It is the end of winter and I am out on the cusp of night and day. There is nothing of the frost of the last few mornings, and I know before I look that the stars will be tucked beneath a blanket of cloud. As I drop the latch on the front gate a familiar feral cat emerges from beneath a parked car and mews at me in hope. ‘You’ll have to wait, I’ll be back in a couple of hours.’
I stride off towards the southern edge of town and soon I am crossing the bridge across the riera, the seasonal watercourse that forms a natural boundary between the last houses and the fields beyond. Along the dry streambank a line of leafless poplars stand like giant upturned besoms. If I could I would take one and sweep the sky clean.
Beyond the bridge the road becomes first a gravelly path and then a more rugged track that cuts across the fields between drystone walls. A daylight of sorts is beginning to unfold around me now, although the sky remains the colour of wet clay. I know what my Catalan mother-in-law would say: Cielo de panza de burra, agua segura. When the sky is the colour of a donkey’s belly, it’s sure to rain.
Of all the local walks I’ve invented since moving to Sant Pere de Ribes three years ago, this is the one I keep coming back to. Eight kilometres of familiar yet unexhausted paths that can lead me into the day, much as a favourite bedtime story would ease me into sleep as a child. If, back then, the reward for early to bed was an extra chapter, then the prize for an early start today is in sharing the morning with others: with the rabbit shooting across my path and into the carob grove for cover, with the pied wagtails breakfasting on bugs in the freshly tilled field to the west, and with the pair of peacocks.
I hear their plaintive call well before reaching the end of the track and the smallholding where they live, but it is not until I am parallel to the farmhouse that I see them perched atop the two chimneys like ceremonial cowls, their draping trains tickling the terracotta roof tiles below. As I stand there watching, one of them begins to shake its tail feathers from side to side, and I’m reminded of a news article I’d read about the work of two Canadian researchers, Angela Freeman and James Hare. They discovered that the train displays of peacocks produce infrasonic signals, sounds that cannot be detected by the human ear but which both male and female peafowl are able to perceive. Freeman and Hare speculate that these infrasounds have something to do with maintaining territory, and may also add to the visual power of the trains in attracting females. If they are right, then there is something tragic about these two peacocks dutifully calling out and shaking their trains, despite living here in a kind of avian exile, far from others of their kind who might listen with more than superficial interest.
Beyond the smallholding the stony track narrows and becomes earthy as it skirts around the edge of the hamlet of Puigmoltó. It is here that my spirits are lifted again as I gaze ahead at what might as well be a field of strawberry ice cream flecked with the last snowflakes of winter. The path ends at the stone wall which encloses the grove, and here, up close, the colour scheme shifts. I reach over the wall and snap a flower from each of the two species of tree, letting them rest side by side in my palm. Now I can see that although the bitter almond blossom is predominantly pink and that of the sweet almond white, the delicate flowers of each contain subtle tones of both colours. Strawberry mixed with snow.
I let the petals fall to the ground and climb the gentle incline into the scraggy woodland to the south of the almond grove. First I follow a broad and stony track, then veer off down a half-hidden mulchy path that cuts back and forth through an undergrowth thick with mastic, rosemary and dwarf juniper. The sides of this path are pock-marked with the scrufflings of wild boar. I find myself mumbling the words of a local huntsman I met a couple of weeks back. ‘Hi ha almenys cent senglars en aquest bosc.’ At least a hundred boar in these woods, yet in three years I’d never seen more than telltale disturbed earth. One day, perhaps.
Whether it is the thought of boar or the fact that it is cold here in the dummity wood, I quicken my step along the bifurcating path, trusting my sense of direction. This, I think, is how best I like to walk, without map or compass in hand, wandering the borderlands between strangeness and familiarity, with the possibility of getting lost not as threat but as an invitation to learn.
After five minutes or so the path deposits me at a junction of five trails, and here I choose the most direct route out of the woods. As I emerge from the trees onto a low ridge I look up in the hope of seeing a break in the clouds, but the donkey’s belly remains unruffled.
Where the ridge path ends I need to make a choice, since it brings me out on the back road that links Sant Pere de Ribes with the neighbouring town, Vilanova. I could road walk all the way home, but I decide instead to go only as far as the next bend and there pick up a tarmaced trail that meanders through the vineyards that fill the land to the west of town.
At this hour of the day the vineyard trail is alive with the song and flight of countless birds. Blackcaps tut-tut at me from the hedgerows, while down in the vineyards proper, other birds – probably buntings but hard to discern in this light – flit around the bare stumps or perch briefly on the cordon wires along which the new vines will soon be trained. Walking here is easy, and a joy, and before I know it I am dropping down towards town. The path I’m on wends its way through a final patch of woodland before emerging alongside the castell de Ribes, which dominates the landscape on this side of town. Although the origins of the small castle lie in the tenth century it is now little more than a Mediterranean manor house proudly hanging on to its fortified past, its circular defence tower as obsolete as the shaking train of a solitary peacock.
Just after the castle the path empties onto the back road that earlier I had chosen not to take, and here I must choose again. I can make a beeline for home through the centre of town, or loop my way back along the dry bed of the riera. Although rain is in the air today, the last two weeks have been dry with cold nights and warm, sunny middays, so progress across the polished stones and cracked mud of the stream bed is relatively easy. Scattered around me are discarded juice cartons, cans and plastic bottles, man-made erratics that sooner or later will be washed into the sea, adding to our problems.
A path of dry, compact mud opens up now to my right and runs in parallel to the stony bed. It is as I join this path that I see the hound. Black, enormous and alone, sniffing around beneath the carob tree that stands where the riera curves around to the right. I pull up, unsure about the wisdom of moving closer. The hound has caught wind of me and has shifted its position to one of preparedness, head cocked forward, back legs slightly spread, a gangly sprinter desperate to leave the blocks.
I lose sense of time in this moment of shared alert, although it can only be a matter of seconds before I see the woman coming along behind. As she reaches the carob tree the hound cocks its head slightly to the right, and then back again in my direction. I call out to her. ‘Està bé? Puc seguir?’ She calls back, letting me know that yes, it’s fine to walk on. The hound seems as liberated by its owner’s voice as I am, and we set off toward one another almost at the same instant.
When our paths meet, I stop again and allow the dog to explore me with its nose. With its head tipped back its muzzle brushes against my breastbone, although I no longer feel intimidated by its size. It fixes me with amber eyes, and I shudder. Whether there is truly something in those eyes or they are simply acting as a temporary mirror for my own self, I can’t say. All I know is that I sense something forlorn about this creature.
‘Sembla que tens un nou amic!’ His owner is with us now, and she’s right, I can easily imagine this dog as a new friend. ‘Ès un danès?’, I ask her. To my surprise, she not only confirms that the glossy giant is indeed a great dane, but begins to tell me something of their life together. While the dog continues to snuffle at my feet the woman explains to me how our encounter would have been very different had we met five months ago.
‘Ha sigut un treball molt dur, ens ha costat molt.’ It’s been hard work, she tells me, really hard. The dog had been abandoned by its previous owner and had ended up in the hands of a group that organized dog fights for a betting syndicate. I don’t press her on how exactly she and her husband had rescued the dog. It is enough to feel my spirits buoyed by her account of the training they have had to do, day after day, to get the animal to where it is now, a friend in the making. I feel the dog’s wet nose against the back of my hand, and looking down I find myself gazing into its eyes, as if by staring long and hard enough I might discover some deeper truth about this animal’s life.
The woman and I bid our farewells and set off in our respective directions, but after a few steps I find myself pulling up again and turning my head. ‘Bona feina’, I call out to her. Good work. The words sound trite, but I had felt the need to say something, to acknowledge openly that I was glad there were people like her in this world. She pays me the courtesy of looking back. ‘Gràcies’, she says, and walks on, the dog loping ahead of her into a different kind of life.