Berezi’s husband beat their dog and afterwards my boyfriend said, ‘I hate when he does that.’ He was very upset. I knew the second the man hit the dog that I hated him but the circumstances were such that I didn’t say anything.
My boyfriend and I were at the lake. The lake was artificial; it was part of a park. The man with the dog was my boyfriend’s brother-in-law; he was married to Berezi, my boyfriend’s older sister. We were all at the lake and in fact walking in opposite directions around it.
My boyfriend saw Berezi’s husband first and he waved. The man stopped when he was close, when the dog he had with him barked at my boyfriend, barked at him in a way that was impatient, excited; then the man beat the dog until it stopped.
Then the man was breathless. His pale hands were red with the effort and there was blood flushing his cheeks. He felt good; I could tell. He looked so different from my boyfriend and his family that it hurt me to think there could be any association. When we were alone, my boyfriend said: ‘I hate when he does that. When he hits the dog.’ He was very upset. I think my boyfriend felt what I felt. I think he hated the man. But even then he wouldn’t, he couldn’t, say it.
It was difficult to process, that the man and my boyfriend were related.
At the time I am thinking of, my boyfriend’s family was like this: his older brother was long ago lost to America; his older sister Berezi was married but often around; his little sister, Lur, was newly thirteen. My boyfriend’s parents, his mother and father, were Basque; growing up, my boyfriend and his family had spoken Euskara at home but they didn’t now because his mother had died, because his father had married again and their stepmother did not understand it.
He and I were eighteen, nineteen, together, at the college but each still living at home. We spent a lot of time at his house because it was a nice place to be. His family ate together: if it was dark, they lit candles; if it was bright, they ate outside. They arranged plates with serving spoons and passed around bread.
They liked to sit on the deck outside afterwards. Berezi’s dog was good and they taught her to stand, to speak, to roll over. It was calming.
Berezi missed speaking Euskara. She had spoken it longest. She read folktales, books about the Basque religion, and sometimes the evenings were like this: with care, she told us old, beautiful things.
I’m not saying my boyfriend or his family took it for granted, but I don’t think they knew how rare it was for families to be calming, to pass around bread.
One evening, it was realised that my boyfriend and I had been going out a long time: in the course of a few months, Lur had turned fourteen, Berezi had had her first baby, and we had been together for all of it.
That same evening, my boyfriend’s family decided I should bring my mother over.
It built over a couple weeks. They became quite insistent. They wanted to meet her; they knew me so well; they said that, really, they should have met her already. ‘It’s only one dinner!’
In the end, I asked my mother only in the confidence that she would refuse. I texted her after I left my boyfriend’s house. I said: you don’t want to have dinner with my boyfriend’s family do you? I worded the message carefully, so that it would be as easy as possible for her to answer: no. I did this consciously; the message had three drafts. She replied some twenty minutes later. Let me know what day, she typed. ill take the evening off work.
So I brought her.
I can’t explain why she came. The effort almost killed her. She went to the bathroom. She tied her hair back. She sat at the table, flinching. She did not know what to do when people passed dishes to her so that, gradually, everyone stopped.
She spoke when my boyfriend’s father, Aitor, asked her something. She told a story about finding a bird with a savagely broken wing, as a child. She had run to a neighbour who called a vet, but the vet said that the bird would die in horrible pain and so she had stood there and wrung the bird’s neck. The silence was terrible when my mother finished speaking. She was close to tears.
The evening never recovered.
Aitor and Berezi cleared the table and we moved to the chairs outside but the sky was cluttered with satellites; it wasn’t the same. My mother was mortified. She wanted to leave, but my boyfriend’s family were generous people: they did not want her to go until she had managed a normal exchange, until there was something to salvage from the whole, long night, something to ease the embarrassment. I think this plan was obvious to everyone except my mother. She was desperate to go home. Her face had started to turn a strange grey. She and I never ate together, we didn’t have mealtimes or conversations; she was reaching her absolute limit. But the longer she fussed and tried to escape, the longer we had to wait for one snippet of half-normal conversation so that we could pretend the meeting had been successful. Berezi explained that their family was Basque, that one of their mother’s parents was monolingual, had only Euskara; my mother seemed barely conscious underneath her grey skin.
‘The baby,’ Berezi was saying, ‘is called Ihintza.’
She was saying this when her husband came clattering through the kitchen and out onto the deck, car keys swinging.
I moved like their dog: I flinched, I tried to move away. I had only seen Berezi’s husband once, twice, since the day at the lake. I wanted to say that my mother and I had to go, but I found, instead, that I could not say anything.
Berezi had stopped speaking.
‘Go on,’ her husband said, in such a way that we knew she should not.
‘You’re a broken fucking record, Berezi,’ he said. I thought he pronounced her name wrong. I tried not to hear him, the things that he said. I sat like my mother, twitching. When Berezi stood up, I thought they would row, but they didn’t. Her arms dropped and she left with her husband. She took the dog.
In the silence afterwards, I took my mother home.
At ours, she vomited in the kitchen sink. She was so stressed from the evening that I am sure she blacked out, that no memories formed, because after that night, if I mentioned my boyfriend or his family, she seemed as blank as ever.
I knew I should keep away for a while, give my boyfriend’s family some time to recover, but I couldn’t do it. I needed those evenings, those seats on the deck.
In the months and then the years after, they asked about my mother often, not out of politeness but genuine concern. I didn’t have much to tell them. She was a mystery to me, as she was to herself.
My boyfriend never asked about her. I think that when he found people, their actions, their behaviour, distressing, he’d pretend that he hadn’t noticed anything. He never asked about my mother, and he never mentioned Berezi’s husband.
Sometimes I felt I missed my boyfriend’s mother. I didn’t know why; I had never met her. My boyfriend did not talk about her. Berezi showed me photographs one day when the house was quiet, and I saw how their mother was beautiful, how she and my boyfriend shared a face. There was talk, sometimes, of digitising old tapes, of getting footage loaded onto DVDs so they could watch old years back, but in all the time I knew them, it was not done.
My boyfriend’s family was the first I knew who had lost a parent they loved and at first, it shocked me that they spoke of her so little.
I don’t know when I realised that Maritxu was everywhere. I saw her as scientists find a black hole: there she was in the absence. Everything moved around her. There she was, at the centre. She was the reason they moved as they did.
Maritxu: I saw her one day when we were cleaning the living room. Aitor had taken a notion, and I said I would help. To hoover the floor, he rolled up the room’s rug and then I saw there was blood on its underside. When she was dying, he said, she lost all her hair so her head was bare and unprotected. One day, she fell trying to get out of her seat. Her head split open with the force of the fall. Her blood pooled in a circle. Aitor said that he scrubbed for a long time to get the blood out of the rug’s surface, its fibres, but he had never managed to shift the stain underneath. That was the living room; that was the rug. That was what was left there: rings of her blood.
Berezi told us often about the Basque religion, her understanding pieced together from articles, books. ‘The Basque people are called Euskaldunak,’ Berezi told me, ‘and they have lived in their land, Euskal Herria, since forever. The world is a god named Amalur. She is living, alive. Every morning, Amalur births the sun, and it rises. The sun is a god named Eki. Every night, the sun sets, and travels through the red seas beneath the earth called itxagorrieta, travelling each night back to Amalur’s womb. Every night, Amalur births the moon, a god named Ilargi. The moon returns home to the earth every night.’ This was a cycle without ending. This was the world. There was another story, important to Berezi because of its age, about a shapeshifting bull. Paintings and engravings of the bull had been found in caves associated with the spirit, and people believed that this proved the story dated from the Stone Age.
I took more of an interest than my boyfriend did.
I think he thought a lot of his brother, the one in America, though this is a guess; he would never have said. I think maybe for him Euskara was his mother, and the association was painful, so he pushed it away; or maybe he felt he did not remember the language as well as he might have. It had been many years since they had spoken it together.
Sometimes he was there when Aitor told stories: ‘Euskara was banned under Franco, they wanted to eradicate it; it was illegal to give your babies Basque names, nothing could be published in Basque, nobody could teach or learn it.’ Sometimes, Aitor would say: ‘They fined us for speaking it, our own language, our own country–’ They tried to destroy every trace of the language, removed it even from graves.’
Sometimes my boyfriend was there but often, I looked at him, the expression he had, the light on his face from the phone in his palm, and I thought: he doesn’t want to know.
Berezi had a second child by this time, born a year after the first. She asked my boyfriend and me to mind Ihintza, the eldest. We were always at my boyfriend’s house so it was not difficult to arrange; we were all in the kitchen chatting and then when Berezi had to go, she took one baby and left another. By this time, the baby, Ihintza, knew us; she never made strange, and it was nice to be together in that house. It was so familiar.
Together, we waited for Berezi. But at the end of the day, Berezi did not come: her husband showed up instead.
It had been a long time since I had seen Berezi’s husband. He was almost always away. He came into the kitchen.
My boyfriend was uneasy. ‘Well,’ he said to the man, as though they would have something to say.
I was watching Ihintza. The change in her was extreme: she was suddenly agitated, fractious, moving around the kitchen as fast as her body allowed, yelling in bursts.
Then Berezi’s husband screamed at the baby.
He screamed terrible, adult things.
The baby stopped.
She stood very still. My boyfriend started a conversation. I think he aimed to distract Berezi’s husband, to ensure there would be no more yelling, but I hated it anyway, I hated it all. My boyfriend and I stood there and I hated us both because we had known who he was, we had known what would happen, we had known since the first time we saw him hit his dog.
I didn’t say anything after Berezi’s husband left.
My boyfriend kept talking about different things until it was evening and then the rest of the family returned, and I realised he would never acknowledge what had happened at all. I hated us for that too. When the man had hit his dog, those years ago, my boyfriend, upset, embarrassed even, had said to me, ‘I hate when he does that’. This time, he didn’t say anything. It was too big.
I was always at my boyfriend’s house. I felt I had known him forever there.
We were older, then, but only just. Berezi had the babies now; Lur was fifteen and had Berezi’s dog turning circles, standing to beg; their stepmother was five cigarettes deep into a reclaimed habit and we were trying to put her off: ‘Think of the phlegm, think of the cough.’
We sat together on the deck, outside under blankets. I could see the moon, just born, and Berezi pointed, called out her name: Ilargi. Aitor was excited because he said he could hear owls. After a time my boyfriend went inside to find a speaker, to play music through his phone.
His little sister Lur sat down beside me while my boyfriend was gone. It was sudden; it threw me. Lur: I did not know her well. She said, ‘Can I add you on Snapchat?’ She said quickly, ‘Please?’
I didn’t say anything.
Because we were side by side but both looking ahead, I felt we were spies in an old film, sitting back-to-back in a park. She seemed very small to me, like a child I might babysit. My boyfriend was coming back out through the kitchen.
‘OK,’ I told her. She seemed relieved.
Lur had always been a child in the years I had known her. She wore purple glasses and had purple braces on her teeth. My boyfriend’s family had explained to me that Lur’s small size and Maritxu’s death were connected; it was something Aitor truly believed.
She went inside early that night. She said she was sleepy, and we called out goodnight.
I stayed for a long time.
My boyfriend played music through the speaker he’d found and his dad said, ‘That’s my boy,’ at the music he chose. My boyfriend was elated; he looked down at his hands.
I stayed for a long time and then I walked home. In the kitchen I stood, with the kettle boiling, and I read the messages from Lur, waiting for me on Snapchat.
hi this is lur
maybe this is weird but i need to talk to u
i am pregnant can i talk to you about it
I’m not sure why but I felt I could cry and cry. Maybe you’d have to have known her then. Lur was so small. She wore hair clips, glasses and braces; her mother was dead and she missed her so much; her sister had babies but an English man screamed at them all; Lur was quiet, had been quiet all the years I had known her. Even the messages: Lur was using an app that would leave no trail, sending me messages that would disappear. I stood by the kettle, very still.
Some hours later, my mother came in. She jumped when she saw me. In fact, she screamed and almost fell back. Then she said, teary, ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ and I said, ‘I live here,’ though I knew she meant, Why are you in the kitchen at this time of night? Why aren’t you sleeping, like you usually are?
I told her I couldn’t sleep though, truthfully, I hadn’t tried. She stood at the sink filling the kettle. I didn’t know how long Lur had kept her secret before telling me, but as soon as I saw my mother I knew I would tell her in minutes. I’m not sure why. We weren’t close: we didn’t have conversations, we didn’t eat together, we did not say goodnight. We shared a feeling of having survived terrible people but that relief could not make us understand each other. We were separate, though we still shared the same flat.
I said to her, ‘Can I tell you something?’
Sometimes my mother acted as though she couldn’t hear. She did not turn around.
‘Can I tell you something, a secret?’ I said.
She poured out hot water from the kettle she’d boiled. She said,’ If you want.’
‘My boyfriend’s little sister, she thinks that she’s pregnant.’
My mother said she was tired. She said I should go to bed.
I didn’t see Lur for a couple of days. At my boyfriend’s house I saw the others, but Lur was missing. One night it was warmer and we had dinner outside. Berezi’s babies stood on our laps, taking food with their hands. Aitor loved them: he whispered things to them, questions, in Basque. That night on the deck, the owls were loud and their stepmother brought out an unopened dessert wine she’d found. We all took tiny cups. Aitor told us things about the birds.
I was almost sleeping, my back flat against the chair.
Berezi passed me the baby she had named Xixili, her little body leaden with sleep, and she said, ‘You girls can nap together.’
Berezi and Aitor were talking. Berezi was excited, she was pleased: she had joined a group, they met on Zoom to speak Euskara together. ‘A language isolate is a language unrelated to any other in the world,’ she was saying. ‘Euskara is the last remaining language of prehistoric Europe, older than the Indo-Europeans, older than the Celts.’ I thought of god: the earth, the sun, the moon. ‘France and Spain divided the Basque country, in creating their nation states; Euskara is being deliberately suppressed. France refuses to officially recognise Basque at all, bars any citizen from using Basque in a court of law, mandates that all Basque children be educated in French.’ Xixili lay on my lap, breathing in and breathing out.
‘Native languages have a value,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ Aitor said. ‘That’s right.’
‘There is this,’ Berezi said then, ‘This, the Kurdish poet, Musa Anter: if my mother tongue is shaking the foundations of your state, it probably means that you built your state on my land.’
I wanted to ask about Lur but the time wasn’t right. Aitor had listened but now he was sad. ‘It was terrible,’ he said. He was upset, he was talking quickly. ‘The Spanish government shut down the only Basque language newspaper,’ he told us, ‘raided them, seized everything, froze all their assets, arrested ten members of staff in dawn raids, called them terrorists, charged them with forming an illegal organisation, threatened to jail them for up to fourteen years; some of those held said they had been tortured. All those charged were later cleared and released.’ There was a grief in his voice. Aitor said, ‘That was only some years ago, do you understand?’
Berezi said that she did, but she sounded uncertain.
When I was leaving, I called it out: ‘Where’s Lur?’ I said.
Nobody knew; they weren’t alarmed. My boyfriend said, ‘She’s seventeen.’
That night she messaged me four lines.
no one knows dont tell them
im sorry i know this is weird
i just thought i shld say to someone
and youre always around
In the morning I lay in my bed for a long time. I wanted small dreams, the ones that come through like short films on your eyelids. In this vague, bright way, I dreamt that somebody loved me. The feeling coloured the rest of my day.
I sat in the kitchen on Snapchat for hours.
I struggled to reply to Lur’s messages. I didn’t know how to be a friend to her. I asked her things like a nurse might: how are you feeling today?
I didn’t know how to speak to her. I didn’t know who she was. I thought of her sat, for hours, on the ground teaching someone else’s dog to do tricks. I ruminated. The pauses between her replies consumed my day. She said that she wanted to meet. We went to a café; this was her idea. She asked me to go up to the counter to order for both of us because ordering made her nervous. Her hair, dark and curly, was held back with lilac clips. Her hot drink, when it came, fogged up her glasses.
‘How are you doing?’ I said, my voice soft like a nurse.
Lur asked, ‘Do you think I should tell them?’
I thought of my boyfriend. I said, ‘I don’t know.’
I wanted to know if she remembered what Berezi had said, that the world is just a parent. I imagined their mother, imagined her taking Lur’s tiny hand, saying, listen, the sun is the earth’s baby, reborn every day. When I looked at Lur I thought repeatedly that she was little, far too little. I knew that they believed Lur had been stunted by grief.
My boyfriend rang me that afternoon. We lived in a small place, and he knew. ‘Why were you getting coffee with my little sister?’ he said.
I lied to him then. I said, ‘Me and your sister, I think we’re friends.’
Sometimes at their house, when things were light and easy, sometimes things were so good I felt I was suspended by them, raised up, held together. Things were so good on nights when the flowers were out, when we sat on the deck laughing, full of sugar; the sunset, the moon came up, my boyfriend had music playing, bright through the speaker, and I felt it in my chest, in my heart, how much I loved living, I loved being alive. Sometimes at their house, I felt this: pure elation.
So maybe I knew for a while that I loved my boyfriend’s family and not him.
I liked my boyfriend very much: he was beautiful, calm, he never raised his voice, but we didn’t work without his family.
One night, my mother was out and I called my boyfriend to come over. He never came here. We sat in my kitchen and I fucked up making pasta and he went to set the table but there was nothing to set it with, only a few forks and small plates. He played music from his phone and the sound was bad. When we were eating, he just kept looking round. He was like a photocopy of himself: pale and fuzzy.
I talked because the noise of the phone on its own made me cagey. I said, ‘Doesn’t it freak you out to see Berezi’s kids getting so big so fast? It’s scary, how they keep growing and growing, and everything has an impact, it all leaves a trace. When they’re babies, it’s ages one to three are crucial, they hardwire a person for life, everything is formed in the first thirty-six months and I think, it’s so sad, and the schools, it’s just tarmac and they’re inside all the time, sit down and shut up, did you read, did you read that link I sent you? They’re called forever chemicals, they’ve said they’re causing infertility, that it could be total, at one hundred per cent, by 2045. There’s plastic in our water, in our food, it’s in our blood –’
My boyfriend said he wasn’t hungry. The food was that bad.
Lur messaged and we met in the café again. I ordered our drinks. She sat with one of her knees bent up under her. ‘It’s OK,’ she said, ‘I’m kind of excited. That’s why I told you,’ she said. ‘I thought I should tell someone. It’s going round and round in my head. I thought I should tell someone and then I can say this stuff out loud.’
She wanted a girl, so that she could name the baby Maritxu. That was important.
‘It might seem strange on a baby,’ she said, ‘maybe at first, but she’d grow into it. Everyone does.’
She was supposed to be worried and I reassuring but I found her to be happy, ready she said, and I felt fear was dripping from my mouth like spit. I couldn’t stop talking. I told her what I had seen, what I’d read.
‘People die having babies,’ I said. ‘Even here, even now, people die giving birth.’
In my head, all my thoughts, I was thinking and thinking. Whoever you are, someone birthed you. You grew in the dark waters of a belly, of a body, you walked around with someone for the guts of a year, your shape was covered by their skin, their organs, their clothes. I thought of what Berezi said, their old religion, the sun and moon, babies, born every morning and night.
I said, ‘Lur, are you sleeping?’
She said, ‘Babe, are you?’
That weekend, my mother told me she’d lost her job. It immobilised her. She could not leave her room. I wanted to be with my boyfriend’s family but even then, I was too worried about her. I went home in the evenings to go into her bedroom and check she still blinked.
I saw my boyfriend for one full Saturday.
We sat in a café, then walked round a park. When he looked at me, I felt he was wondering how he had come to know me.
I thought he was breaking up with me when he said he had news, but in fact the news was that his little sister was pregnant.
‘Lur?’ I said, as though I were surprised.
Then he did break up with me. It was a few hours later. I believe he took the whole day to assess the situation, the state I was in. Could she handle it, he was thinking, if I broke up with her now?
I passed whatever test he’d set, and he did it.
I said that I loved his family.
He said that he knew.
I knew, even then, that I would miss them for the rest of my life. In the days and months after I struggled, a little, to live.
I cannot describe it.
All I had was the flat with my mother in it. I sat in the kitchen and nobody ever came in. I sat on my own and I thought it all through. I wanted to know: did they think of me? I thought about Lur. Sometimes I stared at the space where our conversation had lived, all of our words and their invisible tracks. I wanted to message her but I couldn’t do it.
I saw Berezi maybe five months later. She had Xixili with her, the child’s dark curly hair up in bunches. We talked for a long time. I thought that maybe she missed me from the way that she spoke, from the way that she told me to rest up, to keep going. We talked for a long time until she mentioned her husband. I had to leave her then, his name causing me pain. I said that I was in a rush, and I went home to my mother. She was in her room. She had her eyes closed tight. I was annoyed at myself, and her, and I talked straight at her but I knew from her breathing that I was making her worse so I left. I sat in the kitchen until morning.
I missed my mother.
I checked on her, I brought her things she might need. She was sick but I found, that year, she was not so confusing. I brought her hot drinks in the morning. I brought her food at noon. Since I was a teenager, she had broken in all my shoes for me. She told me she loved me, in that way: I had seen her feet bleed. She wore them just until they softened and would never hurt me.
Image © Paul van de Velde