It’s the summer of 2012, and Paula Quiñones, a brilliant researcher with Spain’s Finance Ministry, volunteers for a project in rural eastern Andalucía to excavate mass graves and identify the remains of men, women and children killed and buried there by Franco supporters after the Civil War.
Paula quickly works out that there are more missing people than remains and realises that more mass graves must exist nearby. But the townspeople aren’t talking. The only voices Paula hears are the ghostly echoes of the missing dead, who speak to her in her sleep, trying to warn her of the dangers that lie ahead.
Paula got out of the cab in the centre of Azafrán as the clock tower on the squat, ugly town hall struck four. Not a soul in sight. Apparently, the residents were at home enjoying the desiccating pleasures of air conditioning and the stupor produced by watching afternoon TV talk shows. The talk-show guests consume tons of chocolate, gallons of coffee and babble at an unintelligible speed. A violent white noise at once anaesthetises them and envelopes them in an atmosphere of fury; in an instant one of them could grab an axe to crush the skull of another without knowing why, but convinced he was in the right. Paula squints to see through the slats of the green blinds. The facades of the two- and three-storey buildings are brick, but some have been dressed up in traditional graphite siding. Paula tries to peek inside but sees nothing and only hears the voices of the talk show. She would have loved it if, at the end of the show, the participants had ended up licking and then devouring each other in a quick cannibalistic ritual. But no, behind the glass of the TV screen, those kinds of operatic scenes never happen. Instead, other, more subtly inhuman acts unfold and thicken your skin into armour like snakes’ scales. Paula scratched her elbow so hard it almost bled. I didn’t used to bleed so easily, she thought. These days, everything wounded her.
It was summer, and everyone in town was having a siesta on the sofa. And yet Paula had the sensation that at least twenty hands, ten pairs or more, were ranging across her body. It must be the heat, and the eyes of the men behind the windows in the bar who began to watch her without seeming to watch her at the exact moment she turned and walked back toward the houses by the town’s entrance and the sign with its name, Azafrán: ‘Saffron’. Someone had used black paint to vandalise the letters, changing the second ‘a’ to ‘u,’ and blacking out the belly of the accented ‘a’ to make it an ‘o,’ and convert the name to Azufrón: ‘Sulfur’. The prank had the whiff of a curse about it, damning the delicate fragrance of the pistil inside the mauve saffron flower to the stench of sulphurous brimstone. There were many good reasons this toponymic cruelty was justified, but Paula wasn’t sure whether to react with compassion or intolerance. She could never figure out who would devote so much time to committing such miniscule crimes, these pebbles hurled at civilisation and order. Maybe they were warnings, or maybe critiques, an unruly parody of vindication. Maybe it was nothing more than a bit of vandalism by some hooligans. The nourishing, gourmet aroma of the saffron used to flavour rice and suspect seafood in this high desert plain had been debased to the level of toxic fumes in a chemistry class. When Paula got out of the cab, the air smelled of chlorine. It was summer. In winter, the air would be impregnated with the aroma of wood smoke. Now it smelled of pigsty, depending on which way the wind was blowing, and of meat lockers, of the blood and fat of animals sacrificed on the sly, and of piss outside the supermarket doorway, which was covered by a bead curtain. On the counter inside, Paula could see sausages and iridescent flesh.
Azafrán. As she cut the imaginary inaugural ribbon and entered the town, Paula was assaulted by the premonition of being a filleted fish. An explorer boiled in a pot by cannibals, and by talk-show hosts. A misshapen haunch, so to speak, in the stew. The bony finger of Hansel that appeared in her dreams. Premonitions tend to come true in most novels, and also in real life, just before death. A very bad feeling. Sweet Jesus. My sweet friend.
As she retraced her steps from the town centre toward the sign reading Azafrán or Azufrón, depending on whether you see things idealistically from above the ground or cynically from below the surface, Paula felt the intense weight of eyes upon her. The eyes weighed one arroba each – the equivalent of eleven kilos or a quarter of a quintal, which is about twenty-five pounds.
They followed the jerky rhythm of her right leg and her left leg and the abnormally circular movement of her hips, and the unusual way her clothes seemed to cling to her body. In the bar, the men were probably laughing to themselves. At least none of them pressed his face against the window to frame for her a portrait of the wicked and lascivious citizens of Azafrán. The men all played cards in their clean cotton shirts, as if they weren’t really looking at the limping beauty dragging her suitcase with a humiliating clatter toward the only hotel in the town that had never received any stars for charm and had not been converted into a spa or a foodie bar. It was the oldest hotel in town and was right next to the altered sign that had demoted the place from an exquisite spice to a diabolical chemical element. It was a big, rambling house with at least two or three different sections, inside of which exist, perhaps, other sections and secret chambers. It was surrounded by a suburban housing development that featured rigid Heil Hitler rows of identical two-storey homes with porches that, because of the extreme temperatures, can’t be used either in summer or in winter but were included in the design anyway because that’s how porches looked in movies set in South Carolina.
Paula only hoped that those men, probably bad ones, would, as quickly as possible, get used to the lame lady who couldn’t disguise the orthopaedic lift in her shoe. She hoped they would stop looking at her. And maybe soon her limp would become, in effect, invisible because the work that had brought her to Azafrán would camouflage her beauty as well as her physical defects. That day, in addition to the men’s predictable stares at the body of this outsider, a woman, a beautiful lopsided gimpy woman, Paula felt the weight of other eyes that arose from amid the scrub brush, and she heard murmurs, dense and musical in quality in the air around her. A choir, singing abracadabras to her, was trying, with an elastic band stretched tight, to pull her back away from that place.
By Marta Sanz
Translated by Katie King
From PEQUEÑAS MUJERES ROJAS
(‘small red women’)
By Marta Sanz
Translated by Katie King
Published by Anagrama (2020)
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Marta Sanz is an award-winning novelist, poet, essayist and scholar, and one of Spain’s leading feminist writers. She has written more than fifteen novels and four collections of poetry. Her fiction and poetry have been translated into English, Italian and Hungarian.
Katie King is a journalist and literary translator. Her most recent translation, Someone Speaks Your Name by Luis García Montero, was published by Swan Isle Press in January. She has lived and worked extensively in Spain and Latin America.