Santiago Lopez-Pastor/Flickr
Santiago Lopez-Pastor/Flickr

Labor Day in Spain is celebrated on May 1. It’s a national holiday, and it’s called día del trabajador. Everyone who can, takes a break. On that day my running partner and I went south to a village called Burganes de Valverde in the province of Zamora, where a footrace was being held. We left at 10 a.m. The two-hour drive took us nearly three hours, plus stops, because we chose a scenic route and then visited several towns on the way to wander the markets, admire the architecture, and enjoy our freedom. We arrived in Burganes about three p.m. We still had three hours before the start of the race. What did we do? Wander the streets, admire the architecture, and enjoy our freedom.

Huge carved wooden doors, old stone monasteries, stone plaques carved with a coat of arms, old churches—these are what I remember from that excursion, all in the plural, as if I had feasted my eyes on untold specimens. This composite memory is what I usually end up with after sightseeing. Even when I visit only one monastery or one church, I feel as if I’ve seen a dozen, and the particulars from one trip meld with those of other trips in a savory soup of details. But the individual sights? I cannot reconstruct even a single façade from memory, so thoroughly do I jumble one monument with another, one day with the next. In the end, I’m left with less an image than a feeling, and were I to go in search of a particular place, I doubt I would be able to find it. In Burganes, I saw the old stone church. But I had seen a similar old stone church down the road in Villarrín de Campos, where I ran a race in September. Same still town, same ancient wooden doors on same decrepit buildings in empty streets, same red-earth tone to the dry land, same hot sun. So the church in Burganes does not stand out in my memory. But I can picture the narrow stairs half circling the tower up to the belfry where two bells hung. We climbed those stairs to the top. There, in a narrow, walled balcony, we were within reach of the bells. We read the inscription. A rope was attached, and my partner very gently pulled the rope to make the faintest of dings when the clapper touched the side of the bell. My turn. I did the same, but my touch must not be so fine, because though the sound was no deep clang, it was far louder than I’d intended. We both put our hands on the bell to muffle the peal, but no muffling was achieved. Novices at both ringing and muffling!

We descended the steep, narrow stairs, hands on the stones of the edifice. Safely on the ground again, we glanced back at the top, to the two bells in the triangular belfry, and a third smaller bell that we now saw was housed above the others. Beautiful, charming, lovely. Above the belfry, crowning the tower, was a large stork’s nest with the stork in residence, standing in the nest. What a place to build one’s home! Not only is the height dizzying but the exposure to the elements is worrying, and so is the precariousness of the exact site, the nest impossibly balanced on the pinnacle of the tower. The stork looked around from on high. Occasionally the wing of a nestling flashed into view, showing why the parent stood there in the hot sun. How many weeks, I wondered, before the young are grown? How many seasons will the nest last? How many the stork?

Later, after changing into our running clothes and picking up our race bibs, we set out to see the race route. My partner likes to scope out the course for strategic reasons. Which side of a dirt track is smoother? Where are the potholes to avoid? How many rises must be anticipated, how many sudden turns? That kind of calculation fills his mind. Not mine. So few women my age participate that I am practically guaranteed a trophy. Sometimes I am the only one in my category, and to arrive first, all I have to do is finish the race. I always remind myself of this, but I always then ignore my own urging to take it easy, and run as hard as I can.

So it was that day. No need to exert myself, especially today, I whispered as the runners assembled in the street beside the church, and then set off at the starting signal. But run hard I did, with a dry throat even before I began. The race was a short 6K on trails through the fields and hills around the village. By the end, I was very hot and thirsty. I summoned a last bit of energy for a sprint in the homestretch, but I was tired, and after crossing the finish line, I leaned against the first bit of wall I found to recover. First in my category, the only one. I won some chorizo and cheese, a bag of local lentils, a carton of chocolate milk, and a commemorative tin cup. Everyone clapped. I beamed. Then my moment was over, and my partner and I left the churchyard where the ceremony was still going on. It was still light out, but it was late, and we had a long drive.

As we walked to the car, I looked again at the church steeple. There was the stork, in her place, watching over the nest. Bigger than my effort was that of this bird, standing guard the whole time we were in the village, some six hours, with her back to the sun, shading her nestlings from the hot rays. We had seen the male fly in twice with food for the young, and then fly off again. As far as I could tell, the female got no relief at all, no water, no food herself. The male had also appeared and joined his mate at one point to drive off another couple of circling storks, apparently in search of a nice nest. The two parents together in the nest had made quite a racket, clattering their bills and flapping their wings when the other storks flew too close for comfort. And there she stood, still guarding her nest, exactly where she’d kept vigil all afternoon and probably all day too. There would be no need to stand guard now, no need to block the sun, which was low in the sky. But she was still at it, doing her thing. Laboring.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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