When I get to the Erratzü Farm, no one will tell me how to live, what to think, how or to whom or with whom to speak, or even what topics to discuss. I will go back to speaking the Souletin dialect that I had learned three decades ago. In the depths of my solitude when I played with the idea, a ray of light grabbed my neurons. I felt happy. Syntactical rules became falcons. The irony of sentences sliced like a sharpened knife and the string of phonemes stepped on the paw prints of the bears of Sainte Engrâce. Joana Garralda, my fiancée, used her own dialect from the Salazar Valley, paying tribute to the discernible diversity of the Basque language.
Phaedra Out-Take #2 started. I took Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig in my hands. This novel that I loved so much gave me the chills. I read it all the time as if I didn’t have any other books. I appreciated the energy that emerged from its pages, the sting of the words, the calls for reclaiming, and this invigorating epic that opened little by little. As soon as I felt lost, I returned to this book hoping that it would show me the right path.
I was going to keep Proust, Dostoyevsky, Woolf, and Rimbaud. I’ll find the rest on the Internet, or even at the public library in Tardets. The versions of my books didn’t have any valor, except sentimental. You could use them as fuel for a fire in the middle of winter if you really needed to. Truthfully, I didn’t give much thought about all this during my investigations when I found myself in front of the monumental libraries of my clients. They had books bound in leather with the names of authors chiseled in golden letters. I didn’t envy them though. Not at all, actually. I won’t have time to read in Erratzü anyway…
I was on unemployment when Joana called to invite me to live with her. The street cleaning company in Bayonne sent all of us, Karim, Dédé, and me, packing. Since we were all getting close to our sixties, we were old, incapable, and not well-liked by management. We were going to suffer, waiting for retirement. Since getting elected, President Macron has changed the rules to be able to collect unemployment. He had gotten rid of the taxes on the rich and their fortunes, and he reduced the duration of benefits for the neediest people. That’s good justice. Two birds, one stone. Bravo, Manü!
Thanks to Tangerine Dream’s melodies, the heartbeat of the electronic music accompanied the sound of my future tea’s boiling water. I remembered that Dédé, Karim, and I had cried the last time we went around to collect the trash. We stoically tolerated the foul odor of consumer society’s trashcans. The smells clung to our skin and made us want to vomit. We finished our vacations by vomiting in each other’s arms, hoping to find some comfort. In Joana Garralda’s house, at least I would be far from all of this. You can see the summit of the Madeleine from her kitchen. There is also a large entryway and three large bedrooms. Each one of us would have our own room and we could have friends over for a weekend, if we still had any.
It goes without saying that there is a garden with a small apple tree planted alongside the western hedges. That’s where I will go to dig and work instead of listening to music or reading pornographic literature. I will also have a house with a garden. I will achieve the lifelong dream of the average Basque. I won’t mess this up.
“Yes, Joana. I’m going to come…”
“When will you get here?”
“I don’t know. Next month, let’s say.”
“I’ll get your room ready…”
I put down my phone and repeated: “Great, great”. Just like that, I was getting ready energetically for my move to Erratzü. I look at the photos that Joana sent me on my cellphone again. The farm was in overall good shape. In addition to the garden, there was an oven to bake bread in a woodshed. I was going to love it there, of course, I was going to love the life that my dear Joana prepared for me. It would be a simple life, or at least one without more than everything that I would need. What did I need deep down outside of a bit of love, a warm home, and the cold sunlight of the morning?
I toss the works of Maria Mercé Marçal and Marguerite Duras in a box along with Xora and Fargo DVDs, three external hard drives that held all my memories, and the camera that I used during my investigations. Suddenly, between Dune and Hyperion, I saw the black notebook from my last investigation. I didn’t dare pick it up because I’d failed my duty to bring the people responsible for Martin d’Otsabide’s suicide to justice. I was washed up. I should’ve just confessed to it myself. Exactly a few days ago on a street in Bayonne, I walked past Martin’s widow who was dressed in black, crushed by a deep sadness, and staring at the ground.
I approached her to say hello. She took a step back. She refused to take my hand and, while sobbing, she wished me a good day. She was busy, but she gave me some upsetting news anyway:
“It’s not easy to get back on your feet, you know… No, you don’t know because you run away at the first sign of a problem… Sorry. I don’t want to be mean. It just slipped out…”
“Don’t worry about it, I tell her. It’s not a big deal. I’m used to it. I don’t always get to finish my investigations because there is often something that doesn’t add up. Beliefs, suspicions, power games, or even intrinsic conditions can block…”
She melted into the bustling crowd. I followed the curved line of this collapsed life with my eyes until she completely disappeared. Everything related to Martin’s suicide suddenly rushes back. A few years back, his story and his cheese production cooperative GaztaKoop, whose launch he funded, started off fine. The farmers of the region gathered to better produce and sell their sheep’s milk. The shareholders of the project had built an enormous building in the desert domain of Basagaitz. They hired employees and a director who they paid the same wage as bosses in the private sector.
GaztaKoop was the model of economic development for the press and Basque society. They conducted an aggressive sales policy. The farmers went from store to store selling their cheeses, butters, and different dairy products to clients in the various towns. But after some time, depending on the rumors, we learned that GaztaKoop was a money pit, that it was close to going bankrupt, and that the legally responsible parties were the cooperative farmers themselves. Like the images of ancient biblical paradise, the serpent is biting its own tail.
Stormy general assemblies were called. Farmers were opposing farmers. All this because of one brilliant idea proposed by management: everyone should go to the bank and take out a loan in their name to replenish the company’s accounts. Martin believed in the future of GaztaKoop when he was heading to the bank to open a line of credit for fifty thousand euros. The bank obviously accepted the request since this helped the bank get richer. He had tears in his eyes as he signed because he felt trapped. Furthermore, it had been two years since the cooperative had paid him for his milk production, and the company would certainly never pay him because there was little hope that the financial situation would get better.
Martin’s widow had told me that this was a tough time for them. It seemed like no one was listening to them and no one understood them because no one was talking about the GaztaKoop scandal. There was no mention on the radio nor in the pages of the agricultural union’s newspapers. On the road to hell, they marched in silence and in secret. The Basque world, our world, she told me as if to stress something important, was always ready to mobilize when an injustice occurred. If a dairy farm in Béarn or in France acted this way, we would blow up the news and we would spread the information everywhere. But here, in addition to the operating debts, the farmer members were required to take on the fees themselves to cover the costs of the whole cooperative.
After just two years, following an eventful general meeting, the cooperative incited them to take out another loan. So, some farmers abandoned ship. But many, like Martin, decided to stay trusting and faithful. Martin then fell to the depths of a deep, dark pit. Yet at the same time, he didn’t look highly upon the farmers who left GaztaKoop in order to go to more established dairy farms and who didn’t pay their shares. They were traitors and ball-less cowards… Martin’s widow remembered that he sometimes used vulgar words. It was worse when he was chatting with one of his comrades of misfortune and the cheap wines of Europe heated their spirits.
The woman, broken by pain, was like a replay of Sisyphus’s parable because by calling me, she wanted me to prove the guilt of those in charge of GaztaKoop in her husband’s suicide. Then, she would go to court where, one day, the trial of these guilty parties would begin. Like Sisyphus, each farmer thought that by taking out loan after loan and not taking a monthly salary they were fetching their stone from the bottom of the deep well. But as soon as they got to the top, the stone slipped through their fingers just to fall back into the deep, endless well. It goes without saying that throughout my investigation, I had not found anything that clearly indicated who was guilty. Or very little anyway. There was a general code of silence surrounding this company.
The Basque world had secrets that would never be revealed. They were mentioned in hushed tones. Most often, they were kept quiet, just in case. It was incredible because people were generally up to date with what was going on. If the question was asked directly, suddenly no one knew a thing.
“You’re just nosy…”
“What happened exactly?”
“I won’t tell you. You know, it’s between us.”
I didn’t like when the person I was talking to treated me like a child. It seemed to me that they ignored the fact that I was an adult. I only used the childish language in Basque with babies and with my mom. This language, used one-sidedly, discouraged me, but I kept asking questions without ever being able to shed light on the mystery. That’s what happened during my volunteer investigation for Martin’s widow. The doors closed in front of me, except for the farmers who had deserted GaztaKoop. The second I said the name of the cheese shop, the farmers got heated and chains of curses ravaged their pale lips. I wasn’t able to control the tsunami of anger. I jotted down their statements and distanced myself from them while thanking them at the same time. I wrote down the structure of what could be a scam without it being completely obvious. It was already that.
I asked for a meeting with the director of the cooperative. He answered me with a loud no on the other end of the line, adding that if I kept asking strange questions, I’d have a few things coming and that I’d end up in court. The threats of this man, who was charming, as it so happens, when he appeared in the newspapers, scared me. It didn’t seem like he felt responsible for Martin’s death. I ended up with nothing except notebook pages that I blackened out with a restless pencil despite numerous attempts to gather information. I wasn’t very proud of myself when I found myself in front of the widow with empty hands:
“I led an investigation, but nothing certain came out of it. Even if I have suspicions, that’s all I have. No one wanted to accept being responsible for Martin’s suicide, which is understandable…”
“I knew you wouldn’t succeed… You have no nerve. You didn’t look where you had to. If only you were more daring…”
“I would’ve ended up in court… One of those powerful people would have accused me of having defamed their reputation and I can’t end up in prison right now!”
“I feel like crying, she tells me softly, when I see that even Martin’s farmer friends didn’t even want to talk to you…”
The law of silence is infinite. Wolves won’t eat each other. Monsters organized amongst themselves perfectly, caressing and embracing, so that no one would snitch. That’s not the problem. Everyone is free to do as they wish. But in this case, someone lost their life. With his final breath, he left his flock wandering in the pastures, his wife without a husband, his farm without an heir and with debts. His own debts, and ones that came from others. The neighbors rented the widow’s lands, and the flock was put up for sale in the pages of the union’s newspaper. There was always someone, a predator on the prowl, who waited for a neighbor’s demise to grow, develop, and increase their means of production.
I went to Martin’s funeral. We were at the region’s school of agriculture in the morning. The coffin was put into the ground while a trickle of rainwater was running towards the hole and the villagers were singing at the top of their voices: “Lord Give Eternal Joy to This Lost Soul” and “The Night Comes So Dark”. I spotted the widow. When the cross-bearer accompanied by the priest moved away, I went up to offer her my condolences.
“Come to the wake, she murmured to me, I need to speak with you. Yesterday, I was at the bank and there are some things that I don’t understand. This cursed cemetery isn’t the place to talk about it. I’ll wait for you! Make sure to come!”
“I don’t have a lot of time this evening, but I’ll come tomorrow… I’ll pass by your place… I promise!”
She accepted by lowering her head. On that day, I also felt crushed by a deep sadness. So many farmers commit suicide. A lot of workers do too. I knew some in each of the two categories. I racked my brains telling myself that the work world had become a morbid world. Why didn’t we change jobs when it provoked these mortal evils? Or when the bosses made us suffer this terrible moral harassment? Why? Because we had houses to pay for, SUVs, education, LED televisions that covered an entire wall in the living room, pools… So many things, so many worries. We were chained in like Mehetegi’s unfortunate dog.
The next day as promised, I found myself at the Kako farm in front of a cup of coffee placed on a floral tablecloth by Martin’s widow. I listened to her for a long while then she led me to the sheep pen. I nearly fainted when I saw the noose hanging from the wooden beam. I didn’t interrupt her:
“I’m going to tell you how it happened. On that evening, like every evening, he went to the sheep pen and, even though my husband had been very upset recently, I was lying peacefully in bed. Farmers have a tough job. You wouldn’t understand. But that’s how it is. They don’t have a minute to rest with this ever-present feeling of helplessness hanging over them. There is a false solidarity surrounding them. When everything is going well, they are with you, but when you fall, they surround you and wait for your downfall… On that morning, I was surprised to find myself in an empty bed: did he get up before sunrise? I hurried to the kitchen. No one. I started to shout. No response. I did this until I headed towards the sheep pen… And there, the most horrible sight. My husband, hanging from this wooden beam, his eyes rolled back, open to the void… I called emergency services and then I don’t remember anything after that…”
She caught her breath and swallowed back tears. I was speechless, incredulous.
“The Otsabide police along with the firefighters and the EMTs invaded the sheep pen. The banker called me as soon as he heard about Martin’s passing. He wanted to see me immediately to discuss a troubling circumstance. The body was still warm, and he wanted to talk to me about debts that my husband had incurred to be able to carry out his agricultural work. What nerve! Can you believe it? That’s when he told me that my husband had taken out two loans for GaztaKoop’s accounts in his own name. I went crazy and if I had the strength, I would’ve made him choke on his fake salesman laugh—the laugh of someone who pushes people off the edge into the abyss—but I stayed petrified, nailed to the chair. While leaving the bank, I chatted with Gaston, a neighbor who was involved in this story. He explained to me that this decision was taken during a general meeting to avoid the bankruptcy of the company!”
The widow began to cry. I took her in my arms and between two sobs without positive consequences, she explained to me why she needed my rural detective skills:
“I absolutely need to know who made this violent proposal that led to Martin’s suicide… I hope that you will get more answers than me because they all told me the same thing: members of the cooperative are committed like husband and wife, united for the good and the bad, responsible for individual and collective debts. So, when asked to take out a loan in their own name, a lot of them did!”
“I’m going to try to shed some light on this story…”
I didn’t add another word.
Going through my belongings for my move to Haute-Soule, I found my black notebook that proved that I hadn’t completed my mission. Proof that I didn’t help Martin’s widow get any clarity on the story because all of the doors had been rusted shut, closed like peoples’ mouths. I had led many investigations throughout the last three decades and I remember this one as a dark spot on my record. I really regretted it, especially for the widow. Soon, I’ll be in Erratzü, far from the world and its suffering. I’ll be admiring the glowing sunrises and sunsets alongside Joana Garralda, my lifelong fiancée.
What do I do with this notebook? Throw it away? Keep it?
Itxaro Borda (1959, Bayonne) is a Basque author with a background in agriculture and history. She worked for the French post office for some time. She now lives and works full-time as an author in Bayonne. She began her literary career in 1982 when she founded the literary journal Maiatz with Lucien Etxezaharreta. She won the 2002 Prix Euskadi for her novel 100% basque. She is most known for her series of detective novels with detective Amaia Ezpeldoi, the last of which, Euri zitalari esker / Thanks to the Acid Rain, was published in 2021. In addition to her novels, she has also published many poems.
Clayton McKee (1993, Pennsylvania) is a writer and translator who is currently splitting time between Nice, France, and Pennsylvania. In 2023, he became Director of Trafika Europe after having worked for the journal since 2015. His first full-length translation, The Disappearance of Jim Sullivan by Tanguy Viel, was published in 2021 by Dalkey Archive Press. In 2022, he became a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles in Comparative Literature. He is currently working on his dissertation focused on literature published in French about the 2011 Tunisian Revolution.