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 had 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 field 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 brilliant colors of sprouting vegetable 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 little 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 woman, 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 the heads, and bare arms and legs, tan and healthy 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 marvellous vista. Oh, 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 thoughts fled back to the fields. The spell, however, had been broken, and the land, just as beautiful 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.
The two men’s shadows fell across Mila like a cool mantle, and she felt snug and happy curled up in her straw nest.
The wagon, meanwhile, advanced slowly, so slowly tat one might have thought it merely swayed from side to side with no other mission than to flatten the caked dirt on the road. From the time she saw a tree to the time they passed it, one could have calmly said part of a rosary; and that parsimonious rocking filled her with drowsiness.
She was tired of looking at their backs, the sky, and the patchwork colors of the fields, and her neck ached from twisting her head so long. She rubbed it to smooth out that painful stiffness and, after seeking a comfortable posture, she remained motionless, her back against the wagon’s side as she admired the mat in front of her: a lovely mat that resembled a thick silk net, sprinkled with gold stars which sparkled in the sunlight. Overcome by that sweet languor, she saw a red curtain, then a blue one, and then a black one…
A slap on the back woke her with a start.
“What is it?” she mumbled sleepily.
“Come on, time to get off!” replied her husband, standing on the wagon, which had stopped.
She pulled herself together, swayed to her feet, and they jumped down.
“So long, friend, and God bless you.”
“So long, hermit, and thanks for the company. See you on St. Pontius’ Day.”
“Come by and have a drink.”
“Sure… Bye now.”
The peasant’s face, bright red like the bottom of a stewpot on the fire, burst into a broad smile. He pulled in the reins as if they were made of rubber, calmly cried “Giddyup!” a few times… and the wagon slowly moved forwards, leaving husband and wife behind, backed against the dry roadside wall with a dazed expression on their faces.
“Did you hear that?” asked the woman. “He called you hermit.”
“Because I told him we were going to look after the hermitage.”
“It gives me a headache…” she added, gazing vaguely into the distance.
“All this… you know what I mean… A young man shouldn’t do a job that’s meant for someone old and sickly.”
“Don’t be silly! One job’s as good as another.”
And the man began stamping his feet to shake down his trousers, which had ridden up on his legs in the course of their journey.
With a sigh, Mila also smoothed her skirts.
When his pantlegs once again reached his ankles, Matias pushed a stick through his kerchief, in which he has bundled a few articles of clothing, and hoisted it onto his shoulder.
“Well, are you ready?”
She gripped the bundle under her arm.
A little further along, there was a break in the roadside wall where a sort of path began. It was a deep, uneven gully carpeted with smooth, loose stones: one of many gashes In the mountain’s huge rocky face, down which the sky’s abundant tears flowed during winter storms.
They set out again single file, he whistling between his teeth and she turning around every few yards.
They hadn’t gone more than fifty steps when she stopped.
“It’s so steep!”
“They call it Legbreak Creek. It’s dangerous in the winter.”
“More than now?”
“This is nothing.”
Seeing her worried look, he cheerfully added: “Wait’ll you see the Black Ravine! You really have to watch it there!”
“Are all the paths like this?”
“These are shortcuts, woman. The real path starts further up, after Murons, but the shortcuts are handier. You aren’t used to it yet, but after a while you’ll like going this way. See what I mean? Going up is worse than climbing stars, but coming down is easy. Like swinging on a rope: your feet can’t stop, and before you know, it’s over.”
She sighed, and then started walking again. Her feet kept dislodging stones, and the brambles stuck to her clothes like handfuls of barbed hooks.
He gradually stopped whistling, while her bundle began to weigh on her like a boulder. Fifty steps further, she sat down to rest.
Matias, who led the way, turned around.
“I’ve got to… rest.”
“We can’t waste time. The sun’ll set before we know it.”
“Is it a long way to go?”
“Sure. We’ve just started!”
She sat up straight: “Holy Mary! We’ve been on the road since four this morning!”
He burst out laughing. “We just began climbing the mountain… Don’t worry, we’ll get there in time.” And he turned to pluck a sprig of butcher’s-broom from beside the path.
Mila then fixed her gaze upon him, a gaze full of worry and suspicion.
“Let’s see if they were right to warn me that he’ll make a fool of me again,” she thought, rising to her feet.
He encouraged her: “Come on now. We’ll be there in no time.”
“If it weren’t for this bundle! …”
But Matias ignored the hint, and they walked on in silence. The gully became rockier and steeper, they kept slipping on the stones and had to grasp at the thickets to keep their footing. Their heavy breathing startled lizards, who frantically scurried for cover, and broom twigs whipped their flushed, sweaty faces. Matias had pushed back his felt hat, which now rested against his neck, and his starched collar had turned as soft as a piece of tripe.
The ground beside the path levelled from time to time as they approached an olive grove, but then the banks rose again, hemming them in so they could see only a strip of dazzling blue above their heads. In one grove they saw to oxen resting with their plow beneath an olive tree, while the plowman sat nearby, drinking from a black earthenware jug and grasping a large onion. The animals switched their tails and stamped to keep the flies away. The olive branches wove a filigreed silver arc against the sky and the soil thrown up between the furrows made wide, brown stripes.
Mila gazed enviously at the peasant and mumbled: “If I dared, I’d ask him for a drink of water. My throat’s dry as a bone!”
They approached him, drank, and talked for a short while. Matias again explained that they were on their way to the hermitage, and Mila gain felt uneasy and ashamed without knowing why.
Then they continued their ascent, with those slippery stones beneath their feet, walking between banks of brambles and buckthorn that tore at them like the claws of some raging beast.
Matias coughed and a little bird, perched haughtily on a maguey, fled with a bright and piercing chirrup.
Despite the shadows across their path, the heat was stifling. Mila’s wet blouse clung to her back, and her heart beat furiously.
The path suddenly swerved upward, as if to leap over some obstacle. Mila cried out in surprise at the light that bathed her body, though her legs remained submerged in the dark stream bed.
The gully branched off like an upside down “Y”: two branches flowed downhill, splitting apart with a great stretch of mountainside between them, while a third, a bit obliquely, continued upward. Where the three branches met, a small plateau had been carved out, as sunlit at that hour as the plain below them.
“We can rest here awhile,” said Matias.
Mila didn’t wait to be told twice and fell to earth, crushed and drained, with the blood pounding in her temples and the soles of her feet.
She looked at her shoes: ruined! They’d never be the same… And she thought that if he’d told her what the journey would really be like, she would have worn espadrilles and saved the shoes from their wedding… her only good pair.
To stifle her disappointment, she raised her head.
On the right, the gully descended as precipitously as a well. Mila crossed herself in thanks for having reached the top safely. That was a path for goats and bandits, not people. On the far side of the gully, olive trees with cracked trunks dotted the slopes and cliffs; on the near side was a rocky field with some carob trees and flowering thyme, whose fragrance the wind carried toward them like an angel’s pure breath.