Fiction from the Left

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El Malpaís


El Malpaís

(The Badlands)

A Modern Folk Tale from the Left

Episode 3: Cerro Hoya

(Previously in El Malpaís: Oskar, our intrepid time traveler and vision quester, explored El Calderon, a journey that took him back to prehistoric times and almost cost him his life. Undaunted in the pursuit of his vision, the morning after he returned from the first Tubo de Tiempo he descended into the second lava tube—Cerro Hoya.)

El Malpaís

The river of fire that produced Cerro Hoya was much more powerful than the one that created El Calderon. This Tubo de Tiempo was over twice as long and, consequently, Oskar decided to stop halfway and rest. He spent a cold and lonely night in the dark thinking about what had happened in El Calderon and wondering what was to come.

El Malpaís

Castles and Kings

At first glance the scene that presented itself at the exit of Cerro Hoya appeared idyllic. A vast, verdant forest stretched towards the horizon and in the distance a medieval castle towered over the countryside.

“Maybe,” Oskar thought out loud, “this is the fabled land of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.”

He noticed a road cutting through the woods in the direction of the castle.

“So go find out,” he urged himself.

El Malpaís

The first human being that Oskar saw in the land at the end of Cerro Hoya was a young man about his own age hoeing weeds in a field not far from the castle that dominated the countryside. When Oskar hailed the boy and approached him the lad stepped back. Oskar extended his hand but the young man just looked at it.

“I don’t know you.”

“And I don’t know you,” Oskar replied, smiling and offering his hand again. “My name is Oskar.”

“My name’s Todd. I can see by your rough hands and manner that you’re the son of a peasant like me.”

He laid his hoe aside and took Oscar’s hand.

“I am the son of a farmer,” declared Oscar. “I’ve worked on the land my family owns since I was a little boy.”

Your family owns the land?” Todd was incredulous. “All of this,” he indicated the surrounding fields and buildings, “belongs to Sir Andrew, the Baron of Greenbriar. Everyone on the estate works for him and his family.”

Todd looked towards the castle with angry eyes:

 “Wasn’t always like this,” he muttered.

“What did you say?” asked Oskar.

“It wasn’t always like this,” the peasant said out loud. “In my grandfather’s day these fields were commons. Everybody in the village except the old and infirm worked the fields and shared the bounty. Everyone who was able went to the forest to gather wood for building and burning. Everyone was taken care of.”

“What happened?”

“The conquest happened. After the invasion Sir Andrew’s father and his knights showed up and took possession of it all. They had a land grant from King William. They took all of our land and cattle—and all our pretty girls.”

Todd spit on the ground.

“Did the people fight back?”

Todd shrugged.

“Fight they did, but they had no weapons. Once Sir Andrew’s father had subdued the peasants he made them build a palisade out of logs for him and his soldiers to hide behind. After it mysteriously burned down, he had them build a castle of stone—the very one that stands there now.”

Oskar looked up at the towering castle and then back at the peasant boy.

“Why don’t you go somewhere and establish your own farm?”

“There’s nowhere to go. The whole country belongs to the king—even the forest that you passed through to get here. We can’t even pick up fallen branches for firewood. Only the men who fought with the king or supplied troops or money for his armies were given land and titles. The rest of us have to work for their heirs. There’s no other way to live.”

Oskar looked around and spotted other men and women laboring in the fields and orchards and tending stock in the pastures.

He noticed a cluster of peasant’s huts between the stock barns and pig pens. The squalid shacks contrasted sharply with the stately castle.

“How can Sir Andrew make the people live like this?”

“You’re about to find out,” said Todd, pointing up the road that led to the castle.

El Malpaís

The approaching figure was formidable—he was a heavy-set man armed with a broad sword and buckler and mounted on a spirited charger. The war horse snorted and pawed the ground when the rider pulled it up in front of the boys.

The peasant boy bowed his head under the steely gaze of the mounted knight.

“Top of the morning, Sir Gawain,” Todd muttered.

Gawain nodded and shifted his attention to Oskar.

“And who might you be?” demanded the knight.

“My name is Oskar.”

“Where are you from?”

“A place far away,” said Oscar, unintimidated by the soldier glaring down at him, “and another time.”

“Like to speak in riddles, do you boy?”

Todd nudged Oskar’s arm to shush him.

The knight sharpened his tone: “What are you doing here?”

“Just traveling through.”

“Not through Greenbriar, boy. Show me your hands.”

Oskar refused to comply.

“Not an outside agitator, are you?” demanded the knight. “Come to stir up a peasant revolt at Greenbriar, have you?”

Oskar realized it didn’t matter what he said so he didn’t respond.

“I’ll take you to Sir Andrew,” the knight announced after a moment. “My Lord will know what to do with you.”

Sir Gawain spurred his charger between the boys and steered Oskar towards the castle. The knight called back over his shoulder:

“You’d best get back to work, young Todd. I’ll be keeping a sharp eye on you.”

With clenched fists and hate in his heart, the peasant boy watched until the knight and Oskar disappeared through the castle gate.

After they were out of sight he spit on the ground again and picked up his hoe.

El Malpaís

“Sir Andrew’s been known to kill his own men if they anger him. Seen it with my own eyes,” Gawain warned Oskar as they approached the great room inside the castle. “He’ll kill the likes of you in a heartbeat, so mind your tongue when you speak to him.”

Sir Andrew, the Baron of Greenbriar, presented a striking contrast to the burly Gawain. The baron, who had long slender fingers that matched his build, looked up from his writing desk and peered at Gawain and Oskar through watery blue eyes.

Oskar had a difficult time picturing the man as a cold-blooded killer.

“What have we here?” asked Sir Andrew.

“A runaway peasant from the looks of him, My Lord,” the knight replied. “Maybe an outside agitator. I caught him down in the fields talking to that boy Todd.”

Sir Andrew got up and stepped around his desk.

“Where are you from, boy?”


“Never heard of it. Is Colorado an estate?”

“No, sir,” replied Oskar. “Colorado is a territory.”

“Where were you going when my man intercepted you?”

“Nowhere in particular. I’m on a vision quest.”

“Looking for a position, are you? You sound bright enough. Do you read and write?”

“I do,” Oskar said.

“Can you do sums and numbers?”

“Yes I can.”

“It’s all so tedious,” the baron motioned to the stack of papers on his writing desk. “I can offer you a position as my bookkeeper. I must keep track of the taxes I pay the King. Don’t want to overpay,” he winked at Oskar, “if you know what I mean.

“You’ll live in the castle,” continued Sir Andrew, “You’ll eat well, and never have to work in a field again.”

“I don’t think so, sir.”

“Something a little more exciting?  Can’t say I blame you,” Sir Andrew turned to his trusty knight. “Perhaps, Gawain, you can make a soldier of him?”

Gawain looked the boy over.

“Suppose I could,” he said. “He certainly looks stout enough.”

Gawain clamped his huge hand on Oskar’s shoulder.

“What say you, boy? Do you want to train and serve under me?”

Oskar pulled away.

“I won’t be a soldier. I won’t kill for any man.”

Gawain turned away in disgust.

“He’s not man enough!” he sneered.

Sir Andrew’s eyes narrowed and he moved towards Oskar.

“Every man must serve someone—it’s the law of the land. My peasants and knights serve me and I serve the king.”

“And who does the king serve?” the boy asked.

The baron was nonplussed.

“The King serves…,” he sputtered—then he raised his voice. “You don’t question me, boy!”

Oskar stared steadily at the baron who hesitated for a second and then abruptly strode to Gawain and pulled the knight’s sword from its sheath. Sir Andrew moved towards Oskar but his knight stepped in front of him.

“Hold, My Lord!” said Gawain. “You know the Archbishop doesn’t condone killing a peasant without cause.”

Sir Andrew glared at Gawain for a minute and then turned away and threw the sword against the wall where it clattered to the floor.

“Get him out of here, Gawain. Take him to the Archbishop and see if His Excellency has any use for him.”

Gawain retrieved his sidearm and motioned Oskar to the door.

“Pigs!” Sir Andrew hissed as soon as the knight and his detainee left the great room.

The Baron sat back down at his writing table and began shuffling through the stack of papers again.  After a minute he dropped them and stood up. He walked to the window and gazed out over Greenbriar.

They’re all pigs!” he muttered.

El Malpaís

The First Estate

“Your Excellency,” Sir Gawain bowed low and pushed Oskar in front of the archbishop. “Sir Andrew thinks this lad’s a peasant agitator and wants to kill him.”

The Archbishop was an elegant man. Trim and bedecked in the elaborate costume of his office and seated on his throne, he looked down at Oskar and waited for the obeisance due him.

Sir Gawain cuffed the boy on the side of his head and prodded him: “Bow down to His Grace, boy! Kiss his ring!”

When Oskar didn’t bend, Father Tomas, a sour-faced man with pursed lips and tonsured hair standing behind the archbishop, rushed forward and knocked him to his knees.

The archbishop rose to his feet, stepped down from his throne, waved the priest back, and addressed the boy in a gentle voice:

“Rise, my son. Father Tomas is a bit over-zealous at times.”

The archbishop dismissed Sir Gawain and turned back to Oskar who had regained his feet.

“Your name?”


“Are you a peasant agitator?”


“No, Your Excellency!” Father Tomas corrected the boy.

The archbishop silenced the priest with a raised hand and spoke to the boy:

“Do you think peasants should be free?”

“Of course I do,” said Oskar. “I think all men should be free.”

“Well that settles that,” the archbishop smiled and nodded. “You are an agitator.”

Father Tomas nodded his agreement.

“If you say so,” Oskar shrugged.

The archbishop stared at the boy long and hard.

“I can’t tell whether you’re very bright or a total idiot.”

When Oskar didn’t respond the archbishop lost his composure: “Do you have any idea who you are standing before?”

“Everyone calls you archbishop.”

“I am the most powerful man in this country,” proclaimed the cleric. He turned to Father Tomas who bowed his head.

“Sir Andrew maintains that the king is the most powerful man in the land,” said Oskar.

“Of course he does,” the archbishop turned back and huffed. “But the King and all the other members of the nobility bow down and kiss my ring when they come before me.”

The archbishop twisted the garish gold ring on his finger to make sure that Oskar saw it.

“You see, my son, Sir Andrew is mistaken about the power of the monarch of this land. The Church is the first estate in this country.  It is the Church that teaches the peasants obedience and service. The king is powerful but he would lose control of the peasantry without the Church and he knows it. The king claims to rule by divine right but I am the source of that divine right. It was I who placed the crown upon his head and the scepter in his hand.”

The archbishop paused and waited for a reaction.

“The king gets his authority from the sword,” said Oskar. “Where does yours come from?”

“From God!” the archbishop proclaimed. “I am the representative of God in this country!”

Oskar looked the archbishop in the eye.

“Nonsense,” he said.

What did you say?”


The archbishop staggered backwards and the priest leaped forward to his defense. Father Tomas’s face flushed red and his eyes narrowed.

The cleric hissed into Oskar’s face:

“Give him to me, Your Grace! I know what do with heretics!”

The archbishop climbed back on his throne and waved Father Tomas toward the door.

“You are the official Inquisitor of the Church. Take this peasant away and do your job.”

El Malpaís

The Archbishop’s Mother

“Do you know what it is?” the priest asked Oskar whose hands had been bound behind his back. They were standing in the middle of a chamber in the prison tower before a rectangular wooden frame raised from the floor. It was fitted with a roller and handle at one end. There were ropes with loops attached to both the roller and the foot of the frame.
Oskar had figured out at a glance what the device was but didn’t say anything.

“It’s the Rack,” said Father Tomas with a gleam in his eye. “I call her the Archbishop’s Mother because once she embraces you she makes you stand tall and tell the truth. She’s going to make a believer out of you, my son.”

“I am not your son.”

“Oh, you will beg and call me Father before your ordeal is over.”

“Let us give the boy a demonstration,” Father Tomas said, turning to one of the monks standing guard. “Bring in a prisoner.”

The monk extracted a prisoner from the dark corner of an adjacent cell and stood him before the priest.

“If I recall correctly,” said the cleric, “you have been charged with debauching a young girl in your village. What have you to say for yourself?”

The man, obviously a peasant, responded: “’Tis not true, Father. I have done none such. I have two daughters of my own. Such a thing is unthinkable…”

Father Tomas cut the man off.

 “Rack him!” he commanded.

Oskar recoiled from the barbarity of the scene that unfolded before him. Several monks seized the man and wrestled him to the torture device. They secured his wrists and ankles with the ropes and turned to the priest.

“Rack him now!”

One of the monks pulled the handle on the roller and the peasant stiffened.


With the second pull, the man arched up and sucked air through his teeth.

“Another turn!”

The added tension on the roller lifted the peasant off the frame.

“Father, Father! I confess!”

“You confess what?” Father Tomas demanded.

The man could only babble now: “To…To what you say I did….”

“You see,” said the priest to Oskar. “Everyone here is guilty as charged.”

“One more turn for good measure,” Father Tomas said to the monk.

Another pull on the handle and Oskar heard loud popping noises made by snapping cartilage and ligaments. The peasant shrieked and fainted.

Father Tomas instructed the monks to take the prisoner back to his cell. As they dragged him cross the floor, Oskar could see the man was broken.

When the monks returned the priest pointed to Oskar.

“Rack him!”

Oskar fought hard but the monks overpowered him and tied him to the torture machine. One of them reached for the handle. 

Father Tomas raised his hand and stopped him.

“In the morning,” the priest said. “Let him think about it all night!”

With a sweeping gesture Father Tomas cleared the room and the chamber door clanged shut.

El Malpaís

He would not be able to endure it—no one could! Oskar knew that. As soon as the sound of footsteps faded away, he began trying to slip his hands out of the loops that held him tight. As much as the boy twisted and turned he could not loosen their terrible grip.

He tried to relax and concentrate but he couldn’t get the heart-rending shriek of the peasant out of his head.

Oskar panicked and began to thrash against the ropes that bound him. He lunged back and forth until his wrists were raw—but still the ropes did not give.

Finally the boy fell into dark despair.

El Malpaís

Oskar was in the twilight zone of semi-consciousness when the door of the chamber creaked open and a sliver of light caught Oskar’s eye.

“It can’t be morning yet!” the boy cried out.

“Shhh!” a voice whispered. “They’ll hear you.”

The face of a fair young woman illuminated by candlelight and framed by a black veil silently approached the tied-down boy.

Oskar was mesmerized.

“Who are you?” he whispered.

“My name Mary Agnes,” she said softly.  After examining the ropes holding the boy she set her candle holder on the frame of the rack.

“We need to get you out of here,” the young woman said, looking around the dark chamber. “I know what happens within these walls. They racked one of the nuns for disobedience and made the rest of us watch.”

Oskar blinked his eyes to see if she was really there.

“Where did you come from?”

“I live here,” she said. “I’m a nun dedicated to serving the needs of the Archbishop…and sometimes others.”

 She looked at Oskar to see if he understood.

After he swallowed hard and nodded she went to work on the ropes.

“I can’t do it,” the nun said after a couple of minutes. “The ropes are too tight.”

“You have to release the tension. The latch is right there on the side of the drum,” Oskar told her.

She tried but the latch held fast.

“You’re going to have to put some pressure on the handle and push on the latch at the same time.”

“I don’t want to hurt you,” said Mary Agnes.

“Just do it.”

When she pulled on the handle Oskar winced and she stopped.

“Do it! It’s the only way.”

Mary Agnes pulled again, flipped the latch, and the ropes went slack.

She continued to talk softly as she worked on the ropes.

“My father is Sir Gawain. He had me committed me here after I refused to marry Sir Andrew’s son. Father told me that I didn’t love him but that wasn’t true—it was Little Andrew that I didn’t love.”

She freed one of the boy’s wrists and then the other. Oscar sat up and unbound his ankles.

He swung his feet to the floor but when he tried to stand he faltered. Mary Agnes reached out and steadied him.

“You need to go,” she said. “It’s almost dawn.”

Oskar nodded and started for the door but stopped and looked back at the young woman.

“I wish there was something I could do to thank you,” he said.

Take me with you,” she whispered breathlessly.

El Malpaís

Oskar and Mary Agnes got to the forest before dawn and travelled fast but just after noon they heard voices closing in behind them.

“We have to hide,” said Oskar, looking around. “There.”

He indicated a thick briar patch just ahead. The fugitives managed to slip into it just before the searchers appeared.

A line of peasants prodded forward by a contingent of armed and mounted knights led by Sir Gawain was beating the bushes with farm tools trying to flush out the escapees.

One of the peasants headed straight for the briar patch and began poking around. When the handle of the hoe struck Mary Agnes she let out a muffled cry.

The peasant swept the branches of the bushes back with his hoe and spotted Oskar and the young woman. He stared directly at them for a minute and then released the branches and rejoined the line of searchers without looking back.

When they were gone, Mary Agnes turned to Oskar.

“He looked straight at us,” she said. “Why didn’t he sound the alarm?”

“His name is Todd—he’s a friend of mine.”

Oskar noticed the lengthening shadows of the trees.

“Let’s get moving. I’m not sure I can find the entrance to Cerro Hoya in the dark.”

El Malpaís

Find Cerro Hoya they did—just as the sun was setting. Oskar and Mary Agnes had almost crossed the clearing between the tree line and the portal to the time tube when a shout rang out:

“Stop right where you are!”  

It was Sir Gawain.
“Run,” said Oskar. “We can make it!”

They ran their hearts out but they didn’t make it. Sir Gawain snatched his daughter off her feet and hauled her back to the tree line. After he dropped her, he turned back to the boy who had stopped at the portal to Cerro Hoya and was looking back.

The knight roared at Oskar: “You! You die right here and now!”

Gawain spurred his charger forward.

“Run, boy. Run.” Mary Agnes yelled at Oskar. “He’ll kill you sure!”

The boy, staring at the young woman, waited to the last minute. He dodged back into the cave when Sir Gawain closed in with his broad sword poised to strike.

The knight’s charger reared up and refused to enter the dark space. Sir Gawain dismounted and tried to pursue the boy on foot, but he found himself blocked by an invisible force at the mouth of the Tubo de Tiempo.

Oskar took one last look at Mary Agnes and then disappeared into the darkness.

El Malpaís

Faithful Diego, waiting patiently at the entrance of Cerro Hoya back in El Malpaís, was rattled when he saw the boy’s chaffed wrists and haggard face.

Oh, Diego,” Oskar cried and sank to his knees. “I left her behind.”

“Who?” asked el lobo.

 “I abandoned the person who risked her life to save me from a fate worse than death.”

“Come back to camp,” el lobo mexicano urged, offering his strong and steady shoulders for the boy to lean on, “and tell me all about it.”


Episode 4: Bandera

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Copyright © 2016 by Richard D. Vogel

Permission to copy granted

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