Water of Iturrigorri


THE S. S. Capitan Segarra rested her five thousand tons of patch-painted black iron against the Bilbao dockside, heeling over wearily against the piles as the ebb tide slipped down river from under her. The fenders crackled and creaked. Capstans, spurting steam, chugged into their ragtime rhythm. The discharge gang swarmed over her, like hungry flies on an overweighted boast of burden.

She had to be emptied that day, for she carried a perishable cargo of crated Canary bananas. The dockers tore it out of her, racing against the fresh heat of the early morning. They were dressed so much alike that they gave the impression of a squad of soldiers; black boina on the head, wide red sash at the waist, blue trousers and rope sandals. Only in their shirts was there variety; they were of many shades of blue, mauve, yellow, and green.

Apart from the bustle around the Capitan Segarra the riverside was still. It was a public holiday. The ships moored stem to stern along the wharf were dressed with flags. Here and there a watchman sat under the shade of a tarpaulin contentedly occupied with the rolling of one cigarette after another. The three txistulari marched along the waterfront — a drummer, a piper, and between them the leader of the band playing a drum with one hand and holding a pipe to his mouth with the other. The citizens, lying late in bed, were awakened by the gay Basque melodies which proclaimed a fiesta.

There was a halt in the discharge while the men below took the covers off another deck. Juan el Viruelas thrust a great hand into his sash and drew out tobacco and cigarette paper. He was a burly, pock-marked man with an expression of disgusted kindliness.

‘Where’s El Pirata?’ he asked.

‘I told him to come,’ said the foreman.

‘You told him? I spit on his mother! He’s the man to lift these crates. Why is n’t he here, capataz?’

‘Who knows? ’ answered the foreman, turning away with the haughtiness of the petty official who has risen deservedly, but recently, from the ranks.

‘He’s still in the Sevillana,’ said the oldest of the dockers.

He was nicknamed ‘El Cura’ — the priest — from his hollow cheeks, his blue chin, and his body emaciated by the forced fasts of poverty. It was still useful, like an old rope worn thin.

‘What the hell is he doing in the Sevillana?’

The Sevillana was a house of ill repute. A chorus of stevedores explained to Viruelas what El Pirata was doing there. Juan el Viruelas burst into a stream of profanity. It was interrupted by a sharp bellow from Evaristo, the crane mechanic, forty feet above their heads: —

‘Stand clear!’

Viruelas leapt aside, and El Cura took up his post facing him. A sling of six crates thumped on to the ground between them. They became twin parts of a machine for loading porters, a four-handed engine which swung up each crate from the ground and lowered it precisely on to a human back bowed to receive it. As they bent down to lift the last of the sling, a hand loosened the sash round Viruelas’s waist. When he heaved, the coils loosened and slid. He grabbed at his falling trousers, leaving one corner of the crate without support.

‘Mind!’ shouted El Cura.

Viruelas’s hand stopped halfway and flashed back to the falling crate. His trousers fell around his ankles. The riverside shouted with laughter.

‘I spit in the milk!’ exclaimed Viruelas — it was his oath when he was really angry. ‘Who did that?’

‘El Pirata! El Pirata!’

Juan el Viruelas lowered the crate to the waiting back, wound himself into his sash, and turned on El Pirata.

‘You want me to kill you? ’ he stormed.

El Pirata swayed on his feet like the high round funnel of a tramp steamer in a gale. He was six and a half feet tall, broad in proportion, and lordly drunk. He was bred a deep-sea fisherman, not a laborer. Though of age to succeed his father in the command of the family launch and to raise a third generation of sons within the thick, sea-silencing walls of the family cottage, he had chosen to taste the freedom of the townsman. He came to Bilbao to scatter his wild oats more magnificently than they might be sown in Arminza; neither the single tavern nor the chirruping sisterly girls of that little village offered a field for the exuberant harvest he desired. Manual labor he detested. It was too easy and too poorly paid — an insult to his manhood. But there was no alternative. He could not read or write.

He was pure Basque, and his great head was rich with the marks of race: gray eyes, with dark, straight hair; a full-lipped hearty mouth; a long hawk’s nose whose chiseled fineness contrasted with the heavy curves of the high cheekbones. There was a kind of devilmay-care pride in the very flesh. His boina dripped gallantly over one ear. His sash was vivid crimson and wider than the ordinary. He wore gold rings in his ears and an orange shirt. Because of his dress they called him ‘El Pirata’ — the Pirate.

‘Come on!’ said El Pirata. ‘Come on, Viruelas!’

‘You’re drunk!’ remarked Viruelas disgustedly; he had no intention of fighting El Pirata, but had meant to satisfy himself by all the dramatic preliminaries.

‘And what then, Juanito? And why are n’t you drunk too?’

‘Because he’s a decent fellow,’ interrupted the foreman.

‘Is to-day a fiesta, capataz? ’ asked El Pirata, trying to get him into focus.

‘Si, señor,’ the foreman answered with exaggerated politeness — he too was feeling a grievance at having to work on a public holiday.

‘Why?’ asked El Pirata.

‘How why?’

‘Why’s a fiesta?’

‘God knows,’ said the foreman.

‘No,’ replied El Pirata. ‘So’s to get drunk the night before. That’s why’s a fiesta.’

He hiccuped wildly and slapped the foreman on the back.

‘But I’m a man of my word, that’s what I am! I say I’m coming to work.

I come to work.’

‘You can’t work like that.’

‘You, what do you know?’ retorted El Pirata. ‘Stand out of the way there, capataz!

El Pirata attacked the sling that had just descended. Without help he swung a two-hundred-pound crate on to his back, carried it away, and stacked it. He dealt with all six as quickly as Viruelas, El Cura, and the gang of porters. Then he pushed El Cura aside and took his place with Viruelas. The two grinned at one another. Evaristo stuck his oily head over the edge of his box to admire the two muscular backs whose pace he would follow.

Ole El Pirata!’ he cheered.

Ole!’ answered the gang.


There was no shade. The white sun smote upon the white concrete of the wharf. Particles of straw mingled with the dust that spurted up under the wheels of the loaded wagons; the dry mixture stung into the throats of the workers. Paint blistered on the Capitan Segarra’s rails, and the distant piping of the txistulari died away in the heat. The men worked swiftly, savagely, thirstily. Then, a little after eleven: —

‘Water of Iturrigorri! Water of 1 turrigorri! ’

A girl’s voice called the words, rising and falling on the melancholy minor scale of a peddler’s cry. Between the calls she blew a little horn which echoed along the deserted waterfront.

‘La Rubia! It’s La Rubia, I spit on her little body!’ cried Viruelas affectionately. ‘ Bless the girl! Who’d have thought she’d be here on a fiesta?’

‘She’s a comrade!’ shouted El Pirata. ‘She’s a worker! I say so! I, El Pirata!’

‘You think a lot of her,’ grumbled Viruelas, almost accusingly.

‘I think a lot of— a lot of . . .’ El Pirata paused. Whenever he stopped working, the scene of his labor whirled round him; he waited for it to be still. ‘. . . A lot of soli — solidarity!’

La Rubia came round the bend of the wharf into sight. She was seventeen, but no taller than a girl of ten. Yet all her fully ripened body was built to scale; she was a perfect miniature of a woman. La Rubia had only two garments — a blouse pulled tightly down into a skirt of sacking. Her fair hair was laden with dust; her feel and legs were bare; her face was dirty. A piquant dirty face it was: snub nose, gray Basque eyes, a high, wrinkled forehead, and a flower of a mouth that the effort of scraping a living out of the docks had hardened into a downward curve at the corners.

She was a virgin, — there was n’t a docker on the wharfs of Bilbao who had any doubt about it, — but apart from that she was much as the other waterfront women, haggard and strident workers continually with child, their own wombs serving them as an inspiration for rough humor. La Rubia was brazen and foul-mouthed as they, for she had walked the docks during half her short life; but, unlike them, she was accustomed to respect. The dockers had petted and protected her as a child. When she became a woman she demanded from them the same consideration; she enforced it with blistering language and a total lack of sentiment. Her power was easily held, for she was loved because of her trade. La Rubia was a water carrier.

She was the only water carrier in Bilbao. Indeed, she had invented the profession for and by herself. She supplied a demand which the numerous riverside taverns would not satisfy. For a perra chica, the smallest Spanish coin, she sold a pint of water with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of sherbet.

At her side walked a donkey towing a little cart to which was lashed a thirty-gallon barrel. The barrel had been filled at the spring of Iturrigorri. To the true Bilbaino that water was worth its price without the lemon; the very word was cooling — the very thought of Iturrigorri, where a full stream of icy water dashed out of the mountainside into a sunless pool overhung with ferns. La Rubia kept up the illusion. The barrel was decked with moss and greenery, and over it waved fronds of bracken freshly picked from the hillside. Between the donkey’s ears was fastened a tall fern like an ostrich plume. The little beast resembled its mistress; it was diminutive, very dirty, and it would stand no nonsense.

She came abreast of the Capitan Segarra and blew her horn.

Agua de Iturrigorri! Agua de Iturrigorri!’

‘Hola, beautiful!’ shouted El Pirata.

The daily competition of badinage between La Rubia and El Pirata was the delight of the wharf and of the contestants themselves.

‘Whom are you calling beautiful, son?’ asked La Rubia aggressively, drawing herself up to her full height of four feet six inches.

‘He’s drunk,’ said Viruelas.

‘Shall I tell you where he was last night?’ asked El Cura.

‘You, what do you know?’ answered El Pirata, with a shade of anger in his favorite expression of disdain.

‘Of course he’s drunk,’ La Rubia said. ‘Last night was the night before a fiesta.’

‘She knows me, the little one!’ El Pirata exclaimed delightedly. ‘How she knows me!’

La Rubia’s cheeks flushed under the powder of dust.

‘There are many like you,’ she replied, implying that she took no particular interest in El Pirata.

She turned away to attend to the customers who crowded round her. Her hard fresh voice dominated the rattle of the discharge.

‘No money, El Cura? Drink, man! Pay me next time! . . . You wish it were wine, Juanito? Water for thirst and wine for pleasure! . . . Mind your hands, capataz! They are walking where they should n’t. . . . Hola, El Pirata, why don’t you come? Are you so drunk you can’t see the barrel?’

‘I see it,’ said El Pirata. ‘I see it, salerosa! But I don’t want a wash.’

He plunged a hairy hand into his shirt and searched among the objects next to his skin. He used his shirt as a general pocket. It hung out over his sash in lumps, each of which represented a personal possession. He drew out a bottle of beer and, closing his mouth on the neck, wrenched off the cap between his teeth. The gang shouted their admiration. They never tired of this trick.

‘He’s stronger than the devil!’ El Cura exclaimed.

‘Quiá!’ said La Rubia contemptuously.

El Pirata felt vaguely that La Rubia was not impressed. He zigzagged toward the barrel, swept her into his arms, and held her above his head like a child, with his hands upon her hips.

Bruto! Bárbaro! Let me go!’

She grabbed a wisp of black hair and wrenched it out of his scalp. Those of the gang who stood idling slouched swiftly on to El Pirata. The sullen wrath of El Cura deepened the wrinkles of his face. Viruelas bristled, and dropped his hand to the knife hilt that protruded from his sash.

El Pirata lowered La Rubia to the ground and looked at the circle of furious faces. He did not know why they were angry with him; he was at peace with everyone when he was drunk. His mind struggled to gain some concept of what was happening in the exterior world. One emotion chased another over his bewildered, mobile face. Viruelas pulled out his tobacco pouch instead of his knife; it was impossible to quarrel with a man like that.

At last El Pirata understood what he had done.

‘It was a joke,’ he said perplexedly. ‘A little joke, that’s all! Pardon, señorita!

He turned to the men around him.

‘Look!’ he said. ‘I did n’t mean to touch her. I just picked her up. Just picked her up . . .’

He paused. El Pirata had no means of expressing fine distinctions. He knew that he had not meant to insult La Rubia, but it was hard to explain.

‘. . . Picked her up like . . .’ He sought desperately for an example.

He swayed toward the cart, slipped off the traces, and drew the donkey from the shafts. Then he put his shoulder under its belly and heaved. The donkey shot up in the air. A hand on each flank, he held the little beast above his head and grinned. He had explained himself — his mates would understand that it was just his desire for violent action which had made him lay hands on La Rubia. The donkey kicked wildly. A foreleg landed in the pit of El Pirata’s stomach. He crumpled and dropped.

‘Ay, mi madre!’ shrieked La Rubia.

She punched the donkey with her horny little fists, while Viruelas pulled his unconscious friend clear of its body.

‘He bought it,’ said Viruelas.

‘He did n’t!’ stormed La Rubia. ‘He did n’t! You drove him to it — you, hijo de perra!

‘I wanted to protect you,’ said Viruelas feebly — devil of a little girl, why did she blame a man for what was her own fault?

‘Juanito el Viruelito wanted to protect me!’ cried La Rubia, mocking him hysterically.

‘I spit in the milk! Did you like him to insult you?’

‘What’s that to you?’

La Rubia dropped on her knees beside El Pirata, weeping over him.

Se ha muerto mi hombre! He is dead, my man! He is dead! My man is dead! ’

Her hands and lips fluttered desperately over his body and the red patch on his scalp where the lock of hair had been.

‘Carry him into the shade, Juan,’ said El Cura.

There was no shade, but Viruelas understood. He pushed the fighting La Rubia aside and carried El Pirata behind a pile of rails where the two would be out of sight. Feeling the big man’s heart, he was not greatly concerned about him. He knew El Pirata’s resistance; he had seen him knifed, stunned, run over, and partly fed into a concrete mixer.

The discharge went forward; thump and rattle of derricks; smell of rotten bananas; eternal lifting and stacking. While the last crates were being collected from the corners of the hold and carried to the waiting sling, Viruelas strolled over to his friend. He was snoring. His stupor had apparently merged into a healthy sleep. La Rubia stood near him, her face stern and streaked with a mud formed by dust and tears.

‘He’ll live,’ she said.

She looked at Viruelas appealingly. There was something else she wanted to say, but could not say it. Her helplessness was new to her and startling. She had never been shy in all her life and did not recognize the sensation for what it was.

‘I won’t tell him,’ said Viruelas, understanding her trouble, ‘but I can’t stop the others telling him.’

‘Then amuse yourselves well!’ answered La Rubia bitterly: she knew that she would lose her standing with them. ‘Adiós, Viruelas, and thanks!’

‘Adiós, chica!’

She harnessed the donkey and walked away.


Half an hour later the last sling came up out of the hold. The men put on their jackets, looking amazedly at the high stacks of crates with which their labor had covered the wharf. Finding El Pirata asleep, they laughed and went on their way. Viruelas woke him up, intending to see him home. He was sober and thirsty. He picked up a quart can which La Rubia had left under a mat of green leaves and drained it.

‘Was she angry with me?’ he asked.

‘To me,’ replied Viruelas casually, ‘it appears that she was not.’

They spent the afternoon together in the garden of the Bilbao brewery, but El Pirata could learn no more from Viruelas about La Rubia’s behavior.

Next morning the gang were down in the hold of the Capitan Segarra, loading her with iron rails. They had been at work for some minutes when El Pirata strolled up the gangway. He considered it his right to be late if he wanted to be. As he was the hardest and strongest worker of the lot, no foreman ever disputed the odd minutes with him. He looked down into the hold, waiting until the rail which was being lowered into position should be clear of the ladder.

‘Here’s El Pirata!’ announced El Cura, catching sight of him.

‘How’s your girl this morning?’ asked the foreman.

‘Where does the donkey sleep?’ shouted Evaristo, leaning out over space.

‘The ugly have all the luck,’ grumbled another.

‘Leave the riverside in peace, pirate!’

‘ For him the flower of the wharf, eh? ’

El Pirata stared down on to the upturned, mocking faces.

‘The world has gone mad,’ he remarked cheerfully.

‘Only one is mad, and that’s a girl,’ growled Viruelas.

‘What girl?’

‘He does n’t know the name of his own novia,’ said the foreman.

El Pirata did not. He clambered down into the hold and began to work. His mates gave him no peace, but he bore the running fire of comment in good-humored silence; it was only by listening that he could find out what had happened. He thought at first that they had unearthed some joyous tale of his exploits in the Sevillana, but it was soon clear that the novia whose affections he had won was La Rubia.

‘Bet you’re the first man she’s ever kissed!’ said El Cura.

El Pirata was startled out of his pose.

‘She kissed me?’ he asked.

‘She thought you were dying,’ Viruelas explained.

‘Assuredly she kissed you,’ said El Cura. ‘I saw it. Several times.’

‘May your eyes rot! And to think I could n’t kiss her back!’

‘Pity the girl has n’t got a brother,’ Viruelas said.

‘ What in hell does she want a brother for now?’

‘He’d cut your guts out.’

‘You, what do you know?’ replied El Pirata, shrugging his shoulders.

The grabs jingled and clicked as they fastened on to another rail. In the moment of silence before the crane and its pulleys purred into life La Rubia’s voice floated down into the hold.

‘Agua de Iturrigorri! Agua de Iturrigorri!

El Pirata hitched his boina over the other ear and swaggered. El Cura winked at the skies. Evaristo caught the wink and translated it correctly. With the rail suspended in mid-air, he switched off the current.

‘Hoist away!’ shouted the foreman.

Evaristo climbed out on to the platform; with pretended concern he poked an oilcan into the maze of pulleys.

‘Cable’s jammed!’ he answered.

The men who were working in the hold came up on deck. La Rubia and her cart were alongside the ship.

‘Here’s your novio!’ the foreman said, digging El Pirata in the ribs.

La Rubia spat.

‘There’s no man on the wharf who can call himself my novio!’ she answered.

‘Wish the donkey would kick me!’ exclaimed the foreman.

‘Are you set on it being the donkey?’ asked El Pirata, using the provocative second person singular and drawing back his foot.

‘Santísima Virgen! Do you think you’re fighting for a woman in the Sevillana?’ La Rubia snapped.

El Pirata ignored the rebuke. The foreman had already stepped back into the crowd.

‘Viruelas, El Cura, you don’t understand,’ he said simply. ‘I’m going to marry the girl.’

El Cura took the remark as a joke and wanted to share it. He cupped his hands round his mouth and shouted up:—

‘Oiga, Evaristo! El Pirata is going to marry La Rubia!’

‘And drink water!’ Evaristo laughed.

‘But since I tell you I am going to marry her!’ roared El Pirata.

‘Marry me? Me?’ La Rubia murmured, frightened for the first time in her life by the overbearing masculinity of her customers. ‘I — I’m too small.’

‘And what does a fisherman want with a big wife?’ replied El Pirata. ‘You, I can carry you out to the boats like this!’

He leaped from the deck to the wharf, and caught up La Rubia in his arms so that her head was on a level with his own.

‘He’s going to fish for sardines and use her as bait,’ the foreman suggested.

‘Cabrón!’ screamed La Rubia.

She writhed in El Pirata’s grip and sprayed the whole wharf with insults. She leaned her body over his confining arm as if it were the edge of a pulpit and cursed them all.

El Pirata held her fast and smiled. He was not worried any longer because his mates chose to have a bit of fun. He was thinking of the hanging nets and the boats and the swell eddying over the slipway of Arminza. Why had n’t he asked her to marry him before? He’d only been waiting for such a girl — had n’t his father said that a fisherman could n’t make money without a wife? She was very small, yes! But she could sell fish and hold her own with the wives of Arminza. Dios, she could do that! (‘Be quiet, chica! Have you no shame?’) Oh, these women! Didn’t she understand that the wharf was laughing at him, not her?

‘You, El Cura! Does n’t she deserve to be married, or what?’

El Cura had not looked at the question in that light. He was just contrasting their figures and enjoying the fun of it.

‘Yes, man! Of course she deserves it!’

‘She’s worth more than El Pirata,’ said Viruelas.

‘You, what do you know?’ answered La Rubia disdainfully.

The foreman slapped his thigh.

‘Good girl!’ he shouted admiringly. ‘Good girl!’

The feeling of the gang swept into sincerity. The great male still stood before them with his little woman tucked up in one arm, but they were no longer figures of fun. La Rubia had stood up for her man. She had dared to protect him — and in his own words. They were real; they were mates, those two. They had put on the dignity of Roman matrimony. The men crowded round El Pirata, slapping him on the back, showering La Rubia with barbarous compliments.

Ole, La Rubia! Ole la agua de Iturrigorri!’ they shouted.