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Abuelo doesn’t trust landline phones, let alone mobiles or satnavs, and if you asked him to give you the coordinates to get to his fields by car the whole solid stump of him would quiver with the kind of boom you only find at the bottom of a well. He broke his neck a year back, but the doctors said he could carry on cycling and no brace would be as effective as the muscle he had. We don’t ask where he’s leading us. He knows. We just follow sticking to the shade of the chopo trees spreading out over the Castilian streets with canopies so thick birds lose themselves. He stops. Points. No, not this tree. At eight his father died, his mother soon after, and he tended the village cows until the day Franco loyalists slaughtered them. We stop again and he nods and a finger I’d trust to point me anywhere uncurls from a large hand the colour and texture of cracked terracotta. Up there in the foliage a nest full of eggs that we can’t see but he knows they’re there and there has to be over sixty trees on this red dust road he’s taken us down. Abuelo stopped school when he started with the cows, but he taught himself the language of birdsong and now he’s coo cooing, you hear that, the coo cooing? And we say, yeah, it’s like a bird, isn’t it? And that well-deep laugh and he nods, una paloma, wood pigeon. And just as he can hear the grammar in the clatter of the storks nesting in the church beyond the lake, he knows this call is a fuzzy squab freshly hatched, so there’ll be more eggs in that nest and pigeons are his favourite bird, fat and meaty.
The next time we visit, abuelo’s in a residencia: kept seeing sheep behind the sofa, finding olive stones in his slippers. Abuela stopped coping when he rolled out of bed. Said it was like trying to push a cow with a broken leg and it couldn’t be done, so she called the care home and after seventy years together they’re apart. Abuelo likes to watch the swallows from his window and the fish in a tank under the TV. He brought a duck home once from the municipal park but it had to go back.
It’s winter now and we kiss him goodbye, heading off to abuela’s apartment. We look for the short cut via that dirt track he led us down that time, but the branches of the remaining chopo trees have broken off in the strong November winds and, to us, they all look just the same.
Kathryn Aldridge-Morris is a Bristol-based writer whose words have appeared in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2020, BFFA 2020, Ellipsis Zine, Lunate Fiction, Janus Literary, Paris Lit Up and elsewhere. She tweets @kazbarwrites.