Monday, November 28, 2016

Early Critters

It may have been my mother's mother, the one who brought me a lame chick to keep me company after my tonsillectomy, who ignited my passion for animals. Or it may have been that, as the only child in an extended family, for me a dog or a cat, a rabbit or a hen was the closest I could get to a playmate, a sibling, someone who did not tower above me and talk about things I did not understand.

I grew up in a vast turn-of-the-century apartment in Barcelona. My mother, having been raised on a farm, believed that animals should not live under the same roof as humans. No dog claws skittered on the hard tile floors. No cat left a drift of fur on my pillow.  I hungered for a friendly, silent presence at my side, but had to make do with watching the pigeons who perched on our balcony.

But summers were different. We spent them at my grandparents' farm, in a fertile valley south of the Pyrenees, where an endless procession of animals amazed and delighted me. Horses and donkeys munched and snuffled in the stable; a sow the size of a bus fed twelve of her children in the sty. My grandmother let me throw corn to the hens who scratched the dirt in the courtyard, giving wide berth to the hunting dog, an Irish Setter who lived chained to his straw-bedded house. She would lift the cover of the nest box in the rabbit hutch and hoist me up to see the hairless litter moving feebly in a cozy cloud of  fur. And when one of the semi-feral cats who lived on mice and bread crusts gave birth, she would take me up to the hayloft and move aside the hay so I could see the still-blind kittens sleep entwined like the fingers of two clasped hands.


My grandmother and I feeding the chickens
One summer, she arranged for a goat kid to arrive in time to be my companion. Another year, it was a lamb. I tried my best to get these creatures to follow me around, but they seemed mostly intent on pursuing their own goals, the goat leaping up to reach the branches of the pear trees, the lamb on getting away from me.


The lamb and I
When one of the sows farrowed, my grandfather would detach a warm, pristine piglet from one of her teats and place it in my arms. Many years later, when the nurse handed me my first-born I inhaled the same clean, slightly oily smell from her scalp that I had smelled on the little pig.

The horses, donkeys and mules were my favorites, both the ones that belonged to my grandparents and those that were brought to be treated by my veterinarian grandfather. I would watch out the dining room window as some poor mule was brought limping into the farmyard by a couple of peasants wearing standard Catalan country attire: black beret, blue shirt, a black sash around the waist, black corduroy trousers, and dusty espadrilles. A hand-rolled cigarette hung perennially from their lips. 

My grandfather would appear and confer with the men, run his hand over the mule's back and lift one of its hooves. The mule would shy and roll its eyes; the men would admonish it in low, soothing tones, and my grandfather would do his work. I paid special attention to his technique for giving injections. After rubbing the area vigorously with a swab of cotton dipped in alcohol, he would drop the cotton on the ground, bring out an enormous syringe and plunge the needle in. When the men and the mule were gone, I would take my toy horse out to the yard, disinfect its hind leg with a bit of rag, fling the rag to the ground, pierce its thigh with a nail, retrieve the rag, rub the other leg, give another shot, and so on until I was called inside because the sun was too hot. 

I spent hours skulking around the farm, watching the creatures, absorbing their smells, wondering what they were thinking, and how it would feel to touch one. But I was constantly warned against getting too close to them--the sows had been known to eat children, the horses could bash your head in with a kick--and my grandmother would have fainted at the thought of bringing the dog, or one of the kittens that periodically tottered to the back door, its finger-long tail held high, into the house.

Back in Barcelona, in early December my mother would take me to the Christmas fair that was held next to the cathedral, to get supplies for our Nativity scene. But first we would go into the cathedral, to see the geese. Barcelona's Cathedral of Saint Eulalia may be the only church in the world to harbor geese--thirteen large white birds said to be the descendants of a gaggle first put there in Roman times.

It would have been bad spiritual manners to go straight to the geese, so first we used to stop before the main altar to pray. Already as I knelt there, with the grit on the kneeler digging into my bare knees, I could hear them, their cries echoing against the stones. I would say a quick prayer and whisper, “Can we go now?” My mother would answer by closing her eyes and praying some more. She knew the art of sharpening anticipation.

Eventually we would rise, make the sign of the cross, brush the grit from our knees, genuflect as we passed the altar, proceed in a dignified manner to the holy water basin, make another sign of the cross...and emerge into the cloister.

The cloister was like no other place I knew—a space that was both indoors and outdoors, where light and sound bounced oddly among the stones and the palms and the orange trees, a space that spoke to me of beauty for its own sake in the midst of the serious business of religion. A space inhabited by geese.

In the center of the courtyard was a raised stone platform, surrounded by an iron grille, where a moss-covered fountain trickled water into a spacious basin. There the geese, with majestic disregard for the holiness of the place, honked and waddled on the flagstones, making the most amazing green droppings and then casually gliding into the water and floating about, looking
pleased with themselves. Warm, alive and untamed in the midst of the stone and cement of the city, those geese seemed like a miracle to me.


Hoping that that goose will let me pet her
Not long after the visit to the geese, it was time for the Christmas capons. They came by train from my grandparents’ farm, in a large wicker basket cushioned with straw and covered with a piece of burlap. When the birds, annoyed but alive, arrived at our apartment, my mother would  put them in the cement tub in the laundry room. There I would sit until bedtime, watching the way their red combs shook as they cocked their heads to look at me with one eye and then the other, stretching out a finger to touch their feathers, inhaling their hot poultry smell and feeding them crusts of bread. 

The next morning, inevitably, the empty laundry tub was scrubbed clean and the apartment became, once again, devoid of animal life. I don’t remember making any connection between the succulent birds at the center of the Christmas feast and my temporary pets.

After the capons were gone, I hibernated for six long months until the train and then my grandfather's horse and buggy conveyed me back to my real home, the farmyard and the dusty summer roads and my animal brothers and sisters--the horses and the rabbits and the chickens that made my life feel real again.

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