Kepa found himself sitting at a long table covered in a bright red table cloth. Spread out in front of him were plates of cooked steak, fried potatoes, and salad. Large bowls were filled to the brim with beans and bread. Carafes of wine were spaced evenly down the length of the table. An older man sat across from him, his gnarled hands picking up one of the carafes. His knuckles were swollen and his fingernails misshapen, some of them almost capping the tips of his fingers. The old man smiled at Kepa as he poured him some wine before filling his own glass.
“Just arrived? Couldn’t wait for dinner?” the old man asked.
Kepa nodded. “Yes, only this morning.” He took a deep breath, inhaling the aromas surrounding him. “It smells wonderful.”
The old man chuckled. “They do a good job here. Almost like ama did back in the baserri.”
A young woman came out of the kitchen, carrying plates. She was dressed in a white blouse and a red skirt that fell past her knees. She set one down in front of the old man while playfully smacking the back of his hand. “You just couldn’t wait, could you?”
The old man smiled. “Wait for what? Your answer to my proposal?”
The young woman just laughed. “You know the answer to that, Juan Jose.” She turned to Kepa. “Ongi etorri to the Noriega. My name is Elena. And you are…?”
“Kepa. I just got here this morning.”
“Don’t let this old man fill your head with any nonsense. I think he must have gone a little txoriburu, spending so much time in the mountains.” She placed a plate and bowl in front of Kepa.
“If I’m crazy, it’s with love for you,” said the old man with a wink.
“Oy!” exclaimed Elena. “I’m going to have to send the new girl out next time. I shouldn’t keep all of this to myself!” She disappeared into the kitchen as more people wandered into the dining hall and sat at the tables.
“So,” said the old man as he filled his bowl with beans. “When do you head out?”
“What do you mean? I just got here,” replied Kepa through spoonfuls of beans.
“To the hills,” replied Juan Jose. “When do you go out with your first flock?”
Kepa shrugged. “In the next couple of days, I guess. I haven’t met my boss yet. I think that’s supposed to happen tomorrow.”
“Well, I wish you the best of luck. Try to stay sane up there.” A dark look passed over the man’s face. “I’ve known too many that couldn’t take it.”
Kepa nodded. “I know. There was one, an Amerikatarrak, in the baserri next to us. He had spent a few years here. When he came back, he just couldn’t handle it. He kept to himself in the baserri, never went down to town. One day, they found him. He killed himself with a shotgun.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Too many get sheeped, go crazy in the head. It’s a hard life. You need to take care up there.”
“I will. Thanks.”
As more joined them, the conversation shifted to the upcoming dance and pilota competition. Kepa was glad for the change of topic. As the women shuffled back and forth from the kitchen, he could have sworn he caught a glimpse of Maite, but if she were amongst them, she didn’t come by to say hello.
As the meal wrapped up, some of the men headed to the bar. “You up for a game of mus?” asked Juan Jose. “We have an open seat.”
Kepa shook his head. “Not tonight, thanks. I’m pretty tired from the train ride.”
Juan Jose nodded. “Next time.” He turned to another man who was just getting up. “Geraldo, come on.” The other man sighed as he followed Juan Jose into the bar.