Friday, 28 November 2008

Sunny Thanksgiving

One of America´s better ideas is Thanksgiving, the holiday that happened Thursday. The entire country takes a day off, roasts a turkey, eats pie and other traditional delicacies, drinks nasty liquor with distant relatives, then falls asleep in front of a televised football game. (You´re really supposed to spend this day thanking God for all the nice things and people that surround you, but you don´t always get to that.)

Here in Moratinos, Thursday 29 November was a day like any other, except it was a bit colder than average. We didn´t plan on any big fowl feast...we decided to turn back the clock to when I lived as a single mom in Toledo, Ohio. Back then I was in a labor union, and those who worked on Thanksgiving day were paid double the normal rate for their day´s work! Therefore, the kids (Libby and Philip) went to their Dad´s house for the usual feast early in the day, while I worked the early shift at the newspaper and raked in the big bucks. When I finished I´d gather up the other single people in the newsroom, pick up Libby and Philip, and we´d all drive up through the snow to Great Lake Dim Sum in Ann Arbor, where we feasted fit to burst on some top quality Cantonese. (Most other restaurants were closed on the big day, but the Chinese were always open.)

We did that every Thanksgiving for at least five years. It grew to include a good 15 or 20 people at some point. And in the years since I always kinda crave steamed wontons on Thanksgiving, when everyone else is inhaling pumpkin pie.
And so this year we decided to revisit the Ann Arbor tradition, except this time do it in Leon.

As per usual, Paddy took the dogs out for their morning run up the camino. Because the weather´s gone bad, we see very few pilgrims passing through lately, and none have stopped at our place in at least two weeks. I begin to miss them when they´re not here. They keep us from falling into ruts and rhythms of unbroken sameness, where we do the same things at the same times every day and week, with the same cast of characters. We lose track of time, space, dimension. We drift into netherworlds of long Thackeray novels or aimless web searches or elaborate eggplant recipes. We catch the flu, and spend entire days passed-out in bed, lolling in indolence.

(Some may look at the above and say "hey, sounds great to me, except for the flu part" And true, retirement DOES have its good and bad sides.)

But what I´m trying to say is, yesterday morning Paddy brought home a Thanksgiving treat. Can you guess what it was?
Another dog? No.
A donkey? No, thank God... I am still having nightmares about that huge friendly donkey-head staring in the living-room window, overshadowing all we did.
A pilgrim? Getting warm!

From out there on the windy trail Pad and Una and Tim brought back nine Koreans. They followed him through the gate, and just kept coming, and coming, and coming, like clowns piling out of a tiny circus car. Large and small, girls and boys, teens and tinies, each had his or her own backpack, staff, and big, broad smile. They shed their gear in the entryway, stacking it with practiced ease. We brought them inside, crammed them into the kitchen/sitting room, gave them coffee and cocoa, and listened to a three-person account of their travels. (they approach English the way Paddy and I do Spanish: One person listens and understands, then conveys it to the next person, who formulates and delivers a spoken response.)

The dad of the group, or maybe the entire group, is named Sunny. Sunny J-sik Han. They´re a dad and mom and six children, with a nephew along for the ride as well. They live in Seoul, South Korea, and run a nursery school with an accent on artwork -- they were enough taken with a portrait Libby did of me when she was 2 they took a photo of it! They´re walking the camino in winter because they can´t take the summer heat. They´re on a 2-year tour of all kinds of places: Russia, Jordan, Israel, France, Spain, and after this they´re off to Somalia to help out at an orphanage run by a Korean charity.

The dogs rolled around on the carpet with the little girls. The boys hunkered over the computer. They all were very calm and polite and measured, a pleasure to have in the house.

They started the Camino two weeks ago, Sunny said, and we are the first people to invite them in. I was amazed... a family, with children? Spaniards love children! How could this be?
Could be because it´s winter, and so much of the Camino has hung out the "Closed for the Season" sign?
Could be the stony Castilian character we hear a lot about? -- but we have not really seen that for ourselves. Castilians seem perfectly friendly to us, and I´ve seen them go out of their way to make a pilgrim child smile.

I wonder how much of it is their Korean-ness. I´ve noticed here in Spain that anyone with Oriental features is assumed (by many) to be a "Chino," and is treated with a clumsy, smiling scorn usually reserved for unattractive children. It´s not out-and-out discrimination, but it´s a definite prejudice, the kind you see in jokey fingers-on-eye-corners and buck-tooth smiles babbling "chinchangchow." I´ve seen this in high-ranking clergy, driving instructors, teenagers, hospitaleros, and TV ads. It is repugnant.

I am glad Paddy asked the Sunnys home. They took photos, and gave us little gifts, and signed the book and had us stamp a sello in each of their credentials. When they finished their cocoa each child washed his own cup and saucer in the sink. Then they strapped their mountain of packs and bedrolls back onto their backs and headed out down the trail. The mom turned ´round in the driveway and bobbed a little bow, and told us, "you make people happy."

"They renew my faith in humanity," Paddy said simply.

That done, we headed out ourselves -- to Leon, to a Thanksgiving feast at Casa Rong, our favorite Spanish Chinese restaurant. It´s nothing near as good as Great Lake, but I´ll take Peking Duck over roast turkey, given a choice. Outside the windows the snow began to fall, just like in Ann Arbor.

It made me miss the football, just a little.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Musical Martyrs

Woke up this morning,
dragged my carcass out of bed,
looked out the window,
and what did I see?
Snow. White hankies dropping straight down from a silent, steel-gray sky.

Still, though, I did not despair. It is only November, so it´s not killer depressing yet, seeing snow. The first snowfall of the season is usually kind of nice.

Specially if it´s like this one: short-lived and followed by all kinds of weather after. And better things than that, even. I looked at the snow and realized I´m feeling better, finally.

I´ve not written in my usual rhythm because I´ve been very ill -- an intestinal flu bug is making the rounds hereabouts, and boy did I get a dose!

I knew something was wrong on Saturday night. Saturday was St. Cecilia´s Day. Cecilia is the patron saint of music and musicians -- the good woman, a Roman martyr, is usually pictured with a pipe organ. (Bet you didn´t know that pipe organs date back 2,000 years, to the Romans, eh? The earliest ones weren´t driven by compressed air, but by running water! Cool stuff you can learn from blogs, eh?) I can only hope that Cecilia´s organ-playing was not directly related to her martyrdom.

Martyrdom and pipe organs do have their commonalities, as anyone can attest who has sat through more than one organ recital.

More back story: Michael, my Premier Husband and the father of my children, is an organist of some note in the United States. Many years ago we toured some of the weird 500-year-old pipe organs that still remain in rural Extremadura, Spain. Nothing sounds (or looks) quite like a Spanish pipe organ, and UNESCO, the European Union, and other cultural NGOs have spent zillions in the past two decades saving many of these old whistle-boxes from oblivion. Unfortunately, nobody in the backwater towns is an organist. Paco and Pepita may have a jewel of the Spanish Baroque in the loft of their old stone sanctuary, but it´s a good bet they have never heard it played.

And so Michael´s messing-about, courtesy the Tourist Office of Spain and the Extremaduran bishops, usually drew crowds of appreciative, applauding villagers... and sometimes showered them with clouds of dust and pigeon guano. (this can happen when you pull open a stop and compressed air suddenly fills a long-silent diapaison. (Mothers, warn your children.)

So, in the fullness of years I am left with a perverse appreciation for pipe organs, especially the odd Spanish kind. And a week ago, while reading the local weekly newspaper, I found an announcement: on St. Cecilia´s Day, a free organ concert at Sta. Cecilia Church in Espinoza de Gonzalo, on a 15th century restored instrument, by a Mexican-American organist "of some repute."

"Hmmm," I thought. "I wonder if he´ll play any 15th century Mexican church music? I wonder where Espinoza de Gonzalo is? I wonder if Paddy can be persuaded to go?"

Long story short: We got up and went, seeing as we´ve not done no culture in a while. Espinoza isn´t much these days, but it was apparently an important place a few hundred years ago. They have a real gem of a big old parish church that must date to the 12th century, with a sweet Flemish-style pipe organ up in the loft. The pedals were mere pegs set into the floor. There was only one keyboard, with 40 notes, and 20 stop-buttons, big enough to fill your palm.

The concert drew a good crowd -- about 100 people gathered in, smiled and greeted one another, and wondered how to sit. (Watching a concert means you sit facing the performer. But what if he´s seated behind you, over your head? And what if the seat is a church pew, and reversing yourself means turning your back on the Blessed Sacrament up front and threading your legs over and through the pew-back? And what if you´re an old lady, wearing a skirt, and all your neighbors are there watching?)

Anyway, we being strangers, we just sat and listened. The organist was not much good. He did not play any oddments of Hispanic Baroque, and we didn´t hear any of the wonderfully goat-like honkings I knew were coiled inside those big en chamade horizontal pipes bristling out over his head. Oh well, he is the Yale-educated expert, not me.

It still was an enjoyable evening out, in a lovely and nicely restored church, with well-kept baroque and roccoco altars. It was not overly cold, although the inevitable chill did creep up into my ankles as time went on. Between numbers we could see and hear the crowd slipping away (just try to sneak out when the exit door is 12 feet tall and weighs 150 pounds).

I was glad for the architectural distraction, because my stomach was making amazing noises. The noises! It did not ache or hurt me, but something apparently was going on in there, something akin to a population migration, a hydraulic damming project, or some autonomic realignment of major digestive organs. It was almost musical.

We were going to stop somewhere for dinner after the concert, but the digestive din was a warning shot across the bow. We hied on home after the last semiquaver bounced off the stone vaults. We made it just in time.

And so here I am, somewhat recovered from my very own organ concert -- three days of musical martyrdom. Flu Blues. Acid Jazz. A little tripe music?

Santa Cecilia forfend!

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Sunshine + Spare Time + Stones

Enough of life, death, and dogs´ ballocks. We´ve spent the last few dreary days hunkered down by the fire contemplating Being and Nothingness. Today the sun came out, and we decided it´s time to get back to Big Fun.

In the bright morning we took the dogs and a walking stick and hiked out to Villa Oreja, maybe a mile east along the Camino. Paddy and Una (both still limping a bit) sat down on one of the benches for a rest.

You might know Villa Oreja by now. It´s just a couple of benches and an irrigation well nowadays, a layby along the Camino between Moratinos and Terradillos. The tiny Rio Templarios babbles by, and tall trees shade the scene. Back a thousand years or so there was supposedly a monastery there, full of wicked monks. A local Good vs. Evil legend attached to the place, and is still played-out there (with plenty of liquid lubrication) every summer on St. John´s Eve. (I blogged about it before – put in “Templars” in the Lijit search box over to the right here. It´ll come up.)

Two summers ago our English forerunners in Moratinos, James and Marianne, put coffee and bickies and a donations box out in the early mornings at Villa Oreja, for the pilgs to enjoy. The innkeeper in St. Nicolas, who claims divine right to all money spent by pilgrims hereabouts, thought their little breakfast service was a threat to public health. He called in the authorities and shut them down.

Anyway, Villa Oreja has a vibe all its own. It´s quiet and pastoral and inviting, and it´s dead on the Camino. We like it. While Paddy and Una sat, Tim went down to the creek to hunt crawdads. I took Paddy´s walking stick, and started scratching in the dirt. A cross, with a dot in each quadrant. Then a hook up and to the right, to make the cross into a letter f. And from there, a loop over top. I learned it in a book, this drawing. It´s easy, ancient, and elegant. It turns into a classic Cretan design, with roots going back 3,000 years.

And thus, dear readers, is how our first Labyrinth got started.

I dragged the stick behind me to ensure the paths were wide enough to walk. We picked up rocks, and laid them along the lines.

We didn´t have enough rocks, so I later went out the the Promised Land in the car and scavenged what felt like a ton or two. After lunch we went back to Villa Oreja and worked until the little job was done. It didn´t take too long. We´re pleased with the outcome.

Why´d we make a Labyrinth? I don´t really know. I like outdoor designy-things that slip easily into the environment: simple fountains, bridges, pathways, grottos, rockeries.
We both love old things, ideas with a long, misty history. People have been building labyrinths in meadows and cathedrals and gardens all over the world for eons, for reasons that aren´t really clear.

Labyrinths (as opposed to mazes) have a reputation for deepening peoples´ spiritual practice, and I´m all for that. Many pilgrims are spiritual people. I hope they use the labyrinth at Villa Oreja. (Yes, I am aware that a labyrinth along an actual pilgrimage route is a tautology. But only if you consider a labyrinth to be a pilgrimage in miniature... Like medieval Christians did.) Most of those who pass by Villa Oreja will not even notice the rocks on the ground. If they do, maybe they´ll find them appealing, or interesting, or pretty, or even fun. (If they are 13-year-old boys, or evil innkeepers, they will probably enjoy a few joyful moments pitching them all into the creek!)

God knows what the neighbors will think, if they even notice. There´s nothing out there to identify us as authors, except our eccentric reputation...and now this blog! If they ask us what that rock thing is, and why we put it there, I am not sure my Castellano is up to the task of explaining it.

All I can say is the sun was shining. The benches and well-head and trees at Villa Oreja seemed to form an open embrace for a nice triple circle of stones.
We had time and energy. I knew how to draw the design. We had plenty of rocks. We enjoyed ourselves. And doesn´t it look kinda nice?

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Why I Cried

It was a beautiful sunny Sunday, but I cried anyway. I worried the dogs. I don´t think they ever saw me cry before.

...But it´s not me, really. It´s my cousin Barb.

Barbara is my cousin, maybe my favorite of all my many cousins. When I was small and gangly and lonesome, Barb was grown-up and beautiful and kind. She painted her toenails, and she showed me how to paint mine. After the enamel dried, she took me out to the barn and introduced me to the sweet comfort and company of animals, and the self-confidence that comes from practical wisdom.

Barb had a bouffant hairdo then, and a French poodle so smart he could climb up and down ladders and howl along to the radio. Out in the field Barb kept a big Arabian mare, a breathtaking animal she could ride bareback and drive and push around fearlessly. Barb built the horse´s little barn. She set up the electric fence around the pasture. She shoveled the manure and polished the bridles and drove us to horse shows. In her hallway hung long rows of ribbons: red, yellow, and fat blue rosettes, even some silver trophies. She was amazing. She was tough and long-legged and beautiful. I wanted to be just like her.

Over several years Barbara taught me to curry and saddle and ride horses, too. She showed me how to tie knots in a rope to make a halter, how to shift the gears on a tractor, catch chickens, lift sheep, pitch hay, pour beers, boil lobsters, plow snow and braise metal. When she went on holiday I fed the animals for her, even the mean roosters. When “everybody” went on all-day trail rides, Barb found a horse for me to ride, too. When my pet cat Flour died, she brought me Pete, a terrier pup she´d found wandering out on the road somewhere.

Barb´s always finding animals, or animals find her. The broken ones she fixes up and frees, or finds homes for – one winter afternoon she had a lame swan in one stall of the barn, and two screaming peacocks in the next, along with the usual parade of ponies, goats, and horses. In the house, keeping warm in the bathtub, was an orphaned goat kid. A Peaceable Kingdom, in other words. The original.

Barb is not overly sentimental, however. One Thanksgiving eve she tried to introduce me to the art of poultry butchering. Results were mixed. The duck and turkey ended up roasted, but my career as a chicken-plucker ended there in the back yard.

Barb knew strange people and odd places, and she drove her Jeep up and over the steep hills of rural Western Pennsylvania seeking out breeders of Afghan Hounds or someone giving away guinea hens. One blustery Autumn day I followed her into a murky old-fashioned German “bank barn,” a two-story barn built against a hillside, with stock below and hay up above. We entered from the road, right into the second story, where the floors were carpeted with flattened cardboard boxes and fallen hay. Barb called out for the owner, who waved us over to where he was sharpening sickles in a corner.

Suddenly everything vanished. I plunged downward through a hole cut in the floorboards, a chute used to throw feed down to the cows in the stalls below. I caught myself by my elbows. I dangled there, too shocked to shout or shriek, the corner of my eye catching sight of the horns of the cattle way, way below. All I could see in front of me were the backs of Barb´s cowboy boots. I swung an arm forward and grabbed her ankle.

“What you doing down there, Beck?” Barb said, completely casual. She hunkered down and caught me by the armpits and heaved me right back up onto my feet. “Quit messing around now. We need to see the goats before we lose daylight.”

The man with the sickle barely looked up. “Good thing you didn´t fall. Them are steers down there. They´ll eat you up, you know.” He chuckled. It was outrageously unsafe, covering up the holes with cardboard. At the time I was too terrified to even speak.

Still, the most vivid memory of that afternoon was driving home in the dusk, wedged into the tiny rear seat of the Jeep, holding a nanny kid steady in my lap. She sucked on my fingers to calm herself, an unforgettable sensation! We named her “Little.”

A good 30 years have passed. Barb still hangs on to the same wiry beauty, even though she is a grandmother now. She´s seen more than her share of suffering – sudden deaths, divorces, lawyers and lowlifes. She survives, and nowadays she´s a heavy equipment operator. She drives a forklift at the nuke plant in Homer Center, working 60-hour weeks during maintenance outages, and rolling out pavement on highway crews when the weather is good. She still keeps a crowd of critters. Two summers ago, when Paddy and I came to Spain to find a home, she kept Una for us. Una made a great pest of herself. Barb may be the only person patient enough to have done that long-term dog-sitting job.

Barb´s one person I want most to see The Peaceable, because this place is so Her. She could look through the back yard and see exactly which stall would be best for firewood, for foals, for hay and straw – where the manure pile ought to go. She could get Gladys to lay proper eggs, she could calm the wildest donkey, and I bet she could make the chicken hut roof stop leaking.

And she would love Spain. She has a capacity for cold wind and wide starry skies, squidgy mud underfoot and old, old adobe. She´d know the urge to re-use the beat-up hand-forged spikes and hinges. She´d adore the people here, even if she couldn´t understand the language. She knows what honest faces look like. And she knows how to be still, and silent. She knows how to just important skill around here.

Barbara´s got a wonderful life at home, but she also needs to see the cathedral in Leon, and the mosaic floors in the Roman villa over in Calzadilla. She ought to see the castle in Grajal, (home to a couple of doozy pitfalls!) and a Saturday market in Sahagún, and prancing Andalusian horses. She needs to eat roast suckling lamb, and drink really good wine, and bask out in the patio in sunshine with Bob singing in the background. Barb needs a good vacation. This place is perfect for the job.

Barb has never been outside the United States. In July, when I saw her last, she assured me she´d apply for a passport and start saving up some money, that I could show her Spain sometime soon. I have been looking forward to it, a treat out there in the future.

This week Barb learned she has cancer.
It´s treatable, she said. She´ll start radiation therapy within a week, then chemo. There´s hope. And the nuke plant laid her off work, so she can claim Medicare health benefits. (Like millions of working Americans, Barb has no health insurance.)

It´s not like she´s dead already. It´s the suffering ahead of her I cry for, and the very real possibility that she never will make it here now. It´s not about me, really. It´s about the person who gave me the dream that became The Peaceable. She´s gotta see this place. She´s got to. In a real way, it is hers.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Castration Anxiety

I usually do my best to adjust to Spanish life, but today I very deeply miss at least one aspect of The American Way. Simply put: In the Old Country (the USA), male dogs are neatly “neutered,” or “fixed,” or “altered” at the veterinarian´s office.

Here in rural Spain, we animal owners roll up our sleeves and pitch right in on Castration Day.

Back where I come from, “spaying” or “neutering” pet animals is practically a moral imperative. Anyone whose pooch or cat or ferret still has all its equipment is looked upon as cheap, or irresponsible, or maybe so lacking in funds he should not keep a pet at all. Letting a critter wander through life with a sex drive and the accompanying nervous tics is considered cruel.

Therefore, when you adopt a pet from the animal shelter, it´s already been “fixed” by the veterinarian on staff. And if a stray animal decides to take up with you, or a neighbor gives you a pup from his dog´s accidental litter, one of the first things you do is get him neutered.

This is easy: You drop off the dog in the morning at the vet´s office, and you pick him up again in the evening. Yeah, he´s a bit beat-up, but he´s up and about and happy to see you. You have to keep an eye on things “down there” for a day or two. But it´s really no big deal.

Here in Spain, a dog´s life is different... and a dog owner´s life surely is.

Tim is a young Brittany Spaniel who showed up here a year ago – a handsome hunting dog who´d had enough veterinary exposure to own a docked tail and identifying microchip. But he also had two testicles. Of course we inquired at the Sahagun vet about having those removed, too. The vet looked at us with shock and dismay.

“This is a beautiful animal! Why would you want to change him?” he asked. “He´ll get lazy. He´ll get fat. No!” he said. So we went away. And Tim has, in the months since, lost his mind whenever there´s a bitch in the village in heat. (They don´t alter the girl dogs either.) Tim really is a beautiful dog, and an all-around nice guy, too. But he´s high-strung. Tim pees on every vertical surface within 2 meters... this includes the neighbors´ front doors, the water fountain in the square, and sometimes Una Dog. And when he´s incredibly excited – like whenever we get up in the morning, or we return home from the shops – Tim sometimes whizzes on the ground beneath him.

And last week´s adventures with a wired-for-sound 3-year-old boy made it clear that Tim´s testes had to go. And so this evening we took Tim to the new vets, a trio of handsome young men in Saldaña. At 6:30 p.m., Luis met us at the door. I handed him the leash and petted Tim´s head. “When do we come for him?” I asked him. “What time do you open in the morning?”

Luis laughed uncomfortably. “I´m here on my own,” he said. “Come in and lend me a hand. It will be easier for the dog with you here. We´ll be done in an hour.”

I won´t go into details, but I can tell you it took 20 long, harrowing minutes and about five injections to knock out this dog. Once he finally packed it in, Luis asked us to wait another minute or two...I wondered if we were supposed to stay and hand the doctor his tools? But Paddy´s face changed everyone´s mind. He was pale. His eyes wet and wide with horror. Tim apparently was not the only patient in need of anesthesia.

Luis took down my cell phone number and sent us off to the nearest bar. Twenty minutes, half an hour, he said. “Don´t you worry,” he told us. “It´s all going normally.”

They were thirty long minutes, spent waiting in a diner straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. (the famous one above, "Night Hawks," is at the Art Institute of Chicago...and there´s nothing like the real thing!) Paddy, being British, had a gin and tonic. Me, being American, thought about having a shot of bourbon and a draft beer, but I was driving the car. And I might soon be needed in the recovery room.

And we were.

A very floppy and drugged-out Tim went home in the back seat, whining and twitching his head back and forth. I carried him into the house and laid him in the dog bed near the woodstove. He´s been crying there for four hours now, but more and more quietly. His pupils are dilated, his tongue lolls and drools. He´s a sad, pathetic mess. Luis says that´s normal, and Tim has what amounts to a bad hangover. (Paddy and Una are dutifully sleeping next to Tim´s bed tonight, even if Tim´s not sleeping at all.)

I suspect these horrific scenes are everyday life in the back rooms of American veterinary clinics, where animals struggle into and out of anesthesia without their owners there to hold their paws and whisper comfort to them. By the time we show up to take them home they are through the worst. We never see the hard parts. We never know what really happens. And that is why it seems so simple and easy. Because it is painless and clean and simple... for the humans involved.

Yes, it is selfish to say this, but had I known we´d be serving as castration nurses I´d have probably done like so many Spaniards do, and let my dog get through life with his standard equipment. Or maybe I´d have traveled with him to a big city, where they´d just neuter him. He might have the same experience, and the same outcome. But they´d leave us out of it.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

G´bye Lola: A Failed Experiment

Fog rolled in this week, and will likely lie here, dark and Gothic, right on through January 25, when it always goes away. Such is winter on the Meseta.

So says Edu. He´s always right so far, where these things are concerned. So we have something to look forward to, aside from The Holidays, and friends´ visits, and further progress on projects in process. I am looking Forward now, after spending a harrowing week in The Present.

Here are unplanned outcomes of the week now past:

a) The Visitation of Jeanne and Nicolas ended two days earlier than planned. They took the night train back to Paris on Wednesday. In this experiment we learned that The Peaceable Kingdom -- Scripture verses notwithstanding -- is not a suitable place for very small children.
b) Lola the Donkey this morning went back to Sahagun, tied to the back of Julio´s tractor. She was an experiment too. Experiments often fail. I can´t remember too many of my failures that felt this good!
c)Tim the High-Strung Dog is off to the veterinarian next week for his chilling-out operation.
d) The cast on Paddy´s ankle comes off Monday. Apparently he broke something in there, but it´s nothing severe enough to require more than a week in plaster. Which is good, because Paddy needs to get up and move around to maintain his happy-go-lucky persona.

Everyone involved feels much better now. I can stop worrying about Nicolas being stepped-on, bitten, pecked, spattered, scalded, or otherwise traumatized or scarred. I can stop worrying about the donkey´s health and security and feeding. The house will remain cleaner and smell better without the hay and straw and mud passing through between the barn and back garden. The dogs won´t have to share their toys with a small boy, or risk a donkey kick when they run out back to hunt mice in the chicken shack. I will only have to shovel another couple of loads of manure onto the garden plot. We won´t have to undertake major renovations to make the garage into a stable, or make the barn door acceptable to a creature who refuses to go up a ramp. Lola´s lovely face is now safe from Fists of Fury. Glory be.

I spent Saturday cleaning, putting things away, making beds and folding laundry. I made a killer Thai green curry for lunch. We both took siestas in the afternoon. And so returns the sweetness of Normal. We can sit by the fire and read and listen to Chopin. We can write! We can get up and go someplace and stay there for more than a few hours, once Paddy´s foot is back to usefulness.

I can continue scheming for ways to train the South African volunteers how to be hospitaleros.

I can get the Salon ready so our friends Gary and Elyn from New Mexico have a place to stay when they make the move here within the next month or two. (Elyn lived in Sahagun back in the 1980´s. She and Gary are renting a place there, and plan to stay around for at least a year. We´re getting English-speaking neighbors! Woohoo! I may NEVER learn my Spanish verbs!)

I can read-up on labyrinths. Paddy´s keen to experiment with a labyrinth ´round here somewhere, and Gary and Elyn know how to build them. They sent us a pile of books on that this week, so we are On It... maybe a labyrinth underground, in the bodega, right up against the camino itself? Oooh.

I can plot when and how to walk the Camino Portuguese with my son Philip in December, depending on who arrives when. (We have another friend, Federico the Guitar Man, arriving here December 8.) We will have a full house at Christmas, which I very much look forward to. Maybe we can make a labyrinth for the Winter Solstice. How New Age can you be?

It´s so quiet and calm. It´s just how it should be. And out there in the mist are still a few pilgrims. I bet they´d like a hot cup of tea.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Near Miss

Yes, she is furry brown and cute and has huge dark eyes and ears. When we walk in the mornings down the Camino, Lola the Donkey is a pilgrim magnet... her photo is part of holiday albums from Italy to Japan. She is SO appealing.

As of today, a little more than a week after her arrival, Lola the Donkey is turning out to be a bull-headed, mulish bad-ass... which is to say, a burden. She came to me in a dream the other night as a dark, heavy cloud. (the same dream featured a hen nesting in our refrigerator, so I don´t take it too seriously!)

Lola makes the most extraordinary noises. No friendly storybook “heehaw.” We´re talking the sound of heavy furniture scraped across a wooden floor, or perhaps the fog horn on a fishing trawler. She makes copious amounts of fine fertilizer for the garden. Matter of fact, the area we´d intended for a garden in the spring, which I spent hours bashing at with a hoe a few weeks ago, is now beautifully stirred into deep black mud by Lola´s sharp hooves. I wonder where we will put the garden now.

The dogs want to be her friend, but Lola doesn´t like how suddenly they move.
She doesn´t like how suddenly the wind moves, even, round the walls of the house. When I walk her ´round a corner she rolls her eyes and pitches up her head, afraid. When I tell her ´no,´ I get the same reaction. Drama. We got ourselves a drama queen, a diva, maybe a spaz. I never had any patience for drama queens, victims, fashionistas, high-strung fluttery hothouse flowers... folks with huge dark eyes, brown and cute and so appealing, but oh so nervous and delicate!

Nicolas, my dearly beloved godson, is here for a week, visiting from his home high above Boulevard Clichy in Paris. He is three years old. He´s never been around any kind of critter. He moves fast and suddenly and very loud... an antithesis for Lola and many other high-strung animals. He is enchanted by all the friendly farm animals he´d only seen before in books or videos, even if they don´t want him riding on their backs or tugging at their lead ropes... or feeling the straw underneath their feathers for eggs. Since Saturday Nicolas has cut a swath through Moratinos, visiting all the neighbors, patting or chasing or clucking at every cat, dog, duck, chick, turkey, pheasant, hog, pup, or parrot in the place. They are animals, and nothing more – simple and easy and honest.
But Lola, Moratinos´ only donkey, is a different creature from all the rest. Nicolas fell for Lola´s good looks, though, and perhaps her honking singing voice.

And so here is the Drama du Jour: (note the French influence)

Monday morning off we went for our morning walk with the whole fam damily, right through town and down to the Mushroom Field: Paddy with Una and Tim Dogs, me with Donkey Lola in hand, and Jeanne (my best old friend, back to 1993) and three-year-old Nicolas, Jeanne´s boy and my godson. This is their first visit to The Peaceable.

And as we all gambol around in the field, Una takes hold of the end of the donkey´s lead rope. It´s a good 6 feet long, no big deal. She´s done this before. But Una is an Actors Studio kind of dog, and when she takes hold of a rope, she growls and tugs and carries on like it´s a rattlesnake. I laughed, I looked at Patrick and we shook our heads at her silliness. Lola was in a field of tender, fresh greenery. She didn´t care about a silly dog, not so long as I was there holding the length of rope that separated her from the Drama Dog.

But I handed my hank of rope over to Paddy, and for some reason walked a few yards away. Una, (always my dog), dropped the rope and followed me. And that´s when (I think) little Nicolas decided to pick up the dropped end of the rope. (he´d “helped” me lead the donkey a few times in the past couple of days, with me safely between him and Lola...see the pic.)

Una saw that Nicolas had taken her spot at the lead rope, and went back to re-stake her claim.

Time slowed down. Nicolas let go of the rope, and staggered backward, right into the donkey´s front legs. Una grabbed tugged at the rope, smiling her doggy smile. And Nicolas, off balance, suddenly sat down, hard, on the ground. Una moved in to lick his face.

The donkey panicked. Her front feet were suddenly up and off the ground and over the little boy´s head, striking out at Una dog. I saw nothing then but Lola´s right front hoof. I thought I saw it hit Nicolas across the face. I thought the left hoof had struck Una in the ribs. I saw Jeanne´s body appear between the donkey and her boy. Paddy stepped in. I saw them all safe somehow.

And the next thing I saw, or felt, was my shoulder striking against Lola, and my hands on her halter, and her turning and wheeling with me and away from the dog and the child and Patrick, steps away, rearing and shouting. And I´m not too proud to say I punched her in the face. I bruised my fingers like a bar-brawler, and then I dissolved into tears like a little girl.

This was, and is, one of the most horrific things I have ever seen in my life: an animal supposedly in my care and control, doing grave harm to a helpless child, a boy born of my own heart.

At the end of it all Nicolas, who had backed into grave peril, didn´t see what was going on. He has no idea what happened. No one was hurt. Both Nicolas and Una somehow dodged the flying hooves, which were probably wielded more for warning than for harm´s sake. We shook in our boots. We thanked our Very Effective Guardian Angels. We went home for a cup of strong tea.

Still, we have put Lola on waivers. She is obviously not the docile bomb-proof donk we were led to believe she is. A kind French friend, who´s traveled the Caminos with a donkey named Dalie, is holding my hand through this crisis... it´s not Lola´s fault, she says. We´re asking an awful lot from a donkey we´ve had for only a week. And if Lola had wanted to kick the kid or the dog, she would have done serious damage.

She is probably right.

...but I love Nicolas, and Una, so much more than I love any donkey, no matter how cute or pilgrim-friendly camera-ready it might be. So the next few days we must decide if Lola is, or is not, the donkey we´ve waited for. We´re leaving her pretty much in peace, to settle in and settle down.

Meantime, let us all hope we get the upstairs heating system working around here, or donkeys and dogs will be the least of our concerns! We are all off tonight to the Hotel Posh in Sahagun, where we´ve rented a room and will spend the hours imbibing Tinto de Toro and watching the election returns unfold. We hope to celebrate, but if things go pear-shaped we will likely be suitably anesthetized for a little while.