Gabriela Etcheverry won first prize in the nuestra palabra competition in 2008 with a story of the same name, “Nuestra palabra” (translated as “Our Words”). She is a writer and literary critic who came to Canada in 1975 from her native Chile. She has published two short story collections: Tú y yo (2008) and El árbol del pan (2011); as well as the novel Latitudes (2009). Her stories have also appeared in the anthologies Retrato de una nube: primera antología del cuento hispano canadiense (2008); Las imposturas de Eros: cuentos de amor en la postmodernidad (2009), and in numerous literary journals. An English translation of her second short story collection was published under the title The Breadfruit Tree by Antares Publishing in 2013. She currently lives in Ottawa, where she is editor of the Spanish-language literary journal Qantati, and also the co-founder of the Red Cultural Hispánica (Hispanic Cultural Network), an organization dedicated to disseminating the work of Hispanic-Canadian writers.
Facing the wall by the kitchen counter, with resolute strokes the woman slices into the long baguette she just brought home from the bakery. Her husband edges around her impatiently, searching his mind for words that will have the impact he wants. She too is racking her brain for words, words powerful enough to build a wall of flesh and iron between herself and the world. Into the breadbasket she puts the crusty end of the loaf that had so tempted her with its deep golden colour. Crunchy bread in her mouth, a sound she will forever associate with a din of insults, but she hasn’t the energy now to dwell on that past life. Still, her mind wanders to the useless rhymes she learned from the half-crazed girl who had had a child by her father, especially the incantation for protection against men who wanted to harm her: “With these eyes I see you, with these eyes I tie your hands…” Slicing the bread has never taken her this long before, yet she wishes it could go on forever. Her hand caresses the warm loaf as if asking its forgiveness for the actions of the knife. Now her husband is closer to his chair. If only he would sit down at the table and perhaps look at her but—damn it!—not with those eyes. They could never pierce her skin and reach the damaged core of her being.
“What did you say?” he demands.
His feverish eyes and the urgency in his voice show that he has asked the question more than once, and is still waiting for an answer. She continues slicing the bread as if oblivious to her surroundings until, finally, she says: “I don’t remember. Anyway, it doesn’t matter…” She mustn’t confess that she was talking to herself again. She’s never sure where the truth, however simple, will land her. She checks her email every morning before going out to the bakery, and today she had learned of a short story contest called “Our Words”. Toying with the idea of unearthing and polishing some of her old writings, she had mumbled the phrase our words first to herself and then out loud, as if the spoken words would magically dispel her fear of rejection. Yet something tells her she is ready to take up the fight—some rare ingredient must have got into the stew last night because she had gone to sleep repeating her mantra for peace and woke up chewing on the seed of rebellion.
Things have been going badly between her and her husband for a long time, and both were exhausted after last night’s outburst. She had remained awake for hours after he fell asleep, trying to bring some order to the images of people, places and events that were streaming through her mind. Still dazed, she relived that moment when she seemed to have left her body behind and could hear herself talking about separation.
“You’re so irrational…” had become her husband’s habitual complaint. In his frustration with her, he also started to criticize her mother: “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised considering the mother you have…”
As far as she was concerned, he was quite right to blame her mother for making her into the person she was. Her mother had never lived with them and was a continent away, but she was indeed at the root of all that she valued in herself—her compassion, her love of singing, her hunger for learning.
Looking at her sleeping husband, no trace left of his ugly scowl, she wondered whether they hadn’t just grown in opposite directions during their years of marriage, but she persuaded herself that this was not the case and immediately felt better. Together or separately they would end up walking along the same paths. The problem was within her, no doubt, but after a long detour she was at last approaching the road on which he had already set out. It was a simple incongruity of time, which she would try hard to correct. She couldn’t forget the years when they had walked together, completely attuned in time and space, clearing the land where they would build a home for themselves and for all who sought their warmth: children or relatives, friends or pets. She resolved to talk to him about starting a family; after all, she was fast approaching thirty. If only they could go back to the early days when his gentle and attentive ways had almost made her forget the constant insults that her father had showered on her using any pretext whatsoever. He would send her to buy the bakery’s most well-toasted bread and then be infuriated if she made the slightest sound eating the crust.
She surrendered at last to sleep, calmed by a vision of her mother—a warm, smiling face, and an extended arm offering to help. The other image, that of her mother’s uplifted arm ready to strike (to kill?), her face contorted in anger, only appeared much later when the woman’s slumber was deep. The fusion of two heavenly bodies would be easier to accomplish than the integration of these contrasting images.
“You were the one who talked about separation last night, not me, and now you come out with this business of our words.”
“Ah…,” she says, and then says it again, just to gain time. “Maybe I was thinking about marriage vows,” she lies, “about the words we say without really thinking about their meaning. Or expressions like ‘word of honour,’ ‘keeping your word,’ ‘giving your word’ and so on. The funniest one, I think, is ‘breaking your word,’” she persists, heartened by his apparent calm.
“What’s so funny about it?” His voice is almost normal now, and this gives her hope that the storm is passing.
“How can you ‘break’ a word? Words are like stones, my mother used to say. Once they’re thrown…” And she rushes on, talking about her home and her mother as if her very life depended on telling the stories, not ceasing even when she realizes the huge mistake she has made. She has given him the very words that he’ll be sure to use to express the wrath of the unforgiving gods against one who dares to rush blithely about, loath to inhabit the logical world of the only minds that matter.
A small end of the loaf remains on the counter, and the woman holds on to that bit of bread like clinging to the mother she knows she will now have to defend. If she lets her go, if she lets that other image fill her head, she will be drained of all warmth and will sink down into the emptiness of death.
The accusing voice is nearer. She senses her husband standing just behind her, feels his breath on the nape of her neck. She knows he won’t let up until she turns to face him and he can see by the hurt in her eyes that his words have touched a nerve. The words rain down: not the persistent drops that eventually bore into the rock, but the downpour that cloaks the eyes and darkens the way. She feels her wall of flesh and iron beginning to crumble and closes her eyes to concentrate on the mantra for peace that may save her or halt her gradual, dangerous advance down the road where his words are forcing her.
She finished slicing the loaf some time ago; the pieces sleep in the basket waiting to be called. With the counter pressing against her skin, the woman seems somehow insubstantial as she stares with empty eyes into the narrow space before her. She tosses one of the coveted pieces of crust into her mouth, and the inevitable fails to occur. For the first time there is no shower of abuse from her father evoked by the crunch of fresh bread between teeth. Instead, she finds her mother’s all-powerful arm tearing down the wall, which after all was not of flesh and iron but built of charms, spells, and magic words.
Still against the counter, the hail of words biting into her back, she holds in her hand, now empty of bread, the knife that gleams with all the strength of its irrationality.
Translated by Gabriela Etcheverry