Nona’s Room (excerpt) — Cristina Fernández Cubas (trans. Simon Deefholts & Kathryn Phillips-Miles)

My sister is special. That’s what my mother said when she was born in that bright and sunny room in the hospital. She also said: ‘Special is a lovely word. Never forget that.’ I’ve never forgotten, of course, but it’s more than likely that the scene I’ve just described didn’t happen in the hospital, but much later in some other room and that Nona wasn’t a newborn or even a baby but rather a little girl of three or four years of age. Who knows? I’ve been told that it could be a false memory and that our unreliable minds are full of false memories. I’ve also been told that, to begin with, you don’t usually notice certain singularities (that’s what they call them, singularities). All that and the fact that when she was born I was too young to remember anything makes me think that it must be an invented memory or something even more subtle, manufactured as You-Know-Who would say. Because my life was very different before Nona came into the world. I don’t remember it very well, but I do know it was different. I’ve got loads of reasons to think that it was better as well. Much better. But once Nona was born things changed for ever, and that must be why I got used to thinking that my mother said those words the very day she came into the world. That’s the day when I started a new life as well. My life with Nona.


To tell you the truth, I would have preferred a brother, but it didn’t take me long to settle for Nona. She looked like a doll when she was little. She had very smooth skin, slanted eyes and full lips. When she was asleep her eyes disappeared into a single straight line and she used to open her mouth and keep it open for ages, as if she couldn’t close it or she was about to tell us something, even though she couldn’t talk yet and it would take her longer than most babies before she spoke her first words. I loved her mouth. It was so big and fleshy. Granny loved it, too. ‘She’s got Brigitte Bardot lips’, she said one day as she sat beside the cot. ‘Brigitte is a film star from when I was younger. She’s a French actress.’ Granny was really happy, and she liked to look on the bright side. So, some time later when Nona finally began talking and we realized that she couldn’t roll her Rs properly in her snuffly voice, Granny smiled and shook her head. Just like Brigitte,’ she said. It’s probably because she was so sure and because the smile never left her face that I fell for it hook, line and sinker and did the stupidest thing in my life. At school, that afternoon, I proudly told everyone that my sister was French and she was special. I mentioned it quite a few times – in class, at playtime and on the school bus. I must have bragged about it a bit too much because a few days later some friends came round to my house to play and asked about her. I called her over and straight away, just by looking at their faces, I understood several things all at once. First of all, Nona wasn’t French and, more to the point, the word “special” didn’t necessarily mean something good.

Cristina Fernández Cubas is a Spanish author renowned for her short fiction. Since the publication of her first collection of stories, Mi hermana Elba in 1980, she has stood out as a master of the form. She received the Premio de la Critica Española and Premio Nacional de Narrativa for her latest collection of short stories, La habitación de Nona (Nona’s Room), published in 2015. Her works have been translated into several languages.

This except is the title story from the collection Nona’s Room) and has been translated from the Spanish by Kathryn Phillips-Miles & Simon Deefholts

Image: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?Doug Bowman, Creative Commons.

Spanish original copyright © 2015 by Cristina Fernández Cubas
English translation copyright © 2017 by Kathryn Phillips-Miles & Simon Deefholts
Peter Owen Publishers ISBN 978-07-2061-953-9
All rights asserted.