"Whale ahoy! Whale ahoy!" shouted the lookout.
His shouts immediately woke the fishermen. The harbour had been submerged in silence until then, but news of the whale spread quickly and loudly enough to wake a dead man.
Uncle Juan and I were by the Artza quay, caulking the boat. Autumn had just begun and we were preparing everything we needed for the last few tasks of the year at sea. Soon we would start fishing for bream. But the instant we heard the news that a whale was near our coastline we stopped caring about the bream.
In a moment everybody was trying to help push a nearby boat into the sea. Uncle Juan joined them, even though his left arm was withered.
"Come on boys!" he shouted.
Suddenly the hermitage bells started ringing franticly to take over the lookout's shouts. I doubt there was a single person left in town who still didn't know there was a whale near our coast; if there was, they would soon find out.
Generally, the hermitage bells also rang to alert the town to a fire or other emergencies. But when it was a whale they announced, the bells rang a special peal. To me it sounded like Whale ahoy! Whale ahoy! I recognised Doro's way of ringing them: one-two-three, whale-a-hoy, one-two-three, whale-a-hoy. I recognised Doro's ringing because it had been my idea to ring the bells like that, I had taught him the peal.
"Go to the lookout, my lad, and ask him where the whale is!"
I almost sprang from the spot on which I stood as I was, barefoot; my heart was beating so fast and loud I thought it would jump out of my mouth.
"Put your shoes on, son!" that's what Uncle Juan said, "son". This made me realise how beside himself he was. "And ask Simon how many whales he's seen. And I want you back here with those answers fast."
I ran as quickly as I could up the hill towards the lookout's vantage point. When I knew Uncle Juan couldn't see me I took my espadrilles off. I would be faster without them. I ran towards the vantage point practically breathless and with my heart beating wildly. My mind was awhirl. Familiar images and fantasies followed each other randomly. I was more confused than people were when they saw the bull of fire coming towards them during San Pedro's festival. Who had spotted the whale first, the lookout or the friars? That was all I could think about.
The friars lived in the island friary and their lives were very hard. However, in Izaro they had a much better vantage point than we did in our village. Often they would let us know what was happening at sea by means of the very many signals they knew - and which I hope they still use. The friars would make different signals depending on what they saw approaching: a storm, enemy boats, whales or whatever. Depending on whether it was winter or summer they would use fire or a flag - because in winter it is easier to see a fire than a flag, whereas in summer, especially on sultry days, it is very difficult to see a fire on the island.
If the friars had spotted the whale first we would have to hand them over a good portion of the catch. The worst of it, however, wasn't the size of the catch we would have to give them, but that we would have to give them the best bones. Whale bones were highly coveted by us because they were very useful and a lot could be done with them. Even the little stool I used to sit on as a child - which I am sure is still at home - was made from whalebone, by the man known to everyone as Leftie, no less. Not only was he a very good fisherman, he was also a very skilful craftsman. After my father died he used to spend quite a bit of time hanging around our front door, talking to my mother. He was said to be crazy, which made me afraid of him. I could relate many of the things that were said about him, but just to start somewhere I will say that Leftie lived in a tiny attic, the kind of place cats live in. When people started talking about him there was no end to the things they would say. Worst of all, they said he drank. He looked like a beggar and was known to do foolish things, which didn't help his reputation. He often had nothing to live on, but this wasn't always the case.
Once I found Leftie not outside the door as usual, but inside, and very smartly dressed too. I had returned unexpectedly from the port and I found my mother and him sitting at the kitchen table. I was surprised to see my mother's blushes and hear her shaky voice, but I was even more surprised to see that vagabond-like creature looking so smart and clean-shaven. It took me a while to understand what that supposedly crazy man was doing there with my mother, alone, chatting away the hours.
"How you've grown, lad! This little man will need his own stool soon, isn't that so?" said Leftie. And then, addressing my mother, he added something that made me gawp. "See you later, Brigida."
Brigida! At home no one called my mother by her name. Everyone, including Uncle Juan and Aunt Ebora herself, called her Ama - mum in Basque. I felt a disquieting sensation in my heart. But it didn't last very long. A few days later Leftie had finished my new stool. It had been made exactly to my size, and the craftsman managed to dispell my disquiet with that present. They say that the friars were as skilful as Leftie crafting things out of whale bones, and if what I heard is true, in the friary in Izaro, not just the chairs and stools, but also the bedroom doorjambs and most of the pieces of furniture were made of whale bone.
Just in case they had spotted the whale first, I damned the friars. Then I became very happy, because I started thinking that if Simon had seen it first the whole whale would be ours. The whole whale! And because I was concentrating my entire soul on making that thought become fact I slipped, fell on my backside and hurt myself.
I limped my way up to Simon. Only then did it occur to me to bring my hand to my sore bum, and what did I find there but a huge tear in my trousers! Ama would have something to say about that. Oh well, soon I would have enough to buy myself not just new trousers, but also a new shirt and hat, and all thanks to the whale. Just then I reached Simon the lookout's little hut, which for us was the most mysterious part of the village.
I was so lucky to have such a close look at that shack! The front was open and a table that doubled up as a kind of door blocked the entrance half way up from the ground. The hearth was on one side of the hut, in between the barrel of tar and the firewood. He had two separate piles, one of strawberry tree and one of bay - both are excellent for producing smoke. Simon had it all ready for the signals. He kept his binoculars firmly on the whale.
We were afraid of that man, because he used to say that if he ever caught us near him he would castrate us. Even though we didn't quite know what the word castrate meant, we knew he meant something awful. Thinking about all this almost eighty years later, I realise that Simon was only being prudent - there was no worse enemy of his work than us kids: we were capable of touching, losing or breaking anything, we might have even set fire to his hut.
Simon knew the winds like the palm of his hand; he knew where each one of them originated, he knew the meaning of every frost; as far as the weather was concerned, nothing escaped him. Every morning, before they set out to sea, the harbour pilots and sometimes even the captains and the boat owners themselves would come all the way up to the lookout to listen to Simon's opinion. If Simon said not to go no one went out that day; the sailors would stay at home. If, on the other hand, he said we should go out, we all set sail. His job wasn't easy. Maybe that was why there was always a dark cloud hanging over him. Fortunately, when I went up to his hut that day he seemed to be in a good mood.
Having spotted the whale must have changed his mood, because instead of the usual barking orders Simon was very friendly to me as he gave me the information.
"There are two of them, I'd say a mother and baby. Tell your uncle I spotted them, not the friars. Tell him that the people of Bermeo are already headed for the other side of Izaro, and that the people of Elantxobe have seen them too, I'm sure of it. There was a flash of anger in Simon's face as he spat: "Those damn friars have told the neighbouring villages again!"
When I heard Simon's damnations I got frightened again. His eyes were glowing, angry embers. Gannet's eyes. For us - and I mean for the young men of that time - Simon was the most highly regarded person in the harbour. Seagulls are occasionally known to miss their mark when they nose-dive for a fish, but not so with gannets. Weren't we all reliant on the lookout's sharp vision? That is why we compared him to the gannet, the marine bird with the best eyesight. Back then everyone in the village had a nickname. We always had something to argue about, but the most popular argument tended to be the same: who ruled over whom.
"The boss here is the Major," I remember Peru de Arena used to say while we were hunting for frogs in the ponds near the harbour.
"No way!" Sebastian, with whom I shared my name, would say. I used to call him Sebas, to differentiate him from me. He was always in a bad mood. "The Major could be bishop of the world and still he would be nothing compared to the fishermen's guild."
"But what are you saying, ignoramuses. Neither the Major nor the fishermen's guild would get any fish or any nothing if Simon the lookout didn't spot the whales for us," I would say, repeating my uncle's words with the blind faith of a child eager to be a grownup.
We never really found the frogs' ponds, but it didn't matter very much. We wanted to grow strong so we could give up those paltry games and become men. In a way, most of us wanted to be Simon the lookout, even though the scary damnations that issued from his mouth contradicted everything we heard in church. I used to think Simon was a great sinner. Back then I was still afraid of hell and its punishments. Thankfully that fear has disappeared with time, because I have come to understand that all faiths require the presence of sin, as I will explain later. But back then I would still get a horrible knot in my stomach when I heard things like that.
I can still see that big man's face in front of me, as clearly as if he was still alive. He looked like he could take flight any minute, like a gannet. Like he could fly over to the friary and poke the friars' eyes out with his beak and let them bleed to death. Despite that, I think that if there were such a thing as a paradise where all religions coexisted, Simon would be there.
That day we all felt indebted to the lookout, and the debt wasn't a small one, because thanks to his eyesight everyone would have a taste of heaven in their own homes. Given that the friars in Izaro always warned the people of Bermeo first, and that they would have normally seen it first, it seemed to us a kind of miracle that Simon should have spotted them first. But the truth was that there was no such thing as a miracle. The friars had simply been busy praying because it was very early, and the whales had appeared where they were least expected.
Š Jimenez, Edorta. Baleen berbaroa, Txalaparta, Tafalla, 1997.
Š Translation: Amaia Gabantxo