TUESDAY: The One-legged Tightrope Walker


Copyright is held by the author.

It was the summer of 1967, in Salamanca, Spain. I had a Ph.D. thesis to complete and defend the following January. A post-doc fellowship rode on the outcome.

My room in the medieval student hostel boasted the size and Spartan simplicity of a monk’s cell, which it had probably been centuries ago when the building had been a monastery. After a three-second survey of my living quarters, I took in the view from my window. Four stories below, in the shade of an orange tree, a fountain guarded by four crouching stone lions gurgled in the flagstone courtyard. Across from my room, above Moorish arches, rose a similar building which, I guessed, housed the women students.

I made my way down the narrow, stone staircase and into the courtyard. A few students glanced up at my arrival, eyeing my long ponytail and Jesus beard. Or perhaps my beaded headband and a tie-dyed T-shirt tucked into faded bell-bottom jeans beneath my kaftan caught their attention. After a moment they turned away, the freak show over.

I blinked at the early afternoon sunlight before moving over to the shade of the orange tree and perched on the edge of the stone fountain. I let my fingers drift into the basin and swirl the water between them. Sweat trickled down my temples in the midsummer heat. I shrugged off my kaftan and placed it beside me.

A young woman detached herself from a group of students. She made her way over to the fountain and sat down beside me.

“¿Americano?” she said.

Canadiense. ¿Y usted?”

Islandesa. I’m from Reykjavik,” she said in English. “I’m here for another two months, then back to Iceland to finish my degree. I’ve been here almost a year. I’m sick of nothing but Spanish all day, every day. Do you mind if we speak English?”

“Not at all.”

“Guðrún Sigurdsdóttir,” she said, holding out her hand. We shook formally. “My mother is American. My father is Iceland’s ambassador to Spain. We speak English at home.”

“Graydon Weston,” I said. “From Toronto.”

She returned my smile, then fell silent for several moments. I turned my attention to her thick blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, held in place at the nape by a black velvet bow. Very Tom Jones. Henry Fielding, not the singer. I snatched a glance at the upturned curve of her nose, her nearly round eyes and high, delicate cheekbones. Small gold and pearl studs pierced the lobes of the pale shells of her ears. I was on the point of directing my examination to the enticing curves of her body when she fixed her blue-eyed gaze on my face.

“Why Salamanca?”

“I did my undergrad here. I’m completing my Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. I’m back doing some final research for my doctoral thesis, Whither Spain after Franco?

“Bold. He’s not dead yet and his legacy will cast a long, dark shadow.”

Y las parades oyen.”

“You’re right. Walls have ears, especially in Salamanca. This was Franco’s first stronghold, and they’re still very pro. Few are willing to speak openly, least of all to criticize the régime.”

“I was aware of that. It’s part of my thesis.”

Guðrún’s face froze and her body stiffened. She turned her back on me and edged away. 

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean it to sound that way.”

“But it did all the same,” she snapped. “I’m just an undergrad. You’ve almost finished your Ph.D. But there’s still no need to belittle me.” She rose, and without looking back, rejoined her group of friends. It was too late now to offer any explanation. Guðrún, I figured, had just ended our two-minute relationship. Any future with her did not look optimistic.


I spent my days and most of my evenings researching at the university and public libraries until my eyeballs felt like sandpaper. I wrote reams of notes until my wrist and fingers screamed at me to stop. I made no measurable progress on my thesis. I couldn’t take my mind off Guðrún.

Despairing of my mental study block, I ventured into the empty courtyard one Sunday evening. A flock of small, chattering birds blasted away from the orange tree. Only the trickle of water from the fountain broke the silence that replaced them. A shadow stirred beneath an arch. Guðrún approached. She sat down beside me without saying a word. Several minutes later, she turned to me. I made to stand but she put her hand on my arm. “I saw you here alone. I’m sorry I spoke harshly before.”

“It was my fault. I should have been more sensitive.”

“How are the studies going?”

“They’ve ground to a halt. Zero progress. Nada. No karma. No muse. Maybe the moon is in the wrong house, or the stars are misaligned.”

“This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.”

“If only I knew what that meant.”

Guðrún laughed. “I don’t know either.” She fell silent and splashed her fingers in the water. “These are uncertain times for Spain.”

“If you will forgive the tired clichés, I expect the transition will be difficult, but the future will unfold and Spain needs to be ready for it. That is the central thrust of my thesis.”

“I hope you won’t write it like that.”

“I was thinking of using it as my opening sentence.”

“Oh, God, if you do, no one will ever read past the first line. Even professors need something apart from coffee to keep them awake.”

I laughed. “Too serious?”

“Totally. And banal.”

“That bad, eh?”

“It will take more than a double espresso to stay awake. And the caffeine jolt will wear off in a heartbeat if the second sentence is as bad as the first.”

“So, back to the drawing board?”

“I would advise it unless you want your thesis dismissed in the same way a treatise on pig husbandry would be in Saudi Arabia. Have you thought of putting a human face on it?”

“My thesis? No. It’s supposed to be an academic analysis of the future of a country in transition and its options. I have my ideas based on my research, but, as you pointed out, I need an opening that won’t cause the reader to fall into a coma.”

Guðrún thought for a moment. “I know someone who may be willing to talk. He hates Franco. He’s old, and I suspect he has little left to lose. He’ll be suspicious of you, but he knows me. If you’re careful and guarantee him anonymity, he might open up.”

“I have to cite my sources, even if they are anecdotal, but I can change his name. Besides, I doubt if anyone on the review panel will check too closely.”

“I’ll set something up. How can I get hold of you?”

I pointed to my building. “Room four-o-four. You can leave a message at the front desk.”

Guðrún rose and brushed her fingers against my arm. “I’ll be in touch as soon as I have anything to report.”

“You make it sound like a cloak and dagger assignment.”

“In Spain, it is.”


A week later we took the bus to a drab-looking bar in a dreary workers’ quarter of Salamanca. Through the open door, over Guðrún’s shoulder, I made out a row of silent drinkers standing belly up to the bar. When Guðrún brushed her way past them, the men turned as one and glowered at us with the sullen hostility reserved for intruders. I followed her to the only occupied table at the rear.

The man at the table looked to be in his sixties, or possibly older. When Guðrún stopped in front of him, he removed his beret but did not attempt to stand. A pair of simple, home-made wooden crutches lay propped against a chair beside him. A tear spilled from a vivid pink sty in one corner of an eye the colour of roast chestnuts and trickled down a furrow in his bristly cheek. He kept his grubby hands folded on the tabletop while he regarded me with suspicion.

“What do you want?”

I glanced at Guðrún and cleared my throat, but Guðrún placed her hand on my arm before I could speak. “Don Ignacio, my friend wants to ask you about your experiences in the war. If he writes about them, he will not mention your name or identify you in any way. You have nothing to fear. May we sit with you?”

“I fear no man, or his army, or his thugs and his henchmen,” the old man said and hawked a gob of throat spittle onto the filthy floor.

“Your identity and what you tell me,” I said, “will remain secret.”

He stared at me as if sizing me up for trustworthiness. After a moment he nodded imperceptibly at Guðrún and turned to me. “I know Guðrún. That you are her friend and she vouches for you is enough for me to trust you. For now.”

“Thank you.”

“My name is Ignacio Saenz de Ferrán, and I drink Carlos Quinto if you’re buying.”

Guðrún rose and returned a few moments later with the bottle of brandy and three glasses.

“All I ever wanted to do was to play football,” Don Ignacio said. “I was good, but never quite good enough to turn professional.” He leaned forward confidentially. “And I was never any good at school. I hated it. I left as soon as I could. I hated Latin especially. Latin lessons always began with the same phrase – I will never forget it – Discipuli picturam spectate.

“Students, look at the picture,” I said.

“Exactly. Always the same. A drawing of the geese saving Rome, or Horatio defending the bridge, or some such nonsense. Then the story in Latin. My Latin master was a priest. I think it was in Latin class that I became an atheist.” He snorted a laugh.

From the time he was 14, Don Ignacio said, he worked in his father’s pinchazería in Salamanca, a hole-in-the-wall garage that specialized in repairing punctured inner tubes. He played football whenever he was not at work, and at eighteen, a club offered him an opportunity to play semi-professionally in Santander. At 22, an injury followed by a botched operation, left the leg permanently fused at the knee. With his savings, he opened a pinchazería in Bilbao, but without business sense, the business struggled for years, until eventually, he went broke. “It was the nin1930s,” he said. “Times were hard. I had no job. Nothing. I drifted to Madrid, then to Barcelona, looking for work. In Barcelona, a man approached me one day and asked if I could walk a tightrope. ‘Of course,’ I said, even though I had never walked a tightrope in my life. But it couldn’t be hard. Other people did it. And it was a job. It paid money, not just a meal and a glass of wine.”

He thought for a moment. “You know the Ramblas in Barcelona?”

I nodded.

“So, you know how wide it is.”

“A hundred metres, at a guess.”

“My job was to hang advertising from a rope suspended above the Ramblas. To do that I had to stand on a rope beneath that one. You can imagine, an arm full of cardboard letters one-metre square, balancing on a rope twenty metres above the street, fixing them to the rope above me which I could barely reach. I had no safety harness, no net, nothing. If I fell, I was dead. If I succeeded, I made a few hundred pesetas, enough to live on for a month.” Don Ignacio leaned forward again. “As you can see, I succeeded.”

“But how did you manage to walk a tightrope on only one leg?”

The old man uttered a guttural, phlegm-filled laugh that induced a wheeze. He gulped a mouthful of brandy and recovered his breath. “That came later. In the war.”

I glanced surreptitiously at Guðrún and took a sip of my brandy. She looked away.

“By the time the civil war broke out I had a job mending holes in the roads back in Bilbao. It was not much, and I was lucky to have even that, with my leg stiff the way it was. I was not fit enough to join the anti-Franco forces and fight. But I did what I could. I worked with the underground. You didn’t know there was a Spanish Resistance, did you?”

I shook my head.

“It was a big secret, but like all secrets, eventually word got out. Someone betrayed us. I escaped to Guérnica. You have heard of the place?”

I nodded again.

“I met a young woman there. We planned to be married. Her mother had half a house in town. She said we could move in with her.”

Don Ignacio paused for several moments before gulping his brandy. He wiped away a tear trickling down his cheek with the back of a grimy hand. “Guérnica was a symbol of the resistance to Franco. He had to teach it a lesson, one the townspeople, and the rest of Spain would never forget.”

He took a final deep swallow of his brandy, poured another and cradled the glass in his hands. “I will never forget the date. In the afternoon of April 26, 1937, planes of the German Condor Legion, on the orders of the bastard Franco, bombed the defenceless town. They killed my fiancée and her mother and buried them in a mass grave without a marker. When they pulled me from the mound of rubble that was all that remained of the house, they had to amputate my leg, my good leg.” He spat on the floor then finished his brandy in a single gulp. “I will never forgive them. Or forget.”

Guðrún poured another brandy into his glass. He downed it in two swallows, then set the tumbler down hard on the tabletop.

“Now you know why I detest Franco,” Don Ignacio snarled. A purple vein pulsed in his temple. He lowered his voice to a low growl. “For more than half my life I have hated Franco. I wish him dead. It cannot come soon enough. Only then will Spain be free again. It will be too late for the people of my generation, but we can hope that young people like you can grow up without living in fear.”

He glanced around the room, but the drinkers at the bar seemed content to ignore us. “We cannot ask about the fate of those who disappeared during the war. We are branded as troublemakers. There are reprisals for those who do. We are silenced. Like those who disappeared in the war, we disappear too.”

The old man leaned back and closed his eyes. He wiped a tear away with his shirtsleeve. Guðrún patted his arm. “Thank you for sharing this with us,” she said quietly.

“I returned to Salamanca after the war,” Don Ignacio said. “It was where I was born and grew up. My father was still here. In the end, he gave me a job. I have lived here ever since. From here I watched Europe go up in flames while Spain struggled under the heel of its own dictator. There are still old men like me in Salamanca, men who remember and do what they can to disrupt the Government. But we cannot do much except put up token resistance.”

I raised an eyebrow.

He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Petty vandalism. A guardia civil vehicle with a mysterious flat tire. One of their bicycles disappears for a few days. Little things to annoy the authorities.” He laughed, heartily this time. “We have fun being naughty little boys.” He closed his eyes. The interview had drawn to an end.

“We will leave you now.” Guðrún stood and made her way towards the exit.

“Thank you, Don Ignacio,” I said.

The old man grabbed my arm. His fingers dug into the flesh. “Be sure you tell the world.”

“I will.”

“But not about my small criminal activities, you understand. My grave will claim me one day, but I do not wish to disappear. Not yet.” He stared at me and pursed his lips. “She is very pretty.”

“I had noticed.”

“And she likes you.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“By how she looks at you. And touches your arm. Be good to her.”

I blushed.

“There is one more thing,” Don Ignacio said, eyeing me up and down.

“What is that?”

“You look ridiculous in those clothes.”

I laughed and squeezed the old man’s shoulder. I left Don Ignacio at his table with half the bottle of brandy. On my way to the door, a man stepped into my path. The murmur of voices at the bar ceased.

“It is lies, all lies,” the man growled. “None of that happened.” His eyes flitted around the room before they settled on Don Ignacio. The other men had their backs to me, staring deliberately ahead while studying the brief confrontation behind them through the mirror over the bar. The man glared at me, then stepped aside. The murmured voices resumed.

Outside the bar, Guðrún turned to me. “Did you believe him?”

“Don Ignacio? I’m not sure. He didn’t say much about the Franco regime, but what he did divulge had the ring of truth about it.”

“He told me the story once before, much the way he told it tonight, but without many of the details. That is why I wanted you to hear it for yourself. Can you use it in your thesis?”

I thought for a moment. “I’m not sure how it will fit into an academic thesis. It is more like an article in Paris Match or Life magazine.”

“You could write it, though, couldn’t you? It’s an interesting story. It puts a human face onto Spain’s recent past. It might provide an open doorway, a glimpse into Spain’s future.”

“Far better than my proposed opening paragraph. I may need some help with the more creative aspects.”

We waited on the sidewalk for the bus. Our fingers touched. We squeezed hands. Guðrún slipped her arm through mine. I drew her against me, enjoying the uncomplicated silence, her warm body and her light perfume.

The bus arrived. We boarded and took seats at the rear, but before the bus could pull away a guardia civil van pulled up in front of it and boxed us in. Guðrún had her eyes closed, her head buried in my shoulder and her arm linked through mine. I watched as two officers in uniform left the van, placed their patent leather bicorn hats firmly on their heads, and strode purposefully into the bar. A minute later I stiffened when they re-emerged with Don Ignacio in handcuffs hopping between them. They bundled him into the back and threw his crutches in after him. The van drove off. No one came looking for us. Moments later, with a belch of foul-smelling, black diesel exhaust, our bus lurched away from the curb.

When the bus deposited us at the stop near the hostel, for a moment we stood in the darkness between two pools of light thrown by the streetlamps. I asked myself if I should tell Guðrún about Don Ignacio. She had a right to know. But she would only become upset. Who knew what she might do? If she complained to the authorities, the guardia civil might arrest us both as accomplices, or subversives, or conspirators. In Spain, one could never be sure, not while Franco was still around. I decided to hold my tongue. I have never been a brave man. This wasn’t my fight, and I had no desire to experience the black hole of trial-free Spanish justice or implicate Guðrún.

“What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“I have a copy of the Kama Sutra.” Guðrún looked away as if embarrassed at the confession. “Have you read it?”

“No,” I said, trying to sound offhand while a shot of adrenalin kick-started my imagination.

“If the authorities found it they would throw me in prison. I have diplomatic immunity, but you know how the Spanish are. They’d deny they knew anything about me, then take three days to find me.” She made air quotes with her fingers. “I have my own apartment.” She turned her head to face me. “We could study together if you like. I could help with creativity.”

“I’d like that.”

She stood on tiptoes and kissed me. “It’s an Icelandic translation, but it’s illustrated if you need help following the text.”

The next morning, I shaved off my beard and had Guðrún cut my hair short. I bought some new clothes that afternoon and ditched the old ones. When she asked why I had, I didn’t tell her I needed to become invisible in Franco’s Spain. “Don Ignacio said I look ridiculous.”


When Guðrún died last year, I decided to downsize, starting with a lifetime’s accumulation of books. But her copy of Kama Sutra stayed on the shelf.

  1. I knew Don Ignacio de Ferrán and counted him as a friend as well as a work colleague. He was our technical translator in the company where we worked in the early 1970s. He was about seventy when I last saw him, in 1973. He led a remarkable and full life, part of which is in this story. I still miss him.

  2. Nice work!

  3. I enjoyed the story, Michael. Good work.

  4. Great little story.
    The bit about the Kama Sutra had me all twisted up in knots.
    I loved the native spelling of “Guðrún Sigurdsdóttir” with the weird d/th. Any Icelanders reading it would love it too. (They still talk vikingspeak.)

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