Joyland

Consulate |

The Salamander

by Mercè Rodoreda

Translated by Martha Tennent


I strolled down to the water, beneath the willow tree and through the watercress bed. When I reached the pond I knelt down. As always, the frogs gathered around me. Whenever I arrived, they would appear and come jumping toward me. As soon as I started to comb my hair, the mischievous ones would stroke my red skirt with the five little braids or pull at the festoon on my petticoat full of ruffles and tucks. The water would grow sad and the trees that climbed the hill would gradually blacken. But that day the frogs jumped into the water, shattering the mirror in the pond, and when the water grew still again his face appeared beside mine, as if two shadows were observing me from the other side. So as not to give the appearance of being frightened, I stood up and without saying a word began walking calmly through the grass. But the moment I heard him following me, I looked back and stopped. A hush fell over everything, and one end of the sky was already sprayed with stars. He stopped a short distance away and I didn’t know what to do. I was suddenly filled with fear and began to run, but when I realized he would overtake me, I stopped under the willow tree, my back to the trunk. He came to me and stood there, both arms spread wide so I could not run away. Then, gazing into my eyes, he began to press me against the willow, my hair disheveled, between the willow and him. I bit my lips to keep from screaming; the pain in my chest was so great I thought my bones were on the point of breaking. He placed his mouth on my neck, and where he had laid his mouth I felt a burning.

The trees on the hill were already black when he came the following day, but the grass was still warm from the sun. Again, he embraced me against the willow trunk and placed his open hand over my eyes. All of a sudden I seemed to be falling asleep and the leaves were telling me things that made sense but I did not understand, things spoken more and more slowly, more and more softly. When I no longer heard them, I asked him, my tongue half-frozen in anguish: What about your wife? He responded: you are my wife, you alone. With my back I crushed the same grass that I hardly dared to step on when I combed my hair; I used to tread lightly, just enough to capture the wounded smell. You alone. Later, when I opened my eyes I saw the blonde braid hanging; she was leaning over looking at us with empty eyes. When she realized I had seen her, she grabbed me by the hair, whispering “witch.” Softly. She promptly released me and seized him by his shirt collar. “Ah, ah, ah,” she kept saying. She began pushing him and dragged him away.

We never returned to the pond. We met in stables, haylofts, the root forest. But ever since the day his wife took him away, people in the village have looked at me as if they weren’t looking at me, some furtively making the sign of the cross when I walked by. After a while, when they saw me coming they would rush inside their houses and lock the doors. Everywhere I heard a word that began to haunt me, as if it were born from light and darkness or the wind were whistling it. Witch, witch, witch. The doors would close and I walked through the streets of a dead village. When I glimpsed eyes through parted curtains, they were always icy. One morning I found it difficult to open the front door, a door of old wood split by the sun. In the center of it, they had hung an ox head with two tender branches wedged in the eyes. I took it down—it was heavy—and, not knowing what to do with it, left it on the ground. The twigs began to dry, and as they dried, the head rotted; and where the neck had been severed, it swarmed with milk-colored maggots.

Another day I discovered a headless pigeon, its breast red with blood. On another, a premature, stillborn sheep and two rat ears. When they ceased hanging dead animals on the door, they began to throw rocks. They were the size of a fist, and at night they banged against the windows and roof tiles. Then they had the procession. It was toward the beginning of winter, a windy day with fast-moving clouds. The procession, all purple and white from the paper flowers, advanced slowly. I lay on the floor viewing it through the cat hole. It had almost reached the house. I was watching the wind, the statue of the Saint and the banners when the cat wanted inside, frightened by the chanting and large candles. But when he saw me, he screeched and humped his back like the arch in the bridge. The procession stopped. Again and again the priest gave his blessing, the altar boys sang, the wind twisted the candle flames and the sexton marched up and down as the purple and white paper flowers swirled madly about. At last the procession left, and before the holy water had scarcely dried on my wall, I went in search of him. I couldn’t find him anywhere. I looked in the stables, the haylofts, the root forest. I knew every inch of the forest; I always sat on the white, bone-smooth root, the oldest root.

That night, when I sat down, I suddenly realized I had nothing left to hope for: my life faced the past, with him inside me like a root inside the earth. The following day, they scribbled the word “witch” on my door with a piece of coal; and that night, outside my window, in a loud voice so I would hear, two men said that I should have been burned at the stake when I was little, together with my mother who used to escape into the sky with vulture wings while everyone was asleep. I should have been burned before they needed me to dig up garlic, bind the wheat and alfalfa and pick grapes from wretched vineyards.

I thought I saw him one evening at the entrance to the root forest, but he ran away when I approached; I couldn’t be sure whether it was him or my desire for him or his shadow searching for me in the trees, lost like me, moving back and forth. “Witch” they cried and left me with my misfortune, which was not the one they would have wished for me. I thought about the pond, the watercress, the thin branches of the willow tree. Winter was dark and flat, leafless: there was only ice, frost and the gelid moon. I couldn’t leave the house, because to walk in winter was to walk in sight of everyone, and I didn’t want to be seen. When spring arrived, its leaves tiny and joyful, they built the fire in the center of the square and gathered dry, well-cut wood.

Four of the oldest men in the village came for me. I called to them from inside, saying I wouldn’t accompany them, but then some young men with large, red hands appeared and smashed the door with an axe. I screamed because they were taking me from my house, and when I bit one of them, he struck me on the crown of my head. They picked me up by the arms and legs and threw me on top of the pile of wood, as if I were just another branch; they tied my hands and feet and left me there, my skirt up. I turned my head. The square was crowded: the young people were standing in front of the elderly, the children in their new Sunday smocks in a corner, holding olive branches in their hands. As I gazed at the children, I noticed him: he was standing beside his wife with the blonde braid. She was dressed in black and he had his arm around her shoulder. I turned back and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, two old men were approaching with bright torches, and the children began to sing the song about the witch who was burned at the stake. It was a very long song, and when they finished, the old men announced that they couldn’t light the fire, I wouldn’t let them. Then the priest walked over to the children with a basin filled with holy water and had them moisten the olive branches and throw them over me. Soon I was covered with olive branches, all with tender leaves. An old, hunchbacked woman, small and toothless, started laughing and left. A moment later, she returned with two baskets full of dry heather and told the old men to scatter them on four sides of the bonfire. She helped and after that the fire took. Four columns of smoke rose and as the flames began to climb, it seemed to me that everyone heaved a sigh of relief and peace, a sigh that came from deep down in their chests. As the flames mounted, following the smoke, I watched from behind a torrent of red water; and behind the water, every man, every woman, every child was like a shadow, happy because I was burning.

The bottom of my skirt turned black, and I could feel the fire on the small of my back. Every now and then, a flame bit me on the knee. It seemed to me that the ropes that bound me had burnt away. Then something happened that made me clench my teeth: my arms and legs started to become shorter, like the tentacles on the snail I once nudged with my finger; and below my head, where the neck joined the shoulders, I felt something stretching and poking me. The fire screeched and the resin boiled. I saw some of the people who were observing me raise their hands; others were running and stumbling into those that hadn’t budged. One side of the bonfire collapsed, sending embers flying. When the logs caught fire again, I thought I heard someone say: She’s a salamander. And I began to move across the coals, very slowly, because my tail was heavy.

My face was level with the ground as I scurried on my hands and feet. I headed toward the willow tree, following along the wall; but when I reached the end of it, I turned and from a distance I could see my house burning like a torch. No one was on the street. I made my way to the stone bench, then to the house and through the flames and embers, hurrying toward the willow and watercress. When I was outside again, I turned back because I wanted to see the roof burning. While I was watching, the first drop fell, one of those large, warm drops from which toads are born. Instantly more drops fell, slowly at first, then fast, and soon all the water from above fell, and the fire was gradually doused, spouting huge columns of smoke. I stood still, and when I could no longer see anything, because thick, black night had fallen, I started crossing puddles and mud. My hands enjoyed plunging into the spongy sludge, but my back feet kept getting stuck in the mud and were tired. I would have liked to run, but I couldn’t. A thunderclap stopped me short in the middle of the path; then came a bolt of lightning and between the stones I spotted the willow tree. I was panting as I approached the pond. Once I was beyond the mud, which is formed by dirt on land, I found the marsh, which is dirt deposited in water. I moved into a corner of it and stayed there, half suspended between two roots. Then the three little eels appeared.

In the morning—I’m not sure if it was the following day or another—I slowly emerged and glimpsed the high mountains beneath a cloud-dappled sky. I scurried through the watercress and stopped at the willow trunk. The first leaves were still inside the sprouts, but the sprouts were beginning to turn green. I didn’t know which direction to take; if I wasn’t paying attention, the blades of grass poked me in the eyes. I slept among the blades of grass until the sun was high. When I woke up, I caught a little mosquito, then hunted for worms in the grass. After a while I returned to the marsh; I pretended I was sleeping, because the three playful eels promptly reappeared.

There was a big moon the night I decided to return to the village. The air was filled with scent, and the leaves on all the branches trembled. I took the stone path, being very careful because even the smallest thing frightened me. I rested when I reached the front of the house: I found nothing but rubble, stinging nettles, and spiders spinning and spinning webs. I crawled around to the back and stopped in front of his garden. The sunflowers were growing beside the rose-scented geraniums, their round flowers on the verge of bending. I proceeded along the blackberry hedge, never questioning why I was doing it. It was as if someone were telling me: do this, do that. I squeezed under the door and entered. The ashes in the fireplace were still warm. I stretched out there for a while, then scampered around a bit before crawling under the bed. Dead tired, I fell asleep and didn’t realize when day dawned.

When I awoke, it was night again and I glimpsed shadows on the floor; his wife was moving back and forth with a lit candle. I could see her feet and part of her legs in white stockings, slender at the bottom, swollen toward the top. Then I saw his big feet, the blue socks falling over his ankles. I saw both of their clothes fall to the floor, and I heard them sit on the bed, their feet dangling, his beside hers. One of his feet moved up and a sock dropped, and she pulled off her stockings with both hands. Then I heard the sound of sheets being pulled over them, and they spoke in low voices. Much later, when I was accustomed to the dark, the moon entered through the window, a window with four panes separated by two crossed laths. I crawled over to the light, directly beneath the cross. I began to pray for myself, because inside me, even though I wasn’t dead, no part of me was wholly alive. I prayed frantically because I didn’t know if I was still a person or only an animal or half-person, half-animal. I also prayed to know where I was, because there were moments when I seemed to be under water, and when I was underwater I seemed to be above, on land, and I could never know where I really was. When the moon disappeared, they woke up and I went back to my hiding place under the bed, and with tiny bits of fluff I began to make myself a little nest. I spent many nights between the fluff and the cross. Sometimes I would leave and go down to the willow tree. When I was under the bed, I listened. It was all the same. You alone, he would say. One night when the sheet dragged the floor, I climbed up the sheet, hanging on to the folds, and slid into the bed, near one of his legs. I lay as still as a corpse. He turned over and his leg weighed me down. I couldn’t move. I had trouble breathing because he was smothering me. I rubbed my cheek against his leg, being very careful not to wake him.

One day she cleaned the place. I caught a glimpse of the white stockings and the crumpled broom, and when I was least expecting it, part of a blonde braid hung down to the floor and the broom swept under the bed. I had to escape because the broom seemed to be looking for me. Suddenly I heard a yell and saw her feet running toward the door, but she returned with a lighted torch and hid half her body under the bed. She wanted to burn my eyes out. I was slow and ungainly and didn’t know which way to go. Blinded, I bumped into everything: bed legs, chair legs, walls. I don’t know how, but finally I found myself outdoors. I headed to the puddle beneath the horses’ trough and the water covered me. Two boys saw me and went to look for canes and started poking me. I turned my face toward them, my entire head out of the water, and looked them up and down. They flung the canes down and ran away, but came right back with six or seven older boys who threw rocks and handfuls of dirt at me. A rock hit my tiny hand and broke it. Terror-stricken, I dodged the poorly aimed ones and managed to escape into the stable. She came after me with the broom, the screaming children waiting by the door. She poked me and tried to drive me out of my corner in the straw. Blinded again, I bumped into buckets, baskets, sacks of carob beans, horse legs. A horse reared because I bumped into one of his legs, and I grabbed hold of it. A thrust of the broom hit my broken hand and almost tore it off, and a black thread of drool rolled out of the corner of my mouth. I was able to escape through a crack, and as I was escaping I heard the broom prodding and poking.

In the dark of night I headed to the root forest. I crawled out from beneath some shrubs that shone in the moonlight. I wandered around, lost. My broken hand didn’t hurt, but it was hanging from a tendon, and I had to raise my arm so it wouldn’t drag too much. I stumbled along, first over roots, then stones, until finally I reached the root where I used to sit before they took me away to the fire in the square. I couldn’t get to the other side, because I kept slipping. On, on, on, toward the willow tree, toward the watercress and my home in the marsh, in the water. The wind blew the grass and sent pieces of dry leaves wafting through the air and carried away short, shiny filaments from the flowers by the path. I brushed one side of my head against the trunk and slowly made my way to the pond and entered, holding my arm up, so tired, with my little broken hand.

Through the moon-streaked water, I could see the three eels coming. They blurred together: linking with each other, then separating; twisting together and tying knots that unraveled. Eventually, the smallest one came up to me and bit my broken hand. Some juice spurted from my wrist; in the water it looked a little like smoke. The eel was obstinate and kept pulling my hand slowly, never letting go of it, and while he pulled, he kept looking at me. When the eel thought I was distracted, he gave me one or two jerks. While the others played at twisting together like a rope, the one who was biting my hand suddenly gave a furious yank. The tendon must have been severed, because the eel swam away with my hand. Once he had it, he looked back at me as if to say: Now I have it! I closed my eyes for a while, and when I reopened them, the eel was still there, among the shadows and splashes of trembling light, my little hand in his mouth. A tiny bundle of bones fitted together, covered with a bit of black skin. I don’t know why, but all of a sudden I could see the stone path, the spiders in my house, their legs hanging from the side of the bed: white and blue, as if the two of them were sitting above the water, but were empty, like laundry hanging on the line, rocked by the lapping water. I saw myself beneath the cross formed by the shadows, on the color-charged fire that screeched as it rose and didn’t burn... While I saw all of these things, the eels played with that piece of me, let go of it, snatched it again, and the little hand passed from eel to eel, swirling like a tiny leaf, all the fingers spread apart. I was on both sides: in the marsh with the eels, and partially in that other world, without knowing where it was. Until the eels tired and the shadow sucked up the hand, a dead shadow that little by little scattered the dirt in the water, for days and days and days, in that corner of the marsh, among grass and willow roots that were thirsty and had always drunk there.