On the Wire

Michael Coghlan (Flickr/mikecogh)
Michael Coghlan (Flickr/mikecogh)

Traffic noise from the highway near my house was never much, but in April and May, when movement in Spain was at a minimum, there was almost none. The city bus still went by, connecting the cemetery in the hills of Deva to the east of Gijón with the industrial complex on the other side, in Tremañes to the west, but wasn’t running as often. I would hear, as I ran up and down the dirt lane in front of my house, one vehicle an hour, maybe two. But all was not silent—I heard the swallows that had lately returned to nest again in my barn. Also distant dogs barking, not clamorously but tentatively, as if asking, “Anyone out there?” And I heard the pigeons on the telephone line above my heard, cooing.

Lucky you, I thought, as I ran under them. They could take off whenever they pleased and go wherever they wanted. Other animals, too, all over the world it seemed, were free to come and go: turtles on beaches in India, dolphins in harbors in Tenerife, mountain lions in towns in Colorado. But how many of them got to prance and preen in front of the human beings whose retreat had freed space for them, as these pigeons were doing, a fine dance on their high wire, lording it over me.

But birds have always lorded it over us and other earthbound creatures, even when hopping tentatively across the dewy grass on an early morning, alert to danger. In a second they can be not only out of reach but at the top of a tree, or beyond the fence, or anywhere.

The pigeons on the wire sat tight as I went under and were still there when I went back under. Even on the ground, on two legs, in their bobbing walk, when they are much slower than I, they’d still win a race because they could keep steadily on whereas I, like the hare in Aesop’s story, would have to stop, not for a nap but for the end of the State of Alarm and the resumption of the right to run. Oh, how I envied them their freedom!

Again I passed under them, and again they peered down on me. Oh, you lucky birds, I thought. And, remembering a song from my childhood, I could almost hear their response: “Who told you a girl to be?”

In the song “Donna, Donna,” made popular in the ’60s by Joan Baez, and made known to me by my mother, strumming on the guitar, the swallows wing above a farmer taking a calf to market. In a clear case of blaming the victim, the farmer asks, “Who told you a calf to be?” And the wind, does it sigh? The wind only laughs.

I was no victim. I wasn’t helpless or hopeless. Some housebound people in city apartments could only take turns around their living rooms, and here I was, running! I was lucky! To be running, to be gazing at the birds, to have the freedom, to hear the quiet! And my pigeons from above, they cooed encouragingly. Yes, they cooed for me. And the winds, they laughed.

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


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