In her dreams, Marisol curled up in her bed and listened to the sounds of her mother elsewhere in the house. The stove crackling as she put wood on the fire; the pots clanking as she prepared breakfast; the water-pump creaking. Soft footsteps and gently-closing doors, always at the edge of her hearing. She kept her eyes closed and listened to the quiet morning sounds, trying to keep reality from intruding, to squeeze out one more minute before she had to wake up.
Morning comes no matter what, and awake she did, in a ditch, by the side of the road. Anger and shock had carried her far, farther than her body could stand; she had walked long into the night before she finally collapsed, still miles from Toledo. She didn’t know how long she’d slept, but she suspected it was a whole day gone. She stood and stretched; her body ached. She was cold and starving, and there was a sore spot on her cheek where she’d unknowingly been clutching her mother’s sword to her cheek. Her face was sticky with blood, where the untended cut on her cheek had painted her face.
Marisol’s attention was drawn by the sound of rustling in the tall grass by the road. She watched, and saw a sleek red fox regard her with its unreadable eyes, before bounding over a low hillock and into the depression beyond it. Marisol followed without thinking, her mind and body were worn out, like a rag squeezed empty, only little drips of thought and sensibility were left to her. She felt that she was still dreaming, detached from her body and being led by the strange symbols of her sleeping mind.
The fox bounded over the rise and Marisol stumbled after. She crested the hill and saw people sleeping, scattered about in the depression. They had no fire, and seemed to have no blankets or supplies with them. In between each prone body was a spike, thrust deep into the ground, and at the top…
Marisol knew she ought to be sick, that her stomach should have wrenched in horror, but something had changed deep inside her, and now even this gruesome vision could not move her.
The sleeping people were all dead, their heads removed and perched on wooden stakes. The soil here, usually dry and dusty, was thick with congealed blood. It squelched softly beneath Marisol’s boots as she approached the slack faces with their staring eyes. There was a sound, she realized, almost like a ringing in her ears, but deeper and more distant, that set her teeth on edge.
The severed heads were singing.
Their song was soft and the words were foreign, but now that Marisol had noticed it, she could hear a plaintive melody and subtle harmonies that were slowly decaying into a faint and ragged gasp. Something animated those severed heads, lent a weird and baleful light to their eyes.
There were sixteen corpses, men and women, dressed, she thought, like Spaniards. There was no one nearby, not on any of the hills that surrounded her. The ground was soft and wet with blood, but not torn apart as though there had been a fight. No weapons had been drawn. What had happened here, to kill sixteen people and leave no other mark of their passing?
Marisol was conscious of a giddiness in her stomach, a feeling that she didn’t quite understand. It shivered up and through her limbs and face, tried to crawl its way from her mouth. She wanted to laugh or cry or choke on something. The sensation hammered at her, drove her to her knees, this inchoate demand from deep within her soul to do something inexpressible.
She looked up and saw the fox on the top of the hill. It blinked at her and disappeared.
“You, girl,” a voice whispered.
One of the severed heads was speaking to her. It had belonged to and old man with a thick moustache that dropped down over the corners of his mouth. Should she be afraid? Marisol didn’t know.
“Girl,” the dead man spoke to her again.
“What happened to you,” Marisol finally croaked.
“The Medici called on us to save our homes, when the Prussians came for us. Sixteen souls we gave up, to guard our country. They taught us a song to sing that would keep us safe.”
Marisol shook her head. “The Prussians came anyway.”
“To the west. To my home.”
“Our song protects us. .The living cannot sing it.”
Marisol screamed and kicked at the stake, knocking it to the ground and sending the severed head tumbling. The others began to sing, their song clear, but still faint, just on the edge of hearing. Marisol ignored it, blotted it out with her own full-voiced rage as she tore down each stake and kicked the heads into a pile, bruising her toes on their heavy skulls.
“Please,” whispered the old dead man. “Please no, the Prussians. Without the song they will come.”
“They have already come,” Marisol snarled. “Your song means nothing to them, you mean nothing to them. The Medici mean nothing. This is all they gave you. Death, wallowing in the mud like pigs. It is as much as the Prussians would give.”
The song gave way and the last, unnatural light faded from the eyes of those empty faces.
“Nothing,” Marisol said again. “You mean nothing to them.”
The ground hardened beneath her feet, the blood-wet soil turning thick as a scab, as she climbed free of the depression. She clenched her hands and ground her teeth until she thought they would crack.
Before she reached the road, she thought she saw the fox again, out of the corner of her eye, but when she turned it was gone. As though a spell had been lifted, her anger faded, and the giddiness left her body. She felt only heaviness, the same heaviness she had carried all night long, had dragged with her towards Toledo, the heaviness of thoughts too painful to consider.
Marisol took long, deep breaths through her nose. She smelled blood and rot, and followed it back to the corpses. There she rummaged through the pockets of the dead until she found flint and tinder. She piled bodies on top of bodies and set them next to the severed heads, then tore up heaps of dry grass and packed it around them.
Marisol scraped the flint again and again until the tinder caught fire, until the grass caught fire.
“There is nothing to protect us now,” moaned the head of the old man.
“Nothing ever protected you. You were already dead, you just didn’t know it.”
“We know,” said the old man, as the flames licked his cheeks. “We will curse you for this.”
“You have no power to curse me, you are all dead.”
“The dead have the strongest curses.”
“The dead have nothing,” Marisol said, as she turned her back on the fire and made her way back towards the road.
“You will know no home!” The old man called after her. “You will know no comfort! You will have no succor! You will know nothing but suffering!”
“You are a fool,” Marisol called back. “You have only cursed me to live.”