How can this man be my father?
Extract from A les ciutats amagades (‘In the hidden cities’)
translation from Spanish to English by Kate Whittemore
We had dinner in the bar next to the gas station. It started to snow when they brought the soup and by the main course it was piling up against the window. It could ice over during the night, the waiter warned. Aitor ate the last two bites of his stew and said he would leave right then. Papa watched him disappear behind the curtain of snow and asked if I felt up to doing the same.
I said yes. Papa asked them to fill his thermos with coffee and we left.
Our headlights lit up the road and the snowflakes as they flew, pushed around by the wind like ashes. We could hardly see. Dry tree branches scraped the roof. The windshield wipers rose and fell with the tick tock of a clock and Papa gripped the steering wheel. Every now and then, he took a swig from the thermos and the coffee’s warmth spread through cab.
I wondered if he was used to this: the road at midnight, lit only by headlights, coffee keeping him awake, eyes red with exhaustion. Maybe one night, I thought as I gripped my seatbelt and the truck roared like a motorboat on a dark lake, maybe one night he stopped to sleep, thinking it wouldn’t snow, and woke up blanketed in it, the truck entombed, the cargo frozen. We’d only gone for three hot, sunny days on that other trip, doing a run not far from home. The truck was a little newer then, and when we got home, Mama was waiting for us.
Papa stopped and asked me to help him put on the chains. He spread the chains on the ground while I held the flashlight, then I directed him as he backed up over them before fastening them on.
We drove very slowly. Papa didn’t take his eyes from the road and his coffee went cold. The forest shone in the light of the high beams and the snow fell, silent like us, like the rest of the world.
I saw the rose for just an instant, red as a coal in the middle of the road. We drove over it, burying it in the snow.
“Did you see that? It looked like a flower…”
Papa shrugged. “Sure it was nothing.”
But flowers kept appearing: roses, magnolias, lilacs, and orchids, like a wedding, bright and stiff, half-covered in snow.
I didn’t notice at first that Papa had braked and the truck was skidding. I covered my head with my hands and the belt jerked against my chest, leaving me breathless.
The truck came to a stop and Papa got out and ran through the snow. I saw Aitor’s truck, overturned. His cargo scattered along road, the plastic flowers, false spring.
I don’t know how long I stayed in the truck. I saw Papa reach the cab, now upside-down. The sound of the engine, the wind, a frightened voice, sharp and broken. Papa shouting, or Aitor, calling for help.