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The Sum of Small Acts

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They agreed to unspoken rules. Broken windows were OK. Broken bones were fair game. Graffiti was acceptable, as were rubber bullets and tear gas.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Stampede_3_2012_TOP.jpg
Norbert Bisky, Stampede 3, 2012. Oil on canvas, 200 x 150 cm. © Norbert Bisky. Courtesy Koenig & Clinton.

We began to go to the neighboring towns at night, on weekends. When we were fourteen or fifteen, it had only been to see a band play in some basement bar or to try for one of the girls we’d met the weekend before. Asier began to play the guitar—a fact that he liked to advertise when girls were around—and I inherited my brother’s old drum kit when he moved from the Basque Country to Madrid for work. Even though Asier was tone deaf and I had the rhythm of a broken washing machine, we could technically say that we had a band, that any day now we’d be playing in a basement or storage shed near you.

Soon, however, we began to plan our trips around other events. We went to a real political meeting in Gasteiz, not just a few kids drinking and smoking in an abandoned bunker. University students and professors spoke about the independence movement and the unfair treatment of ETA prisoners, describing them either as prisoners of war, or political prisoners, or as martyrs for the revolution. We met people whose friends were in prison for political crimes. “He got five years for passing a pamphlet out in front of city hall in Donostia,” they would say, or “They put him in a prison in the Canary Islands for writing an article for Egunkaria in support of the right to self-governance.” And even though we couldn’t quite imagine someone being sent to prison for passing a pamphlet, and didn’t understand exactly what the “right to self-governance” meant, we shook our heads and said “fucking fascists.” Then we rolled another joint or mixed another two-liter of wine and Coke.

It was always the same kids who traveled from town to town, and after a few months we knew them all: the Mintegui brothers from Bermeo, Mikel and Alain from Aya, Tito from Nabarniz. Most of us cut our hair short, leaving two or three long chunks that we would braid or dread, which was the style among young nationalists. We would talk politics or hand out pamphlets or spray-paint street signs with pro-ETA slogans, and then we would drink and fuck around in the alleys behind bars or in the dark corners of parks.

My life will always revolve around either of two concrete bunkers: the crumbling walls above the cliffs in Muriga, and the chipped yellow prison of the Salto del Negro.

Nere was twenty-two, five years older than Asier and me—this fact alone made her more beautiful and mysterious than the gray-uniformed girls of San Jorge—and she even had a real job. While Asier and I were drinking cans of beer in the bunker (it seems now that my life will always revolve around either of two concrete bunkers: the crumbling walls above the cliffs in Muriga, and the chipped yellow prison of the Salto del Negro), she drew vials of blood from old women’s arms and delivered bowls of runny gelatin and lukewarm soup at the hospital on Calle de Nafarroa.

If I could guess, I’d say Asier and I had fallen in love with her the first time we met her at the bunker, when we were fifteen. And not just because she was older, or because of her looks, though she’s always been a classic Basque beauty. She turned thirty just before her last visit to the prison in March. I suppose she looks her age now, which isn’t a bad thing. She stopped dying and chopping her hair a long time ago, and now there are light freckles on her nose where she’s stayed out in the sun too long. But it’s been four months since her last visit and still Andreas, from his top bunk, likes to talk about her perfect ass after the lights go out in the block.

Certainly her looks helped, but there was much more to her. She was as sharp as anyone in our cuadrilla, passionate about her Basque heritage and about her politics. While changing her patients’ catheters or taking their blood pressure she would carry on about the injustices against the Basque people. She’d remind more conservative patients of the Spanish government’s death squads, the ones that had executed more than two dozen Basque activists in the 1980s, or of the most recent student protesters to be detained in Pamplona for exercising their right to free speech.

But by the final year of secundaria the three of us seemed to catch up to her. We had grown into something approaching adulthood. By then we thought we were big time; we had made out with practically every girl in San Jorge, and many more from Bakio and Getxo and the other nearby towns. Through all this, Nere seemed frozen in time, preserved in the formaldehyde of small-town Basque life. Her constantly changing hair and her quick tongue became more familiar, more approachable each time we saw her. When she kissed me the night after our first show (in an abandoned house just north of town along the river), I was surprised, but not so surprised that I didn’t kiss back.

“I hope you don’t worry about Asier,” she said.

“Why would I?” I said. I knew what she was saying, of course. She knew as well as I did that Asier wanted her, maybe even loved her. But I was already replaying her mouth against mine, already realizing that I could love her as well. “Fuck Asier.”

*                      *                     *

Our fight for Basque independence was, in a way, also a fight for our own autonomy. Slowly, we began to gain some of this indepenence—from our parents, from our older brothers and sisters, from the teachers at San Jorge. We’d head out of town on Asier’s black scooter, backpacks full of supplies for the trip: egg and potato sandwiches that my mother prepared for the two of us wrapped in tinfoil, two or three boxes of Don Simon table wine, whatever cigarettes we could take from our parents’ half-empty packs.

We spoke only in Euskera, refusing to talk to people who started a conversation in Spanish (which was rarely a problem in Muriga, or even much of a statement, since for most people Euskera was their primary language). To avoid a moral compromise that last year of school, we simply skipped our English classes at San Jorge.

By my last year at San Jorge the contents of our backpacks had begun to evolve. We added spray paint and fireworks, Xeroxed pamphlets announcing rallies and strikes, clipboards with petitions. But even these items continued to change, until finally our packs were also filled with dark hooded sweatshirts, black bandanas to cover our faces.

Here’s how it would go: we’d gather out of sight of the crowded streets until one of the older university students gave a whistle.

It was something the newspapers like to call kale borroka. Twenty or thirty of us would get together late on a Friday or Saturday night, when the streets were sure to be filled with people drinking, tourists, families finishing dinner. We loaded our pockets with rocks and fireworks and cans of black spray paint. Then we tied bandanas behind our heads, put on sunglasses, and pulled up our hoods. This was our armor. Each time I would pull the drawstrings on my sweatshirt I would turn and look at my reflection in Asier’s sunglasses, and he would do the same, and I would like how frightening I looked: entirely faceless, anonymous, and dangerous. I wasn’t a militant. Under the hood, under the sunglasses, I knew that. But the costume was convincing.

Here’s how it would go: we’d gather out of sight of the crowded streets until one of the older university students gave a whistle. Then we would be off, running down the main streets, throwing rocks through windows or at streetlights, spray-painting long black lines along the old stone walls, yelling our slogans, throwing handfuls of pamphlets into the doors of the bars. This had been going on for years; before us, it was Dani’s older brother and his group of friends, and before that it was another group, or a band of college students from Bilbao or San Sebastián who had driven in. The only things that changed were the spray-painted names of the political parties as one party after the other was outlawed by the national government.

*                      *                     *

Imagine it like a football game. On the red team, young nationalists. On the blue team, the Ertzaintza, the Basque police force. They agreed to unspoken rules. Broken windows were OK. Broken bones were fair game. Graffiti was acceptable, as were rubber bullets and tear gas. An unjust or overly lengthy prison sentence was against the rules. Killing, by either side, was always against the rules.

The newspapers served as the referees. Whenever these rules were broken we would read about it in the four-page paper printed in Muriga each morning. The headlines would read, “Ertzaintza detain two youths from Aulesti for unprovoked attack on local market,” and we would know to shake our heads over our coffee at the acts of those senseless thugs. Yellow card to kale borroka.

A month later the paper would announce, “Two college students from Bermeo beaten and arrested during peaceful demonstration,” and this time around the Ertzaintza were to blame. The old men in the shops would spit on the ground and talk about how the Ertzaintza had too much power, about how they were just the same as the Guardia Civil. How they should leave our good boys alone—this was supposed to be a democracy now. Yellow card to the Ertzaintza. Another warning.

Retaliation for breaking the rules comes quickly: ertzaina who break the rules are found dead against the tires of a Volkswagen in the parking garage of their apartment building, their heads burst open by two close-range pistol shots. And the unlucky kids who get caught breaking the rules, who are unfortunate enough to be labled “etarra,” well, their penalties aren’t any less severe. (As I later found out, even if you never actually had contact with a real member of the ETA, once you’ve broken the rules you are also, by virtue of association, an etarra for life.) These are the kids in their twenties who are shot down by the Guardia Civil in a raid, or extradited from France and disappear for decades into a far-off prison like the Salto.

*                      *                     *

It’s worth saying that our group—Daniel, Asier, and I—never had a formal connection with the actual ETA, no matter what the papers later wrote. The men and women we saw on the television who held press conferences wearing black hoods—these weren’t the people we were organizing our raids with. We’d moved our meetings to a couple bars in town that symphathized with the cause; by now we had gained notoriety in Muriga and even in some of the neighboring towns. And even if we had never met with the actual “terrorists,” we didn’t do anything to dispel our schoolmates’ perception that we took orders from them. Though we never said so, we all hoped to gain the attention of these higher-ups—the real etarras whom we’d seen so many times on the news.

“I’d tell them that they’ve become too cautious,” Asier said one afternoon while we swam in the bay. He said this during a calm in the heavy, breaking waves, before sliding headfirst into the water. He swam so far down that the white bottoms of his feet disappeared. When he came back up he spit a mouthful of seawater in my direction, something he knew pissed me off.

“I’d tell Ibon Gogeaskoetxea that this can be a protest that lasts another fifty years without change, or it can be a war that gets real results,” he continued. “And quickly.”

“I’d ask Morales if he knows where Francisco Dorronsoro and Marcos Oiarzabal escaped to,” I said.

We fantasized about these meetings the way other seventeen-year-olds might imagine a conversation with their favorite footballers. Their cause was our cause, and was the cause of our parents and our grandparents. Even if Muriga hadn’t decided on the future of the Basque Country, we all knew we had suffered and been persecuted for the past two generations. As my father used to say, Muriga was a town built on the bones of the Basque cause since the civil war, after all.

But we didn’t talk about the future, at least not in any real sense. It was becoming clear that Asier was expected to follow his father into finance, and by then I had started to think seriously about studying literature at the university, but we never discussed these long-term plans out loud. We daydreamed, instead, about advancing in the ranks of the nationalist movement. For me, it was always pure fantasy, though for Asier I suspect it was something more. The closest we came to meeting an actual ETA member was when Gorka Auzmendi arrived in Muriga in the summer of 1996.

*                      *                     *

By that time Asier and I had become leaders in our group because we had thrown the most rocks, been hit with the most rubber bullets, and messed around with more girls than any of the other ten or so kids whom we met up with regularly. Asier made a habit of giving a short political speech at the beginning of each of our meetings. These little speeches seemed to add some legitimacy, to allow me to say “meeting” rather than “fucking around.” I’d find Asier outside the bar before our meetings, smoking a cigarette and looking over a page of notes that he’d brought along.

But when Gorka Auzmendi arrived, unannounced and alone, to one of these meetings at the Bar Uraitz, Asier and I instantly handed over whatever small leadership roles we had gained.

If Asier had been Muriga’s discount version of Ché Guevara, Gorka Auzmendi was Ché. He was tall and athletic, and if he hadn’t been an intermediary for ETA-militar, the military branch of the ETA that was responsible for the bombings and assassinations that made the headlines, then he might have played center halfback for Athletic Bilbao. I had seen him speak at a couple university rallies in Getxo and Hernani; he was a confident and articulate speaker who seemed more moderate in his arguments than many of the others who had taken the stage. His brother Xabi had been arrested and convicted for an attempted car bombing in Madrid five years earlier, and when Gorka arrived at the Uraitz he was wearing a t-shirt with Xabi’s image printed across the chest.

“Gorka,” I found myself calling him by his first name. “It’s an honor to have you here with us in Muriga.” I was suddenly speaking so formally, as if I was introducing him to receive a prize. “I’m Iker and this is Asier—”

“Sure,” he said. He was smiling, as if he was amused by the entire scene. “The group in Bermeo tells me that Asier rolls the best porros in Bizkaia. Is that true?”

“So why are you here?” he said. I think he meant to sound strong and assertive, but it came out more like an accusation.

Asier pulled a joint from behind an ear and offered it up. Gorka lit it with a blue lighter he’d already taken from his pocket. The room had gone silent, and we watched Gorka take a couple drags, then offer it to me. Finally it was Daniel who spoke up.

“So why are you here?” he said. I think he meant to sound strong and assertive, but it came out more like an accusation. Even Daniel looked surprised. Gorka didn’t take any offense, though; instead he held his hand out to Daniel, asking for the porro back like they were old friends.

“I was visiting my aunt in Bermeo, so I was in the area,” he said. “But in fact, I keep reading in the newspapers about the shit happening in the streets around here. I talked to some comrades”—a word Asier and I put into our rotation after Gorka’s visit—“in Bermeo and they said I’d find you at this bar.”

This was enough of an explanation for us, and most of our friends’ attentions returned to their drinks, to the sandwiches on the table, to gossip about who was going to try to sleep with who when we traveled to Deba the next weekend.

Asier and Daniel pulled their seats closer to Gorka to hear him over the racket of the bar; I lingered between the groups for a moment before Asier caught my eye and nodded me over. The purpose of his visit, Gorka said, was to get to know people behind the movement in the smaller towns. He told us that although he himself was not directly involved with the ETA-militar, he certainly knew people who were looking to recruit comrades for the Jarrai, the nationalist youth groups in cities like Mondragón or Gasteiz. He told us he’d be speaking at a protest the following afternoon in Bilbao, at the campus of the University of the Basque Country, and invited us to join him and his friends after the demonstration. Asier was already nodding his head, telling him that we’d be there, that there was no way we’d miss it. With that, Gorka lifted his beer and drained what was left in his glass, then stood to leave.

“This is something,” Asier said while we watched Gorka’s broad shoulders go out the door of the Urzaitz. “They’re starting to hear about us. I’m telling you, Iker, this is really something.”

“We can’t go tomorrow,” I said. “We have a test in calculus. And in composition.”

“A test?” Asier said, almost laughing. He waved his hand, brown smoke trailing from his fingertips. “Do what you want, Iker. I’m going to Bilbao.”

*                      *                     *

As I said, kale borroka is a game with certain rules; even if they’re not written down they’re understood. And when one team breaks a rule, well, that’s when you get penalized.

In the end, I stayed in Muriga to take the two midterms while Asier went to see Gorka Auzmendi speak at the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao. When I saw him before school the next morning it was clear that he had barely slept, and yet he was so excited that he could hardly stop talking.

“Fucking mind-blowing,” he said, before even saying hello. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Three thousand college students. Three thousand comrades. At exactly ten in the morning, the students rushed into each of the university buildings, forced everyone to leave. Once the buildings were empty, they chained the doors closed. Fucking incredible.”

He was nearly out of breath, as if it had just happened five minutes before.

“And Auzmendi?” I asked.

“A genius,” Asier said. “After the buildings closed all of the students gathered outside the School of Architecture. They built a stage, with a microphone and everything, and people came to speak to the audience. Gorka was the last to speak—he talked for forty minutes and no one in the audience interrupted even once. I wish I could remember 5 percent of what he said.”

I found myself strangely jealous of Gorka, of the way that Asier fell over him, seemed to want to be him.

“And what about after the protest?” I asked. “Did you meet with him?”

“Of course,” he said. “And none of this bullshit about sitting in a bar drinking kalimotxo, either. He took a few of us to a friend’s apartment—a professor of sociology—and we stayed until five in the morning, drinking red wine and discussing the Situation.”

Asier was smiling, as if he had just now realized that our friendship had changed, but if we acted quickly enough we could change it back.

There was something that annoyed me about the way he said “the Situation.” I had gone to the same meetings as he had, read the same pamphlets and listened to nationalist history lessons for years. And now, after a night drinking cheap wine in some old man’s apartment, Asier seemed to say that he understood things in a way I didn’t.

“He gave me some books,” Asier said. “The professor did. You can borrow them when I’m done.”

“Are we still going to Bermeo this weekend?” I asked, trying to change the subject.

“Yes, of course. But there’s a change of plans. We’ll meet after school to discuss it.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I have plans already.” Which was true, actually. I’d made plans to meet Nere at her house at five, since her parents didn’t come home from work until late on Thursday nights.

“Well, change them,” he said. “Daniel is already planning on it, and he’s telling other people to be there as well.”

“Listen,” I said, getting frustrated. “I can’t make it. Just tell me now what this ‘change of plans’ is.”

And then Asier was smiling, as if he had just now realized that our friendship had changed, but if we acted quickly enough we could change it back. “Sure,” he said. “Of course. So here’s the thing: it’s a lot like what you and I were discussing the other day, actually. When we were swimming. I was talking with Gorka and we decided that the problem with the independence movement in general, and with the activities in the street in particular, is that things have become stagnant. The activities are always the same, and so people become complacent.”

I could tell that these words, “stagnant,” “complacent,” weren’t his words but Gorka’s. But still I nodded my head.

“What needs to happen is change. Something to catch the people’s attention again.”

We both knew what he was saying: we needed to break the rules.

“So this is what I was thinking,” he said, and then he told me the plan that Gorka had diagrammed for him.

*                      *                     *

That Friday afternoon, as usual, I excused myself from class to go to the restroom, then left out the front doors, along the empty moat where some of the younger children were running laps for their physical education class, and out to the parking lot, where I’d parked the motor scooter my father had given me for my birthday that year. I had spent the entire morning at San Jorge grinding my teeth, thinking about what would happen that night. And although I knew the tenets of the cause, I wasn’t wondering if what we were about to do would alter the future of Basque autonomy. I was worrying about how it might change our lives. But now I tried to just relax, listening to the ticking of the two wheels spinning underneath me.

I met Asier and Dani at the gas station on the ground floor of Asier’s apartment building. Asier had gone to Bilbao again the night before, and hadn’t been at school that morning.

“OK,” he said. “We all understand the plan, right?”

Daniel and I both nodded. I pushed my moto next to Asier’s, so that they were next to the gas pump but also blocking it from view of the cashier inside.

“I’m going to go pay,” Asier said. “Get ready.”

After he said it, he just stood there for a moment, looking out across the boulevard toward the harbor, where the fishing boats were floating at their buoys. Daniel had taken off his backpack and was pulling out the empty two-liter bottles.

“Asier,” I said, and he snapped back to attention.

“Right,” he said. Then he turned and went into the gas station.

I sometimes wonder what little debate he was having with himself in that moment. Whether he realized that he might be pushing the pebble that would start a landslide, or whether he was just going over Gorka’s plan one more time in his head, taking into consideration all the details he might have overlooked.

When he came back out of the gas station, Daniel took the hose from the pump as if he were going to fill the tanks on the two motos.

“It’s fine,” I whispered. “There’s no one around.”

Daniel filled the two empty bottles with diesel, spilling a small puddle on the concrete underneath. Asier was sitting on his bike, looking nervously around. The smell of raw gasoline seeped out from the open bottles.

“Who was it?” I asked. “Behind the counter.”

“Benito,” he said. “The guy was so stoned he barely recognized me.”

“OK,” I told Daniel. Asier put on his black helmet and slid down the wind guard. “Time to go.”

*                      *                     *

When Asier told us about Gorka’s plan, he’d made it clear that the most important thing was to keep the operation simple. “The Operation,” he kept saying, another one of Gorka’s terms, I guess. But it did make what we were planning more legitimate. So in an alley behind the basketball courts in Bermeo, when Asier gave the whistle to the forty or so of us (our friends from Bermeo had brought along ten or fifteen kids from their school), only the three of us from Muriga were aware of the real plan.

I felt a pang of guilt about the whole thing, about breaking up the evening for these innocent people.

There had been a rowing competition in the bay in Bermeo earlier in the day, and the streets in the old part were filled with people from neighboring towns who had come to cheer their teams on, and of course to eat and drink after the regatta. But even with the crowded street, everyone knew the rules. When our first fireworks went of—before we even made it a single block—people pushed into the doors of bars and restaurants and the metal sound of storm doors slamming closed came to me from all sides. Soon enough the streets were nearly empty, except for a few drunks. Just before we reached the main boulevard we ran past two old men who had been locked out of their bar by the storm doors and were huddled in the stone entryway holding small glasses of beer. I felt a pang of guilt about the whole thing, about breaking up the evening for these innocent people. But then Asier was grabbing me by the shoulder, and there wasn’t time. Asier, Daniel, and I broke off from the stampede, changing course toward the series of benches along the boulevard, where two buses waited at the curb.

The first bus was filled with passengers, old women and mothers with their children, kids too young or too drunk to drive back to their towns, and so we went directly to the next bus, as was our plan. The driver was a middle-aged man with a huge gut, and when he saw us, three men with dark glasses and bandanas covering their faces, he stood from his seat and pushed forward the box that held the fares he had collected that night. Asier took the small aluminum box and threw it out the bus door, pointing for the bus driver to follow it out onto the street.

I felt a change taking place in Asier. The voice that came from under the bandana, ordering the few remaining passengers out the back door of the bus—first in Euskera, then in Spanish—seemed entirely foreign. It wasn’t the voice of the boy who had cried at his tenth birthday when his cousin had punched him in the stomach, or even the one that had yelled to me over the waves at the beach the week before. Daniel was kneeling down in the aisle, pulling the two-liter bottles out of his backpack, and I simply stood in the empty doorway watching the scene clicking forward.

Daniel took one of the bottles and ran to the back of the bus, while Asier removed the remaining bottle and put it under the steering wheel. You could see the small wet treads where the driver’s feet had been just moments before.

“Ready?” Asier yelled to Daniel in the back of the bus. It was surprisingly quiet in there, just the three of us, and then Daniel nodded back. Asier took a lighter from his pocket, and Daniel did the same. It was a strange dance, the way they moved in time with each other. The rags that hung from the tops of the bottles lit simultaneously, and still the bus was quiet.

“OK, let’s go,” Daniel said from the back of the bus. “Fuck. It’s done.”

And then we were back on the streets, running past the bus driver and the couple of passengers who were still standing outside, and then we were back into the night, taking a side road to catch up with the rest of the group. I waited for the two explosions, but instead all I heard were the sirens of the Ertzaintza as they arrived in the old quarter of the city.

*                      *                     *

We never heard an explosion, but in the newspaper the next morning the front page contained a photograph of the bus in Bermeo radiating flames five meters high. In the picture, the fat bus driver stood with his hand on his bald head as he watched the bus burn, his little aluminum box still tucked under an arm. As I read the article my mother clucked her tongue in that disapproving way. “Que gilipollas,” she said. She placed a plate of toasted bread in front of me, on top of the newspaper. When I moved the plate and continued to read, she seemed to watch me more carefully.

“Where did you say you were last night?” she asked, pouring coffee into the cup she had set out for me. At the place next to mine was my father’s plate, dusted in crumbs, and his empty cup.

“I told you,” I said. “With Asier and Daniel. We were writing new songs—we’re playing in Gernika in two weeks.”

Well, the first part was true. I had been with Asier and Daniel. I stared at the picture of the driver in front of the flaming bus and began to worry about just how far things had progressed.

That morning I drove my moto to the turnoff just before the road begins to climb to San Jorge, to the small clearing in the woods where Asier and I would meet each day before school. Asier was already there, sitting on the black vinyl seat of his Honda and smoking, flicking his ashes onto last year’s rotting leaves. He was in a pair of jeans and a ripped Misfits shirt, his favorite. He held the joint out to me and I took it.

“Not going to school?” I said.

“Are you kidding me?” he said. “After last night? Did you see the newspapers? It couldn’t have gone more perfectly. Gorka called my house this morning to congratulate me.”

“You?” I asked.

“Us,” he said. “You know what I mean. Don’t be a pussy about this, Iker. Last night was huge. It could mean huge things for us.”

I wondered what “huge things” could include. Lately I had been talking more seriously with Nere about applying to university in San Sebastián. It was farther away, too far to make the drive every day, as most kids from Muriga did when they attended university in Bilbao. But living away from home was something I found myself thinking about more and more. Nere had a cousin there, and we planned to visit after I finished final exams, maybe look at some apartments. None of these, of course, were ideas I mentioned to Asier. They didn’t have any relevance to his “huge things.”

“I have to go,” I said. I straightened the collar on my uniform and pulled the red tie close to my neck. “Fucking professor Garrett called my mother last week. Said I wouldn’t graduate unless I did extra work to make up for absences. He didn’t call your parents?”

“He did,” Asier said. “I don’t give a shit about his class, or about San Jorge. And neither should you, Iker. We’re working on much more important things now. The bus in Bermeo—that will be on the news tonight. Just watch. Things are really going to change for us.”

He still looked like the kid I had grown up with, the floppy brown hair and the crooked tooth that only came out when he smiled. But I didn’t know this person standing in front of me at all, and I wondered if he was thinking the same thing about me.

“Sure,” I said. “Sure. All the same, I’m going to see the guiri professor. Should I tell him you’re sick?”

“Tell him whatever you want. Tell him to read the newspaper.”

*                      *                     *

The idea had been to hold the Councilman for forty-eight hours, as a show of strength against the Partido Popular in the coming election. The genius of the plan was its simplicity, its foolproofness: an anonymous abduction, an anouncement, and then we would release him. There was no discussion of a ransom, of a swap for prisoners. These were complications known only to Gorka, though I’ve often wondered how much Asier knew and never told me.

Asier called my house several times the week before, leaving messages with my mother. But all of my time after school was occupied with studying for my final exams, and when I wasn’t taking sample grammar tests or filling out verb tense charts I was with Nere, and so the messages went unanswered.

I had imagined leaving Muriga, growing older, becoming another person; but in this fantasy Asier always remained in Muriga, wandering the same streets.

After a week of unreturned phone calls, I met Asier face to face. I was parking my motor scooter outside of Nere’s parents’ house when he sat up off the curb. Daniel was with him, and I saw Asier motion for him to stay sitting on the corner.

“I guess you got my calls,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I haven’t had the time to call back. I’ve been studying for the English exam.”

He nodded, then kicked at a flattened Coca-Cola can that had been left in the road.

“I’m applying to university in San Sebastián,” I said. “If I’m accepted, Nere will go with me.”

He kicked again at the flattened can. His hair was longer, a single churro dangling awkwardly behind his ear. Daniel stayed on the curb smoking his cigarette.

“She has a cousin there we can stay with,” I said dumbly.

“That’s good,” he said. “That’ll be good for you.”

“Yes,” I said. “We always talked about leaving Muriga, didn’t we?”

Bai,” he said. “In fact, I have plans to leave as well.”

I tried to imagine where he would go. I couldn’t picture Asier leaving Muriga without me, but I could so easily imagine the opposite. I had imagined leaving Muriga, growing older, becoming another person, walking the streets of San Sebastián or Paris or New York; but in this fantasy Asier always remained in Muriga, wandering the same streets, wearing the same torn blue jeans and black t-shirts silk-screened with band names, preserved forever as I knew him then.

“The other side,” he said, nodding his head up the street, toward the steep foothills of the Pyrenees. “Iparralde.”

“France?” I asked, nearly laughing. “You’re moving to France?”

Asier scowled, the same scowl that appeared when we played table soccer and he was concentrating deeply.

“Yes,” he said. “With Gorka, I think. There are friends there. We’ll be in exile.”

He said the word proudly. He knew its connotations—it brought to mind all the history from Asier’s speeches in the bunker above the cliffs, of Basques who had lived in Mexico or Cuba during the Franco years, of the photographs we displayed during our protests of the young men and women who couldn’t enter back into Spain because of what awaited them. I shrugged my shoulders.

“Well, I hope that what they say about the girls there is true,” I said.

“Listen,” he said, putting a hand on my shoulder. I felt Daniel watching us. “We’re going to do it. With the Councilman, as we had planned before. It will be simple—two days only. We take him for two days, to let the Party know that they aren’t welcome here in Muriga, and then we let him go.”

I felt his hand tighten on my shoulder.

“You need to help us,” he said. “You’re going to leave Muriga, and that’s fine. You have the right to. But you also owe it to Muriga to help us.”

*                      *                     *

I’ve spent a lot of my time in the Salto asking myself why I agreed to Asier’s plan. Maybe I did owe it to Muriga. But more importantly, I felt I owed it to Asier. We both sensed the end of our friendship approaching, a period in our lives coming to a close. If there is one thing we’re taught in Muriga, it’s that we owe something to our histories.

I remember telling myself that I was also thinking of Nere, though I know now this was never the case. I thought of our new life together in San Sebastián, and about the new person I was set to become, and I imagined this as a part of the new person waiting out in the future. The younger version of myself would have run the streets of this village, have thrown Molotov cocktails and burned a bus, and was responsible for the kidnapping of Muriga’s Partido Popular candidate in 1997. At parties and in restaurants in San Sebastián, people would speak about these things quietly, nodding their heads in the direction of the new man from Muriga. They would know. Maybe I’d tell the story of the kidnapping, maybe I’d keep it to myself. But they would know. Nere would know.

Of course, it had never been about her. If it had been, I would have told her all about it beforehand. She almost certainly would have tried to talk me out of it—we had a future almost in reach. When she finally found out what we were up to it was too late: I was calling her from a roadside pay phone on the highway to France with Gorka, and the Councilman’s body was already being dragged out by the tide.

The important thing, of course, is that I agreed. During the trial, the fiscal didn’t care about why I had agreed. He didn’t ask about Nere, or Asier, or about the future I had planned. The only important thing to him was that I had agreed.

Daniel testified about the conversation between Asier and me that afternoon. He told the court that I had been eager to go along with Asier’s plan, that he’d tried to dissuade us but that we pressured him into helping. Gorka’s attorney, a public attorney appointed by the judge, slid his chair away from us when Daniel pointed, as if he were concerned that the judge might mistakenly include him with the two murderers. I struggled to stay silent, to not call Daniel a liar or point out that he wouldn’t even make eye contact with me as he was making his accusations.

But now I wish that Dani had looked up at me. If he had, I would have tried to tell him that I understood that he didn’t love us any less because he had agreed to testify in exchange for a four-year sentence. I keep thinking back to those early days at the bunkers, when he and Luken would return to the public school in Muriga while Asier and I hiked back up the hill to San Jorge; there had always been a gulf between us. I would have told Dani that I understood self-preservation is sometimes at odds with what we love, and that to choose to survive is not to forgo friendship.

This is just another one of the true but untrue accounts that I often give from within the painted concrete walls of the Salto del Negro. We’re all familiar with these evolving memories here. Manolito, the old gypsy who has been in the Salto longer than anyone, once came to our cell with a plastic bag filled with clear rum that a guard had smuggled in for him. After he passed the bag between Andreas and me, he leaned drunkenly back against the legs of Andreas’s bunk. We all pretended that we were friends at a bar, telling stories. When the conversation died down and the rum got us thinking of old times, Andreas asked the old man what he had done to arrive in the prison.

“The truth is, I don’t remember,” he said. He picked at the elastic band around the neck of his shirt. “They tell me I stabbed a woman in Cádiz, but I don’t believe it.”

Andreas laughed. Manolito reached for the plastic bag, and tipped it up so the last of the liquor dripped into his caved-in mouth.

“When I think of my time before the Salto, I remember living the life of a saint. Don’t you?”

*                      *                     *

After Gorka and I were arrested at the French border in Hendaya we were interrogated separately by the Spanish police for two days. Within the first few hours I had told the young detective, Castro, everything that had happened. They had arrested Daniel and Asier at a roadblock the morning before—this much Gorka had already told me. Dani had spilled everything to them, Castro said. When Castro told me that Dani had admitted to burning the bus in Bermeo and that the rifle I had guarded the Councilman with had been taken from Asier’s father’s closet, I knew that he had confessed, and so I began to talk. Gorka had been more resilient; it wasn’t until the second day of interrogation that he admitted his role in shooting the Councilman.

During the fourth day of the trial the fiscal handed a transcript of my interview with detective Castro to the judge before asking a judicial assistant to play the audiotape. There was static, followed by Castro reading the date of the interview into the recorder, and then the courtroom was filled with a voice both familiar and foreign. The courtroom watched me as my voice came through the monitors.

We covered his eyes with an old beach towel, my voice said.

Who? asked the voice of the detective. Who put the towel over his head?

Gorka, my voice answered. Gorka covered his head. He was squirming, trying to make noise. Gorka hit him once through the towel. I was the one who put the clothesline around his hands.

The recording captured just a series of facts, of events. It was incomplete. Everything important had happened in between.

In the recording I recalled how Asier and I had spent the night with the Councilman in the bunker as Gorka and Dani drove to Bermeo and made calls to the Ertzaintza headquarters in Bilbao as well as the offices of the newspapers El Diario Vasco, El País, Egunkaria, and El Mundo, demanding the release of five political prisoners, including Gorka’s brother, Xabi Auzmendi. The recording ended with my voice telling the courtroom about the morning when I had been left alone to guard the Councilman, and how he had made a run for it when my migraine hit, and how after he was dead we had pushed the body over the edge of the cliffs and down into the sea. But the recording captured just a series of facts, of events. It was incomplete. Everything important had happened in between.

*                      *                     *

The migraine was just beginning to pass when I heard my name being shouted from the trail. I had pulled my shirt over my head to escape the sunlight, the rifle on the ground next to me. I pushed my head through the shirt and squinted against the landscape; there was a scraping noise coming from behind me in the bunker, and I struggled up to my feet.

“There he is!” I heard Gorka yell across the pasture, and when I turned I could make out the Councilman’s dark silhouette running from the bunker, his hands still bound behind his back, taking off toward the cliffs. I picked up the rifle and stumbled after him, closing my eyes against the whiteness of the morning sun, running blind for a few steps.

Gorka overtook me in less than a hundred meters, cutting powerfully through the grass like a shark through the dark waters of the harbor below. As he passed to my left he reached behind his back to pull a revolver from the waistband of his pants. There were only forty meters separating Gorka from the Councilman when I saw the Councilman trip over the eroded wall of another bunker. His body pitched awkwardly into the grass beyond, unable to catch himself with his hands bound.

I knew the chase was over. I held on to the rifle as a crutch and closed my eyes tight again. The pain radiated around the left side of my head, into my neck and jaw. I listened, waiting for Gorka to drag the Councilman back to the bunker, waiting to hear Aiser approaching from the trail.

When I forced my eyes open Gorka was standing behind the Councilman, who was trying to get to his feet. Gorka yelled something at him that I couldn’t make out. The Councilman’s head moved as if he were saying something in return. Behind the two men the sun glared off the surface of the harbor, and gulls circled in the empty air. I turned back toward the bunker, wondering where Asier and Dani were, what we would do now. But I saw only the gray, falling walls of the bunker, the green stretch of pasture leading into the dark rows of ash and birch, and somewhere beyond the tall fortress walls of San Jorge.

Even now, six years away from that morning, this picture of the empty bunker and the trees comes as a flash, as I wash out the green plastic cup in the sink of our cell, or as I lay awake in bed listening to the rise and fall of Andreas’s breathing in the bunk above mine. In this flash I don’t just see the abandoned building and the blowing grass, but also the smoothness of Nere’s shoulder half-covered by the blanket we had carried to the beach from her father’s house. I breathe in the burnt coffee smell of the old American professor, feel the sting of my father’s aftershave as he holds my head tight against his shoulder after the verdict is read. I hear the cries of the gulls and shorebirds and feel the salt air and watch the empty spot in the cold green water of the harbor where Asier disappeared, a trail of white air surfacing in his place. I think of the smallness of each act—the few minutes we’d needed to plan the kidnapping, the small deed of taking the rifle from Asier’s father’s closet, Gorka’s pushing the Councilman the short distance into the back seat of the car—and how disproportionately large the sum of these acts would become.

All of this in an instant, and then Gorka lifts the pistol to the head of the Councilman. The pistol jumps in his hand, and a moment later the sound of the shot arrives.

In the seconds that follow the world seems to stop, as if to take a breath; the wind stops blowing and the sea no longer pitches against the cliffs below us. The gulls pause in midair to watch, and then the pistol jumps once more in Gorka’s hand and the world begins again. A fishing boat starts to churn the green water of the harbor. I hear my voice carry across the broken concrete of the bunkers, see the wind pushing clouds across the blue sky, carrying me away from Nere, away from Muriga, away from the life I’d known before the Salto.

G

Author Image

Excerpted from All That Followed: A Novel by Gabriel Urza (August, Holt).

Gabriel Urza received his MFA from Ohio State University. His family is from the Basque region of Spain, where he lived for several years. He is a grant recipient of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and his short fiction and essays have been published in Riverteeth, Hobart, Erlea, The Kenyon Review, West Branch, Slate, and other publications. He also has a degree in law from the University of Notre Dame and has spent several years as a public defender in Reno, Nevada. He currently teaches creative writing at Ithaca College.

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