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Euskal Idazleen Elkartea

Jon Arretxe Perez > Extracts

Narrative (short story and novel)

2000 Seven Colours | Elkar

SAND AND GRASS

When evening prayers were over old Ali sat down on the sand and all the rest of us including Ahmed, the guardian of the oasis, and myself, did likewise and we all formed a circle. Except for us two, they were all truck drivers who, frightened of the isolation and the spirits of the desert, sought protection in that remote Saharan oasis in order to pass the night.

They lit a fire and put the water on to boil for the couscous we would be having for dinner. The final rays of the sun, which had just slipped behind the dunes, gradually disappeared from the sky and immediately it became dark.

Ali then produced a teapot from amongst his things, took water and tea leaves and put the teapot on to heat on the edge of the small fire in an atmosphere of silence that no one wanted to break.

"One day," said one of the truck drivers finally venturing to speak, "when I've saved up enough money I'm going to give up this tiring life, look for a good fiancée and start a family in the city. If Allah so wills."

Silence ensued once again and we all stared into the fire for a while. It wasn't until a few minutes later that another voice was heard.

"One day," said the one who appeared to be the youngest amongst us, "I, too, am going to give up this way of life. But I won't be staying in this country; I'll be going far away from here to Europe. I've been told they don't have shortages there like we do here, you can earn a lot of money by working just a little, and apart from that it is much easier to find a wife there than in Africa."

After that all those men one by one calmly and hopefully expressed their aims and wishes. Nearly all the truck drivers had spoken; but there was one who had not: Ali. We waited for him to speak.

Following the steps of the ceremony which time had instilled in him, the old man then removed the teapot from the fire and poured its contents into a glass containing sugar; he then poured the liquid from the glass into the teapot, and from the teapot into the glass. and in the meantime began to speak: "All my life I've been putting vast amounts of money into the large hole of this old teapot little by little," he said, "and at the same time it has poured out of the small hole on its side little by little. Something similar happened to my hopes and plans. Nevertheless," he added finally, "I can say that I've been happy in the place where I have been destined to live."

No one said any more. We drank the first cupful; and a second and third one, too, and as we tasted the tea we thought about Ali's words.

When the couscous was ready it was shared out among everyone. We dined in silence and when we had finished each one went his way to bed; most went to their trucks, while Ahmed and I made our way to the only building in the oasis, to the shack made of four mud walls and a roof from a damaged bus.

When we reached the front of the small door I bent my head to go inside, but Ahmed unexpectedly seized me by the arm and indicated that I should follow him.

"Come this way, I've got something to show you," he whispered.

He led me to the back of the shack near the well. There he removed a sheet of plastic from a small enclosure bounded by a reed fence and said, "Look", he said in a voice full of hope.

That tiny plot of land hidden from view had obviously been dug and watered and the tips of grass that had been sown had begun to show their heads.

"I didn't say anything in front of the people earlier on," said the timid youth who had dedicated weeks, months and years in the solitude of that lost corner, "but one day there will be a fertile vegetable garden here, small at first and later bigger: it will produce beautiful vegetables with the water of the oasis and with Allah's help, I will harvest and sell them and with the money I make, I, too."


SILK CARESS

The numerous adornments the young woman was wearing made her look wonderful. The rings on her toes, the sparkling anklets and bracelets, the earrings, the nose stud, the red spot on her forehead, the colourful sari. brightness stuck to her slim image. Yet there was darkness, resignation and frustration on her countenance.

As I went inside the little tea house located on one side of the Gangotri road in search of somewhere to shelter from the rain, the barman and customers, all men, warmly welcomed me but the young woman didn't even look at me. Alone in a corner with her head bowed she sat apart from all the rest.

An old widow I met in Rishikesh once said to me in a whisper for fear that someone nearby might hear her: "We Indian women have neither voice nor opinions, all our lives we have to be at the orders of the husband destined for us, with no initiative to do anything and no hope of changing or improving anything."

As I sat a little way from the group of men who were engaged in a happy conversation at the counter and sipped the contents of my teacup now and then I tried to imagine the way of life of that silent woman in the corner. I wondered what she did every day. Did she perhaps gather grass in the wood like the other girls and women I had seen along the way? Did she clean her house and look after her children? Did she satisfy her husband's desires? Did he hit her? Was she happy? What was her aim in life? What did she get to keep up her spirits? Perhaps a better afterlife?

Numerous questions that most likely had painful answers. I felt sorry for that woman's resigned gestures and it occurred to me that in most parts of the world most women lived in similar circumstances. Then I felt a tremendous desire to offer her some kind of consolation, speak to her, even to see the expression on her face and in my thoughts I asked her to look up and smile at me.

But the occasion did not present itself. Shortly afterwards a bus stopped outside the tea house, an ancient one full of pilgrims and luggage on its way to the holy source of the River Ganga. The group engaged in the conversation next to the counter disappeared immediately and one of the men, changing the friendly expression on his face, rudely shouted at the young woman in the dark corner. She got up and obeying the order of the man who was presumably her husband, made her way out.

As she walked the short distance across the tea house she did not dare take her eyes off the floor: she didn't say a word, either, and in those few seconds my ears heard only one thing which was the tinkling sound produced by the trembling of the rattles of her silver anklets.

Yet I was unable to notice any voice, gesture or smile from the woman and in the absence of anything else I had to be content with the caress she made with the smooth silk of her sari as she walked past me: that humble caress which sent shivers down my spine and gave me goose pimples.

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