The earthquake that never happened
He deceived them all. And they, like fools kneeling before his big eyes, nodded in unison. After his usual cup of milk, he would open his mouth and lick his whiskers. Everybody would gather in a circle intently staring ahead. A tanned lady would sit on a stool next to him. She had hair that looked almost ghostly in its bloodless colour. All this was done as usual. Then, a strangled silence would reign over everything else.
Everybody was present: from children to superstitious grandmothers that had dragged their reluctant but curious family along. The whole village had gathered in that damp, aged room. It moaned laments of dying wood and unwashed walls, and in this moment of trepidation, the minds and souls of the village people were put to ease. Words of insults and unnecessary quarrels between families had never bounced between these walls.
I, on the other hand, watched him from behind the crowd. I was stretched out with my back against the wall. Columns of sunlight filtered into the room, like golden syrup smoothly dripping down from the windows. My nose and paws gently bathed in the soft warmth the sun provided. My gaze lingered on him and he, in return, closed his gemstone emerald eyes slowly towards my direction. It was a wink.
I felt like laughing right there, right at that moment: I craved for the feeling of producing a long fragmented meow, while my belly would jolt up and down in a bundle of nerves. For the moment, he had to contain his own laughter as well, knowing that only after everybody – satisfied – had left the room, he could unleash his crazed giggles.
“Speak, prince of wisdom. Unravel fate’s plans before us. I beg you, tell us today’s prophecy. ” huffed out the village’s old man. He had stepped forward with little balance, and when he spoke, his wrinkles would fold over each other; akin to a dried grape. “Little Grape …” the youngsters of the crowd chimed in murmurs of knowledge. Everyone called him Little Grape or Little Dry Grape – with affection – of course.
The old man was given this name because he was very small: his legs measured half of what would be considered average. He was born a dwarf and there was nothing he could do about it. Even the old grannies with their rare spices and suspicious voodoo spells had not managed to stretch his legs longer. And so, he had to live with his nine-year-old looking body for ninety years.
Meanwhile, the so-called “Prince of wisdom” emitted a sound so guttural and riotous, that his face twisted into thousands of asymmetric frowns. His face looked like an unwanted crumpled up map. The tanned lady with white hair snapped her eyes open. Her black pupils widened and weaved into her ebony irises. Her mouth opened to form a perfect ‘o’ shape. Her hands clutched the fabric of her immense skirt. She clenched her jaw and gritted her tobacco-stained teeth with such tremendous force that everybody held their breath.
“What did he say, Zia Roja? What did he say? “Asked the little ones, exploding with childish curiosity. The lady, Zia Roja, with her eyes to the ceiling and hands before her, kissed her thumb and crossed her heart with quivering fingertips.
“The prince of wisdom … has just announced that there will be an earthquake …Tonight… A tremendous one! … Just awful!” The words of Zia Roja were a river of continuous fragmented gushes, as she tried to control her breathing.
“She’s really done it this time.” I thought to myself as I shook my head.
That old lady genuinely thought that she could decipher that cat’s meows. Honestly, who did she think she was? Andalusia’s sun must have completely, simply and truly fried her brain. That was it, and that was what my brother told me – the honoured cat prince of wisdom – when I asked him for bits and pieces of information about the lady with the skin too dark for her hair.
While the whole village was panicking, my brother had managed to sneak away from the limelight, leaving the room and stepping into the Spanish scorching two o’clock sun. I thought about following him, but decided to stay just for the fun.
She remained calmer than ever, without disconnecting her body from the wooden chair. It was almost as if Zia Roja and the chair had become one only item. Parents were babbling sceptical questions in an immaculate Spanish dialect towards Zia Roja. She assured everyone that what the “prophet” had said was the truth and only the crystalline truth.
Suddenly, Zia Roja managed to silence the distressed crowd by doing one thing: she fainted.
There was a brief pause – then noise in the room doubled and continued to double. Everyone started pouncing on Zia Roja like ravages, more worried for their unanswered questions than for her fragile health as a smoker.
We were behind a fruit stall laughing like two fools. We were taking shade under the dancing shadows of merchants.
“Now you will see what a mess tonight will be. “I tried to scold him, but my laughter kept interrupting me.
Throughout the day, several people in the village had come to visit my brother. They were all in a hurry, with eyes full of concern, and mouths that moved faster than hands. My brother could not help but look at them and occasionally emit a meow.
At four o’clock, the news that the school had closed early because of the hypothetical earthquake weaved its way through family gossip. The village – which was usually teeming with competition among those who could sell most goods – was, for the first time, in complete sync. Mothers helped each other in gathering their children: no longer fighting over who had prepared the best cake. The farmers exchanged bags of fruit to take away, instead of arguing over lost customers. The superstitious grandmothers had even gathered under a palm tree, where they had laid Zia Roja. They were working together, exchanging different formulas in order to perform a ritual that would awake the unconscious one.
The night came early and everyone was still shocked. The whole village had taken refuge in their respective houses, waiting. My brother and I had followed Zia Roja, which had woken up in the house – whether it was thanks to the rituals, nobody knows. We were there with a couple of village representatives. They were all sitting on the wooden tiles that blurred under the light of all the oil lamps. From the small window, you could see the old ladies on the street holding hands to form a circle, as they murmured vague spells towards the sky. Nobody questioned what they were doing. The history of this village in Andalusia was the oldest of all other villages that were scattered through Spain. It had always been intertwined with magical appearances and strange omens: everybody knew it. With the logic of being “better safe than sorry”, the representatives of the small village had reluctantly allowed the superstitious old ladies to continue with their practices.
It was three in the morning, and the Spanish breeze was not strong enough to even move a leaf, and even less to let anyone foretell the coming of an earthquake. Baffled faces looked out of the window and glanced at their neighbours, which were as doubly confused as they were.
Slowly and precariously, people came out of their homes and gathered in the plaza. Everybody expected something from Zia Roja. And so we followed her there. My brother came forward as well. All eyes were focused on him. Uvino stood up as he had done the first time and said,
“Speak, prince of wisdom. Unravel fate’s plans before us. I beg you, tell us today’s prophecy. ”
My brother did not know what else to do so, once more, he meowed. It was a short dry sound, as if he himself had been annoyed by the whole situation long time before.
After a moment, Zia Roja looked up and into the faces of the crowd, which were thirsty for the truth and tired from the lack of sleep.
“He said that, all that he wanted before, was some food. That’s it.” Proclaimed Zia Roja, this time with her eyes fixed on her shoes.
Everybody started to wail, while bursting into tears of exasperation and delight. It was a unique upheaval, and I had never seen them so happy before.