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Baby Xabier cried from his crib, and when Angeles didn’t stir,
Pascual Ansotegui touched a match to the oil lamp on the wall
and retrieved the newborn for his feeding.
“Kuttuna, it’s time,” he whispered, careful not to disturb their
sons sleeping in the next room. But within a moment, Pascual’s
scream shook Justo and little Josepe from their beds. In the smoky
lamplight, Pascual saw Angeles’s sheet-white face and a dark stain
on the bedding.
Justo and Josepe scrambled into their parents’ room and found
baby Xabier wailing on the floor. Justo picked up his little brother
and returned him to the cradle. Josepe fought to pull himself onto
the bed to be with his mother but only managed to claw the bloody
blanket toward his face. Justo pulled him back and whispered to
him. The three stood at the bedside as a corrosive grief began to
hollow out Pascual Ansotegui.
Angeles had presented him a succession of three robust sons in a
span of four years. Almost from the moment she recovered from
the delivery of one, she was once again carrying the next. The men
in the village laughed at Pascual’s appetites, and he took a dash
of pride in their jokes. Good-natured, accommodating, and fertile
as the estuarial plain on which they lived, Angeles birthed without
complications. But a few days after the uneventful appearance of
her third son, she simply failed to awaken. Pascual was left with
two tots, a newborn, and a harness of guilt.
The boys grew together in a hyperactive litter, roiling and wrestling and challenging one another from predawn awakenings until
their nightly collapse, often not in their beds but sprawled at odd
angles wherever their energy randomly expired. The increasingly
absent Pascual kept them fed, a minimal challenge on a thriving
farm, but they otherwise operated on their own initiative and imagination.
Four males now lived at Errotabarri, the Ansotegui family
farm, with no maternal or feminine infl uence past the few reminders
of Angeles Ansotegui’s brief life, a comb-and-brush set on her
dresser, a few dresses in the closet, and a ruffl ed fl oral-print apron that Pascual Ansotegui now wore while cooking.
As Pascual withdrew, physically and emotionally, the boys gradually
took over the farm. Even young boys understand that chickens
need feed and eggs must be collected, so they completed these
tasks without recognizing them as work. Even young boys understand
that stock need food for the winter, so they learned to swing
the scythe through the musky alfalfa grass and fork the hay high
against the tall spindle that supported the stack.
When one of them came across a rotten egg, it became ammunition
for an ambush of an unsuspecting brother. They dived together
into the cut grass before collecting it. They hid in the haystacks
before spreading it for the stock. They rode the cows bareback before
they milked them. Piles of cordwood were forts before they
became fuel for the hearth. Every chore was a contest: Who could
throw the pitchfork farthest? Who could run fastest to the well?
Who could carry the most water?
Because each action was a competition or game, there was rarely
a division of labor; the three shared each job and moved in unison to
the next. Virtual orphans, they were nonetheless content, and the
farm operated in a surprisingly efficient atmosphere of playful mayhem.
But at times even the instincts of farm boys could not lead them
to anticipate threats to stock or crops. For three boys easily distracted by the ballistic possibilities of rancid eggs, surprises arose.
Had Pascual Ansotegui been conscious of the passing of the seasons,
he would have reminded his sons that the ewes about to lamb
in the spring needed the protection of the shed. But in the fi rst
warm afternoons of spring, the shed was merely a wall for young
boys playing pelota. When Xabier clumsily sent the ball onto the
roof and it wedged between cracked tiles, Justo retrieved the ladder
and scaled the canted shed, placing one foot dramatically on the
peak, as if he had reached the summit of Mount Oiz. Josepe sensed
in his posture the potential for a new game.
“How about you get to stay up there until one of us hits you
with sheep shit?” Josepe said, having retrieved several dried dung
As he took aim at his brother, Josepe spotted a sliver of darkness
banking tight circles above the hillside. “Justo, Justo, an
eagle—are there lambs out there?” Josepe screamed.
“Get the gun!” Justo yelled, leaping down onto a bale and rolling
off onto his feet.
Pascual Ansotegui’s rifle was old before the turn of the century
and the boys had never seen it fired. At thirteen, Justo was as strong
as some of the men in the village, but Pascual had never taught him
how to shoot. Josepe could hardly heft the iron weapon off the pegs
in the shed. He dragged it to his brother with both hands at the end
of the barrel, the butt bouncing along the ground.
Justo took it from him, raised it to his shoulder, and waved the
heavy barrel in the direction of the diving eagle. Xabier knelt in
front of him and grabbed the stock with both hands, trying to buttress
his big brother’s hold.
“Shoot him, Justo!” Josepe screamed. “Shoot him!”
With the rifle butt inches from his shoulder, Justo pulled the
trigger. The shot exploded in the barrel, and the recoil thrust Justo
to the ground, bleeding from the side of his head. Xabier flattened
out beside him, screaming from the noise. The shot did not even
startle the eagle, which was now applying a lethal clench of its talons into the neck of a tiny, still-wet lamb.
With Justo and Xabier down, Josepe charged. Before he could
reach it, the eagle extended its wings, hammered them several
times into the ground, and lifted off on a downhill swoop just over
Justo fought his way uphill to Josepe. Xabier, crying to the point
of breathlessness, face freckled with his brother’s blood, ran in
sprints and tumbles to a neighbor’s house for help.
“Look for other newborns, and let’s get the ewes into the shed!”
Justo shouted, regaining control. They saw no other lambs that
were vulnerable, and they both herded the oblivious mother ewe,
still dragging birth tissue, into the shed.
The neighbors held Xabier to calm him. But what did he expect
them to do? Where was his father, after all? “Boys your age
shouldn’t deal with these matters and certainly shouldn’t be shooting
rifles; it’s a good thing none of our stock was harmed,” they
said. He couldn’t hear them over the painful ringing of his ears but
read rejection in their faces.
“Well . . . fine!” Xabier yelled, breaking away to rejoin his
The shaken boys gathered in the shed and clutched the ewe,
which was bothered not by the loss of its offspring, a development
it had already forgotten, but by the fierce embraces of these boys,
one of whom was bleeding all over her wool.
When Pascual Ansotegui returned that eve ning, the boys stood
in a line at the door, in descending order of age, and Justo briefed
his father on the events. Pascual nodded. Justo and Josepe accepted
his minimal response. Xabier, though, flared with indignation.
“Where were you?” yelled Xabier, a spindle-thin nine-year-old
in third-hand overalls stained with blood.
Pascual stared without comment.
Xabier repeated the question.
“I was gone,” the father said.
“I know you were gone; you’re always gone,” Xabier said. “We’d
get along just as well if you never came back.”
Pascual tilted his head, as if this would bring his youngest into
clearer focus. He then turned away, pulled the floral apron from its
peg on the hearth, and began to make dinner.
Justo knew early that he, as the eldest, would someday assume
sole control of Errotabarri, and his siblings understood that they
would inevitably find work elsewhere. If inequitable to the younger
children, the pattern assured survival of the baserri culture. Justo
Ansotegui would claim his birthright and become the latest in the
chain of stewards of the land that extended back to times when
their ancestors painted animals onto walls in the nearby Santimamiñe
Bequesting the farm to the eldest carried no guarantees. He who
inherits the farm may never leave to discover other opportunities, to
go to sea, perhaps, or to a city like Bilbao. But to run the baserri was to shepherd the family trust, Justo believed. Still, he expected a period of apprenticeship to learn. For another year or so after the lamb’s
slaughter, Pascual Ansotegui unenthusiastically attended mass each
morning, mouthing the responses. He returned to church to pray in
silence again in the eve ning, wandering unseen in between. Eventually,
he stopped attending mass, and one day he drifted off.
It took several days before Justo realized his father had gone
missing. He alerted the neighbors, and small groups searched the
hillsides. When no evidence of death or life surfaced, the boys assumed
that he had been swallowed up by a crevice or a sinkhole, or
that he just forgot to stop wandering.
Although the boys loved and missed their father, their affection
for him was more out of habit than true sentiment. They noticed
little difference in his absence: They still performed the same chores
and played the same games. Justo was now in charge.
“Here, this is yours now,” Josepe said to Justo, handing him the
“Eskerrik asko,” Justo said, thanking his brother. He lifted the
strap over his head and tied the worn sash behind his back in solemn
ceremony. “Wash up for dinner.”
He had the family baserri to run. He was fifteen.
When they were very young, the boys learned the history of Guernica
and of Errotabarri. They learned it from their father, before he
drifted off, and from the people of the town who were proud of
their heritage. From medieval times, Guernica was a crossroads
of the old Roman Way and the Fish and Wine Route that wound
through the hills inland from the sea. Intersecting them both
was the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela. For centuries,
representatives of the region met under the Guernica oak to shape
laws that outlawed torture and unwarranted arrest and granted
unprece dented privileges to women. Although aligned with the kingdom
of Castile, they maintained their own legal system and demanded
that the series of Castilian monarchs from the time of
Ferdinand and Isabella come stand, in person, beneath the oak of
Guernica and swear to protect the Basque laws. Because the economy
of the region hadn’t evolved under the feudal system, the Basques
owned their own land and were never divided into sovereigns and
serfs, merely farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen, free and independent
of any overlord.
A baserri in Biscaya often came to have a name, which sometimes
served as a surname for those living there, as if the land and
the home were the real ancestors. The home, after all, would outlive
the inhabitants and maybe even the family name. They presumed
that a well-structured building, like family relationships,
genuine love, and one’s reputation, would be timeless if protected
and properly maintained.
At the time Justo Ansotegui assumed control of Errotabarri, a
thorny hedgerow outlined the lower perimeter of the farm, and a
platoon of poplars flanked the northern, windward edge. Crops
were cultivated on the southern side of the house, bordered by several
rows of fruit trees. Pastureland spread above the home, rising
to a patchy stand of burly oaks, cypress, and waxy blue-gray eucalyptus. The trees thinned out just beneath a granite outcrop that
marked the upper border of the property.
The house resembled others near Guernica. It required the boys
to annually whitewash the stucco sides above a stone-and-mortar
base and to restain the oxblood wooden trim and shutters. Each
stone-silled window accommodated planter boxes of geraniums,
providing dashes of red across both levels and all aspects. Even as
a young, single man, Justo sustained these floral touches that had
been important to his mother.
As with many a baserri on a hillside, the house was wedged into
the slope. The lower floor, with wide double doors on the downhill
side, housed the stock in the winter months. The upper floor, with
a ground-level door on the uphill side, was home to the family. The
housing of cows and sheep in the same building protected the animals
from the cold, and they returned the favor by warming the
upper level with their rising body heat.
Inside, a large central room held the kitchen, dining, and living
areas, with rough-cut oak columns supporting exposed quartersawn
rafters. The hearth extended inward from a corner of the
kitchen. Seed corn was nailed to the beams to dry, and herbs for
cooking and medicine cured in the warmth above the hearth. Interwoven
vines of red peppers hung from the support column closest
to the kitchen, next to the dangling links of chorizo that lent a
heavy garlic scent to the room.
An unknown ancestor had carved the lauburu into the lintel
above the house’s main door. This four-headed symbol of their
race, like a spinning clover leaf, bracketed their lives, appearing on
everything from cradles to tombstones.
Each former master of the land inadvertently bequeathed items
to Justo. He still stacked hay on tall wooden spikes that had been
carved generations before. And the iron shears he used in the shed
had snipped wool from sheep dead a century. Some of the smaller
items offered wordless mysteries from the edge of the mantel; there
was a small bronze horse with its head reared high and an iron
coin bearing unknown symbols.
During Justo’s proprietorship, the apron was likewise memorialized,
draped from a nail in the mantel. And before he would pass,
the mantel also would support a length of braided human hair so
dark that it absorbed light.
Swatting the rump of a reluctant donkey to keep it grinding up the
steep trail, Pablo Picasso chuckled when he considered how his
friends in Paris would react to the vision of him in such a position.
That he would think of them now, here in the Pyrenees, was a symptom
of the problem. There had been too much getting in the way of
his art in Paris. And this mountain trail to Gósol, with the lovely
Fernande on a donkey beside him, was his path away from all that.
It had been all too much talk of art. And when they talked, their
art rose from their heads, not their guts, and their paintings went
back and forth like day-old conversations.
He didn’t need Paris now; he needed Spain. He needed the people
and the heat and the unshakeable feeling of belonging.
Fernande would sit for him now and wouldn’t talk about his
painting. She knew better. He had come back to Spain for a short
break, come to this quiet town in the mountains, to tear art to
pieces, to make it something it hadn’t been, or perhaps something
it had been long before. This was a place he could feel art. It came
up at him from the dirt and radiated down in waves from the sun.
It was time to shatter art and reshape it, as one might do with
bright pieces of broken glass.
Justo promised his brothers this: No one would work harder. But
even as he made that vow, he conceded to himself that he knew
very little of the business of operating a farm. So he began making
social visits to neighbors, slipping into the conversations questions
about the timing of planting certain crops or tending fruit trees and
managing stock. Most neighbors were sympathetic, but they had little
time to worry about somebody else’s farm—unless they had a daughter
who happened to be his age. Most would consider Justo something
well short of handsome, but this boy nonetheless owned his
Justo inquired of the neighboring Mendozabels how he might
establish hives for bees that would pollinate his fruit trees and provide
honey. Mrs. Mendozabel informed him that they would be
delighted to help him, that in fact they should all visit over “a full
dinner, which you surely don’t get much of at Errotabarri, not the
kind that our Magdalena makes every night.” Justo arrived in his
work clothes, consumed dinner without conversation beyond that
of the baserri, and took little note of Magdalena in her white Sunday
dress and the “special pie” she baked for him. He was too busy
for Magdalena and all the rest of the Magdalenas who were successively
dressed, powdered, and trotted out for his inspection. The
dinners were pleasant, though, the information helpful, and yes, it
was true, he didn’t bake pies at Errotabarri.
Small farms could not be considered flourishing businesses, but
few noticed the poverty on the hillside above Guernica. Families
were fed, and whatever was left over was carted to market or traded
for those goods they could not produce themselves. Justo envied the
neighbors who enjoyed an abundance of help from children. By comparison,
he faced a manpower shortage. Josepe and Xabier helped,
but they were less invested in the chores now. Justo rose in the darkness,
worked without break through the day, and fell asleep shortly
after eating whatever it was he bothered to toss into a pot that night.
Josepe never complained of the food; Xabier did so only once.
Justo discovered a few tricks but never cut corners on chores
that would affect the land or animals, only himself. He did not sew
or mend clothing and never washed his or his brothers’ garments,
he told them, because they would only get dirty again. If his brothers
wanted to clean themselves, he did not complain, as long as the
chores had been done.
“You look nice this morning,” one charitable woman commented
to Justo when the three boys showed up to mass at least
“Yes,” Xabier cracked. “But our scarecrows are bare today.”
And so, Justo spent no time arranging for his own comforts,
and he gave no thought to entertainment or diversion.
At times in the field, hypnotized by the rhythmic swinging of
the scythe through the grasses, he discovered that he had been
talking to himself aloud. He would look around to be certain Josepe
or Xabier had not come upon him silently and heard his words. In
these moments he realized his problem. He was lonely. The chores
that had been so exciting in the presence of his brothers had become
The only break he allowed himself came on feast days when he
would finish his chores in the morning and then walk into town to
take part in the competitions, the tug-of-war, the wood chopping,
the stone lifting. He won many of them because of his imposing
power. And because these exposures to people were so rare, he
attempted to share with everyone all the jokes and examples of
strength that went unappreciated during his seclusion at Errotabarri.
If he became outrageous and self-inflated, it was entertainingly
so, and those in the town anticipated his visits and cheered
his many victories. For someone so lonely at home, the attention
felt like the first warm day of spring.
At one of these outings he met a girl from Lumo who had come
downhill to join the dancers. Her name was Mariangeles Oñati,
and she caused Justo Ansotegui to reevaluate his approach to personal
hygiene and self-imposed solitude.
Josepe Ansotegui smelled the Bay of Biscay long before he could
see it. Having walked the serpentine mountain road north from
Guernica for two days, past the caves and the jagged marble quarry
and beyond the well-tended farms, he descended steadily in the
direction of the breeze that carried the briny musk of low tide.
When he arrived at the Lekeitio harbor in the softening dusk, clusters
of women in aprons and scarves were prying small fi sh from
nets along the quay. They chatted and sang in pleasant harmony.
Josepe scanned the boats moored along the perimeter of the
harbor wall, looking for crews still at work. The first man he approached about a job responded with a laugh and a head shake.
The second told him that fishermen came from fishing families,
and farm boys were meant to be farmers, as was life’s order.
“My older brother took over the family baserri, so I thought I’d
give fishing a try,” he explained. “I was told there was always work
to be had on the boats.”
“I’ve got some work,” a man on the adjacent boat shouted.
“Let’s see if you can lift this crate.”
With great strain, Josepe hoisted an overflowing crate of fish to
his knees, then up to his waist, and off-loaded it to the dock. He
looked back with a sense of triumph.
“Yes, you’re strong enough,” the fisherman said. “No, I don’t
have any work for you—but thanks anyway.”
In the aft of a boat closest to the harbor mouth, a fisherman
stood alone scanning the sky. “Zori,” the man said of his skyward
focus when Josepe approached. “The old fishermen looked for zori,
for omens, by reading which way the birds were flying.”
“And are the birds saying anything special this eve ning?” Josepe
asked, glancing at a squadron of gulls that bickered above the
“I think they’re saying they’re hungry; they’re circling the processors,
waiting to dispose of our messes.”
The two shook hands.
“I’m Josepe Ansotegui of Guernica, I’m almost seventeen years
old, and the only fishing I’ve done is in a stream with a string and a
pin,” the boy said. “But I’m told I’m smart, and I’m looking for
“Did you catch anything with your string and pin?”
“I caught a fat trout once, yes,” Josepe offered pridefully.
“Did you gut and clean the fat trout?”
“Yes, I did.”
“That’s all you need to know about fishing right now; you’re
hired,” Alberto Barinaga said. “We’ll worry about your intelligence
Barinaga, owner of the Zaldun, welcomed Josepe on board and
into his home. Perhaps he had foreseen a productive relationship in
the flight of the birds. In time, Barinaga became impressed by Josepe’s stories of growing up in a pack of playful boys following his
mother’s death, and he admired his strength and his attitude. But
mostly he came to appreciate his dedication to learning the business
of fishing. In daily tutorials, while he scrubbed gunwales or
repaired nets, or while at the family’s dinner table, Josepe absorbed
the encyclopedia of maritime lore and culture the veteran captain
“We chased the bowheads and cod to the shores of the Americas,”
Barinaga preached at dinner. “The Santa María was one of
our caravels, and Columbus had a Basque navigator and crew.”
“That is why he ended up in the Americas instead of the Indies,”
his eldest daughter, Felicia, needled.
“Magellan had our navigators, too,” the captain continued.
“Some have suggested that we are so good on the waters because
our race began on the lost island of Atlantis.”
Barinaga paused for effect, nodding his head as he buttered a
thick slice of bread. “It is a possibility that I would not discount.”
Josepe, in turn, learned of his patroia from the gossipy crews of
other boats. Barinaga was much admired among the family of fi shermen.
On several occasions, his seamanship allowed the Zaldun
to arrive in rescue of foundering boats and endangered crews. Josepe
pulled in the lessons with both hands. He learned the songs of
the sailors and joined in the singing as they repaired fraying nets
on the days when rough seas sentenced them to work ashore.
Josepe repaid Alberto Barinaga’s hospitality by having sex nearly
every night with his daughter Felicia in the bedroom directly beneath
her sleeping parents.
When Xabier returned from school one afternoon and rushed to
help his brother turn hay to dry with the long trident forks, Justo
noticed scratches and purple welts across the back of his hands.
“What happened to you?”
“I gave an answer in Basque,” Xabier said.
Justo hadn’t been to school for years, but he remembered the
teachers who belittled them at every opportunity and used a ruler
or a willow branch to swat students who spoke Basque instead of
Spanish in class.
“I’ll take care of this.”
At age eighteen, shirtless beneath unwashed coveralls, Justo
went to school the next morning. Once the class was seated, save
for Xabier, Justo approached the teacher, a bespectacled Spaniard
with a marigold boutonniere.
At the front of the classroom, Justo lifted Xabier’s raked hand
toward the teacher and said two words.
“Never again,” Justo said in Basque.
The teacher responded with a showy bluff, expecting the young
farm boy to be daunted. “Vete!” he demanded in Spanish, pointing
toward the door.
The teacher paused. He turned to the class and saw every student
focused on the showdown. “Vete!” the teacher repeated, chin
Justo struck so quickly the teacher was helpless, grabbing the
extended arm and pulling it down between the teacher’s legs. Spinning
around the bent-over teacher, Justo took the wrist with his
other hand and lifted it so that the teacher straddled his own arm.
In the span of a second, the teacher went from imperiously pointing
toward the door to being bent in half, with his own arm between
his legs and pulled up tightly against his scrotum.
Justo’s grip on the teacher’s wrist tightened as he lifted his arm
even higher, causing the teacher to rise onto his toes to reduce the
pressure on his groin. The teacher groaned. Students sat in stunned
Justo bent and looked around at the teacher’s sweaty face and
said two words. “Never again.”
Justo lifted him higher for an instant, then released his grip. The
teacher dropped to the floor.
The first colorful installment of Justo Ansotegui’s legend passed
from student to parents that afternoon, and every father relayed it to
friends that evening at the taberna. The teacher did not show the
next morning or the following one, and he was replaced. When Justo
next appeared in town, several men he didn’t know stepped from
storefronts and clapped their hands in approval. Justo smiled back
Xabier never needed his big brother’s assistance to get good
marks. Not nearly as physical as his brother, Xabier instead felt
himself grow stronger with every bit of information he committed
to memory. He had no property and few possessions, but these
facts were his: history, mathematics, grammar. So he assumed the
role of dutiful student. If he had to act as if he were accepting of
these Spanish teachers’ politics, he could easily pretend. By sixteen,
he had consumed everything the public school teachers offered.
The next move was Justo’s, and he proposed it with typical
bluntness at dinner.
“You know, Xabier, you’re not much help around here, and I may
want to get married someday; have you ever thought about going
into the seminary, maybe in Bilbao?”
Xabier was as devout as any boy, and he certainly had done nothing
that would serve as an obstacle to joining the clergy; he simply
had never considered it. He admired the parish priest but never
sought to emulate him. But it would be a way to continue learning.
“Priests live comfortably; they’re respected in town,” Justo continued.
“Besides, you’ve got no hope with women anyway.”
Xabier was not insulted, as he assumed Justo was right on that
account. But Justo was his brother, not his father, and who was he
to tell him what to do? He was about to question Justo’s authority
when his brother made a final point.
“Mother would have liked it.”
The issue spurred all-night introspection. And when he rose at
dawn, Xabier was reasonably certain it was a good idea. He informed
“I thought there might be something more dramatic about a big
decision like this. I thought priests felt some calling, that they
heard some kind of heavenly voices.”
Justo, his muscled shoulders and arms extending from his ruffled
apron, scooped eggs from a skillet onto Xabier’s plate.
“You did hear a voice,” Justo said. “Mine.”