A Ride Through Spain
by Truman Capote
September 2, 1950
Certainly the train was old. The seats sagged like the jowls of a bulldog; windowpanes were out, and strips of adhesive held together those that were left; in the corridor a prowling cat appeared to be hunting mice, and it was not unreasonable to assume that his search would be rewarded. Slowly we crept out of Granada. The southern sky was as white and burning as a desert; in it was a single, tiny cloud. I was going to Algeciras, a Spanish seaport facing the coast of Africa. In my compartment there were five people, all told. One was a middle-aged Australian wearing a soiled linen suit; he had tobacco-colored teeth, and his fingernails were broken and dirty. Presently he informed us that he was a ship’s doctor. It seemed odd, there on the dry, dour plains of Spain, to meet someone connected with the sea. Then, there were two women, a mother and daughter. The mother was an overstuffed, dusty woman with sluggish, disapproving eyes and a faint mustache. The focus for her disapproval shifted from place to place. First, she eyed me rather strongly, because, as the sunlight fanned brighter, waves of heat blew through the broken windows and I removed my jacket—which she must have considered, perhaps rightly, discourteous. Later on, she took a dislike to the third man in our compartment, a young soldier. The soldier and the woman’s not very discreet daughter, a buxom girl with the scrappy features of a prizefighter, seemed to have tacitly agreed to flirt. Whenever the wandering cat appeared at our door, the daughter pretended to be frightened, and the soldier gallantly shooed the cat into the corridor; this byplay gave them frequent opportunities to touch each other.
The young soldier was one of many on the train. With their tasselled caps set at snappy angles, they hung about in the corridors smoking sweet, black cigarettes and laughing confidentially. They seemed to be having a good time, and apparently this was wrong of them, for when an officer appeared, they would stare fixedly out the windows, as though enraptured by the landslides of red rock, the olive fields, and the stern mountains. Their officers were dressed for a parade—many ribbons, much brass, and some wore gleaming, improbable swords strapped to their belts. They did not mix with the soldiers but sat together in a first-class compartment, looking bored and rather like unemployed actors. The compartment ahead of mine had been taken over by one family—a delicate, attenuated, exceptionally elegant man with a mourning ribbon sewed around his sleeve, and six thin, summery girls, his daughters. The girls, who resembled their father, were beautiful, all of them, and in the same way: hair that had a dark shine, lips the color of pimientos, eyes like sherry. In age, they ranged from about fourteen to twenty-one. The soldiers would glance into their compartment, then look away. It was as if they had seen straight into the sun.
Whenever the train stopped, the man’s two youngest daughters, carrying parasols, would descend from the carriage and stroll under their shade. They enjoyed many lengthy promenades, for the train spent the greater part of its time standing still. No one appeared to be exasperated by this except me. Several passengers seemed to have friends at every station with whom they could sit, usually around a fountain, and gossip long and lazily. One old woman was met by little groups in a dozen or so towns. Between these encounters, she wept, and with such abandon that the Australian doctor eventually became alarmed and asked, in Italian, if he could help her. Why, no, she said, there was nothing he could do; it was just that seeing all her relatives made her so happy.
At each stop, cyclones of barefooted women and more or less naked children ran the length of the train, sloshing earthen jars of water and furrily squalling “Agua! Agua!” For two pesetas, you could buy a whole basket of dark, runny figs, and there were trays of curious white-coated candy doughnuts that looked as though they should be eaten by young girls wearing Communion dresses. Toward noon, having collected a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, a sausage, and a small cheese, I was prepared for lunch. My companions in the compartment were hungry, too. Packages were produced, wine was uncorked, and for a while there was a pleasant, almost graceful festiveness. The soldier shared a pomegranate with the girl, the Australian told an amusing story, the witch-eyed mother pulled a paper-wrapped fish from her bosom and ate it with a glum relish.
Afterward, everyone was sleepy; the doctor went so solidly to sleep that a fly meandered undisturbed over his openmouthed face. Stillness etherized the whole train. In the next compartment, the lovely girls leaned against one another loosely, like six exhausted geraniums. Even the cat had ceased to prowl and lay dreaming in the corridor. We had climbed higher; the train moseyed across a plateau of rough yellow wheat, then between the granite walls of deep ravines, where strange, thorny trees quivered in the wind moving down from the mountains. Once, at a parting in the trees, there was something I’d wanted to see—a castle on a hill. It sat there like a crown.
It was a landscape for bandits. Earlier in the summer, a young Englishman I know (rather, know of) had been motoring through this part of Spain when, on the lonely side of a mountain, his car was surrounded by swarthy scoundrels. They robbed him, then tied him to a tree and tickled his throat with the blade of a knife. I was thinking of this when, without preface, a spatter of gunfire strafed the dozy silence. It was a machine gun. The train, with a wounded creak, slowed to a halt. For a moment, there was no sound except the machine gun’s cough. Then, in a loud, dreadful voice, I said, “Bandits!”
“Bandidos!” screamed the daughter.
“Bandidos!” echoed her mother, and the terrible word swept through the train.
The result was slapstick in a grim key. All of us in the compartment collapsed on the floor, one cringing heap of arms and legs, except for the mother, who kept her head. She stood up and systematically stashed away her treasures. She stuck a ring into the bun of her hair, and, without shame, hiked up her skirts and dropped a pearl-studded comb into her bloomers. Airy twitterings of distress came from the charming girls in the next compartment. In the corridor, the officers bumped about, yapping orders and knocking into one another.
Suddenly, within the train, silence. Outside, there was the murmur of wind in the leaves, of voices. Just as the weight of the doctor’s body was becoming too much for me, the outer door of our compartment swung open and a young man stood there. He did not look clever enough to be a bandit. “Hay un médico en el tren?” he asked, smiling.
The Australian, removing his elbow from my stomach, climbed to his feet. “I’m a doctor,” he admitted, dusting himself. “Has someone been wounded?”
“Si, señor. An old man. He is hurt in the head,” said the Spaniard, who was not a bandit, alas, but merely another passenger.
Getting back in our seats, the rest of us listened, expressionless with embarrassment, to the story of what had happened. It seemed that for the last several hours an old man had been stealing a ride by clinging to the rear of the train. Just now, he’d lost his hold, and a soldier, seeing him fall, had started firing a machine gun as a signal for the engineer to stop the train. My only hope was that no one remembered who had first mentioned bandits. There was no indication that anyone did. The doctor, after acquiring a clean shirt of mine to use as a bandage, went off to his patient, and the mother, turning her back with sour prudery, reclaimed her pearl comb.
Her daughter, the soldier, and I got out of the carriage and strolled under the trees of a small wood that smelled of oranges, where many of the passengers had gathered to discuss the incident. Two more soldiers appeared, carrying the old man. My shirt had been wrapped around his head. They propped him under a tree, and all the women clustered about, vying with each other to lend him a rosary; someone brought a bottle of wine, which pleased him more. He seemed quite happy, and moaned a great deal. Some children from the train circled around him, giggling. A path led to a shaded promontory, from which one looked across a valley where sweeping stretches of scorched golden grass shivered as though the earth were trembling. Admiring the valley and the shadowy changes of light on the hills beyond, the six sisters, escorted by their elegant father, sat on the grass with their parasols raised above them, like guests at a fête champêtre. The soldiers moved around them in a vague, ambitious manner; they did not dare to approach, though one brash, sassy fellow went to the edge of the promontory and called, “Yo te quiero mucho!” The words returned with the hollow sub-music of a perfect echo, and the sisters, blushing, looked more deeply into the valley.
A large cloud, sombre as the rocky hills, had massed in the sky, and the grass below was stirring like the sea before a storm. Someone said he thought it would rain. But no one wanted to go, including the injured man, who was well on his way through a second bottle of wine, and the children, who, having discovered the echo, stood happily carolling into the valley. It was like a party, and we all drifted back to the train as though each of us wished to be the last to leave. The old man, with my shirt like a grand turban on his head, was put into a first-class carriage, and several eager ladies attended him.
In our compartment, the dusty mother, who had not seen fit to join the party, sat just as we had left her. She gave me a long, glittering look. “Bandidos!” she said, with a surly, unnecessary vigor. The train moved on so slowly that butterflies blew in and out the windows. ♦
A simile is a comparison using the words "like" or "as."
1. Find 5 similes used by Capote in this selection.
2. Explain how each of these similes creates a vivid image, or word picture.