Las Ataduras

Las Ataduras
Carmen Martin Gaite

"I can’t sleep, I cannot. Turn on the light, Herminia" said the old teacher, jumping on the springs of the bed.
She turned towards the other side and covered herself with the scrambled clothes.
"Benjamín, you are taking the covers "she protested;. "What’s wrong, you still haven't fallen asleep?"
"You want to know what's wrong? You already know. How could you not know? Who can sleep! Nothing seems to get you down."
"Don’t start it up again now, dear God" said the sleepy voice of the woman. "Try to sleep, husband, leave me alone, I'm tired from the trip."
"And I also. That is what I've been struggling with, that. That damn useless trip, screw it all; if things could be done differently..."
"If you could do it differently, what?"
"I would not go, that I would die without seeing her again, anyways for the spectacle that we saw; you could go if you felt like it, that’s what I am saying."
"Yes, I already heard; I heard you yesterday I don’t know how many times. And what? You already know I wanted to and I'll always go whenever she calls me. I told you that yesterday too. I thought you wanted to drop the subject."
"I did. And what good did it do me? It's upsetting me. The blood in my veins keeps boiling; it will be bothering me whenever I remember."
"Oh Good Lord."
"Turn on the light, I said."
The woman extended a bony wrist and gropingly looked for the light switch. The old teacher’s gloomy eyes, forced to penetrate the dark, blinked for a moment escaping hers, whose searched for him inquiring, through the brilliance that was sinking over the room. He sat on the bed and the woman halfway imitated him, with a sigh. The two figures peered over the railing at their feet, at the reflection across from them, in the closet mirror. The whole room was swimming with them, was sinking, twisted, in that shoddy mirror, dirty from fingers and flies. He looked at himself. He looked in the mirror, under the sole high light bulb, at the halo of his own messy grey-haired hairs, at the shape of the woman, just rising to join him, the image of so many scattered objects, disregarded, so many corners smoothed by use, and he closed his eyes. Within them a red fire exploded. Alina, young, was shaking her wet hair, laughing, and left the armful of firewood in the kitchen, there, two steps away; her laughter climbed with the fire. Now a red bit of cherries: Alina, in the top of a cherry tree of the orchard, was telling him stories about the boy tending the cattle. Now a red one of sun and butterflies; now a red one of wine.
The woman sank once more in the bed.
"Herminia, what time is it?"
"It is quarter after six. Come on, sleep a little. Can we turn off the light?"
For an answer, the teacher put his feet out and started to get dressed slowly. Then he opened the shutters of the window. A tenuous clarity was already hanging over the garden that allowed him to distinguish the spots as if it felt them. A rooster to the other side of the road sang.
"So tranquil to be able to live here like those children" he suddenly mumbled with a lazy voice. "So many things I could teach to them, and things they would see, damn it."
"But, what are you saying, Benjamín? Don’t start again..."
"I’m not, no; I’m not. But tell me how they are going to prosper in that dirty little room smelling of tobacco and paint. Now; I'll  leave you in peace now. Turn it out if you want."
She had followed him with her eyes since he rose. Now she saw him withdraw from the window, close shutters and take his jacket, hung on a chair. She made him turn around in the doorway.
"Where are you going?"
"Over there, somewhere better. Wherever that may be. I can't stay in the bed."
Already in the hallway, he did not listen to her response, although he could tell it was the tone of some word of warning to him. He had a yawn that it gave him a chill. The house was inhospitable at those hours; his bones felt like they were creaking. And the body was looking for it, nevertheless, to take shelter in some thing.
He entered the kitchen: no remains of the red fire that had filled his closed eyes minutes before. He passed a glance along the undisturbed shelves. All gray, unchanging. The tick-tock of the alarm clock was coming through to the garden by the open window. He got water from the pitcher with a small ladle and it drank it directly. He sat on the wood bench, rolled a cigarette. There was the gun, always in the corner. He smoked, watching the ground, with his head in his hands. After that cigarette, another two.
It was already seven when he left the back balcony, under a roof of hazels, with the toilet in a corner, and he went down the stairway that lead to the garden. It was garden and orchard, small, without boundaries. Hydrangeas and dahlias grew two paces from the vegetables, and there was only a rudimentary sand path, just below the row of balconies, in the shade of the hazels. The rest were small paths without order nor concert that linked the sections of crops and flowers. Further back from all this was a meadow where they were trees. Plum trees, pear trees, apple trees, cherry trees and a fig tree, in the middle of everything. The teacher crossed the circle of the trees and by the back door he left from the orchard to the road. The door of the house lead to the highway, this one to a road that went away from town. He looked again at the little paths. He peered at the tile roof with its smokeless chimney, under the first dawn of a neutral sky where the moon was transparent rigid, already departing. The entire garden looked to him as if it were a drawing and the house, a lie; peculiar, as if it were not connected to the others of the town. The others were alive and this one was the puppet show house made of tarlatan and cardboard stone. And Herminia, poor Herminia, his only companion a marionette. With his hand in the air he fought it, wanted to make it alive, to drag it, but he was only able to connect the long marionette elucidation.
"The letter has not come today either. She is not always going to write us, Benjamín."
"She has to lead her own life. What is young, hurdles ahead."
"Don’t be so quiet, Benjamín."
"Why don’t you go hunting"
"She hasn’t written, no. Tomorrow, perhaps. Sometimes letters are lost."
And in winter it rains. And the nights are long. And the faded marionettes look at each other with astonishment.
"She, Benjamín, was not meant to die between these four walls."
He turned around and followed way down. The sun was already coming out. To the right, an uneven stone wall, covered with moss and blackberries, separated the path from the vine crops. Up ahead, where the east wall ends, the path branched off and there was a stone cross in the juncture. He did not stop. One of the branches lead to the church, that one could just see beyond the band of eucalyptus trees; but he took the other, the exact width of one oxen cart and this passage had very deep ruts exposed in the ground. He heard someone call him, from behind, and he turned. A few meters away, near the crossroads, he recognized the priest who was coming up, mounted on his donkey, towards the other road to the parish.
"Benjamín" he had called, first not very loud, half-closing his old eyes, to make sure it was him.
And then he stopped the donkey and much louder, with joy:
"Benjamín, but of course it is you. Benjamín, man, come here. I see you’re back so soon."
The teacher did not come nearer. He answered him very dreary without coming any closer:
"Good morning, Don Felix. I’m in a hurry."
The donkey took a few steps towards him.
"Fancy that, man, in a hurry. Getting an early jump on the chores. Tell me, at least, when you arrived."
"Yesterday late, very late."
"And how is everything? Is Paris really big?"
"Very big, yes Sir. Too big."
"Certainly, certainly. I must drop by your house some afternoon, so you can tell me about the girl."
"Whenever you like."
"Because if I waited for you to come by the church…"
He had approached and was talking studying the bent head of the teacher, who was unearthing a stone while listening to him. A centipede ran off from underneath, both saw it escape twisting and turning. Alina was not afraid of centipedes, not even when she was very young. She was not scared of any tiny beast.
"And how do they like it, the girl?"
"Fine, Don Felix, very well."
"It must have made you very happy to see them, after so much time."
"As you can see."
"Indeed, indeed. . .  And finally did you get to bring home a grandbaby?"
"No Sir, the father doesn't want to separate them."
"Sure, sure. Nor would Adelaida either. Smart Alina girl. Thus is life. It seems like just yesterday she was running around here. How time flies. And before I go . . . Remember when she recited the verses to the Virgin, up there by that wall, the day of the procession of Snows? She would have been eight years old. And how well she said them, remember?"
"I believe so, yes, Sir."
"I send you my regards, from and old priest."
"Yes, Herminia sends hers too, I’m sure."
"Good, then welcome back. I won’t take up any more of your time, plus I have made myself late for mass. Tell Herminia I'll drop by sometime, to see if she tells me more than you."
"Goodbye, Don Felix."
They went their separate ways. The route continued down, but opened up to the right in a short steep slope, level at first, then suddenly steeper, slippery from pine needles. Having arrived there, the teacher started to climb the hill slowly, leaving the town behind. He did not look back. He still felt the sun on his back. Further up, the thicker the forest of pines got and very big rocks began to appear, over which sometimes he had to jump not to detour too much. He looked towards the summit, in a straight line. He still had a long way to go. He climbed quickly, scratching his trousers with the Gorse’s dry thorns. But he removed them furiously and continued. He did not pay attention to the sweat he began to feel, nor when he slipped, more and more frequently.
"Alina" he murmurred, gasping, "Alina".
Tears fell from his face.
"Alina, what’s wrong, you are taking my covers. You still haven’t fallen asleep? Where are you going?"
"To open the window."
"But didn’t you just get up to close it? I think you got up."
"Yes, I did, and what, Don’t pay so much attention to me."
"How can I not if you don’t let me sleep? Be still; why did you close the window earlier?"
"Because Santiago was coughing. You don’t hear him all night? He coughs a lot."
"Well then don’t open it again, leave it be."
The window opens out to a small patio. A faltering light of dawn cascades through the high sky rectangle. Alina pokes her head out to look; Her anxious eyes climb up the layers of hung clothes, shirts, sheets, jerseys, balanced at different heights, and she breathes up that first open glow. A small piece of sky begins to light up Paris that morning, and perhaps she alone may be watching it.
"But, Adelaida, close it. Didn’t you say that Santiago is coughing? You don’t make any sense. Come here."
"My head hurts, when it’s closed. Let me breathe a little, Philippe, go to sleep. I’m not tired. I’m edgy."
"I said come here."
"I don’t want to" she says, without turning around. "Leave me alone."
As a response, Philippe gets up and turns on a small light. In the room there are two cradles, the smallest one, next to their bed, and another larger one, partially hidden by a screen. The boy sleeping in this cradle turns over and coughs. Alina closes the window.
"Turn it out" she says with stern voice.
The light stays on.
"Didn’t you hear me, stupid?" she bursts out, furious, moving toward the switch.
But his hands grab her forcefully by the wrists. Both their eyes meet.
"Let me go, brute. Turn out the light, I said. The boy is half awake."
"I want to know what’s wrong with you. What is going on in your head that won’t let you sleep."
"Nothing, leave me alone. I’m worried about the boy; that is all. And that I cannot stand the smell of paint."
"No, that's not everything, Alina. I know you. You're looking for a fight. Just like yesterday."
"Shut up."
"And today if you want a fight, you're going to have a fight, you hear it, it's not going to be like yesterday. We're going to discuss everything you're hiding, or you're going to turn around, so I don't have to look at you with that expression any longer."
She gets loose, without answering, and approaches the boy’s cradle, who now is whining a little. She lets him go pee and gives him some water. She straightens her clothes. At her sign, Philippe turns off the light. Then he senses her grope for a gown and open the door that he leads to the study.
" What are you going to look for? Alina!" he calls with restrained voice.
Alina closes the door behind herself and turns on the light in the study. It is a room somewhat bigger than the other and much more disorganized. The two share the whole house. On a big table, covered with a yellow oilskin cloth, are earthenware vessels and unwashed cups, and also jars full of brushes. Next to the table there is an easel and, at an angle, an built-in kitchenette hidden by curtains. Alina went there to drink a little cold milk, and remains standing, looking at everything with sluggish eyes. Throughout there are the pictures of Philippe. Hung, piled up, upside down, positioned to dry. She sees both sofas where her parents slept and stretched out on one of them. She drains the glass of milk, sets it on the floor. Then she lights a cigarette.
On the easel there is a half finished canvas. A big wave of gray patches, yellowish brush strokes, black points. Philippe appeared in the door of the study.
"Alina, don’t you hear me calling you? Come to bed."
"Please, leave me in peace. I told you that I am not sleepy, I don’t want to."
"But the paint smells much worse here. Don’t you say that’s what makes you edgy?"
"You make me edgy, always having to keep you informed and explain my mood, not even able to get away for five minutes. Excuse me. Just five minutes of peace in a single day!... I can’t even see if I'm ever going to be able to have insomnia, Come on..., and my nerves the way they are; that’s the limit. Not even one cigarette! No time for one cigarette without you standing over me!"
She was raising her tone of voice, and now trembling with agitation. He come nearer.
"Don’t speak so loud. You are becoming hysterical. You said that you were wishing that your parents went away because they stress you out, and now that they are gone it’s much worse."
"Look, Philippe, leave me alone. You had better leave me in peace."
"I won’t. We must discuss this. Before your parents came you were never like this. Before their visit."
Alina stands up abruptly.
"My parents don’t have anything to do with this!" she says almost screaming. "Don’t bring them up at all, don’t even say their name, you hear? What’s wrong or not because of my parents only concerns me."
"I don’t think so; it matters both of us. Come here, sit down."
"Don’t even mention them" she continues stubbornly, walking through the room, "that’s what I said. You don't have the slightest idea what my parents are like, nor should you worry yourself trying to understand them. Better if you don’t get involved at all, after the way you were to them these last few days; It would be better that way, if you want us to settle down."
"I don’t want us to calm down! When have I wanted that, Alina? You always insist on imposing calm. But when there is a storm, you must blow up, because if you don’t it’s much worse. Just say everything that you are hiding, instead of holding it in and let it get to you alone. Why do you tell me that nothing’s wrong? Just let it out whatever it is. Come on."
Alina has a seat on the sofa again, but remains quiet, looking at her fingernails. There is a pause. They both wait.
"You are so obstinate, woman" he says, finally. "How many times are you going to go around this. When your parents left, you said you'd calm down. Remember that."
"Of course I said that. There are no nerves that can endure a week like that. Didn’t you see how out of place they were, my God? Are you going to deny that it didn’t bother you at all them staying with us? You crammed them in the house like annoying animals, was impossible at any extent to live like that. I’m sure that he was wishing that they left!"
"Adelaida, I knew it was going to be like that, and it’s not solely my fault. I told you that they should have gone to a hotel, it made more sense. They and we don’t have anything to do. They are from another world. They clashed with everything, as was expected. With our schedule, our house, our friends. We couldn’t change everything for them for a week. I relinquished my study to them; that wasn’t fair leaving them alone with me. The hostility they show me too, your father mainly. How he looked at me! Your father is uncivilized, Alina. You yourself you have said it often; you have said that his character had been growing bitter since you left to study to the University, that he was jealous of everybody you knew, that when returning to town he made life impossible for you. And you remember our engagement."
Alina listens without lifting her eyes. Tears began to fall over her immovable hands. She shakes the head, as if forcing away an painful memory.
"Forget the past" she says. "It doesn't matter now. They've come. At the wedding they met you briefly, and now they come, after three years, to see us again, and the children. You couldn’t have made everything less difficult? They are old. My father’s departure doesn’t hurt you, because it doesn’t take anything from you. But you've taken everything from my father. It was you who needed to try, so they didn’t leave the way they did."
"But how did they leave? You seem to think some tragedy took place, or I insulted them. How have I acted any differently than I do with other people? You know I don’t treat anybody special, I can't. How have I acted any differently? When? What was I supposed to do?"
"Nothing, drop it, it’s all the same."
"No, it’s not all just the same. Learn to speak in an orderly fashion. Let’s see: when did I acted any differently?"
"I don’t know; the instant they arrived at the station; and then, with one of the children, and always."
"But aren’t you exaggerating, woman. In the station, didn’t they begin to cry, as if you were dead, and wouldn’t even look at me? Didn’t they start saying that they never remembered you looking so poorly, that how could you have gotten yourself into this? You yourself you got upset, remember. Don’t you remember? Say something."
"But it is all just the same, Philippe" she says with a weary voice. "Go, go lay down. It’s not about the deeds, but rather understanding and seeing it from my parents’ perspective, or not understanding it. You don’t understand, what you are going to do to him. We would have to talk about it until tomorrow."
"And what?"
"I don’t want to, it’s not worth the trouble."
She gets up and goes to leave the glass in the sink. Philippe follows her.
"How's it not worth the trouble? Sure it is. Do you think I am going to spend all my life putting up with your mysteries? You've already become isolated, feeling misunderstood, and are distant to me. But, why exactly are you suffering, that’s what I want to know? You're doing perfectly fine without your parents, you felt relieved like I did, when they left. . didn’t you?"
"My God, stop it!"
"No, I won’t stop, try to explain yourself, don’t be so complex. I just want us to talk about it."
"Well I don’t!"
"Well I do...! I want to end it once and for all, so we don’t have to go through this again, you hear me? Look at me when I’m talking. Come, you aren't going to avoid the question this time."
Alina begins to cry with convulsing sobs.
"Leave me alone!" she says, screaming. "I do not know to explain anything to you, leave me in peace. I am edgy these days. I’ll get over it. I can’t answer yet now. My parents have left thinking that I am unhappy, and I suffer because I know that they suffer thinking that way. It is nothing more than that."
"Oh my God! But are you unhappy?"
"And what does it matter. They have seen it that way, and they just will never be able to live peacefully. That’s what exasperates me. If they had not seen me, it would be different, but now, because of how cheerful I write them, they will be able to get that image out of their head. Never. Never."
She speaks crying, very difficultly. She starts to get dressed in black velveteen trousers that is on the back of a chair, and a jersey. She grabs the garments and puts them on, with nervous gestures. A clock, outside, repeats chimes that just had sounded a minute before.
"Settle down, woman. What are you doing?"
"Nothing. It is seven. I am not going to go back to bed any longer. Go and sleep a little, please. We are going to wake up to the children if we continue speaking so loud."
"But don’t cry, you don’t have the right. Free yourself from your parents’ pain. You must carry on with your life and your children’s. You must busy yourself erasing your own real sufferings, when you have some."
"Yes, yes..."
"Woman, answer me some other way. It seems that you resent me, that I bore to you."
He follows her, in a dance of slight steps, all through the study. she has taken a bag that had hung in the kitchen.
"Leave me alone now" she says to him, approaching the door to the street. "You must be right, you are, surely; but, leave me alone, please. You I am asking you please!"
"What, you’re leaving? Don’t leave me like this, you do not go away gotten upset. It tell me something, woman."
Alina already has opened the door.
"What else do you want me to tell you That I can’t take any more! That I won’t be calm until you let me be a while. I’m starting to look for bread to have breakfast so give me a little room. Try to understand if you can. I can’t stay locked up here any longer. So long."
She left almost running. To the main door to the street there is only one flight of stairs. Her hand quivers, while she opens the door. Philippe is calling her, but she doesn’t answer.
She continues running down the street. Her legs feel wobbly, but she forces them to run away. She crosses one sidewalk to another, and after an intersection or two, light-headed and exhausted, moved closer to the walls. Until after feeling the actual point of exhaustion, she didn’t raise her eyes from the ground, nor thought where she went. Little by little, she slows her pace, and her breathing becomes varied and arrhythmic, like that of a drunkard, until she stops. She remembered that Philippe would not follow her, because he can’t leave the children alone, and she takes a deep breath.
It is a foggy morning. Most of the house windows are still closed, but some bars have opened. She arrived near the backside of Notre Dame. The people who pass by her look at her there stopped, and continue on uninterested, absorbed in their own things. She begins to walk in a fixed direction. She is near the Seine, the Seine river. It is called a river at any rate: one of those blue dark lines that her father identified on the map at school. This one is her river now. She has arrived near the river and wants to see it flow.
She comes up to the Notre Dame plaza, and crosses it towards the river. Then she goes following the parapet slowly until arriving at the first stairs that go down. The river flows within its banks. Se goes down the parapet to a wide cement sidewalk and from there sees it flow close up. It is like a hiding place from the heart of the city, the scene of the songs that tell of almost legendary lovers. She doesn’t feel cold. She sits down, embracing her knees, and her eyes are calmed down, resting in gray waters of the river.

The rivers attracted her since she was little, even before ever having seen one. From atop mountain Ervedelo, she liked to attentively watch the strip of the Miño, that waters Orense, and also the city, real and drawn. But mainly the river, with its bridge raised. She imagined it magnificent, seen up close. Then, at school, her father taught her the names of other rivers that are in distant countries; thousand of narrow twists and turns, all the same: veins on the map.
She went to the school with the other children, but she was brightest of them all. She often heard it said to the priest and the owner of the family seat, when they spoke with her father. She learned to read right away and she taught Eloy, one of the cattle herdsmen, who didn’t have time to go to school.
"She's going to be a teacher just like you, Benjamín" her father’s friends used to say, looking at her.
Her father was relatively old, when she had been born. Together with the memory of her early childhood, was always the one of her father brushing his shaggy moustache, he kissed her a lot and told her long stories near her ear. The father liked to drink and hunt with the people of the town. It made her a walker and wild. He took her with him to the mountain all the time and taught her all the names of the plants and animals. Alina, with the names she learned, went inventing stories, conveying colors and brilliance to all the little things. She made it a wide-ranging world, full of treasures, one that anyone could see. Some times she got together with other children, and they all sat to play on the walls, on the empty cars. They gathered and lined up little sticks, green and red berries, chestnut burrs, grains of corn, crystals, pieces of bark. They pretended to transform these things into multicolored talismans. They made broths and stews, crushing the flower petals in an empty can, the bits of roofing tile used for pepper, the grapes pulled off the bunch. They walked sticking to in the shade of the houses, in the roadside ditch of the highway, between the silly and easily frightened hens and the ugly bare necked chicks.
But since her father started her to like climbing mountains, every time she preferred going further away from town; everything he showed her or was looking at on her own, in the peaks, among the base of the pines, was what was truly worth discovering. She jumped on her tiptoes and shrieked, whenever a down of a thistle flower, a small lizard, or one of the good butterflies got away from her. The country butterfly flew near the Earth, bobbing up and down, and was very easy to catch, but it was less interesting than a fly. It was tiny, orange or light brown; on the outside like ash. Up highest on the mountain, the butterflies that interested her most she came across were the grasshoppers that were always startling when appearing, spreading their blue wings. But Alina was not scared of any insect; not even the dragonflies that only dwell in the densest parts, also where enormous and hairy spiders spread out between the Gorse thorns on their thick webs, like hammocks. The dragonflies attracted her by their frightfulness, and she lay in wait for them, holding her breath.
"Be quiet, daddy, so you don’t frightened that one away. Look at it there. There" she pointed, enthusiastically.
There were purple flowers, with hooked dry bulbs on its branches that looked like paper bells. These were the homes of the dragonflies; they landed there and balanced in ecstasy, with a gentle humming that made its sunflower wings vibrate, the body speckled like a small reptile, it eyes, large and blue.
An overwhelming silence, that intoxicated, fell at noon down over the mountain. Alina began to escape alone to the intricate places and liked the fear that she felt sometimes, as much as the solitude. It was an incomparable exhilaration hanging out on highest point of the mountains, in the most hidden place, mainly thinking that perhaps they were looking for her or were going to scold her.
Her mother scolded her a lot, if she was gone too long; but her father only just a little the first times, until he stopped scolding her completely, and didn’t allow his wife say anything to her again either.
"I can't complain" he said, laughing. "It was I who taught her to hike alone that way, kicking the ground and taking in the essence. She is a spitting image of me, Herminia. It is not bad what she does; it's a beautiful thing. And don’t you worry, that she’ll get lost, don’t.
And grandpa Santiago, the mother’s father, was the one who made her laugh most. He was never worried about his granddaughter.
"Drop it" he would say, "leave her be, this one will go far and see the world. She is more like me than you, Benjamín. She will be the one who continues grandpas’ expeditions. Because she is leaving here. She has the desire to explore world and to make tracks written all over her face.
"Now then, there won’t be any excursions" warned the teacher. "Don’t you put those ideas in her head, grandpa. She will remain in her country, like her father, who hasn’t missed out on anything staying here."
Grandpa had gone to America when he was younger. He had a hectic and unstable life and had gone off on many adventures. The teacher, however, had never been further away than a few kilometers, and every day in front of the daughter he bragged about it more.
"You can spend your whole life, daughter, without getting lost in new worlds. And even be sensible. Everything is always the same here or elsewhere; don’t pay attention to your grandpa’s traveling stories."
Grandpa smiled.
"We’ll just see what happens, Benjamín. It doesn’t matter what you want or do not want."
As she grew, Alina began to understand confusedly that her grandpa and her father seemed to want to argue over conflicting causes, although the details and reasons of that sorted rivalry escaped her. At the moment her goals and dreams were to go down to the city to see the river.
She remembered now the first time she had gone with her father to Orense, a summer Sunday, there was a fair. The insistence with which she asked him to took her and her oaths that she would not complain about being tired. She remembered, like the first truly serious emotion of her life, the one of encountering the Miño river up close, in the middle of the afternoon, after the long trek, with a bustle of many colorfully dressed people, snacking by the edges, and others who continuously were going down to the sawmills to the festivities. Near the river was the hermitage of the Remedies, and a little further down, at the edge, the fairgrounds with its stalls that look like wood skeletons. They were there and the father drank and spoke with many people. They danced and they sang, they played cards. They sold lollipops, octopus, straw hats, candies, whistles, little rubber balls and canvas shoes. But Alina practically ignored all that; she had already seen the like at San Lorenzo, at the village festival. She looked at, mainly, the river, captivated, at first without letting of her father’s hand. Then, later on, when the sun was just setting, she remained awhile sitting at the bank ("... be careful. Leave me alone. Really, dad..."); and she felt all the buzz of celebration behind her, while she tried to find, mixed in the current of the Miño, the gold nuggets of the legendary affluent, the Sil, that drags its treasure, channeled between slate hills. She did not see any of those wonderful sparkles shine, but the river was becoming, with the dusk, more and more rosy and calm, and she felt, with its flow, the day’s departure. There were some mares on the other bank that lifted their eyes once in a while, and a fisherman, immovable, with his fishing pole. The rose thickened in the water.
Then, when returning, from the bridge, at dusk, she could see the mountains far away and the towns staggered in amphitheater, wide, blue, and, in front, the houses of Orense with their opened windows, some already with lights, others closed, panes still lit up by the last sun brilliance. Many women returned quickly, with baskets on their heads, and they were counting money, without stopping walking or talking.
"It's getting very late for us, Benjamín; the girl is getting tired" said one of her father’s friends, who had been with them almost the whole time.
"This one?" answered the teacher, squeezing her hand. "You do not know this little girl. Are you sleepy, lass?"
"No way, dad, not tired at all."
The teacher and his friend had drunk enough, and they had a little more fun in the Cathedral district taverns.
Then they walked along the streets and alleyways, singing until they were on the road out of town, and the friend said goodbye there. The return was all uphill, and they walked slowly.
"Your mother will likely give us a lecture."
"No, dad. I will tell her that it was my fault; that I was wanted to stay longer."
The teacher began to sing, a little out of tune, an folk song, that he sang quite often, and it goes: ". . . take advantage of the good life — bachelorette don’t get married — take advantage of the good life — I know of a married woman — who cries regretfully." He often sang it.
"You always with your father, pretty one" he said then, "always with your father."
There were five kilometers from Orense to San Lorenzo. The road curved back and forth, by the light of the moon.
"You getting tired?"
"No, dad."
"Your mother will be concerned."
The crickets sang. Then someone going to town with his oxen cart passed by, and told them to hop on. They laid down upon the cut hay.
"Did you have a good time, queen?"
" Uy, very good!"
And, hearing the squeak of the wheels, looking at the stars, Alina felt like crying.
She told Eloy, the boy of the cattleman, about how wonderful the river was. He had already been down to Orense several times because he was older than she, and had even swam in the Miño, but he listened to her speak as if he had never seen it before now, in her words.
Eloy kept the teacher’s cows, which there were two, and was used to being in a small triangular meadow that was at the foot of Ervedelo mountain. There Alina came to look for him many afternoons, and that is where she had taught him to read. Sometimes grandpa Santiago accompanied her on her walks and stayed with the children, telling them everlasting stories about his trip to America. But Alina could not stay in the same spot for long.
"Grandpa, may I go up to the great rock with Eloy for awhile, and you stay with the cows, like yesterday? We’ll come back down right away."
Grandpa began to roll a cigarette.
"Sure, daughter. Come back when you want."
And they went up running on all fours through the hardest parts, jumping from rock to rock to the summit.
How breathtaking the city was, seen from there above! From the great flat stone, where they sat, the weeds descended almost straight down, mixing with trees, stones, crops, in a dizzying drop, and the houses of Orense, the Cathedral, the river were all in that gorge; they looked down there without moving and forgot about the road and the distance. They could see the wrinkles of the surface of the river, especially if it were sunny. Alina imagined how pretty it would be for both of them to go in a boat, down the river.
"To Tui, what you say? How long would it take to get to Tui?"
"I don’t know."
"Probably several days, but we would have things to eat."
"Of course, I would be rowing."
"Y we would pass by Portugal. To go to Portugal surely there is a current in the water of another darker color, that would be noticeable, but just a little bit."
"And sleep?"
"We wouldn’t sleep. You don’t sleep on a trip like that. Just watch; watching all the time."
"At night you can’t see anything, there is nothing to see."
"There is lots to see. There’s the moon and lights by the banks. Lots to see."
They never returned quickly, like they had told grandpa.
"How does it seem to you, is it far or close, the river?"
"From here?"
"To me it seems very close, like one could almost dive into it. You?"
"As well. It seems that if I open my arms, I am going to be able to flying down. Look, like this."
"Don’t you say that" Eloy said frightened, pulling her back, "it makes me lightheaded."
"No, I won’t jump. But that would be a lot of fun, wouldn’t it? It would splash a lot of water."
The river was like a opening, like a window to go out, most importantly, the closest one they had.
One afternoon, on one of these walks, Eloy told her he had decided to go to America, as soon as he was a little older.
"Are you telling the truth?"
"Of course I’m telling the truth."
Alina looked at him with much admiration.
"When did you decide this?"
"A long time ago, around the time I started to listen to your grandpa talk about it. But I hadn’t decided until now. I am going to write to a cousin that I have there. But all this is a secret, don’t tell anybody."
"Of course not. I swear. But, hey, you’ll need money."
"Yes, I will just have to start saving. Don’t think that I am going to leave right away."
"Well if I were you, I would leave immediately. If you don’t go right away, perchance you don’t go at all."
"I’ll leave, I swear to you that I will leave. And better now since I see that it’s alright with you."
Alina started uprooting grass very quickly, and they didn’t speak for awhile.
Later he said:
"You know what I am going to do?"
"I am not going to say anything to you again until I have everything ready and I come see you to say goodbye. So you will see how serious I am. My father says, when you talk a lot about something, it doesn’t happen. So don’t ask me anything about it any more, OK?"
"Fine. But don’t lose the desire to go by not talking to me."
"No, woman."
"And don’t tell anybody else."
"Nobody. Only my cousin, when I write him, I don’t know when that will be. Perhaps I’ll wait ’til I get the money."
They didn’t speak of that again. Eloy went away to work at the nearby quarries, where they were removing stone to make the Sanatorium, and they started seeing each other less. Alina asked her grandpa if the trip to America could be made going as a stowaway, because she imagined that Eloy would go that way, and, for some time, she listened to grandpa’s stories with a different emotion. But at once it felt far away again, like before, just as read in a book or painted with worn-out colors on a curtain. Deep down, everything about the trips seemed like a very beautiful fantasy, but just a fantasy, and she didn’t believe it much. Eloy would not leave: how was he going to leave?
Often, from Ervedelo mountain, when she was alone watching it grow dark and she remembered the conversation she had right there with her friend again, even though she tried to accept the truth that the sun had not gone out, but rather continued towards other unknown and distant lands, and even though she often said the word "America" and remembered the drawings in her Geography book, she could not, actually, understand. The sun had sunk behind the mountains that surrounded that valley, and its reflection on the city had just faded away, still surrounded in a hot haze. Light bulbs began to glow. So many windows, so many lives, so many stories. Could it encompass more? All those little things were streets, stores, people who were going to have supper. There was life all over the place down there. Alina could not imagine that much. Other great and flourishing countries would have them, without a doubt; but they would be the same. When the valley became dark, the river calm and violet; when the dogs began to bark at the rising moon and also signify the fear at night, everything was transformed in this little space that penetrated her eyes. The sun had blown out its lamps, had said "good night"; It left the hope of seeing rise tomorrow. Alina at those moments thought that her father was right, that it was a mistake to want to run behind the sun, to dream of more a brighter light in another land.
When she turned ten, she began her college studies. By then, she was already familiar with the city. Her mother often went down to the market with all the village women that made a living from the daily sale of few eggs, of a handful of beans. Alina accompanied her downhill and back up, walking ahead of the other groups, letting them walk ahead of her or walking in the middle of them, and she listened in silence, next to her mother, the conversations that all those women had, while they kept their baskets balanced on very stiff heads, without looking around, without missing a rhythmic, almost military step. They kept the villages informed and ignited their friendships, told stories and news, remembered the celebration dates. The whole strand of isolated villages alongside the road, spilled out these messengers from very early on, who went meeting and greeting, down the road to the city, like flocks of talkative birds. Alina liked to go with her mother, trotting every so often to adjust to her double time. And she liked to hear the women gossip. Sometimes they spoke to her and asked her things about her mother, serious and unimportant thinks, more eager to listen than to speak. They had known that she was going to enroll the girl in the Institute . The teacher’s daughter.
"Herminia, is this one going to go to Orense to the admissions?"
"She’s going."
"Her father’s idea, for sure."
"And hers. She likes it."
"Do you like it, honey?"
"Yes, I do, lady."
Afterwards, as she was taking her classes, the comments became approving.
"They say you’re doing very well in your studies."
"No. They say very well. Isn’t she doing very well, Herminia?"
"It’s going well, it is."
Alina studied with her father, during the winter, and in June she went down to take the Institute exam by herself. She only allowed her father to attend the entrance examinations. It was a personal choice.
"I alone, dad. If not, nothing. I go down and I take the exam and solve the problems and everything. If you are there, you above all, I will do much worse."
She had become completely independent, native of the land, self-confident, and it was absolutely natural to see her grow up and develop on her own as do plants. Benjamín accepted his daughter’s conditions. He bragged about her, glorified her in his conversations with his friends. At the end of each course, several hours before Alina returned, he dropped everything and went to wait for her at Manuel’s store, that was far ahead of town, at the beginning of the Indian chestnuts on the road, where the women returning from the market, in summer, stopped to rest a little and to clean the sweat off their foreheads beneath that tremendously reliable shade. Almost always some of them, who had gone ahead of Alina up the road, brought her father the news before she arrived.
"She’s coming behind me. I asked her. She says she has excellent, I don’t know how many."
"She hasn’t failed any at all."
"Fine, man, fine. She failed them!"
"I wonder how long she’ll be?"
"I don’t know. She was coming slowly."
Alina came slowly. She returned cheerful, looking forward to summer. She had never looked at people with so much goodwill and affection with those she was meeting, like now in these returns, with her recently folded problems in books. Those people formed a concert with the stones, trees and insects of the ground. Everything contributed and lived collectively: they were the particles that wove the infinite noon, without barriers. She stopped at Manuel’s store. Benjamín was outside, seated a wood table, almost never alone, and she saw from afar the handkerchief that he was waving at her.
"Come here, woman. Takes a cup of wine, like a man, with us" her father said, kissing her.
And she rested there, drinking fresh and bitter wine. And between the sun of the long walk, the emotion, the wine and just a little bit of embarrassment, her cheeks turned a gorgeous red, the most vibrant and brightest that the teacher had seen in his life.
"Let me see, come on. Show me those reports."
"Stop it now, dad. Good grades, you will just have to see them at home."
"What did they ask you in Geography?"
"Los rivers of America. I was lucky."
"And in Natural History?"
"I don’t remember,… oh, yes, butterflies."
"But let the girl be, man, just leave her on peace" the friends intervened.
At home, grandpa Santiago. He couldn’t contain his emotion and one went away to a corner of the orchard, where Alina followed him and started to console him like it was a sad thing. She hugged him. He caressed her head, with rough hands.
"This time I’m really going, daughter. This is the last time I’ll see your grades. I know, I’m going to die this summer."
Grandpa, with the passing of years, had been getting more and more terrified of dying that it was almost a disease. He was sick with fear, skinny and restless from insomnia. He refused to sleep because he said that death always comes at night and you have to be awake to shoo it away. He drank coffee and took pill to keep from sleeping, and cried often, in the night, calling to those in the house, that no longer paid attention no to his odd habits, and they heard him moan like a the wind. Alina was a very sound sleeper, but she was the only one who went to console to him, sometimes, when she awoke. She found him sitting on the bed, with the light on, his tense puny little figure tense projecting an immense shadow on the wall; on the lookout, like a guard. Indeed, almost all the old people of the village died at night, while they slept, and nobody heard them die, nor bothered to ask the reason. They were thin and long-suffering people, whose sight had become cloudy, and had probably never seen the doctor. Grandpa had always been healthy too, but he was the oldest still living, and he knew his time was coming near.
 Alina’s last grades he saw were those of fifth year. So that year he hugged her harder and cried more than other times, so much that father got upset and called to him selfish, he told him that spoiled everyone’s happiness. Alina had a knot in her throat all afternoon, and thought for the first time that grandpa really was going to die. She looked for him in the orchard and through the house several times that afternoon, throughout the celebration that the teacher always had in the dining room, with many people. They snacked on pie, doughnuts and wine and sang a lot. For the first time there were also some young people. A nephew of the owner of the family seat, who was in his first year of studies, played the guitar very well and sang very pretty songs. He spoke quite a lot with Alina, mainly of how much fun it was in winter in Santiago de Compostela, with the students. By that time, Alina had just about decided to major in Fine Arts in Santiago, and she told the boy. He was friendly, and spoke with a certain superiority, but at the same time not at all like a girl. Alina would have got along with him very well if she hadn’t been worried the whole time about grandpa, who had disappeared in the middle of the afternoon, after the teacher lectured him in exasperation, for being annoying. She could not find him, although she went all throughout the house several times, and once she went running to the church juncture and shouted to him from there.
Grandpa returned that night, when all the friends had already left and dinner time was past, when Alina’s mother also began to be very worried. His head held low and his hands shaking. He went to his room, without hearing the words they said to try cheering up his frowning face.
"Your father is crazy, Herminia, crazy" the teacher got angry, when they heard him close his door. "He should see a doctor. He is ruining our life."
Benjamín was invigorated by his daughter’s success and the drink, and wanted to argue with somebody. He kept saying many things about grandpa, without Alina or her mother to support him. Soon everyone went to bed.
But Alina did not sleep. She waited awhile and tiptoed to grandpa’s room. That night, after her excellent fifth year grades, was the last time she spoke at length and stayed with him. They remained together until dawn, until she was able to see him confident again, driven away the helplessness from his cloudy eyes that seemed to want to go beyond the night, seeing a trickle of light crack through.
"Don’t leave, daughter, wait a little bit" he asked her frequently, as soon as the conversation lagged.
"I’m not leaving. Don’t worry. I won’t leave until you want me to."
"I hope your father doesn’t hear us. If he finds out that you didn’t sleep on my account, he’ll kill me."
"He won’t hear us, grandpa."
And they spoke in whispering, close to their ears, like lovers.
"You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?"
"Of course not."
"Tell me truly."
"I swear, grandpa." And Alina’s voice quivered. "You seem like the most reliable person in the house."
"They say I act childish, but I don’t. I’m a man. It’s that, daughter of my soul, the gravest thing that can happen to a man is die. Speaking is the only consolation. I would talk all day, if I had someone to listened to me. While I speak, I am still alive, and I leave something to the rest. The terrible thing is that everyone dies with that, all the memories of the things they have done and seen. Understand this, daughter."
"I understand, I understand it clearly."
Grandpa cried.
"You understand, daughter, because only women understand and give it heat. Even though I may be a very old man, I am ashamed to cry in front of other men. A woman protects you, although she also ties you down and she becomes a part of you, like your grandmother bound me. You just don’t move any more, and you see that you weren’t worth anything. But you know who you partner is. One’s partner, bad or good one, one chooses her."
Grandpa was delirious. But speaking, speaking, revitalized his eyes and made his voice stop quivering. Death can’t catch someone off guard who is speaking. Grandpa talked that night, indiscriminately, all his stories about America, grandma Rosa, different people whose names he mixed up and whose stories had changed, faded stories from youth. He was all confused, perhaps more than any other time he had told the same stories, but however, he had never appeared so alive and terrifying to Alina as now grandpa’s desperation of not being able to move any more, not to hear the voice of so many people who are in the world telling things and listening to them, of not making so many trips as they stay to make and to learn so many things that would be worth the trouble; and she understood that he wanted to hand down to her that thirst to it of life, that fascination.
"Here, where I am condemned to die, I have already seen it all, I know by heart. I know the prayers for the dead that are going to say the priest for me, and the faces of the saints from the church to which you are going to entrust to me, I have told them one by the cemetery grass. The only curiosity can be the one of knowing what day of the week the luck is going to touch me. Your grandma died on Sunday, in April."
"What was my grandma like?"
"Brave, daughter, brave like a man. She had cancer and nobody knew it. She smiled. And in addition she died calm. Sure because she remained with me, you understand?, with her memories, I mean, for someone that still hadn’t become useless. Mine is different, because I the key to my things, my memory, to whom do I leave it?"
"To me, grandpa. I’ll keep everything for you" Alina said almost crying. "Pass on everything to me that you want. You can always give me all yours to keep, and I will have it when you die, I swear."
Towards the dawn, she went to the kitchen to make coffee and brought both cups. She was completely wide awake.
"Grandpa, dad says that I won’t get married, he always tells me that. Is that true that I am not going to get married? What do you say?"
"Sure you’ll get married."
"Well he says that I was born to be free."
"One is never free; if you’re not tied to someone, you’re not alive. And your father knows it. He wants to be your bond, that is what it is, but he won’t get it."
"Yes he will. I love him more than anybody."
"But that’s not it, Alina. You can break his, and you will. The true bonds are those that one chooses, those are sought after and become one, being able not to have them."
Alina, although she did not entirely understand, remembered this conversation for a long time.
A the few days later she met Eloy in the road. He was very handsome and much older. She had seen him other times as well, but always quickly, and they barely able to say hello. This time, he stopped her and told her he wanted to talk to her.
"Well talk."
"No, not now. I am in a hurry."
"And when?"
"This afternoon, at six, in Ervedelo. I work near there."
He had never dated anyone, and it was very strange that Eloy asked her. In the evening, when she left home, it seemed to her for the first time in her life that she had something to hide. She left by the door back, and she gave her father, who was in the orchard, thousands of explanations of why she decided to take a walk. Also it bothered her to find grandpa Santiago, at the foot of the mountain, with the only old cow that lived, "Pintera". She did not know whether to stop for him or not, but finally she stopped because it seemed to her that he had seen her. But he was half asleep and was frightened:
"Daughter, what time is it? Is it night already? Are we leaving?"
"No, grandpa. Don’t you see it’s still daylight? I’m going up the mountain for awhile."
"Are you going to be long?" he asked her. "It’s that I am a bit sick."
He anxiously raised his trembling eyes towards her.
"No, I’m only going up awhile. What’s wrong?"
"Nothing, same as always: the knot here. I’ll wait for you then?"
"Yes, wait for me and we’ll return together."
"You’ll come back before the sun sets?"
"Yes, sure."
"For the love of God, don’t be late, Adelaida. You already know that as soon as the sun sets, I get scared."
"I won’t be late, no. I won’t."
But it didn’t go like she said. She entered the pine forest with her heart racing, and, without wanting to, started to walk more slowly. She liked to feel the fallen pine needles rustle in the sun and the shade, forming a crust of toasted quills. She imagined, without knowing why, the first thing that Eloy was going to do was take her hand and say he loved her; perhaps even kiss her. And she, what would she do if that happened? Would she even be able to say a word?
But Eloy only tried to tell her about his forthcoming trip to America. Finally his relatives had written him back, and he was beginning to prepare all the papers.
"I’m telling you, as I promised when we were little. Because we were friends then, and because you encouraged me a lot. Now you probably don’t care so much."
"No, I do care. We are still friends now. I am glad you have everything prepared. I am very glad."
But she had to force herself to speak, She felt a hint of deception, as if this trip was different from that unreal and legendary one, that she had imagined her friend in this mountain summit, without thinking that he would really do it.
"And will you have work there?"
"Yes, I believe they have found one for me. A waiter. They live in Buenos Aires and my uncle has opened a bar."
"But you’ve never been a waiter. Do you like that?"
"I like leaving here. We’ll just see. Then I’ll do other things. I can do anything."
"Then, you’re happy about leaving?"
"—Happy, happy. I can’t even begin to explain. Now I can tell everyone. I have enough money together, and if my parents don’t want me to, I’ll leave anyway."
His eyes shone with joy, he had a confident voice. Alina was sad, and she didn’t know how to explain it. Then they went down a little and climbed another mount on the left, from which they could see the quarries where Eloy had been working all that time. Once in a while they heard the blasting holes that thundered in the valley, and the pounding of the workers opening the masses of granite, carving them in smooth, great and white rectangles. Eloy that afternoon missed work to come speak with Alina and said it was all the same to him, because he already planned on quitting. The men who were working looked very small, and Eloy watched with curiosity and attention, from up high, as if they had never been his companions.
"I’m leaving, I leaving" he repeated.
It got dark over Ourense. They both saw shadows falling upon the tile roofs of the city, blinding the river. To the Institute building it gave a little sun on the windows until the end. Alina located it and showed it to Eloy, who didn’t know where it was. She had to put her face very close to his.
"Look; there. There. . ."
They talked about the Institute and Alina’s grades.
"The young gentleman of the family seat says you are very ready, that you are going to choose a major."
"Well, I still don’t know."
"He talks very highly of you."
"I barely know him. When have you met him?"
"I see him at the tavern. We have played cards. Until I thought: "'Perhaps he likes Alina.'"
He looked at her. She blushed.
"How silly! I have only seen him once. And besides, Eloy, I am fifteen years old. I think you’re lying."
She felt like crying.
"One is already a woman at fifteen" he said cheerfully, without the least amount of embarrassment. "Or not? You should know."
"Yes, well, but..."
"But what?"
"You are right, woman. There’s time, there’s time."
And Eloy laughed. He seemed to be twenty years or older, although he was only two older than her. "He must be fed up have girlfriends" Alina thought. "He wants to make me furious."
They came back down in silence by a way that was a little winding. It was embarrassing to have to hold his hand sometimes, on the difficult parts. The stars were already out. Suddenly Alina remembered grandpa and how she had promised to not be late, and her heart shrank.
"We’re going to cut through this way. Let’s go quickly. He is waiting for me."
"Fine, let him wait."
"He can’t wait. He gets scared. Come on, listen. Seriously."
They ran. They left a already dark road and passed in front of the abandoned house, that had formerly been the priest’s and then was sold to some men who almost never came. They called it "the road house" and no other house was close to it. At the door, and by the decayed wood balcony, rose a climbing plant of passion flowers, strange flowers like amateurishly painted meat, grotesque and dim grimace, that looked like faces of an old clown. Alina, who wasn’t scared of anything, was scared of these flowers, and he had never seen them anywhere else. Eloy stopped and plucked one.
"Take it."
"You want me to take it? Why?"  she got scared without taking the flower her friend held out for her.
"For no reason, daughter. Because I’m leaving; a gift. You’re looking at me in an odd way, like you’re scared. Why are you looking at me that way?"
"No; I don’t want it. I just don’t like them, they are revolting."
"Fine" said Eloy. And he threw it. "But you’re not getting away."
They ran again.
"It’s because of grandpa. I am worried about him" Alina said, almost crying, relieved to have a pretext to justify her emotion of all afternoon. "Stay behind, if you want."
"But what’s going to happen to grandpa? What could happen to him?"
"I don’t know. Something. I feel like going to see him."
"Would you rather I stay back or go with you?"
"No. You’d better come with me. Come too."
"Well don’t run like that."
They saw him from distant spot, motionless, leaning on the trunk of a walnut tree, next to the cow, that was lying on the ground.
"You see he is still there?" said Eloy.
Alina began to call to him, as she approached:
"I’m coming, grandpa. I’m already here. Don’t be scared. We are here. Eloy and I."
But he didn’t moan, like other times, he didn’t sit up. When they entered the meadow anxiously, they saw that had died, with his eyes open, emotionless. The shadows lowered peacefully in front of them, they fell like a drop curtain, they flooded the field and the village.
From grandpa’s death and the depature of Eloy; Alina’s memories go another closer direction, and everything ends with Philippe. It is very odd that these memories are more obscure than the old ones, but that’s the way it happens.
Both final baccalaureate courses, she doesn’t even know how they were. She lived in the village, but with the single thought to finish her Institute studies in order to go away to Santiago de Compostela. She already lived there in her mind, and now, after the years, what she imagined is entangled and woven into how she really lived. She wanted to escape, to change her life. She became unsociable and was always absent. She began to write poetry that she kept jealously and until she met Philippe had not shown to anyone, not even to her father. Often she left to write in the garden that surrounded the church, near her grandpa’s tomb. That one didn’t seem like a cemetery, which Alina knew afterwards, so characteristic. The birds sang and over there the priest’s hens were walking around pecking. The eucalyptuses and pines trees were just two strides from each other, everything was one. Often she felt nervous that somebody would find her alone in places like this, and she made herself appear preoccupied in order not to greet passersby, even though it might have been an acquaintance.
"She is haughty" they started to say in the village. "Her studies has gone to her head."
The children who had played with her when she was little had were approaching adolescence, bursting and fleeting, as a red track. They lived the whole year waiting for celebrations of the Patron Saint in August, where many got a boyfriend and others got pregnant. Some of them their age already had a child. During winter she met one by the road, barefoot, with her pitchers on her head, holding the hand of her little brother or son. Loaded down, serious, responsible. She also saw them bent over the ground gathering potatoes or pineapples. And it seemed to her that she had never seemed them until then. She had never found this difficulty communicating with them or feeling embarrassed being different. But either, like now, this kind of delight in knowing that she was headed in another direction, she could escape this fate that tormented her. She went frequently confession with Don Felix and admitted her lack of humility.
“Well work with your mother at home, daughter” the priest said to her, do chores in the field, talk with all the people, like you did before.
Then, saying penance, Alina spent long stretches of time at the empty church in the afternoons, by the back door, where scents and noises from the countryside entered, opened wide. She fixed her eyes, without having the slightest thought, on the image of Saint Roch, who had the brim of his hat raised and there, two keys crossed, painted with glitter. It was detailing to his amazed eyes, his mouth that showed in his beard, with an expression of mockery, as if he were disguised and knew it. Underneath he wore a dark cloak with pilgrim shells and a violet tunic, that he lifted to his thigh with his left hand to show a pale sore, while with the right he held a staff topped with carvings. The dog he had at his feet, depending from which angle you looked at him, looked like a skinny pig or a sheep. It looked up to the saint with suffering eyes.
“My devotion is going away”, Alina confessed to the priest looking that Saint Roch. “The whole church comes across to me as a lie, I don’t believe in anything at all. It makes me sick.”
“That’s the oddest thing, daughter, such a miraculous image! But nothing” Don Félix worried, “don’t look at it again. Say the rosary in the pine forest like you did before, or envision God your own way. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. You are good, you don’t have to worry yourself so much with those questions that keep coming to you. Dance a little at these upcoming celebrations. That’s not bad at your age. Have fun, daughter.” He laughed. “You will probably say that’s a very strange penance.
The teacher, who had always been rather anticlerical, began to be alarmed.
“But, Herminia, what does this girl do all day in the church?”
“Let her do what she wants. Let her be.”
“Let her be? How am I going to let her be? She’s becoming a nun by less than a hair.”
“Fine, man, fine.
“But how come you don’t care what I telling you, woman? You’re not upset at all. Nothing gets you down.”
“Some things get me down, but I leave our daughter in peace. You’re going to bore her, so much paying attention to what she does or doesn’t do.”
“But tell her something. That’s your area.”
“She’s just growing up. Tell her, if you want, I’m not saying anything. I don’t see anything particularly wrong.”
“Yes there’s something wrong. You can’t see past your nose. She is quiet all day. She doesn’t talk to me any longer like before, she hides the things she writes from me.”
“All right, and why. Because she’s growing up. She’s not always going to be a little girl. That’s part of growing up, of becoming independent. I will ask her what’s wrong.”
And Alina always said that nothing was wrong.
“Maybe you study too much?”
“No, God, dad. On the contrary. That’s what makes me happy most.
“Well you ate better before, you were happier, you sang.
“I am fine, I assure you.
“You’ll see this year at the festival. This year we are going to have fun. It’s going to be much talked-about, the festival of San Lorenzo.
That summer, the last one before Alina started college, Benjamín began, in June, making plans for the Patron Saint’s celebration that was in the middle of August. He wanted the greatest celebration for his daughter completion of her baccalaureate and wanted her to celebrate with him, preparing the festivities. He requested that she be named the festival’s Honorary Grand Marshal that year. The marshals were chosen every year among the village’s four or five wealthiest and they covered a great portion of the cost. Generally everyone showed off and wanted to dazzle to the others; thinking that San Lorenzo festival they sponsored had to have more splendor than any other, although the differences from one year to the next were absolutely indiscernible and nobody noticed something had changed. The teacher, that year, imagined his and his daughter’s name were talked about Verín and Ourense.
“We are going to go bankrupt, man” protested Herminia, whenever she saw him come up from Ourense with a new purchase.
“Well, and if we go broke?”
“No, nothing.”
He bought hundreds of explosives and rockets. He hired a pyrotechnician for the fireworks, that had never been seen before in the town. he contracted the best band in the surrounding area, new Ferris wheel and carousel attractions. He ordered all the village roofs to be decorated where they were going to celebrate festivities with Chinese lanterns and flags, he installed on the terrace of his own house a small bar with drinks, where everybody could stop, to drink for free.
“El teacher is pulling out all the stops” they commented.
“Yes he is.”
Days before he had gone down to the city with Adelaida and wanted to buy her a evening dress at an elegant store. He took her to the shop window with a great deal of excitement. It was blue glase silk and had a rose at the waist.
“No, dad. It doesn’t become me, I would be embarrassed to wear that. Don’t get sad. I just can’t, really. Come on, Let’s go.”
“But what do you mean ‘Let’s go’? Doesn’t it look pretty?”
“Very pretty, yes. But I don’t want it. It’s not my style. Understand, dad. I appreciate it. It looks like a gown for a queen, or I don’t know.”
“Of course, for a queen. For you.
He couldn’t understand. He insisted I go in and try it on so I could see it on, for at least a few minutes. But he didn’t get it. They ended up in one of those cloth stores of cloth in the old district, buried away and desolate like cathedrals, and there Alina chose two dress styles of printed cretonne that the seamstress of the village made for her in three days, They returned the whole way very silent, with the package.
Those celebrations weren’t any different for Alina from those of other years, except she had to try hard to hide her unhappiness, because she didn’t want to lessen her father’s enjoyment. She didn’t know what was wrong, but her desire to leave was greater than ever. She felt trapped, spinning in misfortune on a dizzying wheel. She laughed nonstop, forcedly, and every time she met her father’s eyes he was looking at her to make sure she was having fun. She danced a lot and they complimented her, but she didn’t remember any man.
“I was just waiting for you at that celebration” she told Philippe a short time later, when she told him about her life previous to meeting him. “It was as if I already knew you, as if I longed for you, as if I was saving my life for you.”
Benjamín lost his daughter in those celebrations, despite which Philippe, the human rival, had still not appeared. But he didn’t notice. He walked all around the fair grounds, from one group to another, from the first hours of afternoon, and was proudly receiving the congratulations from everyone. He was taking a break from the hustle and bustle of the previous days.
The festivities were celebrated in a grove of chestnut and eucalyptus trees to the left of the road. The trees were old, and many were drying up little by little. Others had been cut down, and left the stumps as seats for the pastry chefs. Those that arrived late sat on the ground, on yellowish, trampled grass, and put their basket with merchandise in front. In rows of three or four, with colorful handkerchiefs at the top. They sold Rivadabia doughnuts, pears and apples, little clocks that told the time, whistles, firecrackers. They were setting up since morning the faded blue painted flying boats and fastened to two iron bars a stretched poster, which read: "the Joy— Odilo Varela." Other years they put them near the road, and Odilo Varela, which was already popular, all the children of the town helped bringing boards and nails. But this time bumper cars and a Ferris wheel had also come, and the flying boats lost their attraction.
Also since that morning, very early, the octopus men, the indispensable, solemn octopus men of the fair had arrived. This year there were three. The octopus man was as important as the band, as the mass of three priests, like the rockets that shook the mountain. The little boys stood around the explosions of the first rockets to go running to look for the coolest one. And also they watched the arrival of the first octopus man to go running through the village to let everyone know. The octopus man, meanwhile, parsimoniously prepared his tools, cognizant of the dignity of his position, its importance in the celebration. He chose, after much inspection of the land, the most appropriate place to put the immense black iron pot. He changed it several times. A little higher. Where there was less wind. Once definitively established, on its base, he filled it with water and piled underneath dry leaves, branches and bark that they were collecting and gathering with a rake. The little boys surrounding him, more and more numerous, helped him with this. Soon the bonfire caught, and, when the water began to boil, he brought out the octopus to throw into the pot. This was the most important moment of the ceremony, and many people had already gathered to see it. The dry octopus like a skeleton, with its stiff arms full of wrinkles, sank in the water to be transformed. The octopus man started a cigarette, and without hurrying answered requests of the women who had been approaching and beginning to place orders, while, once in a while, he stirred the pot with his long iron hook. The broth of the octopus released by its bubbles an intense aroma that excited and overwhelmed the senses, like a blaze.
In the evening, this aroma had permeated the grounds and mixed with the fried eels. Also came sometimes, between the dust the pairs when dancing raised, other fresh bursts of scent of eucalyptus and resin. Alina drank them anxiously, breathed over the shoulder of her dancing partner, looking far away, to the dark treetops of the pine trees, to the mountains, like glimpsed through a window.
“It seems your girl is having fun” friends told the teacher.
“She is, yes, I see. She won’t stop dancing. And what I like most is she is dancing with everybody. She isn’t old enough to get attached to anyone.”
“She will get attached, Benjamín, she will.
“But there is time. Now, in October, she’s going to the University. She earn a degree. There’s no point her thinking about fiancés. This one will be taking her exams, you just wait and see. Schoolwork appeals to her a lot.
From the highway to where the musicians’ bandstand was, with its tapestry of the Spanish flag, the whole fairgrounds was filled on both sides with stalls of wines and fried food, with their wood benches in front, and on the counter jars of Ribeiro wine in a row and small cups of white stoneware, piled up almost until touching the tails of the eels which were hung still half alive, threaded by the heads from ten to twelve. The teacher did not lose sight of the girl, nor stop drinking; he moved incessantly from one place to another. Alina smiled to her father, when he passed close by, dancing, but she tried to push her partner to the opposite side to avoid these inquiring glances that made her anxious. She answered automatically, she laughed, she spun. ("You dance very well." "Pardon me, I stepped on you." "and you are going to be a teacher") She allowed herself to be lead , half-closing her eyes. Sometimes she tripped over a pair of children who were practicing for when they start dating, and which they staggered, looking at them dying of laughter. It grew dark. The children searched the feet of those dancing with fires and firecrackers, and then run away. She went deaf from the whine of the mulberry whistles that are in the end of a balloon that is blown up and then deflates crying. She almost didn’t hear the music. When it stopped, Alina only found out because her partner also stopped. They let go then.
“To you, pretty.”
And her father almost every time approached then to tell her something, or to take her around with him and his friends, until he saw the musicians returned to pick up their instruments. He took her to eat octopus, who ordered lots of wine. Benjamín enjoyed taking the octopus man’s big scissors himself and cutting the tail just removed from the pot. The hard rosy pink little slices with their blue speckled scales, fell onto the wood plate. The octopus man sprinkled oil and paprika.
“This all turned out well, eh, queen?”
“Yes, dad.”
“I’m very glad to see you having fun. You see, I just said you were going to dance the whole time.”
“Yes, I’m dancing a lot.”
“The band is wonderful, right? Better than any other year.”
“Yes it is very good, yes.”
But the band was the same as always, with those navy blues and silver caps, who once in a while loosened a necktie. Alina had wanted to listen to them without having to dance. Everything they played seemed the same. They changed it, somehow, to a uniformed brass band that didn’t know if it was for a circus or a parade. Because she passed by them; they gave him a poignant village tune. Just like the potatoes and the garlic sausages know they are identical, roasting on eucalyptus embers in the mountains, so did the band fill the room with paso dobles and tangos to fire up the festivities. This music was Alina’s favorite and she never forgot it. And, without knowing why, as time passed she related, mostly, to the look of a lamb had they were raffling that night. She and her father had collected the raffle tickets, and were waiting around for the drawing. The animal escaped, bleating amongst the people, and they couldn’t catch it with all the commotion. When they finally rescued it, it rubbed up against the legs of everyone and looked at them with sorrowful human-like eyes. To Alina all the festival music was tainted from the look of that lamb, which appeared the most alive and important of the celebration, and couldn’t forget that for a long time either.
In the first days of solitude and maladjustment that happened upon arriving at Santiago, she put in poems all these village matters just abandoned that soon enthused Philippe. He, who came to find new colors in the landscape of Spain and to stir up everything he called its savageries, was attracted to that girl from the beginning, savage also, almost too young, who little by little opened the door to her memories. A girl who never had traveled, had not kissed a boy, who had only read a few absurd books; romantic, ignorant, and that, nevertheless, did not get bored listening to one.
“But it’s terrible what you tell me about your father.”
“Terrible why”
“Because your father is in love with you. Perhaps without realizing, but it’s obvious. An Oedipus Complex.
“I don’t know, I don’t understand. You say the silliest things.”
“He wants to keep you for himself. Don’t you realize? He is atrocious. Things that only happen in Spain. That sense of possession, of dependency. You must free yourself from your parents, by God.
Philippe had left his home very young. He had no respect for the family institution. From the first moment Alina understood that he wouldn’t be able to understand her parents, and that’s why she waited so long to tell him about them, when she couldn’t wait any longer because it little Santiago was going to be born.
Even though this only happened at the end of the school year, already in the first Christmas vacations, when Alina went to the village, after postponing with thousands of excuses, Benjamín understood that there was another man besides him; that Alina had found her true bond. And she was so honestly afraid, that she didn’t even tell her mother throughout the school year, nor anybody; until they found out suddenly, that she was pregnant, and quickly made wedding plans.
So Adelaida didn’t even get to take her first exams. Those courses that she didn’t get to compete, Alina’s whole career, remained locked up in her father’s plans he made the last time that he spoke with her about these things, when went to accompany her in October to the University. They made the trip by train, a rainy morning. Alina was very nervous and couldn’t bear the constant advice he pestered her with, wanting to cover all her possible risks, trying to recall everything so he wouldn’t forget anything. In the silence they both watched the countryside through the window thinking about different things.
Benjamín had never gone to Santiago, but had a close friend, whose guest house Alina stayed in.
“Give her all the freedom that you do others, Ramon, but find out a little about her friends and write me.”
“Ok, man, fine” his friend started to laugh. “I’ve got a good feeling. The girl is smart, it’s not necessary to watch over her. Leave her in peace. She will take care of herself.”
Already Benjamín started getting so anguished that he didn’t catch the return train.
“But dad, mother is waiting for you.”
“Am I bothering you, daughter?”
“No. But you are wasting money. And I’m just fine here. I’m just going to class. I can’t even be with you.”
He stayed almost a week. The day he was going leave, they took a stroll by the Horseshoe before Alina accompanied the train to him. Those days they had spoken so much about the same things, they no longer had anything to say. For the first time in their life, Alina saw her father dislocated, useless, worse than she had ever seen grandpa Santiago. She struggled with that feeling of relief the thought of him leaving generated. At the station he started to cry, without showing any fortitude, collapsed sobbing in arms of his daughter who was not able to hold him up, she had to push him so he would catch the train almost already leaving.
“Don’t get like that, dad. I’ll be back at Christmas. And besides I am going to write you. It’s just two months, total, until Christmas.”
Around fifteen days after this goodbye, Alina met Philippe.
It has begun to rain on the river. Slight pinpricks on the gray water. Alina gets up. Her legs have gone to sleep a little, and she’s craving some coffee. And also to see Philippe. Now it is cold.
On the way home, she buys a card, and in the bar where she enters to drink coffee she borrows a ball-point pen and, against the counter, she writes:
"Dear parents: I miss you a lot. We’re happy because they have told us, today, of a bigger apartment and surely we’ll be able to get it by spring. Santiago is better and no longer coughing. Philippe has begun working a lot for the art exhibition he’s going to do. We almost didn’t speak when you were here, always with the children’s interruption and the house chores. That’s why I couldn’t tell you how much I love Philippe, and perhaps you did not see that very well in those days. I’ll explain it better in a letter. I’ll write you something soon.
I’m happy. I have gone to get bread and the morning is rising. I think about how wonderful it will be for the children to go to San Lorenzo and see the houses of Ourense from Ervedelo. We’ll go sometime. Soon. Love you. Alina."
A tear falls, but she moves away so it doesn’t fall upon the writing. She looks up and is going to pay the waiter, who is watching her affectionately.
“It’s not worth crying over that one, my little one” he tells her giving her the change.
And she smiles. It seems to him that it is a message from Eloy, her friend, from a bar in Buenos Aires.
Benjamín awoke with a rain-soaked face and looked around, stunned. Standing, at his side, was Herminia, with a large open umbrella.
“Let’s go home, come on”, she said. I knew “I was going to find you here.”
Benjamín rubbed his eyes. He got up. His back hurt from sleeping on stone.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“Three in the afternoon. Your meal is ready there and the bed made, in case you want to rest. I’ve aired out the room well.”
“No, no. I must have slept enough here, it was morning when I fell asleep. And it was sunny.”
He looked down, when he got up. Now Ourense was gray, the river gray. Rain was gentle and light.
“Let’s go.”
They went down the mountain slowly.
“It looks like you have been sleeping on a rock” she said. “If you had fallen tumbling down. You are crazy.”
“Well, come on, be careful where you step and drop the sermon. I always have you find you behind me.
They didn’t speak again, watchful not to slip on the slope. When arriving at the road it rained harder, and they both got together under the umbrella.
“Let’s see if I have not done well in coming. Afterwards your rheumatism might start up like the other winter. If I hadn’t seen that it was getting cloudy, If I hadn’t come, no. Finally I already know where to find you when you get lost.
“Ok, that’s enough. You’ve come. It’s fine, woman.”
They passed by the place where Benjamín had met the priest. They left behind the meadow where they had buried grandpa.
“What a odd habit I’ve picked up sleeping during the day, Herminia. I wonder why that is? It seems it helps me sleep if there’s light and noise. I teased your father so much, and I am becoming like him.
“Of course not, man. How are you going away to turn out like him.”
“I really think so. I am old. Earlier I met Don Felix and I was almost friendly. I was sorry for him. He seemed so good to me.”
“He has always been good.”
“But you don’t understand anything, dang, he must have always been good! He used to make me nervous, you know, I could not even look at him. And now I almost feel like going to mass Sunday. I am scared of die. Like your father.”
When they arrived at the footpath that lead to the back part of the house, where had come from, Benjamín tried to turn and take it again.
“No, man” she objected. Let’s take the road. Underneath the chestnuts we get less wet. Don’t you see it’s raining harder? We are just around the corner.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, is that...”
“It’s, what?”
“Nothing, maybe we’ll see someone and they ask us about the trip, and that.”
“And what’ wrong with them asking us? If they ask us, well we’ll answer. I don’t know what we have to hide. Is your daughter well? Well yes. Are our grandsons handsome? Well yes. Does she get along well with the son-in-law...”
“Fine, let’s go” interrupted the teacher. Just be quiet. “We’ll go where you want and peacefully.”
From the wall that ended, at the road entrance, a grasshopper went flying and brushed passed ahead of them.
“Good news” said Herminia. “Maybe they will send the children to us this summer. What do you think?”
“Nothing, I don’t know. No one knows what will happen around here this summer. We could all have died. Or at least you and I.”
“You and I, both together? Nothing else? Well if that cheers you up. Drop dead, if you want, but I don’t feel like dying yet.
Herminia used that brave, calm voice the teacher knew so very well.
“Until then, Herminia” he said, and was very serious, “I wouldn’t want to die after you. That would be terrible. Really. I have always thought that.
“Well good, whatever God wants. And furthermore, just be quiet. What an odd habit you have picked up of dying or not dying.”
“That would be terrible. Terrible.”
He heard the rain on the Indian chestnuts covering them like a roof. Just arriving at the house, the teacher said:
“I’m not going to bed. Don’t let me go to bed until night. Let’s see if I can sleep at night. I’m becoming like your father, and now that winter is coming, I’m getting scared. I don’t want to, Herminia, I don’t want to. Don’t leave me. In summer I’ll be less scared, but winter...”
“We have to start making the insane asylum” she said.