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"See this?" she said to me. "Every year my husband planted dahlias in this empty basket. With a sharp tool he'd dig a hole in the spongy earth; then I'd hand him the bulbs, one by one, and he'd hold them up, slowly covering them with dirt. At night he used to call to me: 'Come here,' he'd say, wanting me to rest my head on his shoulder. He'd put his arm around me, said he couldn't sleep unless I was right beside him, and even though he'd washed his hands, I could catch that scent of good earth. My husband would say the dahlias were our children. He was like that, you know, full of funny little stories, always wanting to joke around, make me laugh. Every afternoon I'd water the basket of flowers. He'd walk through the garden on his way back from work and notice the earth was damp, but still he'd say, as he gave me a kiss, 'Have you watered the dahlias?' You see, when I was a young thing, I didn't like those flowers. They smelled bad. But now, when I pass a florist or a garden that has dahlias, I always stop to look at them. It's like a huge, strong hand grabs my heart and squeezes it. Makes me dizzy.
"You have to understand that when we got married, my father almost damned me to hell. He didn't want me to marry my husband, who was illegitimate, but I was madly in love and ignored my father's wishes. When he died a year later, I always thought it was because he was old, but as time passed, I realized my disobedience upset him so much, it killed him. Some nights I'd feel like weeping when my husband called, 'Come here.'
"We were happy, we loved each other, and we were managing well enough because I was working too, sewing children's clothes, and they thought well of me at work. We put a little bit aside in case we got sick. You look at me and maybe you think she's always been like this. If only you knew how pretty I used to be. When we were courting, my husband would sometimes stare at me for a while, not saying a word; then he'd run his finger over my cheek and whisper 'Beautiful,' like he was embarrassed. I wasn't what you'd call attractive, but I had sweet, shiny eyes, velvety. Forgive me, but I can say this, because it's like I was talking about a daughter who had died. You understand? I think the trouble began because I became a woman when I was really young. But things got worse when I stopped being a woman. Before, I'd only be grumpy a few days a month. When the dark mood came over me, my husband used to laugh and say, 'I know what's going to happen!' And he was always right. Around the time I'm telling you about my husband lost his job. His boss went bankrupt. He stayed at home for several months-was really down even though I told him not to worry, we had enough put aside to carry us through-till a friend started telling him that waiting on tables was good, easy work. So, despite the fact that my husband was much more of an office man, he became a waiter.
"About seven or eight months after my husband started the job, I found out I was anemic from working too hard and not sleeping at night. You see, I used to wait up for my husband when he came home late, and then I'd have trouble falling asleep, because even though he slept pretty well, he'd keep turning, pulling on the sheet. We sold the double bed and bought two single ones. You know what? That started driving us apart. When there was a moon, I'd look over at him from my bed: he seemed so far away. It was like our feelings for each other had died a little, because we couldn't touch. 'Are you asleep?' I'd whisper. If he said 'No,' it calmed me because I heard his voice; and if he was asleep, he didn't answer. You see the kind of things that make people miserable? Little by little, I started to believe he didn't answer because he was pretending to be asleep, and I would cry, all alone, quietly, because my husband worked in a café on the Rambla where women were constantly coming and going. One night I cried. I was thinking about my father who died like he'd been abandoned, all on account of losing me when I fell in love with my husband, and my husband got up, sat on my bed, and asked, 'What's the matter?' But instead of calming down, I burst out sobbing, filled with sadness. My husband lay beside me, put his arm around me, my head against his shoulder like before, and said, 'The day after tomorrow is Sunday, we'll plant dahlias. You go to sleep now. You hear me?' But we couldn't sleep, we were still awake when the sun came up. When he got home from work the next day, he said he had a headache, he felt exhausted, it was my fault. I made him a cup of linden tea, but he didn't want it. Finally he took an aspirin, but he was white as a sheet.
"A few days later, he said to me, 'You remember that girl two doors down?' 'I don't know who you're referring to.' I stared at him as if he'd just said, 'I've fallen in love with her.' I couldn't help it, even though I didn't know what girl he meant or why he was mentioning her. 'The house with the two brothers.' 'Oh, I know who she is. What about her?' 'Well, she works in the café with me; she sits at the cash register.'
"The two boys and the girl lived down the street. They had only been there three years. When they moved in the girl was really young, she looked like a child; in summer she always wore a white dress with a red flower embroidered on the bodice. I don't know why, but after that day I felt like I needed to wait for my husband by the gate. He'd arrive around two, and as soon as I glimpsed his little shadow at the end of the street, I'd run inside. As I waited I sometimes thought about my father: he used to send me to the druggist when I was little, and he'd lean against the railing on the balcony, waiting for me. I hated it. I could hardly walk, because I knew my father's eyes never missed a gesture of mine. That's why, before my husband could see me, I'd run back into the house and slip into bed, or take up my sewing. If he found me sewing, I'd tell him I'd stayed up because it was something urgent. Then one night I saw him walking with the girl; after that they always returned together. There's nothing strange about it, of course, living as we did right beside each other. I didn't think anything of it. My husband wasn't like other men; since the day we married, he'd loved only me. They would stroll along slowly. I never, ever, saw her take his arm. Absolutely not! But then I started to agonize. If I hadn't seen them together, maybe the strange change in me would never have happened. I began to feel like I was a nuisance to my husband; something was different, and without wanting to, I started to distance myself from him. I hardly said a word to him, for fear I'd let slip that I waited for him by the gate. One day I ran into the girl in the bakery. She didn't notice me. I would've liked her to recognize me, greet me, tell me she and my husband were friends. 'Your husband and I work at the same place, and since we take the same route home, we come back together at night.' My old friend Roser, who sometimes helped me sew, used to say, 'The more you do for men, the worse it gets. When you grow old and worn down, they look for a young girl. Best not to be upset.' I felt like telling her, 'My husband's not like other men; that's why I chose him. When we look at each other, we don't see what we are, but what we were.'
"One night my husband stormed in, not like himself at all. 'What will Maria think when she discovers you wait for me every night? One of her brothers sees you from his bedroom window and told me today. He says when you see us, you run inside. Can't you understand my embarrassment?' The following day I went to the bakery at noon to see if I'd run into the girl again. I didn't catch up with her until the third day. She had curly black hair and very dark, moist eyes. When she asked for bread, her teeth looked like rows of pearls. I never waited for him by the street again, but inside with my face glued to the window, the room completely dark. When he opened the gate, I'd jump into bed. I kept thinking while I waited that one night he wouldn't return, and I'd never see him again. Obsessions of mine, I know. Because you see, when a woman stops being a woman, her head fills with obsessions. Sometimes, on my way to deliver some sewing, I'd walk past the café where my husband worked and, if I saw him, I'd wave without stopping. After that, I avoided the café, but it was an effort. I'd ask myself, 'What's happened to us? We're like strangers; he thinks about things that I can't know.' I felt abandoned. But just wait. Without knowing why, I switched from never uttering a word to complaining all the time. One night I cried because I was in such agony. I'm sure he hadn't fallen asleep yet, was just pretending he didn't hear me. I lay there till the sun rose, filled with sadness, no one to console me. I cried a lot in those days, and my eyes hurt when I sewed. I was consumed by a terrible unhappiness. I had grown so thin the doctor told me I needed rest and should leave town that summer. We rented a little house in Premià de Mar. After lunch, I would fix supper, and we'd eat it on the beach. I felt calm, didn't think about the girl. I missed the house, though, and my garden full of jasmine blossoms, the kind that have little stars. My husband missed the house too, but he went to the café every night to play a game of manille, and right away made a group of friends. "One afternoon my husband had gone to the beach a good bit earlier than me, and when I arrived I found him lying near a girl. The girl got up and went in the water. My husband said he didn't know her, and he'd lain beside her just to see the face I'd make. I went swimming before we ate, and when I sat back down on the sand, I realized my knees were no longer young. You see, I used to have white, round knees. While the honeymoon lasted, my husband would kiss them, tell me they seemed like silk. That afternoon, as the sun was setting, I stretched out my legs and saw all the wrinkles around my kneecaps. I realized then, truly realized, that I was no longer young. Before, when I would catch sight of an old man, I saw him as he was, I mean, without ever thinking that he'd been young at one point, as if old folks were just a certain kind of people who were born ugly, wrinkled, toothless, hairless. From another world. At that moment, I missed the blood, the same blood that had made me weep the first time I glimpsed it, believing I was flawed and no one would want to marry me because of the flaw. Every month I used to be grumpy for a few days, but when it was over I was in heaven, like I'd been remade. Whereas, without the blood, I was always the same, which is to say mostly not good. Or neither good nor bad, if you prefer. That's the way I put it to the doctor.
"When I started to feel like my husband didn't love me as much, I started to feel the same way about him, because he couldn't possibly like me the way I was, and everything that happened-not that anything in particular did-was all my fault. Whenever I stopped to think that it was my fault, a sense of tenderness came over me and I wanted to love him like I had twenty years before. The tenderness ended the day I realized my knees were old. Once again, I lay awake all night, stretched out in bed, facing the sky. When a woman feels these things, she wants a hand to hold hers, a voice to whisper, 'I understand.' But how could a woman like me find a voice that spoke the words I needed if I can hardly understand the way I am myself? See what I mean? The last days by the sea ... life is strange, isn't it? Instead of fretting about the girl on the beach and what my husband had told me with that mischievous little smile of his, I started agonizing over the girl down the street. I thought if there was something between my husband and her, it was my fault. Instead of spending my evenings sewing dresses by hand, embroidering leaves and daisies and little animals on children's clothes, I should have dropped it all and gone to meet my husband—like so many women do—the first day I saw them together. I don't mind telling you now that one night I did. Around midnight I combed my hair—mid-afternoon that day I'd washed my hair and curled it—put on a white blouse I hadn't worn for years and a pleated skirt. I headed straight for the Rambla and planted myself on the sidewalk opposite the café. The first thing I caught sight of—partially concealed by people either seated at tables or entering and leaving—was the girl at the cash register. She was so young! Her hair falling across her shoulders, like an angel. I realized then that the moment had passed for me to be doing what I was doing. It was too late. I started to feel that my blouse wasn't properly washed, the skirt too old. I went home.
"I had a dream. I dreamed that my father was coming to the house, followed by a young girl that I thought was me, and my husband was saying, 'Let him come, he's amusing, so fat.' My husband and the girl suddenly disappeared, only my father and me were left. We walked down a stone staircase, till we reached a sandy beach where short, square, wooden stakes had been driven into the ground. A dead fish lay on top of each of them. My father knocked one of the fish off with his hand; it looked dead, but it was breathing. I could hear it. My father said, 'We'll eat them for supper.' Then we started climbing a ladder, like in a circus, straight with bars for steps. I was carrying a bottle of water under each arm and was terrified I'd fall off. My father was in front and kept ordering me, 'Up, up.' Once we reached the top, we had to leap onto a roof. One of the bottles dropped when I jumped, and my heart stood still. 'I've killed someone,' I thought. I guess you can say that my father faded away then, because I found myself in the middle of a village square, at the market. 'I have to buy fruit for my father,' I said as I stood before an apple stand. The saleswoman took a long time to serve me, and I was terribly anxious that I'd be late. I turned around, and my husband was right behind me, laughing like mad. 'You see,' I told him, 'if I have you for a friend, I don't need anything else. But I have to take the fruit to my father. If it wasn't for that, we could go for a stroll.' Then we were walking across a low bridge, and I threw out the wrapping to the apples. The water beneath the bridge was clear as glass, still as sleep. On one side you could see rows of fish of every color imaginable, pale colors. A man said, 'Take a close look, they're all dead. They started dying tonight, one after the other.' Finally I found myself in a hotel-like house where they were having a party, the corridors bustling with people and waiters carrying trays of food. It was so crowded I couldn't take a step. I pushed my way into the dining room where I discovered Roser seated at a table—she's the friend I told you about who worked with me sometimes—and I asked her, 'Have you seen my father?' Just then my husband passed by, quick as lightning. 'No, I haven't seen him, he was tired, I don't know where he's gone.' I heard a loud voice urgently calling out my father's name, repeatedly, and suddenly saw a cripple—a stout man with a cardboard nose—tottering toward me. As he approached, I could see his tiny hands, like a child's, all purple with little swollen fingers. I don't know how, but as I gazed at the hands, I realized the cripple was my father. Somehow I managed to remove the cardboard nose. I held him against me, like a baby. He didn't seem heavy at all as I carried him along the corridors of the hotel. Then I woke up. No one knew how to interpret the dream, but it troubled me terribly.
"The garden looked dreadful when we returned from our holiday. Roser had watered it occasionally, but the sun had scorched the more delicate plants that needed water every day. My husband and I set about redoing the garden, fixing it all up. We had them bring compost, planted dahlias—not the right time to do that, if you ask me—and a couple of weeks later it looked like a garden in some fine house. That year, the last, the dahlias bloomed so large that each flower looked like a child's head. Lots of different colors. Blood red, yellow, white, also rose-colored, with a pink so delicate that each petal was like a silk ribbon. The day the first dahlia bloomed—the bud had been hard as a rock—I learned from the baker that the girl down the street was getting married. By chance I caught a glimpse of the wedding because I happened to be sweeping the sidewalk in front of the house. She was wearing a navy blue suit, white gloves and shoes, and carrying a bouquet of lilies tied with lots of ribbons that dangled down. Don't laugh at me now, but I ran into the garden, singing, filled with joy, running my hand over each dahlia, caressing them like they were my children. I was happy all day, a happiness no words can describe. I couldn't sew, just moved from room to room tidying up. I changed the sheets, put on the silk bedspread, fixed a late snack for when my husband got in, put the embroidered tablecloth on the little table near the window, made some pudding.
"When my husband came in, all the lights in the house were on and I was exhausted. As soon as I saw him, my heart sank. He entered and closed the door with such weariness that I thought he was ill. He headed straight to the bedroom; I followed him like a shadow without saying a word. He took off his jacket, laid it on the bed, walked over to the window, and stood there without moving, like he was made of wood. I didn't dare speak. I picked up his jacket—I remember tiptoeing as if I'd entered a church when the Host of Our Lord was raised—and hung it on the clothes rack behind the door. My husband stood there without moving, facing the garden, his back to me. I went over to him, and before I had time to ask him what was the matter, he turned and hugged me, and you know what? He was weeping. Weeping uncontrollably, like I had during my saddest nights. He didn't say a word, not one. I asked him why he was crying, but he didn't want to tell me. He finally calmed down and said, 'Let's go to sleep.' He was like a little boy, it made me so sad.
Excerpted from THE SELECTED STORIES OF MERCÈ RODOREDA by Mercè Rodoreda Excerpted by permission of OPEN LETTER. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Threaded Needle 15
Guinea Fowls 29
The Mirror 35
Afternoon at the Cinema 51
Ice Cream 54
In a Whisper 85
Friday, June 8 93
The Beginning 103
The Red Blouse 118
The Fate of Lisa Sperling 125
The Bath 130
On the Train 138
Before I Die 144
Ada Liz 169
On a Dark Night 180
Night and Fog 189
Orléans, Three Kilometers 196
The Thousand Franc Bill 208
It Seemed Like Silk 225
The Salamander 234
White Geranium 248