from chapter three of camilo josé cela’s the family of pascual duarte

La familia de Pascual Duarte (The Family of Pacual Duarte) by Camilo Jos� Cela: Book Cover

THEY FIXED UP a makeshift bed for Rosario by spreading a pillow of thick wool in the shallow bottom of a box, and there they kept her, beside my other’s bedside, bound up in strips of cotton and so covered up that I often wondered if they wouldn’t finally smother her. I don’t know why, but until then I had imagined all babies to be as white as milk. So that I remember the bad impression my little sister made on me when I saw she was sticky all over and red as a boiled crab. She had some thin fuzz on the top of her head, like a starling or a young pigeon in the nest, which she lost in a few months, and her hands were like thin little claws, so transparent that it made one shiver to see them. When, three or four days after hav­ing been born they unwound the cotton bands so as to clean her up a bit, I was able to see .what the little creature was really like, and I can say, almost, that she did not seem as repulsive as the first time. Her high color had faded, and her eyes—which were still not open—seemed to want to move their lids. Even her hands seemed to have relaxed. Señora Engracia gave her a good cleaning with rosemary water. Whatever else she might have been, Señora Engracia was certainly a friend to the distressed. She bound the child up again in the least filthy bands, putting aside the dirtiest to wash. The little creature was so happy she fell asleep, and she slept so long at one stretch no one would have guessed there was a newborn baby in such a silent house. My father would sit on the floor beside the small box, and the hours would pass as he watched his daughter, with the face of a lover, as Señora Engracia said, so that I almost forgot his real nature. He would eventually get up to take a turn around the village, and then, when we were least expecting him back, at an hour we were never used to seeing him, there he was, sitting at the side of the box again, his face gone soft and tender and his look become so meek that anyone who might have seen him would have thought, if they didn’t know him already, that he was one of the Three Wise Men of the East in front of the manger.

Rosario grew up among us, sickly and thin—there was little enough life to suck from my mother’s empty breasts!—and her first years were so hard that she was more than once on the point of taking leave of us all. My father went around out of sorts as he saw the little creature did not flourish, and, since he resolved all problems by pouring more wine down his gullet, my mother and I were forced to live through a bad spell, so bad that we longed for the old days, which at the time had seemed like the bottom, before we had known that there could be worse. How mysterious the ways of mortal man, who abominates what he has and later looks back in nostalgia! My mother, who had sunken into a state of health even worse than before giving birth, received some spectacular thrashings. Though it was not an easy matter for the old man to catch me, he would deliver himself of some great absent-minded kicks whenever we ran into each other, and more than once he brought the blood to my behind (begging your pardon), or left my ribs as marked as if he had used a branding iron on them.

Gradually the baby girl got fatter and stronger, nourished by some red wine broths which hadbeen recommended to my mother. Rosario was by nature lively, and the mere passing of time helped. Though she did take longer than ordinary in learning to walk, she burst into speech at a tender age, and talked such fine talk she had us all bewitched.

The period when the child is the same day after day soon passed. Rosario grew, she became almost a maiden, you might say, and when we came to take notice we saw she was quicker and slyer than a lizard. As no one in our family had ever shown a tendency to use their brains for the purpose for which they were intended, the girl was soon Queen of the May and had us walking around with our backs straight as boards. If her natural bent had been that way, she might have accomplished something decent or worthwhile, but since obviously God did not wish any of us to be distinguished by good deeds, she set her feet on other pathways and it soon became clear to us that if she was no fool it was too bad she was not. She served for all purposes—none of them good. She was as offhand and nimble a thief as an old gypsy woman. She took a liking for liquor at an early age. She acted as gobetween in the old woman’s flings. And so, since no one bothered to straighten her out, or to use her cleverness in a good cause, she went from bad to worse. Until, one day, when the girl was four­teen, she made off with the few objects of value we had about our shack and headed for Trujillo, to La Elvira’s house. You can imagine the reaction to Rosario’s flight at home. My father blamed my mother, my mother blamed my father . . . Rosarios absence made itself felt most of all by the increased number of brawls in which my father indulged himself Before, when she Was around he carried on behind her back. Now, when she was nowhere about, any hour and place at all struck him as being just right to stage a riot. It was curious that my father, a pigheaded brute second to none, should have paid any attention to only this young girl. One look from Rosario was enough to quiet him down, and on more than one occasion a good round of drub­bings was avoided because of her mere presence. Who would ever have guessed that such a beast could have been tamed by such a slip of a girl!

She was away in Trujillo about five months. At the end of it, she came home with a fever, and more dead than alive. For nearly a year she lay in bed. The fever, of a malign nature, brought her so close to the tomb that my father insisted—for though he might be a drunk and a brawler, he was also an Old Christian: no convert he, but a solid-gold Catholic—he insisted she be given the last rites and prepared for the eventuality of making the last voyage. Like all ills, hers had its ups and downs. The days in which she seemed to revive were followed by nights in which we were sure she was going. My parents were sunk in gloom, and of all those sad early days of my life the only peaceful recollection I have is of those months, which passed without the sound of blows resounding between our walls. That’s how pre­occupied the old folks were!

 

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