Translated by Elizabeth Macklin and Linda White
(in Olaziregi, M.J., An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, Center for Basque Studies, 2004).
"Excuse me, would you close the door please?"
The woman isn't asking Abdou, but rather the man sitting next to the door. Sometimes the woman dozes off, but she awakes with a start when her head nods. When she opens her eyes, Abdou sees that they're watery, and he turns his gaze back to the window. Once when her head nods, it lands on Abdou's shoulder. Her dark hair is very smooth, it looks like a child's, but the lines on her face make her look forty. She smells good, she has a unique scent. She doesn't wear cheap perfume like the village girls when they're out for boys. Abdou gently removes her head from his shoulder and leans it against the window.
The man sitting by the door has his eyes on a book. Every time the train is in a station, he lifts them to the window and sighs, as if he wants everything he's reading about to be reflected in the window. He also glances at the door from time to time, to make sure it's closed. He's dressed in black from head to foot. Black like the rain falling outside the window.
Ever since he was old enough to understand, Abdou had heard that rain has the power to grant wishes.
Before he got on the train, no one told him there would be so much rain. They said where to go to catch the train and how long the trip would be, but not a word about the rain. Evidently, it hadn't seemed worth mentioning to those who gave him the information he needed to make the trip. No knowledge of rain was exchanged for the money he'd paid.
This detail is important to him though, because the success or failure of what he's about to do may lie in the rain. At least, if what he's heard about the power of the rain is true.
Abdou has just turned nineteen. He's headed for an unfamiliar city, to Paris, a name he has heard all his life on the tongues of his countrymen. He's traveling by train now, because they told him it was the surest way of avoiding unpleasant surprises. But before that, he traveled in every way possible, on foot, by ship –if an undersized launch could be called a ship– and in the back of a refrigerator truck. He traveled night and day in the company of other young men, all of them going in search of a better life. Fortunately, when he looked into their faces Abdou saw that he himself was different, because he was not searching for a better life. He was going to Paris for no other reason than to bring honor to his name.
It's been days since he bade farewell to his country, Mali. As he said goodbye, he looked into his mother's eyes and prayed that he might find his father. In his pocket, along with his father's photograph, he carried the address of a restaurant written on a piece of paper, the starting point of his search. It was said all Malians gathered there once a week, and they could certainly set him on his father's trail. That was his only hope because without their help, he didn't know where else to turn.
Word had come to him that they last saw Abdou's father in a Parisian train station. The restaurant owner reported that he was carrying a large suitcase, which could have meant he was leaving or arriving, but then the owner saw him catch a taxi, so he was coming to stay. Another compatriot in search of a better life, that's what the restaurant owner was thinking. By the time he got close to the taxi, it was pulling away. No chance to greet the new arrival. Nor had they seen him since. It was possible he had left the city, or perhaps had simply disappeared into its maze of streets and houses as do so many city dwellers. That was all they could say.
Abdou is certain that will not happen to him. He'll return home to his country. He's been thinking about that since he sat down on the train, everything made easier by its movement along the rails. Or maybe he was thinking it because of a dozen other reasons, because he was mixed in with other people all traveling together. For now, Abdou is just another person in the compartment, different from the man and woman on either side of him but gazing out the window like someone who makes the journey every day, forgetting all about the photograph in his pocket. He paid for a ticket just like the others. He's not bad looking. He's wearing the beautiful shirt his mother bought him. Only the darkness of his skin makes him stand out, but that's nothing to worry about, for in Paris there are many dark-skinned people like him.
Suddenly, the woman gets up, puts on her coat and goes into the corridor, holding a cell pone. The reader's eyes are glued to his book, glancing down now and then at the black suitcase between his feet. The dark-haired woman is beautiful, she's wearing red lipstick and is elegantly dressed. She folds her arms across her middle, as if her coat were not enough to warm her body. She takes a few drags on the cigarette and returns to the compartment, just as another young man enters. If he were dark-skinned, he'd look a lot like Abdou. But there's a big difference between the two of them. Unlike Abdou, the newcomer chose his destination randomly.
"Is this seat free?" asks the young man, glancing around the compartment.
He asks with a smile. The three of them nod yes, the woman mechanically, Abdou pleasantly, and the reader without lifting his eyes from his book. He only glances sideways as the rough-looking newcomer enters. The newcomer carries a case. So does the woman, but his isn't a briefcase, it's a case for a musical instrument, a guitar, a violin, or a viola, one of those.
For a second, it feels like Abdou and the young man are all alone in the compartment, the way they look at each other, long and hard, taking each other's measure. Then Abdou turns his gaze back to the window. Although in his country it was relatively common for men to sleep with men, Abdou loves women. He would be happy to spend night after night embracing the sweet-smelling brunette at his side, nibbling at her delicate lips.
The compartment door is left open again.
"Excuse me, would you close the door please? There's a draft, and I wouldn't want to get a chill," says the woman as pleasantly as possible.
She folds her arms across her middle again. Her eyes are closing, as if she guessed Abdou's thoughts and wants to flee from them. The landscape outside the window is green. That generous landscape whizzing by is so different from the stingy flatlands of his own country. The landscape there looks like the wrinkled skin of an old man. Here it seems fluffy, like a baby's curly hair.
There are so many things Abdou does not understand. Why are there so many obstacles to getting anywhere? Why does he have to move like a snake in the dirt, risking his life, if the big nations have already stolen everything they need from his country?
And the one question that stands out above all others: Why have you done all of this to us?
That's a question Abdou would like to ask the others in the train compartment. Would they have any answers? But then, who is he to barge into the lives of such peaceful people? He prefers to believe that one of these days everything will be easier, although ever since he was old enough to understand, he heard that power grows on the backs of the small, and his country could still become much more diminished. Nevertheless, he truly believes that something is changing in his own life, and it's better to believe in small things than big ones. In order to change the big things, you have to begin with the small ones, and that's just what he'll do when he finds his father's trail.
Perhaps the rain will help him.
It was raining that morning he woke up and found his mother crying. It was no wonder he remembered that rain, for in his country it only rains once or twice a year. Add the fact that his father left home that morning, and Abdou was bound to remember the rain. A father leaves for good once in a lifetime, or maybe twice, but if he comes back and leaves a second time there is no third chance. That's what Abdou had heard since he was old enough to understand.
That's why, in the beginning, Abdou thought his father would return and his mother's tears were caused by something else. He thought she was crying for joy because his father had gone away to bring back a baby. His mother's hidden desire was to have another baby. Abdou's hidden desire was revealed when he spoke to her sweetly, saying, "Don't worry, he'll be home by nightfall."
Abdou spoke tenderly to his mother in his capacity as eldest brother. It was his duty. However, he was unable to soothe her distress. Tears darkened her face with the same power of the water that furrowed the dry earth. Her hands trembled and so did the paper she held. The silence was so pervasive he could even hear the paper trembling. At last, staring into space, his mother ended the silence.
"He's gone. He's gone and left us, Abdou."
She appended her son's name at the end, for he was the only hope left to her. Abdou returned to his bedroom, scowling at the rain through the open window. Smoke seemed to rise from the earth, a tussle between the heat and the rain. Smoke poured out of the bedroom, too. Abdou had rolled a cigarette and was smoking furiously.
Š An Anthology of Basque Short Stories: Center for Basque Studies