Extract > Wolf Moon
In the autumn of 1937, after the Republican front had collapsed in Asturias and with any possibility of retreat being prevented by the sea, hundreds of fugitives took refuge on the steep, leafy slopes of the Cantabrian Mountains, their only objective being to escape the repression inflicted by the winning side and to wait for the right moment to regroup and take up arms again, or to escape to one of the areas of the country that were still under government control.
Cut down by bullets, many of the fugitives would remain somewhere in those once-peaceful mountains for ever. Others, fewer in number, managed, after many hardships, to cross the border into exile. But all of them without exception left the best years of their lives behind them in that struggle as well as an indelible and legendary mark on the collective folk memory.
As evening falls, the wood grouse is singing in the nearby beech groves. The cold cierzo wind suddenly stops, wraps itself around the trees’ sore branches and tears off the last few autumn leaves. Then the black rain, which has been lashing the mountains violently for several days, finally stops.
Ramiro is sitting by the door of the shepherd’s hut where we took refuge the night before last, fleeing from the rain and from death. As he squeezes the cigarette I have just rolled for him between his fingers, morosely and ritualistically, he stares intently at the trail of rocks and mud that the downpour has washed down the side of the mountain. His silhouette is outlined in the doorway against the milky-grey half-light of the evening sky, like the profile of an animal that is motionless, perhaps dead.
‘Well,’ he says. ‘It looks like it’s over.’ He glances towards the corner where his brother Juan, Gildo and I are huddled up next to the fire, burning bitter green wood, trying unsuccessfully to avoid the rain leaking in through the roof. ‘As soon as night falls we’ll cross the mountain pass,’ says Ramiro, lighting his cigarette. ‘We’ll be on the other side by dawn.’
Gildo smiles behind his balaclava, his grey eyes shining. He throws a bundle of branches on to the fire. The flames spring up, warm and cheerful, in the spiral of smoke that rises to meet the rain soaking through the thatched roof.
The moon has not come out tonight either. The night is like a cold black stain on the outline of the beech groves, which climb up the mountain and into the fog like ghostly armies of ice. It smells of rosemary and shredded ferns.
Our boots slosh through the mud searching for the elusive surface of the ground with each step. Our submachine-guns shine in the darkness like iron moons.
We carry on climbing towards the Amarza Pass, towards the roof of the world and solitude.
Suddenly, Ramiro stops in the middle of the heather. He sniffs the night like an injured wolf. With his one and only hand, he points into the distance.
‘What’s up?’ asks Gildo, his voice barely a murmur in the fog’s frozen lament.
‘Up there. Can’t you hear it?’
The northerly cierzo wind blows down the mountain, whipping through the heather and the silence. It fills the night with its howl.
‘It’s the cierzo,’ I tell him.
‘No, it’s not the cierzo, it’s a dog. Can you hear it now?’
I can now. I can hear it clearly, a sad distant barking, like a groan. A barking that the fog stretches and drags down the hill.
Gildo takes his submachine-gun off his shoulder without making a sound. ‘At this time of year there are no shepherds still up in the passes,’ he says.
The four of us now have our weapons in our hands, and, motionless, we listen out for the sudden crack of a branch or an isolated word in the cierzo, scanning the mountain for a still shadow waiting in ambush in the fog.
We hear the barking again, more clearly now, in front of us. There is no doubt about it. A dog is chewing the frozen entrails of the night up in the pass.
The barking has guided us through the darkness, along the path that crosses through fields of heather and broom, towards the grey line of the horizon.
We are close now. Ramiro signals. Juan, Gildo and I deploy quickly to either side. The climb is now much slower and more difficult, without the dark outline of the path to guide us and with thick undergrowth gripping our feet like animals’ claws buried in the mud.
Ramiro’s shadow on the path has stopped again. Now the dog is barking just a few metres away from us.
On the grey line of the horizon, behind a line of oak trees, we can make out the shadow of a rooftop, imprecise and frozen, floating in the fog.
The shelter and sheepfold at the top of the pass are a mass of crumbling dry-stone walls. A strong smell of excrement and neglect assaults our noses. A smell of solitude.
The barking threatens to blow apart the night’s swollen belly.
‘Is anyone there?’ Gildo’s voice rumbles in the silence like damp gunpowder. It forces both the dog and the wind to be quiet, at the same time. ‘Hey, is anyone there?’
Again, silence. Dense and profound. Indestructible.
The door creaks bitterly as it turns on its hinges. Like it’s half-asleep. The beam of Gildo’s torch slowly ruptures the heavy dark- ness inside the shelter. Nothing. There is no one there. Only the terrified eyes of the dog in the corner.
Ramiro and Juan come out from behind the oak trees and approach the shelter.
‘There’s no one here,’ says Gildo. ‘What about the dog?’
‘I don’t know. It’s in here. On its own. Scared to death.’
A barely perceptible moan comes from the corner, which is lit up again in the torchlight.
Juan goes up to the dog cautiously. ‘OK, OK. Don’t be afraid. Where’s your owner?’
The animal cowers in the straw, its eyes full of panic.
‘He’s got a broken leg,’ says Juan. ‘They must have abandoned him.’
Ramiro puts his pistol back in its holster. ‘Kill it. Don’t leave it to suffer any longer.’ Juan looks at his brother incredulously. ‘It’s what the owner should have done before he left,’ says Ramiro, collapsing heavily on to a pile of straw.
The straw is soaking wet, compacted by the damp. It compresses under my body like soft bread. Outside, the cierzo still beats violently against the heather and the oak trees. It howls over the roof of the shelter and goes off down the mountain in search of the night’s memory.
Opposite the open door, hanging from a branch, the swollen black body of the dog swings gently back and forth.
Someone has lit a lamp in the farmhouse at the bottom of the valley, which nestles peacefully in the foothills of the southern slope of the pass. The babbling of the newborn river greets us, together with the gentle sound of the breeze in the willow groves.
It will soon be dawn. It will soon be dawn and, by then, we will have to be hidden away. Daylight is not good for dead men.
‘I’ll go down first,’ says Ramiro, getting up from the stone wall he has been sitting on. ‘You three stay next to the river and cover the retreat. OK?’
Gildo and Juan stamp their thick boots on the wet grass, trying to shake off the cold.
Slowly, we begin to descend towards the valley, its higher fields climbing uphill to meet us.
The river is swollen by the rains of the past few days. It roars lugubriously under the wooden bridge that Ramiro has just crossed in a low crouch, slowly, not making a sound. Like a hunter who, over time, has come to imitate the animal movements of his quarry.
But the dogs have already caught his scent, and it is not long before the outline of a man, alerted by their barking, appears in the window, which pours a torrent of crimson light on to the water.
Ramiro flattens himself against the wall of the farmhouse. ‘Who’s there?’
The man’s voice reaches us, muffled by the frost on the windows and the river’s roar.
Ramiro does not reply.
Now, a second figure, a woman, appears at the window. They seem to be arguing while, fearfully, they scan the shadows of the night in front of the house. Then they both disappear, and a moment later the light goes out. Beside me, in the willow groves, Gildo and Juan are watching, restless and impatient.
A door. The creak of a door. And a voice shouting across the river, ‘Don’t move or I’ll shoot.’
The three of us charge across the bridge towards the house.
The barking in the yard gets louder.
When we get there Ramiro’s pistol is pointing at the face of a man gripped by terror and the cold.
Some milk is bubbling on the stove in an old blackened saucepan, filling the kitchen with steam. The stove is still just about warm, and the crackling of the burning logs and the spirals of pungent red smoke drive out the cold of the night and the memory of the rain. The four of us are eating now. Our weapons are propped, forgotten, against the back of the bench, and our memories are pervaded by the familiar flavours of earlier times. We’ve had nothing to eat for five days.
The woman, wrapped up in a black shawl and her hair tied back carelessly, places the saucepan of milk in the middle of the table and goes back to stand by the hearth next to her husband. She is slim, with fair hair and light-brown eyes, still pretty despite the sadness that lies deep behind her smudged lips and hugely swollen belly. She has not said a single word since she came into the kitchen. She has not even looked at us.
Ramiro finishes his food and leans back against the bench.
‘Does anyone else live here?’ he asks the couple.
‘Not any more,’ the man replies. ‘The children are in La Moraña with their grandparents. It’s safer there. And the lad is up in the hills with the cows.’
‘When is he back?’
Gildo pours the milk on to his plate and watches as a red border forms around the edges. ‘I used to like doing that when I was a kid,’ he says, smiling.
The milk is hot and thick. It burns like fire as it goes down my throat. The first light of dawn is now curling through the window shutter. It is white and bittersweet, like the steam from the milk which fills the kitchen.
‘OK,’ says Ramiro, getting up and going to the window. ‘We’ll sleep here today, and we’ll be on our way again once it gets dark. You carry on with your chores as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened,’ he adds, speaking to the owners of the farmhouse. ‘And be careful. One of us will be watching you all the time.’
The man nods silently without even daring to look up from the floor.
But finally the woman bursts into tears. I can barely understand what she is saying as she fights back her sobs. ‘But what have we done, for God’s sake? What have we done? We’ve given you food. You’ve had food to eat and you’ve warmed up by the fire. Now go and leave us in peace. It’s not our fault what’s happening to you.’
The woman has collapsed on the bench, crying, burying her face in her hands. I can hear the bitter murmur of her weeping and see her enormous belly trembling beside me.
Her husband watches her from the hearth, scared and dis- concerted, waiting for us to react.
It is Ramiro who reacts. He has taken out his pistol and orders the man to go to the door. We pick up our capes and our weapons and follow him in silence.
Before leaving, I turn around again to look at the woman, who is still crying on the bench, more softly now. I’d like to tell her that nothing is going to happen to them. I’d like to tell her that what’s happening to us is not our fault either. But I know that it would be pointless.
We walk across the mountains for two long nights without stopping to rest, in search of the home we left a year ago.
We sleep by day, hidden in the undergrowth, and when night falls, when the shadows begin to stretch out across the sky, we start off again, hungry and tired.
Behind us, asleep in the depths of the moonlit valleys, we leave behind villages and hamlets, sheepfolds and farmhouses, barely discernible lights, fainting away in the night, on old river courses or under the desolate, vertical shelter of the mountains.
Until, little by little, the sky and the paths and the forests become familiar. Until, at last, having finally crossed the black peaks of Mount Morana, the distant rooftops of La Llánava appear before us, beneath the October night studded with stars and blueberry bushes, at the start of the wide valley streaked with poplar groves, carved out by the River Susarón at the foot of Mount Illarga.
‘Look over there, Ángel. Beside the mill.’ Ramiro crawls through the heather to hand me the binoculars. My eyes are instantly flecked with greens and yellows: water meadows next to the river, rows of elms, smoke rising lazily from the chimneys on the old rooftops of La Llánava. In a flood of bundled images – cows and winding paths, bridges, towers, backyards and alleyways, figures already stooping over in their vegetable plots – the familiar sights that I have never forgotten come flooding back to me from afar through the binoculars.
‘On the path,’ says Ramiro, pointing impatiently. ‘By the dam. Can’t you see her?’
Between the hedgerows that border the road to the mill, against the languid early morning mist, I finally spot a patch of yellow. A scarf.
‘It’s my sister!’
‘Yes, it’s Juana. She must be taking the cows out to the pasture at Las Llamas.’
Now I can see her, clear as crystal. She is walking slowly along- side the mill race carrying a cattle-goad, with her yellow scarf snatching at the morning light. I remember that scarf. I bought it for her myself, out of my first pay packet, so she could wear it when she came back from the threshing floor on the cart loaded with straw and lazy sunshine.
‘I’m going down,’ I say, my mind made up. ‘Now?’ ‘Right now.’
Ramiro scans the whole valley again through the binoculars. ‘It’s too risky,’ he says. ‘Someone might see you from down below.’ ‘Not if I’m careful and stay in the undergrowth. I’ll speak to Juana so they can get ready, and tonight all four of us will go down.’
I take off my cape, and Gildo hides it in the heather.
‘Leave the submachine-gun here,’ says Ramiro, passing me his handgun. ‘It’ll be easier with this.’
The three of them watch me leave in silence, anxious that someone might spot me. The area is occupied, full of soldiers, and our lives are now totally dependent upon how successful we are at not being seen.
Juana has turned around, startled, on the other side of the hedgerow where she had been sitting.
She jumps up and, without turning around again, begins to retrace her steps very slowly towards the middle of the field where the cows are grazing, bored and indifferent.
‘Juana, Juana! Don’t be scared, Juana. It’s me, Ángel.’ My voice is nothing more than a whisper among the brambles, but Juana hears me and stops suddenly, as if struck by a bullet.
Her blue eyes are wide open like two round coins, startled, incredulous, staring into mine.
‘Sit down. Sit down where you were. With your back to me, like you were before. And look over at the cows.’
She does as I say and sits down again on the other side of the hedgerow, barely half a metre from where I’m lying flat on the ground, waiting for her. If I wanted to, I could almost reach out and touch her.
‘What are you doing here?’ she asks with a mixture of terror and tenderness in her voice. ‘They’ll kill you, Ángel. They’ll kill you.’
‘How is everyone?’
‘We’re fine,’ she replies in a low voice. ‘We thought we’d never see you again.’
‘Well, here I am. Tell Father.’ ‘Did you come on your own?’
‘No. I’m with Ramiro and his brother and Gildo from Candamo. You know who I mean; he got married to Lina. They are waiting up on the hillside.’ My sister listens without turning her head, anxiously scratching at the ground with her goad. ‘Listen, Juana. Tell Father that we’ll come down into La Llánava tonight. Tell him to meet us in the hayloft. Make us something to eat. And if you can, go and see Ramiro’s mother. We need to find somewhere to hide for a few days.’
In the distance, along the path by the river, some cows begin to low.
‘Please go, Ángel, go. They’ll kill you.’ Juana has turned to face me, her eyes burning with fear. Her yellow scarf is like a sudden blaze of flames. ‘They’ll kill you,’ she says again. ‘They’ll kill you.’
As I leave her, crawling through the heather like a mangy dog, her words still echo in my ears.
The moon has appeared from between the clouds, and it bathes the branches of the oak trees with frozen silver. Today a thick silence holds up the sky’s dome, like an arch of black water curving gently over the valley.
Just beyond the oak groves, near the hill, is the start of a path. It is a drovers’ path, which wends its way downhill between stone walls and fields of thyme. It is seeking out the roar of the river that runs down the mountain on the left, with bulrushes swaying in the distance. Further on, across the bridge, the roofs of La Llánava hack enormous chunks of black pulp out of the skyline.
The streets are empty. Not even the dogs, penned in by the cierzo wind against the warm languidness of the stables, seem to notice our arrival.
‘Let’s cross by the weir,’ says Ramiro, at the head of the group, holding his handgun. ‘It might be risky on the bridge.’
Down below, in among the willows and the reeds along the bank, the river’s roar grows until it smashes against the arches of the bridge, against the old stones eaten away by water and time.
‘You cross first, Ángel,’ says Ramiro, keeping watch from the other riverbank.
The stones of the weir, which channels the water off towards the mill, are as slippery as sleeping fish beneath my boots. Like the skin of those trout we used to catch when we were boys, in the sleepy summer afternoons, while the villagers watched us from the bridge.
I make it across to the other bank. The grass here, next to the allotments, is overgrown, bursting with black nettles that bleed under my feet.
Motionless, holding my breath, I spend a few moments scanning the shadows of the closest allotments, the cierzo whistling between the hazels and the fruit trees. I make a signal, and immediately Gildo appears on the other side of the weir. He moves slowly, very slowly, testing the slippery surface of the stones with each step. His shadow shines on the surface of the water like the reflection of a tree rooted in the middle of the river.
Suddenly, I hear footsteps approaching the bridge. I’m showered with grass, and my mouth fills with lumps of bitter soil. I look out from under the pile of vegetation, which is almost pinning me to the ground. I reach for the submachine-gun. I look for Gildo’s dark silhouette, now motionless, like a shadow on the weir. Up ahead the river is suddenly silent, as if it has died.
The approaching footsteps are now clearly audible. Backlit by the sky, two shadows pass along the parapet of the bridge, a man and a horse. They cross the bridge and continue on their way. They are lost in the night with a dull clattering of hooves.
On the weir, the river and Gildo start moving again.
It is pitch black in the hayloft. It almost hurts your eyes. The only sound is the fragrant dry crunch of the straw and the cows’ heavy breathing as they sleep, beneath us, in the stable.
The silvery-black backdrop of the night disappears behind the door.
‘Over here, Ángel, by the hatch.’
It’s not my father’s voice; it’s my sister’s, from the other end of the hayloft.
The grass is matted as it grows up towards the roof-beams. I feel her cold hand reaching for me in the darkness.
‘Don’t be afraid, Juana, don’t be afraid.’
‘Who’s that with you?’
‘Relax, Juana. It’s Ramiro. Where’s Father? Why hasn’t he come?’
‘He’s not here. They took him off this afternoon.’
My sister collapses into my arms, barely able to stand, and bursts into tears. I can feel the burning tremor of her breast against mine and the salty and bitter caress of her tears.
‘Who did? The Guardia Civil?’
‘Yes. They took him to the barracks. Please, Ángel, leave. Leave now or they’ll kill you.’
I hear a crunch of straw beside me and some footsteps. It’s Ramiro.
But she can’t reply. Her tears and her mouth are drowning in my cape.
‘They’ve taken away my father,’ I tell Ramiro.
‘Your father? Do they know you’re here?’
My sister looks up from my shoulder. ‘No, they don’t know,’ she says, fighting back the tears. ‘They come by every so often. They search the houses and take a few of us away. The ones who’ve got family at the front.’
‘Did you tell my mother?’ Ramiro asks.
‘I didn’t have time. The guardias came. They searched the whole village, house by house.’
‘Don’t worry, Juana. Don’t worry,’ I say, trying to calm her down.
‘Nothing’s going to happen to Father, you’ll see. He’ll be back before you know it. And you can let Ramiro’s mother know tomorrow. What you should do now is go back to bed. The guardias might come back with Father at any time.’
‘What about you?’
‘Don’t worry about us, Juana. They’ll never find us on the mountain.’
My sister has stopped crying. Only her intermittent breathing betrays her presence in the darkness. Before she goes she tells us more. ‘Last night they killed Benito, the cartwright. Be careful, Ángel, be very careful.’
Once my sister has disappeared through the hatch between the hayloft and the stable, I search for Ramiro in the darkness. He calls out to me from the door.
‘Come on, Ángel. What are you doing?’
‘I’m going to wait here.’
‘What? Are you crazy?’
‘They’ve arrested my father. Don’t you understand?’
‘Of course I understand, Ángel, of course I do.’ Although he tries to disguise it, Ramiro cannot hide the anxiety in his voice. ‘They’ve taken your father to the barracks. So what? They’ll ask him a few questions and let him go again.’
‘I don’t care,’ I say, resolutely. ‘I want to know what happens, and I’m going to wait for him.’
Ramiro hesitates for a moment then says, ‘Fine, Ángel, you know what you’re doing. I’m not going to force you. But remember that if they catch you they won’t give you a second chance. Your sister’s just told you what they did to Benito, and he was a lot less involved than we are.’ Then, as he walks towards the door, he adds, ‘Stay in the hayloft until your father gets back. If they searched the whole village this afternoon, they’re not going to search it again now.’ Ramiro gently opens the old wooden door and peers through the crack for a few seconds. ‘We’ll wait for you on the hillside,’ he says.
Then he disappears into the vegetable garden where his brother and Gildo are waiting, keeping watch.
When Ramiro has gone I pull the door to and put the bar across it. Then I find a pitchfork and make a deep hole in the middle of the pile of hay. I jump in, cover myself with my cape and use the pitchfork to pull down an avalanche of hay on top of myself.
It is now completely impossible to breathe here in the darkness. But even if they prod the hay from one end to another with sticks and scythes they won’t be able to find me.
Around two in the morning I wake with a start to the creaking of a heavy door on its hinges. It’s a hoarse sound, muffled by the hay, out in the yard.
I listen, not moving a muscle, holding my breath. But I can’t hear anything. Nothing at all. No voices. No footsteps in the alleyway behind the house. No car engine drifting into the distance on the way back to the barracks. Only the hoarse creaking of the door hinges in the yard and the huge lock turning and the distant toll of the bells ringing out two o’clock, stripped bare by the cierzo. But I wait another hour or so before I climb out of my hole. The darkness was so thick under the hay that now I can easily find my way around in the gloom of the hayloft.
A warm, pungent steam rises from the passage to the stables, a strong smell of old hay and manure, which, for some reason, suddenly rekindles far-off memories: playing with my sister in the hidden corners of the stable and, through the mists of time, a fair- haired boy carrying a saucepan of milk straight from the cow.
The yard is drenched with moonlight. I take a careful look around before crossing it. Bruna, the dog, jumps out of the shadows and comes towards me slowly, growling menacingly with bared teeth. She doesn’t recognize me at first – she’s almost blind, and I haven’t been home for more than a year – but when she does she runs towards me and scrabbles against my chest, jumping for joy. But she doesn’t bark. Perhaps she senses the danger from my silence. She follows me to the door and waits there calmly without a sound, on guard.
A distant glimmer in her near-blind eyes tells me that she is ready to defend my life with her own. Poor Bruna.
My father is sitting on the bed, under the blankets, propped up against the iron bars of the bedstead. He gives me an inscrutable look.
‘What happened, Father?’
‘What are you doing here?’ he replies, not answering my question.
‘I’ve come to see you. How are you?’
But my father hasn’t even heard me. He gets off the bed and crosses the room. He rummages in a trunk and takes out a thin bundle of banknotes from among the clothes.
‘What’s this?’ I say, trying to refuse it. It must be everything he has, all the money he’s managed to scrape together in his long working life.
‘Take it and don’t say a word,’ he insists in a dry voice, as if I were still a child and he was giving me this money to run an errand for him in Cereceda. ‘Listen to me carefully, Ángel. You’ve got to get away from here, as far as possible, as soon as you can. Cross over to the other side if you can. They’re out looking for you. No, they don’t know you’re here,’ he says, reading the look of shock on my face. ‘They’re looking for everyone who was in Asturias. They know that a lot of you have come back across the mountains, and in the past few days they’ve caught quite a few. Benito the cartwright, Goro and two or three others from Ancebos. They’re watching all the roads and villages.’
At the back of the room a streak of frozen silver pierces through the crack in the window shutter. It travels across the darkness, faintly illuminating my father’s face. He’s thin, very thin, and he’s showing his age. There is a film of impotence mixed with rage in his eyes as he tries to contain his anger behind gritted teeth.
‘You remember the mine on Mount Yormas, don’t you? Where we sheltered from the rain years ago when we were out gathering firewood. Hole up there for the time being. See what happens. Juana or I will leave you some food on the hillside every three or four days.’ And then, looking me straight in the eye, he says, ‘But don’t give yourselves up. Whatever happens, don’t give yourselves up. Do you hear me? They’ll kill you the next day and leave you in a ditch by the side of the road like they’ve done with so many others.’
‘What happened at the barracks?’ I ask him again from the doorway.
My father watches me leave, motionless in the shadows, his eyes impaled by the shaft of frozen silver that filters through the shutter.
Behind me, as I make my way up the mountain along the drovers’ path, the clock-tower in La Llánava grinds out four slow peals. Four peals of wounded iron that explode into the night, showering my heart with something bitter, cold and mineral.
Wolf Moon is part of the Peter Owen World Series: Spain.
Peter Owen is an independent British publisher founded in 1951 continuing the tradition of producing new and interesting writing.
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