A Man Like Orestes- Álvaro Cunqueiro

The mist was slowly lifting from the square.  The high tower of the fort could now be seen above the red roofs, and swallows were emerging from their nests, dropping with open wings for their first morning flight.  In a house opposite the palace, a woman opened a window, leaned out and threw some faded flowers into the street.  A workman with a pick over his shoulder, mounted side-saddle and bareback on a roan ass, crossed the square heading for the Dovecote gate, the lowest of them all, barely bigger than a window, cobbled together shabbily in Portuguese fashion, and the only one that was always open and with no guard.  Near the gate, on the corner of the supports, a group of peasant women were laying some baskets with onion plaits on the ground.  There were four of them, a skinny, old, wrinkly one, who was tying a red handkerchief to her head, and three girls.  The young girls had their hair down, and it fell down their backs to their waists, as was normal for unmarried farm girls in that country.  They were chatting and laughing as they placed the baskets, arranging plaits of golden onions, red onions and blue onions.

“Up early today, eh!” the man with the ass called out to the women.

“Today is the day to make an offering of onions to saints Cosmas and Damian,” the old woman explained, whilst she tied on her white apron.

“Oh my goodness!  I completely forgot!  When I come back from watering, I’ll take them an onion plait myself.”

He stopped the ass and turned around to have a look at the baskets.

“Those are not bad!  Sweet Sicilians!  I harvest some pretty decent ones myself- spring onions.  There’s nothing better for a new mother’s salad.”

“The steward of the saints will not be giving birth,” laughed the old woman.

“I’m not taking onions for the steward, although he eats and drinks his fair share.  They are an offering for the brother saints, who were born from one womb:  Cosmas first, headfirst, with his right hand pulling on the leg of Damian, who came after.  According to the pictures in the church, they had a scroll with their name on it in the nursery, and they were born clothed by all that I can make out.  Their mother was a very fine woman, wearing a broad-brimmed bonnet decked out with rose braids.  When I was a child and my whole body was growing naturally and my head at the same rate, my ears remained as small as cherries, so small that I couldn’t make out long words- what  the grammarians who studied my case called tri-syllables or poly-syllables.  They couldn’t get in; only small and monosyllabic words like yes, no, bread, dog or whistles could.  Some aunts of mine, who were pastry cooks, took me as an offering to the brother saints with some stick-on ears made of Swiss roll sponge and, a short while after the pilgrimage, my real ears started to grow fast.  And here I am with ears a good, natural size.”

He took off his cap so that they could have a look at them.

“A little long,” commented the youngest of the girls, a smiling blonde.

“I’ve heard of that miracle,” the old woman remembered, “But I didn’t know it was you!”

“The miracle was turned into a song,” the farmer declared, shooing the ass on with his cap.

Leaving the square through the Dovecote gate, the green fields of the city stretched out before the eye, within a circle of sterile, ochre hills.  The path of the river could be made out by the tall poplar trees that lined its banks.  The dovecot was near the gate: round, with a hipped tile roof and lines of small holes for the birds under the eaves.  They would whitewash the dovecot for the day of the Ascension, and once it was done, and a new coat of red ochre had been put on the door, the painter would come and repaint the legend over the door:  The Dovecot of Bravas de Rey.  The road that came up from the meadow to the city divided in two when it came to the dovecot, then reunited in the shadow of a fig tree, right next to the moat in the shadow of the gate.

A man was seated on the stone bench against the side of the dovecot.  He got up, leaning on a thick walking stick, as if he were waking up with a start from a nap, and took a few steps to get a better view of the walls, which began the descent towards the ramparts, above the mill and the watering places, on an off-shoot of the river.  Amongst the dark, square stones grew valerian and, here and there, ivy crept as high as the battlements.  The winter rains had worked away at the foundations of a turret so that, eventually, it had fallen down.  Further down on the ramparts, clothing was hanging out to dry strung between the battlements.  In the breach that the fallen turret had left the gardens of the High School could be seen.  The man slowly made his way towards the moat, and before he arrived at the little wooden bridge, with his right foot, he pushed a pebble into the green waters where the white buttons of aquatic flowers were dotted about the surface.  He stopped next to the onion-sellers.

He was tall and the curls of his forehead almost touched the oil lamp that was hanging from the ceiling of the arch.  His large black eyes looked it over slowly and lovingly.  With his stick he pointed out one of the baskets of onions.  On the ring finger of the hand that held the stick shone the enormous violet stone of his ring.

“Twelve new crowns, sir,” said the old woman.  “A prince with paralysis could not send a better offering to saints Cosmas and Damian.”

The man with the stick and the ring was about thirty years old.  His beard was rounded, taking the sharpness away from his pointy chin.  The hair on his head was dark chestnut colour, but his beard was black.  In spite of his friendly gaze his thin lips did not seem to be accustomed to smiling.  He was stroking his neck pensively with his left hand.  The girls were watching him.  He wore his blue doublet open, and his chest peaked out from his fine white shirt.

“Twelve crowns is a lot to ask,” said one of the girls, holding up an onion plait.

“The saints remember how much the offering cost!” the old woman asserted.

More women had arrived with their baskets of onions and little, white pottery jars filled with honey, and a small market was starting up under the arcade of the square.  The man in the blue doublet, without saying a word in response to the offer they made him, went through the buyers and sellers and headed for the fountain.  He laid the stick on the floor, put his hands in the water of the fountain bowl and brought them to his face.  He repeated the action three or four times, keeping his wet hands against his sun-touched cheeks for a few moments.  A beggar came up, smiling at him, showing him a wicker cage painted green and red, with a blackbird fluttering about inside it.  The toothless beggar whistled with every word he spoke.

“He sings church music and street music!  There’s none better!  Those women wanting you to make an offering of onions to Cosmas and Damian!  Now there are no musicians in the city, why not take the brother doctors a singer!  I’ll put him to trial for you in that tavern.”

He stuck out his fat tongue and licked his lips.  He spat out a wild, greying and uncut hair smiled again and, shaking the cage, offered it with outstretched hands to the stranger.

“Because you are a stranger, aren’t you?”  the beggar asked, suddenly serious, his lively little eyes settling on the large, black eyes of the man in the blue doublet, with the silver-knobbed caneand the gold ring with its violet stone.  And, as if groping about like a blind man, or better as if, with the gaze of those little eyes that shone beneath the thick and unruly eyebrows, he were licking over the face of the stranger, or whatever they settled on, he finally came to the rich clothes, and the buckle on the belt that showed a serpent wound about a deer, then on to the fine hands, and the silver knob of the stick.  And on to the high boots that were covered with the greenish dirt of the roads on the other side of the mountains- greener the drier it got.

“If you are a stranger, you have to go to the judge for outsiders, and tell him your name.  They will put a red mark on the palm of your right hand.  You’ll have to say what you are worth.  How much money do you have?”

The foreigner, or whatever he was, put his right hand, damp as it was, into the inside pocket of his doublet and took out a gold coin.  He showed it to the beggar, who continued to offer the cage that he had in his two hands.  Then came the surprise: the blackbird, on seeing the gold, began to sing a solemn march; one he might have learnt from fifes heard in the street, like the entrance of a king or of a galley, a march to mark serious steps or the pulling of oars in unison, and from air to air the warble rose up like the raising of a flag.

“This is street music!” exclaimed the beggar.  “It’s the part they call ‘The Lion at the Gates’!  Tumpty-tum, tum, tum, ti-da, ti-da, ti-dum!  For many years it was banned and it became popular when censorship was withdrawn and that’s why the blackbird knows it.  We children used to shout out from behind the columns in the square: ‘The lion is coming!’ and they used to say that when the king and queen heard us they hid in a secret room they had.  We never found out who invented that game.”

“What happened to the king and queen?” asked the stranger, if that is what he was, putting the gold coin away.  He asked with a friendly but distant voice, out of mere curiosity, as if the king of that country did not matter the least bit to him, and he was only asking out of politeness to the hairy, dirty and ragged beggar.

“Nothing.  No changes.  One night a qualified musketeer, a complete drunk, who worked as a lion in the pantomime about Androcles in the theatre, went out with the lion skin on and shouted from the tower, where they let him shelter on rainy nights: ‘The lion is coming!’  The king and queen, according to the senators who govern us, ran and hid in the secret chamber and did not come out for a month, because the shock made them forget the word that opened the door.  A servant of the officer of the streetlights assured me that they forgot the word because the scare came when they were fornicating.”

The stranger, or whatever he might be, and the beggar went into the tavern.  The dark wine of the country, when it had filled the glasses, was crowned by fifty perfectly equal pearls.  The beggar could not take his eyes from the eyes of the man in the blue doublet.  He emptied his glass in one and said:

“If a man like you had come to the city twenty years ago, so rich and so laconic, and I spread the word around, whispering into everyone’s ear, of course, or simply pressing a hand in the shadows, to say the lion had come, the fear would have been thick enough to cut with a knife if you had wanted to go into one of our inns.”

The man in the blue doublet also drank, sipping, savouring more than the wine he was drinking another wine of another day.  He cleaned his lips with a handkerchief that he carried in the pocket of the right arm of his doublet and said to the beggar with a smile:

“No, I am not asking if the lion had a man’s name.”

Un Hombre Que Se Parecía A Orestes: the original in Spanish online

Un Hombre Que Se Parecía a Orestes; the original in Spanish from Amazon at a whacking price!

About Jason Preater

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This entry was posted in Álvaro Cunqueiro, Galician Literature. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Man Like Orestes- Álvaro Cunqueiro

  1. Carlos González says:

    I am a professor who, with my particular work, open to collaboration, has created some years ago, a page for Álvaro Cunqueiro, and I would ask you to include as a link this text. And to invite you, of course, to visit this page. If you have any inconvinient, please let me know.
    Greetings and thanks for your attention.
    Carlos González.

    • Carlos,

      Thanks for your comment on my webblog Opening Chapters. I am an avid reader of Cunqueiro and would be happy to have a link share between the two sites. Unfortunately I have not been able to find your site putting your name and Cunqueiro into the search engine. Would you be kind enough to send me the link: jason@writingfingertranslation.com?

      All the best,


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