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(original title: Casa de verano)
Nuria Amat


tr: Graham Thomson


      I'll lean the ladder on the roof and send death the wrong way, Tom says.
      While we're sleeping the world is born all over again like newly mown grass. When we wake the smell of moss pervades the coldest room in the house.
      The moon that comes through the window has my mother’s face, Moni says.
      But the crumbs that fall on top of the sheets keep her from sleeping and she says: Better this way. Sleep always speaks to me of deaths.
      In the garden of the summer house there was a tree with four paired branches. We used to call it the hanged man’s tree. A tree with a legend not so sad as ours.
      When we laugh we look for Tom’s tickles. Bastard! grandfather says. Criminal! he keeps shouting, by the path to the church, when the priest can’t hear him. Then grandfather crosses himself with his right hand, the same hand that sins and wipes away the sins.
      Tomorrow we’ll climb the hanged man’s tree, Moni says, and see what happens. She hopes the tree will be like an aeroplane that will take us away to the other world. And I say to her: What world, if there isn’t any other?
      Moni is a sceptic. She has blue hands and broken fingernails.
      But instead of scraping our legs on the bark of the tree, we decide to go to the cemetery and look at the sea from the cradle of the dead. To wait for the moon, Moni says.
      Once again grandfather’s chauffeur was taking us to Barcelona in the car to visit my mother. Grandmother was shaking the bottle of cologne over our heads, cropped like the grass, again and again. At least you will smell nice, she said very quietly. Then the car twisted along the coast road and stopped in front of a grey building next to the police headquarters.
      Over the door there are letters in gold that we don’t understand.
      Tom and I read: Juvenile Court. But we still don’t understand what they are doing together, these words, so opposed.
      The children’s warder wears a dark blue jacket and her shoulders are covered with a white powder that falls from her hair. Snow kills people, Moni says. For several years the dandruffy woman from the Juvenile Court is the spy who snoops on our private and secret visits.
      My mother is waiting for us, sitting on a chair.
      My mother is like Rita Hayworth, Tom says.
      No, Moni says.
      But she really does look like the stars in the films.
      In the office of the Juvenile Court we kiss my mother and sit on the three chairs placed at an equal distance from her legs. Not too near and not too far. The warden-spy never allows the embrace from my mother to be like the eternal cloud that falls over you and blinds your sins. These hugs do not figure in the legal document, she said. But my mother’s smile wasn’t prohibited by the judge of the Juvenile Court and for one hour each month my mother smiled like the white moon of the summer house.
      The dead know more than us, I said.
      You shouldn’t say these things or they’ll think you’re mad.
      Tom wants to protect us from my grandfather’s anger. Because here there are two dictators at the same time. The little family dictator and the other, big dictator, far away and invisible. The invisible one lives in the centre of the state and can only be seen in the cinema. Before the film they show us the images of the general dictator as he walks around his summer estate or his winter estate. He walks like our grandfather, with his shotgun on his shoulder, trampling the shrubs in the woods of the summer house.
      Moni and Tom’s house is made of films of actresses who suffer and upset themselves trying to be like my mother.
      I’ve never seen a prettier woman, Tom says.
      Moni and I nod our heads in agreement.
      It is forbidden to speak about my mother in our grandfather’s house. At night we exchange invisible pictures. This is my father, we say. And our hands are empty. We only swap thoughts.
      Grandmother has two furrows of dried tears on her face. Grandmother talks to herself. She is a mute grandmother.
      Grandfather says: If you find this house unbearable, go and tidy the pantry. And grandmother obeys and tidies again and again all of the cupboards of the summer house.
      In winter we have no house either, because they send Moni and me to the French nuns’ boarding school and Tom to the boarding school of the Brothers of Christian Doctrine.
      The holidays are like having no pudding as a punishment. When the awaited moment comes there is nothing for you on the table.
      Moni is always trembling, winter and summer. Moni’s shivers make grandfather nervous. You will always be an unfortunate, he says to me, who instead of trembling get the words muddled up when I speak, as if I were just out of an orphanage, grandfather says.
      Grandfather goes to mass and communion every day. We go to church with him when nothing in the world holds us up or goes wrong to prevent us.
      One Sunday at noon we were going up the steps of the pergola. Grandmother was still mute, but Tom was carrying the electric train in his arms that my mother had given him for his birthday. The electric train was Tom’s second dream. First and foremost there was the dream of my mother, and immediately after that the electric train. He didn’t want anything else. As he climbed the steps of the pergola, Tom was almost smiling and grandmother was almost speaking and Moni and I hadn’t yet started to tremble with fear. The sea could still be seen from the house like a far-off silver mirror when, all of a sudden, grandfather appeared on the steps of the pergola. My God! I thought. But why say God if he never came to save us?
      All grandfather said was: Give me that! Because in grandfather’s hands the electric train had ceased to have a name and an owner. And Tom had to put the train down on the ground. Better on the ground than in grandfather’s hands, Tom thought. But, my God, why? Grandfather’s boot came down several times one after the other, crushing my mother’s electric train. It destroyed Tom’s present.
      Each stamp on the train is a stamp on my mother’s face, I thought.
      Tom says there is only one explanation for my grandfather’s hatred of my mother. Grandfather desires her, Tom says, talking the way a real flesh and blood father ought to do.
      Moni doesn’t want to believe it. She says: I wouldn’t care if I died. And when she feels like it she holds her breath and plays dead. My technique for getting out of going to mass with grandfather is to stick a finger down my throat and vomit up my dinner before I go to bed.
      When he’s in a good mood, grandfather stands us in Indian file. One hand on Tom’s head and the other hand on our two heads. He says: Stupid Tom ought to have your head and you two ought to have stupid Tom’s head. Everything is the wrong way round in this house.
      Grandmother’s footsteps disappeared into the kitchen. She banged into the doors as she escaped from the possible threat of grandfather. Grandmother sang soundlessly to herself.
      A sparrow flew this morning
      come to my hands, sparrow
      I will feed you with my lips
      come up here to me…
      And then grandmother fell silent. We were always afraid. Grandmother was more afraid than us because she had endured grandfather’s kicks and blows for more years.
      Where are the pruning shears? the little dictator shouts.
      I don’t know, a mute, apprehensive grandmother replies.
      Grandmother forgets things. Grandfather’s blows have torn away part of her brain and now she has a short memory. A memory that’s like a music box. It opens and closes.
      What do you mean, you don’t know? the domestic dictator shouts.
      Grandmother no longer replies. She has closed up inside and clouds come into her eyes like a little sparrow. Then grandfather punches her. First he hits her in the face, then on her back and on her chest. And then, when his hand is sore from hitting grandmother so much, the kicks start.
      My father should come here and save grandmother.
      He doesn’t live in Spain any more, Tom says.
      Grandfather ate my father up. Now he’s a bon vivant. That is what they call him in Paris. Unsavable.
      Then the gardener appears with grandfather’s bloody pruning shears in his hand.
      We should all start to cry, but however much we scratch the wound, the tears don’t come any more. Grandfather’s blows hurt less and less. They are blessed and sanctified blows like the tellings-off in church.
      The priest upbraids us from the pulpit. Fools and sinners! he says.
      Voices come to us from outside. Your mother has a lover, a lover who’s a woman dressed like a man, say the voices that come from Barcelona. What’s a lover? Moni asks. She thinks the voices are mistaken. The voices speak like you, she tells me. Muddling up words.
      I have a cupboard in my head. While grandmother is moving things around in the pantry I change the place of the memory drawer.
      Because of the voices we decide to run away. The first time, Tom and I go. It’s really easy, Tom says. We go down to the road, and then we walk along the beach, following the railway line until we come to Barcelona.
      We have two objectives. One, Tom says: to go into a cinema and look for my mother in the films. Two, I say: to look for my mother’s lover.
      Now we have two mothers, I say to Tom, nudging him as a friend and partner.
      By Mongat, when the broken moon starts to come up behind the road, two men catch up with us. Behind them comes grandfather’s sorrowful chauffeur.
      We’ll escape another time, Tom says.
      My mother’s photograph is still hidden among my folded clothes. Every day I think up a new hiding place for it. It’s creased and torn at the edges, but it’s the only memento of her we have. We now know the meaning of the word republican, legal age, dictator and juvenile court.
      During our brief visits to my mother I manage to steal her perfume. Me, her look, Tom says. Me, her skin, Moni says, trembling like a partridge or a rabbit.
      When grandfather was loading the cartridges in the barrels of his hunting shotgun, we stayed in our places. We weren’t afraid now. Moni said: Some day he’ll use us for a target, for sure. Some day he’ll aim at us, Tom insisted. To grandfather, we were Antoni, Isabel and Montserrat. In that order. The rest of the house called us by our real names.
      When will grandfather die? we ask ourselves every summer. But dictators take their time in dying, or that’s how it seems, because the days and nights are longer when they lie in wait, hidden, with their black hunting shotguns. And the cold is an icier cold. It eats your bones and you walk hunched up like grandmother. Instead of one, grandmother makes us put on three woollen jumpers, just in case. And the bed socks she knitted to keep our feet warm. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. You can die of a cold.
      In fear we were like fish in water. Grandfather tied Moni and me to the chair in the kitchen as if we were thieves surprised in the middle of a robbery. Grandfather pulled our arms and with the cord from the kitchen drawer tied our wrists to the chair. You keep out of this, he said to a mute grandmother. This punishment could go on for several hours. We weren’t allowed to go to the toilet and we had to do everything on the seat of the chair. Like animals. Grandfather says that. Like pigs in their sties.
      From the window Tom sent us invisible pictures. Soon we’ll be able to escape. Soon grandfather will die. I promise you.
      Tom’s promises were postcards that came from a sweet and delicate country.
      At the summer house we had no friends. A dictator grandfather makes the family an island. With a grandfather like that, the only thing you can do is hide from your friends. Any friend we might have had would have become quarry, a target in grandfather’s sights. Because we were afraid, we kept away from any possible friends in the neighbourhood. They looked at us with wary, distrustful faces. The bravest, the boy from the water-mill, was daring enough to climb the hanged man’s tree, and from up there he threw stones at us as if we were geese or sewer rats.
      Tom dropped the book he was reading and shot towards the tree. One stone hit him on the temple, the other on the oldest darn on his old trousers. Even so, Tom got hold of the foot of the possible summer-house friend and made him fall to the ground. There they threw themselves into a fight worthy of grandfather’s best fights. The boy from the water-mill ran away crying, jumped the barbed wire fence and kept on running along the path in the old riverbed. We knew that something would happen. Once things start, worse things follow. That’s life, grandmother says.
      Since the war everything has been in vain, the mute grandmother says.
      A little later, the father of the possible friend came to complain to grandfather. Your grandson hit my son, he tells him, whispering in his good ear. Then we knew that something terrible was going to happen once lunch was over and the neighbour from the water-mill had his ear to the slope of the old riverbed. Grandfather put down his fork with the last piece of meat still speared on the prongs. He got up from the table and, with the napkin still hanging from the buttons of his shirt, took off his leather belt. Come here, he said. And Tom went to where grandfather called him. He’ll kill him, the mute grandmother said. Moni was shaking and I swallowed all of the words of lunch. I’m going to be sick, I said. But I endured the scene of the almost murder. Grandfather slashed his belt into Tom. He struck blow after blow after blow. But Tom didn’t cry. Tom’s resistance enraged grandfather all the more, his face flushed as red as two devils combined.
      The dictator dies, I said in vain for my words to come true.
      The souls were resting in the cemeteries and none of them were capable of moving a bit and coming here to save us. My words moved to and fro in the tick-tock of the dining room clock. Slow and scared.
      Grandfather beat Tom until his arm, sore from so many blows, ended up clutching the hand of sin.
      A little while later grandfather was saying the rosary, intoning sonorous Ave Marias in the chapel of the summer house. Grandmother, Moni and I composed the second voice and responded in resignation to grandfather’s religious lashing. The mute grandmother imitated our voices. She wanted to save us from grandfather, the poor thing, but by then her memory was already a green lagoon without light or depth.
      Our best house was the three chairs set out in the office of the Juvenile Court. Until one fine day we finally met my mother’s lover.
      Our second mother gave us grandmother’s forgotten kisses. She was a woman dressed like a man. Or a man with a woman’s body. A wonderful woman, Tom said.
      Now we have a father and a mother, Moni says. My second mother wears a tie and has her hair slicked back like a tango singer. She is very pretty and generous.
      On this point we were all in agreement. When we argued, it was only about the commas. Really, we were united like full stops or little zeros.
      At the summer house the pines have grown and the glow-worms have disappeared. The hair lotion has been left on the edge of the bath like a sad memento of our little everyday suicides.
      I managed to save myself at the last moment. It was when Tom came up behind me suddenly and untied the cord I had hanging round my neck. The same cord with which grandfather tied us to the chair in the kitchen for an immensity of time. A cord like a long indefinite vomit.
      I tell Moni that living or dying are the same thing. The best thing is to wait for grandfather to die. And then we’ll see.
      We’ll leave the country, Tom says. The dictators are ill.
      Before the summer ended, grandfather had a visit from the abbot of the Monastery. He came to the house with a secretary who walked behind him and a gold ring weighing down his right hand. Kiss the ring, grandfather ordered us. And the abbot stretched out his arm.
      After the meal, grandfather locked himself up in his office with the abbot. The secretary stayed in the pergola in the garden with the mute grandmother.
      The abbot and grandfather spread out papers on the desk and counted numbers. They drank a glass of Cointreau and smoked Havana cigars. Everything for this little country, grandfather said. So be it, the abbot chimed in. The dictators had separate businesses. In a way, the churches were separate, too. My parents were separated. Grandfather’s rosary was a rosary of Catalan beads and Latin litanies.
      The abbot said goodbye to grandmother and said: Until next year. And so it was. He always kept his word.
      Before saying goodbye to him, grandfather made us sing a song to the black Virgin. It was a very well-known song in all of the country round here. Tom let the song stay in his throat like a bitter indecent syrup. Later he regurgitated it in the hanged man’s tree, next to the mute grandmother.
      About the monastery, grandfather had already prepared us. His will was clearer than the blue sky of the summer house. Don’t think you will inherit a single peseta of mine. I am leaving it all to the monastery, he said. And even Moni, the sceptic, believed grandfather.
      Before the war, grandmother said, the lemon tree gave more lemons. If you listened to grandmother, it seemed that before the war the world had been different. According to Tom, who watched too many films about the war, people walked more quickly then and the trams went as fast as trains and the trains flew like aeroplanes. The war had put lead shot in grandfather’s waist.
      Grandmother was waiting for us to go back to school to die in peace. When grandmother died, nobody came to get us. We didn’t go to the funeral. They sent a note to the boarding school and the French nuns gave us a double helping of pudding that day. Two apples instead of one.
      Grandmother didn’t die a natural death. The way she died was the family’s worst-kept secret. Tom found it out at the start of the following summer.
      Grandmother killed herself, he said. Grandfather’s beatings finished her. No one ever asked grandmother which house she wanted to live in. No one asked her questions. Until next year, the abbot said. And she obeyed. But this time she said: The children have grown like the dry grass. Now I can go.
      One night, while grandfather was sleeping, grandmother locked the kitchen door from the inside, put cloths in the gaps of doors and windows and turned on the gas. Sitting on one of the chairs, with her head resting on the table, by the fruit bowl. That is how grandmother died. With her sacrificed head on the kitchen table, by the pruning shears.
      So we grew, blessing grandmother’s escape and walking against death. The moment when we would leave grandfather’s summer house forever was getting nearer all the time. Moni still had a blue face, but behind grandfather’s back she made grandmother’s kitchen garden her own. Her aubergine and tomato conserves drew her towards an early marriage. Meanwhile, I preferred the idea of marrying my own thoughts. In the summer house there were four books. I read the same book again and again and afterwards I would recite it from memory to the hanged man’s tree or to Moni’s aubergines. Our dreams were of flight and marriage because then, in that closed country, the one had to be accompanied by the other.
      We had white faces and transparent skin. We had grown like dry leaves, with our souls dead in advance. They were the colour of the boarding school and grandfather’s rope. It was strange that not even the summer with its blue sea steady and still in front of the house managed to give us a personal colour of life.
      Isabel is the worst, grandfather says. She will always be an unfortunate.
      Nobody calls me that. I have banned that name from the sound map of my life. Even on official documents I am Bel. I vomited my name as if it was a dirty, worn-out word.
      If we came home late, grandfather would throw our clothes out of the window and break our personal possessions. The few personal possessions we could transport, we who belonged to nobody, far less to grandfather. Even so he managed to tear up the picture of my mother and three of the four books that were in the summer house. Our clothes strewn on the dry grass of the garden made us laugh. They’re like our decapitated bodies, Tom said.
      Our intimacies were exposed naked on the grass. It was a war with ghosts and scarecrows. An orgy of pants and underskirts. When it was five minutes after the set time and we insisted on meeting a friend in order to get out of the house at last, grandfather called two Civil Guards he had contracted to deal with these nocturnal follies. On the stroke of eleven grandfather presented himself in the bar in the village with a Civil Guard on his right and another on his left. The people were as mute as the dead grandmother. The less valiant moved aside to let them pass. One Civil Guard handcuffed Moni and the other handcuffed me. They took us prisoner to grandfather’s jail. They were obeying orders. From whom? we asked. It doesn’t matter, they said, the one who gives the orders is always our boss.
      Dictators have secret illnesses. And that’s what started to happen to grandfather.
      In the meantime, Tom left. Unknown to grandfather he built a raft from tree trunks, ropes and wood and put to sea. He sailed towards the violet line of the horizon. He didn’t want to go north, where they said my father lived, or south where they were, my mother and my second mother.
      I’m going to the Indian Ocean, Tom said.
      This voyage sounded good. It came wrapped in a more beautiful package than the escapes we planned, crazy young realists. To get away from grandfather Tom needed a boat and Moni and I had to find a kind of bridge, a trampoline of matrimony.
      I’ll marry you to escape from grandfather’s summer house, I said.
      Sometimes the words leap out of my mouth like hungry fish. They just leap. Words like fans, that’s all.
      My words go out for a stroll without hurting anyone. They don’t try to get anywhere. Moni buries them in pots of artichoke and acorn conserve. But in the end, we too were able to escape from grandfather and we achieved it thanks to a trampoline husband who was at the same time our first friend and enemy.
      Death keeps growing inside me, Moni says, but I hardly manage to notice it. I live life back to front. From the end to the beginning, like an imperfect book.
      Happiness is a dictionary of words. Or a senseless internal library.
      When the flies of pain come to disturb nostalgia, the best thing is to put a book in front of your eyes. You feel gratified, loaded with unpredictable gifts. Reading a book, you feel full of things that can’t be explained.
      The missal was grandfather’s only book. A bad person.
      When they called us to go to the summer house for the last time, grandfather was lying prostrate in his bed, greyer and more solitary than the hanged man’s tree.
      Do you want to see him? Tom says.
      No, Moni says.
      But I manage to push my blue sister up to the dead grandfather. Moni starts trembling again like a white butterfly.
      I think he’s still alive, Moni says, a sceptic as always.
      You’ll see, he’s going to get up any moment.
      Then the words awake in my mouth and fall violent and excessive on grandfather’s ears. It’s like shouting at the dry tree with the four branches.
      You see, he’s dead, I say.
      No, Tom says.
      Then Tom takes grandfather’s leather belt and starts lashing the dead man’s prostrate body.
      Stop! Don’t stop! Moni says. Looking sideways at the scene. Believing and not wanting to believe it.
      Grandfather doesn’t move. His bones creak, though. It’s like flogging a stone.
      He’s dead now, Tom says.
      In the garden of the summer house the rose bushes are dry. Grandmother’s fruit trees have been disappearing with the pain of time.
      Moni and I count the absence of the trees as if they were ghosts and apparitions. Here is where the lemon tree was, Moni says.
      When we stop talking, life walks more slowly. When we sleep the world starts to dream with strange stories of the dead.
      At last I’ve killed death, Tom says.

© Nuria Amat 1999 
Translated by Graham Thomson
interview | author bio | spanish original

"Summer House" (Casa de verano) appears in the anthology Mujeres en alba (1999) published by Amnesty International (Spain) and Alfaguara. This electronic version  is published by The Barcelona Review by arrangement with Amnistía Internacional and the author.

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

navigation:                            barcelona review #12   mid-april to mid-june 1999 
-Fiction Prologue by Felipe Alfau
Identity by Felipe Alfau
Summer House by Nuria Amat
Knock on Wood by Frank Thomas Smith
Scar by Lee Klein
Africa on the Horizon by Carlos Gardini
-Poetry Virgil Suarez
-Interview Nuria Amat
-Retrospective  Felipe Alfau
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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