The Kingdom of Heaven
Maiana Artoiz, her father's youngest daughter, arrived at the apartment of her oldest son, Frantxua, in Bayonne, having caught the bus at the crossroads at Otsabide. She was tired of the endless and increasing arguments with her daughter-in-law, since Marys saw nothing but her faults and errors, and sometimes even Maiana's son Jakes, following his wife's lead, would reproach her. To tell the truth, Maiana would never have imagined such a life in the house where she grew up. When she went to bed at night, she dissolved in tears: her situation seemed so sad ever since she had lost her husband, not that he had treated her particularly well. So one morning, as they were gathered around the breakfast table, she told them her momentous decision:
"I'm going to live with Frantxua."
"You can go to hell, for all I care," said Marys, not bothering to hide a nasty smile.
"At least Frantxua will be polite to me!" Maiana complained, and went out to the hen house, where she could already hear the clucking of the hens from the runs muddied by the rain.
From then on, Marys spoke not a word to her and Jakes avoided her gaze. So Maiana spent five or six days gathering together her bits and pieces after calling Frantxua.
Frantxua wasn't too excited either about having his mother live with him. He stressed the small size of his apartment, his exhaustion after working many hours, and his need for solitude. But of all the children, the boy had a good heart and in the end, he gave in, having no choice but to agree to what his mother asked. Frantxua's doubts and misgivings worried Maiana: whom would she stay with if no one could stand her company? Or like Janina Etxepare, would she have to move to the district capital and end up in the old folks' home? She didn't know what to do. Nevertheless, she locked away the echo of her son's lukewarm invitation in a corner of her soul, a feeble sign of love. She assured Frantxua that she would only be with him for a short while, she couldn't stay where she was since her daughter-in-law treated her badly. She would soon be able to rent an apartment of her own in Bayonne; she didn't really care if it was in town or out in the country, it didn't matter to her as long as she could have a little peace. Once he heard his, Frantxua agreed, pointing out that at least this solved the problem for the time being.
The evening before she went to Bayonne, Maiana went for a walk to the tranquil watering place up on Iratzeta mountain, which was near the house. She sat beneath a tall green oak with the dog at her side, breathing hard after her walk. The past, a tangled spiderweb, captured her thoughts. Her five children leapt to her mind and made her proud: the firstborn, Frantxua, her second son, Jakes, then Anttoneta, Terexa and Leon. Except for Jakes, they had all left Otsabide. Anttoneta had gone to Paris, Leon and Frantxua to Bayonne after running all over Europe from one job to another, and Terexa married Mustafa and moved to Marseille. Although low-level civil servants, they all had good jobs, and Maiana believed that they could surely get better jobs if they were pushed to. But there was no money in the farmhouse and her husband hated educated people. Frantxua, for example, was hit hard every time his father caught him with a book in his hands, and was quickly sent out to spread fertilizer. The boy, for his part, angrily spread sheep manure over the ferns and gorse in the steep field, cursing his father over and over. Except for Frantxua, the children had all married, and Maiana had eight grandsons whom, in her opinion, she saw all too infrequently. Although she had raised her children in poverty and difficulty, she believed herself to be rich in family.
Maiana remembers that she wrapped Frantxua in swaddling clothes almost lovingly. She didn't know why, but she had always imagined that the first child she brought from her belly would be a girl. The newborn child with the little penis assaulted her senses amid her shouts and cries and blood. Her husband, mother-in-law and midwife were happy when they saw that the firstborn was a boy. And Peter sent her a letter of congratulations all the way from America, where he was living at the time, though adding that he wouldn't be able to come to the baptism of the child, named Frantxua in memory of Maiana's older brother who had lost his life in the trenches of Verdun. The arrival of the heir was celebrated with the greatest joy, but soon the boy was struck with jaundice and the need to care for the special child eclipsed everything else. They took him quickly to the hospital in the capital, in the dark blue Deux Cheveaux that was the only car in the town of Xarlestegi. Among the oaks of Iratzeta, Maiana closes her eyes: even now the tears flow when she remembers again how she spent night after night with the child in her arms, swaddled from head to toe and weakened by illness. She had thought the whole time that Frantxua would die. From then on, she had had that serious doubt knocking around inside her head. The children who came later never had such health problems. They were born and grew like lilies: strong, vigorous, seemingly sure of their precocious destiny.
Later this brought sad arguments about the future with her late husband Jean, especially in the evening when the two of them were alone in bed.
"We can't leave it to that pansy Frantxua to run the house!"
"Even though he's had health problems, he's hard-working and able."
"Huh, you always take his side, woman. We need to leave the farmhouse to a real man."
"I'd choose sweet Frantxua over harsh Jakes any day."
"It'll be Jakes, and that's final!"
Her husband cut off Maiana's conversation abruptly and, crushed by the heavy silence, they positioned themselves back to back, as people did at that time of the century. So Jakes would be master of Artoiz; let it be so, whispered Maiana, resigned. But to tell the truth, Frantxua was too charming for hard labor, he liked to study and could spend hours doing arithmetic problems. Sometimes, after it had been decided that Jakes belonged to the family and the others did not, Maiana kept Frantxua company while she was sewing or knitting, when he lost himself in his schoolwork after milking the cows and sheep. He would remain at the end of the kitchen table as long as the fire lasted to correct a lecture or translations from Latin to Spanish, weighty dictionaries nearby. When she saw Frantxua like this, she pictured her brother Gilen, who was two years older than she was and had become a priest: when he came home for the holidays from the small seminary, he would review Greek or Latin sentences out loud while the two of them waited for the cattle on the bank of the river; perhaps with Frantxua's studies as a pretext, she still sought the basis of the sound of those dead languages.
When she got off the bus on the hill by San Andres cathedral, the dream that Frantxua, like Gilen, would become a priest, danced in her mind. However, once out of school, the boy didn't choose the path to the seminary but, thanks to a neighbor, got a job in the ironworks on the left bank of Bayonne and went to work. He had been there ever since, in a huge factory on the bank of the Aturri River, even though over the years workers kept being laid off. He went every morning, spending the day choking in the smell of rust water and finishing the day worn down by the clanking clamor of heavy hammers. That's what he told her at least, though some ill-intentioned people, looking at Maiana out of the corners of their eyes, tried to make her understand that her favorite son's lifestyle was completely different. However Frantxua was an honest man, even if he never married.
In any event, as the bus driver set the aging woman's luggage on the ground, she realized that she remembered this journey, though in her sixty years, she had come to Bayonne only four times and was feeling somewhat lost looking at the square towers of the cathedral. She looked around and murmured to herself, "Where's Frantxua? He was supposed to come meet me. I don't see him anywhere!"
As if the driver had guessed her train of thought, he said with a shrewd smile, "Do you know where he lives?"
"Yes, of course. I have his address on this piece of paper."
"You might as well walk, it's not far from here."
Frantxua's apartment was on Rue des Basques. She gripped her bag firmly because she had heard somewhere that Bayonne was full of thieves. She took Rue Pannecau toward the heart of the city. People were shouting to each other, in a confusion of languages and gestures. Cars, hurtling by, shook the edges of the sidewalk. Maiana walked on, looking at all the marvelous things in the shops. But timidly, as if people she couldn't see were watching her. She knew it was a neighborhood with a bad reputation; her older brother had told her about it. Indeed, in May of 1944, Gexan had done his basic training in the Bayonne barracks and a bold officer had taken them to the whorehouses of Petit Bayonne, to bring a little civilization to the filthy boys from the battlefield.
"Her name was Maialen?" her brother explained, with a naughty smile in his eyes. "She spoke to me intimately: wounded boy, I'll show you where to stick it. In the brothel, there were red lights, and blue and yellow, and everyone was having fun and drinking, drinking a lot, perhaps thinking we had to go to war or would be sent to Germany to work. We kneeled and Maialen stuck her tongue in my mouth, pushing it in like a prod and wriggling it around like a snake. Maiana, I had never known such a thing! According to what the priest had told me, I was becoming a sinner... Unfortunate soul! Then a man burst into the brothel, shouting that they were saying on Radio Free France that the Americans were coming to save Europe. Two seconds later, our Zuberoan corporal called the reserve troops and we raced back to the barracks. Ha! Xarles didn't even have time to pull up his trousers! We heard the girls from the brothel burst out laughing as we took off down Rue Pannecau in the dark."
As she passed the Hotel Barmon, Maiana was sure it was there that her brother had come across that Maialen he spoke of so frequently. Meanwhile, the aroma of freshly baked bread tickled her nose and she realized she was hungry: it had been quite a while since she had left Artoiz without having breakfast. Buying a croissant was a dream come true: there was nothing like that at the farmhouse! She pointed to show the baker what she wanted and gobbled the sweet pastry on the bridge on Rue Pannecau, looking at the river and calming down. Two policeman scrutinized her from head to toe, this woman dressed in black, as if she were a strange alien being from another planet instead of a person. She remembered her father's advice:
"Always respect priests and policemen!"
"Yes, Father," she had answered humbly.
She stood there frozen before the two armed men, but finally dared to speak, piecing together the little bit she knew of the language:
"Pardon, où se trouve la Rue des Basques?"
"Pourqoui devez-vous y aller?"
"Je vais chez mon fils..."
"Depéchez-vous ma p'tite dame: il y a une manifestation cet après-midi."
"Vous traversez le pont et c'est la première à gauche!" said the second policeman, who looked nicer than the first.
She would be at her son's house before midday and the disturbance in the streets would not interrupt the peace of her afternoon. What was Frantxua doing, who had promised to meet her and didn't show up? Had he forgotten?
She arrived at number 12, Rue des Basques. The door to the street was open and she headed up the creaking wooden spiral staircase to her son's apartment on the fifth floor. On the third floor she stopped before continuing up, weary and wondering how in hell did people live like this, whole families even, old people, in these pokey little holes and little apartments the size of birdcages, smelling of mildew? She couldn't imagine it. She was about to start crying again by the time she reached Frantxua's door. She saw an envelope hanging from the doorknob: Mom, here are the keys, come on in and make yourself at home, the boy had written. Sadness descended on her: at Artoiz they thought she had overstayed her welcome, and in Bayonne there was no one to await her arrival. Basically, she was unloved. Her mother Maider, the unclean fruit of rape, had little love, her husband had used her like an old rag and her children didn't offer so much as friendly respect. She would have to kill herself to rid herself of the weight of her life. But she was afraid to sin and afraid to make decisions without the approval of others. Leaving Artoiz was the only decision she had ever made by herself and for herself.
She abandoned these dark thoughts and sat down on the sofa that seemed to constitute the entire living room. She didn't dare to move from it. Her body felt as if it were stiffening, at death's door. A photo on the cabinet caught her eye: there was Frantxua, standing up, six years old, with his curly black hair, draped in white embroidered clothes. Sweetness welled up inside her; Maiana remembered well the day they had taken the bus and gone to the capital to take the portrait. Really he looked like a pretty little girl, the pride of his mother. But in that prudently furnished apartment, she knew that she had no such hours of tenderness left to her. Children were ungrateful she muttered, and fell asleep.
The sky was getting dark when Maiana heard someone enter the house. Frantxua found his mother lying on the sofa. They looked at each other. Surprised. Maiana rose and they exchanged a shy kiss. Neither one knew how to show love.
© Borda, Itxaso. Zeruetako erresuma (The Kingdom of Heaven), Susa, Zarautz, 2005.
© Translation: Kristin Addis
© Photo: Susa