Joseba Sarrionandia

Three Extracts
Cover of 'kolosala izango da' by joseba sarrionandia (txalaparta publishing house)1
Scroll down to read extracts from three stories by Joseba Sarrionandia: Alone, The Ancient Mariner, and The Treasure Chest.

1. Alone
Alone (original Basque title Bakardadea published in the collection Han izanik hona naiz (Having Been There, Here I Am), Elkar, 1992.)

Translated from Basque by Linda White (from, An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, Center for Basque Studies, Reno, 2004).

She's alone in the world.

She loves getting letters, but when she looks in the mailbox it's always empty.

She decided to write to herself. She put the letter in an envelope and wrote her address on it twice, once as the recipient and once as the sender.

She went out for a walk down the empty streets and dropped the letter in a random city mailbox. She has been waiting ever since, for two or three days. Every morning she looks in her mailbox. The letter hasn't arrived.

She is truly alone in the world.

2. The Ancient Mariner
Originally published as Marinel Zaharra, in Narrazioak (Narrations), Elkar, 1983. Translated from Basque by Linda White (from, An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, Center for Basque Studies, Reno, 2004).
A cluster of old houses surrounded an ivy-covered church at the foot of a terrible cliff on the steep seaward slope. Narrow paths led down to the port. No railway served these smugglers' stores, and there was no road for cars. The smuggler had to travel on foot or by mule, and on my bosses' orders, I set out on foot as well.

Seagulls coming to shore is the sign of a storm, and they'd been flying over my head since I reached the coast. By the time I set eyes on the Cantabrian Sea, there was thunder overhead, looming dark over the mountains and the waves. At dusk I began to run along the empty pathways, slipping on the dirty stones. My bosses told me there would be a small, solitary inn facing the port, and inside I would find an old fisherman. My errand was with him.

I came into the town, down to the dock, and into the dark old inn with its glazed windows. I saw the man I wanted at a worn wooden table, sitting alone. Wrinkles and a white beard. No strangers must ever come in there because he recognized me at once and invited me to sit.

"They say a storm is coming," he said, peering into my eyes. "Did you see it from the hill?"
"Yes. I had to run all the way down," I replied.
"A black storm."

The bartender lit an oil lamp. Now the old man's dark eyes looked blue to me. There was surely a big storm coming. Mariners' wives were standing at their windows with worried faces. We could see them through the windows of the inn. Also visible was the murky, churning sea, and there was not a single fisherman on its dark and choppy surface.

The bartender brought gin for the old salt and red wine for me, both in heavy glasses. The mariner lifted his glass roughly.

"The sea's a cup, an avenger stirred up," he said.
Gin splashed on the table. I wondered if he was drunk, but something else glinted in his blue eyes.
I asked the bartender if he had a room available for the night, and he said yes. Today, at least, I knew I would have dry sheets.

As I wiped off the window with my neckerchief, the woman who'd appeared at hers left the house and went to the dock with a child in her arms.
There, more women had gathered. They conversed nervously. From the bar you could only hear a few isolated words.
"Afraid of turning into widows," said the old man, watching them.
The women, some holding babies, gazed out at the dark sea but saw nothing.

Our conversation drifted to life on the water, and we reminisced with deep sadness. We had both spent long periods at sea and got to know many ports. I didn't want to tell him the reason I'd come. The smuggling. I knew the old man hadn't been to sea for a long, long time.

In the city, a terrible story was being passed around. I didn't know if it was true or not, and I didn't mention it, but with each glass we drew nearer to the subject. The rain was falling gently against the window, the sound of it a background to the sailor's voice.

"There were three of us working, my brother, my son, and me. A white whale came close to shore and we got it in our heads to go after him. Not just to get the whale. We were betting on who was the best harpooner. We went out in the long-boat and overtook it easily because it was sick. It came to shore to die. We harpooned it, but it was a big whale, and he fought hard to get away. He thrashed about in the water, and it took us two hours to finish him off."

"We got a whale once, too, in the Irish Sea," I said, "but didn't have the room or the time to haul it in, so it stayed right where it was, like a small island on the water."
The old man continued, "We kept arguing over who had done more to kill the whale, since it took all three of us to do it.

Meanwhile, like you said, it was floating there like a smooth-surfaced island. And three seagulls circled over it, birds as eternal as the heavens, and they lit on top of the dead whale. One of us said, 'Look at the gulls. Now we'll see who's best with the harpoon.' Then each of us hurled a harpoon at a gull, and we were damn good. We hit them, and they plunged into the water in mid-screech. But mine was stuck on the harpoon. I pulled in the line, and my hands were soaked in its warm blood when I took it off the barb. I remember it well. I bent down and washed it off in the water, and by the time I looked up, one hell of a storm was breaking."

The voices of the women on the dock got louder. Some trawlers were returning from the sea. When they recognized a father, a husband, or a son, they shouted with joy. The rest of the women stood sadly staring into the distance. The woman with the child in her arms stood silently, gazing at the point where the waves formed.

The fisherman returned to his tale. "It was a terrible storm. Our long-boat broke up. That's when my brother died. He didn't even know how to swim. My son and I barely made it to the beach not far from here."

3. The Treasure Chest
Translated from Basque by Linda White (from, An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, Center for Basque Studies, Reno, 2004).
Once upon a time, far far away, there was an explorer who was hunting for treasure. He spent twenty years digging furiously with pick and shovel, looking for a treasure chest full of gold. Then he spent another twenty years doing the same thing with incredible perseverance, sweating buckets, but all in vain.

Instead of giving up, he went on for another twenty years digging holes, and at last, sparks flew when his pick struck the copper fittings of a treasure chest. He pulled the big, beautiful, tightly locked object out of the ground. It was no small task to break the lock.But when he managed to open the chest, there was nothing inside but ashes. And once he had emptied it, what did he do but die!

Since he'd never earned enough money in his life to buy a coffin or a mausoleum, they put him in that cramped chest all curled up, with his toes nearly in his mouth, and they buried him. It didn't make a bad wooden overcoat...

And there he remained, with no stone or marker, like all treasures that are hard to find.

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