Back in� 1975 or thereabouts I spent a few weeks of the summer working as a �Peon� or casual labour hand with a team from the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture which was then carrying out a forestry inventory, the practical part of which was done in the summer, the inventory itself to last about four years.
My job as a Peon consisted in accompanying a forestry technician to a particular region of the forest called a �parcela� or parcel and there I would, for example, be told to go to a given tree and measure its trunk and take samples of its wood. I would then call out the measurements to the team leader (the technician). In all we were three teams of two men each, the leader and a peon in each one.
I found this very invigorating work after teaching English in Madrid. There were no classes in the heat of summer as all my pupils had gone away for their holidays. Here, high up in the Pyrenees mountains I could breathe fresh clean air and get some much needed exercise. Indeed there was plenty of exercise to be had as my job as peon required that I be nimble and stalwart for often I had to scramble up steep slopes of loose shale, rocks and boulders and at the same time be prepared to leap across abysmal ravines in order to get to the trees in question, while my �leader� waited in a quiet glade below enjoying a cigarette.
The occasion of which I now write was in fact my first adventure of this sort. I had been informed by the ministry that I had to be in the town of Viella in the north eastern region of Spain called the Valley of Aran or, as it is known locally, the �Val D-Aran�, on a certain Saturday. There I would meet the forestry teams and get to know them before I was to start work with them early on the following Monday morning. I was driven up to Viella by a close friend and several others came along as well for the ride and to help with the cost of the petrol. I won�t dwell here on the breathtaking beauty of the Pyrenees mountains and the delicious quality of the mountain air as I wish to get on to my story.
It happened that, on arrival at the town of Viella, famous for its winter skiing facilities, I was told by the head of the forestry team that they had been unsuccessful in finding me accommodation at a hotel in town but that if I didn�t mind I could spend the first two nights of Saturday and Sunday in a small village one kilometre outside of Viella and they would come and pick me up in the Landrover early on Monday morning. I agreed to this and we spent the rest of that day exploring the town and sampling the local food and wines.
After dark the team�s driver and one or two of the lads drove me out towards the village where I was to sleep for the next two nights. As we drove along the road into the countryside the full Moon lit the landscape so brilliantly that one really could have read a newspaper by its light. The road stretched before us like a bright river of silver flowing this way and that to skirt the local foothills. It was only a short drive and the Landrover was brought to a halt where a fairly wide track branched off to the right to ascend a steep incline towards the village on the top of the hill.
There was a little stone church or chapel and a graveyard at this junction of the main road and the stony track. My team leader, Jesus, (pronounced khey-soos) turned to me and said, �Well, Terry. Do you want us to drive you up to the village or do you think you can make your own way there?� I said I�d prefer to walk up to the village on my own as it was such a balmy night and the Moon would show me the way. Jesus and the others agreed that that might be the better thing to do as the village was celebrating its annual Fiesta and there would be a lot of merrymaking that night and that if they got too involved in events up there they might find driving back into town a bit of a problem and anyway they preferred to get back to Viella and �dump the car�, as they put it, and continue their Saturday night out there.
So, they said goodbye and drove off, leaving me standing on the roadway by the graveyard. I stood there for a while, listening to the dying sound of the Landrover as its tail lights disappeared in the distance. It was a beautiful night and the full Moon was so bright it would allow only the most brilliant stars and planets to be seen. I was in no hurry to get to the village. There was total peace here with no wind while it was still pleasantly warm. The air was filled with the heady aroma of night scented wild flowers, just perfect for a relaxed walk up the hill to the village, the many festive lights of which I could see twinkling up above.
I stepped off the smooth road and began walking along the track of compacted earth which was overlaid with coarse gravel and littered with loose stones. The road up to the village turned first to the left to make the entrance to the graveyard and chapel its first port of call. Then it swung again to the right to continue its course. I paused for a while to examine the little chapel but saw only its dark, outer wall and it roof, shining in the moonlight. The graveyard was to my left and was bounded by a crumbling stone wall. At the juncture of the wall and the chapel there was a wrought iron gate which was jammed permanently ajar by a dense mass of tangled grass and shrubs. Obviously, the graveyard was very old and the gates had not been used for years.
It was while I was contemplating the possible age of the cemetery and chapel that I saw the figure of a little dog emerge through the long undergrowth around the iron gates. It seemed to me to be some sort of sheep dog and it had shaggy white fur with patches of black and its eyes were hidden by the fringe of hair characteristic of sheep dogs. By the light of the Moon I could see the dog clearly. Its little tongue moved briskly in and out of its mouth as it panted gently, its head cocked a little to one side as it regarded me in what I took to be a very friendly way. When I greeted him with my usual �Hello little dog�, he immediately moved towards me. I bent forward a little and patted my knee in a welcoming gesture and said �Here boy. Over here�.
The dog lowered his head and wagged his tail in a friendly manner but when I held out my hand to encourage him, he skittered about playfully, first bowing down on his forelegs and then running about and feinting to left and right as if inviting me to catch him. I thought the dog must be from the village and perhaps his master was not far away. I looked around but saw nobody and when I looked at the dog again he had run a little way ahead along the road and was standing there wagging his tail. I started to go after him and when I got close enough to hear him panting in expectation, he scampered off up the road again. I followed him. He trotted a while ahead of me, looking back at me every now and then. Thus we continued up the winding road. Sometimes he would come back towards me and on a couple of occasions he came quite close. However, I was unable to touch him, try as I might. He seemed to be treating this as a game like : �Can�t catch me�.
Well this game went on as we walked up the road. Sometimes the dog would walk by my side just beyond my reach and at other times he would run ahead and out of sight round a bend in the road. Once or twice, when he had disappeared around a sharp bend, I thought I�d stop and wait to see what he�d do. Every time I did this though, he would come back and peep round the corner as if to see whether I was following. Sometimes I caught a glint from his eye in the moonlight as he peered through his mass of long hair at me. He was a very fine little dog and seemed fit and healthy and very friendly: no doubt about that. The only thing was that I could never get close enough to touch him. He was so playfully evasive. It was as if he was not merely accompanying me up to the village but actually leading me there.
As we progressed up the hill I began to catch the strains of music and voices coming from the village. The Fiesta was obviously in full swing and the people were enjoying themselves. I talked to the little dog in low tones every time he ran to me but then he would scamper off again and hide beyond the bend in the road. Eventually we came to the final straight stretch of the road as it led into the village. My little friend trotted happily by my side panting happily.
Even before I set foot in the village square I heard a woman�s voice say �This must be him. Look, here he comes.� She was standing behind a trestle table which was laden with all manner of delicious looking things to eat as she served the many people who clustered around with their cardboard plates, plastic cups and glasses. �You must be the Englishman, el ingl�s, no?� she called with a welcoming smile and held up a large glass of red wine and a plate with a big pork chop and a generous helping of potato salad on it.
The people around the table, one of many others in the square, drew back to let me through. I put down my overnight bag which really was a small rucksack and accepted the wine and the food before thanking the lady at the table and nodding to the crowd of villagers who looked at me expectantly. They were all in a very merry mood as were all the other people at the many other tables. Those at my table bombarded me with polite questions about who I was and what I was doing and we soon struck up an animated conversation. I found them very hospitable indeed. The whole atmosphere of the tiny village on the hilltop was one of relaxed friendliness.
The people were laughing and singing and there was also the sound of guitar music which seemed to preside over the festivities everywhere. Strings of light bulbs were slung among the trees and they gave a brilliant sparkle to the Fiesta. The celebrations were being held in the village square which was surrounded by houses which had their own windows ablaze with lamps. San Juan de Arriba, for that is the name I shall use for this small mountain village in the Pyrenees, was like an island of light floating in the now cool darkness of the surrounding mountains. The Man in the Moon gazed down approvingly.
After I had had a bite of food and a draught of wine I said to the lady in charge of this table �This food is so good. I wonder if you would have something to spare for my little friend here�.
�I’m sorry my dear. I didn�t realize you had someone with you� she said.
�No, I�m not with anyone� I said. �I just thought that you might spare something for the little dog which showed me the way up here�. As I said this I stood back from the table and scanned the sea of human legs around me to try to find the little dog who surely must still be close by. However, he was nowhere to be seen. A man who was standing next to me and had heard this exchange said �what sort of dog are you talking about?� I described the dog I had seen emerge from the graveyard and how he had been so friendly and had guided me up to the village.
�A small sheep dog perhaps, with hair all over his eyes?�, I prompted. One or two people, hearing this, looked at me rather strangely I thought. The lady who had served me said �Well we don�t have any dogs of that description around here. In fact we don�t have any dogs at all right now. Now why don�t you just drink up and forget about dogs. Here, have some more wine.� She glanced at all the people around the table who seemed to have stopped all conversation and gave them a small, tight smile. At this I was nonplussed for I was certain that this dog had come with me all the way from the cemetery at the bottom of the hill.
The nearest village to San Juan was miles away on yet another hilltop. As I thought about this the man who had just spoken said to me with a serious face and perhaps just a touch of a frown. �If I were you I�d stay off that subject�. He gestured vaguely with his glass of wine towards the others around the table and said �This is a Fiesta. Enjoy yourself� With that he finished off his wine and held out his glass for more. Then he asked me with a chuckle if I wanted the same again or perhaps have something a bit stronger to drink. I could see there was little point in pursuing the subject of the little dog any further. These people evidently did not wish to discuss the matter. So, I thought I�d ask around a bit the next day. Maybe I�d even see the dog again somewhere around the village on Sunday morning.
The villagers soon returned to their lively talk and the wine and food seemed to vanish very rapidly indeed. I myself talked to a number of people for a while about what I did and about the forestry inventory and my association with it. After a short while however I began to feel tired. It had been a long day what with the long drive from Madrid, the overwhelming impressions I had received from the magnificent mountain scenery and the fresh air and then the socializing in Viella and now, with the noise and music of the Fiesta together with the food and wine, I really felt like crashing out and getting a good night�s sleep.
So, I excused myself from the party and said I hoped to meet these people again maybe even the next day. The lady at the table, whose name turned out to be Amparo, pointed out a house close by and said that that was where I was to sleep. All I had to do was go over there and ask for Mari-Tere and she would show me my room. Well I slept a dreamless sleep that night and was oblivious to the continuing noise of dancing and singing and even to the fireworks which were to finish off the celebrations. As soon as my head touched that smooth white pillow I was dead to the world.
The next thing I new it was Sunday morning and I awoke fully refreshed and excited as I wanted to take a walk around San Juan de Arriba and see everything in the broad light of day. I quickly washed and dressed and went down the stone stairs in search of some breakfast. Nobody was about so I decided to go for a walk and have breakfast later, when other people were waking up with their hangovers.
The village was quite small and seemed to be very old. The houses were mostly built of what I would call dry-stone walling and had slate roofs rather than tiles. This I supposed to be sensible in a region that had a lot of snowfall in winter and a lot of rain in summer, too. Very few people were about and those I was able to say good morning to looked at me rather suspiciously I thought. Not like the friendly people of the night before. I noticed that all the houses were decorated with rather pagan looking straw dolls.
All the wrought iron work in the window was interwoven with plaited and stitched straw in the fantastic shapes of animals and flowers and other plants. I thought it was all very attractive and a lot of craftsmanship had obviously gone into these decorations. Later, as I walked to the upper outskirts of the village I saw small fields of corn stubble with hayricks which were also topped off with these odd human figures made of straw. The phrase �Corn children� passed through my mind and I supposed that all these figures had some very ancient symbolic meaning. I detected the delicious smell of fresh bread and found that it came from the local bakery close by. The door of the bakery was open and I could see a man working inside.
He was indeed the baker and I said good morning to him and we got talking. As I was still intrigued about the mysterious dog that had �brought� me, so to speak, to this village the evening before, I asked the baker about it. �Nah�, was his reaction. �You don�t want to go believing them stories. It�s all superstition�. The thought flashed through my mind that this village probably had more than its fair share of superstitions in view of the pagan-like straw dolls I had seen. I asked the baker what superstition he was referring to as I had been told nothing unusual the night before. However, he was reluctant to tell me more and just asked me if I had come to buy bread. So, I bought some fresh crispy bread which was still warm and continued my walk around the village, pulling pieces off the bread loaf and eating them, thoughtfully, as I walked.
As I passed by the village church I saw people coming out, most likely from early Mass. The priest was there at the door saying goodbye to them with a smile and a wave. When they had all gone I walked over to the priest and asked him if there was any dog in the village that looked like a sheep dog and had hair over its eyes; a small, friendly dog. I told him about my encounter with this dog the night before and what the baker had said. His face became stern and he straightened himself as he said �The baker is right. There are too many people nowadays who still cling to these absurd stories. It�s all nonsense of course�.
That appeared to be all the priest was prepared to say on the matter so I said with a smile tinged with impatience �But what stories are you talking about? I arrived here only last night and all is mystery and reluctance to talk about this dog I saw. I shall be leaving again tomorrow and I�d like to know what all the mystery is about.� The priest looked as if he was reconsidering and must have decided to tell me something because I was leaving the next day and would be unlikely to return. �Well� he said � I heard that you�el ingl�s�had arrived last night and had caused a bit a stir by saying you had been �guided� or �brought� here by that dog.� You must understand that there is an old superstition here that about every thirty or forty years or so, a small dog which comes out of the cemetery down at the bottom of the hill guides a stranger to this village at the time of the village Fiesta which is held at the time of the full Moon. When this happens it is held to be an evil omen for the village of San Juan de Arriba. However.� the priest continued, �some say it can bring either evil or good fortune. The point is that something happens to the village, or is supposed to, and this occurs only, as I said, about every thirty or forty years. Now you come and you tell us this about the dog�. The priest was nodding slightly but sternly as if reprimanding me. � I see,� I said, �but how did this story come about? What was its origin?� The priest reached under his cassock for his handkerchief and gave his nose a symbolic dab and then put the handkerchief away again.
I could see he was either nervous or annoyed, perhaps both. �According to the legend, for legend it must be�, he said, �some time in the last century (the nineteenth century as he was telling me this in the early 1970s) two men of this village had a very violent quarrel over some woman and a sum of money and one of them killed the other. The murdered man was buried in the cemetery down below and the other man, the killer, was arrested, tried and condemned to death. The murdered man had a very faithful dog which answers the description you gave last night. This dog was so faithful to its master that it was inconsolable and stayed by its master�s grave until it died of grief and starvation. It was impossible to tempt the dog away from the grave and it refused all food and drink.
They say that those who tried to coax it away were savagely snarled at by the dog and the poor thing died there by his master�s grave and was later buried there too. But this silly story�, the priest was trying snap out of his reverie. �this silly story must be just a legend�
� I suppose so,� I said. I did not want to say anything to vex this priest. However I had to add �But I knew nothing of this story last night and I am a stranger, and I know I saw this friendly little dog come out of the cemetery�.and he�it…guided me up to this village at full Moon at the time of the village Fiesta. How do you account for that?�
�I don�t know� the priest said. �I just don�t know.� It was as if he stood there thinking of what to say next. I wanted to let him off the hook. I said �Well, supposing the legend were true, and it can�t be more than a coincidence, I am sure that the little dog�s showing me, the stranger, to the village was a good portent. I feel it. The little dog was so friendly and radiated benevolence. And I can assure you that I wish this village nothing but good fortune.� Then I bade the priest �Adi�s� and he made the sign of the cross to me.
As I rode away with the forestry team in the Landrover shortly after dawn the next day, Monday, my thoughts were with that little dog from the graveyard. He had been real enough… to me.
I wish to make it clear that the story absolutely true, on my word of honour.
Written by Terry D. Burgoyne, alias Lonecat, Copyright 2009