Bilbao rose to meet them, swathed in stagnant drizzle. At the door to the train station, the old woman opened her umbrella and stepped outside, with the girl walking snug against her body. The damp fog blurred the outlines of the city. Objects appeared menacingly distant, and the people seemed to be walking an inch off the ground. The old woman tied her black kerchief under her chin without dropping the basket hung over her arm. She was dressed in an old village woman’s prim mourning clothes, and her breath rasped tortuously in and out of her nostrils. Her mouth remained closed behind the stiff seam of her blue lips.
They stopped at the edge of the building. The policeman came over, and the girl looked up at her grandmother, who pressed her lips together so tightly that they turned pale. The man scrutinized their provincial dress and asked what they were there for. The girl glanced over at the old woman, who seemed wrought from stone.
“The prison,” she whispered.
The guard examined the old woman with curiosity. Then he looked around, lowered his voice, and repeated his question, this time in Euskera. The old woman’s lips didn’t budge.
“Is she deaf?” the guard asked.
The girl answered him in Castilian:
“They said if they hear her speaking Euskera, it will be worse for her son. That’s all she knows.”
The guard pointed them toward a street leading up a hill. He stood still at the base of it, watching them sink in the lustrous murk. As she ascended, the old woman’s breathing grew labored, but she didn’t allow herself a single pause. Trucks rumbled back and forth, as though mobilized for war. The sidewalk was so narrow that only one umbrella could fit, and the old woman pushed the passersby aside as she carried onward. The labor of her grandmother’s lungs roared in the girl’s ear. At the summit, the old woman’s breathing relaxed, but she didn’t stop or open her mouth.
They found the prison easily. It was visible in the drenched distance, sagging as if made of cardboard, with the unmistakably taciturn air common to places of confinement. The girl turned back to her grandmother, whose lips were once more sealed and blanching, just as when she’d had to face the guard.
The girl was twelve, but she moved with the solemnity of an adult. She was slender, with sad eyes too old for her years and she could hardly remember a time before the war. Like her grandmother, she was dressed from head to toe in mourning. If she looked at her grandmother so often, it was to remind herself she shouldn’t cry.
They were stopped at the gate that led through the outer wall. An officer in a tricorne hat with a pencil mustache came to face them, his hand in his gun belt.
“What do you want?”
The old woman kept looking straight ahead, but she could no longer see the building. The officer repeated his question. A grin tugged at his mustache and he stepped back to the guard shack with his colleagues.
“I’m in no hurry,” he smiled. “My shift doesn’t end till six.”
The other guards looked out. The old woman tightened her grip on the umbrella. The pressure made her lips begin to throb. It seemed the rain was falling for them alone while they stood there on the pea gravel in the entryway. Then the girl started digging through her grandmother’s basket. The old woman helped, her hands were shaking, but the girl knew she wasn’t afraid. She emerged from beneath the umbrella with a crisp sheet of paper in her hands. By the time she passed it to the official, it was soft from the falling water.
The official smiled wider when he encountered the bishop’s seal. He walked back over to the woman, his beady eyes half-closed.
“He’s your son then?” he asked.
The old woman felt the girl’s eyes on her face and didn’t move a muscle. The official waved the sheet of paper in front of her.
“So she’s blind as well as deaf,” he added.
The guards peeped out once more. Their bodies still exuded war.
“Say something,” the official ordered the old woman. He put the paper in his pocket and crossed his arms. The girl tugged at his field jacket to get his attention, and the official saw her bitter face.
“You know she doesn’t understand, sir,” the girl said. “She only speaks our language.”
She pinned the man in her gaze until he was obliged to answer.
“Then she shouldn’t leave the house.”
“She hasn’t seen Father for a year,” the girl said.
From the squalor of the wartime prison, the official contemplated the two of them. Irritated, he felt his firmness slip away. Incapable of taking his eyes from the girl, he handed the paper back, then turned aside, indicating the way with a wave of his hand.
They crossed a desolate courtyard. In one corner, three men with liver-brown scabs hanging from their lips were washing out the cab of a truck with a hose. A guard with a fleecy blond beard came to meet them in the doorway. The girl passed him the paper in her hand. He read it meticulously, then looked back up at the two women, as if momentarily oblivious of their presence. Without a word, he turned and disappeared down a dark hall. The girl wondered why he didn’t do something about the heavy pistol that smacked rhythmically against his thigh. A gust of wind blew in from the left and the old woman turned up the collar of her granddaughter’s coat with the same hand that had been carrying the basket. She would never forget her grandmother’s mouth, how it seemed welded shut, or the serene expression on her rough-hewn features, which had ceased to struggle against her yearning to speak. It was clear from her eyes, with their unfathomable restraint, that she would not forget the message she had for the girl’s father, or the lone request she would make of their adversary.
The guard returned, following a fat man with a sleepy face, who stopped ten feet away from them and spoke.
“No one can visit the prisoners condemned to death.”
His voice cracked, as if he’d told a joke. The two women didn’t move from the doorway.
“It’s the rules,” he said, taking shelter behind those words.
The man with the blond beard pressed his finger into the paper, pointing out something that was written there. The fat man took a pair of spectacles from the pocket of his field jacket and rested them on his face. When the weight of those words grew clear to him, he grunted. “They should keep those friars locked up in the sacristy.”
He reached into the old woman’s basket and took out a package.
“Bread, chorizo, and tortillas for Father,” the girl said.
The guard handed the package to the girl.
“Put it in that bucket over there.”
The girl laid it carefully in the bottom of a bucket sitting on the floor. The guard led them through a room with two rows of fencing on either side that formed a kind of corridor. Locks clanked in the bowels of the building while grandmother and granddaughter waited. With one last gnash of iron, a door opened on the other side of the barrier and a small, unrecognizable figure appeared. The old woman pressed her face against the mesh and tightened her lips to keep from betraying the promise she’d made to herself.
The girl reached her fingers through the wire. She stared, trying to see if he was really her father. Her language, the language of her hearth, nearly escaped her lips, but she caught herself, remembering the guard who watched over them from two paces away.
“Are you all right, Father?” she asked in Castilian. The man was unable to speak. She saw he couldn’t quite believe that they were there.
The man’s arms hung at his side. Even when he began to talk, they didn’t move.
“Yes. Yes. I’m fine. And at home?”
The grandmother’s face drank in those words of her son that she couldn’t understand. She relaxed her lips, leaving them to quiver.
“Everyone’s fine,” the girl said.
The man looked at his mother.
A breath of emotion slid out from her barely open mouth.
“Hey,” the guard said. “I don’t want to hear any of that goddamned Basque.”
He was wearing the same beret and the same hunting tabard he’d had on when they locked him up three years back, along with half of the Northern Army. Prison had reduced him to half his former size. The sound of the guard’s footsteps on his nightly rounds through the cellblock, calling out the names of the twenty-four men condemned to die, had turned his hair white.
“How many cows do you have in the stable?”
“Just three,” the girl said. “It was five when you—”
“Are they healthy?”
Then he asked why her grandfather hadn’t come.
“He couldn’t take seeing you here.”
There was no need for him to look over at his mother. From where he stood, he’d been able to see both of them as soon as he’d come in.
The old woman pushed harder against the fence.
“Pray for her,” the man said. The girl knew he meant her mother, murdered in Gernika three years back.
“Yes,” she answered.
The man couldn’t still his labored breathing.
“Are you still keeping the seeds by the side of the road?”
“Yes,” the girl said.
“If you can’t take care of the three cows, get rid of another one.”
“Grandmother says to tell you that when you were eleven and she slapped your face, it wasn’t to punish you for anything, it was just that she had burned the stew and she was in a bad mood, and she hopes you forgive her.”
The girl could feel her father’s tremors.
In a sudden fit of spite, the guard spoke up.
“Time’s over. Say your good-byes.”
The buttons of her father’s tabard clicked against the fence.
The girl didn’t dare to turn from him, afraid to bring things to a close. Beneath her grandmother’s blue gaze, she took three steps toward the guard.
“She asked if she could say one word in Euskera.”
“It’s against the rules.”
“It’s the last thing she’ll be able to say to him in this world.”
“It’s not possible.”
“Just one word.”
The guard hesitated.
“Just one,” he said.
The girl walked back to her grandmother’s side and looked up at her, nodding her head.
The old woman gathered herself. She picked up the basket for her walk back to the village and waited for her breathing to settle. She concentrated with all her heart. Before letting the word loose, she suffused it with thirty-seven years of life at her son’s side, from one day to the next, from his birth up to his imprisonment in that cage for wild beasts. Knowing he would hear it, she saw that not even another death would let her enemies destroy her world. With her eyes, she embraced her son’s new, gaunt face, to seal it fast in memory, and she felt the iron in her breast as she spoke one final word:
© Ramiro Pinilla. From Primeras Historias de la Guerra Interminable. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2016 by Adrian Nathan West. All rights reserved.