Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Hush, Plate 28 from Los Caprichios, 1797/99
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Hush, Plate 28 from Los Caprichios, 1797/99

Doña Dolores was a wretched woman. Close to the end of her days, she lived in a little hut on top of a hill overlooking the valley, five kilometers away from the village center of Santa Cruz. She lived alone next to her enclosure of chickens, protected only by an old, mangy dog she fed scraps from her own plate and the thick, insidious woods surrounding that hill. On Sundays she made the long trip down into the village with a satchel full of eggs and entered the tiny church just in time for mass. People avoided sitting near her. She never took communion.

Every week, right before the ceremony’s end, she picked up her satchel and slipped out of the church to sit on the plaza just across the building’s entrance with her eggs displayed for sale. As the townsfolk exited their church, week after week they were met with the same sagging face, the same warty nose, and that repulsive smile lined with rotting teeth. Somehow, despite this, she sold all her eggs each time.

With the little money she earned this way, Dolores spent the rest of her Sunday buying grain for her chickens, one bag of coffee, one bag of rice, and one bag of beans. Bands of children spied at her from behind trees and around street corners as she crept through town. They took to calling her the Witch of Santa Cruz. Those kids who knew were keen to keep their distance for fear that she might snatch them and chop them up and feed them in bits to her flesh-eating hens. Despite this, they always watched on in frightful curiosity to see if she might fly or vanish or give some evidence of their suspicion. Dolores, wholly unaware of these rumors, only ever smiled at the children if they crossed her gaze. Those that did almost always sprinted away.

The adults of Santa Cruz were not as interested in the old woman. People that did buy their eggs from her did so discretely and out of convenience. Most of those that had known her back when she was young, when she had a family, had long since died. Some older ladies of the town, the wives and mothers of ranchers, did sometimes gossip in their circles, wondering what it was she did all week up on her hill.

“Communes with the dead,” one said one time, right as Dolores walked by. They watched her frown and shuffle on.

“Why bother,” another said, “If she’s joining them soon!”

If not an object of fear or laughter, to the rest of Santa Cruz, Dolores was no more than an ugly specter—that half-deaf hag that floated through each Sunday.

After her afternoon of errands it was normal for Dolores to haul her loaded satchel back up the hill with no more money to spare, but on occasion she would end the day with some change left in her apron’s pocket. So it was one balmy Sunday when she dug into her pocket and pulled out three coins. When she saw these, she looked up to the corner where she thought she had noticed children earlier, but they weren’t there anymore. She hardly ever kept these coins. Most times she left them to the beggars, those few members of the town that never turned their faces away when she walked by. She put the coins back in her pocket and shuffled into a nearby store. The clerk behind the counter — a young, clean-shaven man — looked her up and down. He frowned.

“What do you want.”

Dolores walked up to him. Behind him was a shelf displaying cigarettes, matches, and playing cards. On the counter sat a wooden box for cash. To the left of that, a set of glass boxes one top of the other, packed with hard candy of different flavors — caramel, mint, orange. She eyed these and wet her mouth.

“Well what is it? If you aren’t buying anything you need to leave.”

She lifted a bony finger and pointed to the caramel candies, “Could I have some of these? Here — ” she took out her three coins, “I have this much.”

The man took her money and gave her a small handful of the candies.

“Thank you, dear.”

The man turned his eyes down. “Goodbye,” he said and walked away.

The old woman stepped back out into the street and checked again in case the children had returned, but they hadn’t. She put the handful of candy in her pocket. As she turned in the direction of her house, she noticed a young boy walking down the sidewalk towards her, a few paces ahead of his mother. He held a stick in one hand and kept his attention on the ground as he whacked it and swung at it while walking. Dolores took a candy from her pocket and walked up to the boy. She reached her hand out and offered it.

He looked up at her confused.

Dolores wet her lips and smiled. As the boy went to take the candy, his mother rushed forward and slapped it out of her hand.

“Get that away from him!” she shouted. The piece of candy fell on the ground. “David don’t you touch that. That was dirty to begin with.” She grabbed her son’s hand.

“Stay away from my son.” She yanked her boy’s arm and walked away.