Irene’s small feet trudge forward bit by bit across the big wet paving stones that cover the surface of the bridge, while her rapid breathing suppresses sobs and her bare forearm wipes cold sweat from her tearstained face. She takes the liberty of interminably skidding her little black patent leather shoes up to the middle of the old Roman bridge, letting the cold sun of winter rise above the dome of the cathedral. She passes an arch, then another, and another, up to the fifth. That is the center.
It takes Irene a couple of minutes before she gets close to the parapet. She leaves the sack on the ground, the kittens still squirming inside. Her right hand touches the dew condensed on the stone. A shiver runs through her small body, and she feels a feverish heat in her face, pain in her stomach, trembling in her legs. Her body is moist and cold, her mouth dry.
Irene dries her hand on her yellow woolen sweater. She looks at the burlap sack at her feet. The claws are still scratching and the tireless bodies still moving. Irene looks forward. She remembers the hunger, which now seems to have disappeared. She remembers the shouts. She realizes that she is still crying. Her legs tremble again.
At last, she takes the sack with her right hand, not looking at it. She raises it with both hands until she gets it over the stone. She sees the huge yellow sun climbing above the baroque dome, its movement almost perceptible. She sucks in and swallows so many tears that it seems impossible. She arms herself with courage. She gives the sack a strong tug with both hands and positions it over the water, dangling above the river, awaiting the coup de grâce.
And once again she feels the trembling in her legs, and the fever in her chest and head, and a pang of hunger and nausea in her stomach. The tears fall more than ever; her nose is running. And in spite of it all she cannot make a sound.
Her hands pull the sack back over, rescue it. She cannot let it fall.
In a matter of seconds her feet begin a mechanical return home, slow but decided. The tears slow, the tremors diminish, her hands don’t feel the weight, while the cold of the morning balances the heat of the fever.
During the fifteen minutes of her trip back, Irene doesn’t think about anything. She is incapable of thinking forward to the immediate future, of imagining the subsequent episodes of the incident.
She stops at the entrance of #9 Calle Clariano and knocks on the black wooden door. Her seven years do not reach the iron knob in the form of a hand, but make a delicate fist that imitates the imitation.
There are footsteps inside and, after taking a moment to look through the peephole, a tall and delicate figure opens the door. Irene looks up at her mother, who stands on the threshold with a dour expression, her arms crossed, wearing an already-ragged old bathrobe and shoes full of holes. Only a few seconds pass before the mother’s right hand slaps Irene’s chubby cheeks.
Doña Prudencia is busy throwing the chunks of potato that three of her daughters are chopping into the stew. One of them hums “La Bienpagá” while she collects the peels and wraps them in a rag.
“We do not sing lewd songs in this house,” declares Don Gerardo,
without leaving off from looking at the fire and sending lewd smoke rings into the air.
“Sorry, Father,” says the girl.
“And you, Irene, see that you’re thinking about whether you want to eat tonight,” he continues. “Don’t think you’re going to get away with this. Around here, whoever doesn’t do their part doesn’t eat, sure as my name is Don Gerardo!”
The sack of kittens remains next to the fireplace. Now they don’t move around as much, maybe from weakness, or maybe because they find the spot near the fire more to their liking. Irene remains impassive, seated, with her hands on her cheeks and staring into space.
“Adela,” persists Don Gerardo, “get those buckets of water for your brother Antonio, since the little one is being stuck-up and not doing her chores today. You know Antonio likes to bathe at this hour, when he comes back from the office.”
The mother cat goes up to to the sack that holds her offspring, for the millionth time. For the millionth time the gentle hand of Don Gerardo pulls her away, then pets her striped gray fur, rubs his fingers on her head and strokes her neck.
Irene feels a strong stab of pain in her stomach like she has never known before, stronger than she could have anticipated. She feels the need to double over but at the same time is unable to do it, to abandon her absent, withdrawn, stony position, hands under her cheeks. It is her third day without eating. It has also been her third time getting smacked upon returning from the bridge. And the lesson continues. And the cats squirm around.
“Even at the front they were giving us more substantial rations than this; you have to watch what they’re selling at the stores these days,” he concludes.
Doña Prudencia removes the potatoes without enthusiasm. She lets a sigh escape.
“Ave María Purísima,” she swears, which is out of character. The others look at her, but the phrase seems out of context to them all.
“Even the cat is behaving better than our little stubborn one,” the father continues. “She still hasn’t gone back to look at the sack. And she gobbled up her sardine in a second.”
“Do you want to eat, child?” Doña Prudencia suddenly says to Irene. The child, surprised, opens her mouth and eyes like three plates, and gives a quick answer:
“Well promise me that tomorrow morning you will throw the sack in the river, like you’re supposed to. The older children should not have to do the work of the youngest!”
Irene remains with her eyes wide and her mouth open, with the stabbing pain in her stomach, with her hair more disheveled than ever. And she is silent. Her sisters stare at her and Adela, the one who was humming, smiles at the sight.
Three more minutes of silence pass. Finally, the mother’s old shoes slide slowly toward the place where the child sits, and the fourth blow falls.
“Go to bed!”
An old carbide streetlamp blinks and goes out as Irene slowly passes. A red peasant’s scarf protects her ears from the cold air. The same little yellow sweater as yesterday covers her body. Her dark green skirt falls almost to her patent leather shoes.
In her hands, the sack with the five kittens fidgets. Strangely, the unfed bodies keep on squirming after four days of going back and forth to the Roman bridge. The cold of the morning seems to have made them alert. The claws keep poking through the ugly brown fabric here and there, and sometimes Irene feels them on her legs despite the thick cloth of her skirt.
When she crosses Calle Mayor the tears return to her face, automatically, though she did not feel a change in her spirits. Without being able to explain it, Irene feels that in her whole life she will never have any more or less nerve than she has now. But the bitter, half-salty taste begins to slide down her cheeks. Her throat stings.
When she arrives at Cuesta del Perdón she almost slips on an irregular paving stone. She walks slowly because she cannot carry the sack in one hand. Also, to be sure, because despite the cold and the rain she does not want to walk any faster. If she were able to formulate her thoughts more clearly, she would be thinking about how she could make this an eternal journey, without an end or a return; a walk that would be realized so slowly that it would never be possible to make it to the end; a labyrinth of streets and cobblestones and rain and signposts, in which the stone bridge would remain forever out of reach.
Twenty minutes of slow walking pass, and Calle Gelves ends suddenly at the bridge. Irene hesitates. She can’t tell if the rain is more or less intense now than it was before. She thinks about laying the sack down on the cobblestones, but for some unknown reason she does not do it.
A first ray of sun begins to silhouette the cathedral from behind, although what is most visible is the bridge, illuminated by two great lamps, electric, imposing, although inadequate in the context of stone.
Without being conscious of having decided, Irene has already started her march across the pavement of the bridge, and in her head there resound stray words in a sort of crossword: lesson, duty, education, box on the ears, pride, family… All of a sudden her blank mind has become a chaotic tumble of words.
Without counting, her feet stop at the fifth arch, the middle one. Now she lays the sack on the ground. She looks forward. She hears an untimely meow.
Her hands feel the parapet; the rain has left puddles where erosion has made hollows in the stone. She dries off her hands to keep from slipping. She thinks about looking to either side but does not dare. She thinks about not thinking.
Without even knowing if the rain is still falling on her head, she takes the sack in her hands and situates it above, on the parapet.
Her head begins to spin. The fever climbs. Her chest seems to burn and her shoulders prickle. The stomach pain is stronger even than the day before, and she thinks about food, about potatoes, although the mental image of the plate makes her feel nauseated and she believes she is going to vomit. She cannot vomit. She feels tears running into her mouth, more salty and bitter than ever. Her throat itches. She coughs. She coughs again. She chokes. She feels for the first time today the streaming of the tears in her eyes. She breathes with agitation. Her heart suddenly beats, and she does not know if it was beating that way already. A shiver runs down her spine.
In the distance, a car begins its slow trip across the bridge. Irene grabs the mouth of the sack, holds it for the fourth consecutive day over the cold waters of the river, lets it dangle until it is only suspended by the red cord.
The car passes close to Irene, gliding over the puddles, and its small round headlights light up the scene.
Irene lets the sack fall. The five cats tumble over and over in the air, and their sudden meows make her hair stand on end while in the sky dawn breaks and her soul seems to rise into her throat and leave her body forever.
When the sack hits the water, Irene is grown up.
José Luis Martín, Spain and USA © 2008
Click here to see this story in Spanish
Translation by Christine Neulieb © 2009
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