WARNING To those who have not yet visited The Peaceable Kingdom: We sometimes ask our guests to help out around here. We do not ordinarily send them into underground crevasses we do not dare plumb on our own. The people involved were volunteers, and acted of their own free will. No animals were harmed. Your experience will vary.
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Yacine and Sabrina did not know what waited for them in the back garden.
Their visit here has been extraordinary in several ways. Yacine and Sabrina are not pilgrims. They never heard of the Camino de Santiago before they arrived here. They are two very young and pretty people from the dangerous, dark-skinned suburbs of Paris. They are a brother and sister. Their parents are Algerian immigrants who are raising nine children.
These two last week decided to take a mini-holiday to Spain. They discovered us on CouchSurfing.com, and asked if they could stay here as part of their trip. Sure, I said. We never had any French Algerians stay before, and things are pretty slow.
Long story short, they drove 15 hours straight through the night, arrived here Wednesday morning at 8 a.m., and tomorrow at about 5 a.m. they´re getting back in their car and driving straight home to Paris. We´re not just a stop on their way someplace else... we ARE where they were going. Holy moley, the pressure! So of course we had to give them the deluxe visitor treatment, seeing as this is all of Spain they´ve ever seen.
It was a whirlwind tour of the chainsaw boutiques and produce stalls of Sahagún, a look at the bridge and convent and Mudejar churches there, (everything was closed, of course) a drive out to Grajal to see a real castle and Duke´s Palace (closed too), long toils through dusty winter-brown villages. They seem to really love it!
We learned that they keep Muslim Halal dietary laws, so we couldn´t serve them a lot of what we eat... so they volunteered to cook. They are accustomed to cooking for a family of eleven. So we have pidé-type veggie pizzas to last a week, and strawberry shortcake, and a chocolate yogurt cakey kind of thing, and a box of French chocolates they brought along, and a bottle of champagne, even. And cheese. For 11.
We learned that Yacine loves ghost stories Irish folk music, and Sabrina is a nationally ranked Thai-style kick-boxer who also enjoys speleology. Which means exploring underground caves and tunnels. Which means, of course...
She´s an answer to my prayers. In keeping with the sterling treatment we offer to all our guests, we offered her the opportunity to don a bright blue cover-all mono and climb into The Backyard Mystery Hole.
I went first, just to be sure it was safe. This was a great achievement, the fruit of many days of contemplation and fear-facing. I am claustrophobic. I harbor a deep-seated fear of closed-in, small places stemming from a traumatic childhood incident involving a drowned canary and a small coat closet. I finally decided to let my curiosity overwhelm my neurosis. I put my mind someplace far away, tucked the flashlight and camera into my mono, and lowered myself into the earth.
The animals were intrigued. Paddy made noises of concern. The hole was too narrow to double-over in, so I couldn´t get my head down far enough to see where the tunnel continued off in another direction, down where my feet were.
But I sat my butt down on the floor of the tunnel, and poked my feet down the hole as far as they would go. I didn´t find the ending, but my toe touched something round and upright... a support pillar of some sort. I put the camera down there, and snapped some pictures. They look like Mark Rothko paintings. They reveal nothing, but they have a lovely golden glow.
Paddy took a turn, but soon emerged again. He declared the tunnel definitely the work of human hands, carved out of the same soil that makes up the bodega -- a kind of clay that hardens to rock when exposed to air.
Then Sabrina, swathed in blue, of her own free will, lowered herself into the darkness. She is small and flexible and curious, and she was able, with the light, to see down into the tunnel.
It does come to an end, she said, about four feet down. The walls and ceilings are hard and curved, but the floor is soft and silty. There´s a right angle where the left wall meets the ceiling, and yes -- some kind of support pillar down there, holding up the roof.
No Visigoth treasure. No stash of guns or dynamite or hooch. Just dirt. Just what we´d expected. But still very cool indeed. And still a mystery. Why is it here? Who made it? And what do we do with it now?
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Perhaps the best thing to come out of the experience was a photograph, taken by Paddy when I realized I was coming up out of that hole alive. I look a little like my mother, and a bit like the little girl who gave the canary a bath lo those 40 years ago. I look very happy, even though I am over my head in filth. And up above, like a benevolent Familiar Spirit, a brown hen hovers near.
It is a portrait of my life as she is lived. I am almost smiling.