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Monday, June 30, 2014

"Sin of Omission" by Ana María Matute

2014 is shaping up to be a terrible year for the literary world in Spanish. I learned last week that the world has lost Ana María Matute, master of realism and pithy short stories as well as longer works that expose all the ironies of society.

What better way to honor her memory than with one of her stories? This is my humble translation of perhaps her most famous. Enjoy.

Sin of Omission
Ana María Matute

His mother, who had been all that was left him, died when he was thirteen. When he became an orphan it had already been at least three years since he’d last gone to school, because he had to make a living here and there, wherever he could. His only relative was his mother’s cousin, called Emeterio Ruiz Heredia. Emeterio was the mayor and had a two-story house on the town square, round and reddish under the August sun. Emeterio had two hundred head of cattle grazing along the slopes of Sagrado, and a beautiful daughter nearing twenty, brunette, robust, laughing and a bit dim-witted. His wife, thin and as hard a black poplar, did not speak gently and knew how to take charge. Emeterio Ruiz hadn’t gotten along well with that distant cousin, but he helped the widow out of a sense of obligation by finding her odd jobs. Then, although the mayor took the son in once he was an orphan, with no money or job, he did not look on him with sympathy, and everyone else in the house felt the same way.

The first night Lope slept at Emeterio’s house, it was under the grain loft. They gave him dinner and a glass of wine. The next day, while Ementerio was tucking in his shirt and the sun had barely risen to the roosters’ crowing, he called down the stairs, startling the chickens that had been sleeping on the risers.


Lope came over barefoot with sleep in his eyes. He wasn’t very big for thirteen but he had a head that looked even bigger for being close-shaven.

“You’re going to be Sagrado’s shepherd.”

Lope found his boots and put them on. In the kitchen, the daughter, Francisca, had made potatoes with paprika. Lope wolfed them down, his aluminum spoon dripping with every bite.

“You know how it’s done. I think you walked the hills of Santa Áurea with Aurelio Bernal’s goats.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You won’t go by yourself. Roque the Medium shepherds around there, too. You’ll go together.”

“Yes, sir.”

Francisca put a loaf of bread in his knapsack, along with a small aluminum flask, goat fat, and cured meat.

“Get going,” said Emeterio Ruiz Heredia.

Lope looked at him. Lope had round black eyes that shone.

“What are you looking at? Go on!”

Lope left, knapsack on his shoulders. He picked up the crook, thick and shiny with use, that he kept leaning against the wall like a dog.

He was climbing Sagrado’s hill when Don Lorenzo, the teacher, saw him. That afternoon, in the tavern, Don Lorenzo lit a cigarette with Emeterio, who was throwing back a glass of anisette.

“I saw Lope,” he said. “He was heading up Sagrado Hill. Such a shame.”

“Yes,” said Emeterio, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. “He’s a shepherd. He already knows he has to earn his own living. Life is hard. That poor bastard Pericote didn’t even leave him a wall to lean on or a place to drop dead.”

“The bad thing,” said Don Lorenzo, scratching an ear with a long yellow nail, “is that the kid could be something. If he had the means, someone could make something out of him. He’s smart, very smart. At school…”

Emeterio cut him off with his hand in front of his eyes. “Yes, yes. I’m not saying he’s not. But one must earn one’s own living. Life gets worse with every passing day.”

He ordered another glass of anisette. The teacher nodded in agreement.

Lope arrived at Sagrado and found Roque the Medium by calling for him. Roque was a bit slow and had been Emeterio’s shepherd for about 15 years. He was almost 50 and barely ever spoke. They slept in the same mud hut, under the oaks, taking advantage of the shelter under the branches. They could only fit into the hut bending over and they had to go in on all fours, half crawling, but it was cool in the summer and warm enough in the winter.

Summer went by. Then autumn and winter. The shepherds didn’t go to town except on festival days. Every two weeks, a young lad brought up “rations”: bread, jerky, lard, garlic. Sometimes, a wine pouch. The summits of Sagrado were beautiful, profound blue, terrible, blinding. The sun, high and round, like an unmoving eye, reigned over the land. In the early morning fog, when he couldn’t hear the buzzing of flies or any rustling, Lope would wake up with the mud roof before his eyes. He would stay quiet for a while, feeling the body of Roque the Medium by his side, like a breathing log. Then, he would crawl towards the corral. His shouts were lost, useless and grandiose in the sky, mixed in with runaway stars. Only God knew where they would eventually land. Like rocks. Like the years. One year. Two. Five.

Once, five years later, Emeterio sent the lad for Lope. He had the doctor examine Lope, who had grown healthy and strong, like a tree.

“What an oak!” said the doctor, who was new. Lope blushed and didn’t know what to say.

Francisca had married and had three small sons who were playing in the town square. A dog approached Lope with its tongue hanging out. Maybe it remembered him. Then he saw Manuel Enríquez, a schoolmate of his who had always been behind in his studies. Manuel was wearing a grey suit and a tie. He passed by Lope and waved.

Francisca commented, “Good career, that one. His father sent him off to study and now he’s a lawyer.”

When he got to the fountain, Lope saw him again. Suddenly, he wanted to talk to him. But his shout stayed in his throat like a ball.

“Eh,” he said. Or something like that.

Manuel turned around to look at him and recognized him. It didn’t seem possible: he knew Lope. He smiled.

“Lope! Hey man, Lope…!”

Who could understand what he was saying? What strange accents men have, what strange words come out of the dark holes of their mouths! A thick blood was filling his veins while he listened to Manuel Enríquez.

Manuel opened a flat, silver case filled with the whitest, most perfect cigarettes Lope had ever seen in his life. Manuel handed one to him, smiling.

Lope held out his hand. Then he realized how rough, how coarse, it was. Like a piece of cured meat. His fingers weren’t flexible, they wouldn’t play along. How strange the other’s hand: a refined hand, with fingers like big worms, agile, white, flexible. What a hand, wax-colored, with shining, polished nails. What a strange hand: not even women had hands like that. Lope’s hand fumbled. At last, he took the cigarette, white and fragile, strange, in his hard, heavy fingers: useless, absurd, in his fingers. Lope’s blood stopped between his eyebrows. A blood clot crowded quietly, fermenting between his eyebrows. He crushed the cigarette with his fingers and turned around. He couldn’t stay there, not even with Manuelito following him in surprise, calling, “Lope! Lope!”

Emeterio was sitting on his porch in short sleeves, watching his grandchildren play. He was smiling at his oldest grandson and resting from work with a bottle of wine within reach. Lope went directly to Emeterio and saw his grey eyes, questioning.

“Go on, boy, it’s time you go back to Sagrado.”

In the town plaza there was a square, reddish rock. One of those rocks as big as melons that the boys take from some fallen-down wall. Slowly, Lope took it in his hands. Emeterio looked at him comfortably, with a mild curiosity. His right hand rested between his belt and his stomach. He didn’t even have time to take it out: a muffled thud, the splattering of his own blood on his chest, death and surprise, like two sisters, came upon him just like that.

When they took him away handcuffed, Lope cried. And the women, howling like wolves, wanted to hit him and followed him with their veils raised over their heads, outraged.

“My God, the one who took you in. My God, the one who made you a man. My God, you would have died of hunger if he hadn’t taken you in…”

Lope only cried and said, “Yes, yes, yes…”

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