The strongest waves reach our feet, covering them with sand and foam, and Hana lets out peals of laughter and splashes, splattering everywhere. Her sweet, chubby, gap-toothed face never tires of smiling, and every time she wants to show me something she pulls on my fingers with her small, thin hand. Is it like this, the beach you’re going to? Yes, but far, far away. And the water I’m touching now, can it reach there? Sure, Hana, the current will bring it there; tell me, are you going to write me a message this time, too? Sure, sure! The current will bring it to you, right? Hana sinks her feet into the damp sand and gets excited thinking of all the things she’ll explain to me in her message; her dress is already wet, but that doesn’t matter, it’s hot. As the sun sets, it lights up the water, the sky, Hana’s hair and dress and turns the waves into golden crests. Soon we’ll have to go get mommy. Should we go? Wait, I’ll bring her a few small snails. Will you help me? Running up and down like a very agile tiny animal with boundless energy, Hana fishes out the little shells and holds them in her hand; when she kneels, her braids touch the sand. She occasionally gives an excited shout and a triumphant laugh: this one is really very beautiful, isn’t it? Mommy’s going to love it!
It will only be two weeks, as always. They already know it, but it’s one of those things that I can’t leave without telling them, I wouldn’t feel calm. When I come back from the trip I’ll have three days off, and we’ll go to the beach, and then we’ll pick up Mommy when she gets off work, right, Hana? But you’ll remember, Dad, to leave the truck and go to the beach to look for my message? I already wrote it and we’ll go throw it into the sea on Sunday, okay? Marija smiles. Yes, Sunday; I don’t think we’ll get there before then… But on Sunday for sure. At first the words came out with effort, but after a little more effort they turned cheery. That’s the way – with that same smiling, dedicated kindness – that Marija would spend the week. Until Sunday, only on Sunday, at the beach, the happiness would glide effortlessly, without anyone demanding it, while the bottle that had just been tossed into the water sunk and appeared again, and sunk again, until finally it remained dancing on one side and drifting into the distance. It’s the current, Mom, that pushes it out to sea, did you know? And Marija will nod, she too wants to believe it, and perhaps in that moment of maximum gullibility, of abandon and of hope, she will allow herself to think of me, to count the days and the nights, to remember a caress that still gives her gooseflesh, it’s not the wind; and while the water wets her legs she’ll drop down on the sand, face up, and lose herself in the most precious memories, but just for a moment, a few minutes, anything else would be unwise, until the waves take them out to sea, like the duplicitous bottle, because she doesn’t want them during the week, she has too much work, she can’t find a place for them anywhere.
Really it’s better this way. I’m a holiday extravagance, like the sea and the waves, and if I dare show up on a Tuesday, or a Monday, if I take advantage of a moment of weakness to intrude among her thoughts, they’ll deny me all past and future caresses, I’ll be received with hostile silence in the lonely bed, where it is forbidden to cry and yearn and where a body shrinks and hugs itself, hurting and lying to itself, it doesn’t miss me, it doesn’t miss me, it doesn’t want to think about how many nights are still left; tomorrow it has to be up at six, that’s all. She grips her arms with stiff fingers, lowers her head, tosses and turns whimpering, nothing’s wrong, soon the exhaustion will smother all that restlessness, and if that isn’t possible, because I persist in clutching onto poor Marija as she holds back her tears, if I force her to think, he is far away, I am here, we are both alone; then she’ll have no choice, she’ll cry, and afterward hands will travel over the cold body, they’ll trick her without even going over the memories, they will switch her off quickly, expeditiously, without names and without faces; she already sighs, she’s already calm, she only wants to get to sleep very soon.
So it’ll only be two weeks, and now is the moment to leave, to receive Hana’s effusive hug and kisses, Marija’s silent kiss, the smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. She’d like to tell me that she’ll miss me a lot and that she hopes the two weeks fly by, but she can’t, and so she is silent. She lowers her gaze, taking Hana by the shoulders, and when I hug them both together she is very, very still. The clock strikes nine: I really have to be leaving. The day is fading; it is a day of farewell, but the dusk is nevertheless very lovely, filled with orangish gleams that turn gray and then black. I say goodbye, still looking at them. Only after I left did a light come on inside the house.
As I drive I count the days, and think, and remember. Sometimes it occurs to me that perhaps I am only really awake while I’m driving, and the rest is a pleasant but always fleeting dream.”
The first two or three days are always the worst, the ones that still belong completely to them, and I spend them remembering routines that for me are always exceptions. With my eyes locked on the highway or the blurry landscape at dawn, I start to hear the shrill sound of an alarm. Now Marija will turn it off and leap out of bed and, after having a cup of coffee, she’ll head to her workshop with a little song on her lips, because she’s always in a good mood when she wakes up. It won’t be until quite a bit later that the neighbor – I can never remember her name – will come by to pick Hana up and take her to school along with her own daughter. I can imagine the house dull, so irreparably empty without them that my presence, when I am there, never fills it completely: the stiff drawn curtains, the clock’s impatient tick-tock, the muffled buzz of the refrigerator from the kitchen, the sad howls of a couple of hunting dogs in the yard next door.
As I drive I count the days, and think, and remember. Sometimes it occurs to me that perhaps I am only really awake while I’m driving, and the rest is a pleasant but always fleeting dream. It is driving when I realize that over the last few days when I woke up by her side, Marija left the house silent, not singing. Was she really smiling when she kissed me before leaving the house? I can’t remember. Now on the radio they play a sweet song, in Italian, and the sun starts to come up: for the moment it is merely a red disk, half-hidden behind the mist. This is the best moment of the day: the highways extend long and deserted, the air is fresh, the pale, rosy light engenders fantasy and memories are more vivid. The clinking of a teaspoon in a cup and the smell of coffee. A cough stifled to not bother those who are sleeping. Slow, careful steps. Shoes that were once pretty, ankles that still are, white and thin, covered in delicate veins. A key that turns in the lock. Silence. The door that opens and closes gently, more footsteps that head down the gravel path. And more silence. I realize that I couldn’t actually say whether that was the only time I didn’t hear her singing in the morning. For a moment, that uncertainty made me grip the steering wheel very tightly, and suddenly the song on the radio seemed so odious and mocking that I had to lower the volume until it was just a murmur.
The sun doesn’t stop, it just keeps climbing through the sky indifferent to all the worries and all the journeys. The air clears, the pavement heats up. At home, at this time of day, the light that filters obliquely through the blinds is yellow and thick, and dazzles me as I toss and turn in bed. If it is a workday and Marija has already left, it is now when her absence is most painful, and more intense than all the mornings when I wake up in the cabin bunk, also alone, hundreds of kilometers away from her. I bury my face in her pillow, run my lips over the wrinkled sheets that have touched her skin and I breathe in her scent as the light overruns everything. The alarm clock goes off again: now it is for Hana. Some footsteps, shoeless and clumsy with sleep, come to say good morning to me, they give me a kiss on the cheek. Hana rubs her eyes, goes muttering to the bathroom, she wanted to stay longer in bed, of course, but she knows she can’t, she’s a very responsible girl, extremely obedient; almost too much so, I thought at first, remembering how I had to shout at my siblings. Hana goes back and forth getting things ready; she doesn’t remember that it is exceptional that her father is there, that she found him in the bed that’s normally empty, that she was able to give him a kiss. She dresses, sits at the kitchen table, turns on the radio, waits for them to braid her hair (her father, her mother, the neighbor lady, she doesn’t care: they do her braids like every morning, and she lets them do it with her eyes closed). While I prepare her breakfast, she holds her head up with one hand and yawns. When the neighbor rings the bell, she kisses me again on the cheek before leaving. Now she isn’t as sleepy, now she can smile. But she saves her hugs and laughter for welcomes and the farewells, and for the beach, like Marija does with her smiles.
I keep the little bottle with the message that I’m supposed to find washed up on some beach on the counter in the cabin, on a tray. During the trip I will often see the sea there in the distance, dark gray, little more than a fog. It won’t be until the last stretch of highway before my destination that I will get closer, or it will get closer to me, and it won’t be until then that I will really feel its presence, as it extends by my side blue and cheerful like our own sea, and I’ll be able to make out its scent, its waves, the passing of a single sail, a tiny oil tanker planted on the horizon. And that will be the closest, on the entire trip, that I’ll get to the sea. Really (poor Hana!), I won’t set foot on a sandy beach for two weeks, until I’m back home.
I will arrive on Sunday. Marija will be there, we will all three sit on the sand and examine the intrepid travelling bottle again, the loving message. It went by sea and came back by highway, what do you think, Mom? Marija will smile guiltily. Some day it might get lost, Hana… What do you mean? Her gaze is severe and offended: how skeptical mother is! Hana will look at me so I will share her annoyance. Look, look, don’t you see how it works? And, on the sand, Hana and I draw the sea, the coasts and the countries as best we can. The islands will be shells and little snails, and Hana’s finger will trace the currents and the waves that, without fail, carry messages to all the lost fathers on land, on beyond the highway: joyous mystery among mysteries that only girls and the sea understand. Do you see, Mom? Marija will smile again, accepting the evidence, the rest is just nonsense. And when she lies down beside me, water on her legs, salty wind in her hair, I will give her a kiss. Perhaps then she will wonder at what moment happy memories turn sad, and why.
Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem from the collection L’estiu no s’acaba mai (“Summer Never Ends”), published by Proa.
Alba Dedeu was born in Granollers, Catalunya, in 1984. She studied medicine in Barcelona and Florence then became a literary translator and writer. Her first collection of stories Gats al parc (“Cats in the Park”, 2011) won the Mercè Rodoreda Short Story Prize and the Serra d’Or Critics’ Award.
Mara Faye Lethem is a Brooklyn-born, Barcelona-based writer and literary translator from Catalan and Spanish. Her translations include Pablo de Santis’s The Paris Enigma (2008), Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Pandora in the Congo (2009), David Trueba’s Learning to Lose (2011) and Patricio Pron’s My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain (2013). Her translations of Eduardo Sacheri’s Papers in the Wind and Marc Pastor’s Barcelona Shadows are forthcoming.