When I Sing, Mountains Dance

Irene Solà is a Catalan writer and artist, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature, and the Documenta Prize for first novels, among others. Translated into English by Mara Faye Lethem, her latest book – When I Sing, Mountains Dance – is published by Granta. Set in the Pyrenees, against the backdrop of Francisco Franco’s repressive rule, it is a wild and lyrical ode to the terrible beauty of the natural world and its inhabitants. In the following extract, we present the opening chapter of this fiercely imaginative work



We arrived with full bellies. Painfully full. Black bellies, burdened with cold, dark water, lightning bolts, and thunderclaps. We came from the sea and from other mountains, and from unthinkable places, and we’d seen unthinkable things. We scratched at the rock atop the peaks, as if we bore salt, to ensure not even weeds would sprout there. We chose the color of the hills and the fields, and the gleams in rivers, and the glints in upward-glancing eyes. When the wild beasts caught sight of us, they cowered deep in their caves and crimped their necks, lifting their snouts to catch the scent of damp earth approaching. We covered them all like a blanket. The oak and the boxwood and the birch and the fir. Shhhhhhh. And they all went silent, because we were a stern roof and it was up to us to decide who would have the tranquility and joy of a dry soul.

After our arrival all was stillness and pressure, and we forced the thin air down to bedrock, then let loose the first thunderclap. Bang! A reprieve. And the coiled snails shuddered in their secluded homes, godless and without a prayer, knowing that if they didn’t drown, they would emerge redeemed to breathe the dampness in. And then we poured water out in colossal drops like coins onto the earth and the grass and the stones, and the mighty thunderclap resounded inside the chest cavity of every beast. And that was when the man said damn and blast. He said it aloud, because when a man is alone there’s no need to think in silence. Damn and blast, you had to get yourself stuck in a storm. And we laughed, huh, huh, huh, huh, as we dampened his head, and our water slunk into his collar, and slid down his shoulder and the small of his back. Our droplets were cold and made him cross.

The man came from a house not far off, halfway up to the crest, by a river that must have been cold because it hid beneath the trees. There he’d left behind two cows, a bunch of pigs and hens, a dog and two roving cats, an old man, and a wife and two kids. Domènec was the man’s name. And he had a lush midmountain garden patch and some poorly plowed fields beside the river. The patch was tended by the old man – his father, whose back was flat as a board – and Domènec plowed the fields. Domènec had come to reel off his verses over on this side of the mountain. To see what flavor and what sound they had, because when a man is alone there’s no need to whisper. That evening when he checked on the herd he found a fistful of early black chanterelles, and he carried the mushrooms wrapped in the belly of his shirt. The baby cried when he left the house, and his wife said “Domènec” as if protesting, as if pleading, and Domènec went out anyway. It’s hard to come up with verses and contemplate the virtue hidden inside all things when the kids are crying with the shrillness of a flayed piglet, making your heart race despite your best efforts to keep calm. And he wanted to go out and look at the cows. He had to go out and look at the cows. What did Sió know about cows? Nothing. The calf went maaaaaaaaaaa, maaaaaaaaaaaaaa. Desperately. Sió knew nothing about cows. And again he cried out, damn and blast!, because we’d snuck up quickly, hell yes, capricious and stealthy, and we’d trapped him. Damn and blast!, because the calf’s tail was stuck in a jumble of wires. The wires had gotten lodged between two trees, and what with all its straining the calf’s legs were shredded and gleamed bloody, ragged and dirty. It went maaaaaaaaaaa, maaaaaaaaaaa, trapped by its tail between the two trees, and its mother guarded it restlessly. Through the downpour Domènec climbed over to the animal. His legs were good and strong from barreling up the mountain to get some air when the kids were yelling too much, or when they weighed too heavy on him, and the plowing weighed too heavy on him, and the old man’s silence, and all the words, one after the other, from his wife, who was called Sió, and who was from Camprodon, and who’d gotten herself into a fine fix, agreeing to go up there to that mountaintop with a man who slipped away and an old man who never spoke. And of course, sometimes Domènec loved her, loved her fiercely, still. But what a weight, for the everlasting love of God and Satan, how heavy that house could be! Folks should have more time to get to know each other before they marry. More time to live before making children. Sometimes he grabbed her by the waist and spun her around, round and round, like when they were courting, because Sió, oh Sió, lord have mercy, what a pair of legs! He dropped the chanterelles. The calf lowed. Domènec approached the animal, leading with his hands. Slowly, step by step. Saying things in a deep, quieting voice. Ssssh, ssshh, he said. Its mother watched him warily. Domènec’s hair was streaming wet. When he got home he’d have Sió heat up some water to wash off the cold and the rain. He looked at the wire that cut into the calf’s legs every time it moved. He grabbed its tail firmly, pulled out his knife, and deftly cut the knot. And then we let loose the second bolt. Quick as a snake. Angry. Wide like a spiderweb. Lightning goes where it wants to, like water and landslides and little insects and magpies, transfixed by all things pretty and shiny. The knife was out of Domènec’s pocket and it gleamed like a treasure, like a precious stone, like a fistful of coins. The metal blade, polished mirror, reflected us back. Like open arms, luring us closer. Lightning goes where it will, and the second bolt went into Domènec’s head. Deep, deep down, down to his heart. And everything he saw inside his eyes was black from the burn. The man collapsed onto the grass, and the meadow pressed its cheek to his, and all our giddy, happy waters moved into him through his shirtsleeves, beneath his belt, into his underwear and socks, searching for still-dry skin. He died. And the cow took off in a frenzy, and the calf followed after.

The four women who’d witnessed it approached him. By degrees. Because they weren’t used to taking any interest in how people die. Or in attractive men. Or in ugly men, for that matter. But the scene had been captivating. The light so bright and so dazzling that it sated all need for seeing. The knife had called to the lightning, the lightning had hit the man’s head, bull’s-eye, it had parted his hair right down the middle, and the cows had fled in a frenzy, like in some slapstick comedy. Someone should write a song about the man’s hair and the lightning comb. Putting pearls in his hair, in the song, white like the gleam off the knife. And include something about his body, and his open lips, and his light eyes like cups filling up with rain. About his face, so lovely on the outside and so burned on the inside. And about the torrential water that fell onto his chest and rushed beneath his back, as if it wanted to carry him off. And about his hands, the song would tell, stumpy and thick and calloused, one open like a flower expecting a bee, the other gripping the knife like tree roots swallowing a rock.

One of the women, the one named Margarida, touched his hand, partly to find out if the man was burning with the lightning bolt inside him, and partly just for the caress. Then the women left him be and gathered up the soaking wet black chanterelles he’d dropped, and abandoned the scene, because they had many other things to do, and many other things to think about. Then, as if their satisfaction were contagious, we stopped raining. Sated. Dispersed. And when it was clear we were done, the birds hopped out onto the branches and sang the song of the survivors, their little stomachs filled with mosquitoes, yet bristling and furious with us. They had little to complain about, as we hadn’t even hailed, we’d rained just enough to kill a man and a handful of snails. We’d barely knocked down any nests and hadn’t flooded a single field.

We retreated. Dog-tired. And we looked upon our work. Leaves and branches dripped, and we headed off, vacant and slack, for elsewhere.

One time we rained frogs and another time we rained fish. But best of all is hail. Precious stones pummel towns and skulls and tomatoes. Round and frozen. Covering terraced walls and paths with icy treasure. The frogs fell like a plague. The men and women ran, and the frogs, who were teensy-weensy, hid. Alas. The fish fell like a blessing on the men and women’s heads, like slaps, and the people laughed and lifted the fish up in the air as if they wanted to give them back to us, but they didn’t want to and we wouldn’t have wanted them back anyway. The frogs croaked inside our bellies. The fish stopped moving but didn’t die. But whatever. Best of all are the hailstorms.

When I Sing, Mountains Dance by Irene Sola is published by Granta, out now

Artwork Eleanor Taylor

This article is taken from Port issue 30. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here