Written by Susana Vallejo and translated by Lawrence Schimel. Read the original in Spanish.
Gracia took off her high heels and sighed in relief.
She slipped out of the dress's straps and let it slide down to her feet. It was green, the same color as one of those old glass bottles her grandmother kept in the pantry. The dress created a landscape filled with velvety valleys and hills on the brown carpet. She turned the dress off and it instantly became a barren wasteland, dry and arid. She hunted down its charger and left it plugged in on top of the clothes rack.
When Pablo emerged from the bathroom, he found her already dressed in her nightgown and with her feet in the air. In that strange gesture that he had long ago learned to recognize as being so like her: buttocks pressed against the headboard and her legs against the wall stretching upwards.
"Do they hurt?"
"If you got the operation . . ."
They'd already discussed it before. Rosa María had done it. And Patri, too. But she didn't want to even talk about injecting silicone into the soles of her feet.
"Then don't complain."
"I'm not complaining." She cracked her knuckles.
Pablo sat down beside her on the bed. He took one foot, pulled it toward him, and started t massage it.
"If you get the operation, high heels won't bother you."
"Yeah," she let that monosyllable slip listlessly from her mouth.
"We can do it. We have the money . . ."
"It's not about the money."
It bothered her to think that a scalpel could open her flesh, even if it were just a simple cut, just a few centimeters, to put a silicone pillow inside her. Just imagining the open wound, the shining blood, the raw flesh, the clinic's smell of disinfectant . . . Just thinking of it made her dizzy.
Pablo caressed the upper part of her foot, from the toes toward the heel. Then he worked on the sole, applying more pressure in his massaging. He wound up sucking on her big toe.
"Mmmm . . . It was a very pleasant dinner," she murmured.
He released the foot.
"Very tender. Just right."
"I had seconds."
"Puig doesn't give anything away. And I really tried to get him to give me the name of his contact but . . . I don't know where I can get it."
"Patri doesn't know it. I've also asked her a few times. It's her husband who takes care of that."
"One day I'll find out."
Pablo disappeared behind the bathroom door.
"Tomorrow I'm going to see my grandmother." Gracia raised her voice so he could hear her.
"There's no way for me to convince you not to go, is there?" He stuck his head around the door.
"I need to go to Vane's funeral. You understand?"
"Of course I understand. But be careful, please. And give your grandmother a kiss from me."
"Ha, hah. Of course . . . I'm sure to spend the night with her."
They didn't mention the subject again, but when they turned off the lights, Pablo embraced her.
"Gracia, seriously, you'll be careful? . . . Yesterday I heard that there were more demonstrations in the city. They mentioned L'Hospitalet, Sants, Poble Nou . . . They called out the riot control."
"It's my neighborhood. Don't worry."
"I worry because I love you. Good night, my princess."
"Bona nit, Pablo."
When Gracia woke, he had already gone to work. She lazed in bed for a good while before getting up. Then she showered. She didn't want to smell of anything, so she chose a water without any perfume or colors. She didn't dry her hair, just pulling it into a pony tail while it was still damp. She looked for the simplest underwear she owned and then climbed onto a stool so she could reach the box she kept on the highest shelf of her closet. She pulled from it a pair of jeans, some old sneakers, a very large white shirt, and a khaki green knapsack.
When she buttoned the jeans, she smiled. She'd put on a few kilos.
Even without makeup, her face shined.
Before leaving, she went through the kitchen. She took a package from the fridge and placed it in a silvered box, which she stuck in her knapsack. On the central tablet she wrote a message for the cleaning girl: "Clean the terrace and close it. Harvest the tomatoes. Do the upstairs bathroom." When she was about to leave she doodled a "THANKS!" which remained floating on the screen for a few seconds before disappearing with a "blip."
Gracia made sure to close the door with a few turns of the key, then got on her bicycle to head to the station.
Only one of the automatic ticket machines was working. She rummaged through the coins scattered across the different pockets of her pants to find the exact fare, then looked at the panels to know when the first train to Barcelona would come. All of them were off.
When she was young, the Ferrocarriles de la Generalitat passed every even hour, and it was just a few minutes before noon. But now, probably, they wouldn't be running that way.
She sat on a rusted bench on the platform and prepared to wait. Her grandmother had told her that during The Peak a train passed every five or ten minutes. For her, a frequency of every two hours was already a thing of wonder.
When she reached Sants station, it was already afternoon. She walked along the exit's esplanade together with a dozen other passengers. Gracia breathed in the air of the city.
It smelled of sewers and damp. Of trash. Of sweat. The neverending repairs that threatened the station had been halted decades ago and, over time, the scaffolding and barricades had disappeared. The neighbors had filled in some of the potholes with wood, bricks, or cement. All of which made for an irregular pavement. Gracia maneuvered around the obstacles and began to walk alongside another woman who seemed to be headed in the same direction as she was.
Every time she returned to the neighborhood, she felt a rare burst of nostalgia. She had dreamed of leaving Sants for years, abandoning its misery and fleeing to the mountains. Pablo had turned into her safe-conduct to achieve this, and now that she had everything she had dreamed of, in returning there, by negotiating the potholes and cracks, by standing before the old barricades of Calle Vallespir, she felt at home. In her true home.
She approached the entrance.
Junior was there. Like always. An ebony statue resting on a rickety wooden chair. The cushion's discolored tones matched his shirt. The guard recognized her.
"Gracia! What a long time since we saw you! You're looking beautiful!"
"You're the one who's beautiful, Junior."
His black hair, as black as his skin, had turned grey years ago. And his once-fit figure was now simply that of an old man who kept in decent shape.
"There he is." He gestured toward the other side of the street, toward Calle Berlin and the exit from the neighborhood. "His arthrosis is killing him."
"And my grandmother?"
"Same as ever! How else is she going to be? Old Gracia is hard as stone, but she's putting on a brave face. This business with Vane has been a hard blow, although we knew it would happen sooner or later. At least she didn't suffer."
A smile escaped her.
"And how's the neighborhood?"
"Quiet. Very quiet. The news is all lies . . . There were demonstrations in L'Hospitalet, but not here. It's been years since we got into anything."
"I'm glad to see you, Junior."
"Me too, my girl."
She waved at him with one hand and entered Vallespir.
The trees sketched shadows that danced across asphalt covered in scars. She remembered how, as a girl, she went hurtling down that street with her skateboard and the same Junior (back then an attractive, muscular man) shouted at her that one day she would crack her skull open. In those days, a few vehicles still circulated through the streets. She used to move off the road to let hybrids–and even a few gas-fuelled cars–pass by. Now she could walk easily down the middle of the street, and the trees had become the owners and lords of Vallespir. Some had even grown taller than the two or three-story homes, so typical of the neighborhood, their branches scratching the façades of these buildings and invading the abandoned rooftop patios.
She recognized, parked a bit ahead of her, Kevin's hybrid alongside a few eggs.
Gracia moved aside from a bicycle heading toward the station and turned down a street flanked by low houses whose fronts were painted bright colors. Every time she returned to her grandmother, she found some detail had changed: a building that was bricked up, a wall torn down, a façade painted some surprising color.
There, the houses yearned for the light, like sunflowers. The tops of their façades were covered in solar panels. There were no trees any longer on Calle Badalone, just a few large drums, painted with colors and polka dots, in which the neighbors had planted laurels, ficuses, and a few bougainvilleas.
As she approached Calle Miguel Ángel, her smile grew wider and wider. Vane had died. And she was returning home. She could already see the discolored façade. Meritxell's pink house, then Pau's yellow one . . . Sergi's lemon tree was no longer there. Its death left the neighbors without lemons.
Gracia counted one side alley, then another, and one more.
From a distance she made out various bicycles parked near her grandmother's house. When she reached the door, she took a deep breath. The wood was dry and the green paint had yellowed. She used the door knocker and waited for a response. She stuck her ear to the door and heard a distant murmur.
She knocked again with greater force. She had the feeling that if she knocked with just a bit more strength, that dry wood would splinter and the knocker would sink into it like a body into an old wool mattress.
Suddenly she sensed footsteps dragging themselves on the other side of the door.
"It's me, abuela," she shouted.
The door opened with a squeal and an old woman held out her arms to Gracia.
"My baby! Darling!"
Gracia let herself be swaddled by a cloak of ancient humanity. Her grandmother smelled just like that house, somewhat sour and damp. Plaster and old paper. And above everything else, bleach and disinfectant. That perpetual smell of disinfectant.
"Let me take a look at you. You look gorgeous . . ."
She stepped into the house and took a deep breath of that indescribable something that was the smell of her home.
"How are you, abuela?"
Her eyes were about to overflow.
"Feeling like shit," she whispered. "Come in now . . . I'm going to miss Vane so much . . . I'm already missing her." Her voice broke on that last syllable.
"I've brought you . . ." Grace pulled the container from her knapsack.
"That's nice," her grandmother interrupted. "Just put it in the fridge."
Gracia walked down the hall, avoiding looking at the first green-painted door. The smell of bleach was even stronger in the kitchen. She put the container in the fridge and watched Carol, her neighbor, come out of her old bedroom.
She took a few steps toward the doorway to her old room.
Fortunately, it no longer looked anything like the place she treasured in her memory.
Now there was a very low bed and Vane rested on it. Her grandmother had dressed her in a hippy flower dress and a knitted cardigan. Her nose was sharp, like all dead, and her skin much more wrinkled than Gracia remembered.
It was no longer Vane. Never again. Just a cadaver that had begun to stink. She would need to be taken away soon. Gracia felt her eyes grow damp. A tear struggled to break free. She had thought that Vane didn't mean anything to her and, yet, now, a sudden worry made her all teary.
"Oh, my baby."
Her grandmother hugged her again. They shared weeping and tears. Now, for the first time, her grandmother wasn't the wall of strength that consoled her as a little girl; her body shook as much as her own. When she pulled free of her grandmother's embrace, without knowing how, she found that someone had put a cup of tea in her hands.
She dried her tears and sat on one of the free chairs. She looked into the mug containing a yellowish liquid. It was a white cup, a classic model, that had always been in her grandmother's house for as far back as she could remember. That mug was older than she was.
The first sip burned her lips. It smelled of fennel and stomach pains. When she got her period, when her insides twisted so much she felt she would be split in two, her grandmother used to prepared one of these herbal infusions for her.
She took another sip, taking care to not burn herself. And it worked its magic of definitively stopping her quiet sighs.
Around her, the neighbors spoke of Vane: about when she came to the neighborhood with her artist's aura, how well she sewed, the coat she made for Carol and her daughter's wedding dress.
Gracia stared at the spread the body was resting on. Vane had patched it together from old scraps. Now she rested upon her own work.
Standing up after quickly finishing the infusion, she saw a bowl of sweets on a table. Colored jelly pieces half-hidden behind a tomato salad, a tea pot, and a few green glass bottles full of homemade soft drinks. She hunted down her grandmother and chastised her with a glance.
Her grandmother just shrugged her shoulders.
Carol approached Gracia then and asked after Pablo, and then talked about the rain that seemed imminent but never managed to arrive. Gracia distractedly answered the conversations she found herself involved in.
"I'm glad to see you."
"You look gorgeous."
"We are nothing."
"How is life out in the country?"
"And your husband?"
"Life goes on."
She was surprised by how happy she felt to reencounter certain familiar faces and wondered about the situations of all those women she didn't know. They carried stories that she could only, and didn't want to, imagine. Many women did. Women of Sants who arrived at what had been her home, embraced her grandmother and after a few friendly words and a cup of herbal tea, embraced her and kissed her once more, to then depart with a sad smile on their faces.
"Dimitri is here," someone shouted.
When the men who dealt with the dead entered, those present became agitated, like a group of nervous pigeons, and pulled back, opening a pathway.
"No, it's here." Gracia moved to meet them and pointed to her old bedroom. "This time it's here."A pair of men in black shirts, bearing a box, headed toward the room with the yellow door, the one that smelled of disinfectant, as if they already knew the way.
She took hold of her grandmother's hand and squeezed it tightly.
When they put the body in the coffin, she felt how her grandmother stiffened. The oldest muttered a few prayers. Dimitri and his companion waited beside the door with their heads lowered, fulfilling their roles of respectful professionals of death.
People flanked the coffin until the end of the street. Gracia and her grandmother marched first. When the box was set upon the cart, they hugged one another. It was almost night. The shadows of evening began to mix with those of the people, in that strange time of day when vision must adapt to the new darkness.
Gracia felt her grandmother's trembling.
"I'm sorry," she whispered into her grandmother's ear.
"I am going to miss her so much."
She didn't want to see her crying. Not for her.
"We're leaving now," Carol said from behind them. "Now you have your granddaughter. I'm very glad to see you again, Gracia."
They returned to the house as the first lights were being lit behind neighbors' windows. Pale and trembling, they became languid open gazes staring out from seemingly dead façades.
In the kitchen, a lingering group discussed the demonstrations in L'Hospitalet.
"It's the young people. Because of the cutbacks in rationing. They say it was a real fracas."
"They called out the riot police. Pushed them back all the way to Badal. They almost reached our neighborhood."
"It's been forever that they don't come in here."
"They wouldn't dare."
Gracia approached them looking for something to eat.
"I've heard they didn't follow the Bermúdez law. They didn't sound the warning first. They just swept over everything."
"They wouldn't come here. They couldn't get in. They only managed to reach the station."
Gracia took some cubed boiled potatoes and looked for hot sauce to put on them.
The neighbors split into even smaller groups and then were suddenly saying goodbye.
When they finally found themselves alone, Gracia blew out the candles and turned on the living room light which seemed, like always, too weak.
"I'll sweep up."
"Then I'll clear up this."
"What's leftover I'll bring to the cinema."
"The cinema? You're still doing that?"
"The day after tomorrow we'll have a special session. In memory of Vane. With two of her favorite films."
Gracia smiled. They still organized double features in the neighborhood.
"And you'll bring candies?"
She remembered the taste of jelly fruits in the darkness. They had never tasted better than when she devoured them watching old movies in Sergi's garage.
"Sugar is poison. And at your age . . ."
"It's in your world that it's forbidden," her grandmother interrupted her with a laugh. "In mine, it's almost the only vice we have left. Here, have one."
She passed a candy to Gracia, who swallowed it.
"Come on, give me a hand with this."
Her grandmother grabbed a portrait of Vane. It was a retouched photo that had always been in the bedroom. One of those that had been fashionable at the start of the century, in sepias and pinks, imitating the tones of a 19th-century photograph. Vane looked incredibly young. Gracia had never seen her smile that radiantly.
"Do you want to do this now?"
Her grandmother shrugged.
"Why not? It's my tradition, the crazy ideas of an old woman."
It was called the wall of the dead. Like the Romans, portraits of deceased ancestors and family members were hung at the entrance of a house. The Lares they were called. "The household spirits," her grandmother told her when she was little. "Those who were here before you and I, those who made us, who we carry in our hearts and bodies. Because we share their DNA, their way of seeing things, of laughing . . ." And she, then a little Gracia, stared openmouthed at those faces who smiled down at her from their frames of impossible hues.
There was her mother, who she barely remembered. It was a photograph of muted colors. In it a girl (much younger than she was now) with a classical beauty, crowned by flowing chestnut locks, was laughing at something or someone. Her mother didn't look anything at all like Gracia who, on the other hand, had turned out just like her grandmother: dark and with hard features. Her full lips woke men's libidinous imaginations, her snub nose went unnoticed between her thick eyebrows. Gracia shared with her grandmother a body full of curves, the gypsy beauty of her defined features, and her name.
When Gracia left her grandmother's house, Vane arrived to occupy it. And today, Vane had earned a definitive place on the wall at the entrance.
Her grandmother hammered a hook into the wall and Gracia placed the portrait on it. She straightened it.
The two of them stood observing the gallery for a few seconds.
Her grandfather, who she had never met, as a very young man dressed in a military outfit. Her great-grandmother and great-grandfather posed, in black and white, in their wedding finery in front of the entrance to a church. Her great-great-grandmother's eyes were like those of a little girl with a face like a china doll wearing her Sunday best. Aunt Pili, Josep, Meri, Carme . . . All the portraits kept watch over their steps and observed them with their dead gazes and their smiles frozen in time.
"Would you like some fennel tea?" Gracia looked into her grandmother's blazing eyes. "I'm going to prepare one for myself."
"Yes, but give me real sugar, not some of that fake shit."
"Can I ask you a favor? Let's go out onto the roof to have it. Like when I was little."
"It's the best time to go up there." Her grandmother smiled.
They climbed up the narrow staircase to the rooftop. It was night and the neighborhood's weak lighting let them see a magnificently starry sky. And then there was the silence. The blessed silence. The omnipresent buzz of the old solar panels thirsting for light was muted at night. It smelled more like the city than ever.
The rooftops and terraces that surrounded them formed a shining reddish sea. Dozens of panels no longer reflected the sky, veiled by the patina of time. Distant were the years when they moved in unison, waves of mirror, searching out sunlight and reflecting its shine. Now many were broken. A few kept up their diurnal dance and others inertly contemplated the slow peregrinations of their neighbors.
Gracia peered over the walls, looking for those details that made up the landmarks of her personal map. The white chimney, Anna's belltower, Pere's garden . . . Toni's cat farm was already abandoned. The meowing of those delicious pussycats had faded away years ago.
"I miss the nights here, with you, abuela."
The old woman let herself collapse onto a chair. She didn't speak of how much she missed her wild little girl with dark hair and eyes like stars, with whom she'd shared conversations and nights of fennel and mint teas. This other Gracia, the one from the mountains higher than Sant Cugat, had another look, veiled by indifference. As if the glimmer from Pablo's parents' money had wound up blinding her.
"How long will you stay for?"
"I thought I'd go back tomorrow afternoon, to arrive home before it's night. Leaving from here, I can set out much later."
"Oh. Your visits are over in the blink of an eye."
"My life is with Pablo."
"I know that, my child."
A dark shadow hid the moon.
"They're rain clouds."
"It hasn't rained for months. If only they would fill the reservoir."
Gracia took off her shoes.
"Do your feet hurt?"
"It's these flat shoes . . . If I wear heels too much, they ache. But now if I wear flats they hurt, too . . . Will there be problems tomorrow for me to leave?"
Her grandmother shook her head.
"I'm not sure. I'm no longer as informed as to what's going on as before. Ask Carol. Her daughter is in the middle of all this now. There haven't been demonstrations here for a long time. Those from L’Hospitalet are the ones who carry on the fight."
Gracia walked across the roof barefoot. That silence was overwhelming. Sometimes a voice higher than others filled the patios with echoes for a second, but then it fell back into the hush of a dead city.
"Abuela, tell me about when Barcelona shined at night."
Her grandmother's face lit up with a smile.
"When your mother was a little girl, at night, all the streets were illuminated, even the narrowest littlest alleyway. Barcelona gave off so much light you couldn't even see the stars."
Gracia, like always, tried to imagine a sky without stars.
"It must have been lovely."
"Pshaw. It was practical. I remember seeing images online of the world in three dimensions from space. All the cities shone out of the darkness as if they were jewels . . . It was pretty from the sky, yes. And the streetlamps! There were streetlamps on every street, every one! And stoplights that regulated the traffic, blinking on and off all day and night."
"How lucky to have lived during The Peak!"
"Don't get carried away. Lucky was that my parents were born in the postwar period, after the Spanish Civil War. They were born into hunger and misery and they saw the entire world grow up. Science, planes, travel, computers, stores full of everything, everything you might need! There were four butchers on Vallespir. Cow's meat, veal, pork, horse . . . Everything was very fast. The collapse of The Peak surprised all of us. We knew it couldn't last, and yet . . . it took us by surprise." Her grandmother paused. "There are fewer and fewer of us left from the time of The Peak. It's all downhill from here."
She took a sip of her drink.
"Pablo's parents have installed the Network."
"And what do they use it for? Sending pictures of kittens?"
"Don't pay any attention to me."
"It's for his work. I don't know about that. But they have it."
"They must be level 3, I suppose. Did you know that I also had the Internet. Not this cockamamie Network that is not a network or anything, but free access to the Internet . . . We didn't know what we had until we lost it. Like everything."
Her grandmother looked off into the distance between the rooftops.
"Gracia, would you like some of Dimitri's aguardiente?"
"Do you have?"
"I've got some. A little. For when I'm paid in barter. I think we've got something to celebrate: we're together again. For one night at least."
"Do you keep it in the usual place?"
"In the fridge. Down low."
"I'll be right back."
Gracia disappeared down the steps. The old woman remained watching the wake of the smile she left behind her. Gracia's teeth were just like her mother's. Her daughter. She had truly tried to fight against everything. She was young, rebellious, a fighter, and stupid. She had the same shitty genes as her husband; that classic face, that constitution that, without medication, was sapped by the flu. When she was a girl, during The Peak, the three of them went together to London for a long weekend. They flew by plane. Because back then planes streaked the sky like birds. It was when there were sparrows and pigeons. Who could have ever guessed she'd wind up missing those flying rats?
She settled back, reliving the past.
Her girl, the prettiest girl in the world, wound up knocked up by some long-haired imbecile.
But her girl gave her Gracia. A precious little girl who turned out to be the spitting image of herself.
And then the two Gracias wound up alone so soon. Without a husband, without a daughter. And the world went to hell and she kept on going, solid as a rock, pulling with her this bright-eyed creature that fate had put by her side.
She had so enjoyed Gracia's childhood. Tremendously. Without a daughter, her grandchild wasn't just a joy, she was the only thing she had, what kept her going during those dark days after The Peak. During the downhill slide . . . And when she had met Pablo and married him and left, then Vane came into her life. By surprise. At her age. Who would have imagined? Life surprises you when you least expect it.
When her granddaughter returned, she carried two teacups full of a transparent liquid. She would have given anything for an ice cube.
"You're used to other, more refined drinks now."
"I like the aguardiente of Sants." She sat down beside her grandmother and toasted her. The sharp sound of the the cups clinking echoed across the patios. "Go on, tell me more stories about when Mama was little. Before The Peak . . ."
Her grandmother took a sip of the liquor. It burned her tongue and caressed her throat. Her heart burst into flames. She closed her eyes and remembered her husband, the two of them together on this very rooftop. Her daughter took her first steps up there.
"There were children. Lots of children. On the streets, you crossed paths with mothers taking their babies for a walk in strollers. There were lots of schools and universities, and there so many children that it wasn't easy to get a place to attend the one you wanted. All that seemed important back then. I remember special little strollers for twins, and even for triplets, so wide they didn't fit on the sidewalk! And, oh, there were all kinds of special objects for kids: pacifiers in the shapes of characters from cartoons, bathing tubs, ergonomic chairs . . . Oh, and there were special chairs for riding in cars." She closed her eyes and the image of a yellow SEAT León burned as fierce as the aguardiente. She took another sip. "There were so many cars that you couldn't find a place to park in this very street. If you didn't have a garage, you could spend hours driving in circles around the neighborhood until you found a spot. And there were so many cars that the air was clogged with pollution, the curtains turned black and when you wiped your face with a cottonball, it would turn black from all the soot. Oh, that blessed contamination. And the water! There was always water in the tap. Everything was cleaned and washed with water . . ."
The recording of church bells announced that it was midnight.
Gracia took a sip from her cup, and her grandmother drank almost half of what was left in hers in a single gulp.
"We had everything we could need. I guess we put the planet in danger and it took its vengeance. The flu wiped out the majority; your grandfather, your mother . . . And things had begun to go downhill even before; the crisis at the start of the century, the cut-backs, the slow decline of the welfare state, the new reality, the end of the Peak . . . But we didn't realize. Nobody wanted to realize . . . We fought and we lost."
Gracia clinked her cup against her grandmother's. "For the neighborhoods."
"For the neighborhoods of the cities and their people."
They drank. Her grandmother finished off her cup. Gracia enjoyed how the taste of her teenage years warmed her insides.
"Tell me about Junior and Kevin. And the Lawyer, what was his name? Fran?"
"Francesc died. Now we have Ricardo. He's not as good. He's always in the gate of the Avenida del Brasil. Kevin got divorced . . ."
She told Gracia the latest news about the people of the neighborhood. The deaths, the changes, the many illnesses and few happy occasions. Gracia let herself be carried away on the warm murmur of her grandmother's voice. She didn't really care much about the gossip, but she liked being there, caressed by a nighttime breeze and her grandmother's voice.
When the aguardiente was just the memory of a warm vapor in her stomach, they kept chatting, just enjoying their mutual company. And only when night sunk even deeper into darkness and their eyes struggled to remain open, did they decide to go to bed. Only then, walking downstairs in the dark, did her grandmother dare to ask, "Does Pablo make you happy?"
Gracia nodded, but her grandmother couldn't see the gesture.
"He's a sweetheart."
In other times she would have wondered if she loved him. She had learned to love him. But she was convinced that the answer was a "no" and she preferred not to hear it.
Gracia looked for a blanket in the cupboard and lay down on the couch. Her grandmother tucked her in like when she was little.
"Good night, my baby."
She woke up suddenly. She thought it would take her a while to drop off, but sleep took hold of her immediately. Her brain recognized the smell of home and the blanket, tattered over time, and her conscience simply let itself unfold and be rocked to sleep by the past.
Something had pulled her from sleep. She couldn't remember where she was and was surprised to discover that it was her grandmother's voice that had woken her.
"I'll go then," she whispered into the phone. "Yes, right away. Start boiling water . . . No, get her out of there . . . Clean the table like I told you. Get light. Ask Norton for it."
Gracia sat up.
"What is it?" she asked, nervously.
"A birth," her grandmother said, lighting a lamp that cast a flat, trembling light over the tiles.
"A birth! Who? How?"
"Seve's daughter. Do you remember Seve? And there are others to come." She smiled. "This past year was incredible. As if suddenly everything flowered again. Just like in the old days. Can you believe it? And now she's gone into labor. It's a bit early."
Gracia remembered Seve's daughter. She was younger than Gracia by five years or so. And she would be a mother. Could be a mother. Already. Like that. During the night.
"Vane is no longer here . . ." Her grandmother's eyes held a question.
"There's a curfew. The demonstrations . . ."
"They haven't come into the neighborhood in years . . . It's a birth, Gracia. A child whose development I've followed month by month. A child, a new life."
Gracia lowered her eyes and lost herself in contemplation of the faded roses that made a winding path across the blanket.
"Vane isn't here," her grandmother repeated.
"I'll go," she decided. "Of course I'll go."
Her grandmother let out a sigh.
"I have everything ready."
"I don't doubt that. You always have everything ready."
Gracia stretched before getting up from the sofa.
Her grandmother went to the green door that smelled of disinfectant. When she opened it, the effluvia almost made Gracia vomit. She still hated that room. Its smell. Its cold floor and walls. The instruments. The shine of the metallic chair cutting the air of afternoons that could have been quiet. The echo of shouts drowned in the bucket full of water. The blood: red, purple, and pink sliding in sticky tongues down the chair and across the floor. She hated cleaning off that blood that smelled of life, of death, of metal. Metal and shining blood.
When her grandmother emerged from the room, she carried a small case.
"Are you ready?" she asked Gracia, as she put the bottle of aguardiente in a bag.
"No. But what does it matter?"
Passing by the wall of the Lares, she touched the worn frame of a woman with white hair.
Her great-great-grandmother. The first of all of them. In Madrid. In Cuatro Caminos. The midwife. The doula. The unnameable. The woman who arrived at the homes of the poor to help other poor die or be born to continue dragging themselves through the misery. The one who was the godmother of dozens of babies who never had other godparents, who didn't even have parents. The one who placed their dead bodies in clay pots because there wasn't money for coffins. The one who taught her daughter. And that daughter taught her own. And when the next generation arrived, there was a daughter who could study medicine and give Latin names to everything she already knew. And then came the hospitals and asepsis and anesthesia. And a generation later, here they were once again, wandering through neighborhoods in the dark and stepping on the echoes of misery. Women. Chains of women helping women, generation after generation.
Gracia carried the bag and a flashlight that barely deserved that name. Her grandmother knew every irregularity in the asphalt, every pothole and every loose flagstone on the sidewalk. Gracia only remembered that a huge puddle formed on that corner when it rained and that the water came up to her ankles.
They went down Calle Miguel Ángel accompanied only by the sound of their own footsteps. They kept silent, as they'd always done on these nocturnal outings. Alert to noises, the patrols, and the lost. A single eye of tenuous light sweeping the ground.
When she was little, she wasn't afraid. This was her neighborhood. Her darkness. Her life.
It was later when she began to fear the shadows. And after that . . . She couldn't do it any longer.
The trees of Vallespir whispered in the language of the leaves and the wind telling one another secrets. Secrets about generations of women wrapped between tears and smiles. Her grandmother used to tell her that her great-grandmother had seen them being planted, those trees which now clutched at the soil that was hidden beneath the tarmac and cement.
They turned onto Calle Robreño and Gracia had to walk right behind her grandmother so as not to trip. She followed her slow but steady steps.
Gracia didn't recognize the house, but she knew that they were getting close by the grunts that opened a pathway into the night.
Her grandmother knocked on a plastic door and a middle aged dark-haired woman immediately stuck her head out.
"She's been having contractions all day," she told them without giving them time to say anything. "She's dilated now. It happened all of a sudden. We called you right away."
Gracia and her grandmother entered through the doorway.
"Dilated . . . How much?"
The woman made a gesture with one hand.
"Then let's go!"
They went up to the next floor. The damp had filtered up from the ground and tore strips of paint and lime from the walls. The years seeped from the walls. That building was falling to pieces.
"How often are the contractions?"
"Up until a while ago, every five minutes . . . But suddenly . . . It changed so suddenly. Less then two minutes. I think the baby's about to be born."
They went into the apartment.
Seve's daughter was sitting up atop the kitchen table. Her back rested on cushions. She wore only a T-shirt that had once been dark blue. The kitchen smelled of disinfectant. And perhaps, under that penetrating odor that forced itself into Gracia's nostrils and made her relive old nightmares, she made out a lingering scent of fried onions and garlic. The girl shouted and Gracia's grandmother moved toward her, examined her.
"The head is showing."
Gracia avoided looking directly at the woman. She moved to the sink.
"Is there water?"
The dark-haired woman didn't have time to answer. Gracia opened the tap and watched crystal clean water begin to flow. She breathed a sign of relief and washed her hands carefully, taking a deep breath and then turning toward the girl.
She examined her, leaving her feelings aside. With an analytic mind. She was grateful that they had completely shaved her pubis. The open flesh showed part of a head that struggled to emerge. The pressure, within her body, showed a small rounded bundle.
"Push now . . . No, not yet . . . NOW!" Her grandmother's voice was deep. She feigned calm, covering her voice with a halo of peacefulness. "You're going to have to push harder."
The girl pushed and the head poked out a little further. Blood gushed out with this movement and stained the table purple.
"That's the way," her grandmother encouraged.
Gracia placed herself beside the girl. She looked at her grandmother, looking for signals in her gestures to guide what she should do.
"You're almost there. Just a little bit more," she lied with a calming voice. "Just one more push."
Gracia watched how the girl made an effort just when her grandmother indicated she should. And saw how her swollen belly accompanied her movements. The future opened a passage of flesh and blood, as it had always done. At a gesture from her grandmother, she turned toward the dark-haired woman who watched her daughter hopefully.
How many glances like that had she seen?
"We need some cords. Do you have them ready?"
The woman disappeared into the hallway and just then Seve's daughter shouted out with even greater force. She retraced her steps to find the head of her future grandson now poking free from the body of her daughter.
A thick and bubbling puddle slid across the kitchen table.
"It's almost out. She's torn, but it's nothing . . . don't worry."
A shoulder poked free.
A whimper escaped from the dark-haired woman and her daughter, her legs spread wide on the table, squealed with all her might.
Gracia helped her grandmother gather up the baby.
The mother of the woman who'd just given birth couldn't take her eyes off the creature. Her gaze was as cold as the surface of the kitchen table from which blood kept flowing onto the floor.
"What is it?" Seve's daughter panted. "Tell me, Mama, what's wrong?"
Gracia waited for the placenta to emerge while her grandmother spoke with the dark-haired woman.
"Do you want to bury it? Do you want it for yourself?"
The woman shook her head no.
"Take it away, take it far away."
Seve's daughter expulsed the placenta without a complaint. Her eyes were as cold as her mother's. Frozen and dead.
"I'm sorry," Gracia murmured, without Seve's daughter hearing her.
Her grandmother wrapped the creature in a pink towel that had once been adorned with a drawing of a duck.
"Life goes on; don't forget that."
"That's not true. Life stopped some time ago."
Seve's daughter began to whine on the table.
"Take it away," she shouted. "Take it away!"
Gracia turned around and moved toward the sink. She washed her hands very slowly. She took a deep breath. Being aware of how the air entered her belly and then left it, slowly, very slowly.
"I don't want to see it," Seve's daughter spat. "Take it away!" she repeated.
"Keep watch over her," her grandmother said to the dark-haired woman. "Check her temperature. I've done what I could, but . . . Call me if you notice anything out of the ordinary. You've lost a grandson, but you still have a daughter." The creature in her arms whined.
Gracia grabbed the hand of Seve's daughter. She squeezed it with a gesture she hoped was consoling. She knew how it felt. She knew exactly.
The cold of the night caressed her face. Now, suddenly, the air seemed fresh and pure.
"It was a boy," her grandmother whispered.
"Is a boy."
Gracia dared to look at it.
It was still wrapped in sebaceous oils, its mother's blood, and the old duck towel. His chubby little hands were clenched in tightly closed fists.
The deformity of its face was mixed with the grey and white substance that covered it.
"Will it live?"
Her grandmother nodded. "Do you want it?"
Gracia looked at its perfectly little hands, one eye half-opened, a nostril still covered with the entrails of its mother.
Her grandmother covered it with the towel, pressing down tightly over its little face.
"How are things now? Is it worth more dead or alive?"
"Nobody wants them like this any more," her grandmother answered, still applying pressure. "Those who pay for them alive don't pay much. The collector died some time ago."
She gave one last exertion. Gracia didn't hear a sound. Not a whimper, not a breath.
It died in silence.
Only the echoes of their own steps on the asphalt remained.
"When we're home, I'll call Dimitri."
They didn't say another word.
Gracia couldn't stop thinking of the baby's tender, fresh flesh. Fetuses and newborns were the tenderest of meats. Sucklings and the unformed were even better. Her grandmother had always known how to earn a living.
The trees of Vallespir whispered as they passed. When they reached the street, they peeked around the corner to make sure nobody was there.
"It's rare for there to be patrols. But one must always be careful."
Gracia remembered when she was a girl and she made her repeat it so many times: "Always vigilant. Always aware. Always predator. Never prey."
They crossed Vallespir and continued walking under the shadows.
Gracia whispered: "And the degenerate?"
"Dead. Also dead. He did pay well. Much better than the collector."
Sometimes, in her nightmares, Gracia wondered if one of his victims were still alive.
"I want to reach home."
"Me too, my girl. Me too."
When they reached Calle Miguel Ángel at last, the street seemed even darker and denser. Gracia opened the door and the squealing of its hinges startled the deep silence.
Her grandmother still pressed the towel-wrapped bundle against her own body.
"Leave it in the fridge, please."
Gracia took it in her arms, as if it were a healthy and living baby, and stored it in the fridge alongside the container she had brought her grandmother that morning.
"I need to sleep."
"Good night, my dear."
Gracia moved toward the sofa. The refrigerator buzzed at a very low level. She wrapped herself once more in the frayed blanket, but she felt too keyed up to fall asleep. Her heart beat quickly. Her head was full of images she was unable to silence.
Only when the first rays of light began to poke through the gaps in the blinds did she feel awareness abandon her. Rest came with the arrival of the day.
When she woke, the living room was flooded with light.
Her grandmother was watching her from the kitchen.
"You've slept as much as you need. It's very late. Dimitri is about to arrive."
"I'd prefer not to see him."
Her grandmother nodded.
Gracia prepared an infusion and when she heard the knock at the door, went up onto the roof. By day, the landscape was completely different. The buzzing of the solar panels as they followed the light made a soothing murmur. She looked up at the clouds and saw one that looked like the face of a little angel with chubby cheeks that turned, suddenly, into a monstrous and terrible face. She thought she heard shouts in the distance.
Her grandmother stuck her head out from the stairwell.
"That's that. He took it away. He was in a hurry. He says that things are getting ugly. This business with L'Hospitalet has now reached Badal. They've called out the anti riot forces again."
"How much did he give you?"
"More than for Vane."
Grace felt like smoking a cigarette.
"Do you have any aguardiente left?"
"I've got a new bottle."
The telephone sounded with its archaic ring.
Her grandmother disappeared, swallowed up by the stairs.
"It's Pablo! It's for you!"
Gracia ran down the steps two by two.
"Hello, Princess, how are you?"
Gracia went over everything that happened the day before in her head. It seemed far away. She had forgotten it. She would bury it with the other memories kept in some corner of her memory.
"And your grandmother?"
"Same as ever."
"Give her a kiss from me." Pablo laughed.
"When are you coming home?"
"Then I'll be waiting for you . . . Be careful. They say on the news that there are riots in L'Hospitalet and dozens of dead."
"Don't worry," she answered in a tired voice, "It's quiet here."
A sigh could be heard on the other side of the line.
"I've got good news. A surprise, Princess. I spoke to Puig at last. I found him at the cantina. He'd drunk more than usual and, guess what? He gave me the telephone number of his contact. I now know who supplies him with meat. It's a guy named Dimitri. And . . . I called him! He told me that he'd just gotten in a really, really tender piece . . . and he could get it to me tomorrow. It's expensive, but it's worth it. What do you think?" He didn't give Gracia time to answer. "Tomorrow you'll be dining like a real princess. I've thought of organizing a little something, what do you think if I invite José and Rosa María?"
"No," she said wearily. "I'm not in the mood. Really, Pablo, don't bother."
"Are you feeling OK?
"Perfect. Just a bit tired, that's all."
"Do you want me to put it off for another day?"
Gracia took a deep breath.
"Yes . . . Please. Another day . . ."
"In any event, I'll prepare something special for you. Let me think."
"No, please; it's not worth it."
"I want to surprise you."
"I'm not in the mood for surprises."
"Are you sure you're OK?"
Gracia nodded. Then she realized that she was talking on a phone without a screen or a camera and that Pablo couldn't see her. She had to answer aloud.
"Yes, don't worry. The only thing I want is a big hug. For you to hold me . . ."
"You can count on that."
Pablo's voice was unusually animated.
Gracia hung up right away.
"Abuela, Pablo sends you his best."
"How thoughtful of him."
Gracia let her gaze slide to the green door of the room that smelled of disinfectant. Her grandmother watched how she had to lean against the side table to hold herself up.
"You haven't tried again?"
It was the kind of question she never asked over the phone. And which she was afraid to ask in person. But now she wanted to know.
"No. What for?"
Her grandmother made a tired gesture.
"You never know. There are so many cases. When it seems like there's no hope . . ."
"The treatment is too expensive," Gracia interrupted. "Not even Pablo's parents could pay for it. And I don't want to take on a mortgage that my hypothetical son or daughter would be paying their whole life. It's absurd."
A sigh escaped her grandmother.
"Let's do something: come to the cinema with me. Come with us. For a while you'll forget about everything. That's what the movies are good for, to forget. I've got a huge bag of candies. Sugar and fiction cure everything . . . We've got a double feature prepared, in memory of Vane."
Gracia smiled despite herself.
"No, abuela. I want to go home."
"This is your home."
"Not any more. Not any more."
Her grandmother sought her granddaughter's shining gaze. But she didn't find it.