At 4 o´clock each afternoon, if no one is visiting and it´s not raining and if we feel like it, I put on my boots and choose a dog from the lineup. I leave the other three moaning behind the gate and take off down the street for Julia´s house. Julia pulls on a jacket and ties a scarf round her neck, and off we go on Paseo.
Julia´s house is a plain brick place on the axis of the village, where the highway bends down to touch Calle Ontanon. Hers was the first door to open to us when we came to Moratinos. We were
strangers then, and she and her husband Paco invited us in. They invited us to lunch on the biggest day of the Fiesta of Santo Tomas – on a day dedicated to family and the pueblo, they made room for two foreigners at their table. We dined on rabbit and endives, roast potatoes and baked apples, all of it raised right there.
After dinner we took their daughter Juli with us to see a tumbledown house down Calle Ontanon and round the last corner. The house was for sale. Young Juli spoke good English, and could translate. Julia Madre was keenly interested in what went down.
The house we saw that day is now The Peaceable. Julia was here from the very start, offering warnings and advice, exclaiming “Ay! Virgin santo!” whenever we let slip the price we paid for anything.
Julia and I have walked together, off and on, all the years since. Sometimes other people join us – Leandra did for a while, and Oliva (in their slippers!), Juli and Christie, Paco and sometimes Chus, their daughter-in-law. Our most constant companion is Julia´s brother Fran. Fran lives in his own world, but he likes a good airing. Walking with Fran is like walking a cat. He falls behind, or strides on ahead. He has his own dialog going, his own songs he sings.
But mostly it is just me and Julia. I set a stiff pace, and Julia moves right along on short legs. She is not a big woman. Her chestnut hair is kept shoulder-length, usually caught up in a pony-tail. She is quick and active, slim and bright, her tastes are simple and somewhat conservative.
She has a ready smile with a bit of glitter from a silver-capped cuspid. She loves to talk. She knows everyone in the towns around us, the owner of every field, sometimes what crops grow best on which tract. It was Julia who showed me the little hidden holy spring at Fuentes de San Martin, the abandoned village down the road. She can look at animal poo on the trail and tell if it´s left by a rabbit or a hare. In her pocket is a plastic bag and a sharp knife, so we cut mushrooms that grow along the road, take cuttings of wild thyme. We pluck red berries from a tree by the beehives. Nothing goes to waste. In my patio she pointed out the little flowers I thought were some kind of daisy. Those are manzanilla, she said – camomile. I give her cuttings of camomile and rosemary and Christmas cactus. She gives me starts and seeds for native flowers whose names I don´t know.
We walk far and fast for two middle-aged ladies. Sometimes we go for miles, out beyond Terradillos or over the Grand Canyon and up the road toward Escobar (their feast day was Wednesday. San Clemente.) We walk until we run out of sun. She does most of the talking, but that is fine by me. She has so much more to say.
One day in the Promised Land a stretch of the tractor-path was embedded with the soles of many shoes. I wondered out loud where they all came from, how they got out there so far from any habitation. She knew, so she told me.
Up til not so long ago there was no trash collection service. Everyone just threw their old broken things into the same pile out back with the manure and trash, scraps and slops. Once in a while the whole pile was hauled out and plowed into the fields. There´s lots of strange things out here, she said, but everything but rubber soles finally rots away back to earth.
Not everyone in Moratinos is fond of one another, and occasionally I get a whiff of interpersonal conflicts. Julia does not discuss those things. She is not a gossip. There are plenty of more interesting things to talk about besides the neighbors, she says. We talk about our children, how my children are together with the extended family for Thanksgiving -- how this makes me feel, being so far away. Julia waits, walking, while I struggle to string together the subjects, objects, verbs into a description of Thanksgiving Day in Western Pennsylvania, the roast turkey and pumpkin pies and my cousin Jo´s great house on Chestnut Ridge.
Julia is a keen traveler. Her daughter Celia lives in England, and Julia´s spent some time over there. She doesn´t always make it home for holidays. Julia can kinda sympathize. She thinks it´s a good idea for a whole country to take a holiday to be grateful for what it´s got.
And so I am grateful today, even without all the holiday trimmings and Aunt Esther. The sun is shining, and in an hour´s time I can head out again, this time with Rosie on the lead.
We´ll walk for our health, to take the air, to practice some Spanish, to see who´s planted their garlic already, whose dog had pups, how old Gregorio´s holding up after his operation. Fran will sing us songs about the flag, or “una Chica Yay-Yay,” or “the way you broke my heart,” and we will walk on plain old tractor-paths, through mud and dung, in Ordinary Time.