When you meet a friend unexpectedly three times in one day, the third time sit and have ice cream together.
– Israeli custom
The square in Zugarramurdi is a triangle where three roads meet. One comes up from Dancharinea on the French border, four kilometers away. One leads off in the direction of Urda, about six kilometers across the fields, but never arrives there. The third leads down to the famous cave of witches in Zugarramurdi.
Sometimes tourist buses stop in front of the church to release their passengers for the walk down to the caves. The buses turn awkwardly in the triangular square. From the shade of the sycamore trees that cool the raised patio in front of the Cafe Bar, the stretching, the blinking of tourists in the heat of the Spanish sun, in the dust and smoke of the Spanish harvest, take on aspects of the comic and the grotesque – tortured souls writhing in the smoky fires of hell.
“There’s the old woman again,” said Adam.
Galit raised her glass of cold Campanas rosado and smiled, but the short figure in black continued across the sun-bright square. If the old woman noticed, she paid no attention. As they descended the hundreds of stairs to the witches’ cave that morning, they met her briskly coming up and, nodding politely, they greeted her with “Buenos dias, señora,” though she was barely as tall as a 12-year-old.
The cave was disappointing: a short open cavern, bright at both ends, with a stream on one side and a great bed of warm gray ash on the other, the remnants of the previous evening’s goat roast for tourists. Later, when they climbed the stairs from the witches’ grotto to the farm road above, they decided as they paused for the second time, winded and blown, that the old woman must live there – part goat, part ghost – the scion of a community of women burned as witches in the 17th century.
“I really don’t believe that story,” said Galit.
“Why not?” he said. “Wherever women gathered, from the Middle Ages to the beginning of this century, they were denounced as witches and burned. We’ve run across it again and again in Europe. And it’s not just limited to Christianity. We found the same phenomenon in India and Chile and Mexico and Mozambique before the Christians ever got there.”
“Oh,” said Galit, “I don’t doubt they were denounced and burned.”
“There’s plenty of evidence,” Adam persisted. “Goya drew pictures of them preaching with ears of ass and horns of goat.”
“Goya was describing the animal instincts in human nature,” said Galit, “and anyway, he was 200 years after the events here in Zugarramurdi.”
“Okay,” conceded Adam, “but the contemporary ecclesiastical records note that many women, old and young, admitted to being witches, to preaching black mass, to being in love with the devil.”
“The ecclesiastical records would say that, wouldn’t they?”
“Okay, then, what part of the story don’t you believe?”
“Well, I don’t think religion was the cause; I think it merely justified the murder of women.”
“Look,” said Galit, “not all of these women were old. They didn’t all conform to the local expectations of what a witch was or looked like. Some were young women.”
“So they were witches-in-training.”
“Don’t be flippant,” she said. “Look, there was a community of women living in this cave. Yes! Women who ran away from impoverished lives, from slave jobs and cruel husbands; brave women who escaped from the shackles their society imposed on them.”
“Here we go,” sighed Adam.
“And I think what made these women special is that they were making it. They were herding goats and curing cheese and weaving and carpentering and tinning and doing everything that women did in those days, but they were doing it for themselves! That’s why they were killed, don’t you see? Not because they worshiped the devil, but because they were a community successfully existing outside the conventions defined for women by their society. And that’s why the church had to brand them as witches, so that it could burn them as a warning to all other women who might want the same thing. These women were killed not because they were witches, but because they were free.”
“Very interesting. You’re such a rationalist, Galit. More wine?”
“Are you trying to irrationalize me?”
Adam laughed as he tipped the cold rosé into her glass.
“How did she manage to escape, then?” he said, indicating the old woman in black who had once again entered the triangular square.
“Third time, ice cream,’” said Adam, rising to address the old woman.
But he was already into the smoky sunshine. She saw him approach, the old woman who stopped and looked at him and looked over at Galit in the shade and, inclining her head slightly, returned to the patio with him. As she gathered her skirts to sit at their table, Galit noticed her hair was as black as her clothes and her skin was as white as cave-grown mushrooms.
The waiter greeted her as Doña Estella and brought another glass for her and another bottle.
“Where are your children?” asked Doña Estella with old, clear eyes and a level view.
“We have no children,” said Galit.
“We work for an airline,” Adam added, “and spend much of our time traveling. It’s no life for a child.”
“Do you have children?” Galit asked.
“I have six,” Estella said.
“How nice for you.”
“I don’t know where four of them are buried. They died in the troubles of 1938. One was buried there,” she indicated the churchyard behind her, “before she was baptized. My husband lies there, too.”
“And where is the sixth child?” Adam asked since Galit was too pale to do so.
“He lives in the north.”
“Does he visit you often?”
“He cannot return.”
“Can’t you visit him?”
“I have never been to the north.”
“It’s a beautiful country,” said Galit recovering, “you really must go there sometime. France is almost as beautiful as Spain.”
“And Paris is almost as beautiful as Madrid,” Adam added.
“I have never been to Madrid,” said Estella.
“Well, then,” said Adam, appealing to the prejudice of the provincial, “it’s almost as beautiful as Pamplona, the capital of Navarre!”
But when her face remained unmoved, he added, “The fiesta of San Fermin?”
“The church is rich,” she said, “in saints.”
“You’ve never been to Pamplona?” Adam was gentle in his incredulity.
“I have been to Dancharinea,” she said, “a large town. And I have walked to Urda across the fields to see the sister of my husband while she was still alive. And once, when I was much younger, before the troubles, we went by cart to Elizonda.”
Adam poured her another glass of wine. She drank and smacked her lips appreciatively.
“And where do you live?” she said warmly. “Your Spanish is not from the valley of Baztan.”
“We fly out of Tel Aviv,” Adam said.
Estella looked at him as if the words had no sound.
“We come from Israel,” Galit added.
Estella sat perfectly still, her little girl’s face immobile as she stared at them, waiting for an answer.
“Actually,” Galit continued, “we live in Jerusalem.”
Suddenly alight, Estella clasped her hands above her breast and turned her shining face to the sky.
“Jerusalem,” she said, reverently.
But Galit touched his arm.
“Jerusalem,” Estella continued in adoration. Her gaze descended from the blank white sky to the faces of the children before her. Slowly, as if afraid to dissipate the vision, she unclasped her hands and slowly her black sleeve stretched, slowly her white hand reached out to touch the substance of one who came from Jerusalem.
“From Jerusalem,” she whispered.
“Yes,” said Adam, “we live in Jerusalem.”
“Tell me about Jerusalem,” Estella said. “I have only seen it in my mind.”
“It’s a very hilly city,” said Adam, “like the mountain towns of Navarre, only larger, of course.”
“What is it like to walk on streets paved with gold?”
Galit was first to answer.
“Well,” she said, “the buildings are made of Jerusalem stone which seems to glow like pink gold in the late afternoon light.”
“And are the mansions of the Lord large and stately?”
“Some are,” said Adam with a giggle, “but we live in a small apartment.”
“And when you leave Jerusalem, you fly, you actually fly?”
“Yes,” said Adam seriously, “El Al, out of Tel Aviv.”
“If ever I come to live in Jerusalem,” Estella said, “I would never leave. I would only fly in Jerusalem. But tell me, what are the other people like in Jerusalem?”
“Well, they’re mostly Jews,” said Galit.
“Yes, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, the Jewish state.”
But the old woman was remembering.
“Once we had Jews in Zugarramurdi,” she said, “but the black priest
came and sat in the black chair beside the altar. It is there. You can
see it. He brought all the Jews of Zugarramurdi before him. They were a
dirty people. They stole, they cheated, they drank blood of goats and
children. And once they had admitted all their crimes, he burned them
in the square.”
They looked across the quiet square awash in ageless dust and up to the
church on the other side where the inquisitor sat in his black chair
beside the black altar. The smoke of innocent harvest fires was in the
“We are Jews,” said Galit.
The old woman turned her mushroom-colored face toward Galit and regarded her with eyes the color of a smoky sky.
“Oh,” said the old woman. “Then you know how wicked the Jews are.