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Drowned Men’s Undershirts

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

Summer, 1947. My grandparents’ farm, in a valley at the foot of the Pyrenees. In the afternoon, after the siesta, which is necessary because being out in the midday sun is considered suicidal, my parents take me along on their walk. 

First, however, we have to find the sailor hat without which I am not allowed to go outdoors. My mother has a complicated relationship to the sun. On the one hand, she thinks it essential to my proper growth, and after one week in the country I turn as dark as a hazelnut, a process that the entire family encourages and applauds. 

On the other hand, going outside without a hat puts me in immediate danger of catching an insolació (sunstroke), believed to cause malaise, fits, and hallucinations. When my mother warns me against insolació, I imagine the hot yellow sun drilling into my skull, gilding my brain and the inside of my face and my throat all the way down to my stomach, making me glow like a lightbulb. 

The fact that my Mediterranean DNA has provided me from birth with an inch-thick thatch of hair to protect me from the rays of our favorite star does not assuage my mother’s fears. When she finds the white sailor hat, she plops it on top of my curls and leads me out the back door. A couple of semi-feral barn cats, alerted to the possibility of bread crusts by the squeaky hinges, scatter when they see my empty hands. 

My parents’ afternoon walks are of two kinds. The short version takes us along the dirt road from the farm house, past a wheat field, up a gentle slope to the threshing floor and the big hay barn. The long walk leads to the irrigation canal that, first envisioned by the Arabs in the 10th century and completed in the early years of the 20th, transformed the valley from a semi-arid wasteland into a paradise of green fields and almond, olive, and fruit orchards. 

The canal’s broad swath of brown water runs placidly between high banks bordered by shade trees. My parents and I walk on the narrow path alongside, my father holding my left hand and my mother my right to prevent me from succumbing to a fit of toddler insanity and diving in. 

We’ve been walking a while, and I’m getting bored. I want to go back to the house. “But we can’t go back now,” my father says. “We’re almost at the weir. Don’t you want to see the waterfall?” Long before we reach it, I can hear the water rushing over the top of the weir wall. I can tell that we are getting closer because my mother tightens her grip on my hand, the way she does in Barcelona when we are about to cross the street. At the fall, my father picks me up so I can see the thrilling sight. 

I am both horrified and fascinated by the noise, which is louder even than the thunderstorms that we watch from the covered terrace of the farmhouse. And I am intrigued by the water, which was a dull sepia in the peaceful stretches, but now gradually pales as it plunges until, at the bottom, it forms a roiling, boiling mass of bright white spume. 

“That’s enough, Lluís,” my mother says. “Get away from there. You’re making me nervous.” My father retreats, and puts me down, repeating the lesson I have heard a thousand times, “You know that you must never, ever go near the water, especially here at the weir.” And this time my mother adds something new: “The waterfall is so dangerous, that even grown men have fallen in and drowned.” 

Grown men drowned in the canal! My mind, ever determined to make sense of the world’s weirdness, seizes on this as the obvious explanation for the white froth churning at the bottom of the fall: it consists of the drowned men’s undershirts. 

My parents take my hands and we turn back towards the house, and my afternoon snack (dinner is at 10 p.m.). In the damp, shadowy kitchen, which smells of drains and potato peels, my grandmother drizzles olive oil onto a thick slice of crusty bread. 

“Where did you go on your walk?” she asks. 

“We went to the canal, all the way to the weir, and I saw the undershirts of the drowned men.” 

“The undershirts of…” she echoes, peering at me closely. 

She hands me the bread, wipes her hands on her apron, and goes to find my mother. “Did the child wear her hat when you took her out this afternoon? I ask because she may have caught an insolació . She said she had seen the undershirts of drowned men….”

My parents and I on the canal path




7 Responses

  1. Your parents admonitions about the water remind me of living next to a train track as a child. I was repeatedly told \”don't get too close or the train will suck you up\”. I believed it wholeheartedly.

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