Extract from the short story "Awkward Silence". In Olaziregi, M.J. (compiler): An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, University of Nevada-Center for Basque Studies, Reno, 2004). Translated by Elizabeth Macklin and Linda White. Originally published as Un ange passe. Isilaldietan, Erein, 1998.
They were stuck a third of a mile from the mountain pass. Nothing was moving forward or backward. Some thirty vehicles sat all in a line facing the same direction in the middle of the blinding white of the highland meadow. Cars facing the other way were on the other side of the pass, forced to wait by policemen in red berets.
There was occasional movement among the cars and trucks at the end of the line as they made efforts to move the last few yards up the incline onto the short stretch of flat road.
Kurt had just got onto level ground and could inch a bit forward. But the driver of the semi in front of him put out an arm and signaled him to stop. Kurt braked, then half a minute later, he turned off his engine. He repeated the gesture to the drivers of a big rig and three cars that he could see behind him in the rearview mirror. He sighed and leaned his arms and forehead on the steering wheel. Then he reached backward into the sleeper for the thermos. The coffee was bitter and tepid, and it didn't do the trick. He opened his window and emptied the thermos, turning the snow and ice in the middle of the road a coffee color.
After a bit, Kurt put on his sunglasses and opened the door of the cab. He checked for a clean patch of asphalt, then jumped down and took a look ahead.
"Oh, shit!" He swore in German between clenched teeth and kicked loose a chunk of dirty ice from his rig.
The jack-knifed semi was two hundred yards up the road and twenty-odd drivers were lurching toward it on foot in the left lane. Kurt cast his gaze over the dark figures making their way, alone or in pairs.
No movement was visible beyond them, but Kurt knew at once from the smoke that hid the semi from view that things were not quiet up there. He shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and headed off with the others.
He decided to walk in the left-hand ditch because there was less ice there. He looked around, then paused. He spied a rig from his country on the right. On the left was a snow-covered field and a flood of silence. Alongside the ditch there was underbrush and the sparkle of droplets frozen to its branches.
Kurt moved beyond the brush to get a look at faint bird tracks in the snow. After a breather, he glanced at the sky, then started off again.
The smell of smoke and the sound of engines intensified. Kurt slowed alongside the truck and planted himself behind the crowd gathered there. The semi was English and people on the other side were helping, giving directions to the driver. From his position, Kurt could glimpse their legs and feet. Sometimes they shouted, voices tense.
Kurt noticed a fellow German just a few yards away, revealed by the flag sewn on his leather sleeve. He wore a wool cap and was very young. He stared wide-eyed.
Some of the drivers began moving off. One of their voices could be heard over the noise. "What the hell does he have chains for?"
"You can never tell with these foreigners," added another, biting back his anger. "All night down there waiting to move, and when we get going, this. Fuck!"
Kurt had learned enough of the language on previous trips to understand the gist of what he heard. He approached his compatriot and introduced himself. They shook hands and stood talking, gesturing from time to time at the ice beneath the semi.
They decided they'd be there for a couple of hours and walked back the way they'd come. At the young driver's rig, he told Kurt he had zero desire to leave his cab. He was going to get some sleep. Kurt said goodbye and went on to his own truck. All the vehicles in the line had their engines off. Fierce gusts of wind brought somber sounds off the snow-covered plain.
Kurt took out his keys and locked the door of his truck. He stood for a moment at his tailgate and looked over the lineup of vehicles. He counted fifteen between himself and the bottom of the slope below. He started downhill.
"Hey, excuse me."
The dark-haired girl in the white car had her window half down and was speaking from the driver's seat. The blonde girl on the passenger side was looking at Kurt. He made his way back to them.
"Will it take long up there?" the brunette asked as he approached. "A long time?" she rephrased her question.
"A couple of hours." Kurt tipped his hand back and forth to mean more or less.
"What happened?" asked the brunette. Her companion cut her off. "Leave him be, he's not from here."
The brunette turned and thanked him. Then she gave a weary laugh before rolling up the window. Kurt raised a hand by way of farewell.
Farther down the slope, some cars had their engines running. The passengers were wearing jackets. A few yards farther along there were beeches beside the road, and the north wind was more noticeable. From the shaded ravine came a far-off whistle.
From behind him, Kurt heard, "What are you doing, girl - watch it!"
The blonde had the brunette by the arm, and the brunette had one knee on the ground. When she managed to get up, they spoke to each other but Kurt couldn't understand what they said. He stood watching until they started down the slope again. Then he went on his way, moving obviously more slowly. From the sounds behind him, he knew the girls' footing was uncertain and that they were falling farther and farther behind.
He decided to wait for them. They were walking arm in arm, and they hesitated when they saw Kurt watching them. Nevertheless, they came on, and as they approached Kurt they began making for the shoulder of the road. The brunette was rubbing her red hands. Kurt took off his glasses and smiled at them.
Š Un ange passe: Erein
Š An Anthology of Basque Short Stories: Center for Basque Studies