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California State Reform School at Whittier, ca.1901 | © The California State Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons
California State Reform School at Whittier, ca.1901 | © The California State Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons
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In "Time and Number" a Young Girl Sees Her Brother Off to Reform School

Picture of Michael Barron
Books and Digest Editor
Updated: 29 November 2017
The following story was originally published in Taller Ediciones by the Spanish short story writer Pilar Martín de Cuento.

I had turned the age when one learns to count; I could count the stairs up to the fifth step, I could count the doors of the hallway up to my classroom, I could count trees on my way to school, and before I slept I would count all twenty-four of my dolls. I had a very numerical idea of my family: eight of us in the car, eight of us at the dinner table, eight of us watching television. When, for whatever reason, one would go missing, I’d would feel a creeping anxiety, like when ice cream begins to melt.

One day at noon my father came home looking troubled. He even skipped his custom of kissing his children. Without looking at my mother, who was busy ironing, he pulled out his nail clippers, and whispered something to her as he began cutting his nails. My mother dropped her work and put her hands to her mouth. His eyes then began to shine. Finally, he put the nail clippers in his pocket and tightened his bow. My little brother and I were paying attention even as we pretended to play. We understood that something serious had happened, because we grabbed our hands, and we would not normally do that.

When we later sat at the dinner table, the eight of us, our father announced that my older brother Luis was being sent to a reform school in another city. Why? He had received bad marks, they said. The Magi had presented Luis with coal, this was true. Yes, he was belligerent and stole stickers and pens from his classroom. Sometimes he came home with a black eye because he liked to hang with and bike ride with the rough boys in the neighborhood. Yes, but … a reform school? In my school the reformed kids were German orphans. They were a very sad kids with pale faces. They smelled of bleach because they assisted the nuns with cleaning. Their uniforms never quite fit right. Reform School? In our childish mouths all the questions began to flare up: Who gave my father that idea? Where would he go? Would they beat him? What did it mean to be reformed? Could he come on vacation? Would he be able to take his bike? Would he have to line up on Saturdays as my internal classmates did? Would he have to eat those disgusting vegetables that stunk up the school cafeteria? My father calmly replied: No, they would not beat Luis. He would not be forced to eat stinky vegetables. He could come on vacation, and we would all be able familiarize ourselves with the town and school, because we would all escort him there next Sunday.

When the day arrived, we dressed in our best clothes. For the occasion, I wore a chic ‘60s dress, along with a yellow coat and orange hat. My brothers wore shorts and ties; except Luis, who dressed like a much older man, but he couldn’t hide his flaring teenage acne. His mood had changed, he’d become grave, as if he’d been condemned. I told my father that he looked “defeated.” I did not recognize his expression: of resignation to a great loss, this was the face he carried during the last few days.

When on that Sunday we finally left, we would still number eight passengers in the car. Three in the front and five in the back. Those among us who looked happy: 0. As I sat on Luis’s knees I wondered if we could all expect this fate to strike us at the age of fourteen, or if it only did fall onto those who shot pellets at the butts of their companions. The school was founded in the Spanish town of Salamanca and run by Catholic Marist monks, brothers who seemed frail and uptight. The eight of us were quickly shown the premises: several classrooms, a dining room, a library, a chapel, a gymnasium, and even an indoor pool—I had never seen an indoor pool. The new arrivals filed inside of a dimly lit, pungent dome; you could hear the cacophonous voices echo throughout the ancient halls: all of it seemed to me to be intriguing and repulsive.

This is where we left my brother, dressed like a man surrounded by boys all of whom were presented before Brother Severus.

I had more space in the car ride home. My brothers commented on the school’s advanced classes. Seven, I said to myself. I could feel our family breaking apart, that we soon be living in different cities. One, two, three…eight cities in all, I told my little brother, who was at my side. He replied that he didn’t want to grow older. I told him that it was impossible, that we would all one day be twenty-years-old, that our parents had once been children like us and would eventually be as old as our grandparents. I was almost shouting.

It had been cruel to say this. I would not forget his astonished expression that twisted with pain before he finally broke into tears.

Translation by Emes Bea