Spring, Summer, etc.

Marta Rojals

Artwork by Olaya Barr

What’s New, Down in Barcelona? 

I park the car sideways, right up against the white wall. I got up much too early to park pretty. I take my cell phone out of the glove compartment. As usual, not a single bar. But hope springs eternal, as they say, so one last stab at the gate of the cemetery had seemed worth trying. All right, then. I grab the bouquets of dahlias from the passenger seat and lay them on the hood. Hopping up and down as I put on my coat, I wrap my scarf twice around my neck. I didn’t think it would be so cold.

The chatter of women’s voices reaches me from up the road, quickly drowned out by the unmistakable sputtering of the caretaker’s tractor, coming round the bend toward me raising dust like a horseman of the apocalypse.

“So, what’s new down in Barcelona?”

“Is my car in the way, over here?”

“How could it be in the way, child, there’s room for the wasting!”

Of course there’s plenty of room, what was I thinking, it’s not like this is a no-parking zone. Here, people park wherever they want, and long may it last. That’s why back home here everyone’s ass is glued to the car, because the regulations that make driving in the city such a bore haven’t made it here yet.

“Looks like you’re to be the first today,” Domingo laughs, his key rasping in the ignition. “You be stayin’ long?”

“No, just the long weekend.”

“Yesterday the wind was blowing like crazy. Don’t know how things are going to look.”



Indeed, there’s an inch of dust on the funeral niche. In the corners, compact little piles of dirt have formed, but no more than last year, or the year before. I take a kleenex out of my bag and, holding it with just two fingers, run it over the grooves of the letters that spell out my mother’s name, capital letters from which minuscule grains of sand are falling. Like beach sand, I think to myself.

“Where do you think you’re going with those little tissues, child? You want a rag?”

Angela, of the Alegre household, comes toward me wielding a dusting brush, a spray bottle cocked and ready, and a dust cloth draped over each shoulder.

“Didn’t your auntie give you anything to clean with?”

Before I can say yes or no, she’s already brushing off the surface of the stone, raising a localized cloud of dust. “Here, you see?” and now she’s applying four separate squirts of a pinkish liquid, “This really works, you see? And now the cross will really stand out.” She takes the rag and starts to buff an energetic shine out of the parallelepipeds of the cross: “Look, look, how it shines there now, look: like new, it looks, and the rings, too, you see?” Squirt, squirt, she sprays the neck of one of the flower rings, and now the other, and brings out a shine I imagine they didn’t even have on that May morning when they first saw the light of day, twenty-six years ago.

“Wow, Angeleta, what is this stuff, Easy-Off BAM?”

Her bustling has drawn the other women, who form a half-circle around the scene, weighed down with rags, buckets, brushes, and sprays. Girl, soon we won’t be able to recognize you! Now it’s my turn to smile and submit meekly to the press conference, as I cross one item after another off my mental blackboard: Soon we won’t be able to recognize you: check; It’s been ages: check. You don’t come round much, eh?: double check. Let’s see how many I can check off by nightfall. Did you come by yourself? Yes, today I did, Aunt Glòria has sciatica, she couldn’t even get out of bed. Oh, yes, child, she surely does work too hard, I’m telling you. And you, you weren’t married, were you? No, no, not married. But you used to come round with a really cute fellow, about yea tall. Yes, uh-huh, this year he stayed behind in Barcelona. Well, and you sure are growing up, you’re looking real pretty, real pretty indeed. Thanks, thanks. And your sister, it’s also been ages . . . ! Oof, Joana, she’s not easy to pin down . . . , maybe we’ll catch a glimpse at Christmas! Oh, surely, for Christmas. All the chickens come home to roost, and all that. Well, then, so good to see you, child, don’t be such a stranger. Don’t be such a stranger: check. It doesn’t bother me anymore when they say it, though. What bothers me most now is that it’s true.

When I’ve finished cleaning my grandparents’ grave with the rag the women have pressed on me, I slip the bouquet into the ring and set out on the obligatory circuit through the two courtyards of the cemetery. A third is under construction, with a lane of newly constructed niches that elicit the same sighs and comments from the townsfolk every year when they walk by: “These are the ones they’ll be buryin’ us in, don’t you know.” With the women chattering in the background, as they conscientiously apply themselves to their own niches, I proceed in silence, running the rag over the tops of the black marble, white marble, gray marble headstones, over individual graves and family graves, and I read the names, or stop before the windows that contain greenish or brownish or yellowish photographs of faces I don’t remember as having been so old, with eyes that say, “Dust you are, and to dust . . . ”

Like all the young people in town, I make a special stop at the grave of Jaume Petit. At the foot of the stone, a vase with still-fresh roses has blown over in the wind, and I straighten it up as best I can.

Jaume was in the same class as my sister and Bernat of the Trau household, at the time the only three members of their age group in the town. The kind of death that changes a house. He was twenty-one years old. It seems strange, when you still feel so omnipotent and immortal, to see a birth date so close to your own inscribed on a gravestone. We will remember you always, it says below. I don’t think there had ever been so many young people in the big church as on the day of his burial. They had come in from all the surrounding towns, some who had studied with him in high school and some who hadn’t, and quite a few from college, too. Young people inside, staring at the ground, and young people outside, smoking, with red-rimmed eyes, who said: I can’t go in, I can’t bear to see it. Bernat Trau and my sister, who had just arrived from London and hadn’t even slept, must have been among the ones inside. In the first pew, Clara Petit—La Petita, they called her—rested on my shoulder, letting me hold her forehead just like on school trips when she would get carsick on the very first curve. During the sermon, she told me her ears were stopped up: I can’t hear a thing, Èlia, not a thing.

The very very long coffin departed the church on the shoulders of my father, the mayor’s two sons, and the scions of several households: Robert of the Esparts and Martí of the Sant Paus, a couple of cousins, and Bernat of the Traus. They were all crying, we were all crying. Ever since that mortal blow, Clara Petit has never been the same, as the saying goes. But in this case, it goes for me as well.

From the moment I heard Jaume was dead, I understood that in that minuscule corner that was my hometown, at the time my entire universe, the mark of fate, of supreme fate, was no longer the exclusive domain of my family, which is the Pedró household. I understood that from that day on, fate had taken up residence at the Petits’. It had come in through the front door like those miniature chapels parish priests carry from house to house for individual prayers. Until further notice, it was installed at the Petit house, uninvited. The first few days I had even had a dream that I took Clara a dark wood baton, like the ones they use in relay races, wrapped in one of those check tablecloths you used to make bundles for a trip. In the seconds before awakening to the world, a terrible feeling of guilt would engulf me.

For many years, Clara’s mother would drag Tomeu to the place where they found the motorcycle. They would tie a spray of flowers to the trunk of a burned almond tree. There is grief and then there is grief, but I soon understood that, in our town, the grief of the Petit house weighed quite a bit more heavily than ours. The difference is that, in their case, whether out of superstition or solidarity, the Petit house was automatically exempted from the hereditary precautions of the specters of the past. I don’t know who it was who took the first step against the current, whether it was those who today are depositing flowers way in the back of the cemetery, or those who step forward to make the sign of the cross before the huge black monument that looms two steps up like a Kaaba at the heart of its central square. The enormous marble cross can be seen from outside the gates. I remember slipping my hand out of my mother’s hand as a child, drawn to this majestic tomb engulfed at the base by magnificent floral arrangements purchased at florist shops as far off as Móra. My finger following the first line from side to side I would read off, in Spanish, “Here lie the remains of the victims of vile murderers . . .” with a whole series of last names, some of which sounded familiar, others of which didn’t. And farther down, “Mama, who are ‘the enemies of God and the Fatherland’? I’ll explain it to you when we get home. But by the time we got home, I would have forgotten. Neither my mother, nor my father, nor my aunt, nor my grandparents ever resolved the mystery of the civil war for me. Only my father, one day, said something along the lines of, “In the end, they were born here, too.”



My hands hugging my elbows, now one step, now another, I walk along a dirt path strewn with whitish shards out of which from time to time an osteoporotic knot sticks out, or, if you know where to look, a fragment that resembles a buried ostrich egg. How Clara and I had laughed at that macabre display, listening to the wisecracks of my sister and Bernat Trau! The boys didn’t usually visit the cemetery, but the Trau boy was the independent type and he would accompany Joana on the All Saints’ Day tour. In those days they were both insolent teens, and a little ghoulish, and they walked along nose to the ground, lifting with the toe of their shoes any fragments that might be taken for a bit of cane, a chip from a pockmarked plate, or a prehistoric fang made of white wood, all the while joking about their finds. Clara and I, who must have been ten or eleven, trailed them, giggling, aware that those operations bore a tinge of sacrilege. “Look,” Bernat would laugh, “a gasket!” And Joana would turn around and say to me, “Hey, Eliete, with a little of this and a little of that we could make a new set of dentures for grandma.” “Shush, you’re being silly,” our aunt would call out softly when she heard us, and: “This is not right, someone should say somethin’ to Domingo.” And every year it was the same. “Next year they’ll fix up the cemetery.” And next year was always the following year.

If my aunt had been feeling well today—and the pain must really be bad, because women as forbearing as she are few and far between—I wouldn’t have had to get up so early. She would have been part of a cleaning squad that would have given Angeleta of the Alegres a run for their money at leaving the graves inspection-ready at the crack of dawn. Because, in our town, an unattended grave is the worst possible offense to a departed family member, or the worst offense that a family name, a household, can incur in the eyes of the neighbors, if you want to look at it that way. And it is the ancestral task of the women to assure that the public image of the household dead shines in all its splendor. The first time I understood this phenomenon, I decided to put in my two cents: Auntie, this isn’t fair, you could take turns with Papa, you one year and him the next, and so on. “Hush, hush, now, that’s enough nonsense.”

So, where were we: If my auntie had not asked me to fill in for her, I would have come down from Barcelona at midday, in my own good time, and gone straight to the dinner table. After lunch, when the men were off to the café, I would have done the rounds of the cemetery with her, arm in arm, and she would have shown me the asters she had picked out for my mother, and for my grandparents, and look, here lies Frederic of the So-and-So household, and here Rossita of the Such-and-Such, and her sister way over at the other end, the poor thing, and she wasn’t to blame a’tall. My auntie is up on the content of each and every niche, no matter how cryptic the headstone is. Sometimes there’s nothing but three letters and a date scratched into a layer of plaster with a mason’s awl. This belongs to that outsider who died at the inn, I reckon, the one who did construction for the town hall, whose heart just up and failed on him, and no one came to claim him. He was real nice, that boy, real nice, he was. A heart attack, he had, right after lunch. I don’t feel well, I don’t feel well...and he went to the bathroom and never did come out, and he wasn’t all that old, at all. Still, sometimes it’s better that way. Maybe she was thinking of my mother. Or maybe of Jaume Petit.

translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman

Copyright © Marta Rojals. Translation copyright © Mary Ann Newman.