Need a light, Mr. Churchill?

Lafayette embarked here

The one thing that sailors need, real sailors, above all else, even more than a boat, is a knife. They don't know that at school. The teacher puts him in the last row. Then he orders one of the big oafs, one of the ones that have to sit near the blackboard, to look after the littlest ones, and Arrieta or Vieites or Ormazabal makes them open the book; for the chicken you start with "ch", for the dog you start with "d", and you have to keep quiet when they hit you on the head, "Devil take you!" and they don't understand him. At school they don't know anything. A knife is the first thing a sailor needs. Then the teacher orders that clod to go for vinegar, and after a long while he comes back with a full red bottle. The teacher has a strange kind of illness, every day he drinks a whole bottle of vinegar, in front of everyone and in great gulps. And he falls asleep in his chair, head down on his desk.

          "Are you the one who lives by the port?"

          "Tomorrow bring some rock salt, you hear?"

          "Do you have a sister?"

Yes, always yes, that's how he has to answer these dolts, if he says no to anything they think he's lying, yes, he has a sister, older, no, he doesn't know if she's pretty, there are always lots of new questions at school, yes, the flags on the ships are pretty. They'll see later, she's supposed to pick him up, his mother doesn't want him to walk home alone, he has to cross the main highway and besides, the port is dangerous at that hour because of the trucks, his sister will take him while he tells her all the new things he's learned. School is like the first day repeated every day.

          "But this isn't rock salt, it's only kitchen salt!"

          "Let it go, the kid's just pulling our leg!"

          "Hey you, got any pictures of girls?"

Lots of new questions, he always has to be answering questions, of course he has pictures of girls.

          "Lots of them? In color?"

          At one time, there was a wooden door here.

          Now there are no wooden doors anywhere, using the humidity as an excuse, they put aluminum and PVC windowed doors in all the houses, their cheap modernity above the sandstone hurts your eyes. And the concerned souls who wanted to maintain our neighborhood's authentic appearance painted the aluminum and plastic red, green, blue... Devil take them! How laughable, as if this heedlessness weren't enough to cause disdain, they put in intercoms below the 17th- and 18th-century crafted lintels.

          At one time, this cemetery gate wasn't iron.

          Now only in the old churches can we find the wooden ones. The door of the church at Bonanza is special. Sometimes French journalists come to take pictures of the door, the last one was L'Express, a special summer edition, eight full-color pages on L'esprit marin du Pays Basque, with sentences like "even the seagulls speak Basque here," same old topics, they have a copy in the public library bound in leather. We knew by heart the marks on that door; they had nearly disappeared because of the need to varnish the door to protect it from the salt water. With a crayon stolen from school, we refreshed in green blue red the brigs and brigantines carved in that door at some earlier time by sailors, like the one the child carved in Arrieta's desk with his knife. They were offerings, prayers to the Christ of Bonanza, so that the ships would navigate well. Later the priests, sextons, nuns, one of them rubbed off the colors. Then I took out my knife, the sharp steel that alarmed even Arrieta, and used it on the flesh of the door to renew the profile of the ships.

          "Know what? At the end of class, the teacher makes us take down the flag and fold it."

          "I didn't know that... And does he make you sing a hymn?"

          "No... Tomorrow is my turn, tomorrow morning I have to raise the Spanish flag on the mast."

          "If you do any such thing, I won't come pick you up."

          We were diving off the seawall of Bonanza, it was still cold, when a spectacle of a ship entered through the mouth of the port, a large silver pine - I think I read that somewhere - on the towing line. A frigate, and the sailors in the rigging gathering the sails, and a long bowsprit, the long horn of a garfish cutting a path through the air, the bill of a white bird about to fly. It was September, Michaelmas day, the water was extremely high, with one of those tides when you stretched out your foot from the wharf and yearned to walk on the surface, untroubled waters, everything shone, the pool of the harbor reflected the town. We set off behind it, pulling at the pine branches. It was all white and shone like the English submarines that had appeared the previous summer in the middle of the bay. The cadets in the rigging above gathered in all the sails. The propeller started up, the rudder blade turned to port, and the ship performed an elegant maneuver to dock at our transatlantic wharf. The coastguards were dressed as if for first communion. One of them spotted us in his binoculars and we dived, slipping away under water to the buoys a hundred fathoms behind us. It was a training ship of the Argentine navy, the Liberty, silver stern and 103 meters long. It's still sailing, regrettably.

          "Viva the Liberty!"

We heard it clearly; sound glides over water. But they fell silent immediately. An official approached the dock workers, "Knock it off!" They didn't want any diplomatic disturbances; they knew that shouting "liberty" is always a subversive act for us.

          We had already started dinner when my sister arrived.

          "Where have you been? Always late...!"

          "Didn't you see?"

          I went to the living room... it was unbelievable.

          From the tip of the bowsprit to the stern, through the main ratchet and the mizzenmast, there came a ribbon of light, the rigging in each of the masts had more strings of lights, and the entire perimeter of the ship was covered in small flames, it looked like a Holy Week procession but made a lovely sight. An architecture of stars in our port, I could only stand and admire it.

          "Aren't we going to finish dinner?"

          "But what the hell is happening in this house today! Devil take it!"

          The water was still high, even the sea was impressed. Treading on all the lights of the Liberty I set off calmly over the water.

          "Hey, Vieites, you come too!" I realized I had my knife in my hand.

          "Arrieta, you don't know how to walk on the water!"

          They didn't see me, all those fools look only to the port when they're docked. With my knife between my teeth, I climbed up the anchor line to the deck, up the starboard line. "Quiet! Ormazabal, take off your shoes, pirates go barefoot!"

          "Did you bring them?"

          Not the whole collection, but several in blue red green yellow.

          "But these aren't the girls we asked for!"

          "Look what this idiot brought!"

          And Arrillaga threw all my stamps of the English queen Elizabeth II into the air in the middle of the deck.

          "Haven't you got a dick?"

          "Yeah, let's see your little wiener!"

          No, he didn't use his knife. He has something better on his tongue, a poison worm that will shut up these crude bastards.

          "Aren't you ashamed to raise that rag?"

          "What do you mean, little boy, that rag?"

          "That rag, the Spanish flag."

          A long silence; he has taken them by surprise.

          "The Spanish flag...!"

          They look at each other, these oafs haven't got sisters.

          "Moron! Who discovered America then, huh?"

          We gained possession of the ship without having to slit anyone's throat, barefoot, knife in hand, one by one we gagged and tied the relief guards, "good, Vieites," we went below decks and caught the whole crew having dinner, we heard a shout from the officers' mess, but they all had to get down on the floor, "that's it, Arrieta," table knives won't do to cut the skin of a pirate, "like that, Ormazabal, easy, easy does it, he who has committed no crime has nothing to fear, we'll give a fair trial to anyone we have to hang."

          "The ship is ours, open the door."

          I was waiting for a shot, expecting that he would kill himself. But no, before we had to order him again, the captain opened the door. He was elegant in his blue jacket, hair spilling out of his cap into the gold of his buttons. He was young and didn't look like a seafaring man.

          "Come in."

          Arrieta and Ormazabal, knives like cocks, wanted to go in too, to guard me.

          "Stay here. Vieites, don't let anyone drink a drop until we're on the high seas."

          The chamber seemed like a church, lit as it was with candles that filled the room with a sweet satisfying perfume. The glint of brass from all sides, polychrome glass in the skylights, walls of dark expensive wood. The lush carpet tickled the soles of my feet.

          "Sit down, please. Do me the honor of smoking my tobacco."

          He was an aristocrat and it showed. In his authority, and in his deliberate way of speaking. His French was as elegant as the carved bowls of that parlor. I turned him down; it was an old trick.

          "What are your demands?"

          I had figured out when I first saw him enter our harbor that he was the Marquis of Lafayette, the French agent taking refuge in our port from the English.

          "I have the toughest crew, what more proof do you want? Normans, Bretons, Corsicans, Galicians, Basques... we are 18th-century Vikings."


          "Couldn't be more loyal."

          "Until Vieites hangs you from the mainmast because you forbade him to drink."

          And I left the wine on the table too, without even touching the long-stemmed goblet.

          "You will be the captain on the sea, but in battle I'll give the orders."


          "Forgive me, but you... It is not possible to liberate America with troops who think that war can be fought as a duel."

          "I would say you are mistaken."

          Then Lafayette took off his cap, with his cap he took off his wig, he took off his jacket, the captain was left in a common white uniform, he wasn't a captain, just a sailor, a deck-swab, a mop-dancer, gripping my arm tightly enough to hurt and speaking into my ear with horrible calm:

          "Overboard with you, right now!"

          His kick missed me, I dived and swam away under water to the floating crane in the middle of the harbor. I grabbed onto the line. I stopped to look at the ridiculous set of Christmas lights as I caught my breath under the green signal light of the dredge. I put my knife between my teeth, so that even if he found me in the binoculars, he would say he had seen a pirate. I tried to stand up, but I was sinking, I couldn't walk on the surface of the water. The sea seemed to be an enormous mass of water.

          "Where did you get that big knife?"

          "It's clean now..."

          They don't get it, stupid pricks.

          "It had blood on it when they gave it to me."

          "What lies this child tells!"

          "A Corsican pirate gave it to me to erase the evidence of a crime."

          At that time, the doors here were made of wood.

          In the mountains, far from the wharf, I took out the knife and set to work the next morning, carving a frigate into the door of the cemetery, into the wooden one, into the very flesh of the frigate.

          A prayer, of course, to the poison worm.

          Two years later, there was a fire on the Argentine training ship Liberty when it was at Ferrol. Nobody was killed, and it suffered only minor damage, unfortunately.

          I don't know where that door is, I don't know if they burned it in a bonfire on the feast of Saint John or if a Yankee collector bought it or if it's in a museum in Quebec now.

          If you look carefully, you'll see the profile of a frigate in the iron of that battered door as well, an image that the black paint has never quite covered completely, much prettier than the Pinta, Niņa and Santa Maria that the teacher made Zubimendi draw on the blackboard in colored chalk. It's a tracing I did as an old man, but apparently iron lacks the attributes of wood. Or perhaps it is so faint because it was done with a nail. A sailor's knife would need a totem of carved sacrifices, but I must set this sacred tool into nobler materials. I sharpen it every day on the sandstone of the doorway where they put the intercom, because I know tomorrow or the next day a frigate will appear in the harbor towing an enormous silver pine in its wake - I'm copying, I know - and you will find me walking off again through the waves well armed, the obedient servant of the hatred gathered these long years.

          The liberation of America is at hand: next time I will show no mercy, Mr. Lafayette.

Š Izagirre, Koldo. Need a light, Mr. Churchill? (Sua nahi, Mr. Churchill?), Susa, 2005.

Š Translation: Kristin Addis