Wolf Moon: A Novel about the Anti-Francoist Guerrilla

November 19, 2017
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The Porma reservoir in León, under which Llamazares’ home town lies submerged

The Porma reservoir in León, under which Llamazares’ home town lies submerged

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 forever. 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.


 

Chapter 1

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 meters 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 darkness 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.

Translated by Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles.  Wolf Moon has been pblished by Peter Owen, ISBN 9780720619454

Julio Llamazares  (b. 1955 in Vegamián, León) is a poet, novelist and prolific essayist and journalist whose work has been translated into over 20 languages. He focuses on themes such as the history and memory of Spanish society, both individual and collective, and, in particular, the progressive decline of rural cultural heritage. He has published six novels – of which until this edition of Wolf Moon only one, The Yellow Rain (La lluvia amarilla, 1988), has been translated into English – together with volumes of poetry, essays, travel writing and film screenplays. For the interview with Llamazares from this same issue of the Volunteer, click here.

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