Ana María Moix, Walter, Why Did You Have to Go? III

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[Continued from yesterday]

At times, during the summer, they would wake up after midnight and, stealthily, so as not to disturb the house’s other inhabitants, they would mount the spiral staircase to the balcony on the top floor to watch the sun come out. Was it, perhaps, María Antonia—who was always annoying the rest of them—who insisted that someone go with her, in the middle of the night, up to the balcony, because she had never seen the sunrise? Just once, she would say, I only got to see it one time, from the train, and I was so little that I don’t even remember. Was it María Antonia, the fattest one out of all the cousins? You’re fat in the literal and figurative sense of the word, literal because of all that extra weight you carry around and figurative because you’re a big fat pain: that’s what Ernesto would tell her, amidst bursts of laughter and jeers from the rest of them, and María Antonia’s cheeks, ruddy to start with, would turn even brighter red. She would shake her red ponytail and, placing her hands on her rounded hips, shout: and what about you, you’re a total sissy!, when Ernesto, one of the older cousins, the blondest, tallest, thinnest and best-looking of them all would chant the song that he had composed but the rest of them had completed: such a fatty girl, just a fatty girl, nowhere else in the whole wide world has such a fatty girl, just like a cowy girl, a dummy crazy girl, María Antonia, dumb as a mummy-a, walks like a cow-ia. . . One of these days I’m going to kill the whole lot of you, she would exclaim, kicking the palé board to the floor and throwing cards and chips at them. I’m going to tell, I’m going to tell everything I know. And, with her lips clenched, she would stare at Ernesto who, while blushing, would try to cover up his fear by whistling or, to exasperate her even further, singing under his breath María Antonia the big fat mummy-a, even though he was perfectly aware what she was threatening him with and he was afraid that, while she hadn’t carried out her threat yet, she could, some day, in a burst of rage, tell the adults what she had seen in the attic. He always made sure the door was completely closed, and every once in a while, he would make Luisín check to see if it was still closed or if he could hear any of the younger kids outside it. Ernesto knew that María Antonia had caught them a few times. He couldn’t understand how she managed to climb the wooden stairs, open and close the door without making any noise. And María Antonia always resorted to the same threat: I’m telling, I’m telling, just you wait and see, they’ll lock you up, send you to a religious school, the holy fathers will make you be good. Well, amen to that, he would respond, and then, cunning, he’d screw up his mouth a little and say, but you’ll be miserable if they lock me up and you can’t see me anymore. María Antonia would become even more furious: it’ll make me so happy I’ll light a candle for every single one of the saints! Ernesto would screw up his mouth even further, he used to do that back then, and tilting his head a bit, with his hands in his pockets, he’d say, in a husky voice, yeah, right, as if there’s anyone who doesn’t already know that you’re crazy about me, hmmm, you go ahead and tell and I’ll show everyone all the love poems you write me. Deal? She would throw herself on him, trying to scratch him. I don’t write you shit, you stole them, you stole them from me, you’re a sissy and a thief too, I’m going to kill you, you give them back, they’re not for you, you’re so full of yourself, so stuck-up. And as she was kicking him and raising her arms to slap him, her blue and white striped shirt would slide up uncovering. . . Look everybody, Luisín would shout, laughing, look at that beach ball she’s got for a stomach, her pants get tighter and tighter on her everyday, but since she keeps on hooking her belt ten times too small to make us think she’s thin, look at the gut that’s popping out over the top of it. And, in unison, through stifled laughter, they would once again chant María Antonia the big fat mummy-a, and with snot and tears running down her face, I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill the whole lot of you. Then she’d go up to Luisín and Rafael and slap them, take that and that and that, I’m older than you. Luisín, grabbing her by the ponytail, you can’t hit me, you little brat, I’m twelve years old, you’re only a few months older than me. It was then, at that moment, he remembers it now, as he contemplates the pink and bluish tones with which the first light of day is slowly illuminating the house, at that very instant, just as the big fight was breaking out, little Julia, the youngest of the cousins, maintaining, until then, her distance from the others, sitting in a corner, periodically looking up from the book she was reading, peeking out at them with her huge apprehensive eyes, got up and snuck, almost on tiptoes, out of the room. Was she afraid of María Antonia’s tantrums? Remembering her, now, leaving the room, her eyes on the floor, elusive, knitting her brow, biting her lower lip, in her pirate pants and navy blue sweater with an anchor drawn on the chest, small, a little smaller than normal for a six year old, thin, almost skinny, with a book under her arm, barefoot, carrying sneakers to slip on before going down to the dining room so she wouldn’t get in trouble for walking on the cold tiles without any shoes on; remembering her, now, he thinks that while she may have left the room because of the panic María Antonia inspired, it could just as easily have been the racket they were making, the shouting and uproar that made it impossible for her to read in peace. How old was he, Ismael, then? Nine? Ten? He took her for rides at times on his bike. Little Julia would barely open her mouth during those rides; when she got off, she never thanked him, but she would toss him a smile (shy, indifferent or polite?), or with a trembling hand, that would immediately slip back into the pocket of her pirate pants, she would hold out a present: a colored rock, or a thin cord made out of red and gold threads, the bow that had been tied around the package of Sunday pastries and that she had grabbed, surreptitiously, after dessert, from the white embroidered tablecloth. Remembering her now, he realizes that he’s always preserved her in his memory just like that: exiting a room, without a word to the others, when the gathering, calm and peaceful in the beginning, began to turn stormy. I’m not afraid of María Antonia, but I don’t like to listen to her insulting my brothers: that’s what she told him, very seriously, knitting her brow, staring at the image of an anchor, her finger tracing its outline, on the front of her navy blue sweater. Plus, she continued quietly, blushing, as if entrusting him with an important secret, when she sings and plays the guitar, it’s really bad. And then, after a brief silence and with an even more serious expression on her face, Lea sings good though, really good, don’t you think? And with that question, she did finally lift her eyes from the anchor to look at him, waiting for the desired affirmative response. Even though he’s now convinced that little Julia knew exactly what his response would be and asked the question for the same reason people maintain rituals that solidify, among the participants, the bonds of complicity. Were they already accomplices back then? Accomplices, without knowing it, or unaware, at least, if not of the object and the goals of their complicity, then of the nature of it, as well as of the destiny it held in store for them. She sings much better than María Antonia, don’t you think? And she would look up at him, raising her eyes from the hole she was digging beneath the fig tree, the one in the back of the garden. Always digging holes, collecting little metal boxes that varied in size but were, preferably, small, and stuffing all manner of things into her pockets. He agreed, with a nod of his head. Lea does everything great, she’s the best. And they swelled with pride, recognizing, once again, Lea’s absolute superiority over every other person they knew; they felt satisfied, although a bit uneasy, at least he did. Did little Julia feel that anxiety too, the premonition that awoke an unidentifiable fear in him when he thought Lea’s the best, and, without knowing it, or maybe only very vaguely, he put her on a different plane, higher up, not simply in relation to other people, but also in reference to himself? He wasn’t sure, because she, little Julia, was silent once again, digging her hole, or burying the little metal box with flowers painted on the lid and dried butterflies on the inside or picture cards of which she had duplicates. Underneath the fig tree. He wasn’t sure if the uneasiness that was coursing through him was affecting little Julia’s mood as well. He never knew, was never able to guess, what she was thinking. Not even later, after all those years, was he capable of imagining the ideas that might be hidden behind that pale forehead covered with dark bangs hanging down to her eyes and constantly brushed aside by her thin hand, the nervous gesture too shaky for a girl in her early twenties. […] To be concluded tomorrow


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