Elías was fourteen when he arrived in Ugarte one afternoon in late summer. He was going to spend some time living with his uncle, the owner of a bakery that supplied bread to the surrounding towns and villages. The next day, August 27, a Sunday, he found a block of wood in the workshop opposite the house and set about making a boat with his Swiss Army knife.
“You’ll find it easier with these, Elías,” said his uncle, placing a saw, hammer and chisel on the workbench that occupied the centre of the workshop.
The boy nodded his thanks and got straight to work. He spent all morning and afternoon shaping and hollowing out the wood, not once going up to the bakery which stood barely a hundred metres away along the hill track.
On the Monday morning, at breakfast, his uncle said casually: “Come up and see how we make the bread, Elías. Come up, and you can help with putting the bread in the baskets when it’s fresh out of the oven or with loading the baskets into the Chevrolet. Everyone who works for us is from around here, they’re all good people, especially one guy who I know you’re really going to like: Donato. Know what we call Donato?”
He waited, but the boy showed no intention of answering. “The Gitane Blonde we call him, like the cigarettes, or Blondie
for short. He’s great fun, plus he plays the accordion.” At this, the boy smiled.
Come supper that same day, August 28, his uncle again tried to get the boy to speak:
“You remember my name, don’t you?” Adding a little too light-heartedly: “Come on, what’s my name?”
The boy should have answered “Miguel”, but once again he only nodded. After supper, his uncle insisted he go along to the bakery.
“I hardly notice the smell of the bread now, but for you, it’ll be your first time – you’re going to love it. Plus, it’s summer: it’s so warm, you can go for a dip in the canal. Trust me, that cool water, you can’t beat it.”
Again, there was nothing but a nod of the head from the boy, and as soon as he could, he went back out to the workshop to continue making his toy boat. The bulb over the workbench was bright enough for him to work there at night. The only problem were the moths and nocturnal insects, which came swirling up around him like flurries of mud-flecked snow.
It had been a week – first, at home with his mother, and now in his uncle’s house – since Elías had uttered a word. A little more than a week, in fact, given that he had stopped speaking while away in the south of France on an intensive language course, at a college called Beau-Frêne in the city of Pau. It was there that the miracle had occurred, the opposite miracle to that attributed to Notre-Dame de l’Immaculée-Conception in Lourdes, the college’s patron saint: the student, who had arrived talking quite normally, had lost the power of speech.
After three days in Ugarte the boat was finished, and he carved an “E” for Elías on one side with his Swiss Army knife. However, when he tried to remove a slightly raised knot at the back with gouge and hammer, the whole thing cracked. Miguel saw this on his way back for lunch at midday when he called in at the workshop with one of the men from the bakery.
“You should have used a harder kind of wood, not cherry wood,” he told the boy. “Try some ash. You’ll find a whole load of felled ash further up the canal. Donato isn’t in today, it’s his day off, but go with him tomorrow and he’ll help you pick out a better piece.”
“I can show him where if you like,” said the employee standing beside Elías’ uncle. His blue denim shirt was covered in flour.
“No,” said Miguel. “Youngsters with youngsters. Donato’s a good kid, he should go with him.”
“What do you think of that?” The man gave an exaggerated frown. “I’m only fifty-five, and yet everyone at the bakery calls me Greybeard. Donato gets called Blondie and I get called Greybeard.”
“A blonde gypsy and an OAP; you see the kind of people who work for me?”
It was no use. The boy was not going to talk.
“Joking aside, Donato will show you where the ash has been stacked. As well as the best places for swimming in the canal,” Miguel said, before turning and heading off to the kitchen on the ground floor of the house, a few steps away from the workshop. Ignoring his uncle’s advice, Elías went to the canal that same day for some new wood, dragging an ash branch back down the path on his own. Miguel’s hopes were therefore frustrated: he thought Donato’s company was sure to induce his nephew to speak, even if only a word, and that many more would then follow, with, ultimately, a return to normality. Elías was back in the workshop at nightfall, hollowing out the new block of wood on the workbench, apparently quite content, occasionally whistling the tune to a French nursery rhyme: “Il était un petit navire qui n’avait ja-ja-jamais navigué. Ohé! Ohé!” As he whistled, it seemed as though the moths and insects swarming around the lightbulb were moving in time to the tune.
Elías’ mother rang her brother Miguel every day to ask after the boy, and August 29 was no different. He tried to sound upbeat: “He seems fine, really into making that little boat of his. He tried cherry wood to begin with, but it cracked, which was a shame because he’d already carved his initial on one side with his knife. Now he’s trying with a bit of ash, and that’s going much better.” This, however, was not what his sister wanted to know. Miguel could sense, at the other end of the line, that she was waiting. In the end he had to tell her the truth:
“Still not a word. But I’m sure he’ll start talking as soon as he settles in.”
It was better, he thought, not to go into detail, and he did not mention that the boy avoided having lunch with him and the bakery staff, or the fact that he even failed to acknowledge Marta, the kind, friendly woman who cooked for them all.
He could sense his sister holding back her tears.
“It must be a strain for you, Miguel, I’m sorry. If Elías goes on like this, I’ll close the restaurant and take him somewhere, wherever he needs to go.”
His sister was a widow. She had a restaurant on the coast, and her takings during the summer season sometimes saw her through the whole rest of the year.
“Don’t even think about it. Your place is at the restaurant. There’s lots of us here, and he’ll end up talking to one or other of us, you’ll see.”
Rather than being a strain, Elías’ presence simply made Miguel uncomfortable at times, especially when they sat facing one another at supper. That day, after speaking with his sister on the telephone, Miguel made an exception and took two trays into the room beside the kitchen, one with leftovers from lunch for himself and the other with olives, ham, cheese and pâté for his nephew. He turned on the television, and they watched the roundup of the day’s action at the Munich Olympics. The star that night was a Japanese gymnast called Sawao Kato.
“He’s a kool kat, don’t you think?” joked Miguel during the parallel bars.
When Kato concluded his routine, landing back on the ground, Elías gave a thumbs-up and applauded.
While preparing the meal for the bakery staff, Marta stepped out of the kitchen to check if the boy was still in the workshop with his wood and his tools. As she did so various thoughts came into her head, memories of other strange people she had known in her life, like Antonio, the engineer at the mine where her
From Water Over Stones by Bernardo Atxaga, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Thomas Bunstead. Used with permission of the publisher, Graywolf Press. Copyright 2022 by Bernardo Atxaga. Translation copyright 2022 by Margaret Jull Costa and Thomas Bunstead.