Mill Town Memories


Like a beast that smells danger, he remained still, rigid behind the closed door; his gaze fearful, his tightly pressed together lips a crack in his sweat-drenched face. He held his breath. He had to control his wheezing. He forced the door handle up and down. Once. Twice. And a third time. Nothing. The bolt didn’t budge. The rank odor of smoke was everywhere. He loosened his tie, unbuttoned the collar of his shirt. The tightness in his chest. The tightness in his chest was making his lungs explode.

Outside, the warehouses were burning on every side. The rows of windows on the weavers’ hall were also belching fire. Above the chimney that threatened to puncture the sky rose a thick, black column of smoke. The siren sounded. Relentlessly. Over the mill town the chiming of the fire bells ground across the rooftops and sent everyone out into the street. Meanwhile, the impassive dam let the water slip tamely down the river.

His knees gave out. Before falling, he heard, through the little barred window that opened onto street level, a voice that shouted: there’s no one left in there! From the floor he banged on the door: here… I’m he… and looked up; through the smoke he could still make out the file cabinets: from A to F… from R to T… and he stammered: Te… re… sa…


Dominus vobiscum…” Father Josep, in the middle of the altar, lowered his eyes as he brought his hands together in a devout gesture.

Et cum spiritu tuo,” said the two altar boys at the same time, kneeling, with their red Sunday cassocks and their white sleeveless albs, as they let a laugh slip out from beneath their noses.

Father Josep, after the benediction, with a slight movement of his eyebrows, indicated that they should stand up and accompany him in the procession toward the sacristy. They went down the two steps of the main altar, passed in front of the Epistle pulpit, where the four evangelists were carved in stone and, just as they neared the first bench, Mr. Viladomat—gray suit, black shoes, white shirt and discreet tie that gripped his starched detachable collar—approached ceremoniously. Father Josep, surprised, listened with his right ear—his left had been hard of hearing for some time now—to what the owner was saying, with fervent attention, as he nodded his head, slowly. After speaking briefly, Mr. Viladomat returned to his spot on the first bench and remained standing with the rest of the parishioners.

The priest returned to the presbytery followed by the altar boys and observed the benches on the right side of the church; the men with their heads uncovered, bowed, respectful. Then he looked toward the left side; the women in their black lace shawls with embroidered edges, looking at him, expectantly.

“Brothers, kneel, kneel and let us pray and give thanks to God,” he rolls his eyes heavenward. “We give thanks to you, oh Lord! For Your infinite mercy. For having led our children along the good path; for having saved us from certain death.” He looked, out of the corner of his eye, at the first bench on the left side, as Mrs. Viladomat wiped away a tear, and he continued more vehemently. “You all know how our Lord has tested us tonight, allowing part of the factory to be destroyed by the flames.” An ‘ay’, that came from the second bench on the right made him lift his head, quickly, and watch as Mr. Camps, the teacher, pulled at the arms of the smallest boy beside him who was obstinately covering his ears. “Brothers!” he continued, lifting his tone and looking at the teacher, as he ran his tongue over his dentures. “But He, who is all goodness, who is all love, saved our lives, ensuring that we all escaped danger. All of us! Safe and sound! Praised be the Lord!” He brought his hands together and lowered his eyes. “Oremus…

Mr. Viladomat brought his hands together also, as did Mr. Boix, the overseer, who was kneeling beside him, and Mr. Camps and the boy who was covering his ears, and all their companions that filled the second and third benches, and those who had arrived late and were seated on the last bench: Climent Palau, assistant to Mr. Claret, the head clerk, and Pepitu, the carpenter—who they called the gimp because he had one short leg and he limped—and Bernat, the watchman, with his Sunday cap, hidden, in a pocket, and Manel, the shopkeeper, who at that moment was thinking about a shipment of flour that had worms. They all, every one, prayed in hushed voices. And, on the left side, in the first bench, Mrs. Viladomat, immaculately clean, simple, a lady, who didn’t have to put up appearances because she just was, and Mrs. Boix, bedecked in jewels, elegant, a lady as well, but she did have to put up appearances because she was the wife of the overseer, and on the second and third benches, the girls, well trained by Sister Maria, also folded their hands, devoutly. The rest of the sisters, who filled the fourth bench, had their hands hidden beneath their starched wimples as they moved their mouths, praying in silence.

The priest opened and closed his arms.

“Go in peace.” He waited for everyone to stand and, dragging with them the scent of incense, he and the altar boys once again began the path to the sacristy.

There was a very brief silence. After Mr. Viladomat left the bench, his wife waited and they both genuflected at the same time toward the tabernacle and exited along the central aisle. Behind them Mr. and Mrs. Boix did the same, and Mr. Camps and the boys, and the sisters and the girls. Bit by bit, everyone left, silently, gradually and in order. In the same order they had used the night before, when passing the buckets of water to put out the fire. When the owners and the overseer and his wife arrived at the first set of doors, they found Climent Palau waiting to give them holy water with two fingers, and they went out into the plaza, the men on the right side and the ladies on the left.

Mrs. Viladomat and Mrs. Boix greeted each other—with all the goings-on they hadn’t yet had a chance—and they addressed the Mother Prioress who was coming out just then with Sister Dolors, the eldest of the community. The rest of the sisters, along with the girls, headed, two by two, in a line, toward the convent.

The men, like every Sunday and day of obligation, stayed in the plaza in circles, but today they weren’t discussing the cotton shipment that had arrived dirtier than usual nor the hailstorm last week that had flattened the early bean plants. Today, the bursts of flame and the stench of smoke hovered over the conversations as they moved from one circle to the next. No one knew how it had started… The fluff that builds up under the looms is very treacherous. The fluff and the dirty oils, that had to be it. The watchman insisted, with a tsk, that by the time he realized the warehouses and the main building were already up in flames; the only thing he could do was set off the siren. The bell ringer and the sexton, who still hadn’t had time to change and wore pants with very wet legs, made the priest’s words their own: We can thank God that no one was hurt.

And today the women had also stayed. Going to the henhouse, feeding the flocks and killing the rabbit for the midday rice would all have to wait. They formed a couple of circles at a prudent distance from the one made up of Mrs. Viladomat, Mrs. Boix, the Mother Prioress, and Sister Dolors. The choirgirls also remained, serious, with grave expressions befitting the circumstances, listening to Matilde, Climent Palau’s wife. Climent had left work, as he did every day, at ten on the dot. And at ten after ten he had arrived home. He had a bite to eat and said he had a headache, that he wouldn’t be going to the café as he usually did on Saturdays, and he stayed listening to the radio, lounging in his wicker chair. Tired, she had gone to sleep early. Working the morning shift and dealing with three children in the afternoon would tire anyone out. She only remembered waking with a jolt and the sound of the siren. Her husband had shaken her, frightened: something serious must have happened. Still drowsy, she saw her father-in-law run toward the door saying, Come on, Climent, hurry up! And he, frightened, said to her: Whatever happens, don’t leave the house! Then they headed toward the factory. She remained still, listening attentively; luckily the children hadn’t woken up. A murmur of footsteps gave her a start; it was her mother-in-law peeking out with rosaries in her hands as she whispered: If you want, we can pray together. But Matilde said she preferred to do it alone. Paralyzed by fear, she curled up among the sheets; she sensed it would be a long night. And it was. The bells sounding out fire had scared her more than the siren. And the doors slamming and the comings and goings and the shouts; no, not the women; let the women stay home with the children. Only the men. And she imagined them, half-dressed, running to put out the fire. Yes. It was a very long night. And when Climent and his father arrived dirty, hair tousled, wet, they only had enough time to wash themselves a bit and change their clothes before ten o’clock Mass. She knew little of how it had gone, they had barely had time to talk about it. It seems that the fire started in the warehouse beside the automatic looms, but the smoke had spread everywhere. The smoke was what had given them the most trouble when trying to put out the fire. Matilde spoke with her head slightly tilted, as she held the Roman missal for Sundays and holidays, covered in leather.

Climent Palau stayed with Mr. Viladomat and Mr. Boix and took a step back to make room for the priest, who had just come out of the church. From underneath the priest’s cassock poked out a pair of high slippers that had been resoled twice. He had his hands in his pockets and was pulling them out of shape as if trying to widen them. Then he removed his right hand in anticipation of the hand kissing. With a slight bow of the head, but without actually touching his hand, the weaving foreman, the spinning foreman, the supervisors of the locksmiths, bricklayers and carpenters, and the clerks lined up, behind the owner and the overseer. And while Climent congratulated him on his sermon, he apologized to the owner for not having realized before that…

“No, don’t worry about it,” Mr. Viladomat patted him on the shoulder, “we are all very upset today.”

Mr. Boix, with his arms behind his back holding up his ribs, leans into Climent’s ear. He took a step back and they both remained outside of the circle.

“What Mr. Viladomat wanted,” he whispered, stretching out his neck and twisting his mouth slightly, “was for him to thank everyone; for the way they risked their lives, for the way…” He unfolded his arms and, with two fingers, held his chin while searching for the right word. “He wanted to do it himself but thought that, given the setting, it was more appropriate that the priest do it. And look at what he’s said…”

Neither Mr. Boix nor Climent, who were nodding their heads, realized that Bernat had taken off his Sunday hat as he shyly touched Mr. Boix’s shoulder.

“Excuse me…”

They both turned at the same time.

“It’s just that…” he took the hat into his other hand, “Mrs. Claret is asking for you, sir…”

Mrs. Claret had remained two steps behind and Climent looked at her discreetly; she didn’t look the way she usually did. She seemed a little bit…flustered. Even the clothes she was wearing weren’t exactly the most appropriate for a Sunday. Perhaps… On the other hand, Mr. Boix treated her as he always did, which exasperated Climent. Mr. Boix unbuttoned his suit coat, took his pocket watch out of his vest and pretended he was checking the time before buttoning his suit coat up again. Then Climent realized that Mr. Boix was leaving, in a hurry, to talk to Mr. Viladomat. He, stock-still, worried, looked at her; mouth closed, eyes questioning; no reply. She, her gaze fixed on the ground, expectant; anguished silence. Mr. Viladomat, followed by Mr. Boix, approached her.

“Mrs. Claret?”

“Yes…” she barely lifted her head.

“And well, what is this I hear? Mr. Boix tells me that your husband hasn’t… What is your husband’s name?”


“Isidre. And he says that you haven’t seen him since…”

Climent comes over.

“Excuse me,” he says solicitously, to the owner. And to Teresa, with fear and anxiousness, “What’s going on?”

“It’s Sidro, Sidro hasn’t come home.”


Silvia Alcántara

Silvia Alcántara (Puig-reig, 1944) belongs to the generation that was not taught in Catalan. Having gone on to study Catalan and creative writing as an adult, she has forged, in Mill Town Memories, a work that places her firmly on the Catalan literary map.

Mara Faye Lethem

Mara Faye Lethem's recent translations include works by David Trueba, Albert Sánchez Piñol, Juan Marsé, Javier Calvo, and Patricio Pron.

Mill Town Memories (Olor de colonia). Copyright (c) Silvia Alcántara, 2009. English translation copyright (c) Mara Faye Lethem, 2009.