The Island

The day my sister Berta arrived from The Island, Papá and I went to pick her up from the airport. The weather was humid and unbearably hot, nothing rare for that time of year. Papá wanted to strike up a conversation. He started asking me about university, about my friends; I responded as vaguely as possible, he was building up to the issue of my job search, I was sure, and I didn’t want to make it any easier for him. In a certain sense I felt sorry for this old man, with his drooping eyes and his labored breathing, incapable of speaking frankly with his only son. And as I looked out the window, a bit hypnotized by the monotony of the palms and the humid wind, I remember asking myself if, in the end, to be a father was just that: to be forever embarrassed, forever out of place.

Papá had a little Buddha figurine hanging over the dashboard. I don’t know how long it’d been accompanying us on trips. I guess it was one of those trinkets given for free with an order of Chinese food, or with points on a travel card at some gas station which ends up somehow remaining with you, like it had always been there. The fat, virginal body of the Buddha swayed without rest, and any attempt to track its movement was sure to end in nausea. I remember Berta and I would sometimes do that as kids, stare until we got so sick that they had to stop off at a service station so we could throw up, and after get us something sweet to eat. We did it to annoy them, Papá and Mamá, to force them into stopping, into bowing to our wishes. I remember how we’d laugh afterwards, both of us collapsed horizontal in the backseat because with us so thin and the seat so wide we fit side by side. I believe we kept it up until we were fairly old, at least until Mamá disappeared.

“Are you sure you’ve got the arrival time and flight number right?” Papá asked again as we arrived at the airport.

“Yes, don’t worry, I’ve checked three times, I’ve got it written right here.”

“Ok, ok,” Papá said, breathing heavily.

The sound of Papá’s breathing was something else, it was like one of those locomotives you see in black and white movies. In the car he kept a few changes of clothes to keep himself presentable, because he spent most of the day on the move and had so many meetings. He had various shirts, all in shades of blue or beige, that all seemed too small on him, or too big, like his body wasn’t able to fit any size at all. So when we got to the airport waiting area, he headed to the bathroom, in a rush, to put on a shirt from his trunk.

In front of the new arrivals gate a few people were gathered, parties of one, for the most part, and middle-aged, who paced nervously from side to side. There were fifty year-old executives in impeccable suits with these peculiar expressions, like they were about to devour a succulent steak; there were women older than fifty, secure in their expensive dresses and perfect hairdos who, nevertheless, hadn’t been able to completely iron the tightness from their lips, even though their lives had been dedicated to the erasure of these gestures of preoccupation. Papá and I were standouts in the midst of this crowd, him with his half-ironed shirt, and me with my worn-out jeans.

Berta soon emerged, her hair was much shorter than it had been when she’d left for The Island, from far away she seemed older, she didn’t give off the air of a seventeen year-old. As she passed through the automatic doors, Papá started to wring the car key in his hands with such force I thought he’d break it.

“It had to be done, son, you know that, right? She had to be sent to that place. There was no other way to save her, no other way to keep her here after what she’d done.”

Papá spoke quickly, like an automaton. He hadn’t left me time to respond because Berta was already past the security barrier and running towards us. As soon as we were within reach she threw her arms around Papá’s neck. Up close she seemed like a seventeen-year-old girl again. Papá stopped squeezing the key, Berta hugged me too and we headed back to the car.

“So,” Papá said. “We’ve rented a beach house, for the summer.”

“But you have work, right?” Berta said.

“Yes, of course, but we won’t be too far from the city, I’ll come and go from the house every day.”


Berta sounded happy. She didn’t object even once to our summer visit. Didn’t ask another question. She seemed like our normal Berta.

After five days at the beach, Papá went back to work. The hottest part of the summer had begun and besides relaxing on the beach and sunbathing, there wasn’t much else to do. The town we were staying in was little more than a community of houses staggered on a hillside. Every house had a little terrace with an ocean view, a combined kitchen/sitting room that looked onto the terrace, and three bedrooms that connected to a large, common patio. In the lower zone, near the sea, there was a beachfront bar and an ice cream stand.

To go shopping you had to drive to a mall in the middle of nowhere, a few kilometers outside of town. Because Papá had the car, the only way to get there was by a bus that stopped every hour. So we did that. Berta seemed enthusiastic about taking the bus, she left the house skipping, in her sundress, green with white stripes, over her already tanned legs. Look, she said when we passed by a house, look, when we passed by a corral of horses. Wow!, she said when we passed by a windsurf school.

“Can we go? Can we?”

Later, in the mall, she wanted to buy everything: beach umbrellas, collapsible chairs, several headscarves for the sun, the water, the sand…. Like a little girl she dragged me through the aisles of the mall’s immense nave, where objects seemed to have no order or concert. Nonetheless, I got the impression that they were all perfectly organized to her. Every time she came across a new item she would pull on my sleeve and say:

“Look at this, look at this. A battery-powered fan. We need it, unless you want to melt this summer, come on, it doesn’t even cost three dollars.”

In the end we went home with a red hammock, foldable and waterproof, that could act as a wind block; three sarongs that appeared to be the same tawny color, with such varying uses nothing else in the world seemed necessary; a non-stick frying pan, water-resistant and antibacterial, that you didn’t wash so much as wipe clean with a grayish, fuzzy cloth that, of course, we also acquired.

On the way back I was so exhausted that I fell asleep watching the waves under the gold light of dusk, Berta, however, was full of energy and talked with anyone who would listen to her. I could hear her excited chatter coming in and out of my dreams, while the vehicle listed from side to side. I suppose the roadway was poorly paved, or else the sea deteriorated it so fast perfect maintenance was impossible.

Hearing her like that, while half-asleep, as she practiced her clumsy English, because the majority of the area’s inhabitants were northern tourists, I got the feeling we would make it.

So we immersed ourselves in summer the same way one would slip into a hot bath after a long day: we sweated, read comics during siesta, and at night we ate dinner with Papá on the terrace and took turns swinging in the red hammock that, according to Berta, was the envy of our viking neighbors.

After almost a month in this sweet rhythm of baths and clear skies, a Dutch man began to pass by what was now almost our second home on the beach. At first we had only left the beach chairs behind, because they were too heavy to be carrying up and down to and from the house; later we started to leave the table, the towels and some clothes in a beach bag tied to one of the hammocks, a magazine, the sunblock, the umbrella. In the end, we had a whole campground on the beachfront. Manfred, the Dutch man, began to watch us from afar, he staked himself by the ice cream stand and observed us over his strawberry cone.

Berta didn’t notice, or at least I don’t think she did, keen as she was to flip through her magazine and read about makeup tricks and fashion for the fall and winter seasons. A few months earlier it would’ve driven me up a wall that Berta actually enjoyed those sorts of things, but in that moment her sheer normalcy seemed like a blessing. After two or three days, Manfred decided to approach us.

“Hello,” he said, “how am I doing?”

His accent was so funny it seemed to drag Berta out of her daydreams. She answered, laughing:

“Good, you’re doing good.”

The Dutch man watched her for a moment as she doubled over with laughter, I think he took it as a good sign because pretty soon he added:

“Can you sit?”

“Sure, sure, we’re going to sit down,” Berta continued, every moment more amused.

Manfred, with his clumsy but efficient control of language, told us that this was his second year in Spain, that he was bored out of his mind because he hadn’t met anyone his age, and asked if we’d accept him in our little paradise.

“Couple?” he hazarded a guess after some time sitting with us at the campground.

“Siblings, siblings,” Berta rushed to say.

“Ah,” the Dutch man said, “I see, I see.”

From that day on Manfred became our plus one. He brought his floral towel to the campground and a few of his Belgian comics, which he ambitiously attempted to translate for us.

It bothered Papá that we spent so much time with Manfred, he didn’t say anything, as per usual, but his eyes followed the man gravely when he thought we wouldn’t notice. I don’t think I’d realized at the time what my father felt obligated to do, or how these decisions weighed over his conscience. To me he was an old man, out of touch, miserably mistrustful.

Berta, all the same, seemed to be in her element, always smiling, always quick to joke, always worried about her appearance, always impeccable. At times I came close to asking her what had happened on The Island but I knew I shouldn’t, so I pushed my curiosity away and stored it in the same place where I’d kept all my familial questions since the time I was little.

Towards the beginning of September, Manfred and Berta began to disappear together on the beach, later they would return holding hands. They made an odd couple, Manfred so tall and blond and sunburned and Berta so petite and tan. At first I considered saying something to Papá, but then I told myself he would just get overly nervous and that really vacation was almost over anyways.

September slipped through the air like a warm, smooth wine. Except for our family and Manfred’s, no one was left, the northern tourists had packed their suitcases for the city and their busy lives there and some days only Berta, Manfred, the ice cream stand boy and I were on the beach. I kept myself amused with little things, enjoying the stopped time, putting off every future decision, about my half-finished classes, about the increasing evidence that I hadn’t chosen my major well. Real life seemed like a distant murmur, or at least that’s what I thought.

When there was only a week left, Papá asked for a few days off work.

“I want to make sure everything’s going well before vacation ends,” he told me. “Then we’ll have to go back to daily life and Berta will have to face it all again.”

“Come on, Papá, everything’s fine, look around. I don’t think there’s currently a more normal girl on the face of the planet.”

“Yes, that’s what worries me.”

He made absolutely sure we would spend all day, every day together. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner and walks on the beach. He cast about for conversation topics, asked Berta if she liked the idea of going to her new institute, if she liked the idea of returning home. Of course, she said, with a perpetual smile, like nothing had ever happened, like we were the most normal family in the world and she an innocent seventeen-year-old girl.

I suppose right then I should’ve begun to suspect, but everything seemed to be going so well, that I let it slide. I was already savoring the freedom of college that awaited me, nights with my peers, weekends.

When there were three days left, Manfred disappeared. His parents came over to our house that night to ask if we’d seen him, apparently he hadn’t been home all day. Friday morning they returned, worn-down, no sleep, having already alerted the police. His mother was a powerless valkyrie, her eyes were blown wide and her voice trembled.

Papá wrung his hands nervously as he explained that we didn’t know anything, that we only had a few days left together, that the man hadn’t appeared at our house. After they left, Papá asked Berta if she knew anything. Berta, without dropping the smile from her face said no, she hadn’t seen him since Monday.

Friday evening they found Manfred’s body on the beach. Apparently he’d thrown himself off a cliff. Saturday they called on us to testify at the neighboring town’s police station. We should accompany them by police car, they said, they’d come pick us up. Papá begged them on the phone to allow us to come in our own car:

“My children are very young, you understand? They’ve been through a lot, I don’t want to subject them to unnecessary stress, you got it? I’ll take responsibility for everything, I promise we’ll be there on time. There’s no need to be concerned.”

On the way to the station, Papá clenched the steering wheel so hard his fingers began to bruise; he talked about anything, everything, the bad state of the roads, the incompetency of the government, the wonderful pre-fall weather. Berta, however, seemed serene, like nothing that was happening affected her. Or like what was happening wasn’t really happening, it was difficult to say.

They let us out by evening, apparently the death had been accidental, the forensics had determined, or maybe a suicide, in any case it wasn’t murder. At the hour of his death, which they had determined was Thursday at ten in the morning, we’d been together, breakfasting at the little beachfront bar. So nothing linked us to the mangled body of Manfred, or at least that’s how it seemed to the police officer, a tall man, muscular, who attempted to act like he had everything under control; even though a certain hesitance in the way he used the words “body” and “deceased” interchangeably, hinted that the situation was too much for him.

Papá sighed in relief as soon as we left and decided that we would go to a fast food place, taking advantage of the fact, he said, that we were nearby. In reality Papá wanted to make it up to us, like he somehow believed the entire affair was his fault. Berta seemed delighted. During the meal no one mentioned the occurrence, we ate more than necessary and tried to laugh at Papá’s work stories, about his incompetent boss, about his buddy addicted to video games, about the garbage that arrived for them to buy and sell.

I never took my eyes off Berta, couldn’t understand why she wasn’t freaked out by what had happened, why she didn’t say anything about Manfred, when all was said and done they’d spent a lot of time together, when all was said and done he’d probably been her boyfriend, or something of the sort.

“What bad luck,” Papá said on the return trip to the beach house. “That such an awful thing had to happen, but then, that’s life.”

“Of course,” Berta said, “these things happen.”

Sunday we left early to avoid traffic.

“If this keeps up we won’t have much time to put our things in order before Monday,” Papá said.

Berta and I sat in the back seat, Papá liked to drive alone. When we were a bit more than an hour in, the trip began to bore me to death, the landscape once we left the beach behind was monotonous: an extension of chalky ground, no trees or fields of crops. While searching for anything attractive on the horizon my eyes ran into the Buddha. Up there, over the dashboard, he was still swaying like always, so then I looked at Berta, with a conspirator’s grin, and signaled towards the Buddha with a glance.

Berta looked at me, looked at the Buddha, and shrugged. I thought she just wasn’t in the mood to play, so I pointed it out again. Nothing. It was in that moment that I realized. She didn’t remember at all.

I looked the other way, out the window, trying to concentrate on the scenery. In vain. If Berta didn’t remember the Buddha, it was possible she didn’t remember many other things. It was possible she didn’t remember the punishments, it was possible she didn’t remember Mamá.

I began to wring the house key in my hands, like Papá, asking myself who this woman seated next to me was and what was she doing with us.


Pilar Fraile Amador

The Spanish wunderkind writer Pilar Fraile Amador was born in 1975 in Salamanca. Highly regarded for her writing across several genres, she has published the short story collection Los Nuevos Pobladores (Ediciones Traspiés, Granada, 2014), as well as four poetry collections: Falta (Ed. Amargord), Larva & Cerca (Ed. Amargord), La pecera subterránea (Ed. Amargord), and El límite de la ceniza (Prensas universitarias de Zaragoza). Her work has appeared in diverse anthologies and collections, as well as in art and literature magazines across the globe, including Cuentos de El Andén, Tears in the Fence, Narrative Northeast, Nayagua, Galerna, and Gulf Coast. Her work has been translated into English by Forrest Gander and anthologized in the book Panic Cure: Poetry from Spain for the 21st Century. Her translated poetry has also appeared in magazines such as Asymptote, Circumference, Alchemy, and InTranslation. Pilar Fraile Amador holds a PhD in literary theory from UCM University and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Oviedo. Her first novel, Las ventajas de la vida en el campo, has just been published by the Penguin Random House branch Caballo de Troya in March 2018.

Heather D. Davis

Heather D. Davis is a translator and writer living in Providence, Rhode Island. Her translation of another short story by Pilar Fraile Amador is forthcoming in Conjunctions.

Los Nuevos Pobladores. Copyright (c) Pilar Fraile Amador, 2014. English translation copyright (c) Heather D. Davis, 2018.