El Zorro

After a mid-afternoon meal of tortilla, consumé and hunks of the deeply textured heavily crusted bread that I have never eaten any place on earth except in the region of Galicia on the northwest coast of Spain, we sat on the bench in the narrow cobblestone street outside the house to talk.  Later, my wife joined me for a leisurely stroll.  We headed up the steep hill on the narrow sidewalk past the concrete row homes with the old wooden Dutch doors to the Capilla da Magdalena, the small chapel from which that section of the village takes its name.

At the very top of the rise the houses fall away, leaving only a narrow stretch of macadam road that winds back down to intersect the carretera where the ancient eucalyptus tree stands at the edge of town.

Across the way you could see the tiny houses along the road as it ran through Cuiña, Senra and San Claudio to Mera.  The railroad tracks crossed this section of the estuary and ran past the old stone mill that operated with the rise and fall of the tides, the only such mill in the entire region.

As we descended the narrow road past the grassy fields hemmed in by thick brush and blackberry bushes, we saw two massive horses grazing, each lifting its head periodically to look at us.  I noticed something moving in the tall grass by their haunches—a furry animal built low to the ground, brownish grey with a long bushy tail.

“Look!” I said.  “Un zorro!”

“Are you sure?” my wife asked, straining on tiptoes to have a better look.  “Yes, it certainly does look like a fox, doesn’t it?”

We watched as the fox moved back and forth through the grass, approaching the horses, which seemed to pay it no mind.  At one point the fox stopped and lifted its head to look at us.  Surprisingly, it didn’t run away; but held its ground, seemingly unafraid.

It was the first time I had seen a wild fox in the campos of northwestern Spain.

Back at the house my mother-in-law told us that there had been several sightings of fox in the area.  “One used to come out of the pines and walk down to the ria at low tide to hunt for something to eat on the mud flats,” she told us.  “It never seemed to be afraid of me when I saw it.”

I thought of Saint Exupéry’s fox in the Little Prince, and how he begged the little prince to tame him to make him his friend.

“If you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.

“Please—tame me!” he said.

So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near–

“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”

“It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you…”

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“Then it has done you no good at all!”

“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”

Two days later I arose early while it was still night to take leave of my wife’s family and return stateside.  My nephew drove my son and me to the airport.  There was a light rain falling.

As we left the town, following the winding road along the edge of the ria, a waning gibbous moon broke through the misty clouds above the mountains that slept in the distance.

Later, the mountains would turn a deep rich green in the afternoon sun; and I would remember the fox playing in the field among the horses, unafraid.

El Tío Nayo

The small Citroën takes the narrow curves in stride as matchstick eucalyptus trees zip by.  Every so often a break in the foliage reveals a channel of the estuary where it cuts into the green stone-hedged fields.

We pass an oxcart filled with fresh hay, the old man staring straight ahead from his wooden seat.  “How much horsepower does an oxcart have?” I ask my sister-in-law in Spanish.  She laughs:  “Ningún—none—only ox power.”

Up ahead we pass through the tiny village of O Pedra, “The Rock.”  My sister-in-law tells me the local joke about the necessity of the novia to pass through O Pedra before reaching Cariño—tenderness—our final destination.

We enter the narrow winding cobblestone streets of the port of Cariño and weave our way up the inclines past the fountain in the small plaza.  Up above, at the cemetery, the vista opens up.  From here you can look down on the red-tiled roofs of the town past the ancient stone wharf across the bay to the Isle of San Vincente and the large expanse of white beach beyond.  Off to the left, away to the northeast, the jagged coastline stretches all the way to the punta of Estaca de Bares, the northern most point of Spain.

It is a clear day, and the blue sky is filled with puffy white clouds driven by the wind across the Cabo Ortegal.  At our back, the Serra da Capelada rise steeply from the sea.  On the other side of the bay, behind the long stretch of white sand beach, lies the Serra da Faladoira range.  All of the mountains are draped in green except for the outcroppings of bleached grey rock at the peaks.

We stop at the cemetery to place a bouquet of flowers from the nuptial mass at the grave of my father-in-law.  The vase is top heavy and keeps falling forward off the narrow lip of white-washed concrete.  The graveyard mason offers a small piece of brick to balance the base.

We return to the car and continue up the unpaved road to the oddly shaped three-story yellow house whose footprint resembles a trapezoid.

An old mastiff barks and strains at his chain near the back entrance.  Next to him two emaciated cats mew a lament.  Chickens cluck inside a wire pen, scratching the ground.  My sister-in-law calls out, but no one answers.

We push open the heavy mahogany door and step into the coolness of the marble corridor.  A few steps down the hallway lead us to the open door of the bedroom.  My sister-in-law raps on the lintel:  Se puede?”

Inside an old man sits upright in a chair by the window next to the bed.  He smiles when we enter.  His hair is combed straight back, revealing ruddy cheeks and bright eyes that sparkle like sea glass on the beach in the morning sun.

Hola, tío!” my sister-in-law greets him.  “A ver, si conoces a este hombre?”  She says this in reference to me.  Four summers have come and gone since last he saw me.

He stares at my face and smiles.  His eyes continue to sparkle, but there is no recognition.

“Soy el marido de tu sobrina,” I tell him.  “I am the husband of your niece.”

Suddenly the scales fall from his eyes.  Si, si; le conozco.  Ahora le reconozco.”

Que tal?” I ask him. “How are things with you?”

Regular,” he says.  Then he adds:  “Con los 90 años que tengo.”

“Uncle, you aren’t 90 years old.  You are only 86.”

“Am I?  I must have made a mistake.”

“He likes to watch the football on TV,” my sister-in-law says.  “He was watching when Spain won the World Cup this month.”

El tío Nayo nods his head.  Jugaban bien,” he says.  “They played well.”

I notice the catheter than exits from his trousers to the bag at the side of his chair.  Y esto?”

“La próstata,” he says.  “El riñón.”

“He has a marcapasos as well,” my sister-in-law says.  “The last time I took him to the residencia for a checkup, they found that his pacemaker hadn’t been working for four months!”

“Amazing,” I say.  “Some hearts are smarter than machines.”

“They said that he had a heart attack at some point in the past.  But when we asked him, he couldn’t recall any episode of chest pain.”

El tío Nayo nods his head.  “E verdad,” he says.

“Do you get outside these days?” I ask him.

“No, hombre.  Me quedo aquí en mi habitación.”  He turns his head to look out of the window.  We look out over the red-tiled roofs and the fishing boats in the port across the bay to the mountains beyond.

“Aquí se puede vivir como un rey,” I tell him.  “Here you can live like a king.”

El tío Nayo turns his gaze to the window and looks out at the vista below with misty glistening eyes.

The End of Something

The most stressful thing about a trip to Spain is the connections.  You have to wait, many times for several hours, to begin the next leg of the journey.  This time around things went well until I hit Madrid.  What should have been a 3-hour layover turned into a 4½-hour layover.  As a result, I arrived in Santiago late.  Thankfully, my sister-in-law was there to meet me.

After two more hours behind the wheel, we stopped at a local restaurant for something to eat.  It was a clean simple place, and the food was very good.  My sister-in-law treated me to a plate of pulpo a la gallega (octopus) and an entrée of rapé, a type of fish.  We finished the meal with a demitasse of coffee on the veranda.  It was a good way to wind down from traveling.  Half an hour later we rolled into Santa Marta.  It was just as I remembered it.  Everyone was there to greet me at the house in the narrow cobblestone street.

I was on my feet for close to 37 hours before I finally crawled into bed.

The next day I went for a long walk on the rustic path that runs along the edge of the estuary to the beach.  The sea undulated at my feet in gradations of blue and green, extending to the far horizon where it gave way to the faultless blue sky.  On either side the mountains rose up from the sea like prehistoric dinosaurs, their jagged peaks draped in torn green blankets where outcroppings of grey rocks broke through.  As I stood there buffeted by the wind, I understood once again why I love this country too much for my own good.  I lingered for quite some time before heading back to the village along the road.

Saturday was the wedding.  We gathered at the ancient stone church for the nuptial mass.  Outside, a small band of musicians played the drums and bagpipes as we exited through the courtyard.  Afterwards we boarded a bus for the next village down the coast, where wine and hors d’oeuvres were served by attentive waiters under a long white canopy on a small bluff above the beach.  The main meal lasted nearly four hours:  gambas, percebes, cigalas, rapé con patatas, carne de ternera, postre, an enormous amount of wine, both red and white, and to top off the meal, whiskey on the rocks and café solo.

At one point during the evening I stepped out and walked down to a small overlook and stood by the railing to watch the sea bathe the beach beneath a nearly full moon.  One of the guests, who had come from Navarra, appeared and struck up a conversation about the Spanish bullfight.  He spoke about José Tomás, the most artistic of all of the current matadors in Spain, who is recovering from a bad cornada, an injury to the femoral artery which he incurred when he was gored in Mexico this past spring.

The day before I left Spain, the provincial government in Barcelona voted to outlaw the corrida de toros.  As of Friday, July 30, 2010, there will be no more bullfights in Cataluña.  In an act of political capitulation, the Spanish national government voted to subsidize the salaries of workers in all industries associated with the corrida in the province of Cataluña for the next 90 years.

When Spain won the World Cup, Barcelonan taxi drivers displaying the national Spanish flag on their cabs were fined by the provincial police.

We are witnessing the beginnings of the disintegration of the Spanish state.

Humane Medicine: Love’s Labors Lost

When a 17-year-old boy makes inquiries about erectile dysfunction, I’m puzzled.  I ask him a few questions to ascertain that there is no evidence of physiologic sexual dysfunction. The boy has no history of a medical condition that would compromise his sexual response. Now is the time, I decide, to launch into the small spiel that I have been rehearsing in my mind.

Interested readers can now access my latest Humane Medicine column, Love’s Labors Lost, recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

God Rest His Soul

Father Bloom is dead; God rest his soul.

His obituary states that he died from “shortness of breath.”  As I recall, he was never a long-winded man to begin with.

Father Bloom spoke every year at the Memorial Day celebration in our town.  The parade always assembles at the village green and marches up the hill to the Catholic cemetery.   It takes all of fifteen minutes to complete the trek.

One year Father Bloom approached the microphone to greet the crowds assembled on the hillside.

“Welcome to our Memorial Day celebration,” he began, “the most popular annual event in our town.  As a matter of fact, it has the distinction of being the only annual event in our town.”

I used to walk our black Labrador retriever down the street past Saint Bernard’s Catholic Church on the corner.  Sometimes we would cut through the walkway between the church and the rectory.  Father Bloom kept watch from the window.

One time I returned with the dog and encountered Father Bloom standing on the walkway by the lawn.  “Good day, Father,” I said, mustering a weak smile.

“Is this your dog’s business?” Father Bloom growled, pointing to the pile of canine excrement at his feet.

I bent down to study it carefully.  “Oh, no, Father.  That’s not my dog’s; I’m certain of it.”

“Make sure you keep him out of the cemetery,” he said.  “Hallowed ground is no place for dogs.”

I wondered if Father Bloom had ever seen the movie, “All Dogs Go To Heaven.”

On another occasion my wife and I were out with the dog when Father Bloom stepped out of the side door of the rectory.  “Is that dog Catholic?” he asked.

“No, Father, he’s Protestant through and through,” my wife said.

“Then get him the hell out of here,” he muttered.

Once, when out for an afternoon stroll, I walked past the church and looked up to see Father Bloom’s Buick sedan shoot out from between the rectory and the house next door and skid to a halt on his front lawn.  Slowly the door opened, and Father Bloom careened out.

“Don’t mind me, son,” he grinned.  “I just went out for a few beers and missed the garage.”

“Notes from a Healer” — In the Limelight

Her name appeared on my schedule that Monday, the last of the late afternoon patients. The appended note read: “rash on leg.” How simple, I thought; how elegant. A young college student with a rash — how hard could the diagnosis be?

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerIn the Limelight — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online clearinghouse for manuscripts dealing with the humanities and medicine. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.