MONTOIA, Xabier:
Black as Coal

Extract from the short-story «Blac as Coal». In Olaziregi, M.J. (compiler): An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, University of Nevada - Center for Basque Studies, Reno, 2004. Translated from Basque by Kristin Addis.


Probably the only thing we all have in common is the one day we never forget: the sweet memory of the first time we quench the body's fire in another. (I had sex for the first time on April 27, 1937). I would bet that no one forgets; it's etched in the brain, like rust on iron. This damned memory, tougher than steel. (The skies were clear over Gernika).

There's a time in every man's life when he stops being a child and even though he's not yet a man and doesn't yet know the path his life will take, he sets off in the race whose only finish line is death. (Those were difficult years for me, and not only because of the war). We learn that later, of course, much later, and until we figure it out, we race like madmen, always trying to get ahead, eager to reach the paradise of adulthood. And in this race, as if we were cars, our main fuel is sex; it pushes us on, spurs and goads us. (I thought I was sick, laid low by an illness that only I suffered). At that age of doubts, we are drenched by the saturating flow whose milky liquid pervades everything.

Without the slightest success I tried to think about anything else, but there was nothing at all that didn't bring sex to mind one way or another. Had I been blinded by a branding iron, I would have kept right on seeing reminders of sex everywhere. Even blind, the wind would bring me its smells and sounds. I would have to die to be free of this malady.

At first I thought I was the only sick one. But later I learned that Teo and I suffered the same illness. The same illness I say, but it would be more accurate to say a similar illness, because although Teo felt the same urgency in his groin, at least he had someone to talk to. We would meet in a corner of the kitchen and he would tell me the ups and downs of his experiences with girls at the previous Sunday's dance at the Florida. I, on the other hand, had to keep everything to myself. (And the afflictions of love and of the body worsen if you can't let them out. Just like with wine - the best wine in the world turns to vinegar if kept in the bottle long enough). I knew I would lose my friend if ever I mentioned the fire that burned inside me. And not only that; the way things were then, I could also lose my job if the faintest rumors of my feelings reached the hotel. And they would, without a doubt.

We had one afternoon a week free, sometimes Sunday, often Monday. If we happened to get a Sunday, we went dancing. The Hotel Fronton workers were allowed to go free to the dances held at the jai alai court once the games were over for the day. But we preferred the dances at the Florida. To tell the truth, I didn't care one way or the other since either way, I wouldn't move from my spot by the orchestra. Teo on the other hand, met a lot of girls in the park whose only shelter was the open sky. We were poor and so were our friends.

Teo tried to introduce me to the girls he knew. And gave up fast:

"You're hopeless!"

Evidently my good-hearted friend didn't realize that my eyes weren't drawn to these girls he admired so much, but to the stocky young workers who grabbed them boldly around the waist; he didn't notice that my attention wasn't on these girls who stuffed their bras with pages of old newspapers, but on the boys fighting to the death to dance with them, strong and muscular, sweaty.

Teo stayed until the orchestra in the bandstand played the last song. I left earlier, claiming to be tired, taking the Senda walkway with the beat of the tango softer and softer behind me. I found peace there, as if the sturdy trees that lined the path were watching over me. In that darkness, I felt something akin to freedom. Finally I would give in to tears, the miserable and anguished tears that burned my cheeks yet also brought a certain calm. And when I reached the iron bridge, the bridge where I had once seen a man hanging from a rope around his neck, I would stop beneath it; I could see myself hanging there then, ending my pain and torment and doubts forever with one simple act.

Death was my only way out. And if I didn't do it, it was only because another stronger force was holding me back: the desires of the flesh. Torn between one thing and the other, my heart was breaking. If I had to die to the soft beat of the melody floating on the wind, I wanted to see my death reflected in the gypsy eyes of the dancing boys. How could I leave this world without fulfilling the dream that woke me every night? How could I leave without knowing it at least once? And even without dying, I spent long periods of time apart from the world, strangled by my worries, unable to bear the passage of time. The rattle of the train brought me back among the living. The sudden noise startled me, exploding unexpectedly over my head and, not remembering where I was, I took the noise of the train for a gunshot. And I don't know why, because ever since the war started not a single shot had been heard in Gasteiz.

Or more precisely, one shot was heard: on San Prudencio street, in the festivities they organized with the arms they had confiscated from the Reds, a sergeant, allegedly drunk, mounted a small tank and fired off a round. But I didn't hear it. I was asleep and didn't know anything about it until I arrived at work the next day.

"That was a close one!"

It was all people could talk about. They came to the hotel and stood looking up toward the place where the ill-fated round had entered. It had gone through a wall and blown up in a first-floor room, number 108, one I had often cleaned. Thank God it was empty that night.

The things I like have always been essentially the same. Most of the things I love, I first discovered when I was young: music, alcohol, the cinema, cars... and sex; our distractions from an empty and wretched life. The cinema must have been the first thing that seduced me. If our weekly afternoon off didn't fall on a Sunday, we would spend it in the Principe Theater next to the hotel, devouring the Fox newsreel and two films together with the sandwiches smuggled out to us by Luis who worked in the kitchen. We didn't care much what was showing, we loved everything the same: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Mickey Mouse, or films from the German company UFA.

And so my life went on. On the one hand, wanting to deny my nature but once and again caught up in the intense and unmentionable conflict of my desires. And on the other hand, running from my wicked obsession and finding refuge in the darkness of the theater.

With all this, I hardly noticed any change with the coming of the war. Maybe because I was living in a virtual world, one in which I was the only inhabitant other than Hollywood stars. In any case, few changes were evident even in the so-called real world. Not even the war itself could split apart the ordinary life of the little town where I was born on that unfortunate day. For the people walking up and down Dato Street, everything continued the same, at least superficially. Also for those who gathered in the afternoon for tea at the hotel; they still came without fail. The only difference about them was their clothes: they left their felt caps at home and started wearing red berets as soon as the war started. Most of them wore gray shirts, some wore blue; they all marched around proudly in shiny black leather boots and belts.

They chattered in front of me, sifting through all the news from the front, angry with the brutality of the Reds, repeating the sacrileges, the black sins they were said to commit, cursing the European democracies.

"If it weren't for the help of those sons of bitches...!"

I always agreed, though my mind was full of my own war. Now that was a war, a real one. Not the one they waged with a coffee cup in one hand, a fat Havana cigar in the other. I was the one forever bleeding, forever dying. But my trenches, my battlefield, though not at Legutio or Otxandio, weren't far from our brave soldiers, waiter bring this, waiter carry that, with no respite.


© Gasteizko hondartzak: Susa

© An Anthology of Basque Short Stories: Center for Basque Studies