Novelist, poet, translator, Marilar Aleixandre uses Galician as literary language and claims to have a forked tongue, but she says that not all beasts with cleaved tongue are evil. About books, she says that at the end they are messages written with ink, spit or blood which we throw to the void hoping that someone would get them. She likes to pick up stray words, and keeps them between the lines of stories or poems. She works in one of the oldest (500 years) Galician enterprises.
She lives in Santiago de Compostela where she teaches Science Education and Environmental Education in the University, and she writes novels, poems and short stories. Along her books there are topics such as treason, particularly treason to oneself, and the tortuous relations inside families.
The following is an excerpt of the story, “Death in the Chest.”, from The Knife in November is described by the Galician publisher as a novel, but it is really a collection of interconnected stories along the lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses or the One Thousand and One Nights. Many of the stories are set during the time of Franco’s dictatorship and detail events from murder to fishing to getting caught in a snow storm. The result is a text that boasts a fluent narrative and evocative references. (Text from Portico of Galician Literature).
DEATH IN THE CHEST
‘Across that stream, there’s a cave,’ declared Marcos, pointing to a slope covered in heather and broom. We’d been walking for almost two hours, and these must have been the first words he’d said.
‘A cave of badgers?’ I asked.
‘Of badgers or of men.’
He fell silent, and I didn’t dare ask anything else. He’d never talked to me about his relations with members of the Maquis, if he had any. Up until then, I’d doubted whether it wasn’t just some local gossip. True, he did disappear for days, but I was fifteen years old and was too concerned with my own affairs to worry about the presence or absence of others. Now I think he was starting to feed me information in case one day I had to end up doing the same as him.
The snow, so white, is treacherous. It can be a new sheet flapping in the wind. Or a shroud. But death isn’t always announced and, even when it is, we don’t always understand the signs.
My uncle had one obsession that autumn: to hunt down the boar. It had ruined the crops in the summer, digging up the soil between the potatoes, rummaging with its lively snout. It was the middle of November, the birches had lost their leaves. Why he hadn’t gone after it at the start of the hunting season, why he’d had to wait until November, when it was already cold, is something I cannot explain. There may have been a reason and, with the passing of time, I’ve forgotten.
I’d never seen a boar, even though at home it was invoked to make us children afraid. On outings with my father in the mountains, we’d come across timid-looking rabbits, hares, field mice. I’d once caught a dormouse with a white stripe on its face, like a mask. I’d kept it in the wood hut in a bird cage for ten days. But it wouldn’t settle, it went mad and ran around its prison like a creature possessed, until I decided to let it go. Wild animals don’t get used to being in cages. The boar, however, was a difficult animal to find. With my father, I’d learned to recognize the signs of its presence, the loose bark of a tree where it had sharpened its tusks, the double mark of its hooves when it came down to the river to drink. But I’d never actually seen one.
I don’t know why Marcos was so obsessed with killing a boar. He was my mother’s brother, but much younger, only six years older than me. He worked in a sawmill in town and wasn’t much given to talking. I’d never dared ask my mother if he really had relations with members of the resistance. These were things one didn’t talk about. It may have been true, and the guards had killed one of his companions. Maybe that was why he wanted to pepper a boar with his shotgun.
That early morning in November when Marcos and I left in the direction of Ernes to hunt down the boar, the sky was a dark bedspread and the wind cut like a knife. We had prepared our own cartridges, stuffing them with powder and adding pellets. The cartridges weren’t new, we used them again and again by straightening out the cardboard. It took time, but back then time was all we had. Or so we believed.
A boar needs large-calibre ammunition like pellets. Marcos was carrying his 12-gauge Víctor Sarasqueta gun, a weapon from 1927 with a stock made of walnut that came from the mythical factory in Éibar and had somehow landed in his father’s hands, while I had a smaller, 16-gauge gun, probably also made in Éibar, but without a name. The Sarasqueta was what I envied Marcos the most, apart from the six years’ difference in age, which made him a man, while I was treated like a child. I didn’t even have a firearms licence. Just a dog, Ney, a cross between a griffon and a hound (with the blood of a mutt thrown in), hairy, not pretty, according to my mother, but capable of stubbornly following a scent and flushing out a rabbit or a boar, I hoped.
The gusts of wind were getting stronger and it was starting to snow when Ney picked up a scent and began to follow it. Following the scent of a boar or any wild animal when it’s blowing a gale is madness, but Marcos’ face, when I glanced at it sideways, had such a look of determination that there was no option but to keep on going, despite the snow that, as it fell, erased the boar’s tracks. We climbed up hills, clambered down gullies, crossed streams carrying water between boulders, I slipped on a wet rock and grazed my hand, and even so we didn’t say a word. We’d been walking for five or six hours, perhaps more, by which time I didn’t know what we were chasing and sensed that, even if the boar was ten or twelve feet in front of us, we wouldn’t see it.
Suddenly the wind changed direction, stopped blowing from the boar towards us and started blowing from behind us. Ney stopped, dropped his ears and looked at us in confusion. Marcos also came to a halt and by the look in his eyes, without the need for words, I knew that we were lost. We’d fallen into the boar’s trap, it had led us into the heart of its territory and now it was going to abandon us somewhere between a grey sky and some equally grey mountains. I realized the snow, which until then had fallen as dry as mill-dust, sweeping the land without wetting us, was now flying in our faces, mixed with water, and in no time at all we would be soaked.
We had to walk, it was all we could do. Marcos kept quiet, just gestured with his head and started walking, and I followed. Ney came behind, feeling humiliated, though from time to time he insisted on sniffing at the grey snow in search of the lost trail. I don’t know for how many hours we wandered aimlessly – or so it seemed to me – over those mountains, turned from pursuers into pursued, threatened by gusts of wind that made us blind, by sleet that cut through to the bone, by darkness that grew thicker much faster than we could flee from it.
It may have still been early, but the dark sky heralded the arrival of night. And, with night, despair. How on earth, in the dark, were we going to find a path we hadn’t been able to locate during the day? How long would we be able to carry on walking before we were overcome by exhaustion? I was just about to surrender to the blackest thoughts when I heard Marcos utter an inarticulate sound and saw him pointing into the distance, in a direction where all I could make out was darkness.
‘Finally!’ he muttered.
I thought he’d gone mad. The cold, darkness and hunger had caused him to see a mirage. But, gazing in the direction of his hand, I spotted what might have been a light glinting between two spirals of mist. Was it possible that Marcos hadn’t been lost and all this time we’d been walking in a set direction? The idea gave me renewed strength and I hastened after him. Even Ney let out a muffled bark, sensing a change in our rhythm.
It may have taken us half an hour to arrive, but, unlike the time before that, this went quickly. Once we were by the light, it seemed impossible we could have spotted it from so far away, so weak was the flicker coming from the only window not covered by shutters. Before Marcos could knock at the door, the dogs had already announced the arrival of strangers.
Text © Marilar Aleixandre
Translation © Jonathan Dunne