An excerpt from Visiones de infancia, a memoir by María Flora Yáñez, translated by Alice Edwards.
Her name was Inés and everything about her was like a flame—pale and trembling. When she turned two and started to talk, my mother told us: “Treat your sister carefully, gently. She’s different than other children.”
Our curiosity was awakened instantly. “Why is she different? Doesn’t she feel things like we do?”
“On the contrary, she feels things much, much more than you do,” answered my mother gravely.
We wanted to know exactly what the difference was.
“She’s too delicate,” she explained. “Anything can break her.”
We looked with surprise and a little disdain at that pale and precious baby, with her blonde hair and wide sea-green eyes. She looked like a porcelain doll and we judged it more prudent and more comfortable to exclude her from our daily life.
She grew, thinner and more delicate every day. But she lived in her separate world, far from our games and laughter. Any little noise terrified her and then she’d open her immense green eyes, those marvelous eyes the color of seaweed, and she’d look around anxiously. She wanted to join the triumphant circle of children, but she remained motionless on the edge of the commotion, timid and shy, until something, any small thing, made her feel that the dazzling world of childhood was, for her, an impassable, forbidden place. She would cling to my mother’s skirt again, seeking safety and protection as if she understood that her fragility was a chasm between her and the universe.
She always held onto the fringe of a cashmere shawl that my mother used at home. When she let go, she would suddenly lose her balance and wobble, on the verge of falling. My mother often did an experiment, surreptitiously using her scissors to snip the fringe she clutched in her fingers, separating them from the shawl. And without noting the subterfuge, Inés would keep walking upright very confidently, with the silk strands in her hand, held up only by her imagination. The fringe was her amulet, her magic wand.
The memories and visions arise, fleetingly, stored in the depths of that temple of memory where we keep distant emotions. Emotions that sometimes sleep for years but then suddenly surface, stirring us, drowning us with the strength of flood waters. One family evening comes back to me. Sitting in the hall, next to the big table in the center of the room, I was drawing with paper and pen. I happened to look up, and I was struck by the development of a subtle, almost imperceptible drama. Standing on the other side of the table, she had seen something shiny on the table that had caught her attention. This time she dared to act, and she stretched out her thin fingers to grasp the glowing object. But a sharp look from someone –I don’t know who—stopped her. Then, shaken by one of her terrible fears, she pulled back her hand a little and remained suspended, mute, helpless, contemplating the object with anxious eyes, the way we look at things we see for the first time.
I also was watching, interested. And that small hand—that hand that would never dare again—hanging in the air a moment, seemed to my young eyes something infinitely vulnerable and precious. Then her diminutive fingers trembled in the air like butterfly wings, and the trembling moved up her arm, to her mouth open in a sob, and then to her entire little body. Her whole self was shaking. And I didn’t see anything else. It was as if a curtain had fallen because I lowered my eyes again to my paper and I lost myself in my scribbles. The vision had upset me so much that it was as if I had just learned to see. But because of one of those strange childish reactions, I pretended not to have seen the gesture, the desire, nor the trembling, and I adopted an indifferent attitude, keeping for myself, like a treasure, that scene that belonged to me and was whole because I was the only one to capture it.
A year passed. Then one afternoon, during a summer vacation spent at a flowered villa my parents had rented on the tip of a perfumed romantic hill, the ethereal little girl passed away, like a flame snuffed out, just after she turned seven. It was the first time I had felt death so close. My parents had us carefully approach the white tuberoses that framed her. She was so cold, so still, and nevertheless so much herself! She had stayed by our side, isolated and full of mystery, and now, despite her lowered eyelids, she seemed to watch us from her solitude. I thought I saw a reproach on her waxen face for me, for all us children. How little she was understood and how far she had lived from children her own age! Our blind and rough exuberance couldn’t penetrate the extreme sensitivity that surrounded her like a web.
The day after her burial, we left the aromatic hillside in a carriage pulled by three horses, leaving the house where death had visited us forever.
I don’t need to try very hard to return to that musical vacation that was cut short one day. There were two terraces on the house: one overlooking the valley, the other the hills that like a staircase ascended steeply into the clouds. From both terraces you saw different landscapes. Above, scattered on the spiraling paths, the harmonious silhouette of a tiny church with its toy-like spire and beside it a great villa with a garden that hosted the games of a swarm of children. Below, very near, before your gaze arrived at the valley with trees and houses, there was an open area where a group of craftsmen worked.
I used to spend a lot of time watching the movements of a wood cutter, and that’s how I discovered with surprise that sight is quicker than hearing. The strong arm holding the hatchet would fall on the wood and just an instant later, the thud would reverberate. This discovery seemed like a miracle to me and filled me with happiness. So much so that I still recall staring in awe as I caught the rhythmic movements of the carpenter and then the eagerness of my ten-year-old heart waiting for the sound of the axe against the wounded wood.
Oh, my childhood gardens—smelling of new feelings, magic rose bushes, the untouched green of dreams that marked my mind forever and that now return in droves, renewing my soul.
We left that house, happy and bustling as a silver bell, the day after the terrible funeral. I still see the row of high windows lined up like sentinels, above, and the little wooden tower highlighted against the sky while our coach, laden with suitcases, slowly descended towards the sea on a wooded road that—I don’t know why—we children had baptized “the road of the windmills.” We didn’t know what “windmill” meant, but it sounded like music. Cardinal-red and wrapped in vines, the house on the hill looked down on us from the summit and its dense breath seemed to still surround us. The coach drew away. And inside, my mother, who was leaving behind a piece of herself, looked at us with eyes red from weeping, unconsciously counting us, one by one. One child was missing, the most beautiful, the most beloved, the one who died on the hilltop.
And when the coach reached the last turn, she broke down and covered her face with a handkerchief to avoid the sight of the fragrant house that had betrayed us. “I can’t see it anymore! The trees are in the way!” one of the children shouted, waving his arms. We echoed him, excited by this unexpected and brusque departure and the next leg of the journey by train, already forgetting the pensive little girl, without measuring the magnitude of what we had lost.