Translation: I Couldn’t Say When It All Began

Excerpt from the novel by EDURNE PORTELA

Translated from the Spanish by TIM GUTTERIDGE

Excerpt appears in both Spanish and English.

Cover of Formas de estar lejos

Translator’s Note

Edurne Portela’s novel, Formas de estar lejos, recounts the story of the slow disintegration of a marriage, worn down by apparently small acts of emotional violence (invisible, even) which, taken together, gradually destroy not only the protagonist, Alicia, but also the perpetrator of those acts of violence: her husband, Matty. The title of the novel itself, as is often the case, is virtually untranslatable. A literal rendering might be Ways of Being Distant although, as I worked on my translation, I found myself thinking of it, in a nod to Gabriel García Márquez, as Chronicle of a Divorce Foretold, one in which the breakdown of the relationship can be attributed not so much to the inherent incompatibility of the partners (whatever that might mean) but rather to the alienation they experience in their personal and professional lives, and the way they respectively succumb to and exploit wider social forces such as patriarchy, male violence, social conservatism and racism. I don’t think it is giving too much away to say that this situation gradually transforms the narrator of the novel into a prisoner and her partner becomes her unhappy jailor.

Every translation raises its own particular issues and challenges. I’d like to identify three that appear in I couldn’t say when it all began. The first of these is the big question of what happens to the relationship between language, narratorial perspective and place when you take a novel that is written in Spanish and told primarily from the perspective of its Spanish narrator but is located for the most part in the United States, and transpose it into English. For the most part, collaboration between author/translator and reader means that this is less of a problem than we might expect (suspension of linguistic disbelief is simply added to the other commitments and allowances we make for fiction to become real) but there are certainly points in the translation where I had to pause and choose one path or another. An example can be found near the end of this piece, where I have the narrator recall: “The only place that was orderly and clean was one of those big walk-in closets, the sort you find in so many American homes.” In the original, she actually says something slightly different: “Lo único que parecía ordenado y limpio era mi armario, uno de esos grandes vestidores americanos que tan bien denominan ellos «walk-in closet».” The only place that seemed orderly and clean was my wardrobe, one of those big American dressing rooms that they so neatly term ‘walk-in closet’.) In Spanish, then, the narrator’s approach to her refuge, the walk-in closet, is both cultural and linguistic, but reproducing this linguistic approximation in English (wardrobe>dressing room>walk-in closet) felt like an unnecessary distraction.

The second issue that comes up in this excerpt is how to handle a number of Basque words that appear in the original Spanish text. These link the narrator to her childhood and adolescence in the Basque country and, I feel, need to be kept. The challenge here is, fundamentally, a technical one: how to ensure comprehensibility without clumsiness (or, even worse, recourse to footnotes). Where a word is used repeatedly in the course of an extended text, it is sometimes possible to simply allow the reader to gradually ‘acquire’ the meaning through context but here I felt it was necessary to disambiguate. Thus:

“…its badge with the Basque flag, the ikurriña, and the old party logo”

Ama and aita, my mom and dad, aren’t there.”

“…a mendigozal, a woollen jacket… two pompoms dangling on the front”

As a translator, you hope the reader won’t stop to register that you have slipped a definition into the translation (a stealth gloss), that if they do notice then they will be quietly appreciative, and that, either way, they will be drawn on by the tone and rhythm of the rest of the translation.

This brings me onto my third point. The two issues I have discussed so far did not represent the biggest challenge when translating this text. The impact of Formas de estar lejos builds slowly, with close description of physical surroundings, of memories, of sensory impressions all contributing to the atmosphere of threat, of confinement, of nostalgia and of loss. And the key to reproducing this effect in English depends, fundamentally, on word choice. This is, obviously, a cumulative process: well-chosen words sustain the emotional tone of the text; too many infelicitous or merely neutral ones gradually drain it of life. But I’ll point out a couple of examples. In the first paragraph I have “every pore aches” (me duele cada poro). I could have translated duele here as hurts but I preferred aches for the way it hints at a pain that is both persistent and, potentially, weighted with emotion (toothache but also heartache). And one final example. That knitted jacket, the mendigozal, is adorned with “two pompoms dangling on the front” (sus dos pompones colgando). A more obvious translation of colgando would be hanging but I liked the way that dangling hints at the precariousness and isolation of the narrator’s situation (and also, perhaps, helps to distract from my gloss of mendigozal earlier in the sentence). It is choices and decisions like these that are the key to a translation’s capacity to convey the style, tone and emotional impact of the original.

—Tim Gutteridge


I couldn’t say when it all began


I’ve locked the front door and pushed both bolts into place. I’ve checked the sliding door from the kitchen and blocked the rail with a stave of wood. I’ve also locked the bedroom from the inside. There isn’t a single night that I haven’t repeated this ritual. I lock myself in just like I used to, when he lived here, when he slept in the room on the other side of the spiral staircase and I thought I heard his footsteps in the night, approaching my door. I hang my parka on the shower bar to dry, take off my hat, my scarf, my corduroys and my sweater. I keep my thermal tee-shirt on, even though it’s starting to smell of sweat. The hairs on my unshaven legs stand on end, every pore aches, stiffened by this unbearable cold. I pull on some thick tights, flannel pajamas, a heavy dressing gown and, around my shoulders, my grandma’s purple woolen shawl, still boasting its badge with the Basque flag, the ikurriña, and the old party logo. I’m tempted to put the heating on, but I won’t. First of all, because that would mean going downstairs and I’ve already locked and bolted the door and I don’t plan to come out again. Second, because I owe the electricity company more than a thousand dollars, a thousand dollars I don’t have. And third, because if I turn the boiler on then the noise will wake me up during the night and I’ll imagine it’s something else. Every time I get startled – and I always do – I pay for it with hours of insomnia, and everything is magnified: my fear, my loneliness, my uncertainty.

I open the bottle of Pinot Noir – wine is cheaper than heating and it also warms you up – and a bag of chips: that’s my supper. And a Lorazepam or two: my dessert. I switch on the lamp that’s resting on a cardboard box full of books, turn out the main light and sit on the mattress, which lies on the floor, on top of an Indian blanket. I pour myself a glass of wine. I can’t help bowing slightly as I pick up the old copy of Carpentier’s The Rite of Spring, which I brought back from my office the other day. The volume is bulky but light; on its cover, the color of burnt orange, are two ballet dancers, one male, one female, their torsos just touching as they meet in full flight; the paper is coarse, yellowing, worn. It smells damp, of slightly sweaty hands, of having been read many times. The creased corner of a photograph pokes out from the opening pages. Another find. As I transfer books from shelves to boxes I come across old letters, postcards, boarding cards from my first transatlantic flights, photographs of my life before him, photographs that have accompanied me almost surreptitiously. The gradual emergence of vestiges of the previous life scattered among my books, in notepads, abandoned inside old manila envelopes, hidden unthinkingly in drawers and shelves in my offices here and there, accompanying me unnoticed each time I moved. I don’t know if I’m ready to come up against so many hidden memories, to compare them with that other meticulous, exhaustive record that I kept of every journey and every celebration I shared with him and that I scrupulously arranged in all the albums I destroyed not so long ago.

I’m about to tug at the creased corner of the photo when a noise on the other side of the door, close to the door, brushing against the door, paralyzes me. It’s the same noise I hear almost every night and, just like all those other nights, I’m not going to get up to check where it’s coming from, what causes it. I’ve bolted the door, I won’t come out again until it’s light. I know that if I move and decide to investigate I won’t be able to make it across the gap between this mattress and the door, won’t be able to place my already trembling hand on the bolt, to silence the buzzing in my ears, to slow the pumping of my heart, to calm my breath, to control my panic. If there really is something or someone out there, if this noise is not just the product of my imagination, then I’d prefer whatever it is to take me by surprise one of these nights in the middle of my Lorazepam sleep. I prefer not to know.

When the cats were here, I could blame the noise on them, on their scampering, their complaints, their games and their fights. They were used to roaming freely around the house, to sleeping with me if they felt like it, and they didn’t understand why I suddenly refused them entry to the bedroom. They mewed, growled and scratched at the door until they got tired and went off to sleep with him when he still lived here, or to the nest of quilts and blankets I provided for their comfort and, above all, so that I would feel less guilty after he left. But the cats aren’t here today; they weren’t here yesterday or last week or a month ago. I miss them, and their absence grows larger each night when I can’t explain the noise on the other side of the door. It’s a tiny noise, almost inaudible, a shadow noise that I hear as I drift in and out of sleep. But now I’m awake and I shouldn’t be hearing it. I pour myself another glass of wine and gulp it down with a pill. Now I longingly await that gentle sleepiness that softens my edges, that helps me to forget the noises, the cats. I’ll wait as I read, as I lose myself in Carpentier’s painstakingly baroque language. Once again I notice the damaged edge of the photo. This time I pull at it and find myself looking at my own face when I was four or perhaps five years old. A family photo. I’m standing in the front row with my youngest cousins, in the left-hand corner of the picture. I’m wearing an outfit that I recognize immediately: the plaid dress in red tones, the maroon cardigan, and the crocheted socks of the same color. The black patent leather shoes. My hair, also jet black, with a boyish cut that reveals the cowlick that even now I struggle to tame. In the second row are my older cousins, still young enough to wear short pants. Behind them are uncles and aunts, ama’s mother, and one of Aunt Magdalena’s many husbands, I think this one was her second. Ama and aita, my mom and dad, aren’t there. Next to grandma is the cousin who will die shortly after this photo was taken, when she is just seven years old. And the girl’s father will also die, two or three months later. For a long time I thought – absurdly and without any member of my family setting me right – that my cousin Asun had died in a cart crash. Not a car: a cart.

For a while I thought she’d been run over; later I changed my version and imagined she’d fallen from the back of the cart and split her head open. The reason for this anachronistic association was probably that I only ever saw my cousin in my mother’s village, a place so remote and suspended in time that there were still carts drawn by donkeys. In reality, my cousin – like her father – died of a brain tumor. I can’t help noticing the sadness the photo exudes, a sadness that has nothing to do with the death of my cousin or my uncle because at the time nobody knew they were going to die. We all look solemn or absent-minded or have an enigmatic expression, except my Aunt Ana, who is smiling, still smiling, unaware of the tragedy that is about to befall her. The photographer – perhaps her husband, because he was the one who took the photos at all our family gatherings – has caught us unawares. We haven’t had time to put on that pretense of happiness that is required in any family photo. He must have taken it, perhaps by mistake, just a moment before he said “cheese”, because my cousin – his daughter, the one that would die soon – is already looking at the camera with a serious expression, concentrating. My head is down, my chin almost on my chest, but my eyes are also looking at the photographer, with an expression somewhere between sadness and resentment, or perhaps demanding an explanation for some offense that I no longer recall. I observe my uncertain posture, my head bowed, the gloomy expression, and I recognize myself in the young girl’s lonely, needy air. There’s nothing to join me to the group. My arms hang limply. I’m not touching anybody, nobody is touching me. My Aunt Ana, the one who would lose her daughter – why is there no word for a parent who loses a child? – and who would be widowed shortly after, is smiling and observing me from a distance, fondly.

I find comfort in this painstaking analysis of the childhood photos I have come across during this last move. I almost always recognize the same expression, between sadness and reproach, an isolation and a loneliness that I have actively sought out. The expression doesn’t disturb me or make me feel uncomfortable but rather confirms my sense of myself, perhaps because now, when I look at myself in the mirror, it’s still there, deep in my eyes. My mother always says I was a happy child. All mothers want to remember their children as happy. As I am not a mother and am never going to be one, I can’t analyze myself to confirm or refute this idea. It’s true that I’m smiling in some photos: dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood, as a gardener, as an Arabian princess, or in my ballet outfit for some event at the dance school. I’m also smiling in another photo, accompanied by two children whose names I can’t recall. The girl is very tall and much older than me, eight or nine years old; I might be four, like in the other photo. The tall girl has a strange look, like Frankenstein’s daughter – huge square glasses, a gappy smile, a dress that is too short and reveals her long, skinny legs, a pair of muddy, shapeless boots – and her hand is resting on the shoulder of a younger friend, a short boy with a big head and a sweet smile. I’m standing slightly apart from them, looking happily at the boy. You can tell I like him. I have a book under my arm – what I would give to know what book it is – I’m wearing a romper that shows my round tummy, and a mendigozal, a woolen jacket, that I still remember with its traditional Basque crests and two pompoms dangling on the front. I think Grandma Begoña knitted it. I recognize my legs, knock-kneed as they still are, and a pair of muddy old Kickers. We’re standing in the middle of a dirt road, perhaps during one of those summers we spent in my mother’s village. Our knees are covered in scabs from all the times we fell as we ran wild across the hills, our shoes are old and worn out, our clothes are too small, unable to keep up with our growth spurts; all this might make one think of childhood as an idyllic time when complete happiness is possible whatever the circumstances. I smile with my book under my arm, just like I smile in my favorite costumes. And this makes me think I was happy when I lost myself in my reading or when I turned into someone else; when, through a book or a costume or dance, I inhabited different characters, allowing me to look at the camera and, indeed, smile so widely that those big brown eyes became narrow slits through which a luminous darkness filtered. And now, too, I know how to find myself in characters, to disguise myself, to change into another person, to be the Alicia who smiles at the camera, but I don’t know if there is any light left inside or if everything is so dead and subdued that this smile is only for show.

Perhaps I’ll fall asleep soon, but until I do I’ll remain attentive to the sounds. The noise that disturbs me has disappeared, but there are others: the mice are scampering about, I can hear their paws scratching inside the walls. There must be loads of them, with their routes up and down, from the basement to the attic, their paths that take them from this room to the abandoned back of the house. They’ll eat everything they come across: the insulation material, the old timber, the young they’ll give birth to in there. These walls are thick. I’m sure they could house a colony of hundreds of mice, maybe thousands. I’m losing ground in the face of their growing presence, their dramatic conquest of more and more territory. I used to find their tiny droppings in hidden spots in the basement, even occasionally – from the most adventurous member of the litter – in the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink. But now I come across them in full view in the middle of the house, as if the rodents realize I have given up the battle for lost. I find them on the stairs, in the corridor, in the spare bedroom, in the study. When I enter the house, I notice the mousey smell: an unmistakable mixture of urine and ammonia that also has a slight hint of sweetness. Putting out the traps was one of the things that he did. He said it was the best method and the cheapest, that we couldn’t use poison because of the risk the cats would eat it. So he strewed the basement and the kitchen with traps which, surprisingly, neither of the cats approached. Although they didn’t approach the mice either, or chase them the way cats do in fables or children’s stories. At night, and sometimes even during the day, we heard the sinister sound of a trap snapping shut, followed by the screams of the animal. I imagined mutilated mice, their little bodies torn in two, blood gushing out, their eyes red and bulging, and I covered my ears and felt an intense nausea as my stomach turned upside down. The cats reacted in a similar way but in an animal version: when the trap snapped shut, their backs would arch like one of those cartoon cats, their fur stood on end and they jumped onto the bed or the armchair where I was reading or working, seeking my protection. If the mouse screamed, Vargas slowly approached the scene of death and kept a safe distance. She growled or mewed until the screeching finished, and then came to seek my warmth. But Llosa never approached the poor dying mouse. She hid in my lap and when Vargas came to nuzzle me, Llosa hissed at her angrily, as if reproaching her for her sadism, for having been drawn to the animal’s death throes. Now, without cats or traps, I could use poison, but I’d be incapable of picking up the corpses. I prefer to let them take over the house, to enjoy their conquest until I decide to call the exterminator that Sylvia recommended. Tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow.

The pipes squeal, almost frozen; the floorboards shrink and creak; the ash tree in the garden, heavy with ice, scrapes and beats against the slates on the roof. I can identify all those noises and they don’t scare me, in fact they soothe me, even the incessant scampering and scratching of the mice. But the other sound is a variation that puts me on edge and scares away sleep. Two nights ago I had to move into the closet. I know it’s pointless because the door won’t protect me from anything, but I feel safer there. Getting inside the closet calms me down. It’s a refuge. I got into this habit of seeking shelter in the first house, the one in the south. It started off as something trivial: I just wanted to get away from the dust. We’d been doing work on the house since the day we’d bought it. The bathroom was half finished, the floors were bare, waiting for him to put down the boards and varnish them, there was scaffolding in the living room, boxes of tiles stacked up against the walls, a tool in every corner (the handsaw, the tile cutter, the sander). We could use the bathroom but the shower hadn’t been installed. Washing my hair was such a pain that I cut it short. The only place that was orderly and clean was one of those big walk-in closets, the sort you find in so many American homes. In there, my clothes and my shoes were safe from the dust, and so was I. I spent many hours in there. I sat on a kitchen stool or put a blanket on the floor and read there, or I took my laptop and worked. Sometimes I shut myself in to be alone. Over time, I also began to shut myself in to cry without any witnesses. When I cried anywhere else in the house, Llosa rubbed herself against me and I got annoyed, and I poured all of my anger onto the poor animal: I swatted her away, shoved her roughly. One day when I was alone in the house, I sat down on the kitchen floor and cried. Llosa came up and rubbed herself against my leg. I grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and threw her so hard that she didn’t have time to react. She crashed against the door, let out a rasping mew, hissed at me and hid beneath the bed until he came home and called to her. She came out from under the bed, fearful, went over to be stroked, eyed me with disdain, that disdain that only a cat can show, and for several days wouldn’t come close. After that, even when I was alone, whenever I wanted to cry I got into the closet. I remember one day that we’d argued. Again. He wanted to clean the gutters. I wanted to spend the day writing. He wanted me to hold the ladder, to go up on the roof with him, because imagine if I fell and split my head; he wanted me to help him remove all the rotting, smelly leaves that had accumulated there because winter was coming and it might freeze and if it freezes, well, then the gutters will crack and I’ll have to fix them and the house belongs to both of us but you don’t seem to care about it, all you care about is your books and you and your thesis, you and your thesis, your thesis and you. And it’s true, I didn’t give a shit about the house. I hated it. The house tied me down, it swallowed me, it choked me with its dust, it dried me up inside with its air conditioning in the summer, its heating in the winter, it suffocated me with those windows that were always closed because it was too hot or too damp or the screens were broken and the mosquitoes got in and bit me to death and on top of that there was a West Nile virus epidemic, and the giant spiders and those things that looked like flying cockroaches but weren’t but they looked just like them and they made me feel sick and they gave me attacks of hysteria, you’re hysterical, that’s what he said. It was the south. And the south was like the tropics but without beaches or palm trees. The south gave me asthma and took away any desire I had to leave the house because there were Confederate flags everywhere and people eyed me with disdain because I looked Mexican and my English was a disaster and I had a Hispanic accent, and they didn’t serve me when it was my turn at the deli counter in the supermarket and they didn’t put the change into my hand like they did with other customers but just put it down anyhow next to the plastic bags, and I had to put away the things I’d bought, me and not the checkout girl.

He was still outside. He’d got his way and we’d ended up cleaning the gutters. Just so I wouldn’t have to put up with him, wouldn’t have to listen to his endless string of complaints, of sly insults, of scornful comments. I went into the house, washed my hands and got into the closet. I sat in the dark, huddled like always against one of the walls. I cried quietly, like I’m crying now, not shrilly, weeping steadily, the tears caressing my cheeks. I could hear Llosa mewing and scratching at the door, like she’d be doing now if she was still with me. He’d be back soon. I came out of the closet, stroked the cat, and washed my face.

I couldn’t say when it all began. When my life began to go wrong and the person I’d been ceased to exist and I became a woman who shut herself in a closet to cry. And everything that came after.


No podría decir cuándo empezó todo


He cerrado la puerta de la calle con llave y echado los dos cerrojos. He comprobado la puerta corredera de la cocina y colocado el listón de madera en el raíl para trancarla. También he cerrado por dentro la habitación. No he dejado de repetir este ritual ni una noche. Me encierro como lo hacía entonces, cuando él vivía aquí, cuando dormía en la habitación al otro lado de la escalera de caracol y creía oír sus pasos por la noche acercándose a mi puerta. Cuelgo el plumífero en la barra de la ducha para que se seque, me quito el gorro, la bufanda, los pantalones de pana y el jersey. Me dejo puesta la camiseta térmica, a pesar de que ya huele un poco a sudor. Se me erizan los pelos de las piernas sin depilar, me duele cada poro que se endurece y reacciona ante este frío insoportable. Me pongo unos leotardos de lana, el pijama de franela, la bata gruesa y, sobre los hombros, la toquilla de lana morada de la abuela que todavía luce su imperdible de la ikurriña con el viejo anagrama de EAJ/PNV. Me tienta encender la calefacción, pero no lo haré. Primero, porque para ello tendría que bajar al primer piso y ya he echado el cerrojo, ya he cerrado la puerta, ya no pienso salir de aquí. Segundo, porque debo más de mil dólares a la compañía de electricidad, mil dólares que no tengo. Tercero, porque si la prendo, los ruidos de la caldera me despertarán por la noche y pensaré que son otra cosa. Cada sobresalto–y siempre me sobresalto–lo pago con varias horas de insomnio durante las cuales todo se magnifica: mi miedo, mi soledad, mi incertidumbre.

Abro la botella de Pinot Noir–el vino es más barato que la calefacción y también calienta–y una bolsa de patatas fritas: mi cena. Un lorazepam, o dos: mi postre. Enciendo el flexo que descansa sobre una caja de cartón llena de libros, apago la luz principal y me siento en el colchón, que yace a ras del suelo sobre una manta india. Me sirvo una copa de vino. No puedo evitar cierta reverencia al coger el viejo ejemplar de La consagración de la primavera que me traje el otro día de la oficina. Es voluminoso pero ligero, la cubierta de color naranja tostado con una bailarina y un bailarín cuyos torsos se rozan en pleno vuelo, el papel grueso, amarillento, raído. Huele a humedad, a manos un poco sudadas, a muchas lecturas. De entre las primeras páginas sobresale el pico arrugado de una fotografía. Otro hallazgo. Trasladar los libros de estanterías a cajas significa toparse con antiguas cartas, postales, tarjetas de embarque de mis primeros vuelos transatlánticos, fotografías de mi vida anterior a él que me han ido acompañando, casi a escondidas. Emergen ahora los vestigios de la vida previa que estaban desperdigados entre mis libros, en cuadernos de apuntes, abandonados dentro de viejos sobres de manila, escondidos inconscientemente en cajones y estanterías de mis despachos de aquí y de allá, desplazándose inadvertidos conmigo de mudanza en mudanza. No sé si estoy dispuesta a encontrarme con tanta memoria escondida, a contrastarla con ese otro registro meticuloso y exhaustivo que hice de cada viaje y celebración con él y que ordené escrupulosamente en todos los álbumes que no hace tanto he acabado de destruir.

Estoy a punto de tirar de la esquina arrugada de la fotografía cuando un ruido al otro lado de la puerta, cerca de la puerta, rozando la puerta, me paraliza. Es el mismo ruido de casi todas las noches y hoy tampoco me voy a levantar a comprobar de dónde proviene, qué lo provoca. He echado el pestillo, no saldré hasta que vuelva a ser de día. Sé que si me muevo y decido investigar no podré superar la distancia entre este colchón y la puerta, imposible acercar esta mano que ya tiembla al pestillo, imposible acallar el zumbido en los oídos, parar el bombeo del corazón, acompasar la respiración, controlar el pánico. Si realmente hay algo o alguien ahí detrás, si ese ruido no es fruto de mi imaginación, prefiero que, sea lo que sea, me sorprenda cualquier noche durante mi sueño de lorazepam. Prefiero no enterarme. Cuando las gatas estaban aquí podía achacar los ruidos a sus correteos, sus quejas, sus juegos y peleas. Estaban acostumbradas a andar libres por la casa, a dormir conmigo si les apetecía, y no entendían que yo de repente les negara la entrada a la habitación. Maullaban, gruñían y arañaban la puerta hasta que se cansaban y se iban a dormir con él cuando todavía vivía aquí, o al nido de edredones y mantas que les había proporcionado para su comodidad y sobre todo para sentirme yo menos culpable, cuando él se fue. Pero hoy las gatas ya no están, tampoco ayer, ni la semana anterior, ni hace un mes. Las echo de menos y su ausencia se hace más grande cada noche cuando no sé cómo explicar el ruido al otro lado de la puerta. Es un ruido minúsculo, casi inaudible, un ruido de sombra que escucho en mi duermevela. Pero ahora estoy despierta y no debería estar oyéndolo. Me sirvo otra copa de vino y me la bebo de un trago con la pastilla. Ahora a esperar esa deseada somnolencia suave que amortigua mis aristas, que me ayuda a olvidar el ruido, los ruidos, las gatas. Esperaré mientras leo, mientras me pierdo en el lenguaje minucioso y barroco de Carpentier, mientras. Otra vez el borde dañado de la foto me llama la atención. Ahora sí, tiro de él y me encuentro con mi rostro de cuatro, tal vez cinco años. Foto de familia. Poso en primera fila junto a mis primos más pequeños, yo en la esquina izquierda. Llevo un conjunto que reconozco inmediatamente: el vestido de cuadros escoceses en tonos rojos, la rebeca granate y los calcetines de ganchillo del mismo color. Los zapatos de charol negro. El pelo, también negro azabache, cortado a lo chico que rebela ese remolino en el flequillo que aún hoy me cuesta domar. En la segunda fila están los primos mayores, todavía suficientemente niños como para llevar pantalones cortos. Detrás de ellos, tíos y tías, la madre de ama, y uno de los tantos maridos de la tía Magdalena, creo que éste era el segundo. Aita y ama no están. Al lado de la abuela, la prima que morirá poco después de tomarse esta foto, con apenas siete años. También el padre de la niña morirá, dos o tres meses más tarde. Durante mucho tiempo pensé, absurdamente y sin que ningún miembro de la familia me lo desmintiera, que mi prima Asun había muerto en un accidente de carro. No de coche, de carro. Por un tiempo pensé que atropellada, más tarde cambié la versión y me imaginé que se había caído de la parte posterior del carro y que se había abierto la cabeza. El motivo de esa asociación anacrónica se debía posiblemente a que sólo coincidía con mi prima en el pueblo de mi madre, tan remoto y suspendido en el tiempo que todavía había carros tirados por burros. En realidad, mi prima murió, como su padre, de un tumor cerebral. Me llama la atención la tristeza que destila la fotografía, una tristeza que no tiene nada que ver con la muerte de mi prima ni de mi tío porque entonces nadie sabía que iban a morir. Estamos todos serios o despistados o con una mueca indefinible, salvo mi tía Ana que sí sonríe, sonríe todavía ya que ignora la tragedia que está a punto de caerle encima. El fotógrafo –posiblemente su marido porque era él quien hacía las fotografías en todos los encuentros familiares– nos ha pillado desprevenidos. Todavía no hemos tenido tiempo de posar para pretender la felicidad exigida en una foto de familia. Debió tomarla, tal vez por error, justo en el segundo anterior a decir «patata» porque mi prima, su hija, la que morirá pronto, ya mira a la cámara con una expresión seria y concentrada. Tengo la cabeza gacha, la barbilla casi pegada a la pechera, pero mis ojos también miran al fotógrafo, entre la tristeza y el despecho, o tal vez pidiendo explicaciones por algún agravio que ahora no recuerdo. Observo mi postura inestable, la cabeza inclinada, la mirada oscura y me reconozco en el aire solitario y desvalido de esa niña. Ningún gesto me une al grupo. Mis brazos cuelgan, inermes. No toco a nadie, nadie me toca a mí. Mi tía Ana, que se quedaría sin hija–¿por qué no hay en español una palabra que designe a los padres que pierden a un hijo?–y viuda tan poco tiempo después, sí sonríe y me mira de lejos, con cariño.

Me reconforta analizar minuciosamente las fotografías de la infancia que he ido encontrando durante este último traslado. Casi siempre reconozco la misma expresión, entre el desvalimiento y el reproche, el aislamiento y una soledad buscada. Es una expresión que ni me inquieta ni me incomoda, más bien me reafirma, tal vez porque cuando ahora me miro en el espejo está ahí, en el fondo del ojo. Mi madre siempre me ha dicho que fui una niña feliz. Todas las madres quieren recordar a sus hijos felices. Como yo no soy madre y nunca lo seré, no podré autoanalizarme para corroborar esta idea o desmentirla. Es cierto que sonrío en algunas fotos: disfrazada de caperucita, de jardinera y de reina mora, o vestida de bailarina para alguna función de la academia. También sonrío en otra fotografía en la que me acompañan dos niños que no consigo recordar. La niña es muy alta y mucho mayor que yo, tendrá ocho o nueve años; yo posiblemente tengo cuatro, como en la otra foto. La niña alta tiene un aire extraño, como de hija de Frankenstein–gafas cuadradas enormes, sonrisa desdentada, vestido demasiado corto que deja ver sus piernas larguísimas y flacuchas, unas botas embarradas y deformes–y reposa su mano sobre el hombro del amigo más joven, cabezón, bajito y de sonrisa dulce. Yo estoy un poco separada de ellos y miro feliz al niño. Se nota que me gusta. Llevo un libro bajo el brazo–lo que daría por saber qué libro es–, visto un pichi muy gracioso de pantalón que me marca la barriguita y un mendigozal de lana que todavía recuerdo, con sus escudos vascos característicos y sus dos pompones colgando. Creo que lo tricotó la abuela Begoña. Reconozco mis rodillas torcidas, tan torcidas como ahora, y unos zapatitos Kickers viejos y llenos de barro. Estamos en medio de una carretera sin asfaltar posiblemente durante uno de esos veranos en el pueblo de mi madre. Nuestras rodillas machacadas de caernos jugando como salvajes por el campo, nuestros zapatos viejos y raídos, nuestras ropas demasiado pequeñas que no llegan a tiempo de cubrir los estirones podrían hacer pensar en la infancia como esa etapa idílica en la que la felicidad plena es posible a pesar de las circunstancias. Sonrío con mi libro bajo el brazo como sonrío con mis disfraces favoritos. Y esto me hace pensar que era feliz cuando me evadía con mis lecturas o cuando me convertía en otra, cuando a través del libro, el disfraz o el baile vivía diferentes personajes que me permitían mirar a la cámara y entonces sí, sonreír tan ampliamente que esos ojos negros y redondos se convertían en pequeñas rendijas por las que se filtraba una oscuridad luminosa. Ahora también sé buscarme en personajes, disfrazarme, convertirme en otra, ser la Alicia que sonríe a la cámara, pero no sé si queda algo de luz aquí dentro, si todo está tan muerto y apagado que esa sonrisa no es más que una mueca.

Es posible que me quede pronto dormida, pero hasta que no lo haga seguiré atenta a los ruidos. El ruido que me inquieta ha desaparecido, pero hay otros: los ratones corretean, oigo sus patitas escarbar en las paredes. Seguro que son legión, que tienen ya sus rutas de subida y de bajada, del sótano al ático, sus caminos transversales que les llevan de esta habitación al fondo abandonado de la casa. Comerán todo lo que encuentran a su paso: el material aislante, las viejas maderas, las crías que parirán ahí dentro. Son anchas estas paredes. Seguro que permiten que se asiente una colonia nutrida por cientos de ratones, igual miles. Voy perdiendo terreno frente a su creciente presencia, su toma vertiginosa de más y más territorio. Antes encontraba sus minúsculas heces en lugares ignotos del sótano, tal vez alguna–del aventurero de la camada–en el armario del fregadero de la cocina. Pero ahora me las encuentro en lugares visibles y centrales de la casa, como si los roedores fueran conscientes de que he dado por perdida la batalla. Me las encuentro en las escaleras, en el pasillo, en la habitación de invitados, en la biblioteca. Al entrar en casa noto el olor a ratón: una mezcla inconfundible de orina y amoniaco que tiene al mismo tiempo un ramalazo dulzón. Poner las trampas era una de las cosas de las que se encargaba él. Decía que era el mejor método y el más barato, que no podíamos usar veneno porque existía el peligro de que se lo comieran las gatas. Así que sembraba el sótano y la cocina de trampas a las que, curiosamente, ninguna de las dos se acercaba. Tampoco se acercaban a los ratones ni los perseguían como en las fábulas o los cuentos infantiles. Por la noche, a veces incluso durante el día, se oía el «clap» siniestro de una trampa acompañado de los chillidos del animal. Yo me imaginaba ratones mutilados, sus pequeños cuerpos partidos en dos, sangre saliendo a borbotones, ojos rojos desencajados, y me tapaba los oídos, sentía una náusea intensa, el estómago dado vuelta. Las gatas reaccionaban de manera similar, en versión animal: cuando sonaba el «clap» su cuerpo adquiría una curva como de gato de dibujos animados, se les erizaba el pelo y se subían a la cama o al sillón donde yo estuviera leyendo o trabajando, buscando mi protección. Si el ratón chillaba, Vargas se acercaba lentamente a la escena de muerte y se mantenía a una distancia prudencial. Gruñía o maullaba hasta que se acababa el chillido y después venía a buscar mi calor. Mientras que Llosa jamás se acercaba al pobre ratón moribundo. Se escondía en mi regazo y cuando Vargas venía a meter la nariz, le lanzaba un bufido disuasorio, como si le reprochara su sadismo, haber estado tan cerca de la agonía del animal. Ahora sin gatas ni trampas podría usar el veneno, pero sería incapaz de recoger después sus cadáveres. Prefiero que se ganen la casa, que disfruten su conquista hasta que decida llamar al exterminador que me ha recomendado Sylvia. Mañana. Igual mañana.

Las cañerías chirrían casi a punto de congelarse; las maderas del suelo se encogen y crujen; el fresno del jardín roza y bate con su rama, cargada de hielo, las tejas de pizarra. Todos esos ruidos los identifico, no me asustan, de hecho me tranquilizan, incluso el correteo y el arañar incesante de los ratones. El otro, sin embargo, es una variación que me pone alerta y que espanta al sueño. Hace dos noches tuve que trasladarme al armario. Sé que es inútil porque la puerta del armario no va a protegerme de nada, pero ahí me siento más segura. Entrar en el armario me calma. Es un refugio. Tomé esa costumbre de cobijarme en los armarios en la primera casa, la del sur. Comenzó como algo un poco tonto: sólo quería huir del polvo. La casa estuvo en obras desde el día que la compramos. El baño a medio hacer, los suelos desnudos esperando a que él colocara la tarima y aplicara el barniz, un andamio en el salón, cajas de azulejos apiladas contra las paredes, en cada rincón una herramienta voluminosa (la sierra de mano para la madera, la de los azulejos, la lijadora). Podíamos usar la bañera, pero la ducha no estaba instalada. Aclararse el pelo se convirtió en tal problema que me corté la melena al rape. Lo único que parecía ordenado y limpio era mi armario, uno de esos grandes vestidores americanos que tan bien denominan ellos walk-in closet. Ahí mantenía lejos del polvo mi ropa, mis zapatos, incluso a mí misma. Pasaba muchas horas dentro del armario. Me sentaba en una banquetita de la cocina o echaba una manta en el suelo y leía allí, o me metía con el portátil y trabajaba. A veces me encerraba para estar sola. Con el tiempo, también empecé a encerrarme para llorar sin testigos. Cuando lloraba en cualquier otro lugar de la casa, Llosa se rozaba contra mí, lo cual me irritaba, y toda la rabia que sentía dentro la volcaba sobre el pobre animal: le daba un manotazo, la empujaba con fuerza. Un día que estaba sola en casa me senté a llorar en el suelo de la cocina. Llosa se me acercó y se restregó contra mi pierna. La cogí del pescuezo y la lancé por los aires con tanta fuerza que no le dio tiempo a reaccionar. Se pegó un golpe contra la puerta ¡pah!, soltó un maullido desgarrado, me bufó y se metió debajo de la cama hasta que llegó él y empezó a llamarla. Salió de debajo de la cama, temerosa, se acercó a él para recibir una caricia, me miró con desprecio, ese desprecio que sólo un gato puede hacer visible, y durante muchos días no se volvió a acercar a mí. Desde entonces, aunque estuviera sola, cuando quería llorar me metía en el armario. Recuerdo un día que habíamos discutido. Otra vez. Él quería limpiar las canaletas de la casa. Yo quería pasar el día escribiendo. Él, que le aguantara la escalera, que me subiera con él al tejado, porque imagínate que me caigo y me abro la cabeza, y que le ayudara a sacar todas las hojas acumuladas, podridas y apestosas porque llegaba el invierno e igual helaba y si hiela, entonces, se romperán las canaletas y tendré que arreglarlas y la casa es de los dos y parece que a ti no te importa nada, que sólo te preocupas de tus libros y de ti y de tu tesis, tú y tu tesis, tu tesis y tú. Y es verdad, a mí me importaba una mierda la casa. La odiaba. La casa me ataba, me engullía, me asfixiaba con su polvo, me secaba por dentro con su aire acondicionado en verano, su calefacción en invierno, me sofocaba con sus ventanas siempre cerradas porque hacía demasiado calor o demasiada humedad o las rejillas protectoras estaban rotas y entonces entraban mosquitos que me acribillaban y encima había una epidemia del virus del Nilo Occidental, y las arañas gigantescas, y eso que parecían cucarachas voladoras y no lo eran, pero se le asemejan demasiado y a mí me daban un asco horrible y me provocaban ataques de histeria, histérica, me decía él. Era el sur. Y el sur era como el trópico, pero sin playa ni palmeras. El sur me provocaba asma y me quitaba las ganas de salir de casa porque también había banderas confederadas por todos sitios y gente que me miraba con desprecio porque parecía mexicana y mi inglés era catastrófico y tenía acento hispano y no me atendían cuando me tocaba en la charcutería del supermercado y no me daban las vueltas en la mano como a otros, sino que me las dejaban de mala manera al lado de las bolsas de plástico, donde yo misma, y no la cajera, tenía que meter los productos que había comprado.

Él todavía estaba fuera. Se había salido con la suya y habíamos acabado limpiando las canaletas. Por no aguantarle, por no soportar esa retahíla eterna de reproches, de insultos encubiertos, de comentarios despectivos. Entré en la casa, me lavé las manos y me metí en el armario. Me senté en la oscuridad, me acurruqué como siempre contra una de las paredes. Lloré tranquila, como estoy llorando ahora, sin estridencias, un llanto templado que me acariciaba las mejillas. Oí a Llosa maullar y arañar la puerta, como estaría haciendo ahora si aún estuviera conmigo. Él entraría pronto. Salí del armario, acaricié a la gata y me lavé la cara.

No podría decir cuándo empezó todo. Cuándo mi vida comenzó a torcerse y esa que fui dejó de existir y se convirtió en una mujer que se encerraba a llorar en un armario. Y todo lo que vino después.


(c) Edurne Portela, rights granted by Galaxia Gutenberg, SL. English translation (c) Tim Gutteridge, 2020.


Edurne Portela was Associate Professor of Literature at Lehigh University (Pennsylvania) until 2015 and her academic publications include Displaced Memories: The Poetics of Trauma in Argentine Women Writers (Bucknell University Press, 2009) andEl eco de los disparos: Cultura y memoria de la violencia (The echo of gunfire: culture and memory of violence), which was published by Galaxia Gutenberg in 2016. Her first novel, Mejor la ausencia, was published by Galaxia Gutenberg in September 2017, and went on to win the Madrid Booksellers’ Guild 2018 Prize for Best Novel of the Year. In March 2019, she published her second novel, Formas de estar lejos, also with Galaxia Gutenberg. She writes a weekly column for the Sunday edition of Spain’s leading newspaper, El País, is a regular contributor to Cadena Ser and Radio Nacional de España, and also works with La Marea magazine.

Tim Gutteridge is a Scottish literary translator, working from Spanish into English. His most recent translations include The Swallow (a stageplay by Guillem Clua) and The Mountain That Eats Men (Ander Izagirre, Zed Books, 2019). His translation of Miserere de cocodrilos (Mercedes Rosende) will be published by Bitter Lemon Press in 2020. He is currently working on the translation of Jauría, a verbatim drama by Jordi Casanovas based on the notorious manada gang rape case of 2016, in which the dialogue is taken directly from witness statements and court transcripts. He lives in Cadiz (Spain) and blogs about translation at

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