From Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal

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Translated by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell

The rattling of the engine made me drowsy, but I was wide awake. I wasn’t dreaming now. On one side Elvira, on the other Angeleta and faces all around me. All unfamiliar, all quiet and withdrawn. No, this was no dream. It was real. They’d called at midday and asked in Spanish for the wife and children of Jaime Camps. Tia had answered all their questions calmly. I’d just obeyed. I had to get into the lorry with my children. We could snatch a little to eat for the day. Quickly. At the last minute, Tia had given a mattress to Elvira. It seemed unnecessary to me, but I didn’t say anything. I looked at the weapons and those tall strong boys, and they looked at Elvira out of the corners of their eyes. I just went along. Old Mrs Jou came and asked them to have mercy and let the little boy stay with his grandmother because he’s only six and he’s sick. They pushed her away but they didn’t take the boy, who clutched Tia’s black dress like a leaf curled up by the wind against an old tree trunk. And no news from him, from Jaume.

[private]They came for him at daybreak. I was still in bed and so were the girls and little Mateu. I think they didn’t hear anything. Three short sharp knocks on the door. In Spanish: Camps, Jaime… – then all of his names – Justice of the Peace of the town of Pallarès under the Republic… come with us. As I got dressed quickly, I thought the baker had been right the night before. Get out of here Jaume, take my word for it. I’ve heard they want everyone who’s stood out in some way. They’re out for revenge because the guard at the Algorri bridge was killed. And Jaume said, I haven’t done anything wrong and I don’t have to hide from anything.

And then… before he’d even combed his hair, a hug. A goodbye. I didn’t cry, but inside I felt as if they had wrenched my soul from my body. And he just says: Don’t worry… don’t do anything.

And seeing him from behind, walking between the guards. He looked much smaller than usual to me. The village seemed deserted. There was nobody on the street. Roseta Sebastià poked her head out onto the balcony. She wasn’t afraid. She gave a twisted little smile as they passed underneath her. The priest’s housekeeper also opened her balcony door but she looked out cautiously, without allowing herself to be seen. I had no doubt: there were eyes watching behind every window. Now, in the lorry, Mundeta from Sarri comes up to me and I begin to recognize other faces. She tells me they are taking us to Montsent, what will become of us? In the morning they’d come looking for her son too. She’s a big woman, Mundeta. She has white hair and very tired eyes. There are people from Torve, from Sant Damià, from lots of villages in the region. One woman remembers me from Ermita and tells me that my father is very old, but he and my brothers and sisters are well.

I hear it all like you hear rain from inside a cave, that doesn’t make you wet or even splash you. I am pleased to hear it but feel no happiness. They take us to Montsent prison. I didn’t even know where it was. The worst is not knowing anything. Elvira moves around and talks to everyone, even the jailers. Most of them are almost as young as she is. She does what I am not capable of doing. I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days…

Angeleta doesn’t move either, clinging to my skirts. All of us are women and children. At least fifteen. What we have in common is that someone close to us has been taken. For a while no one says anything. Then, timidly, someone begins to talk.

Our side of the river had already been taken by the nationalists, the Blackshirts. The other side was still in the hands of the Reds. There were families who wanted to cross to the Red side, which you did by the Algorri bridge. After the guard there was killed last night, the way over was clear. They say that they spoke to all the rich families in the valley. A priest gave some names too. That’s how they knew who to take. Now I feel like I’m out in the open under a light rain that gradually soaks me through to my spine. I shake violently, silently torn to pieces. My God, are we so bad that we deserve to suffer so much?

At dusk they give us each a spoonful of soup in a bowl, without even a drop of oil. My throat’s so dry it’s like swallowing thorns. Angeleta has started to move around a bit. She is playing with a younger girl. Elvira says something to me from time to time. Her serenity calms me. I think, she says, we’re going to spend the night here. Will it rain? Beyond the grille above our heads, we can see a scrap of sky. How slowly time passes when you have to wait but you don’t know what you’re waiting for!

I see Elvira discussing something with the soldiers at the door. Now they are taking her out. Oh God! What’s going on? People look at me. I can’t tell whether they resent me or pity me. She comes back. She is carrying two blankets. She comes over to me. She has spoken with Tia. Mateu is with Delina, he’s fine. Tia also said that she’s gone to protest to Elvira’s employers, and at the rectory, and wherever she thought people could do something, but with no results yet. How brave of her, poor woman…

It’s already past midday and they haven’t given us anything to eat. Does that mean they’re letting us go? I am more resigned. We have to get through this, and who knows, perhaps we’ll all be back together again soon, discussing all this anguish as if it were water under the bridge.

We are in the lorry again. I think it’s the same one as yesterday. Elvira chats to the soldiers… They joke. We are going downhill, towards the plain. Everything looks so pretty. It doesn’t seem possible that anyone should have to suffer, however poor and insignificant. The birds are singing all around, the river murmurs on our left, the sun has finally come out from behind the clouds and it’s hot. The pines above, the ashes and the poplars nearby are still. Only we are moving, always downwards. We see no one on the roads or in the villages we pass through, only groups of armed soldiers like those guarding us. We don’t know where we’re going. We are silent. We still have a little bit of food. We share it with the people next to us. Here there are no differences. We are all one family, such an unhappy family. I pick the crumbs from my skirt, one by one. It’s difficult, everything is moving. I’m not hungry but who knows when I will taste homemade bread again?

We have been stopped here for a while. I don’t know what they are discussing among themselves. Elvira comes over and whispers in my ear that for the time being we are going to Noguera. We will certainly spend the night there. I look at her and she seems as pretty as an angel to me. Even with her hair unwashed and uncombed. Of the three, she looks the most like her father… And him? How is he? Poor man. He’ll be thinking about us a lot. I’d never been to Noguera. It’s big. The capital of the region. Here we see plenty of people. They look at us from a distance as if we’ve got the plague. And we have: fear, uncertainty, suffering… Now they say the prison is full. We have to stay in a warehouse above a garage until tomorrow. Luckily, it’s big. We stay close together instinctively, to support each other. We go to unroll the mattress to rest our heads. But what’s happening? Elvira clutches my neck and squeezes me so tightly that she almost chokes me.

She’s crying, she cries without stopping… I can’t make her answer. What’s wrong? What’s wrong, girl?

When I begin to tell her in a low voice, Look, all this will pass, maybe tomorrow… she hushes me. Mother, Mother, this morning they killed them all, near the bridge. A soldier I know from Montsent told me, just now… The news spreads through the room. The sound of wailing and crying is broken by names being called out and by periods of silence, by people falling to the ground and by the terror of the children, who don’t know what to do. I feel an axe-blow to the centre of my heart, but not one tear nor cry nor drop of blood comes out of me. I embrace my two daughters, an arm around each and I feel their tears like a stream that cannot wash my wound. Angeleta buries her head in my skirt and I caress her hair with my right hand. I coil a lock around my fingers and I think of Jaume’s face, always smiling. A young woman cries and pulls at her hair. She rolls around on the floor making choking noises. And now at last I notice how my cheeks are slowly getting wet. Instead of a cry escaping, I feel a very strong pain in my throat, as if I am being strangled…

A soldier comes in, his eyes bulging out of his head. He shouts in Spanish, Silencio y a dormir. Shut up and go to sleep.[/private]

Born in 1949, Maria Barbal is one of the most influential living Catalan authors. She has published eight novels and won numerous awards, including the Critics’ Prize, the (Spanish) National Prize for Literature and the Serra d’Or.
Laura McGloughlin’s translation of Lluisa Cunille’s play The Sale was published by Parthian in 2008.
Paul Mitchell is a barrister with a doctorate in Persian poetry. He was selected to edit this translation because of his feeling for Conxa’s voice.
Extract from Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal, translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell, published by Peirene Press, June 2010. www.peirenepress.com

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