February 16, 2022

Broken Smile

So ugly was Barbara Ruis Raspall that as a baby, nurses at the Hospital del Nen Déu where she was born gradually and unknowingly allowed her to begin to wither. Born prematurely and lying in an incubator, it took an intervention from her father, Alvar, noticing that his child didn’t look nearly as large or happy as the others in the ward, to rectify the situation. By then, however, her muscles had taken on a tired manner, and as she grew up, the experience shaped her body in curious ways.

Aged, 11, she overheard a girl who she had believed to be her friend lean over to a classmate and say,

“Barbara’s so bent that only Quasimodo himself would want to kiss her.”

Given a caring upbringing, she had never had the opportunity to notice that her body might be different to others. Her father had even gone to the length of stripping the house of mirrors, such that she not feel the need to stop and analyse the contortions of her appearance.

On top of her hunched manner of standing, by adulthood, she had adopted a limp to add to a growing list of irregularities. On her trips to the local shop, others she passed would lower their eyes. She couldn’t tell if it was from pity or fear.

Alvar, struggling to contend with a daughter who he sensed was losing that peculiar light given to her by childhood, felt he must act. Knowing he had not the time to occupy her with activities, he enrolled her in a local community project.

One afternoon after school, Alvar and Barbara walked hand in hand together to the faded orange building in which the local children who were not otherwise engaged in sport, dance, or other productive activities, would gather. The building was tucked inside an alleyway off a bustling street. A suspicious smell emanated from a nearby gutter, and there was a consistent gradual drip off a cracked tile above the door, meaning they had to time their entrance to avoid it.

Barbara would never forget the voice she heard from inside. In her memory, it appeared she had heard it as she left her house, its sing song quality dancing its way inside her ears, its booming strength working its way through her bones. The man himself was of medium height, sporting a large moustache and mouth containing fewer teeth each time he opened it. As she walked through the door, his eyes remained fixed upon her in way not even her father could do.

“And what is your name, Lady Joy?” He asked her.

“Barbara” She answered, blushing.

“Well, Barbara, welcome to our house of salvation. Where all are rich and our treasure is measured in laughter. What do you think of that?”

Her father encouraged her. “Go on.”

She looked up at him. “I like it.”

Salvador leaned closer, “But, my girl, do you know the currency we use in here?”

She thought for a moment.

“The jokes you tell?”

He bent his head back and laughed, patting her father on the shoulder as he did so.

“No Barbara, but I can tell you will be fine here.” He smiled his broken smile. “No, the currency is dedication. Dedication only to what matters. But what that is, you must discover.”

With that, she reflected later, she entered into the most important years of her life.

Salvador engaged his students in what he called inward and outward activities. During the inward periods, they would sit in silence and contemplate, journal, and draw their thoughts. He would encourage them to dive within, exploring the different facets of what they called “me”, and do so with vigour.

Barbara found that her thoughts, at last free to express themselves without fear of judgement by her peers, would take her on journeys that her body could not. Through expression with her pen and the clay that Salvador provided, generously donated by a nearby potter, she began to explore ideas heretofore cut off by the isolated nature of her life.

One day, with light bouncing its healing path into the room through a number of cracks in the wall, she began to hum while working. It was a tune she had heard on the radio that day, a tragic song about a woman whose lover runs off with her stepmother, so decides to end her life to punish them both.

Salvador, washing some paint brushes outside in the courtyard a street away, sat up straight and looked about for the source of the sound. The other students watched him, understanding his sudden change of attention as distinct to his process. As if following a smell nose-first, he let his ears guide him back to the workshop. Dodging the drip above the door, he leapt inside and startled Barbara.

“Where did you learn to make sounds like that Barbarita?”

“I never learned. I just do it when I am alone.”

“It’s remarkable. I must have seen all the birds in the neighbourhood prick up their ears.”

He looked at her intensely. She felt so seen in his presence, it almost made her uncomfortable.

Her voice came out soft and raw. “I’m told my mother had a voice that attracted those around her. My father loved it.”

“Well, she’s given you a gift. And we can’t let this gift go to waste.”

Salvador enrolled her in a local choir, and within 6 months she had risen to become the primary Soprano among the group. They were called on whenever the community had an event or festival, and that summer she was asked on to sing at the Diada celebrations.

As they prepared for their performance, storm clouds gathered above the city. The air took on a charged quality, and Barbara began to feel a pain in her joints, which she often got when it rained. She watched the dancing sardanistes, their arms rising and falling and feet flicking to the sound of the flabiol. She observed the senyeres hanging from balconies of the plaza in which they were assembled. The crowd was gathering as the local councilman gave his speech, and small drops of rain were dotting the dusty pave stones. As the choir stepped up for their performance, she saw her father and Salvador standing at the front of the throng. Her father had a broad smile on his face, but Salvador, wearing a hat which covered his right eye in shadow, seemed tense, as if he was holding something back.

After finishing some of the more customary songs for the festival, Barbara stepped forward for a solo that had been requested by the council.

Feeling the weight of the eyes now focused upon her, she looked above their heads and called upon her mother. She had never done this before, but it felt the only thing she could do to save her knees from buckling beneath her. Barbara remembered her father, tucking her in one night when she was small, describing her mother to her. "Small, with sweet smelling hair and a voice that made you lean in to hear it. But when she sang, nobody in the world could stop her."

A guitarist played the introductory notes to L’Estaca, a revolutionary ballad written at the height of her city’s pain, and she settled herself. Some in the crowd closed their eyes in readiness, and a small cheer went through at recognition of the choice. Beginning, she had the feeling of leaving her body. As the notes left her mouth she seemed to levitate, her feet gently brushing the floor as she rose. The tamborí player joined, patting his instrument and giving the crowd a beat to clap to. After the first few bars of her music, she opened her eyes and looked towards her father and Salvador. Her father had his arms around a man next to him and was in reverie, singing along. Salvador had taken a tamborí from somebody and was standing before the crowd, contorting his body while beating the instrument, banging his feet against the ground. Rising ever further, she looked down upon them: her father, wild Salvador, the choir, and her friends in the community. A strength came into her muscles, and she exhaled.

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