A writer needs protection. Especially at the beginning. He wants to gain confidence, to hear from outside that he’s on the right track, hasn’t made the wrong decision at that last crossroads. A writer needs protection when he’s beginning. That’s why I asked my father’s opinion when I published my first column in the newspaper, to get his approval. Those columns were the first writing I ever published, back in far-off 1998. My beginnings. That first column was terrifically worked-over, the outcome of long hours of writing. In the effort to write as well as I could possibly write, it ended up being something more like a short short story. But I’ve realized since then that short stories are short stories and columns columns. Because columns have an essential characteristic that short stories don’t: extemporaneousness.
Dad’s was no run-of-the-mill response. I didn’t get his approval. On the contrary, he answered by way of a story. When he was a teenager, he said, there had been two priests in town. Each had his own, familiar way of preaching a sermon. One of them was colloquial, intimate, Don Manuel, people took in the things he had to say with ease. The style of the other priest, though, was tortuous. Nobody understood a thing he said. Dad was speaking of Don Jesus. He addressed his sermons to the rich people who sat in the front pews, taking no account of the people farther back. So, I was writing in the manner of that second priest, Dad said, in the style of Don Jesus, with a poker face.
I will always be thankful to my father for that honesty. On the one hand he revealed to me that what I’d written was way too literary for the pages of a newspaper. And, on the other, he didn’t give me a direct opinion, didn’t say “The column is good” or “It’s bad.” He clothed his argument in a story, making no direct evaluations. That’s what I liked best, I mean, that because of that story of his I saw everything more clearly. In fact, it’s stories that contain the shadings and details of reality. And it’s the details that are what’s most important in life.
It’s weird the way memory works, how we remember in our own way, turning what at one time was presumably reality into fiction. It works that way in families especially. To remember the people who came before us, their stories get told, and from those anecdotes we know what that person was like. Roles get assigned to us and people remember us according to those roles.
Of my mother’s grandmother, people say she was a very pious woman. Grandma Susana wore long skirts, and she even drank vinegar to make her face paler, as a mortification of her beauty. At Christmastime each year she’d set up a large nativity scene at her house. She used the whole parlour for it. She herself, by hand, made the wax figures for the scene, she made the shepherds and the sheep, she made the saints. She shaped mountains out of moss and there was even a little river, with real water.
The people in town had the custom of visiting our grandmother’s house, parents and children would go to see Susana’s display. As they left the house they’d drop a few coins in the little basket that had pictures of an acolyte on it.
That’s how Grandma Susana would make a bit of money. That and dressing up the saints in the church. Her special concern was the Mother of Sorrows. She laundered the clothing of the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Once an accident took place. In July of 1908 there was a disaster at sea. The town fishermen, terrified, gave a sum of money to the church, so that nothing of the kind would happen again. With that money they made a new mantle for the Mother of Sorrows. And Susana took the old mantle for herself and put it away in a trunk. Our grandma Anparo, her daughter, asked her what she needed that mantle for. “When I die, I want you to lay me out in this mantle.” Her daughter couldn’t believe it. It drove her crazy when Susana would take the old mantle from the trunk and hang it on the balcony, if there was a south wind. “The mantle’s got to be kept aired out, for the big day” was Susana’s regular response.
I heard of that terrible 1908 disaster from Aunt Maritxu, in fact, who told me of it when I went to visit her at her home up in Begoña. She said that her grandfather Canuto and uncle Ignacio had drowned right in the bay of Ondarroa, and that they never did find the bodies. The household had seen the boat going down from quite nearby, she told me, but were unable to do a thing. The family’s watching had made what was itself tragic all the more harrowing.
Maritxu hadn’t yet been born when the disaster took place. She too would have been told about what happened, at home growing up most probably. And she passed it on to me, too, just as she’d heard it, as if she’d lived through it close-up too.
But when I went to the justice of the peace for Canuto and Ignacio Badiola’s death certificates, I was dumbstruck. Marta had the papers waiting for me. The memoranda recording the first news of Canuto’s death were right there too. But one datum threw me. Grandfather Canuto and the rest of them didn’t die in the bay of Ondarroa, but instead way over off the coast of Santander.
I looked at contemporary news accounts later on and what turned up in them showed that the papers hadn’t been mistaken: the boats had gone down off the coast of Santander. The news accounts gave details, too, the wind had suddenly shifted to the northwest and the sailboats went down on the spot.
Twenty-eight souls died in all on that twelfth of July in 1908. From the San Marcos seven, from the San Jeronimo eight, from the Santa Margarita two, from the Jesus Maria & Jose three, from the Nuestra Señora de la Antigua three, from the Concepción four and from the San Ignacio only one.
They were able to get the sloop San Jeronimo to the surface, the steamer Joaquín de Bustamante was plying the waters there, searching, and that’s how they discovered her.
But how could Maritxu tell me the boat was lost in Ondarroa? Why the relocation?
The tragedy had been so huge that when they remembered it they even changed the place of death. They brought it nearer, from Santander to Ondarroa. Memory brought the bitterness closer.
It’s interesting to see how collective memory does its work. The case of the Berrozabal fountain in Elorrio is a demonstration of this. Down through the generations it’s been thought that the fountain depicted Incan motifs.
It was Manuel Berriozabalgoitia who caused the fountain to be built in the nineteenth century. After studying law he’d gone to Peru and thereabouts; he reached Cuzco in 1803. He met a Creole woman there: Maria. Dark-haired, with large eyes, themselves dark, sad, as if the burden of the world were too much for them. Maria was of a good family. One of the richest in Peru. Her parents didn’t want that unknown quantity Manuel Berriozabalgoitia in their house, this young lawyer just off the boat from Europe. Four years later the couple were married. The boy was smart, and prudent. In a few short years, he had multiplied Maria’s family’s holdings, to his father-in-law’s surprise and joy. It appeared that nothing was going to stand in their way. But all cloth has an underside. Rebels rose up in Quito. And then in Charcas and then in Potosí. Soon they would achieve independence from Spain. Manuel and his companions, all their holdings lost, found themselves obliged to return to Europe.
They say the Elorrio winters were too long for Maria. That she didn’t have someone to talk to, anyone to enjoy herself with. Her husband was intent on recovering his holdings and spent long stretches away from home, in Madrid. And Maria, when autumn was on its way, felt a deep affliction come over her heart and she dwelt in her memory on the sunny landscapes and noisy streets of Cuzco.
Maria changed. She was ever more silent. People saw her walking in the forests round about, all alone. Even at mealtimes husband and wife didn’t exchange a word.
That was when Manuel decided to build the fountain. That fountain would bring Cuzco before her, its light, the happy years he and Maria had spent there.
No sooner said than done. Miguel Elkoroberezibar drew up the design. They chose the area’s best stonecutters. They chose the stones with great care, chiselled them with great care, and with great care laid one stone on top of another.
So goes the story that people still tell in Elorrio.
I liked that story about the fountain. For one thing, I liked the part about exile. Manuel and Maria, one or the other would be in exile, whichever place they lived in. One or the other would at some time have the yearning to return to their birthplace. Despite knowing that time changes places and peoples. And I especially liked someone’s having done such a glorious thing to make their friend happy, having dared to make that final effort, to try to be again what they’d been before.
It’s said that fantasy is based on reality, but the law of the story is to tell only one part of the truth. That’s how it has to be. Otherwise it doesn’t work. And that’s how I learned that the story of the fountain had taken very little from real life.
Miguel Elkoroberezibar knew less than nothing about Peruvian art and based his design for the fountain on another school entirely: the neoclassical. Manuel Berriozabalgoitia’s plan wasn’t romantic at all. It was progress Manuel believed in, and he built the fountain to improve the living conditions of the neighborhood.
All the rest is people’s fantasy.
From Bilbao—New York—Bilbao, © 2008 by Kirmen Uribe. Translation © 2014 by Elizabeth Macklin. Used by permission of Coffee House Press, first U.S. edition, 2022. All rights reserved.