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The Pact

panoràmica del poble de Sallent

It all seems like a tale now, but it’s true — I lived in one of those houses that edged the open space that served as a square, where summer festivals were held, together with common meals and dances accompanied by accordions and violins. Churchgoers also passed through there on their way to and from the church, now closed. The church, the square in front of it, and the small cemetery were at the centre of a jumble of some forty farmhouses scattered between Santa Pau and Mieres.

The house that they had refurbished for me was the only one that shared party walls with an adjacent dwelling, an old house that, like so many others, belonged to one of the region’s oldest lineages. The owner, the master of Cadamont, had given over the house and had refashioned the stables to make a library, which would also double as the village schoolhouse. The master of Cadamont manor had properties all over the countryside, and he was well known for his articles in the Olot and Girona press. A reformist and freethinker, the master of Cadamont manor had offered to pay the teacher and librarian, and to loan the house and any books that might be necessary.

celebració arribada

That was the year 1925, and my arrival at El Sallent was a major event.

When I arrived there, after passing by the Cadamont manor, I was welcomed by everybody there at the square; people came to visit me at home, families greeted me and thanked me for accepting to become a teacher in such a small village.

havia fet anar a buscar Maria Pruan

I was assigned an assistant, an old woman that the mistress of Cadamont had rescued from a place near Briolf, a small rise located beyond the Collell shrine. The woman was barely scraping by in a ruined farmyard, and the mistress had called to seek her out. Maria Pruan — that was the old woman’s name — cleaned the library and the square, washed my clothes and made me lunch and dinner. The mistress offered her a roof, firewood and food in exchange for being the master’s housemaid and keeping the library tidy.

El rebedor de la casa s’omplia amb una trentena de nens...

The library door — the old stable door — opened at 9 o’clock. The schoolchildren arrived punctually, with their hair slicked back and their books and their faggots in winter. The entrance hall was filled with some thirty children who read, wrote or practised their multiplication tables until lunchtime. Everyone knew it was one o’clock when the old woman knocked on the door carrying her huge pot. We lunched together, the students, the old woman, and me. It was quite a scene, everybody having lunch together amongst the library books.

Every day after lunch, if it didn’t rain, we would go out to the square for a while. After the old woman had retrieved her pot and utensils, they would go back in, clear the tables and sweep the floor. The eldest student would then wipe the tables with a damp cloth, and they were ready to resume their studies. Winter, spring, fall... the days at El Sallent had a solid, almost mechanical consistency. Teaching to read and write, add, subtract, multiply, divide... Before we reached percentages, the boys began asking for leave to work out in the fields. My presence did little to alter the state of things.

Solitude was not a problem. The library at the Cadamont manor was enormous, or at least I it looked it to me. Oh, the times I wished time would stop in its tracks as I gazed at row upon row of books! The students would leave, and I would ride my bicycle up to the Cadamont manor and spend my hours shut up in that place. Sometimes the old woman would invite me to dinner and show me the packages that the master sent from Barcelona, Perpignan, or Paris. Oh, what would I not have done to have enough time to read it all...

If night had fallen, in winter, when the children had gone home, I would walk to Torroella and then, when I got home, I would start to read. Some nights the old woman would stay after dinner and tell stories about the village and places nearby — of ancestral hatreds, children who were not the offspring of the father who raised them, improbable thefts, attacks by the Carlista troops, wolves that came down from the mountains to frighten away the livestock, “ladies of the water,” and other tales also told to me by the children. She never made an annoyance of herself; as soon as she saw that I was sleepy, or that I wanted to be alone, or I lit candles to read, she would pick up the tray and go to the room they had prepared for her in the house next door. Freezing winters and mild summers in the library; besides two unremarkable festivities, my life at the village was a delicious monotony of peace and tranquillity.

I gradually gained the old woman’s trust; she had grown accustomed to my company and my peculiar habits at mealtimes or when cleaning the house and the library. How I miss those conversations, and the meals, the morsels and titbits... she would tell me more and more things, the gossip and the tales that could have occurred at El Sallent or anywhere in the nearby mountains, or in the Guilleries, the Alberes, the Pyrenees or the Montseny...

Vora la finestra hi havia un escó on m’asseia i escoltava la vella

There’s still a window at the old school. I don’t know if any furniture remains. There was a bench by the window, where I would sit and listen to the old woman, sometimes while I prepared a drawing for the next day, or while I corrected essays or arithmetic.

Of all the things she told me, I remember that conversation, for reasons that are now more clear than ever. The truth is, she had quite a skill for storytelling. Sometimes, when she started telling me a story, it was as if the rules of reality had suddenly changed simply because she was the one telling it. If someone else had told tales of wolves and forests, would I have believed them? Perhaps not. Perhaps it was the half-light, the stillness of the room, or living in El Sallent, far away from everything and everyone. I don’t know, but the fact remains that the old woman’s tales rearranged all my senses. She had a knack for putting you in the middle of the story.

One night, after washing up, she looked very tired. She sat down in front of me and told me, “Josep, I’ve told you lots of stories. You must think I’m a chatterbox, but the fact is, I’ve never told you the biggest thing that ever happened to me.”

I thought she was going to embark on one of her tales of men who had got lost in the forest and fought with wolves and all.

“Don’t look at me that way, Josep! What I have to tell you I’ve never told anyone — it’s too big, perhaps the biggest thing ever to happen in these parts.”

When I put on that scholarly look, with the blackboard and the library behind me, she would get angry and leave. She had a short temper, and she would as soon as she realised I was leading her anywhere she didn’t want to go. But she acted just like a child. When I asked her what was the matter, she would tell me that there was nothing I could do but sit there and read quietly, because she didn’t want to tell it to me anymore. I had to insist for her to tell me so as to prevent her from getting even more angry; she would be disappointed if I didn’t badger her... and then I had to stop when she could no longer keep it to herself, I had to... But that day, she was calm. “Now you’ll have to listen, and you’ll have to believe me,” she seemed to be saying.

For some time now she had been saying that one day she would have to tell me something, something “big, very big.” She began a month before — that she had to tell me, that she wanted to but it hurt, and little by little... She tried to find the right time, until one day she planted a chair in front of the bench.

m’havia de contar una cosa, molt grossa, molt grossa.

She sat and rested her hands on her knees. “I have to tell it to you, I can’t wait any longer,” she said.

“Go right ahead,” I replied.

“One day, before the lady came to fetch me,” she hesitated, took in some air, breathed out slowly... “I saw the Devil.”

“I’m sorry, Maria, what...”

“You heard me. Four times I saw him! Don’t look at me that way; I’m telling you the truth. Ah, you don’t believe me...”

“Well,” I murmured as I made to get up.

“I knew you wouldn’t believe me; I shouldn’t have told you a thing,” she said as she too moved to rise from her chair.

“Maria, go on, please tell me...” I told her. Now, remembering it, my old scepticism comes back. If the rationalist, illustrious master were to hear us...

“Now you’re just trying to humour me... you’ll go and leave, and never give it a second thought, but I have to tell it to somebody. I’m very old, my face is like a wrinkled apple and I won’t live many more years. That’s why I’m asking you to listen to me just this once.”

Miri, Josep, escolti’m, si us plau, ...

“Well...” I nodded my head in assent and put a couple of logs on the fire.

“And I’m asking you to believe me.”

“I’ll believe you, indeed I will. Go on!”

“Look, Josep, please listen to me. I’ve never asked anything from you, and before you go back to the city — if you ever go back — I want you to know what this old woman has to tell you,” she said, gesturing with her hand as if to scold me. “I met him about ten years ago, when I lived in the next valley over. The first time he came to me, I was walking through the forest. I was looking for wild chards and borage, and then I saw something moving amongst the brush. It was the Devil, I say. He called me by my rightful name, Maria Pruan. I was shocked; I had never met the Devil before, but I could see it was him, plain as day.”

“Come now, Maria... How did you know it was the Devil?”

Alt, molt colrat, amb banyes, cua, barbot, potes de boc i pudor de sofre

“Don’t laugh at me as if I were a child. You said you’d listen to me! So I saw him through the brush, I saw it was him, Josep, these things you just know — you should know better than to question me! He was tall, deeply tanned, with horns, a tail, a pointed beard, goat’s hooves, a smell of sulphur about him,” continued the old woman. I let her go on, and put on my scholarly look.

“Maria, that’s the Devil you hear everyone talk about,” beard and horns, I thought, and smell of sulphur... what a tale!

“How should I have known it was him if he wasn’t as people say he is? Of course it was him: angels have wings, and devils have horns. There’s no other devils I know.”

“All right, don’t get angry.”

“Then be quiet. Will you be quiet?”

“Yes, I’ll be quiet.”

“He called me by my rightful name: ‘Maria Pruan, I’ve been watching you seek food in the forest for days now.’

‘Of course,’ I replied, ‘what else can a poor old woman like me do? I have to come to the forest to look for borage, and if you keep me too long, I won’t have any supper tonight. I need to find some borage,’ I said.

Maria Pruan, he vingut fins aquí per fer un tracte.

‘Maria Pruan, I’ve come here to make a deal with you. If you desire, you will never have to search for chards and borage anymore, or catch cold in the forest foraging for food. You have something that would be very useful to me, Maria Pruan,’ the Devil even bowed to me — it was the first time anyone’s ever bowed to me, and most likely the last.

‘I told you I can’t tarry...’

‘If you wish, Maria Pruan, you will leave these ruins where you live. You will live in a manor house and have footmen and maids, as many as your heart desires. And cooks to roast venison and cook fine delicacies.’

‘And what would I have to do in exchange? But tell me swiftly, it is late and I must pick some borage!’

‘All you have to do is give me your soul.’”

I was a bit fed up: her soul, the horns, the smell of sulphur... The old woman rose and mimicked the Devil’s gestures. I had read a thousand stories just like it, and I was sure the old woman was pulling my leg. How many such stories can one find in a library?

No faci aquesta cara, Josep.

“Don’t put on that face, Josep.”

“Well, how do you expect...”

... va marxar a la guerra amb els carlins i no va tornar mai més.

“When the Devil asked me for my soul, which is worth so little, I told him it wasn’t worth it. ‘I’m a poor old woman,’ I told him, ‘and you want to give me all that wealth and power. You’re too late! I was raised in a cabin where my whole family slept — my brothers, my sisters, and my mother. My father, as you should know, being as smart as you are, left for the war with the Carlistas and never came back. Three of my brothers died of hunger. It was so cold we had to sleep all packed together. We ate grass, like cattle — that was what life was like when I was a little girl. We served in exchange for food from anyone who would take us in. Ah, I remember how we fought each other to clear the table so as to get first dibs on the crumbs... sometimes we would eat the animal feed... Life’s been that way all the time, until I became too old to work. Old mule, old mule... They kicked me out, and I scavenged my way to this ruined pen where I live. A ruined pen for an old mule...’”

El dimoni em va mirar amb ulls plorosos i se’n va anar ...

“Maria...”

“The Devil looked at me with tearful eyes, and disappeared amidst the brush.”

“You never told me that story, Maria,” I said. “The mistress told me you were poor, but I didn’t know that... But the Devil...” I couldn’t avoid a chortle.

“Ah, so you’re laughing... At me or at the Devil?”

De vostè no em riuria mai, Maria...

“I’d never laugh at you, Maria. How can I laugh when you tell me about how you lived? But the Devil, complete with horns a and tail... I simply cannot believe that!”

“Well, it wasn’t long before he appeared again.”

“And what did he want, if you already turned him down?”

“Ah, you don’t believe me, yet you ask... You read what others write, others whom you don’t know, but what I’m telling you — I, who am right here in front of you — you say you don’t believe me? Just wait, and I’ll explain. Ah, go on and laugh... You have seen nothing! I was out looking for snails and mushrooms. I was walking down the path that winds through the woods, when suddenly, I looked up and I saw him sitting on the branch of an oak. ‘You startled me! These days, you never know what you’ll find in the forest,’ I told him.

... vaig mirar amunt i me’l vaig trobar assegut a la branca d’un roure

‘I was waiting for you, Maria. I wanted to renew my offer,’ he replied. ‘I am still interested in your soul, Maria Pruan. The other day you did not wish to accept the riches I offered you, but today I have something far more important.’

‘Stop delaying me, else I’ll miss dinner again. You should help me catch snails and fetch mushrooms.’ Josep, you don’t believe me, just like I didn’t believe the Devil. Maybe that’s why you think I’m mad as a hatter now. ‘I didn’t know where to look,’” the old woman continued with such conviction that her words sounded perfectly credible.

“‘Snails travel slowly, and mushrooms don’t move much anyway. Listen to me, please, Maria Pruan. In exchange for your soul, I bring you something very highly valued. Men and women strive for happiness. If you give me your soul, I will give it to you. And happiness, of course, includes money!’

... quan me n’anava al meu racó del paller ...

‘What good will it do me?’ I replied. ‘Don’t you think I would be far more unhappy if you gave me happiness now? What would I do — ah, poor me — when I looked at the past? You come asking for my soul yet you think not of all that it has lived, this soul of mine. The other day I told you about the poverty I had been through, how we lived in our cramped cabin. The love we had for each other, which seemed to be the only thing that kept us alive, the only reason to go on suffering, was torn every time one of us died of hunger or cold. All my life I have felt the contempt of my masters, because, like a dog, I have had masters all my life. I have always been a wretched maid, the poorest of maids, and every day of my life has been hell; I have only lived while I slept, when I went to my corner of the master’s barn and huddled in my sheepskin coat by the fire. My life has been completely unhappy, from the first day until now, and suddenly you want to give me happiness. You have no soul, you are cruel to me. You must want my soul because you have none yourself. How do you think I could stand to look back over my life if you gave me happiness now? I am an old, wretched woman now, but my past does not pain me more than the present. If you made me happy now, I would die.’

“What did he say to that?” I didn’t care much for all the talk about the Devil, but Maria’s misery... I had sometimes walked through Briolf; what was the woman’s life like there? The solution, the way for no one to live in poverty there, was for no one to live there.

... va dir assenyalant els llibres de la biblioteca ...

“You don’t believe me; you value these words more,” she said, nodding to the books all around us, “than what I tell you. So go back to your books!”

“I didn’t want to offend you, Maria, please go on!” I replied, slightly ill at ease.

“The Devil stared at me for a bit. His eyes were filled with tears again, and instead of answering me, he leaped up towards the top of the oak and disappeared among the branches and the leaves.”

“And that’s the end of that,” I made to get up.

“He came seeking me out a third time. One day I rose early to search for asparagus spears. My basket was almost full when I felt someone adding a few more — as well as a few chestnuts, even though it was not the season. I turned, and there he was, right in front of me.

‘Please forgive me, Maria Pruan. I don’t usually bother anyone with so many visits — this has never happened to me before. You can proudly say that the Devil has asked your forgiveness. One visit is usually enough, and only on very few occasions have I had to return for a second try. And yet here you have me. I don’t give up — I’m the Devil. Men fear me and seek me out, and I always have something for them. With you things have been different, but I think that today we will settle our little problem.’

‘Are you going to ask me for my soul again? You’re a persistent one!’

‘Yes, it’s true I’ve been around for quite some time...’

‘So what will it be this time? The chestnuts you put in my basket, even though they’re out of season?’

‘No, no, Maria Pruan, I will give you something else, something far more important, something all women want to have. The last time you told me you couldn’t stand to look back over the past. Today I bring you eternal youth! You will be young and fair again, Maria Pruan. You can find the richest man a girl as pretty as you could ever want!’

Jo ja vaig ser bonica.

I sighed and sat on a stump. ‘You can go back and forth through time, and travel from here to there with no effort... you say you know everything, but I think you don’t know anything at all! I was pretty once. Now I’m wrinkled up and have a hunched back. My hands are stained, and they’re way too big. I’m losing my hair, and my face is big-boned. But I was once a very pretty lass; I was tall and had glistening hair. My skin seemed like a cloud, white and soft... But it all lasted very little, because my body could not resist all the hard times I’ve told you about. I still don’t know how I even came to be so pretty, having grown up eating grass and all. Toil and effort turned me ugly, with rough hands and legs filled with varicose veins. My teeth fell out at a very young age. My time of blossom was way too short. How many men took advantage of me and gave me so little in exchange? What good would eternal youth do me? Look, mister Devil, I am tired of living; I don’t need any more troubles. No punishment would be more cruel than to live forever. I’ve already told you that I only lived when I slept. Nothing more, nothing less.’”

“Maria, I... don’t know what to say,” I muttered, embarrassed.

“Neither did he. He was so taken aback that when I told him to help me collect asparagus spears, he bent down with me and helped fill my basket. Then he walked away, his head hunched.”

“And then...”

... el vaig veure caminar per la carena d’un turó ...

“Please hush! The thing is, I forgot about the Devil. I never gave him another thought until one day, when I saw him walking along a hillcrest near the ruins where I lived. I took the scarf off my head and signalled for him to come to me. He wasn’t looking in my direction, and I figured he was upset with me and would not come, so I climbed up to the crag where he had sat for a spell.

‘You’ve come to laugh at me,’ he said.

‘Don’t take it so badly, laddy! You must have more souls than you can handle; one more soul won’t make any difference to you.’

‘You mock me… though it is true that I have no want for souls, not having yours, Maria Pruan, pains me. It has become almost a matter of pride.’”

... Aleshores, malgrat el meu escepticisme, ...

The old woman was convincing — really convincing, I mean. Although I still remained sceptical, I no longer knew what to think. It was true that there were many people who said they had seen the Devil. And the Devil’s name had been given to many a place: the Devil’s Path, Devil’s Canyon, the Devil’s Forest… As I made to interrupt her yet again, she gestured with her hand for me to be still.

“That was when I told him, ‘I will give you my soul if you can answer the question that’s been closest to my heart ever since I was a girl.’

‘A riddle — good, I like that. I’m a specialist in riddles,’ he replied with a know-all look. I wonder who it reminds me of, with all those books, the library, the school…

‘Not really a riddle; or perhaps it is one, who knows?’ I answered, a bit miffed. ‘Every day — every single day I’ve suffered, I’ve been exhausted, humiliated… every day I asked myself why I had to live the life I was living. I will sell you my soul if you give me a reason to go on living; give me just one reason, and my soul is yours to keep. Tell me why it was my lot to live like that — tell me why I lived at all, what need did the world have of me? I don’t know, and if you want my soul, you can keep it. What I may experience in hell cannot be worse than what I have lived on this earth. If you want my soul so badly, you can keep it, even if you don’t answer my question. Indeed, maybe I have lost it… yes, perhaps I lost my soul a long time ago...’”

El dimoni em va mirar als ulls i em va passar la mà per la galta, ...

The old woman took a few breaths and continued.

“The Devil looked me in the eye and touched my cheek, and I swear that no one had ever caressed my face like that. He wept. He then turned tail and left, head hunched low. The rest of the story of my life is already known to you: one day a couple of farm hands came looking for me to take me to the Cadamont manor. I was offered a roof, food, and firewood — how could I refuse? My fortunes had changed. And besides, Josep, I have known you… what more could I ask for?”

... com si mai no haguéssim parlat d’altre que d’escudella i olles.

She didn’t speak again. The next day she brought my lunch to the library and it was as if we had never spoken of anything but pots and pans. The children ate their lunch and cleared the tables… another day at El Sallent. For some time neither of us said too much to each other, and monotony filled the ensuing months. But the truth is that for quite a long time, whenever I went out for a walk in the surrounding area, I felt that someone was following me; I heard voices, saw shadows… my conversation with the old woman would often come to mind.

... tenia la sensació que algú em seguia, sentia veus i veia ombres, ...

But nothing came of it; everything stayed the same. The years passed, just like the school years, and just like the children that went in and out of the library. Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship came to an end, and after a hiatus the republic was declared, although no tidings of any of that reached El Sallent. The road that now reaches the village from Banyoles or from Olot is full of bends, some quite sharp and dangerous; but what we had back then could hardly be called a road. Nothing made it there from without. I had been there for ten years and was still regarded as a newcomer; as for the rest, the topic of conversation was the crops — good or bad — and the litters, bountiful or paltry. Baptised children, newlyweds, and burial processions continued to issue forth from the church.

... el primer que faig quan arribo al Sallent és obrir la reixa i netejar la seva llosa.

We buried the old woman in 1934. She failed to show up at lunchtime, so we went to her house and entered it. She was seated on the bench next to the fireplace. Her body was cold, and not even an ember was still lit in the fireplace. But her eyes were shut, and she was leaning against the wall; her clothes cushioned her as if they were a shroud, as if someone had seen to it that she was comfortable. The church door is seven metres away from the cemetery gate: the first thing I do when I arrive at El Sallent is to open the gate and clean her tombstone.

... va insistir que havíem de carregar al camió, ...

Other than that, and until the war broke out, a strange, disturbing normalcy took over. The front came slowly nearer, and we prepared to take exile in France. Everyone became wary aid distrustful; the time of bounty had ended, and so had the companionship and camaraderie, to be replaced by turmoil. I crossed the border with the party from Cadamont manor. We took only what was essential, but the mistress insisted we fill the truck, among other things, with that part of the library that we could fit in a trunk. Ah, how we wept, how sad we were that we would not be starting another school year. The master asked the farm hands to take the books home, and then gave away the furniture and farm tools. The tenant farmers journeyed with us almost as far as Banyoles.

... he viscut la Segona Guerra Mundial, ...

Since then, I lived through World War II, the defeats and subsequent victories of the warring countries. I was wounded and then healed. My stay in France was long: almost eight years. The house I bought is still open, and full of books. I still have the trunk the mistress insisted on carting away. I have spent time living in Scotland, Mexico, the United States, Sweden, the Philippines, and back in Scotland. I learned languages and I have been a teacher, tutor and librarian all over Europe. Imagine what a full, eventful life!

... encara conservo el bagul que va voler emportar-se la senyora.

El Sallent has changed a great deal. They paved the street and the turnoff from the county road, and some of the bends have been blasted away… but the world remains far away from that cluster of farmhouses. No new buildings have gone up; there are empty houses, and many others have changed owners. Nobody tends the crops or the livestock any longer — well, almost nobody; most of the locals work in Olot or Banyoles... The house that doubled as a school and library is falling to pieces. There are two fences to keep people from getting to close in case it collapses. The roof is in ruins. But the house is in its current state not only because of the passage of time: the village is rife with rumours that the money of the Cadamont manor lies hidden somewhere amidst the ruins. Looking through the cracks in the door, one can see the walls and floor full of holes. But it’s all rumour, tales of stashing money away in the library awaiting some unforeseen return from exile. Some even speak of a trunk full of money from the Cadamont manor that was hidden in an imaginary cave along the path that runs through the Finestres mountain range. If they knew the trunk was full of books...

... encara conservo el bagul que va voler emportar-se la senyora.

Everybody makes up stories. How long had it been since I had not come back? Since 1939... almost seventy years ago. None of those who lived there remain, but I can recognise their sons and daughters, or their grandchildren, in the faces of those who now live there. It’s the same excuse, the same rationale I use when I am told I’m just like that first schoolteacher who arrived at El Sallent so many years before. One of the local photographers visited all the houses in the area; pictures still hang from the walls of foyers and living rooms. Changes in hairstyle and clothing make it easier to dissemble, but some still marvel at finding a face that is identical to mine. The last villager who knew me died three years ago, and he was in a home; he barely recognised his own daughter, so it was unlikely that he would recognise me.

... encara conservo el bagul que va voler emportar-se la senyora. ... encara conservo el bagul que va voler emportar-se la senyora.

Some might say that I have wasted away this gift of mine by being a librarian, but if they did, it would mean that they had not understood a thing. When I tire from being a librarian, I will do as I please, knowing that I will have all the time in the world to do it in… Some of the books found in libraries around the world are mine: some use them as manuals, others as history books, still others as travel books. How many things have I done? how many things remain for me to do? I have lost track of the former, and also of the latter.

... encara conservo el bagul que va voler emportar-se la senyora.

Because if I were to explain that before I left El Sallent, I went searching for the Devil… who would believe me? Perhaps no one, just as I did not believe the old woman when she told me her story. But the fact is that after searching high and low for him, and after calling his name from the valleys and the hilltops, one day I found him right by the side of my bed, like an apparition… after thinking, and wishing with all my heart for such a chance to befall me, before closing the book I was reading, about what I would give if I had all the time in the world to read.

 

Francesc Serés, el Sallent, 25.03.07

 

 

 

 

 

Generalitat de Catalunya. Departament de Cultura i Mitjans de Comunicació

 

 

Creative Commons License

El Pacte by Francesc Serés ; Jordi Colomer ; Leonard Beard ; Departament de Cultura i Mitjans de Comunicació
is licensed under a Creative Commons Reconeixement-No comercial-Sense obres derivades 2.5 Espanya License.