The Ancient Mariner by Joseba Sarrionandia

Translated by Linda White

“Sooner or later everyone knows
All the routes of escape are closed.”
Joannes Etxeberri of Ziburu

A cluster of old houses surrounded an ivy-covered church at the foot of a terrible cliff on the steep seaward slope. Narrow paths led down to the port. No railway served these smugglers’ stores, and there was no road for cars. The smuggler had to travel on foot or by mule, and on my bosses’ orders, I set out on foot as well.

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

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

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

The bartender lit an oil lamp. Now the old man’s dark eyes looked blue to me. There was surely a big storm coming. Mariners’ wives were standing at their windows with worried faces. We could see them through the windows of the inn. Also visible was the murky, churning sea, and there was not a single fisherman on its dark and choppy surface. The bartender brought gin for the old salt and red wine for me, both in heavy glasses. The mariner lifted his glass roughly.

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

As I wiped off the window with my neckerchief, the woman who’d appeared at hers left the house and went to the dock with a child in her arms.
There, more women had gathered. They conversed nervously. From the bar you could only hear a few isolated words.
“Afraid of turning into widows,” said the old man, watching them.

The women, some holding babies, gazed out at the dark sea but saw nothing.

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

In the city, a terrible story was being passed around. I didn’t know if it was true or not, and I didn’t mention it, but with each glass we drew nearer to the subject. The rain was falling gently against the window, the sound of it a background to the sailor’s voice.
“There were three of us working, my brother, my son, and me. A white whale came close to shore and we got it in our heads to go after him. Not just to get the whale. We were betting on who was the best harpooner. We went out in the long-boat and overtook it easily because it was sick. It came to shore to die. We harpooned it, but it was a big whale, and he fought hard to get away. He thrashed about in the water, and it took us two hours to finish him off.”
“We got a whale once, too, in the Irish Sea,” I said, “but didn’t have the room or the time to haul it in, so it stayed right where it was, like a small island on the water.”

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

The voices of the women on the dock got louder. Some trawlers were returning from the sea. When they recognized a father, a husband, or a son, they shouted with joy. The rest of the women stood sadly staring into the distance. The woman with the child in her arms stood silently, gazing at the point where the waves formed.
The fisherman returned to his tale. “It was a terrible storm. Our long-boat broke up. That’s when my brother died. He didn’t even know how to swim. My son and I barely made it to the beach not far from here.”

He drank deeply, as if it were his last chance. He brushed droplets off his white beard and sat staring into his empty glass, looking for secrets, or maybe some tenderness.
“I heard your story in the city,” I said. “I heard you never went out again, and–”
He broke in. “Did they call us cowards?”

I told him I heard it in a mariners’ bar, and that sailors take pleasure in recounting the mysteries and tragedies of the sea. In the diamond glint of the old man’s eye, I saw something, hatred, or maybe despair. Rain sluiced down the window and splashed onto the pavers below, softening the look of them. I read in his eyes that nothing could keep a sailor from returning to the sea, not fear, not a wife, not a legend. And the rain fell on the mutinous, burgeoning sea.
Most of the trawlers had made it to port by then. Only one vessel was unaccounted for, and only a few women remain on the dock. One of them was holding a frightened child by the hand. Her tired eyes continued to search the distant darkness after most of the others went home with their sailors to the warmth of the hearth where they hung their shirts and trousers to dry and felt protected beneath their husbands. Suddenly thunder exploded overhead, and the rain became a downpour, collapsing umbrellas, deepening the darkness, and striking at the hopes of those who were waiting. Then the dock was empty, occupied only by the storm. The mother with the toddler in her arms came into the tavern. She was soaked and sopping, like wet bread. She was morose and impatient at the same time. The waves broke over the dock.

“Who is she?” I asked the old man, even though I felt I knew.
“The wife of a fisherman who didn’t come back,” he said.

I was pretty sure I knew, but I didn’t ask again. Now the rain was beating like a drum, like a hundred drums on the broad window. In the child’s blue eyes, I saw the same diamond glint I’d seen in the old mariner’s.

A boy arrived, soaking wet and gasping for air, all excited. He said the last boat was coming in, you could see it from the lookout point. The woman left in a rush, pulling the toddler by the hand, not even bothering to open her umbrella. The old sailor got up and tottered to the door. I followed him. Along the dock under the dark storm, up some slippery stone stairs, and we managed to climb the slope to the chapel and the lookout. Five or six women gathered around an oil lamp and looked out at some invisible point on the wild sea. High on the lookout, the wind whistled through their long hair and whipped their clothes and the branches of trees, while far below the heavy waves crashed against the rocks at the foot of the cliff.

A tiny boat struggled on the swollen sea, looking like a fly in a tumbler of water. Tossed among the waves, sometimes it sank out of sight only to reappear on the surface, seemingly no bigger than a dead insect. The child cried “Mama” and the woman’s eyes grew wet, but not with rain or sea spray. The boat inched toward the harbor between waves as dangerous as giant knives.

We all went back down the stone stairs in the dark and the rain. The old man walked glumly by my side.
I asked him, “Do you believe that legend about the seagulls?”
“What’s to believe? The sea kills a fisherman who has killed a seagull. But the fisherman who fails to go out because his wife tells him not to, he’s not a fisherman. He’s nothing.”

The women were moving toward the dock, joined by a few men who’d come down from the houses. We went back inside the inn and watched from the window, ordering two gins. In the dim light, they cast the rope from the prow of the trawler and made it fast to the iron bollard. The woman with the child turned abruptly and ran back to her house in the shadows.
“Why didn’t she stay to wait for her husband?” I asked.
“My son stayed home a long, long time, but today he went out to the fishing grounds. This morning eight men went out in the trawler, and now seven have come back. My son hasn’t.”

There was no lessening of the rain. I was thinking that the sea was a deep black mouth with no gulls. The bartender brought our gin in glass tumblers, and the old man’s wrinkled fingers carried it immediately to his mouth. Some of the women from the dock went silently to the house of the woman and child. Soon no one could be seen outside the window. The two of us were left alone in the bar, next to the oil lamp.

All the sadness of the sea lay in the old fisherman’s eyes as he said to me, “Now tell me why you’ve come.”[/private]

Joseba Sarrionandia translations include Eliot’s The Waste Land, Pessoa’s O Marinheiro and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Linda White is Emeritus Professor at the Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada. “The Ancient Mariner” was originally published in
An Anthology of Basque Short Stories edited by Mari Jose Olaziregi.

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