There Was a Farmer Had a Dog | Irene Solà | Granta

There Was a Farmer Had a Dog

Irene Solà

Translated by Mara Faye Lethem

The day he got his right hand stuck in the combine it was very hot. The kind of heat that makes you move clumsily, that doesn’t let you see past your own wet, dust-covered eyebrows, and that rouses the cords around the bales, like snakes, coiling them around the blades.

He lost his pinky and middle finger on his right hand, and was left with three fingers and a pretty well-healed scar that looked like a bird’s foot. They didn’t find even a whole fingernail inside the metal works, but he could still work and there were worse things, much worse.

The day he found the bomb it was very hot, too. As if they’d covered the fields with a blanket in the middle of July. When he heard the loud clank, he stopped the tractor, lifted the plow, moved it four or five meters and lowered it. At first he had a lot of trouble seeing what it was, because it was caked in clods of dirt. But when he touched it and wiped off the dirt, he thought it was probably a Civil War mortar. And he found that pretty amusing because, up until then, the most he’d ever found from the Civil War were some coins buried in flowerpots. He picked it up very carefully to get it out of the way, thinking the thing must weigh at least twenty-five kilos. A twenty-five-kilo dog is too small to survive in the countryside. He’d buried a bunch of lap dogs that were too small for the farm. On a pretty patch covered in wild thyme. They’d been killed by bigger dogs, by cars, or by petty illnesses. On a farm you have to have big, functional dogs, German Shepherds or mastiffs, dogs that howl at the moon and can stand up to a wild boar. When Taques died, he’d had to ask his brother for help burying him. First to dig the wide, deep hole and then to drag the poor creature into it. That mastiff weighed at least seventy kilos and was as big as a calf and would come with him to the farm every day and wait for him beneath the fig tree, and if there were kids, or older people, or neighbors, or scared animals, he was so respectful he’d sit down.

Now it was against the law to bury dogs on your land. You had to throw them into the corpse container. In the summer he’d seen kids run to hide in the house, or dunk their heads compulsively into the freshwater pool, so they wouldn’t smell the stench of carrion when the truck came to collect the dead animals from the container. The truck driver would wave to them, or nod his head, from a distance. He never got out, he never stayed any longer than necessary, and everyone appreciated that, because the man was hauling death. And not some abstract, hygienic idea of death, no neat black figure with a scythe. He was hauling all the pong of decomposing flesh that death brings, tainted and abusive, acidic and hot, intruding into your nostrils. Vicenç Ballador was somewhat curious about that man. He thought it must be hard to love someone who always stank of rotting carrion. There’s no way the stench wouldn’t stick to that poor guy, under his nails and his scalp, no matter how much rough rubbing he did in the shower. And he imagined the truck driver living in a building where his neighbors, instinctively, after seven million years of evolution, avoided getting into the elevator with him.

But anyway it was terrible that they didn’t let you bury your dogs and cats at home, so you could explain to your children where their graves are, and that they have a place, with a tuft of thyme on top. Even though everyone did what they had to do, even though everyone who had a bit of land buried their beloved animals there anyway, even still, it was disrespectful. Butting into other people’s homes and telling them what to do. Just as it was terrible to have a big dog, a country dog truly fit for survival, a dog born to run a lot, and be free, and live in the countryside; and then have to keep him captive all his life. Because that was another thing you weren’t allowed to do; have your dogs run free and have them wait for you under the fig tree.

He put the bomb down prudently and went back to the tractor. Tractors with radios and air conditioning were practically the invention of the century. Vicenç Ballador didn’t ever watch movies about the Spanish Civil War. Not about the Civil War, not about concentration camps, not about kids with cancer. He put the tractor in reverse, drove the plow down there where he’d lifted it, and continued.

When he was a boy, in that house that was so damp and filled with leaks that you could only be in the kitchen, and even then your bones might rot, one of his father’s great-aunts, half blind and always darning socks, told him the only amusing story about the war that he’d ever heard: how his grandfather had managed to avoid taking part. He’d hidden with his brother under a cow. When they’d heard that things were getting hairy, they’d dug a hole beneath the cowshed, and then they’d gotten into it, and their wives and grandfather had lain a thick plank over it, and excrement and hay and, lastly, cows. And when they’d come looking for them they didn’t find them, and they’d risked execution by firing squad but saved themselves from the war. Auntie said: ‘Dead men only feed the stretch of land where they’re buried’ and when she started to lose her marbles, she would laugh to herself like a hyena.

When he’d finished the tilling, he called the police. He didn’t have all day to wait for them, but he went to the house, got some water and sat on the porch facing the field.

Once the kids had come running to find him because they’d found a dead body. Vicenç Jr. was carrying a jaw in one hand and Marta was walking behind him. Vicenç had taken the gray dried bone, examined it, and then ruined the detective adventure by telling them it was a lamb bone. Now, Marta was finishing veterinary school and Vicenç Jr. taught music lessons and played drums in a band that just screamed but apparently they were good, and they’d toured England, and they were called John Deere, which was the make of his tractor. He was actually pretty proud about that John Deere part.

Then the cops showed up. They shook his hand. People were always a bit shocked to shake a three-fingered hand. He led them to where he’d left the device, and they watched over it until the bomb squad arrived. He went back now, grabbed a cool beer from the fridge and sat back down on the porch facing the police. He thought that just about now Mercè would be coming home for lunch and that he wouldn’t be able to go back to the field that afternoon, because those peaked clouds were bringing a spell of rough weather. He took a long sip that tasted of barley and watched how the bomb squad approached the bomb in their astronaut suits and how his field looked like a movie starring Van Damme or Seagal. And he laughed to himself, suddenly, imagining the expressions on their faces if they’d seen him lugging the mortar like a dead dog.


Image © Dennis Schnieber


This is an excerpt from Dams, forthcoming from Graywolf Press.

Irene Solà

Irene Solà is a Catalan writer and artist, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature, the Documenta Prize for first novels, the Llibres Anagrama Prize, and the Amadeu Oller Poetry Prize. Her artwork has been exhibited in the Whitechapel Gallery.

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Translated by Mara Faye Lethem

Mara Faye Lethem is a writer, researcher, and literary translator. Winner of the inaugural 2022 Spain-USA Foundation Translation Award for Max Besora’s The Adventures and Misadventures of Joan Orpí, she was also recently awarded the 2022 Joan Baptiste Cendrós International Prize for her contributions to Catalan literatureHer translation of Irene Solà’s When I Sing, Mountains Dance was a finalist for the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Barrios Book in Translation Prize and the 2023 Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize. Her forthcoming translations include Pol Guasch's Napalm in the Heart (Faber & Faber and FSG), Alana S. Portero's Bad Habit (HarperVia), Max Besora's The Fake Muse, and Irene Solà's I Gave You Eyes And You Looked Toward Darkness.

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