Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Sheepless


It´s sunny, but a cold, hard wind is blowing from the east, blasting dozens of pilgrims down the Camino and through town. This is the biggest wave of pilgrims I´ve seen since about October. They have rosy red cheeks and the wind at their backs.

New birds are appearing every day, too, adding to the two cooing doves in the garden and the amazing unknown singing maestro we call the Placido Bird. Over in Sahagun a new pair of storks is adding a second monster nest to the top of the bell tower above the pilgrim hostel. It´s building season, so the storks swoop low over town, carrying great sticks in their yellow bills. Sometimes they drop them, so watch out!

I wish we had a stork nest here in Moratinos. Storks are supposed to be good luck, but the bell tower over our church might not support the great weight of a stork´s big wiggy nest, and no other structure is high-up enough for them to consider. They add more sticks every year, and after a while the nests can stand 6 feet high and weigh a ton.

This was the last full shopping and working day before the big holy week festival really kicks into gear, and the streets of Sahagun this morning were heaving with shoppers and pilgrims and delivery trucks. Driving and parking take on video-game dimensions on days like this, but it´s fun to be part of that holiday atmosphere. We stocked up, and bought enough pork loin to feed whatever pilgrims wash up on our shores on Easter Sunday! ("You and your friggin´ pilgrims!" Paddy mumbles..)

Only one of our workmen showed up today: Jesus the tile guy. He´s finishing up his great work here, (he´s doing actual plastering in the old salon and hallway), and will be gone soon after the holiday, off to work in the mountains. He and I can converse quite easily, even on rather complicated subjects. Some other people, however, are much harder for me to communicate with. I wonder what makes the difference.

I have a headache today, so everything is blunted and not so nice. I took the dogs out for a litter pickup along the Camino this afternoon, and ran into something that made me stop being so self-absorbed.

Three buildings down from us on Calle Ontanon is the big concrete-block barn where Justi and Oliva keep their musical menagerie of doves, chickens, rabbits, and sheep. They are the only family that still keeps a business-sized herd of animals in Moratinos.

Justi and Oliva have lived in the house next door to us for most of their lives, and every day of each of those years has been a back-and-forth between their doorstep and that barn, sometimes with a wheelbarrow, sometimes a dolley of feed, returning with a freshly skinned rabbit or plucked rooster. The endless round of plowing, milking, butchering, and harvesting left them weatherbeaten and bent. Their teeth are not in good shape. They are always friendly, but you don´t see them smile too often. And when we talk of things beyond the weather or the quality of this week´s bread, they talk about the dropping prices for lamb or wool or milk, and the corresponding rise in the price of diesel fuel, veterinary care, and hay. They grow much of their own animal feed, and their garden gives them greens and beans enough to share with the likes of us.

But Oliva last year developed an allergy to the dust and droppings in the barn. The asthma attack she had after Christmas just about did her in.

Oliva told Paddy that she and Justi were going to retire anyway next year, but with things going so badly, they thought they´d cut our losses and get out a little early, while they still had some health.

It´s not so easy to sign off on a farm. First they gave away or butchered all the rabbits and chickens, and sold the doves. In January they thought they had a buyer for the sheep (the herd numbers about 60, down from 200 several years ago) but the bottom dropped out of the on-the-hoof market and they had to take on the expense of feeding the critters all through the winter. But with Spring comes the lambs, and with Easter the demand snaps back. (The butcher shops are all hung with them, neatly cloven in half from nose to tail-tip.)

We didn´t see a lot of the sheep herd, but we heard them! Every day, when we passed their barn, they´d bleat and baa at us in several keys, high and low. It is wonderful music, a sweet sound. One day Oliva opened the gate to show me ten new lambs. These are impossibly cute creatures! I knelt in the straw and held out my hands and they gamboled over and snuffled at me with their little leather mouths. "Tan preciosa!" I told Oliva. She grinned her toothless grin. "Tan deliciosa!" she said.

At church on Sunday we heard a buyer had finally been found. He´d keep the productive ewes, and butcher the old ram and the young lambs. "Finally," everyone said.

I think today was the day. The dogs and I turned the corner just as a livestock truck was heading up the street. We stepped past the barn, and something there was not right. The door stood open. There were no sounds.

Only a slight movement. For a split second as I moved past I saw him there inside. It was Justi. He stood by the lambing pen, his barn emptied-out, his face in his hands.

Now Justi and Oliva are free to retire.
And for the first time in Time Out of Mind, all the sheep are gone from Moratinos.

2 comments:

lillirod said...

Thanks for sharing this story. It is so sad witness how life in a tiny pueblo keeps changing. All those good times now gone by....

Elizabeth said...

This story makes me feel blue. I hope that the two of them don't just give up like some retirees do. I don't know how their bodies will handle going from hard labor to relaxing on the sofa. :-(