The teacher’s husband had been missing for two weeks and everyone imagined that this caused the teacher immense grief. Of course, you couldn’t tell—she continued to take mid-morning walks around the port as though her husband were still out at sea for the day, his return promised by ritual—but people began to fear, we all did, that one afternoon the boats might begin their daily caravan into the harbor and she would recognize for the first time that they did not bring him with them.
I know that during those weeks I felt a certain anxiety stir up in me at the end of the day, when the sun dipped into the sea, and in its long, pinkish light, the fishermen all at once re-peopled the docks with themselves and their fish. I looked for the silhouette of her crooked figure haunting the sea wall. I held her with my eyes.
The truth was that she had been a teacher only very briefly, in spite of her age: already much too old to enter motherhood, but with no children of her own. She had left her position at the school abruptly, after only four or five years, we calculated, and though rumors of the reason for her departure floated around at the time (Adultery? An allergy to the janitor’s cleaning solution?), so many more years had accumulated since then that speculation had long fallen from people’s minds. The irony of her swift exit was that, in the aftermath, she would always to us be “the teacher,” while other women who taught at the school remained themselves: Ana Ondarra, Isabella Arrien, Itziar Berzabal.
But she also merited the name. No one would deny that she had an arduous dedication to the profession. If you encountered her in the harbor, you couldn’t make it past her without enduring an explanation of the calcium content in the stone beneath your feet: the exact ratio of silica to sand. And though she had been a teacher of chemistry, in her extended retirement it seemed like she had picked up cursory knowledge of all subjects previously foreign to her. If you happened upon her at night you might receive a detailed lecture on the effect of the current lunar phase on the tides, and the fish that you could expect to eat tomorrow based on what the fishermen would find in those tides. Or an explanation of which constellations were currently cast across the sky. Or the name for the ancient Greek god of the sky: Ouranos.
In the evenings, when we scrabbled up the mountains behind the port, I sometimes thought about her. Other women too flitted across my mind, as we climbed, and it seemed like the horizon rose with us, but those women were my always my own age: the neighbors or classmates I thought maybe one day in the future I might love. And so it always struck me with surprise when, in between Julen or Andoni talking about who he was fucking, and me thinking about fucking someone, the memory of her figure ghosted to the surface of my thoughts.
We spent most nights up there, in the hills, where we could get ourselves contentedly drunk without the reprimands of our fathers, who, down in the port, could do the same without having to do so in front of us. When the sun finally buried itself in the sea and night dropped down to us, we became ourselves a moving constellation of lit cigarette tips, and I liked the knowledge that if I lit up, or if I extinguished my tip, the group would change with me. There were eleven of us altogether, but some I was closer to than others.
I’m telling you this because I hope that you might still trust me after I tell you that up in those mountains was where I saw the teacher’s husband, two weeks after he had gone missing, lying lifeless under a bush. I won’t tell you the state of his body because that I don’t want you to know, but I will tell you that the soft pink tip of his tongue just poked out of his mouth, as though it sought one of the crude mountain berries that hung over his head. (I had always found their flesh tasteless.)
Neither will I name the boys who in the dark pulled back the branches to reveal him to me, but I will say that they carried in their hands the things that proved it was they who had murdered him—you would know too, if you had seen the body. When they let the branches swing back on his leaking abdomen some of us whistled, and some of us clapped, and some of us said nothing but erected a small cross for the man in the back mountain slopes of our mind.
They were the same boys, it turns out, who declined the teacher’s invitation to have dinner with her when, out of nowhere, she invited us, her former students, to come eat at her home. We were all spooked. I heard that one of them puked into the ocean when he discovered the envelope. The rest of us had responded to her paper invitation saying that we would come, but on that Sunday afternoon I found myself alone in her living room on her bowed, blue couch.
My brain was bending itself in all sorts of weird ways from the anxiousness, and I remember thinking that being there, in her house, must feel a little like being inside of a lung; hers or my own, I could not tell, but it felt all at once like too intimate a space, and as though I would somehow be able to breathe much better myself, if I simply got outside of the building. She hadn’t given a reason for inviting us, and I didn’t ask. Instead, we sat across from each other over thinly sliced cheese in her living room, and then across from each other over three courses at her kitchen table, then finally back in her living room again, a small bouquet of tea bags steeped in the tea pot between us.
The water slowly bled brown. I felt relaxed. We were comfortable around each other, I thought. We could maybe do this again, I had been thinking, when she began to teach. She took me through the origin of every artifact in our immediate vicinity. Her sentences were glacial, deliberately didactic, as though she were teaching a person new to the world.
“This vase—you know what sort of pottery I mean by ‘vase,’ don’t you— was hand-painted with a natural cerulean pigment—do you know what color it is that I am referring to?”
Though she began with confidence, her voice, as it drew us through the room, started to splinter. The final letters of words began to fall off, then entire phrases dropped out of her speech until you got the sense that her true sentences forked at the base of her throat, and one half exited, while the other turned back to sit inside of her. What few words she spoke now were hushed, near a whisper:
“The beams… make this home… collected by a man… Antonio… maybe.”
As her speech thinned her illustrative gestures grew increasingly theatrical. With a grace painful to witness, she pantomimed the construction of the eaves above us as tears pooled in her eyes.
“Inside the beams… wood.” Her arms swooped lengthwise to suggest a swathe of lumber. I nodded. “And inside wood…” I waited. “Hemicellulose… hydroxyphenyl propane… lignin-carbohydrate bonds… complex compounds… atoms.” She stopped, then looked up at me. “Do you remember how to bond together atoms, Jon?”
I suppose I could have told her that we had never, for a second, paid attention to her lessons in chemistry class. I could have told her that when we were fourteen we were already scheming, some of us, for ways to dip our hands into the faction of ETA1 that was quietly breeding in the region around our small town, and that this, for us, had weighed in our world more than the dynamics of a di-hydrogen bond.
Through her window there was visible a small triangle of ocean, and there I imagined several hours into the future—the boats rolling inward—and two weeks into the past: her husband’s body pressed to the bow, coming in with them. And I told her the truth, that no, I did not remember a single thing.
1. Basque terror organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna.