SAD WEAPONS by Marina Mayoral

During the Spanish Civil War, two sisters, Harmony and Rose, are sent to Russia by their parents for their own safety. Their father is a soldier in the Republican army, their mother a nurse in a field hospital. The children board the French cargo ship that is to take them on the fifteen-day journey to Leningrad, or St Petersburg as it is also known, but unfortunately their mother is unable to arrive in time to see them off. In Russia, they are treated well, looked after by the woman in charge of the children’s home, María do Mar, and attend school. They are given a task to write a letter to their nearest relatives, and all Harmony can do is apologize for leaving without saying goodbye to their mother, hoping she isn’t angry. Rose contributes a drawing of a red hen surrounded by chicks. As the years pass, the children develop a close friendship with another refugee child, Leo, the only one who boarded the ship without bursting into tears. The war in Spain reaches its conclusion only to be replaced by the Second World War, which marks the events in this story irrevocably. This is a charming story, full of humour and tenderness, in which parents struggle to do the right thing, children grow up ahead of time and dreams become reality for those who remain persistent.

Chapter 1

One misty autumnal morning many years ago, Harmony and Rose left the orphanage Our Lady of the Crystal to catch the boat that would take them to Russia. They were not orphaned girls. They were there because of the Civil War and also because of family misunderstandings.

Their father was at the front, fighting as a soldier in the Republican army, and their mother was working as a nurse in a field hospital. Harmony and Rose had uncles, aunts and other relatives, but these had different ideas from those of their parents, who preferred to leave them in an orphanage rather than in the house of people who were critical of their position in a matter as important as the one being discussed. The girls were not asked their opinion. They were told it would only be a question of days and they would soon come for them. That had been almost a year earlier.

Their parents went to see them as often as they could, which wasn’t very often, and, used as they were to moving about their town with complete freedom, they felt trapped in that boring, lonesome building. So Harmony was pleased by the idea of leaving the orphanage, travelling by ship and discovering new places. Rose was content also because, ever since their parents had left them there, she hadn’t needed to be pampered, nor would she shout for no reason and, as long as she wasn’t separated from Harmony, she wouldn’t cry. She might sometimes open her eyes wide, push out her lips like a duck’s beak and sidle up to Harmony, but she wouldn’t cry.

The coach that came to take them to Gijón harbour was full of children just like them, but they didn’t look overjoyed and there were no songs or laughter or games, as on other excursions Harmony could remember, which made her think that perhaps this journey wasn’t going to be as enjoyable as their mother had told them the last time she’d been to see them. But she didn’t want to worry Rose and, whenever her sister huddled up to her and said, “Harmony, are you happy?”, she smiled and answered, “Of course I am, wait and see what fun we’re going to have.”

Their father was waiting for them in Gijón harbour. He was very dark and thin, and had a beard that covered half his face. He was wearing a greatcoat they’d never seen before with a rifle slung over his back. They almost couldn’t recognize him. He hugged them and rubbed his face against theirs, so that Rose laughed and exclaimed, “How itchy you are!” Their father carried on hugging them and making a noise with his nose, as if sniffing or something. Rose laughed, but Harmony realized it wasn’t a laughing matter and asked, “How long will we be there?” Their father replied, “A very short time. We’ll soon be back together again and happy.”

Harmony thought that was what they had said when they took them to the orphanage, but she didn’t make any remark. Their father took out a book from his backpack and added:

“You’ll make lots of friends there, but I brought you this because you know a book is…”

The two girls chorused out loud:

“A friend forever!”

Their father embraced them once more, and Harmony asked:

“What about Mother?”

Their father explained their mother was at the front, helping those who were fighting, so everything would finish sooner, but she would arrive any moment now. He put his arms around their shoulders, pressed them to himself, and they remained in silence, waiting for their mother to arrive.

Almost all the children were accompanied by a relative, and almost all of them were crying.

Harmony felt her throat was constricting, but she didn’t want to cry because she knew, if she cried, Rose would cry as well. She was already pouting her lips and asking, “Where is Mummy?”

Harmony didn’t ask, but she started to be afraid that their mother wasn’t going to arrive in time, and she hugged her father until she could feel the warmth of his body through the cloth of his coat. Their father clapped her on the back as he would do with her grandfather and uncles:

“You have to be strong, Harmony. You’re twelve now, almost a full-grown woman, and you have to watch out for your sister.”

She nodded, but looked at the boat, which seemed ugly and sad, even more than the orphanage.

It came time to leave, and still their mother wasn’t there. Their father told the women from the Red Cross that his wife was at the front, that was why she was late, but she would be here soon, the others could embark first.

Those who were on their own boarded first because there was no one to keep them on land. The women in charge of placing the children on the ship almost had to wrench the others out of their families’ arms. “Please, please!” they kept saying. “Leave the children alone, remember it’s for their own good.”

But all the children were crying their eyes out, staggering blindly up the gangway, turning around, waving goodbye and blowing kisses to those on dry land.

Harmony and Rose were the last to go on board. Their father asked them not to cry and told them, when their mother arrived, she would board the ship and say goodbye. In a trickle of a voice, Harmony said:

“Really, Father?”

Their father replied of course she would, that was why they were fighting at the front, for the good of Spain, so that everybody could live better, happier lives, and the people in the boat admired and respected those fighting in the Republican army.

Harmony gripped Rose’s hand and climbed on to the boat, looking back all the time to see if their mother would arrive. But she didn’t turn up.

The boat was a French cargo ship which didn’t have cabins or decks like a passenger ship. The children were immediately stowed in the hold, which resembled a large, hollow nut. It didn’t have any windows, and the little light there was came in through a hole in the ceiling, which was how you got in. There were lots of children and not much room. The people from the Red Cross were kept very busy trying to settle them all down, and the ship’s crew also ran about, handing out blankets and bags of food.

Harmony kept looking at the hole in the ceiling, so she could run to meet her mother if she appeared there – there were so many children, in all that darkness, she might not be able to see them. Their mother didn’t appear, but one of the women in the Red Cross started shouting:

“Harmony, Harmony! Where is Harmony?”

And when Harmony got up to answer, she said:

“Your mother is on the quay, asking for you.”

Harmony took Rose’s hand and started leaping over the other children, but a sailor and one of the Red Cross women blocked their way, saying it was too late, the boat was about to weigh anchor and they couldn’t go out. They gestured to another woman to take the girls back to their place.

Rose was crying and asking Harmony:

“What will Mother say if we don’t go out?”

Harmony recalled what her father had said about looking after her sister, who was only six, and, being the elder of the two, she made a great effort not to cry and said:

“She’ll understand it wasn’t our fault. Don’t cry. When we get there, we’ll write her a letter and tell her all about it.”


Translated from Galician by Jonathan Dunne

Additional Info

  • purchase text:

    SAD WEAPONS by Marina Mayoral, the seventeenth 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

    Barnes & Noble

    Book Depository


    ISBN: 978-954-384-098-4

    Publication Date: 08 November 2019

    Language: English

    Paperback: 116 pages

    Dimensions: 203 x 133 mm