Leopoldo “Clarín” Alas
The three of them, always the three of them! Rosa, Pinín, and ‘Cordera’.
Somonte meadow was a triangular parcel of green velvet spread out like a drapery at the base of a small hill. The lower angle sprouted in close proximity to the railway line from Oviedo to Gijón. A telegraph pole, left there as a banner of conquest, with its little white insulation cups and parallel lines to the right and left, represented for Rosa and Pinín the big, wide, mysterious, frightening, eternally ignored world. Pinín, after thinking the matter over at great length and watching for days on end how the quiet, inoffensive pole stood so open to the world, and noticing how in its desire to fit in the village it did everything in its power to take on a resemblance to an ordinary tree, dared draw closer until he became confident enough to wrap his arms around the wood and climb toward the lines. But he never managed to touch the porcelain at the top, which reminded him of the small cups he had seen at the parish house in Puao. Seeing himself so close to a sacred mystery brought on a feeling of panic and he slid fast down the pole until his feet touched the ground.
Rosa, less audacious but more taken with the idea of the unknown, was content to bring an ear close to the telegraph pole. She would listen for minutes on end, even entire quarter hours, to the formidable metallic sounds the wind extracted from the fibres of the dry pine where they came in contact with the wires. The vibrations, at times intense like those of a tuning fork and that seemed to burn with the giddying beat of a flame when heard close up, were for Rosa the ‘papers’ that passed, the ‘letters’ transmitted on the ‘threads’, the incomprehensible language the unknown wrote to the unknown; she felt little need to understand what the people in one far-off place had to say to others on the opposite side of the world. What did it matter to her? She was only interested in the sound for the sound’s sake, in its tone and its mystery.
‘Cordera’, so much more formal than her companions and much more mature, in years too, kept her distance from the civilised world and looked at the telegraph pole from afar as if at an inanimate thing not even worth scratching against. She had lived through a great deal. On all fours for hours upon hours, an expert in pastures, she knew how to make use of her time. She meditated more than she ate and enjoyed living in peace beneath the grey, tranquil sky of her country, as if she was succouring her soul – something that even the brutes of this world possess. Were the idea not profane, it would even be possible to say that the matronly cow’s thoughts, which derived from much experience, resembled Horace’s most calming, doctrinal odes.
Like a grandmother, she took part in the games of the shepherd boys given the task of taking her to pasture. Had she been able to, she would have smiled at the thought that Rosa and Pinín’s task in the field was to care for her, ‘Cordera’, to see she did not wander too far, or go near the railway track or leap into the adjoining property. Why leap? Why go astray?
To graze a little from time to time, but every day a little bit less, without bothering to lift her head out of idle curiosity, choosing the choicest mouthfuls; afterwards, to rest on her hindquarters with delight, contemplate life, and enjoy the pleasure of not suffering; anything else would be a dangerous adventure. She could not remember when a fly had last bitten her.
The bull, the crazy leaps through the fields … all that was a distant memory.
Her peace had only been disturbed on the inauguration of the railway. The first time ‘Cordera’ saw a train pass by she went berserk. She leapt Somonte’s tallest hedge and ran through the adjacent fields. Her fright lasted days, returning with more or less the same intensity every time a train appeared on the line. Little by little she grew accustomed to the innocuous racket. When she managed to convince herself that the danger always passed, that the threatened catastrophe never came to be, she took no more precaution than to rise on all fours and gaze straight ahead, her head raised, at the formidable monster; later, she did no more than look at it, without rising, with antipathy and distrust. Eventually, she reached the point of not bothering to gaze at the train. For Rosa and Pinín, the novelty of the railway left lasting pleasant impressions. If, at the start, it was a crazy kind of happiness, mixed with superstitious fear, a form of nervous excitement that brought on shouts, gestures, and wild pantomimes, later it was peaceful and gentle recreation, renewed several times a day. It took a long time to expend the emotion of watching the giddying transit, accompanied by the wind, of the great iron snake that carried with it so much noise and the faces of so many unknown, strange people.
However, the telegraph, the railway – all this really amounted to a momentary accident that drowned in the sea of solitude surrounding Somonte meadow. No human dwelling could be seen from there and the only sound that could be heard from the outside world was that of the passing train. On endless mornings, beneath the occasional rays of the sun, among the buzzing insects, the cow and the children awaited the onset of midday and the return to the house that followed. And later, the eternal afternoons of sweet, sad silence in the same field, until night fell, its evening brilliance silent witness at the heights. The clouds gathered, trees cast shadows, birds perched among the rocks in the ridges and ravines, some stars began shining in the darkest sections of blue sky; and Pinín and Rosa, the twins, Antón and Chinta’s children, holding onto the sweet, dream-like serenity of solemn, serious nature, remained quiet for hours on end after their games, never exceptionally rowdy at anytime, seated near ‘Cordera’, who punctuated the august silence of the afternoons with the pointed sound of a sluggish cowbell.
In this silence, this calm undisturbed by activity, there was love. The twins loved each other like two halves of a ripe fruit, united by the same life, with scant consciousness of what made them distinct from one another or of what separated them. Pinín and Rosa loved ‘Cordera’, the big, yellow, grandmotherly cow, the nape of whose neck resembled a cradle. ‘Cordera’ would have reminded a poet of the zavala of the Ramayana, the sacred cow, in the abundance of her form, the solemn serenity of her deliberate, noble movements, her air and contours of a dethroned, fallen idol, pleased with her fortune, happier to be a real cow than a false god. ‘Cordera’, to the degree that it may be possible to guess such things, would have said too that she loved the twins charged with the task of grazing her.
She wasn’t that expressive; but the patience with which she submitted to the twin’s games, in which she variously served as pillow, hiding place, saddle, and whatever else accorded with the children’s fantasies, silently demonstrated the affection of the peaceful, thoughtful animal.
In difficult times Pinín and Rosa had gone to incredible lengths to care for the ‘Cordera’. Antón had only recently acquired the meadow. Years before, ‘Cordera’ had to graze as best she could, at random along the roads and narrow streets of the sparse meadows of the community, comprised as much of public thoroughfares as pasture. In such days of penury, Pinín and Rosa guided her to the prime hillocks, to the quietest and least heavily grazed places, thus liberating her from the thousand abuses to which poor animals forced to leave their search for food to chance on the road are exposed.
In the most difficult days, in the barn, when the hay was scarce and the corn stalks used to make a warm bed for the cow were also lacking, the Cordera owed the amelioration of her misery to the inventiveness of Rosa and Pinín. And what can one say about the time of the calving and the breeding, when the needs of the offspring conflicted with the Chintos’ interest, which consisted of robbing from the udders of the poor mother the entire quantity of milk with the exception of what was absolutely indispensable for the survival of the calf! At such times Rosa and Pinín always sided with ‘Cordera’, and whenever they found the opportunity secretly set the suckling free. The creature, blind and as if crazed, bumping against everything, ran to the shelter of the mother, who lodged him under her belly and turned her grateful, diligent head, saying in her way:
‘Let the children and the sucklings come to me.’
Such memories, such ties, are among those never forgotten.
Also, no cow in the whole world could have been better tempered or more patient than ‘Cordera’. Whenever she found herself paired with a companion, attached to the yoke, she bowed her will to what was alien to her, and hour after hour found her with neck bent, head twisted, in an uncomfortable position, on her feet while her yokemate slept on the ground.
Antón understood that he was destined for a life of poverty when he came face to face with the fact that he would never realise his golden dream of acquiring a farm of his own with at least two heads of cattle. By dint of hard labour and unstinting privation, he eventually saved enough to purchase his first cow, ‘Cordera’, and that was that; he would not be able to buy a second until he paid arrears to the landlord, the owner of the little house that he rented, and carried off to the market that piece of his insides, ‘Cordera’, the love of his children. Within two years of the Cordera’s arrival at the house, Chinta died. The cow’s shed and the double bed shared a wall, that is, a partition comprised of the branches of chestnut trees and corn stalks. Chinta, muse of the miserable house’s poverty, died looking at the cow through a hole in the divide, pointing her out as the salvation of the family.
‘Take care of her. She’s your bread and butter,’ the eyes of the poor moribund appeared to say. She died debilitated by hunger and work.
The twins had focussed their love on ‘Cordera’; the mother’s lap exudes a particular affection that a father cannot compete with. The children sought it now in the warmth of the cow, in the shed, and in the field.
Antón understood all this in his confused way. He did not have to say a word to the children about the need to sell the cow. Early one Saturday in July, in a bad mood, Antón began walking toward Gijón, ‘Cordera’, which had only the bell around her neck, in front of him. Pinín and Rosa slept. Other days he had to practically whip them awake. On this day he left them alone. When they awoke they discovered that ‘Cordera’ had gone. ‘Papa’s taken her to the bull.’ No other conjecture occurred to them. Pinín and Rosa believed the cow went with reluctance; they thought she wished for no more offspring because she always ended up losing them soon, without knowing how or when.
At dusk, Antón and the Cordera entered the yard in front of the house, gloomy, tired, and covered in dust. Their father said nothing though the children guessed the danger.
He had not made the sale because nobody agreed to the price he asked. It was excessive; his affection for the beast clouded his reason. He asked so much for the cow to ensure nobody would dare take her away. The men who approached intending to obtain a good deal soon moved off, cursing the one who looked with rancour and defiance at those among them who insisted on nearing the price that Antón obstinately maintained. Until the last minute of the day, Antón was in the Humedal, leaving the matter to fate. ‘It can’t be said,’ he thought, ‘that I don’t want to sell the cow. It’s that they don’t want to pay me what ‘Cordera’s’ worth.’ Finally, with a sigh, if not exactly satisfied but with a certain relief, he turned and started walking along the Candás Road, among the confusion and noise of bullocks and pigs, oxen and cows, which the villagers from many parishes in the district conducted with greater or less exertion, in accord with the length of time the men and beasts had been acquainted.
At a crossing in Natahoyo, it seemed as though Antón might yet lose the cow; a neighbour from Carrió who had pestered him the whole day offering a price just a few duros less than that asked, and who was now rather drunk, made a final attack.
He bid higher and higher, torn between greed and the whim of owing the cow. But Antón held firm as a rock. They ended up with their hands joined, standing in the middle of the road, blocking the way … Finally, greed triumphed; the amount of fifty duros separated them like an abyss; they let go of each other’s hands and each went his own way; Antón followed a lane adorned with honeysuckles that had not yet bloomed and budding blackberries and led her to the house.
From the day they surmised the danger of the situation, Pinín and Rosa did not rest. In the middle of the week, the steward showed up at Antón’s yard. He was another villager from the same parish, a short-tempered man, known for his cruelty toward tenants who fell behind in their payments. Antón, who did not stand for his reprimands, turned livid when the other threatened him with eviction.
The landlord would not wait longer. In that case Antón would sell the cow at a low price, for the equivalent of a light snack. It was either that or the streets.
The following Saturday Pinín accompanied his father to the Humedal. The child looked horrified at the meat dealers, who were the tyrants of the place. A man from Castile bought the Cordera for a just price. Branded, she returned to her shed in Puao, already sold, somebody else’s, her bell sadly ringing. A sullen Antón walked behind her with Pinín, whose eyes were swollen. When she heard about the sale, Rosa wrapped her arms around ‘Cordera’s’ neck. She inclined her head at the caresses just as she did when they submitted her to the yoke.
‘There goes the old girl,’ the unsociable Antón thought to himself, broken-hearted.
She is a beast, but his children had no other mother or grandmother!
The silence of the following days, in the field and in Somonte’s greenery hung funereal. Ignorant of her fate, ‘Cordera’ rested and grazed as usual, apparently unconscious of the passage of time, as she would rest and eat a minute before the brutal cudgel killed her. But Rosa and Pinín lay grief stricken upon the grass, which would soon be good for nothing. They gazed with rancour at the passing trains, the wires of the telegraph pole. It was that unknown world, so far from them on both sides, that would take ‘Cordera’ away from them.
When it grew dark on Friday, it was time for the goodbye. An agent of the new owner came for the animal. He paid and took a drink with Antón and they brought ‘Cordera’ to the little square. Antón had drained the bottle. He was in a highly excited state. The weight of the money in his pocket further enlivened his spirits. He wanted to blind himself. He spoke a lot, singing the praises of the cow. The other man smiled because it was impertinent of Antón to go on in this fashion. Who cared if the cow provided so much milk? That she was noble in the yoke, strong when heavily burdened? So what, if in a matter of days she was going to be turned into chops and other delicious cuts? Antón did not want to imagine that; he thought of her alive, working, serving another labourer, having forgotten him and the children but alive, happy … Pinín and Rosa, sat holding hands atop a mound of fertilizer, a sentimental reminder for them of ‘Cordera’ and their own work, looking at the enemy with terrified eyes. At the last moment, they threw themselves on top of their friend; kisses, embraces, everything. They could not release her. Antón, now that the effect of the wine had worn off, fell as if in a marasmus. He folded his arms and entered the darkened yard.
The children followed for a good distance, along the narrow street with high hedges, the sad group of the indifferent agent and ‘Cordera’, who accompanied the unknown man unwillingly and at such an hour. Finally, Rosa and Pinín had to abandon their pursuit. In a fit of pique, Antón shouted from the house:
‘Children, come here. That’s enough foolishness,’ so the father implored from a distance, in a tearful voice.
Night fell. The high hedges along the darkened, narrow lane appeared black, practically forming a vault. They lost sight of the vague shape of ‘Cordera’, who seemed equally black from afar. In a moment there remained nothing of her but the slow tinkle of the bell, a sound that faded little by little in the distance among the sad creaks of countless cicadas.
‘Goodbye, ‘Cordera!’ cried Rosa, overcome with weeping. ‘Goodbye, my love!’
‘Goodbye, ‘Cordera!’ repeated Pinín, equally distraught.
‘Goodbye,’ the bell answered at last, after its fashion, the sad refrain coming apart, resigned, among the sounds of the July night in the village…
Very early the next day, at the regular hour, Pinín and Rosa went to Somonte meadow. For them, the solitude encountered there had never been sad. But that day, without ‘Cordera’, the Somonte resembled a desert.
Suddenly, the locomotive whistled, smoke appeared, and then the train. In a closed wagon, in narrow, high windows or air vents, the twins glimpsed the heads of cows that peered, bewildered, through the openings.
‘Goodbye, ‘Cordera’!’ cried Rosa, imagining her friend, the grandmotherly cow, there –
‘Goodbye, ‘Cordera’!’ yelled Pinín, with the same faith, brandishing his fists at the train, which flew toward Castile.
The tearful boy, more conscious than his sister of the villainy of the world, cried out:
‘They’re taking her to the slaughterhouse … Beef, for the gentlemen, priests … for those who’ve come back rich from America.’
Rosa and Pinín gazed with rancour at the railway line and the telegraph, symbols of a malevolent world that snatched from them, that devoured, their companion of so many solitary hours, of so much silent tenderness, to gratify the appetites, and convert her into the food, of rich gluttons.
Many years passed. Pinín grew into a young man and received a summons from the king. The third Carlist war raged. Antón was a farm manager for a local boss of the defeated party, but it would have been futile for him to declare his son unfit for duty. Besides, Pinín was like an oak.
One sad afternoon in October Rosa waited alone in Somonte meadow for the mail train from Gijón. It carried with it her only love, her brother. The locomotive whistled in the distance and then the train passed along the cutting in a flash. Rosa, nearly caught up in the wheels, saw for an instant in a third-class coach the heads of numerous poor conscripts, crying out and gesticulating, greeting the trees, the soil, the fields, and everything about their mother country that was familiar to them, their local areas, everything left behind to go and die in the fratricidal conflicts of the country as a whole, in the service of a king and ideas they had no knowledge of.
Pinín, half his body out the window, spread out his arms toward his sister; they almost touched. Rosa heard the clear voice of her brother among the noise of the wheels and the shouts of the recruits. He sobbed, exclaiming, as though prey to a distant memory of pain:
‘Goodbye, Rosa…! Goodbye, ‘Cordera’!’
‘Goodbye, Pinín! My love…!’
There he goes, like the other, like the grandmotherly cow. He goes into the world. Beef for the gluttons, for those who return rich from America. Flesh of her soul, cannon fodder for this world’s craziness, for the ambitions of others.
So ran the train of Rosa’s thought, among a riot of pain and ideas, as she watched the train disappear in the distance, whistling sadly, whistles that echoed in the chestnut trees, the valleys, and among the boulders…
How alone she felt! Now, yes, now Somonte meadow resembled a desert.
‘Goodybe, Pinín! Goodbye, ‘Cordera’!’
With what hatred did Rosa gaze at the tracks stained with burnt coal, with what rage did she appraise the telegraph wires. Oh, ‘Cordera’ had chosen well never to go near them. That was the world, the unknown, which swallowed everything. And without realising what she was doing, Rosa leaned her head against the pole that stood like a banner at the extremity of the Somonte. The wind sang its metallic song in the entrails of the dry pine. Now, Rosa understood. It was a tearful refrain, of abandonment, of solitude, of death.
In the rapid vibrations, like moans, she thought she heard, very far off, the voice that sobbed on the line ahead of her:
‘Goodbye, Rosa! Goodbye, ‘Cordera’!’