ARRIETA, Joxe Austin:
After Lunch on August 15
You never know which is better to get a little fresh air into our kitchen: whether to open or close the patio window. If you open it, then yes, all the suffocating smelly smoke that has accumulated in our kitchen goes out, but then the kitchen smoke from the other thirteen neighbors comes in too. Nevertheless, your mother just said "open that window, we're about to suffocate in here" and you get up. You have to move the stiff catch and pull hard toward yourself because the two sides of the window stick to each other more than ever. The sultriness of the day has made the wood expand and it's hard enough to open the damned window, you think. "There," you say, when the window finally opens for you with a long squeal. Here's the patio, right here. The first impression it makes is quite invigorating. A little bit of air comes in at least; not a lot, to tell the truth, since our patio is a narrow little corner, but some. With today?s sultriness you could hardly expect anything else. Soon, however, a heavy column of smoke attacks you. The filthy mass of steam coming up from the kitchen windows below, mixed with the muggy humidity seeping from the cracks in the walls of the mildewy patio. The smell of frying, the smells of rice pudding, cheap Faria cigars and freshly-made coffee, all in a dense flood that makes it hard to tell which is which. Clotheslines, some with clothes hanging on them, others bare. In Mrs. Maria's window to the left, a cage hanging from a nail, with a partridge inside. In Mrs. Bitxori's window to the right, the tail of a codfish, in a plastic bag so it won't get covered with soot. The smell of the half-rotten salt of the beheaded cod doesn't reach our noses today, lunchtime on August 15, as penetratingly as at other times. There are more aggressive smells in this corner of the patio. The syncopated warble of the partridge: usually the loudest sound in the whole building, but not right now. There are louder sounds this August 15 lunchtime. The rise and fall, murmur and bursts of laughter of fourteen different conversations, the hum of coffee grinders, the uncorking of champagne bottles, the clinking of silverware and dishes, and somewhere a radio is on: "and now a group of wet nurses and shepherds brought to you by Feli-i-i-ix Ramo-o-o-os Manufacturi-i-i-ing." In fact, it is not at all easy to decide whether it's better to have the window open or closed. We also have the balcony doors open to the street, true, but the kitchen is so far away that even with all the interior doors open, not a breath of air reaches it. And it?s almost better if the air doesn't reach it, you think, since on the street as well there is nothing but a stifling, suffocating south wind, this early afternoon of August 15.
Sitting down again, you see your father's satisfied face and your mother?s reddened face, your mother's veined hand pouring out the small black stream of coffee into our cups and your father's yellowed eyes hidden behind an aromatic fog. Maite is clearing the dessert plates from the table and taking them to the sink: white plates and yellow rivulets of custard. Arantxa turns on the heater above the kitchen sink and says to Maite, "c'mon, girl, it's your turn today." Your mother sprinkles detergent on the stove hood and Maite says, "no way, I did it yesterday." Your father examines a cigar, turning it around and around and smelling it with pleasure. They've never taken turns washing dishes day by day, says Arantxa, but always from Sunday to Sunday, since a normal day's dishwashing isn't as big as a Sunday"s. "Listen, there?s a big difference. C'mon, don't play dumb." "Today's not Sunday today." "So what? It's a holiday." Your father lights his cigar: a red-hot crown appears at the tip of the Montecristo, the first bluish mouthful and your father's glance of satisfaction looking at the end of the cigar: "it's drawing well." "Next Sunday I'll do it for sure," adds Arantxa. "Oh yeah, that's fair. Next Sunday we'll only use one plate each," says Maite. "All right, that's enough," your mother interrupts, "you two are always arguing." But the mutters from beside the sink don't subside immediately. A somewhat bored and rather distant interest in your sisters' argument: after all, you think, these are girl things and you?re the boy of the family. You take one of your father's Ducados and "oh great," says your mother without much conviction. "Aren't you the little man, smoking cigarettes at sixteen?" But yes, today is a special day and yes, son, "leave him in peace, woman" your father says to your mother almost rudely, and there is in his voice and especially in the wink he gives you with one eye a certain light of proud complicity, as if he meant to say "you and me, son, we understand each other; you're the boy of the family, son, the student of the family." Through the patio window come the smells of frying oil and freshly made coffee from the neighboring thirteen kitchens while you light the cigarette. Maite is washing in the end, and Arantxa is drying. "What horrible heat," your father says, and raises his cup to his lips. The steam from the coffee and clouds of smoke from the cigar blur his face -"and so much smoke besides... couldn't we close that window again?" "Wait a minute, man, until our kitchen smoke goes out," your mother answers, scrubbing the stove hood with a dishcloth. Maite holds the deep white dishes under the tap, the hot water washing the remaining clinging grains of rice into the sink, then sets them in a dishpan of soapy water to soak. Arantxa takes a red and white checkered dishcloth from the cabinet in the corner of the kitchen and is now standing by the sink waiting for the dishes. You take the first toke on the cigarette and your father says, "but all the same, it's better if you don't get the habit. It's a hard one to kick." "In fact, is there any stupider vice: suck smoke in, then blow it out," adds your mother. "Smoke, smoke, like the smoke in this kitchen, for God's sake," says your father. "Even the Ciscar didn't blow out that much when we had to make a run for it." And you realize that he said the last part tilting his head a little bit toward you. The story of the Ciscar, you think... you've told it to us a thousand times, Dad, but you always know how to add another detail. "How did that story go again, Dad?" you ask. Your father's eyes--purple bags under them, shiny sweaty cheeks below--drift away from the ash end of his cigar, he passes his right hand over the wrinkles on his forehead and over his bald patch as if he wanted to shake up his memories. Your father's small yellowed eyes. Diabetes. You're fucked, Dad, you think. The clear monotone cheeping of the caged partridge reaches our ears from the patio in the sudden silence. You tried your best, Dad. The radio on the patio has also fallen silent.
"Caobania, Caobania, for afternoon tea, Caobania, Caobania Louit." The raucous patio radio was on full blast in the grey early afternoon that September. Four years ago: then and there you decided, you think now. Your parents napping, sisters working, you had gone to the beach in the morning and were tired. The room next to the kitchen: you're lying on its green sofa, patio window open, slowly savoring every noisy minute. At four o'clock you're supposed to meet friends to go to the Castle. You'll smoke a few cigarettes and you'll take off down the hidden paths to spy on the couples there. "Shit, those two are really making out," Joxan will say. And on the green sofa you are reluctant and think that the previous summers had been happier. Then, and last summer too, we went to play at the Castle, playing war against the guys from the handball court or hide-and-go-seek in the English Cemetery. This year it's not the same. Last year and the years before, when it was getting dark, you went down to San Telmo to play kick-the-can, to pester the girls jumping rope and steal their skates. "Girls go to Jupiter and get more stupider; boys go to mars and eat chocolate bars," you sang. Not this year. You'll go down to San Telmo, but the girls won't be skating; they'll be sitting on the retaining wall, looking at you and whispering, and that will be very unsettling. Joxan will go over to them smoking a cigarette and will ask if they want one, and you, two years ago you were playing crack-the-whip and fell face-first against the wall and broke a tooth, and today you will approach that very wall to talk to the girls, and not until now, but now, yes, that broken, rotten tooth makes you ashamed. You don't want to laugh and you will stutter and always be serious in front of girls and especially in front of Marisa. And that's why you decided, that grey afternoon four years ago, lying on the green sofa and listening to the Caobania cha-cha, to go to the Seminary.
"The English Cemetery:" on the path from "Napoleon's bathroom" to "El Macho." Tombs covered with ivy and moss, rusty iron fences, barely legible epitaphs in crumbling sandstone. Statues without noses on the monument, long hats on their heads, arms without hands, a one-armed soldier aiming a barrel-less gun, the tragic look of the proud captain, mouth open to give orders. The captain is also without a nose, lacking a forearm, pushing a big stone cannon for a century and a half -wheels caught in stone mud. The bent images of two other men: the mutilated fanfare of Saint Sebastian's eve there, piled up at the foot of the monument. A small tower topped with battlements above the terrace of the monument, and next to it a heavy retaining wall. You sit there and carve a heart in the stone with the blunt blade of a knife, an arrowhead and the fletching, and you even started on the name: Mar... But then, a shout from above, from the top of the huge stone of the monument: "hey look, we've got a prisoner!" An inscription on the front of a long stone, in English and Spanish: "to the brave British soldiers..." A black bronze eagle on top of a tall stone, and on the eagle's back, holding onto the bird's outstretched wings, Ramontxo. He reaches out to point to the path that leads down from El Macho: a prisoner, you think as you start climbing the wall, alarmed, one to hide away in your shack for sure. They have already passed the cemetery gate, a rusty iron gate. Here come Joxan, the Zurutuza brothers, the Sanz brothers and Jose Mari, each carrying a walking stick and whooping like Indians. In the middle of the group, they're bringing a boy from the handball court, hands tied. Xalbador, his name was Xalbador, yes. They bring him over to the monument. Joxan, with all the seriousness of movie generals, asks you and Ramontxo if you defended our general barracks, and if there are any enemies still around, if our shack is well protected. Yes, general, you say. I replaced the roof of the shack, which the recent rains had ruined. Ramontxo points to the black eagle on top of the rock and you show the knife in your hands and there is your "shack" under a tree and a rock twenty paces away. It has a floor and walls of dry ferns and straw, and it even has a door: four sticks high, another four wide, tied together with reeds. A piece of tough cardboard on top, but you've decided to put a wooden roof on it next time, because of the rains.
Š Arrieta, Joxe Austin. Abuztuaren 15eko bazkalondoa, Elkar, Donostia, 1985.
Š Translation: Kristin Addis