Inazio Mujika Iraola

Like the Waters Release their Dead
Extract from the short-story Like The Waters Release Their Dead. Translated from Basque by Kristin Addis, in An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, Center for Basque Studies, Reno, 2004.
I arrived at Austerlitz at dusk and, unable to drive the summer stench from my nostrils, headed into the city walking along the left bank of the Seine. I took the Boulevard Saint-Michel up to the Latin Quarter, setting my bags on the ground from time to time to give my hands a rest and let go of the handles for a bit before setting out along the river again. I had the address written on a piece of paper and I saw the blue sign on a wall, Rue Mouffetard. That was it. I checked the number and without further ado, rang the bell at the boarding house. A woman about my age opened the door for me, turning the deadbolt three or four times. I asked if there were rooms available. She told me to enter and made me sit in the entrance, pushing me into my seat with her hand on my shoulder. I waited for her there while she went somewhere looking for the registration forms.

There were cats milling around on the chairs and tabletops. They were old cats, many of them mangy. Black cats, cats that had once been black, calico cats, butterscotch cats. I counted about half a dozen. They approached my chair, but were spooked away as soon as I made the slightest gesture. There was a display case by the window, and inside, stuffed cats in a variety of postures, there forever, trapped and staring.

The woman returned with a scrap of old paper in her hands, but left me again to find a pen. Finally I started on the paperwork. The form hadnt been updated in years from what I could see, since the space for the date was marked 194_. I crossed off the four and wrote in a six on the yellowed page and, following that, a one.

We agreed on the price right away, and the woman picked up a key and took me to my room. She opened the door and I saw the furniture. It was old of course, but I was surprised to see that it was covered with newspapers. All except a rocking chair next to the bay window. The woman went in ahead of me and immediately started to remove the newspapers very carefully from the furniture. I told her I would do that myself. She ignored me. I raised my voice and told her to quit it, I wanted to be alone to relax, I had had a long journey. She didnt stop, however, until she had removed all the papers. She gathered them up and placed them on the small bottom shelf of the wardrobe without wrinkling or folding a single page.

I lay down on the bed. I was amazed that the woman hadnt read me the rules of the house, line by line, as was customary in other boarding houses, and I was grateful. Everything in the room was arranged around the bed, a double, with a night table next to it and an old lamp with a well-used and bent lampshade. Above the bed was a cross, and on the left-hand wall, obscured by dust and its own black paint, a gypsys face stared out of a picture. On the same wall, a sort of bay window and, in front of it, the rocking chair. A wardrobe for my clothes, a desk, and a straight chair.

My company had sent me first to Lyon, then to Paris, to visit our branch offices and write a report in which, with an eye to the future, I was to suggest any changes that would be worth implementing at home, clearly and completely, as my boss had repeated several times. Since I had much to report on my Lyon experience, many notes and such, I had to start organizing my thoughts, so I asked the woman if the sound of my typewriter might bother her, but she told me to go ahead and not to worry about it.

I didnt eat dinner. On the train I had had a sandwich and a Coke, and the cold drink or the gummy bread, one or the other, wasnt sitting right with me. The next day, I got up early, and found that the reception room with the stuffed cats had become the breakfast room. There were four bowls laid out in a row and two men eating breakfast sitting on tall-backed chairs. The woman greeted me politely, and pointed out my bowl. As soon as I sat down, she picked up a yellow card from in front of my bowl on which the number 6 had been drawn. The number of my room. Beside me I had a one-armed bald man. He must have lost his arm quite a while ago I thought, since he handled his silverware with ease. Before five minutes had passed, he introduced himself. Gérard. Ancien combattant. I smiled vaguely at him, but he didnt seem to understand my smile. Et vous?

I said I was a traveling salesman, thinking that would be enough. But before breakfast was over, I was obliged to give more details. I dont remember now what I said. I fed him one lie after another, as fast as I could cook them up.

I left the boarding house and decided I would spend the day walking around, on the pretext of having to buy paper. I didnt have to visit the company until the next day. I ate lunch out as well and, after having a mint tea, I returned to the boarding house, my clean white pages under my arm. I started to work and spent an hour on a single blank page, trying unsuccessfully to figure out how to begin the report that would contain all the details on Lyon. I had started writing when the woman suddenly entered the room, carrying a drinking glass full of water in her left hand and a black bag in her right hand. She didnt say anything except to excuse herself. She sat down in the armchair, turning sideways to the light slanting in.

Keep working and dont mind me, she said when she realized I had stopped and was staring at her. She set the glass on the windowsill, took out her false teeth and dropped them in. Although until then I had been staring at her, now, embarrassed for her, I looked down at my page.

Im more comfortable like this.
She took out her glasses then from her black bag, and taking out a skein of yarn and knitting needles from a plastic pouch, began to knit, completely at ease.
This is my little corner.

I stared at her in disbelief, but didnt have the nerve to throw her out. Finally, unable to forget she was there, I resigned myself to her presence and went back to my report. I kept looking at her out of the corner of my eye, sitting there knitting in the rocking chair. She didnt say a word. She just knit. I started to write something though I was completely distracted and couldnt concentrate on what I was doing.

An hour passed and she left as she had come, gathering everything up and saying see you tomorrow.
To tell the truth, my agitation was more than just a passing irritation. The next day if she came, I would tell her once and for all that she couldnt be there and, if she refused, I would change rooms or leave the boarding house altogether. But she came the next day, appearing before me at the same time as the day before, saying back to my little corner, knitting materials in one hand and glass for her false teeth in the other. The same thing happened the next day as well, and still I couldnt get up the nerve to say anything. She sat in my room as the clock in the hall struck four and stayed until she heard the five oclock bells.

Finally I became accustomed to working in her presence. I worked on my report, she worked on her sweater, dark blue. Sometimes she worked on mens undergarments or darned the heels of socks.

In that same week and while the woman was there, one of the cats came into my room. It walked around and around from one side to the other, inspecting the room and all the furniture. Even insurance inspectors dont examine things so closely, I thought. The cat came all the way over near my leg and tentatively passed its tail over my shoes. Finally, when I didnt yell at it or frighten it away, it began to play at my feet. Tiring, it stretched out under the table, then woke up again and jumped up onto my desk. At this, I did start to object. But the woman got in ahead of me. Kitty! she called. Cant you see youre bothering the man? The cat jumped down and slunk through the door. Hes very playful, she said, shaking her head with a superficial smile. Je suis désolée.

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