. My name is Esperanza Martinez. The court has assigned me your father’s case. After speaking with your mother, I wanted to introduce myself and see if there is any way we can work together on the matter of your father.’
‘How is it going so far?’ Diego asked her. ‘Or should I ask?’
‘Well, your father is a stubborn man.’
‘Tell me about it.’ Diego ran his hand through his hair. ‘What’s going on? You met with them both, right?’
‘I met with them. Your mother seems reasonable. Your father is determined to plead guilty on Friday.’
‘What?! Why would he do that?’ asked Diego, pacing the length of his study. ‘Listen. He and I are not close. But he is not a murderer.’
‘Well, you should tell him that. Because for some reason, he believes he is guilty.’
‘I will call my mother again.’ Diego assured her.
‘You can try. But it seems Dona Loli holds no sway over Don Xoan. During our meeting at the jail, she begged him to change his mind. The arraignment is in less than two days.’
Diego looked at his watch reflexively.
‘How well do you know your father?’ asked Esperanza. ‘I mean, really. How well?
That was a good question, thought Diego. Until he was twenty-five, they had been close. A hard worker, Diego had always respected his father. Xoan ran the only bakery in the village for fifty years, rising at 4 am to fire up the ovens. Diego could still smell the baking bread that wafted up from below. He woke to it each morning until he left for university. His father was always in the bakery with his mother. As a boy, Diego knew he could count on him to be there every day after school. Fresh baked warm cookies would be waiting for him. He knew his father made them special for him. That was, up until that day when he came home from law school and discovered the truth.
‘I can’t go there until Monday.’ Diego explained. ‘It’s impossible. I have a case.’
‘Well.’ Esperanza informed him. ‘Monday will be too late. Xoan is pleading guilty, and there is nothing I can do to stop him.’
The judge gavelled those assembled to order and called the Public Prosecutor to state the case before the court. Loli sat on a bench behind the table where Xoan huddled with his lawyer. Señora Martinez was still attempting to convince him to change his plea as the judge called them to order, and the prosecutor stood to address the court in her black robe.
‘We, representing the city and the people of Cordoba and the province of Cordoba in the Community of Andalusia, charge Don Xoan Manuel Diaz Álvarez with the crimes of Capital Murder and Criminal Coercion. The accused is found, with reasonable evidence, to be guilty of committing said murder and using means of coercion to cover his crime. The Public Prosecutor asks that, while the defendant is an elderly individual, he should be held in custody until trial due to the heinous nature and the length of the crime. Thank you, su Señora.’
The Public Prosecutor sat down as the judge turned to the defense.
‘Señora Martinez. How does your client answer these profoundly serious charges?’
Esperanza opened her mouth to speak just as the doors of the court flew open, and Diego entered with his silk robes flying. The judge did not appear pleased.
‘My apologies, su Señora.’ He said, out of breath. ‘I am running a bit late.’
‘Apparently.’ The judge said sarcastically. ‘Can we move forward now? I have a full docket.’
‘Of course.’ said his lawyer. ‘I just need one moment with Don Xoan, and we can enter his plea.’
‘One minute. No more.’
Diego turned to his father as Esperanza stepped aside.
‘Please, Papa. Do not plead guilty.’ He whispered. ‘We need to talk about this. You can plead guilty later, but you can’t take it back if you do it now.’ He begged. ‘Please. For me.’
Diego knew he wasn’t playing fair. He and his father had barely spoken in all the years since the blow-up. And now, at this terrible moment, he was asking his father to do something for him. Diego was not entirely sure the gamble would pay off. But when Xoan looked up into his son’s face, Diego saw something change. Xoan leaned over to Esperanza and whispered. The lawyer straightened up and smiled.
‘I am sorry for the delay, su Señora. My client, Don Xoan Manuel Diaz Álvarez, pleads Not Guilty.’