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That afternoon the little beach seemed to be on fire. There was a whiplash of light in the air, or maybe it was inside us. Who knows?

We had only just stepped onto the sand when Borja stopped dead.

‘Keep still,’ he said.

Our legs were still wet from the sea. Sand glinted down the length of Borja’s ankles like tiny slivers of tin.

The man was face down, one arm stretched out on the sand, lying against the belly of the boat like a dog looking for a place to sleep. He must have fallen and rolled down the beach towards the sea, landing up against the Joven Simón. Nearby, from behind the rocks, a seagull began to cry. Between the bottomless, wind burned boats, slanted shadows lengthened.

From the sand rose a sweetish vapour that clung to our skin. Through the bloated, smoke-coloured clouds, swelling like an ulcer and intensifying with every minute, came the deep red globe of the sun. Borja murmured:

‘He’s dead . . . ’

From behind the boat came first a shadow and then a boy. I think I had seen him before, in the vegetable plot behind his house, and I knew immediately that I recognized him. I supposed he must belong to Malene’s family, who lived in a little house with some land on the Slope. And they lived between its walls like the inhabitants of a lost island, very close to the sea, in the very heart of my grandmother’s lands. They had owned some little plots beyond the Slope, but they had been confiscated. They were segregated people, marked out. There were a few other families like theirs in the town, but Malene’s suffered most, perhaps because the Taronjís were their cousins and they shared a great and ancient hatred for one another. We knew these things from Antonia. Hatred, I remember, was like a fat root nourishing the life of the town, and the Taronjís preached it everywhere, from the olive groves to the ridged mountains, even to the high forests of holm oak where the charcoal burners lived. The Taronjís and Malene’s husband shared a surname: they were relatives, but they could not have hated each other more. Hatred would burst through the silence like the sun, like an inflamed, blood-shot eye through fog. 

To me the sun on the island was always sinister, because of the way it polished up the stones of the square, leaving them shiny and slippery as bones, like a strange and malignant ivory. The same stones rang with the foot steps of the brothers Taronjí, relatives of José Taronjí, who was the father of that boy appearing from behind the boat, whose name I suddenly remembered: Manuel. Out of nowhere, I said, ‘Something has happened, and the Taronjís are to blame.’ (They were always to blame. Their footsteps rang with an echo all their own on the streets or in the old town, which burned down many years ago leaving only the Jewish square near the forest. Burned walls, enormous and mysterious blackened holes, now hung with doors so people could store animal feed and firewood there.)  In the little Jewish square we would sometimes meet the others. Seeing that boy brought them vividly to mind. Guiem’s band: Guiem, Toni from Abrés, Antonio from Son Lluch, Ramón and Sebastián. Guiem, the leader, aged sixteen. Toni, fifteen. Antonio, fifteen. Ramón, thirteen: they let him join because he was full of malice. And Sebastián the Cripple, who limped, aged fourteen and eight months (though he always said he was fifteen). But this boy, Manuel, wasn’t in anyone’s band. (And it came to me again that I knew him, that I had seen him before. On the Slope, with his back to me, bending over the earth. The wooden gate standing open, scorched by the sea air, his face to the stony earth, to the bean canes and flowers on that humid, sandy little plot. 

And suddenly the flowers, like a shock to the earth, were flushed and alive, curling like a skin and quivering like the sun, shrieking in the silence. And there was a well between the agaves, where a grey sun licked at the rusty chain. Inside the walls, greenness grew exultant in the full, fresh leaves of the vegetables they ate; and I said to myself, in confusion, that it was like feeding on rage buried deep in the earth’s breast. There he was, bending over, and he wasn’t in anyone ’s band. Nobody would help them harvest the olives or the almonds from their few trees. The Taronjís took the father, leaving all the work to the mother, Malene, to Manuel and the two younger ones, María and Bartolomé. Their house, which was small and square with an untiled roof, was a simple white cube; and in the doorway, behind the whitewashed columns of the porch, a blue striped curtain blew in the breeze. They had a dog that howled at the moon, at the sea, at everything, and which bared its teeth after the Taronjís took away José, the father, at dawn. And it was as if they lived on a different island, in the middle of my grandmother ’s lands; an island with a house, a well, vegetables for sustenance, flowers that grew purple, yellow, black, and hummed with bees, mosquitoes and honeyed light. I had seen Manuel bend over the earth barefoot, but Manuel was not a peasant. His father, José, had been overseer of the Son Major estate, and later he had married Malene. (Malene had a bad reputation in the town – so said Antonia – and the master of Son Major had given them the house and the land.) And again, suddenly, unexpectedly, inexplicably, I remembered something. ‘José Taronjí had the lists,’ Antonia had said to my grandmother. My grandmother had listened as two golden butterflies clung desperately to the chimney of the glass lamp, trembling and dying and drifting to the ground like ashen residue. Lauro had explained in more detail: ‘They had it all worked out: they divided up Son Major and he shared it out: he said who would live on the ground floor, who on the floor above . . . And your house too, Doña Práxedes . . .’

An extract from The Island by Ana María Matute, translated by Laura Lonsdale.

  • The Island

  • 'This is an old and wicked island. An island of Phoenicians and merchants, of bloodsuckers and frauds'

    Expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress, and abandoned by her father when her mother dies, rebellious teenager Matia is sent to live with her domineering grandmother on the scorching island of Mallorca. There she learns to scheme with her cousin Borja, and finds herself increasingly drawn to the strange outsider Manuel. But civil war has come to Spain, tearing communities apart, and it will teach Matia about the adult world in ways she could not foresee.

    This feverish 1959 coming-of-age novel by one of the greatest Spanish writers of the 20th century depicts Mallorca as an inferno, a lost Eden and a Never Land combined, where ancient hatreds and present-day passions collide.

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