LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Bank & The Spanish Riveter. From THE DEAR ONES by Berta Dávila, translated by Jacob Rogers

After a hiatus which was spent working on The Spanish Riveter magazine, La Española is back! 
We’re kicking things off again with an exclusive extract from a forthcoming novel from indie publisher 3TimesRebel. Later this month they publish The Dear Ones, by Berta Dávila, translated from Galician by Jacob Rogers. 
In this gorgeous, intimate novella, five years after becoming a mother, our narrator finds herself facing the decision of becoming one again. Across the chapters that make up her story, she struggles with feelings of guilt, regret, and obligation, and reflects on what it means to be a mother, and what it means to choose not to be a mother…

Alice Banks

Private abortion clinics bear a striking resemblance to private fertility clinics. They’re visited only by people with a delicate imperfection, one they wouldn’t readily confess to either strangers or loved ones, and they both look like fake medical offices, with that false sense of welcome. In private fertility clinics, there are photos hanging on the walls: laughing women and serene landscapes, or laughing women in serene landscapes, almost always accompanied by beautiful babies with pink skin, which look straight out of the catalogue of silicone babies where I picked out the one for my grandmother María. The couches are white and the furniture is made of a light-coloured wood.

Nothing is white in the other clinics. There are no transparent panels, no atmosphere of purity, the walls are decorated in solid colours—black, green—and you can hide behind opaque glass. There’s decoration suited to sympathy and decoration suited to indulgence. But they do share one definitive trait: that office-like style, the feeling that the scenery is as important as the scene, something which I’ve never felt in a public hospital. The distance between the place where the good mothers and the guilty mothers wait is curt and ambiguous. 

I attend my first abortion appointment with Carlos, the way five years earlier I went to a fertility clinic with Miguel in search of an explanation for what was happening to us after the second miscarriage, still with the desire to have a child, which seemed impossible to give up on at the time. The one uneasiness is twinned with the other, though the impatience manifests differently. In both instances, my appointment is on a Friday.

The gynaecologist who sees me now is also reminiscent of the one who saw me five years ago. Both have told me the exact same thing: that I’m in the right place and that they have lots of experience helping women like me. I think the body language of the second might be more reserved, the inflection of her sentences more formal, her coat a little less white, and her office also somewhat not as bright. She performs a quick ultrasound and confirms the timeline of the pregnancy—six weeks and six days—then tries to convince me, quite dispassionately, that abortion pills are less invasive and that I’m still in the window of time where I can put and end to all of this naturally, at home: the limit is seven weeks, as they’d said over the phone. Finally, she makes an appointment for me, for after the weekend, for the second option, on the twenty-first of December, ten days before Lucía’s wedding.

At the fertility clinic, they also used words like help or option, but back then I’d interpreted them as jargon meant to dull the sharp edges of a sad situation. The same words, when applied to abortion, appear to function as a way of avoiding the shameful naming of each and every thing. None of the women in the waiting room has anyone with them except for me. The other two women are alone, not meeting anyone’s eyes, and Carlos is an intruder, an anomaly. I don’t remember this being the case for Miguel five years ago. At the other clinic, there were often couples waiting together, and some brought their other babies with them. The rest of the patients—me included—would look at these couples who’d already had children with suspicion. I considered them greedy; it wasn’t enough for them to have one healthy bouncing baby, they wanted another, one I didn’t think they deserved, because it only seemed fair to believe in the equitable distribution of babies.

Yet, once my son was born, those greedy mothers seemed infinitely superior to me. Not only had they joyously welcomed the arrival of their babies, they had also meshed perfectly into that precise image of fulfilment and dedication, and were ready to repeat the process even though they knew what it entailed. They were like the radiant mother who, one day, seeing me with the boy in my baby carrier at the library, told me that she had three of her own at home—five, eight, and twelve—and that she’d have even more if she could, that she would spend her whole life raising children because nothing in the world could compare to that satisfaction. It made me feel sad, or guilty, that she’d chosen those words to create an intimacy with me. I admit that I judged her, the way I judged all good mothers. I wasn’t able to recognise the layers beneath everything they did and said, because I viewed them solely through the distorted lens of my own experience.

After the appointment, Carlos and I drive home on the motorway and talk. I almost added animatedly, but that’s not quite accurate. I’m reminded of those other trips with Miguel to the fertility clinic, both of us silent, watching the electrical cables pass by through the car windows. Maybe we were losing our love for each other and that’s why we didn’t say much. Later, after the boy was born, we said even less, and it became obvious to us that there was a problem, even if it was hard to put our fingers on what. Letting each other go had been as simple as meeting at that party, as if we knew from the beginning that there would be an end and as if, over those past few years, we were simply waiting for it to come, not so different from knowing the tulip in a vase is going to die before long: you watch it deteriorate in the water until the day comes when you can’t put off getting rid of it any longer, and have to move onto something else, grateful for the time when it was beautiful.

There are rarely silences between Carlos and me. He always something to say. He tells me about the first time he saw snow, and some stories from the set of the TV show he’s working on. I put on a Supertramp CD, specifically, Crisis? What Crisis?, which opens with someone whistling. I don’t want the drive to end because the inertia of moving from place to place has always been a balm for me. For the first few months of my son’s life, when I didn’t know what else to do, I would strap him into the pushchair and go walking through the city to pass the time. This was the only way I had of finding some calm in my darkest moments.

Once, after a few hours of walking, I decided to catch the bus home. We waited at the stop for a few minutes and I tried to shield the boy from the rain by stretching out the hood of the pushchair. The bus appeared without me noticing, turning the corner faster than usual and stopping in front of us so abruptly that I could hear the passengers inside complaining. For an instant, I imagined an accident in grisly detail: the crash, like an earthquake, my body probably on the ground, head on the road, and from my vantage point, a terrible vision of the little wheels of the pushchair under the bus. I imagined my son’s death with horror, and at first, I thought that meant I was a good mother, because I didn’t want anything terrible to happen to him, and simply imagining it had caused me  inconsolable grief. Then I realised that in my scenario, I was the one who’d been spared. Now, every time I see a mother pushing a pushchair through the city, I wonder what she’s thinking about, if she’s going somewhere in particular or nowhere at all, if she, too, is trying to escape. 

Before I gave birth, I’d imagined life with my son as being similar to treading water in a pool to stay afloat: a constant motion that produces a specific kind of fatigue. It wasn’t like that. What had seemed simple—feeding the boy, putting him to bed, keeping him clean, warm, alive—was actually a delicate balancing act. After returning home and receiving visitors, after Miguel’s few weeks of paternity leave were up, I was left alone in a barren wasteland of apathy, and everything that should have kept me occupied and alert had an anaesthetic effect on me instead. The days were slow, and they were glum.

The boy showed little interest in latching. After every time I breastfed him and settled him back into the crook of my neck, he would spit up and burst into tears. Before long, the child-themed sheets, his tiny pyjamas, and both our clothes were covered in stains that didn’t come out in the wash. Every day, I placed a plastic bucket, which I had formerly used to transport the wet clothes from the washing machine to the drying rack, onto a kitchen scale. I would deposit my son into the bucket wrapped in a thin cotton blanket, hoping for weight gains that never materialised.

In his second month of life, after a dozen desperate visits to the ER, they found that the boy had a minor digestive issue. The knowledge was comforting, or comforting to the mother that I was, it’s hard to say why. Maybe it saved me from the feeling that I was losing my mind. They prescribed him hypoallergenic baby formula, which smelled powerfully of synthetic vanilla, and me a psychotropic drug even more stupefying than the one I was already taking to calm my nerves. ‘You should have brought him sooner,’ said a nurse. ‘The mother should have told us that the child was throwing up like this,’ I heard him say to a doctor behind the half-closed door to the office. And ‘the mother’ turned silent, ashamed, small. Inside her, I followed suit.

Caring for my son entailed a sort of gradual disappearance, and I think that I ceased to produce any thoughts other than worries. Whenever someone tried to be understanding or take an interest in how I was doing, specifically whether the boy was letting me get any sleep or whether the care routines were overwhelming, it felt as if they were talking about someone else: the exhaustion in my arms wasn’t comparable to the sickly lethargy of my head, something no one ever asked me about.

The boy slept for hours without waking up or bothering me, but our routines were always turbulent in one way or another. Yet every problem seemed too small to place any real importance on, and didn’t match up to the effect it was having on me. Things weren’t going well because I was inadequate as a mother. I often thought that, one average morning, I would get out of bed and find that the baby had stopped breathing a few hours earlier, that everything would end like that, with me to blame. 

One of those mornings, I noticed that the boy’s eyelids were coated in a thick green film and rushed him into hospital, leaving the clothes on the floor, the house unntidy, the dirty nappies around the bin, and the kitchen window open. They gave him an antibiotic for pink eye and tried to convince me that everything was fine. Moist tear ducts, no fever, good muscle tone, appropriate reflexes. I needn’t be alarmed, they told me. I understood then that you can be the inadequate mother who didn’t tell them the boy was throwing up like this, at the same time as you can be one of those mothers who will bother the emergency paediatric care department over every little thing. There was no room for ambivalence. Neither of the two mothers received an ounce of compassion, but I think I preferred the reproach of the first time to the condescension of the second. 

Nothing I did, nothing I told myself was enough to cast off the feeling that any mistake I made could have horrific consequences. In a moment of disturbing lucidity, I embraced resignation as a strategy. This was no spark of bravery; it was an oversaturation of fear. I accepted my fears and went from being afraid all the time to simply being sad. I decided I would do what I was supposed to: feed the boy when he cried, let him sleep, keep him warm and clean, and hope, day by day, that he didn’t stop breathing. I decided not to ask any more questions. I would be a primitive, instinctual mother who didn’t think about anything, and I felt that underneath my desperation there might be a glimmer of hope. If that was enough, my son would survive, and if it wasn’t, I would wake up one day to find his malnourished corpse in the crib and deal, somehow, with whatever came next.

Night by night, my son never stopped breathing. I guess there were subtle traces of love during that time. They showed themselves in small, occasional ways. Sometimes when the boy fell asleep at night, I found peace in gazing at him, so calm and content, and I would think that he was perfect and congratulate myself for feeling that way, because it seemed like the way I was supposed to feel. One afternoon, walking through the park with Miguel and the boy, the wind blew off the blanket covering his legs in the pushchair, and I instantaneously tucked it back under his body, then gently touched his face to see if it was cold. The boy looked up at me with his inexpressive, animal eyes and smiled. I saw that it was a genuine smile, directed specifically at me, because he’d recognised me and because he appreciated the pleasant sensations I had just brought him. That smile came more and more often as the boy grew, but quickly lost its effect. It became like a stamp: the first time, freshly pressed into the inkpad, his smile was vivid and happy, but every one after that was an increasingly imperfect, muddled copy of that first image, until finally, his smile ceased to mean anything at all.

I’ve always had a hard time understanding physical affections on an emotional level. Because I generally write in the kitchen, which is in the middle of the house, Carlos will often pass by me and lightly stroke my hair, or place a hand on my shoulder. It doesn’t bother me, but it only registers in my body and doesn’t reach my mind as something that’s actually happening. I enunciate every emotion with precise words. Sometimes I ask Carlos, who’s more one for intuitive affection and tangible gestures, to tell me in complete sentences what those gestures mean, to tell me that he loves me or misses me. I take more comfort in his explanations. Physical contact is a pleasant bonus, like a soft shirt or the breeze of an air conditioner, but it holds no meaning for me. I could never do this with my son because nothing he did was consistent or structured, and as a result, we couldn’t establish any form of communication that was possible for me to translate.

I never recovered my body, and time played its role, too. What had begun as the site of a raging war gradually turned into a familiar landscape that I resigned myself to. The marks of conflict remained in the form of slight changes to the shape of my hips, and in internal scars, which still cause me inopportune pain every so often.

The drive from my home to the private clinic where I’ll have an abortion on the first day of winter perfectly matches the length of Supertramp’s fourth album. I text Mónica about it as soon as we’ve parked. She suggests that I could write in some way about what I’m going through. My friends, particularly the ones who don’t write, seem to ascribe some curative power to writing. But writing heals nothing; just as it can’t cauterise wounds, it can’t decisively open them either. Maybe all it does is try to show their particular gleam.

The only form of writing that strikes me as useful are lists. I think of all the births I’ve been told about at some point, and write in a journal, one after another, in a vertical line, the names of all the mothers I know: Grandma María, my mother, my aunts, Belinda, a common viper, me. And Celia.

The dot of the “i” comes out looking like an accent, and I try to correct it with my pen, widening the diameter until it becomes thick and circular, until it covers the initial mark. Then I cross out the entire word and write it again: “Celia.”

Translated by Jacob Rogers

Extract from THE DEAR ONES

by Berta Dávila

translated by Jacob Rogers

Published by 3TimesRebel Press (June 2023)

You can read more extracts of Galician literature in The Spanish Riveter.

Berta Dávila is a Galician poet and novelist. She recently received the Premio Xerais de Novela prize for Os seres queridos, which 3TimesRebelPress has published as The Dear Ones, translated by Jacob Rogers. Dávila runs the independent publishing house Rodolfo e Priscila.

Jacob Rogers is a translator of Galician and Spanish. His translation of Manuel Rivas’s The Last Days of Terranova was published by Archipelago Books in autumn 2022, and his translation of Berta Dávila’s The Dear Ones is out from 3TimesRebel Press in 2023.

Read previous posts in La Española series:

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. November – Katixa Agirre’s DE NUEVO CENTAURO

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. October – Katie Whittemore’s Translator Triptych

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. June – Feria del libro, Madrid

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. May – Non-fiction

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. April: Catalan Spotlight at the London Book Fair

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. March: From Ukraine to Spain

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. February: Spain, a nation of booklovers

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. December: Galician Focus

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. November Author focus: Elizabeth Duval

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. October: Basque Focus

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. September: Children’s Literature. By our guest columnist Claire Storey, introduced by La Española editor Alice Banks

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. Las Sinsombrero

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. July: Crime and Thriller Writing

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. June: The Short Story

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. May: Contemporary Fiction

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. April: Catalan Focus

LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks

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