A year ago this month, I went to the province of Málaga for a trail race in Almogía. This town of some 4,000 inhabitants, pocketed in the hills of the Montes de Málaga range, is where my running partner had spent four months of his military service 40 years earlier. He and another soldier were sent there to run a parada militar, a post in the military’s equine stud service where horses are held during the spring and where locals can take their mares. The studs for the parada in Almogía came from the Segundo depósito de sementales in Jerez de la Frontera, where my friend was doing his military service. In addition to four stallions, there were three burros, used to produce the mules for working in the olive and almond orchards on hillsides too steep for tractors. My friend explained all this to me, reminiscing aloud about one bit of trouble or another that he’d almost gotten into during his stay in the village. In his 60s, he’s still a practical joker; he must have been a terror as a child, an adolescent, and a young man.
The two soldiers soon made the acquaintance of some village boys. Paquillo, 15, was one. “Did I ever tell you …” began my friend on the drive down, and proceeded to regale me with three stories. One was the time the two soldiers and a handful of local children wandering the hills spotted a very large nest on a rock face some 20 feet high. To see what was in it, they made a human tower, the soldiers and Paquillo making the base and some smaller boys scrambling onto their shoulders, and the smallest child, a six-year-old boy, climbing to the top, high enough to peer into the nest. Nothing there, he called down. Meanwhile the group was making jokes and laughing. The tower swayed, wobbled, and broke apart to come tumbling down amid much noise and merriment. They picked themselves up, still laughing, then looked around. Here was one, here was another, but where was the little boy? Nowhere to be seen. Someone looked up, and there he was, dangling above them from a ledge. Hostia! If he let go and fell, he could break a leg, or worse. Quickly the group scrambled back into position, rising to the height of the child and saving him.
The second story was that when roaming the hillsides, the gang found a wide crevice in the rocky ground, the opening to a vertical cave. They threw some stones in to see how deep it was. Bing, bing, bing, they heard as the stones bounced off the sides on the way down. One of the stones though landed with a hollow thud, meaning on wood. Hostia! A box or trunk! They had to investigate. But how to get down? They had no rope but did have a pair of long leather straps for hobbling horses, and the two soldiers tied the straps together and gave an end to the boys to hold onto at the top while they descended into the crevice. Within the cave they found a steep tunnel, which they crawled to the bottom of. No chest of gold, just a board tossed down and a dagger. When they crawled up the slope to where the strap had been dangling, they discovered the strap in a pile at the foot of the rock face because the boys at the top had let their end go. Now what? They had no rope and could not send the boys to get some for fear of revealing their foolhardy explorations. But a skein of string would not arouse suspicions, so they sent the boys for that. The boys dropped the end of the string into the crevice, and the soldiers waiting at the bottom looped it around an end of the strap for the boys to haul back up to the top. The soldiers climbed out.
The third story was about a practical joke in a cemetery one night. Desecration of a grave is a serious offense, but rather than hide the act, the perpetrators broadcast it by taking the naturally mummified cadaver they had unearthed and perching it in a tree along the roadside. Soldiers would not get off easily; they might be court-martialed. A gang of children, on the other hand, would be merely scolded. So they were, when village officials determined that they alone were the culprits. Paquillo was one. A good fellow, my friend said. He thought he remembered from another visit where Paquillo and his wife lived.
When my friend found the house and we knocked that evening, Paquillo recognized my friend in an instant. He was effusive in his welcome, and insisted we come in. “What are you doing here?” he asked, amazed at the apparition of his old companion after many years, and we explained about the race. “Why didn’t you say you were coming?” he chided several times. Almonds and olives were brought out, wine poured. His wife cut bread and put out a bowl of olive oil for dipping. How long has it been, they asked, and compared their memories. The first reunion had been in Almogía, the second in Asturias. This was the third. They caught up—granddaughter for my friend, son-in-law for them. Then the two friends talked about old times. The cave, the human tower and dangling boy, and the mummy. Finally a silence. “So, a race,” Paquillo said. He was a tall, swarthy man with a grizzled three days’ growth and wild-looking black hair streaked with gray. He was thin but with a substantial paunch where he now rested his hand. He pushed the olives toward us. Home-cured. The olive oil was from their own harvest. They went through a hundred liters in a year. The almonds were from the area, shelled and roasted at home. My friend wanted a sackful in the shell to take home. Paquillo shook his head in doubt but promised to investigate. And where could we buy the local oil? Paquillo pulled out his phone and made some calls. “A couple of five-liter jugs,” he said into the phone, and the deal was done, delivery for the next day. “My gift,” Paquillo insisted when my friend wanted to pay then and there. He said he’d also try to scrounge up some almonds in the shell for us to take back to Asturias. “Already cold there?” he asked. Cold and rainy, we said.
Rain was also predicted for Almogía on the Sunday of the race. Substantial rain. I’d heard about downpours in Andalucía, but Paquillo laughed. It doesn’t rain here, he said. It never does. Don’t worry about rain. Have some more wine. Have some olives. More bread, cheese. The two men resumed arguing over who would pay for the oil and how many kilos of home-grown beans my friend would send from Asturias. I had another olive. I didn’t worry one bit about the predicted rain. It couldn’t possibly matter.
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