It was February 24, and the evening, as usual this time of year, was dreary, very dreary. Poe- and raven-type dreary, and that’s saying something. The room was full, nevertheless. It was a classic lecture hall like several used by cultural organizations around the city. It was in a room loaned out by the Consello da Cultura, the very prestigious Cultural Council. The room had the original eighteenth-century structure, but the walls were pure white. On the left side, the windows looked out on Obradoiro Square and, just beyond, the cathedral.
It was like the building and its spaces exerted a mysterious influence on people who attended events there. There were too many cross-currents not to feel the force of something, maybe even that ‘something’ in Rosalía de Castro’s poem where she asks ‘que pasa arredor de min?’ What’s going on around me? Rosalía was alluding to other matters, but people mention how something happens when they go into the Pazo de Raxoi, an administrative building that was much newer, but was sturdy and placed on one side of the Obradoiro. It was the last of the four sides to be occupied. Something
about the Pazo gave the impression it was always about to say or do something. It was the perfect home for the Consello.
Today’s guest, who was scheduled to speak at 8:00, after which there would be questions and after that, tapas, had not been announced by name. The speaker’s topic, the title of her presentation, had not been revealed either. All the people who had been invited had only been informed that the talk would address some very important questions. People theorized there would be mentions of Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More, Emilia Pardo Bazán, Madame de Staël, and other famous female intellectuals from before 1900. It was all conjecture, because they felt they’d been kept in the dark. Well, maybe there had been a title given, but it had been in fine print. It was probably something like: “We are all in this together.” Bad title, actually, but the goal had been to sound innocuous, to inform without attracting too much attention. Stay under the radar, as they say now.
A good-sized crowd of around seventy people - about the number of seats in the room, with a few standees - was waiting. Most were women, but to their credit a few men were there. Judging from their appearance, the men looked like retired faculty members from the university. The women ranged in age, but were pleasantly mature and most looked at least as professional as the men, maybe more so.
A few members of the public were stealing glances at phone or watch, when at last the speaker arrived. She caught the public off guard, because there had been no warning and no introduction. The speaker introduced herself after surveying the people in the audience. She said her name was Rita. That was all. No last name, title, just a first name.
She began to address them, calmly and carefully, but what she was saying seemed disjointed, as if she were pulling words out of the air around her. Those listening to her were confused or even a little perturbed at what they assumed was a lack of professionalism. They soon discovered that there was more going on than met the eye. They quickly realized that they were not just there to listen.
The presenter, some thought, looked familiar, as if they’d seen her or a portrait of her somewhere. They didn’t have much time to wonder. Rita waited thirty seconds, then recited:
Dicen que no hablan las plantas, ni las fuentes, ni los pájaros,
Ni el onda con sus rumores, ni con su brillo los astros,
Lo dicen, pero no es cierto, pues siempre cuando yo paso,
De mí murmuran y exclaman:
Ahí va la loca soñando
They say plants, fountains, birds do not speak,
nor does the murmuring wave or the shining stars,
They say that, but it isn’t true, because when I walk by
They whisper about me and they cry:
There goes that madwoman, the dreamer…
Immediately, there was speculation that Rita was, in fact, mad, even if she hadn’t done anything that the members of the audience could put a finger on. They were thinking it could be the way she just seemed to have emerged from nowhere, giving no warning before she began her presentation. Naturally, the impulse was not to listen. Rita was not acting normally. What was she reciting? Then it hit everybody, almost simultaneously. The lines were from a poem by Rosalía de Castro. They were from the famous author’s last book (i.e., 1884), but nobody was certain when the collection had been composed.
There goes that madwoman, the dreamer…
The words echoed in the minds of the people in the room. The lone woman who could hear nature and communicate with it, the one who was considered ‘not quite normal’ because of it. The people, or at least all of the women, in the room could identify with that feeling of being an odd duck. Many had spoken up, only to be the object of ridicule, sarcasm, or at best cold, blank stares. If that sounds impossible in this day and age, you try speaking up when no one else does, or when you are the only one of your kind in the group.
Rita was asking why the ability of the dreamer to understand nature and her willingness to travel alone qualified as insanity. The audience agreed that wasn’t fair. Then Rita continued:
Si yo fuese hombre, saldría en este momento y me dirigiría a un monte, pues el día está soberbio; tengo, sin embargo, que resignarme a permanecer encerrada en mi gran salón. Sea.
If I were a man, I’d go out right now and head to the nearby hills, because it’s such a beautiful day; nevertheless, I must resign myself to staying locked up in my big living room. Oh well.
The audience was the educated sort and had already recognized the origin of the poem, so they also suspected that the author of this brief statement was also Rosalía. Some even thought they recalled reading it somewhere. They were correct, because it was a letter from the poet to her husband, who was working elsewhere. None of the women could imagine what it must have been like to have to stay at home if you were a woman who had no man to accompany her.
A buzzing began in the room, as the idea of growing up in the nineteenth century seemed to them to be rather horrifying. At least a couple women denied that had ever been the case and clasped their hands tightly on their laps. They were not enjoying whatever you called this talk or presentation. Rita stood calmly and listened. It seemed as if this were something she welcomed: discussion. It didn’t matter that her talk, such as it was, had been interrupted. The interruption was just what she had hoped for.
The next part of the presentation required some explanation. The educated members of the audience might well be able to identify the source, but Rita couldn’t assume they all had. She explained that the speech made by Mara had come from the novel Flavio, and that everybody had thought poor Mara to be a spineless follower of her future husband. Of course the novel used his name as a title, because his voice was a lot louder, or more people heard it:
No comprendo… cómo podemos cometer jamás la debilidad de confesaros nuestros sentimientos… ¡Decid que queréis vernos esclavas y no compañeras vuestras; decid que de un ser que siente y piensa como vosotros queréis hacer unos juguetes vanos, unas máquinas… que… estén alegres y canten al ruido de sus cadenas…
Basically, Mara was pointing out how women shouldn’t be so weak as to tell men their feelings, that men want them to be their slaves, not their companions, try to keep them as toys with fake smiles, yet teary and happy as they drag their chains behind them…
Once more, two or three women thought this was just whining on the part of Mara and her creator, Rosalía, that men weren’t like that. The rest of the women caught glimpses of the men, some of whom seemed to be hiding snickers behind their hands. The hands received very chiding glances, to say the least. The hands came down to laps.
Rita was close to completion of her talk, and finally turned to the Rosalía most people knew well, to the poems people learned in school and that many could quote:
mentras cerraba a noite silenciosa
os seus loitos tristísimos
entorno da estranxeira na súa patria,
que, sin lar nin arrimo,
sentada na baranda contempraba
cal brilaban os lumes fuxitivos…
… while the quiet night clamped
its sad, sad mourning garb
around the foreigner in her native land,
the one without hearth nor shelter,
seated on the porch, watched
how the fleeting fires were shining…
Then the speaker jumped - well, almost jumped - a few feet closer to the audience. It wasn’t clear whether she was angry or just excited, whether she was talking at, or with, the people who were in the room overlooking the cathedral. Her voice had raised a few decibels:
“What does this poem mean?”
Glances in all directions by audience members. Someone ventured an answer:
“She doesn’t fit in. She’s alone.”
“Why doesn’t she fit in?”
“Her family is all gone.”
“And why is she poor?”
“Why is she alone? Where is her family?”
Responses from the women:
“She’s like a lot of other Galicians who work in rural areas.”
“Her family has emigrated to America. They never returned.”
“Some might have been killed in the civil war.”
Correction needed on the last suggestion:
“Not the fault of war. The author died fifty years before that started.”
Rita points out that they still haven’t identified all the meanings of foreigner. What is a foreigner? Why did the author select a woman rather than a man for this role?
“Because she was a woman and wrote about women?”
That was a start.
“Because the foreigner was smart. She knew what was up and how poverty had destroyed lives. Not just those of her own family, but the lives of many families.”
“Because she was angry about what her people had to do, how they worked so hard.”
“Wait - are we talking about Rosalía, the author, or about the foreigner in the poem?”
Everybody contemplated that question and looked to the speaker for clarification.
“Does it matter?”
Almost everybody then wanted to stop contemplating. They felt better thinking about how this type of situation was from many years ago and so was no longer pertinent.
Rita knew it was time for the finale - her parting shot, as it were. She recited slowly, reading the audience’s expressions carefully. She had to reach them:
Aqués que tén fama d' honrados na vila
roubáronme tanta brancura qu' eu tiña;
The ones that the town deems honorable
stole all the honor I had;
One woman, probably close to eighty, said:
“I know a lot of women who worked two jobs to feed their families and it still wasn’t enough.”
Another, about thirty years younger, mentioned that she knew cases of young women who paid their way through college by certain types of employment that good society condones. Single mothers also did it. Heads nod in agreement. You did what you had to do to survive, right? Doesn’t seem like the woman in the poem had anybody else to help her.
Nin pedra deixaron en dond' eu vivira;
sin lar, sin abrigo, morei nas curtiñas;
ó raso cas lebres dormín nas campías;
meus fillos... ¡meus anxos!... que tant' eu quería,
¡morreron, morreron ca fame que tiñan!
Not a stone remained where I once lived;
no home, no shelter, I lived in a shed;
I slept with the hares in the fields;
my children… my angels! … I loved them so,
they died, they just starved to death!
“How many homeless people are there in Galicia?” One woman looks very pensive as she asks the question. Another frowns. Another looks like she’s remembering something and trying not to cry. Many hands can be seen in the city and not a few villages, beside church doors, reaching for alms. Today, in the twenty-first century, not only two hundred years ago.
Estonces, cal loba doente ou ferida,
dun salto con rabia pillei a fouciña,
Mireinos con calma, i as mans estendidas,
dun golpe ¡dun soio! deixeinos sin vida.
Then, like an ailing or wounded she-wolf,
I quickly grabbed the sickle,
I looked at them calmly, reached out my hands,
and with one blow I took their lives.
Everybody notes that in this poem, the unhappy, angry woman is not backing down. There are a few muted cheers. At the same time, there are a few looks of disgust, because violence is never the answer. They say that aloud.
Rita calmly says:
“Then what is the answer? What would you do if you had to watch your children die of starvation? Nothing?”
“Well, I’d go to complain…”
“Go where? Complain to whom?” This question did not come from Rita. It was a person from the audience who had figured out that the sickle really had been the only answer. You can never forgive somebody who is responsible for your child’s death. More nodding. Baby-killers really don’t have a conscience. Basically, the ones who have everything, whether or not they kill babies, don’t care about those who have nothing. It’s a global thing, isn’t it?
Rita was winding up now. She too seemed to have an expression of utter sadness.
I estonces... estonces cumpreuse a xusticia:
eu, neles; i as leises, na man qu' os ferira.
And then… only then, there was justice:
mine against them, the law against me, their killer.
The woman in the poem accepts her fate. The law is not on her side. Only the honorable ones are allowed to be assassins.
One of the men finally says something. He isn’t actually a faculty member, but rather a weary man with a curved spine and cracked, callused hands. He observes:
“I’m a lot older than I look. I had to emigrate when I was a boy. I went to the fields to work, in the southern US. People working with me told stories of their families and how children often starved or were poisoned by the pesticides sprayed on the crops to make them look good in the supermarket.”
Another member of the audience noted that some writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, had told tales of horror about slavery in their country. People heard them and referred to the works often. The woman who mentioned their names seemed to have read a lot. She knew exactly what Rita was doing and thought it was brilliant.
Rita had forced the audience to listen to the writings of Rosalía de Castro. She wasn’t there just to recite, however, and in truth the entire group had been speaking up. It didn’t matter if they agreed with her; they just needed to think. And talk. She let them continue until they had gone well over the planned amount of time. Then, suddenly, as quickly as the Gentleman in the Blue Boots - who was really a cross-dressing muse in Rosalía’s novel of the same name -, Rita was gone. (That novel is a whole other story, but it’ll be worth looking at in the future.)
The group that had attended the session had been talking as much as the presenter, now mysteriously gone, although nobody had noticed whether she had been wearing blue boots. Now they were reluctant to stop. They thought about the great hors d’oeuvres and the sparkling wine set out on two long tables outside the meeting room, but then they thought about more things. They continued the conversation that had been handed to them on a platter, with a weapon or two, and lots of noise. That was what Rosalía had offered them.
They continued to discuss the injustice that was ruining the world and the lives of people in it. Rita’s presentation had made them start to connect the dots, across time, oceans, and languages. But Rita had disappeared.
What were they supposed to do?
Later that evening, in a dark chamber somewhere in, or rather under, Santiago, the Graystockings* congratulated Rita on what she had done.
*Those persons in need of information concerning the Graystockings are cordially invited to read the story of the same title in this collection. Please note, however, that the author is not Rosalía de Castro.