Saturday, November 27

‘Back to where’: In the Botanical garden | Babelia

An early fall dive has started overnight. The news about the virus in Madrid is once again terrifying. The day dawns fresh after last night’s rain. There was distant lightning but no thunder was heard. I got up and went to the balcony at three in the morning. In the darkness of the bedroom he had been hearing the rain. He came in cool from the street but the heat of the summer days lasted inside the house. In the morning the plants stood very upright in the clean and humid air, as if in a state of alert, with a slight vibration in the stems and leaves. The house was submerged in a lethargy-inducing autumnal gray. To wake up, I went out into the street, with a jacket over my shirt, for the first time since the beginning of summer. He carried in his conscience the unhealthy rumor of the radio news, the accelerated increase in infections, the near collapse of primary care, the percentage of hospital beds occupied again by COVID-19 patients, negligence and viciousness and the shamelessness of most of the political class, each day more damaging in its parasitism and sectarianism, in its scandalous ineffectiveness: “The boisterous squad of fools and evildoers,” says Galdós.

At the Botanico, the anguish of time always dominates me. The memory of my father, my grandparents, comes back to me, and the awareness of how old I am, and how far everything has been, falls over me, so quickly

I crossed the Retreat and went to the Botanic. On rainy days it is more mysterious because there are usually few people. At the Botanico, the anguish of time always dominates me. The memory of my father, my grandparents, comes back to me, and the awareness of how old I am, and how far everything has been, falls over me, so quickly. In the botanical garden today, I was amazed at the size of the leaves and yellow flowers of the pumpkins, disproportionate flowers like Georgia O’Keeffe. A constellation of water lilies has opened in the pond. Cauliflower leaves preserve water droplets on their impervious surface that sparkle in the light like precious stones. I remember the name they gave to those leaves: berzotes. It seems that there is an exact correspondence between the word and what it designates. The botanical garden is my time tunnel. I see the child that I went to in my father’s garden, and I see them, my uncle Juan, my grandfather Antonio, the people from the neighboring gardens, with their bizarre nicknames, Chilli, Chimney, Gangrena, Eater, Allanacerros.

I see them, I almost glimpse them among the fruit trees and the plants of the orchard, in the shade of the pomegranates, walking energetically along the sidewalks with the noise made by the brush of corduroy pants, sitting under a fig tree, as in a old collective photo, gathered around a bowl of freshly made salad, at the time they called for lunch, the break around ten in the morning, each with a piece of bread and a razor, splitting with it slices of sausage , sticking a piece of bread to dip it in the salad oil. And I see myself too, from the perspective of then, not the child who hovered around them, and who was taught to work by their side, but the man I am now, with gray and white hair, much older of what my father was then, a ghost among the ghosts of an extinct world. At the entrance of the Botanic the ticket office has asked me if I am over 65 years old. The face she sees, with her youthful look, is not the one I see in the mirror. Melancholy is mixed with sweetness. In the garden, the fruits of September ripen exactly as they did then: grapes, pumpkins, pomegranates, persimmons. Even the traffic on the Paseo del Prado sounds muffled, as if you were hearing it from much further away.

My father would tell me things about his childhood, almost always with the intention that I would take an example, that I would become agile, hard-working, crafty, that I would learn to work and earn a living as early as he did, with blood, without laziness, without daydreams or book fantasies

But the word berzote, so resounding, it has awakened a memory, or rather, the echo of a memory of another, my father, when he told me things about his childhood, almost always with the intention that I would follow an example, that I would become agile, hard-working , crafty, that I learned to work and earn a living as early as him, with blood, without laziness, without daydreams or book fantasies. He told me that as a child he had a white mare and he rode her bareback, and jumped up on her, and galloped on her with no other help than the bridle and the strength of his legs pressing his bare back, along the country roads. He told me that to earn a little money, he planted mint plants on the banks of the irrigation channels and sold them to Franco’s Moors who were still quartered in the city in the early days after the war. He had noticed that the Moors were pouring peppermint into their tea, and with a basket full of it he would go to the door of the barracks, and they would take it from his hands. You had to look for Uncle Mañas, he said, they all said, sharpen your wits, earn something as you could, as in times of war, in the much worse years of hunger that followed. Peppermint grew very fast at the water’s edge. He would cut it down and sell it in bundles to the Moors. With what he earned thanks to his sagacity and his efforts, my father bought tickets to go to the bullfights during the fair, or to the Ideal Theater, to the chicken coop, to see the magazine companies, still almost a child and already earning the life, measuring itself against men. Not like me, his son, he was implicitly telling me that I would never be able to jump on a horse or a donkey, that I was distracted and did not pay attention to the work in the garden, nor did I make an effort to learn, and he was always drowsy, lost in book and comic book fantasies.

One day we were cutting cauliflower leaves for cow fodder and my father remembered something else he did as a child to earn a few coins. In the orchard he was carrying a donkey’s serón with berzotes and he took them to an old palace that still exists, in a small square near the food market. Those loads of berzotes they were intended not for food for cattle but for men. My father, who turned 11 just after the war, arrived with his donkey at the door of that palace that had become a prison and was full of Republican prisoners. He remembered seeing the arms sticking out of the window bars. Guards would open the palace door for him and my father would see the faces and hands of the prisoners clustered behind a wire fence in the courtyard. He overturned the serón, and unloaded the berzotes on the floor. The hungry men stretched out their hands between the bars and the wire mesh, trying to reach them. With that they fed them. Before leaving, my father would see them fighting for those large and hard leaves, and he would remember the smell of human shit that came from the patio, because that ruminant food swelled their bellies and caused tremendous diarrhea.

Back to where

Author: Antonio Muñoz Molina.

Editorial: Seix Barral, 2021.

Format: 352 pages. 20.90 euros.

Pre-order for € 19.85 on AmazonLook for it in your bookstore

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