The Witch of ‘27

The Witch of ‘27


Every Saturday after classes for the week are finished, young artists at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes San Fernando gather in Federico’s dorm room. This is an invite-only event and invitations are hard to come by. 


Maruja Mallo was approached by Salvador—a fellow student and Federico’s close friend—outside of their “Color Aesthetics and Painting Procedures” class with professor Cecilio Plá. Maruja instantly felt drawn to him. Sal’s sideburns and long hair would have made him stand out in her hometown of Viveiro Lugo in Galicia, but in Madrid he fits in with the flaneurs and bohemians that are concentrated downtown. Without warning, he complimented the dynamic and bright colors of her composition. She brushed this off, saying it was just an assignment and he would have to judge her work outside of class, but she knew even her classwork was good. During their ninety-minute class, she made a composition consisting of oil on a small 15×11 inch canvas. It was a simple piece of bright colors and swirling circular shapes. She felt inspired by her trip to the Canary Islands—the bright vegetation and ocean waves—and she created a nude mother pregnant with a child, which could be seen inside her womb. The baby swirling inside the woman swirling inside the abstract background. She knew it was impressive. She has been painting long before attending the Academia but thought this would be the best way to insert herself into the greater European art scene. Salvador probed her intelligence and shifted the conversation from her work to that of the intelligentsia, making comparisons to Joaquín Sorolla’s use of light and the emotion in Rubén Darío’s poems. Their conversation drifted from her work to the cubists to José Ortega y Gasset, to workers’ rights, to Gregorian chant. Their ideas blended and flowed between the different art forms effortlessly. He was impressed by her intellect. Salvador told her to come with him on Saturday to Federico’s dorm. It wasn’t an invitation; it was an ultimatum. 

Maruja, along with the rest of the student body, was already familiar with Federico’s clique. She calmly told Salvador that she would be there, but it took all her efforts to walk instead of run to her next class on antique drawing and clothing. On Friday afternoons, after Plá’s class, Maruja would usually go to the café down the street from the academia for a cortado and some toast with butter and jam, but her conversation with Salvador nearly makes her late for class. Every week, Professor Romero de Torres would wear a wide brimmed hat and a cape, which made his association with the Avant Garde even more obvious. Every week, he would begin class by saying, “Good afternoon. This is not a drawing class; this is a fashion class. You will make beautiful outfits.” However, not even de Torres’s pretentious teaching could make Maruja focus. She let her mind wander. Like a moth to a streetlamp, her thoughts repeatedly drifted and circled back to what it would be like to mingle with the academia’s brightest students in a cramped dorm room. What would she wear? She remembered Salvador’s long coat and striped dress pants. Despite the lingering heat as the fall season crept, he stayed committed to his look. Maruja’s frustration festered. She wished she could steal her professor’s outfit, but her gender makes his pants improper. At least her thoughts were related to class. 

By the time she decided on her white linen dress with thin gray stripes, de Torres had dismissed the class. Since she missed her snack in between classes, Maruja left the building in search of something to eat. There was a café near the Paseo del Prado that served thick slices of tortilla that would hold her over until dinner. She would have gone to any of the bars in the Puerta del Sol, but only men are permitted. How can they consider themselves the most progressive thinkers in Madrid, when they won’t let women share their ideas? Of course, they didn’t think women were capable of intellectual discussion. She and the other girls at the academia were severely outnumbered, and rarely taken seriously anyway…

Walking down Calle de Alcalá she passed one of those men-only bars. From the outside, it appeared unassuming. The building was made of stone, with thick wooden double doors that were probably even heavier than they looked. Without hesitation Maruja grabbed the bars that covered the only street facing window and pressed her face up against it. She could hardly see what’s happening since the interior was poorly lit. Cupping her hands around her eyes so they would adjust, she sees a table of five or six men having a lively debate. Is that Le Corbusier? The bartender looked over at her, annoyed. She stared back, asserting her presence as an outsider, before peeling herself away from the window. Instead of going to the café, she decided to go back to the Residencia de Estudiantes. She wasn’t hungry anymore. It was an hour-long walk from the neighborhood of Sol to El Viso, where her room was. 

Trekking uptown, the city around her grew quieter, bringing her closer to sleep. The neighborhoods became more residential as she put more distance between herself and the city center. Every few blocks, there was a rather rowdy bar filled with men drunk off conversation and sangria, but she ignored their voices and allowed the sound of her footsteps to calm her. The other pedestrians scoffed at the sight of a woman walking alone and she stifled a laugh in response to their ridiculous made-up-rules. Besides, she preferred the alone time. This way she could focus on the details of the trash wedged in the streets and how the light looked dirty and sparkly when running children kicked up dust. Has it already been an hour? She approached the residencia and let out a sigh—remembering the three flights of stairs she must climb. Inside, she saw some science students from the Universidad de Salamanca sitting in the lounge and talking about Marie Curie. Finally, inside her room, she collapsed on her bed, fully clothed, and drifted off before the sun went down.

Maruja woke up starving and immediately left for the nearest café, La Bicicleta, which was two blocks away. The only information she received about Federico’s gathering was his room number (441) and when to show up (noon). Despite having well over an hour before the main event, Maruja inhaled her café con leche and mixto—a sandwich with a fried egg, ham, and cheese. The chef at the café closest to school always cut out a “window” in the toast where the egg yolk sat leaving it exposed, but this hardly made a difference to Maruja. She would have devoured whatever was on the plate. She left some spare change at the counter as a tip along with 150 pesetas for her breakfast and rushed back to the residencia. 

She put on the linen dress she decided on the day before with a pair of oxfords. Looking in the mirror as a guide, she smeared on a deep red shade of lipstick. Her thick eyelashes didn’t need any mascara, but she liked how dramatic it made her eyes look and applied many coats. Maruja always looked worried. Her eyebrows were two straight lines angled down toward the edges of her face. She was pretty. By Ancient Greek standards her nose was perfect; a straight line continuing down from her forehead. She hardly styled her short hair. It sat in large loops and curls on her head and sometimes a piece would come down obscuring her forehead. How long had she been looking at herself in the mirror? She grabbed her purse and walked to Federico’s room on the floor above hers. 

Down the hall she heard the voices of many men emanating from the room Salvador told her to meet him at. As it got louder, she became more excited to be part of it. When she opened the door, nobody turned to see who had come in, but she locked eyes with Salvador. He gave her a cheeky smile and stopped mid conversation to make his way through the crowded dorm room and greet Maruja. He led her deeper into the room, where on the small twin-sized bed, wedged between a wall and a bookcase, sat three men. 

Each of them was a slight variation of Salvador, with fashionable outfits—high waisted slacks freshly pressed, starched shirts, etc.—and the look of a brooding young artist. Salvador introduced them. The man with large bags under his eyes was Luis, he seemed to look right through Maruja and everyone else in the room as if they were ghosts. Sitting next to him was Rafael, notably the most handsome, and the only one who didn’t share the appearance of a starving artist. He was one of those people who looked like they always smell good, fresh out of the shower. The other man next to Rafael was Federico, or Fede as Salvador called him. With a bowtie and jacket covering his thin pale frame, he looked like a porcelain doll. Federico extended his hand out to Maruja, who shook it and introduced herself as Maruja. 

The three of them looked back at Salvador, who must have mentioned she would be joining them. Luis and Rafael relaxed back into the mattress continuing a previous conversation about the work of Juan Gris, while Fede sprung up and headed straight for his closet. Knowing what was about to happen, the small crowd of artists passed a shush around the room. He slid the accordion style doors apart and revealed a bowl of lemons. 

“For Maruja! The newest member of the partridge brotherhood.” 

Everyone turned toward her. She recognized a few faces from her classes and was relieved to see one other woman in the room with her. Fede motioned for Maruja to come closer. As she approached him, he quickly sliced one of the lemons in half, covered the open face with sugar and handed it to Maruja. From the crowd, someone else produced a glass filled with a golden tinted cocktail—probably the partridge Fede mentioned. Without instruction Maruja takes a messy bite out of the lemon, smashing it into her face as if her mouth was a juicer, and immediately chases it with the now confirmed partridge. Taking the empty glass away from her face, the room erupted in screams and hollers. Maintaining her composure, she fought against the war on her taste buds. The lemon was fresh, but that only made the sour taste more intense. The alcohol washed over her pulp-covered teeth and tongue with ease. Maruja only felt its effects as it hit her stomach like a punch from the inside. Fede seemed impressed. He raised his eyebrows in approval and nodded almost imperceptibly before finishing his cocktail in the same fashion. More drinks were passed out to the room and before she had a chance to wipe her face down, there was another in Maruja’s hand. She found the source of the drinks—Federico’s desk—and took some napkins. There goes her lipstick. 

She found Salvador with Luis still by the bed, both with a drink in their hand and two more sitting on the bookshelf. 

“Are you enjoying the party?”

“Is all you do drink and talk about art?” 

Luis laughed at his friend. Salvador smirks and replies, “As soon as everyone is good and drunk, we’ll move on to the second part.” 

Maruja knew she wouldn’t get any real answers from them, but she’d go along with their plans. She listened to Salvador and Luis ramble on about the flatness of Gris’s most recent paintings but took a backseat in the conversation as she started to feel the first round of partridge. The mixture of vermouth, scotch, triple sec, and half a lemon had entered her bloodstream. At twenty-five years old, Maruja could keep her wits about her. However, the room full of people combined with the alcohol coated her body in warmth. The conversations she overheard felt more exciting and important than they probably were. She allowed herself to get lost in the noise, no longer listening to specific conversations. Rather, she only heard vowels interrupted by consonants coming from every angle. Was that a piano? She didn’t have that much to drink. No, she’s sure she heard a piano coming from somewhere. Maybe the brotherhood trickled into the common room to bring music into the conversation. 

Coming back to his friends and bringing her out of her trance, Maruja heard Rafael calling her name. Her gaze that had previously been fixed on nothing found his face. He matched her intensity. Her lynx eyes look wild and hypnotic. 


“Excuse me?”

“You’re like a witch, Maruja. You cast spells.” She laughed at this lame joke Rafael played on her name but liked that he associated her with the uncanny and spooky. Fede came and sat on Salvador’s lap. He commented on Maruja’s hair and said the world should see it. She never was a fan of the social custom of wearing hats outdoors. Federico was testing her.

“Then let’s go.” 

He was surprised at her response. Standing up, Fede took off his hat and tossed it onto the bed. He told the boys they would be partaking in the sacred act of sinsombrerismo, keeping his eyes on Maruja, looking for a response. Like lemmings, Salvador and Luis got to their feet and cast-off their hats. Rafael says he was still enjoying his drunkenness and decided to stay back. Maruja was the first to walk out and the four of them marched in a single-file line to the door, weaving between the other members of the brotherhood. When they got to the stairwell Federico started running, with Salvador close behind. Luis caught up to Maruja. 

“Let’s make a scene.” 

She was worried she might’ve been in over her head but refused to turn back in fear of losing her acceptance into the envied partridge brotherhood. If anyone were to question her later, she’d lie and blame it on the alcohol in her system. By the time she got out of the building Salvador had already hailed a cab. She squeezed in the back, stuck between Fede and Luis, while Sal sat in the front next to the driver. 

“Puerta del Sol, porfa.” 

Of course, that’s where they were taking her. All the posh Madrileños liked to see and be seen in the public square. While the women browsed the many shops in the neighboring streets, the men wandered and talked amongst themselves about their observations of modern urban life. Defying the standards of the bourgeoisie would certainly make a scene. 

Maruja felt the tires rumbling over the cobblestone streets. She saw Salvador’s eyes in the rearview mirror, and he winked at her. Her heart raced, but the bumpy ride masked the feeling of her heartbeats. She is thrilled and terrified and confused all at once. How did she get here? Her parents would be furious to know she was gallivanting with a group of men, as would the wealthy citizens of Madrid that happen to be in the Puerta del Sol that day. 

The cab slowed and pulled up alongside the curb on Calle del Carmen. Salvador paid the man and the four stepped out, with Maruja being the last. As they promenaded through the square, they were met with looks of disgust and shock from the upper class Madrileños. Maruja saw a few slack-jawed and told them they should close their mouths before they catch flies. The onlookers grew more irritated as the gang of artists defied the bourgeoisie’s rules. 

Something flew past Maruja’s nose and clattered a few feet away. A similar something made its way into Luis’s stomach, and he groaned. The crowd was throwing rocks at them. Doing their best to avoid getting stoned, they ran toward the metro entrance, dodging the rocks, and laughing maniacally. Two or three found Maruja’s back, but she would deal with the bruises tomorrow; her adrenaline allowed them to bounce off her like beach balls. Luis, Fede, Salvador, and Maruja made it into the Sol station. From the safety of the metro, the group could still hear the slurs and heinous comments being directed at them, but even that couldn’t stain their glorious and bold spectacle. The train would take them close enough to the residencia, so they proceeded to the platform. Fede howled and cackled, and the rest joined in; their screams echoing off the tunnels underground.

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