The Flight of the Eagle
Valerie Collins

Luis was cutting wood in the space under the projecting terrace, where he had his toolshed next to the boiler room. From here he could see right over the valley to the craggy peaks opposite; he was still very healthy and did not wear glasses, or a hearing aid. This was his very own space: even his daughter didn't dare try to tidy it up. It was the second day he'd been banished entirely from the house. Of course, in the summer when he came up to the mountains, he usually spent most of his time outdoors, but still he needed a lot of things from inside. He had the nails and screws to sort out into little pots, and the pieces of light fitting that had been lying around for years to put together, and he thought the missing bit might be in a box in the larder labelled "Pieces of Tap." But his daughter had swept all his stuff into the attic. This was her second day stomping around with buckets and mops in an overall and clogs and rubber gloves, a grim expression on her face. Luis's comfortable old clothes had been scraped off him and put to soak, leaving him in an old vest and a pair of trousers held together with string.

Now she was clanging a broom against the iron balustrade above him. "Father! You're to have a shower!"

Luis pushed his homemade mesh goggles up onto his head and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He looked across the garden with its tattered badminton net strung between a stepladder and a pine tree, over the bramble-filled gorge to the road through the valley.

"Did you hear me? What will Marius think? Father!"

Luis now heard his daughter shrieking and stamping back into the house. He pulled his goggles back on and slapped at a mosquito. It was Marius's annual visit. Marius was his youngest brother. Luis had lost count, but if he was 88, then Marius would be 70 something....

Luis picked up his machete and began to chop up another of the pine branches he'd dragged down from the forest behind the house for firewood. Now the house was like a museum. If his daughter got a thrill out of playing Mistress of a Country Residence, fine, just leave him, Luis, out of it. He gathered up the small pieces of wood and stray twigs, threw them into the wheelbarrow, then checked the road again. The most ridiculous thing was that Marius didn't like coming up to the Val de Paradis from the city. Marius was well off and had an Alfa Romeo, which he drove gingerly around the narrow winding mountain roads at about 10 miles an hour, clutching at the wheel, his knuckles white, terrified of getting the vehicle damaged on the potholes and rocks or hit by a falling pine tree, or of just tumbling over into the gorge.

Luis had built the house for multitudinous family holidays, for his children and grandchildren — and soon great-grandchildren — to escape to from the stifling city with its dearth of parks and gardens. Country residence? It was the worst designed, worst-built house in the whole valley. But who cared. There, they could be as dirty and untidy as they wished. Except when his daughter got it into her head that it was time to invite Marius for his annual visit. The next door neighbours who lived there all year round, with their beautiful lawn and their airs and graces, deeply disapproved of them, but Luis didn't care. Live and let live was Luis's philosophy.

Luis spotted the red Alfa Romeo crawling along the road before his daughter did. When she saw it she began to shout at him, beside herself because Luis was still in his vest and strung-together trousers. Luis went on chopping wood. He had so many things to do and to fix and to invent before the long summer days ended. When he heard the engine of the Alfa purring into the drive, he pushed his goggles onto the top of his head and walked round to the front of the house to greet his little brother. His daughter had taken off her overall and rubber gloves and stood patting her hair and simpering in the driveway.

Marius staggered from his car, blinking owl-like behind his thick spectacles. He looked very unhealthy: slightly stooped and grey with urban pallor. He shook hands with Luis. Then Luis's daughter kissed her uncle and they disappeared into the house.

Tightening the string that held up his trousers, Luis returned to his own space. If he could finish this load today, then he could start on the light fitting. Marius wouldn't be much help. Luis treated his brother, as he treated everyone, with amused tolerance. Marius was a pompous bore, a pedant, and had no sense of humour. Luis talked a lot himself, he knew that. They all did. But he talked about interesting, amusing things. He told stories about the Battle of the Ebro and he made lots of jokes, like the one about the Catalan, the Madrileño, and the Andaluz, and the family fell-about laughing. And one of his daughters-in-law had even sent an oral historian she knew to tape his memories of '36.

But Marius made long-winded speeches. Luis remembered, at some family banquet, it might have been his 84th birthday, when they'd served a platter of char-toasted, garlic-rubbed bread, Marius had pronounced a discourse, it had lasted for all of ten minutes, about the minutiae of the technique of toasting on a charcoal fire. Luis of course had remained poker-faced throughout. The daughter-in-law opposite Marius nodded and shook and spluttered, her napkin over her face. Next to her, the newest family member, his eldest grandson's wife, looked from one to the other in bewilderment, as Marius explained the precise degree of humidity required for the interior of the piece of toast, with eloquent gestures of his slim fingers. Marius should have been a priest.

Last summer, Luis and his youngest grandsons had simply ignored the fuss. Furious, his daughter had set half the table for two, with champagne flutes and china plates, and napkins twisted into rosettes. At the other half of the table, Luis and the boys had eaten toast and sausages and lamb cutlets cooked on the fire in the hearth, with their fingers. His daughter was very angry about him lighting the fire. How could he think of dirtying the fireplace when Marius was there, she'd said.

Now Luis gathered all the wood into the barrow, took off his goggles and wheeled his load up the drive, round the front of the house to the French windows of the dining room, where Marius and his daughter sat at the table sipping cocktails. Luis hauled the barrow in. Marius peered and blinked at him. "Aha!... man in his environment... natural recycling ... man in his pristine state... the archetype of the woodcutter..."

Ignoring the droning and simpering, Luis set his barrow by the fireplace and began to unload the wood. He had a carefully worked-out system with many bins and boxes, each one neatly labelled with Letraset, from Phase One, which was leaf litter, twigs, and cones, to Phase Six in the cobwebby space beside the fireplace, which housed the thickest, heftiest logs. Then he went into the kitchen. Two prawn cocktails sat under a miniature net umbrella. Luis cut himself a doorstep of bread and dribbled olive oil onto it. He carefully scooped up the crumbs and took them outside for the birds. That evening, when the heat of the day began to fade, the three of them went up to the Sanctuary. They went in his daughter's car, along the narrow winding road, through the rocky tunnels.

"Fossil country," said Luis. "Used to be the sea bed."

"Ah! Indeed!" said Marius. "And man is but a pinpoint in the vast sweep of time...."

Luis noticed a dead tree lying by the road. Maybe they could pick it up on the way back.

"The relentless march of the aeons..."

Although his daughter wouldn't want it in her car.

"The eternal rhythm of nature...history etched into the timeless rock."

You had to leave your car at the end of the track, by the stone hut where the monks kept their beat-up old Seat, and then walk up the Stations of the Cross, up the steep steps hewn into the mountain side, twisting round and round. Luis of course had his stick, which he took everywhere, for snakes and for poking around in the underbrush for big flat greeny-orange mushrooms. Up and up he went, into the warm, heady air, fragrant with oregano and thyme. Luis was the first to reach the church, the tiny monastery and the green meadow with the chestnut tree at the top: he didn't have to stop to rest at all. A small dog barked furiously at him, then one of the monks padded out in threadbare carpet slippers, a cigarette in his mouth. He must have been about 70. A packet of the very cheapest brand of cigarettes bulged in the breast pocket of his crumpled shirt. His trousers were creased, his cardigan frayed. Luis immediately took a liking to him: a man after his own heart. They chatted, and Luis made a joke about getting down to the garage and finding you'd left your car keys at the top, and the monk roared with laughter and clapped him on the back.

Now his daughter and Marius had finally staggered and puffed their way up. Marius's voice boomed in grandiloquent tones; Luis's daughter squeaked and giggled. They came to stand with him and the monk right at the edge of the ridge, looking over the misty valley to the nearby peaks, and then the plain, and then again layer upon layer of blue mountains rolling into infinity. A black shape swooped and glided over the mountains. Marius waved his stick. "The flight of the eagle... timeless grandeur... the majesty of nature..."

It couldn't have been more perfect. Luis smiled to himself.

"It's a hang-glider," he said.

© Valerie Collins

"The Flight of the Eagle" was the winner of the
Jacqui Bennet Writers Bureau Competition, Autumn 1998,
and was published in the Rose & Thorn Literary Ezine, Winter 1999.

Valerie Collins is a British writer who has lived in Barcelona, Spain, for many years. She is the author of several prize-winning short stories and an almost finished novel, and writes about Barcelona, Catalonia, and Spain for magazines and guide books. Her website is www.worldsapartreview.com

email: valcollins[AT]mailpersonal.com

"Cascade Range" photo ©2004 Stuart Vail

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