TARTARUS

TARTARUS by Antonio Manuel Fraga

When Guiomar Brelivete, a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl who lives in Audierna, is told by her parents that she must start attending klavia lessons in the old quarter of Plugufan and miss training sessions for maila, her favourite sport, she is understandably annoyed. But her teacher, Mastrina Xaoven, turns out to have a sense of humour and agrees, in return for Guiomar learning to play the instrument, to tell her a story about a girl called Attica who is a member of the politically powerful Gwende community. The traditional inhabitants of the land, the Malluma community, have been confined to the nabrallos or suburbs, where Gwendes are not supposed to go. But one evening Attica boards a train to the nabrallo of Bragunde, hoping to attend a concert in one of the famous hicupé clubs, and there she meets Fuco, a Malluma boy who claims to be a firewalker. The nabrallo has been overrun by a plague of scorpions, and the children resolve to consult the witch Onga, Queen of the Cemetery, about this. They will learn that a far greater evil lurks beneath them, in the lost underground world of Nigrofe, where the balance between good and evil has been obliterated by the removal of a sacred tree, and it rests on them to restore that balance if only they can find a way in… In these two tales, the line between fiction and reality is blurred, and there is a striking resemblance between the old music teacher and the intrepid girl in her story.

Law 77/19/57 p. 358

LAW FOR THE CREATION OF NABRALLOS

* * * * * * *

Audierna’s urban space will be divided into areas segregated by race. Members of the Brun community will only be able to live in nabrallos and will require a passport and work permit to leave these areas. The nabrallos will be created for the exclusive use of Audierna’s Brun community. It will constitute a crime for any member of the Brun community to reside or own properties in areas reserved for the Gwende community.

 

It had rained constantly over the old quarter during those first few days of September, more than usual, and the streets had been varnished with this slippery, reddish film. That summer had been the hottest in memory and, with the sudden arrival of the cold, the dogs had abandoned the cool patches of shade in order to wander up and down the muddy streets.

At that time, Plugufan was already a place that was tired of its grandeur, an epic past that justified the decrepitude of its houses, which slouched lazily over their wrought-iron porches. People moved slowly up and down the streets. This was normal – only old folk lived in those parts. Ancient Gwendes slid along the pavements like snails, invariably dressed in clothes that were as unfashionable as the quarter itself. Those who weren’t leaning on sticks or crutches advanced in wheelchairs being pushed resignedly by Brun maids dressed in black. Whenever two of these aged people encountered each other, they gently bowed their heads in respect. They then began a conversation that didn’t normally surpass family and meteorological limits, which the Bruns would listen to, standing as stiff as their dark uniforms. Having exchanged a few words, they would then repeat their greeting and continue on their painful way.

This first visit to Mastrina’s quarter had turned into an enforced journey to another age. It annoyed me having to walk along streets that were unpaved, long and narrow, laid out in a grid on the north bank of the River Ioke, and getting my new trainers and the bottoms of my trousers all dirty in the mud. It also annoyed me having to waste four hours a week banging away on a klavia. Why did my mother have to be so obsessed with details? That was her problem! If she hadn’t pored over the newspaper every Sunday as if it was Holy Scripture, then perhaps she wouldn’t have noticed that insignificant advertisement: “Klavia classes by Mastrina Xaoven, ex-director of the Audierna Philharmonic. Price by agreement. 221-B Bagare Street.”

“Guiomar!” she had shouted enthusiastically from the garden the previous Sunday morning. It hadn’t started raining yet, so she was breakfasting in the company of my father, who was reading another newspaper through his round glasses, guiding his reading with the tip of his left forefinger and twitching his moustache from time to time in inaudible whispers.

“Yes, mother!” I replied, appearing in the doorway of the house while hiding the water pistol I was using to battle my brother behind my back.

“Come here, girl, don’t make me shout!”

I laid my weapon on the ground, next to the door, and lazily dragged my feet until I was standing behind her. I gently stroked her short hair. The morning light filtered through the branches of the sycamore in the garden, a huge parasol with grey, scaly bark. One day, I thought, I also shall have short hair, like all Gwende women. Until then, I would have to make do with tying my hair in a ponytail.

“Take a look at this, Guiomar. Do you know who this woman is?” she asked, so excited she even stopped her husband twitching his moustache.

“If she lives in Plugufan, I suppose she might be a mummy,” I laughed, resting my chin on her shoulder in order to read the advert.

“Please be so good as to not be frivolous,” she pretended to get annoyed. “Mastrina Xaoven directed the Philharmonic during its most glorious epoch. She is quite an eminence.”

“I reckoned she was dead,” remarked my father.

“She may well be,” I joked again. “An advert from the other side.”

“Stop fooling around!” my mother rebuked me, banging me on the head with the rolled-up newspaper. “It’s about time you started taking the klavia seriously. We spent a whole load of money on that instrument.”

“Artusa dusts it, covers it in cloths, gives it flowers… it must be her favourite piece of furniture.” Artusa was the family’s Brun maid. “Anyway, it’s not the only artefact in the house.”

I sat down between my parents and buttered a slice of toast. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my father’s mocking smile, the sparkle of his grey eyes. My mother, on the other hand, was not laughing. She placed the newspaper on the table, right on top of a pool of orange juice, which was absorbed by the newspaper, smudging the black letters.

“This afternoon, your father and I will go to Bagare to talk to Mastrina. If possible, you will start classes next week. You know how important it is to complement your academic learning with the mastery of an instrument.”

“You’re not serious,” I ventured, starting to get a little worried about the direction the conversation was taking.

“I most certainly am.”

I glanced at my father with a supplicating look, but he hid his face behind the newspaper.

“In which case, when do I get to train with the team?”

“Guiomar Brelivete,” my treacherous father remarked from his hiding place, “thirteen years old, average student, only worried about sport and expensive clothes. Little girl, it’s about time you got a move on! When did you ever hear of somebody getting a place at Verrenorde University for being good at maila?”

“But the team needs me! You promised me another year!”

“Obligations take precedence over promises, daughter,” murmured my mother, stroking my hand. “Two days a week, you will attend klavia classes, and another two days you can dedicate to your team.”

“You’d worked this out beforehand!” I accused them.

“I think it’s only fair.”

“Fair in your opinion!” I exclaimed, pulling my hand away. I jumped to my feet and ran into the house. The tears were streaming down my cheeks, and I was choked with rage.

When I entered the living room, I got a jet of water from my brother’s water pistol right in the face.

“Are you an idiot, or what?” I shouted, dealing him a hefty slap.

I immediately realized my mistake and tried to say sorry, but it was too late. He stared at me in anger for a couple of seconds and then went to tell my parents. I spent the rest of the day being punished in my bedroom and pondering my misfortune. I hated the klavia, and all music in general. I also hated this stupid, old woman who had placed the advertisement, even before I’d had a chance to meet her.

My mother liked music just about as much as me, though she would go crazy with joy whenever my father got tickets from work for a performance. She loved this kind of occasion, which enabled her to show off her finest jewels and to dress her compliant husband up as a clown. In the corridors of the concert hall, they would rub shoulders with some of the most illustrious names in Audierna. It was rare for my brother and me to go with them. Tickets were extremely expensive, and my father only usually got a couple. Even so, when we did have to go, we would venture forth like a pig to the slaughter, my mother elbowing us in the ribs to make us greet everybody politely.

“221-B Bagare Street.” That was the address, but the property didn’t match the mental image I’d created for myself of the home of an ex-director of the Philharmonic. To start with, it didn’t even border the street, but was hidden behind an old ironmonger’s that seemed to have shut down years ago.

The house was narrow, with a small porch at the entrance and blue shutters on the windows. Its walls were an odd assortment of white planks warped by time and humidity. The front of the upper floor was entirely taken up by an enclosed balcony, the glass panes of which were caressed by the long fingers of a twisted oak. The railings were covered in colourful plant pots.

I trudged angrily up the steps to the porch and observed my mud-bespattered shoes. Pausing for a moment, I decided to press the bell, which echoed inside the house with a metallic moan. There was no answer. I checked on my watch that it was five past six in the evening, so I wasn’t early. I waited a couple of seconds and tried the bell again. When the metallic sound had receded for a second time, I heard footsteps approaching the door. A bolt was drawn back, and a crack appeared between the door and the jamb.

“Yes?” asked an old woman’s hoarse voice.

“Good evening. My name is Guiomar Brelivete. I’m here to learn the klavia. I think my parents have already spoken to you…”

“Ah, yes!” replied the voice, taking stock of the situation. “Come in, come in.”

The woman opened the door wide and waited for me to enter the hallway.

“Follow me,” she indicated.

We climbed a staircase covered in a maroon carpet that creaked under our feet. The air was thick and smelled of mould. For a moment, I felt sick.

At the top of the staircase was a large, rectangular room with a white klavia in the centre. The soft evening light came flooding in from the balcony, unhindered by curtains tied to both sides of an arch that connected the two spaces.

In the opposite wall, a small window revealed the darkness in the east. It occupied the only gap left by shelves that lined the walls, crammed full of books, records and magazines. At the bottom of the bookcases were little doors with golden keys in their locks, from which hung maroon tassels. Some pictures were propped on the floor, and a single photograph took pride of place on the bookcase, next to an old record player. A thin, worn, brightly-coloured carpet covered the wooden floor. To complete the furniture, there was a rocking chair with a wicker back and a round table with a lamp.

The old woman sat in the rocking chair and looked me up and down. She was all bones set at awkward angles and had a slight squint in her left eye. She wore a green pinafore that revealed the lower part of her legs, two knobbly sticks deformed by ridges of varicose veins. She had long hair, which she wore down, something unusual in Gwende women of her age, and the lank, white locks slid over her shoulders.

As we gazed at each other in silence, I discovered a large, furry mass glistening in the evening sun in one corner of the balcony. Three cats were asleep, curled up in a knotted, ginger embrace.

“Your mother tells me you studied the klavia for three years,” the old woman finally commented.

“Yes, but not very regularly.”

“Explain that to me.”

“I missed a whole bunch of classes, and I never play at home. I’m a hopeless case, you see. I wish to make one thing clear: I hate the klavia. I hate it with all my strength. I’m here because my parents force me, and the days I spend banging away on this awful instrument are training sessions I’m going to miss with my team.”

“What do you play?”

“Maila.”

“Are you any good?”

“I’m not bad.”

“I see…” mused the old woman. “Sometimes the passions choose us, and not the other way round. That happened to me with the klavia, and to you with sport. Come here for a moment.”

She grabbed my hands and examined them closely.

“You’ve a quarryman’s hands,” she remarked. “What was the last thing you learned?”

Confederation of Honour and Bravery, by Hervé.”

“Are they still teaching that old rubbish? What a state we’re in…”

She got out of the rocking chair with some difficulty and headed towards the stairs, dragging her feet.

“Sit on the klavia stool and wait for me,” she barked. “We’ll begin in a moment.”

I stood in the middle of the room like an idiot, not knowing what to do. I decided to ignore her command and went over to the shelves that lined the walls. There were piles of books, mostly by authors I had never heard of. Most of the shelves, however, were covered in vinyl records. I was amazed to see they were almost all old hicupé records. I pulled one from the tightly-packed row and examined the ugly, strident cover that showed two Brun men dressed in dark suits and ties. They were both smiling, revealing large, white teeth, and each holding an instrument in their hands: a malgrine and a litenklave. Their hair was shaved at the sides and a little longer in the middle, and combed back with gel. I put the record back in the row and carried on inspecting the contents of the shelves. In front of the records and books, on the empty wooden surface, other objects were dotted about: the statuette of some prize, postcards of different destinations, their colours faded by the light, a charcoal drawing of some grazing sheep, an old camera… My attention was drawn to the only photograph, which was protected by an ornate silver frame that contrasted with the simple nature of the other objects. I took it from the shelf and wiped the glass on the sleeve of my jersey. It was a studio portrait, showing a handsome young man in his early twenties. Despite the absence of colour, I could make out his clear eyes. An ironic smile flickered on his lips, and he wore a military cap shunted to one side and what looked like a thick coat that must also have been army issue.

“Well, whaddya know?” I murmured in amusement, gazing at the young man. “She kept that quiet, didn’t she?”

It was then I heard heavy breathing, close to suffocation, coming from behind me. I turned around and saw the old woman’s face, which was pale and distorted by anger. I was so afraid I let go of the photograph, and it fell on the carpet, the glass smashing into a thousand tiny pieces.

“Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry!” I excused myself, bending down to pick up the pieces.

“Leave that alone!” roared the old woman. “Didn’t I tell you to sit down! Who on earth gave you permission to go fiddling about!”

“I said I was sorry!” I countered forcefully.

“I said I was sorry, Mastrina Xaoven!” she corrected me.

I placed the tiny pieces on top of the shelf and with red cheeks tried to avoid looking the old woman in the eye.

“Let’s get two things clear,” she said while sitting down in the rocking chair. “First of all, you will address me as Mastrina Xaoven, at all times. Second, inside this house you will always do what I tell you. If you’re not prepared to abide by these rules, or simply think you’re not capable, then I ask you not to waste any more of your time, or mine. You know where the door is, don’t you?”

I bit hard on my lower lip in an effort to overcome my rage and sense of impotence. How dare the old hag talk to me like that? If she was so damn fond of that photograph, then she should have kept it in a security box with a dozen locks and buried it in the garden. My first impulse was to raise my middle finger and get the hell out of there, but the fear of never being able to play maila again held me back. I swallowed my pride and lowered my head, hiding my face behind my blond locks.

“I’m truly sorry, Mastrina Xaoven,” I muttered between gritted teeth. “I’m very clumsy.”

“I’m not surprised, with fingers like those,” smiled the old witch. “Now sit down at the klavia and play something.”

I perched my bottom on the stool and lifted the klavia lid.

“What shall I play?”

“Anything. That nonsense by Hervé you mentioned earlier, for example.”

I cracked my knuckles, as I’d seen my previous teacher do so often, and played the beginning of Confederation of Honour and Bravery. I got a couple of notes wrong, but to my amazement my interpretation of the piece wasn’t too bad. Mastrina, judging by her wooden features, didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm.

“You played the easiest part,” she observed.

“I know. It’s the part I like best.”

“If you liked it, you wouldn’t mess it up like that,” she stated firmly. “Play the end of the piece, where it goes la-di-da-di-da…”

Suddenly a loud groan drowned out the old woman’s command, and she grabbed her stomach in a gesture of pain. She instinctively huddled into a ball, placing her feet on the chair and throwing her head backwards. For a moment, she reminded me of the mummies on the third floor of the Natural History Museum, all doubled up and dry, all skin and wrinkles.

An itinerant cloud captured the last rays of the day. When it released them again, they entered from the balcony, revealing a thick atmosphere of dust. Time had ground to a halt after the old woman’s groan. I was petrified, stock-still, looking at her without knowing what to do. Was she dying? I’d never seen a dead person before, and the day had already been sufficiently unpleasant not to want to have to endure that kind of experience as well!

“Are you OK, Mastrina?” I reacted finally, kneeling down in front of her.

“What do you think?” she asked in a broken voice. “Don’t worry, these aches and pains and I are old friends. Please, Guiomar, would you go down to the kitchen and bring me a glass of water?”

“Where is the kitchen?”

“It’s the first door on the right. There should be a glass next to the sink.”

Despite the calmness with which she pronounced these words, I ran downstairs as if the old woman’s life depended on my diligence. I found the glass where she had said and filled it with water. One of the ginger cats had followed me to the kitchen, and started yawning in the doorway. It then proceeded to clean its body with protracted licks. To return to the hallway, I had to jump over it.

When I handed her the glass, Mastrina pulled a jar of medication from the pocket of her pinafore. She took out a green pill, which she washed down with water. She then leaned back and closed her eyes, breathing deeply.

“Would you do me another favour? Take one of the records on the top shelves and put it on the turntable.”

“Which would you like? There are thousands of them.”

“I don’t mind, any one will do.”

I looked for the old hicupé record I had seen before, the one with the two Brun men smiling on the cover. When I found it, I took it out of its sleeve and placed it on the turntable. The contact of the needle with the vinyl produced a slight crackling on the speakers. Then the music began: first a drum roll that gradually grew in intensity.

“Strange choice!” affirmed the old lady.

The broken lament of a litenklave echoed around the room. The music rose and fell in an overwhelming torrent of notes until it stopped suddenly in a loud outburst that sounded like a challenge, a careful provocation. Then, almost without a pause, the malgrine entered the fray, spitting out musical reproaches at a dizzying pace. In the background, the percussionist continued banging away on the skin of the drums like a madman, inciting the duellists not to stop fighting until blood had dropped like a new seed on the ground. I’d never heard anything like it! What did this have in common with Hervé’s boring, conceited compositions?

“Amazing, those two brothers,” said Mastrina. “They were probably the most talented musicians of their generation, but they misspent their talent in bars and brawls. They recorded a couple of records and then vanished forever.”

I involuntarily started tapping my feet in time to the music. This made Mastrina smile, and I smiled also.

“If you taught me Brun music, I wouldn’t hate the klavia so much,” I said without thinking.

“If I taught you such music, I don’t think your parents would be all too happy. And please, don’t use that term in front of me again.”

“What term?”

“Brun. It’s offensive,” she declared severely. “What we’re listening to is Malluma music, a culture that inhabited these lands when our own ancestors were starving to death in the north.”

“Malluma?” I said in surprise. “Only they use that term.”

“I’m a Gwende and I do as well. And from now on, I expect you to do the same, at least in this house.”

I sat down on the carpet, crossing my legs. We listened in silence until the song ended.

“Mastrina Xaoven, can I ask something?”

“Go ahead.”

“The man in the photograph, is he your son?”

“I never had any children,” a sorrowful shadow flitted across her face.

“Your husband then?”

“No.”

“Were you never married?”

“I was, many years ago. But you’re not here to write my memoirs, so enough of that,” she interrupted me before rising to her feet and approaching the klavia with difficulty. She gazed at the instrument and stroked the shiny, porcelain-white wood.

“If you hate her, she’ll hate you as well,” she affirmed, sitting down in front of the keyboard. “You have to learn to coexist, or this will be painful for all concerned.”

She pressed the keys and started playing an old hicupé at a slower pace than that of the crazy dialogue on the record. I accompanied the music by whistling softly. I knew this melody, you bet I did! I’d heard Artusa humming it a thousand times while doing the cooking.

“When I was young,” began Mastrina, playing all the while, “lots of young Gwendes ignored the security measures and visited the nabrallos to listen to hicupé.”

“That’s not possible! My father’s always saying how difficult it was to get there!” I exclaimed from the carpet, rubbing the back of the cat that had followed me to the kitchen. Its companions remained in a ball on the balcony.

“It most certainly was!” laughed the old lady, picking up speed. “And yet, despite the complicated nature of the endeavour, many fans of this music risked making the journey. Getting to Bragunde was especially difficult, but it was worth it, that’s where the best hicupé clubs were.”

“Have you… have you ever been to the nabrallos?” I asked in fascination.

Mastrina stopped playing and turned the stool towards me.

“Me? I wish I had,” she replied bitterly. “I was never brave enough for such adventures.”

Old Xaoven seemed to glimpse the disappointment on my face, so she went on the counter-attack.

“Do you like stories?” she asked. Sparks of light flashed in her green eyes.

“I sure do. Like everybody, I suppose. Why do you ask?”

“I want to propose a deal: we’ll divide your class time into two parts. If you invest a minimum amount of effort in learning to play the klavia, I’ll tell you a story – a good one, too. It’s about a girl just like you, perhaps a tiny bit older. It begins on the day she went to one of those clubs in the nabrallos. I think you’ll like it.”

The matter was clear: I either had to sit for two hours in front of the hated klavia or do so for less time and put up with the old woman’s ravings. It didn’t take me long to make up my mind.

“I like stories with magic in them,” I confessed.

“Oh, this one has plenty…”

 

Translated from Galician by Jonathan Dunne

Additional Info

  • purchase text:

    TARTARUS by Antonio Manuel Fraga, the fifteenth title in the series Galician Wave devoted to the best of Galician young adult fiction in English, is available for purchase through your local or online bookshop

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    ISBN: 978-954-384-091-5

    Publication Date: 19 October 2018

    Language: English

    Paperback: 234 pages

    Dimensions: 203 x 133 mm