by Emilia Pardo Bazán (b. 1851 in A Coruña; d. 1921 in Madrid)
When the girl entered, carrying the firewood that she had just scavenged from the master’s woodlands, Uncle Clodio didn’t raise his head, absorbed as he was in the task of trimming his cigar, using in place of a knife an amber-hued wedge of fingernail, toasted that shade by the flame of countless cigar butts.
Ildara threw the burden to the floor and began to smooth her hair, combed in the latest style de las señoritas and mussed by the jabbing of the branches and brush she’d been carrying. Then, with the lethargy of any village chore, she made ready the fire, ignited it, separated the cabbage heads, and thrust them into the black pot with some carelessly chopped potatoes and nearly dry beans, from the last harvest, unsoaked. By the time she’d completed these operations, Uncle Clodio had rolled the cigar and was sucking at it in his graceless fashion, producing in his cheeks two hollows like grey drains hidden in the dusky blue of his scraggly beard.
The firewood was moistened, no doubt, from so much rain the week before, and it burned poorly, releasing a bitter smoke; but the peasant laborer paid no mind: bah! He had breathed it since he was a boy. But as Ildara knelt to blow and kindle the flame, the old man observed a most unusual thing: something of a brilliant color emerging from the patched and soaking skirts of the lass . . . a robust leg, imprisoned in a red cotton stocking.
–Hey there! Ildara!
–What’s this new business?
–Now you’re spending my money on stockings, like the abbot’s very sister?
The girl straightened and the flame, which had begun to rise, golden, licking the black belly of the pot, illuminated her round face – pretty, with small features, an appealing mouth, clear eyes that shone with a greed for life.
I bought stockings, I bought stockings – she repeated, without a trace of fear. – And if I bought them, I don’t owe them to anyone.
–Then money must grow on trees, insisted Uncle Clodio with threatening malice.
–It doesn’t grow! I sold the abbot some eggs, he’ll tell you the same . . . and with what I made I bought the stockings.
A glimmer of rage crossed the squinted eyes of the laborer, staring from under grease-hardened eyelids and thick, hairy brows. He leapt from the bench where he was seated spread-legged, and grabbing the girl by her shoulders, he shook her brutally, hurling her against the wall, as he growled through clenched teeth:
–Deceitful girl, liar! The hens are brooding and haven’t been laying!
Ildara, gritting her teeth to keep from screaming from the pain, defended her face with her hands. The petite and comely young girl’s greatest fear was that her father would scar her, as had happened to her cousin Marisola, marked by her own mother on the forehead with the burnt circle of a hot sieve that had torn through her tissue. And even more so today, she defended her beauty as the day approached when she would found upon it a dream for the future. Having come of age, newly freed from her father’s legal authority, the boat awaited her – that boat in whose bowels so many of her fellow parishoners had submitted themselves to blind luck, to the mercy of the unknown on distant shores where gold rolled in the streets and one needed only to bend over to pick it up. Her father had no interest in immigrating, weary from a life of hard labor and indifferent to belated hope: well, let him stay . . . she would go all the same; she had already struck a deal with the middleman who advanced the payment for the journey; he had already given her five pesos on good faith, from which had come the infamous stockings. And Uncle Clodio, shrewd and astute – whether guessing or knowing – without releasing his grip on the girl, repeated:
–You’ve grown tired of walking barefoot and bare-legged, as the honorable women do, eh, worthless wench? Did your mother wear stockings? Did she fix her hair like you, always preening yourself in front of the mirror? Take this, so you’ll remember . . .
And with his fist closed he struck first her head, then her face, parting the small, fearful hands, still unmarked by labor, with which Ildara tried in vain to shield herself, trembling. The hardest blow fell upon an eye, and the young girl saw, like a starry sky, thousands of brilliant dots, enveloped in a haze of muted color on a black velvet background. Then the laborer struck her nose, her cheeks. For one furious instant, he would sooner have killed her than watched her go, leaving him alone, widowed, barely able to farm the meager plot of land he leased, fertilized with the sweat of so many years, for which he felt a mechanical, absurd affection. But that moment passed, and finally the rain of blows ceased; Ildara, dazed with fear, could no longer even scream.
She went outside, silently, and in the nearby stream washed off the blood. One pretty, young tooth remained in her hand. From her damaged eye she could no longer see.
Thus the doctor, consulted too late and with the distrust that is second nature to farm workers, spoke of a separation of the retina, things the young girl could not comprehend, but that she understood would amount to the permanent loss of sight in her eye.
And never would that ship receive her in its deepest cavities, to carry her toward new horizons of joy and luxury. Those who board that ship must board it healthy, able-bodied, and the women, with their eyes bright and their teeth intact . . .