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Drama Fiction

Buffalo gals won't you come out tonight

Come out tonight, come out tonight

Buffalo gals won't you come out tonight

And dance by the light of the moon

(Old minstrel song, perhaps)

Pilar and Lavinia are in O Toural, a central yet free-flowing litttle plaza in Santiago de Compostela. They have been discussing the new film coming to Numax and how they ought to go because it's had great reviews.

"I hear the actors aren't professionals. They all come from the rural area where it was filmed. That creates an impact." Lavinia says, and knows she has to see the movie, the sooner the better. Filming with those sorts of actors, ones who were likely to improvise or forget their lines, was quite the challenge, but the director had done it, and the result was remarkable, according to critics.

 The two friends walk then toward Casa Mora and stop for one of the pastry shop's signature chocolate truffles, infused with what is probably brandy and covered with chocolate sprinkles. It is one of the few things made of chocolate that Lavinia likes. She rarely eats chocolate.

Now Pilar is asking, out of the blue:

"Are you coming tonight?" Her voice is steady, her facial expression focused, almost staring at Lavinia, almost like she's casting a spell on her. This bewitching pose is not normal, especially not where Lavinia's from and not outside the world of drama and film.

Pilar has not said anything about the occasion, and Lavinia laughs, because maybe it's so they can dance by the light of the moon, like the song says. Or like Friel's play, set in fictional Ballybeg, Ireland, in the same summer as the start of the Spanish Civiil War, the horrible war nobody can ever forget. The war when devils came out of the woodwork to mangle everybody who wasn't one of them. Dancing at Lughnasa is about a family, sisters, and the tearing apart of the fabric of their lives.

Lavinia is certainly not up for that type of dancing, lunatic style, in the face of tragedy. Then again, Pilar has nothing to do with any forces of evil, and Lavinia has to turn away to hide the red shame coloring her face at having conjuring up such thoughts in connection with her good friend. While they were from two different countries, they knew each other well. They did not play tricks that could do harm.

Lavinia starts to ask for more details, but Pilar makes a very subtle gesture: she brings her extended index finger, which seems to have been broken and healed improperly, as she holds it before closed lips, adding a tiny shhhh! to the hand gesture. Apparently the invitation must be accepted first, then the details will be forthcoming. Her interlocutor has to trust her, cannot ask for clarification. Nobody is to know about this evening other than the participants.

Lavinia senses she must say yes and that she must keep her promise. That she is being tested. Ruth Matilda Anderson, the photographer whose life and work have brought her here to Compostela to study, will have to wait yet another night. Lavinia sighs. She has no choice but to accept. She also has figured out that she should consult nobody as to what she is going to do or see. Knowing Pilar, and paraphrasing the exquisite Zora Neale Hurston, she knew that some things just demand it: she'd have to go there to know there.

It is now the last hour of the evening and Lavinia starts to walk in the direction of where she has been told she should go. The city is very safe to walk through at night, with the exception of one or two streets, so the hour and being alone did not pose a problem. She is looking for Sae se podes and has been told it's about seven minutes by foot, from where she's living the the San Pedro neighborhood.

Suddenly, after strolling at a good pace for three or four minutes, she feels as if she were being blindfolded, and perhaps she is. She is forced to spend two hours in a completely dark space, maybe underground. 

(Does this really happen?) 

(How has she been transported from somewhere near the Igrexa das Ánimas, the Church of Souls, to a place underground? Her claustrophobia causes her to break out into a sweat, feel a bit nauseous, and tremble as if an electric current were passing through her. Well, the last part might be an exaggeration, but anybody would shake when plunged into total darkness without warning, wouldn't they?)

Then, just as suddenly, the stint in Hades is over and Lavinia is free to continue to her original destination. She thought her captivity might have lasted two hours, but it could have been more or less time. If it had been that long, she would arrive far to late to her destiny, but she needed to go anyway. If possible, she wanted Pilar to know she had kept her word.

She wasn't sure whether she should mention the time she had spent in total darkness, underground, so she thought she would keep silent about that for the time being.

After a couple more minutes of winding old streets, Lavinia reaches the little lane whose name fascinated her from the moment she heard Pilar say it. It was somebody’s idea of humor: Sae se podes, get out if you can. Run! Escape! Don't get caught! 

Lavinia had no idea when or why this street had been baptized with that name, but it must have been a very long time ago. Many years later, at the start of the horrible civil war, at least one man had been trapped. It wasn't too much later that he had been shot by Franco’s fascists, which wasn’t humorous. His crime had been to speak out for Galicia, because of his art and his actions in favor of a strong, maybe an independent Galician nation. He had been brilliant, and no fascist could stand brilliance. 

A few steps in the narrow passageway and then there was the tiny plaza which has an underground passageway. Not many people know about it; just those who spend a lot of time walking the medieval streets, counting the stones in the pavement, running their finger over the stones of the buildings. Those people repeat their actions so much that they are away of every little detail. They notice how sun or rain change the colors of the walls, how the wind echoes in certain parts of the city as it is deflected by the vertical structures. 

Lavinia thinks about having been trapped herself just now, on her way here. Not on Sae se podes like the artist who was murdered, but not too far from it. Not in that much danger, probably - unless she were unable to solve the mystery that was drawing her further and further away from what she had as her official reason for being in the city.

The city of Compostela was a web. Laughing to herself at the absurdity of the idea, Lavinia wondered if there was a huge spider somewhere that was in charge of the residents? Where would such a spider reside? In the Pazo de Raxoi, on Obradoiro Square? (Laughing about that calmed her.)

"Who has been responsible for the invitation? Pilar invited me, but she didn't really do so in her name,. All she said was: “Are you coming?” It was as if Lavinia should naturally have known who was interested in having her, the woman from another country, present that evening. 

The other mystery was why the meeting - or whatever it was - was being held so late in the evening. People were still out at that hour, but starting the evening then was a bit out of the norm, a bit late. This wasn't Madrid, where people might not sit down to supper until nearly midnight, when it had cooled off enough.

Pilar, though, was her friend. Pilar has offered no details, no verbal map. Since Lavinia has already seen the underground site of the Graystockings, she thinks that it must be the same one. 

But no, because now she had heard the voice of her friend indicating where Lavinia should go: 

Sae se podes, in the patio, at 11 pm.

Sae se podes, a ruela, which is like an alleyway. Maps say it is just 39 meters long, and there are less than half a dozen places of residence. There are miniature balconies that run together at the corner of the rectangular plaza, meaning this is a place where everyone knows the color of everyone else’s underwear. The alleyway comes off Oliveira, which is actually the narrowest street in Compostela, but is not quite as well-known because it doesn't have a name like 'Get out if you can' and doesn't have an interior patio where a very good Galician was captured by Fascists who took him away and killed him.

Lavinia has been gradually reading about the history of Santiago and surprises herself with what she recalls about this tiny spot in the city. She arrives and huddles inside her jacket, perhaps outside in the open, yet in the plaza that feels sealed over with lives and loss.

"Why did the builders even bother with this boxed-in space?" she mumbles.

Claustrophobia is not pleasant.

For a few moments, Lavinia ponders the meaning of the street name, trying to figure out if it is significant, as other things she's seen around the city. Probably not, probably it's just one more example of retranca or Galician humor. Sae se podes, Get Out if You Can, a cul-de-sac, dead end, a place never to be cornered in. A place not to die.

"This is my map, I realize, but what am I supposed to do or see? It's dark and dreary, like the poem, but this isn't a poem."

"Why me? Sometimes I feel so much a foreigner, feel that my fantasies of living here are just that - fantasies. I do not belong here." 

There's a name for people like her: wannabe. She never ever wanted to be one of those...

"Where does the tunnel lead?" Lavinia had found the trap door that is the entrance and just at that moment a filmy shadow appears next to her. It is not an attempt to frighten her, she knows, and waits for a reply. She should not have been aware that the square at the base of a building on the little plaza led to a tunnel, though.

Her question was one of her tasks or trials, similar to the ones Hercules or somebody like that had faced. She had been interested enough to study the street, looking at photos, and knew it was part of her education, one being mapped out for her but without giving her the map, just indicating the direction she should follow.

She is told by the gauzy gray figure who might have been hard to distinguish from the shadowy spot but who was by no means trying to look like a ghost to scare her. That would definitely have been childish. There were unknowns here, but this wasn't a game.

The figure simply lifts a silent, silencing finger and says shhhh! It is not Pilar who is beside Lavinia, though. Nevertheless, Lavinia nods, knowing she is learning when to speak and when to remain silent, when to ask questions and when to provide information. She oddly feels like she is learning her place. Where that place is, she doesn't know.

As the two of them walk, the gray figure explains:

"We can connect a lot of the passageways beneath this city, beneath the stone slabs of the casco vello, the old part. We know for sure that we will be safe if we choose the option to remain gray, unseen. We have survived for hundreds of years in anonymity. This is not a game, as we know you know. We are trying to preserve something the world should have but could destroy if it felt the need to do that."

Lavinia feels the tension of the moment. So much is riding on the decision of a few. A few who don't want to sacrifice the achievements of others. Her guide is still explaining:

"But we can no longer be content to remain out of sight. We can maintain the tunnels, keep them connected and dry. We have wanted to bring everything out into the open, but funding a site would be impossible. We would need a lot of money because the knowledge we have accumulated over the century is immense. We look at the huge libraries that have been destroyed in the Middle East and we cannot bear the thought of losing what we have by unwarranted wars and bombings."

Lavinia is beginning to put a lot of the pieces together. It feels like an unskilled collage still, what she is piecing, but her work at sorting things out could get better with more effort, she thinks. 

She then asks questions like those regarding the nature and extent of the holdings. (She assumes the 'we' used by her guide refers to the Graystockings, with whom she's already crossed paths, although just once. That meeting had been choreographed by Pilar the Librarian and Pilar her Friend.

Now she was on her way back there, underneath the medieval street and even some of pre-medieval time.

"What type of lighting do you have? Your patrons: who are they, how many are there, why do they want to consult your holdings? Do you have a system to make sure nothing is removed illegally from the collection?"


How does this evening end? After many more justified questions, both on the part of Lavinia and on that of the Graystockings, many of which would later be noted in her journal, she suggests at least two solutions, neither of which can be revealed yet.

She is told that the group will discuss and let her know. One thing, however: if they accept Lavinia's proposal, she must remain in Santiago de Compostela for five years. She would be allowed to go home to arrange things there, to see to her personal affairs, but she would be required to serve as an adjunct member of the Graystockings. (Lavinia laughs, because when she thinks of adjuncts, she thinks of this category of university faculty. It is often the lowest rank with the lowest salary. This could be considered a step down, or two steps down, in her professional level. Could be. Or perhaps this was a different game.)

Lavinia agrees because she feels she must. 

Walking home, still unafraid after her escapades this evening, the real tests of her ability to overcome her debilitating claustrophobia, she asks herself what is going to happen to her. What she hopes will happen. 

She asks why Compostela has a history that keeps pricking her, like when one is needle felting and can't keep from stabbing fingers instead of the roving. Blood surfaces in the tiny wound, then is gone, sucked away. Until the next stabbing. The wounds are never fatal, of course. The felter, like the foreigner or the researchers, simply needs to learn how to proceed with caution. Practice, pay attention, be open.

Why she says yes to possibly dangerous invitations.

Why she’s unconcerned about anything because she knows she doesn’t have a choice and can't allow herself to feel trapped. Not at this stage in her life. 

Why she must do what is asked of her because it is what she wants to do, thinks she does.

August 03, 2021 02:45

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1 comment

Graham Kinross
01:29 Dec 14, 2023

Interesting. There is a bit in the middle where the main character talks about being kidnapped and held underground but it's mentioned so briefly I wasn't sure if she had imagined it because of her claustrophobia? Interesting history mentioned behind this of Francisco Franco's regime but you moved through it very quickly.


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