Four by Four by Sara Mesa

Translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore.



I follow the fence, watching the woods. I know how to get out. I know where the holes are. Everyone knows about them, I think, but they all keep quiet.

In any case, the woods are forbidden. Supposedly, they’re dangerous. Not because of animals or the rough terrain, but the possibility of vagabonds, thieves, terrorists: people who want to blow up what this world is becoming.

There were field trips in the past. Field trips to collect plants for botany class, dirt and water samples for experiments on oxidation and weather.

But now the woods are contaminated—a toxic spill in the river— so they’re not even good for that.

The gaps in the fence put the colich in jeopardy: an outside that could enter, catching us off-guard in the middle of the night.

But I come from outside and I’m not afraid.
For me, this comfort is exile.
I think about the Advisor, about how I can manipulate him, and

it’s then that the owl flies over my head, its call suspended in the sky. A long, reedy cry that flaps clumsily toward me.


The mastiff Cayetana lifts her muzzle and sniffs at the owl’s trail as it flies away. She’s also unsettled. The sun is setting and the light retreats brusquely, violently.

The night speaks and you just have to listen carefully to hear it.

I pace the fence once more, dragging my feet. I don’t feel like running today.

Covered in shadow, the school’s buildings are sketches in the distance. Our brightly painted building is shorter, more modern; experimental architecture for an experiment we participate in unknowingly.

The lights are shining in the dorms and I can imagine how warm and comfortable they are inside.

The nicer it is in there, the more disturbing it is to go out.

My classmates used to come with me. We held each other’s arms and advanced as a united front, protection against the suspicions of the Normal girls, and the boys who were mouthier with us than with them.

Now they stay inside and seem more and more like the others.

Even Valen wants to lose weight now, though she still eats around the clock. She craves the slender figures of the other girls. Julia’s. Teeny’s mother’s.

The screech owl marks its territory with its cry. A warning for me: get out, these woods are mine.

The owl doesn’t want any competition. Neither do I.



Sara Mesa is the author of eight works of fiction, including Scar (winner of the Ojo Critico Prize), Four by Four (a finalist for the Herralde Prize), An Invisible Fire (winner of the Premio Málaga de Novela), and Cara de Pan (forthcoming from Open Letter). Her works have been translated into more than ten different languages, and has been widely praised for her concise, sharp writing style.


Katie Whittemore is graduate of the University of NH (BA), Cambridge University (M.Phil), and Middlebury College (MA), and was a 2018 Bread Loaf Translators Conference participant. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Two Lines, The Arkansas International, The Common, Gulf Coast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, and InTranslation. Current projects include novels by Spanish authors Sara Mesa, Javier Serena, and Aliocha Coll, Aroa Moreno Durán, and Nuria Labari.


This excerpt of Four by Four is published by permission of Open Letter Books. Copyright © Sara Mesa, 2012. English translation copyright © Katie Whittemore, 2020

Published on April 28, 2020.


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