Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the July 2008 issue

A Tongue of Lead

There are nights when dreams run stories one into another, preventing the sleeper from making a clean break between scenes that strange actors link together in his head, and so it seems that the night has been no more than the prolongation of a day that gradually has made the light disappear to make room for this palpable life shadow of that which is real. Nightmares to make your legs shudder and to talk about when awake, bare hints of laughter on the threshold of wakefulness, feeling the dreamed pains so distinctly that you could describe them with precision. This is why Mother listens behind the door and when she sees that she is screaming or crying in her sleep, she wakes her. Of all this, Joana knows nothing, nor of the mattress that we place in front of her door, where we take it in turns to sleep, now my mother now me, listening attentively, making her sleep ours, leaving our selves beside her.

Joana has got up, lazily, straightening out her nightshirt so as not to see the dry filth that runs down her legs and, seated at the edge of the bed, she notes that the basin once more has clots of blood in it and that her piss still makes the same cloudy stench as it did the first few days. It will be another couple of weeks before she produces a normal liquid, for the medicinal compresses and baths with thyme water do not reach right inside of her. When she sits up, every bit of her aches as if within her there lurked a deep hurt that does not let her get better, an internal mutilation that makes the pain reach to the parts of her skin where the wounds with dried scabs begin, the wide and dark bruises that change color with each passing day, look at this one, she says on her good days, today it is almost iridescent, and I look closely at her body broken inside and out, so fixedly that I feel again how my stomach churns, just from feeling how this flesh of hers, torn from within, sends out to me an invisible umbilical cord, a shiver full of pain from her womb to my navel.

First of all I help her to get up, turning her by her feet as if she were a rigid corpse. At first I was embarrassed to see her naked close up and I would blush when her nightshirt had gone up above her waist, leaving her mound exposed. But not any more, now I untie the nightdress carefully, as one would do with somebody whose back was sunburned and who hurt all over, taking great pains not to touch the tiger hide of her back, striped with tumescent whiplashes, drawing a grid of hematoma that cross her ribs and spine, all lined with the red tips of volcanoes, burning and peeling where her vertebrae show. First of all, I help her to get up and, when I have put her feet on the ground, I go to empty the basin onto the dunghill, the stinking liquid of concentrated pain from the miscarriage, of the infection and of the curdled hemorrhage that makes stains down her legs. She does not want Mother to wash her, this is why she waits until I return from cleaning the feeding and drinking troughs, from scattering the millet on the threshing floor and releasing the hens; she waits, before allowing herself to wake up in her bed, to hear the loud clamor of the iron buckets at the front door, and I go quickly to wash my hands and arms, to wet my hair to freshen up for her when I arrive, entering like a breath of cold air into her room, that is close, still dark and unopened, and saturated with the smell of sick and stagnant flesh. I go in with the hand basin and pitcher, hot water and cold water, and with a load of dark cotton rags from which the stains of dried blood can no longer be washed, and when she has undressed, first I wash her pubis, labia, and crotch of the streams of dried blood that has oozed from inside her during the night. It is difficult to shift even with hot water, but little by little the extreme whiteness of her hidden parts returns, and as I wash I make streams run down below her thighs, to the backs of her knees, and the passion now has me on my knees on the floor, cleaning her feet of all the filth that has streamed down, all the dried blood that dissolves from her waist to her feet, and when I get up my sister stretches out her arms in the form of a cross, standing up, tall as she is, against the light of the window, and I think of the Christ in the procession which from our home we only see from afar, so as not to thank him for anything, so as not to humor the masters: this is the woman. She cannot lift her arms any further because of the bruising on her muscles, because of the contusion that goes around her neck like a noose, like a necklace that continues to chain her to her beating. That is why I am so careful, so gentle in cleaning from the bruises the bits of plasters which I will afterwards put back again. She remains with her arms out in the shape of the cross, this is the woman whose elbows and wrists I wash until I get to the ecchymosis, to the fingers that I separate and wash one by one—your hands will be beautiful again, you'll see—and her ribs, a dark speckling of blows that reaches to her breasts—we'll cut them off, we'll cut them off, they said to you, we'll tear off your nipples, they said to you, but now forget about it, Joana, you'll have beautiful breasts again, you'll see.

I let her dry herself and then I pass over her the white towel with cold, nice cold water to wake her up fully, she has to get used to not sleeping during the day, that's why today I've brought her my two only books, Treasure Island and Voyage to the Center of the Earth, as well as some newspaper pages full of ads; I have nothing else. When I have changed the sheets I lay her down and tuck her in clean, her arms on top of the turned-down sheet; she never complains, women withstand pain far better than us cowardly men; Mother says that God gave life to men and then put women at their side to suffer it. Every day I open the windows wide before going down to the dunghill with the dirty pots and the basin, so that when I return them I find a fresh and radiant room and her beauty begins to show from underneath her swollen lip, through the delicate whiteness of the skin of her young body which is recovering slowly from the blows and the insults, from the humiliation and from a three-day old-death behind the mud walls. She does not vomit any more, that is why I can bring her curd cheese and honey (mel i mato) without fear of her stomach turning, as well as onager oil to strengthen her cunt, as she puts it, to cure the ill effects of her miscarriage. She laughs a little and says that she likes me to give her her breakfast, to make the most of not being able to get up and eat with us yet, but when she tries to lift the spoon, sometimes her hands still tremble and it spills, and then she makes the laugh of one who would cry at the slightest thing, yet knows that tears are even more painful, that crying would make her broken appearance even more pitiful.

"I've got you, haven't I?" she asks me.

But of course you've got me, you'll always have me, Joana, me and Carme, too, and it hardly needs to be said the state Father and Mother are in, Mother, too, don't go thinking that all this hasn't hurt her; and I would tell you how we have slept next to your fever, how I have picked up with my hands the scrap of dead flesh that you carried inside you and that you haven't even seen, how we carried it, Carme and I, in a bucket to put it under the trees, with the rest of the dead, with our grandparents and great-grandparents; and I would tell you, if you were stronger, that we have sold a scrap of land to buy you penicillin, and that vengeance has been taken, but none of that yet, now only a yes, a yes you've got me while I undo the wispy knots at the nape of your neck, they haven't shaven your head, they thought you were dead. They didn't know about your pregnancy, they said, they hadn't seen your belly, but now nothing matters because everything is reborn, as little by little you are reborn, because the vengeance that will make you laugh again has been taken; they said they hadn't seen your belly, sometimes there is nothing more important than vengeance.

You did, oh yes, you looked at it and measured it, your belly; you thought of it between your navel and your mound the days that, entranced, you contemplated the two halves of the cut fruit on the table, that part that isn't fruit or tree, nor even seed because it only becomes seed when it germinates, only when it germinates; and you looked at it and you scraped at it, you touched with your fingertips the hard pulp that lies between the skin of the apple and its seed, and also the sticky orangey yellow and extreme softness of the melon, a common feeling. Being pregnant was a surprise, an almost bodily sense of wonder, one that you cannot quite get the measure of in your head rather in that special ticklish zone under the channel of the heart. Three missed periods, three months and a bit to decide to have it, the time when you could no longer hide it, when the loose clothes were no longer ample enough. You tried to eat lots more, to make yourself fat and hide your belly, but you've always had a delicate body that doesn't hide anything, and in any case the work at the brick-kiln made you sweat and burn off all of the binges. I'm pregnant, you said to me, and even Mother doesn't know it, the bandages I put on I stain with chicken liver and blood, it has the same effect as if I had my period. You were happy when you told me, in spite of everything that had happened, putting my hands on the bump that was beginning to change your figure, and as if it were a summary of everything that happened during those months, your wide and cracked fingers, dry from the clay upon your stomach, began the path of some unstoppable events, events that would come into being even beyond our will; that was how it had to be, you say; he laughs at his woes who knows his destiny is upon him, because no one can change it.

All the women in the valley have their nails cut short and veiny hands, with the lines clearly and deeply marked, which sometimes open up like open wounds and then they have to piss on their palms to close them and bathe them with olive oil to cure them. Little by little, the women gradually take on the bad posture of their work; they end up with stiff backs or some sort of affliction where their elbow meets their forearm, there are even those who the still-hot cooked earth or the sharp rims of the burning hot tiles have left without prints on the tips of their fingers. The women here are always crushed women. Sometimes you can see them going into the distance together on the path, with their backs to you, their heads on top of the stooping line made by their muscles, all of them with bad backs, walking along the paths that converge on the all-powerful elevation of the brick kiln, the chimney erected like a fortified tower that on calm days towers above the low mist of the valley, expelling a second gray sky of ash. It seems as if the whole of the valley leads up to the chimney, that the soft curves of the slopes seek their center on the terraces where there are heaped together squares of tiles, immense cones of crushed red clay, ready to be fired, paths between the geometrical forms that lead to the factory, and on top of this, the great brick kiln so tall that buttresses had to be built so that the wind did not blow it down; if you look to the east of the factory, you can still see this other arm that supports it, long and slim, from the floor to half the height that makes the back of this strange totem that presides over us. Things have gone this way for so long that it still seems to me that everything continues to be the same.

Women lose their hands in these parts, they lose their hands and the livelier ones lose something else, too; the foremen say that those who lose their virginity do so because they had it before, and if they possess it is to give it to someone else. The mothers walk crooked next to their daughters, hand in hand with their successors, tall and slim like the chimney, and the first thing they do on arriving at the brick kiln is to show their hands. Their hands have to be small to make the tools go inside the wooden molds for the tiles. The first day you are given a bag with lots of blunt tools in it, rusty and toothless knives that do not cut on either side, a blunted dagger that has lost both blades and is only any use for removing the mud from the molds and the tubs. The mothers bear their daughters into the world, they accompany them by the hand to the center of the valley, near to the river, where all the paths lead to the brick kiln. The mothers accompany the daughters to the brick kiln and the foremen lead them to the offices of the bosses, but the mothers do not go up, they remain waiting on the landing of the stairs before the scornful look of the foreman, how beautiful your daughter is, they say, and the period of worry lasts as long as the beauty of the daughter sent to the bosses, there are very ugly ones, and also those that have scarred their own faces after getting married so as not to appear beautiful, there are those that chew on coal to make their teeth rotten, and others like Joana who rub themselves with sheep juices to take on their stench before leaving the house, to stink like the animal, all to banish the desire of the owners, of those who give the orders at the brick kiln, of he who rules over the valley and has the rights of which nobody speaks, the rights over all things, over all the men who worry, over all the women.

She seems grateful that the second man to see her naked treats her well, and also that it is I who am her brother, as if the ties of blood—of this blood that gives her so much pain—now alleviated the pain, because she says that the other was the blood of the flaying and that she didn't say anything, that she withstood against the wall all that the son of the boss did to her, because she knew that if she did not give in to it she would not make any more tiles: after two weeks of working at the brick kiln the foreman told her that if she did not wash herself properly there was no need for her to go to work, that they didn't want sows at the factory, that she had to look after herself. She knew that to cover the six kilometers from the farm to the brick kiln there was no need to be clean, nor for the ten-hour working days in the halls where the heat was suffocating, when all the women would end up soaked in sweat, beginning at their armpits and following a line down from their necks to their bottoms which would spread wider and wider until the work clothes stuck to their entire back. What's more, what use was it to be nice and clean when you went to work if after only a little while the dust from the clay dirtied everything, if as soon as you entered you became covered in the earth that saturated the atmosphere, a kind of cave where the air was unbreathable, like a desert, hot, humid and filled with red powder that made their faces fierce what with the tiredness and the flow of sweat from their hair to their chins, made even your snot red. Why did they want her to be clean if, on entering, covered up as the women were up to their necks, the sweat made them stinking and awful? What was the point of being clean if on entering she had to knead clay and put it without rest into the molds, to score it and take it out with the knives time after time, pass over the rollers to make the patterns, all tasks that made her hands filthy and her hair, that made her chew earth and become deaf, so full was the air of the dirt that it ended up inside your nose, and in your ears? Because that's how the women returned to their homes in the wretched times of ill omen of the middle of the century, exhausted behind the carts and the few tractors there were there, behind the cargos of earth that were towed down the radial paths to the kiln, piles of powdered mud covered in plastic sheets so that it did not lose the right degree of water; that's how they returned, taking on an appearance ever more similar to their mothers, with their dry hands, knowing that the real dangers aren't the hernias and the malformations, not even the fatigue, knowing that the danger is the male, those men who give orders and hardly ever leave their office, the father and the son, both the same like one single person who will take you if he finds you pretty enough, woman enough among these mules who knead and fire the clay.

For there is something that has broken, order has been lost somewhere on the road that leads to today. Joana could see it, who days after joining up at the brick kiln, explained it to me as she sat on the wood piles on the threshing floor; that I should note well, that there was something wrong in what she was doing, that the earth that was ours had never before been passed through the fire, that the walls of the farm house were of mud and stone, of rows of calcareous rock and a wall of unfired earth, a surface that had to be recovered each year to return to the wall the thickness that the water took from it in the springtime and during the sowing season. But, just look, she said, even though we sell the earth—true it is the bad earth, but it is still ours in the end—to those of the brick kiln so that they can put it through the red-hot fire of the ovens—and you've never seen how intense the heat is, what an inferno it is in there and how those clods that today are the mother of the seed, mother of a seed each one different to the others, tomorrow are bricks where you can't plant anything—all the same, there are things that shouldn't be, and she went on to tell me that she saw it one day when we were watering the fields, she saw me crossing the terrace, leaving a trail of footprints in the mud, and then she saw it, that the earth does not need fire, only water; and that in that way the bricks that had dried up in the sun would disintegrate on the day that nobody needed them any more and it would be as if nobody had ever used them, just as the farm house would, if one day we left it, fall down silently, disintegrating slowly without leaving a trace, a defeat, a putrefaction that the earth would make its own; the valley empty, once and for all.

And that is how Joana washed herself to go to the brick kiln, without doing herself up, and how the foreman made her go up the stairs while the other women worked angrily and made their blunt knives go quicker than ever inside the molds, thinking, fearing, suspecting that the young boss would crack her ribs and then would take her on the floor while the foremen went round and round on the second landing in front of the door, scornful, bowing when Joana came out mute through the same door that all the women of the brick kiln crossed, furious and calm at the same time as if nothing had happened, contained, rolling up her sleeves to work, tying her scarf over her head, feeling how from her crotch there trickled that viscous liquid that would soon take on the dry color of the clay. Joana looked ahead of her, straight ahead as she went down the stairs so that she could not see the faces of the others, indignant, as if they had been violated themselves.

But she did not say anything, nor did the women; just one day Father found an earthenware pitcher broken at the base in front of the door of the house, the broken pitchers that would be left in front of the houses of virgins who were no longer virgins. But Joana said that she had to go back to work, that the money was necessary to buy more land, more land so that one day she would not have to take her own daughter to the brick kiln, more land so that she would never again have to knead the earth there, so as not to fire any more of it, so as not to have to make any more tiles. Because land wants more land but only away from it do they let us achieve it, humiliating us, knowing that we are what they have never been able to be—noble—that we have made the barren wasteland fertile, that we have known how to create out of nothing, like those who made the borders of stone, like those who defined the fields, like those who drained the marshes. Everything comes quickly into my head when I come out from washing her every morning, me, never Mother; Mother took her to the brick kiln, as all the mothers take their daughters there, hoping that nothing will happen to theirs, but knowing the inescapability of the ascent to the office, that it would happen one day or another, but behaving as if nobody knows it, as if the men couldn't quite face up to believing it.

Nobody knows how it all happened, nobody ever says it because that's a woman's thing, too, they did it themselves, but, so it is told, two months after the youngest daughter of one of the working women entered the office, and she came out in bits, half-dragging herself down the stairs saying she was dirty, no woman would ever tell it, that, but Joana told me that that day the women carried stones for grinding, that that day the pieces came out more quickly than ever from the molds, better cut, and that when the old boss arrived at the stream of blood it was already too late, they had already closed the doors of the ovens and the tiles were firing, the barren kneaded earth was already reddening but that they would leave him alive to tell it, so that he would go mad while his son and the foremen, that barren kneaded earth, the lifeless bodies, disappeared forevermore inside the ovens; that they had taken their rings and buckles off, and the metallic buttons from their trousers and also the gold teeth that his son wore; that that red color that there was everywhere for the first time was not that of clay. The women had sharpened the knives and Joana told me in secret that they tore them to pieces, that all of them lost their minds, had gone mad, her too, and that they cut off their fingers to take off their rings, that they cut out their gums to take out the gold teeth, not to keep them, but so that they would not leave a trace inside the clay ovens, they would not find them in there. She says that on seeing all that stream of blood the old man was taken by a stroke that paralyzed half his body, and no woman helped him, they left him lying there like a dog.

Nobody raised the alarm. The old man spent almost three days on the ground before the civil guard arrived. Weeks later he came out to the farmhouses of the valley, in the back of a military truck, farm by farm with the guards, to say with the broken voice of a sick man, she was there, and so was she, she wasn't, and the guards took the women behind the mud walls to make them talk. There would be no trial, there was no way of trying sixty women, only beatings, one by one, like the ascents to the office, they say they didn't notice her pregnant belly and that they did not care that she lost it: if she had killed its father, what did she care about his son, that whore. At the front door near the walls there was the old man, in a wheelchair, Joana says that he went up to her when she was curled up on the ground trying to protect her belly from the kick, and that the industrialist only managed to say to her, with that stunted voice of a cripple, now give birth, let's see what comes out.

Days later it was the turn of the men and youths behind the walls, and the old men; somebody had set fire to the brick kiln, and now that dry molded earth was consuming itself, as if the oven had overflowed destroying the rest of the factory, in a kind of vortex that did not want to leave a trace of everything that they say never happened.

Let's call it quits, Joana will recover.

From Una Llengua de Plom (Barcelona: Quaderns Crema, 2002). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2008 by Helena Buffery. This story will appear in a forthcoming volume of Catalan stories in translation to be published by Five Leaves Press. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July 2008 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.