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from the August 2009 issue

From “Iberia”

There are those who think that Mundaca is the most beautiful town on the Biscayan coast. In mid-autumn, on stormy days, the wind has stripped the trees naked. Summer homes seemed abandoned, but the charm of the town, with its tiny port, narrow as a well, its large, gray church by the ria, its attractive marine landscape in grays, greens and autumn blues, had a quality that was not altered by the worsening rain, or the desolate appearance of its gardens. A group of children played among the colonnades of the town hall. They had just been dismissed from school. It was lunchtime. You could contemplate the view of the ria from the Mundacan Brotherhood's restaurant while the wind hurled fistfuls of water against the windows. The restaurant was known locally as The Casino, but I like the faith in humankind that its official name connotes. The radiators were warm. The banging of pots and pans came from the kitchen. Not a thing was lacking: neither in ambience nor in spirit. You could recite an homage to the quality of the menu and its price: for starters a thick, piping-hot fish soup, with handfuls of baby clams, shrimp and monkfish tail; followed by fresh anchovies in garlic sauce, since anchovy season was ending; fruit for dessert; and coffee, a cordial, and a cigar, as though at a wedding feast. And to further the sensation of well-being, I received a second cordial on the house when I ordered my second coffee.

With no melancholy, but admittedly some longing, the author of these lines gave himself over to memories, his drink in hand. I had been in Mundaca as a boy of seven, in the summer of 1956. It was a summer camp set up in a building in town called The Hospital, though we weren't sick kids, and we weren't especially unhappy, either. I hadn't returned to Mundaca since. The town looked cleaner, more picturesque and polished than I remembered. And more prosperous, too, as is the case all across Spain. The big trees in the plaza, facing the church, hadn't even been planted, or at least I don't recall them, but the size of their canopy gave some sense of the passage of time. After nearly a half-century, I retained only snippets of memory of that same view I now contemplated from the glass gallery of The Mundacan Brotherhood. The panorama was not entirely forgotten, but it wasn't recovered easily, either. The shifting tides formed a structural component of my memory of the landscape. It's important to note that the tides in Mundaca's ria are very powerful, exposing long swaths of sand. The rapid currents quickly turn this arm of the sea into a canal no more than twenty meters wide. Truth be told, it wasn't this view of the ria that interested me so much as a far more intense memory, crystallized like a prism of quartz, preserved like a fossil, transformed by the fullness of time into personal history. On a certain occasion that summer, the ria's tide encountered me, creating an intimate relationship between me and the tide. It's simple to recount. One afternoon, the undertow of the low tide swept the boy that I was far away, into the arms of fishermen in a boat who saved my life, in such a way that, were it not for their intervention, the author would be writing travel stories for fish. The sensation of danger is subjective, and can only be quantified by the extent of panic in the moment.

The adults in Mundaca say that from the beginning of time every child in Mundaca has experienced the pull of the water and has nearly drowned, and that every child has been saved at the last moment by some fisherman, as if it were a local custom. This is no consolation, nor does it reduce the feeling of retrospective anxiety or abate the terror of feeling oneself dragged along like a cork by a force so profound no metaphor, no matter how simple or powerful, can begin to describe it. It was like swimming in a bathtub being pulled along by a freight train. But it wasn't the environs that were threatening. Certain memories of danger twist your gut, just like some can trigger an asthma attack. The memory of being dragged out to sea had become a snapshot. The banks of the ria receded, or better said, they slid by at a constant speed, or so it seemed to the boy destined to drown, first a few dozen meters, twenty or thirty meters, then fifty meters, perhaps no more than a hundred, but from the water they seemed infinite, until the boy found himself being hoisted by the armpits into the bottom of a boat. I think I recall a Jesuit in a cassock waving his arms on the beach, but that image may have been added at a later date. It's impossible to know whether, once the panic subsided, the child lived those moments like one who was entering the adult world, abandoning childhood illusions and putting away his hobby horse before donning long pants for the first time. Something of the kind must have occurred that afternoon, because now I like to think that in Mundaca the sea presented me a rite of passage.

I wanted to see what had become of the building which had housed the summer camp. It wasn't hard to find. It was on the outskirts of town, next to Laidatxu Beach, a short, broad stretch of sand that is like a swimming pool at high tide. There was the bridge, squat and black, along the curve of the old highway. The sand had almost completely covered the pillars of its arches. Behind it, the railway bridge stood like a little aqueduct. Between the two a concrete bridge for the new highway, smooth as silk, had sprung up. The trees on the way out of town, on the Pedernales hill, had been felled. Where I had a vague memory of an orchard, an apartment block had appeared. But The Hospital was still there, two stories sandwiched between the garden and the beach. It had a new porch. They had restored the façade. Immediately I recalled the interior, the iron beds of the dormitories, the broad white floors that were cleaned with bleach, the long tables of the dining room, the bathrooms with their rusty water. I remembered breakfasts of milk flavored with chicory, served in porcelain cups so big your hands couldn't span their circumference. I think there was a chapel, too. The camp was run by Jesuits. One of them, perhaps the same one who bid my childhood goodbye, waving his arms on the beach, taught us a song in Basque which I can still recite the first verses of:

Pipa hartuta txoratzen naiz Ardoa edanda mozkortzen naiz. . . 1

And the hymn of the order:

Inazio. . . [. . . ] Jesusen Konpania. . .

That was all, or nearly all, I learned in the most venerable of European languages. But all these memories can be summed up in one allegory for the brevity of life. The building had been transformed into an old folk's home, giving the impression that the twenty or thirty children who summered there had all aged together.


1When I smoke a pipe I get dizzy. When I drink wine I get drunk. . .

Read more from the August 2009 issue
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