Navarrevisca

Genealogy

[Leer cuento en español]

In all of Navarrevisca, only Aunt Tomasa still retains memories of memories of the 1918 flu, and, until now, they had always seemed to her like tales of ghosts or distant worlds.

The anecdotes were bequeathed to her by her mother, Fermina, and had not cropped up in her thoughts for decades, but for the last few months they have become incessant reminiscences that appear to her even in dreams.

Aunt Tomasa rises very early, opens the window to air the room well, and those gerontological winds that shape her thoughts begin to invade her. At ninety-four years old, every action must be carefully planned — before going downstairs, not to return until evening, she washes, dresses, takes her pills, and makes her bed. Her mother and her mother-in-law died in that same bed, and very likely also her grandmother, Maria, with the flu, because back then in villages, one died at home. Once she is ready, she creeps down the stairs slowly, slowly, because her leg is a little bit crooked, and the descent aggravates the pain.

In order to distract herself from the ordeal of going down, she thinks, step by step, if back then they would have had vaccinations. Yesterday, she wondered if they would have worn masks. And the other day she was assailed by doubts about social distancing. The answer is always no to everything — that’s probably why her grandmother María died of the so-called Spanish flu: because they had nothing, and they didn’t know anything, and they didn’t protect themselves. Or maybe they did, who knows, nobody remembers those times anymore. As always, she reaches the ground floor without arriving at any firm conclusions, but at least the digression is useful for ignoring the pain.

She has her daily rituals, Aunt Tomasa, tidying up the house with energy and flair: she sweeps, gathers the dishes from the night before, and makes breakfast. Today there’s no need to cook, because she still has some croquettes left over from last week, as well as some tomatoes and torreznos that Maritere, her neighbor who keeps an eye on her, brought her yesterday. Tomorrow she will make an armada of empanadas and freeze them to eat them bit by bit.

Her leg is giving her a hard time. No wonder: yesterday she went with Currita to the pharmacy, and then they had a coffee and some churros at Casa Victoria, which filled them with enough energy to walk to Las Pezuelas and reach Uncle Ufe’s door, almost to San Antonio, and the morning flew by.

Today she’s due for a rest. She dangles the basket with her crochet tools on the crook of her elbow, grabs the wicker chair and skips nimbly out the door of her house, where she skillfully positions herself in the sun, her gray hair shining under the gentle caresses of the mountain air. If the town was already slowly fading away even before the pandemic, now abandonment has seized every street. This morning there is not a soul, except for a couple of kittens mewling in famished pleas, feeling the absence of humans directly in their stomachs.

Aunt Tomasa settles herself on the wicker chair, totally molded to her frame, and as soon as she joins the needles, the clinking invokes the figure of Fermina, and those memories rush back to her in a confused whirlwind and get tangled in the yarn. Her mother was always chatty at the loom, as she warped and interweaved, but those words were carried away by the wind and time, because they seemed unimportant.

Fermina survived the previous pandemic but was left motherless at the age of eighteen. Who knows if someone else in the family was infected, who knows at what age the flu took Grandma Maria, who knows how she faced the grim reaper, who knows where she died. Even though they were immediate family, Aunt Tomasa says she doesn’t know who those people are — I wasn’t even born yet, how would I know? She does not sigh, because she is of a cheerful disposition, and she is not worried about forgetting, but the loop of uncertain thoughts becomes unavoidable during these times.

And those days… How hard they were, my God. Aunt Tomasa grew up among reeds and reels, and from a very young age, her grandfather and her father taught her the art of weaving, to which she devoted herself body and soul until she married her Aurelio, may he rest in peace, a handsome goatherd who captured her heart with the countless letters that he sent her from the front lines of the Civil War. She knitted better than her sister, anxiety personified, no comparison. Aunt Tomasa’s hands filled with peace and patience, and she didn’t break a single thread when she made the blankets for the shepherds. But she didn’t just weave: she also dyed the blankets on the fulling mill and cut them — from fifty meters to twenty-five and then to five and then to two and a half, it echoes like a chant in her — and left them to dry and made them neat and pretty, and she traded them around the nearby villages of Avila with her father. Struggling to heft endless blankets that seemed sewn from lead (especially when it rained) in exchange for cheese or chickpeas or paprika or potatoes or chestnuts or figs or oils or raw wool or whatever there was, sometimes a few pesetas, if you were lucky.

She eats in front of the TV. They say on the news that the people who were spared during the Spanish flu were those who did not go outside and lived in well-ventilated spaces and that they even banned keeping pigs at home. The rich were the ones who survived, of course. Here in the village, there used to be a lot of people and a lot of crude houses of piled-up stones with tiny windows, and there was always a pig in every home, which was enough to keep the pot full for the whole year. And the families lived all together (parents, children, grandchildren), and they didn’t even have running water, just the common troughs, and the streets were swamps. Her mother told her that during that horrible flu, there were days when they could not even carry all the corpses to the cemetery of La Mata, the one down there, the old one.

After eating, she returns to her chair. One by one, Aunt Paula, Aunt Leoncia, Aunt Maria, all the widows who live in the street, come out. Each one with her archaic wicker seat, her social distance, her needles, and without her cards. They miss that more than anything else: the games for hours and hours every Sunday, the heft of the deck in their fists, the dry sounds of shuffling, the triumph of calling “brisca.” They play less and less, because Aunt Felisa, Aunt Fidela and Aunt Rosario have passed away, but they pay homage to them with lively laughter and the occasional random affray.

Now they have to talk to one another each from a different corner, and sometimes they can’t understand each other, but they answer, «What can you do?», and they always end up understanding, because they’ve been keeping each other company since there wasn’t a wrinkle between them. When someone passes by, if someone passes by, they put on their masks. They spend the whole afternoon chattering like parrots, without a break in their weaving and, amidst the bickering, the days fly by, even though they miss the hustle and bustle of visitors whom they can no longer ask in the marked dialect of the village, «Where’s the crew headed?» or «When did you get here?» or «Has your sister arrived yet?».

They are fine, they are careful, no one who lives in the town has died, there is not much danger in this remote village of 200 people. Aunt Tomasa is an oak tree, if it weren’t for the pain in her leg… Although, a few weeks ago, she woke up feeling queasy and nauseous and, no problem, they gave her an injection, they took her to the town of Burgohondo, where there are doctors, and they shoved a little stick in each nostril, and it turned out she was fit as a fiddle, no coronavirus or anything. Who knows if she would have caught the old virus herself, and what tests did her grandmother take, the poor thing, so young, so young. It seems that two or three other women died that same day in Navarrevisca. Surely back then there were no tests or anything.

Today there is mass. From the door of their houses, the aged friends can actually see the shadow of the stone tower crowned with a stork’s nest, but they prepare themselves well in advance, because what a scramble it is whenever the bells ring: ooh, where’s my cane, ooh, where’s my mask? They go in and out, in and out, until they finally have all their gear. And they walk slowly, well apart, without holding each other’s arms, relying on only the support of a cane and the presence of their friends.

And now, you see, you have to do all kinds of things before entering the church: wipe your shoes on the doormat, wash your hands well with that gel that’s like an icicle, sit at practically opposite ends of the pews (one seat yes, one no, one yes, one no, meaning there is no one to give the sign of peace to properly), take the body of Christ in your hand, with a mask for the priest and a mask for the person taking communion. In the end they laugh, the old ladies, because all this fuss lends some excitement to the affair — there have been no changes in the mass for a long time.

At the end of the day, Aunt Tomasa feels happy in her home, in this mountain village. She has to make the most of the days she has left. Autumn is coming, and it’s starting to cool down, and on the news they ramble on endlessly about the second wave, and her daughters want to take her to Madrid, for another possible lockdown. She would not like to return to the months of isolation in the city, when the days stretched endlessly, because the only entertainment was looking at the European royal families in magazines, making socks for her great-grandchildren, and watching the police from the balcony. And, on top of that, when she went out for her first walk after two months of lockdown, her leg hurt something fierce: she was seeing stars, couldn’t take a step. But, my child, I’ll have to give in: if I stay here and get sick, what’m I gonna do? Her Maribel and her Lumi just want the best for her.

She is convinced that it could be worse when she recalls the blurred chronicles of the previous pandemic in the village that her mother narrated to her over the loom, testimony that now dwells only in her memory, because it is not collected in any newspaper library or in any church register or in any other collective memory of this world, and it is sinking deeper and deeper into the mysterious recesses of history. Those memories of memories are hidden like an ephemeral treasure in the oldest person in Navarrevisca, who has just gone to bed to rest her leg, which hurts less when she stretches it. Aunt Tomasa dreams of dreaming that her grandmother survives and tells her everything that happened in Navarrevisca during the Spanish flu.

{Translated by Adam Lischinsky}

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More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.