Chlorine, meteorological surrogatry, tissue men, unison fists, buckthorn, marbled maps, Matthew 19:21, amnesia, great rivers, the Boomerang Generation, sky-given water & Spain.
They’ve taken a buzz saw to the city square and let water fill the hole. Not rain—it doesn’t rain here. Maybe fifteen inches a year. Desert status. But they brought water and filled the hole that they cut out of the stones. Painted the bottom blue to make sure we thought about water when we saw it. Clean water, grounded by fine white sand, not the peeling rough of latex-coated concrete under six inches of diluted chlorine.
Here in the square of Zaragoza, the sun sets into La Torreon de la Zuda—the short, square tower that the Moors built, its arched windows gazing north to the Christian kings buffing swords in the mountains, displaced monarchs plotting the Reconquest of their kingdoms lost to the Caliphate of Córdoba. By seven-thirty the tower lays its shadow across the square, across the cool flow of the fountain, across the children and thirty-something men who have stripped their shirts to rinse off the baked-in heat. Their backs are deeply browned, and the water they cup into their hair sluices down their spines.
Two boys collect the rose petals at the door of the basilica, red and yellow wastefulness of a wedding’s addendum, tottering back to Dad with high-piled palms.
Deeper into the square, a pair of twins in blue dresses parts and rejoins wordlessly thirty feet later, like halves of a river. I have seen photographs of the Pyrenees glowing with the same raw saffron as these quarried buildings and can’t help imagining the spires of Nuestra Señora del Pilar as peaks domed with green oxidized glaciers. The city square becomes a high-altitude valley strewn with fallen boulders posing as benches. I sit at the westernmost end by a pool of chemically treated snowmelt.
In this dusty country, water should smell clean, like welcome, relief, oasis, like the rosewater a Moorish host offered his guest before supper, should smell like hospitality. Not the masking, sanitized scent of a city pool. But anyway, the six inches are cool, and my feet are filmed with grit from walking.
I came to this northeastern city by train, up from Toledo in the south-central part of the country, the home base of my two-month quest for second-language fluency. It is July and I am three months past twenty.
Toledo to Madrid, Madrid to Zaragoza, the train rushed quietly over the rails, rushing through the plain of León to the foothills of the Pyrenees. Skimming past two hundred miles of drought-killed grass strangely reminds me of the economic hardship here; it opens an adjacent discomfort. I come from a very green country, with forty inches of rain a year and rural poverty tucked into the old coal valleys and deciduous forests. So many rivers run sulfuric orange out of empty mines among half-walled trailer homes, but not the muddy blue streak through my little brick town. I share very little with this country coursed over by southerly winds.
The protesters ignored them. I could see the sweat flying off their pounding forearms.
In the world of St. Matthew’s gospel, it is not charity or miserliness that saves or damns: “Again I say to you it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The simple act of having turns the key in the lock while you stand outside. In Spain, I feel guilty for the water in my bottle.
Not because meteorological surrogatry would do any good here, midway between Madrid and Zaragoza, early afternoon in the height of summer. If I stepped down from the train, crouched and emptied my “have” over a square foot of buff Spanish prickles, my offering would evaporate immediately. The Spanish sun would tax it right back. That is scientific reality, but I stand with one foot in another world. One hundred eight degrees when I arrived in Zaragoza.
The fountain in the square is called La Fuente de la Hispanidad—the Fountain of the Hispanic-hood. Or maybe Hispanic-dom. We would probably translate it “Hispanic world” and give it an orbit.
To live up to the name, it maps Latin America in water. A large marble platform (maybe thirty feet across by fifteen wide) sits in front of a large, shallow pool. The back of the platform (about fifteen feet tall) slopes downward to a height of about seven feet at the pool’s edge. But the stone is not whole. A crack in the shape of Central America runs down from the top left of the platform (northwest), working its way south and east—Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama—until it reaches the front edge of the marble. This edge is fractured and concave to mimic the shape of South America’s northern shore. Panama joins with the negative space where Colombia would be.
Water flows from north to south over the sloping stone geography, falls into the crack of the Yucatán and Guatemala and Panama, falls over the angular coast of Venezuela, Guiana, Suriname. It falls into the blue, wedge-shaped basin that finishes the shape of the continent. The men and boys splash about in northern Brazil while I rest my feet in the calmer waters of Argentina.
Deeper into the square, a pair of twins in blue dresses parts and rejoins wordlessly thirty feet later, like halves of a river.
It occurs to me the very broad brush La Fuente takes to Hispanic-hood from an ocean away. If fountains were maps, this one claims several other languages in its marble and water—English-speaking Belize, Dutch-speaking Suriname, French Guiana. It claims Brazil—land of Portuguese and 118 inches of rain. Land where the most pervasive ecosystem is rain with trees. Land of eight times the sky-given water of Zaragoza.
The fountain casually redraws the borders of imperial conquest, though this time not for the sake of gold. It ushers in the ex-British-colony of Guiana. It casually leaves out northern Mexico. Apparently Zaragoza does not want that northern land of saguaro and buckhorn, only wants the Yucatán and its broad-leafed rainforests. The crack that shares its shape with Central America does not reach the Sonoran Desert and its eleven annual inches of rain, does not reach the unstable swamp of Mexico’s capital and its nineteen million Spanish speakers. Does not reach the southern bit of old Tenochtitlan, the only inhabited place named for the conquistador who stormed the gates—La Villa de Cortés. Zaragoza eschews that part, the camp where Cortés settled his metal-headed Spaniards, now complete with orange-painted metro stop and Spanish-themed dental depot.
I came to Spain in its dry season. Twenty-five percent unemployment. Fifty percent among people between the ages of twenty and twenty-five. Sitting at the breakfast table in Toledo—plain yogurt and fresh-squeezed orange juice, windows wide to the cooler morning air and descent of tiled roofs—my host mother spoke of the Ni-Nis, those who neither work nor study. The Boomerang Generation, we called them stateside. Every day, every city on the news, Toledo, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Seville, red-bannered marches through las plazas, through the Zocodover near our house. Sickles and hammers. Beating drums, unison fists, shouting, sirens. “The miners will strike today,” she said, cradling her goblet of orange juice, watching the morning news. “Maybe the bus drivers tomorrow.”
I left Toledo on the train for Madrid, disembarked, then crossed among hands beating the air of La Puerta del Sol, the central square of the Spanish capital. Hovering beneath the grand marble architecture, imperial Spain, I couldn’t make out their chant over the car horns, enraged taxi drivers whipped up by impatient passengers. The protesters ignored them. I could see the sweat flying off their pounding forearms.
So many rivers run sulfuric orange out of empty mines among half-walled trailer homes, but not the muddy blue streak through my little brick town.
“Three years ago, the government promised to protect the coal miners,” my host mother had told me over breakfast. “‘We will subsidize Spanish coal, and you will have a job,’ they said. Now they are taking back their promise.”
Skirting the edge of the crowd, going deeper into the square, flowerbeds with red signs woven among pink geraniums—“No Cuts!” “No Cortes!”—in Spanish and English. Noisemakers littered around like undone balloon dogs. I boarded the afternoon service for Zaragoza. A man on every train trying to sell me a pack of tissues.
In Zaragoza’s center I found a different, slower pulse. Slow but not fading, slow the way a marathoner’s pulse is slow when he sits down for dinner. There are no marchers here.
Instead the square brims, overflows with people—old men in shirtsleeves drinking cervezas, close-cropped women in jewel tones popping chorizo between painted lips. Two boys collect the rose petals at the door of the basilica, red and yellow wastefulness of a wedding’s addendum, tottering back to Dad with high-piled palms. A swaggering quintet of boys takes over the fountain and splashes away all the girls and children, leaving the thirty-something men in their corner by Venezuela. Fifteen feet down the coast, I sit about where the River of Silver would discharge into the Atlantic, the eighth-largest river in the world by water volume, the fifth largest in South America. Yes, five of the world’s ten greatest rivers flow across that continent. The greatest of the world’s rivers, the Amazon, is so large that river number five and river number seven empty into it. It is so large that its easy-does-it current desalinates the Atlantic Ocean eight miles from the delta.
Perhaps La Fuente de la Hispanidad clarifies one point with its painted-blue, Spanish-designed tribute to a distant quarter of the world. The water falls from the edge of Colombia into the hole in the Spanish plaza with a clear and glassy note. Rivers were one resource the Spanish couldn’t send back on their ships—not like gold or slaves or cocoa. They couldn’t irrigate their fields with their conquest, couldn’t end the droughts caused by summer winds sweeping north from the Sahara. Then, in 1991, they cut a hole like a ghost of the continent they had conquered and lost. They brought water to the center of a desert city. They made Latin America out of that thing that could not be gotten. Europe has no rivers in the top ten. Europe has no rivers in the top twenty.
Zaragoza eschews that part, the camp where Cortés settled his metal-headed Spaniards, now complete with orange-painted metro stop and Spanish-themed dental depot.
We are close to Zaragoza’s river here, the River Ebro, and I can smell it, smell the greenness of the reeds and the grasses fed by rain that fell many miles from here. Standing from the side of the fountain, I slip my rinsed feet back into my sandals and walk past the tall basilica, past the bronze cast of Goya and the glass-sided museum, out to the green banks and the Roman bridge.
I cross halfway. I pause to watch the current come toward me, looking northwest into the silhouettes of the city and the water turned white—white-orange, white-silvery-blue, the liquid lid of an oyster. I see two rowers working toward me in symmetrical sweeps, disciplining their heartbeats. Their resting pulse slows. The sun splits across the water on their oars. The oars beat like bellows. I did not come to Zaragoza to escape marching, or the dusty tiredness in my host mother’s tone, or the tissue men on the trains. I did not journey north for that. But I did not know, when I left Toledo, when I passed through Madrid, when I came to this country, what it would feel like to stand, right now, in the incandescence of the Ebro, the largest river in Spain.
W hen Caesar Augustus conquered this city, he settled three loyal legions there, reward for their march across Hispania. A moment to remove long-laced boots and rinse the long-marched feet. The bridge I stand on is his. His, the baths, the market, the theater, the amphitheater. His, the silver coins in the museum. His, the inscription. His, the name of the conquered city, Caesaraugusta—Zaragoza. But the conquered ones, the people, the pre-legionnaire inhabitants, they bore the name of the river, or it of them—the Iberians, Iberi, Ebro. The Roman bridge is not dusty. The banks are dark, good soil. The people crossing stroll well-dressed. Only one man sits here, twenty feet to my right, cross-legged, palms cupped upward as if for communion.
But Zaragoza has spread far beyond the Roman walls, beyond the reach of the river. After I disembarked at the train station, I walked into the unshaded sprawl of the city’s outskirts, place of warehouses too low to block the sun, place of closed storefronts and chain-link fence, place of no trees, place of midafternoon dust ground finer than sand, river silt deeply dried by location, many yards from the river, yards enough ago to not remember current. Not remember the current of the Ebro pulling deeply from the mountains of Cantabria, where the rain clouds rise from the Atlantic and clot against the mountains and let loose.
The Ebro is the deepest river in Spain, the greatest by volume of water. Cantabria is among the greenest regions in Spain. So green that people who visit often go by way of France rather than Madrid. So green it tried to give some of its rain clouds to this country via the Ebro. But rain is so democratic, and the river spreads its wealth only so far.
Long after la puesta of the sun, the evening sky glows with some burning blue heat and we continue to sweat. In Toledo it takes all night for the ground to give back all the sun gave. Sitting at the dining room table, I read García Lorca in the relatively cool glow of the lamps. I’m on my fourth glass of ice water when I hear Rosario’s laughter coming up the stairs, “Mimi! Mimi!” I hear her, her pet name for José Miguel floating up four flights of creaky stairs. They explode into the room, Rosario rushing and directing and laughing as Miguel stumbles and shouts around four huge boxes.
“On the table, Mimi! On the table!” she says as she waves me toward her, as she opens the first box. She and Miguel have been visiting their youngest daughter, who owns a farm in Extremadura. Miguel drops into a chair with the air of a sorely used Labrador. We take our seats.
The boxes are brimming with cherries, dark fruit with wonderfully taut skin the color of syrah, with bursting centers that drip down the corners of our mouths, drip off our lips as we spit out the pits. They are better than water for shedding the heat.
In this dusty country, water should smell clean, like welcome, relief, oasis, like the rosewater a Moorish host offered his guest before supper, should smell like hospitality.
“Gabriella always gives us cherries when we visit,” says Rosario, and it occurs to me that this is a house without Ni-Nis—a farmer, a doctor, a translator. “She gives us the ones that got pulled from the harvest because they were too big; they didn’t look like all the rest.” And she smiles down at the fruit the way mothers smile down at sleeping children: a warm, slightly nostalgic look. The “one day, you will be grown” look.
“Extremadura is the best place in the world for cherries,” José Miguel declares proudly in his usual superlatives, fumbling to wipe the juice from his chin. Whether he expresses pride of country or pride of offspring is unclear.
“It is also the place that many of the conquistadors were born,” I say. “Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro,” trying vainly to show some knowledge of this country I’ve come to.
“It is because it is a country of hard work,” Miguel half-shouts, palm pressed forward with red fingers wide. “Hard farm work,” but once again he seems to be speaking mostly about Gabriella.
I look across the table to Rosario, who is nodding at me, glancing at Miguel. “Sí,” she says. “Eso es.” And then she scolds Miguel in a quick burst I cannot understand.
Once a tissue man passed me in the aisle, my train whistling in and out of tunnels along the Gold Coast, in and out of views of blue water, on my way from Barcelona to Tarragona. The man pressed a little pack into the arm of each chair, a typed and scissored-out note in English taped to the front: “I worked as miner but lost my hand. Three girls and one boy.” After reading, I avoided eye contact with the paper, looking out the window to the black wall inside the tunnel.
The man sitting next to me leaned over, his large silver cross swinging from his chest, his bald head the shape of a rugby ball. “You want to give, right?” his American accent said to the cross around my neck. “You want to give, but it’s just so hard to know if they’re telling the truth, right?” He had hair on his lip, but not enough to be a mustache.
The men and boys splash about in northern Brazil while I rest my feet in the calmer waters of Argentina.
I looked at his cross, and of course I had no way of knowing what it meant to him. Mine meant Matthew 19:21 tied around my neck: “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” The trouble with clear, demonstrative statements is that anything less than surrender of backpack, purse, ring and cross necklace feels like failure. The trouble with surrender is that I want to keep my hostel reservation, I want to decide where I sleep, I want to order my world. The trouble with this verse is that it knows the connection between money and power, down to the level of the heart. The problem with Matthew is that he polarizes my world. The problem with this man was that he continued to look at me with grey-brown eyes, brows raised but not with expectation. The cross on his breastbone was much larger than mine.
“Look at his hand,” I mumbled with my eyes out the window. What I wanted to say was, “I don’t give a damn if he’s telling the truth.” What I wanted to say was, “Have you read the gospel of Matthew?” What I wanted to say was, “Let’s not blame the tissue man for our attachment to money.” What I wanted to say was, “What do you do back in the States?” What I wanted to say was, “Rosario, how do they teach about the conquistadors in Spanish schools?” What I wanted to say was, “Anne Marie, you look that tissue man in the eye.”
The ruler only wants to tour the cities where he will be welcomed. The president only goes where the crowds will cheer. These are the photos I send back home: my Spanish friends and me at the Eurocup game, on the banks of the Rio Tajo flowing through lush hills, amidst the well-watered gardens of the Alhambra palace. Rosario and I, standing arm in arm in the kitchen. It’s just good press, when my parents have helped finance the trip. The inheritor will always act to ensure succession, unless Matthew is to be believed.
Troublesome Matthew—even complete surrender would not help. Even if I gave this man on the bridge my purse and all its contents, my inheritance would fly me back over the ocean, feed and water me for the rest of my days. The complete surrender you espouse would mean stealing myself away, no note of where I was going, violent severance. “For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother.”—Matthew 10:35
After I disembarked at the train station, I walked into the unshaded sprawl of the city’s outskirts, place of warehouses too low to block the sun, place of closed storefronts and chain-link fence, place of no trees, place of midafternoon dust ground finer than sand, river silt deeply dried by location, many yards from the river, yards enough ago to not remember current.
I have inherited the Earth, but I am not meek (Matthew 5:5). Standing ankle deep in the map of Latin America, I was a Spaniard. Standing on the bridge of Zaragoza, I am a Roman. Walking back past the man awaiting alms, I am an American, armed with her wallet. Even when I go back home—how do we teach about the Hopewell and the Iroquois?—conquistador. To my memory, there was a play about deer hunting and wigwams followed directly by the American Revolution. We skipped the part where kindergarteners had to play conquerors. At home I do not visit the places where the tissue men are.
I am the youngest, the most freshly of age, from a country of kings who sit on their crowns for fear of wearing them. The tissue man hands me his note and reveals me for what I am, shows me I am king and he can see my gold. These are the aphorisms: money is power. With great power comes great responsibility. It is more difficult for a rich man…the tissue man inspires my old Sunday-school fear. The fear of the ground opening red hot beneath me. The fear I’d long thought dead and rejected within me, this country of heat rekindles. I leave the bridge and its river, my relief evaporated.
Coming back from the river to the square, I notice—I had not noticed before—the three huge stones pointing toward La Hispanidad. Three thin rectangles rising four feet above my head. Three stone sails of three implied ships, La Niña, La Pinta, La Santa Maria, sailing toward the continent that is not Hispanidad, not yet. At this moment in sculpture, the basin of rivers has no tie to Spain or its cities, no patronage from this city of Caesar Augustus. The ships come laden with that thing, that Spanish-hood, the Gospel of Matthew and Memories of Drought. Laden with the big, hollow hulls of the galleons waiting to be loaded with treasure and slaves. Laden with emptying barrels to be refilled with fresh water. The water falls into the hole in the square of Zaragoza, and broad-shouldered men rinse off the heat in their backs.
By enacting this moment before arrival, the fountain can forget where borders are and are not, where they speak Spanish and where they speak something else. In borders we have to admit to the permanence of decisions later recanted. Sins for which we perform our regret. Plagued with conquest, the square of Zaragoza enacts amnesia and seeks to escape itself. With its stone ships, this fountain returns to that moment in which we sought rather than possessed, the time we remembered the dry plains astern and dreamed of a rivered land ahead. Geographic necessity, the designers might say, impossible to portray both Panama and Brazil but not Guiana. Artistic license—the marble was more nicely proportioned for leaving out northern Mexico. The unshadowed stone of Sonora, of Chihuahua, this is what we remembered, the sun. The Indies, the rainforests, the rivers, the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Brahmaputra, the Yenisei: these were what we dreamed. Let us dream.
Now I turn past them and take my leave through the northern end of the square, past a bronze cast of Caesar Augustus standing caped and armored, his right hand raised, palm forward, index finger to the sky. A hand position I’ve seen mostly in paintings of Jesus. He looks as if he is speaking to a crowd. His pupil-less eyes appear strangely benevolent, his mouth relaxed. His gaze falls slightly downward. I wonder how recent the statue is. The area around him is under construction and floating with cement dust. Plastic partitions in orange and white stand low or lay fallen around jackhammered sections of sidewalk. These thirty feet between conqueror and well-watered New World are shifting, their relationship uncertain as we redesign the architecture, as we try to construct a memory where we can always remain.
Long after la puesta of the sun, the evening sky glows with some burning blue heat and we continue to sweat. In Toledo it takes all night for the ground to give back all the sun gave.
Prolong, prolong, stand and linger—here, at the moment we inherit the kingdom and our potential energy is highest. The moment the boulder teeters before rolling down the mountain. Matthew says tip backward into the stony embrace of the summit, a view of the sky. Surrender the potential energy and the view of the lowlands, view of the rivers. Surrender the exhilaration of the fall; blessed Matthew, I look up into the eyes of Caesar and I waver. I want to see the horizon, perhaps; I want to fall. I want to give the tissue man a few coins and then go to Madrid.
Turning into the deeper blue of a side street, tall buildings blocking the low sun, I slide through the door into the yellow light of the hostel lobby. The evening news plays on a TV in the corner: “More austerity measures to follow as Spain struggles to secure aid from the European Union.” On the screen, the prime minister stands safely behind a podium, gesturing with straight, chopping motions to assure Spain that the government’s first allegiance is to its people.
I stand with my hands in my pockets. The program cuts to wildfires funneling orange across Catalonia, not far from here. A common summer occurrence, my host mother has told me, after several years of drought.
Annie Sand is a writer and teacher interested in the ways the natural world can teach us how to approach, understand and remember the past. A native of southeast Ohio, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa in 2017 and has published essays in venues such as The Normal School, H.O.W. and Literary Orphans. She currently works as a lecturer in the University of Iowa’s rhetoric department and is writing a memoir that explores the legacy of trauma across three generations of her family.
Lead image: Juanedc.com