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Sands of Time(15)
Author: Sidney Sheldon

In her youth, Dolores Pinero had been a beauty, and Graciela had inherited her mother's looks. Even as a child, Graciela was stunning to look at, with high cheekbones, an olive complexion, shiny black hair, and thick, long eyelashes. Her young body was nubile with promise.

With the passage of years, Dolores Pinero's body had turned to fat and her wonderfully boned face had become bruised with the bitter blows of time. Although she was no longer beautiful, she was accessible, and she had the reputation of being a passionate bed partner. Making love was her one talent, and she employed it to try to please men into bondage, hoping to keep them by buying their love with her body. She made a meager living as a seamstress because she was an indifferent one, and was hired only by the women of the village who could not afford better.

Dolores Pinero despised her daughter, for she was a constant reminder of the one man whom she had ever loved. Graciela's father was a handsome young mechanic who had proposed to the beautiful young Dolores, and she had eagerly let him seduce her. But when she broke the news that she was pregnant, he disappeared, leaving Dolores with the curse of his seed.

Dolores had a vicious temper, and she took out her vengeance on the child. Any time Graciela did something to displease her, her mother would hit her and scream, "You're as stupid as your father!"

There was no way for the child to escape the rain of blows or the constant screaming. Graciela would wake up every morning and pray: Please, God, don't let Mama beat me today. Please, God, make Mama happy today. Please, God, let Mama say she loves me today.

When she was not attacking Graciela, her mother ignored her. Graciela prepared her own meals and took care of her clothes. She made her lunch to take to school, and she would say to her teacher, "My mother made me empanadas today. She knows how much I like empanadas."

Or: "I tore my dress, but my mother sewed it up for me. She loves doing things for me."

Or: "My mother and I are going to a movie tomorrow."

And it would break her teacher's heart. Las Navas del Marques is a small village an hour from avila, and like all villages everywhere, everyone knew everyone else's business. The life-style of Dolores Pinero was a disgrace, and it reflected on Graciela. Mothers refused to let their children play with the little girl, lest their morals be contaminated. Graciela went to the school on Plazoleta del Cristo, but she had no friends and no playmates. She was one of the brightest students in the school, but her grades were poor. It was difficult for her to concentrate, for she was always tired.

Her teacher would admonish her, "You must get to bed earlier, Graciela, so that you are rested enough to do your work properly."

But her exhaustion had nothing to do with getting to bed late. Graciela and her mother shared a small two-room casa. The girl slept on a couch in a tiny room, with only a thin, worn curtain separating it from the bedroom. How could Graciela tell her teacher about the obscene sounds in the night that awakened her and kept her awake as she listened to her mother making love to whichever stranger happened to be in her bed?

When Graciela brought home her report card, her mother would scream, "These are the cursed grades I expected you to get, and do you know why you got these terrible grades? Because you're stupid. Stupid!"

And Graciela would believe it and try hard not to cry.

Afternoons when school was out, Graciela would wander around by herself, walking through the narrow, winding streets lined with acacia and sycamore trees, past the whitewashed stone houses, where loving fathers lived with their families. Graciela had many playmates, but they were all in her mind. There were beautiful girls and handsome boys, and they invited her to all their parties, where they served wonderful cakes and ice cream. Her imaginary friends were kind and loving, and they all thought she was very smart. When her mother was not around, Graciela would carry on long conversations with them.

Would you help me with my homework, Graciela? I don't know how to do sums, and you're so good at them.

What shall we do tonight, Graciela? We could go to a movie, or walk into town and have a Coca-Cola.

Will your mother let you come to dinner tonight, Graciela? We're having paella.

No, I'm afraid not. Mother gets lonely if I'm not with her. I'm all she has, you know.

On Sundays, Graciela rose early and dressed quietly, careful not to awaken her mother and whichever uncle was in her bed, and walked to the San Juan Bautista Church, where Father Perez talked of the joys of life after death, a fairy-tale life with Jesus; and Graciela could not wait to die and meet Jesus.

Father Perez was an attractive priest in his early forties. He had ministered to the rich and the poor, the sick and the vital, since he had come to Las Navas del Marques several years earlier, and there were no secrets in the little village to which he was not privy. Father Perez knew Graciela as a regular churchgoer, and he too was aware of the stories of the constant stream of strangers who shared Dolores Pinero's bed. It was not a fit home for a young girl, but there was nothing anyone could do about it. It amazed the priest that Graciela had turned out as well as she had. She was kind and gentle and never complained or talked about her home life.

Graciela would appear at church every Sunday morning wearing a clean, neat outfit that he was sure she had washed herself. Father Perez knew she was shunned by the other children in town, and his heart went out to her. He made it a point to spend a few moments with her after the service each Sunday, and when he had time, he would take her to a little cafe for a treat of helado.

In the winter Graciela's life was a dreary landscape, monotonous and gloomy. Las Navas del Marques was in a valley surrounded by mountains, and because of that, the winters were six months long. The summers were easier to bear, for then the tourists arrived and filled the town with laughter and dancing, and the streets came alive. The tourists would gather at the Plaza de Manuel Delgado Barredo, with its little bandstand built on stone, and listen to the orchestra and watch the natives dance the sardana, the centuries-old traditional folk dance, barefoot, their hands linked as they moved gracefully around in a colorful circle. Graciela watched the visitors as they sat at the sidewalk cafes drinking aperitivos or shopping at the pescaderia - the fish market - or the farmacia. At one o'clock in the afternoon the bodega was always filled with tourists drinking chateo and picking at tapas - seafood, olives, and chips.

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