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Memoirs of a Basque Cow

Author: Bernardo Atxaga

Translator: Margaret Jull Costa   Cover design: Marie Lane   Cover illustration: Jesus Gaban Bravo  

It was a night of thunder and lightning, and the noise and the racket made by the storm finally woke me from my sleep.
Then my inner voice said: ‘Listen, my dear, has not the hour arrived? Is this not the appropriate, correct and most suitable moment?’ And not long afterwards, without even giving me time to wake up properly: ‘Should you not abandon sleep and comfort? Should you not embrace the excellent, fruitful light? Tell me briefly and with your hand on your heart, has not the hour arrived? Is not this the appropriate, correct and convenient moment?’
This inner voice of mine has a very prissy, formal way of speaking, and seems incapable of talking like everyone else and simply calling grass ‘grass’ and straw ‘straw’; if she had her way, instead of grass, we would say: ‘the wholesome food grown for us by Mother Earth’ and instead of straw: ‘the unwholesome alternative that one must eat when good food is in short supply’. The voice I hear inside me always speaks like that, which means that she takes an incredibly long time to explain anything, which means that most of what she has to say is very boring, which means that in order to listen to her without screaming, you have to be extremely patient. Even if you did scream, it wouldn’t make any difference, because she won’t go away, she’s not going to just disappear.
When I was still young, a cow of a certain age called Bidani once said to me: ‘She can’t disappear, because she’s our Guardian Angel. You should be glad to know that she’s there inside you. In this life she will be your very best friend, and will always comfort you when you feel alone. If you find yourself with a difficult choice to make, just listen to your inner voice, and she’ll tell you which is the best choice to make. If you find yourself in grave danger, never fear, just place your life in the hands of your Guardian Angel and she will guide your steps.’
‘Am I supposed to believe that?’ I asked Bidani.
‘Of course,’ she replied rather arrogantly.
‘Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t believe a word of it.’
What else could I say? She was older than me, there was no doubt about that, but compared to me, she was also extremely gullible. The fact is that the person has not yet been born who can explain to me exactly what a Guardian Angel is, and so I choose not to believe it. That’s the way I am. When something is clearly true, when, for example, someone puts a pile of fenugreek in front of me and says: ‘This is fenugreek’, then I go over and I smell it and I say: ‘Yes, this is fenugreek.’ I recognise that what they say is true, but if there’s no proof, or if the proof doesn’t even smell, then I choose not to believe. As the saying goes:
What did you think life was all about – believing everything you’re told and never expressing a doubt?
No, sir, that’s not living, that’s just playing the fool and behaving no better than a sheep.
‘You don’t understand, my dear,’ insisted Bidani, as arrogantly as ever. ‘Your Guardian Angel can’t possibly smell of anything. She’s an angel and lives inside us like a spirit; she doesn’t take up any room at all.’
‘You should have been a sheep,’ I said with all the impudence I could muster; then, turning my back on her, I stalked off.
Whatever the truth of the matter, though, and regardless of whether I believed it or not, that inner voice was always there, and I had to accept her. It made no difference what you called her – Guardian Angel, Spirit, Voice or Conscience – she was always there inside me.
One day, I asked the voice: ‘What’s your name?’ At that time, I spoke to her respectfully, for I was very young.
‘Whatever you like, my dear. As far as I’m concerned, I am entirely in your hands, I’m your servant. And, let me just say, I accept my servitude gladly.’
‘Yes, I’m sure, but just tell me, please, what’s your name?’
‘I’m sorry, my dear, but, as I have just explained, I am entirely at your disposal. It is up to the mistress to name her servant.’
I got annoyed then and said: ‘Oh, you are a pest! You’re the very peskiest of pests. I don’t know whether you’re an angel or an evil spirit, I don’t know what you’re doing inside me either, but I know exactly the kind of person you are, I should say I do. You’re the kind who always has to have her own way.’
Then, nursing the little bit of anger I felt, I made a decision: I would call that supposed Guardian Angel ‘The Pest’. And ever since then, that is precisely what she has been: The Pest, The Pesky Pest.
‘Well, I can’t say it’s the nicest name I’ve ever encountered,’ I heard the voice say, ‘but it could be worse.’
That said, and despite everything, I didn’t really think that badly of my inner pest; I couldn’t honestly disagree with all those who spoke in her favour. Sometimes she did seem like my best friend, a good companion when life was pleasant and an even better one when life turned sour, and when she spoke to me, I listened gladly. Indeed, I remember what happened during my very first winter. Then she was a true companion, then she really did behave like a real friend. It all happened one snowy day.
‘Look, my dear, it’s snowing,’ the voice inside me said. ‘It’s started to snow and we’re quite far from the house. It might be a good idea to begin making your way down the hill.’
‘Down the hill? You must be joking!’ I said bluntly. It was the first time I had ever seen snow, and I didn’t understand how dangerous those snowflakes melting on my back could be. So I again turned my attention to eating grass, because, it has to be said, I can’t resist that short, succulent hilltop grass; I’ve never been satisfied with boring field grass.
I’m not sure how long I spent there nibbling the short grass, without even once looking up, but I don’t think it could have been very long – maybe half an hour, maybe an hour. Nevertheless, because of the snow that had fallen, it was soon impossible for me to go on eating. I stretched out my lips in search of more grass, but all I got was a mouthful of snow. I snuffled the ground as I’d seen pigs do, and all I got was another chilly lump of snow. Irritated, I raised my head and looked around me. Then I really did feel afraid. And who could blame me, given what I saw.
There was a black rock, a lot of snow, and nothing else. The meadow where I’d been grazing was white, and the next one was white too, and all the others were white as well. And the path that crossed them to go down to my house was nowhere to be seen; it had disappeared beneath all that whiteness.
‘What’s going on here? How will I ever get home now?’ I said to myself, taking a few steps towards the black rock. I felt quite worried.
I mooed to see if some companion would reply and guide me back to the homeward path, but the silence swallowed my voice the way a frog swallows a fly, and my calls for help simply disappeared. There was nothing but the silence, the whiteness of the snow and the blackness of the rock. And The Pest didn’t say a word. She was obviously hurt by my earlier rude reply.
The whiteness was just as white when the first star appeared, and when the second star appeared too. And when the third, the fourth and the fifth appeared, it was still the same. Then it was the moon’s turn, and that did change things slightly, by adding a few shadows to the landscape. Nothing very much though. The whiteness covered almost everything. And there I was. As the saying goes:
A hillside under snow makes for an unhappy cow.
I was that cow and I was very unhappy. Where was the path home? Would it never come back? It certainly didn’t look like it.
‘Well, have you got nothing to say to me, Pest?’ I said at last. I really had to do something to get myself out of that situation. If I didn’t, I might simply die of boredom.
‘I’m going to say something, but it won’t be what you want to hear.’
The voice was obviously angry, because she didn’t even call me ‘my dear’. Now that I think of it, The Pest must have been very young in those days too; otherwise, she wouldn’t have got so angry over one cheeky reply. I say worse things to her now, and she takes no notice. Now, of course, I always obey in the end and do what she wants me to do.
‘Go on, then. I’m so fed up, I’ll listen to anything,’ I replied.
‘You owe me an apology. When the snow started falling and I suggested that you should go home, there was no reason why you should obey me. You’re a free agent and you can do what you like, but, my dear, you had no right to reply in that rude, vulgar, ill-bred fashion. You had absolutely no right to do that, my dear. Manners come first, above all else.’
I looked to the left and to the right, I looked to one side of the black rock, I looked to the other, I looked everywhere, and there wasn’t a sign of the path. The hill was either white with snow or black with night, with nothing in between. I was very bored and very fed up.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said at last.
‘You’re forgiven, of course,’ said The Pest, with very good grace, forgetting her annoyance. Then she added with a sigh: ‘Just look where we are!’
‘Where?’ I said, cheering up. That was exactly what I wanted to know, where I was and how I could get home, but The Pest was talking about something else.
‘We’re in a desert, my dear. That’s how I would describe it; a white desert has fallen out of the sky, bit by bit. What solitude! What desolation! Here one truly feels how very small and feeble one is!’
‘I’m a cow, what do you expect! What can you expect from cows! We cows are nothing,’ I exclaimed in a fit of honesty. Because, frankly, I’ve never thought being a cow was anything very special. The way I look at it, we cows pass through this world almost unnoticed, along the vulgar path of mediocrity, and to tell the truth and, sad though it may seem, the creature we most resemble is the sheep.


RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 224

Publication date: 06.03.2020

ISBN numbers:
978 1 912868 01 8
978 1 912868 27 8

Dedalus World English