ZABALETA, Patxi:
Ukoreka

Kexuri

Beņat was about thirteen years old when they took him to the Kexuri farmhouse in Guntza. He was a lean and lanky kid, with an unruly mane of black hair that covered his forehead and fell over both ears. His lively eyes always smiled through his hair.

They took him out of a children's home in Guipuzcoa and took him to a farmhouse in that small town in Navarre to live with the farmer's family. Forever. The town was called Guntza and the farmhouse, Kexuri. They went as far as Guntza on the bus, Erramun and Beņat. Erramun was his stepfather and the owner of Kexuri.

"Call me Father from now on," he told him once the two of them had sat down on the bus.

"Yes," answered the boy.

They didn't talk much. It was the first time Beņat had been on a bus and he was looking all around. It seemed to him that everything, the trees alongside, the walls, the brambles, all went by quick as a flash. But no one else was afraid. He looked at the other passengers and, seeing that no one was afraid, decided that there was nothing to be afraid of.

Beņat had large, strong hands for a boy his age, his fingernails were dirty and he showed signs of a budding mustache. His teeth were good, but he had a few cavities already. When he spoke, however, he couldn't pronounce his "r"s, and this made him sound childish. But he was tall, almost as tall as Erramun, and slim. He seemed to be drowning in his clothes. He wore a three-quarter-length coat that was too big for him and whose hem was coming apart. It was easy to see that it was neither new nor made to his size. His white shirt rode up on his neck and down on his wrists. A pair of blue pants of a coarse knit and leather sandals. Heavy woolen socks pulled up over the legs of the pants and held tight with the straps of the sandals.

It was the first time he had left the children's home and the first time they had ever given him such clothes. Everything was brand new to Beņat, and he couldn't stop smiling.

"Don't look out the window, you'll get carsick," Erramun told him. "Look around inside and think about something else."

"Yes, Father," and for the first time, he called him Father.

Erramun looked at him, but said nothing. They were sitting together on the bus, the boy next to the window, and each held his bundle on his lap. That one sack was everything Beņat had brought from the children's home.

"Gather up your things!" Brother Martin had told him. "You won't be coming back."

Beņat realized that he had nothing to gather. His were the trees, the cat, the dog named Zizto that sat by the door, and things like that. What else did he have? They even ordered him to take off the smock he was wearing and to look for a piece of material to wrap up his bundle. What would he put in it? He went out to the garden and picked up some dead leaves and a small round stone. He had known the stone all his life and it would give his bundle a bit more weight. He also took a stick of hawthorn on which to tie his bundle to carry it on his shoulder.

That day Erramun was wearing exactly the same clothes he had worn when he had gone with his wife to meet Beņat. He wore a cloak with a hood that lay on his back over a buttoned white shirt. Striped grey pants and, done up along his calf, tall leather boots that showed when he sat down. A black cloth belt.

The week before, Erramun and his wife, Maria, had gone to the children's home to meet Beņat. Erramun had looked at the boy's arms and hands; Beņat noticed that he was also looking at his legs. Maria smiled, then wept. Erramun was a lean man, but his wife was fat, with legs as swollen as wineskins. They talked with Brother Martin from the children's home, who told them that they should take the boy as soon as possible to make room for someone else. But also that Beņat should start becoming part of the family. Then Brother Martin had looked at Beņat and added, "and besides, he's getting too big to stay shut up in here forever."

Brother Martin had just caught Beņat and two other boys up on the garden wall looking out at the street, for which they should have been severely punished but, since Erramun and Maria were coming the next day, nothing had happened to them. A smack on the head as they got down from the wall, but that was all.

Until he went with Erramun, Beņat had never left the children?s home, not even once. He had spent his entire life inside it, ever since he had been left on the doorstep like the rest of the children. And he hated all those walls, that food, those people. All but one boy or two, Tomas, Lalo... and Brother Martin, and the other workers...

A smock was his only article of clothing. And the bunk where he slept was dried grass and corn husks piled between two logs, blankets on top. In the long winter nights the boys sought refuge in each other's body heat.

But there was also a stable at the children's home with lots of cows, chickens, ducks, guinea pigs and pigs. How many? And as the bus went along, Beņat started to count the cows and pigs in the stable one by one. He remembered all of them. He remembered when he learned to work in the stable and later the pranks he and Tomas had played there and he started to laugh.

"What are you laughing at?" Erramun asked him, reminding him that he was on the bus.

"Things from the children's home. I want to keep them in my mind. I like to learn things and remember them."

The boy said this because it was true, but also because he wanted to show that he was listening to his stepfather, wanted to make him happy. He wanted him to know that the boy he had taken with him was eager to learn. But Erramun replied harshly: "Sometimes it's better to forget things... We already told you there?s another boy at home, right?"

Beņat had never heard that. On the contrary, what they had told him was that the children they had kept dying one after the other and that they needed a replacement and that's why they had gone to the children's home. Also, Maria had said that it had been a priest who had helped them look for a children's home in Guipuzcoa so that the child would know Basque, since in the homes in Pamplona they taught only Spanish. Another boy. Anyway, that wasn't so bad since Beņat had always gotten along well with other kids.

"I hadn't heard that," answered Beņat.

"Older than you, about two years older, he's fifteen. He's a good boy..."

It wasn't simple for Erramun to make this necessary confession, but he had to keep going and confess all. While he was thinking about how best to do this, Beņat surprised him. "He knows how to read and write, doesn't he? What's his name?"

"His name is Kote, Kote Mandazen. Our last name is Mandazen. It will be yours too from now on. But he's not like other boys. Kote is crippled."

Erramun didn't see Beņat's dark and anxious face. Cripples made him more afraid than sorry. He had never seen a cripple before, so was curious but also a little afraid. But Erramun was looking away. Soon he would overcome his flash of shame and it didn't look like anyone around them had heard anything.

"Crippled?" Beņat raised his voice.

"Shhh! Quiet!" was Erramun's only answer. Beņat couldn't see his face since he was still looking away. So he decided to keep looking out the window, carefully remembering the things he had left behind. He remembered Brother Martin and the other monks, seven all together. And the places: the stable, the garden, the classroom and the church. And the library, his hiding place, where they had never found him. And he had spent whole afternoons there. The priest, always angry, always scolding him. The cook, fat Fermin, always at the stove, who then got thinner and thinner and died, according to what they had said in Mass. The four nuns who worked in the kitchen, and Mikaela, who brought the milk, and their crazy neighbor, Karlos. He remembered them all one by one and started trying to recall their clothes.

The three-quarter-length coat was made of leather and it had pockets, at least five of them. He started to put his hands in them, one by one. The bus braked suddenly and someone let out a cry.

"What are you doing, fidgeting like that?" asked Erramun.

"I'm looking through the pockets in my coat. It's the first time I've worn it."

"Yeah, so I see. But sit still here."

In the chest pocket there was a picture. Of a priest. A dog or a wolf at his side. And Beņat read the words below the picture: "Saint Fran-cis - of - A-ssi-si."

"So you can read?" Erramun asked him. Now he had turned around to look at him.

"Yes. They taught us. It isn't easy in the bus though."

"You'll have to teach Kote as much as you can. The poor boy can't go to school."

"Yes, of course. We'll be like brothers..." repeating what he had been told at the Fraisoro children's home.

He kept looking at the picture. He put it back in the first pocket. And he noticed that there was another pocket on the inside of his coat, with something in it. Five gold coins, by God! It couldn't be a coincidence. He realized that someone must have put them there on purpose. It could only have been Brother Martin. But he was never going to see him again and suddenly he was very sad; his throat was tight and his cheeks were wet. A chill made him tremble, a shiver.

"Erramun, Father, I have five coins here. They look like gold."

"Shhh!" The stepfather put his hand over the coins the boy was showing him, to hide them. In a low voice he said: "They're coins. Gold coins. Who gave them to you?"

"Somebody put them here, in my inside pocket. Brother Martin gave me these clothes, it must have been him. Who else could it have been?"

"Quiet, don't tell anyone anything about this. Gold coins. It will it be better if I keep them so you don?t lose them." He took them and wrapped them up in a handkerchief he took from his belt, together with the other coins he was carrying.

"Are they worth a lot?"

"Quiet! Quiet! Look and see if there's anything in the other pockets."

There was nothing in the other pockets of the coat. But the money had made Erramun nervous too. Beņat saw that money worried all adults.





Š Zabaleta, Patxi. Ukoreka. Txalaparta, Tafalla 1994.