This mysterious world of birds surrounds the pilgrim, it’s the alternative world he’s come into, birds instead of humans, not a bad swap. And I shall leave and birds will still be singing. I could tell the story of the Way in birds. I’m going to do so right now, to frighten away this revolting Pelegrín mascot, here on the C535 between Palas de Rei and Carballal.
Those hundred sparrows in the great central courtyard of the monastery at Roncesvalles, which in the long misty mountain nights turn into a thousand screaming bats. In the high valleys of the Pyrenees those plump tits, black heads and bibs, white cheeks, yellow bodies: so full of themselves. In the midst of the desert of ash by the magnesite factory at Zubiri a vision of beauty bursts upon the view: the year’s first swallow. That solemn grey heron whose motionless, silent fishing session in the waters of the River Arga I unintentionally curtailed. Over an immense valley in which there is no other human being to be seen hovers the constant elegant silent menace of the lofty red kite. The storks’ nest fixed with magic glue on the top of the thin chimney of the deserted factory at Puente la Reina, and all the storks of the plains, flying lazily and presiding disdainfully over the whole town from their church tower, threatening the inhabitants with their slow, muted machine-gun.
That dazzling chaffinch that came to greet me near Estella with the momentary revelation of its colours. The crazy skylarks’ songs in the hot fields of Azofra. The candescent crowing that shatters the black silence of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, where the hen sang after it had been roasted. Walking from Belorado through the poplar grove which fills that valley, the drumming of the woodpecker amidst the chirruping of the sparrows, concerto for piccolo and percussion in C major. Some solitary and brave or maybe lost bird breaks the gloom-laden silence of the eternal pine plantations on the Montes de Oca.
In a valley fringed with scrub near Villalvilla I hear the tweeting of an unknown bird that sounds like a man whistling to his dog, funny, maybe it is a man whistling to his dog. The asthmatic song of partridges in the narrow valley of the River Garbanzuelo beside the ruins of the Monastery of San Antón, where a chapter of invisible pigeons sees to the chanting of the Canonical Hours. In a limitless leaden sky over Sahagún a flock of birds in V formation provokes even more nostalgia for that faraway sea of Ribadeo. The sinister crows of Reliegos surrounding the solitary stork as it fishes. Hundreds of nests of unruly cawing rooks high in the tall poplars on the bank of the Canal del Páramo. The solemn erotic minuets of the pigeons in the square by León Cathedral. That pair of barn owls on vociferous night watch over the porch of the hostel in the wood at Hospital de Órbigo. In El Bierzo the brief call of the buntings, the chinking chatter of the stonechats, the chubby little hightailed wren that attends restlessly to its business in the thick vegetation, the happy wagtail that darts and rocks back and forth by the edge of the stream. Calle de los Peregrinos in Cacabelos, a long lightning streak of a thousand intrepid swallows in and out of low balconies of dark wood. In Villafranca del Bierzo a farewell to storks, a nest on either side of the cross that tops the façade of the Monastery of San Nicolás.
But the bird that pecks at the marrow of my bones is that small, dull brown one, anonymous and humdrum, perched on a grey stone in the middle of a moor, which lights up the misty morning with the glory of its song in a stream so resonant, so continuous and so varied that this is not just one bird but a whole invisible flock: the skylark.