Maite knocked on the door at the end of the hall. After prepping food for lunch, it was her job to tidy up the rooms of the boarders and change their linens. She also saw it as an opportunity to take a look, to search for the zatia.
When there was no answer, she opened the door. The room was sparse, holding just a bed, a small dresser, and a desk. She stripped the bed, throwing the used linens into a basket. As she lifted up the thin mattress to put the clean sheets on, she noticed a small suitcase underneath. Peeking down the hall and seeing no one, she quietly pulled it out and opened it up, hoping to find the zatia. Instead, all she found were clothes, an old Bible, and a photo. The photo showed a family arrayed out in front of an old baserri. There must have been at least twelve people in the picture, the two old grandparents in front, the parents standing right behind them, and a seemingly random assortment of children, the youngest only a baby sitting in amuma’s lap. The faces of the older men reminded her of Juan Jose.
She heard steps in the hallway and quickly closed the suitcase and tucked it back under the bed. She was fluffing the pillow when the old herder came in.
“Ah, you must be the new girl,” he said. “I saw you last night with that new boy, what’s his name?”
“Kepa?” replied Maite.
“Bai, horixe. Kepa. How is he?”
Maite shrugged. “He went off to the hills this morning, so I think he is ok.”
Juan Jose raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything.
“Anyways,” Maite said as she gathered up her basket. “I’m done here. Sorry to be in your way.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I was just going to take a quick nap before lunch. These old bones can’t go as long as they used to. And I need to be ready for the card games,” he added with a wink.
As Maite left the room, she turned. “Can I ask you a question?”
Juan Jose, who had sat down on the corner of his bed, looked up. “Noski. Sure.”
“Why didn’t you ever go back? Why stay here in this godforsaken place?”
Juan Jose sighed as his head dropped. “I always meant to go back. I thought I’d just work for a few years, make some money, and go back home a big shot. All of my family was back there. But, this place has a way of changing you. And things changed back home too. I went back to visit once or twice, but it was different. My parents died, my oldest brothers died. And the girl I had my heart set on had moved on, had found someone who hadn’t left her behind.”
As he looked up again, Maite saw that his eyes had teared up. “And, I guess I just got used to this place. In the end, it isn’t so bad. I have friends here, a good home. For a while, I even had a girl here. Life is what you make of it and my life here hasn’t been so bad.”
“Wouldn’t it have been even better back home? Back in the Basque Country?”
“Ez. I don’t think so. My uncle died in the war. Most of my brothers and sisters started working in other baserris before they were fourteen. There or here, life was just work. And at least here there was a chance of something better. Some of us get our own flocks, make some real money. Or they open a boarding house, like this one. Back home, there was no chance for that. Maybe someday, but right now…” He shook his head. “As hard as it is here, it is harder there.”
Maite simply nodded as she turned down the hall and to the next room. As she left Juan Jose’s room, she heard the old man sigh again.
“Baina, bai. Sometimes I wish I’d gone back,” he said in almost a whisper.
If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write email@example.com if you want to get in touch with me.