After all, birds are much older than we and descended from dinosaurs. They could be dangerous if messed with. What’s more, spread all over the cobblestones of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain was a gooey sticky mess of guano. I was careful not to ruin my Rockports by stepping in any. It was as if the hand of God had revised the holy city with Liquid Paper.
I had just recently exited my refugio (pilgrim shelter) in order to sightsee when I literally bumped into the art student, who after a thousand pardons asked me where I was from and offered to guide me around the UNESCO World Heritage Site and Europe’s third-most-popular Christian pilgrimage magnet (after The Vatican and Jerusalem).
“Over there, the birds are all landing on the church!” my art student swooned. Absolutely awestruck by one of Europe’s most beautiful churches displaying Gothic and Baroque architectural styles, I was stymied from checking out its interior, because the building was now mysteriously closed, as if it were a public house with a Guinness sign in a Moorish Saracen neighborhood.
Still, having just completed El Camino de Santiago or St. James' Way (a 500-mile pilgrimage starting in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France then crossing the Pyrenees into Spain), albeit by car not on foot, I felt the hot flashes of spiritual satisfaction that accompany completion of any nigh-on-impossible quest, be it for Olympic gold, the Marathon, or the Tour de France. In other words, I was exceedingly proud of myself, even though I had cheated.
So, there I was standing upon the hallowed grounds of “St. James the Moor Slayer,” whose remains were purportedly brought and buried here by crusaders from Jerusalem. Yet, I felt a twinge of vertigo looking up into the clear cobalt blue, sensing the sky seemed far too high. Plus, ominously circling came an unidentified flying object hurtling towards me like a premonition at supersonic speed—then plop!
I ducked. A near miss! There, pooling only a foot away on the ancient stones like heretical foreign blood from The Inquisition, lay an icky phlegmy blob of birdshit. It resembled a yolk-less fried egg stuck to a Pam-sprayed skillet.
I looked up. I looked down. I looked up. I looked down. I let my bleary eyes scan the sorry sky, until I imagined I spotted a prehistoric pterodactyl, its impressive wingspan gliding along the air currents like a dark cursor moving across a computer screen. Amazed, I felt my equilibrium go, like an antique globe knocked off its axis when Atlas shrugged.
Soon both of us began to flip out, for a fearsome flock of our feathered fiends, straight out of Hitchcock’s The Birds, were coming home to roost. There were hundreds of them, large gangly chooks making merry on the rooftop of the church and resembling real-life gargoyles—a winged warning of the possible nearness of hell. “Storks!” I yelled.
I had never seen this rare breed before except as a curiosity in PBS specials and old National Geographics. This is the most magical species ornithology has to offer. My parents even avoided mentioning the mechanics of mating (after I had a purloined Playboy stashed under my mattress) by insisting, “Of course, the storks deliver babies to us!”
“Incoming!” I wailed, whipping out my digital Elf then snapping storks left and right. An avaricious avian assassin came this close to landing on my head, as if I were some defenseless statue rather than a desperate man elbowing and clawing maniacally out of harm’s way, like Don Quixote cutlassing a phantom windmill. The stork’s attacking talons then extended like landing gear on a jet.
The birds continued to divebomb all around us, landing on garbage cans in a feeding frenzy and collecting like a faithful flock upon the church, but they had no airmail baby deliveries to make—even though the frisky art student did look a little “game.” How unlike those Norman Rockwellish prints of heavenly storks bearing angelic diapered cherubim in their beaks! These nonextinct dinosaurs were downright scary and more omen than miracle.
The storks continued to land on the edifice like loony-toon Lindbergs and Earharts—uglier than gulls, prouder than peacocks, braver than flamingos, and smarter than pigeons. These storks meant business. In a feverish delirium, I plotted a defense strategy: I imagined strangling one stork and Kentucky-frying it.
After traveling so far on what was once a classical Roman appia, I wondered if the pagan gods—way in evidence in this misty green landscape where everyone looks Irish but speaks only Gallegos and Spanish in that order—were interfering with my faith. I held my scallop-shell necklace purchased from a tacky souvenir shop and called upon the heavens to deliver us safely from these winged hellspawned harpies.
“Don’t mess with a hungry man!” I warned, imagining stork meat might be more delicious than Popeye’s. I would eat my enemies! Maybe their eggs or wings were available in some of the popular tapas bars.
Without warning, I was filled with apocalyptic existentialist angst. This was my cue to beat it and get the hell out of northern Spain before things got serious. Long after mankind is extinct—whether from Ice Age or Global Warming, World War III or Judgement Day—thousands of bird species will have bred and spread proving it is actually they who lord it over the damned earth.
Perhaps, if people were meant to fly, they would have wings. Yet, judging by Medieval and Renaissance art, some of us putti and putas (angels and whores) may once have. Still, we are defenseless down on the ground, worrying about the economy and terrorism as we approach our inevitable demise, after which these divinely savage birds will pick our bones clean. Or maybe there's hope. What is the cacophony of birdsong compared to Handel's Messiah?
I began wending my way back to the relative safety of my rental car, inviting the groovy art student along for a “ride.” Looking a little shaken, she said, “No, I can’t possibly, I don’t know, but it was nice meeting you.” Her reticence was contagious. Without further ado, the stork cloud fluttered awkwardly up into battle formation then continued its mindless migration to kingdom come, dissolving into the numinous atmosphere of infinity.
John M. Edwards is a writer and photojournalist. He has traveled five continents with experiences ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Siam to getting caught in a military coup in Fiji. His writing has appeared in CNN Traveller, Entertainment Weekly, Salon.com, Condé Nast Traveler, Islands, Matador, World Hum, BootsnAll, and other publications. He received five NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Awards, two TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Awards, and three Solas (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He edits the Rotten Vacations anthology.