Suddenly, all voices, music and thoughts are overwhelmed by the din of enormous cowbells, as a column of 20 peliqueiros flashes by, their painted faces mute and macabre under the street lamps, their leather whips punishing whoever fails to leap out of the way. The authority they exude bores through the revelry like a hot iron, but as they streak away, carnival resumes instantly behind them.
Watching them go, Luis and Juanjo debate two opposing, locally held hypotheses about the peliqueiros ' origins. One, Juanjo says, claims that they derive from Celtic times or earlier, when priests donned the skins of wild animals to absorb their power, then brandished whips to encourage, symbolically if not literally, a fertile reception.
Luis prefers the second version. "A duke once owned everything in this valley," he explains. "The serfs had to pay tribute to his tax collectors. Anyone who didn't pay got whipped."
South of town, the old crenelated castle belonging to the Duke of Monterrey, who ruled here during the Middle Ages, still towers over the land. According to legend, after America was discovered, he brought back Indian masks from Mexico or Peru to conceal the identity of his tax collectors from the resentful populace. Laza, poised near an ancient trade route connecting Spain, Portugal and France, also was dunned by two lesser dukes, whose crumbling coats of arms still adorn a plaza wall. Today, to be a \o7 peliqueiro\f7 in Laza is an honor accorded to those young men most adept at emotionally re-creating, through posture and agility with their whips, the chilling qualities of those mythic, bygone oppressors. As they keep returning throughout the evening, multiplying like alien cells that have begun to divide spontaneously, the image of being surrounded by tax collectors imbued with the authority of priests recurs like a Dark Ages nightmare.
"Death and taxes," Luis says, his remaining teeth flashing within his grin. "Nothing changes, ever."
Except during carnival. This is when, for a few moments each year, the people reign. Power is concentrated in the masks thundering by, borne by the sons of the village itself, lashing the crowd ever harder. Priest and politician alike must hide or be pummeled with insult and ridicule;the world is turned upside-down and shaken until the established order cracks loose. Anything is possible, everything is allowed: Humans transform themselves into animals; males become females; peons strut like kings. Social station is scorned, decorum is debunked, blasphemy goes unblamed. In neighboring villages, normally sober citizens drench each other with buckets of water; in Laza, they sling rags soaked in mud until everyone is reduced to muck. Bags appear containing ashes, flour, and--most prized of all--fertilizer crawling with red and black ants. A frenzy erupts; the air fills with stinging, fragrant grime, coating everyone with the earth's sheer essence. Men and women throw each other to the ground and roll in the street. With any luck, the heavens will be shocked and the new season jarred awake. Then, once again, day can steal hours back from the night, vegetation will arouse from hibernation, spring will heave aside winter, and what was dead can live again.
THE CRAVING TO OVERTHROW THE MONTHS OF DARK, COLD STAGNATION is the birthright of any human who evolved away from the tropics. When Christianity swept across ancient Europe, the imposition of Lenten restraint just when blood was beginning to soar with intimations of spring was surely the young Catholic Church's frontal crusade against instincts of the flesh. Previously, the rites of spring in Galicia had been recast with each new culture whose rule spread to the world's known edge. The fertility exhortations of animal-skinned Celtic priests were stretched to encompass a pantheon of Roman winter festivals: Saturnalia, which accompanied the December sowing season; January's Bacchanalia, toasting the god of wine; and the February Lupercalia, invoking the god of flocks and fecundity.
By the Middle Ages these rituals had contracted again, confined by a nearly omnipotent church to four days preceding Ash Wednesday, but impossible to abolish. Even the Duke of Monterrey understood that his subjects required this moment of release, now not just from winter, but from the domination of religion over their ancient animal stirrings. Joining the masquerade, he traded places with his vassals, until Lent began and submission was restored.