This is a place I know like I know my dead, only this city is not a cemetery of the dead but rather a cemetery of the living. A great poet wrote that line, about cemetery of the living. Therefore, I have to give her credit for it, but I agree about this place, what it is, what is here. I agree so much that the phrase is forever looping through my mind and drawing me to it, to the city, and to what it breathes and says, year after year, century after century. Don’t worry: it never gets old.
I want you to know what it’s like to be in this space, this bit of land, this catacomb, this hilltop. I want you to know because this city is all of these and more. It is scary how much is stuffed into it. It is scary, because if you know, you can explore. If you don’t, the surface is only hard and cold.
What I’ve put below for you is perhaps a journal entry, a day in the life of me. Not because I am that important, but simply because I am heading out into the heart of this city that is like no other, to see once again how that heart beats. I am doing this with the hope of documenting everything that happens during my foray into Santiago, just exactly as it happens. There will be no hyperbole, no inventing of untruths, nothing but reality.
There is just one more detail that might help: I have decided not to assign times to the sequences, to the entries. This was a conscious decision, because today is intended to be a continuum. It should not be broken up by times of day. You can’t just ‘put on’ a city for a few hours, take it off, then put it on again for a few more. It’s not a scarf or a jacket. If you’re in it, you’re in it. Inside it.
I am starting out along Rúa de Teixeiro, heading in the direction of the tree-lined Alameda. This is an arbitrary starting point, remember. As I enter the flow of bodies, it is immediately obvious that there are millions of soft little syringes filling the air. Most of the time they are aligned at a thirty degree angle with the ground, so the eyes are not in danger. The syringes in the air are persistent, nevertheless, and one rather wishes they were not so abundant. The tiny things have the bulb part pointing down, one assumes, which is why they do not do as much damage as they otherwise could.
There is really no color to these small syringes, as I’ve decided to call them, so please don’t think I’m seeing red or green or gray. People flowing alongside me are also not seeing those colors. Well, maybe gray, but also somehow the syringes are transparent. If you don’t like the term I’ve chosen to represent the shape of what is filling the streets, perhaps eye dropper or pipette or something similar will work better for you. In no way do I mean to conjure up images of drugs or hospital treatment. I am referring exclusively to the shape. It has a bigger bottom than top. It looks somewhat like a raindrop, but those are not allowed. The simile is sufficient.
We continue along the afore-mentioned street until we come to one called A Senra. It is full of nonstop vehicular and foot traffic. I often think of this as people and cars in herds. Whether they are cars or humans, they all need to follow the instincts that will lead them in the desired direction. They are all looking for shelter.
It is about now that I realize that I am coming into full contact with the diagonal cornstalks. Now that cornstalks thing may be a calque or literal translation from another language, but consider how accurate it is. Before we were encountering some bouncy little syringes and now we find that there are some stalks descending onto the heads and roofs of the cars. These stalks should be out in the fields on the outskirts of the city and beyond.
The diagonal missiles do not know anything about where they should be. They are in attack mode. That means that they are coming with more vengeance than the little bitty syringes and they have the ability to sting slightly if they encounter the corner of an eye. They endanger no lives, however. It’s just that they do become annoying if one has to put up with them for too long. They like to cling to one’s clothing and add weight to the effort we’re making to move through the city.
Maybe I should select another term in place of ‘missiles’? These aren’t fun or easy to dodge, but they really aren’t going to harm the people they encounter. Maybe they’re nothing more than lines in the air?
Regardless of what we choose to call it, I have to put up with this annoyance for about three more blocks, because I need first to turn to the right, then turn to the right again, to go to the dentist. For this reason I will probably not be in a great mood when I get there, although it won’t have anything to do at all with getting a tooth fixed. The name of the street might be Patio de Madres, but I only know I have to turn right after the Banco Pastor. It’s literally sixty seconds further, down a slight slope.
Now that the dental work I was scheduled for is done, and was not at all painful, I retrace my steps, going back up the slope. I am planning on crossing over by Fonte Sequelo. I forget what that street is called, but it is one lane each way and narrow as spaghetti. One has to keep both eyes open.
It will take me another three minutes to go up the next slope, the one known as the Rúa dos Gramáticos. I’m heading in that direction because I’m meeting a friend for coffee in the little Praza de Mazarelos. That’s at the top of Gramáticos. My friend knows I had to go to the dentist first, so she won’t mind if I don’t drink anything.
The corn stalks are gone now, which is good, but it feels like I am walking through bubblebath. From outdoors in a field to indoors, in a bathtub. This place is odd. Like no other, I told you.
The bathtub feeling with its bubblebath landscape is not unpleasant in the least. Iridescent, happy air, you might say, and I agree again. The day is mousy, but what is in front of my face is a street that is lit up with noon glitter. This is unique. It is only available in Santiago de Compostela. That is why I believed early on that there was no place like it anywhere in the world. That belief was once the only way to survive. Now I actually believe it.
As I make my way up the second or maybe it’s the third slope, things change radically, but not quickly. I discover that it is quite amusing to watch the sudden transformation in human postures. Everyone I encounter appears to be hovering over the diminutive waterfalls in the streets. They do this because they are exploring the best technique for crossing over. Some select a two-foot straddle, while others prefer a courageous leap or a calculated high stride. (What works for one doesn’t always work for another.) I mostly choose the striding method, because I can control my balance better that way, even though I don’t have very long legs.
I love waterfalls, especially in the middle of cities, which is a rarity.
Continuing through the Praza de Mazarelos, past the School of History and Geography of the University, polka dot lenses begin to appear on passersby. A few moments before, there were none, but these dots are now persistent. I like them. They’re rather classy.
Now I look up. I think I do it because a lost seagull is calling to the distant shore, and it seems out of place among the pigeons and sparrows who beg for crumbs on the terrazas. When I turn my gaze upward, instead of a seagull I can make out gauze and bat wings. The latter may sound odd, because when we think of bats, we think of dark gray or black. With a bit of creative thinking, however, we can imagine bats who are pale gray, white, or even translucent. In the case of Santiago and its sky, it’s all about the leathery surface, the tiny rivers of veins, the way something stands behind them, making them present. That’s what is up there. It is something special to see, believe me.
The gauze, I’d like to point out if you hadn’t noticed, is like cheesecloth, which is fine thread woven with spaces for straining liquids. It is also a subtle counterpoint to the polka-dotted lenses. Minute squares that are a reflection of square stones in the walls of buildings, as if the stones had projected their silhouettes upward. Trust me, I’ve seen this a lot.
I think I might weary you with such a blow-by-blow description, so will speed up this walk.
Bullets in fountains draw my attention. Ping ping ping in the one in the Praza do Toural. Ping ping ping in the fountain of the Acibecheiría by the museum. Ping ping ping in the Praza de Fonseca. It never stops. This place never loses its ping ping ping.
Now I look down and discover only white gauze, cheesecloth, and moth wings. What is wrapping itself about my legs and feet? I ask, but I know the answer. I hope you might be able to figure it out, because I’m not allowed to tell you.
If I turn my chin upward so I can look straight ahead: I cannot do so comfortably because there are tiny fists attacking my eyelashes and those of everyone else walking in this area. The fists are tiny, are and more bothersome than dangerous. I hold my breath. This too shall pass.
Sometimes my stroll becomes like a battle, I must admit. There are many reasons for that. I guess I just get the sense sometimes that old mother ocean is embracing everything and all the while she is whispering inaudibly, but still whispering. The decibels are transported by air wet like a cotton ball. The ocean, which is about twenty miles to the west.
Ahead of me now is a dull white page with human forms that appear to be serving as letters on the page’s surface. I wonder if they are writing a story in the air that cannot be seen. I cannot see it because the page is opaque.
Poof! Everything I have just tried to describe to you is gone. There are merely a few tiny mirrors left, but they are more like sequins. They fit snugly in the fissures and folds of the stones. They fit well, because they belong there. Until they disappear, which does not take all that long.
As I turn a corner onto Rúa Nova, I run into a curtain and walk through it. This isn’t difficult, because it is sheer.
From the curtain I continue until I encounter something more serious: an old kitchen knife that begins slicing across my arms and shoulders. You may be concerned, but I am not. The knife is not cutting my skin. It is harmless.
The ancient streets insist that I walk along them, because they want me to remember that they are a labyrinth. Today they have the task of dissolving echoes and other distant things. I want to watch.
I must mention all the cups of many colors, carried upside down. I laugh, because they are held aloft by headless humans, hunched over and oblivious. It pays to be alert, because an upside down cup can readily stab you in the face. I am very alert.
The stones breathe more heavily now, and I want to know why. Perhaps it has something to do with the sloshing that is audible inside the churches. That soft sound could be caused by collapsed cups and coats of worshippers.
I admit to feeling tired now, but we need to go on just a little further. I detect the smell of wool and fur, of animals unleashed in the city. It is probably the conglomeration of the above—mentioned worshippers.
It is finally nighttime. The overhead blackness produces light in volcano mode, flowing through glass. Well, that’s not exactly the night that produces the illumination. It’s the street lamps that thrive on the unlit sky and thrust their beams through the air still carrying its wet burden.
The surface of all the stones was highlighted by tears at dusk. Now the same stones are growing shadows. Moss makes squishing noises like blobs of green paint, and drops purr wherever they manage to cling. A kicked stone casts off sweat as it bounces along O Preguntoiro. The sweat is black, then white, according to the street lamp.
The evening will not stay still. It arranges itself in three tiers: the top one is invisibly black; the middle is buzzing blond, spurting gold, freckled level; the bottom tier is sucking from tier number two. This material is then mixed with random stars. As my gaze moves down from there to ground level, I am stunned by what I see: falling white skeletons that must recycle themselves endlessly.
I continue, for just a minute longer. There are mirrors in the streets, everywhere, under my feet. I break none of them. Amaranth and couscous are strewn over some of the old slabs. They obviously have come from above.
White ocean bathes the Obradoiro Square, up ahead. I never saw the waves passing through, because that must have happened before I arrived. Then a noise like plastic nails distracts me. Or it could be falling chestnuts, pearls dripping from oysters, liquid feathers hitting the pavement. I am not sure any more. It’s pretty dark. Plus, the sounds change at different corners of buildings.
Gray funeral in front of you, behind me, but people are walking double time. Some make the scraping sound of a cup edge over the granite, some the sound of a cane writing in water.
Eternity has arrived, I feel. Time is erased because life retreats under extreme conditions and nobody looks out the window. People and more people are walking with cups, yet nobody notices because they are enclosed in their own upside-down roundness. This means there will be more pokes and jabs from little metal appendices. I am certain of this.
Despite the dark, people still jump, run, dance from doorway to doorway. The stone portals are overpopulated. At this hour, everything should be deserted. This day has been full, and gray.
Santiago will shuffle to bed trailing something that resembles white brocade. The same dark edging has appeared on buildings and statues, but it is not permanent.
Plop - plip - plosh
Tomorrow might be the exact opposite. Santiago is forever the same, and extreme.