“siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio”
— Antonio de Nebrija, “Gramática de la lengua castellana”
Olivar estava somiant. He dreamt of things wonderful and banal.
He dreamt of standing in the shadow of a shining, foreboding castle, its three giant towers piercing the sky like swords. Perched at the top of the central and tallest tower was an enormous crimson lion, which looked down at him with a mixture of haughty disregard and gluttonous desire. The lion opened its maw, baring its fearsome teeth, and leapt at him from the tower.
“Déu meu, protect me!” Olivar cried out in català, cowering from the attack and covering his face.
But, just as the lion’s claws were about to rip into him, the lion became his schoolteacher and the towers behind it became his schoolhouse. And, instead of being ripped to shreds, he found himself whacked repeatedly by the nun’s rod.
“Never. Speak. That. Filthy. Idioma. In. This. Country. Again,” heard the boy, each castellano word delivered with another smack from the rod.
“I won’t! I promise I won’t!,” he cried. He tried to respond in Castilian, he really did, but his tongue failed to wrap itself around the slightly unfamiliar words. And with each failure came another hit from the rod.
Whack. Smack. Hit. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Olivar, no longer a scared schoolboy and now a fair-skinned, dark-haired young man, woke to the sounds of his àvia knocking at his door.
“Un s-s-segon, Grandma” he called to her, stuttering the second word as he tried to respond to her in Catalan. Head still throbbing from the aiguardent of the night before, he hastily swapped his night clothes for his daytime tunic and tried to flatten his ever-unruly hair before rushing out of his room and into the house’s common space.
Olivar’s grandmother looked up from the kitchen fire where she was heating up that morning’s gruel. “What happened to ‘un segon’, amor meu?” she asked, looking disappointed. “It used to feel like you came out of your room right behind me; this time, I felt like I was waiting for you for an hour.”
Olivar felt guilty. Not for the time that it took for him to get out of his room but for the small part that he was playing in diminishing the power of Catalan. He tried to speak Catalan, but, as the days wore on, as the French King’s power over Catalonia grew, he found it easier and easier to default to speaking Castilian.
Shaking her head, Olivar’s grandma returned her attention to the pot in front of her and realized that she had burned both the meager remainder of gruel and her wooden spoon. She swore like a sailor (after all, her husband had been one of Catalonia’s most successful fishermen), wishing God’s wrath on the pot, the fire, and the whole kingdom. Fortunately, nothing came of her invocations, and, after scrounging some still-edible gruel from the walls of the pot, she plopped it into a bowl for Olivar’s consumption.
Before his grandmother had even had a chance to wish him bon profit, Olivar had shoveled the food into his mouth and turned to walk out the door. He didn’t want his grandma to see how that little charm had lost its magic too. Once, there had been a time when the incantation of those two words, in his grandmother’s ever-doting voice, would have guaranteed a meal fit for a king. Nowadays, it couldn’t even mask the taste of burned gruel. This further fueled people’s unwillingness to speak their mother tongue, as even daily spells and incantations stopped being effective.
As he rushed out the door, Olivar’s grandmother called out to him “Bon vent i barca nova”. Of course, Olivar had no new boats in his future. And there wasn’t even a small breeze to accompany him on his way to his uncle’s workshop.
Olivar’s uncle’s workshop wasn’t large and, by the time Olivar arrived, it was already smoky from the kiln. This wasn’t the first morning that Olivar showed up late, so Jaume just rolled his eyes and continued molding the clay in front of him.
“Get to work, we’re low on mugs and the servant of some cheap afrancesado is coming in later today to look at some tiles” growled his uncle, eyes intent on the clay in front of him. Jaume was a man with a broad, kind face, but a rough demeanor. He kept his hair shorn short and, though his forearms were strong from throwing clay, he was starting to develop the paunch of a man transitioning into late adulthood.
Above the wheel where the potter worked hung an ornately-carved wooden sign which read “La feina ben feta no té fronteres”. Although that talisman’s magic had worn out long ago, it still functioned as a clear signal of both Jaume’s refusal to abandon the Catalan language and his refusal to take sides in la guerra particular de catalunya. That non-partisanship was why Jaume was still alive while his brother, Olivar’s dad, was not.
As Olivar got to work preparing clay for his uncle to use, he thought about his father. The man had died in Barcelona when Olivar was barely two years old. Catalan magic had been stronger then. Still, the wizard-warriors of Catalonia did not stand a chance against the combined French and Castilian forces.
At that moment, a pinched-looking man, with a cheap wig and all of the affectations of someone imitating nobility, strolled into the workshop. He gave a cough and, without acknowledging Olivar’s existence, approached Jaume.
“Soy Francisco López de Rozas y de la Torre, loyal servant of Antonio del Castillo y Ventimiglia, el tercer Marqués de Villadarias, sexto Marqués de Cropani y tercer Conde de Peñón de la Vega, who himself is the son of the great Francisco del Castillo Fajardo y Muñoz, segundo marqués de Villadarias,” said the Castilian man in a single, seemingly-neverending breath. The sound of his voice grated on Olivar’s ears, its harshness accentuated by the harshness of Olivar’s own hangover. “I believe you have some euh… Tiles for me, no?”
Olivar looked over at his uncle and was disappointed, but not surprised, to see the man adopting the demure posture of the lower classes speaking to nobility. This man was, of course, not actually nobility, but, nonetheless, Jaume would kowtow to him since he represented the potential for a big payoff.
“Yes, yes of course señor,” responded Jaume. In his haste to welcome the customer, he nearly ruined the mug that he had been working on. Olivar rolled his eyes at the unnecessary formality of referring to someone barely above their station as a “señor”, but his uncle flashed him a stern and meaningful look.
As Jaume ushered the newcomer past Olivar and into the storeroom in the back, Olivar surreptitiously withdrew the Caganer he had been secretly working on from the box where the raw clay was stored. He hunched over the talisman and got to work, delicately shaping the clay with the king’s visage. Or, at least, what he imagined the king’s visage to be, based on coins and flyers.
Olivar kept this project a secret not only from his uncle but from his grandmother as well. Neither would really understand it. His uncle would immediately think it treasonous, which, to be fair, it might be. His grandmother would laugh at the regal disrespect but would be shocked and offended if Olivar put the figurine in the nativity scene. He imagined her reaction as he carefully carved the clay, the way her mirthful laugh would turn into angry admonitions, the way her sly smile would morph into a visage of horror and —
The newcomer, laughing haughtily at some non-joke he had just told, opened the storeroom door and, without looking, bumped into Olivar’s chair. Olivar was jostled out of his chair. Olivar’s arm jerked forward. Olivar’s hand opened to catch his fall. Olivar’s hand released the figurine. The figurine dropped. The figurine fell. The figurine crumpled.
“Infern,” cursed Olivar.
Reflexively. Not at the customer-to-be, not at anything or anyone in particular, but just because he was raised in a household of sailors and working men.
Unfortunately, what he intended with his maledicció, or why he said it, didn’t matter. All that mattered was the power of The Word and how some of the last rivulets of Catalan magic flowed through Olivar.
The word infern’s Castellano cousin, infierno, is exceptional in that language. The pronunciation of most Vulgar Latin words with the prefix “in-” changed over time to start with “en-”. For example, putting somebody into the terra started as interrāre but became enterrar. However, infierno retained the “in-” prefix. Modern scholar-sorcerers attribute this exception to the Catholic Church’s enforcement of Latin pronunciations of ecclesiastical terms.
Of course, the stranger wasn’t thinking about the phonological history of the word. He wasn’t even thinking about how, when he was a child, his town’s priest had shouted at him, spittle flying from his mouth, when he had mispronounced the word as “enfierno”. No, when Francisco López realized that his precious wig had caught fire, the only thing he could think about was how to put it out.
Fortunately for him, it was at exactly that moment that Olivar’s uncle re-entered the room. While Olivar was stunned and immobile, Jaume immediately sized up the situation. With one swift movement, he grabbed the stranger’s head and dunked it into the barrel of water that was normally used for preparing clay.
It only took a second of water exposure to extinguish the flame that had already burned a chunk of Francisco’s locks. As Jaume removed his hand, Francisco jerked back upright. He coughed and sputtered, dirty water continuing to drip from his face. After successfully emptying his lungs and recovering his senses, he looked up at Olivar, and, just like the adolescent, he too seemed immobilized for a moment. Then, a moment before running out of the workshop, he pointed a shaking finger at Olivar and shouted a single word at him.
This was Olivar’s first time on the whipping post, but it would not be his last.
A small crowd had gathered in the field near Berga where he was now bent over, his hands and head restrained in a wooden board. Two small crowds, Olivar noticed as he looked out across the scene.
The blows were coming in harder now. Or, at least, they hurt more. The raised welts on Olivar’s back were extra sensitive to the rod. His eyes teared up and he lost focus for a moment.
But even through his tears, he could see that there were indeed two distinct crowds. For the most part, he saw the crowd he had expected: the bored village farmers and laborers for whom his punishment was just entertainment. They were throwing spoiled food and dirt balls, jeering at him, and shouting insults.
That one really hurt. Still, he could see that there was another, distinct part of the crowd. Still farmers and laborers, but these ones looked grave or angry, rather than excited by his humiliation. In fact, he could see that they were starting shoving matches, physically blocking his assailants from throwing their missiles at him, cursing at them in Catalan.
And as he looked out, past the crowds, he saw something strange. A single pine tree, alone in its field, but with three trunks coming out of a shared root system. That itself was a bit unusual but not incredibly so.
There was something else that was so strange that Olivar didn’t even notice the interceding blow.
With every shove in the crowd and every phrase shouted in Catalan, he could see the young tree grow. Subtle but unmistakable changes: a new leaf here, a thicker branch there. And as he looked towards the top of the tree, he couldn’t help but imagine it as a reaching hand. Reaching higher, higher, towards the sky.
This story is part of my application to Sandbox and my first attempt at writing fiction since middle school. Although fiction writing isn’t a big part of my identity, and although I myself am not Catalan or even Spanish, I felt inspired to write this as a way of sharing some parts of who I am. The first and most obvious way that this story relates to who I am is that, although I haven’t been writing fiction, I read voraciously and write for money and pleasure. On a similarly surface level, I’ve been learning more about some of the topics evoked by this story because I’m moving to Barcelona later this year.
But, on a deeper level, I think this story tries to raise a topic that I’m keenly interested in: understanding the Westphalian nation-state and the mutualistic relationship between nation-building and state sovereignty. I discovered my interest in this topic while studying political philosophy and comparative politics and it motivated me to travel in Myanmar — a country where we can actively see the attempted forging of a nation to give legitimacy to a state — for a month.
This particular story was largely inspired by R.F. Kuang’s “Babel”. Where Kuang explores the role of language in imperialism abroad, I wanted to explore how the forced adoption of language played a role in the societal myth of the nation, a type of “imperialism at home”. We don’t generally discuss the acts of the Spanish in Catalonia, the French in Brittany, or even the English in Scotland as “imperialism”. Maybe this is because Europeans colonizing other Europeans doesn’t qualify as “imperialism” or maybe because we’ve tacitly accepted the erasure of these groups. Even so, I wanted to highlight some of the similarities between how Empire asserts itself “abroad” and how it treats human beings “at home”.