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Euskal Idazleen Elkartea

Iñaki Mendizabal Elordi > Extracts

Narrative (short story and novel)

WHALERS AND CORSAIRS Basque Odyssey in the North Atlantic | Elea

Pasaia1. In the year of Our Lord 1713. Early spring.

I am old and ungainly now. Woodworm has eaten away at my bones and the wind has caused my sails to wrinkle and sag. I am old and feeble, and that is why I have been beached on this tiny, distant shore, far away from the quay’s flickering lights. But it has not always been like this. There was a time when I crossed the deepest oceans stalking long-fanged sea monsters, following the giants that surrendered before our sharp harpoons, without allowing enemy vessels any peace in the struggle alongside Basque corsairs, hordes of bloodthirsty pirates that lived as heroes and died as men.
What I loved at that time was to feel my prow slice the waves, sense the water constantly caressing my keel below, hear the whispering of my sails caused by the icy Arctic wind. It was then that I felt free and powerful. More than anything I loved to sail bearing the whims of the wind in mind and also to feel the tingling of dozens of men who lived inside me. It was a complete sensation, because danger had the upper hand throughout the minutes, hours and days that the crossing took. They were times of eternal weariness and suffering, feuds and vengeance; unimaginable cruelty prevailed and brother fought against brother. I experienced all those days of anguish and glory, but today all I can do is bring everything to mind with deep sadness, just like those who relive the most deeply-rooted of their memories of youth, or in the way the old corsair sees his sons on their way to Newfoundland, to the place where he left his best years, wishes and dreams.
Now, lying on my side and virtually broken up, I am drowning in my watery eyes, in the eyes that miss the smarting of the seawater and the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean; my pupils have seen truly terrible things. Now, broken and softened by inactivity I content myself with watching the fleet, which is much smaller than those in the past, setting sail from Pasaia; a small fleet crewed by 240 brave men who are ready, just as we were until not long ago, to face the dangers and misfortunes that could soon befall them on their way to Novaya Zemlya.
To remember those times that I endured in my flesh and bones (perhaps it would be better to say “timbers”) I have to go back a century and a half, because that was when I was aroused from deep sleep by a pretty woman shouting “Lookout, Lookout”. The moment the shouts were heard, the town’s bells tolled to summon its people to get ready, and a dark, thick column of smoke rose up there in the distance, even though at that time I did not yet understand the significance of all those things. When the young messenger passed, men ran off in the direction of their homes shouting “Whales, Whales”. All the town’s children laughed in the wake behind the men heading for the quay bearing huge spears attached to ropes. What I could hear was joy, yet what the cracked, rugged faces of those sailors reflected was not an expression of happiness. On the contrary, their faces reflected the great internal tension they were harbouring as they got into some small skiffs awaiting them by the quay. The lookout had sounded the alarm and all the able-bodied men went out to sea, driven by the beating of an ancient, wooden musical instrument. But who was this fearsome enemy? Who had dared to break the peace of those hard, brave men? Before long I learnt that it was not an enemy or adversary, but a struggle that had to be engaged in. The struggle year after year between the biggest creature nature had produced and men, the repetition of the fierce contest the beginnings of which nobody knew. The Basques (because that was the name by which the strong men who live in these parts are known) had been catching whales for three centuries and they were so skilled in their work that men from many other countries engaged their services for fishing and for their Royal Navies, too. They were men who were as tough as nails to the very core, used to fights and rough seas, lovers of life but at the same time married to death out of necessity.
The only thing I saw that day were four boats and another vessel called a pinnace towing a huge bundle into port as if it were a giant buoy. Yet I could hear many things; I could hear the shouts of joy on the quay made by the people armed with baskets, barrels and all kinds of sharp tools. It was autumn, my first autumn, and I became aware of my destiny in what was going on during those magical days.

1A port in Gipuzkoa not far from Donostia-San Sebastian.
2011 Euskal Idazleen Elkartea
Zemoria kalea 25 · 20013 Donostia (Gipuzkoa)
Tel.: 943 27 69 99 - Fax.: 943 27 72 88

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