Holy Mother is with us on this. She is, dear boy. I am convinced of it.
– Burutzagi Zumaya
GOOD NEWS, KIDS. Bittor’s sitting up, responding to questions. Excellent, excellent. I believe we can move forward, assuming, of course, that he doesn’t have another incident. Is he prone to such attacks? Honestly, I have no idea. We’ll have to wait and see.
Uh-oh. He just grunted, “You two are batshit. Let me outta here.” (Or somesuch. I apprehend this to be the gist of his message.) His speech is thick. He’s groggy from the green. He’s not built up a tolerance to it as the others have. Is he about to bolt? Is the evening a bust?
* * *.
“HERE NOW, this doesn’t do,” coaxes the Archbishop. “You are upset, that’s only natural. It is an extreme idea. And Gusto certainly made a bad, bad mistake in the council. You gave Gus quite a fright with your fainting spell, but I explained to him that you are high-strung, but that you are an adventurous spirit and will come to terms with a radical solution, as you have done with your cheese. Any success we have of it–I expect a success, I’m staking my future on it–will be due to your brilliant example. You have my steadfast support. I’ll prove it. I have something to say that I guarantee you want to hear.”
Bittor doesn’t feel able to exit steady on his feet, his dignity intact; he allows himself to be helped into a parlour, where the three sink, many a sigh between them–the evening has been taxing on all of them–into d’Ollot’s supremely comfortable seating. Utilitarian butt-rests, a thinnish pad to park your rear on, are the norm even in noble households, even up in Paris. D’Ollot, I’ve told you this, I believe, sees himself as a problem-solver, an idea man. Hmm. I’m looking back, I don’t see it. Well, I’m telling you now.
That’s how he paints the underhanded way he comes at life; he helps people out of the jams they’ve gotten themselves into. Few appreciate his efforts. His days are full of challenges. When he returns home of an evening he wants to chill. Gus pampers himself in every possible way, having had so little pampering from other sources.
He has designed deeply upholstered–easy chairs, we call them today–fat cushions, arm rests. Neck rolls. He and Zagi have made good use of those seats, and that carafe, there is a carafe at hand always, usually the mean-green. Let’s have a gargle, they are prone to advising each other. Good for what ails ye.
* * *
“Bitts,” says Zagi, “I’ll be straight with you. That approval is as much for me as for Gus. I have enemies also, first and foremost, Zamanthe. Your mother has it in for me.”
“I know it.”
“Do you wonder why?”
“You’ve been promoted over her brother at every turn.”
“True, but it’s more than that. I would have decamped long back but for you. Me flown, to whom do you go for guidance? Your father? Your Uncle Tancredo, taking your mother’s part in all things? I have tried to fill a father role. I must stick until I see you settled into life. Ametza at your side, there’s a start. If I can improve your financial outlook, and I believe I can, I will sleep easy up to Paris.”
“What about my cheese? You praise it to high heaven. You don’t believe in me after all?”
“Highness, your cheese is, thus far, no more than a happy hobby. It may go, it may not. It may take years to turn a profit. I can’t wait that long. You have a job of work ahead of you. The farther afield, due to the issues we’ve mentioned and others, the more difficult it will be to compete. As Gus says, cash and carry, you can’t beat it. But retailing to our home folk won’t suffice. Buttonholing diplomats, praying they recommend you to their countrymen, that’s a nice daydream. Happily, the solution sits on our very doorstep. The pilgrim path along the coast, drawing from all Europe, we must tap into that tributary. A fraction of that flood will do us beautifully. This idea will work if–a big if–we handle it well.”
“You might as well sign on,” mutters d’Ollot. “Follow the money is the standard way to determine culpability. You, sir, will be the major winner, willing participant or not. Give it your all. Frankly, you have nothing to lose.”
“Shush with that talk,” warns Zagi. Gus glowers at him. “Bitts, listen to me. I feel a responsibility to look after you, as I have tried to look out for your father. I was put to helping him with his lessons. Come, have you heard no ugliness about me?”
“You are called a nervy bastard.”
“That nibbles at it. I can hardly believe that someone hasn’t shoved it in your face by now, but we are all in terror of your mother, aren’t we? She wants something buried, buried it is. Jakome’s father was my father. I am his half-brother, your half-uncle.
“Your Grandpa bought my Mama into the Convent at Pau with the dowry of a countess. That enraged your grandmother and it irks our current queen equally. Money that should have come to her was thrown away on a housemaid who was, incidentally, beloved. As bad or worse, my sharp wit is in stark contrast to the lesser capacity of your poor papa. Zamanthe wishes me to Hell every time she sets eyes on me.”
“I suppose it may be true,” whispers Bittor. “You and father look so alike.”
“My Mama,” says Zagi, “is advanced to sub-abbess at Pau, having shown herself to be a fine administrator. She has followed my progress. So you see, I had an influential figure helping me along even after the old king passed on.
“I promised never to speak of this. I have betrayed her. I am your blood, my prince, committed to your cause. I have the brain of my clever mother, the very twin of our Ametza, as I imagine her to have been at that age.” He jumps to his feet, does a little dance. “I like your little girl, by God I do!” Bittor smiles his first sincere smile since he walked through the front door. Zagi drops to one knee in theatrical fealty. “Whatever happens, nephew, trust me to deal with it.”
“For your sake, uncle, I may consent to sign your document. But I insist to learn why I was as good as announced your confederate on no basis whatsoever. I find Monsieur d’Ollot’s claim to sound practices ludicrous. Let him convince me otherwise, if he can.”
“Speak up, big mouth,” directs Zagi.
“Sir!” cries Gus. “I beg you to consider the circumstances.”
“You have made me out a scoundrel, Monsieur.”
“Look on the bright side. Better a scoundrel than a fool.”
“A scoundrel and a fool, you ass, one eager to profit from an atrocity.”
“Please may I paint a fuller picture? Any insult to Your Highness was unintentional. I’d been turned down for the Ram, after being assured, by you, sir, I was in.”
Bittor grabs at his mid-section. “I think I’m going to puke.”
“My medicinal will fix you up,” cries Gus, glad of a chance to be of service. “Calms the stomach. All-use pick-me-up. I could use another splash myself.” Three goblets are filled, and emptied. “I was sure this would be my year,” he moans. “Zagi, you thought so yourself.”
“I did,” Zagi confirms. “Bittor, Gus is correct. You declared it done.”
“I reported what was conveyed to me.”
“It’s my own fault,” gasps Gus. “I considered myself a Ram, short the formalities. If, in the weeks leading up to the vote, I greeted members with a wink, that’s on me. I was less than hat-in-hand, me, a tax-court clerk. Did I provoke a revolt among the membership with my conduct? No, I was set up, I see it now. I heard what I wanted to hear. I was advised the path was clear for me, the last of the old guard, my worst foes, among the dreadful departed. How could I have fallen for it? I’m sharper than that. I brought this on myself. After years of forcing my name to put up for consideration by twisting arms, having long abandoned hope–I persisted in order to annoy–I suddenly had a positive response. I lost my head.”
“A devilish act, I should have been alert to it,” says Zagi. “On you, for obvious reasons. On Bittor, for a mean joke. On me, for thinking I could influence the process.”
“Here’s how it went that day,” moans Gus. “The list of those newly tapped was posted in the Great Hall. I was stunned to find my name missing. I took a slug of the green–I carry it always–to steady myself prior to facing the council. I settled into my spot, poker-faced.1 I managed to get through my balance sheet, etcetera. I pleaded for the king to face reality, as usual. He responded with the phrase we’re all familiar with. Did I call the King a moron? I had the word in my brain, I had the shape of it in my mouth. Did I spit it out? I don’t recall.
“I raged–that I’m sure of–there is one with a strategy for solving our money woes. The cheese venture has a decent chance. But I have another idea, and His Highness is wise enough to support it. I ducked into the hall, had another nip of the restorative, crept back. They were roaring over my rejection. I exploded, praising you, sir, as an example of the leadership this kingdom is in desperate need of. Then, intent on showing those fools how clever I am, I sketched my plan with, unfortunately, more detail than I’d intended.”
“Nothing worth doing ever came easy,” Zagi lectures the royal. “I place the commonweal over my narrow interests. It is integral to my faith. No one will keep me from practicing my faith as I think proper. And I think this plan very proper, as proper as anything I’ve ever done.”
Bittor has relaxed. He may be coming around. He still has one big objection. “Why does it have to be Virgin Mary? Cannot we make do with a lesser saint?”
“Bitts,” pleads his uncle, “the Virgin Mary would be all for this. Is she not pure, perfect compassion? She of all people would gladly sacrifice her dignity so the downtrodden may raise up. Compostela is a major draw. It will take an outrageous incident to compete. Even our sire of Carcassonne would not be a sufficient enticement. Holy Mother it must be.”
Bittor shrinks, his body language that of continued hesitation.
“Do me this kindness,” implores the Bishop. “Our Za-Za, talk it over with her.” He turns to his co-conspirator. “What say we offer her the monopoly on breads and cakes? The dumpling will go for it. She’ll not pass up the chance of a lifetime.”
“Yes,” agrees d’Ollot. “We’ll give her the cheese franchise as well. She’ll subcontract it out to you, sir,” he glances at Bittor. “You keep your hands clean, at a price. I don’t doubt she drives a mean bargain.”
ZaZa despises Bittor’s timidity. He’s gotten many a lecture on it. He shrieks, “Where’s that paper? I’ll sign, by God I will!” He drains his amusingly shaped goblet (they do not let it stand dry) and hurls the blown glass sea-monster, its bulge-eyed, curled-lipped visage so like his mama’s sourpuss, into the hearth. “I’ll show both of them,” he fumes, decorating the document shoved under his nose with a swirl of signature. “Where do you mean to stage your carnival?”
“On the Pamplona Road,” explains d’Ollot, “there is that level stretch. The rock-face above is a magnificent backdrop. The claim is that in late afternoon, the sun just so, one sees a woman’s face on the cliff. My boys call it the Neskata, the young lady. I’ve tried to apprehend it. I can’t. But I suppose if you stare at a formation long enough you can see anything.”3
“On the Pamplona Road! A tillable field, free of the ledge that is our principal natural wealth?”
“A fine spot,” confirms d’Ollot. I’ve leased it. I send my boys gathering there.”
“You’ve leased it!”
“I play, you see, with herbs. This spirit is my own recipe. I plan to set up in business with rejuvenating tonics. That parcel is full of fennel, wormwood, mint, my vital ingredients.”
“That’s my fennel!” howls Bittor. “I graze my sheep on that patch. I’ve had that land seeded, tended.”2
“The ownership of that parcel,” spits d’Ollot, “is in litigation. I am a careful man. I was not appointed Minister of Finance for being a cheese-head. I lease that land from the Probate Court, with the approval of the family, though it was not required–the judge has the only yea or nay–my possession to endure until the matter is settled. And I have the pull to retard a judgment for a good long time.”
“Cheese-head! He calls me a cheese-head! The son of a felon calls me a cheese-head!”
“I know a cheese-head when I meet one. I am a hard-nosed businessman. Take me as a partner on your venture and it will prosper beyond your wildest dreams.”
“I have a partner.”
“Ah! Who might that be?”
“The little shop girl! It gets better and better. A sweet treat, I’m sure. Her smart is between her legs, is my opinion.”
“Watch your mouth, blackguard. I cherish that young lady.”
“We all cherish her, especially when we joggle after her down the street. Some hot cross buns there.”
“No more of this! No more! You are despicable! That business with Portofino, shameful. For such behaviors are you branded felon, son of a felon, probably grandson, nephew, cousin of felons! Criminality, in the bloodline.”
“As is idiocy, in your family.”
Zagi winces. It’s close to the reality.
D’Ollot has heard the son of a felon remark all his life. A note signed, he dares to retaliate. “My father was a thief, but at least he had something between his ears besides curd. If you had brains, you would have demanded a lease.”
“I have a lease, damn your eyes.”
“Do you! With who?”
“With the Zambranos. With Mama Agurtzane.”
“I hold my lease from the court. Yours, if you have one, is an ass-wipe.”
“I rescind my involvement in this wretched business,” shouts Bittor. “What in heaven’s name was I thinking?”
“Too late. Your signatory locks you in.”
“Come now, friends,” Zagi pleads. “We’ve had too much of this tasty spirit, which inflames the emotions. Let me study the problem. Monsieur d’Ollot, do you trust me?”
“I do,” growls d’Ollot. He’s thinking, in a pig’s eye I do.
Zagi takes Bittor’s hand. “Dear boy, will you give me a chance to solve this unpleasantness?”
Bittor avoids hot-headed confrontation. Clashes with his Mama have taught him he cannot win at hand-to-hand. His tactic is always passive resistance. “I am willing to be reasonable,” he grunts.
He allows himself to be helped into his pasture-prancing greatcoat, head-to-toe oilcloth, a capelet swinging about his shoulders, capable of serving as a hood in a downpour. He pulls the hood over his head–the effect is something akin to a towering ship under full sail–and starts for the door. Then, thinking it best not to end the evening on a sour note, he whips around to bid a polite farewell.
His father’s functionary hasn’t the courtesy to rise. Bittor ignores the lapse and extends a hand. The heavy hanging-cuff of his sleeve accosts the third goblet, propelling it across the table and over the edge. Shards of sea-dragon litter the floor in every direction.
It’s Gusto’s turn to stare at the ceiling.
* * *.* * * * * *
- Poker is said to have begun in nineteenth-century New Orleans, but in fifteenth-century France Poque, also a vying game in which combinations of cards are ranked according to their rarity, was played with the same 52-card deck. Another such game, Primero, was popular in the Tudor court. (Maybe I should say Poque-faced.)
- According to the annual report of the Pennsylvania State College for 1904-05, fennel increases milk yield and possesses antiseptic and tonic properties.
- In the early seventies a friend–heavily influenced by Sister Corita–covered the walls of our Boston apartment in multi-colored-marker scribbles. Eventually we spied familiar faces in the muddle, Ho Chi Min one of them.