(OLAIZOLA, Jesus Mari):
Uncle Bin Floren

It's raining. In Maria Naparra?s entryway, sitting on the stair step, are three friends: Iņazio, Maite and Tomaxito.

"What terrible weather!" says Iņazio to the other two, "If this rain keeps up, we'll all mildew."

"Mildew?" asks Tomaxito worriedly.

Tomaxito is the youngest of the friends, and to judge by his lively face, he is truly frightened.

"We'll mildew?" he asks Iņazio fearfully.

"Don't worry, Tomaxito," says Maite, "nothing's going to happen to us."

Maite is Tomaxito's sister. The trio often meets at Maria Naparra's house. In fact, Iņazio lives at the Little Garmendi farmhouse, on one side of the Behorlegi neighborhood, quite far from the town, and Maite and Tomaxito live in a little house called Better Here, on the other side of the neighborhood. Maria's house is right in the middle, perfect for meeting on a rainy day like today. Iņazio lives at Little Garmendi with his grandparents, Grandma Felisa and Grandpa Joxe. On the farm there are some cows, a couple calves and a black donkey named Kubala. Kubala is the name of a soccer player, and the neighbors gave the donkey that name because he's a good kicker. Grandma Felisa keeps chickens and ducks in the chicken coop, and a pig in the sty. She also has a cat, Mixi.

Five people live at Maite and Tomaxito's house: Maite, Tomaxito, their mother, Teresa, their father, Tomas, and their uncle, Florentino. Tomas is a shoemaker and he has a little shop in the town. Teresa also often goes in to the town to sell shoes and tidy the shop, and Maite has to look after her brother. Teresa's Uncle Florentino built the house named Better Here when he came from far away.

Apparently he wasn't very happy in his town, and when he got to Behorlegi, he said, "better here."

He built the house right there in that neighborhood he liked so much, and gave it that very name: Better Here. Florentino has always been a cobbler, but he's retired now because he's very old. "It's not because of my age," says Florentino, "but I'm losing my vision, and I wouldn't be any good at fixing shoes if I kept doing it."

Tomaxito and Uncle Florentino get along very well. Maybe because they are the oldest and youngest in the house. About the dog, for example, Florentino was the only one who took Tomaxito's side. Tomaxito wants a dog, but the rest of the family...

"I've told you a thousand times to forget about getting a dog," says Teresa, "and eat your potato soup before it gets cold!"

But that doesn't silence Tomaxito. Sooner rather than later he will start singing the same song to his father, his sister or his uncle Florentino. Pretty much in vain, truth be told, since no one pays him any attention, and he ends up talking to himself every time he starts going on about the dog. "What's the matter, little boy?" Uncle Florentino asked Tomaxito one time when he saw him sad. "Aw, Uncle... I want to get a dog. And no one in this house will listen to me. You don't like dogs, Maite doesn't care and won't help me convince Mom, and Mom and Dad won't even consider it."

Uncle Florentino's eyes lit up. Like every time he had a good idea or thought up a crazy story. "Well," he said to Tomaxito, "I won't buy you a dog, but I will help you. I have an idea."

Tomaxito's "dog" and Uncle Florentino's fall

After lunch, Uncle Florentino takes a little nap every day. He lies down in the recliner in front of the house, takes off his shoes, puts his feet up on a stool, covers his belly with a throw blanket, and falls asleep calmly. Today he has Tomaxito at his side, completely serious, waiting for his uncle to wake up. And when he wakes up, the two of them will start whispering intensely:

"What do you want a dog for anyway?" Uncle Florentino asks Tomaxito.

"What for? To play with! He'd be my friend. I'd walk him..."

"And does it have to be a dog no matter what?"

Tomaxito is startled by his uncle's question.

"A dog? People keep dogs to hunt, and protect the house. And to walk. And when someone wants a friend, he buys a dog."

"And to be your friend does it have to be a dog no matter what? Couldn't some other animal be your friend?"

"Another animal?"

"Yes, another animal. A cat, a chicken, a ram, a fox, a lizard..."

"Another animal! I'm going straight to Little Garmendi!"

"Wait, wait, wait..." says Uncle Florentino. "You'll need a leash for that animal, won't you?"

"You're right, Uncle."

"I'll make you one."

For a cobbler like Uncle Florentino, it's easy to make a leash. Before too long, Tomaxito has a collar with four or five holes, like the strap on a sandal, so that it will fit the animal's neck. And in the middle of the collar, a brass ring to tie twine or rope to so Tomaxito can take the animal for a walk. Tomaxito is nervous.

"I have to talk to Grandma Felisa, I have to talk to Grandma Felisa!" he repeats over and over.

Grandma Felisa and Iņazio are preparing the food for the chickens when Tomaxito arrives.

"Did you come for Iņazio?" Grandma Felisa asks. "Wait a bit while we take care of the chickens and then he can go with you."

"I'll go to the coop with you too," says Tomaxito to Grandma Felisa. "I want to ask you something."

It's hard for Tomaxito to explain what he wants, but finally this is what he says to Grandma Felisa: "I want a fine white duck to take for walks. That one there, the one that walks with her head held so proudly. I'll come from time to time, I'll ask your permission, I'll put the collar around her neck, and I'll take her for a walk."

Grandma Felisa is totally taken aback, but she doesn't say no.

"I'll take good care of her. I'll give her bread to eat. And snails I catch in the garden. I know she likes them."

Tomaxito shows Grandma Felisa the collar and she laughs. "Let's see if you can get it on her!"

It's not easy for Tomaxito to get the collar on the proud little duck, but he manages to do it in the end. "This will be my animal friend. My little dog. I'll call her Petronila."

Some people might think it strange to see someone walking a duck, but strange things happen sometimes in the neighborhood of Behorlegi, especially when it?s foggy. Today, for example, there's a thick fog, and in addition to Uncle Florentino falling, other strange things have started to happen... Every day, Uncle Florentino goes downstairs. He goes down to the door to the street and picks up the bread that the baker leaves in the long box in front of the building. Uncle Florentino likes to have fresh bread with his breakfast. Today he tried to do the same thing. He saw that it was still foggy downstairs, but paid no attention to Teresa's call: "Don't go out, I'll fetch the bread!"

And in the biggest of hurries, he forgot to take his cane, tripped over his own feet, and fell down the stairs. "Oh my God!" he cried loudly, and everyone in the building heard his cry from outside, his tumble and rough landing.

"Oh my God! Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Are you ok, Uncle?" yelled Teresa when she ran outside and saw Uncle Florentino lying on the ground.

Maite and Tomaxito also ran outside immediately and saw Uncle Florentino lying on the ground unconscious.

"Poor thing!" said the girl.

"Is he dead?" asked Tomaxito.

"Go to the rich man's house and call Doctor Ebaristo. Tell him Uncle Florentino fell and is unconscious..."

Maite and Tomaxito race to the rich man's house. He got rich in American and has the most elegant house in the neighborhood, a little ways beyond Maria Naparra's house. In that house is the neighborhood's only telephone. That's why they call it the telephone house. The maid meets them at the door, and when she hears what happened, she immediately calls Doctor Ebaristo. When Maite and Tomaxito get back to their house, they see Doctor Ebaristo's coffee-and-cream colored car there.

"He's had a big bump," the doctor says.

He checks Uncle Florentino's wrist for a pulse, makes sure his heart is beating properly, bandages the bump on his head and holds a bottle of smelling salts under his nose. Uncle Florentino opens his eyes and looks around, perplexed.

"Where am I?" he asks.

"You fell, Uncle, and lost consciousness," says Teresa. "We'll carry you to bed now."

"I can get to bed myself!" says Uncle Florentino, but when he starts to go up the stairs, Teresa has to help him; the poor man's head is spinning.

The doctor takes a prescription pad out of his little black bag and, after scribbling on a paper, tells Teresa, "If he has a bad headache, give him one of these every six hours. And he should stay in bed for at least forty-eight hours..."

The bandage the doctor put on Uncle Florentino's head looks like a turban, and when he sees himself in the mirror in the entryway, he bows and says, "Allah is great, Allah is the one and only God, and Muhammad is Allah's prophet!"

"What are you saying, Uncle?" Teresa is startled.

"Uncle Florentino!" says Tomaxito. He's worried and doesn't know what's going on.

"Uncle Florentino? Don't call me that anymore! I am not Uncle Florentino, I am Uncle Bin Floren, best friend of the famous Baghdad storyteller, Abu Nuwas."

Harun ar-Rashid

Teresa is very worried about Uncle Florentino.

"The poor man's head hasn't been right ever since he fell," she says to her husband when he comes home at midday. "I don't know what to do. When he sees the bandages on his head, he thinks he's a Baghdad storyteller or some such, and he's wandering around all confused. He told the kids to call him Uncle Bin Floren. I just don't know what to do."

"Don't worry, Teresa. He's had a big blow to the head and he's not himself yet. Give him time and you'll see. He'll get over it."

"Get over it? I don't know, I just don't know..."

When Tomas leaves after lunch, Teresa finds Uncle Florentino sitting on his bed, calm among the pillows. He is telling Tomaxito that he is a very good friend of Abu Nuwas and Harun ar-Rashid.

"Go on, get out of here, your uncle has to rest now," Teresa says to Tomaxito. "After he's had some lunch you can come and look after him."

"That's too long, Mom!" complains Tomaxito.

"Go on, get out of here, love. Let your uncle rest."

Š Jesus Mari Olaizola Txiliku, Osaba Bin Floren, Elkar, 2004.

Š Translation: Kristin Addis.