An Acorn in Gernika,
a short story
by Christine E. Bender
The rifle in my bandaged hand grew heavier as we trudged behind the ox hauling a two-wheeled cart that cradled my father’s body. My mother had wrapped Father in a gray blanket, covered the gray blanket with a brown one, and then packed our belongings around him. We held tightly to the sides of the cart to keep its rocking from betraying us, and to keep the blankets from working loose and exposing Father’s lifeless face to the night. Nothing but the stars and a sliver of the moon lit our way.
The smell of smoke and death trailed us as we climbed. After the first hour of walking and pushing I stopped looking into the cart. After two hours my older sister stopped weeping. Every few moments I could feel the touch of my mother’s stricken glance.
Our old ox needed the help of all three of us to lumber up the last hill. When the ground leveled out at last and we found my great-uncle’s house still standing, we halted and stared at the light shining from his kitchen window as if its glow revealed a miracle. At Mother’s call Uncle Marzelo opened the door with an injured lamb in his arms. “Tomasa!” he cried, running to my mother and pulling her to his chest against the lamb. Mother weakened then, and he had to drop the lamb to keep her from falling.
“Francisca,” he called to my sister, already hurrying over to help Mother into the house. But before they had cleared the doorway, my mother jerked to a stop and pushed Uncle Marzelo toward me. “You must watch over Antoni, Uncle! Watch over him!”
Uncle Marzelo turned back, drew me close, and lifted my face with one leathery hand. His eyes lingered on my bruised cheek, the broken right lens of my glasses, my bandaged hand still gripping the rifle. He studied my expressionless gaze then let his hand fall away from my chin and scanned the dark hilltop. When his pain-darkened eyes met mine again, he asked in a voice as deep and dry as an empty well, “Is it just the three of you, then?”
“Yes, Uncle.” My tone was peculiarly calm.
I pointed at the cart. We walked over to it and looked down at the rounded brown blanket tucked between the small chests and baskets. Uncle Marzelo let out a sharp moan and grabbed me so tightly that my sore face throbbed against his chest. His fingers dug into my jacket as he choked out, “Your Aunt Benita, Aunt Aitana? Their families?”
Hours earlier my mind had shrouded the worst of the horror; what I had smelled, what I had seen lying amid the rubble. “They were burned, Uncle. They were caught inside their homes when the bombs started falling.”
He squeezed me even tighter, then he began to tremble. Although my arms reached no higher than his belt, I tried to steady him. Clumsy because of the rifle I clutched, we slid slowly to the ground.
“How many? How many are dead, Antoni?”
“Half the town, maybe. There is little left of the square but stones and blood.”
His head bowed and his shoulders shook. A growling started deep in his chest as tears found their escape.
I did not respond, and it must have been my silence, my stillness that eventually reached him and slowly brought his head up. He wiped at his eyes and nose. “Talk to me, Antoni.” When I said nothing, he repeated with greater authority and deeper concern, “Talk to me.”
I said only, “Today was market day. They knew when to come, when they would kill the most people.”
“Yes,” Uncle Marzelo said, his bitterness flaring, “they knew. And they knew we had no defense against airplanes and bombs.” He took a shaky breath and nodded for me to continue.
“They bombed buildings and houses, hitting the homes nearby but missing ours. Then they dropped a liquid that burned everything it touched. For three hours the airplanes came. After that, soldiers came with machine guns. Father told me he saw people trying to leave the city but many were shot down.”
Uncle Marzelo held his wrinkled eyes shut, his mouth pinched. When he could speak, he said, “I tried to come to you but the airplanes kept flying over. Some fired at me and I had to turn back. All night I’ve left my light burning, praying you would reach me.”
In the aching hush that followed, I thought of those who would never reach him again.
His attention gradually settled on the rifle in my hands. “Let me see that, Antoni.”
Without releasing my grip, I held the rifle out to him.
“Where did you get this?”
I gave no answer.
He tried to ease the gun from my grasp but I yanked it back, surprising him greatly. His words sharpened. “Tell me where you got it.”
My mind went unwilling back until it froze, trapped by an instant in time when the rifle bucked against my shoulder and a single shot rang out.
“That’s a Nazi rifle. Where did you find it?”
“Find it? No, it was Father who found it. But I killed with it.”
The words began to roll out of my mouth like uneven pebbles. “After the bombing stopped, Father left us and came back with this rifle. We waited until dark, listening, praying, and packing, but Franco’s soldiers didn’t reach our farm. When everything had been put in the cart, Father hid the rifle under a blanket. We were ready to leave when a soldier, all alone, came up behind Father and told him not to move. The soldier looked us over and then walked to Francisca. He raised his hand to touch her cheek but Father lunged at him. The soldier turned and fired his gun. Father fell. I was behind the cart and I pulled out the rifle. I lifted it and shot that soldier as he crouched over Father’s body. I killed him.”
I added with finality, clenching the rifle, “It’s mine now.”
“Not yet eleven years old,” Uncle Marzelo groaned.
My mouth hardened. “Old enough.”
He slowly shook his head. “And your face, your hand?”
“The rifle knocked me against the cart and a kettle fell on top of me. I cut my hand helping Mother pack her knives.”
Taking care not to touch the rifle, he lifted me to my feet and we shuffled heavily toward the house. “You must eat something, and sleep,” he said. “Then we must bury your father.”
When Uncle Marzelo shook me awake a few hours later daylight had already reached my sleeping corner, its brightness stinging my eyes. Before I had allowed myself to fall asleep I had wrapped the rifle’s strap around my right arm. Now I unwound the strap and slipped it over my head and one shoulder as I followed my uncle to the table.
Mother stared out of swollen eyes at me and my rifle, then placed plates of bread and cheese on the table. We sat down without speaking and I ate without tasting.
Leaving the table and the house, Uncle Marzelo and I found a shady patch behind his house for Father’s grave. With each scoop and heave of the shovel, the rifle thumped against my back. Uncle Marzelo paused often to listen and to scan the skies, but there was no sign of airplanes.
When the hole was deep enough we climbed out and rested in our sweaty clothes. Lying on my back, I held the rifle across my chest.
“Antoni,” my uncle said gently, “sit up and look at me.” After I had, he went on, “You must give up that rifle.”
My hands and jaws tightened.
“If the soldiers come and find you with it, they’ll shoot you.”
“I will defend this house, this family.”
“What chance would you have against so many? You saw what they did to Gernika. Your mother could not bear to lose you. She’s lost her husband and two sisters already.”
I ran my hand over the rifle’s wooden stock and up its barrel until my fingers traced the grooves forming the image of an eagle.
Seeing this, Uncle Marzelo’s face grew scornful. “A Nazi eagle. Hitler’s mark. That devil supplied Franco’s rebels with thousands of rifles just like that one.”
“Hitler? The German?”
“Those were not Franco’s airplanes that bombed Gernika, Antoni. They were Hitler’s. Franco sold his soul, sold it for rifles and airplanes so he can steal control of Spain.”
“But the airplanes had a different mark. It looked almost like a lauburu.”
“Yes, Hitler took our ancient symbol, sharpened the curves into corners, and claimed it for his army. Their new emblem is evil, just as the eagle on that rifle is evil.” He stood and held out his hand. “Give it to me, Antoni. We will bury it beneath your father. You killed with it to save your mother and Francisca, as your father would have wished. But now his grave will hide it, to keep you all safe if the soldiers come.”
I looked away from his outstretched hand.
He reached down and gripped the barrel.
I leaped up, clamping my hands around the rifle and struggling to wrench it from him.
“Antoni!” he shouted as he seized the gun with both hands.
Lurching, yanking, pushing, I fought to free the rifle, but old and thin though my uncle was he did not let go. As we struggled, the barrel of the rifle swung around and hit his head, knocking off his beret, and still he clung to the weapon. Both of us strained as our feet skidded into the pile of loose dirt, then in one great heave I shoved my great-uncle onto his back against the pile. He pulled the rifle down with him and I fell onto his chest, crushing the breath from him. His hands loosened just enough for me to twist the rifle free.
I stood over him more stunned than he, then fell to my knees and rocked back and forth while embracing the rifle. “Oh, Uncle…Uncle, it’s all I have. All that’s left.”
He came nearer and sat by me. Finally, he said, “No, it’s not all that’s left.”
“You haven’t seen Gernika, Uncle. Even the oak. I heard shouts that they even killed the great oak.”
He masked his own pain at this revelation but gathered himself quickly. “What has the oak always represented, Antoni?”
At our failure, our defilement, I could no longer withhold my tears. I released a sob and felt my own words mocking me as I said, “The Basque people…our strength…strength to stand against all that befalls us.”
He gave me a moment. “Antoni, was this a lie? Was the oak a false symbol?”
With an effort I quieted my weeping and looked at him in confusion. Unbelievably, his face reflected back an ageless pride, bearing an undeniable, resolute strength. I stared and heard myself answer, “No.”
“Then, in all of Gernika do you think we can find a single acorn?”
I thought back, remembering the devastation, but at last I nodded.
“If so, our oak tree will grow again.”
He rose shakily to his feet, dusted the dirt from his pants, and stepped to the edge of the grave. Patiently, he waited until I joined him and lifted up the rifle, which grew suddenly ugly in its deadly starkness. I tossed it with force into the oblong pit. It landed with a dull thud, the etching of the eagle hiding in the loose dirt, already buried.
I looked up at Uncle Marzelo. “You don’t think Father will mind?”
“It is a sign of his son’s courage. He won’t mind.”
He laid a heavy arm on my shoulders and we turned toward the cart. I paused to pick up his beret and carefully brush it off, then held it out to him.