I. The Ascent
After passing through Ridorta, they had come across a wagon going their way and Matias, who wanted to preserve his strength, asked the driver if he would mind taking them as far as the foot of the mountain. The peasant, beaming at the prospect of a little conversation, made room for the man by his side and told Mila to make herself comfortable on the straw mats at the back. She looked gratefully at that unknown benefactor, for though strong, she was exhausted. Her husband had said the trip from Llisquents, where the delivery man had left them, to Ridorta would take less than half an hour, but they has been walking at least an hour and a quarter when they saw the town’s blackened steeple rising above the green hill. Another fifteen minutes passed before they saw the wagon, and what with the sun, the dust, and the rough dirt road, the poor woman had fallen into a very bad temper.
Once settled, with her back to the man and her bundle of clothes beside her, she untied the kerchief around her head and, taking the ends in her hands, beat it to fan her face. She was hot, and the cool breeze flowed over her temples and neck like a gentle though slightly unnerving caress. When she stopped fanning herself, she felt calmer and ready to look at the pretty sights Matias had so often described.
She gazed from side to side. Behind them, the road twisted and turned, full of holes, tracks, and caked, muddy ridges the wagon wheels wore down with such excruciating slowness that they would not be level till the middle of summer. Then the road would become a sea of dust till the autumn rains returned.
On the left was a high embankment that jutted out at the top, as though about to cave in onto the road, but it was held back by rough, uneven walls that bulged here and there and were more dangerous than the embankment itself. Above them were fields enclosed by rows of magueys, whose stiff, fleshy leaves slashed the air like bouquets of swords, and, in some places, by swaying tamarisks and rows of buckthorn, whose white blossoms, girded by thorns, had just begun to flower.
On the other side, starting a couple of yards from the road, the Ridorta plain began, hugging the base of the hill and divided into small symmetrical patches that looked like a big checkerboard. Those irrigated fields were the town’s riches, subdivided among its inhabitants by ancient feudal contracts. The brilliants colors of sprouting vegetables dotted the scorched brown earth, among ditches whose water glistened in the sunlight like bright strips of mirror.
Mila was dazzled by such lushness. A child of the lowland plains, barren for want of hands, water, and fertilizer, she started incredulously at what seemed a fantastic mirage: that other litlle plain which, nestled between a hillside covered with houses and several harsh, stony mountains, nourished this fertile and joyous existence. Not one square foot wasted, not one weed stealing the earth’s goodness! Everything tilled, everything turned upside down by hoes and pitchforks, everything pampered like a lord, everything proudly blossoming with abundant generosity!
Down below, in Mila’s country, the people were scattered through the land, with great stretches between them. Among thick hedges of bug-infested bushes, green lizards flashed in the sun and a few emaciated cows, whose ribs stuck out like bars and whose anklebones were so sharp they nearly pierced the hide, tugged at the few dry weeds. Here no such useless beast could be seen, and the people were as close-set as fingers on a hand: a crowd of women, clustered like chessmen on a board, swarmed like industrious ants across the fields, raking the earth, raising and lowering the chain pump, heaping soil around the vegetables or resting in the shade of a fig tree, all with their skirts hiked up, kerchiefs on their heads, and bare arms and legs, tan and healthly in the sun.
As she gazed upon them, Mila’s farmgirl soul filled with an urge, a wistful longing to leap from the wagon, run into the fields and, like those women, plunge her hands into the warm earth, the wet leaves, the water flowing between rushes, whose yellow flowers nodded gravely beside the irrigation ditches.
Matias had been right: Ridorta was a cheerful place, a town perched upon a hill and ringed by fields. And if the district was so happy, the hermitage above it couldn’t be as gloomy as she had heard. Mila imagined it as a little nest where, as soon as she stuck her head out the window, she would gaze down upon this marvelous vista. On, if she could only clear her own little garden and plant it as she liked, she would never regret having to leave her village forever!
Excited by these thoughts, she turned to share them with her husband, but at the sight of those two backs, the words died in her throat and the hopeful idea that had been about to venture forth scurried back into its lair like a frightened animal.
The two men spoke slowly, without noticing her, and she half-caught the words: “Cold... gloomy... calves... too high,” but she never learned what they were talking about because her thougths fled back to the fields. The spell, however, had been broken, and the land, just as beatiful as it had been a moment ago, could not rekindle her first enthusiasm. She sadly turned and looked upward: the sky, vast and empty, blazed with blinding light that hurt her eyes. She peered through the crack between the two men: there was something uniformly green in the distance, like a splendid carpet... She looked again at the two backs: one, the peasant’s, slender and bony like those cows in her district, was clad in a cheap shirt, worn thin by many washings, that smelled of sweat and charcoal dust. The other back, broad and soft as a pillow, strained against the black jacket that stretched from armpit to armpit, as if in constant danger of ripping asunder.
“How fat he’s gotten since we married”, thought Mila, remembering how tight all his clothes had become, so that he seemed crammed into them like a straw doll in its rags. The felt hat that had previously suited him so well had gradually come to look like a priest’s calotte, and his ears, which stuck out on either side, were red and translucent like tinted glass. The crease on his starched collar, set against the black jacket and folds of flesh, had the icy pallor of marble.
(Fragment of Solitude. Columbia: Readers International, 1992, p. 13-16)
Translated from the Catalan by David H. Rosenthal ©