He was used to hearing the bells toll for the dead and watching funerals from the bank office, but this time, alone behind the desk, as the church door swallowed up the swarm of people, he had the impression that the bells tolled louder than ever, twice as loud, four, eight times louder, because there were two boys dead and Jaume had left him alone in the office. They came through the glass with such intensity. They rang so loud. Why such immodesty? Did they have to tell everyone that the boys had finally reached the moment of knowing everything, of seeing everything, of understanding their own existence completely? Did it have to be shouted from the rooftops? We spend our lives in retreat, only at the bottom of the well can we know if life was worth living or not, or, to put it better even though it’s the same thing: only then can we know whether we can know if life was worth living. But we can’t communicate that knowledge. Why toll the bells? To remind him that, when the moment comes, his death will also serve to torment others?
He searched for Mr. Cals amid the crowd in the square. He tried to figure out who Lluís could be. He looked for his coworker’s wife and children. He recognized clients. The host of Radio Vidreres must have been there as well, because only music was heard on that bandwidth.
Once everyone was inside the church, the first hearse was able to enter the square, backing up to the doors. Two funeral home employees dressed like businessmen unloaded the first coffin. They went up the steps and put it on a metal platform with wheels. The empty car moved aside, and the second car entered the square.
Inside the church they waited for the dead with the same expectation they would have for a bride and groom. Which brother was in which box? Did they have little plaques with their names, or was that not necessary? We live fighting against randomness: there has to be a protocol. Would it be the older brother who entered the church first—first to arrive, first to leave? The same employees carried out the same task. Afterward, the second car left the church door and parked beside the other one, in the middle of the square.
He switched off the radio. He wanted some excuse to call home. He let the feeling pass through him, the way he let mornings in the office pass. He didn’t want to turn himself into a bell tower. It was sunny, no one was left on the street, the kiosk and the bakery were shuttered. He thought of the priest, the poor guy, having to serve as a hinge, having to speak when there’s nothing to say. He thought of that little man he watched go in and out of the church each day, thought of his self-censure, of his self-control, of a priest’s forced cerebral mutilation, of his sacrifice for his parish, his loyalty to lies and ritual. Unless he was a con man and lived off of others’ weakness.
Most people hadn’t gone to the wake, but some of them, the closest relatives, had. They had seen the boys displayed in their two coffins, humiliated like stuffed animals in the double zoo of their death: caged by rigor mortis and caged by the glass-topped coffins. Or perhaps it was their victory, their revenge, and it is the dead that watch over us.
And then he heard an engine approaching the square, a truck, it had to be a truck from somewhere else, on that day, and it was already strange that it was squeezing its way down such narrow streets. He approached the door to watch it pass. It was carrying a load of hay bales. Bales of hay in January. You saw them going back and forth in June and July, after the harvest, or in the months following, but never at this time of year… They were the old style of bales, rectangular and small; someone must have ordered them for the animals they kept, they must be coming from Llagostera or Cassà, the truck driver was confused, he was looking for someone to ask what was going on, where were the owners of the house where he was scheduled to drop them off, why had he found it locked…
When he saw that he’d reached the church square, the driver put the truck in neutral in the middle of the street and got out of the cab. He was a tall man, about thirty years old, with short hair and a Van Dyke beard, and the strong body of a young hauler. He had bits of straw stuck in his blue sweater. Ernest half hid behind a column, and the truck driver looked toward the closed bakery and kiosk not understanding a thing. He checked his watch and then walked slowly over to the community social club. The door was open. He found the place empty except for Cindy, the South American girl who worked behind the bar. She must have explained to him what was going on, must have told him he should park and have a coffee while the funeral finished, because after a second the truck driver left the club, got into the cab, and parked down the street.
They died so young they took the whole town’s life with them, the truck driver must have thought. He hadn’t parked in Vidreres, he’d parked in the Vidreres cemetery, with niches like houses; a cemetery with a kiosk, a bakery, and a bank; a cemetery with streets, with a church; a cemetery with a cemetery; with a club and a parking lot filled with empty cars. That’s what the afterlife must be like: solitude and walls.
Meanwhile, the priest spoke and no one took their eyes off the two coffins, placed perpendicular to the altar at Christ’s feet. And while the entire town of Vidreres, locked up tight in the church, struggled not to imagine the dead brothers’ bodies, their faces, while they all tried to shrug off their curiosity, tried not to want to know what clothes the poor saps were wearing, nor who’d had to decide on the shirts the boys would wear to their own funeral and pull them out of the closet… Who had chosen the pants, the socks, the shoes, which weren’t their usual Sunday morning shoes but imposter shoes, an attempt to fool them, to pretend that perhaps they could warm their feet, as it should be in a tolerable world where parents died before their children… The pretense dignified the shoes, made them useful in their attempt to console, because useless objects are monstrous; he was sick of seeing it at the bank, money rotting in the vaults and creating bad blood between relatives… But, at the moment of truth, the shoes made the cadavers more contemptible, because death won the match, infecting the clothes and the coffins, infecting the church and all of Vidreres with its ugliness. Not even the consolation trick worked. When he got home each day, the first thing Ernest wanted to do was loosen the laces and take off his shoes…and those shoes would last longer than the feet they were on. Meanwhile, in the church, no one wanted to know who had pulled them out of the closet, whether it was their mother, their aunt, or their father, all three of whom were sitting in the front row with their backs to everyone and facing the coffins, contaminated; no one wanted to imagine the expression on the face that handed over the boys’ changes of clothes, in a bag, to the man at the funeral home, a last package for the brothers, sent to hell… They had given the boys’ clothes—not new, not bought for the occasion, but already worn, already lived in, to a stranger, a man they’d never seen before, and that stranger put on some gloves and stuffed cotton into the boys’ noses and ears and then, with another stranger, stood the dead boys up, first one then the other, to dress them, and the boys stood like plastic dolls, and those strangers at the funeral home were now standing as well, behind the last bench, with their gazes on everyone’s backs, supervising the ceremony, waiting to take the coffins away again, because the coffins were theirs, they would always be, a dead man owns nothing… Those strangers would be the last ones to have seen and touched the brothers’ bodies. And while some inside the church tried to respect the memory of the dead…how does one respect a memory? How can you think about a dead person without mucking it up? How can you separate it from the living? While at the church they tried not to curse the brothers for what they represented: death before its time, the most absolute, double death, because an unexpected death is a death that doubles back on itself, that kills hope and longing, that doesn’t leave time for making plans or for renouncing making plans, it is a death that doesn’t let death live, doesn’t let it make a will, or project anything for what’s left of life; it kills the future like any death but also kills all possible expectations and therefore kills the past, a retroactive death, a death that shoots at itself from the future, that overtakes death, that passes it, the death of death itself, a death that commits suicide… While the adults rummaged through memories to make an inventory to know what remained of the two boys—what images, which smiles, what residue they had left behind—they found some surprises, because, now that they were dead, the last time they saw the two brothers became the last time they would ever see the two brothers, and the memory grew laden with nostalgia for what they now knew had been about to happen the last time they saw them. And the brothers’ smiling faces: who couldn’t imagine what awaited them. And the last words they said now meant different things, and they therefore required a different answer from those who knew the future, a rectification from the prophets… And while they relived those last moments, they remembered how they themselves were at the brothers’ ages, what they were doing at the ages the brothers would remain, and they compared the two, and then they calculated what they would have missed out on if they had died young like them, and they tried not to cheat and decide whether living beyond their youth had been worth the effort, and finding that it had, they decided that against the brothers, and it was like spitting on them…and while some looked at each other out of the corners of their eyes, searching for how to behave, how to find the right tone—not too affected or too cold over the abandonment, over the novelty of it—and they found it was impossible to avoid hypocrisy, and they gave thanks for the conventions, the ritual, the priest that didn’t allow them to start shouting or dancing or to burn down the church… While they did that, at the bank Ernest thought that even though those boys were from Vidreres and their fathers, mother, grandparents, and an endless line of ancestors were from Vidreres, given the way things had turned out, those two boys were the least from Vidreres of anyone on the planet right now, less than the last grain of sand in the depths of the sea. And while, in the church, the more emotional people cried, the hearses waited outside, parked in the middle of the square, breaking the law. Keys hung serenely from car locks, the policemen were at mass, and the truck driver had a coffee at the bar with Cindy in the large, empty club with its high ceiling, marble tables, and the television talking to itself; meanwhile, in the Santander bank branch, standing behind the glass, Ernest focused on the strands of hay that had fallen off of the bales on the truck. They were at the foot of the wheels and on the sidewalk, hollow strands of straw, and a slight gust of wind dragged them up and down, from one corner of the square to the other, and when the sun hit them they sparkled, splattered, gilded the whirling air with ephemeral cornucopias.
* * *
He drove slowly, searching for the site of the accident. He saw the girl by the side of the highway. She didn’t look familiar at all. Thin, childlike, with long curly hair and bright eyes, stuffed into a tight little white dress, a bottle of water in one hand and a cell phone in the other. He could have touched her if he stuck his hand out the car window.
He had been thinking about the two brothers’ deaths all morning, and now he was tired. One enters the adult world through death’s door, through the assumption of mysteries, the most simple and fantastic mysteries of life and death. Being an adult is accepting death, harboring it inside you like a cancer, dying. How can he accept that his own daughters are already adults, that they are already infected? Accept death, how could he? How can you accept something you don’t understand? How can you continue to be a person if you accept the incomprehensible? Accepting death is accepting loneliness, and his turmoil over the death of the two brothers was, in fact, his resistance to facing up to his own age, to his own death, resistance to separating from his daughters, the death of his daughters—by dying, the brothers had freed their parents from killing them, as he would have to kill his daughters the day he died. He’d had them too old, almost forty. He’d made up his mind late, with a younger wife. Now he was living in immaturity, on the uncomfortable border between two worlds. He traveled to the world of his daughters, but what if they had actually grown up so much that they were no longer there? Was there even anyone left in this world he had fallen into?
He passed the girl. The Pyrenees, the Guilleries, and the Montseny mountains suddenly appeared in his view. They were experiencing the initial cold as autumn turned to winter, with lunar ice, a smattering of grays, and impotent patches of sun. The highway bound the fields together like a ribbon of grief. The tall plane trees were the feathers of a buried monster, the fins of transparent fish that fed on the earth like parasites. Two solitary poplars in the middle of a field represented the two brothers’ skeletons, wedged into the earth and touching each other with their branches.
It happened here, right before him. The asphalt was striped with tire marks. The brothers had braked before hitting the tree. They hadn’t had an entirely treacherous death. The fierce screech had flown over the fields, appearing on the streets of Vidreres with such violence that the next day the townspeople found tire tracks in the hallways of their homes, on their sofas, in their showers, on their sheets.
Why had they slammed on the brakes? Had an animal crossed their path? Was a car coming at them head-on? Had the brother who was driving nodded off, then woken up suddenly and tried to avoid the accident? They were speeding. Fast as lightning. They’d crossed into the opposite lane, gone over the hard shoulder, and plowed into the trunk of a plane tree. The S’s ended before the asphalt did. The brother who was driving had taken his foot off the brake pedal.
Why had he released the brake? Why hadn’t he held out until the final moment? Had he given up? Had he understood that there was nothing he could do? Not even soften the blow, no matter how slightly? Or was it that, when there is nothing to be done, the body relaxes and accepts its fate? Or did the driver want to escape the car? Did he want to get out in that half of a second? Half of a second? What is half of a second? But did he try anyway? You have to do something with the time, no matter how little there is, something to fill that desperate wait, a moment like that, and perhaps his body focused on that rift; did his whole being shrink painfully to get through it and leap out of the car in half a second? The driver didn’t know what half a second was. He had no idea. No one does. No one knows what half a second is. Life is made up of half seconds. Life is half a second. But it turned out that he had no idea. How long would it last? Did he have time? Perhaps he wasn’t wearing his seat belt. What luck! In the panic, the idea traveled at the speed of light. It became porous and ramified his brain. His blood became adrenaline. Dynamite. It flooded that half second, or what was left of that half second, the longest half second of his life: half a second of explosions, half a second that the driver would have lengthened or shortened infinitely, but was only able to turn into the best utilized half second, the most lived half second of his life. A terrorific farewell, the skull awaiting the bullet, a half second that never reaches its end but will be over at any moment—when you least expect it, suddenly, but what do you do in the meantime? How do you spend it? The more you concentrate on it, the longer it becomes. And you’re waiting for it, you can’t stop waiting for it! Half a second of perverse, labyrinthine corners, of torture chambers, vaults, and monstrous self-discoveries, of mirrors and windows, of holes that lead to stairs, half a second filled with alarms that rush you, with the loves you forgot until now, with friends who’ve come to say good-bye, waiting, lined up on the branches of the plane tree. Half a second filled with ideas, with joys and unexpected comforts, with solutions: for example suicide, but he doesn’t have time to beat death, he won’t even have time to escape or to accept it, even though he leaves his mark on the asphalt, an oscillogram of the last seconds, a final signature. He heard the sound of his braking run through the fields to Vidreres to warn everyone, and smelled the burning rubber, and that brother who was driving thought of his parents, cursing the disgrace and grief he was leaving behind—their lands, their lands, how would they get along without him?—he felt filled with rage for that which he could not prevent, for not being able to control the situation, for still being alive and not being able to do anything, and suddenly he remembered his brother.
He was right beside him. He was with him. His hair stood on end when he grasped that. His brother with eyes wide as saucers, scared out of his wits just like him, and he suddenly realized that it was all over. His brother trusted him—he had no choice—but he couldn’t give him the steering wheel, and he thought: Now how do I let him know there’s nothing to be done, when my body is so slow that I don’t even have time to open my mouth. I only have half a second! How do I tell him that I want to leap out of the car and leave him alone here, that I’ve lost control, that it’s my fault, this accident, that I’m the one who will plow us into the tree? How do I confess to him that I’ve taken my foot off the pedal and if I can I’ll abandon him without even saying good-bye?
The car, flying toward the tree’s trunk.
Ernest took his foot off the accelerator.
Two days earlier, on the morning of the accident, he was many kilometers from there, at home, sleeping with his wife, in a room that shared a wall with his eldest daughter’s bedroom.
There was a bouquet of flowers tied to the trunk. He would have liked to stop and have a calm look around. He would have liked to keep thinking about the deaths, searching for signs of the dead boys scattered amid the bits of glass and plastic around the trunk. He had made a discovery: thinking about them calmed him down. His thoughts were alive, impossible to kill. He would die before his thoughts. The boys, in his head, were immortal. Perhaps he should tell their parents. A stranger was protecting their sons.
But he didn’t stop when he saw the plane tree. They had beat him to it. A couple of teenagers were looking at the bouquet from their motorcycles, stopped on the side of the highway with their mudguards pointing toward the tree.
He continued slowly, driving more through the landscape than along the highway, as if he wanted to save himself from the accident, as if he was now accompanying the two brothers and passing by death, taking them—sitting in his back seat—along a highway of embers, unable to stop, open to the landscape just like every day as he went from his house to the office and from the office to his house, his favorite times, in the summer because it was summer and in the winter because it was winter, but today with an intensity that surpassed him: saving himself, leaving behind the plain. He was fleeing. He was finishing off the two boys. They were no longer there. He had taken part in the brothers’ deaths. He had designed and poured the highway’s asphalt; he planted the tree. He was guilty of two deaths, his guilt made it all make sense, so he could escape from it, because it was all programmed, it headed toward his own salvation. Farewell, see you never. He sacrificed the two boys for his family.
Toni Sala is the author of over a dozen novels and works of nonfiction. In 2005 he was awarded the National Literature Prize by the Catalan government, and he has also received many other honors for his writing. He lives in Barcelona.
Mara Faye Lethem’s translations have appeared in The Best American Non-Required Reading, Granta, The Paris Review, Words Without Borders, and McSweeney’s. She is the translator of Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri, Wonderful World by Javier Calvo, and others. She lives in Barcelona.