Montserrat Roig – The Song of Youth

To Drs Nolasc Acarin and August Andrés

Before the final night comes to a close for me,
I turn my back on the ominous day that is today;
so degraded
it already seems dead to me.

And a new burst of faith still encourages me,
and I turn, with leaping heart,
to the bright light
through galleries of deepest memory.

Josep Carner, Absència

Her eyelids were not tightly shut; they were merely closed. She did this every morning before the nurse came in. She liked to have her eyes half shut, as if covered by a transparent, light pink handkerchief. A silk handkerchief. Then she would slowly start opening her eyelids and confirm that everything was still in its usual spot. She would open her eyes because she wanted to, just as she could choose to move her hands and turn her head a little from side to side. She looked up: the milky light of the first hour of the day, still sleepy, was coming in through the window. She saw the peeling white walls and, in the middle of the room, the folding screen. Yes, everything was still in its place. The objects were waking up with her. They were returning to their places at the end of the night, so short. In hospitals, nights are very short.

She heard the laborious, constricted breathing of the woman behind the screen. It was a harsh sound, as if she had a machine on top of her chest. A death rattle, the sound of someone dying. The woman on the other side of the screen would be the fourth one to die since they had transferred her to that room. The gap between inhalations would be ever greater, the sound ever harsher until, at daybreak, she would not hear anything any more. They all died at dawn. Just like the night. The doctor from the ward had once told her that this phenomenon was due to cortisol, the stress* hormone. That was why she liked to sense her eyelids covering her eyes, to open them slowly in order to confirm that everything was still in its usual spot. She never said anything to the women on the other side of the screen. They would not have heard her anyway. Bodies do not have anything to say to each other, though she always tried to breathe with a different rhythm. For every inhalation by the other woman, she inhaled twice. She allowed her lungs to fill with oxygen as if it had to make its way right down to her stomach, and then she exhaled through her nose, softly, rhythmically. No, nothing linked her with the body on the other side of the screen. They were merely two contiguous bodies. The bodies of two old women installed in the room on the upstairs level, transferred from the ward to die there. Some died more quickly, others took somewhat longer.

*The original text refers to “cortisol” as a “growth” hormone; it is in fact a “stress” hormone. This makes more sense in the context of the story, and is medically accurate. See here.
(Translator’s note)

She was one of those who took longer. Whenever she felt the soft caress of her eyelids, those rose-coloured veils that separated her from the objects in the room, from the window, the walls and the screen, she knew that she was alive. And the breathing of the old woman next to her became more distant, like the metallic noise of the bucket belonging to the cleaning lady, or the noise of the breakfast trolley as it made its way down the corridor. She had started to hear the buzzing when she had the stroke, shortly after a blast of blood exploded in her brain; it was a humming which sometimes almost became a melody. It was a song. A group of hikers were singing it and it started like this: “Tomorrow belongs to me…” She never heard it again, only that day, in the bar, while she was having a drink with her parents. She burst out laughing.

“Well, it looks like we’re in a good mood today, eh.”

The doctor had just come in and was looking at her mischievously. He did not speak in diminutives like that witch of a nurse. But the visits from the young man in the white coat were too brief. She was not able to retain him. He would disappear to the rhythm of her breathing.

“Even if you’re short of beds, I don’t intend to kick the bucket just yet,” she replied, opening her eyes completely.

“You’re always joking, Zelda,” said the doctor as he disappeared behind the screen.

She had not been able to detain the doctor’s white back with a glance today either. A broad back, with slightly square shoulders. Just like the back, so still, propped up at the bar. It was a stranger’s back. He was wearing a white shirt. He had entered the bar without looking at anyone, with a decisive air about him. The men who came from the war did not have that air. Lluís, for one, used to bury his face in her breasts while she stroked his head like a little boy. But this man was almost motionless in front of the bar, and he did not turn around. He had black hair, slightly curly, which came halfway down the back of his neck. Just like the doctor.

A crack of yellow light was sliding in through the window. The ray of sunlight lit up the specks of dust and they danced along the delineated path. They traversed the screen and came to their final resting place on the ground. Now the doctor was brushing the edge of the screen with his left shoulder. She could not sit up to see the whole of the doctor’s white back. And when she saw the stranger’s shirt in the bar, she lowered her eyes. But even though she could not see it, she sensed that it was there, just like the back of his neck, immobile, tense. A wild beast ready to leap. She noticed that her legs were becoming rigid.

“Hi, beautiful, did we have a good night?” asked the nurse, the instrument for measuring blood pressure in one hand, a thermometer in the other.

“If you are addressing me, I can inform you that I am not dead yet. What I do not know is how your night was. Am I supposed to tell you?”

“I can see we’re in a good mood today.”

“There she goes again! Why don’t you address me with the proper pronoun?”

“It’s a manner of speaking, sweetheart… Now, I’m going to put the thermometer in and…”

“You should treat the dying with more respect.”

She heard the doctor murmur something to his assistant. There was no need for her to pay attention; the fourth woman would not survive beyond daybreak.

“And now you’re going to take the little pills that the doctor prescribed for you after the stroke.”

“It bothers you that I’m not in the grave yet, doesn’t it.”

“You’re stronger than an ox.”

“It takes a lot to kill off an old bird.”

The doctor was a long way from the screen now, and speaking with his assistant. The nurse had not rearranged her pillow yet, and she could not see the doctor’s body when she was lying down. The doctor turned around and looked at her without seeing her, whereas he had certainly seen her, he had most definitely seen her as he turned around, an elbow propped up on the bar and a glass of wine in his hand. She was not looking down any more, but looking right at him. He had a broad, bare forehead, and his hair was combed back. Brilliant. He was not smiling, he was not talking to anyone. He had the glass of wine grasped firmly in his large hand. She felt as if someone were squeezing her heart, as if it were about to burst out of her mouth. “Diabolical,” she thought.

Now the nurse and the assistant were talking while the doctor listened with his eyes fixed on her, listened and stared at her, and in the bar, her parents were also talking about something, while he looked at her as if the two of them were totally on their own; she was not listening to what her parents were saying, but only to the ever more distant hum of the young hikers’ song. As soon as he looked at her, she knew what he wanted. And that was something she could not mention to anyone.

“Don’t get scared this afternoon, dearie,” murmured the nurse. “The priest will be coming to visit your neighbour.”

“I don’t like priests, they wear black,”

“Of course they do, but it doesn’t mean anything. Surely you’re not superstitious?”

“Black is the colour worn by those who sniff out death.”

“Go on! What a heathen…”

“It’s not your place to say that.”

“You’re an impossible old woman,” continued the nurse in a low voice. “You’d make Job himself lose patience. If you’re not a good girl, we won’t take you back downstairs to the ward.”

She got up and headed towards the bar’s washroom. She passed within a metre of where he was standing and, as she was walking, she had the feeling that she was naked. She looked in the mirror and saw a different person reflected in it. She washed her hands three times. Then she put cologne in her armpits. She wanted her whole body to smell of lavender. The washroom door creaked and white shirt eased himself in towards the left. She turned on the tap to wash her hands again, but he stopped her. The large hand gripped her wrist just as it had gripped the glass of wine. She allowed him to do it. She felt her body melting. He embraced her as the tap dripped. Initially, she raised her arms as if to catch the air, but then she lowered them and let them come to rest gently on his white back. “Don’t speak,” he said to her. And she shut her eyes as the two bodies plunged to the depths of earth and fire.

Behind the screen, the fourth woman’s breathing sounded like the whistle of a tired train. The doctor was still looking at her without seeing her, while the others uttered words like “family”, “papers”, “bed”. A triangle, each word in one of the angles, and within, the doctor’s eye looking at her as if he were going to scold her. She burst out laughing.

“And what are you laughing at now?” asked the nurse, turning towards her angrily.

“Nothing.”

“You have a way of laughing which drives me up the wall. And on top of that, if you laugh, your blood pressure will go up. You know perfectly well that’s not good for you. Then it will be a mad scramble. And we already have more than enough to do.”

She glimpsed a hint of blue sky through the window. The doctor left, and the two lines of dust turned into two parallel lines of dancing dust motes. Dust dances before it turns into ash, she thought to herself, as she turned her face the other way. She did not want to see the shaft of sunlight. She did not want to see the screen. She allowed herself to be embraced in the washroom of the bar, and rested her ear against the white shirt, thump-thump went her heart, and she saw the white tiles spinning around with them. It was all part of the same thing, the heartbeats, the white of the shirt and the white of the tiles, it was all one and infinite. But the dance ended when he bit her ear and she saw some tiny little red threads reflected in the corneas of his eyes.

“Now, have a little drink of orange juice and then we’ll prop you up a bit,” said the nurse.

“When will the doctor be back?”

“What are you after him for? He’s already seen you. He’s already said that if you behave yourself, you might go back down to the ward.”

“I’m fine here.”

“Rubbish, gorgeous,” said the nurse while she fixed the pillow and removed the bedpan from under her. “Stop talking nonsense. We’ll take you to the ward, and sit you up in a chair. You can move your hands. You might even be able to eat by yourself again.”

“And if it turns out that I want to die?”

“You know perfectly well that we don’t allow anyone to die here. People only die when their time’s up.”

He told her when. Six o’clock, I’ll be waiting for you at six at the end of the path that leads to the upper vineyards. The door to the washroom closed behind the white shirt and the tiles returned to their normal position. She waited a while before she left. She combed her hair and the mirror reflected a pair of reddened eyes. She burst into tears, full of savage happiness. She cried as she looked at herself in the mirror, and her new face delighted her. She realised that she was pretty. Her parents, standing in the middle of the bar, were waiting for her so they could go home. She overheard her father saying something about “papers and family”, and her mother adding “We’ll have to buy a new bed.” Lluís and his parents were coming over after the meal to finalise the wedding plans. He had three days leave.

She raised a hand and kept it raised in front of the shaft of sunlight coming in through the window. The hand was transparent, with the bones clearly exposed and numerous little blue rivulets, swollen and criss-crossed with brown splotches. Then she moved it until it was in front of the wall. The hand was no longer transparent. “When you get old” she thought, “it’s as if your bones acquire a life of their own. My skeleton is trying to break out through my skin. My skin, despite its thinness, prevents me from being what I really am: grotesque. It seems extraordinary that the human body is primarily water. No, it’s not water. It’s gelatine.”

The fourth woman was gasping more slowly, but she continued to hold her hand up against the backdrop of the badly painted wall. She was seeing a hand raised in front of the sun which left a spume of fire along the edges of the mountains before disappearing behind the crags. Back then, the skin tissue of her hand was elastic. It contained fat. It was not a leathery covering. Before leaving, Lluís had kissed her hand: “In three weeks, you’ll be my wife. I love you.” The chalky soil exposed darker puddles where the upper vineyards were planted. “I want you”, he said to her when they lay down near the vines. The path to the upper vineyards was a long one. She had ridden her bike, aware of her heart beating from the tip of her toes right up to her brain. The vines formed parallel lines, like the shaft of sunlight which was making the dust-motes dance. A landscape of vines that almost licked the summit. “Don’t say a word,” he said once more.

She was smoothing the turned-down edge of the sheet with both hands. But in the next instant, she crumpled it, as she remembered a young hand with skin that covered the bones. She felt the damp white shirt on top of her. And she also saw the burnished vines stretching towards infinity in parallel lines. A body which was becoming her body. She was he. “Where are you from?” she asked when he was inside her. “From hell.” A cloud briefly covered the sun and the room was left in semi-darkness. He told her that he was returning to the front lines at dusk. When she heard this, she tore open his shirt and dug her nails into his back.

“Look what you’ve done to the sheets!” shrieked the nurse. “Do you expect us to spend all our time fixing up your bed?”

“Go to hell!”

“You’re a wicked woman.”

“I don’t want to die.”

The fourth woman agreed with her, and answered with a strident whistle which petered out as if the train were reaching its destination.

“You don’t want to die either, do you?”

But there was no further sound to be heard from the other side of the screen. The ray of sunshine returned and the dust motes began another dance. The nurse came back in with a young man dressed in black. They both disappeared behind the screen and she heard a whisper with the word triangle: “family”, “papers”, “bed”. The fourth woman had not died at daybreak. “This time” she thought, “the stress hormone theory has failed.”

She saw the shoulders of the young man dressed in black as they brushed the edge of the screen. He was murmuring something to the nurse. Then he turned around towards her and smiled gently at her. He had a timid air and gentle eyes. He started to walk towards her bed, as if he intended to say something important to her. But she closed her eyes and, with the eyelids tightly shut, made all the objects in the room disappear. The path to the upper vineyards was very long. Up there, among the crags, a ball of fire was dazzling her. It required a great effort to climb up there, there was no air, she was panting. Her heart was not pounding in her feet any more, only in her brain. There was something she had to remember. To remember. A word to remember. Otherwise she would die.

The young man dressed in black touched her shoulder.

“You’re the one who needs me now” he told her joyfully.

She inhaled deeply. The hand was still on her shoulder. It was heavy. She turned her head a little and opened her eyes.

“Don’t say a word”, advised the young man dressed in black.

She tried to recapture that hum, that distant murmur that occasionally assumed the air of a melody. But the song had become lost among the objects in the room.

“She must have been affected by the death of her neighbour” whispered the nurse as she took her blood pressure. “She’ll have to be moved to the bed on the other side of the screen.

“Does she have any family?” asked the young man.

“I don’t think so. Her papers are in the office. I think she’s a widow.

“Di-a-bo-li-cal” she muttered, inhaling with each syllable.

The pressure from the hand eased.

“What did she say?” asked the young man dressed in black.

“I don’t know… We’ll have to let the doctor know.”

“Absolutely” she said. And she began to laugh to herself.

 

 

Montserrat Roig

 

Montserrat Roig i Fransitorra (Barcelona, 1946-1991) was a highly respected Catalan writer, print and TV journalist, essayist, translator, feminist and political activist. She won numerous prizes for her work (Premi Sant Jordi, 1976; Premi Víctor Català, 1970; Premio Crítica Serra d’Or, 1978). “The Song of Youth” is representative of Roig’s later work, which critics suggest shows a growing depth in her thematic, structural and literary interests.

Dr Lilit Thwaites is Acting Director, Language Academic Skills at La Trobe University. she was formerly Coordinator of the Spanish Program and Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences. Her main interests are the society, cultures and literatures of contemporary spain, and particularly women writers. Her current focus is literary translation.

 

 


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