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from the March 2022 issue

The White Tablecloth

In this excerpt from a novel by European Union Prize for Literature winner Irene Solà, a woman buckles under the weight of raising her children alone eight years after her husband dies.


My children are like flies, leaving a trail of shiny black shit wherever they go. Tic, tic, tic. You can follow the path. An open chest of drawers. The good chest of drawers. The one that was a wedding gift from Father and Auntie. Where I keep my beautiful things. The few beautiful things I have. Well tucked away. Nicely folded and separated by tissue paper. And with little bags of rosemary. One of the drawers is open. And the fabric and the papers are crinkled and placed any which way. I know before I have a chance to check, from the thickness of the stack, that the white tablecloth is missing. The white tablecloth is so beautiful that you can’t eat on it. I flame up like a match, thinking that if I had them here I would yank on their ears so hard I couldn’t be held accountable if I tore them clean off.

I neatly fold the cloth napkins, the tissue paper, and the runner, and then close the drawer.

“Where are the children?”

Grandpa Ton sits on the bench, very still. He never was a big talker, but now he hardly talks or moves at all.

“Out,” he answers.

“Out,” I repeat. Out can mean any place from here to France. “Would you like some water?” I ask, and he shakes his head.

Sometimes his hands, when he holds a cup and drinks, when he uses a knife, when he places them on his knees, will set my heart spinning because they’re so like Domènec’s. Other times I look at the old man, so silent, so withered, so sad and thin, and I simply can’t believe he is Domènec’s father. Grandpa Ton’s mouth is all dried up. Like a raisin. Some men’s tongues get stuck and just shrivel in their mouths, and they don’t know how to open up and say nice things to their children, or nice things to their grandchildren, and that’s how family stories get lost, and you no longer know anything more than the dry bread you eat today and the rain that falls today and the ache in your bones today. Sad mountains. Those mountains took Domènec from me. My Domènec. A lightning bolt went straight through him like a rabbit. Two months after Hilari was born. And that was lucky, I think. Because I didn’t pass on the grief and I didn’t infect him with tears through my blood, the way I would have if Domènec had died while I was still expecting. Then my son would have come out tarnished, blue. No. I cried alone. I cried all the tears God gave me in one sitting. And I was left dry, a wasteland. And Hilari was the happiest fatherless child in the world. The happiest fatherless children, the least orphaned children, those are mine. It’s as if they didn’t need a father. Lucky. But sometimes a woman feels like giving up on life. When lightning goes straight through a man like a rabbit. When a branch pokes a hole in her heart but doesn’t kill her. And then she’s forced to live. The children cry and force a woman to live. The old man is hungry and calls out for her. The folks in town bring her green beans and zucchini to oblige her to keep on living. And she stops being a wife and she becomes a widow, a mother. She stops being the center of her own life, she’s no longer the sap and the blood, because they’ve forced her to renounce everything she ever wanted. Here, throw them all away, all the things you’ve ever desired, toss them into the road, into some ditch, the things you used to think. The things you loved. And look how paltry, how measly they were. That man and that mountain. They make a woman want a small life. A runty life like a pretty little pebble. A life that can fit in your pocket. Like a ring, or a hazelnut. They don’t tell a woman that she can choose things that aren’t small. They don’t tell her that small stones get lost. They slip through the holes in your pocket. Or that if they get lost, you can’t choose new ones. That lost stones are lost forever. Throw out your heart, too, into the road, amid the mud and the brambles. Throw out your joy. Throw out your soul and hugs and kisses and your marriage bed. You must, you must. And now get up and look at yourself on this morning, so thin and so blue. Go down to the kitchen, and put food inside your mouth, and put it inside the children’s mouths, and inside the old man’s mouth, then inside the mouths of the cows and the calves and the sow and the hens and the dog. You must, you must. Until you forget everything else, with all those musts.

I didn’t nurse Hilari. Because my milk was salty. And my son grew, like a flower, with thinned cow’s milk and store-bought formula. And I scarcely even watered and pruned it, that flower. Your favorite has to be a child that comes out of you like a root. I love them, my children, despite my soul’s limping. Despite the yoke and the despondency and the heaviness. Despite the fact that there was nothing in the promises I made, the promises they made me make, about having to raise them on my own. I wanted a husband, my husband, and then if they came, the babies, well, that was fine with me. But just the babies? Why would a woman want just the children? I barely got to taste him. Before I could lick the honey from his lips, they’d gone straight through him like a rabbit.

It was his hair I liked first. Then his poems. And then the more I looked at all the other things about him, the more I liked them too. His hands. His legs. His ears. And the wrinkles beside his eyes, like little tails. His shoulders. His voice when he whispered, like a lizard crawling up your back, “You drive me wild, Sió, so, so wild,” he would say to me. That gaze like a spear, like an arrow. A head filled entirely with mysteries, filled with words. “What blue eyes you have, Sió, so blue that fish swim in them.”

I was lovely, so, so lovely. The bluest eyes in Camprodon. And I knew it too. I was lovely like my mother, who was born in a house they called the Ravishing House because all the women in it were so lovely and ravishing. And she married my father and they lived in town because my father worked there as a supervisor in the sweets factory. But I wanted a man who loved the earth and who loved ideas too. A man who knew all about trees and plants and animals. My mother died when I was born from being cut so much, she was petite. But Auntie Carme, who was my father’s sister, and my father, too, they would always tell me, you’re like a doll, like a doll, the prettiest of them all, and they bought me anise candies and bows and books and jump ropes, and I was never sad about not having a mom. My auntie would braid my hair and say, you’ll find a husband and he’ll love you very much and you’ll love him very much, and I would ask my auntie what will my husband be like? And she poured more and more poison into my innocent veins. And my father, who said he couldn’t remarry, because no woman would ever be as lovely as my mother. Only you, only me, Sió, the princess. And more and more poison into my veins. A dollhouse. We’ll teach you to sew, we’ll secretly teach you to read Catalan, we’ll teach you to cook and to dust. What a rage Domènec flew into, the first day he took me up to the farm and I had never fed a cow. My father worked in a sweets factory! I had never touched a pitchfork. You don’t know how to do anything! he shouted. What was I thinking when I married a girl from town instead of a mountain girl? Angry as a pair of pliers. But you already knew that, that I’d have to learn all these farm chores. What was I thinking! he bellowed. And I cried and cried. We’d been married for seven days and we’d spent six of them in France.

Auntie Carme told me not to worry, that I’d learn quickly. She was the one who made the white tablecloth. She had made it for my parents’ wedding. And I did learn quickly. To lead the animals and dirty my shoes with manure. Because love makes you learn things fast. And then my father and my auntie Carme died the night I went into labor with Mia. They died of sweet sleep. The brazier smoked and from it came a fine fog that filled everything and gobbled up the air, and since they were sleeping, it snuck inside them like a poison and they never woke up again. And when Dolors Prim, the neighbor, sent her granddaughter Neus to look for them, no one came to the door. Since there was no response, they busted down the door and there they found them, each tucked into a little bed, sleeping like dormice. They didn’t know whether to tell me or whether to wait until after I’d given birth. And was it ever long, Mia’s birth, so long I thought they wouldn’t be able to get her out of me. She was a tiny mouse, a teensy-weensy little mouse, when she was born. Then they left me be for a day, like a ghost who nursed with little closed eyes and a sleepy smile, and I held my girl on my deflated belly, with her tiny arms like the soft inside of a crusty loaf of bread, and Domènec was dumbstruck with it all. And then I said, Domènec, how is it that you haven’t called for my father and my auntie? And Dolors explained that they had died a very sweet death, and that she had bid them farewell on my behalf. Since I was still befuddled from the lack of sleep, and from having a baby that was mine, that was ours, in my arms, it seemed very sad and not so sad at the same time. Like an exchange. Like a fact of life. That some folks leave to make room for others coming in. We named her Maria Carme, after my auntie. I was still on bed rest, so I couldn’t go to the burial, and it was months before I could go into town, and then, when I did, it was as if my father and my auntie Carme had been dead for years and years, like my mother. I was so full with the things that were happening to me, with Domènec when he would say that our love had grown even bigger, even stronger, because of our baby. That our love had taken shape, he would say. That our love was an angel. A nightingale. I was filled up with the magic of milk. Like a cow. And with Mia’s little open mouth, like a toothless fruit that suckles and suckles, and with the springtime that was nearing summer, and it had only been a year since I’d become a woman, a real woman, a married woman with every right to call herself a woman. A woman with a man in her arms, and now I had a baby daughter from that love, like a little angel from heaven. And sometimes I would think that I felt so little grief over my father and my auntie’s departure because it was their time, it was the natural course of things. Because it was my turn to be the blood and sap of all things. Because only joy lay ahead, down a wide and sunny path with thick-trunked trees on either side.

When Domènec met me, he told me I was pretty like a doe, like a kitty, like a lioness. He led me out onto the dance floor and said, don’t bite. And when it was time to leave he recited poems in my ear. Poems that spoke of a girl who was me. That spoke of all the flowers and of jealousy. Poems that built an altar I climbed, playful, and happy and open like a flower. Boy, could he dance. Domènec danced as good as he did everything. He had a way with animals and a way with people. I would have given him anything, if he had asked. Sometimes I couldn’t take it anymore, so much keeping my hands on my knees. So much keeping my tongue in my mouth. My heart beat so hard, from all the fear and the desire for his hands. We courted for almost three years of Sundays. One after the other. Except for the months when he shaved his head. He shaved his hair off once a year. And you could see his entire skull, the whole noggin, even though, when we were courting, I never saw him like that. He would shear himself short, like someone pruning a tree, he would say, to grow back stronger. Revitalized. Ready to make new branches and fruit. Because he had such lovely hair, Domènec did. Gilded like wheat and cane. And a lot of fear around losing it. And then, when he shaved his head, he would lock himself up in Matavaques, which is the name of his house, of our house, close to two months, so no one would see him, until it had grown back in a little bit. Two months of the year, I would cry and cry every Sunday. And my auntie Carme would ask me why did you have to pick a vain farmer? Because Auntie Carme wanted a husband for me from Ripoll, or from Vic, a salesman, a pharmacist, or a factory supervisor like my father. But he always came back. New and gussied up and bearing flowers and smiles and poems about the sadness of solitude, and I would forgive him. I would forget all my grief and all my rage, I would force myself to swallow the bile and the bitterness like medicine. I, who for the last two months had done nothing more than imagine he was never coming back, imagine him with his arm around some other girl’s waist, fallen off a cliff while chasing some cow. I looked at him with glassy little eyes, so shiny they shattered. I looked him up and down like a cat who wanted to eat him, full and resplendent, and I parted my lips in a moan so he would press his hand lower on my back, so he would yank me to his chest, and his strong arms would propel the joy out from inside me. And then one afternoon as we were strolling he said it, I was twenty-five years old and my heart lurched like it was being towed: “I was wondering if you wanted to marry me.”

I am well aware already of the tricks that memory plays, of the traps that snare my mind so I recall only the good things, of how it chooses the nice apples from the tray and tosses out the bad things—like peels, like horse chestnuts—as if they’d never happened. I don’t know what hurts more: thinking only of the good memories and giving in to the piercing longing that never lets up, that intoxicates the soul, or bathing in the streams of thought that lead me to sad memories, the dark and cloudy ones that choke my heart and leave me feeling even more orphaned at the thought that my husband was not at all the angel I held him up to be. And that he didn’t love me enough, as, in fact, no man ever loves enough. My body was so ready. So filled with fear and at the same time so filled with longing, so filled with love that pushed aside the fears, as if the fears were a bunch of bats. He made me walk ahead of him. Don’t put your arm around me, he said. In the little hotel in Ceret where we had our honeymoon. Don’t let the receptionists in the lobby know that we’re newly married, they’ll get ideas. They’ll snicker. I couldn’t care less, let them get ideas! I’ll slap that smile off your face, he said. I entered the room first, and I waited a whole half hour, and then he came up, he had gone to the café, and he told me we would wait until the evening to make love. We sat and waited. I wanted to talk about things, I wanted us to hold hands, I wanted us to ride out the fear and the nervousness and the emotion together, but he smoked and was silent, stretched out on the bed, fully dressed, with an arm over his face, and if I stretched out beside him, he would get up. Then night fell—never had anyone ever wished harder for night to fall. And he told me, Take off your clothes, and I did what he said, and Get into bed, and as I took off my clothes and got into bed, he went into the bathroom and I waited another half hour. Then he came out, fully dressed. He turned off the light, and I heard him undress and feel his way over to the bed, and he touched me in places no one had ever touched me before. He touched me as if he were entering somebody else’s house, as if his hands had lost all their skill, and it hurt but wasn’t scary, and I would have liked to see him, see his face so it wasn’t a shadow that groped my breasts, that pushed my legs apart and stabbed at my insides. And I was all buttery, when I could be, when I wasn’t frightened by his hands like claws in the darkness, his beastly panting. I was butter because Domènec loved butter.

We never talked about the nights, because he was ashamed of the nights. As if he wanted to escape them and couldn’t escape them. That’s why he liked Mia so much, because she was a little angel who’d emerged from our mud. But I learned. Shortly before I got pregnant with Mia, I learned to seek out the tickles. I learned to position myself in such a way that his coming and going rubbed me where it set me aflame. My body is a good body. A body that learns quickly. A body that soon gets used to things and that knows how to find the right path. And it knew how to take advantage of the thrusting, closing my eyes and focusing and trapping pleasure that way, as it came, small and gentle, like a bit of water slipping down into a hole, and bearing down on it and bearing down on it and making it grow, and channeling it into the ditch. And I could scarcely manage to abide the pleasure in silence. To grind my teeth together hard when the wolf-fart puffball exploded inside me. To hurry to make it grow and make it explode before Domènec was finished. And I already loved him before that, but after the pleasure, there in the sheets, when he was already sleeping, all alone there with that warmth between my legs, with that cloudiness in my head, with that gentle breathing, so hot beside me, I loved him even more. I clung to him like a tree, like a baby clings to his mother’s breast.

Eight years and I’m still not over it. This damn void won’t fill with resin. Because I married the most handsome man in these mountains. The most beautiful hair in the valley of Camprodon married the bluest eyes. Domènec had the finest hair, finer than the hair of any of the women. When he took me out to dance at the Camprodon festival, everyone stared. When we were courting and he walked down on Sundays, splendid and sure of himself, with those legs of his, every soul in Camprodon envied me. I only wanted all of this because he was part of it. This house and this cold and these cows and the noises these mountains make at night. Love is a deceitful venom. When Domènec died I was left alone with two children and the house and Grandpa Ton. With all these weights on my back that won’t let me die. That make me stay here. This stinking house that’s impossible to get clean. This old man, cold as a corpse. Domènec’s ghost. Memory heavy as a gravestone. A day doesn’t pass that I don’t think of him, that I don’t see him, that I don’t remember him, that I don’t dream about him. And the children, who don’t understand a thing, who can’t keep still, or bring peace. Children should bring peace, should be a balm, consolation, compensation.

They come home as it’s already getting dark. How many times have I told them I want them home before dark? What on earth could they want the white tablecloth for? For the love of god. I grab them in the entryway, each of them by an ear, as if I’d caught two mice, and I drag them shrieking to the chest of drawers. Like puppies. No point wasting my breath explaining. You drag them over to the mess they’ve made and you smack their snouts. So they understand. Mess; smack. Mess; smack. When I release them they both grab their ears with one hand. Hilari’s always afraid I’ll rip his ears off. Sometimes, from the yanking, a slit opens up under his lobe. I tell him not to worry, they’re attached good and firm. They look at the chest of drawers and don’t say anything. My patience sparks up like lit hay.

“I’ll give your ass such a hiding you won’t sit down for a week,” I threaten.

“Mama, we didn’t do anything,” says Hilari.

“Where is the white tablecloth?” I ask.

Silence.

“I’ll ask you one last time.” My armpits and my nape and my throat and my temples are burning. They look at the chest of drawers and say nothing. Like they’re guilty, thieves and murderers.

“The water sprites took it away,” begins Hilari, in a whisper, the cracked and sad murmur of a wet dog, of a pussycat that’s lost a fight. Mia looks at him, her eyes wide. In surprise, but also warning. Those wide eyes are telling him something. She’s telling him to keep quiet. To not say another word.

“The sprites came into the house, opened the chest of drawers, and took the tablecloth?” I ask.

Lips zipped.

“Hilari?”

“We gave them the tablecloth,” he confesses. He closes his eyes, desperate. He looks at his shoes, beaten.

“Shut up.” Mia spits out the words.

My hand moves to slap her, but I restrain myself and instead I ask, through gritted teeth, “And where is the tablecloth now?”

“They kept it.”

“Why the hell did you take the tablecloth?” I demand.

“Because we wanted to see the water sprites.” Hilari’s head sinks down between his shoulders. Mia looks at me like a stone. The old man is lying on the bench. And I’m losing my patience.

“You’re liars, worse than liars!” I shout.

And I spank them. I grab them by the wrists and I stretch them out on my lap and I spank and I spank and Hilari cries and Mia grinds her teeth. I spank them harder, blind with rage and with grief over the tablecloth, over the lies, the disrespect, rage and grief over where everything ended up.

Then I tell them they won’t be allowed to go down to the river anymore, and they won’t be allowed to spend all day following around the Giants’ son. It’s all over until the tablecloth turns up.

“Do you hear me?” I ask. They don’t answer. “Do you hear me?!” I repeat.

“Yes, Mama.”

I send them to bed without supper, and I cry.

The crying starts like a small animal. Like a single cloud, like a thin fog in my chest. It starts like a tiny pain, like a slow swelling. Like a discomfort, like a small bone lodged in my throat, like a series of stones in my sternum. And it grows, little by little. My eyes get hot and damp, and the spring gushes and the pots boil over, and there is no stopping it. The water escapes from beneath so much rock, and so much fog. And the tablecloth fans the crying, like a bellows, huffing and puffing. The tablecloth. And the lie. And Mia saying, Hilari, shut up. And my hand spanking and spanking. And the loneliness. And the old man. And the withered love that is nowhere to be found. And I cry with rage over the old man who is not my father, for I have no father and no mother, and I cry over the lying children who are mine, over those children who should have been a balm, a sweet spring, good children who take care of their mother and adore her.


Originally published in 2019 as Canto jo i la muntanya balla by Editorial Anagrama. © 2019 by Irene Solà. English translation © 2022 by Mara Faye Lethem. From When I Sing, Mountains Dance, published 2022 by Graywolf Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

The author will participate in the Catalan Culture Spotlight at the 2022 London Book Fair, presented by the Institut Ramon Llull (IRL) and the Catalan Institute for Cultural Companies (ICEC).

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