This is a sample chapter from my upcoming book “Armintza” I hope you enjoy it.
Spanish December had meant two things to those left in Armintza: drinking wine and killing fascists. The former was easy and came as naturally to them as it did to me. The latter was a requirement for anyone who expected a hot meal and freedom. Not many of us were left by the time Christmas arrived. Most had fled by boat for the relative safety of London, but they were cowards. Maia had no use for cowards in her resistance.
The town itself was small and more suited for drinking than fighting. But in desperate times, the two went hand in hand. A path led from the eastern shore to a small cliff between the town and the bay. I liked to wake up early and sit on the edge of its highest point, drinking and singing and writing or whatever else might distract me from the war. This day, I brought an extra bottle and stared at the sunrise over the tan roofs of faded buildings that made the town uniformly idyllic. I watched the light fold itself over the hills and mountains and march over the treetops to illuminate the valley. I spied on old men fishing and young boys helping at the docks and took in the smell of fish and eggs and soup cooking in the homes and apartments below.
By the time I was numb, both physically and emotionally, I walked back down the path and hummed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I was an American, but for the past year and a half, I was also Basque. Maia regarded me the same as those who had been born in the old homes we now defended. She was a dangerous woman with sloping jet-black hair and sharp, symmetrical features, and she could drink and shoot better than any man I had ever met. I liked to think that had she been born in a better time and another place, she might rule the world. Maia did not lust for power the way that many leaders do, which may have been her best quality of all. Whereas the Russians had wiped out most pockets of resistance in Europe, we were always careful never to get captured alive, be followed, or hit the same town twice. We were the little guerrillas who could and Maia never let us forget it.
At the end of the path was a cluster of apartment buildings that housed the young who had come from all over Spain to join the fight. They came from as far south as Seville and east from Valencia and Zaragoza. Some came from small towns both near and far, yet most were from the larger cities. Nearly a quarter of these people were transplants who had survived the initial air strikes on Madrid. One was a girl, almost twelve, from Salamanca who lost her father in the fighting and her mother to the flu. Blessed with perfect pitch, the girl would entertain the old men drinking coffee near the docks in exchange for a fish to feed her friends. Sometimes, on good days when a raid would produce trucks of food and medicine and no one in the town was without, she would trade a song for a story of simpler times and better days when the old men were young and chased after foreign women.
Past the apartments, a short walk south was a large home painted red. We made it our headquarters when Yuli, who was Maia’s father, died of an infected wound, and the burden of leadership fell to his daughter. It was unique in the town because it was neither modest nor utilitarian. But, it was fewer than fifty yards from the town’s small skate park, which allowed Maia to work and keep an eye on her little sister, Yera. Yera was a rebel among rebels; having once been a teenager, I could appreciate that. Sometimes at night, when I could borrow a guitar, I would teach her how to play while Maia watched and smiled at the show.
Down the road and, near the center of town was the church. It was small and humble and looked older than the bay itself. Before expeditions, the poor souls whose turn it was to go would meet there. Some would sit and pray while others merely respected the tradition. When they would return, they would celebrate. It did not matter what anyone’s religious beliefs were. Folks from all walks of life would gather in the street and drink and dance outside the church on good nights. On bad ones, they would mourn together. Armintza had transformed from a small, isolated community into a microcosm of Spain. The Spaniards, Basques, atheists, Protestants, Catholics and bad Catholics like me who were indifferent to God would gather as one people. Even if the only thing we all had in common was intoxication, that was enough for us.
It took a lot of alcohol to sustain us, we were insatiable. It wasn’t about addiction or even the alcohol itself. Drinking had become something of a sport for us. It was a game I had been playing since my youth, but it wasn’t until I came to the Basque country that I turned pro. The rules were simple: those who could not keep up eventually developed a tolerance, and the winners were rewarded with a hangover and respect.
We would send a team to a nearby town with an accurate list of things to look for and bring back. Certain items never left those files: medicine, alcohol, ammo, food, and people in need. Anyone without a Russian accent was welcome to come back and join our cause, and those who were only looking for escape would be taken by boat to London. When the boats came back, it was always with gifts. There was not a lot to go around in London, for the war had taken its toll everywhere. But those who were able to pitch in sent what they could. We would get hundreds of letters, which meant nothing to me and everything to Maia, and occasionally scotch, which meant nothing to Maia and everything to me.
Before the Americans joined the war, we received the occasional shipment of weapons and ammo. There was little doubt that the loads were kept secret, but we appreciated the support all the same. After the Americans had joined the battle on the front lines in northern France, the shipments stopped, presumably to save those resources for American soldiers. Even though I was living with the Basques and wasn’t a fighter by trade, I liked to think of myself as one. It was a losing battle, one that many of us knew we could never win. We were never going to recapture Spain by using guns, bullets, and roadside bombs against tanks and jets. The best we could hope for would be to raise hell and hold out long enough for the Allies to reach us and drive out the Russians. The way I saw it, every soldier we took out and, every medical or food shipment we stole was helping the larger cause in some small way. The locals such as Maia, who was born in Armintza, had a different perspective altogether. Their focus was narrower. They were determined to either live as free people or die fighting, a tradition that was not unfamiliar to the Basque people.
Christmas held special significance for many in Armintza because two years ago on Christmas morning, the Russians stormed the capital and executed the politicians. Every year on this night, people would go to the church to pay their respects. Many said some words, others left behind mementos. The children would often make drawings. The elderly and more religious folks would abstain from alcohol and fast in remembrance. The ones who were in Madrid for the slaughter would linger longer than the others. Rafe, who was only half-Spanish but whose grandfather had been prime minister, would sit inside the church for the entire night and pray. Last year, because Rafe was good looking but also a nice kid, a few of the girls his age sat with him through the night, though he never displayed much interest in girls.
Each morning when I returned home to the food and wine and Maia, I saw the faces of those who had become my family, and I whispered a small prayer that no one should die today. As I opened the front door of our house, I immediately recognized the familiar scent of breakfast. There were two types of people in Armintza, those who liked Gazpachuelo and those who did not last very long. It is a simple soup that had been popular with the fishermen in town before the war made of egg whites, garlic, olive oil, fish, and potatoes. On rare occasions, we would have scrambled eggs, and even more amazing chicken itself, but Maia liked to give those to the townsfolk to keep up morale.
I sat down at the table and Maia greeted me with a kiss while placing a small bowl in front of me.
“I love you, you always make my favorite,” I said, jokingly.
“Just eat your food Auggie. If you don’t, I’m giving it to Yera.”
Maia called me Auggie as a form of affectionate teasing. She knew I always preferred August, but after my first few months with the resistance, it became her way of showing that I was no longer an outsider. I took a spoonful of soup and swallowed it quickly before the taste could linger in my mouth. From the front right pocket of my black jeans, I pulled out a slip of paper and handed it to her.
“What is this?” She asked.
“Merry Christmas,” I replied failing to hold back my grin.
She opened the folded noted and read the poem I had written her silently. I won’t say what I had written exactly except that it was very personal and for her. Back home in the states, it was almost three in the morning and parents all over the east coast would have finished hiding presents under their trees. Those presents would consist of the sort of decadent paper concealing expensive gifts that we could not purchase nor afford, so instead, we found smaller more personal gifts to exchange.
When she finished reading, she leaned over the small mahogany table and kissed me on the forehead.
“I am glad I learned English.”
She told me to close my eyes, and once I did, she placed a small box into my right hand. When I opened the box, there was a small silver ring, pure and modest, that looked like it had been left out in the elements for months.
“This isn’t necessary, really.”
“I found it washed up from the bay a few days ago and I wanted you to have it.”
“Well thank you, when the war is over I’m going to get you one much newer than this.”
This time I kissed her on the forehead and walked upstairs to place it in the large military bag I had brought with me and contained all of my prized possessions from my previous life.
When I came back down, I noticed Yera’s little black sandals in the entryway with a box on the ground just behind them. It was a tradition in Basque country that on Christmas night the children would leave their shoes in the middle of some room and presents were left overnight with them. I liked the American tradition better because even though they were similar, trees smell better than foot odor. The box contained an old pair of high top shoes, and Yera loved them. She had an obsession with the American punk music scene, and it’s style, that was rare in these times and this part of the world. She loved the music so much that even though I was an average singer at best, she would occasionally join me on my morning trips to the cliff to sing. It was also the only time she could sneak alcohol without her sister finding out.
When I met Maia back in the kitchen, Yera was finishing the last of her soup, dipping stale bread into the broth, and going on about how she was going to sing for the townspeople outside of the church tonight. To her credit, she was an exceptional singer.
Once the girls had finished eating Maia set out into the town to carry out her morning routine. She liked to speak with the youths living in the nearby apartments. She was in a way, all things to all people, which made her an effective leader. Many of the youths who were idealistic and needed to believe in something or someone called her ‘erregina’ which was Basque for ‘queen.’ Those who needed comfort or motivation would speak with Maia or God or both. She was so good that when she informed one of them, they would be going on a raid they thanked her and prepared to leave immediately without question or hesitation. Having been on those raids myself, it was something I could never understand.
We had never sent an attack on Christmas before, but Maia figured that because the Russians also celebrated the holiday their guard would be down. Her father Yuli, who was wise and well respected, had passed away shortly after Christmas last year and she spent the entire year trying to prove herself. While every man in town admired her, Maia knew that for them to trust her, a woman, with their lives the way they trusted Yuli she would need to be twice the military mind her father was. Maia briefed the unfortunate souls whose turn it was to go about which town they would hit and when and wished the others a Merry Christmas.
When she finished with the young, she went door to door visiting each home in the small town to speak with the oldest and wisest residents. They talked about strategy and life and the good old days. Many of Armintza’s elderly had been close with her father, and they all had their experiences to share. Ortzi who had been friends with Yuli since childhood told her about how Yuli tricked her mother, Alona, into going on their first date together. Yuli had asked for her help fishing on his boat and surprised her with a breakfast out on the bay. Ortzi also told Maia how heartbroken Yuli had been when Alona died, and how Maia looked so much like her they could pass for twins.
Others, like Ager who enjoyed the thrill of going on raids but required a cane to walk, told her we needed to be more aggressive. He believed hitting small towns and taking out Russian patrols was a waste of time. If he were in charge, we would have all marched into Madrid itself on a suicide mission months ago. Ager was reckless in that way, but also the bravest soul in Armintza. Fear serves an important purpose, it forces us to be smart, but Ager feared nothing. He made up for this fact by being an excellent shot. I have personally seen him shoot a can off of a fence post at over three hundred yards with an old twenty-two caliber rifle that had belonged to his father.
While Maia would make her rounds, Yera would take her skateboard and ride east on the road out of town. Past the trees and hills and curves of the road was an unfinished nuclear power plant left abandoned since the early eighties. It had been in a terrible state of decay since long before the war but altogether harmless.
Meanwhile, I strolled down to the docks and visited with the fisherman while they fought for the last catch of morning. The old men were the best conversationalists. There are two types of war stories that people tell each other, the killing kind and the romantic kind. These men were the interesting sort that loved to share both. After spending hundreds of mornings with them, I had their stories memorized and began to share my own. I told them about taking the train to New York, and Jess and struggle. I told them about when Dean and I, like two kids in a Kerouac novel, drove to Mexico City and lost all our money betting on soccer. I told them about hitchhiking to Buffalo at seventeen to visit Rachel, who at the time was the love of my life.
One of the men, Wilhelm was a German photographer that had been on assignment following the war and stranded in Spain. He told me about how the Russians came with their tanks and guns and fire bombs and laid waste to Munich. He confessed how his wife burned shielding their young son and how the two of them succumbed to their injuries after they escaped to nearby Austria. And when we finished the stories, and the fish stopped biting I would go back home to Maia, and them to their wives or children or no one.
I always got home before Maia with just enough time to clean up the kitchen and put the dishes away. But this morning was different, and she was already back and sitting on the leather sofa in the living room. She was staring at an old painting hanging on the far wall above the fireplace, of an old man sitting on a bench in a park with a young girl.
“I sent them to Mendiondo,” It was a small town between Armintza and Bilbao which was the largest city nearby, “I figured that was safe. If anyone dies today…”
I interrupted, “It’ll be okay, and Mendiondo is a good choice.”
Suddenly, there was a loud banging at the front door, each strike in rapid succession. Maia turned around quickly with a look of worry on her face, and I opened the door. A thin teenage boy by the name of Anthony stood there covered in dirt, with Yera by his side.
“Trucks are coming, military ones.”
I was quick to respond, “Run to the church, ring the bell three times.” Anthony took off running while Yera stood there silently. That is when I noticed the blood on her clothes.