Death in Spring
After I had left behind the Pont de Fusta and slope, I began to run. I stopped at the edge of the forest, out of breath. No sound issued from the forest, as if it had been swallowed up. I followed the line of trees until I arrived at the seedlings and entered the forest in the same place as before. Everyone was grouped round the tree, the cross bubbling, creating a border. The glowing torches turned the green of the low-hanging leaves a strange green. The butterflies must have been asleep because I could not see them in the high branches.
The blacksmith broke away from the crowd and approached the tree. My stepmother must have gone for the axe, because she handed it to him. His short arms were poised in the air, then he delivered the first blow to the vertical line marked by the cross. No one breathed. A woman, her arms extended, started to shriek like an animal and was led away to the river where she suddenly became quiet. A man stood beside me, on a spot where the torches shed only a faint light. I didn’t know him; I didn’t think I had ever seen him before. He turned his head toward me, and when he turned I could see his eyes, large and shiny. One of the torch bearers had moved, and I glimpsed the eyes of the man who was standing so close to me. The person who moved was at a distance, but the torch had cast the beam in the man’s eyes. The man cupped his hand in front of his lips, speaking to me out of the side of his mouth, so no one would hear—he told me that he enjoyed watching people die. When he wheeled round to see what was happening, I stepped back further into the shadow. As the blacksmith was preparing to swing the axe a second time, the old man who had walked beside him seized him by the arm, and he told the blacksmith that the tree should not be opened with an axe—it had already been breached—and the axe blows could kill whoever was inside, if he was still alive. Then the blacksmith sent for a large branch and, with some help, shoved it as best he could into the tree, through the middle of the cross. Carefully, through the hole made by the branch, he pulled, cut, and unsealed the tree. Four men grasped each end of the bark and yanked furiously. The blacksmith spun round, his face worn and pasty, and announced that the tree was resisting; it didn’t want the dead person that belonged to it removed. His mouth a square hole, his eyes glassy, my father appeared to be watching. The tips of his fingers were embedded in the sides of the trunk, and I am not sure if I saw it… his hair drawn upwards by the tree’s colorless blood. The branch that had been wedged inside the tree was pinning him backwards, piercing his stomach.
They started to shout. They shouted at my father who had little remaining breath and was clearly near his end. He was still alive, but only his own death kept him alive. They dragged him from the tree, laid him on the ground, and began beating him. The last blows made no sound. Don’t kill him, shouted the cement man. The mortar trough, filled with rose-colored cement, lay at this feet. Don’t kill him before he has been filled. They pried his mouth partially open, and the cement man began to fill it. First with watery cement so it would slide far down inside him, then with thick cement. When he was well cemented, they stood him up and put him back inside the tree. They replaced the cross and left to prepare the Festa.
I stayed on alone; without the torches the tree was barely visible. I went up to it and placed my ear against the bark. It seemed empty. I looked up because I wanted to see a little starlight. As I gazed upward, I could feel my link with life snapping. I felt detached from everything. I searched for my tree; night was a hand, wrenching me from my father’s tree, leading me to mine. I knelt down and crawled on my knees from one trunk to another, fingering the names of the living and the dead. I could smell the fretted leaves and trampled grass. When I lifted a plaque, the ring sometimes squealed, as if it were tearing something that was deeply hidden, something that thrust blades of grass and leaves on branches upward. A ray of moonlight helped me locate my tree; it was directly in front of my father’s. The plaque smelled of rust. I would end my days locked in that tree, my mouth full of cement that had been mixed with crimson powder, my entire soul within. Because, you see, the blacksmith used to say that with the last breath, without anyone realizing, your soul flees. And no one knows where it goes.
The village was deserted. Only the grieving sound of the hidden river reached me. From time to time a blossom fell from the cluster above, grazing my cheek. This was the hour that roots strained to upwrench houses. When a large crack appeared in a wall, it was filled with cement and the house became safe again. I followed all the villagers, as though I wasn’t following them. I could still hear the voice of the man in the forest. I entered many kitchens where eyes waited behind stars in cupboards, just as mine had waited for the elderly to come and free me. I opened the doors to all the cupboards, and the sleepy children staggered out. I made my way to the blacksmith’s house, where I struck the anvil two or three times with my open hand. I walked further inside. The blacksmith’s son was skeleton-thin, and they always kept him in bed. I went over to gaze at him and touched him, but he didn’t move. I continued on to my house and went upstairs; I could see the glow of the fires on the other side of the stables, on the Festa esplanade. All of a sudden I wanted to go and see them. No one was home, and as I was leaving I ran my hand along the windowsill. No flowerpot stood at the window; my stepmother always had a pot with a flower on the sill. Sometimes the flower was white, sometimes red. But there was no flowerpot that day. My stepmother wasn’t at home. She was sixteen years old.
The horses ate the juiciest grass, gorged on the sweetest alfalfa, chewed the flattest carob beans. Horseflesh, they told us, would replenish your blood. We ate it in a variety of ways: often raw (chopped up and mixed with herbs), roasted in drippings in winter, sometimes cooked over a log fire—always cooked over wood at funeral feasts. The fat was made into balls and hung from the ceiling in the kitchen or dining room. The balls of fat went well with the soap bubbles from the wash area where the water was playful; some hung from the courtyard arbors all spring, even part of summer. As though they were made of glass. The ones the children made almost always burst when shot from canes; no one could explain why some lasted a long time, others only a moment. If one ever turned into glass, we placed it carefully in the fork of the wisteria vines. At home, we had always had soap bubbles and balls of fat. Two or three times a week my stepmother would say to my father, go to the fields, I’m expecting some fat. And father would say, fine. I would also say, fine, very softly so they wouldn’t hear me because the two of them were walking together and I was farther off. Then my stepmother would put the flowerpot on the windowsill, and that night she had a ball of fat hanging from the ceiling.
My stepmother was so short she had to climb up on a wooden box to put the flowerpot on the windowsill. While she was waiting for them to bring her some fat, she would drag the bed to the middle of the room, where she usually slept, and crawl into it. An earth-colored blanket lay across the bed. If father and I were at home, she would sit in a chair, her legs folded beneath her, head resting against the back of the chair. She would often sit like that when father and I straightened up the kitchen. Sometimes while sitting in her chair she would take a cane and rock the balls of fat with little nudges. Father used to say she thought only about playing. Some days he would fill a basket with wisteria blossoms and tell her, play. She would say she was working because she was stringing wisteria flowers together with a needle and thread, threading all the flowers through the stems. They were necklaces. Some nights she didn’t want to go to sleep because she said she had slept all day, and on top of sleeping during the day, she couldn’t sleep all night too. I would sneak down and watch her. I discovered she didn’t want to go to bed because she wanted to eat the fat without anyone seeing her.
I slept upstairs. If I leaned out of the window, I had a glimpse of a speck of sky overhead. From my bed I could see the ivy wall on the cleft mountain. At times when I lay in bed, unable to sleep, I thought how I wanted to bring Senyor crashing down—especially in winter when it snowed—or help the roots upwrench houses, or walk the horses on Maraldina where no one had ever been. I would think about things like that with my eyes closed until I got sleepy. The last thing I would hear, while everyone rested with their eyes shut, was the river dislodging the rocks that supported the village.
I wanted to see the Festa, so I went. The villagers had gathered near the river, on the esplanade by the canes that whistled because it was windy. Tables and benches had been built from tree trunks. The horse hoof soup was already boiling in large cauldrons, and standing beside each pot was a woman who was removing scum with a ladle and throwing fat and lumps of cooked blood on the ground. For a funeral Festa, they killed horses and pregnant mares. First, they ate the soup, then the horse or mare, and then a morsel—but only a small piece because there wasn’t much to go round—of the little ones the mares were carrying inside them. They made a paste with the brains; it helped digestion. They peeled them, boiled them in a pot used only for brains, cleaned them, and then chopped them to bits.
With one spoonful of the paste, you had plenty. It was mixed with honey and went down like oil, passing through your innards, leaving you feeling fresh. More than one spoonful and you went mad. Just one spoonful, they would say. The paste provided them with the stamina needed to raise horses, cut alfalfa, and trudge all the way to the carob trees to look for beans. They used to say that those carob trees had witnessed the birth of the village, the two conjoined shadows, and the first horse’s leap as it neighed and emerged like a flame, all alone, from the middle of the river. They used to say that if those carob trees could talk…
I stood very still behind a clump of canes. They were still slitting open horses. They tied their legs and strung them up on a kind of clothesline; you could see the empty space inside them lighting up, glistening in the firelight. The blacksmith’s wife—short and ugly, with the purple mark on her cheek—was peeling brains with the two women who had accompanied her to the forest of the dead. Suddenly she jumped up, telling everyone to be quiet. She thought she heard the prisoner neighing.