About Oneself

Excerpt from the novel About Oneself by Ramón Otero Pedrayo, published in 1930 in Galician
Translated by David Clark

In the village on the other side the bells were tolling. In just a moment the agricultural winds stop blowing and the news spreads quickly throughout the valley: Don Bernaldo is dying. The procession moves down the village streets. The sick man’s servant, Señor Pascual, as old as his master himself, is bare-headed, damp-eyed as he rings the bell. The rooms and the corridors of the house fill up with a disconsolate multitude. Dona María has everything ready: white cloths over the tables and the lamps around the religious images are alight. The day seems more radiant, the blue of the sky somehow deeper and purer. The birds sing like the caged birds in the golden chapel of the Christ of Ourense.

When the Lord arrived in the bedroom, all of the faces were lowered and in the silence the beating of every heart could be heard: the old man, so discomposed and ancient, so close to death, threw himself from the bed and nobody was able to stop him. They covered him in an old blanket and kneeling in the middle of the room with his arms in the form of a cross he received Holy Communion. Dona María was crying in a corner. Then Don Bernaldo started to feel better. He gave a long blessing to Dona María and Xacobe. He made the sign of the cross in the air with his hand, withered but serene. This blessing flew over the river like a dove and landed on the emaciated hand of his crippled sister. When it spoke it asked about Adrián.

Two days past, days of deep, solemn silence, awaiting even the slightest movement of the patient. Dona María only left the house for an instant to go and give the old lady a kiss. She told her white lies. She even told her that Don Bernaldo had asked for a dozen of the cherries that she had in her house. Dona María stared at Xacobe, cold and unknown, without saying a word.

At nightfall of the second day, Adrián arrived from the station. He was slimmer, worn out after the journey. His mother, burying her head in his chest, at last let loose her comforting tears. The final concern left the dying man’s face and his hand caressed the head of his nephew who knelt before him. At night they were left alone together. It was then that the dying man said to Adrián:

— Son, go to my office and take down the big map . . . I want to see it before I die . . .

His nephew brought the map of Fontán into the bedroom with the help of Señor Pascual. They hung it from a wall. The dying man’s eyes came alive. His hand seemed to point out the horizons. His withered, pale face was filled with pure joy. Adrián, with a candle in his hand, lit up the places that the old man named with his faraway voice: Corme, Laxe, Caramiñans, Niñóns . . . Adrián didn’t always know how to find the places. The sick man spoke:

— No, to the right, left a bit, a bit more to the north.

The candle lit up the name of Compostela for a long time. Adrián read the names of mountains, hills, villages, hermitages. The light followed the roads.

In such strange and profound moments the map seemed to show yellow fields or barley, hills covered in gorse and whin, rocky mountain ranges, baroque church steeples, people going along the roads to the mills and the fairs, the green churchyards, rushing waters, golden beaches, the crashing of the waves on cliffs, sails that stand out amidst the sea, drizzle falling in the woods, streets in the old towns, the solitary, ancient monasteries.

Adrián was moved to the depth of his soul. With trembling hand he lit up the length of the St. James’ Way, the land of Ourense, the two little twin villages in the valley where they were. He stopped for a moment like a funeral candle when he came to the name of the village where Don Bernaldo was dying and then went on to trace all the coasts and borders of Galicia. Don Bernaldo had stopped talking. He smiled. Huge tears burned Adrián’s face. He had to get out of the room and wipe away his tears by the window, into the night. Then, following the signs of the sick man, he placed the crucifix in his hands. He didn’t move it away from his lips.

Dona María came with the abbot. A weak sigh still came from the deathbed. The priest murmured the dying prayers. A sound like the final drops of water from a fountain that had gone dry. Don Bernaldo died peacefully, and a black shadow fell over the map of Galicia.

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