THE ROOM IS A TINY CELL IN A FAMILY COMPOUND ENCLOSED BY unmortared slate walls more than a thousand years old. Precisely how much more, the four women and two men squeezed into this windowless space don't know, any more than they understand exactly why they will spend the forthcoming hours engaged in feverish ritual. What they do know, they insist, is that like their fathers and grandmothers and forebears beyond them, they were born to this moment.
By the calendar, it is late February, 1993, three days before Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season that precedes Easter. By the map, this is northwestern Spain, a country now free from a dictatorship that, for the best part of this century, crushed traditions such as the one they are about to honor. By some standards, the young women here especially epitomize their modernizing nation: Their dark-eyed charms notwithstanding, they have become not wives but single professionals--a doctor, an archeologist, a chess champion, a historian. But tonight, neither career nor country crosses their minds.
As they expect to do throughout their lives, they have returned this week, like dozens of others, to the vineyards, cobbled paths and turnip fields of Laza, their ancestral hamlet. The region is Galicia, continental Europe's furthest western shore, whose misty seacoast, bagpipes and Celtic legacy are kindred more to Brittany, Wales, Scotland and Ireland than to Madrid, and whose language, galego , tips away from Spanish toward the melodious tongue of neighboring Portugal. As the four women attend to the magical business of transforming two young men into fantastic beings, they re-enter a collective memory far older than the pastiche of kingdoms forged in 1492 by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.
"More," orders Nieves Amado Rolan, the archeologist. The men, Paco and Dopa, stand straighter and tighten their lean bellies as the women wrap yards of wide linen sash around their midriffs. Before the men can relax, Nieves and her companions sew the material onto the men's suspenders, locking them into postures erect as a matador's. The rest of their costume, every centimeter hand-crafted, has required hundreds of hours of local artisans' labor: crocheted lace stockings, embroidered layers of ruffled pants, a brocaded waist jacket, a belt of huge, protruding cowbells, weighing more than 12 pounds. And, leaning darkly against the shadowed wall, are the leather whips and huge masks of painted birch and pelica --animal skins--that for three days will render them peliqueiros , the silent, nameless masters of this ancient Galician village.
From the cities where they now live and work, these people have returned for one of the Old World's most authentic vestiges of a rite that once solemnized the passing of winter into the potent fertility of spring. In Laza, the event is known by its Galician name, entroido : introduction, entry. Elsewhere in Spain and Europe where it is still observed, and in Latin America, where it has been transplanted, it is called carnaval . Centuries ago, when Christianity superimposed its holy calendar on the cycles of nature, the formerly pagan celebration became a brief, sanctioned burst of scheduled excess before 40 somber days of Lenten abstinence and repentance. (One theory holds that the word carnaval derives from "carne va"-- "there goes the meat.")
Lent concludes with Easter, the celebration of Christ's Resurrection, coinciding handily with the spring equinox--resurrection of the pagan sun god. In modern times, humanity's growing urban inclinations have led carnival even further from its agrarian origins, distorting it into the street orgies of Rio de Janeiro, Tenerife and New Orleans, whose most profound inspiration now seems to be the lucre of tourism. Perhaps as a result, Laza lately has found itself subject to a mounting onslaught of cultural voyeurism, as television crews, non-Galician Spaniards and even Germans and Italians are showing up for their entroido. It is, by all accounts, one of the purest carnivals that still exists. "As long as we do this, our souls remain full," says Nieves. Yet sometimes, now that her generation no longer makes its living from this land, Nieves wonders if spiritual decline will reach them as well--or their children.
Dopa and Paco are ready. The women hand them their peliqueiro masks. The flesh-pink faces are identical: reddened cheeks, slinking mustaches, fur beards and sinister grins, backed by lynx hides and topped by parabolic miters depicting a bull's head and a wolf, respectively. While Generalissimo Francisco Franco was dictator, his Falange guard outlawed the wearing of these masks, claiming that disguises invited easy crime. "Peliqueiro is not a disguise," Dopa declares. "It is a necessity."