The Washing and the Clothes Line

Treasure of the Spanish Civil War BY translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith Serge Pey. Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books. 180 pages. $18.
Cover of Treasure of the Spanish Civil War

The neighbors thought my mother was crazy. How to explain that she sometimes put her washing on the line, sometimes in the field, sometimes on the grass, and sometimes even hung it from the branches of trees? What sense did it make that she would often lay it in the shade or in the windiest spot weighted down by large stones like the punctuation marks of some secret message?

On this morning my mother had taken the flowerpots outside because the sun was back. The same sun that disappeared at times behind the sun and that we would look for all over the house, in the dust, under the bed, in a book open at a ripped page, or beneath a mislaid shoe.

Beginning the day meant following a strict ritual. The first thing was the search for fire. Moment by moment, the great kindler, the sun, prepared the celebration of noon. There were days that began like night. We heard red owls hooting, bells ringing in places unknown, shutters slamming, even songs of freedom from the depths of cellars. But this time it was daytime in the day because it had already been daytime in the night.

My mother had taken the flowers outside as if to give the horizon permission to stretch out, because the tramuntana had blown very hard and now calm reigned like a bird on a branch. By bringing the flowers in their pots from their sheltered spot in the hallway my mother was telling the sun it was time to rise.

Camp d’Argelès-sur-Mer, November 1940, Dr. Alec Cramer.
Camp d’Argelès-sur-Mer, November 1940, Dr. Alec Cramer.

I learned my letters as I ate my alphabet soup. Tiny letters, without much meaning. For her part, my mother read the earth, because marks on the ground were the writing of the night. From those signs, outside the house, she knew that a fox had passed by along the road, or a dog, or a bicycle. So well did she read marks on the ground that I thought she must come from the future. Sometimes she would point out a flight of birds at a place in the sky that the birds had yet to reach.

Flowers and cats were my mother’s vowels. In hanging out her washing she wrote consonants that filled the world with sound. With our sheets and shirts she dictated sentences that only heaven could understand. Through the window I saw my pants, a script signaling to trucks on the main road and to unknown shepherds by their fires.

On this morning my mother seemed to be singing for an illiterate god belching forth cries like vowels. Everything was decreed: the cawing of a crow, the whine of a knife-grinder at work, a lost airplane, a crate full of guns, the voice of a white cloud altering its ephemeral aspect. This morning in particular my mother had taken the washing down from the clothes line and spread it out on the grass before going off to light a fire at the far end of the field.

“That crazy woman is drying her wash with smoke,” said the neighbors.

My mother really did hang her washing out any old how. She paid no attention to the season. She didn’t bring things in when it rained. Sometimes she left them to the mercy of nighttime prowlers. Even if the line was free, she would often lay them out on the dew-drenched grass. But what the neighbors did not know was that my mother was not just hanging out her wash but making signals: the sheets spread out on the grass, anchored by stones, meant that the coast was clear and it was safe to come down from the mountain. If she left a single pair of pants on the line, you had to be careful because police were stationed where the two valleys met. When my mother hung only dresses on the line she was announcing the delivery of bundles of clandestine newspapers. A sole sheet on the clothes line along with a red skirt signified the arrival of weapons or a dangerous package. A bedspread meant that we could put someone up overnight. Only my mother was allowed to say that the way was clear and that the men of the sun could therefore come down into the valley. My mother did not speak: she sewed. That was her job. She had a mouth full of needles.

“Mama, I’ve put the fire out at the far end of the field.”

“So go now and take the sheets down but leave the pants.”

I knew a few of the codes. My father’s shirt meant “Go round behind the graveyard”; my sister’s skirt, “Beware – suspicious person!”; a pair of pants with one leg folded back, “Meeting the day after tomorrow as agreed.”

My mother had taught me the secret language of drying the laundry. She was a virtuoso when it came to interrogative vowels, secret imperatives, and conjugations of shoelaces. Grammars of silence, unities of space rather than time, new coordinating conjunctions, agreements of past participles with auxiliary verbs that were neither the verb être nor the verb avoir – none of these held any mystery for her, for she was herself the mystery. But this morning, as I was eating my lunch, she suddenly rushed over to me and whispered: “Quick! Take your shirt off and go and hang it on the line, then bring back all the wash still there. Quick! Hurry up!”

I understood her haste when, from our garden which overlooked the road, I saw a long convoy of the gendarmerie’s blue vans.

So my shirt was now part of a compound sentence. A letter at least, possibly a whole word. I was proud. I had been conjugated – I was almost a verb in my own right. I existed in my mother’s secret language, an important word she had never used before, for it was the first time she wanted to leave my shirt all alone on the line.

So it was that I too, with my shirt, was speaking to the mountain. That shirt was a signal, a warning to “those on the other side.” I ran towards the clothes line bare-chested. The vans on the road, just behind the barn, were disgorging dozens of security police armed with machine-guns. Their chief called to me just after I had hung up my shirt and was gathering up the sheets lying flat on the grass.

“Where do you live?”

I replied by pointing to the house behind me. He asked if I had seen any men coming down from the mountain. I told him no, then went back inside, noticing police hiding behind and all along the cemetery wall. No sooner was I through the door than my mother quickly relieved me of the sheets, which were not yet quite dry, and began ironing them methodically on the table. A sort of peace filled her eyes and she began to sing. That day I found out how to read in a way far beyond books. My shirt, all alone, fluttered like a poor man’s flag. I was a semaphore unto myself. Nobody came down from the mountain and the security police down in their vans down on the road had left in their vans. Their “friends” on the other side must have misinformed them.

My mother has never abandoned the habits of her underground days. Even today, every morning, she drapes washed clothes to dry all over the place. No one says she is crazy, because no one sees her. She spreads her things out inside the house, over chairs and in the most unlikely places. Every morning she remembers the days when freedom was built not with the mouth but with the hands.

My mother is still “building” freedom; she has preserved its signs. Her underclothes scattered about the shack are still unknown letters intended to be read by heaven through the window. The washing is always hung up, in the single room where she lives, because one must always be on the lookout for ways to help the belly of freedom give birth at short notice to a new child.

In her shack she is forever expecting a compañero from the other side to come down into the valley with his heavy pack, exhausted. Her words are still pants, bed sheets, torn pullovers, black dresses like flags, underwear, dungarees, and tattered bedspreads. These days the mountains are inside her shack, and so is her freedom.

It seems to me that even here she is helping those “from the other side” to get through, for even though they are nowhere to be seen, and even if there is no more “other side,” the security police are still everywhere and their presence needs to be signaled.

I no longer want the doctor to come and see her. My mother’s mind is all there. It is the doctor who does not understand. The Civil War is not yet over.

Excerpted from The Treasure of the Spanish Civil War by Serge Pey. Translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Used with permission of Archipelago Books. Copyright © Serge Pey, 2011. English language translation © Donald Nicholson-Smith, 2020.